After beating the Texans 41-28, there were a lot of positives to take away from Sunday night’s divisional round game. But if you had to nitpick New England’s victory, it would come on special teams — specifically, the Patriots’ kickoff coverage.
From the start of the game, the Patriots struggled in holding Danieal Manning back. The first play of the game was a 94-yard kick return from the Texans’ seven-year veteran safety, and it easily could have gone for seven if it weren’t for an impressive effort from Devin McCourty in catching Manning at New England’s 12-yard line.
“It was a huge play,” said Bill Belichick. “Devin has done that a couple times for us. He had great speed, tracking Manning down.”
McCourty flashed the 4.41 second 40-yard dash time he posted coming out of Rutgers in 2010 by trailing Manning and catching him from behind. McCourty and fellow cornerback and special teamer Kyle Arrington were neck and neck in trying to catch the Texans’ returner.
“First thing I was thinking was just ‘Get him down. Give our defense a chance to get out there and try to hold them to three points and not just give them seven points easily,’” said McCourty.
New England’s defense, including McCourty, bailed out the special teams by forcing the Texans to settle for a field goal. The Patriots’ offense also did a nice job bailing out the special teams simply by scoring so quickly and so often on the Houston defense.
The Patriots were at a loss for how they allowed four returns for 216 yards to Manning, but they vowed to go back to the tape and figure it out before having to face Jacoby Jones and the Baltimore Ravens.
“We’ll have to go back to look at it on tape tomorrow. It was disappointing,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We didn’t play up to our standard tonight and we were fortunate enough to win in spite of that. We’re going up against arguably one of the best returners in the league in Jacoby next week. So we can’t hang out heads.”
Jones returned 38 kickoffs for the Ravens this season for 1,167 yards and two touchdowns. The 30-year-old Manning had just one return for 18 yards coming into the game.
Even though Manning had nearly 200 more return yards on Sunday than he did during the entire regular season, it wasn’t a moral victory for the safety.
“Right now it doesn’t mean anything,” said Manning. “Maybe later it will, but right now it doesn’t mean crap.”
McCourty didn’t have any more answers than Slater for what went wrong in their usually dependable special teams squad. It was obvious that whatever went wrong to start the game didn’t get much better as the game progressed.
“If we knew that, we would have fixed it after the first one,” McCourty said about what happened on the long returns. “We’ll be in tomorrow morning and we’ll fix that. We have to fix that. We can’t afford to give up those type of returns.”
The Patriots were lucky that the first return only turned into three points, and that Manning’s 69-yard return in the fourth quarter eventually turned into seven points once the Patriots had already built a 38-13 lead. The game against the Ravens may not be so easy for the Patriots, and the Ravens’ special teams are among the best in the NFL.
If anyone is going to figure out mistakes on special teams, it’s Belichick. No one values the third-unit more highly than the Patriots’ head coach.