Found December 28, 2012 on Boston Sports Then & Now:
It is time for Tom Brady to look forward and get his troops aligned in time for the 2012 NFL playoffs Despite an 11-4 record, the New England Patriots had a roller-coaster of a ride during the 2012 regular season. From an early choke against Arizona to a miraculous comeback effort against San Francisco, we have seen it all – even a seven game win streak. Tom Brady and company currently hold the third seed in the AFC behind the Texans (12-3) and Broncos (12-3). In order to earn a first-round playoff bye, the Patriots need some help with a loss from either squad on Sunday. Houston is at Indianapolis at 1:00 while Denver hosts Kansas City at 4:25. The kickoff between Miami and New England was flexed to the 4:25 slot due to the aforementioned teams and implications. Belichick has made it public knowledge that the Patriots are playing to win, per usual. Is this the week Gronk returns to brush off the rust? Who knows? One thing we can count on is a poised Tom Brady. Jacksonville did not treat the franchise quarterback well in the first quarter of last week’s nail-biter of a game. Two early interceptions kept the game close. Keep in mind, this was against a 2-12 team who believes Tebow is the future. Take a look at these three key areas as the Patriots begin to look into the 2012 Playoffs: 1) Defensive Backs: With CB Alfonzo Dennard out last week, Patrick Chung found himself some more playing time with McCourty/Cole sliding in on nickel packages. He took full advantage of his opportunities, nagging two interceptions and a personal foul. New England held MIA QB Ryan Tannehill to just 186 yards passing in their Week 13 23-16 victory. With Cole, Talib and Dennard limited again in practice, the Patriots sit sickly thin. Expect Devin McCourty to show up big this week against Miami and in the playoffs. With multiple games at safety under his belt, Devin has become an x-factor on defense due to his versatility. Transferring the anticipation and ball skills from corner over to safety has saved several games for the Patriots. McCourty leads the team with five interceptions on the season. While veteran Steve Gregory has displayed he can contribute with solid play, he lacks the athleticism. This was apparent against San Francisco and something to keep an eye on in Week 17 following Chung’s game-changing plays against the Jaguars. 2) Protect the Football: Tom Brady was heavily considered the MVP after a 4 TD Texan shellacking and hosting another opportunity to take down a heavyweight. Through 14 games, Brady had 29 TD and 4 INT. In the past two games against San Fran and Jacksonville, he has thrown for 3 TD and 4 INT. Add in a few fumbles from the backs and the Patriots have found themselves down 31-3 and 10-0 in consecutive weeks. It is imperative for New England to start hot out of the gate in the no-huddle offense. There is no doubt the Patriots have demonstrated the ability and fortitude to compete with the elite teams of the NFL in 2012. New England has been living and dying by the turnover this year. The Patriots still lead the NFL with a +23 give/take ratio. The serious questions arise when opposing offenses begin to take advantage of the rare opportunities Brady presents them with. Eliminating these chances will ensure a smooth Week 17 victory and increase our chances in the playoffs. 3) Creating defensive pressure: After meeting up with ESPN Boston stud Mike Reiss in Jacksonville, my perspective on our QB pressure was solidified. While the attack may not come in the form of a J.J. Watt or Aldon Smith, the Patriots have a variety of weapons. We have seen a more aggressive Jerod Mayo this year, logging three sacks in 2012. Now compare that with his four career sacks coming into the season, interesting to say the least. There is no way around it, Rookie DE Chandler Jones is a force. His late redzone QB knockdown on Henne forced Chung’s game-sealing interception. Both Justin Francis and Trevor Scott have filled in admirably for the Syracuse Orange rookie during his stint with an ankle injury. The similarities between old friend Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich are spot on, Nink has been one of the more consistent Patriots all year with 8 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 4 fumble recoveries. Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork has had one of, if not the best season of his career. While he has not rumbled with an interception in 2012, he has 4 fumble recoveries, 2 fumbles forced and 2 sacks. Furthermore, his heart and drive to win has been documented on several accounts. Wilfork has refused to come out of the game on multiple game saving defensive stands, beast. The Patriots have adopted more of a stretch but don’t break performance in 2012 compared to “bend”; however, they are making enough plays on both sides of the ball to be considered an elite Super Bowl contender. I expect a dominating 31-14 victory and some additional momentum going into the playoffs.
THE BACKYARD
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