By Gregory Hunt
This game was billed as a duel between star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, but in the end it was running back LaGarrette Blount and lineback Jamie Collins who led the New England Patriots to a 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots now wait to see if they will face either the Denver Broncos or the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship Game. New England faced the Baltimore Ravens in each of the two previous championship games.
Offense Grade: A
Brady threw for only 198 yards and no touchdowns, but it wasn't because he played a bad game -- he simply let New England's running game do the talking. Blount tied Curtis Martin for the most rushing yards in Patriots' playoff history with 166, and he set an outright franchise playoff record by scoring four rushing touchdowns. His final touchdown came on a 73-yard run in the 4th quarter that virtually eliminated any chance of a Colts comeback.
Fellow running back Stevan Ridley didn't do too badly himself, adding 52 rushing yards and two more rushing touchdowns. As a team, New England rushed for 234 yards, taking advantage of a Colts defense that wasn't particularly strong against the run all season.
When Brady did throw the ball, it was typically to wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who combined to catch nine of Brady's 13 completions for 161 yards. Edelman was especially effective getting extra yardage after the catch.
Defense Grade: A-
Collins, a rookie from Southern Mississippi who was drafted in the second round, appeared to be all over the field, getting both a sack and an interception. He was also in on six tackles and did an excellent job in limiting the effectiveness of Colts tight end Coby Fleener. Although cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was beaten by Colts receiver LaVon Brazill on Luck's first touchdown pass, he was a ball hawk all night, intercepting two passes and almost getting a third that was inadvertently knocked away by safety Devin McCourty. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower also had an interception.
However, the Patriots defense did give up more big plays than desired. While Colts star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton caught only four passes, they went for 103 yards. Four different Indianapolis receivers caught passes of 20 yards or more, and according to CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf (who retired from broadcasting after this game), the New England defense looked asleep during a three-play, 80-yard drive by the Colts in the 3rd quarter. But even when you give up a few big plays, getting four turnovers is a pretty big equalizer.
Special Teams Grade: D
It's fortunate that New England played such a great game offensively and defensively, because the special teams were downright lousy. On three occasions, New England was guilty of an illegal block in the back during a punt return. The guilty parties were Kanorris Davis, the normally-reliable Matthew Slater, and Tavon Wilson.
In the 2nd quarter, long snapper Danny Aiken sent a snap over the head of punter Ryan Allen, and Allen compounded that mistake by picking up the ball inside the New England five-yard line and trying to advance it. This could have resulted in an easy Indianapolis touchdown, but Allen fumbled as he was being tackled and the ball traveled out the back of the end zone for a safety. Allen, who also serves as the holder for Stephen Gostkowski on place kicks, apparently injured his shoulder on that play, so Brady needed to serve as Gostkowski's holder for the rest of the game.
On the positive side, Gostkowski did an respectable job of punting in Allen's absence. He punted five times, including one for 53 yards, and he landed two punts inside the Indianapolis 20-yard line. At his usual job, Gostkowski didn't have any field goal attempts, but seven of his eight kickoffs went for touchbacks.
Coaching Grade: B
There were a couple of head-scratching moments in New England's play-calling. With 1:14 remaining in the first half, New England had the ball on its own 41 yard line, but went three-and-out on two tepid run plays and an incomplete pass. New England also called a time out during the middle of this sequence, so the only thing that was accomplished was giving the ball back to the Colts and providing them with an opportunity to get a late score. Then in the 3rd quarter, the Patriots gave the ball to little-used running back James Develin on a 3rd-and-1 near midfield. Develin was stopped for no gain, and it left fans wondering why the ball wasn't given to Blount, who had been gaining positive yardage all night.
Still, these gaffs were minor in the grade scheme of things. New England's coaching staff should be commended for its commitment to the running game, and for its ability to put defensive players like Collins in positions where they can make plays.
For more news and updates about the NFL Playoffs, visit NFL Playoffs Central.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.
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