Monday, January 13, 2014

New England Patriots on Film: Stingy defense leads the way in second half

Five minutes into the second half on Sunday's Divisional Round playoff game, the Indianapolis Colts had narrowed a tenuous New England Patriots' nine-point halftime lead to six courtesy of a Adam Vinatieri 21-yard field goal...

...but the goal line stand that precipitated the try for three generated a series of events that turned an obvious momentum advantage for Indianapolis coming out of the locker room into a level playing field - but just until the physical Patriots started to wear down the Colts, turning a tight match into a rout with frightening speed and surgical precision.
Linebacker Jamie Collins receives kudos from teammates after his pick

There is a very good reason why Bill Belichick likes to defer possession of the football until the second half kickoff - it's an opportunity that makes sense to leverage junkies in all walks of life, the chance to blow your opponent out of the stadium if he can score going into the locker room for halftime, then score again coming back out.

The opportunity to double up on scoring without giving the bad guys a chance is a prospect that the afore mentioned leverage junkies find impossible to resist, and in a perfect world would administer the desired punishment and light some crooked numbers on the scoreboard in rapid succession.

However, the Patriots had already blown the front half of the daily double with a special teams gaffe that lent itself as the identity of the first half, but also had a couple of heroes step up to keep the damage of the potentially fatal mistake to a minimum.

But the energy that the Colts had drawn off of the turn of fortune - regardless of the points they left on the field - had engulfed the entire team, so it really came as no surprise that Indianapolis was able to hold New England to a three-and-out on their initial possession of the second half, and subsequently drove straight down the field...

...quarterback Andrew Luck completing passes of 40 yards - an acrobatic, finger-tip grab while going to the turf by T.Y. Hilton - and to tight end Coby Fleener for another 16 to get the Colts deep into the New England red zone, but a pair of running plays netted just one yard as defensive tackle Joe Vellano put his stamp on the game, and what started as a first and goal from the four-yard line was suddenly a third and goal from the three.

Luck took a three step drop and tried to loft one to Fleener along the right sideline of the end zone - but a lot of posturing and more than a little hand-fighting between the sophomore tight end and his rookie counterpart, linebacker Jamie Collins, ended with Fleener on his ass and the ball wobbling harmlessly on the field turf and Vinatieri's field goal cut the Patriots' lead to six rather than the desired two.

By the time the Patriots got the ball back, their lead that was once 14-0 and 21-7 was now 21-15 and the Patriots' offense had turned the ball over on a botched punt and resultant safety then gone three and out twice, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was sticking with his commitment to his power running game, starting every drive to that point in the game except one with a running play...

...setting up the beautifully executed play action pass from quarterback Tom Brady to a wide open Danny Amendola for 53 yards on the first play of the ensuing possession, every player on the field biting on the play action fake to running back Stevan Ridley - the play allowing New England to escape from deep in their own territory to the Colt's 35 - Ridley blasting into the end zone five plays later, a successful two-point conversion increasing the Patriots' lead to 14 points once again at 29-15.

Which lasted all of 1:10 in game time, Luck hitting Hilton deep for 46 yards and then LaVonn Brazill in the end zone for 35 and a seven point deficit, and when the Patriots went three and out again Indianapolis was in prime position to tie the game, provided they could drive the field once again...

...but a Collins sack stymied one drive and a Vellano "trip" sack on the ensuing Colts' possession stoned another - the Patriots getting the football back at their own 27 yard line and just into the final quarter - and one LeGarrette Blount 73-yard burst off right guard later the Patriots had their 14-point lead back at 36-22.

The Colts would get no closer, never really threatened to score, Blount's run and several wasted opportunities serving as back-breakers, interceptions by Collins and Alfonzo Dennard ending potential drives before they could evolve into any points.

Much will be made of the power running game in the second half - and for good reason - but it was the Patriots' defense clamping down after giving up the easy touchdown pass that was the difference in this game, forcing three punts - two of them the three-and-out variety - and picked off Luck twice, allowing only 51 yards from midway through the third quarter on.

So now a defense that had lost three veteran starters and was breaking in no less than five rookies will have the Patriots playing for an AFC title next Sunday - and if they play as well against the Denver Broncos as they have the last three games leading up to the title tilt, that defense will be in the Super Bowl.

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