Jon Scott: The Patriots have used the national media's obsession with other teams to fuel their pre-game preparations. Mike Vrabel and other Patriots players have talked about the Chargers' rallies, planned parades and other accolades as AFC Champions to get themselves a little hungrier. Many media outlets run so called "Power Rankings", which the Patriots have never led this year. The majority of those rankings have all of the Patriots' playoff opponents ranked above them. After the 21-0 loss to Miami, it seems like that motivation factor took a step up. Whether it was the loss, or most of the talking heads writing them off, New England has a chip on its shoulder.
TT: The Patriots are 8-1 on the road this season and won those games by an average of 17 points; what about this team makes them so successful in hostile environments?
JS: There's a mystique about statistics that don't always tell the whole story. Quality of opponent had a lot to do with the win-loss cycle for New England, as did timing. Many of the Patriots' wins at home were tough games that the Patriots could have lost, or did lose. Playing teams that don't have it together at their house is still playing with an advantage. The Jets first meeting, the second Bills game, and even the Vikings game were examples of that. On the road, it was a way for the players to focus. Some of the road games were against teams that had their own set of issues -- Green Bay and Tennessee come to mind. Dan Graham spoke about that issue this week. He credited coach Belichick for keeping guys focused on one thing, to play the game. Away games have fewer distractions, because the players know they're leaving at the end of the week so they have to get all their stuff done early on. The schedule change forces them to pay attention. At home they may have a little leeway, but for road games, if they don't take care of things all week, they're in trouble and the Patriots organization is one that doesn't tolerate lack of focus very long. Guys who don't know how to focus or prepare properly don't play, and you're seeing that with some of the players on the roster now.
|Patriots K Stephen Gostkowski (AP/Winslow Townson)|
JS: Until Gostkowski hits the big kick, the team won't know everything about him. The field goals in San Diego were very big. He hit them all, including the 50-yarder which broke Adam Vinatieri's career record for longest field goal in Patriots' postseason history. Gostkowski's teammates have his back when you ask them about the issue. They generally talk his ability to hit kicks all season long, so they're not worried when it comes up in the postseason. He has a strong leg, and showed that early on. I think the Patriots are comfortable giving the ball to Gostkowski for most mid to high 40-yard attempts. When it approaches 50, then the situation changes based upon field position and down and distance. The last thing Belichick wants to do is to give Peyton Manning a short field with only a little time left on the clock. Belichick decides whether to go for the field goal based upon time remaining, yardage for the first down and field position, as he does when considering length of the kick. The Patriots had a league high 80 percent conversion rate on fourth down, so that likely played into their thinking.
TT: Asante Samuel could be the most underrated cornerback in the NFL. Is he the new Ty Law in New England?
JS: Probably not. Samuel is pretty good when closing speed and quick moves are important, but his strength isn't the same as Law's. Law can outmuscle guys. Law's last season in camp in New England we just stood next to him during 7-on-7 drills and watched him toss guys like Deion Branch aside like rag dolls. He was like a dog playing with his kill before finally getting bored and letting them make their catches. Samuel never did that, and quite honestly isn't built like that. What the deal is with Samuel is his "quicks". He is able to backpedal quickly and turn in time to make plays on the ball. Last year in the playoff game against Jacksonville, Samuel made the type of play that he's made his signature this season. He backpedals into position to see the receiver break out of his cut, and then Samuel undercuts the route to intercept the ball and take it back. It works on long cross-field throws, and balls that aren't gunned. His tight coverage on Chargers receiver Eric Parker could be attributed to Philip Rivers' inability to hit Parker for crucial third down conversions. Samuel was quick enough to get to the ball in multiple situations, snuffing out potential scoring drives. There's no doubt Samuel is one of the top corners out there, but he isn't quite Law in Law's heyday.
TT: Looking up and down the roster, it might appear the Patriots had a better playoff team last year. In what ways is this year's unit better?
JS: The things about this year's unit are the replacements on offense and the health of the offensive line. Matt Light and Don Koppen are both playing and their ability to be on the field against aggressive defenses has been the key to keeping Tom Brady relatively healthy this year. Brady was smacked around like a rag doll last season, and the line had worlds of trouble trying to protect him. Against The Jets, the line was able to adjust to nullify the pesky defensive blitzes that former Pats coach Eric Mangini was able to devise to beat them during the season. The line stifled the Chargers vaunted front seven and protected Brady long enough for him to make a 2-minute drive in the first half, and two game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
Ben Watson is healthy and a major threat to opposing defenses. With Watson going down the deep middle the opposing safety cannot just commit to playing the wide out, he has to go help the linebacker assigned to Watson. It's opening things up in the passing game. And lastly, Laurence Maroney gives the Patriots a significant upgrade at running back. Before, they had depth and injury issues. Now they have two guys who can be feature backs, and can give opposing defenses reason to pause.