Division Series round was one to remember

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Division Series round was one to remember

NEW YORK -- If baseball had tried, it could not have staged a better Division Series round.

For all the attention paid to the introduction of the second wild card and the one-game, winner-take-all format, it was the Division Series that most captivated fans.

Consider: all four of Division Series went the maximum five games, something that had never before happened since the format was introduced in 1995.

Moreover, three of the 20 games went into extra innings while seven were decided in the winning team's final at-bat. And more than a third of the first-round games (eight) were one-run games.

"If you wanted to see one round of great baseball, we got to see it,'' said New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi before Saturday's Game 1 of the ALCS. "(You had) four series that went five games, teams coming back, dramatic home runs. Pretty amazing. This first round was probably as good as it gets, probably as good as it can be with eight teams.''

The Division Series saw one team -- San Francisco -- win after losing its first two games at home and another -- Oakland -- which forced a fifth game after losing the first two on the road.

Twice, the Yankees won games in extra innings. Once, the A's rallied from being down by three in the bottom of the ninth.

And, for the capper, the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals rallied from being down 6-0 early and trailed by two heading into the bottom of the ninth in an elimination game.

The Cardinals' late-inning rally, though not quite as dramatic as their comeback in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, was spectacular nonetheless.

The Division Series made stars of Raul Ibanez, and, for a time, Jayson Werth, just as surely as it made goats of Drew Storen and Jim Johnson. In successive games, Coco Crisp was, alternately, goat and hero.

The week served as a reminder that, at its best, no sport can match baseball's post-season drama. Even in the first round, before story lines had a chance to fully form, the tension was unmatched as momentum swung wildly from game to game.

Ironically, MLB had hoped that the "knockout'' format of the wild-card games would offer that instant drama. But win-or-go-home games carry with them a built-in disadvantage: in the span of nine innings, there isn't time to build the back-and-forth that come from a longer series.

And if the games themselves aren't instantly compelling, they call attention to inherent questions about the equity of the format. Sadly for baseball, the most noteworthy thing about the first two ''play-in'' games was a infield fly ruling by the umpires that may have precluded the Atlanta Braves from mounting a late-inning comeback.

But there was no denying the quality of the games that followed.

Perhaps the competitive nature of the Division Series games are a reflection of the parity that exists in the game. There were no clear absolute favorites heading into the post-season this fall, and now that there are only four teams remaining, that's still the case.

Before 2011, there had been 64 Division Series since 1995 and only 14 had gone the maximum five games. In the last two Octobers, however, seven of the last eight first round games have gone the distance.

If that's a preview of things to come, baseball wouldn't argue.

Curran: Texans perfectly positioned to slow down Brady and the Patriots

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Curran: Texans perfectly positioned to slow down Brady and the Patriots

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes in 14 of the 273 games he started and finished. The Patriots are 6-8 in those games. Among the 14 are three games against Rex Ryan’s Jets, including two in 2013 and the second game of the season in 2009. There’s also the 2015 AFC Championship against Denver, the playoff win over the Texans last year, and the season-opening loss to the Chiefs this year.

The common denominator in those six games? Outstanding defenses with coordinators and personnel that new Brady well and -- in all but the win over the Texans last January -- a dearth of wide receivers.

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Every year there’s a search for the BLUEPRINT!!! for slowing down the Patriots offense and making Brady look mortal. Google “blueprint for beating the Patriots” and you get 370,000 results. Many of those say the 2007 Giants crafted it first. Few of those mention praying for dropped interceptions and helmet catches in the final two minutes.

The most sure way to slow down the Patriots offense is to have really good defensive players who can bring pressure and (this is the key) hoping the Patriots are banged up at wideout and can’t do their usual damage in the middle of the field.

That’s your blueprint. And it’s in place this week. This isn’t saying the Patriots will lose to Houston, who I’ll wager won’t produce more than 10 offensive points. But I’ll also bet you straight up that Brady completes fewer than half of his passes against Houston.

No Edelman, Gronk with a groin, Danny Amendola coming back from concussion and Brandin Cooks still getting adjusted will leave the Texans knowing their key to success is jamming the middle and making Brady work outside.  

The Texans were fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt last season (5.83), second in passing yards allowed per game (201), first in first downs allowed per game (17) and second in completion percentage against (58.68).

Brady knows what’s coming. He talked about it earlier this week on WEEI with Kirk and Callahan, saying, “They were the No. 1-ranked defense in the league last year. I don’t think I completed many passes in that game, either. I think I was below 50 percent. They just did a good job of putting pressure and when you put pressure, the ball has to come out quick and they had a lot of guys in coverage, too. It was just tough to get rid of it quick. The one positive we took out of that game was we made a lot of big plays. Some teams are going to decide to take away some shorter throws, and they give up longer plays. I think we had seven plays over 20 yards in that game. We moved the ball pretty well. It just didn’t look super rhythmic."

The Texans were able to get pressure and drop a lot of guys in coverage because they have exceptional talent up front.

Brady broke down the Texans’ front on Wednesday, starting with J.J. Watt, saying, “Earlier in his career you used to kind of get a bead on where he’d be, [which] could help you out a little bit. But now they move him so much he’s going to really face every guy that you have up front. [He’ll] be on both sides, be inside, be outside. They run a lot of games. They’ve got a lot of scheme stuff that they use to try to get their guys free in the front, but all of those guys are exceptional athletes. J.J. is an incredible player. He’s been Defensive Player of the Year (three times). He’s got speed, quickness, power, he’s got all the moves, got all the counters. He’s just a tough guy to block.

“Then you pair him with Whitney Mercilus, who’s one of the most underrated players, I think, in the league in terms of rushing the passer to everything that he does to help that team. I know practicing against that guy how good he is. And then with Jadeveon [Clowney], he’s one of the most athletic guys in the league. He does some things that other people can’t do. He’s just size, speed, explosiveness. So all those guys on the same field at one time is a big problem for any offense. You don’t want to be holding the ball too long because you know that they’re going to get home at some point and I think that means we’ve got to really stay on track. We can’t have many negative plays. We’ve just got to play a really consistent kind of football for the entire game.”

The Texans are in a little bit of trouble at corner this week. One starter, Kevin Johnson, is down with an MCL and Johnathan Joseph will be playing with a shoulder injury that forced him from last week’s game against the Bengals.  

The Patriots made it look easy last week against the Saints, which caused people who’d been pointing out Brady was BORN IN 1977!!!! stare at their shoelaces for a few days. But they’re just resting because they’ll be back Sunday evening and into Monday with the same “old” song, ignoring the facts of the case.

The facts are that Brady -- with a full complement in the playoffs last year and the Texans missing J.J. Watt -- had his hands full to the tune of a 47.37 completion percentage, the lowest completion percentage in 34 career playoff games. Without Edelman in this season's opener (and losing Amendola midway through), he completed 44.44 percent of his passes -- fourth-worst among games he started and finished.

The key in this one could be Cooks. As Brady pointed out, the Texans yielded some chunk plays. Cooks, who’s got speed to spare on the outside, will likely be looking at press coverage that -- if he can be beat it -- will give him a chance to run under some Brady duck-and-chucks. And there will be some of those.

Texans head coach Bill O’Brien -- whose defense is run by former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and former Pats linebacker Mike Vrabel -- isn’t looking at the KC game as a blueprint. He’s looking instead at the 27 points scored and the points left on the field by New England.

“When I look at their offense, obviously they didn’t win the game, but there were several things that they did in the game that were very good,” said O’Brien. “They’re a very dangerous team on offense. They play fast. They play with great efficiency. They have a different game plan every week, different personnel that they’re using and so, it’s difficult. You don’t really know what to expect. The combination of Tom and Josh [McDaniels], the brains behind that offense, it’s hard. It’s hard to deal with that and we’re just going to have to see what it is when the game starts and do the best we can to keep up with what they’re trying to do and go from there.”

The Patriots offense knows generally what’s coming from Houston and vice versa. The Patriots won’t be “rhythmic” and there will be balls skipping in the general vicinity of where Brady hoped a receiver would be when he let it go with Watt or Mercilus bearing down on him. Bet on it.

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