Wildcard Weekend confirms Patriots in class of their own in AFC

Wildcard Weekend confirms Patriots in class of their own in AFC

[This post has been updated following the Steelers’ win over the Dolphins to reflect that the Patriots will face the Texans in the divisional round.]

Hey, so turns out the other AFC playoff teams might stink. Who knew? 

Putting aside that the Patriots already beat the Texans, 27-0, without Tom Brady, it’s tough to look at the results of Wildcard Weekend and be worried by what the Patriots might have coming at them next week or the one after. 

Houston’s got some studs on defense, but take Saturday’s performance with a reminder that it was against a rookie fourth-round quarterback making his first NFL start. And for as dynamite as Jadeveon Clowny was, keep in mind it was against backup tackle Menelik Watson.

Now look at the offense and how the Texans built their lead in that game. After Houston punted on its first drive, the Raiders started their first possession at their 7-yard-line and played like a bunch of idiots. Connor Cook nearly threw a pick-six to Jadeveon Clowney, but the drive ended up being a 3-and-out followed by a bad punt from Marquette King that started the Texans at the Oakland 40. That led to an eight-yard drive from the Texans that yielded a field goal. 

Houston’s next drive came as the result of Cook throwing an interception that gave the Texans a 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard-line. Lamar Miller ran it in on the drive’s first play. 

The Texans built a lead they didn’t relinquish and they did it by starting with excellent field position and jumping on a rookie quarterback’s mistakes. Oh, and Oakland’s defense was below-average this season (21st in the NFL in points allowed, 23rd by Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average), so that Texans offense needed good field position to put up an unspectacular performance against an unspectacular defense. 

Phil Perry recently pointed out that field position doesn't come up often enough in the discussion of why the Patriots shut teams down. Per Football Outsiders, the Patriots gave their opponents the worst average field position to begin drives this season. The Pats also threw two interceptions all season, so it’s not like there’s much evidence New England will do its opponent the kind of favors the Raiders did on Saturday.  

The Steelers, meanwhile, didn’t need good field position to rough up the Dolphins Sunday. Pittsburgh had Antonio Brown, and that was enough for the Steelers to score more points in the first quarter than Miami did in the entire game. One shouldn't be as quick to dismiss them as they should with the Texans.

Still, their competition was so bad in their Wild Card game that it's tough to get a read on whether they're playing great football or thriving in an easy situation. That timely forced fumble in the final minute of the first half with the Dolphins eight yards from a touchdown? Chalk that up to shoddy ball protection from Matt Moore, something no one would expect out of Tom Brady. 

When looking at these teams, and even the No. 2 seed Chiefs, it’s extremely difficult to not pencil the Pats in for the Super Bowl before they’ve even played a postseason game. A very diligent piece by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier notes that the Pats’ league-best defense in terms of points allowed is statistical fool’s gold and didn’t really play any good offenses this season. Then again, they’re not likely to face one in any of their conference’s playoff games, either. 

The Patriots finished third in the NFL (and tops in the AFC) in points scored. Of the other AFC playoff teams, know was second in that category? You saw them get eliminated Saturday. 

The Steelers were tied for 10th in points scored this season. The Chiefs were 13th and the Texans were tied for 28th. 

In the Patriots’ only loss with Tom Brady under center this season, they allowed 31 points to the Seahawks. Between all the other remaining AFC playoff teams, only the Steelers had a 31-point game against a playoff team this season, and they did it against the Chiefs. Sure, Pittsburgh put up 30 points Sunday, but that was against a Miami team that allowed an average of 23.8 points per game during the regular season.

This isn't to discredit the weapons that Pittsburgh has. Brown was a monster Sunday and so too was Le'Veon Bell (167 rushing yards, two touchdowns). Ben Roethlisber remains Ben Roethlisberger. The issue is that, should the teams potentiallly meet in a potential AFC Championship, the Patriots would put up a hell of a lot more than the six points the mediocre Dolphins mustered.

Is there a team in this bunch that’s really going to put a ton of points on the Patriots this postseason while also clamping down Instagram Tom and Co.? It’s hard to imagine that based on what we've seen thus far in the playoffs.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

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Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.