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.

Perry: Garoppolo's accountability a winning sign in losing effort

Perry: Garoppolo's accountability a winning sign in losing effort

HOUSTON -- If Jimmy Garoppolo is destined to be a starting quarterback down the line, he showed one quality after the game that would seem to indicate he's just about ready.

He was accountable.

The strip-sack that nearly decapitated him and gave the Texans possession? On him.

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"The o-line did a great job tonight," Garoppolo said. "The sack-fumble was my fault. Can't let that happen . . . I'm the quarterback. It's just -- it's my fault."

His pick in the fourth quarter, a strange throw on the run that was out of reach for tight end Jacob Hollister? Well, yeah, no one else to blame there.

"You just gotta throw it away," he said. "Put more on it. Don't even give the guy a chance to do that."

It wasn't all ugliness in preseason game No. 2 for Tom Brady's backup. He hit DJ Foster on a quick toss over the middle that turned into a 25-yard touchdown. He climbed the pocket and drilled Austin Carr for a first down in the third quarter that started a streak of six straight completions, ending with Foster's score. He established chemistry with tight end James O'Shaughnessy, who had to sit during last week's game with the Jags. And he did it all behind the likes of Cam Fleming, Cole Croston, Jamil Douglas and James Ferentz.

One of Garoppolo's best plays of the night actually came on a sack. But instead of taking a vicious blow -- like the one he absorbed on the strip-sack -- he got on the ground just as the Texans were bearing down on him. He lived to see the next down, using an on-the-field awareness that may be tough to sharpen during practices when quarterbacks wear red jerseys and aren't allowed to be touched.

No, the final line wasn't sparkling, as it was a week ago. Garoppolo was 15-for-23 for 145 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He missed throws to O'Shaughnessy, Carr and Dion Lewis. He was nearly picked on a Brandon Bolden wheel route.

But the accountability Garoppolo showed after the fact is the kind of thing that doesn't go unnoticed by teammates, and it's one of the reasons he'll already have them won over if he ever gets another chance to start.

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Brady: 'Gotta be careful about who you double' in Patriots offense

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Brady: 'Gotta be careful about who you double' in Patriots offense

HOUSTON -- Though Tom Brady played just 17 snaps on Saturday against the Texans, and though he got his offense into the end zone just once in an abbreviated night of work, his team's second preseason game served as a reminder that the Patriots have a surplus of weaponry. 

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis looked dynamic. Rob Gronkowski impacted coverage even when he wasn't targeted. Brandin Cooks was in uniform for the first time and caught a pass from Brady. Malcolm Mitchell saw plenty of work with Jimmy Garoppolo. James O'Shaughnessy looked like a viable third option at tight end. 

That's not even mentioning players like James White, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola and Dwayne Allen (all of whom are healthy) or Mike Gillislee (who is still working his way back from injury). 

The variety of options Brady can lean on in a given week, the matchups he and Josh McDaniels will try to dictate by using certain personnel groupings and formations, will be an every-evolving storyline over the course of the 2017 season. And Brady knows it.

"I think that’s what makes a great offense, having a lot of versatility," Brady said after the game. "I’ve said for a long time, I throw where the guys are open. If they double someone, everyone else is singled across the board, so you’ve just got to be careful about who you double. If we’ve got the right play call against a certain defense, it’s tough to stop us.

"We were decent out there, obviously had quite a few mistakes we’ve got to clean up, but it’s a good defense. We’re going to see them quickly. We had a good week of practice against them. It was a lot of fun . . . It will be a little bit different next time we play them."

Next time Brady and the Patriots see the Texans will be in Week 3, which will pit one of the league's most amorphous offenses against one of its best defenses.