Curran: Patriots getting better; Jets getting worse

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Curran: Patriots getting better; Jets getting worse

By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran

FOXBORO - I don't know who said it first, but it's a line they like to use around Gillette Stadium: "You're either getting better or you're getting worse."That platitude was in practice Sunday afternoon. The Patriots - with their once sadly amusing defense and forgotten running game - bowed up on the blowhard New York Jets. And the Jets? Owners of a three-game losing streak and entering back-to-back games against teams coming off of their bye weeks, they may have played better than they did last week but their identity crisis seems to be just beginning. We'll get to that in a few paragraphs. First, let's look at what the Patriots were able to accomplish in improving to 4-1 (keeping pace with the powerful Bills). As opposed to the last time these two teams met, the Patriots were able to establish balance. Thirty-three throws, 35 runs, and 7-of-14 on third down. The two key drives they reeled off were an 11-play drive that covered 77 yards and consumed 4:12. That came in the third quarter when the Patriots lead was 17-14 and they hadn't put together a sustained drive that resulted in points since early in the second quarter. The second drive began with 7:14 remaining and the lead 27-21. A 13-play, 69-yard drive (54 coming on the ground from BenJarvus Green-Ellis) that chewed up 6:12 and ended with a game-icing field goal with 1:09 remaining. After weeks of deservedly being called a finesse team, the Patriots lined up and rammed the ball down the throats of an increasingly disinterested Jets defense.

Thats always huge," said tight end Rob Gronkowski. "You dont want to give them a chance to come back. Give them any small chance, any play, they can come right back and score a touchdown no matter what the play is. So you always want to close it out and not give them a chance . . . You just want to finish it off in the game and we did with the field goal.

In the playoffs last year, the Patriots spent gobs of time trying to process what the Jets were doing before the snap. Sunday, they were decisive and destructive.

"That was a big part of the win. I thought we were balanced," explained Tom Brady."Ran the clock out at the end, that was important. We needed that win. We have to run the ball. If they have a lot of DBs out there, then we have to run it. If they put big guys in, we still have to run it. You just cant throw the ball every single down against these guys, they make it too tough."

The Patriots were the tougher team Sunday. And Brady had a lot to do with that with getting the offense into the correct running play at the line.

"They give you a lot of different looks,"said Bill Belichick."They stem in and out of things and overload and then switch it and just change things up on you, so youve got to be careful about running plays that just have no chance. You want to stay out of those and try to give yourself something that you at least have an even fight, fair numbers on. That's the quarterbacks responsibility and a couple times we just got caught in it. They did a good job. They maneuvered in a way that we werent able to do that, but I thought he did a good job handling that."

At his locker after the game, Brady lamented the plays missed, the throws not made, the points left on the board. But it was - relatively speaking - an improvement for this offense even though it mustered fewer yards than in the first three weeks of this season.

Defensively? No griping. A group that was good for a 30-plus play per quarter didn't allow a play of more than 20 yards until the fourth quarter and there were only two of those.

It helped that Mark Sanchez was less than accurate and that Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schotteheimer had a curious day of playcalling (throwing on short yardage on the first three Jets' series with no success; never challenging the Patriots' corners on the outside where they've been vulnerable). But the Patriots responded to New York's proclamation that they would ground andor pound the football at them. The Jets made yards (25 carries, 97 yards), but their ineptitude on third down kept them from getting any flow.

"We knew coming into this game they were going to try to get the ground game going," said Vince Wilfork. "At times they did, but at times we buckled down. I think you just saw two teams today that play each other all the time and its always tough. When you play a division game, its always tough. Especially with the Jets. But you just saw two good football teams go at it. We know one another. You may see a few wrinkles, but they do what they do. They play physical. They challenged us this week and I think we rose to the occasion."

This defense hadn't done that to a great extent this season. Moments? Yes. A full game of it? No. But they did it against the Jets, a team that they really, truly revile.

"They were going to make plays, we were going to make plays, but we knew we had to hang in their tough and play good solid football and then we knew wed be ok. I think we did tonight," added Wilfork. "I think third down was a plus for us tonight. The yardage, no big plays- thats part of the most impressive stat for us. Like I said, we werent perfect, but its a step in the right direction."

And as the Patriots keep getting better, establishing an identity, the Jets are reeling.

Asked in the postgame if this is the toughest situation the Jets have faced, Rex Ryan said, "Its probably right there with them. You know, we are the only NFL team in history to go to the playoffs having overcome two three-game losing streaks. Weve been down that road before, but to get back to winning, you have to roll your sleeves up and get after it. And start working and preparing and believing in each other and we can turn the tide."

It's never a good sign when you're able to dredge up stats about how good your team is when it goes in the tank. Because, at some point, the time comes when that team finds that the best way to respond to three-game losing streaks is to avoid them. The Jets aren't there yet. Their head coach may know that there is no switch to flip, but the annual preseason victory parades and proclamations are eventually going to backfire.

And that process may be in motion right now.Tom E. Curran can be reached at tcurran@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran.

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Showing a knee-buckling lack of self-awareness, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown put up 13:35 of footage on Facebook Live after his team’s 18-16 win over Kansas City on Sunday night.

It was a weird betrayal of the team’s privacy by one of its star players. Brown, allowed viewers to see live (and on tape until it’s inevitably taken down) that, while head coach Mike Tomlin was around a bank of lockers addressing what Tomlin presumed was his entire team, Brown was mugging in front of his phone for a growing online audience.

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The video starts with Brown and teammates having fun in front of their lockers. As the team is called together for a postgame prayer, Brown keeps the camera rolling. After the prayer, Tomlin made a statement.

“When you get to this point in the journey, not a lot needs to be said,” said Tomlin. “Let’s say very little moving forward. Let’s start our preparations. We spotted those a******* a day and a half. They played yesterday. Our game got moved to tonight. We gonna touch down at 4 o’clock in the f****** morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for that ass. But you ain’t gotta tell them we coming. Because some of us might not like the damn (woofkisses?) The chest pounding.  Keep a low profile.”

While Tomlin was issuing that low-profile request, Brown rolled on. Another Steeler then spoke up saying, “Keep cool on social media, this is about us, nobody else.”

Finally, what sounded like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger addressed the team saying of Foxboro, “That’s a lion’s den we’re going into this week. It’s a lion’s den. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there. Keep your mouth shut.”

While people might fan themselves over Tomlin calling the Patriots a*******, that’s benign and likely will be matched in private by Patriots coaches this week.

What’s staggering is that a player of Brown’s ability and seeming intelligence would be so self-absorbed as to be agog at putting on a video show for Facebook followers at the expense of his coaches, teammates and franchise.  

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

For the third time in the Belichick-Brady Era, the Patriots will be trying to step over the Steelers to get to a Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh went into Kansas City on Sunday night and outlasted a breathtakingly sluggish Chiefs team, 18-16.

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If you spent the day stewing about the Patriots adequate-against-Osweiler-but-probably-nobody-else offensive performance Saturday night, maybe Sunday night calmed your nerves.

Despite having a more than 2-to-1 edge in total yards entering the fourth, Pittsburgh had managed just six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell. Their best chance at getting six on the board was squelched when Ben Roethlisberger got picked at the goal line in the first half.

That Kansas City was even in the game with a chance to tie it in the final three minutes has to be humbling for the Steelers. They dominated every statistical category of consequence while the Chiefs played aimlessly behind Alex Smith, who may be a cut above Brock Osweiler but is definitely a cut below every other quarterback in the Divisional Playoff round.  

On this night, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t much better.

Still, Pittsburgh’s got the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at running back and receiver – LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown were both at 101 yards after halftime – and New England’s entire defensive game plan will revolve around corralling those two and getting them horizontal.

The Patriots beat a Roethlisberger-less team in October, 27-16. Landry Jones was at quarterback that day.

The Steelers were in the Patriots’ red zone four times. They came away with 10 points. They were inside the Patriots’ 40 six times and finished with 16.

“In an offense like that with a bunch of very explosive players, one slant can turn into a touchdown so you have to be really careful in your coverages,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich told me after that game. "There’s not just one go-to guy. They got a running back that can catch it out of the backfield and make plays (Le’Veon Bell). [Antonio Brown] can catch it anywhere on the field and make plays. You just have to make sure with a guy like [Landry Jones] to have him make the throws. It’s hard in this league to be perfect. So to have him sit back there and try to make all the throws was what we chose and the secondary did a great job.”

Bell and Brown combined for 268 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots.

The Steelers scored one touchdown.

The ever-dawdling Bell, who practically walks to the line of scrimmage then skips around like a little kid with a full bladder before finding a crease to exploit, is where it will start for the Patriots.

If the Patriots are going to go to their seventh Super Bowl since Belichick’s hire, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Donta Hightower and Elandon Roberts – their two best interior linemen and their two inside linebackers – will be the ones who start the bus. The overwhelming majority of Bell’s runs are between the guards so building a wall and out-patienting him as he probes for a crease is Job One.

The Chiefs weren’t stout enough at the line of scrimmage and Bell brutalized them. It will, of course, fall to more than just those four. Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Vincent Valentine and Shea McLellin will also be in focus. Run-support from safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be a part of it as well, but that’s where the Steelers become tough to deal with.

Once Bell’s established himself, the Steelers can start to work play-action and get Brown into space. Creep too far and the numbers on the back end could wind up being insufficient to deal with one of the NFL’s fastest players.

That’s why you can expect the Patriots to not overexert themselves with pressures and blitzes against Ben Roethlisberger. They’ll want as many back in coverage as possible to deal with Brown and some of the other Steelers speed merchants.

The Patriots have dealt with Pittsburgh’s defense enough to know where to attack. LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards on 24 carries in the first meeting and

Tom Brady went 19 for 26 for 222 with two touchdowns.

The Patriots had Gronk that day and the Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger. That tips the scales some when measuring the differences. But after watching Pittsburgh kick six field goals and keep afloat an underperforming Chiefs team, the issue that dogged them in October – red zone offense – looks like its still around.

And they are going to visit a team that does that led the NFL in preventing points.