Sunday in San Diego, the Patriots answered convincingly a lot of questions that have floated about them all season. Are they deep enough? You’d have to say yes after watching them advance to the AFC Championship Game. Are they still tough enough? Undoubtedly, yes. They took the hardest punches San Diego could throw and still came out on top. Does the management still know what its doing? Clearly, they do. So, despite all the doomsaying from many, despite all the supposed critical losses and holes, here they are among the NFL final four. Lets take a look at each unit.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady struggled for much of the day. He was under heavy pressure, especially in the first half, but didn’t play well even accounting for that. He missed some open receivers, seemed confused at times and got intercepted three times. But there he was at the end, making some critical throws to win the game. The 49 yarder to Reche Caldwell on the last drive, which set up the winning field goal, was an absolute thing of beauty. The drive at the end of the half you have to consider as well, for without those seven points, the Patriots are probably not even competitive in the second half. It was that one good drive in the first half the Patriots needed and Brady delivered on. Winners come through even when they aren’t at the top of their game. That is what Tom Brady did Sunday. He came through when it counted and that was enough.
RUNNING BACK: A very quiet day here, since the Patriots all but abandoned the run in the second half. When they did try, there was little there. It wasn’t the running backs fault. There was simply no room. All three did a good job in pass protection when called upon.
WIDE RECEIVER: A very good day from Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney had ten catches and a touchdown. Caldwell had a touchdown and one of the plays of the game with his long catch late in the game which set up the winning field goal. And Troy Brown made one of the smartest, heads up football plays of this six year run when he stripped Marlon McCree of the ball following a possible game-clinching interception with six minutes left. With all the worrying about this position this season, you’d have to give this unit an A+ in the biggest game the team has played so far this year.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A very very solid job pass blocking. They were unable to create any room with the running game, though the Patriots really didn’t try much. You have to give both Matt Light and Nick Kaczur a ton of credit with how they handled the outside rush. The line did have trouble getting out on the couple screens the Patriots tried. But overall, a very nice job by this unit.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Richard Seymour had trouble this game and no one in the unit particularly showed up. The Chargers were able to run and the pass rush that was generated was mostly from blitzes. So this unit could have been better Sunday.
LINEBACKERS: Roosevelt Colvin had a very active day and if you watch the tape, you could see the Chargers had far less success running to his side and much of it was due to the inability of the Chargers to block Colvin. The other side with Tully Banta-Cain was not nearly as effective and the Chargers ran well that way. Both Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi were decent, but not great. A caveat is needed here because the Chargers really are an outstanding offensive team with the best running back in the NFL. Considering that, this unit did okay.
SECONDARY: Asante Samuel has just had an amazing year. And Sunday was no exception. He had several blanket coverage type plays and batted down a big 3rd and 4 pass late in the game with the score still tied. Over on the other side, Ellis Hobbs proved he wasn’t the sorriest corner in the league and is actually quite solid. He gave up some plays, but also made some. Overall, the Chargers passing game didn’t hurt the Patriots too badly and this unit deserves credit.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Good day here. Stephen Gostkowski hit all three of his kicks without incident, including a 50-yarder and the game winner. Todd Sauerbraun’s punts were good. And coverage was decent, including on the big last kickoff the game when they had to cover a kick up three with the dangerous Michael Turner returning. Good day.
Now on to Indianapolis. Its amazing this team is on the verge of what they are, yet another championship. They may not be as good as the 2003 or 2004 teams, but no one can claim they aren’t close any more. Until then.