Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Year in Review - New England Patriots (15-3, AFC East and AFC Champions)

Expectations are high every season for the New England Patriots but they entered the 2011 season with some baggage. They suffered their third straight playoff loss to conclude the 2010 season as well as their second straight home playoff loss. Questions were starting to be raised if the magic of Belichick and Brady had worn off? Were the Patriots finally going to be knocked from the upper echelon of the NFL? Through the first half of the season the Patriots looked mediocre, but they haven't lost since and are now in their fifth Super Bowl in the last eleven years.

The Patriots traveled to Miami for Monday Night football in their season opener. Tom Brady threw for an incredible 517 yards and 4 TDs, including a 99 yard strike to Wes Welker as the Patriots cruised to a 38-24 victory. That game proved telling for how most of the Patriots season would unfold. The offense put up a lot of points and yardage but the defense did the same. The Patriots allowed unheralded Dolphins QB Chad Henne to throw for 416 yards. In Week 2, the Patriots defeated San Diego 35-21 as Brady had another magnificent game, throwing for 423 yards and 3 TDs. TE Rob Gronkowski had 2 of those touchdowns, and was beginning to serve notice to the rest of the league that he was the best tight end in football. In Week 3, the Patriots were at Buffalo to take on the surprising 2-0 Bills. It looked like it would be a typical New England/Buffalo game when the Patriots raced out to 21-0 lead. However, Brady ended up throwing 4 interceptions, and the Patriots had silly penalties on defense to go with their pathetic play and ended up losing 34-31. The Patriots rebounded nicely in Week 4, going to Oakland and defeating the Raiders 31-19. It was the Patriots rushing attack that carried the day, with rookie Steven Ridley rushing for 97 yards and a touchdown, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 75 yards and a touchdown.

In Week 5, the Patriots earned some revenge against their rivals, the New York Jets, defeating them 30-21 at home. Green-Ellis had a monster game, running for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns. Welker also continued his strong season, finishing with 5 catches for 124 yards. The Patriots earned their third straight win in Week 6, a 20-16 come from behind win against Dallas, improving their record to 5-1. It was the first time the Patriots had been held to less than 30 points, but it was the defense's finest performance of the season. Brady hit TE Aaron Hernandez for an 8-yard touchdown with 22 seconds to play to seal the victory. After their bye week, the Patriots season started to take a slide in Week 7, as they were dominated at Pittsburgh, losing 25-17. Brady was held to less than 200 yards passing, and the running game played so poorly that Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher with 32 yards. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger torched the New England secondary for 375 yards passing and 2 touchdowns. The next week, the Patriots suffered their first home regular season loss in 2 years, falling to the New York Giants 24-20. It was the third straight game the offense struggled, and the defense was unable to hold the Giants when they needed to, as Eli Manning marched the Giants down the field for a game winning drive. The Patriots were 5-3 at the halfway mark, and in a dog fight with the Jets and Bills for the AFC East.

In Week 10, the Patriots season was at a crossroads as they headed to New York to take on the Jets. Another loss and the wheels would officially be coming off on their season. They responded like champions do, destroying the Jets 37-16 on Sunday night football. Brady finally returned to form, throwing 3 TDs, 2 of those to his monster TE Gronkowski. WR Chad Ochocinco even made an appearance with 2 catches for 65 yards. The Patriots improved to 7-3 in Week 11, blowing out the Kansas City Chiefs 34-3 on Monday night football. It was supposed to be Matt Cassel's return to New England but he was out with an injury, so instead the Patriots got to make Tyler Palko's life miserable. It was the Gronkowski show again, as he put in another 2 touchdown performance. In a game that I picked as the Super Bowl matchup for this season, the Patriots destroyed Philadelphia on the road 38-20. Eagles QB Vince Young threw for 400 yards but once again it didn't matter because the Patriots passing game was unstoppable. It was Welker that was the beast this game, grabbing 2 touchdowns. The Patriots then held on to beat the hapless Indianapolis Colts in Week 13, 31-24 to improve to 9-3. The Patriots jumped out to a 31-3 lead going into the 4th quarter but then the defense collapsed giving up three touchdowns. Gronkowski had 2 receiving touchdowns and his first rushing touchdown of the season.

The Patriots survived a dog fight in Week 14, outlasting Washington 34-27 at FedEx Field. Gronkowski, 6 catches, 160 yards, 2 touchdowns and Welker, 7 catches, 86 yards, 1 touchdown, terrorized the Redskins. The game was perhaps most memorable for the shouting match Brady got into with his offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien after he threw his first interception in a month. At 10-3, the Patriots were headed to Denver to take on the Tim Tebows or as they were otherwise known, the Denver Broncos. The Patriots fell behind 16-7 early, but then Brady and the offense took over. It wasn't Gronkowski that was the beast tight end on this day, it was Hernandez who had nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. The win clinched another AFC East title for the Patriots but they still had a first round bye to play for. They received quite the test from the Dolphins at home in Week 16, falling behind 17-0 in the second quarter. They were able to put 27 points on the board in the second half, rallying for the 27-24 win. Welker was most responsible for the win, racking up 12 catches for 138 yards. The win clinched a first round bye for the Patriots, and they had a chance to clinch home field throughout the playoffs with a win at home against Buffalo to close the season. Curiously, the Patriots came out flat for a third straight week, spotting the Bills 21 points in the first quarter. Then in a complete reversal from their first game against Buffalo, it was the Patriots who reeled off 49 straight points, completing an incredible 49-21 rout, to finish the season at 13-3 and the best record in the AFC. Brady threw for 338 yards, 3 touchdowns and surpassed 5,000 yards passing for the season.

After the Broncos upset the Steelers on Wild Card weekend, it earned them a rematch with the Patriots, this time at Gillette Stadium. There was no falling behind in this game, as New England thoroughly dominated the Broncos, and led 35-7 at the half. They ended up winning the game 45-10, and Brady threw for 6 touchdowns, with 3 of those going to Gronkowski. The Patriots also unveiled Hernandez the running back, as he led the team with 61 yards on just 5 carries. The Patriots now had to host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, and were hoping to avenge their 2010 home playoff loss to Baltimore. In that loss, Ray Rice scored an 80 yard touchdown to start the game and the Ravens never looked back. Baltimore ran rice to start the game this time and he was held to nothing, a sign that this game would be much different. It was tight the entire way and it was actually the Patriots defense that stepped up and helped earn the victory. Surprisingly, Brady was outplayed by Joe Flacco, and Brady had his first zero touchdown effort in 36 games. The Patriots defense held Ray Rice in check and DT Vince Wilfork seemed to be involved in almost every play. Down 23-20 late in the game, the Ravens had a chance to tie and send it to overtime but their kicker Billy Cundiff missed from 32-yards and their Patriots were back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 2008. This will be the Patriots seventh Super Bowl and they will try to win their fourth Lombardi trophy.

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