It’s not often – maybe not ever – that the most important quarterback in a Patriots playoff victory is someone other than Tom Brady.
A half-serious case could be made that such an oddity occurred Saturday night in the Patriots’ 34-16 divisional round victory over the hard-hitting Houston Texans, which was probably the tensest 18-point, point-spread-covering win in recent franchise history.
The Texans scored 10 straight points to pull within 14-13 early in the second quarter. At halftime, the Patriots led by just 4, 17-13. Even if you entered the game with total respect for Bill O’Brien’s coaching acumen and Houston’s top-ranked defense, this was far more harrowing than expected.
Fortunately, Brock Osweiler took over in the second half and helped guide the Patriots to victory. OK, maybe that’s an especially snide way to put it. But let’s just say his play didn’t exactly remind O’Brien of those halcyon days he spent as Brady’s offensive coordinator with the Patriots.
Osweiler threw three second-half interceptions – the Rutgers Three of Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan each collected one. It’s funny, but I haven’t heard anyone complaining about Belichick’s affinity for spending draft picks on Scarlet Knights lately.
Osweiler’s assistance as the Patriots gradually removed any suspense from the game was greatly appreciated, and perhaps even necessary. The Texans were game, but they weren’t winning with a $72 million modern-day version of Dan McGwire at quarterback.
Osweiler is not good. But we shouldn’t overlook the Patriots’ defense’s role in exposing his not-goodness in the second half, and here is where I acknowledge that I did just that in my column posted immediately after the game. The Texans’ defense and the Patriots’ offense were the specific units that drew the most attention and consideration during and after the game. But the Patriots’ defense, with Osweiler’s ineptitude as an aid, is arguably the unit that ultimately determined the outcome of the game, and for that it deserves acknowledgement.
Foremost on that list is Ryan, the capable if sometimes unpredictable fourth-year cornerback who may have submitted the best performance of his career Saturday night. Ryan finished with an interception – a pivotal play that help set up a Patriots touchdown to put them up 31-16 early in the fourth quarter – as well as a sack, three passes defensed and seven tackles. He’s been occasionally maligned here, but he plays perhaps the most challenging and stressful position in the sport, and plays it pretty darn well. He’s going to get paid in the offseason, and he’s earned it.
Ryan’s performance underscores something else admirable about the Patriots’ defensive backs – to a man, they are outstanding tacklers. It’s Patrick Chung’s best skill, though he wasn’t involved much Saturday (four tackles, one solo). Devin McCourty (five tackles Saturday) came up huge against the run and added a third-quarter pick when the Patriots led 24-13 and had begun to seize the momentum. And Malcolm Butler (five solo tackles) is an exceptional tackler for a smallish cover corner.
The Patriots led the league in fewest points allowed per game in the regular season (15.6) and pretty much hit that average Saturday. Should they perform similarly in the AFC Championship Game against the formidable Steelers and their three superstars – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and receiver/Facebook live dipstick Antonio Brown – perhaps then is when they will start getting some appreciation as a true championship-caliber defense, without any qualifiers.
For now, fair or not, the qualifiers do exist. The Patriots beat the Steelers in Week 6, 27-16, but Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer, did not play. Backup Landry Jones dropped 281 yards on the Patriots with a touchdown and an interception. While the Patriots defense is much improved since then, Roethlisberger is the best quarterback the Patriots have faced since at least Week 10 (Seattle’s Russell Wilson), and he’s capable of much more than what Jones gave the Steelers against the Patriots in October.
The Patriots know to respect Roethlisberger, and they do. But I do wonder whether the Steelers’ two-dimensional offense – no one other than Bell or Brown has more than 600 total yards – plays into the Patriots’ hands. Bell and Brown are exceptional players. But the Patriots have been adept at taking away what an opponent does best since Willie McGinest and friends were roughing up Marshall Faulk 15 seasons ago. Bell, who has 337 rushing yards in the Steelers’ two playoff games, had just 81 yards on 23 carries in Week 6 – his pause-and-effect running style won’t be a surprise to the Patriots. And as dynamic as Brown is, Butler isn’t going to back down from the matchup. We’ve all seen him intercept Brown’s pizza order in their shared national commercial. He is capable of doing the same to one of Roethlisberger’s high-risk, high-reward passes.
We’ll give this game more thoughtful consideration as the week goes on and game-time nears. But given the Patriots-Steelers history – Tom Brady is 7-2 against them in his career, and 4-0 at Gillette – the idea of Pittsburgh stealing a victory is a faint one. Not just because of the Patriots’ offense. But because of their effective defense as well. They’re still untested in some ways, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right answers.