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New England Patriots

Tim O’Sullivan: These are our championship New England Patriots

  • Tom Brady heads to the locker room following New England's 41-28 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013 advancing the Patriots to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    Tom Brady heads to the locker room following New England's 41-28 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013 advancing the Patriots to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 41-28 in the second-round of the playoffs to advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

    The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 41-28 in the second-round of the playoffs to advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

    (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

  • Tom Brady heads to the locker room following New England's 41-28 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, January 13, 2013 advancing the Patriots to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
  • The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 41-28 in the second-round of the playoffs to advance to the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens next weekend back at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.<br/><br/>(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

It was the highest scoring divisional round in NFL history, a weekend of thrills and comebacks. After the smoke had cleared, only four teams remained. It’s a worthy final four, but one team stands out. One team looks the most complete and capable – your New England Patriots.

More than other recent versions, these Patriots resemble the New England teams that won three Super Bowls in four years to start last decade. They don’t have to rely completely on the offense, the defense can actually make plays. The offense doesn’t have to rely completely on Tom Brady, the running game actually works. And Brady doesn’t have to rely on a few select weapons, he has a bristling arsenal.

That flexibility, along with some resiliency and wherewithal, were all on full display in last night’s 41-28 win over Houston. The Patriots took the Texans’ best shot to open the game, but still held a lead after the first quarter. By the third quarter, that lead was up to 18 points. Early in the fourth, it had gone to 25.

While San Francisco had the largest margin of victory during the weekend, winning by 14 over Green Bay on Saturday, that game was still in doubt in the fourth quarter. The Patriots had more control of their contest. And both Atlanta and Baltimore needed last-minute miracles to win.

Coaches and players will say what happened this past weekend won’t have any

bearing on Sunday’s conference championship games, and to a certain degree, they’re right. Still, Las Vegas has already installed New England as an 8.5-point favorite over Baltimore in the AFC title game, even though the Ravens beat the Patriots earlier this year. But the Pats deserve that kind of respect. They were that impressive in that many areas against the Texans.

It was pretty much accepted as stone cold fact that Houston needed a fast start to have any kind of chance against New England, and that’s exactly what the Texans got when Danieal Manning returned the opening kickoff 94 yards to the Patriots 12. But the New England defense held the Texans to a field goal there, curtailing that critical early momentum.

This Patriots defense is far from great. It did, after all, allow 373.2 yards per game this year, 25th in the league. But that’s a step up from last year’s team, which gave up 411.1, 31st in the league. And the Pats were better when it came to the bottom line, allowing only 20.7 points per game this year, ninth in the NFL. That means they can make plays when it counts, and they did it yesterday on more than one occasion.

After holding the Texans to that initial field goal, New England forced four straight punts as it built a 17-3 lead. When Houston was threatening to make it a one-score game in the middle of the third quarter, Rob Ninkovich came up with an interception that led to a touchdown and the 18-point lead. And with the Texans going for broke early in the fourth, the Patriots delivered a fourth-down stop to set up a short field and the backbreaking touchdown pass from Brady to surprise hero Shane Vereen.

The 33-yard, high-arcing strike to Vereen was a thing of beauty, and Brady did finish 25-for-40 for 335 yards, but he was far from perfect, even if he did set the record for playoff wins for a starting quarterback (17). Brady looked rusty at times, missed several receivers, and was lucky none of his errant passes became interceptions. But it didn’t matter. These Patriots have enough talent to overcome hiccups.

They ran for 122 yards, even though Danny Woodhead injured his thumb on the first series and never came back. Rob Gronkowski also left the game for good after that first series, but Aaron Hernandez provided plenty of tight end production with six catches for 85 yards. And even when the offense faltered, punter Zoltan Mesko was there to bail it out, averaging 52.8 yards on five punts.

Early reports indicate Gronkowski, the team’s top offensive threat, will need another surgery on his left forearm and will miss the rest of the year. Obviously this will hurt the Pats, but a similar injury in years past would have crippled them. Even the record-setting 2007 team would have been in major trouble if it lost either one of its top threats, Randy Moss or Wes Welker.

But this New England team comes with contingency plans. Hernandez goes a long way to filling Gronkowski’s void. Welker and Brandon Lloyd have done plenty to make up for the loss of Julian Edelman a few weeks ago. Stevan Ridley has fumble troubles? No problem, Vereen and Woodhead can take some of the load.

Baltimore pushed New England to the absolute limit in last year’s AFC title game before the Patriots snuck away with a 23-20 win. The Ravens will be hungry for redemption Sunday, and with the emotion of Ray Lewis retiring and the momentum of their overtime win in Denver, they should have a little something extra for New England. But the Patriots also have something more for the rematch. They’re a much better team than they were last January.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or
tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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