Vallee’s View: Patriots Get Clean Bill of Health

All it took was one drive.  After meandering through the injury plagued final weeks of the season with uninspired play, bizarre coaching decisions, and un-Patriot like mistakes, New England needed all of 4 minutes and 33 seconds to right the ship.  With a rare opportunity to open the game on offense, Tom Brady lined up in shotgun and proceeded to carve and slice his way through the Kansas City defense, completing 8 of 11 passes and giving the Patriots a quick 7-0 lead; a lead they would never relinquish.   It was a drive emblematic of the dominant early part of the season when the PSI-motivated Patriots stomped their way to a 10-0 record, and Brady raced to the top of everybody’s MVP ballot.  
And this drive had a crucial subplot.  Hanging over New England’s two week preparation was the dark cloud of doubt concerning the health of Brady’s two favorite targets, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.  We heard stories of mysterious absences, secret injections, special shoes and Belichick deception.  By game time, with two of its biggest stars officially listed as “questionable”, the speculation had grown to a crescendo of doubt bordering on despair.  Was Gronkowski’s back worse than the secretive Patriots were letting on?  Would Edelman be effective?  Was Gronkowski on a snap count?  Would he even play?
All it took was one drive.  All it took was one drive to alleviate all concern and obliterate all doubt.  Accounting for 67 of the Patriots’ first 80 yards, three first downs, three third down conversions and a touchdown, the Patriots’ two most important weapons looked unstoppable as they skipped past the much-hyped Chiefs defense with relative ease.  And with each reception and first down you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief echo down from the stands at Gillette.
Gronk was back.  Edelman was back.  The Patriots were back.
The point was only driven home on New England’s first drive of the second half when the Patriots, leading 14-6, all but guaranteed themselves a slot in their 5th consecutive AFC Championship game with an effortless 69-yard touchdown drive.  Gronkowski and Edelman again looked fresh as lettuce accounting for 59 of the drive’s 69 yards.  The drive barely took two minutes and concluded with a second Gronkowski touchdown.  At this point you almost had to feel like a chump for believing everything you had heard; like one of those suckers watching TV at 2:00am that decides it is a good idea to pay $59.99 because some charlatan is claiming he knows the secrets to buying large quantities of real estate with no money, no credit and no job.
How could we all have been so easily duped?  All that talk about Gronkowski’s back and Edelman’s foot suddenly looked like nothing more than a giant smoke screen.  A shell game.  A long con.  If the music guy at Gillette Stadium had a sense of humor he would have been playing the theme song to ‘The Sting’ during TV timeouts.  It is still unclear if Belichick was being purposely deceptive or if the excessive coverage of the highly popular Patriots led to the fans having an insecure freak out.  Either way it was clear the reports of Gronk and Edelman’s demise had been greatly exaggerated.  
And the dance continues, with Edelman reportedly making a trip to the X-Ray room after the game.  Ha!  Not falling for that again.  Brady’s 3rd down security blanket will be just fine next week in Denver.  As the quote goes, fool me once….
But you almost couldn’t blame Patriots fans for having a little doubt entering the divisional round.  It was a weird week in Foxboro.  It’s not every day that your best pass rusher wanders into a police station half-naked on a Sunday morning, muttering gibberish and seeking medical assistance because he is wacked out of his mind on something.  Not exactly the “Patriot Way”.  Lucky for New England the Foxboro police not only protect and serve but are apparently huge Patriots fans.  Their secretive approach to the incident reduced the amount of information released about the bizarre episode, therefore limiting the impact.  Belichick was also predictably at his evasive best, helping to keep the team laser-focused and minimizing the distraction.  Against Kansas City Chandler Jones didn’t play particularly well but did force a key fumble in the third quarter before reportedly leaving the game with a knee injury.
The Patriots were far from perfect in this game and their win was also, in part, the product of their opponent.  Kansas City showed little firepower on offense, constrained by the limited talents of their quarterback and a key injury to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin.  Then there was the coaching.  Andy Reid has historically run his hurry-up offense with all the speed and urgency of a three-toed sloth, and Saturday was no exception.  Trailing 27-13 the Chiefs inexplicably played with no desperation on offense, as they crawled up the field in the final minutes, eating 5:11 off the clock before they finally punched it into the end zone.  This deliberate pace left the Chiefs with just one option: an onside kick, and moments later that kick, along with their playoff hopes, disappeared into the oversized mitts of Rob Gronkowski.
On defense the Chiefs let multiple passes slip through their fingers, including what would have been a devastating interception in the final two minutes when Josh McDaniels called a foolish and unnecessary pass play that bounced off the hands of Tamba Hali, ricocheted off Gronkowski and landed in the waiting arms of Julian Edelman, for a game-clinching first down.  While it was by far Brady’s worst pass of the game it was also a fitting end to a day where Edelman and Gronkowski had seemingly risen from the dead to help lead the Patriots to victory.
There is nothing easy about repeating as Super Bowl champions.  Going forward, New England’s opponents will only get tougher and the margin of error will only get smaller.  But, Patriots fans can take solace in knowing that Brady’s gun is once again loaded with his two favorite bullets and that will only make it easier for him to take dead aim at the NFL’s promised land in Santa Clara.
Game Notes
-The NFL playoffs are unforgiving.  Unlike the other sports that are determined by a best of 7 series, in the NFL your entire season can vanish in three short hours.  The Kansas City Chiefs entered Gillette Stadium riding high, having bounced back from a horrific 1-5 start to win an almost unheard of 11 games in a row, yet one bad day in Foxboro and, poof, everything they have been building for three months disappeared faster than Keyser Soze.
-Rob Gronkowski continues to play like a man amongst boys.  Saturday against the Chiefs he had 7 catches, 2 touchdowns and recovered an onside kick.  His two touchdowns were the 7th and 8th of his playoff career, already giving him more than any TE in NFL postseason history.  In Gronkowski’s first 89 career games, including the playoffs, he has 73 touchdowns.  The only player in NFL history with more TDs through 89 games is all-time NFL touchdown leader Jerry Rice with 80.
-To put into perspective just how much Andy Reid’s “hurry up” offense is hurry up in-name-only consider this:  According to the amazing web site Pro Football Reference, in the last 17 years there have been 2,111 offensive drives by teams trailing by 9 to 17 points in the final 7:00 of the game, and if you ranked them from fastest to slowest, the Chiefs’ fourth quarter touchdown drive against New England would finish second to last on the entire list.
-Kudos to the Patriots’ offensive line for having its best game in weeks.  Their often maligned O-Line has used an NFL high 12 different lineman in 2015 and allowed 186 quarterback pressures, the highest number of Brady’s career.  Saturday they allowed zero sacks and just two QB hits.  
-Analyst Dan Fouts was particularly awful Saturday making numerous mistakes, offering little analysis and at one point declaring that the Chiefs getting a 5-yard penalty on the goal line was a good thing because it would give them more room to throw?!?#?  But most disappointing was Fouts incessant whining about non-calls.  Virtually every time a defender got anywhere near an offensive player Fouts would immediately start pleading for a pass interference or unnecessary roughness flag.  Fouts is supposed to be a tough old school quarterback but on Saturday he sounded more like a concerned soccer Mom.
-Former Jets linebacker Bart Scott simply could not hide his disdain for the Patriots during the halftime show, at one point shouting, “Put the low coverage in Bob.” This was his plea to Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to roll up his defensive backs and take away the short throws.  It is actually pretty good defensive advice but should studio analysts be so biased they are barking out advice to coaches about how to stop a specific team?  Jealousy really does bring out the worst in people.
-Brady’s pump fake touchdown to Rob Gronkowski was so well-timed and executed it absolutely smoked perennial Pro Bowler Eric Berry.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something similar against the aggressive Broncos defenders.
-Not sure what the hell Chandler Jones was thinking getting all jacked up the week of the divisional playoffs.  There are conflicting reports about what exactly he was taking, that vary from synthetic marijuana to Adderall, but whatever it was, he couldn’t wait four weeks until after the Super Bowl to take it?  And it’s kind of surprising Belichick didn’t sit him down at least for one quarter considering he punished Wes Welker for making a few foot jokes.  I guess the moral of the story is, if you’re going to stumble into a police station high as a kite it’s best to do it on your off day.
-If Jones was smoking synthetic marijuana that has to rank pretty high as one of the stupidest things you can put in your body.  I’m no prude but everything I have read about synthetic marijuana makes it sound like the least appealing drug ever.  It’s side effects include nightmares, paranoia, heavy sweating, delusion, nausea, tremors, headaches, extreme tiredness, insomnia, diarrhea, hallucinations and vomiting.  How appealing, where do I sign up?  The different types of synthetic marijuana have a variety of names including Black Mamba, Scooby Snax and Annihilation.  Wow, those names sound so appealing.  Imagine saying to your friends, “Hey guys you want to smoke some Annihilation?”  What could possibly go wrong?  And I thought this scene in Ted was just a joke.  Here is one testimonial I read online:  “After using (synthetic marijuana) for several weeks, I woke up early one night, fell to the floor, couldn’t move my legs and couldn’t move my hips. All I could do was drag myself by my forearms and that wasn’t making it anyway so I laid on the floor for 13 hours, screaming, pounding the floor asking for help. Doctors say another two hours and I would have been dead.”   
And then there was the experience of Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive tackle at Ole Miss who is considered one of the top prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft.  After reportedly smoking what is sometimes referred to as “fake weed”, Nkemdiche jumped through a double-pain window and fell 15 feet to the ground because he was convinced someone was chasing him.  His brother Denzel, a linebacker at Ole Miss, reportedly had an equally bad experience after smoking this stuff and had to be hospitalized.  He was apparently found near the edge of the roof of his townhouse, wrapped in a blanket and convinced someone was trying to get him.
That sounds fun.  Who doesn’t dream of taking a substance that leaves you so freaked out that you literally think an invisible person is trying to harm you.  What exactly is the appeal of this drug again?
-Duron Harmon looked both selfish and foolish when he made an apparent interception on 4th down, even at one point pleading with the officials that he had stayed in bounds, even though the interception would have cost New England 30 yards in field position.  Harmon was lucky the INT was eventually overturned on review but I have a feeling Belichick still might have something to say about the play during this week’s film session.

On to Denver.