Patriots vs Texans: New England's Biggest Winners & Losers from Divisional Round
Following a slow start, the Patriots offense heated up and the defense used the home field to their advantage. As a result, the team will face the Baltimore Ravens next weekend, where only one squad will move on to the Super Bowl.
When it comes to playoff games, a victory is a victory. But there were certainly some Patriots who fared better than others.
With that in mind, here are New England's biggest winners and losers from the Week 14 rematch at Gillette Stadium.
Winner: Tom Brady
At the helm of 17 postseason victories, Brady has now eclipsed his childhood idol Joe Montana. On Sunday night, the San Mateo, Calif., native completed 25-of-40 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
And he did so against a very stout Houston pass rush led by All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt.
Brady made the proper reads, kept the chains moving and didn't make any costly mistakes. He's officially gone where no other quarterback has gone before, but that doesn't mean he will rest on his laurels, either.
Loser: Rob Gronkowski
The Patriots lost one of their most dangerous weapons versus Houston, as tight end Rob Gronkowski re-injured the left forearm he broke against the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18.
During the first quarter of action, Gronkowski was chasing down a pass near the right sideline. He made the grab, but the pass was ruled incomplete after No. 87 fell hard out of bounds.
He landed on his arm and was visibly in pain. According to NBCSports.com's Mike Florio, Gronkowski will have surgery and miss the rest of the postseason.
The Patriots will have to move on a little shorthanded. And while it's unfortunate, the team did go 4-1 without their biggest target this year.
Winner: Shane Vereen
The Patriots' utilization of Shane Vereen has been streaky at best this year.
The former second-rounder spent much of the regular season on the sidelines, while fellow tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Danny Woodhead chalked up first downs. Up through Week 17, Vereen had touched the ball 70 times for 400 yards and three scores.
But in the first quarter of Sunday's game, Woodhead left with a thumb injury, according to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Rodak. And consequently, Vereen saw an uptick in playing time.
He did not disappoint.
The California Golden Bear aided the Patriots offense in a manner quite similar to Woodhead. Vereen was a potent option as a pass-catcher out of the backfield and even lined up outside the numbers.
He finished the playoff tilt with five catches for 83 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns, including a spectacular over-the-shoulder snag that gained 33 yards.
He did more than catch Tom Brady's passes, however. He garnered Brady's handoffs. On the ground, Vereen gained 41 yards on seven carries and added a rushing score.
By the end of the evening, Vereen had nearly matched his regular-season total for touchdowns and proved he's a viable option in New England's running back rotation.
Loser: Danny Woodhead
Danny Woodhead was injured on the first play of the Patriots' opening drive and did not return.
New England's shifty third-down back hurt his thumb, and WEEI.com's Christopher Price made a noteworthy observation on Twitter shortly thereafter:
Danny Woodhead leaves with a MONSTER bag of ice on his hand.
— Christopher Price (@cpriceNFL) January 14, 2013
If Woodhead is unable to go for next week's AFC Championship Game, the Patriots will have to rely on Shane Vereen to pick up the slack. Vereen put on an excellent display of versatility Sunday, but Woodhead has been one of Tom Brady's most trusted targets this year.
Winner: Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley has shown he can make a difference against top-tier defenses. And against Houston, the 2011 third-round pick affirmed that notion.
Ridley carried the ball only 15 times but managed to gain 82 yards and jump in for a touchdown. Effective all night, the LSU Tiger averaged 5.5 yards per attempt and also added a catch for 13 yards.
Although he's not racking up the 100-yard games like he was in the first half of the season, Ridley's still keeping defenses honest. If he can continue to balance New England's offense, the team will be in good shape against the feisty Baltimore Ravens next week.
Loser: Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones left Sunday's game in the second quarter and did not return.
According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, the rookie defensive end suffered an ankle injury but left Gillette Stadium without a walking boot. Howe writes:
Jones was limping out of the locker room, and he knew he wasn't returning to the game in the second half when he hurt the ankle, as he stood off to the side away from the defensive subs.
In Week 11, the Syracuse first-round pick suffered a mild high-ankle sprain, per Tom E. Curran of CSNNE.com.
Jones finished the day with two tackles, but his health is what's of the utmost importance right now. New England will have to rely on Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham and Trevor Scott even more so if the injury continues to hamper Jones next week.
Winner: Wes Welker
Against Houston, Wes Welker was not only a force in the underneath passing game, but also in the deep passing game.
The prized slot receiver tallied eight receptions for 131 yards and did so with some added motivation after Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said this last week, per Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com:
He’s a good player, but he’s not that big or a real athletic guy. He’s a quick guy that gets open on option routes.
Welker may not be the most gifted receiver, but he certainly made the plays he needed to make versus the Texans. In the second quarter Sunday, Welker ran down the left sideline and came up with a tremendous 47-yard snag, which set up New England's second touchdown of the game.
On that play, the former undrafted Texas Tech wideout became the Patriots' all-time playoff receptions leader, reports Evan Hilbert of CBSSports.com.
By passing Patriot great Troy Brown with 59 postseason grabs, Welker has now entrenched himself atop the franchise's best.
Loser: The Kickoff Coverage Unit
Houston's Danieal Manning channeled his inner Devin Hester against New England's kickoff coverage unit.
New England's porous coverage was apparent right out of the gate on the opening kickoff, as Manning burst through would-be tacklers for a 94-yard run. And if it weren't for a Benjamin Watson-esque effort out of Devin McCourty, Manning would have scored a touchdown.
The Patriots are typically sound on special teams. But under the lights at Gillette, Houston exploited them for an average kick return of 46 yards.
Winner: Aaron Hernandez
Aaron Hernandez was without his counterpart Rob Gronkowski for the majority of Sunday's showdown, but that didn't hold him back.
Hernandez had a dip in production during the final two weeks of the regular season, combining for just 57 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. But against Houston, the Florida pass-catcher was back in good form.
With Gronkowski out for the remainder of the campaign, a steady output from Hernandez will be vital moving forward.
Winner: Rob Ninkovich
Houston was gaining steam in the third quarter, sitting on the New England 37-yard line and looking to make it a one-score ball game.
Rob Ninkovich had different plans.
The veteran pass-rusher dropped back into coverage and intercepted Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. The Purdue Boilermaker returned the pick six yards and swung the momentum back in New England's favor.
Following the turnover, the Patriots had excellent field position and capitalized with a Brandon Lloyd touchdown. Suddenly, New England was up 31-13.
All season, Ninkovich has stepped up in critical situations. Sunday's battle was no different. By the final whistle, the former practice squad player had collected four tackles, one stop for a loss, two pass deflections, a quarterback hit and of course, an interception.