• PATRIOTS VS. RAVENS / SATURDAY 4:35 P.M. EST
IT'S BECOME chic to bemoan the Patriots' lack of investment at wide receiver—but it's also a misguided notion. In 2013 they signed free agent Danny Amendola to a five-year, $28.5 million deal and used second- and fourth-round picks on Aaron Dobson (Marshall) and Josh Boyce (TCU). So far none of those three has panned out as hoped, but last March, New England signed ex-Panther Brandon LaFell for $9 million, and he has proved trustworthy on the outside.
Sure, these weren't the splashiest acquisitions, but that's largely because the club decided in 2012 to build around its tight ends, signing rising stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to sizable long-term deals, cementing the foundation of a multifaceted dual-end system. The Patriots were blindsided by Hernandez's downfall the following summer, a loss they tried to offset this August by acquiring tight end Tim Wright in the trade that sent six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay. Wright has shown only flashes of success while learning New England's complex timing-based option-route system on the fly. Still, the Patriots, who finished fourth in scoring this season (29.3) and clinched the AFC's top seed before Christmas, continue to base their attack on tight ends—specifically, Gronkowski (page 36).
Perhaps no nonquarterback is more important to his team's offense than the fifth-year pro, who this season caught 82 balls for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns while continuing to become more versatile. In addition to his natural spot on the line of scrimmage, Gronkowski has seen meaningful snaps from the slot, split out wide (including as the lone receiver on the weak side opposite New England's staple trips sets) and in the backfield or in motion, alignments that allow him to showcase his skill as a run blocker.
That last strength has helped the Pats transform into more of a power-running team over the past two years. This season coordinator Josh McDaniels employed six-man lines on more than 10% of his team's plays and featured a litany of old-fashioned man-blocking run plays, like "power" and "counter." Meanwhile, Tom Brady has become excellent at throwing off play-action, an extension of that running game and an increasingly important facet of McDaniels's scheme. Play-action is where this mainly underneath, space-oriented passing attack expands to the intermediate and deep levels—and it's where Brady works the seams with Gronkowski.
It's those downfield strikes to the tight end that opposing coordinators fear most. Throwing off play-action also mitigates the Patriots' lone glaring weakness on offense: pass protection. Left tackle Nate Solder uncharacteristically struggled much of this season. And the line's interior, which was reshuffled early on, got exposed intermittently again in December, as New England allowed eight sacks in the final two games.
Brady, like almost any quarterback, can be rushed into mistakes when he senses pressure, though his polished pocket mechanics usually help offset this. Even more helpful: having the NFL's best tight end to lean on.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRADY)
RICH GRAESSLE/ICON SPORTSWIRE
NEW ENGLAND'S DEFENSE
Two elements spearhead the Patriots' D when it's at its best: the magnificence of cornerback Darrelle Revis in man coverage (expect him to shadow Steve Smith on Saturday) and a healthy Chandler Jones (back from a seven-week hip injury), who gives coach Bill Belichick a pass-rushing piece to use inside or out. Still, New England wouldn't be hosting a divisional-round game if it weren't for inside linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower. Collins, a second-year stud, has the best combination of speed, quickness and burst of any inside backer in the league—and he's getting better every week. Hightower assumed many of the signal-calling and run-stopping duties that belonged to veteran Jerod Mayo (IR, torn patellar tendon) and has evolved into an excellent blitzer. His speed and gap shooting will be critical against Baltimore's zone running.
New England's scoring rank through Week 16. The Pats fell to No. 4 only after resting starters in Week 17.