Matt Slocum/AP PhotoNFL- The New England Patriots are going to the AFC championship game, and oddly enough it was done without any TD passes from Tom Brady.
The Patriots came off of their bye week hosting the Indianapolis Colts and QB Andrew Luck who were coming off a seemingly impossible comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs who led 38-10 to open up the second half.
Saturday's game was a different story, however. On the third play from scrimmage, Patriots CB Alfonzo Dennard picked off Andrew Luck on the Colts own 28 yard line and brought it all the way to the Colt's 2 yard line. Barely two minutes into the game, RB LeGarrette Blount punched it in on first and goal from the 2 yard line to put New England up on top 7-0.
The Patriots would add to their lead thanks to a five minute drive that started out on New England's own 26 and was capped by another short Blount to run to put New England up 14-0.
However, a quick strike by Andrew Luck to LaVon Brazil for a 28 yard TD pass on the Colt's next possession to cut the New England lead in half. New England and Indianapolis would trade three and outs towards the end of the first before the Patriots held on to the ball for nearly 7 minutes before Blount was once again able to punch it in and give New England a 21-7 lead.
Midway through the 2nd quarter, the Colts would get inside the New England red zone, but have to settle for a FG from the foot of former Patriot Adam Vinatieri to make it a 21-10 game. The Colts would get two more points on a bizarre play with just over two minutes left in the first half in which Indianapolis got a safety. On Indianapolis' next possession, they were able to move the ball inside the Patriots 40 before Luck was picked off by LB Dont'a Hightower, neutralizing the Colts threat and sending the teams into the locker room with the score 21-12 in favor of New England.
The second half got off to a better start for Indy as the Colts defense held the Pats to a 3 and out on their first possession, then Luck and the Colts offense got as far as the Pats 3 yard line before deciding to settle for a Vinatieri chip shot FG after being unable to punch it in on 3rd and goal from the New England 3. That put Indy within a touchdown, despite the inauspicious start.
The Patriots would start off their next drive pinned back on their own 12 yard line, but Brady connected with Danny Amendola for 53 yards, moving New England our from the shadow of their own goalposts. The Pats offense would get as far as the Colts 22 before a Colts penalty on 3rd and 8 moved the ball to the Indy 5 yard line. To change things up a little, it was Stevan Ridley who would hit paydirt for New England as they went for and got the 2 point conversion- thanks again to Ridley as New England extended their lead to 29-15.
But within the blink of an eye, the Colts made it a one-score game again. Indy started out on their own 20, but quickly moved the ball to New England territory on 2nd and 11 from their won 19 with a 46 yard completion from Luck to WR T.Y. Hilton. On the Very next play, Luck found Brazil again for a 35 yard TD reception to once again pull the Colts to within a TD as it was now a 22-29 game with five minutes to go in the third quarter.
However, whatever momentum the Colts had gained late in the 3rd seemingly evaporated when the Patriots started out with the ball on their own 27 for their first possession in the 4th quarter. On the very first play, it was none other than LaGarrette Blount who ran 73 yards for a TD to make it a 36-22 New England lead. To add to Indy's woes, Luck once again threw an INT deep in the Colts' own territory. After getting the ball back on the Colt's 18, Brady completed to WR Austin Collie for a 15 yard pickup on 3rd and 10, and it would Stevan Ridley to bring it home on 2nd and goal, giving New England the 43-22 lead with more than 11 minutes to go.
The Patriots would go on to win by the final of 43-22 on Saturday and await the winner of the Chargers vs Broncos game to see whether or not they'd host San Diego or travel to Denver for the AFC title game this weekend. New England opened up their ground game and had six rushing TDs- four from Blount and two from Ridley. Blount had 166 yards on 24 carries while Ridley had 52 yards on 14 carries. For the QBs, Brady went 13 for 25 with 198 yards and was sacked twice with no picks or TDs while Luck was 20 for 41 with 331 yards, 2 TDs, 4 interceptions and was sacked three times.
ELSEWHERE IN THE NFL- On Sunday, AFC West foes San Diego and Denver went head-to-head for the third time this season. The last time the Chargers were at Mile High, they stunned the Broncos by beating them 27-20 on Thursday night in Week 15- what would be the first of many 'must win' games for the Bolts if they were to make it to the playoffs.
Sunday's game didn't have quite the same feel as the Broncos shut San Diego out in the first half 14-0. However, after the Broncos added to their lead with a long Prater FG to make it 17-0 in the 3rd, the Chargers showed signs of life- getting on the board thanks to a 16 yard TD pass from QB Phillip Rivers to WR Keenan Allen to make it a 10 point game with 13 minutes to go in regulation.
However, the Broncos came right back and marched the ball down the field from their own 19 thanks to Peyton Manning, former Patriot Wes Welker and pretty big penalty against San Diego. Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno took care of the rest on the drive, getting three straight carries from the Bolts' 24 yard line, including his 3 yard TD run to make it a 24-7 ballgame.
That seemingly put the game out of reach for the Chargers, but with just over 8 minutes to go and starting off on their own 20 Rivers was able to keep the San Diego drive going after connecting with Allen for 49 yards on 4th and 5 from their own 25. Inside the Broncos' red zone, Rivers once again found Allen for a 16 yard TD pass to make it 24-14 with just under 6 minutes to go. To make things even more interesting, San Diego successfully recovered an onside kick at their own 40. Rivers was able to get as close as the Broncos 12 yard line, but on 4th and 5 the Chargers opted to settle for a Nick Novak FG, now making it a one-TD game with 3:53 to go.
In Lieu of another onside kick, the Chargers kicked the ball off and were hoping to corral the Broncos offense before too much time bled off the clock. However, the Broncos were able to successfully convert on 3rd and 17 inside their own 20 and keep the clock moving while forcing San Diego to burn their remaining timeouts. The game was essentially clinched when Moreno picked up a first down on 3rd and 1 on the Chargers 37 with 1:12 remaining and the Broncos would go on to win by a 24-17 final. The win sets up a Brady-Manning rematch for the AFC title game in Denver this weekend. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 PM ET and the game will be televised on CBS.
MEANWHILE, IN THE NFC....- This weekend's NFC title game will be an all NFC West affair as the 49ers bested the Carolina Panthers by a final of 23-10 while the Seattle Seahawks came out of their bye week and beat the New Orleans Saints by a 23-15 final.
This has set up a situation where the Seahawks have blocked ticket sales to credit cards with billing addresses from California in a bid to make the NFL's loudest stadium even more partisan. According to the organization, only buyers from Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, Hawaii, Montana and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta will be authorized to purchase tickets from the team's website and ticket exchange [The Broncos organization has reportedly taken similar measures to block ticket sales to addresses out side of the Rocky Mountain states- NANESB!]
Kickoff for the NFC title game is scheduled for 6:30 PM ET and the game will be televised on FOX.
But the Bruins didn't have to wait long for the tiebreaker as Brad Marchand got the go ahead goal exactly two minutes later. After that, Milan Lucic broke a ten game streak without a goal with a power play tally 15:46 into the 3rd. However, Jamie Benn made it once again a 1-goal game with less than 90 seconds to go (ex-Bruin Tyler Seguin was credited with an assist) making it 3-2. However, the Stars would pull Keri Letonen for the extra attacker, but Patrice Bergeron would seal the game for Boston by a final of 4-2 thanks to an empty-netter with sixteen seconds remaining.
Chad Johnson got the start between the pipes for Boston and turned aside 32 of 34 shots faced while Kari Lehtonen stopped 37 of 40 that he faced. Boston was 1 for 4 on the power play while Dallas went 1 for 6 with the man advantage.
The season series between Dallas and Boston is evened up at 1 game apiece, with the Stars winning in OT back in November. From the Lone Star State, the Bruins will travel to the Windy City for a rematch of last season's Stanley Cup finals. Puck drops at 12:30 ET on Sunday afternoon and the game will be televised on NBC and the NHL Network for Canadian viewers.
MLB- The Los Angeles Dodgers and starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw have agreed to a 7 year deal worth more than $215 million, avoiding arbitration. The deal is said to be the most lucrative deal involving a single pitcher and the estimated $30 million annual salary for Kershaw will reportedly be the highest in the MLB.
Kershaw had a 16-9 record last season with a 1.83 ERA and won the NL Cy Young award in 2011 and 2013.
RED SOX- The Boston Red Sox and catcher AJ Pierzynski have agreed to terms on a 1 year, $8.25 million contract. After making his MLB debut with the Minnesota twins in 1998, Pierzynski played a single season for the San Francisco Giants before joining the Chicago White Sox from 2005 to 2012. Last season, Pierzynski and the Texas Rangers agreed to a 1 year contract and the veteran catcher hit .272 with 17 homers and 70 RBI in 134 games. The deal comes after Jarrod Saltalamacchia became a free agent and signed a 3-year, $21 million contract with the Miami Marlins.