When the Patriots received the opening kickoff Saturday against the Broncos, it might have caught some fans off-guard, since it marked just the second time in 17 games New England opened on offense. Going no-huddle on the first series seemed to catch the Broncos off-guard, and showed how efficiently the Patriots can play an up-tempo game.
A team that had dug early holes the last three games of the regular season - deficits of 16-7 at Denver, 17-0 to Miami, and 21-0 to Buffalo - and talked for two weeks about getting off to a faster start needed just five plays and 1 minute, 51 seconds to set the tone with a touchdown.
The no-huddle also gives Sunday’s opponent in the AFC Championship, the Baltimore Ravens, something else to prepare for. The two best defensive players on the Ravens, linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, are 36 and 33 years old, respectively, so a faster pace and the inability to substitute between plays could be worth a try.
“I think it just depends on the game and depends on the situation and depends on how we’re doing, what we’re having success with and what we need to do,’’ said receiver Wes Welker. “Whatever we have to do to move the ball.’’
Any drawbacks to a quicker tempo?
“It tires us out,’’ Welker said, “but at the same time, whatever we have to do to move the ball, that’s what we’re there for.’’
Saturday’s decision to go no-huddle was made, in part, four weeks earlier.
“We had a couple no-huddle series there at the end of the second quarter, start of the third quarter in Denver, and we felt like that gave them a little trouble,’’ said coach Bill Belichick, referring to the Patriots’ 41-23 win in Denver Dec. 18. “It looked like they lost a couple safeties [Saturday] and I’m sure that didn’t help the communication and we were able to press it a bit.’’
Good hands people
Ball security is something emphasized by the coaches each week, and with just five lost fumbles during the regular season, no team did a better job at it than the Patriots (Buffalo, San Francisco, and New Orleans also lost five regular-season fumbles).
But Stevan Ridley has fumbled in each of the past two games: his fumble went out of bounds against Buffalo in the regular-season finale, and his third-quarter fumble in Saturday’s playoff opener was recovered by the Broncos. Are two fumbles in two weeks by a rookie running back cause for concern, good plays by the defense, or something else?
“We’ll continue to emphasize those same things with everybody that handles the ball,’’ said Belichick. “It doesn’t matter who it is.
“It’s important that everybody that handles it use the utmost care in taking care of it so that we have it at the end of the play. That includes everybody and that includes every week and that includes every play. It’s not just an emphasis with one player or one thing - it’s everybody all the time.’’
Said Nick Caserio, director of player personnel: “At times, you have to tip your hat to the defense. [Ravens defensive lineman Haloti] Ngata made a play last week against [Texans running back Arian] Foster where he just tomahawk-chopped the ball out. We’re talking about a 360-pound guy that’s got a lot of force and a lot of pressure to get the ball out.
“It’s our job offensively to make sure we do everything that we can to take care of the football. Everybody around here knows that if they have the ball in their hands, they really have the lifeline of the team in their hands.
“It’s something that you learn from and you move on.’’
In addition to Ridley, quarterback Tom Brady has lost two of his six fumbles, receiver/returner Julian Edelman one of three, and Aaron Hernandez and Matthew Slater both lost their only fumbles. The Patriots have recovered 12 fumbles by opponents.
Patriots playoff trivia: Who holds the franchise record for most career touchdowns in the postseason? (Answer below) . . . Welker, when asked if he has a greater appreciation for getting back to the AFC Championship game: “Yeah, there’s no question. Definitely after the ’07 year, I thought we’d be going to the Super Bowl every year, and that’s just not the way it works. It’s hard to get to a position like this. You definitely have to take full advantage of it and not take it for granted. I’m definitely not going to do that.’’ . . . The Patriots are expected to announce today the second of four honorary captains for Sunday’s game from the 1996 team that lost to the Packers in Super Bowl XXXI. Troy Brown was introduced Monday . . . For every new “like’’ on the Patriots Facebook page until the start of Sunday’s game, the organization will donate 10 cents to the Boys & Girls Club of Massachusetts, up to $100,000 . . . Trivia answer: David Givens appeared in eight playoff games for the Patriots (three in the 2003 season, three in 2004, two in 2005) and caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games, starting with the AFC Championship against Indianapolis on Jan. 18, 2004. His seven touchdowns are two more than Curtis Martin.