Patriots’ Chris Hogan is back healthy just in time
FOXBOROUGH — Chris Hogan was looking to make an impact in his return to the Patriots lineup last week against the Titans.
Nobody felt that impact more than Wesley Woodyard.
Early in the second quarter, Tom Brady hit Dion Lewis with a screen pass, and as Lewis turned upfield, Woodyard was drawing a bead on him. What the Tennessee linebacker didn’t know was that Hogan was drawing a bead on him.
As Woodyard approached Lewis, Hogan flattened Woodyard with a textbook shoulder-to-shoulder block.
“Yeah, that helped me get back in the swing of things,’’ said Hogan, the blow a clear sign that he had recovered from the shoulder problems that kept him out of seven of the previous eight games.
The block helped spring Lewis for a couple of extra yards, and four plays later the Patriots took a 14-7 lead and never looked back in the divisional-round win.
Hogan caught just one pass in the game — a 4-yard touchdown from Brady in the second quarter — but it was obvious he was back up to speed as he was on the field for 83 percent of the offensive snaps and played another eight on special teams.
It had been a frustrating stretch for Hogan, who was building on what had been a breakout season in 2016 before getting hurt in Week 8 against the Chargers. Though he returned in Week 14 against the Dolphins, Hogan lacked his normal zip, and he ended up sitting out the final three regular-season games.
“I’ve never been hurt before like that. I’ve never missed this many games,’’ said Hogan, who celebrated his first score since Week 5 by flinging the ball deep into the stands. “At first it was frustrating not be out there on the field. You put a lot into this. To miss those games and not be out there with the guys is definitely frustrating.’’
Hogan didn’t spend much time sulking. Instead, he focused on getting back to 100 percent physically and staying 100 percent involved mentally.
“Once you kind of get over that frustration, you do whatever you can to a) get yourself better and back on the field and b) just making sure you’re kind of in tune with everything that’s going on. Whether that’s being in meetings, being attentive, watching film. You kind of put yourself visually in those situations so when you’re back out there on the field, you try to feel you haven’t missed that much time.’’
That was a sound strategy as Hogan said he got back into the groove quickly. It’s possible Hogan could have returned sooner — he even earned practice player of the week honors in Week 16 — but the safer bet was to keep him sidelined for the postseason run.
Now Hogan gets to play in his second straight AFC Championship game. He starred last year, collecting 180 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Steelers.
Kraft flies home
Robert Kraft said on Saturday night’s edition of “Patriots All Access” that he flew home from Florida after hearing about Brady’s hand injury at Wednesday’s practice.
The Patriots owner was asked if his heart skipped a beat when he received the news.
“More than my heart,’’ he said. “I was in Florida for a day and a half and I was out at a restaurant and I got a call from my favorite quarterback. FaceTime. Saw his situation. So then I got up here quickly to see firsthand. I saw him throw a few out at practice and it made me feel a lot better. But it’s still a challenge. It was unfortunate . . . So now we hope for the best. He’s a real competitor, as we all know. We have a pretty good balanced team. Sometimes these issues help you bring a team together.’’
Praise for Chung
One line from Bill Belichick’s Friday morning news conference that slipped under the radar was his praise of versatile defender Patrick Chung.
“The guy is a really good football player,’’ said the coach. “He’s one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team. He does a lot of things very well and has done them that way for a long time. We’re lucky to have him. He’s an outstanding player in all the things that he does. We put a lot on him, and he always comes through.’’
In his ninth season, the 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound Chung has a unique skill set that allows him to line up in multiple spots and cover multiple positions. Chung draws varied assignments not just from game to game or series to series, but from down to down.
He has the quickness to cover slot receivers effectively and the wiry strength to give tight ends fits. Certainly facing the challenge of covering Rob Gronkowski year in and year out helps with that.
Chung and fellow safety Devin McCourty are two of the surest and hardest-hitting tacklers in the league.
McCourty said Chung’s speed and strength are obvious, but he also said his knowledge of the Patriots’ defense is key to his value and versatility.
“His understanding when he’s in different roles how he needs to play, what he needs to do — I think allows him to take on a lot for us defensively, and whatever different package it is he usually is playing a different role . . . so, [there’s] a lot on him,” said McCourty.” I think a good thing is we all try to figure it out together. Whether it’s me, him or me, him and Duron [Harmon]. On whatever those roles are, we make sure we all kind of play to our strengths.’’
Happy to be here
Linebacker James Harrison said Friday he hadn’t touched base with any of his former Steelers teammates after their loss to Jacksonville, but he took no extra pleasure in getting to face the Jaguars. “I’m just happy that we’re here to play against somebody,’’ Harrison said. He believes he knows the key to Sunday’s game. “I think the big thing we need to do is try and slow down the run game,’’ Harrison said. “That way it’ll slow down [Blake] Bortles’s ability to do play-action passes. They get a lot of their yards from play-action passes.’’ . . . In the wake of Brady’s hand injury, honorary captain Drew Bledsoe joked that he’d be “ready” if needed on Sunday. “I’ll borrow one of [Julian] Edelman’s No. 11s and go out there and sling it around,’’ the 45-year-old said. “I figure I got one or two good plays in me, and that’s about it.’’
The Patriots are 21-4 at home in the playoffs, including 2-0 against the Jaguars . . . The Patriots had the No. 1 overall offense (394.2 yards per game), while the Jaguars had the No. 1 rushing offense (141.4) in the regular season . . . Brady is 5-0 vs. Jacksonville.