Fast Start Is The Key

Ninkovich - Tebow (US Presswire)

Make no mistake, there was no chance for a "Tebow Time" comeback bid by the Broncos last weekend. New England jumped out to a lead and never relented, effectively nullifying any advantage the Broncos may have had in run-based matchups.

Fast start pushes Patriots to title game
The Sports Xchange

   The Patriots have been looking to get off to a fast start and play a full 60-minute football game all season. They did just that last Saturday night in the divisional round domination of the Broncos, using the 45-10 win to catapult into the AFC title game.

   New England (14-3), the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, will host the No. 2 seed Baltimore Ravens Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium looking to advance to the team's fifth Super Bowl since 2001.

   The Patriots' win erased the memory of two one-and-done home postseason losses in each of the last two postseasons. It also extended the team's winning streak to close out 2011 to nine in a row.

   Make no mistake, Tom Brady & Co. are hitting their stride at the right time of year as they prepare to take on a Ravens team that once again sports one of the best defenses in the NFL.

   "I think as a team, we were looking for this all year and what a great time to put it together," Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You cannot ask for a better performance. Not everything was perfect but at the same time the team started fast and finished. That is one thing that we have been preaching all year."

   Brady, who tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes against Denver, admitted the sting of the recent postseason struggles fueled him this time around.

   "It's all about winning. You lose a few playoff games and it's a very bitter way to end the season and it sits on your mind for quite a long time," Brady said. "For us to come out and play the way we did, have a very solid performance in the most important game of the year is very gratifying. (Now) we have the biggest game of the year. From this point on, everyone will be focused on what we need to do to be better next week and hopefully come out and play for another championship."

   LINEUP WATCH: The Patriots clearly will only go as far as the Tom Brady-led passing attack can take the team this postseason. The running game is devolving from complementary committee approach to almost a trick-based afterthought these days. Despite the team carrying six running backs on the 53-man roster, second-year tight end Aaron Hernandez lined up in the backfield on a number of snaps against the Broncos and actually led the team with 61 yards on five carries in the playoff-opening victory. That came while veteran former 1,000-yard rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis had just 28 yards on his 13 attempts and rookie Stevan Ridley fumbled for the second straight game, although New England maintained possession in both cases. New England had an impressive 146 yards on 30 attempts to beat the Broncos, but figuring out the reps and the production in the backfield will be a challenge for the Ravens on Sunday.

   BY THE NUMBERS: 6 - Number of times the Patriots have advanced to the AFC title game in Bill Belichick's 12-year tenure in New England. His team has a 4-1 record in the previous five trips, the only loss coming at the hands of a big Peyton Manning comeback in Indianapolis following the 2006 season. Sunday's action at Gillette Stadium will be the third AFC Championship Game the Patriots have hosted in the last decade, with New England having won the previous two in 2003 (Colts) and 2007 (Chargers).

   --TE Aaron Hernandez left Saturday's win over the Broncos with a head injury, but spoke with reporters after the game and indicated he'd be ready to go for the AFC title game on Sunday.
   --LG Logan Mankins returned to action in the divisional game, with the Pro Bowler starting two weeks after sitting out the season finale with a knee injury. Wearing a brace on his left knee, Mankins played the bulk of the way, save for a couple series in which he was replaced by backup Ryan Wendell.
   --T Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) missed the playoff opener for the Patriots, the sixth straight game he's missed and 11th overall this season.
   --LB Garry Guyton started six games for the Patriots this season and 24 of 32 over the previous two seasons, but he was a healthy scratch for the team's playoff opener against the Broncos.

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