FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri are gone, but the Patriots have found some new playmakers at their positions.
Jabar Gaffney caught eight passes and Reche Caldwell grabbed five Sunday in New England’s first playoff game since Branch was traded to Seattle. Rookie Stephen Gostkowski was 3-for-3 on fields goals in his first postseason game — and the Patriots first since they lost Vinatieri, one of the NFL’s best clutch kickers.
The Patriots moved ahead in the playoffs with a 37-16 win over the New York Jets: They’ll play at San Diego next Sunday.
Branch, the MVP of the Patriots’ third Super Bowl win two years ago, was traded early this season after a contract holdout. And David Givens, the Patriots second-best receiver last year, signed as a free agent with Tennessee.
But it didn’t matter this week.
“Jabar Gaffney made some key plays,” Caldwell said, who led the Patriots in receptions this season after coming from San Diego as a free agent. “I think we’re just improving each week and it’s showing on Sundays.”
Gaffney had three receptions, all for first downs, on the game’s opening drive that led to Corey Dillon’s 11-yard scoring run. His catches gained 104 yards.
“That was probably his best week of practice all year,” quarterback Tom Brady said of Gaffney, who joined the Patriots this season after being released by Houston. “He was the guy that was singled (on coverage) a lot out there. He really played well in his first playoff game ever.”
So did Gostkowski. He kicked field goals of 20, 40 and 28 yards — the last giving the Patriots a 23-13 lead with four seconds left in the third quarter.
“We don’t bring guys in here that can’t handle the pressure,” second-year Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. “The one thing you can say about all of us is we’re always prepared. Steve has always been prepared. The pressure is there, but we know how to handle it.”
Brady always has been able to do that. He proved it in winning three Super Bowls and being named MVP in two of them.
But this season the only holdover at wide receiver is Troy Brown. Slowly, though, New England has built an effective corps of pass catchers as Caldwell, Gaffney and others have gained more experience with Brady.
“He’s done a great job of picking up the system,” coach Bill Belichick said of Gaffney. “He works as hard as anybody. He’s given us some quality plays this year. I was just happy for him and all of the receivers, the tight ends.”
On the first play from scrimmage Sunday, Brady hit Gaffney for a 12-yard gain. Later in that drive, they connected for gains of 7 and 15 yards. Then Brady and Brown hooked up for a 16-yard gain on third-and-12 one play before Dillon scored.
Amid all the changes in personnel, Brady has been a constant.
“He’s been great all year,” Caldwell said. “When he needs key plays, he makes them, even if he has to run.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“They’re all extremely dangerous,” Mangini said of running backs Dillon, Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk. “Then you mix in the effectiveness of their tight ends and the way they’ve been incorporating the receivers, it’s difficult.”
Patriots fullback Heath Evans enjoyed that from the sidelines or in the backfield where he blocked well for Brady.
“We all know what Tommy’s capable of,” he said. “We all thought we knew what the wide receivers were capable of. So it’s just taken time, but there’s still so much room for improvement. Today was good. Next week’s going to have to be better.”
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
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