Week 17 Risers and Fallers: Tight ends carry the offense to top seed

For the first 15 minutes, the Patriots played like a team with nothing to play for.

Luckily there was another 45 minutes to make up for their atrocious start.

With a porous pass defense rearing its ugly head and Tom Brady and the offense struggling to establish a rhythm, the Pats found themselves in an ironic 21-0 hole against the Bills.

In week three, the Patriots jumped out to a 21-0 lead of their own before the defense collapsed and surrendered 34 points in a three-point loss.

On Sunday, it was New England who would stage the comeback.

Thanks in part to a horrendous second half by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and a record-setting day by Rob Gronkowski and his counterpart Aaron Hernandez, the Pats scored an unprecedented 49 unanswered points to secure the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Let’s take a look at this week’s risers and fallers.

Risers

1. Rob Gronkowski: As a rookie, Gronk grabbed 10 touchdowns but didn’t earn a Pro Bowl nod. This year, he put up arguably the most dominant season by a tight end in history. The 2011 Pro Bowl starter edged out fellow Pro Bowler and second-year man Jimmy Graham with an NFL-record 1,327 receiving yards and scored twice to establish a new single-season record for tight ends with 17 receiving TDs. Lost in the mix is Gronkowski’s dominance as a blocker which separates him from guys like Graham and Antonio Gates who are essentially bulked up receivers.

2. Aaron Hernandez: If Gronkowski is Batman, then Hernandez is Robin. The speedier hybrid receiver/tight end put on a performance that proved why he should have been named a Pro Bowler over Gates. Last year’s fourth-rounder ate the Bills alive with eight catches for 138 yards and a score. The former Gator displays rare after-the-catch abilities and is too athletic for linebackers to cover in the open field. The former Gator finished the year with a 79/910/7 line despite playing on an offense with Gronk and Wes Welker.

3. Stevan Ridley: The changing of the guard is here. The third-rounder from LSU has established himself as the go-to guy, drawing the start and leading the running backs in snaps, attempts and yards. Despite being pegged as a fullback when he ran a 4.66 at the combine, Ridley has proven to play much faster than his timed speed. The slasher led the team with 81 yards on 15 carries and finished the year with 441 on just 87 carries (5.1 average). Because of his size and ability to gain yards after contact, Ridley should play a significant role in the playoffs.

4. Ball skills: The much maligned pass defense surrendered 296 passing yards to the mediocre Fitzpatrick, but there were some plays to hang your hat on. After a horrific first quarter, the Pats buckled down for the most part and did something that they had struggled with all season – make plays on the ball. Rookie Sterling Moore snagged two interceptions and returned one for a score, and Devin McCourty and Antwaun Molden also picked off Fitzpatrick. Jerod Mayo also made an impressive play in man coverage, batting a ball away near the sidelines as he ran downfield to cover a running back.

Fallers

1. Kyle Arrington: The team’s leader in interceptions would do best to forget yesterday’s performance. He surrendered an 18-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson and was beaten for a 29-yard gain by Derek Hagan. He was replaced and outplayed in the second half by Moore.

2. Whoever played in the first quarter: It was a total embarrassment. Against average or below-average teams like the Dolphins and Bills, the Pats can afford to get off to a slow start. In two weeks, that won’t be the case. The playoffs are a totally different ballgame and if the Ravens game in ’09 taught us anything, a fast start can be the key to putting the game away. New England needs to play good football for 60 minutes, not 45, if they hope to make a title run.

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