By HOWARD ULMAN
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.— It’s a bad time for the New England Patriots to allow points late in halves and long kickoff returns throughout the game.
Fix that fast or the Baltimore Ravens and speedster Jacoby Jones could run them right out of the postseason.
The Patriots advanced to Sunday’s AFC championship game with a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans despite giving up kickoff returns of 94 and 69 yards — the longest against them this season. They won even though they allowed 10 points in the last 1:15 of the first half and 15 points in the last 12 minutes of the game.
The Ravens moved on with a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos after Jones caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco with 31 seconds left in regulation.
That’s the same Jones who led the NFL in average kickoff return yardage (30.7) and brought back two of them for touchdowns. Yep, the same guy who drew a defensive pass interference call at the Patriots’ 7-yard line in Week 3, setting up Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal on the final play. Baltimore (12-6) won that game, 31-30.
New England (13-4) can’t afford another loss.
So coach Bill Belichick is emphasizing, as he does every week, the need to stop kickoff returners and keep teams from scoring with time running out in either half.
“We always think that the end of the half can get a little different than the rest of the game because of situational play,” he said Tuesday. “Also, sometimes offensively, teams change their method of attack and what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and that kind of thing. So you have to adapt and adjust to what they do.
“We have to do what we’re doing better. It’s definitely a point of emphasis and I’m sure it will be important in this game. We’ll definitely work on it.”
The problem is one of poor execution rather than a lack of effort, Belichick said.
“We were trying to do the right things and we did some things that were good, but then we did some other things that weren’t as good as they need to be,” he said. “Houston was able to take advantage of some of the things we were doing.”
The same problem of late scores surfaced in two of the Patriots four losses.
They led the Ravens 30-21 on Sept. 23 then allowed 10 points in the last five minutes. Three weeks later, they led the Seattle Seahawks 23-10 then gave up two touchdowns in the last 7 minutes and lost 24-23.
The Patriots won their next seven games before the twin troubles came together in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. The Patriots had rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie the game at 31 with 6:43 left in the game.
But LaMichael James returned the kickoff 62 yards, Colin Kaepernick threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play and the Patriots couldn’t recover.
“We face good returners every week,” Belichick said. “It’s always a huge point of emphasis for us but it will continue to be. (You) just can’t put a team in that kind of field position consistently and that’s what we did (against Houston).”
Those long runbacks against the Patriots are rare. They allowed the third fewest average yards (20.5) on kickoff returns this season. But against Houston, they gave up a 35-yarder along with the 94- and 69-yard runbacks, all by Danieal Manning. Those led to 17 points.
“Overall, that’s been probably as consistent as anything we’ve done as a football team for the entire season,” Belichick said. “Of course, it’s disappointing. Those are plays that you don’t want to happen, certainly not three of them in one game.”
But the Patriots are confident they can recover in time for the game that stands between them and a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
“It’s very important,” unusually subdued special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We know we need to perform better. We can’t put our defense in bad situations. … We’ve got to prepare for Jacoby and we know how good he is and what he’s capable of.
“So I’m confident we’ll have it fixed.”
How, at this late stage in the season, can the Patriots do that?
“You go back to the basics,” Slater said. “Go back to the fundamentals and the rules that we have as coverage players, just doing our job better and doing our assignments better. It’s been a strength for us this season.”
That season is more likely to end if they keep giving up long kickoff returns and late-game points. The Patriots would prefer to finish games the way they did in last year’s 23-20 win over the Ravens for the AFC championship on the same field where they’ll meet Sunday.
Baltimore took the ball at its 21-yard line with 1:44 left and made it all the way to a second-and-1 at the New England 14 with 27 seconds remaining. A field goal would tie the game. But the Patriots met the challenge as Sterling Moore broke up two passes before Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.
“There’s a good history of the two teams playing against each other,” New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “You’re going to try to analyze all that and take a look at it and see what you can come up with that will hopefully help put you in a successful situation for the weekend.”