It was the second that saved the New England Patriots undefeated season, and it came right before the two-minute warning. The Patriots led 24-23, but the New York Giants were on the doorstep, inside the ten-yard line. With 2:06 to play, Eli Manning lofted a pass to Odell Beckham in the left corner of the end zone. Beckham had the ball, failed to maintain control, and the pass was incomplete—with 2:01 left on the clock.
The fact Beckham was unable to maintain possession long enough for the touchdown to count was big enough, but the fact the clock didn’t reach the two-minute warning was significant at the time and would ultimately be game-deciding. The whole reason behind throwing the ball with 2:06 left is that you assume even with an incompletion, the clock is going to stop at the two-minute mark. Instead, the Patriots saved a timeout.
After the Giants settled for a field goal and a 26-24 lead, that was the difference. Tom Brady drove the Patriots to the very fringe of field-goal range, to the 37, where Stephen Gotkowski nailed a 54-yard field goal to win the game.
I’m going to assume the home team controls the clock—logic would tell you the NFL would have a neutral party do it, but this exorbitantly rich league does everything on the cheap—so in that light, can Giants coach Tom Coughlin pin the loss on the clock keeper? Not that stopping it at 2:01 was a mistake, but what happened to a little old-fashioned home-cookin’? Coughlin might need to give his clock operator a Michael Corleone-esque “Don’t ever take sides against the family—ever”, kind of speech this morning.
On a more substantive note, every time I watch the Patriots, two conflicting thoughts run through my mind—the first is that I just don’t see how this team goes undefeated and they look highly vulnerable to the other top teams. The offensive line is a wreck, thanks to injuries. Jamie Collins is out at linebacker. Now Julian Edelman is out, with foot surgery that may cost him the balance of the regular season.
The loss of Edelman clearly affected the rhythm of the New England passing game, but when the money was on the table, Brady still delivered. Which leads me to the second of the two conflicting thoughts—every time I watch the Patriots, no matter who they’re playing, I assume they’ll find a way to win. If you could do surgery on a football team, you would open this one up and just find a soulless machine inside. They just keep churning.
Brady is doing what Aaron Rodgers, at least the few weeks, has been unable to, and that’s compensate for injuries on the offensive line and to his favorite receiver. That brings us to the slumping Packers and its two-time MVP quarterback. Rodgers appears to have a case of “happy feet” going right now, or the “yips” or whatever psychological term you want to affix to it.
The Green Bay defense did its job yesterday against Detroit, yet the Packers somehow managed to lose a game that one of the worst teams in the NFL did everything in its power to give away. It’s turned next Sunday’s Packers-Vikings game up in Minneapolis into a big-time showdown. I’m looking forward to see this Viking team play—I haven’t seen them since the opening Monday Night debacle in San Francisco.
The Vikes have a head coach, an organization and a quarterback that’s all clearly coming on, and it will fun to see how far they’ve gotten against the team that’s been the NFC North standard-bearer in this decade.
The rhetoric about the New England Patriots going undefeated this season is gaining steam. We’re told that the anger the organization in general and Tom Brady in particular feel about the whole Deflategate saga is fueling the Patriots the way Spygate did in 2007, when they went 16-0. That may be true—in fact, I’m sure it is true—but can we cool it on the 16-0 talk? This team still has holes that make such a run unlikely.
Let’s start with the secondary. Reviewing the grades at Pro Football Focus, a source relied on by 19 NFL teams and where every player is graded on every play, the Patriots have significant issues with their defensive backs. Patrick Chung and Tarell Brown have been liabilities. Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl hero last February, has real promise as a long-term starter at corner, but has also had his ups and downs in the first three weeks. Devin McCourty is the only rock of consistency.
How about we move to the run defense? The Patriots’ defensive front gets mostly poor grades against the run, including Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones on the edge of the 4-3 scheme. The linebackers, Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower aren’t doing the job against the run.
Moving over to the other side of the line of scrimmage, that young offensive line is going through growing pains. While Sebastian Vollmer is having a great year, the rest of the group is up and down.
These are a lot of flaws if we’re even discussing another Super Bowl trophy, much less an undefeated season. The sheer greatness of Tom Brady covers a lot of flaws—he gets rid of the football quickly and with precision to protect that young offensive line. Putting up all those points prevents opposing offenses from running the ball and really exploiting the defensive problems. The greatness of Bill Belichick finds ways to get edges for the defense and steal stops that talent alone wouldn’t otherwise do.
All of those are reasons we can pencil New England in for another ho-hum 12 wins, an AFC East title and being one contender to win the Super Bowl. They are not sufficient to elevate the Patriots head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league and certainly not enough to talk about running the table. As great as Brady is, you can’t throw a team to victory every single week.
I like the Patriots—while the Redskins are my primary team, New England is what I call my oasis of sanity in the football world. Can I suggest an alternate focus for Patriot fans—take the period on the schedule between now and the end of November to focus on just letting the rest of the team surrounding Brady to develop and grow, while continuing to get separation from the rest of the AFC East.
This period on the schedule includes road games with the Cowboys & Colts (neither looking as tough as they did at the start of the season) and more potent road tests at the Giants and the Broncos. The visit to Denver is a Sunday Night on November 29. If New England comes out of that game at 11-0, then let’s talk about the undefeated season.
Simply pointing to the greatness of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is not enough. They were great from 2005-13 (save for ’08 when Brady was hurt), but they often struggled defensively and didn’t win a Super Bowl in that timeframe. Last year, with Darrelle Revis on the corner, they did. Whether this edition of the defense improves sufficiently is going to determine if this is “only” another really good Patriots edition or if it’s going to win a Super Bowl.
The scam that was Deflategate spared New England from any complacency that might have set in after finally getting their fourth Super Bowl ring for Brady and Belichick. Let that be enough for now, and put the undefeated talk on the backburner.
One of the many proofs that I need to get a life is that I was speculating on who the New England Patriots would play in the NFL’s 2015 Thursday night opener, where the Super Bowl champion plays at home. Even worse, is that this is also now a tradition for me, guessing how the league will schedule this game.
So in honor of the fact that it’s a slow time in sports before March Madness, and I obviously have too much time on my hands, we’ll take a look at who the New England Patriots Thursday night opponent might be.
The opponents for each team are established by a pre-determined formula and known as soon as the previous regular season ends. Here’s who we know the Patriots will play in 2015, though the sequence is obviously not yet determined…
*The usual home-and-home with their three AFC East rivals (Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets)
*Everyone in the AFC South (Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans)
*The two other AFC division winners from 2014 (Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers)
*Everyone in the NFC East (Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Washington Redskins)
Here’s how I would break down the likelihood of each team being chosen to be the Patriots’ foil for the season-opener in Foxboro…
THE MARQUEE FAVORITES
Denver Broncos: Any time you can get Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the same field, it’s a leading candidate. The relative age of both quarterbacks could also work in favor of putting this game earlier in the schedule. Last year, Peyton had a bad quad that restricted him the last six weeks and in the playoffs. Who knows what could happen to him, Brady or any quarterback pushing 40 and playing a long season
Indianapolis Colts: This is the big X-factor game. It’s got a natural appeal, as a possible changing-of-the-guard game with Andrew Luck and Brady. And it’s a rematch of the AFC Championship Game. But on the flip side, I can’t imagine the NFL wanting to bring more publicity to Deflate-Gate. It’s going to happen anyway when these teams play, but if you make it the prime-time opener, you’re asking for months of hype on a topic the NFL wants to see disappear
VERY STRONG CANDIDATES
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are similar to the Packers of last year being chosen to go to Seattle. There’s no huge rivalry between the Patriots and Steelers (I know fans on both sides have some bad blood from their AFC Championship Games of 2001 and 2004, but that’s been a long time). But this is also the kind of game it would be easy to get fired up for, much like Packers-Seahawks.
Dallas Cowboys: Even when the Cowboys weren’t very good they got chosen for this spot, opening with the New York Giants in 2012. Now that they’re coming off a 12-win season, how much more attractive will Tony Romo, Demarco Murray & Co. will be.
New York Giants: The Super Bowl history of the Giants and Patriots would normally put this possibility on the front line of possibilities, especially with the Thursday night opener having a strong Super Bowl theme. But with New York looking in disarray the last couple years and the franchise’s ownership being powerful in the NFL, I can see them talking their way out of making Eli Manning put his struggling career on display so quickly in the season.
Buffalo Bills: Rex Ryan is in Buffalo now, putting this possibility in play. Also, recall that the Bills came to Foxboro in 2009 as part of the season-opening Monday Night doubleheader and played a thrilling game where Brady had to throw two late touchdown passes to avert an upset.
Houston Texans: The league could showcase J.J. Watt going against Tom Brady. You could do worse when it comes to TV appeal.
Philadelphia Eagles: Had the Eagles made the playoffs, they would be one line higher. But with Philly having faded in December and facing quarterback uncertainty, this possibility is now a stretch
POSSIBLE BUT NOT LIKELY
Miami Dolphins: The division rival who’s played New England the most competitively in recent years, but it’s not a matchup that really moves the needle nationally. There’s some precedent for this type of game—the Redskins were chosen to go play the New York Giants in 2008 and Pats-Dolphins would be a similar game. But I can’t see it
New York Jets: If Rex were still on the sideline and the Jets at least competitive, a New York-Boston battle could go all the way to the front line. Now it’s highly unlikely. The only possible reason would be the New York-Boston combination and the possibility the NFL would want to showcase a new African-American head coach in Todd Bowles.
Washington Redskins: I can’t see this happening. The only rationale would be if someone in the league office believes RG3 is going to comeback strong and wants to pit him against Brady. But Griffin could lose the job in training camp and in either case, that’s a lot that has to happen.
If the NFL really had guts, they would schedule this game for Thanksgiving Night. An old joke is that when the Pilgrims came to America, the first Thanksgiving football game was between Redskins and Patriots. But the politically correct crowd would go nuts and see it as an opportunity for more fundraising and publicity.
Jacksonville Jaguars & Tennessee Titans
The only way either of these happen is if whomever does the schedule is drinking heavily prior to making the decision.
So who’s it going to be? I’m going to follow the NFL’s model of last year where they eschewed the two obvious favorites to go to Seattle (Denver & San Francisco) and went for a team that still had plenty of marquee value. I’ll guess that we open the 2015 NFL season with the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.
The place in history for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady elevated even higher last night in Phoenix, as he won his fourth Super Bowl ring. In the aftermath of the Patriots’ thrilling 28-24 win over the Seahawks, let’s ask this—is Brady now the greatest quarterback of all time?
I’ll start by conceding that this is a question that takes an entire book, not a single blog post to try and answer. The problems with making “best QB ever” decisions are numerous. In no sport is statistical data less reliable as a point of comparison than in football. The rule changes constantly make passing easier and to try and compare Brady with, say, Johnny Unitas simply doesn’t work.
Football is also a highly dependent sport. In no other game does your supporting cast matter more—you’re one player out of 22 on the field. You’re only on the field for roughly half the game. There’s a myriad of issues such as offensive line protection, receiver capability, coaching and system and how much defensive help you get that impact your success—both statistically and as a team.
I often wonder if the complexity of evaluating the quarterback position is why so many people just try to reduce it to wins and losses. Picking the best quarterback is often more a question of art than of science—subjective perception is more reliable than numbers.
But it’s still a fun conversation to have, and Brady’s case is exceptionally compelling. I think most people would agree that quarterbacks should be evaluated on some combination of their own personal production, the quality of their supporting cast and how many rings they got, with the debate being among how much weight goes to each one.
Brady is perhaps the only quarterback who can unite all three elements. Here’s why…
*The four rings are the most obvious. He’s tied with Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelersand Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers. But Brady has also been to two additional Super Bowls, thereby marking him the greatest postseason winner among quarterbacks.
*From 2005 to about 2011, the Patriot defense really was not very good, with the one exception being the undefeated regular season of 2007. New England still stayed not only in contention, but among the league’s elite through those years. Most notable would be 2011 when Brady dragged one of the worst defenses in the NFL to within a play of winning the Super Bowl.
*Brady has really not enjoyed top-caliber wide receivers. New England hasn’t invested in the draft or free agency in this area throughout his career. Among other elite quarterbacks, Brett Favre is the only one I can think of who played as much of his career without a top wideout.
This was most apparent in 2006, when Brady took an awful receiving corps and got his team to within a play of winning the AFC Championship, a year they would also have been heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl.
The one notable exception to this pattern was 2007, when the Patriots did invest in bringing Randy Moss to Foxboro. Brady’s response? Merely to rewrite the record book, win the MVP, lead his team to an unprecedented 16-0 regular season and come within a fluke play of winning the Super Bowl.
This is the case, in a nutshell, for Tom Brady as the best quarterback ever. If you want to talk about lifting a questionable supporting cast, he’s in the conversation with John Elway, Brett Favre and Dan Marino. If you want to talk about rings, he’s in the conversation with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw. There’s no facet of this debate that a supporter of Tom Brady can’t hold their own in.
For me personally, I go back and forth between Elway and Brady in this debate. Right now though, after watching a fourth-quarter rally against the league’s best defense and making history, I’m feeling prisoner of the moment and will say Tom Brady as the top quarterback of all time.
The New England Patriots were an organization transformed in the early half of the ‘00s. The Patriots had been mostly dysfunctional irrelevant until their fortunes turned with the hiring of head coach Bill Belichick and the surprise development of sixth-round draft pick Tom Brady at quarterback.
New England made a surprise run to win the Super Bowl in 2001, an upset of the heavily favored St. Louis Rams. Two years later they won it again, beating Carolina. The 2004 New England Patriots came into the season riding a 15-game winning streak.
It was not a team loaded with Pro Bowl talent, but Brady had a good running back in Corey Dillon, who finished with over 1,600 yards on the ground. The defense was led by Richard Seymour on the line, Tedy Bruschi at linebacker and had notable players in linebackers Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest, plus strong safety Rodney Harrrison, currently a commentator on NBC’s Football Night In America each Sunday.
As the Super Bowl champ, New England hosted the NFL’s Thursday night opener and with the Indianapolis Colts as the opponent, the league was happy to showcase a Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown to start the season. The game didn’t disappoint, as Manning threw for 256 yards, while Brady outgunned him with 335 and a 27-24 win. New England went to Arizona ten days later for another win, took a week off and then beat Buffalo.
At this point in the season, even given how dominant the Patriots were, and how dominant the NFL is as far as popularity, the football team took a back seat to what was going on with the 2004 Boston Red Soxin the baseball season.
A Patriots’ win over the Miami Dolphins was sandwiched in between the Red Sox’ clinching of the Division Series and beginning of what would be a historic American League Championship Series battle with the New York Yankees. One week later, a New England victory over the Seattle Seahawks kept local fans distracted, as they waited for the Sunday night Game 4 between the Red Sox-Yankees that would start the last push to a World Series title. And the week following, the Pats knocked off the New York Jets on the Sunday afternoon leading up to Game 2 of the World Series, as everyone wondered if Curt Schilling’s ankle could hold up.
Of these three wins that took place in the shadow of the Green Monster, the victory over the Jets was the biggest. New York was a team that would make the playoffs by season’s end and the Patriot win streak was at 20 games coming in. There were no points scored in the first half. Brady would ultimately be able to complete 20-of-29 passes and get 290 yards out of them, while Dillon rushed for 115. Pennington completed 19-of-30, a decent percentage, but good for only 162 yards. New England won 13-7 and hit blackjack, as the win streak landed on 21.
Halloween Sunday saw New England puts its winning streak on the line against the Pittsburgh Steelers. After three straight subpar years, the Steelers were back as a contender behind rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a stout running game with Jerome Bettis and tough offensive line and the swarming defense they’ve become known for.
The Patriots had won in Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship Game in 2001, but this was the Steelers’ day. After an early Vinateri field goal, Roethlisberger hit Plaxico Burress with consecutive touchdown passes and then a Brady interception came back to the house, putting New England in a 21-3 hole. The Pats only got 15 rush yards, while Roethlisberger was an efficient 18/24 for 196 yards and zero picks. Pittsburgh had out-Patrioted the Patriots, as I create a new verb. The 34-20 final was never really close and New England could only hope for another chance.
One week later the Pats were in St. Louis. The Rams were no longer the juggernaut who’d been such a prohibitive favorite in the ’01 Super Bowl, but they would make the playoffs this year (albeit at 8-8 in a year where the NFC bracket resembled a minor college bowl game, with three .500 teams). For the second straight week, the Pats allowed a defensive touchdown, as Brady fumbled in the end zone. But they led 19-14 at half and eventually opened it up to win 40-22.
Consecutive wins over Buffalo, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City followed, as the Pats took advantage of a soft schedule stretch to put away the AFC East and keep themselves in position for a first-round playoff bye.
Pittsburgh had only one loss, and both San Diego and Indianapolis, on their way to division titles, were in hot pursuit. New England needed to at least hold the two-seed. On a Monday Night Game in Miami five days before Christmas, the Patriots blew a 28-17 lead late in the fourth quarter. After a Miami touchdown cut it to 28-23, Brady threw an interception on third down, an almost unbelievable mistake from a quarterback of his caliber and in a situation where the Fish still needed to go the distance to win. Given a short field, the Dolphins scored the game-winning touchdown.
New England recovered to win a big game at the Jets, 26-7 and at least secure the #2 seed—Pittsburgh would finish at 15-1—so it turns out any shot at homefield was gone on Halloween even if no one realized it. The season finale was a 21-7 win over San Francisco.
Now it was playoff time. Because the 2002 Pats had missed the postseason, the coach/QB combo of Belichick and Brady was 6-0 in the playoffs and got ready for their time of year again.
After New England’s week off, the NFL had the playoff matchup it wanted—the rematch of the September 9 season opener of New England-Indianapolis Peyton brought his Colts into Foxboro on a miserable, windy day.
I was living in Pittsburgh at the time and the weather was even worse there, as we were completely snowed in and all I had besides the NFL playoffs to keep me awake was the crazy lady next door who kept shouting threats at me by name. Who knows, maybe she was a Yankee fan who hadn’t gotten over it.
Anyway, the New England defense completely shut down Indy, to the point the Colts griped at the amount of physical play allowed in the secondary—something they, as a finesse-oriented team, couldn’t really capitalize on. The teams traded field goals in the second quarter and in the third Brady found receiver David Givens on a 15-yard scoring play.
A 13-3 lead looked close to insurmountable although the quarterback scored one more time on a sneak. New England outrushed Indianapolis 210-46, committed zero turnovers and forced four of their own, including two picks of Manning (albeit one, with 12 seconds left). A victory formula had unfolded before the country’s eyes.
The same formula went with New England to Pittsburgh, although in better conditions this week, so the passing games could open up a little more. After a Vinateri field goal started the scoring, Brady went over the top and found Deion Branch on a 60-yard touchdown strike.
After a Steeler field goal, Brady again went long, hitting Givens from 39 and making it 17-3. The Steelers were driving right back down the field. Roethlisberger threw to the sideline near the 10-yard line. Harrison stepped in front of the receiver picked off the pass and cruised into an open field. 87 yards later the much-hyped AFC title game—the first time ever two teams playing prior to the Super Bowl had a combined 29 regular season wins—was all but over.
Pittsburgh did its best to come back from the 24-3 deficit. The closest they got was 31-17 early in the fourth quarter. With a fourth down on the New England 3, Steeler coach Bill Cowher settled for a field goal. Steeler fans were furious that he’d left it a two-score game, but what was more revealing was that the coach apparently didn’t think he could keep Brady from putting more points on the board and that at least another field goal would be necessary. It proved to be correct, because the Patriots did add three more points with eight minutes left and won 34-20.
The Philadelphia Eagles had come out of the NFC, a long-sought win for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles after having lost each conference championship game from 2001-03. At 13-3, the Eagles were the only NFC team who could reasonably hope to even make the second round of the AFC playoffs.
McNabb’s primary target was Terrell Owens, a controversial receiver, but still productive. And playing on a badly injured leg, Owens was about to turn into a Schilling-esque performance that would lack everything but the visibility of the bloody sock and ultimate victory at the end. Owens, with doctors imploring him not to play, caught nine passes for 122 yards and was the only consistent offensive threat the Birds had.
But Philly could play defense themselves and there was no score after one quarter and the teams swapped TDs in the second quarter. The folks of Jacksonville had a good game for their first go-around hosting a Super Bowl.
The third quarter was more of the same. Brady flipped a two-yard TD pass to Vrabel, who was known to line up as a receiver-eligible in the goal-line package. McNabb came back and threw a touchdown pass to versatile back Brian Westbrook and the game went to the fourth quarter tied 14-14.
But the formula was holding up—McNabb would throw three interceptions on the day and the Eagles would lose a fumble, while the Patriots had just one turnover. Brady was efficient at 23-for-33 with 236 yards and no mistakes. Eleven of those catches were by Branch, on his way to game MVP honors.
A two-yard run by Dillon put the Pats on top and Vinateri added a field goal with 8:43 left. The Eagles got the ball with five minutes left and eventually scored, but the conducted themselves so cavalierly on the drive and used up so much time that even Belichick—according to biographer David Halberstam—asked an assistant to confirm that it was indeed a two-score game. It was sarcasm to be sure, but it reflected what fans were thinking as we watched the casual drive.
New England was able to mostly kill the clock, pin the Eagles on their own 4 with only time for a couple plays, the last of which was an interception by Harrison. With a 24-21 final, the 2004 New England Patriots had their third Super Bowl win in four years, and were truly a dynasty.
We’ve got an interesting coincidence in the world of sports tonight. The feature event is the big Monday Night Football battle between New England and Carolina (8:30 PM ET, ESPN), with the Patriots looking to extend their lead in the AFC East and the Panthers hoping to keep pace with the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
But this isn’t the only area where the fan bases of Boston and Charlotte will clash–in hockey, the Bruins are playing the Hurricane. Both the football and hockey games are on Tobacco Road. All that’s left is for the Celtics to pay a visit to the Bobcats…but that won’t happen until next Monday.
With this backdrop, TheSportsNotebook is going to keep with the cross-sports theme and take a look at the race for that most coveted of honors–most successful sports fan base–and see how the 2013 race is progressing. It’s particularly relevant in this context, because it all might come down to the ultimate fate of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Every February, after the Super Bowl is complete, TheSportsNotebook picks the fan base that had the most to cheer for in the sports year that starts with the NCAA Tournament and ends with the Super Bowl. Last year, San Francisco sports was a runaway winner, with the Giants winning the World Series, and the 49ers falling just a play short of winning the Super Bowl. Those wins coupled with Stanford’s run to the Rose Bowl and a nice showing from the San Jose Sharks in the NHL.
The 2013 season has been mostly controlled by the Louisville sports market. Rick Pitino’s basketball programset the tone with a national title to become the first official champion of ’13. The Louisville baseball team made the College World Series. The two nearest NBA cities–Indiana and Memphis–each made the conference finals. The nearest baseball team is Cincinnati, and they made the playoffs.
Louisville is also the Triple-A affiliate for the St. Louis Cardinals, who reached the World Series. And though it’s not officially part of the 2013 sports year, the Louisville football team beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl in early January and has only lost one game so far this season.
The sports fans of Louisville have enjoyed both depth of success, as well the ecstasy of winning a championship, thanks to Pitino’s team. They were poised to run away with this award come February, but in the aftermath of the baseball season, the city of Boston isn’t ready to give up quite so easily.
What if the Patriots win the Super Bowl? Then, Boston sports has two major sports titles, and a third team making the championship round. While college sports are barely relevant in Hub culture, Boston College has enjoyed a comeback season in the gridiron and got themselves bowl-eligible last week. If the Eagles could win their final two games, get to 8-4 and go to a decent bowl game, it would further strengthen the city’s case.
Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any question that New England must win the Super Bowl–not simply make it–for this to become a serious debate. No matter what happens in college football, Louisville is going to have more depth to their success than Boston, and the only way for the Hub to turn this into an argument is if they get two titles to one for the Louisville market.
The oddsmakers say it’s a 10-1 chance that Belichick and Brady hoist their fourth Lombardi Trophy this February in New York. It suggests that in the world of sports fan bases, Louisville remains the favorite for the 2013 title, but not to count out Boston sports just yet.
The machine is that the New England Patriots gears it up for another year, in what oddsmakers presume will be at least another AFC East title and being a part of the Super Bowl conversation. The question, as Tom Brady hits 36-years-old, is whether all those wins can be rolled over into the first Super Bowl win since 2004.
New England’s done a major makeover of their skill position talent. Goodbye to Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead, and hello to Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins. And though the Pats didn’t intend, this, there’s also been a goodbye to Aaron Hernandez after his indictment on murder charges this past summer.
All the changes force the classic debate of whether Brady makes his skill position talent, or whether the team will really miss the departed. TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis is in the camp that says they’re all, at least within certain parameters, interchangeable. Amendola will be more than adequate in replacing Welker. The team will find a way to replace Hernandez’ production at tight end.
Where the problem comes is that while Tom Brady can make players on the short-to-intermediate routs through his precision, he can’t make a player into a deep threat that secondaries have to respect. Rob Gronkowski is a great tight end, but when a TE is your premier down-the-field option, it’s a sign that you’re limited offensively. And Gronkowski has shown himself to be quite limited when it comes to staying healthy.
The Patriots made great strides last year in terms of their toughness up front, and on both sides of the ball. They ranked 2nd in the NFL in rush attempts. The yards-per-attempt was in the middle of the pack, but at least they’re attempting to mix in the run, a welcome change from recent years. And Stevan Ridley is a nice young back that can continue to get better.
Defensively, the Pats were sixth in the NFL in yards-per-attempt and did a good job forcing fumbles. This has not been a truly tough team since the Super Bowl-winning years of 2001-04, and proof that while a great quarterback can always keep you in the conversation, you need to be physical to win championships. It’s a good sign that the Pats are back on that path.
The biggest concern is the pass coverage. New England ranked poorly in this area regardless of what measuring stick you use. The most you can point to is that they were in the middle of the league in sacks and have two good young defensive ends in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. There’s not much reason to think the defensive backs are going to be a lot better than the unit Joe Flacco torched in the second half of last year’s AFC Championship Game.
New England’s Over/Under number for wins in Las Vegas has usually been obscenely high, requiring a 12-13 win season to go Over. This year, the oddsmakers are a little more friendly, posting a reasonable 10.5 number. My regard for Belichick, Brady and this team’s improving line play point me to the Over.
The fans of the New England Patriots, and most independent observers are sounding alarm bells about the team’s 2012 chances. Tom Brady says that maybe they’ve spoiled everyone, that there’s this much consternation about the team’s long-term Super Bowl hopes. Who’s right? Or is the truth somewhere in between. Let’s break down the Patriots’ seven games thus far and see what stands out, and then assess their road ahead.
Week 1: won at Tennessee 34-13: It was a dominating performance, with a new-look running game being shown off as Stevan Ridley ran for 162 yards and the defense shut down Titan running back Chris Johnson. The latter had to be taken with a grain of salt though, as Johnson struggled against everyone for the first few weeks.
Week 2: lost to Arizona 20-18: This was part of a 4-0 start for Arizona, so the loss per se doesn’t look as bad then as it did now. Brady threw the ball well (28/46 for 316 yards), Ridley was reasonably effective running the ball and the defense prevented the now-injured Cardinal running back Beanie Wells from getting anything going.
But all was wiped out by a complete failure on the part of the offensive line—Brady was sacked seven times and hit six more. While New England missed a field goal at the end that could have won it, it was a fluke they had the chance—Arizona had fumbled while running out the clock.
Week 3: lost at Baltimore 31-30: The defense blew leads of 13-0 early and 30-21 late, setting the tone for what would be the most oft-criticized feature of this team in recent weeks. Brady carved up the Raven’ secondary, getting the ball outside to Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker with frequency. But he didn’t get the run support on this night. Joe Flacco did—the strong showing by the Baltimore quarterback was supplemented by a 101-yard night from running back Ray Rice.
This game is remembered as being the penultimate straw for the replacement refs (Green Bay-Seattle one night later finished the job), but it should also be remembered the New England defense really did nothing right, especially late in the game. The defensive pass rush—or lack thereof—was too much to overcome.
Week 4: won at Buffalo 52-28: Not only did Ridley run over the Buffalo defense for 106 yards, but another quick little running back out of the SEC named Brandon Bolden got in the mix, going for 137 (Bolden is from Ole Miss, Ridley from LSU). New England piled up 247 yards on the ground and on defense they intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick three times. This was also the first big game for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 104 yards receiving and the offensive line gave Brady solid protection.
Week 5: beat Denver 31-21: Another dominating day for the running game, with 251 rush yards, 151 of them by Ridley. What New England did not do well was protect Brady—they surrendered four sacks and five QB hits—or protect their lead.
A 31-14 game after three quarters was quickly cut to ten and Denver’s own mistakes ended two drives that could have really made it interesting. The lack of pressure of Peyton Manning was nearly deadly, as the Bronco QB hung a 31/44 for 337 yards/0 interceptions stat line on the board.
Week 6: lost at Seattle 24-23: This is the game the media is overreacting to. Last I checked, Seattle’s a good team with a tough, physical defense that plays well at home. Losing to them by one hardly counted as a reason to count the Patriots out (or if it does, that count out San Francisco for losing at Minnesota, Baltimore for losing at Philly and the New York Giants for losing at home to Dallas and Houston for being completely embarrassed at home by Green Bay. At which point no one is left).
It is fair to be concerned about the secondary in this spot though. The New England defense took away the running game, built a 23-10 lead and forced Russell Wilson to throw. The Seahawk quarterback responded, with a 16/27 for 293 yards/0 interceptions game. Other than defensive end Chandler Jones, no one got any pressure. In the meantime, the Pats couldn’t run the ball and Brady ended up throwing 58 times. Here’s a hint—when you throw nearly 60 times a game you’re going to have problems in the red zone and protecting leads, and the Pats had both.
Week 7: beat the NY Jets 29-26 in OT: It was kind of a ho-hum game for New England on offense. They ran the ball decently and Brady had an okay game. Mark Sanchez added to the legitimate concern that exists over the secondary, as he threw for 328 yards. But on Sunday the Patriots got pressure—four sacks and four QB hits and it was a sack and fumble that ended the game in overtime.
A few other points that stand out on a game-by-game review—in spite what may be written about Wes Welker’s problems over his contract and with the front office and the occasional benching, he’s a very active part of the pass offense and is having another good year.
The pass protection has improved in recent weeks. And on the negative side, you have to be bothered by the fact that the games against Baltimore, Denver and the NY Jets saw the opposing quarterbacks really heavy up in targeting one receiver (Torrey Smith, Demaryius Thomas and Jerome Kerley) and the secondary was still unable to stop them or at least force the ball to be spread out.
So how much should New England fans be panicking? In my view, not at all. There are concerns to be sure—the secondary’s inability to get interceptions or hold leads is an obvious problem. The pass rush is still too sporadic, a problem whose connection to the core concern is obvious. But these are problems that New England had last year and they still made the Super Bowl. When you watch them play this time around, you often see decent defense for three quarters or so. Last year you never saw it.
And the offense is markedly better. Brady might not be stuffing the stat sheet and thrilling Fantasy owners, but he’s yet to play a bad game (save maybe Arizona when the protection collapsed) and the running game has become a real threat. New England is a better team than they were a year ago, and while 4-3 is not ideal, it’s still enough to lead the AFC East.
Where New England fans can be concerned is that this team probably needs to get a first-round bye—at least the #2 seed in the AFC—if they’re going to reach the Super Bowl. Baltimore is 5-2 and holds the tiebreaker, while Houston is 6-1. The Patriots play the Texans at home in December and can cut into the gap and possibly alter the overall tiebreaker dynamic if they, Houston and Baltimore all end up in a dead heat. At this point, I think any conversation about the #1 playoff seed can be restricted to these three teams.
The schedule offers New England some immediate opportunities to make some hay. They play St. Louis in London this coming week, and after a bye its home games with Buffalo and Indianapolis. A three-game win streak is very realistic, and with the next road games against the Jets and Dolphins, it’s easy to see the Pats going 5-0. At the very least, they need to win four of those five, because then its back-to-back prime-time games with Houston and San Francisco, both at home.
If the Patriots conclude this stretch at 10-4, they should be in position to at least grab a bye and possibly the #1 overall seed. With Baltimore’s injuries, its possible 9-5 could still be enough to get in at #2, because the final two weeks are chippies at Jacksonville and at home against Miami.
The close losses New England has suffered have eliminated the margin for error, at least in terms of completing for an AFC playoff bye. But the position in the AFC East is solid and the fundamental trajectory of their team is better than it was in 2011. And last I checked, that team came within a play or two of winning the Super Bowl. So take the finger off the panic button Pats fans.
The New England Patriots have looked like a different team so far this season—maybe not one that will pile up 13 regular season wins again—but one more capable of winning tough games and not nearly as dependent on Tom Brady to carry them. That’s how they look through five games, and just how solid this new-look is will get a big test on Sunday in Seattle.
Seattle has a great homefield crowd and it can be a tough place to play when the Seahawks are competitive, as they are this year. The defense can get after the quarterback, with defensive end Chris Clemons keying the four-man front and already having 5.5 sacks. Seattle gets physical on the corners, and Patriot receivers like Brandon Lloyd won’t able to get a quick release off the line of scrimmage.
None of this means that New England won’t win—just that their rediscovered virtues, like running the ball, are going to be vitally important, because it’s all over if Seattle’s front four gets comfortable teeing off on Brady in the pass rush.
The Patriots have also played better defense than they did in 2011, although they could hardly have been worse. Still, New England is 8th against the run, and while they still rank a woeful 28th against the pass, there’s a tendency to play well for three quarters before letting opposing offenses back in the game (i.e. Baltimore & Denver).
Regardless, Seattle is not the offense to come from behind, preferring to rely on the run with Marshawn Lynch and let quarterback Russell Wilson manage the game.
It’s all going to be about controlling the pace. I’d expect the game to be close, but if New England is playing with a lead into the third quarter, the pressure on Wilson will increase and the Patriots’ own improved front four, led by Chandler Jones, can do some damage and force the rookie into mistakes.
Brady is smart enough to handle a road crowd and if he’s not placed in an untenable position, New England will win. They’re a four-point favorite and the pick here is for the new hard-nosed Patriots to get it done out west.
The New England-Seattle game is best on the NFL Week 6 undercard, which is defined here at TheSportsNotebook as the games not drawing much TV coverage outside the local area. Here’s the rundown on seven additional undercard games, along with the Thursday night fare of Pittsburgh-Tennessee…
St. Louis-Miami & Detroit-Philadelphia: I’ve tied these two games together, because on one end of the spectrum we have two teams pegged for the basement that are suddenly looking feisty in the Rams & Dolphins. The other end of the spectrum is a pair of preseason favorites who don’t look the part in the Lions & Eagles. One surprise team will be getting more media love. One dysfunctional favorite has another long media week ahead.
The Rams are coming off a long week of prep time after the Thursday night win over Arizona, and they showed how devastating their front four can be in the way they got after Kevin Kolb. Expect more of the same here, as Robert Quinn and his six sacks should be in Ryan Tannehill’s face all day long. St. Louis isn’t good enough offensively, especially without Danny Amendola, to really break a game open, but I’m looking for them to get a win here.
The folks in Las Vegas have one strong feeling on this game—don’t expect many points. The Over/Under of 37 is the only total for Week 7 that’s outside the 40s on either side.
Something’s gotta give in the Lions-Eagles game, to borrow the title of a Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie. The Lions can’t run the ball, which should mean that opposing defenses tee off on Matthew Stafford. But the Eagles’ defensive front four has underachieved so far this year, something that Michael Vick’s turnover problems are covering up when it comes to press coverage.
Trent Cole needs to be in Stafford’s face or the second-ranked pass offense can still make hay, even without support. I’m going to give Philly the benefit of the doubt for one more week at home, and assume they can get their pass rush going. Detroit, on the other hand, just doesn’t have the talent to run the ball.
Minnesota-Washington: RG3’s status for the game is still undecided, but he has been cleared to play. I think that makes it safe to assume the Redskins will eventually decide to start him. Assuming that holds true, this is a contrast-in-styles game.
Washington will want to open up the field with RG3, while the Vikings like to bang people in the trenches and control tempo with the running game. What Minnesota has going for them is that Christian Ponder threw the ball very well against Tennessee last week, and the Redskins secondary is a sieve.
As a Washington fan, what I’m hoping for is that an RG3 return gives an emotional lift, Minnesota hits an emotional valley as a young team enjoying unexpected success. And then the ‘Skins just have amnesia and forget they’re playing at home, given that we’ve lost eight in a row at FedEx.
Pittsburgh-Tennessee & Cincinnati-Cleveland: These games are tied together as key teams in the AFC North face opponents they should beat. But in the case of Pittsburgh, they’ll have to make this Thursday night visit to Tennessee without the services of LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker and Troy Polamulu at strong safety.
That’s a couple pretty big playmakers to be without, especially for a team that can’t run the ball. But does Matt Hasselbeck have enough to exploit it? Can Chris Johnson play his second good game of the year? How strong will Kenny Britt be at receiver as he works his way back from injury?
And it’s occurred to me that after all these questions, it’s the point in The Naked Gun where Leslie Nielsen says “And where the hell was I?” Anyway, the Steelers win, but it’s closer than the 6.5 points Vegas is thinking.
Cincinnati’s coming off a bad loss to Miami and should be well-motivated for their visit to the east side of the state. Brandon Weeden has played better than expected, but given that nothing was expected, this tells us very little. We know he’ll get a lot of pressure from the Bengal front four and a motivated Cincinnati team likely gets it done.
Oakland-Atlanta & Buffalo-Arizona: Both games look like mismatches, with bad teams going on the road. The Raiders can’t pressure the quarterback, which is a good way to get lit up when the opponent is Matt Ryan and the Falcons playing in their home dome.
I don’t what’s going on in Buffalo. Other than the fact they’ve given up 90 points in the last six quarters, everything’s fine.
The talent is there defensively, and for all the good things Arizona has done in putting together a 4-1 record, offense isn’t one of them. But the Bills look dysfunctional, the Cardinals are coming off a loss and have had ten days to prepare. It’s going to take a major reversal of fortune for Arizona not to win.
Kansas City-Tampa Bay: The Bucs are coming off a bye week and in spite of the 1-3 record, they’ve shown real signs of life. In practical terms, they’re stopping the run, something that will come in handy against the Chiefs and Jamaal Charles.
Kansas City’s going to need to be able to throw the ball, putting a lot of heat on Brady Quinn who will make his first start of the season. Tampa’s a four-point favorite and they look like a good bet to win and cover.
The record is staggering during the era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for the New England Patriots. In the eleven seasons since 2001, they’ve averaged a 12 wins each regular season. They’ve produced nine AFC East titles, five AFC championships and three Super Bowl rings. Brady is 35 years old. How much longer can the beat go on? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Patriots…
OFFENSE: Brady’s excellence is unparalleled and I consider him to be the top quarterback of my lifetime, which we’ll start in the late 1970s, when I can actually remember the players. The supporting cast around him is not bad, but it doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of the Montana-era 49ers. The interior of the New England offensive line, save for guard Logan Mankins is suspect and vulnerable to gut pressure. The tackles are decent, but not spectacular and right tackle Nate Solder needs to have some natural second-year improvement.
The shaky offensive line, which has not inspired confidence in its preseason games this year, would make deep drops and getting the ball down the field problematic as it is. But it might not matter, because unless free-agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd comes through, the Pats don’t have anyone can stretch the field. Well, I suppose Rob Gronkowski can, but as good as “Gronk” is, when the tight end is your primary deep threat I think that alone speaks volumes.
What New England does have is a good collection of players who can run routes underneath and a quarterback who can quickly find them with precision. Wes Welker is probably in his last year in Foxboro after not agreeing to a contract extension, but that also means he’ll be motivated to earn himself big money. Gronkowski is money in short-to-mid-range spots. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez is effective in the short game, as is veteran receiver Deion Branch. It’s a lot of pressure to have to create open receivers in a confined space with limited pass protection, but the Pats have the volume and it doesn’t take much open space for Brady to get them the ball.
The short passing game has served as the New England running game the past few years and with the issues on the offensive line I see little reason to think there will be a change. I’ve got nothing against Stevan Ridely, the main back, but he’s not to going to carry a questionable line.
DEFENSE: New England addressed the defense in this year’s draft, using both of their first-round picks on this side of the ball and between the draft and free agency they addressed all three levels of the D. Belichick is currently aligned in a 4-3, which is a break from his background in the 3-4, both in his coordinator days under Bill Parcells and most of his tenure in New England. The drafting of defensive end Chandler Jones to rush the passer likely means the 4-3 is here to stay. Vince Wolfork anchors the middle as well as anyone, but at 30-years-old, the Pats have to be worried about the mileage on his body.
Dont’a Hightower from Alabama was the big draft-day prize at linebacker and he’ll join with young Jerrod Mayo to make a solid tandem on the flanks of the 4-3. Brandon Spikes is in the middle and while he’s not a standout, he’s at least competent and he’s still young enough to think improvement is on the way.
The corners are decent with Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, and there’s room for each to get better, especially McCourty. Patrick Chung is an asset at strong safety. The Pats went out and got veteran Steve Gregory from San Diego to play free safety, but the folks at ESPN’s Scouts Inc, who grade these players aren’t particularly impressed with the former Charger. If they’re right, that leaves a lot of pressure on the corners not to get beat.
Overall, this is a defense with some decent pieces, but they need a real star to step forward, one who forces offenses to change their gameplans. Jones is the best hope for that happening this year. In the meantime, Pats fans can settle for the fact that the head coach orchestrating all this pieces is a star in his own right.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 12.5—As I said about the Green Bay Packers, the other team with a number this high, I feel I have to go Under just automatically. A lot has to go right for any team to have a 13-3 season and if that’s the minimum, that’s too much to bet on in August. Furthermore, I don’t think the Patriots are a 13-3 caliber team anyway. They reached the number last year, but somewhere along the line somebody on the defensive side and in the offensive front needs to really step up and excel. In reality, this is the kind of team I’d normally slot at nine wins, but the Belichick-Brady tandem alone grabs a couple extra W’s. Either way, that still leaves them Under.
The SportsNotebook’s Super Bowl preparation today consists of an in-depth look at each team’s starting lineups. Click here to check out the New York Giants. Below is an analysis of the New England Patriots. Each player’s age is in parentheses…
Quarterback: Tom Brady (34)—I trust we don’t need to do an extended introduction here, but we’ll at least recap the basics. Brady threw for over 5,200 yards this year, completed over 65 percent of his passes and had a TD-INT ratio of 39-12. And that’s in a year that wasn’t as good as 2010. Win or lose, Brady is the best quarterback of my lifetime, measured since 1976.
Running Backs: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26), Danny Woodhead (27), Stevan Ridley (23), Kevin Faulk (35)—There’s no one true go-to back in this offense, although Green-Ellis, known as “The Law Firm” for his extended first and last names, led all rushers with 667 yards. Green-Ellis is a very physical runner who can pound you inside the tackles and can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He won’t burn you in space, but he’s a reliable 4-5 yards. Woodhead is a similar player, just not quite as good. Ridley and Faulk represent a little tactical intrigue. The former is a shifty young back out of LSU who can pop some big plays. The latter is an aging veteran who’s a reliable pass-catcher. It’s easy to see the New England offense working either into a bigger part of Sunday’s gameplan.
Wide Receivers: Wes Welker (30), Deion Branch (32), Julian Edelman (25), Chad Ochocinco (34)–All of these players rely on savvy and disciplined routes to get themselves open and then rely on a machine-like quarterback to deliver them the ball on cue. Welker caught 122 passes, while Branch caught 72. However, I think it’s safe to say that in all cases, it’s Brady who makes these receivers productive, rather than vice-versa. Welker and Branch are ideal to be #2 receivers alongside a legitimate deep threat, but the Patriots lack anyone who can stretch the field. Ochocinco’s another interesting X-factor for Sunday. He’s been a non-factor all year after his publicized signing in August. Is this a spot where Brady suddenly targets him for four or five big catches?
Tight Ends: Rob Gronkowski (22), Aaron Hernandez (22)–Recently, in arguing Brady’s merits with a friend on Facebook, I put Gronkowski in a group with the four receivers as being just a byproduct of the quarterback’s excellence. That was a dumb-ass statement. “Gronk”, as the Pats fans call him, is an All-Pro tight end with anyone. He had 90 catches this year, offers an imposing target and while he’s not a deep threat in the way a younger Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates might have been, Gronk can move in the open field. The health of his ankle has been the biggest story of Super Bowl week outside Peyton Manning, and correctly so. New England will not win this game if Gronk’s not healthy. Hernandez is a solid pass-catcher in his own right. He’s a little more of a finesse player than his teammate, being more effective if you line him up as an H-back, and he’s been worked into the running game on occasion. With 79 catches, Hernandez is the third-best receiver on this team after Gronk and Welker.
Offensive Line: Dan Connolly (C, 29), Logan Mankins (LG, 29), Brian Waters (RG, 34), Matt Light (LT, 33), Nate Solder (RT, 23)—This is a line uniquely constructed to the offense. They are not great in terms of exploding off the ball and moving bodies to create running room. All of them win the praises of ESPN’s Scouts Inc for their technical soundness and lateral movement. Light has the job of protecting Brady’s blind side and the veteran gets high marks from the scouts for his movement and ability to react and adjust after the snap. Mankins and Waters are similarly sound, but a concern in the scouting reports is that Mankins can be beaten with a straight bull-rush from a defensive tackle. Solder is a player to watch—at 6’8” 319 he’s got the physical tools to handle the Giant defensive front, but he’s also a 23-year old kid on the world’s biggest sporting stage. How’s he going to react? Overall, we can sum this unit up as a group as being fundamentally sound and more oriented to pass-blocking rather than run. For a quintet that plays under one of the best coaches of all time and with one of the best quarterbacks of all time, I guess that’s about what you’d expect.
Defensive Line: Shaun Ellis (DE, 34), Mark Anderson (DE, 28), Brandon Deaderick (DE, 24), Kyle Love (DT, 25), Vince Wolfork (DT, 30)—Wolfork played the game of his life in the AFC Championship Game, taking away Baltimore’s Ray Rice up the middle and pressuring Joe Flacco in some key spots. Wolfork was the most valuable player in that game. The stout run defense is par for the course, but he’s not really a pass-rusher. Anderson is the best at pressuring the quarterback in this group, with ten sacks, but this is still a group better at defending the run than collapsing the pocket. Deaderick is more a run defender, something that’s unusual in a 4-3 scheme where the ends are relied on for the pressure. A line like this is well-suited for late-season games in cold and blustery weather, but I question how they’ll fare in a climate-controlled environment if the field opens up.
Linebackers: Rob Ninkovich (OLB, 28), Brandon Spikes (MLB, 24), Jerod Mayo (OLB, 25)–I like this trio here. Spikes and Mayo are good young players with athletic ability. Like the defensive line, they’re a little better against the run than the pass, but Spikes did come up with a huge interception in the AFC title game. Ninkovich is a fundamentally sound third piece, who can be beaten in space, but is reliable at taking care of his assignment and stopping the run.
Secondary: Devin McCourty (CB, 24), Kyle Arrington (CB, 25), Patrick Chung (FS, 24), James Ihedigo (SS, 28)—The corners are a solid rising duo. McCourty has is good all-around player who’s got the athleticism to match up with receivers, the ball skills to make plays and the physical style to defend the run. Arrington isn’t quite at that level, but he does have good quickness and with more balls coming his way, he took advantage and grabbed seven interceptions. I’m less optimistic about the safeties. Ihedigo is good in run support, but on a defense where the front four and linebackers are all solid in that same area, the Pats could use a better cover man. Chung is improving, but still beatable. One of the key stories this week has been when the Pats go to the nickel and they bring Edelman in. It was a problem against Baltimore and it will be worse in the perfect passing environment of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Special Teams: Stephen Gotkowski (K, 28), Zoltan Mesko (P, 25), Woodhead (KR), Edelman (PR)—Don’t underestimate how solid New England is in the kicking game. Gotkowski got three field goal tries against Baltimore, the same as Billy Cundiff. Because Gotkowski went 3-for-3, while Cundiff had the fatal miss at the end, the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, and that sort of consistency is what NE fans came to expect all year long. Mesko averaged a solid 46.5 gross average and the cover teams do a solid job, keeping the net over 41. The returners are above average, while not spectacular.