For numerous reasons, 12 is a magic number in Foxborough. It's Tom Brady's uniform number and the number of seasons he's played in the NFL. Bill Belichick is in his 12th season as Patriots head coach. The Patriots have played 12 games this year (9-3) and last Sunday sent the arch rival Indianapolis Colts to their 12th defeat of the season.
Traditionally, the Patriots have played their best football in December -- a league-best 38-5 since 2001 -- the 12th month of the year. And 12 is the number of passes Chad Ochocinco has caught for a $6 million salary.So, here are a dozen thoughts on the 2011 Patriots.
1. Aaron Hernandez is underrated. Hernandez is overshadowed by the cult figure/touchdown machine he shares tight end duties with, Rob Gronkowski. But Hernandez, the team's third-leading receiver with 54 receptions and five touchdowns, has allowed the Patriots to overcome their Rob Deer-esque swing-and-misses on No. 3 wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Taylor Price with his ability to line up as a split end, slot guy and flex receiver.
Hernandez is also a key figure in the team's no-huddle attack because his versatility has enabled the Patriots to change formations in the no-huddle without having to change personnel, allowing them to maintain their frenetic pace. Gronk gets all the love and TDs, but like his touchdown celebration, Hernandez is money.
2. The Patriots need to ramp up the run game. The weather is growing colder and so is the New England rushing attack. The last two weeks against the Eagles and Colts, the Patriots have run the ball 60 times for 177 yards, an average of 2.95 yards per carry. New England's longest run of the year is a 33-yard touchdown run Stevan Ridley ripped off in Week 4, when the Patriots ran for a season-high 182 yards against Oakland, facing six and seven-defensive back looks. The Patriots and the San Diego Chargers are the only teams without a single run of 40 yards or more during the last two seasons, and San Diego's Ryan Mathews has a 39-yard run this year.
3. The Patriots need to reconsider how they evaluate wide receivers. The Patriots haven't successfully drafted and developed a wide receiver since Deion Branch and David Givens in 2002. Bethel Johnson, Chad Jackson, Brandon Tate, and Price have all flamed out. The two most successful receivers they've drafted, Matthew Slater (fifth round in 2008) and Julian Edelman (seventh round in 2009), are seeing more time on defense and special teams than offense. Brady has to do a better job of nurturing the newbie pass-catchers and displaying patience. Perhaps some off-season trips to train with him on the West Coast?
4. Chad Ochocinco deserves credit for being a team player. The acquisition of Ochocinco has been an abject failure. He's caught more criticism than footballs. But he deserves kudos for defying the diva wide receiver label. He really is more concerned with being on a winner than racking up stats. Most of the diva wideouts in the league would be squawking publicly even on a winning team if they were being used with the frequency of a flashlight. Ocho might not grasp the Patriots offense, but he does grasp the Patriot Way.
5. The Patriots do pad individual stats. The team blatantly tried to get Gronkowski the NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end against Indianapolis. The 2-yard "touchdown pass" was changed to a lateral. Against Kansas City, they threw a wide-receiver screen to a catchless Wes Welker with six minutes left in the fourth quarter of a 27-3 game to extend Welker's streak of consecutive games with a reception. There is nothing wrong with such behavior, every team does it to reward deserving players. Just don't sanctimoniously say that you're above it like Belichick did following the win over the Eagles. "We don’t go out there and feature one player so he can get some stats," he said. "We don't play that way." Sometimes you do.
6. Rob Ninkovich should be a defensive captain. Ninkovich came to the Patriots as a long-shot long-snapper, but he has become one of the defense's most valuable assets. Ninkovich's versatility allows the Patriots to be scheme diverse from week-to-week. He can drop into coverage as a strong-side linebacker and make plays like his two-interception game against the Jets. He can line up at defensive end and hold up against the run like he did against Philadelphia. He can also serve the role of pass-rusher in the Patriots' sub defense and blow by a tackle like he did against Indianapolis. Early in the season when the defense was not playing as well, he was one of the few players to stand up after wins and admit the defense needed to play better.
7. Shaun Ellis is an afterthought. I was a big advocate of the Patriots signing Ellis, who entered the year ranked 10th among active players in sacks. It simply hasn't worked out. He has become the defense's version of Ochocino, an expensive spare part ($4 million). Ellis hasn't been credited with a tackle since Oct. 16 against Dallas.
8. Tom Brady is not going to set a career-high for interceptions. Remember all the agita when Brady had 10 interceptions just eight games into the season and was going to "shatter" his career-high of 14? Well, he hasn't thrown one since the third quarter of the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants, a span of 165 throws. Since his last interception, Brady has tossed 12 touchdown passes and now has a three-to-one touchdown-to-interception ratio (30-10).
9. Mark Anderson has delivered as a situational pass rusher. However, most of his seven sacks have either come against weak competition or been late in decided games. Anderson's sack against the Jets on Nov. 13 was the result of a brilliant Dwight Freeney-like spin move that befuddled Jets right tackle Wayne Hunter. His solo sack among the 1.5 sacks he had against the Chiefs was an exceptional inside move that turned Chiefs right tackle Barry Richardson into a turnstile. But the half-sack was the result of Andre Carter flushing the QB right to him, and Hunter and Richardson have been among the worst right tackles in football this year.
Here is a breakdown of Anderson's remaining 4.5 sacks -- Miami (fourth quarter, 1:44 left, Patriots lead 38-24); San Diego (fourth quarter, 1:09 left, Patriots up 35-21); New York Jets (first quarter, 6:41 left, Patriots lead 7-0 -- half-sack on zero-yard rush -- and fourth quarter, 0:21 left, Patriots lead 30-21); Pittsburgh (fourth quarter, 1:16 left, Patriots trail 25-17, unblocked on blitz on third and 22).
10. The Patriots will lose another game this year. On paper the schedule looked as easy to tear through as wrapping paper, but the Redskins haven't allowed a 300-yard passer all season, Tim Tebow is leading the Broncos to the promised land in miraculous fashion each week and the Miami Dolphins are playing as well as any team in the league and haven't allowed more than 20 offensive points in a game since Oct. 2.
11. Dante Scarnecchia deserves a raise. The Patriots' offensive line coach has prepared four different centers this year and tutored rookie Nate Soldier to start seven games. Year in and year out, Scarnecchia is able to take amorphous clay and mold it into a competent NFL offensive lineman. Outside of Belichick, he is the staff's most valuable coach.
12. Devin McCourty looks lost. Cornerbacks go backward for a living -- backpedaling is a primary part of the job. But McCourty has taken going backwards too literally after a stellar rookie season. His issues began in the third preseason game against the Lions and have metastasized since then. He has consistently been beaten on plays where he doesn't get his head around to find the ball. Perhaps, this is the technique the Patriots teach that when beaten, you get back within range of the receiver and then locate the ball, but it takes away one of McCourty's greatest attributes -- his ball skills. If McCourty ends up in the dustbin of failed Patriots cornerbacks along with Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler the team has to reconsider its secondary instruction.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.