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Post-pattern emerges for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 24, 2013 01:53 PM
Rehashing Patriots playoff losses has become a rite of winter in New England, like skating on the Frog Pond or territorially claiming parking spaces with household items.

In the wake of the Patriots’ disheartening 28-13 AFC Championship game loss to the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday there has been a search for the common thread that has led to the unraveling of the Patriots’ Super Bowl-or-bust seasons in 2007, 2010, 2011 and this year.

I wrote a little bit about the Patriots’ offseason outlook today in my column in the Boston Globe. My feeling is that as vital as any personnel additions or decisions the Patriots make this offseason is changing their mentality.

If there is a common yarn from the Patriots’ playoff losses from 2007 to now it’s a long-running problem. The connection in all the losses is a lack of explosive plays in the running game, an inability to physically impose their will on opponents when it matters the most.

In the Patriots’ losses to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season, the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, the New York Jets in the 2010 playoffs, the Giants again in Super Bowl XLVI last season and the Ravens this season, they’ve failed to produce a single rush of 20 yards or more.

The longest rush is 17 yards by BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Super Bowl XLVI.

The Patriots’ longest rush in Sunday’s loss to the Ravens was 9 yards. That’s a familiar number. It also represented the long run in the 33-14 beatdown Baltimore put on the Patriots in the ’09 postseason.

In the shocking 28-21 AFC Divisional loss to Vociferous Rex and the Jets during the 2010 season, the Patriots had a long run of 11 (twice), but that came on handoffs to wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate. The long run by a running back that day was a 10-yarder by Green-Ellis.

The paucity of big plays in the running game in these losses is a particularly incisive point because all these teams basically abandoned their base defenses to defend Tom Brady. They put an extra defensive back or two on the field and dared the Patriots to run.

As colleague Greg A. Bedard pointed out in his excellent film review of the Patriots-Ravens AFC title game clash, Baltimore played just three snaps of base defense all game.

Quoth the Ravens gameplan: "Run on us if you can."

At the beginning of the season, Brady said that the Patriots had made a pledge to be able to run the football against what he termed lighter fronts, defensive alignments that sacrifice a linebacker or a down lineman for an extra defensive back

"You know we’ve made a commitment to running the football and you saw it today," said Brady, after the Patriots rushed for 162 yards in the season-opener against Tennessee on Sept. 9.

"...When you can control the tempo of the game, it really helps out the rest of the team. It helps special teams. It helps defense. You just can’t drop back and throw it 50 times a game. Right around 30 passes a game is where you want to be."

The Patriots threw it 54 times against the Ravens on Sunday.

This is not a Brady bailout. His performance was tepid at best against Baltimore, a team that seems to be TB12’s Kryptonite.

But do you know how many touchdown passes Brady threw during the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run, the Improbable Dream of 2001? One more than Bono, whose band will always be the musical accompaniment for that memorable win.

Brady threw a TD pass to David Patten in Super Bowl XXXVI. That's it. Cue the blaring U2.

The first multiple-TD pass playoff game of his career didn’t come until Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers. Brady tossed three touchdown passes in that game, and undressed the Panthers secondary like they were part of Janet Jackson's breast-baring halftime show with Justin Timberlake.

(By the way, Ms. Jackson did for Super Bowl halftime shows what avaricious Wall Street bankers did for sub-prime loans.)

In their first Super Bowl win, the Patriots averaged 5.3 yards per rush against the St. Louis Rams. Antowain Smith had a long run of 17 yards, but Patten, a wide receiver, had a 22-yarder.

The second Big Game had a big run of 23 yards by Kevin Faulk on a day when the Patriots, despite averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, ran the ball 35 times against Carolina.

The trophy trilogy, completed against Philadelphia, featured a 25-yard run from Corey Dillon, who rushed for a franchise record 1,635 yards in 2004.

There is a common thread in the Patriots’ playoff losses. It’s the fraying of the commitment to and execution of the running game.

So, blame Brady all you want. But the formula for winning championships now is not the one the Patriots used earlier in the millennium.

Like their playoff opponents, that’s something the Patriots can’t run away from.

Brady's birthday puts the Patriots on the defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 3, 2012 05:56 PM
FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady celebrated his 35th birthday Friday. Hard to believe the kid quarterback who supplanted Drew Bledsoe in 2001 a QB Odyssey and provided one of the most improbable seasons in New England sports history is now older than Bill Russell was in his final triumphant season as a Celtic and the same age as Larry Bird when he last graced the parquet.

TB12's 35th B-Day is a reminder he won't be around forever.

So, what do you get for the 30-something man who has everything -- a supermodel spouse, a Hall of Fame career and a movie star aesthetic? If you're the Patriots, you get him the one thing he needs but doesn't have -- a defense.

That's a luxury Brady, now entering his 13th season, last had several tonsorial selections and a few diva wide receivers ago. Brady is undoubtedly a better passer now than he was when he quarterbacked the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons from 2001 to 2004, but the only trophies he has to show for it are a pair of MVPs.

Those early-to-mid aughts title teams lifted the Lombardi Trophy because the offense and the defense carried the load equally. Now, Brady mostly carries the defense. The Patriots aren't going to win another Super Bowl until Brady and a good offense cease to be their best defense.

Even in the almost perfect season of 2007, when Brady was rewriting the record book with an offense that visited the end zone so often it could have claimed residency, the Patriots defense held up its end of the bargain.

The '07 defense ranked tops in the league in pass defense, allowing 190.1 yards per game, and had an AFC-best 47 sacks. It surrendered 288.1 yards per game, the second-lowest total in franchise history since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978. It gave up 17.1 points per game, an impressive number considering teams knew they had to score early and often to have any shot against the 16-0 pass-a-palooza tour.

If there was a prevailing school of thought that it was foolish to try to win a shootout against Brady it was dispelled last year by a Patriots' defense that was sliced up like a birthday cake by opposing passers in the team's four losses.

New England nemesis Eli Manning beat the Patriots twice last year with dramatic drives for the Giants and completed 75 percent of his passes in Super Bowl XLVI. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger completed 72 percent of his passes and racked up 365 yards passing. The other defeat came at the hands of Harvard's Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw for 369 yards to help the Buffalo Bills erase a 21-point deficit.

Coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season in spite of having both the 31st ranked total defense and pass defense (out of 32 teams) in the NFL, the refrain in Foxborough is the same one it has been for the last three seasons -- juggernaut offense, question-mark defense.

The defense is already a bit defensive about that depiction.

"In one ear and out the other. That's how we like it back there. People are going to say whatever they want to say," said safety Patrick Chung, when reminded the questioning of the defense has become a yearly occurrence. "Everybody has their opinions, but in one ear out the other, get better, play ball. Go from there."

The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one and coach Bill Belichick did that this offseason.

Perhaps, it was an epiphany that Belichick had right around the time he was ordering his team to let Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw have free entrée into the end zone in Super Bowl XLVI because it was the only shot he had of getting the ball back in Brady's hands. But the Patriots doubled-down on defense in the off-season.

They traded up in the first round of the NFL Draft not once, but twice, to acquire pass rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The team used six of its seven draft picks to address the defensive side of the ball, trying to put a tourniquet on a unit that bled yards last season, if not points (21.4 points per game, a respectable 15th in the NFL).

Belichick also dipped into free agency, signing safety Steve Gregory, defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene and edge rusher Trevor Scott, and acknowledged in April that the team had to shift its defensive philosophy to better combat a league with more comfortable air travel than a G5 private jet.

Hopefully, all those additions and a bounce-back year from erstwhile Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty add up to improvement this season because the play clock is ticking on Brady's championship window and thus that of the Patriots.

The current rosary-gripping defense isn't just taking years off the life of fans, it's taking years off of Brady's shelf life.

The Patriots' favorite foils, the Colts, learned the hard way what happens when the epoch of your franchise QB unexpectedly comes to a screeching halt, as Peyton Manning's neck injury precipitated a total teardown in Indy this offseason.

Following up Brett Favre with Aaron Rodgers or Joe Montana with Steve Young is the quarterback succession exception, not the rule.

All the Patriots have to do is look south at the division-rival Miami Dolphins, who have been a QB junkyard since Dan Marino threw his last pass and berated his last offensive lineman in 1999. Brady entered the league in 2000 and since then the Dolphins have used 18 different quarterbacks. That number could rise if David Garrard or rookie Ryan Tannehill beat out Matt Moore this season.

Proof it doesn't take much to go from halcyon days to Hugh Millen redux.

Brady has made a career of performing under pressure, but the pressure to win now is on the other side of the ball.

Patriots' decision not to pay Wes Welker could be costly

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 19, 2012 01:03 PM

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Wes Welker took a leap of faith when he signed his franchise tag tender in May. On Monday, the deadline for franchised players to sign a deal for more than their one-year franchise figure, his leap landed with a splat and without a lucrative long-term contract, his show of good faith and in his faith in the Patriots going unrewarded.

Welker dropped the ball on these negotiations (insert bon mot about his reception gone awry in Super Bowl XLVI here). He sacrificed his leverage the same way he has so selflessly sacrificed his body over the middle the last five seasons, signing his $9.515 million franchise tender two months ago.

Welker's pledge to do the right thing was his undoing. His relatively modest contract demands -- he would have done a deal for three years and $22 million, $5 million less than the deal Randy Moss got in 2008 -- weren't met. The team's best offer was two years, $16 million.

It was not a coincidence that the three franchised players who won their multi-million dollar staring contests on Deadline Day and got profitable new pacts -- Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee -- all balked at signing their tender. The only recourse a player has is withholding his services or threatening to withhold them.

So, the financially-savvy folks in Foxborough won yet another contract debate, but at what cost? They have sent a powerful message by not rewarding either Welker's production or his unfailing fealty. Playing nice with the Patriots doesn't pay off. Playing hardball does.

Buying wholesale into the Patriot Way, catching more passes than any player in the NFL since 2007 (557), rushing back from a career-threatening knee injury in 2010, and setting a franchise-record for receiving yards last season (1,569) is worth nothing more than gratitude and platitudes at the negotiating table.

If you look at the veteran players who have earned long-term contracts from the Patriots through the years, the majority of them took truculent stances, fired warning shots through the media or staged some sort of boycott.

Vince Wilfork didn't get his five-year, $40-million deal from the Patriots in 2010 until he abstained from voluntary OTAs (organized team activities) before the 2009 season, and then following it called the franchise tag "basically a slap in the face."

In 2010, a displeased Logan Mankins, deprived of free agency by the machinations of an uncapped year, publicly accused owner Robert Kraft of reneging on a contract pledge and demanded a trade. He then proceeded to engage in a protracted sit-out, missing training camp and the first eight weeks of the season. Mankins got the franchise tag following the season, and then got a six-year, $51-million extension last summer.

Even Tom Brady had to express some displeasure before getting a deal.

It would certainly seem that loyalty and production don't get the Patriots' attention like anger and intransigence do.

Now, it's worth noting that the Patriots have made strides toward changing their business philosophy, recognizing their hard-line stance ended up costing them more money in the end with both Wilfork and Mankins. The team pre-emptively lavished top-of-the-market extensions on both linebacker Jerod Mayo and tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Mayo received a five-year, $48.5 million contract extension last December and Gronkowski got a six-year, $54-million extension tacked on to his rookie deal in June. The Gronk deal has some contractual window dressing; the Patriots can opt out of it in 2016 before the salaries spike and $37 million of the pact is due from 2016 to 2019.

Welker, 31, might only make sense to the Patriots as a one-year rental. The team is loading up for another Super Bowl run -- this offseason had a 2007 feel to it -- and the Patriots have to figure out how to retain tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose contract is up after next season.

There is something unseemly about draining a player of all his best years and not properly compensating him for it. But that's the business Welker is in, the business of sports, where human beings are commodities.

The other message the Patriots delivered by not locking up Welker is they deem him replaceable, maybe not directly as a slot receiver nonpareil, but replaceable. Much like the Patriots offense morphed after the trade of Moss and the loss of the long ball in 2010, the Patriots could adapt and score without Welker.

The additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney (a Brady favorite who is signed through next season) along with the tandem of Gronk and Hernandez, a hybrid tight end-wide receiver who can do many of the things Welker can, could inspire coach Bill Belichick to believe that Welker is not indispensable.

It would also follow a general philosophy the Patriots have employed during the TB12 era of not splurging on the wide receiver position. The Patriots' offense is about who is throwing the ball and not who is catching it. Moss's deal remains the most lucrative the Patriots have handed a wideout. It has not hurt them, save for 2006.

Few are protesting on Welker's behalf. If a player is woefully underperforming relative to his remuneration, like a John Lackey, there is a torrent of commentary about how he is overpaid, among other often harsher invectives.

But when a player like Welker, who long ago outperformed the five-year, $18.1 million contract he signed to join the Patriots in 2007, has sufficiently outpaced his pay stub for years and gets stiff-armed when he tries to collect, there is either apathetic silence or a salute to the franchise for its business acumen.

When the Patriots are involved there is a healthy dose of the latter.

The Patriots have "won," avoiding paying Welker for past performance, but in the process they might find that they've made future negotiations more contentious and costly.

Belichick runs a reverse on Patriots' draft philosophy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 27, 2012 11:07 AM

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Usually, the Patriots treat first-round picks like they do the opening coin toss -- they always defer. This year they flipped their philosophy.

Perhaps coach Bill Belichick was influenced by the last-minute loss in Super Bowl XLVI, or the winnowing window of his franchise quarterback, or having turned 60 earlier this month experienced the coaching equivalent of a mid-life crisis. But to borrow a slogan from the team that beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Belichick went all in during round one of the 2012 NFL Draft.

After years of stockpiling draft picks to the point they belonged on "Hoarders" and trading down or out when it was their turn to pick -- the team had dealt down a first-rounder in each of the previous four drafts -- the Patriots went for broke to fix their defense Thursday night. They traded up twice in the first round to select a pair of defenders, Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones (No. 21) -- the long-sought pass rusher -- and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower (No. 25).

The first trade saw them surrender a third-round pick (No. 93) to the Cincinnati Bengals to move up six spots for Jones. The second swap sent a fourth-round pick to Denver (No. 126) to ascend six spots again for Hightower and left the Patriots with just a pair of second-round picks in the remaining six rounds of the draft.

It was such a stunning reversal of draft philosophy that you had to wonder if Belichick and his brain trust had accidentally gotten locked in a broom closet in Fort Foxborough. The Patriots hadn't traded up in the first round since 2003, moving up one spot (from 14th to 13th) for defensive end Ty Warren. They did it twice in less than 20 minutes this year.

Instant analysis of a draft amounts to an occupational hazard for sports writers. No one, including Belichick, knows how these two players are going to pan out. The draft is part guessing game, part science, part plain dumb luck.

But what we can consider is the player-picking philosophy, and the Patriots' has taken a significant U-turn. There is recognition that with quarterback Tom Brady turning 35 in August there is now more sand at the bottom of the Patriots' championship hourglass than the top.

Time is now part of the team-building equation.

Oh, the v-word, value, is still a cornerstone of the decision-making. Belichick said that the pick at No. 21 was an either/or between Jones and Hightower. They got both players and managed to hold on to their second-round picks.

"I thought we got good value for them," Belichick said. Of course.

However, after having expertly restocked an aging team on the fly over the last three years by taking a total of 33 players in the draft, the Patriots valued quality, not quantity this time. When you go 27-5 during the regular season the last two seasons with the 30th- and 31st-ranked pass defense, you're only a player or two away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

The Patriots should be applauded for altering their approach. The team's first-round draft philosophy in the past, as spelled out here by Friend of Bill and former NFL personnel man Mike Lombardi, has been to identify a half-dozen or so players that have comparable draft grades then maneuver for additional picks while selecting one of those players.

The problem with that is there is no way that those six players are all going to have identical NFL careers. Two could be Pro Bowlers. Two could be solid starters. One could be a borderline NFL player. One could be a complete bust.

The Patriots never completely whiff on a first-round pick because of the quality of their scouting department. But that approach has probably cost them some truly impact players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Evidence of the value-added methodology is that from 2009 to 2011 the Patriots made 14 selections in the second and third rounds, the most in the NFL, but made just two first-round picks (Devin McCourty and Nate Solder).

There is a financial component as well to the shift in thinking. The new NFL collective bargaining agreement has lowered rookie salaries and actually makes a first-round pick more desirable since teams have a fifth-year option on those contracts. For players taken between picks 11 through 32, the option is the average salary of the top 3-25 players at their position.

Picks in rounds 2-7 can only sign four-year deals with no option. But you would hate to think that it was strictly finances that prevented the Patriots from moving up in the past.

The idea of targeting specific players has worked before for the Patriots. Prior to last night, the last time they traded up for a player was 2010. They moved up two spots to draft some guy named Gronkowski. The counter of course is Chad Jackson in 2006.

That just goes to show that the draft is not about accumulating picks or manipulating the board. It's about accumulating talent. You can trade up, trade down, stand pat or stand on your head, but at the end of the day it still comes down to scouting and evaluation.

After all those years of rolling over picks like a 401k, Belichick cashed in his chips.

The 2012 first round for the Patriots will be judged not just against this year, but against past drafts when the Patriots passed on picks and players. If the 6-foot, 5-inch, 265-pound Jones becomes the pass rusher the Patriots need or Hightower turns out to be David Harris you'll stop hearing about Clay Matthews, Brooks Reed and Jabaal Sheard, the ghosts of Patriots' drafts past.

If not, the Patriots may have ended up deferring on more than draft picks.

Playing four-on-four

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 20, 2012 01:13 PM

Four is an integer of interest these days on the Boston sports scene.

The Bruins are tied, 2-2, after four games of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, thanks to a 44-save performance Thursday night by Washington goalie Braden Holtby, playing in just his fourth NHL playoff game. Four is the number of wins the Red Sox have in their first 12 games under manager Bobby Valentine headed into Friday's Fenway Park centennial celebration. The Celtics are set up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, which will take place next week.

So, here are four sports musings for Friday:

1. The Bruins are being beaten at their own game -- No one from Washington has blocked this many attempts at passage since last year's polarizing debt-ceiling budget debate. The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL in goals during the regular season, have scored just seven in four games in a series that is tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. The Capitals have found hockey religion in the form of defensive-minded play, and a stingy netminder in Holtby.

Before the series, the feeling was a low-scoring, tight-checking, goal-starved series would benefit the Bruins with Tim Thomas in net and coach Claude Julien's dedication to defensively responsible hockey. But that grinding style of play, coupled with the Bruins usual playoff power-play ineptitude (0-12), has allowed a team with lesser overall talent and depth than the Bruins to turn a first-round formality into a hard-fought series.

The only way for the Bruins to shake off the Capitals is to get some of their big guns to stop shooting blanks. None of the Bruins' top five goal-scorers during the regular season -- Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron -- has found the back of the net yet. The quiet quintet has one measly point in the playoffs, an assist belonging to Bergeron. That's an express ticket to an unwanted and unexpected tee time.

2. Ray Allen's ankle situation is concerning -- Allen didn't make the trip to Atlanta, and Friday night will miss his seventh straight game and 13th out of the last 18 due to a balky right ankle. The Celtics' resurgence has been a feel-good story, and with Dwight Howard hors de hoops for the season thanks to a back injury, Boston's path to another NBA Finals got even clearer.

But Allen's condition is worrisome. Either the ankle is not coming around and has reached a stage where it's a chronic ailment that could affect him in the playoffs, or Allen, a free agent after this season, is making a business decision to protect himself and his marketability this summer by not playing hurt. Neither Allen injury scenario bodes well for Banner No. 18.

The former is the dreaded and anticipated breakdown of one of the Celtics' vaunted Big Three. The latter is Allen being miffed about nearly being traded by the Celtics to Memphis at the trade deadline and confirming the rumblings that he's not in love with his new role as a sixth man. In the last two days both the Globe and Herald have had stories implying that Allen feels slighted by the organization and hinting that he could be playing elsewhere once he hits free-agency.

3. The Red Sox' unsettled bullpen is contributing to the hysteria surrounding the team -- The most disconcerting thing about the Red Sox -- besides the fact they would play "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning even if Fenway were engulfed in flames -- is the bullpen, a unit that is a conflagration in the making.

Here are the relievers with corresponding ERAs that the Yankees used on Thursday night in a 7-6 win over the Minnesota Twins after starter Phil Hughes was tagged for six runs in 5 1/3 innings: Boone Logan (1.23), Rafael Soriano (1.80), David Robertson (0.00) and Mariano Rivera (4.15). There is a better chance of Terry Francona returning as Red Sox manager this season than Rivera finishing the season with an ERA above 4.00.

The Sox' farraginous bullpen simply can't compete with the arms the Yankees have. It's a complete mismatch and the lack of proven, reliable options undermines Valentine far more than any careless words he utters to the media.

It may be unfair to Daniel Bard, but to give Valentine and this team a reasonable chance to succeed the Sox will have to consider moving him back to the bullpen at some point.

4. Likes and dislikes of the 2012 NFL schedule -- What any Patriots fan has to like about the schedule is the paucity of high-end quarterbacks on the team's slate. Three of the Patriots' four losses last season came at the hands of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Their porous pass defense struggled against elite QBs. The two best quarterbacks on the schedule this year are Peyton Manning (Denver) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore). Houston's Matt Schaub would also be on the list, but he's recovering from a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, an injury that can have long-term effects.

What I don't like about the schedule is the placement of the two Jets games. Everyone is talking about how easy the Patriots schedule appears, but the difficulty of their slate will be determined in large part by whether the Jets resemble the dysfunctional, bickering bunch from last season that missed the playoffs or the team that advanced to two straight AFC title games.

The first Jets game comes on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The week before the Jets have a nice cushy 1 p.m. home game against the rebuilding Colts. The Patriots meanwhile have to fly to Seattle and play the Seahawks in a 4:15 game, ensuring jet lag and a wee-hours of the morning arrival home, which could mean losing a half-day or more of preparation time. The second clash with the Jets comes on Thanksgiving and is on the road, which means already limited time to prepare, truncated even more by a travel day. Granted, both teams are playing the prior Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Jets are on the road (Rams) while the Patriots are home (Colts). But such a pivotal divisional game shouldn't have its game-planning compromised.

My biggest issue with the NFL schedule overall is the expansion of the Thursday night television package. It seems hypocritical for commissioner Roger Goodell to go on a player safety crusade and then have the league increase the number of games that are played on Thursday nights without building in byes.

How is this for player safety? The Ravens will host the Patriots on Sunday night football on Sept. 23, and then turn around and host the Cleveland Browns the following Thursday. Inexplicably, not a single one of the 14 Thursday night games this season features a team coming off a bye week. That could do more damage than Gregg Williams and his bounties.

Forwarding four April thoughts on Celtics, Sox, Bruins and Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 3, 2012 03:49 PM

T.S. Eliot said April was the cruelest month, but there is a lot to look forward to in the fourth month of the year in the foremost sports city in the country.

We have the recharged Bruins ready to defend their Stanley Cup crown in the NHL playoffs, the reconfigured Red Sox, replete with a new general manger, manager and closer, hoping to erase the grease stains of last season's epic collapse, the revitalized Celtics appearing ready to make one last championship run, and everybody's favorite rite of April, the Patriots trading out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Seriously, it's a fascinating draft for the Patriots, who have two picks in both the first and second rounds and are an impact defender or two away from Lombardi trophy No. 4.

With the foreword out of the way, here are four thoughts on each of the Big Four sports teams in town.

1. The Celtics are making Danny Ainge look smart -- It looked like Ainge had erred when he failed to pull the trigger on a trade at the deadline that would jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding process. But now Danny the Dealer looks shrewd for standing pat. The Celtics have won five straight and nine of their last 12 to jump from seventh in the East to fourth with a real chance to catch Orlando for the third spot.

The best part of the Celtics' recent renaissance has been the emergence of guard Avery Bradley, who has been a revelation while Ray Allen has sat out with an ankle injury. In his last five games, Bradley is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and playing defense better than a White House press secretary. He has given the Celtics a much-needed boost of athleticism in the starting lineup and a running mate for Rondo.

Even if the Celtics don't get beyond the second-round of the playoffs this stretch has been of enormous benefit, as it has turned Bradley from an NBA unknown into an asset. This is what Ainge does best -- turn late round picks into assets he can either hold on to (Rondo) or dangle out to attract better players (Al Jefferson).

Since taking over in 2003 here are the late-round players that Ainge has obtained through the draft either by selection or draft-day deal: 2003 -- Kendrick Perkins (trade with Memphis); 2004 -- Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen; 2005 -- Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes (second-round pick), both part of the Kevin Garnett deal; 2006 -- some guy named Rondo in a trade with Phoenix; 2007-- Jeff Green, the centerpiece of a deal for Ray Allen; 2010 -- Bradley (19th pick).

Not dismantling his team has been a strategic success for Ainge. It has made the pieces on his roster look more enticing to other teams, and it has made his team look more enticing to potential free agents, who may look at the Celtics now and realize that they could be a quick-fix, not a tear-down.

2. The Red Sox' standard operating procedure hasn't changed -- So, I created quite a stir with my piece on the dynamics between new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine. I think some may have missed my point, which wasn't that Cherington and Valentine were stabbing each other in the back with every sharp object they could find, only spoke to each other to spew invectives and were locked in a "The Hunger Games"-style battle for control of the team. (By the way, why is it "news" that a manager and general manager text and talk to each other frequently?)

The point was that the decisions on how to employ Daniel Bard and Jose Iglesias were going to tell us something about the Sox' organizational structure and whether it had changed with Theo Epstein's departure. It would appear not. It's still a collective process spearheaded by the GM.

Perhaps, making Bard a starter was a move that Valentine unwaveringly supported all along, but that seems even more dubious when taking into account the thumb injury to closer Andrew Bailey. This nugget from colleague Peter Abraham in which Alfredo Aceves, who really should think about starting his own Red Sox blog since he seems to break every story, said that Valentine told him Bard got his spot because the organization wanted him to is particularly telling.

Testing out Bard as a starter this season has always been particularly important to Cherington. It was something he was committed to. That's fact, not opinion. A first-year manager on a two-year contract at risk of losing the closer from an already suspect bullpen to injury wouldn't be leading the charge to turn one of the game's best late-inning relievers into a starter, not when he has other viable options for the rotation. He has to win now. Nothing undermines a team faster or produces more second-guessing of a manager than uncertainty in the late innings.

Valentine knows how much Bard can help him the back end of the bullpen. No one knows yet how much he can help him in the back end of the rotation. Yes, Valentine is on board with the idea of Bard being a starter, but that train had already left the station. He hopped aboard, but he'll claim he was the conductor.

3. The Bruins' hibernation is over -- Perhaps, the Spoked-B on the Boston sweaters stood for boredom and that was the explanation for the two-half month malaise --16-17-2 -- that culminated in an ugly four-game losing streak. Whatever it was, the Bruins are back and at the perfect time. They've taken points in five of their last six games and are 7-1-1 in their last nine.

It's not a coincidence that the Bruins renaissance dovetailed with that of their goalie, Tim Thomas. The Bruins stingy netminder hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts and has a .941 save percentage during that time. Which happened first, better defensive play in their own end or stouter play in their own net? Either way this is the type of hockey the Bruins are going to need to defend their Stanley Cup crown against a much tougher field than last year.

What is a little bit concerning about the Black and Gold this season though is that despite their propensity for scoring goals -- 251, trailing only tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia Flyers -- they're front-runners.

The Bruins are 3-15-1 this season when going down 2-0 and 4-20-1 when trailing by two goals at any point in a game. The Bruins are unquestionably built to play with a lead, but two of their signature wins last spring came when they trailed by two goals, Game 4 of the first-round against Montreal and Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers.

You would think a team with six 20-goal scorers would be a little bit better at digging out of holes. They might have to be because they're not going to have the same distinct goaltending advantage they enjoyed last season.

4. This draft should be about quality not quantity for the Patriots -- Over the last three drafts the Patriots have selected 33 players. The draft is seven rounds, so a team with one pick per round would have taken 21 players. This year the Patriots have only six picks, but all are in the top 126. The Patriots have done an excellent job of building depth, but what the Super Bowl proved was that high-end talent on defense takes the day.

It's time to find the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the defense. Along those lines they might have to take some chances. Some teams didn't even have Gronkowski (back injury) and Hernandez (off-field behavior) on their draft boards.

A player like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was booted out of Florida, spent last season at Division II North Alabama and has four kids with three different mothers, is a risk, but he could also be a Revis-like factor. Jenkins was the best corner in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.

He held A.J. Green, now of the Bengals, to four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones, the player the Falcons gave up a bounty to move up and draft last year, got four catches for 19 yards against Jenkins. Alshon Jeffrey, considered one of the top half-dozen receivers in this draft, had two catches for 17 yards against Jenkins.

It's a familiar refrain, but the Patriots need pass rush too, and as old friend, Mike Reiss, has often pointed out they spent 60-plus percent of last season in the sub defense. No one would call Mark Anderson, part of that package, a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but he was a significant part of that package and the Patriots' defense.

The Patriots tend to go for tall, long-limbed types on the outside (Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham) that can set the edge against the run, but to get an impact pass rusher they have to consider stepping outside of their prototypes and comfort zone.

Goodell laid down the law for Saints and NFL

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 22, 2012 12:54 PM

The severe punishment NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued to the New Orleans Saints for running a bounty program from 2009 through 2011 was as much about liability as it was culpability. It was as much about class action as it was the reprehensible actions of the Saints coaches and management.

In suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for a season without pay, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, as well as docking the Saints $500,000 and two draft picks, Goodell is sending a message, not only to teams and players, but to prospective jurors and judges in pending lawsuits against the league.

The wolves are clawing at the NFL's door, and Goodell knows it. More than 300 former players or their spouses are suing the NFL, claiming that it knew about the dangerous and deleterious effects of concussions and repeated blows to the head, but like Payton willfully turned a blind eye to the endangerment of players.

The family of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February of 2011, is also suing the league. Researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy studied Duerson's brain and determined that he suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a brain disorder caused by repeated head trauma that can result in loss of cognitive ability, depression and impulsive behavior.

Just last month, a lawsuit against the league was filed in New Orleans federal court by 11 ex-players who reside in Louisiana, accusing the league of ignoring the safety risks associated with concussions.

There is irony and hypocrisy in the NFL coming down as hard as it did on the Saints for attempting to gain from others' pain. For years the NFL has profited on the tacit glorification of violence. For most of its existence, the NFL has been a corporate bounty program.

Football is not a contact sport. It's a head-on collision sport and often the collateral damage of those collisions ends up being the bones, ligaments and, sadly now, brains of those who participate in the game.

In a way we are all culpable because to watch NFL football, which is a $9 billion business (and growing), is to suspend the boundaries of what is acceptable human behavior for entertainment purposes.

The changes the league has made to the rules and Goodell's crusade for player safety are as much about preserving the long-term health of the business of pro football as the long-term health of the players. As the cigarette industry learned, lawsuits and health warnings aren't good for business.

It's in this context that the Draconian discipline meted out to the sinful Saints by Goodell has to be weighed. Payton and the Saints were made examples of for the greater good of the league by the Judge Dredd of the NFL (I can picture Goodell in his office yelling, "I am the law!" with Stallone-like conviction.)

The thinking in these parts has gone that since the Saints' punishment was much, much greater than the Patriots', so was their crime. From a humane standpoint there is no comparison. "Bountygate" is infinitely worse than taping opposing teams' signals.

Offering monetary rewards for injuring people is morally reprehensible, totally unethical and a legal landmine.

But from a standpoint of potentially compromising the competitive integrity of the game, Spygate was the greater threat. Players in the NFL get injured all the time, whether it's intentional or not.

Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady in the 2008 season-opener was not the result of a bounty as far as we know, yet it was far more damaging than any blow a team with a bounty program registered in three seasons of dishonorable and disgusting behavior.

When Goodell issued the penalties for Spygate -- the Patriots were fined $250,000 and docked a first-round pick, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 -- he referenced why he didn't suspend Belichick.

"I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick," Goodell wrote in September of 2007. "I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice...is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension."

Tell that to Payton and the Saints.

Part of the problem with comparing the bounty situation in New Orleans to Spygate is that you're guessing what you're comparing intentionally trying to injure players to. The league never explained exactly what the Patriots were using the tapes for, and it destroyed them.

That has left more questions than answers and exposed the Patriots to all manner of speculation and conjecture. In what investigation do you destroy evidence that could exonerate the accused?

In his 2010 book, Payton revealed that before his team played the Patriots in 2009, he impersonated Belichick for them. Well, he did a pretty fair Belichick impression with the bounty scandal too.

In his statement explaining the Saints punishment Goodell referenced "integrity of the game," "willful disrespect of the rules" and a violation that "involves a competitive rule." Those were all in play for Spygate, except in that case Belichick wasn't just Payton. He was Payton, Loomis and Williams in one.

In 2010 after the Denver Broncos, then coached by Josh McDaniels, were fined by the league for taping parts of the San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London, NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said the Broncos case was "obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity."

In the end, the Saints' sentence wasn't based on integrity of the game or fair play or even their blatant dishonesty with Goodell. It was about Goodell trying to protect the NFL and its owners from absorbing the hardest, most painful late hit of all -- one to their wallets.

Five free NFL free agency thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 13, 2012 03:41 PM

Was it P.T. Barnum or every NFL player agent since the advent of free agency who grinned ominously and said, "There's a sucker born every minute"?

More often than not free agency turns out to be a Pyrrhic pro football endeavor. Inevitably, some covetous team with cap space will pay a No. 2 wide receiver like a No. 1 wide receiver or ink a presumed shut-down corner who shuts it down once he gets his money. NFL free agency is fraught with opportunity, but also with peril and outsized expectations. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.

Usually, the Patriots stay away from the fray of the NFL's off-season auction. But coming off a Super Bowl appearance and with Tom Brady turning 35 in August and auditioning for a post-football life of attending Lakers games dressed like a cross between Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen, free agency takes on a little more urgency for the Patriots than usual. The Patriots have a little more money than usual as well. Including the $1.6 million they'll get from uncapped year scofflaws Washington and Dallas, Bill Belichick has between $17.2 and $17.8 million in salary cap room to use to build his team.

Since things in free agency get costly quick, here are five free Patriot-centric thoughts.

1. Catches cap -- We all know the Patriots need help at wide receiver. That has led to speculation that making a play for Steelers restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace or San Diego Chargers unrestricted receiver Vincent Jackson would make sense. Don't plan on it.

The Patriots have an artificial cap of what they can pay a wide receiver on a long-term deal, and it's the $9.515 million franchise tag number they placed on Wes Welker. It would send a horrible message to Welker and the locker room if the Patriots didn't sign Welker, who set a franchise-record for receiving yards last year (1,569) and has led the NFL in catches since 2007 (554), and then lavished $9.5 million plus on a player who has never played a down in Foxborough.

Welker has been trying to get this contract since 2009, when he switched agents. Three years of blood, sweat, big hits, and a torn ACL deserve some kind of monetary merit. That's why Brandon Lloyd make so much sense. He'll be well below Welker on the pay scale.

To sign Wallace away from Pittsburgh, the Patriots would have to offer a deal probably north of $9 million per year, surrender a first-round pick, and probably alienate Welker. It's not worth it.

2. Safety considerations -- What the Patriots do, if anything, at safety will help indicate the future of Devin McCourty. If the Patriots strongly pursue one of the free agent safeties on the market like Reggie Nelson, who is looking for $5 million per year, or lower-cost options like Cleveland's Mike Adams or the recently-released O.J. Atogwe then it indicates McCourty's future is at corner.

One of those veterans could be paired with a draft pick to play opposite Patrick Chung.

The Patriots need a free safety type who can play center field like he's Jacoby Ellsbury. Those are increasingly hard to find. Neither of the top safeties in the draft, Alabama's Mark Barron or Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, completely fit that mold. They profile to be more like Chung, strong safety/free safety hybrids. McCourty has corner athleticism and excellent ball skills. He might be both the best and most cost-effective way for the Patriots to fix their safety play.

3. Hiring a new Law Firm -- The two flaws of the Patriots offense were that they couldn't threaten teams outside the numbers in the passing game and they couldn't exploit six- and seven-defensive back sets in the running game. Free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is expected to draw interest from other teams, is a reliable and admirable running back. But he didn't have a single run longer than 18 yards last season in 219 carries (including the post-season).

While he has 24 touchdown runs the last two seasons, second only to Arian Foster, most were the equivalent of tap-in putts. Paying a running back who can't make people miss more than $2 million per year doesn't make sense. Green-Ellis made $1.835 million last year.

A good free agent fit for the Patriots would be Ryan Grant. The 29-year-old Grant's stated first preference is to return to the Packers, but the Patriots should give him pause. Grant had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons before he missed nearly all of the 2010 season, tearing ligaments in his right ankle. He found himself in a platoon role last season. However, in the Packers' final five games, including the playoffs, Grant flashed some of his old form, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

4. (Pass) rush to judgment -- Mario Williams is a pass-rushing pipe dream. A return for Andre Carter makes sense if his torn quadriceps is properly healed. Mark Anderson was a bargain for the Patriots in his role as designated sub rusher; at a base salary of $1 million he produced 10 sacks.

But the Patriots should be wary of re-signing Anderson because his sack numbers through the first 10 games of the season (seven) were inflated by a combination of garbage-time sacks, poor competition, and blocking breakdowns. He could be Tully Banta-Cain 2.0.

John Abraham would be an upgrade as a sub-rusher. Second among active players in career sacks, Abraham is creeping up there in age -- he'll be 34 in May -- but he can still be a disruptive pass rusher that teams have to account for in their blocking schemes. Last season he had 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles while garnering much more blocking attention than Anderson. He's exactly the type of venerable veteran that Belichick likes to squeeze a final year or two of production out of.

5. Peyton's place? -- The Patriots have no control over where Peyton Manning decides to gesticulate at the line of scrimmage next season, but hopefully it's not the AFC. The Patriots faced three elite quarterbacks last season -- Eli Manning (twice), Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. They went 1-3 in those games. We can throw a broken-ribbed Tony Romo in there to pad the record to 2-3, but that necessitates an asterisk because Cowboys coach Jason Garrett went into the fetal position to protect a late 16-13 lead and didn't let Romo throw.

Unfortunately, for the Patriots it appears that no matter where and when the Peyton Across America Tour ends he's going to end up on the Patriots' schedule. Manning is presumed to have a final four of Denver, Arizona, Miami and Tennessee. All of those teams are on New England's schedule. Even the two Super Bowl-ready teams Manning would like to see express interest that really haven't, the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, venture to Gillette Stadium in the fall.

Imagine the Patriots' secondary trying to stop Manning from throwing deep to Larry Fitzgerald or a resurrected Randy Moss. I'd rather not.

It's Brady's turn to receive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 25, 2012 06:00 AM

INDIANAPOLIS - Tom Brady has it all, fame, fortune, an endless supply of toasty UGG boots, and a very supportive supermodel wife. So, what do you get for the guy who has everything?

If you’re the Patriots, you get Brady a game-changing outside wide receiver who can stretch defenses like spandex.

Most experts and fans are banging the table for coach Bill Belichick to augment the defense this offseason, rightfully so. Critiquing an offense that averaged 32.1 points and 428 yards per game and has a pair of tight ends who wouldn’t look out of place at the NBA All-Star Game is like complaining that Apple stock isn’t trading high enough.

But if the Patriots need any reminder that poking, prodding, and perusing pass catchers should be a priority here at the annual cattle call, err, NFL Scouting Combine, all they have to do is recall the last time they came to Indianapolis.

The Giants followed the blueprint for defending Brady in Super Bowl XLVI. They protected the middle of the field, made sure they didn’t give up a lot of yards after catch, and dared the Patriots to beat them outside the numbers and over the top. The Patriots didn’t have a Mario Manningham moment.

“We really didn’t make any big plays,’’ remarked Brady following the 21-17 Super Bowl setback. “You need those methodical drives. We put together a few of them. We just couldn’t put together enough of them.’’

Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said wide receiver was a position of strength in this draft, and with the Patriots possessing four picks in the first two rounds, including Nos. 27 and 31 in the first round, this could be the year New England dives into the wide receiver pool and makes a splash instead of a splat.

The Patriots and drafting receivers have gone together about as well as snow shovels and suntan lotion.

While the Patriots enjoyed historic offensive output with Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and won Super Bowls with free agent find David Patten, Deion Branch and David Givens remain the last homegrown wide receivers of repute. Branch, who turns 33 in July, came into the league in 2002 as a second-round pick, along with Givens, a seventh-rounder.

In the decade since, the Patriots have had about as much success finding a young receiver who can catch on as they did throwing to Chad Ochocinco this past season. The gridiron graveyard in Foxborough is littered with wideout picks who couldn’t grasp the offense or what it took to get inside Brady’s circle of trust.

Bethel Johnson (second round, 2003), Chad Jackson (second round, 2006), Brandon Tate (third round, 2009), and Taylor Price (third round, 2010) all lasted fewer than three seasons and all were at their fastest when they were being booted out the door.

Since Belichick became coach in 2000, the team has had only one homegrown receiver gain more than 1,000 yards: Bill Parcells holdover Troy Brown had 1,199 yards in 2001, although Branch had 998 yards in 2005.

The Red Sox have had shortcomings with selecting free agent shortstops. The Bruins have the never-ending pursuit of the puck-moving defenseman. The Patriots have young wide receivers as their personnel and personal Waterloo.

“Oh, yeah, we had hits and misses,’’ former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, now the general manager of the Chiefs, said yesterday. “Free agency [too]. Donald Hayes, I blew that one. No offense to Donald.

“It’s difficult sometimes to see a player in a different system, depending on the challenges of your offense. There is the physical part. Then there is the mental part of the NFL. There are some guys who can get by purely on athletic ability and skill and make a difference in college.

“As those players become pro players and other people around them improve, it sometimes becomes more difficult. Some of that becomes the mental game. The mental game in the pros is very different.’’

That’s particularly the case when you’re dealing with a quarterback that is an NFL Mensa member like Brady, who is known to have little patience for wayward wide receivers.

“There is no doubt. The thing about Tommy also is if you can’t think or think fast [snaps his finger], he’s going to find someone else,’’ said Pioli. “That’s the way it is. That’s the way it should be.’’

Pioli, who selected wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin in the first round last year, said he hasn’t changed how he evaluates receivers since leaving New England. “No, I think sometimes you hit and sometimes you don’t,’’ he said.

The Patriots are due for a home run. You would have to say that if the Patriots selected Kendall Wright of Baylor or Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers or Michael Floyd of Notre Dame or Joe Adams of Arkansas that the odds would be on their side.

Receiver is a position where the Patriots could use some youth. Welker and Branch, both of whom are eligible for free agency, are on the wrong side of 30. Welker turns 31 in May. Longtime Brady security blanket Branch would like to return to New England next season, but his pro football biological clock is ticking.

“Really, I think it’s about anybody that can help your team, whether it’s young, old, veteran player, older player,’’ said Caserio. “We’ve gotten production from that position. I mean, shoot, we threw for more than 5,000 yards in the passing game . . . We’ll address that position like we have to address any position.’’

They should address it in the draft. If they do their due diligence here, the Patriots might be able to get a Super Bowl out of Indianapolis after all.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

For Patriots, it's time to go all in

Posted by Staff February 10, 2012 07:34 PM

It's been almost a week since Super Bowl XLVI and the wounds are still raw, an entire region has replayed and reviewed the events of the loss to the New York Giants over and over like a doleful Adele song. But it's time to put the DVR remote down and move on because there is no time to sob over lost Super Bowls.

The draft is still a couple of months away, but the Patriots are very much on the clock. Tick, tick, tick goes the career of Tom Brady. The incredulous kid quarterback who hoisted his first Lombardi Trophy 10 years ago is going to turn 35 in August. Plus, there has been speculation about coach Bill Belichick hanging up his hoodie.

It was notable that after last Sunday's letdown at Lucas Oil Stadium, Brady mentioned four times in his post-game press conference variations of "Hopefully, we'll get back to another Super Bowl."

There should be a sense of urgency about making sure Brady gets another shot. Like any successful organization, the Patriots have taken the long-term view and remained consistent to their values. But it's time to go all in, borrowing a phrase from the Giants. We've reached the point where maximizing Brady's remaining prime years trumps any business model, value system or organizational ethos.

That means no more hand-me-down secondaries, no more ignoring the need for a premiere pass rusher that other teams have to game-plan for, no more pretending that the deep threat is a luxury, no more rolling over first-round picks like they're certificates of deposit.

The Patriots don't have to spend like profligate shop-a-holics, but they do have to extend themselves. If that means retaining Wes Welker and overpaying for Brandon Lloyd, or making Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril a monster offer, or, gulp, moving up in the draft by packaging the 27th and 31st picks so be it.

This is a golden era of football in Foxborough, but Brady isn't an alchemist. He needs more help.

Perhaps, Brian Hoyer is the next Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers, but if he's not, then not taking full advantage of Brady's window will prove more costly than any bad contract or failed draft pick.

All the Patriots have to do is look in their own division to see what life can be like after the departure of a Hall of Fame QB. Dan Marino last played in 1999, and the mantle of Miami Dolphins franchise quarterback has remained in abeyance ever since. Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season, and the Bills have made the playoffs twice since then, not at all this century.

Even teams that find worthy successors don't always experience the same success. Three-time Super Bowl winner Troy Aikman retired after the 2000 season. In 2006, Tony Romo, now a three-time Pro Bowler, established himself as Aikman's air (and heir) apparent. Yet, the Cowboys have won a grand total of one playoff game in the post-Aikman era.

Despite winning 13 and 14 games, respectively, the last two seasons, history says staying the course is not going to result in a trip to Super Bowl XLVII for the Patriots.

No Super Bowl loser has made it back since the 1992 Buffalo Bills, who returned the next season for a fourth consecutive Super Bowl defeat. After the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLII to the Giants, it took Brady four years to get back. If that happens again, he'll be 38. His current contract, which has three more seasons on it, only takes him to age 37.

Among Hall of Fame quarterbacks, only John Elway (back-to-back titles at ages 37 and 38), Johnny Unitas (37) and Roger Staubach (35) have won Super Bowl titles past the age of 34.

Elway won when he wasn't the Broncos best player. That honor belonged to running back Terrell Davis, who turned the stretch play into football's version of a perfectly executed pick and roll. Davis rushed for 1,750 yards in 1997 and led the league in rushing touchdowns. The next year he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored a league-high 23 touchdowns, earning MVP honors.

Staubach won his second Super Bowl during the 1977 season. But Staubach didn't begin his NFL career until age 27. Four years on active duty in the Navy delayed his debut with the Dallas Cowboys. Unitas won in 1970, but Baltimore didn't ride the gilded arm of Johnny U, who threw 14 touchdowns and 18 interceptions that season. The Colts were a balanced team with a strong defense.

The L word has become a dirty word in these parts in the aftermath of the Patriots' defeat in Super Bowl XLVI. Legacy. No one wants to discuss it or talk about it in regards to Brady or Belichick.

If last Sunday was the Super Bowl hurrah for the Belichick-Brady Patriots it's been a remarkable ride that has them shoulder to shoulder with the greatest coach-quarterback combinations in the game's history -- Otto Graham and Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr, Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.

Not winning another Super Bowl in no way diminishes the incredible accomplishments of the coach and the quarterback, but it would feel like a certain seven-pound, piece of sterling silver RSVPed, then never showed up.

The Patriots would be the Larry Bird-era Celtics, a great team with an iconic player that has an indelible place in local sports lore, but feels like it exited one championship short.

It is possible to both appreciate on-going greatness while acknowledging its looming expiration date.

The problem with simply blissfully enjoying the ride is that you're more likely to be left with regrets when it stops because you never looked up to see how much track was left.

Brady and the Patriots still have track. They have to go full speed ahead.

Patriots will have final word in Super Bowl XLVI

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 4, 2012 01:51 PM

INDIANAPOLIS -- Based on the amount of blabbing from the opposition you would have thought the Patriots were playing the other New York team in Super Bowl XLVI tomorrow.

The Giants have picked up the braggart baton from the Jets. The mandibles of the Giants have been moving at an Indianapolis 500 pace this week.

Quasi-guarantees, parade pronouncements, boasts about being inside the cerebrum of Tom Brady, declarations about Julian Edelman's effectiveness as a defensive back, jabs about the quality of Gillette razors (ok, I made that last one up) have filled the New York tabloids and to be sure the bulletin board of the Patriots.

Before either team arrived in Indy, wide receiver Mario Manningham said the Giants wanted Edelman on the field to take advantage of him.

Safety Antrel Rolle said on Tuesday that the Giants were going to win. On Wednesday, defensive lineman Chris Canty told Giants fans, "Get ready for a great game on Super Bowl Sunday, and get ready for a parade on Tuesday." Defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul said Thursday that Brady was so concerned about the Giants pass rush he felt phantom menace during New York's 24-20 win in Foxborough on Nov. 6.

The only thing that stopped the parade of Giants' slights was an end to media access for players on Friday.

The Giants' jawing is good for the Patriots. It's created an environment that is the reverse of Super Bowl XLII. Four years ago it was a football fait accompli that the Patriots were going to wrap up their perfect season with a Super Bowl title. All the expectations and pressure were on the New England sideline.

The Patriots weren't trash-talking like the Giants are this week -- that team was wound up tighter than a mattress spring that week -- but there was an air of arrogance and inevitable victory.

Who can forget when a bemused Brady was apprised of Plaxico Burress's prediction of a Giants' victory with Burress saying New York would win 23-17 (they ended up winning 17-14) and spouted out, "We're only going to score 17 points? Is Plax playing defense?"

That hubris extended into the game, typified by Belichick eschewing a 49-yard field goal in the third quarter to go for it on fourth and 13.

Now the Patriots are being underestimated instead of coronated, and loving every minute of it. They've favorites in Las Vegas only.

Belichick and Brady are eating this trash talk up regardless of what they're saying publicly. The Patriots don't need extra motivation to win a Super Bowl, especially against this team, but the Giants served it up to them in family-style portions.

"We just don't do that here. There is no need for that," said Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch. "We're going to settle this on the football field on Sunday, regardless of what happens. It's just like boxing. The tickets are already sold. The rating is going to be very high, so you don't have to boost it up anymore than what it's going to be. But if they're doing it that's those guys.

"We just don't do that over this way. There is no need for it. I promise you we're going to show up Sunday. So, we'll be there. Let's hope that they'll be there too because we're going to be there."

Let's call it what it is. The Giants feel like they have Brady and Belichick's number. We can characterize that as overconfidence, cockiness, arrogance or self-assuredness. It probably depends on your laundry allegiance.

Even Coughlin, a no-nonsense, old-school coach, hinted as much on Friday, when he was asked whether he was concerned about his team's cockiness this week.

"I think it’s just a matter of our team has played good football against a great football team," he said. "We always focus our team on confidence enough to get there and confident enough to get back. That’s the way we look at it."

New York matches up as well with the Patriots as any team during the Belichick-Brady era. They have more defensive linemen than the Red Sox have reclamation project starting pitchers. They have a Manning (Eli) at quarterback. They have a trio of talented young wide receivers. They have a coach that is equally schooled in the Bill Parcells tao of winning.

Since the Patriots beat the Giants 38-35 in the 2007 season finale, New York has held Brady and Co. to 34 points in the last two games. They held the Patriots scoreless for a half in the teams' regular-season meeting. Brady has more turnovers (four) than touchdowns (three) passes against New York in the last two games. Belichick hasn't been able to stop Manning from playing the hero as he led last second-drives in both Giants' wins.

Between the stories about Manning being better than Brady in the playoffs, the rehashing of how the Giants defensive line whipped the Patriots offensive line in Super Bowl XLII, and the saga of Rob Gronkowski's ankle sprain, the Patriots have somehow managed to be talked about like the 9-7 team instead of the 13-3 team.

The Patriots have sit back and soaked in the digs and the doubts -- Brady's party comments at the Patriots' pre-trip pep rally were innocuous everywhere, but New York.

They'll offer their rebuttal tomorrow at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"We're always a team where we do our talking on the field," said cornerback Kyle Arrington. "We let our play do the talking. They're obviously a confident bunch, and so are we. Whoever makes the most plays on Sunday is going to be the team deserving of the win."

Banal Patriot-speak has never sounded so good.

Will the New York loudmouths get the Lombardi Trophy? Fugetaboutit. The Patriots will have the final say this time.

Chad Ochocinco proves a man of his word

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 2, 2012 12:08 PM

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Chad Ochocinco has become for fans and media what he has not been for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady this season -- an easy target.

The ex-extroverted wide receiver has been chastised and chastened after catching 15 passes for 276 yards and one touchdown during the regular season.

His contributions in the playoffs have been skimpier than the attire in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. If Ochocinco catches a pass in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants, it will be his first reception of the postseason (he was inactive for the AFC title game after attending his father's funeral, and he played one snap against Denver).

After all those years of look-at-me-antics and ceaseless self-promotion, Ochocinco is finally at the mecca of the football world, but preaching it's really not about him. He's left the diva role at the Super Bowl to Madonna.

"Everybody, of course myself also, is emphasizing individual statistics this year about me not having a great season, me not producing in my normal way," said Ochocinco. "But for some reason it’s just so odd that I changed my ways, I approach the situation a lot differently and all the sudden I finally get to that stage.

"What do you want to take? One hundred catches, 1,000 yards and be at home enjoying watching from home, or not have the same numbers and have a chance of playing on the biggest stage of your life. What do you want? There’s one of them I've already done. This is something I’ve never done."

It's hard to tell if Ochocinco is trying to convince us or himself that playing a bit part on a winner trumps being the center of attention.

Even Brady said on media day that he hoped Ochocinco felt a part of the team's success.

"I'm on the 53-man roster. I'm part of it," said Ochocinco. "Again, the focal point, rightfully so, is on the individual numbers. This time it's coming from y'all. If it was the other way around I would get scrutinized for wanting the ball because I would be selfish and disgruntled. That would take care of the individual part, so there would be nothing to aim at. Everybody is aiming at the individual part, which I don't control. I learned maybe four or five years ago to stop fussing about things that are out of your control.

"That's what I've done, which was why I was quiet this year. There was really nothing for me to say. When my number was called I did my best to make that play."

It's a tad hypocritical for Ochocinco to claim it's the media that put the focus on him after he spent 10 seasons as the game's preeminent self-promoter. But he has a valid point.

Everyone is so caught up in what he hasn't done on the field that no one is crediting him for what he has done -- defy his diva wide receiver label and avoid being a distraction.

The king of 140-character missives has made a statement by showing his character.

"Chad has been outstanding in our meeting room. He's been very positive. I can't say enough about him as a person," said wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea.

"I didn't know him, so I didn't have a perception of him. I just know that since he walked in our door he's been outstanding in terms of trying to do everything we've asked him to do. I know that he's well-liked and well-respected in our locker room because of the way he's conducted himself."

Ochocinco hasn't lashed out about his lack of opportunity or productivity. There have been no sideline tantrums or selfish media ultimatums. He hasn't worn out his welcome like the Patriots' other high-profile off-season acquisition, Albert Haynesworth, or checked out like Randy Moss.

"I could have messed that feeling up a long time ago, complaining," Ochocinco said. "What's after New England? This is the best of the best. It's like dating Oprah. You lose Oprah and what the [expletive] is next?"

A quote with an expletive and an Oprah allusion? Ah, there's a glimpse of the old Chad. Maybe, it will translate to some vintage Ochocinco on the field on Sunday.

Probably not though, because Ochocinco was frank about the fact that after 18 games he does not have the trust of TB12, the death knell for any Patriots pass catcher. Ocho blamed the lockout for being at a loss.

"That two or three months that I would have had time to learn the system, to earn the trust of Brady, to get that timing down," he said. I think so many people think you get out there, you run the route, you get open. ... It doesn't work like that. There is a system. There is a way things are done. There is a Patriot Way. Until I get to doing it that right way consistently nine times out of 10 that's when everything comes in the flow.

"There was a time where [former Bengals QB] Carson [Palmer] could drop back with his eyes closed and throw the ball, and he'd know where I'd be. I need to be on that page with Brady."

The general assumption is that Sunday will be Ochocinco's swan song in New England, even though he's under contract for two more seasons. He disagreed.

"The first year of marriage is always rough. Going into next year I think it'll be a lot better."

Even if his Patriots' career is the equivalent of unholy matrimony, Ochocinco should be commended for conforming at all costs.

When he was traded to the Patriots after 10 seasons in Cincinnati, two playoff appearances and zero playoff wins, he said all he wanted was a chance to win, and he'd be content.

The smile is forced and veiled at this point, but even as a man of few words this season, Ochocinco has kept his word.

Legacy place at stake for Brady, Belichick

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 31, 2012 05:44 PM

Super Bowl 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- Legacy Place isn't just a nifty shopping center in Dedham. More than 900 miles away it's at the center of what Super Bowl XLVI means for Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

This is a game of Wilforkian proportions for everyone associated with the Patriots. But for Brady and Belichick, hoisting that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy would be a postscript to their greatest failure -- Super Bowl XLII -- and a capstone to their remarkable collective curriculum vitae.

Regardless of the outcome of the latest Roman Numeral Rumble with the New York Giants, Brady and Belichick are going to go down as two of the best in their respective fields in the history of the game. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has already taken their measurements for Canton canary yellow blazers. Belichick's might have a hood sewn on. Brady might ask that his be designed by Tom Ford. But they'll be wearing them.

Between them, Belichick and Brady have three NFL Coach of the Year awards, two NFL MVPs, and one perfect 16-0 regular season (2007). No coach and quarterback pair has ever won more NFL playoff games (16) or advanced to more Super Bowls (five).

However, Super Bowl XLVI is an opportunity for Belichick and Brady to take a jack and lift their pedestals even higher. Winning a fourth Super Bowl in five tries and doing it by avenging their lone defeat in the Big Game would buttress their claims to being considered the historical gold standard at their respective positions.

Prevailing this time against this team changes the historical context of the Patriots' shocking defeat to the Giants four years ago in Super Bowl XLII.

If Belichick and Brady are able to guide the Patriots to a win over the Giants, then history will largely judge the events of Super Bowl XLII as a fluke, a confluence of unlikely and improbable events that conspired to upset the natural order of excellence.

But another loss to the Giants and a continuation of the Patriots' championship "drought," fogs up their championship window and clouds their legacy.

Going 3-2 in five Super Bowls over an 11-year period is remarkable, but it doesn't qualify you for G.O.A.T (Greatest of all-time) status, not when Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Noll never lost a Super Bowl together and Joe Montana and Bill Walsh were a flawless 3-0 before Walsh handed the Lombardi Trophy on a silver platter to successor George Seifert for Joe Cool's fourth title in four Super Bowls.

If TB and BB lose, then pigskin posterity will frame them as brilliant frontmen of the Patriot Way who weren't quite able to duplicate the gridiron gestalt the Patriots' three Super Bowl teams from 2001 through 2004 had.

The players from those teams consequently will see their share of the credit grow, years later. In hindsight, the 2001, 2003 and 2004 teams had significant talent beyond Brady and Belichick, even if it wasn't recognized at the time: Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Roman Phifer.

The narrative of Belichick as a football alchemist who coaxes and cajoles castoffs and spare parts into championship play applies more to this defense than to any of the other previous Patriot Super Bowl entrants. The 2001 Patriots were 24th in total defense, but sixth in scoring defense.

It will be pointed out that the version of Brady that was a clutch game manager was more successful winning Super Bowls than the version that puts up video game numbers. And that dirty seven-letter word -- Spygate -- will retain a last flickering ember of relevance.

Brady was loath to discuss his legacy, but he admitted that losing Super Bowl XLII sticks with him.

"Any time you lose it's a tough thing," said Brady. "We've lost one Super Bowl. I remember waking up in Arizona the next morning after an hour of sleep thinking, 'That was a nightmare. That didn't happen.' "

Trust me, Tom, you weren't alone.

"After time, you learn to move on and get over it. ... When you win, you still probably get an hour of sleep. But that feeling doesn't go away for a long time. The winning, the things that go along with winning, those are really special memories that you have with a lot of close friends. It's a great feeling."

The Super Bowl XLVI storyline is that the big, bad 13-3 Patriots are taking on the peaking and piquant Giants. The Patriots are three-point favorites over New York in most places for one reason, two actually, Brady and Belichick.

Looking at it on paper, the Giants are probably the more talented, balanced team 1-53, and they already beat the Patriots in Foxborough on Nov. 6. The Giants did so without three offensive starters. New York has won five straight elimination games, and they ousted the league's most prolific offense (the Saints) and one of its stingiest defenses (49ers) from the playoffs.

It seems only fitting that in order to cement their legacy that Brady and Belichick have to go through a Manning. If it weren't for the progeny of Archie and Olivia Manning, the Patriots might have five Super Bowl titles by now.

In 2006, Peyton prevented the Patriots from winning a fourth title in six seasons by defeating them 38-34 in the AFC title game right here in Indianapolis. That was the most heartbreaking loss of the Brady-Belichick era until Eli did his big brother one better in Super Bowl XLII.

Now, Brady and Belichick have a chance to exorcise the demons of Super Bowl XLII at Peyton's Place and win a fourth Super Bowl.

It's not 19-0, but it would be perfect.

Super Bowl can't be a replay for Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 27, 2012 12:35 PM

There will be ad nauseam rehashing of the Game That Got Away. It's both tempting and torturous, like figuring out how much money would be in your 401K if the economy hadn't tanked.

Nothing the Patriots do is going to stop David Tyree from pinning the football to his head like a high school graduate securing a mortar board, or reverse an all-out blitz call that left gimpy cornerback Ellis Hobbs in man-to-man coverage with Plaxico Burress.

If we must make the rematch/revenge angle relevant for the Patriots matchup with the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI we don't have to revisit Super Bowl XLII four years ago. We can hit rewind and go back to Nov. 6, when the Patriots lost, 24-20, to the Giants at Gillette Stadium.

That was the last loss the Patriots suffered this season, and if they want it to stay that way then this rematch can't be a replay.

In that game the Patriots were using the long-since departed Phillip Adams as a cornerback in their nickel package. Albert Haynesworth was still just misunderstood, Josh Barrett was a viable option at safety.

Those guys won't be playing for the Patriots on Feb. 5, and neither will injured defensive end Andre Carter. Meanwhile, a trio of Giants offensive starters who missed that game -- wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, who had 1,192 receiving yards this season, leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw and center David Baas -- will be.

Defensively, the Patriots are going to have to be judicious in their use of man-to-man coverage and blitzes because their defensive backs do not match up well with Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham. Manningham, New York's third receiver had a touchdown in the first meeting when the Patriots blitzed and he beat Kyle Arrington, the Patriot's best corner, one-on-one.

But this game is going to be won at gridiron ground zero, the line of scrimmage. The key to Super Bowl XLVI is for the Patriots to be able to protect Tom Brady against the Giants' pass rush with five- and six-man protections, so they don't comprise the strength of their passing attack -- its wealth of targets.

The Giants are one of the few teams in the NFL with a tried and true formula for beating the Patriots. They used it in Super Bowl XLII, and they used it in November.

They're able to harry and harass Brady with their front four and then cover with seven. Those have always been the teams that give Brady the most trouble. It's what the Miami Dolphins did for years. It's what the San Diego Chargers did to him in the 2006 AFC Divisional playoffs, when he threw three interceptions and completed 52.9 percent of his passes.

It's how the Giants forced Brady into three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) and held the Patriots to three points through three quarters in November.

New York played most of the game with four defensive lineman, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The versatility of safeties Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle allowed the Giants to vary their looks. Rolle spent time covering Wes Welker one-on-one in the slot, and Grant, who was like a hybrid safety/linebacker, was often matched up with Rob Gronkowski.

New York also used a three-man line look that featured leading-sacker Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) at nose tackle and Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora as defensive ends to provide the kind of interior rush that bulldozed the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

New York made the line of scrimmage look like a congested New York subway platform, crowding 10 men around it and putting only a single high safety (Kenny Phillips) deep. The Giants showed zero respect for the Patriots ability to beat them down the field outside the numbers.

National anthem singers have spent more time on the field than Ochocinco in these playoffs, but if there were ever a game he could earn that $6 million paycheck this could be it. There was a reason that the Patriots targeted Ocho five times (zero catches) in the first matchup. They needed someone who could win outside the numbers. They're still going to need that in Super Bowl XLVI.

Perhaps scarred by their demise in the desert four years ago, the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick were so concerned with the Giants' ability to rush the passer that they abandoned their spread attack in the November game.

Rookie right tackle Nate Solder played 20-plus snaps as an extra tackle/tight end eligible and the Patriots kept Gronkowski in to pass protect more frequently than normal.

The result was better pass protection -- Brady was sacked twice, compared to five times in Super Bowl XLII -- but a worse offense because the Giants were able to smother two-and three-man route concepts with seven pass defenders.

Both of Brady's interceptions came with Solder on as an extra blocker. Brady's first pick came with just a two-man route concept, the second on a three-man look. His third-quarter fumble came with the Patriots using a protection that had both Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in to block.

The Patriots didn't start putting points on the board until they began pass protecting with five or six.

Starting with the Patriots initial touchdown drive, which began with 2:09 left in the third quarter, the Patriots ran 20 pass plays, 16 of them they had four or five receivers available to Brady. Only once did they have a two-man route concept, which resulted in a 28-yard gain to Wes Welker when the Giants were frozen by play-action.

The Patriots scored 17 points in the final 17:09 of action.

Sounds simple, but the Patriots tried handling the Giants defensive line this way in Super Bowl XLII, and Brady saw more of the turf at University of Phoenix Stadium than the groundskeeper. That's the dilemma for Brady and Belichick.

No one said revenge was going to be easy.

Patriots defense answered call and critics

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 23, 2012 03:46 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Faith can be defined as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." That's how you would have to describe the idea that the Patriots possessed a championship defense -- until yesterday.

Let the record show that it was the defense -- with an assist from an errant kicker (Billy Cundiff) and a gridiron guardian angel (Myra Kraft) -- that won the AFC championship for the Patriots and set up a rematch with the New York Giants.

That's right the doubted, derided and dissed Patriots defense, the one that gave up the second-most passing yards in the history of the league and resided near the bottom of NFL rankings all year, is the reason that the team is going to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI after a nerve-wracking 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.

No less an authority than quarterback Tom Brady stated it.

"I sucked pretty bad [Sunday], but our defense saved us," said Brady, who was limited to 22 of 39 for 239 yards with two interceptions and had his streak of 18 straight postseason games with a touchdown pass snapped.

Hearing those words -- "our defense saved us" -- come out of Brady's mouth was as unlikely as hearing "and the Academy Award goes to Blake Lively."

But it's true. The defense bottled up Baltimore's Ray Rice and made up for a minus-two turnover disparity by holding the Ravens to one touchdown in four red zone trips.

The question from the outset of this season was could the Patriots win a playoff game if Brady was less than exceptional? Put more bluntly, it was is this defense good enough to win anything?

For all the blame-tossing at Brady for last year's 28-21 loss to the Jets, it was a 14-11 game at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Patriots defense allowed Mark Sanchez and the Jets to sashay into the end zone, covering 75 yards in just five plays.

It was easy to point the finger at Brady because he's the quarterback, and NFL quarterbacks are like presidents and the economy. When times are good they get too much credit. When times are bad they get too much blame.

But fixating on Brady's play following the Jets' loss last year merely showed how distorted the view of championship football had become around here. We had been spoiled by Brady and a Patriots offense that since 2007 has lit up the scoreboard like the Esplanade on the Fourth of July. Points are pretty, champions are gritty.

You can't win a championship on one side of the ball. Just ask Dan Marino.

For most of this season, as the Patriots' auditioned defensive backs on a weekly basis and used so many different combinations of defenders that teammates could have used name tags, it appeared not much had changed from last season. TB12 could've still claimed the defense as dependents on his 2011 tax return.

But yesterday, a unit that had been written-off answered the bell and its critics (right here).

The defense set the tone for the game by holding the Ravens to minus-6 yards on their first nine plays, and they provided the denouement with clutch defensive play in the fourth quarter to protect a precarious three-point lead.

Brady and the Patriots offense mustered just 31 yards and three first downs in the fourth. The Ravens held the Patriots to their second-lowest offensive yardage output of the season, outgaining New England, 398 to 330. It didn't matter.

Unlike the previous nine games, the performance of the Patriots' defense could not be chalked up to incapable quarterbacking. Beleaguered Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco silenced his critics as well, going 22-39 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

This was about young players like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, who had a huge fourth-quarter interception, and Patrick Chung earning their stripes.

It was about a disposable, undrafted rookie defensive back who a few months ago was mistook for an employee at a Best Buy in Mansfield, Sterling Moore, making the play of the season, dislodging the ball from Ravens receiver Lee Evans to save a go-ahead TD with 22 seconds left.

It was about the proud doyen of the defense, Vince Wilfork, playing like a man possessed. Toggling between left defensive end and nose tackle, Wilfork was in the Ravens backfield almost as much as Rice. He single-handedly ended a Ravens threat late in the fourth, stopping Rice for a three-yard loss on third and 3 at the Patriots' 30 and then pressuring Flacco into a desperate, fourth-down fling.

No one was happier for the defense than their offensive teammates, even if some like Deion Branch couldn't bear to watch the fateful final drive by Flacco and the Ravens.

"I think that's the defense we've been expecting all year," said right guard Brian Waters. "Outside, look, we don't really pay much attention to the noise outside of this locker room. We know what we have in here. They just showed the rest of the country what we already know.

"This is what I wanted people to see. That we're really a good defense. You tell your friends. You tell your family, 'Nah, we're really better than our numbers seem.' But it's better when those guys are able to show it."

They also showed the rest of the country that defense still matters in the NFL. If the Patriots had applied the same brand of defense to the postseason that they did to the regular season they'd be at home with the other offensive-oriented teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers.

Instead, the Patriots are one win away from joining the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the 2009 New Orleans Saints as defenses that outperformed their regular-season reputations and were rewarded with Super Bowl rings.

It's not about blind faith anymore. Now, seeing is believing.

Patriots can't squander Super opportunity

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 20, 2012 02:51 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Maybe Steve Wynn wants to rethink trying to put a casino in Foxborough. If patrons are going to experience the same sort of favorable fortune that the Patriots, who can advance to Super Bowl XLVI Sunday with a win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, have enjoyed this season it's not worth the trouble.

Opportunity isn't knocking on the door in Foxborough. It's bashing it down with a medieval battering ram. This might be the best chance that Tom Brady, 34, and Bill Belichick, 60 in April, have left to add to their legacy and trophy collection.

Nearly all relevant obstacles to a championship have been removed from the Patriots' path, as if Mark Henderson plowed the rest of the playoff field aside for them the way he created a tidy swath of turf for the game-winning field goal in the Snowplow Gamein 1982.

No Peyton Manning. No Ben Roethlisberger. No Rex Ryan. No Drew Brees. No Aaron Rodgers. This playoff field is as soft as a pair of Brady's UGG boots.

Events have lined up perfectly for the Patriots to host tomorrow's AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium and punch their ticket to a fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons. Call it karma for Patriots owner Robert Kraft helping to save football and end the lockout.

In a season of unabated offense in the NFL that may go down as the Year of the Quarterback, the Patriots can advance to the Big Game without having to take down a single elite signal-caller. The list of quarterbacks the Patriots avoided playing in the AFC playoffs reads like a Pro Bowl program: Manning, Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub and Philip Rivers.

Here are the quarterbacks they will have beaten if they earn their way to Indianapolis -- Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco.

Tebow's teammate, Champ Bailey, said Tebow has to learn to throw from the pocket, kind of an important quality for an NFL quarterback.

Flacco sounds like the Eeyore of NFL QBs. He has spent all week bemoaning critiques and a shortfall of respect after Baltimore safety Ed Reed said he looked "rattled" in the Ravens' playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

Flacco possesses a 5-3 playoff record, including a win over the Patriots in 2009. However, he threw just 10 times in that game and has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) in his postseason career. Brady threw six playoff touchdown passes last week against Denver. Flacco is still the best quarterback the Patriots have faced in 11 weeks.

Avoiding high-quality quarterback play is a minor miracle when you consider the Patriots' pass defense allowed the second most passing yards in the history of the league (4,977), 11 yards short of equaling the ignominious record set by this year's Green Bay Packers.

However, the Packers faced two of the three quarterbacks who topped 5,000 yards this season, Brees, who set the NFL single-season record for passing yards, and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (twice). The Patriots faced none of the 5,000-yard club, unless you count going against Brady in practice.

If the Patriots go to the Super Bowl they will have to contend with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who until this year was one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history, or Giants QB Eli Manning, who beat the Patriots back on Nov. 6.

New England's history in a Super Bowl with Eli is little bit like Mary Todd Lincoln's with the Ford Theatre, but I'd still take my chances with Manning the Younger over Brees or Rodgers, who would slice and dice the Patriots' secondary like an "Iron Chef" contestant.

Making the Patriots' championship run even sweeter is the fact it's occurring while their two biggest rivals, the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets, are in utter disarray.

The Jets' season ended amid bickering, backbiting and locker room division that made the Red Sox' September collapse look like a company picnic.

Imitating their outspoken coach, Gang Green has held nothing back, ganging up on each other with anonymous putdowns in the press. Players called wide receiver Santonio Holmes a "cancer" and criticized Brady wannabee QB Mark Sanchez as "lazy" and "coddled."

Even better than the schadenfreude from the fallout of the J-E-T-S, mess, mess, mess is that the Patriots could celebrate a championship in the backyard of their staunchest rival, and enjoy a week of Super Bowl stories about how the Patriot Way has endured while the Colts blueprint for success has been revealed to have fatal design flaws.

Super Bowl XLVI is at the Colts' home field, Lucas Oil Stadium. You think Belichick wouldn't enjoy toting the trophy around at the site of his most questioned coaching decision ever, the famed failed fourth-and-2 in 2009? He could stick it to both the Colts and his critics. That's as close to nirvana for His Hoodiness outside of Nantucket.

This is simply an opportunity too good to be wasted by Brady and Belichick, who can become the only coach-QB combo to advance to five Super Bowls and join Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw as the only duo to win four.

All they have to do to be reminded of the fugacity of such an opportunity is look across the field at Ravens safety Bernard Pollard.

After the almost-perfect '07 season, it was assumed the Patriots would simply pick up where they left off. Instead, Pollard, then a Kansas City Chief, plowed into Brady's left knee in the first quarter of the 2008 season opener.

It's taken New England four years since then to get this close to another title shot. They might not get another this good.

The board is clear, Patriots. Don't waste a chance to do something Super.

Patriots can't be left defenseless against Flacco

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 17, 2012 04:10 PM

The NFL playoffs have shown us that defense may have been resting during the 2011 regular season, but it's not dead.

Preventing points is still as important as scoring them in the most meaningful football games of the season. Just ask the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers, owners of two of the most prolific offenses in the history of the league and front-row seats in front of their flat-screens for Sunday's NFC Championship game.

As the Patriots prepare to face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday in the AFC Championship game, they should take heed of the demise of their offensive-oriented brethren. Undone by untrustworthy defenses, New Orleans and Green Bay have franchise quarterbacks, wads of stats, and nothing else to show for this season.

The Saints, Patriots and Packers were ranked 1, 2, 3 in the NFL in total offense this season. They were the three highest-scoring teams in the league with New Orleans, which set an NFL record for total net yards (7,474), scoring 35 points per game, followed by Green Bay (34.2) and the Patriots (32.1).

The Saints, Patriots, and Packers also aligned at the bottom of the league's pass defense -- ranking 30th, 31st and 32d, respectively. The Patriots are the only ones left standing to try to make the case that a great offense can override all in today's fantasy-football inflated NFL.

That's why Sunday's AFC title game isn't going to be decided by strength against strength. We know what Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense can do. We know what Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens' parsimonious defense, which has surrendered an NFL-low 11 TD passes this season, can do. (By the way, it's comical that it's now en vogue to pick apart the Ravens' defense based on competition when the Patriots have been feasting off desultory opposing QB play for nine weeks.)

The AFC Super Bowl representative is going to be determined by weakness against weakness -- Baltimore's inconsistent and oft-critiqued quarterback against the Patriots' double-jointed, bend-but-don't-break pass defense.

Can the Patriots defense befuddle Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who played some defense of his own lately? Or does a Patriots' defense that has been doubted and derided all season long follow the disturbing trend set by New Orleans and Green Bay and exit the playoffs stage left?

One side will earn the respect it has been clamoring for all season. The other will earn the ire and I-told-you-so's of it's disappointed fan base.

The mistake some of the Foxborough Faithful have made the last couple of years after playoff losses is to put all the blame on Brady and the offense. When TB12 ushered in this Era of Good Feelings in Foxborough by winning his first 10 playoff games only twice did his team top 30 points.

The Patriots scored 32 points in Super Bowl XXXVIII to beat Carolina and 41 points the next season in the 2004 AFC title game against Pittsburgh, with one of the scores coming on an 87-yard interception return by Rodney Harrison. Scoring 30 points should not be a prerequisite for playoff victory for any Super Bowl aspirant.

The Patriots did a remarkable job of humbling Tim Almighty and the Broncos last week in a 45-10 victory, but that was a Denver offense as one-dimensional as they come. Tebow is a devout Christian, but he displayed shockingly little faith in his own ability to put the ball between defenders to open receivers.

Going from Tebow to Flacco is like going from fractions to the Pythagorean theorem.

Still, if you administered sodium pentathol to Bill Belichick two months ago and told him the best AFC quarterback he would have to beat to reach the Super Bowl was Flacco, he would have waved his hoodie over his head in celebration and said, "That's it?"

Flacco is a solid quarterback -- he's thrown 20 or more touchdown passes three years in a row -- but he'll never be confused with Johnny Unitas. Even Reed, a teammate, has openly questioned Flacco's play, saying he was "rattled" by Houston, and command of the Baltimore offense.

He is 5-3 in eight playoff games, including a playoff win over the Patriots two seasons ago, but has been an Average Joe in the postseason. He has completed just 53.1 percent of his passes and thrown more touchdowns than interceptions (six vs. seven). When he beat New England, the best part of his game was handing off to Ray Rice. An injured Flacco threw the ball just 10 times.

Flacco has a big frame (6-foot-6, 245 pounds) and a big arm, but he fumbles under pressure more than Rick Perry. Jumbo Joe fumbled the ball nine times this season and once last week against the Houston Texans. He had 10 fumbles combined last year between the regular season and playoffs.

If there has been a saving grace of the Patriots defense this season, it has been their ability to generate turnovers.

Flacco has had his moments this year, like when he led the Ravens to a comeback win in Pittsburgh, throwing for 300 yards and tossing the game-winning touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left. But his completion percentage dropped five percentage points from last year to 57.6. That number is all the more surprising considering his leading receiver was Rice, who had 76 receptions.

Baltimore was only 19th in the NFL in passing offense this season. That's hardly elite, Joe.

While this is a season-defining game for the Patriots defense. It is a career-defining contest for Flacco, who is coming to Gillette to prove he can be a franchise quarterback.

Despite some flaws, Flacco is the most accomplished quarterback the Patriots have faced since they lost to Eli Manning and the Giants on Nov. 6.

Mark Sanchez. Tyler Palko. Vince Young. Dan Orlovsky. Rex Grossman. Tim Tebow (twice). Matt Moore. Ryan Fitzpatrick. It's been a good run.

If the Patriots allow Flacco to do to them what 49ers quarterback Alex Smith did to the Saints -- have a career-defining day -- then you can cancel that Indianapolis itinerary.

For O'Brien, challenge awaits at Penn State

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 7, 2012 08:48 AM

FOXBOROUGH - Patriots offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien is not being hired as head football coach at Penn State to reform the insular milieu that allowed former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to allegedly prey on young boys.

He’s being hired to win football games and graduate players, in that order.

It’s not the place of a football coach to dictate the culture of a university or be regarded as a weather vane for rectitude. That flawed belief is what got Penn State into this mess in the first place.

The 42-year-old O’Brien can put Penn State on the path of righteousness, but if he loses to Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa too often he’ll be the latest Bill Belichick disciple who struck out on his own.

O’Brien is too smart not to know the challenge awaiting him at Penn State, which has become Unhappy Valley over his selection as Joe Paterno’s successor.

Around these parts, Patriots followers are perplexed that Penn State fans would not immediately drop to their knees and thank their lucky stars that a Belichick acolyte would choose to leave Fort Foxborough for a . . . college job.

Boston is a pro sports town, always has been, always will be. No one even noticed when Matt Ryan had Boston College ranked No. 2 in the country four seasons ago. Penn State can get 106,000 fans for a game against Indiana State. The only way BC would get 106,000 fans is if they held a weeklong tailgate.

College football is autumn background noise here. It is a religion replete with zealotry in places such as State College, Pa.

Penn State supporters don’t care that O’Brien was Tom Brady’s position coach last year when he became the first unanimous most valuable player in NFL history, or that the Patriots have averaged 32 points per game in each of the last two seasons, or that he oversaw an offense that set a franchise record for net yards this season (6,848).

They expected a big-name hire, and in their minds, O’Brien is as uninspired as Penn State’s prosaic helmets. That doesn’t mean he is not ultimately the right person to replace Paterno, the all-time winningest coach in the history of major college football. But it’s yet another blow to a beleaguered and embattled school to realize O’Brien was the most high-profile coach interested in the gig.

Usually, barking at Brady on the sideline doesn’t mean you’re the top choice to take over one of the most storied programs in the college football, especially if you’re an NFL assistant coach with no pro or college head coaching experience who last recruited for Duke.

Taken solely on its football merits, Penn State should be one of the most prestigious jobs in college football. It’s the sixth-winningest program in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 827 victories.

However, after the sordid Sandusky revelations, potential candidates treated the opening like it was radioactive.

Enter O’Brien, who is taking advantage of an opportunity that otherwise might not be afforded him.

The vitriol from former Penn State players such as Brandon Short and LaVar Arrington and the Penn State Football Letterman’s Club is rooted in the delusion that Penn State is still a desirable job, not just O’Brien’s lack of a Penn State pedigree.

After all, like O’Brien, Joe Pa was a Brown graduate with no connection to Penn State before he arrived as an assistant coach in 1950, setting the stage for him to become head coach in 1966.

“There is a tangible standard at Penn State that this poor guy [O’Brien] knows nothing about,’’ Short told USA Today. “I feel badly for him [because] he is clueless and will not have the support of the majority of the Lettermen. This is a hornet’s nest.’’

I doubt that Short and Arrington, who said he was going to put all of his Penn State memorabilia into storage because of the school’s decision not to hire interim coach Tom Bradley, would be so adamant about the new coach having ties to the school if Penn State had announced it had hired Nick Saban or Urban Meyer.

With all due respect to the aptly named Billy O, the Patriots will be just fine without him unless he’s taking Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Wes Welker with him to State College.

Brady has evolved to the point where like his Indianapolis counterpart, Peyton Manning, he is basically the co-offensive coordinator and quarterback.

Word is that former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who oversaw the record-setting 2007 offense, is already lined up for a Foxborough reunion. So, it’s possible the Patriots could not only lose nothing in losing O’Brien, but upgrade slightly.

It wasn’t that long ago there were questions as to whether O’Brien could live up to the high standards McDaniels set during his time running the Patriots’ offense. Although O’Brien has been the Patriots’ primary play-caller since 2009, Belichick didn’t officially bestow the coordinator title on O’Brien until this year.

As for the playoff run, the sprained left shoulder Brady has and the team’s charitable pass defense are a much bigger threat to their playoff aspirations than O’Brien being distracted by his new job. O’Brien is too dedicated and detail-oriented to lose focus.

National Signing Day is Feb. 1, which is four days before Super Bowl XLVI, but O’Brien can burn up the phone lines to try to convince recruits to sign on the dotted line and game plan at the same time, just like Charlie Weis did in 2004, when he was revving his engines for South Bend.

O’Brien is taking a job he has to take, but, if the early reaction is any indication, he’s not going to be fighting just to change the perception of Penn State to outsiders. He’s going to be fighting to change the perception Penn State insiders have of him.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

Brady should be a quarterback idle

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 30, 2011 02:10 PM

Take a seat, Tom.

You've shouldered the load for the Patriots all season long with less margin for error than a Gallup poll. Now, it's time to rest your banged up left (non-throwing) shoulder, one that was hurting you badly enough that it required X-rays and remains bothersome enough that it caused you to miss practice time on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Leave the gambling in Foxborough to your owner, Robert Kraft, and his buddy, Steve Wynn. Absorbing a couple more blows to lock up home field in the AFC playoffs isn't worth it, not at age 34.

Understudy Brian Hoyer can handle the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Playing is a risk neither you nor the Patriots can afford to take if you want to get back to winning playoff games and lifting Lombardi trophies.

The reality is that there is no such thing as a "minor injury" when the injured party is Brady. Any malady that the franchise quarterback is dealing with is significant because so much of the team's blueprint for success is based on Brady playing like the Hall of Fame quarterback-in-waiting that he is. The slightest possibility of a physical ailment that could affect his performance or alter his Swiss timepiece throwing mechanics is cause for pause and consternation among the Foxborough Faithful.

Every hit like the plow job Denver's Elvis Dumervil unleashed on Brady two weeks ago, every Manny Ramirez-esque awkward slide, every quarterback sneak is an exercise in risk management because if Brady goes down the Patriots' go with him. How can you look at it any other way based on the shaky performance of a bend-but-don't-break defense that is more malleable than an arts and crafts pipe cleaner and has allowed 76 completions of 20 yards or more, 16 more than the next closest team, the Miami Dolphins?

The Patriots' three losses this season have all come in games that Brady wasn't his usual transcendent self. The 34-31 loss to the Bills in September came when Brady tossed four-interceptions in a game for the first time since 2006. The 25-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers remains the only game this season in which Brady passed for fewer than 200 yards. The 24-20 loss at home to the New York Giants stands as the sole contest this season in which Brady completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw multiple interceptions.

Fortunately, it does not appear that Brady's left shoulder is grave enough that is poses a real threat to the Patriots' playoff aspirations. Unfortunately, according to Wes Welker, it appears the Patriots plan to play Brady on Sunday.

Update (4:37 p.m.): The team has listed Brady as probable for Sunday's game, which the NFL defines as a "virtual certainty the player will be available for normal duty."

As coach Bill Belichick has often repeated, the Patriots don't play for individual records, so Brady being on the cusp of a 5,000-yard season (4,897) and four touchdown passes away from joining Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 40 or more TD passes bears no relevance, unless Belichick goes Sean Payton.

Neither does securing home field throughout the AFC playoffs, the most compelling reason Brady would play. The Patriots have already secured a first-round bye and a home playoff game in the divisional round. If they avenge their September defeat to the Bills on Sunday then the road to Super Bowl XLVI goes through Fort Foxborough.

That's a nice trump card to have. However, as the Patriots learned last season, the AFC's No. 1 seed and home turf is meaningless if Brady doesn't play like Brady.

TB12 was a bit off his game against the New York Jets last year, hesitant and unsure, and the Jets rendered a 14-2 regular-season a football footnote by ushering the Patriots out of the playoffs with a shocking and painful 28-21 victory.

If this Patriots team is really different from that one -- and they've acted and played like a whole lot mentally tougher bunch than the 2010 version -- then having to potentially play the AFC title game in Pittsburgh or Baltimore is not going to be the difference between returning to the Super Bowl or not, especially since Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a high-ankle sprain.

Both the 2001 and 2004 editions of the Patriots went into the Steel City and won the AFC title game. Even last year's team went into Heinz Field and delivered a resounding 39-26 victory over the Steelers.

Giving Brady essentially three weeks to rest his shoulder and any other maladies -- the Patriots first playoff game will be either Jan. 13 or Jan. 14 -- is more important than postseason geography.

But Brady probably plays on Sunday because despite his pretty-boy public persona in a tough-guy league he is as tough as they come. You don't play quarterback for a season with three cracked ribs and a broken finger like Brady did in 2009 without being tough. Also, pride will push him to play against the Bills after he threw four picks, including one returned for a touchdown, in the Patriots' first meeting with the Bills.

Brady has always been one to mentally keep score, whether it's the quarterbacks who were drafted ahead of him or the coaches like Ryan who have challenged him.

That's why it's up to Belichick to make the call. It's a tough one. Belichick doesn't want to take his foot off the gas, and finishing strong has been a theme of this season. He's trying to teach a young team how to win.

Yet, in the back of his head Belichick has to be thinking back to the 2009 season finale, when thanks to the NFL Network's documentary/infomercial on him we know he debated sitting Welker. He didn't, and Welker tore up his knee on the Reliant Stadium turf, ending his season and for all intents and purposes that of the Patriots, who got bludgeoned by Baltimore at home the next week.

Just because Brady can play doesn't mean he should. Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor.

Patriots have New Year's resolution

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 26, 2011 04:50 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots are done playing football games in 2011. Their regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills will come on the first day of 2012, and we are left to hope this really is going to be a new year with a new resolution for the Patriots, and not simply a painful repeat.

The Patriots' 27-24 comeback win over the Miami Dolphins Saturday, their seventh straight win, displayed why there is ample reason to believe in this Patriots team as we approach the playoffs and also why there is a blinking yellow caution light at the intersection of Patriot Place and Playoff Victory Lane.

The Patriots won a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime, didn't have the entire left side of their offensive line and played without their best pass rusher, Andre Carter. They won in part because the biggest tackle of the game didn't come from Jerod Mayo or Vince Wilfork. It was made by placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, who clipped Miami kick returner Clyde Gates as he appeared destined for the end zone and a 24-3 Miami lead, fitting for a team that has conscripted wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater into duty as defensive backs.

Saturday's win reinforced the qualities -- perseverance, mental toughness, opportunistic play, versatility -- that make it quite plausible for the Patriots to land in Indianapolis Feb. 5.

"It doesn't matter how you win, but good teams find a way to do it," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

Absolutely. The Big Man is right, and the early- and mid-2000s Patriots were like the NFL's Thomas Edison, constantly inventing and engineering new ways to win. There is a healthy dose of that win-engineering expertise in this year's team, which has clinched a first-round bye.

At the same time, you can't ignore the presence of some of last year's flaws as well, the hyperventilation-inducing pass defense (the Patriots allowed pass plays of 39, 47 and 41 yards to Miami), the reliance on turnovers, the dependency on quarterback Tom Brady and a prolific passing attack, the absence of a reliable deep threat or chunk plays in the running game.

So, the lingering fear remains that the Patriots are just as likely to be setting us up for disappointment again, as they are for a prolonged playoff run. They're capable of either. It's why the playoffs remain the crucible that will define this season.

What is undeniable is that this team has the resolve and resiliency of a championship outfit.

"At halftime, we basically said we're going to see what kind of team we have," said cornerback Kyle Arrington of trailing the Dolphins. "I thought we did a great job of fighting back, not quitting. It's a pretty mentally tough team."

They proved that bouncing back from consecutive losses to pound the Jets in a must-win. We've seen it when they've trailed against Philadelphia, Washington, Denver and now the Dolphins.

"We've played enough games, and we know when we are down that we're not going to go in the tank," said Arrington. "We know how we're capable of playing, and it's all about just playing to that level. Once we get there we'll be alright. We'll be successful. That's what it was [Saturday]."

True. But it was also Matt Moore and Dolphins center Mike Pouncey botching a snap, and Moore underthrowing an open Brian Hartline, turning a would-be touchdown into Devin McCourty's first interception of the season, the same way Vince Young underthrew an open DeSean Jackson. It's also been Santana Moss getting called for offensive pass interference on a game-tying touchdown, then bobbling a catch that became a game-sealing interception, and Quan Cosby inexplicably muffing a punt he never should have fielded.

It's to say that the Patriots have benefited at times not only from their own reservoir of resiliency, but also their opponents' stream of miscues and misfortune.

Their winning streak is the result of some combination of both, but if the winning formula is more resiliency than opponent mishaps then this team will win in the playoffs. If it's the inverse and a false sense of security has been created by weeks of playing backup, has-been, wannabee and maybe QBs then the Patriots will be unmasked in the postseason again.

What you can get away with against Miami or Washington, you might not be able to get away with against Pittsburgh or Baltimore, if you catch Joe Flacco on a good day.

And while I think we have become spoiled by this team's exemplary success -- nine straight seasons of double-digit wins -- I would submit that Patriots' fans used to criticize the Indianapolis Colts as being simply a regular-season team. It was the ultimate putdown, casting the Colts as a team built only for the rigors of the regular season, when Indianapolis invariably padded its offensive stats and win totals against teams of lesser talent.

But when the competition and pressure were ratcheted up their brand of football was exposed as NFL empty calories. The Patriots are treading close to that moniker themselves, if they don't deliver in the playoffs this season.

With the Glory Days Patriots it wasn't always pretty, but it was often gritty. This Patriots team can be both -- sometimes in the same game. However, Deion Branch, a member of the 2003 and 2004 title teams, downplayed any comparisons.

"Nah, I just think overall it's kind of hard to compare this team with the guys in the past," Branch said. "This team is so young. We had a veteran team way back in the days."

This team's predecessors got their reputation and by extension the franchise's by winning in the playoffs. That's the only way the current Patriots can restore it and allay our fear that this might only be a new year on the calendar.

Patriots were the big winners of Week 15

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 20, 2011 03:16 PM

Every once in a while you have one of those weeks, where it feels like the universe is working for you and not against you. The Patriots, a team that has benefited from its share of good fortune over the years, just had one of those weeks.

The way events unfolded in the NFL in Week 15 felt almost like like Bill Belichick had turned the rest of the league into his pigskin puppets, and he was just pulling the strings and smirking along the way.

The only way that the week could have been gone any better for the Patriots would have been if Tim Tebow's apparent attempt at divine healing Andre Carter after he suffered a quadriceps injury that will mothball him for the remainder of the season had worked.

Perhaps this was the first sign on Sunday that Tebow was going to be exposed as a false football prophet by the Patriots.

The lack of a miracle cure for Carter aside, the NFL axis shifted decidedly in the direction of Foxborough in Week 15. The two biggest stories of the NFL season -- the rise of Tebow and the Green Bay Packers' pursuit of a perfect 16-0 regular season -- both got overridden and overwritten by the Patriots.

In his first game as interim coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel did his old boss a favor, taking out the 13-0 Packers. Crennel and KC handed Green Bay their first loss of the season and made a goal line stand for the legacy of Belichick and Tom Brady.

Thanks to the Chiefs, the 2007 Patriots will remain the only team in NFL history to post an unblemished regular season record since the league moved to a 16-game slate in 1978, and the Patriots' record of 21-straight victories, set in 2003 and 2004, is also intact. The Packers were threatening it with 19 in a row.

Hours after Crennel and Co., beat back the Pack, the Patriots won their sixth straight game by defeating Tebow and the blessed Broncos. They did so in impressive fashion, battling back from a 16-7 deficit for a 41-23 win. It was a victory that showcased why this year's Patriots team feels different than the versions that have failed in the past two postseasons.

Losing arguably their best defensive player this season in the first quarter, Carter, and without their security-blanket second receiver, Deion Branch, the Patriots displayed the mental toughness and resiliency that was their hallmark during the aughts. They roared back to overwhelm the Broncos, who were looking to make a statement with a win over NFL royalty.

"No question, resiliency would have to be the theme of the day," said wide receiver/safety and captain Matthew Slater. "These guys have had it rolling, they had the Tebow-mania, and rightfully so. They've been playing well and winning games on the road. We were on the road, we were struggling early, and yet we found a way to pull it together and get a win.

"I think that speaks to the character of this football team. It speak to the guys on this football team, and how we feel about one and other. We go out there and play for each other. It's as simple as that. Win, lose or draw, we're going to play for each other. We did that [Sunday]."

That's old-school Patriot-speak.

The Patriots always say they can only control what they can control, but it felt like they were controlling the outcomes of other games that mattered to them.

All of their competitors for the best record in the AFC -- the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers -- lost, ceding to the Patriots the inside track for the AFC's top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Steelers' loss last night to the San Francisco 49ers was a particularly welcome development since Pittsburgh has a tie-breaker over the Patriots by virtue of their victory over New England on Oct. 30.

As an added bonus, Jets coach Rex Ryan moved one step closer to eating his words. The J-E-T-S suffered an embarrassing 45-19 L-O-S-S to imperil their playoff chances. It's always a good week in these parts when the Jets fail.

At 11-3, New England has a one-game lead on the rest of the pack in the AFC, and if they take care of business against Miami this Saturday and Buffalo on New Year's Day, the next road trip the Patriots will have to pack for would be an excursion to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.

How great would that be? The Patriots playing in the Super Bowl in the city of their most fierce rival over the last decade.

The Patriots' victories weren't confined to stadiums across the league on Sunday and Monday. They signed linebacker Jerod Mayo to a five-year, $50-million extension that became public knowledge on Saturday, and last Wednesday the NFL announced that it reached a nine-year extension on the television contracts it has with CBS, NBC and Fox for approximately $3 billion dollars.

The chairman of the NFL's broadcast committee is none other than Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

That's some six days.

We can only hope that the Patriots saved some of that good fortune for the playoffs.

Tim Tebow, pitchman for piety

Posted by Jason Tuohey December 16, 2011 07:46 PM

There is a segment of the football-following public who would like to see Tim Tebow brought to his knees for a reason other than his faith.

The Patriots don't usually have a lot of fans outside of New Englanders and members of the Boston sports diaspora, but you can bet this Sunday, when they take on Tebow and the Denver Broncos, they'll be some NFL fans rooting fervently for them to end Tebow's turn as a Cinderella signal-caller.

Regardless of whether you believe in Him, err, Tim or not, it's hard to deny there is something special happening with the Broncos, be it divine intervention or simply a fortunate football team bonding behind a new quarterback, a la the 2001 Patriots. The Broncos, who started 1-4, have become born-again winners since inserting Tebow into the lineup, winning seven of eight, six straight, and authoring five fourth-quarter comebacks to seize the top spot in the AFC West.

Tebow has become a polarizing player, and the constant caveats detractors attach to his success are not solely because of his throwing motion or his reliance on running the ball. There is just as much intolerance of Tebow's pious nature as there is of his unorthodox style of play.

How else do you explain the scathing criticism that Tebow has endured even though he keeps winning? Yes, there are not many successful NFL quarterbacks who complete 48.5 percent of their passes, and throw a football like Johnny Damon's long-lost cousin. But there have been other NFL QBs with elongated or unusual throwing motions -- Byron Leftwich comes to mind -- who weren't subjected to the same derogatory and derisive comments that Tebow has inspired.

The problem isn't how Tebow plays. It's how he prays. Tebow repeatedly thanks the Lord and mentions God in his post-game interviews, and is open about promoting his religious values and virtues.

Even though the NFL plays on Sunday, a holy day, and the phrase Hail Mary is a part of the football lexicon, it is a secular enterprise. Many fans demand the separation of church and snap. There are some fans and analysts who seem to simply resent the fact that Tebow has injected religion into their Sunday ritual.

Full disclosure, I'm not particularly religious, but I have no problem with Tebow conveying his piety each Sunday. It's no worse than a NASCAR driver shouting out his sponsor after winning a race, or Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wearing a TB12 cap to the podium some times.

Instead of a shoe company or a clothing brand, Tebow has an endorsement deal with God.

He's not pitching a brand of sneakers or a car. He's pitching Christianity, and as long as he does it without denigrating any one else's religious beliefs or lifestyle choices it shouldn't be an issue.

Truthfully, few pitchman have ever done as good a job of generating publicity for their product as Tebow is doing for piety. He is the talk of the NFL and the country.

What has been known since the 1600s as genuflecting is suddenly a social phenomenon know as "Tebowing," thanks to the hype surrounding Denver's devout quarterback. The pious passer has even become a political frame of reference with dunce-cap debater/Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry declaring himself to be the "Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses," a nod to Tebow's penchant for miraculous fourth-quarter comebacks.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said earlier this week that Tebow has sparked a greater discussion of spirituality and faith in this country that is good.

"I feel if that is true, I’d take that as a huge honor," said Tebow. "I feel if I can be a good role model, if I could make faith something cool, having a relationship with Christ something cool, then I think that would be awesome. I think one of my biggest prayers, more so than scoring touchdowns or winning games, is to try to be a great role model for the next generation and someone that always puts my faith first no matter what.

"Someone that is hopefully an athlete that parents can look at their kids and say, ‘You know what that’s someone who is trying to do it the right way. He doesn’t always. He messes up, but he always tries to give credit to the Lord. He always works as hard as he can, and he’s trying to do the best that he possibly can.’ I think that’s something that I’m definitely working on."

It is notable that Tebow has been subjected to iconoclastic criticism, when from a football standpoint he is an iconoclast. He goes against the accepted model of what constitutes a successful NFL quarterback. For years we've been told that you have to be a proficient pocket passer to win in the NFL, that the gimmick offenses of college football like the spread and option attack won't translate. Tebow has proven those beliefs wrong so far.

Tebow's intangibles may be unique, but his physical skills, while impressive, are not.

There have been other mobile quarterbacks who, if given the opportunity, could have had the success Tebow is having in the NFL if a team tailored its offense to suit that quarterback's skills. What would Doug Flutie have done with an offense constructed around his mobility? How about Kordell Stewart or Randall Cunningham or countless successful college quarterbacks?

It's hard to believe that a higher power doesn't have more important matters to attend to than deciding the outcome of football games. If the Patriots lose to the Broncos on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High it will not be because God is a more of a Broncos fan than a Patriots one.

But Tebow obviously draws strength and poise from his faith. It's a part of his success, and he shouldn't have to apologize for it.

Gronkowski is quite the catch

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 13, 2011 01:33 PM

300gronk.jpg


It's selling Rob Gronkowski short to label him as just a tight end. He has transcended such a narrow classification.

Common football taxonomy cannot possibly describe how impactful a player Gronkowski has become for the Patriots in less than two full NFL seasons. You can call Gronk a lot of things -- cult-hero; "a beast," as former Patriot and current Washington wide receiver Donte' Stallworth did; a football free spirit who has replaced Jonathan Papelbon as our resident sports screwball.

What we should start calling him is one of the greatest offensive threats in the game.

Forget comparisons to fellow tight ends Jermichael Finley of Green Bay and Jimmy Graham of New Orleans. We should be mentioning the Incredible Gronk with Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson or Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, all game-breaking offensive players who routinely defy defenses and the laws of physics to find the end zone.

Since Gronkowski, who broke the NFL single-season record for touchdown receptions by a tight end on Sunday in the Patriots' 34-27 win, collecting his 14th and 15th as part of a six-catch, 160-yard day, entered the league in 2010 no one has caught more touchdown passes. No one.

Gronkowski has 25, one more than Johnson. Only one player in the league has scored more touchdowns the last two seasons than Gronkowski -- Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (28). Gronkowski's 26 total TDs equal that of Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy.

Gronkowski has a chance to be the first tight end ever to be the solo league leader in TD receptions in a season.

Patriots guard Brian Waters has some experience and expertise with transcendent tight ends from his days with the Kansas City Chiefs. For nine seasons, Waters was a teammate of Tony Gonzalez, the doyen of modern-era indefensible tight ends and the man who holds the NFL records for most receptions (1,142), receiving yards (13,275) and touchdown receptions (95) by a tight end.

Listen up when Waters said he's never seen anything like the 6-6, 265-pound Gronk.

"Gronk, he's kind of a freak of nature in comparison to Tony," said Waters. "Tony is a good basketball player, great athlete. Gronk is a different type of breed. He really has done a great job of using his athletic ability, using his size more than anything, as you can see when he tears from tackles and gets yards after catch.

"As much as I love Tony, and I think he's the best ever, I never saw Tony do some of the things I'm seeing him do, and the fact that he still has so much more that he can do, it's an amazing thing to watch."

There are few plays more amazing than the 49-yard catch-and-run Gronkowski had on Sunday against the Redskins. He made a diving catch at the 50, got up and carried Washington safeties DeJon Gomes and Reed Doughty on his back along the sideline long enough to demand cab fare before flinging them to the FedEx Field turf while miraculously -- bet we'll be hearing that word a lot this week with Tim Tebow on tap -- staying in bounds. He was finally (and barely) chopped down by Josh Wilson, but not before stumbling to the Washington 11.

It was like watching an adult play tackle football with a bunch of sixth-graders. The last time a Patriot gave you that feeling it was Randy Moss. Gronkowski is becoming a Moss-like figure.

Yes, the games of Gronkowski and Moss couldn't be more dissimilar. Gronk bowls over, breaks through and bounces off tackles like a super-sized stunt man. Moss wouldn't put his shoulder down to run over a parking cone. He relied on blazing speed and aerial body control that would make a Russian ballet dancer envious.

But their effect is the same, a matchup nightmare for defenses who is open even when seemingly covered.

Tom Brady has displayed the same unwavering faith in Gronk that he had in Moss in 2007, when he would simply throw the ball up with the belief that Moss would just go get it regardless of defenders. That was evident on Gronkowski's two touchdown receptions on Sunday.

On the first, Gronkowski was blanketed by Gomes, but Brady placed the ball up high and Grokowski out-rebounded Gomes for it. Unstoppable.

On the second, Washington blitzed on third and 12 from the 37. Gronkowski feigned pass blocking Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, then released. Kerrigan, hardly a Lilliputian at 6-4, 267 pounds, tried to corral Gronkowski. He couldn't. Brady lobbed an alley-oop that Gronkowski leaped up and grabbed, discarded Kerrigan like an empty candy wrapper, and raced to the end zone.

"I think Gronkowski and Brady just click so well," said Kerrigan. "That throw he made where I missed the tackle and Gronkowski scored, that was a heck of a throw, right over the top. Great catch, not much you can do besides make the tackle."

Yep, not much you can do, and he's only 22.

Gronkowski, who has 71 receptions for 1,088 yards this season, is the tight end that Patriots fans thought Benjamin Watson would be, a God-gifted specimen who is uncoverable.

"It's a bad matchup either way you go," said Waters. "Even if you put your best cover guy, cover safety, cover linebacker, you just can't do it. As he continues to grow and continues to get better on the small things, he's going to be even more unstoppable. Then the fact we got another guy on the other side [Aaron Hernandez] who is just as talented -- in a lot different way -- but just as talented it can make us a difficult matchup at times."

As Waters pointed out Gronkowski "blocks like crazy". That's what separates him from the other top-notch, pass-catching tight ends in the league like Finley and Graham, both of whom are really overgrown wide receivers.

But we're beyond limiting Gronk to tidy tight end comparisons.

Right now, the lovable big lug is the most potent weapon in pro football.

12 thoughts on the Patriots in 2011

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 9, 2011 11:25 AM

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.

There is no mistaking a Belichick team

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 28, 2011 12:16 PM

PHILADELPHIA -- Asante Samuel warned his teammates all week. In another football life, he was a New England Patriot. He tried to tell the Philadelphia Eagles what it would be like facing a Bill Belichick-coached team, the NFL version of a staring contest where the Patriots' gaze is unwavering.

Samuel conveyed the message that any mistake would be magnified, any weakness probed and exploited, any error potentially fatal in a football sense. He knew that Belichick's Patriots, no matter how obscure some of the names on the back of jerseys, have one defining characteristic: they don't beat themselves.

"I definitely told the team that," said Samuel as he exited the Eagles' locker room after the Patriots' prophetic 38-20 victory over Philadelphia yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field. "I told them that was probably what Belichick was emphasizing -- let us make all the mistakes and we'll beat ourselves. That's exactly what happened."

The Dream Team was dusted by the Scheme Team.

Next to the surgical play of quarterback Tom Brady, who took advantage of a depleted Eagles secondary by going 24 of 34 for 361 yards and three touchdowns, the ability to avoid self-inflicted wounds with few exceptions is the defining characteristic of the Patriots. Discipline and diligence are embedded in the team's DNA.

It's why they're sitting at 8-3 tied for with Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the best record in the AFC, despite a defense relying heavily on players who were discarded or disregarded. The same defense that limited the NFL's leading rusher LeSean McCoy to 10 carries for 31 yards, 22 of which came on one rush.

Anyone who watched the NFL Network's Belichick documentary/infomercial chronicling the 2009 season remembers him saying after a loss in New Orleans, "I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. It’s so frustrating."

The exact opposite is true this year. This team is playing exactly the way Belichick wants them to play -- efficient, exacting, and consistent -- no matter who is at safety or linebacker or center.

"I think they're trying to do their part in terms of physically and mentally, day after day, week after week, be consistent, be dependable and do what we ask them to do," said Belichick. "I know we demand a lot, and this isn't an easy place to play. And I'm not an easy guy to play for, but they have tried to respond. I give them credit for that."

Translation of Belichick speak: I really like my team and the way they play.

You wonder if secretly Belichick likes it better this way, playing with a bunch of fringe players who will buy into him like a high-tech company IPO.

He knows that the Antwaun Moldens, Phillip Adams, Sterling Moores and Julian Edelmans are going to take every word he says as the gospel. More established or talented players might be more concerned with their stats, their rep around the league or showing up on ESPN. These guys not only take coaching, they crave it because they know the alternative is unemployment.

It sounds so simple: just play smart, detail-oriented, disciplined football. Every coach preaches it, yet few teams play it. Week after week in the NFL you see teams pushing the self-destruct button with poor clock management, situational ignorance and suspect decisions. These are largely foreign concepts in New England.

Belichick's ability to consistently get his teams to lock in and play smart, tough, disciplined football -- even with a revolving door defense -- is remarkable, like watching a conductor coax a particular timbre out of an orchestra. The job he is doing this season is deserving of mention with the coaching masterpieces of 2008 and 2004. The 2001 season is of course the untouchable pièce de résistance.

Players win football games. Let's get that straight. But the ability to put players of varying talent levels in a position to succeed collectively is the essence of great coaching.

Never was the difference between a collection of talent and gridiron gestalt more obvious than watching the Patriots whip the Eagles yesterday. Even without quarterback Michael Vick and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia has more talent on paper. On the field, the Eagles broke out to a 10-0 lead, scoring on their first two drives with the help of deep passes from Vince Young to Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson.

After that they dropped touchdown passes, played flag football -- 10 penalties for 60 yards -- and got ground down by the Patriots' excellence of execution. The performance was so bad that the always venomous and vociferous Philadelphia fandom chanted for the dismissal of coach Andy Reid and derided its own team with calls of "overrated."

Samuel called the game "probably one of the most embarrassing losses that I've ever dealt with."

The play of each team's undersized wide receiver defined the divide between a team from the House of Hoodie and one from another NFL outpost. Edelman will never be the dynamic downfield receiving threat that Jackson is, but somehow he did more to help his team win yesterday, including covering Jackson on occasion.

While Edelman threw his body around on offense, defense, and special teams like a crash-test dummy, Jackson lost both his concentration and his right to be on the field, getting benched by Reid.

Jackson made a business decision by dropping a would-be touchdown catch in the second quarter, when he heard the footsteps of linebacker Tracy White. He dropped another touchdown late in the third quarter, letting a deep ball from Young slip through his hands in the end zone.

You can't win without talent -- and the Patriots have that -- but you can win with less of it when you play a brand of football that minimizes miscues. That's what the Patriots are doing on this three-game win streak, during which they have one turnover.

When it comes down to it there is just no mistaking a Belichick team.

Patriots defense is still a mystery

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 25, 2011 03:42 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- There are certain mystical questions that are just unanswerable, beyond the powers of human cognition.

What is the meaning of life? Why does one sock vanish without a trace from the laundry? What was Kris Humphries thinking? Do the Patriots possess a championship-caliber defense?

The last of those was the fundamental question facing Bill Belichick and his team entering the season. Ten games into what looks like another superlative campaign (7-3) and a day or so before they play their final game of November, against the Philadelphia Eagles, we're really no closer to a definitive answer to a crucial query that will dictate the Patriots' football fate than we were when training camp commenced in July.

And a schedule devoid of elite passers down the stretch isn't going to help. It's a shame it appears we won't get to see the fast-improving Patriots' defense tested by a Philadelphia offense at full strength.

The Eagles have the third-rated offense in the NFL, trailing only the Saints and the Patriots. They have the NFL's leading rusher in LeSean McCoy, but they're unlikely to have Michael Vick, who hasn't practiced this week due to broken ribs. Plus, speedy wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (hamstring/shoulder) and Jackson (foot) are injured. Maclin is listed as doubtful for Sunday, while Jackson is probable.

After this it's a QB club consisting of Curtis Painter, John Beck/Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow, Matt Moore and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

This season has always been about the defense, whether it has Phillip Adams or John Adams at cornerback or Sterling Moore or NESN's angry angler Charlie Moore at safety, it has to deliver. It can be a no-name unit. It just can't be a no-game unit come playoff time, like the last two seasons.

When you stack the Patriots defense up against the other defenses of AFC contenders it makes you a little nervous.

The top three defenses in the NFL reside in the AFC and belong to the Patriots' competition -- the Houston Texans rank first, followed by Pittsburgh and the Ravens. The Texans (second), Steelers (third), Jets (fifth) and Ravens (sixth) all are among the top pass defenses in the league, although Tom Brady seems to have figured-out Rex Ryan's esoteric schemes.

You can chide Baltimore for losing to Seattle and Jacksonville, but the Ravens turned the 49ers into stuffing on Thanksgiving. Baltimore probably sacked San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith a 10th time on his way to the airport.

So, the odds that on the road to the Super Bowl the Patriots will face what passes for a defensive struggle in today's pass-happy NFL are good. Beating Tyler Palko with Julian Edelman in your backfield is one thing, doing it to Ben Roethlisberger or even (Just an average) Joe Flacco is quite another.

We all know what the Patriots offense is capable of with Brady and his bunch. The defense is once again the solve-for-X in the Patriots' Super Bowl equation.

Remember back in the preseason when the Patriots were going to have a ravenous and Raven-like defense? Jerod Mayo was going to be turned loose and turned into Ray Lewis. Devin McCourty was going to lock down receivers like Darrelle Revis. Patrick Chung was going to channel his inner Rodney Harrison. The defense was going to go from dyspepsia-inducing to dynamic.

It hasn't happened that way. Combined Mayo, McCourty and Chung have one sack and one fewer interception than Vince Wilfork (two).

Other players have emerged, chiefly Pro Bowl-deserving corner Kyle Arrington, the NFL leader in interceptions who plays like he has charted opposing team's throws on Google Maps, and defensive end Andre Carter, a pro's pro who has proven true the preseason prediction of a miscast defensive lineman from the Washington Redskins boosting the Patriots' defense.

But on balance the defense is still a hold-your-breath, bend-but-don't-break enterprise, when faced with a competent NFL quarterback, something they haven't seen since Eli Manning left Fort Foxborough with a comeback win.

The Patriots better hope Belichick was right when he pronounced stats were for losers. They still rank last in the NFL in total defense and pass defense. They're the only team in the NFL allowing more than 400 yards of total offense per game (404.2), but the passing yardage has finally dipped under 300 per contest (299.5). It was at 324.7 after the loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 30.

The good news from a New England perspective is that in the most important defensive stat of all -- points allowed -- the Patriots pass the litmus test. After allowing a total of 19 points in their last two games, the Patriots are 10th (20.3 points per game).

That's better than the undefeated Green Bay Packers, a club that is oft-cited when Patriots followers get defensive about the Super Bowl credentials of their defense. Green Bay is allowing 20.6 points per game.

The perfect Packers, who are attempting to duplicate the unblemished 16-0 regular-season of the 2007 Patriots, are 30th in total defense (393.4 yards per game) and ahead of only the Patriots in pass defense. However, the Pack does lead the NFL in picks with 22.

Here is the oversight on the Packers-Patriots allusions and delusions. Green Bay's defense allowed just 15 points per game last year and was fifth in total defense and passing defense. They still have Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. So, despite their slide down the defensive rankings this season there is tangible prior proof that they're capable of playing like a championship defense when needed.

They submitted more evidence on Thanksgiving in limiting a Lions team that has topped 40 points three times to 15 points. The Pack held Matthew Stafford to under 300 yards on 45 throws and intercepted him three times. Calvin Johnson had four catches for 49 yards and a garbage-time touchdown.

We're still waiting for that kind of resounding proof from the Patriots' defense, and through no fault of their own we're probably not going to get it until the postseason.

The question lingers, so will the answer until January.

Easy does it for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 18, 2011 06:43 PM

Forget Foxborough. With the run of good fortune the Patriots have enjoyed this week, coach Bill Belichick should take a ride down to Foxwoods. The way things have been going for the Patriots, he'd walk away with enough earnings from the casino for a new contract for Wes Welker and money for a veteran assistant coach.

Last week at this time, the outlook for the Patriots was more dour than a post-loss, press conference from the coach. The Patriots were coming off consecutive defeats and staring down both a three-game losing streak and antagonist Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. It was all doom and gloom and drafting critiques on the local radio airwaves. Elegies were being offered for the dynastic run of the Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots.

Now, following their statement win last Sunday night over the Jets, the 6-3 Patriots have to be considered the presumptive favorites in the flawed AFC thanks to their couch cushion-soft schedule the rest of the way and a confluence of injury happenings around the rest of the league that benefit their cause.

Beginning with Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots have the easiest schedule in the NFL the rest of the way. New England's final seven opponents -- KC, Philadelphia (road), Indianapolis, Washington (road), Denver (road), Miami, and Buffalo -- boast the lowest winning percentage of any team's remaining competition at .338 (22-43). To finish worse than 12-4 the Patriots would have to close the season with halftime meals of beer and fried chicken.

The toughest game of the not so magnificent seven looks like the trip to Denver, a perpetual house of horrors for the Patriots, for a date with Tim Tebow. The pious passer embarrassed the Jets with a come-from-behind win on Thursday evening, putting the NYJ further in the Patriots' rearview mirror at 5-5. But devout Patriots fans have faith that their God (Belichick) will trump Tebow's in that matchup.

If the schedule wasn't enough to help Belichick and Co. get homefield advantage in the playoffs, then the injury misfortune of the other AFC front-runners could be. All three of the Patriots' chief competitors for the top seed in the AFC have hurting franchise players.

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger pocked more holes in the New England pass defense then Red Sox ownership did in the resume of Dale Sveum. But Big Ben has a fractured thumb on his throwing hand. He's going to play through it, but it could affect his accuracy the rest of the season and the 7-3 Steelers' run for the No. 1 seed.

It was revealed Friday that ageless Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is dealing with a toe injury that is going to prevent him from playing on Sunday against Cincinnati and could put him out of Thursday's Harbaugh holiday family reunion between the Ravens and San Francisco 49ers and beyond.

One team that truly should have put fear into the hearts of Patriots fans was the Houston Texans, tied atop the AFC with the Steelers. The Texans have one of the NFL's best running backs in Arian Foster and one of its top wide receivers in Andre Johnson. They have a defense that has gone from worst to first under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Houston also had the type of quarterback in Matt Schaub who could pick the Patriots' pass defense clean like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

The key word is had, past tense. Houston has a problem -- Schaub is out for the year after he suffered a Lisfranc foot fracture last Sunday.

The Patriots probably won't have to face a completely healthy, passing proficient, NFL-starting-caliber quarterback until the season finale at home on Jan. 1 against the Buffalo Bills, who have Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.

Chiefs QB Matt Cassel, Brady's former understudy who got his big break the last time Kansas City ventured to Foxborough, had surgery on his injured throwing hand earlier this week.

Philadelphia's Michael Vick suffered two broken ribs in a loss to Arizona last week. He is going to try to play with the injury, but anyone who watched Brady play with fractured ribs in 2009 knows how that injury can lessen the effectiveness of a quarterback. After that, the quarterbacks on tap are Curtis Painter, John Beck, Tebow, and Matt Moore.

Are we sure the Colts are the only NFL team with horseshoes on their helmets? It sure seems like the Patriots have one somewhere, if not on their helmets then down lower, perhaps. It's all breaking right for Belichick and Brady to get another crack at Super Bowl No. 4.

If there was ever a season to win the AFC title with a suspect secondary and a work-in-progress defense in a pass-happy league this is it. There is no Peyton Manning. San Diego's Philip Rivers leads the league in interceptions (15) and looks like he's hiding an arm injury. Roethlisberger has a bum thumb. Schaub, who since 2009 has thrown for more yards than anyone but Drew Brees and Rivers, is out of commission. Baltimore's Joe Flacco looks like a slightly better version of Mark Sanchez.

Of course winning the AFC requires winning a playoff game, something that hasn't happened for the Patriots during the Obama administration. We're not going to learn much about this Patriots team until the playoffs.

But a little bit of luck has always been part of the Patriots' playbook. Remember in 2001, when David Patten being unconscious, partially out of bounds with the ball nestled against his leg allowed the Patriots to beat Buffalo in overtime? The perfect regular season in 2007 season doesn't happen if the Ravens don't negate a fourth-down stop with a timeout and then another stop is negated by Russ Hochstein's fortuitous false start.

The old bromide goes that it's better to be lucky than to be good. Under Belichick the Patriots usually have been both. This season is shaping up as no exception.

Patriots don't mind quarterback gap

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 14, 2011 03:24 PM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Maybe it should be In Tom We Trust.

It is largely thanks to Tom Brady that the Patriots find themselves returned to their rightful place atop the AFC East and chiding their doubters, following a 37-16 win over the New York Jets.

The Patriots' order-restoring, hysteria-avoiding win over the Jets boiled down to the comparison between the two quarterbacks, and the fact there is no comparison.

While Brady was carving up one of the league's best pass defenses, Jets quarterback (Off the) Mark Sanchez couldn't capitalize on playing against the league's worst-rated pass defense, even though the Patriots were missing Patrick Chung, out with a foot injury, and cornerback Devin McCourty, who suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter.

We have the education gap, the income gap, the credibility gap and in the Patriots-Jets rivalry the quarterback gap. The last might be the most yawning of all, and as long as it exists in its current form the Jets will be looking up in the division standings. Truthfully, the Jets know that Sanchez is not Brady, so they've relied on coach Rex Ryan and cornerback Darelle Revis to level the playing field.

However, whatever Jedi mind tricks Ryan was using on Brady with disguises and simulated pressure and repeated public pronouncements that Peyton Manning is just a little bit better don't work any more. Brady has cracked the code of the wise-cracking Jets' coach's vaunted defense. While last night Sanchez just cracked.

In two games against the Jets this year, Brady has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 650 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. That interception should have been another touchdown pass, as in the October 9 meeting, Aaron Hernandez had an apparent TD pass escape his grip and land in the hands of Antonio Cromartie.

Those numbers are staggering considering coming into the game the Jets had held opposing passers to just five touchdown passes all season and a 51.7 percent completion percentage, both of which were tops in the league. Half of the TD passes allowed by the Jets in nine games this year have been thrown by Brady.

As good a job as Patriots coach Bill Belichick and his defensive coaching staff did coaching up a depleted defense just like the old days, what separated the Patriots and Jets on the scoreboard last night wasn't coaching. It was quarterbacking.

Can you imagine what Brady, who threw three touchdown passes and had the 40th 300-yard passing game of his career (26 of 39 for 329 yards, no) would have done against the makeshift secondary the Patriots were forced to deploy? (There is no truth to the rumor that undrafted rookie defensive back Sterling Moore, who started at safety, was acquired via Groupon.)

The Jets came out wanting to test the Patriots' 32d-ranked pass defense. They threw on eight of their first 12 offensive plays. But then the Patriots' pass rush started to kick in, Sanchez started to samba in the pocket and New York pulled the plug.

Brady, who actually got off to a slow start (7 of 16), and you could hear the "What's wrong with Brady?" murmurs cascading down I-95. But starting with the final drive of the first half, he went 19 of 23 for 200 yards and three touchdowns the rest of the way, completing his final 12 passes, a quarterbacking clinic.

If anyone can appreciate Brady's play against the Jets it is Patriots defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, who was part of the Jets defenses that had flummoxed Brady in his two prior trips to New Jersey to face Ryan, holding him without a single point in the second half.

"Oh, yeah, I've been on the other side. I know how dominant they can be on that defense, so yeah," said Ellis.

Ellis was almost at a loss for words to describe what it was like watching Brady pick apart a Jets defense engineered specifically to stop him.

"Man, it's just ... amazing," Ellis said. "That's all I can say. To just sit there and watch him go to work. It's one of the things that a lot of people don't get to see from the inside. I'm glad he's my quarterback."

Brady and Sanchez actually threw the same number of passes last night (39), but that's where any similarity to their play ends.

Sanchez was 20 of 39 for 306 yards with a touchdown. However, before garbage time, he was 14 of 28 for 206 yards with the TD and two interceptions that led to Patriots' touchdowns, including a back-breaking pick-six by Rob Ninkovich.

It is an indictment of Sanchez's accuracy that in today's pass-happy NFL, he is only completing 56.7 percent of this throws. It's an even bigger indictment that that is a career-high for him.

Sanchez is supposed to be a game manager but he couldn't even manage to do that correctly. Ryan was livid that Sanchez called a timeout before his 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, which gave the Jets a 9-6 lead. Instead of letting the play clock run down to one or two seconds, Sanchez called time with about 17 seconds left, leaving Brady plenty of time to march down and find Rob Gronkowski for an 18-yard touchdown with nine seconds left before the half.

A peeved Ryan referred to it as the "stupidest thing in football history" during the NBC telecast, before trying to shield Sanchez from further criticism after the game by taking responsibility for the game management gaffe.

It's the type of mental error Brady never makes.

In fairness, Sanchez wasn't alone. Santonio Holmes got tripped up by air on an apparent touchdown. Kicker Nick Folk missed a 24-yard chip-shot field goal. Joe McKnight muffed a punt and then two other Jets let the ball slip through their grasp before the Patriots recovered.

But teams often take on the personality of their quarterbacks. Sanchez is bold, but skittish and inconsistent. Brady is calculating and a consummate winner who responds to a challenge.

The quarterback gap remains, and so does the Patriots' grip on the AFC East.

Brady has to help receivers catch on

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 11, 2011 03:32 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- These are trying times in Foxborough with the Patriots facing both the archrival New York Jets and the prospect of their first three-game losing streak since 2002 on Sunday.

You know the panic button is being pounded when among the targets for ire is Tom Brady. TB12 has been picked on lately for his penchant for getting picked off. The 10 interceptions he's tossed this season put him on pace to eclipse his career high of 14.

Blaming the canonized, Canton-bound quarterback for the Patriots' 5-3 record is the ultimate case of losing the forest among the trees. Brady led a game-winning drive against Dallas, didn't have the ball enough against Pittsburgh and had the Patriots in position to beat the Giants if the defense hadn't fallen apart like Rick Perry at a Republican presidential debate.

If you want to critique Brady, don't fixate on interceptions, focus on failing to establish connections. The Patriots' fate on Sunday at MetLife Stadium and this season is ultimately going to be tied to Brady's ability to build a rapport with Chad Ochocinco and/or Taylor Price, even if it's kicking and screaming.

He is going to have to widen his circle of trust or watch defenses continue to close in around him.

It has become obvious the last couple of weeks, as an offense that was once automatic for 30 a game but hasn't scored more than 20 since a 30-21 win over the Jets on Oct. 9, that the Patriots need an option outside who can threaten a defense. That is, after all, why they opened the pearly gates of Patriot Place to Ochocinco in the first place.

Much of the blame for Ochocinco's inability to grasp the offense has been placed on him, but perhaps Brady needs to do more to make it work. That's what the great ones do -- make those around them better. That's what he did in 2006, when he was the Wide Receiver Whisperer, squeezing a 61-catch season out of Reche Caldwell and an AFC title game appearance out of a generic group of pass catchers.

The comparison point for Brady is always his Indianapolis Colts counterpart, Peyton Manning. Like Brady, Manning is an exacting, perfectionist in the passing game. But one area that Manning has had more success than Brady of late is indoctrinating unfamiliar or inexperienced targets into his offense.

As a rookie in 2007, Anthony Gonzalez had 37 receptions for 576 yards and three touchdowns for the Colts. In 2009, rookie Austin Collie had 60 receptions for 676 yards and seven touchdowns, while second-year receiver Pierre Garcon had 47 receptions for 765 yards and four touchdowns. When Manning lost trusted target Dallas Clark after six games last season due to a wrist injury, he cajoled a 67-catch, 631-yard season out of tight end Jacob Tamme.

Brady said yesterday that he and Manning have never talked about the process of assimilating players into their offenses.

For certain wayward wide receiving souls, there was no salvation. Not even Brady could save them from themselves. There was nothing he could have done to make it work with Bethel Johnson or Chad Jackson or Joey Galloway, but Ochocinco looks salvageable. Who knows what Price looks like, because we haven't seen him on the field thanks to a balky hamstring and the conspicuous lack of Brady's imprimatur.

Whether it's trust fall exercises or extra throwing sessions, Brady has to find a way to make it work with one of these guys. He has no choice.

"We work together, the receivers and the quarterbacks, because we're so dependent on each other," Brady said today. "It doesn't matter if I get it and they don't get it, or if I don't get it and they get it. The only way that we're going to do well is if collectively we're on the same page."

So far it hasn't looked like Brady and Ochocino are in the same playbook. Is there more he can do to get Ochocinco and/or Price to be a reliable part of the offense?

"It's just constant communication. There's no secret," Brady said as he searched the top shelf of his locker for something much the same way he is searching for a connection with Ochocinco. "It's just work. It's just getting out on the field and doing it, working at it, watching film on it and talking about it. But there is nothing special. It's just spending the time."

There is no better time for the light to go on for Ochocinco or Price. Since Rex Ryan became the Jets' coach, Brady and the Patriots haven't scored a single point in the second half against the Jets in northern New Jersey. Brady can use all the help he can get against his Xs and Os nemesis.

Back in April, during a promotional appearance for Under Armour, Brady acknowledged the difficulty that a new receiver can have in picking up the intricacies of New England's improvisational passing attack. He said the best he ever saw at it was Deion Branch, who as a rookie in 2002 had 43 receptions for 489 yards and two touchdowns.

Branch said Brady builds a relationship with his receivers in the classroom and then carries it over to the field. But he pointed out that Brady can't run routes for anybody.

"I think he does a great job as far as trying to get all of us on the same page with him," said Branch. "That's his job, but it's our job as well to also know what we're doing as well and be on the same page with our quarterback, especially if you want the ball. If you don't want the ball then don't do it. I promise you he won't throw it to you."

Brady is finicky about where he sends his passes, but ignoring Ochocinco and Price is no longer a route he and the Patriots can take.

Haynesworth's effort spoke volumes

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 8, 2011 05:12 PM

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Bill Belichick and the Patriots have now rotated defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth right out of Gillette Stadium.

Two days after Haynesworth was benched for the final 24 minutes of the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the New York Giants after he was flattened by Giants guard David Diehl on Brandon Jacobs' third-quarter touchdown, leading to a verbal confrontation with peeved defensive line coach Pepper Johnson, and one day after Belichick claimed his absence was "rotation-related," the Patriots released the indolent defensive tackle on Tuesday.

Adios, Albert. You lived up to your reputation. You said all the right things and then did virtually nothing. Haynesworth played in six games for the Patriots and tallied three tackles, no sacks and two quarterback hits.

The Patriots learned the hard way what the Washington Redskins found out -- Haynesworth talks a better game than he plays. When he arrived in Washington in 2009 with a $100 million contract, and an NFL-record $41-million in guarantees, he proclaimed, "You're not going to remember Albert Haynesworth as a bust." That's exactly how he's remembered by the Redskins, who were all too eager to pawn him off on the Patriots.

When Haynesworth got here, he said all the right things too, seducing Patriots fans and media with his disarming charm and articulateness. Haynesworth said his role would be to "just kill the quarterback." He said playing for the Patriots was a chance to "restore my name." He said of his past transgressions -- "It's all in the past. It’s all about now -- rewriting my name as Albert Haynesworth the Patriot."

After he spent most of the preseason with his name synonymous for being absent from practice, he said, "It's time for me, the sleeping giant, to awake." Guess, he kept hitting the snooze button.

Haynesworth was supposed to be the defensive version of Randy Moss for the Patriots, a rehabilitated player who found religion in the Patriot Way and wreaked havoc on the rest of the league with his passion reignited. The only thing Haynesworth had in common with Moss is that his departure from the team came after he got in a verbal dispute with a member of the coaching staff.

This will go down as an embarrassing personnel miscalculation for Belichick. You can pass it off as a low-risk move because the Patriots only surrendered a 2013 fifth-round pick and restructured his contract into a pay-for-play deal. But Haynesworth was always an at-risk player with a detailed dossier of questionable behavior on and off the field.

It was risky business betting on him at all, and smacked of hubris and sanctimony.

On the field, Haynesworth was supposed to be the guy to collapse the pocket for the Patriots. He was going to be a centerpiece of the move to a 4-3 defense. He showed potential in the season-opener against Miami, drawing double teams and holding calls. But that was his best performance.

He was a solid, if not always conspicuous, presence against the Jets, Cowboys and Steelers, occupying blockers, before his play fell off against the Giants. If only Haynesworth had fought off the pancake block of Diehl with the vigor he displayed in defending himself from the ire of Johnson.

Updated at 8:26 p.m.:
A source who spoke to Haynesworth said the team indicated to him that they had been pleased with Haynesworth's effort to try to make the adjustments to make it work in New England. But unfortunately due to nagging knee and back injuries it wasn't working out, and they felt it was time to move on.

Haynesworth never really seemed in shape, missing much of training camp and two games (Buffalo and Oakland) with nagging back and knee ailments. As a 30-year-old, 350-pounder (cough, cough) he seemed to be caught in a hefty man's Hobson's choice when it came to conditioning. Being out of shape caused him to get hurt easily, but trying to get into shape caused him to re-aggravate his injuries.

Outside of the disappointment of Haynesworth not working out from a football standpoint is the embarrassment of the Patriots putting their brand on the line for this guy, repeatedly telling us they had sat down with him and been assured he would be on his best behavior.

Haynesworth wasn't a malcontent they said. No, he was just misunderstood. Haynesworth understood all too well that he simply had to tell Belichick and the Kraft family what they wanted to hear. They got conned.

You can hear the chorus of laughter from Washington making its way up the Northeast Corridor like an Acela train. This was like Red Sox fans gleefully providing the inevitable told-you-so to Dodger fans once Manny Ramirez's true colors came to light.

Problem-child players don't change. They just change teams.

The amazing part is that of Belichick's two major offseason acquisitions, Haynesworth and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, he has cut the more productive player.

Ochocinco hasn't recorded a catch since the last time the Patriots faced the Jets -- Oct. 9 -- although in fairness he got open a couple of times on Sunday and the ball was either not thrown to him or not delivered on time. It's obvious, however, that he and quarterback Tom Brady have about as healthy a relationship as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.

Brady cited the fact he's only been playing with Ochocinco for eight games as part of the issue. Of course eight games into his first year with Moss and Wes Welker no one was counting games, just touchdowns. Brady is even looking in Ochocinco's direction, begrudgingly.

If the Jets send the Patriots to their third straight loss on Sunday, and Ochocinco goes catchless again, you wonder if 85 is the next number that's up in Foxborough.

Haynesworth said a lot while he was here. Perhaps, the most revealing words from Haynesworth came when he indecorously said, "Go, Patriots," as he entered District of Columbia Superior Court to plead no contest to simple assault for allegedly sliding a credit card into the bosom of a hotel waitress and fondling her.

The Patriots had the final say Tuesday, and they said, "Go, Albert."

Coaching leaving Patriots defense-less

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 4, 2011 10:01 AM
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Matt Patricia is listed as the Patriots' safeties coach, but he also serves as a de facto defensive coordinator.

There has been a lot of critiquing of a certain hallowed head football coach after Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a Ginsu to the Patriots' pass defense -- or what passed for it -- last Sunday.

With the Patriots facilitating more air travel than O'Hare Airport, ranking last in the NFL in pass defense (323.1 yards per game) and total defense (424.1 yards per game) heading into Sunday's game with the New York Giants, what previously passed for heresy -- fans second-guessing Bill Belichick's personnel decisions and former players questioning his defensive scheme -- is open debate.

Belichick was asked Wednesday about the play of recycled cornerbacks Antwaun Molden, who got benched on Sunday, and Phillip Adams, whose locker should be equipped with a revolving door, having been released twice by the team.

"I would say of the problems we had in the Pittsburgh game, I wouldn’t put that at the top of the list," Belichick said.

He's right. The Patriots' biggest issue defending the pass isn't the pedigree of the personnel in the secondary, it's the people coaching them.

Belichick's most egregious personnel miscues haven't been drafting Terrence Wheatley or Darius Butler or cutting Leigh Bodden. It has been entrusting his defense to a pair of young, dedicated, but unproven coaches, defensive backs coach Josh Boyer and safeties coach/de facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

There was a time that the Patriots trotted out cut-rate corners like Molden and Adams and not only survived, but thrived. This is a team that won a Super Bowl with Earthwind Moreland, Hank Poteat, Randall Gay and a moonlighting wide receiver, Troy Brown, in the defensive backfield.

The rules are more slanted toward the passing game now than they were in 2003 and 2004, with the bureaucratic enforcement of the five-yard chuck and defenseless receiver rules turning the NFL into a pass-a-palooza.

But during the Glory Days, we were told it was all about coaching acumen -- The System -- not the players. That was always a specious premise since those defenses had Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel in the front seven and Rodney Harrison in the secondary.

However, there was truth to the idea that part of the Patriots' success was attributable to coaching 'em up because in addition to Belichick they had a brilliant defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, and -- hold your nose Patriots fans -- a savant secondary coach named Eric Mangini.

Now, they have The Lost Boys, Patricia and Boyer. In them Bill Trusts.

Technically, the Patriots don't have a defensive coordinator. The title has been vacant since Dean Pees's departure following the 2009 season. But make no mistake, the 37-year-old Patricia, the team's linebackers coach from 2006 to 2010, is the defensive coordinator and has been since last season. He helps draw up the game plans and makes most of the defensive calls. If he is only coaching safeties, then Belichick is selling sodas in the Gillette Stadium stands on game day.

The 34-year-old Boyer has the title of defensive backs coach, but if you have a safeties coach, the only defensive backs left to coach are the corners. He was the solo secondary coach in '09, but after that season Belichick thought it best to separate the job and created the role of safeties coach, filled by Corwin Brown last season.

Boyer's previous place of employment before joining the Patriots as a coaching assistant (i.e. apprentice) in 2006 was as defensive coordinator of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is right behind Central Florida on the list of schools to which the Big East is extending invitations.

There is a connection between the ascension of Patricia and Boyer and the decline of the defense. Save for Kyle Arrington, name one Patriots defensive back who has significantly improved under the two.

Most of the team's high draft pick defensive backs have flamed out in alarming fashion. Brandon Meriweather's play plateaued. Butler fell into a sophomore slump from which he never recovered. Wilhite was a coaching staff favorite and then fell out of favor. Now, Devin McCourty, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, has been picked on by opponents this year.

You can blame poor draft evaluations for the demise of the departed players. However, succeeding in the draft is about picking the right player and developing him. The Patriots dearth of defensive backs is just as much attributable to the inability to do the latter than the former.

After all, when Crennel and Mangini were here, they got an undrafted free agent, Gay, and a fourth-round pick, Asante Samuel, ready to play for Super Bowl winners right away.

If you don't believe the empirical evidence of a coaching problem, then perhaps the factual evidence will do. Since 2010, when Patricia became the de facto defensive coordinator, the Patriots have been statistically one of the worst defenses in football.

Last year, they ranked 25th in total defense (366.5 yards per game), last in third down defense (47 percent conversion rate for opponents) and 30th in pass defense (258.5 yards per game).

This year, the Patriots uncoordinated defense is last in pass defense and total defense. They've allowed 39 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the most in the league. Only Indianapolis has allowed a higher third-down conversion rate than New England's 46 percent, tied with Carolina. Opposing passers have completed 66.7 percent of their throws, also 30th in the NFL.

It is often recited that Bill Parcells, the man Belichick can tie for career coaching victories with 183 on Sunday with a win over, fittingly, the New York Giants, never won a Super Bowl without Belichick as defensive coordinator. The same is true for Belichick and Crennel.

Belichick hasn't become out of touch or lost his touch. He's lost his help. He needs an experienced hand to collaborate with and coordinate his defense. You know like Dom Capers.

If not, the NFL may literally pass him by.

Patriots failed Steelers passing test

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 31, 2011 04:17 PM

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger probably woke up with a sore arm today after flinging the football 50 times. That's better than the bruised ego he left the Patriots with in a 25-17 victory.

For all the talk in the preseason about a defensive shift in philosophy and alignment, about the promise of a more aggressive, blitzing, formidable defense this season, we haven't seen it. What we have seen is a defense that is better at denying its own inefficacy than opponents.

It must pain coach Bill Belichick, the Da Vinci of defensive coaches, to watch his defense get dissected like a middle school biology lab, allowing 10 of 16 third-down conversions to Pittsburgh and forcing just one punt. It must rankle the man who slowed down the Buffalo Bills' famed K-Gun, the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" and on more than one occasion Peyton Manning to see his team dead last in the NFL in pass defense, picked apart like a John W. Henry radio interview.

Credit Pittsburgh for having the courage and the quarterback to do what other teams would not -- throw the football and toss aside any fear of engaging Tom Brady in a shootout. On the eve of Halloween, the Steelers unmasked the Patriots' 32d-ranked defense yesterday and the notion that you can't beat Brady in a passing match.

The Steelers' plan from the beginning was to throw the ball at will and capitalize on the Patriots' porous pass defense. Roethlisberger, who was 36 of 50 for 365 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, said as much.

Pittsburgh took to the air so often that the Federal Aviation Administration should have assigned the Steelers offense a tail number. Factoring in the five times Roethlisberger was sacked, the Steelers called pass plays on 55 of their 78 offensive snaps; a staggering 70.5 percent of their play calls were passes.

It was only the second time in Roethlisberger's eight-year career that Pittsburgh attempted 50 or more passes in a game. The other one was Nov. 5, 2006, when Roethlisberger threw the ball 54 times in a 31-20 loss to the Denver Broncos. In that game he was also sacked four times, so the Steelers called 58 pass plays.

Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace didn't mince words when asked if Pittsburgh was confident they could rule the air against New England after watching tape.

"Yeah, those guys were ranked last in defense, in pass defense," said Wallace. "Even though the numbers were not always true because they win so many games by blowout and there are teams catching up they still were 32d, no matter how you put it. We felt like that was our advantage today, and we took advantage of it."

They certainly did. It would be a mistake to suddenly turn Leigh Bodden, mysteriously released on Friday, into the second coming of Mike Haynes, but it is safe to say he would not have mishandled a zone coverage as badly as his replacement, Antwaun Molden, did on Pittsburgh's second touchdown pass.

Pittsburgh left tackle Max Starks said the decision to release Bodden on Friday was another signal to the Steelers the Patriots were susceptible to a passing frenzy.

"Yeah, you look at just how they played throughout the year," said Starks. They've always been run dominant. This week they cut their corner, so we knew that before game time. We knew they had brought up some extra defensive linemen, so we knew that they wanted to play big against us. We knew the run was going to be in chucks and spurts. We just wanted to take advantage of the middle of the field and their secondary."

While the defense got passed on, the New England offense doesn't get a total pass. After 13 straight games of scoring 30-plus points, the Patriots have been held to 20 and 17 points, respectively. Brady being limited to fewer than 200 yards passing (24 of 35 for 198 yards) is an indication that there might be a small chink in the Under Armour of Brady and Co.

But in the long run the real concern on this team isn't on offense. It's always been defense. Seven games into the season, the Patriots are right back where they started -- with a suspect defense.

The good news is there are no flawless teams in the AFC.

The Steelers have a shaky offensive line and prior to beating the Patriots yesterday their signature win was against the Tennessee Titans.

The Ravens, who overcame a 24-3 deficit to down the Arizona Cardinals yesterday, don't know whether quarterback Joe Flacco is the answer or just a perpetual question mark. The San Diego Chargers could use a copy of "Situational Football for Dummies" to aid their cause. The Jets talk about winning with ground and pound, but they've been mostly complain and blame, with backbiting between players and coaches over an offense that lacks identity and consistency.

The Houston Texans have as much talent as any team in the AFC but have been derailed by injuries to outside linebacker Mario Williams, out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and wide receiver Andre Johnson, who has missed four games with a hamstring injury. Plus, a team that hasn't made the playoffs in any of its previous nine seasons of existence lacks the street cred to be considered an AFC frontrunner.

The Buffalo Bills, led by Harvard alumnus Ryan Fitzpatrick beat the Patriots and are currently the first place team in the AFC East. But most of the football world considers the Bills the NFL version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They've generated a lot of buzz and have provided an interesting storyline. Yet, it's dubious whether they can really shake up the establishment.

The Patriots remain a favorite in the AFC, and there is the fact that the Brady-Belichick Patriots have never lost to the Steelers in the playoffs.

But the NFL is a copycat league, and if the Patriots can't stop the pass they're bound to fail when it really counts.

Patriots defense rests its case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 17, 2011 04:51 PM

Perhaps, we have lost our football roots here and become so superficial that we turn our noses up at any win that doesn't provide us with DVR-worthy highlights and fantasy points. Anything outside of the regularly-scheduled offensive onslaught from Tom Brady and Co., is ugly, in which case the 2001 Patriots were hideous.

A "Beautiful Day" came with a lot of aesthetically blase wins.

Can't blame you. Defense has become so passe in the NFL and so unfamiliar in Foxborough that it's chalked up as unsightly play.

The Patriots won a game (20-16) yesterday against the Dallas Cowboys at Gillette Stadium, where the patrons where treated to stingy defense, or what passes for stingy defense in today's pass-happy, hands-off-the quarterback (even two-hand touch as Anthony Spencer learned), aerial assault NFL.

Remember the 1960s counter-culture rallying cry of "Don't trust anyone over 30"? Well, don't trust a football team that can only win when it scores more than 30 points. Until yesterday, that's the team the Patriots were. It's the type of team the Patriots used to beat on their way to boarding the Duck Boats. It's the type of team that takes its gaudy stats and individual awards home for the winter instead of a championship trophy. It's the type of team that sticks out its chest in the regular season and bows its head come January.

That's why yesterday's victory over the Jerry Jones AC was the most encouraging of the season for the Patriots. They can now head to hiatus with a 5-1 mark and the confidence that Brady and the offense won't have to claim the defense as dependents the rest of the season.

The Patriots won on a day when their top-rated offense was ordinary, held under 30 points for the first time in 14 games and limited to a season-low 371 yards, 80 of which came on the final drive. Padding the confidence of the defense with a statement win is much more significant than Brady or Wes Welker padding their stats.

"For everybody else out there it might be a statement game," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. "We believe in ourselves no matter what. We knew that if we keep working hard in practice and trying to get better it's going to pay off. Each week we feel like we're taking steps to get better, and if we keep doing that then we think we can be a very good defense by the end of the year."

Brady's brilliant final march was the crowd-pleaser, but the Patriots offense doesn't get a chance to take a bow if the defense doesn't limit the damage from Brady's two interceptions, an Aaron Hernandez fumble and Matthew Slater's fumbled kickoff. Dallas collected four Patriots turnovers, but could only turn them into a pair of field goals. The defense also forced a pair of Dallas turnovers that led to six points.

No one is going to confuse this Patriots defense with the '85 Chicago Bears. But that's two weeks in a row the oft-derided and doubted defense has shown notable improvement after a start to the season that saw none from last year. Last week, the Jets were willing accomplices in the amelioration of the Patriots' defense.

The Cowboys were unwilling victims of it. Dallas came in with the third-ranked passing offense in the NFL (331 yards per game). They had offensive star power in Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.

After holding the Jets to 3 of 11 on third down last week, the Patriots limited the Cowboys to 4 of 12 and 0 for 3 in the fourth quarter, including a stop at the New England 5.

The Cowboys tried to establish the run. The Patriots held them to 77 yards on 24 carries, made all the more impressive by the absence of linebacker Jerod Mayo, out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee. If there is a silver lining to Mayo's injury it is that it has forced second-year linebacker Brandon Spikes to grow up and show up finally this season.

New England took away Romo's security blanket tight end, Witten, by having outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich all but assault Witten off the line of scrimmage. Witten had caught at least six passes in each of the Cowboys games. Yesterday, he had four catches for 48 yards and a 1-yard touchdown.

"He's one of those guys where if you get to him it's going to kind of mess up their offense," said Ninkovich. "They're not going to be able to do what they want to do."

Witten walked away feeling the Patriots defense is better than the No. 32 total defense ranking it woke up this morning still owning.

"Oh, they're a lot better," said Witten. "We talked about that early in the week. That was early in the year. They were playing a lot more man coverage. They've done a good job with their zone package, getting pass rush with the front four. They did a good job re-routing and forcing me into situations."

At the end of the game, it wasn't the Patriots defense that was having its Super Bowl credentials debated it was Romo, who had the ball taken out of his hands by craven coach Jason Garrett, a tacit admission of the lack of trust Garrett has in his imprudent quarterback.

Did you ever think you'd see a time this season when a coach didn't want his quarterback to pass against the Patriots?

There are still issues to sort out. Someone other than indefatigable defensive end Andre Carter has to be able to pressure the quarterback when the game is in doubt. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth has to get in shape. McCourty must stop trying to defend deep passes as if he has eyes in the back of his helmet.

But a defense that had spent more time defending its poor rankings than opponents reminded us "winning ugly" can be a beautiful thing.

Tom Brady minds his business against Jets

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 10, 2011 01:18 PM

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Tom Brady wasn't in much of talking mood following the Patriots' payback win over the Jets yesterday at Gillette Stadium. Perhaps, that's because the quarterback felt he had sent a message loud and clear to the jabbering Jets and their cocksure coach with his performance in the Patriots' 30-21 victory.

It went something like this: Checkmate.

Jets coach Rex Ryan had said that the game was going to be a chess match at the line of scrimmage. It was, and Brady was Garry Kasparov. He got the Patriots out of bad plays and into good ones. He deciphered coverages and fronts. Most importantly, he took what Ryan's defense, heavy on defensive backs, gave him -- room to run the football.

New England ran 35 times for 152 yards, led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and his career-high 136 yards. Evidence of the Patriots' firm commitment to attacking on terra firma is that their longest rush was 15 yards.

Brady didn't let retribution or his ego blind him from the most prudent play call. He wasn't too proud to ground and pound his nemeses. That more than his now-requisite 300 yards passing (321) or completing his highest percentage of passes against the Jets since Ryan took over, going 24 of 33 (72.7 percent) is why the Patriots won.

In their throwback uniforms, Brady and the Patriots played a vintage brand of football, hearkening back to when they were more than an "oohs" and "aahs" air show, when they won because they could beat you at their game or yours.

That trait should not be lost on Patriots fans, because in a lot of ways the Patriots have morphed into the very team they vanquished to birth their dynasty, the Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis Rams. Part of the brilliance of Bill Belichick's game plan in Super Bowl XXXVI was relying on and feeding off the hubris of Rams coach Mike Martz. Those Rams didn't just want to beat a team, they wanted to do it their way -- with a fusillade of passes.

Belichick banked on that, and Martz stubbornly threw away a Super Bowl, trying to pass when he should have been jamming Marshall Faulk down the Patriots' gullet.

It would have been easy for Brady to fall into that familiar trap. But what has separated Brady as a quarterback from the moment he usurped Drew Bledsoe is his uncanny ability to process information and make the right decision.

It's why long before he piled up yards and touchdown passes like Red Sox pitchers do beer cans, he was regarded as one of the game's best QBs. Brady might toss pretty passes, but it's his Mensa mind that has always defined his greatness.

That's why it was so humbling for him to be flummoxed and fooled by Ryan, an MVP season going up in smoke amid a fog of confusion. Brady was not going to allow a repeat.

"The guy is Einstein on the field," said wide receiver Matthew Slater. "That's because of the preparation he puts in. Not only does he have physical attributes that make him great, an arm, a golden arm and all that. The mental aspect. You can't coach that. You either have it or you don't. God has given him plenty of mental [ability]. There is no question about that. As far as I'm concerned I'm just happy to be on his side."

The Jets, who played more man defense than in January, did sack TB12 four times and force him to hold the ball at times, but sometimes the best pass is the one you don't throw. Just ask Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles.

It's easy to point to the Patriots' final drive as evidence of Brady's commitment to the run for the second straight week, after racking up 183 yards rushing against Oakland.

But it was the first scoring drive that set the tone. After Brady completed a 32-yard pass to Wes Welker, the Jets stuck star cornerback Darrelle Revis on Brady's boy. He responded with four straight BenJarvus Green-Ellis run calls to the end zone. It was the dedication to running that set up the 73-yard pass to Wes Welker in the second half, as New York safety Eric Smith took a false step forward on a play-action fake.

Speaking of false, don't let the postgame indifference fool you. This game obviously was a personal challenge for the Patriots and their QB. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork said the team came in on its off-day (Tuesday) following a West Coast road game to watch film and that they were in meetings until 2:15 p.m. on Saturday.

"It's no mystery, for all of us these guys are our rivals," said Slater, a team captain. "We've struggled with them the last couple of years there. It means a lot to all of us. Obviously, it means a lot to the Big Dog [Brady]. Every win means a lot to him. I think there is added incentive due to the fact they knocked us out last year when we had things really rolling. It was emotional.

"I know guys talked in the locker room last week, right after we beat Oakland about this week. Nobody was really too excited about last week's win because we knew what we had coming. ...Obviously, it's a good football team who we don't necessarily like them, and they don't necessarily like us. It means a lot. A lot of work was put into this week, a lot of emotion. We're going to enjoy it, but we're going to prepare for a good football team next week."

Brady is going to get a double dose of defense Ryan-style; he must prepare for the Cowboys and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Rex's twin brother. That's like following the SAT with the CPA exam. As Cleveland's defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan beat the Patriots' last year, holding them to 14 points.

It could be another week where Brady doesn't care to share what's on his (beautiful) mind -- Ryan revenge.

Jets provide Patriots with moment of truth

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 6, 2011 12:11 PM

Don't let the vacuous vocabulary of the Patriots this week fool you. Playing the Jets is not just another game. That's like claiming the Berlin Wall was just another wall or Alcatraz was just another prison.

That's why the hot air generated yesterday by Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co., could fill your promotional dirigible of choice and pump Robert Luongo's tires.

Outside of the yearly pursuit of a Super Bowl, there are very few football challenges left for the divine coupling of Brady and Belichick. Jets coach/inveterate braggart Rex Ryan is one of them. He has gotten the best of both of them. In five meetings with Vociferous Rex's Jets the Patriots are 2-3 and lost the most important game of the five, a shocking 28-21 home playoff loss in January that left Brady in tears and that TB12 subsequently proclaimed he would never get over.

Until yesterday.

So while it is the Jets (2-2) who are losers of two straight, coming off a mistake-riddled rout by the Ravens, and have their offensive captains, quarterback Mark Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, carping at each other, it is the 3-1 Patriots who need this game more. The J-E-T-S have thumbed their nose and run their mouths at the stodgy, stolid mien of Fort Foxborough since the minute Ryan arrived, and it's worked.

While the Patriots haven't experienced playoff victory since 2008, the Jets have reached back-to-back AFC title games. (Any mention of AFC East division titles meaning more would be hypocritical in light of the Red Sox' addiction to the wild card.)

The roles have reversed. The Patriots aren't the measuring stick for the Jets. It's the other way around. The playoff loss shook Patriot Place to its core and triggered some new thinking and some tinkering by Belichick.

This game will tell us whether the Patriots have addressed the issues that turned a salute-worthy 14-2 regular season into a somber playoff send-off and another Super Bowl-less season -- porous pass defense, an overreliance on Brady's brilliance, the absence of a true deep threat, a paucity of pass-catching options at wide receiver outside of Wes Welker and Deion Branch, and a congressional filibuster-paced rushing attack.

Four games into the season, the Patriots look like much the same team that authored that 14-2 season and then hit a green-and-white roadblock. On track for a third MVP, Brady is doing more passing than a road rage motorist in rush hour and the offense is like Michael Jordan, good for 30-plus a game.

But the high-profile acquisitions of wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, designed to address flaws directly exposed by the Jets, have not yet paid dividends. Ochocinco has more letters in his adopted nom de plume (nine) than catches as a Patriot (seven), and is being spoon-fed the offense in Gerber-sized portions. Haynesworth hasn't acted up, but his back has, forcing him to miss the last two games.

Also, the Patriots still don't have a reliable deep threat as a supercharged Welker and sophomore tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who outruns cornerbacks (just ask Miami), have served as the vertical threats. Rookie running back Stevan Ridley has added an explosive element to the ground game, averaging 8.2 yards per carry, but needs more touches.

He would have come in handy on the infamous Drive to Nowhere.

New England's offense remains it's best defense. The Patriots rank last in the NFL in total defense. The pass defense is last in the league (368.8 yards per game), allowing a league-high 30 pass plays of 20-yards or greater. Cornerback Devin McCourty has done the wrong kind of backpedaling after a Pro Bowl debut; according to Pro Football Focus, he has been the most targeted corner in the league (42 passes) and has allowed the most completions (28) and yards (398).

Holmes took time out from taking digs at his own QB and offensive line to lob one at the Patriots' new-and-not-so-improved defense.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves on how well those guys are not playing on their defense," said Holmes, yesterday.

There are no perfect teams in the AFC. The conference is as wide open as Welker usually is, which makes this matchup all the more intriguing. The Patriots have been able to hide their blemishes for the most part in the first four games, but the Jets under Ryan have had a way of portraying the Patriots, Belichick and Brady in an unflattering light.

Ryan can talk a good game and game-plan one as well.

The Jets don't live in paralyzing fear of Brady, like most teams. Ryan has gone right at him, both verbally with jabs and schematically with disguise and simulated pressure. In the playoff loss, he had Brady looking unsure and uncertain with the football. He felt pressure when there wasn't. He missed receivers who were open and threw to ones who were not.

"It's real challenging," said left guard Logan Mankins of preparing for the Jets. "You got to get everyone on the same page. Everyone has got to see the defense through the same eyes and be going in the same direction. If you have one guy going the wrong way and not knowing what to do it breaks down."

Judging by how brusque Brady was in his press conference yesterday, this has become personal for him -- a personal challenge, like being a sixth-round pick or being labeled a system-quarterback or returning from torn ligaments in his knee.

His steely-eyed focus said what his measured words did not -- bring it on, Rex.

"That was a long time ago," Brady said of drawing motivation from the playoff loss. "So that game doesn’t have much bearing on this week. We’re a different team."

The first part is patently false. We're about to find out if that last part is true.

Video: Patriots-Raiders preview

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 28, 2011 01:22 PM
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Here are my three keys to Sunday's matchup in Oakland.

Chad Ochocinco still not catching on

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 26, 2011 12:59 AM

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- If this is Chad Ochocinco's idea of heaven, then I'd hate to see how he pictures Hades. Off the field, his fun-loving personality has been muzzled. On the field he appears puzzled by the intricacies of the Patriots offense.

A heavenly existence? Hardly.

With tight end Aaron Hernandez out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee and an unaccomplished group of Buffalo corners, this was the week for Ochocinco to rebuff his critics and silence his doubters. He could have made a statement. Instead, he remained quiet during the game -- two catches for 28 yards -- and partially so after it, initially declining to talk when approached by reporters and then later speaking privately with beat writers from the Herald and the Globe.

Upon his trade to the Patriots, the flamboyant wide receiver pronounced Patriot Place as a celestial address. But there has been nothing blessed so far about the receiver's union with the team, and the Patriots can't wait an eternity for Ochocinco to grasp the playbook or the football.

The latter was an issue yesterday, as a wide-open Ochocinco flat-out dropped a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the fourth quarter on third down. "It got away from me," Ochocinco told beat reporters. "I got to come up with everything that comes my way."

He was bailed out when Wes Welker, who had a team-record-tying 16 catches for a franchise-record 217 yards, caught a 5-yard pass on fourth down to keep the drive alive and then capped it with the game-tying 6-yard touchdown.

It was all for naught, though, as the Bills won Super Bowl XLVI with a 34-31 victory yesterday at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Oh, wait, that was just a regular season game? Even Ochocinco would have been chagrined by the over-the-top celebrating by Bills fans after their team beat Team Belichick for the first time since 2003. The goal posts were taken down as a precaution and "Sweet Caroline" was part of the postgame playlist. Ochocinco is veering closer and closer to Joey Galloway territory. If you recall it was in Galloway's third game as a Patriot in 2009 that he was profanely thrust outside of Tom Brady's circle of trust. "It's not that bleepin' hard," TB12 barked as Galloway booted away yet another pass against the Atlanta Falcons.

After that, Galloway was a healthy scratch for three straight games before being given his walking papers. That probably won't happen to Ochocinco. The Patriots have too much invested to eighty-six No. 85.

Still, as a receiver, if you lose Brady's trust you might as well be a cadaver with a helmet on because you're dead to him. His receivers know they must gain and retain Brady's confidence.

"He expects you to keep working, keep working. You got to keep working for it. Everybody does," said Matthew Slater. "Guys who have played with him for 10 years and guys who have played with him for 10 weeks. We all got to keep working to gain his trust. He is our leader, and what we do runs through him. We're with him no matter what. We got to show him that every day. "

No matter what Brady's says publicly, Ochocinco, who has five catches for 87 yards in three games, has to be testing his faith and his patience.

The six-time Pro Bowler has had eight weeks to get up to speed, and it's just not happening. Yes, going from Cincinnati's simple numbers-based system to New England's sight-adjustment passing game is like going from pre-Algebra to Advanced Calculus. But at some point Ochocinco has to make the grade or passes in his direction will keep failing.

Ochocinco claimed he felt more comfortable in the Patriots' offense. "It was good. Mentally, it was really good," he said. I knew all my [stuff.] That felt good. That’s step one. It’s just got to come quicker."

Coming off an encouraging performance against San Diego after being blasted by former Patriot Tedy Bruschi on the local airwaves, Ochocinco was targeted four times and had the aforementioned two receptions for 28 yards. The other two occasions Brady threw him the ball were the egregious drop and a Leodis McKelvin interception in the third quarter that led to a Buffalo score.

As the once gregarious wideout packed up his belongings, protruding from his suitcase was a big blue binder with a Patriots logo on it. Ochocinco has heeded the advice of Bruschi. He has cut back on his Twitter activities and turned his playbook into his new plaything.

No one can say the eminently likable Ochocinco isn't trying. But that's the disconcerting part. This is not Randy Moss staging a wildcat strike. Ochocinco wants this more than any Patriot fan, player or coach. He lobbied and angled to be here for years with his buddy Bill Belichick. He finally got the call, but now he's like a performer that reaches Rockefeller Center and then forgets the words.

Truthfully, Ochocinco was the least of the Patriots' issues yesterday. Brady's first four-interception game since 2006, a slew of penalties and a defense that allowed more than 440 yards of offense for the third straight week and was exposed as more broken than bend-but-don't-break are what undid Belichick's crew. The Patriots can win without Ochocinco right now, but they can't win with a defense that is leakier than a vegetable strainer.

Looking at the big picture, though, Ochocinco matters, and it's a matter of concern that he is still a remedial receiver at this stage because while Welker can shred the Bills corners, he'll face more resistance against the state of New York's other AFC East entry.

The J-E-T-S are part of the reason the Patriots opened the pearly gates of Fort Foxborough to Ochocinco in the first place.

Ochocinco and the Patriots were supposed to be a match made in heaven.

Instead, it's fair to start wondering if they're a match at all.

Video: Patriots-Bills preview

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 21, 2011 04:39 PM
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Here's this week's video entry, a preview of Sunday's showdown in Orchard Park, N.Y., between the Patriots and Bills, who are both 2-0.

Patriots still need to get defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 19, 2011 01:39 PM

Prior to yesterday, the last time the Patriots played a game that counted in front of the homefolk at Gillette Stadium was the distasteful and disheartening playoff loss to those heretical New York Jets, a defeat that shook Fort Foxborough to its foundation.

The result was a shift in defensive alignment and philosophy, the importation of Albert Haynesworth, and the football consummation of the bromance between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Chad Ochocinco. Nine months later, has anything really changed?

While the Patriots bask in the warm glow of a 2-0 start and 73 points and 1,126 yards of offense, lurking in the shadows is the fear that after all the cosmetic changes at their core they're still the same team that got sent home early by the jabbering Jets.

Two weeks is not a valid sample size, but it's all we have to go on right now, and this team looks like the spitting image of the 2010 squad, which is encouraging because that team went 14-2 and disconcerting because of how its flaws were exposed in the playoffs.

Like last season, the Patriots still have a prolific offense fueled by Tom Brady playing quarterback at an unconscionable level (940 yards passing, 71.6 completion percentage, and seven touchdowns in two games). They also still have a defense that must prove it can win a defensive dogfight and allows so much travel through the air it should charge opponents baggage fees.

We've seen this movie before and the ending isn't enjoyable.

"The offense had a great game. Our stop on fourth down was huge for us, but we would still like to have more out of the defense," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "We still have to improve. We still have some things to work on. I'm happy for the win, and the team played great in all phases. We still have to work though."

Whether it's aligned in a 3-4, a 4-3, the 4-2-5 nickel package or lined up single-file by last name, the Patriots defense is still displaying the same hangups -- consistently pressuring the passer and getting exploited aerially, as evidenced by them allowing 794 yards passing in the first two games.

Before you dismiss Chad Henne's season-opening 416-yard performance as statistical fluff, know that even if the final two Miami drives are subtracted, Henne still would have finished 22 of 36 for 314 yards. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 29 of 40 for 378 yards and two scores yesterday.

Not good.

Making matters worse is that cornerback Devin McCourty appears to have regressed from his Pro Bowl form as a rookie. That's scary considering the Patriots were 30th against the pass last season with him playing like a Pro Bowler.

It also might be a good idea for someone at Patriot Place to reset the alarm clock of Haynesworth, who referred to himself as a "sleeping giant" before the first game. Instead of dominant, he was dormant yesterday. Conspicuously absent from the final gamebook, he was not credited with a single tackle.

Like last year, this defense's deliverance is that it makes timely plays (see yesterday's fourth-and-goal stuff of Mike Tolbert by Jerod Mayo) and generates enough turnovers to cover for its deficiencies.

The Chargers were 10 of 12 on third-down conversions and breached New England territory on eight of their nine drives, but they turned the ball over four times, leaving them to ponder what might have been on a long cross-country flight home.

"I think we just stopped ourselves," said Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, who had 12 rushes for 64 yards and seven receptions for 62 yards.

That's overstating it. San Diego is prone to self-inflicted wounds, but Vince Wilfork's interception was a brilliant display of athleticism and improvisation. How many nose tackles make that play? And Sergio Brown's interception of Rivers in the third quarter was a stellar play by the second-year safety, considering he was locked in one-on-one coverage with Antonio Gates, who was held catchless by a tremendous Belichick game plan.

But that old bromide about the best defense being a good offense is still true with the Patriots, and that has to change. It was the offense that did what the defense couldn't -- put the game away.

The Patriots led by 14 (28-14) with 8:40 left after Brady's fourth touchdown toss and second to Rob Gronkowski. Instead of turning out the lights on the Chargers, the defense gave them guide lighting to the end zone. It took three minutes for the Chargers to go 80 yards and make it a seven-point game, thanks to a 26-yard parabola of a pass from Rivers that Vincent Jackson grabbed with three New England defenders nearby.

It was left to the offense to end it with its own 80-yard march, delivering the Floyd Mayweather Jr. haymaker when BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who rolled up 45 of his 70 yards in the fourth quarter, scored on a 16-yard touchdown run.

That the offense knows how to close is not a coincidence, because almost all of the institutional knowledge of winning is on that side of the ball. Brady, Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, injured center Dan Koppen and temporarily mothballed running back Kevin Faulk have all reached Super Bowls as Patriots.

On defense, there is just one defender who knows the feeling of winning a playoff game as a Patriot -- Wilfork. Think about that for a second. One player on the current defense has won a playoff game as a Patriot.

The offense is a work of art -- watching Brady dissect defenses is like watching Michaelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel one brushstroke at a time -- and the defense is a work in progress.

But there is going to come a time this season, as there did last, when the Patriots can't rely simply on Brady to bail them out, a juncture when the defense has to rise up and save the day.

If they can't then nothing will have really changed in Foxborough, including the eventual ending.

Wes Welker in possession of big play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 13, 2011 03:56 AM

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MIAMI -- It's practically a part of Wes Welker's name. Possession receiver. If he had business cards they would probably say, "Wes Welker, professional possession receiver."

There's nothing wrong with being a possession receiver, per se. But in the highlight-happy, short-attention span sports society we live in, being labeled a possession receiver is almost a pejorative, a bit of a backhanded compliment, like being told a pair of pants is slimming on you. Except maybe we were all wrong to brand Tom Brady's favorite target as merely a possession receiver.

That's selling the 5-foot, 9-inch Welker short because possession receivers don't score 99-yard touchdowns like he did last night in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' convincing 38-24 season-opening victory over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Blow the top off the defense? Welker certainly did. No deep threat required.

The 99 Restaurant is going to have to add a Welker entree to the menu. And the next time someone refers to Welker as a possession receiver? "Well, if they do I'll definitely remind them of that play," said Welker of his 99 1/2 yard TD.

One play after Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne misfired on a fade route to Brian Hartline on fourth and goal from the half-yard line, Tom Brady dropped back to pass in his own end zone. After changing the play pre-snap, he whipped a pass to Welker, who was in one-on-one coverage with Miami cornerback Benny (Poor) Sapp. Welker caught the ball at about his 18-yard line and with safety Reshad Jones taking a poor angle, he simply outran Sapp and raced into the history books, tying the NFL record for the longest touchdown from scrimmage and defying perception and stereotypes with each stride.

"Wes is a great overall receiver. People think one thing about him. You'll see he'll hurt you in many different ways," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. "Fortunately for us we get to see it every day in practice and get better with it."

It was the 12th time in NFL history a 99-yard touchdown pass play was scored. The last came in 2008, when Gus Frerotte and Bernard Berrian connected. Welker's long-running reception is a feat -- not to be confused with Welker's favorite word, feet -- that Randy Moss never accomplished. Neither did Jerry Rice, Lynn Swann, Bob Hayes, Lance Alworth, Don Hutson or any of the game's other revered big-play practitioners.

The 99-yard TD was Welker's second score of the game and part of an eight-catch, 160-yard effort. That's 20 yards per catch. Might be time to talk contract extension for Welker.

Welker is not a possession receiver, but he is a possessed one. He seems intent on proving that he deserves a new contract and that last season's loss of agility and explosiveness after the catch was only temporary.

Welker, who is in the final year of the five-year contract, wasn't just throwing out the proverbial contract negotiating ploy during training camp when he declared, a season removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, that he felt like he had gained a step from before the knee surgery and proclaimed: "This is the best I've felt in my career."

"Yeah, I think so. I went 99 and a half yards," said Welker, who had a 2-yard touchdown that broke a 14-14 tie in the third quarter. "Definitely, I cleared up some of that. No, I definitely feel great. It's been great being able to train and not rehab over the offseason. Hopefully, I can just keep it going. It's just one game right now. We got a tough one next week against San Diego. We just got to push through and keep grinding."

Welker's expedited return from ACL surgery last year was downright remarkable. He had surgery on the knee in February of last year and was on the field seven months later for the 2010 season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. But in rushing back, Welker may have done himself a disservice. There were questions about whether Welker, the NFL's leading receiver since 2007 (432 catches), had lost a step.

For the first time in his Patriots career, he failed to corral 100 balls and his yards per reception were 9.9, the lowest of his career. After the season, Welker, who did make the Pro Bowl, went so far as to tell a Boston reporter that he didn't do anything to justify a contract extension. Someone must have ripped that page out of the Scott Boras handbook.

It was probably not entirely a coincidence that Welker's big night came against his former team. Not only does Welker light up Miami like a Xenon headlight, but in the discussion of whether the Patriots should back up the Brinks truck to keep Brady's security blanket the argument was made that other slot receivers could post Welker's gaudy reception totals with TB12 chucking passes in their direction, including Miami's Davone Bess.

In front of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who offered a triple fist-pump on the 99-yarder, Welker made a pretty compelling case for why even at age 30 he's worthy of a lucrative long-term deal from the Patriots, who historically don't pony up to pay pass catchers.

As for all that talk about the Patriots needing a deep threat to allow Welker to flourish and do the dirty work underneath. That's tripe. If Chad Ochocinco was supposed to be the one clearing out coverages for Welker, then how do you explain last night? Ochocinco had one catch for 14 yards and was targeted three times, even though Brady took to the air 48 times on his way to a career-high 517-yard night.

The metronomic Welker has now caught a pass in 79 consecutive regular-season games and 62 straight with the Patriots. He is one shy of tying Ben Coates's Patriots mark of 63 straight games with at least one reception. That will fall next week against San Diego.

Until then it's probably time for Mr. 99 to change those business cards. The job title just isn't accurate. Welker is much more than a possession receiver. Just ask the Miami Dolphins.

First and 10 for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 12, 2011 01:44 PM
The Patriots kick off the 2011 season tonight in Miami. It's the beginning of another football odyssey full of unforeseen twists and turns, victories and defeats, additions and subtractions, milestones and low points and maybe even a playoff victory or two. Remember those? Here are 10 thoughts, observations and predictions about what's to come.

1. The offensive line is unsettled and unsettling -- The men blocking for Tom Brady are a bit of a concern heading into this season. The offensive line lacks depth and health. With regular right tackle Sebastian Vollmer out with a back injury, the Patriots figure to toss out a line against the Dolphins that will feature a 34-year-old right guard who wasn't with the team in the preseason, Brian Waters, and a rookie right tackle, Nate Solder.

Plus, 33-year-old left tackle Matt Light is coming off shoulder surgery and center Dan Koppen, who turns 32 today, has been in decline for a few seasons. As the playoff loss to the Jets proved, Brady is not as adept at dodging or dealing with pressure as he was before he tore his ACL in 2008. He reacts to it now more noticeably because he knows he's not as capable of quickly waltzing out of the way while remaining in the pocket like he used to pre-Bernard Pollard, when he was the best at the subtle slide step since Dan Marino. The line needs to hold the line for Brady to have success tonight against the Dolphins and Cameron Wake and throughout the season.

2. Haynesworth's alarm clock goes off -- Albert Haynesworth referred to himself as a "sleeping giant" and he figures to be a huge part of the Patriots' remade 4-3 defense. Motivation is an ephemeral feeling for Haynesworth but coach Bill Belichick seems to have tapped into Haynesworth's complex mind. The massive defensive tackle has to stay healthy, but if he does look for him to revert to the form that led him to be a capital expenditure for the Redskins. Haynesworth will have at least 5.5 sacks this season for the Patriots.

3. Aaron Hernandez will have more catches than Chad Ochocinco -- This is not a knock on everybody's favorite extroverted receiver. It's faith in Hernandez, the second-year hybrid tight end/wide receiver. Lost in Gronk-mania is the fact that Hernandez set a Patriots' rookie record for receptions by a tight end with 45 and had 563 receiving yards, 17 more than Gronkowski. Classifying Hernandez as a tight end is almost disingenuous. The team is comfortable lining him up in the backfield, flexed out at tight end, as an H-back, at slot receiver or out wide at flanker or split end. Without a true stretch-the-field threat, Hernandez is going to be counted on to generate big plays in the passing game with his speed and ability to run with the ball after the catch.

4. Safety concern -- Put aside my unabiding love for Brandon Meriweather or that lumping his 2009 and 2010 seasons together is like saying that the first and second seasons of "Glee" were of commensurate quality, the Patriots have question marks at safety after Patrick Chung. The safety position is like the traffic cop of the secondary, and if you've ever been stuck in a traffic jam that is being enhanced, not alleviated, by a capricious hand-gesturing officer you know how disastrous that can be. Perhaps, second-year safety Sergio Brown is the answer or Josh Barrett is another Rob Ninkovich. But Belichick better have Darren Sharper on speed-dial or there could be gridlock/ brainlock in the secondary.

5. Third man in? -- Leigh Bodden is back after missing all of last season with a torn rotator cuff. He and Devin McCourty will man the corner spots, but what happens when the Patriots go to their nickel package? Do they bring on Kyle Arrington to play the slot or do they kick Bodden or McCourty inside and let Arrington or rangy rookie Ras-I Dowling play outside. This is of particular importance tonight with the Patriots facing the Dolphins and slot man Davone Bess. Covering the University of Hawaii product has been anything but a vacation for the Patriots. Three of the top four receiving performances of Bess's career have come against the Patriots, and in six games Bess has 33 receptions for 395 yards and three touchdowns against Belichick's Boys.

6. Running game will be grand; Green-Ellis won't -- The Patriots will not have a 1,000-yard rusher like last season, when BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 1,008 and became the first since Corey Dillon in 2004. But they'll have a more explosive running game. Danny Woodhead should get more carries this season. Last year, Woodhead set a franchise record by averaging 5.64 yards per carry, but he only ran the ball 97 times. That number has to go up. Toss in rookies Stevan Ridley, who displayed surprising burst in the preseason, and Shane Vereen and the running game should produce more chunk yardage plays to keep opposing defenses honest. As the Jets showed, opposing defenses simply didn't fear the threat of a big play from the Patriots rushing attack last season, which didn't produce a single run of 40 yards or more last season.

7. Jerod Mayo, meet the QB -- Mayo will be the biggest beneficiary of the Patriots' switch to a 4-3 under defense. He might not know where Swampscott is but he'll know the path to the pocket well by the end of the season. The Patriots will turn Mayo loose and allow him to "dog" or blitz a lot more often from his weakside linebacker spot. He'll be the Jacoby Ellsbury of sacks. Mayo comes into this season with 3.5 career sacks in three seasons. He'll have more sacks than that this season alone.

8. Third-down and out -- The Patriots will be better on third down this year. They simply can't be any worse than last season, when they allowed opponents to covert on 47.1 percent of third downs. But the tangible reasons they'll be better are the presence of veteran defensive ends Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter The greybeards, who are 10th and 13th, respectively among active players in sacks with 72.5 and 66, know their way to the backfield and will provide pressure in obvious passing situations, which was an issue for the Patriots last season.

9. Spikes needs to be on point -- This is a big season for second-year linebacker Brandon Spikes. Between his bizarre tweets, embarrassing sex tape, suspension last season for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy and hints from Belichick that he returned from a preseason ankle injury in less than ideal shape, you wonder whether Spikes has the personality to prosper as a Patriot. If his last name were Meriweather people would be riding him out of town. With the emergence of Dane Fletcher, Spikes, who has tremendous instincts, is not guaranteed playing time. The Patriots have shown they'll part ways with second-round picks with no remorse if they're not following the program.

10. Randy Moss will not return -- Moss has run his last go-route off of Route 1. The Patriots will not bring him back. He was a great player during his time here, and according to those in the know, a good teammate. But Belichick spent all last season rebuilding his fractured locker room. The last thing he needs is Moss coming back and pouring kerosene on it if things don't go well. The Patriots desperately need a deep threat and Moss can probably still do that a bit, but his time here has come and gone.

Video: Patriots-Dolphins preview

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 7, 2011 03:25 PM
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Each week of the NFL season, I'll provide a video preview of the Patriots' upcoming game. Sometimes this season, we'll have a reporter from the opponent city join us for the weekly previews to provide some added perspective.

This week, I'm joined by Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun Sentinel to run down what to watch for in Monday night's season opener between the Patriots and Dolphins in Miami.

Seven points on the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 2, 2011 01:48 PM

FOXBOROUGH – The dress rehearsal phase is over for the Patriots. They got to run their lines and tweak the script on the preseason stage against the Jaguars, Buccaneers, Lions and Giants. Ten days from today they have to go out and put on a real performance against the Miami Dolphins in the regular season curtain-raiser.

Speaking of curtains, it’s always hard to peer behind the iron one established by a certain laconic coach who is as good at disguising his intentions as he is defensive coverages. There is bound to be a surprise from Bill Belichick in reducing his roster to 53 tomorrow. Trying to play roster roulette is a futile exercise I’ll leave to others.

But here are seven points and predictions gleaned from the Patriots’ preseason:

1. Aaron Hernandez is primed for a breakout season – Call him a tight end, call him an oversized wide receiver, call him a hybrid, whatever you call him he’s the best pass catcher on this team after Wes Welker. Hernandez led the Patriots in receptions during the preseason with 16 for 178 yards and a score. More impressive than his numbers were the number of ways the Patriots deployed him.

On the Patriots’ second touchdown drive against the Giants, last night, Hernandez lined up in the backfield flanking Brady in the shotgun, then he was slot left in a five-wide, empty set, then he was lined up wide at wide receiver for two plays, and on BenJarvus Green-Ellis’s 1-yard touchdown run, Hernandez was lined up in a three-point stance as the fullback. During the preseason, the team also flexed him out, a la Indianapolis's Dallas Clark, lined him up at H-back, and put him as the slot (i.e. Welker) wide receiver in a three receiver set.

The versatility of the second-year pass-catcher allows the Patriots to create and exploit match-ups by both personnel and formation. While fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski earned most of the accolades last year for his 10 TD catches as a rookie, it’s worth noting that Hernandez actually had more receptions (45) and receiving yards (563).

2. Old is new at defensive end – Andre Carter, 32, and Shaun Ellis, 34, look like starting defensive ends. The two elder statesman ends both showed they can be three-down players for the Patriots. Carter terrorized Tampa Bay as a pass rusher. He was less effective against Detroit, but demonstrated he can hold up against the run. In his first action of the preseason, Ellis notched a sack and a pressure in the first half against the Giants’ second string. The performance of the ex-Jet might have been enough for the Patriots to send Mark Anderson, who was swallowed up in extended time against Detroit and is a liability against the run, packing. It appears Anderson and Eric Moore could be fighting for one roster spot as a pass rush specialist in sub packages.

3. The interior offensive line is cause for concern – It is not a comforting thought that with Ryan Wendell out since July 31 and Dan Connolly nursing an ankle injury, Rich Ohrnberger is the starting right guard. Dante Scarnecchia is among the best offensive line coaches in the game, but he’s not an alchemist. He can't just turn any warm body in pads into a competent Brady bodyguard. The Patriots used Nate Solder at right tackle against the Giants. They might have to try him at guard. However, Solder’s height and lanky frame are not ideal to playing in-line offensive line. Connolly was very competent in filling in for Logan Mankins last year, but has been banged up and inconsistent so far.

4. Danny Woodhead is a leading man – Labeling the Lilliputian rusher a third-down back is a disservice. He is the best running back on the roster, period. Woodhead averaged 7.4 yards per carry in the preseason and consistently found running room with quick cuts, patience and peripheral vision. Woodhead is not just good in space; he is good at creating space. His size prevents him from being a bell cow back and BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the go-to guy on the goal line. But the Patriots should make Woodhead, who averaged 7 carries per game last season, toting the rock more often a priority.

5. Jermaine Cunningham is a forgotten man – This was a lost preseason and opportunity for Cunningham. Back in April at the draft, part of the reasoning for the Patriots passing on pass rushers was that they were bullish on Cunningham. The second-year defensive end outside linebacker played in only the first preseason game and beat a tight end for a sack, before an injury sidelined him for the rest of the preseason. It speaks volumes that after watching Cunningham early in training camp, Belichick went out and loaded up on veteran pass rushing defensive ends like Anderson, Carter and Ellis. Cunningham has a lot to prove when he returns from his injury, and he’s staring up at the depth chart like it's Mount Kilimanjaro.

6. Receivers not catching on – This isn’t about Ochocinco. It’s alarming the trouble the Patriots are having developing a young receiver. If Brandon Tate makes this team it’s akin to a death row pardon. Taylor Price has potential and showed flashes against the Jaguars' junior varsity, but failed to build on that momentum when given a chance to run with the ones against Detroit. Matthew Slater, who until this preseason was regarded as Larry Izzo Lite and played 43 offensive snaps last season according to Pro Football Focus, was the most impressive young receiver during the preseason. Currently, the last two homegrown wideouts the Patriots successfully integrated were Deion Branch and David Givens, drafted in 2002. Not good.

7. Safety issue – The Patriots have all but broadcast their displeasure with their safety play, outside of the excitable and likable Patrick Chung. Some have interpreted Brandon Meriweather’s presence on the field in the closing stages of last night’s game as a sign he’s headed for the unemployment line. It would be a display of marked hubris to part ways with Meriweather when it’s clear you don’t have an upgrade on the roster. Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett and James Ihedigbo are not Super Bowl-caliber safeties, sorry. Ras-I Dowling could be Eugene Wilson 2.0 down the line, but he is not right now. Talk all you want about Belichick cutting Lawyer Milloy in 2003, but he had a better option in Rodney Harrison, who made Milloy redundant.

Points after – Albert Haynesworth is very bright and says all the right things, but it’s his actions not his words that will determine his career path. ... Mike Wright’s $2.315 million base salary, his concussion history and the team’s defensive line depth could make him a candidate for a surprise cut. ... Based on how he was used in the Giants game, the Patriots see Shane Vereen as a Woodhead-type.

Ochocinco has lost himself in translation

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 30, 2011 03:15 PM

“I’m going to be a little quiet. You won’t get the same Chad you’re used to. …” – Chad Ochocinco on July 30, 2011.

Chad Ochocinco uttered those words exactly a month ago today in his introductory press conference as a Patriot, the one he ended with a group hug. Yet, it is the Patriot Way, the austere, individuality-snuffing code of conduct in Fort Foxborough, that is squeezing the football life out of the flamboyant and free-spirited wide receiver.

Thus, Ochocinco’s words now ring true now for all the wrong reasons.

He hasn’t been the same Chad, on or off the field.

Ochocinco has looked out of synch and out of sorts in a Patriot uniform. He has appeared unnatural in interviews, like an actor using a British accent just for affectation. He has looked as lost on the field as he got in his Prius trying to navigate the serpentine and byzantine roads of the Greater Boston-area without the aid of GPS.

He has been thrown to eight times this preseason and has just two catches for 14 yards and a touchdown against Tampa Bay that was the football equivalent of an uncontested layup. Saturday night in Detroit he was catchless.

Quite simply, Ochocinco hasn’t been himself, and it might be because he’s not being allowed to be himself. His personality has been muted and so has his performance. It’s time for the Patriots to stop forcing Ochocinco to do it the Patriot Way and let him do it his way, the one that made him one of the game’s most entertaining characters and most productive receivers.

Ochocinco has been such a standout during his career because he has enjoyed standing out – after touchdowns, on reality TV shows, in interviews, on Twitter.

One might not be possible without the other. If you want the Pro Bowl performer you have to make room on your team for the inveterate showman and self-promoter.

Something is clearly amiss with Ochocinco, who has been in too many camera shots this preseason where he has a sullen, far-away look on his face, like he’s being held captive.

There are of course technical, football reasons the 33-year-old wideout is struggling. He spent the previous 10 years of his career in Cincinnati in a system where routes were assigned by rote, numbers corresponding to the desired pass pattern, a sort of paint-by-numbers approach to offense.

The Patriots are more like contemporary art. Each play is open to interpretation. The offense administers routes with phrases, sight adjustments, and a lot of improvisation.

“I’m able to go out right now and react as soon as I hear Tommy call something. I’m good, I’m set," Ochocinco told reporters today. “But I’m still not set in that comfort zone to where I can just be me and somewhat exhale and it’s just, ‘Oh, it’s on. Let’s play.’ I think it’s only my third week. Let’s be realistic this is the highest level of football, and it’s not easy.”

If you watch Ochocinco play you can practically hear the gears grinding. He is processing instead of playing, fighting his instincts to fit in.

“I think that he’s been frustrated because he feels like he’s not being himself because he’s still thinking a lot about what he needs to do rather than react," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on his weekly appearance on WEEI-AM (850).

“And we all do that – we’re all doing that at this time of year, coming off the long layoff from football. We’re all trying to overthink ourselves a little bit instead of going out there and being instinctive and reacting.”

Ochocinco’s new quarterback then added a public pep talk, saying he had a lot of confidence in Ochocinco and he had no doubt he was going to be an exciting player for the Patriots.

It’s too early to panic, but it’s not too early to be mildly concerned. The receivers from the outside who have succeeded in the Patriots system usually pick it up pretty quickly and build an instant rapport with TB12.

That was the case for Jabar Gaffney and Randy Moss and Wes Welker. It wasn’t for Donald Hayes and Joey Galloway.

The longer Ochocinco’s breaking-in period extends the more concerning it becomes.

However, more important than feeling comfortable with the offense for Ochocinco is feeling comfortable in his own skin again.

Ochocinco isn’t just trying to adjust to a new playbook with new nomenclature. He is trying to adjust to the business-like, buttoned-up culture that goes with it. Both are completely foreign to Ochocinco, a player as lauded for his post-touchdown productions and peculiar last name as his actual production during his career – seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Combine the difficult task of trying to learn a new way of playing with the requisite Patriots personality lobotomy and you don’t need Freud to figure out that Ochocinco is a repressed receiver.

If Belichick is as close to Ochocinco as we’ve been led to believe then he above all people should understand what makes him tick – the need for individuality, adulation and attention.

He should also understand that in order for Ochocinco to be the player the Patriots’ need he needs to be allowed to be himself -- the old Ochocinco, the one that received passes and publicity in equal measure.

“I’ll always be me,” Ochocinco said a month ago. “But there’s a certain way the Patriots do it, and I’ve always been a chameleon, and I’m going to do it the Patriot Way, which is win.”

Ochocinco isn’t a chameleon because that animal survives by blending into it’s background, being inconspicuous. He is the exact opposite of that. He thrives on being conspicuous. He craves the limelight, the headlines, and the attention. He needs it like a plant needs sunshine and water to not wilt and shrivel up.

Asked about his past antics at that inaugural press conference, Ochocinco said they had to go.

“There is no need for some of the stuff I did before. There’s no need for it,” he said on July 30.

A month later, there may be more need for that “stuff” than he or the Patriots ever realized.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper

Video: Gasper's 3 big answers in Boston sports

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff August 25, 2011 09:03 AM
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Every week, CineSport's Noah Coslov asks Globe online columnist Chris Gasper three of the biggest questions in Boston Sports. This week, it's all Patriots.

Throwing out 10 throwaway thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 24, 2011 09:43 AM

Every once in a while you have to clear away some of the clutter in your basement or up in your attic, the accumulation of objects, articles, and artifacts that are stacked on top of each other like Jenga pieces, just taking up space. Many of us possess that stockpile of stuff that is overflowing, overwhelming, and needs to be tossed out.

That’s how my sports-observing conscious feels. So, I’m uncluttering my mind by throwing out 10 thoughts. Then it can be empty as usual. Beat you to the punchline, didn’t I?

1. Let me get this straight, Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs are unforgivable scofflaws because they dare suggested Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t infallible. But Albert Haynesworth, who since May has dealt with a road rage assault case that was dismissed after he reached “accord and satisfaction” with the accuser and groped a waitress, is a good guy who deserves a clean slate here, no questions asked? This just proves my theory that there are certain aspects of life -- sports, politics, and parenting -- where people override logic and fairness based on unwavering fealty.

By the way, the no contest plea Haynesworth entered to a charge of simple assault to make the sexual abuse case disappear was essentially offered to him back in May. He rejected it. I guess he applied innocence the same way he did effort in D.C. -- conveniently.

2. It raises a red flag that the Red Sox feel the need to bat Carl Crawford seventh consistently -- behind the likes of rookie Ryan Larvanway -- with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis out of the lineup. Big Papi is supposed to come back tonight, but Youkilis is still out. The aim may be to protect Crawford's fragile confidence, but it prompts deeper examination of it. What is Crawford supposed to think knowing that even decimated by injuries the team doesn’t think batting him higher than seventh gives it the best chance to win? Crawford’s numbers against lefties are abysmal this season (.180 batting average, .281 slugging) and batting him behind Lavarnway Monday night made perfect sense because Crawford entered the game with a .111 career average against Rangers starter C.J. Wilson. But hitting him seventh against righties, like he did last night and Saturday night, is disconcerting. Crawford needs more at-bats to get untracked, not fewer.

3. If Sir Isaac Newton had been a baseball fan he might have named the law of gravity after Josh Reddick. Reddick’s batting average has plummeted like the Dow Jones since the start of the second half, from .393 at the All-Star break to .291. He is 5 for his last 40 after his walk-off hit against the Yankees on Aug. 7. Reddick is a nice player -- although his defensive prowess has not come as advertised -- but J.D. Drew still has a role on this team.

4. Remember way back at the beginning of the season when the Sox intentionally aligned the rotation so Josh Beckett didn’t have to pitch against the Rangers? Now, he is reason to believe the Sox can win two straight at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which is a baseball Bermuda grass triangle for the boys from Boston. Beckett has regained his ace card this season. Only Justin Verlander (5.97) is allowing fewer hits per nine innings than Beckett (6.42), and Beckett is fifth in fewest baserunners allowed per nine (9.11). With more run support (3.73) he'd be in the Cy Young discussion.

5. Should the Sox have any non-buyer’s remorse on Oakland A’s righty Rich Harden? They struck a deal to obtain Harden and then reneged after reviewing the pitcher’s medicals, which were voluminous and ominous. The team didn't think Harden's arm, held together by duct-tape, paper clips and Juicy Fruit, would last until October, and didn't want to part with Lars Anderson and a better prospect for damaged goods. Instead, they made a deal with Seattle for Erik Bedard, who was coming off a knee injury.

In his last start, Harden mowed down the Blue Jays, striking out a career-high-tying 11 in seven scoreless innings. He has gone seven innings in two of his last three starts, while Bedard has not gone more than six in any of his four outings. Boston's medical evaluations have been off the mark before. The Sox will be watching with interest -- and possibly regret -- when Harden faces the Yankees Thursday in the Bronx.

6. Inimitable colleague Bob Ryan once famously asked Sox general manager Theo Epstein what the fascination was with J.D. Drew. I’d like to know what the fascination with Andrew Miller is. The Sox have contorted themselves like Nadia Comaneci to keep Miller on the roster until Sept. 1 roster expansion. He is too unreliable to relieve and too unsteady to start. Is there a third kind of pitching I'm not aware of? Mothballed as a starter since July 31 before he took the bump against the Royals last Friday, Miller is going to start again tomorrow in Texas. He has a 5-1 record, but hasn’t beaten an opponent with a winning record. The lithe lefty has big-time upside, but it's possible that might be all he has.

7. Don’t blame Scott Boras if Jacoby Ellsbury walks away from Yawkey Way after the 2013 season. It’s supposed to be baseball gospel that Boras always takes his clients to free agency. Well, Boras client Jered Weaver, who would have hit free agency after next season, signed a five-year, $85 million deal to stay with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California. At the end of the day, Boras still works for his client, not the other way around. We saw that here with Jason Varitek. If Ellsbury really wants to remain with the Red Sox, he will. If following Rib-Gate last year, his feelings are as bruised as his back or he wants top dollar he will hit the market, with Boras as eager auctioneer.

8. The best save Jonathan Papelbon has made this year is that of his free agent value. Pap has been on the money all season, and now he’s going to get some of it in the offseason. Papelbon has converted 24 consecutive save chances and tossed 14 straight scoreless innings. With his next save, the quirky closer will become the first fireman in baseball history to record 30 saves or more in each of his first six seasons. He is making $12 million this season. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is making $15 million. Papelbon’s asking price should split the difference.

9. All you have to do is look at the Indianapolis Colts quarterback quandary, sans a healthy Peyton Manning, to understand the idea of trading Patriots backup QB Brian Hoyer and turning the reins over to rookie Ryan Mallett makes little sense now. The Patriots have invested too much in this season. While Hoyer playing means the season has detoured in a dyspepsia-inducing direction, he is the type of backup the Patriots could survive with for three or four games if Tom Brady got hurt. That could be the difference between making the playoffs or watching them on TV.

10. This could be a tough season in Kansas City for old friend Scott Pioli. His No. 1 pick, wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, allegedly got served a knuckle sandwich by veteran Chiefs running back Thomas Jones. Then his abrasive, thin-skinned coach, Todd Haley, had a hissy fit about the Ravens scoring too much on the Chiefs in a preseason game.

Plus, Charlie Weis, largely responsible for the development of Matt Cassel, fled to the University of Florida in the offseason. Coming off a 10-6 season, a division title and a home playoff game, expectations are high in KC. But so is the tension. That’s a recipe for Humble Pie.

Defense gives Patriots reason to smile

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 19, 2011 02:29 PM

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The Patriots defense showed promise against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Brian Blanco / AP photo)

Perhaps it happened during a quiet moment to himself in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, or as he settled into his seat for the plane ride home, or when he plopped into his car in the wee hours of yesterday morning. There was a crack in Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s facade and his lips.

Even Belichick had to smile a bit after his team totally dismantled the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-14, last night in exhibition contest No. 2. What more could you ask for the first time the starters did more than model Patriot uniforms?

The first-string offense was awesome. The first-string defense was fearsome, and the Patriots did everything but plunder the ersatz pirate ship the Buccaneers have behind the end zone.

The Dour Don will never let us see he is pleased with a performance. It always could have been better played, better coached, blah, blah, blah. (The one legitimate cause for consternation from last night is that wide receiver Chad Ochocinco might eschew GPS in his Prius, but it looks like he could use one for this offense.)

But after last night’s beatdown of the Buccaneers, a team that won 10 games last year, Belichick knows what he has – the best quarterback in football orchestrating his offense like Arthur Fiedler, which isn't anything new, and a defense that instead of being a concern can create them, which is.

As much fun as it was to watch Tom Brady play with all the bells and whistles of the Patriots offense, not even allowing the bewildered Bucs a chance to line-up half the time, in building a 28-0 halftime lead, it was the reformatted defense – I won’t call it a 4-3, coach -- that bodes best for the regular season.

The Patriots allowed Tampa Bay just 73 yards of offense in the first half, and bivouacked in the Buccaneers' backfield, finishing with three sacks, four tackles for a loss, and numerous pressures.

Even third-down, the Waterloo of the Patriots’ defense, was not an issue. Tampa Bay converted just 1 of 8 third-downs in the first half and that came courtesy of a pass interference penalty on safety Patrick Chung.

Of course when Belichick was asked about his team pressuring the Buccaneers passers, he customarily downplayed and deadpanned at the dais.

“We’ll take a look at it on the film,” he said, nonplussed. "It looked like we had a little bit, but we had trouble chasing these fast quarterbacks -- looked like we made a few plays.”

The reason the Patriots had trouble chasing Buccaneers starter Josh Freeman, who made his NFL debut against the Patriots in London in 2009, and more so his backup, Josh Johnson, was because the Tampa Bay QBs were running for their lives. They barely set up to throw before they were getting up close and personal with Patriot defenders.

The Patriots produced that rarest of sights in these parts, an honest-to-goodness NFL pass rush.

The tone in Tampa was set on the first play last night when Jerod Mayo barreled in from the edge and hammered Freeman, forcing an incompletion.

Unleashed with more four-man fronts playing in front of him, Mayo was all over the field, finishing with two sacks, two tackles for a loss, three quarterback hits and a pair of passes defended. Cue the Ray Lewis comparisons.

Just as impressive as Mayo at weakside linebacker, were the guys in front of him, even without the unblockable and incorrigible Albert Haynesworth.

Tampa Bay left tackle Donald Penn will be seeing Patriots defensive end Andre Carter in his dreams. Maybe he can block him there because he certainly couldn’t do it on the field.

In a representation of why it’s ill-advised to use statistics as the sole arbiter of athletic performance, Carter didn’t merit a mention in the postgame stat book. That’s a capital crime of omission because he provided constant pressure, drew three holding calls, and was the team’s best non-Mayo defender.

We can debate until we’re blue in the face how exactly to classify this defense, but what is not debatable is that it represents A) a notable and significant shift in philosophy and B) a vast improvement.

The single biggest reason the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since the second George Bush was president and haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season is because their defense hasn’t been up to Lombardi Trophy specifications.

The Baltimore Ravens ran the Patriots into the ground two seasons ago in an embarrassing home playoff loss, throwing the ball just 10 times. The last straw for Belichick was last year’s playoff defeat to the Jets during which his defense made desperate Brady wannabee Mark Sanchez actually resemble TB12 a bit.

So, with the copious free time he had during the lockout Belichick went back to the drawing board. We saw the results last night.

Belichick’s more forward thinking approach to a more forward thinking and playing defense could be the missing link to Lombardi Trophy No. 4.

If the Patriots are able to play defense like last night, then the rest of the NFL better look out because you know Brady and Co., are going to pile up points like kindling. That has never been a question. If the Patriots have a defense to match, then I hear Indianapolis, site of the Super Bowl, is lovely in early February.

Of course it is the preseason, so you have to take performances like last night’s with a grain of salt.

After all, it was just a week ago that some folks had third-string rookie quarterback Ryan Mallet being flipped for a first-round pick. Instead, last night he was thrown for a loop by the Buccaneers, who scored off a return of his Bledsoe-esque, fade-away interception.

But preseason or not, last night was enough to make even the most pessimistic of gridiron sages grin at the possibilities.

Welker could be headed for receiving end

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 17, 2011 03:56 PM

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Wes Welker could see the number of balls his way dwindle this year. (Michael Dwyer / AP photo)

Wes Welker has been on the receiving end of a lot of Patriots passes since being imported to New England in 2007 – 432 to be exact, more that anyone else in the NFL. But this season could mark his receiving end in Foxborough.

Welker is in the final year of the five-year, $18.1 million deal he signed after the Patriots snagged him from the division rival Miami Dolphins and will carry a $2.15 million base salary.

After backing up the Brinks truck for Vince Wilfork, Tom Brady and most recently Logan Mankins, Welker is within his rights to ask when he gets his Patriot payday. Perhaps, something in the neighborhood of the six-year, $54.1 million deal Miles Austin got last September from the Dallas Cowboys.

According to a source close to Welker, there have not been any recent discussions with the Patriots about an extension.

Welker fits the mold of veteran players the Patriots have dipped deep into the Kraft family coffers for recently. He walks the straight and narrow of the Patriot Way, and is arguably the best at his position in the league.

Welker is a nearly invaluable asset for Brady, but the Patriots have to assign a value to him. And it’s going to be one of the most challenging contract quandaries of the Bill Belichick era.

My guess is Belichick and Co., won’t value Welker’s work quite the same way Welker and his representation will. That’s why Welker is more likely to be running an out route than a comeback route after this season, unless the Patriots drop the dreaded franchise tag on him. But considering this year’s tag for wideouts was $11.3 million, even that could be too rich for the Patriots' taste.

Historically, the Patriots have not paid a premium for pass catchers. All Welker has to do is the ask the last guy who served as the security blanket for Brady, Deion Branch.

Branch, who is also in the last year of his contract and will make $2.2 million, had to be shipped to Seattle in 2006 to get his financial windfall. Chad Ochocinco and his Twitter account are locked up through 2013 with base salaries of $3 million in each of the next two seasons after this one.

Yes, Randy Moss (remember him?) got $9 million per year from the Patriots over three years. But he was A) coming off arguably the greatest season any receiver had ever had in 2007 and B) took less straight cash, homie, than he was offered in Philadelphia to return to Fort Foxborough.

How you value Welker depends on how you view him.

Do you see him as one of the NFL’s most reliable and productive pass catchers over the last four years, a guy who could get open if he was double-covered in a coat closet, is willing to be a crash-test dummy to carve out first downs, and even on one good leg led the team in receptions with 86?

Only Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison have more 100-catch, 1,000-yard receiving seasons than Welker (three). And one of those seasons, 2008, came when he was catching passes from Matt Cassel, not Mr. Brady.

Or do you see him as a worn down, 30-year-old wide receiver who benefited from Moss blowing the top off the defense, is playing in a system that fits his abilities like a bespoke suit, and lost his ability to cut sharper than a Ginsu after he tore up his left knee on the Reliant Stadium turf in January of 2010?

Welker only averaged 9.9 yards per reception on his 86 grabs last year, and had just one 100-yard receiving game. He ranked 18th in the league in yards after catch and averaged five yards after his grabs. In 2009, he was second in the league and averaged six yards after catch.

Both descriptions have merit, which is why Welker’s contract saga promises to be fascinating and generate a lot of debate.

Some feel Welker is irreplaceable, and in a town that loves the little guy his diminutive stature has only raised his stature. He is in that category of Napoleonic athletes we adore along with Dustin Pedroia and Brad Marchand.

Other fans like Welker, but place system over player. They point to slot receivers like Davone Bess in Miami and Danny Amendola in St. Louis and contend they could be similarly productive here. There are those who think Julian Edelman is a Welker-in-waiting, which is sort of like saying brass could be gold with enough polish.

Welker knows what is at stake this season. This could be his last, best chance to cash in on his abilities.

Self-promotion is not Welker's game. His ability to beat defenders is matched by his inability to beat his own chest.

So, it was notable that he started tacitly building a case for a new deal when he said on Monday, “this is the best I’ve felt in my career.”

"I feel great. I feel like I've gained a step from two years ago,” said Welker. “This is the best I've felt in a long time, and I just want to continue to play well and continue to get better and do the things that help the team win."

Bold words considering two years ago he caught 123 passes, the second-most in a single-season in NFL history.

If Welker’s yacking is honest then his YAC will tell the tale.

Generating yards after catch is a crucial part of Welker’s game. Since joining the Patriots, the average length in the air of the passes Welker has caught has been 4.6 yards, according to STATS, LLC. But his yards gained after reception is 5.9. He leads the NFL in yards after catch since '07 with 2,564. Next closest is 1,753 by Brandon Marshall.

If Welker plays the way he says he feels, someone will pay him. He just might have a receiving address other than Patriot Place.

Preseason full of guessing games

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 12, 2011 02:59 PM

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The Patriots played a football game last night, well, at least what passes for professional football in the preseason. The uniforms and helmets were of the familiar variety, but the players were not.

Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth and Devin McCourty, among other starters, all watched comfortably from the sidelines, as the Patriots’ junior varsity pasted the Jaguars JV by a score of 47-12.

Robert Kraft’s grandson Harry could have quarterbacked the Patriots to victory in this one, as the Patriots scored on eight straight possessions after Jacksonville took a 6-0 lead.

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio summed it up best: “Probably the biggest concern is we aren’t going to play our backend people that much again this preseason. So, that is more of a relief than a concern because that was pretty ugly out there at the end.”

Last night was a night for backup quarterbacks, reserve receivers and rookie running backs. Congratulations to Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Taylor Price (that touchdown grab was Moss-esque) and Curtis Martin, uh, I mean, Stevan Ridley.

It was not an evening to gain keen insight into the potential of the 2011 New England Patriots. This game was like counterfeit currency. It looks a lot like the real thing, but upon closer inspection doesn’t have nearly the same value. Unless you’re talking ticket prices, of course.

Now, you know why toward the end of the lockout, NFL owners were pushing the fast-forward button to preserve the preseason. It’s the best revenue racket in professional sports.

However, those bemoaning last night’s game and the lack of insight it provided have to remember that basing any evaluation of a team on the first preseason game, even when all the starters play, is like offering a movie review based only on whether you liked the trailer.

In a word, it is ill-advised. Unless a major injury is suffered, the first exhibition game is usually unimportant in the grand scheme of the gridiron.

Perhaps some football fans have forgotten what the first faux football game looks like. Last year, Brady played two series in the exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, and then he was off the clock.

Coming off a great rookie season, Julian Edelman caught six passes for 90 yards. That was one fewer reception than he had all last regular season. Marques Murrell got the start at outside linebacker opposite Tully Banta-Cain and registered a sack of Drew Brees. He was released the day after the season-opener.

Randy Moss had two catches for 30 yards and didn’t say a peep afterward. Thoughts of his boiling discontent with his contract status were just another "media fabrication" – that one goes in the all-time Belichick bon mot book, along with “It is what it is” and his quips about Charley Casserly and meteorology.

Nothing about last season’s preseason opener told us the Patriots were going to go 14-2 in what was ostensibly a retooling year. Just like even with cameos by Brady, Ochocinco, Haynesworth, et al., we weren’t going to ascertain whether this team can win a playoff game, which is really the measuring stick this season.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some notable occurrences last night. Price, who had five catches for 105 yards and an acrobatic score, is the type of fast, physical presence the Patriots lack in their receiving corps. Reading between the lines, Belichick has taken a shine to him.

It was good to see Stephen Gostkowski, returning from a torn quadriceps in his kicking leg, boot a pair of 40-plus-yard field goals (46 and 43), even if the rest of the Patriots’ special teams were rather wretched (bad snap on an extra point, offsides on a fourth-and-1 Jacksonville punt and a block in the back penalty that negated a 43-yard Price punt return).

Cornerback Leigh Bodden, returning from a torn rotator cuff that cost him all of last season, spent a lot of time kicking inside to the “star” -- or slot corner -- for the Patriots on third down, which with so many talented slot receivers in the NFL makes some sense if it is part of Belichick's regular-season plan.

Rookie left tackle Nate Solder displayed good quickness and nimble feet, and third-round pick Ridley, the second of the two running backs the Patriots selected in the draft, showed some burst and toughness around the goal line.

But it's preseason, the time when Michael Bishop looks like an NFL quarterback and Andy Katzenmoyer looks like Dick Butkus.

Future Hall of Famer Moss is the poster boy for why the preseason as a whole is largely meaningless in gauging a team.

Four years ago, he was Haynesworth – a player looking for an extreme reputation makeover in Foxborough. Moss barely practiced, didn’t play in a single preseason game and there were even rumors he was going to be cut prior to the season.

Then he went out and shredded the Jets defense in Game 1 of the ’07 season for nine catches, 183 yards and a touchdown, during which he parted three New York defenders. After the jaw-dropping score he parted his hands in what became his signature gesture. The rest is NFL history.

While next week’s game in Tampa, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should more resemble regular-season action for a quarter or two, it’s not the Rosetta Stone for the regular season either. It’s another exhibition game that won’t exhibit much.

It’s not going to tell us definitively whether Ochocinco grasps the offense, whether the Patriots can dirty the uniform of the opposing QB more often this season or whether the shift to more four-man fronts is a stroke of genius by Belichick that will lead to the elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Only real games can tell us that. Until we get to those it’s all a guessing game.

First and five for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 11, 2011 02:42 PM

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It’s been 207 days since the Patriots played a football game of any kind. It feels like Bill Belichick and the boys last played against Red Grange, not Rex Ryan, thanks to the tedious tug of war that was the NFL lockout. But as Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, football is back in Foxborough. Finally.

Even if it’s not real football, it’s close enough to satisfy the pigskin palate.

That’s why there is a little bit more excitement than usual for the Patriots’ first foray into preseason play with the exhibition opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars tonight at Gillette Stadium. Preseason football might be lackluster, but it beats discussions of revenue splits, risk management and anti-trust lawsuits any day.

As we get our first look at the Super Bowl-or-bust 2011 Patriots, here are five things to look for:

1. Defensive re-alignment – The idea of characterizing a defense as a 3-4 or a 4-3 might be a “media fabrication” or more accurately a simplification, but what is not a figment of the football writers’ imaginations is that the Patriots are going in a different direction defensively this season. The Patriots have stocked up along the defensive-line like a Costco shopper, buying in bulk and bringing in players like Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, and Mark Anderson, who are clearly better suited to a four-man front than a three-man front. Even Jets refugee Shaun Ellis, who has lots of experience in the 3-4, said in his introductory talk with the media that he’s most comfortable in a 4-3.

Preseason games usually feature the most vanilla, basic, and base parts of a defense, so it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots employ a four-man front – and with which players – on first and second down against Jacksonville. The team’s sub-packages that featured five and sometimes six defensive backs used four-man fronts the majority of the time last year, so signs of a tell-tale philosophical shift up front will be on the early downs.


2. Hanging with Chad -- Inveterate tweeter Chad Ochocinco is not just trying to adjust to the Patriot Way off the field – he’s hit the mute button on his personality – but he’s trying to adjust to it on the field as well. The Patriots offense is a sight-adjustment system that to varying degrees has flummoxed receivers like Donte’ Stallworth and Joey Galloway. You have to see what Tom Brady sees and then run your route accordingly. It’s not easy to pick up, even with a full offseason. Ochocinco is like a college kid pumping lattes into his veins and pulling an all-nighter. It will be interesting to see just how comfortable he is in the Patriots attack, assuming he plays (see below).

Is he on the field when the Patriots use a two-receiver set? Or does he just come on when they go three-wide? Can he play flanker and split-end or is he just playing split-end?

3. For starters – How much does Belichick decide to play his front-line players tonight? The Patriots coach already said they wouldn’t play more than usual, but he didn’t say anything about them playing less than usual. It’s possible that Belichick might feel like two weeks of football with no prior supervised workouts or practices is simply not enough time to prepare a player to play.

The Patriots have already seen attrition at practice as starters Dan Connolly (right guard), Rob Gronkowski (tight end), Albert Haynesworth (defensive tackle), and Brandon Spikes (inside linebacker) have missed time with injuries.

The Patriots have invested a lot in this season and the last thing they want is for the season to be jeopardized before it’s even begun. Usually, the starters play about the first quarter in the first preseason game, but it could be less tonight if Belichick is feeling risk-averse.

4. Offensive line line-up – The composition of the Patriots offensive line has been as volatile as the stock market due to injuries and the new CBA rules that prevented Logan Mankins from practicing until Aug. 4.

At least two-fifths of the projected offensive line will be out tonight. Left tackle Matt Light is still on the physically-unable-to-perform list and right guard Dan Connolly missed practice the last two days after suffering an apparent right elbow injury on Monday. Also, the sixth man of the line Ryan Wendell, who can play guard and center, has not practiced since July 31, ostensibly due to an undisclosed injury.

In a sign the Patriots are not totally sold on their line depth, they claimed rookie Mark Wetterer off waivers.

The injury situation, particularly at guard, is an opportunity for someone like third-year man Rich Ohrnberger, Thomas Austin or undrafted rookie Corey Woods to step up and make an impression. This will also be the first NFL action for Patriots first-round pick Nate Solder, the heir apparent to Light on Brady’s blindside.

5. "Star" search – No, Ed McMahon is not emceeing tonight’s game, but the Patriots will be auditioning performers at the “star” spot, or slot corner, for their defense. The contenders are Kyle Arrington, who started 14 games at corner last year with Leigh Bodden out for the season, Darius Butler, a 2009 second-round pick who endured a sophomore slump, and Jonathan Wilhite, who has the most experience playing inside.

The Green Bay Packers showed the value of having three play-making corners last year, and with the NFL a passing league now more than ever a lot of teams view the third cornerback as another starter. At least that’s what the Philadelphia Eagles are whispering in Asante Samuel's ear. Without Bodden last year the Patriots often reverted to using safety Patrick Chung at the star after Wilhite hurt his hip. The results were not good.

Despite the presence of Pro Bowl corner Devin McCourty the Patriots were just 30th against the pass last season. Bodden’s return will boost the secondary, but with the team in sub-packages more than 50 percent of the time the spotlight is on the “star."

Video: Gasper on Ochocinco, the Patriots 4-3 and the Red Sox

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff August 10, 2011 12:34 PM
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Christopher L. Gasper provided the answers to the three biggest questions in Boston sports, including Chad Ochocinco, the Patriots 4-3 defense and the red hot Red Sox.

Belichick going for broke

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 9, 2011 11:26 AM

FOXBOROUGH – You wouldn’t want to participate in a high-stakes poker games with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Cards? What cards? I’m not holding any cards, the coach would say with a straight face.

While he keeps his remarkable poker-face at the podium, his actions tip his hand a bit. Even if he won’t tell his transactions serve as a tell.

This year Belichick is all in, similar to 2007. The Hoodie is in hurry-up mode, hurry up and win because he knows that this Patriots team probably won't or can’t look the same next season.

That’s why he’s stacking the deck on the defensive line, signing every NFL defensive lineman who can chew gum and get in a three-point stance. That’s why he brought in diva wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and gambled on recalcitrant defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. That’s why the Patriots brought back left tackle Matt Light on a two-year deal and guaranteed him $7 million four months after they drafted his replacement.

This could be the Patriots' last shot to win with this current core group, and Belichick knows it. It’s a smart play.

The year 2012 may or may not mark the end of the world, but it will likely mark the end of the careers of a few cornerstone players for the Patriots. Players with Super Bowl rings earned in Fort Foxborough are already an endangered species.

It’s down to a decorated half-dozen: Tom Brady, Light, running back Kevin Faulk, wide receiver Deion Branch, center Dan Koppen and nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was a rookie the last time the Patriots lifted the Lombardi Trophy in February 2005.

Branch and Koppen are both eligible for free agency after this season. So is Brady security blanket Wes Welker, who has caught more passes (432) than any receiver in the NFL since coming to New England in 2007.

It’s entirely possible that Light, who has protected Brady’s blindside since 2001, could not return for the second year of his deal. The Patriots drafted his heir apparent, Nate Solder, this year, and while Light will carry a cap-friendly $1 million base salary this year his base salary jumps to $3.4 million next year when he will be 34.

One way or the other this season looks like it's it for the venerable Faulk, the only player on the roster who predates the arrival of Belichick.

That’s not to mention the plight of left guard Logan Mankins, who if he isn’t signed to a long-term deal by Sept. 20 can’t sign an extension until after the season, per the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement with regards to players playing under the franchise tag.

If there is a recurrence of the currency debate that played out last year between the team and Mr. Mankins then he could be a flight risk as well.

Chalk it all up and you have a recipe for urgency in 2011 because you have roster uncertainty in 2012.

The simple fact is this: Brady, who turned 34 last week, isn’t getting any younger, but the team around him is. That presents a problem for the Patriots. They need to win while their franchise quarterback is still in his prime, but they have to do it while their rebuilt defense isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Belichick doesn’t have time to develop a pass rusher or wait for one to emerge. He needs a quick fix to his quarterback pressure quandary. Whether his defense is a 3-4, a 4-3 or a hybrid it has to be better at harassing the passer.

That’s why a steady stream of pass-rush types and pocket-pushers have been auditioning in Foxborough since the lockout was lifted.

It’s why Belichick is hoping that defensive end Mark Anderson can be rejuvenated off Route 1.

It’s why Belichick spent $4 million to swipe Shaun Ellis, who ranks 10th among active players in sacks with 72.5, from the Jets. If it rattled the cage of Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannebaum that he got the longest-tenured Jet to defect to his side of the Border War that's an added bonus.

It’s why veteran defensive end Andre Carter, who has 66 career sacks, said after his first practice as a Patriots yesterday that his role here will be simple -- to “put your hand in the dirt and go.”

It’s why big Gerard Warren, a Haynesworth insurance policy, is back this year.

Belichick is betting on 30-somethings with proven NFL track records – Ellis is 34; Warren is 33; Carter is 32; Haynesworth is 30. When chasing a championship it’s better to gamble on players that might be over the hill than those that may never get over the hump.

Like any gambling man, Belichick is playing a numbers game. He has so many defensive linemen on the 90-man roster – 21 if you include outside linebacker/defensive ends Jermaine Cunningham and Markell Carter – that “Hoarders” is going to come calling.

But you have to figure that out of this farrago of front-seven players he will forge a more formidable defense than the one that has contributed to the team going o-fer and out in the playoffs the last two years, one capable of playing at a championship level in the near future and not the distant one.

How many more opportunities can the Patriots let go by the boards? They have 2006 and 2007 and last year’s wasted 14-2 campaign. You only get so many chances before you run out of chips.

All the more reason to go for broke while you still have them.

Belichick signaling a defensive shift

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 4, 2011 01:40 PM

Coaches aren't philosophers, not in the sense of Nietzsche or Plato. They're about Xs and Os, not existentialism. But they have philosophies and they are loathe to stray from them, especially when they've been proven successful.

For most of his career Bill Belichick has been associated with the 3-4 defense. Yes, I know, I know the Patriots used a 4-3 defense against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and have done so from time to time. But saying that makes the Patriots a 4-3 team or Belichick a 4-3 coach is like saying recycling cans makes you head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

That's why the most interesting storyline of training camp isn't the arrival of Tweet-a-holic wide receiver Chad Ochocinco or the re-education of indolent defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth or the rush to the regular season created by the lockout. It's the mounting evidence that Belichick is moving to a 4-3 defense.

The trade for Haynesworth, the "different direction" comments from Ty Warren as he bid Foxborough adieu, workouts for 4-3 defensive linemen Tommie Harris and Raheem Brock, and investigating a trade for disgruntled Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora: It all points to a shift in defensive philosophy.

Belichick abandoning the base 3-4 for a 4-3 or 3-4/4-3 hybrid is a little like Bill Gates swapping all his Windows-running PCs for Apple computers. Or a BMW engineer riding to work in a Mercedes Benz. It's also a tacit admission of what's become increasingly apparent the last few seasons. The old way of playing defense wasn't/isn't working, at least not well enough to hang another Super Bowl banner inside Gillette Stadium.

We know the Patriots will score points -- lots of them. That won't be an issue as long as Tom Brady is the quarterback. But can Belichick hold up his end of the bargain on the other side of the ball?

The results were mixed last season. The defense forced 38 turnovers, led the league in interceptions with 25 and allowed 19.8 points per game. However, it was 30th in the league against the pass, dead last in third-down defense, and 25th overall in total defense, surrendering 366.5 yards per game, the highest number any Belichick head-coached team has ever posted.

The popular theory regarding the Patriots' defense is that it's a bend-but-don't break approach. Yards allowed are just an unsightly, but largely innocuous, side effect of the system. Nothing to see here.

But of the five seasons under Belichick in which the Patriots have finished 20th or lower in yards allowed on defense, the only one in which they won the Super Bowl was the Cinderella season of 2001 (24th). In the other four -- 2000 (20th), 2002 (23d), 2005 (26th) and last year (25th) -- they won a total of one playoff game.

With more time than usual to study and dissect his defense this offseason, Belichick may have concluded that his bend-but-don't-break 3-4 was indeed broken. That instead of a tune-up it needed an overhaul. Judging by the Patriots' last four playoff demises it's hard to argue.

In 2006, the Patriots built a 21-6 halftime lead in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts only to see the Colts score 32 points in the second half, including the winning touchdown with a minute left. We all know how the 2007 season ended in Super Bowl XLII.

In the 2009 playoffs, Ray Rice took the first play from scrimmage and raced 83 yards for a tone-setting touchdown as the Patriots endured a 33-14 beatdown by the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, the Patriots tasted the agony of defeat (or was it da feet) at the hands of Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. The game, during which the Patriots had zero sacks or quarterback hits, was 14-11 New York at the start of the fourth quarter before the Jets took the E-Z Pass to the end zone, going 75 yards in five plays on their way to a 28-21 victory.

It is the last two system failures in particular that likely prompted the defensive guru to re-do his defense.

But the current state of the roster played a role as well. Any good coach knows you have to mold your system to your players and not the other way around. The playmakers in a 3-4 are often the outside linebackers. That's also the position the Patriots are the weakest at.

Belichick is quite picky about his outside 'backers -- you would be too when Lawrence Taylor is your standard -- and the team has passed on players like Clay Matthews and LaMarr Woodley in recent years. With the success of the Patriots, Steelers, and now Packers there is more demand from copy-cat teams than there is supply of 3-4 players across the league.

Migrating to the 4-3 also makes sense because it allows Belichick to maximize the ability of his two best front-seven players -- nose tackle Vince Wilfork and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. In the 3-4, Wilfork is most often battling two blockers and trying to hold his ground before making a play. Mayo, who led the NFL in tackles last season, has to grapple with guards inside.

In a 4-3, Wilfork can do what he did in college at the University of Miami, which is shoot gaps, get in the backfield and blow up plays. Mayo could move to weakside outside linebacker in a 4-3, leaving bruising Brandon Spikes to man the middle. That would allow Mayo to play more in space and use his athleticism and instincts to be a sideline-to-sideline menace.

The move could also help get the most out of second year outside linebacker/defensive end Jermaine Cunningham, who freed from the second-guessing that comes with the transition to 3-4 outside 'backer, could blossom.

As Nietzsche once said, "A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions -- as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all."

Belichick is football's ultimate thinker, and it looks like he thinks it's time to tinker.

Training camp is not a foregone conclusion for these five Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 1, 2011 03:23 PM

It’s always dangerous to draw any conclusions from what you see in an NFL training camp. We are after all talking about practice, PRACTICE (cue: Allen Iverson voice).

No matter how well coach Bill Belichick is able to simulate game conditions training camp is not the real thing. Neither are the glorified scrimmages the NFL passes off as “preseason” games, one of the great sports euphemisms (and rackets) of all-time.

If you want a disclaimer on why it’s unwise to draw finite conclusions from camp then harken back to 2007. The now-retired Randy Moss went more than a month without practicing after tweaking a hamstring early in camp. There were rumors swirling on cut-down day that Moss was going to be sent packing. Obviously, that did not happen. The rest is NFL history.

With that camp caveat out of the way, let’s look at five players who have the most to prove or gain during the summer session:

1. Jermaine Cunningham, outside linebacker/defensive end – Regardless of what defensive alignment the Patriots use this season – 3-4 or 4-3 – the pressure is on Cunningham to bring more pressure this season. The one sack and four quarterback hits in 15 games he had as a rookie don't conjure up visions of a young Andre Tippett.

However, putting Cunningham in a 4-3 defense, which he played in during college, could allow him to play more instinctively and enable his natural pass-rush ability to manifest. It better.

The Patriots passed on Cunningham's more celebrated University of Florida teammate, Carlos Dunlap, who went one pick later in the second round (54th overall) to the Cincinnati Bengals. It doesn’t help Cunningham’s cause that Dunlap notched 9.5 sacks in just 12 games playing defensive end.

Rushing the passer in the NFL is an innate ability. The good ones usually display it early in their career if given ample opportunity. Willie McGinest had 11 sacks in his second season.

2. Albert Haynesworth, defensive tackle/defensive end – Both Haynesworth’s ability and his baggage are immense. He is a man-child and a problem-child. In Washington he was a recidivist complainer and quitter who created more havoc for his own team than opponents. But Haynesworth is uncommonly nimble for a man who stands 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 335 pounds, and there are only so many men on the planet with his physical gifts.

If the Patriots are serious about switching to more four-man fronts then Haynesworth is a key part of that plan. As a penetrating defensive tackle he can be dominant -- when he feels like playing. He did in 2007 and 2008 and was an All-Pro. But in Washington he was an All-Con. He conned the Redskins out of $41 million and was a major distraction and disappointment.

Haynesworth is off to a decent start here. He passed the conditioning test – no sure thing with him -- and practiced yesterday. He has yet to be sued or accused of a crime here, which is always good for him. If Haynesworth can’t be rehabilitated by Belichick then NFL stands for Not For Long.

3. Brandon Tate, wide receiver – The Patriots had to bring Chad Ochocinco in as a third receiver in part because Tate was inconsistent in the role last year. He averaged 18 yards per catch (24 receptions for 432 yards) and caught three touchdowns, but struggled to serve as a reliable deep threat after the Patriots jettisoned Moss. His longest catch of the season – a 65-yard touchdown against the Vikings – came on a broken play.

Tate has the blinding speed to be a big-play threat, as evidenced by his two kickoff returns for touchdowns last season. But is he just Bethel Johnson 2.0 or a Santonio Holmes-like talent? Hard to tell. Sometimes Tate looks like the Joey Galloway of old and sometimes he just looks like the old Galloway who was on the receiving end of as many obscenities from Tom Brady as passes.

There is nothing the Patriots value more than consistency. Tate has to prove he can display that because the Patriots still lack a defense-scaring deep-threat. That's not Ochocinco's game.

4. Darius Butler, cornerback – Last year started as a potential breakout season for Butler, a 2009 second-round pick, after a strong rookie year. Instead, it was a breakdown season. Butler lost his starting job and his confidence just two games into the season, after Braylon Edwards taught him how to Dougie in the New Meadowlands end zone. In the offseason, the Patriots used the first pick of the second round to take cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Former Patriot Shawn Springs thought Butler possessed the physical skills to be among the best corners in the league if he mastered technique. But now he's fighting for a job. The Pro Bowl play of Devin McCourty as a rookie, the return of Leigh Bodden, the emergence of Kyle Arrington last season and the selection of Dowling have pushed Butler to the background. He needs to turn the corner this camp to re-establish himself as part of the Patriots’ long-term plans at cornerback.

5. Kevin Faulk, running back – It seems odd to see Faulk, one of the most clutch playmakers for this team for the last decade-plus, in this spot. However, at 35 and coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament is his right knee he has to re-establish his place on the roster. In Faulk’s absence, folk-hero Danny Woodhead took over the third-down back role and excelled, averaging 5.6 yards a carry, catching 34 passes and scoring six touchdowns.

Belichick already told Faulk, the team’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,247) and receptions by a running back (424), he wants him on his team, and Faulk’s classy comportment and professional attitude are valuable in the locker room.

But running back is a young man’s position, and Faulk has a lot of tread on his tires. He needs to show he has his trademark quickness back to break away from a crowded field of running back competitors.

Patriot Way takes a turn with Ochocinco and Haynesworth

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 29, 2011 10:58 AM

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The Patriot Way? Child please, as Chad Ochocinco would say. The Patriots' mantra is more like "just win, baby."

The Patriots have become the NFL's version of Outward Bound while trying to become Super Bowl-bound again, reforming some of the NFL's more temperamental talents to regain their lofty Lombardi Trophy perch.

Yesterday, they made trades for wanton Washington Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, a man with a massive frame and an equally large list of transgressions, and Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, a man whose self-promotional antics make Shaquille O'Neal look like a shut-in. For vastly different reasons, neither player appears to fit the mold of the team-first, gridiron-gestalt philosophy the Patriots have copyrighted on their way to becoming the NFL's model franchise of the new millennium.

But when you're the Boston pro sports franchise that has the longest championship "drought," haven't won a playoff game during the Obama administration and have lost three of five encounters with the rival New York Jets since Vociferous Rex Ryan arrived, including a shocking 28-21 playoff loss last season, then perhaps you come to view pigskin probity as a luxury. You need to upgrade your talent, and if it comes to Foxborough with a bit of baggage so be it.

As long as we can all be adult and honest about that and not start fitting Ochocinco and Haynesworth for halos along with their Patriots helmets, then I applaud coach Bill Belichick's low-risk, high-reward moves because they're based on winning right now. At minimal cost, he has addressed two of his teams biggest weaknesses at the collective sum of a 2012 fifth-round pick and 2013 fifth and sixth rounders.

Belichick knows that Tom Brady, who turns 34 next month, isn't getting any younger, and the window for the Patriots to win a fourth Super Bowl isn't getting any wider. Ochocinco is a six-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, and Haynesworth is also a two-time All-Pro selection, whom Patriots defensive end Ty Warren called a "freakish talent."

Haynesworth, one of the biggest free-agent busts in NFL history, is still capable of being just as disruptive a force on the field as he was in the locker room for the Redskins. But more often in Washington, which handed him a seven-year, $100-million deal with a then-record $41 million guaranteed, he was a no-show, complaining about having to pass a conditioning test and being asked to play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. The Redskins suspended him for the final four games of last season.

In fact, it's almost unfair to group the playful and colorful Ochocinco, an entertaining showman at best and a self-aggrandizing showboat at worst, in with Haynesworth, who has done some heinous things on and off the field.

The 30-year-old Haynesworth has been sued by a bank, a woman who claims he impregnated her and a man who needed a hip replacement after Haynesworth channeled Jeff Gordon and clipped his car. He is also currently accused of sexual assault.

Ocho has never really gotten in trouble with the law and his outbursts in Cincinnati were related to the frustration of being on a perennial loser.

We've been down this road before with bad boys and me-first players with Corey Dillon and Randy Moss. To borrow a phrase from former NFL coach Dennis Green, those guys were exactly who we thought they were. They were on their best behavior for a season or two and then reverted to malcontent form.

But both got the Patriots to a Super Bowl and Dillon won one. The football Faustian bargain was worth it. If Ochocinco and Haynesworth work out as well as Dillon and Moss then it's another masterstroke by the genius.

However, there are questions about both players and their roles here and the possibility that after all of last season was spent rebuilding and repairing the locker room culture following the 2009 uprising that two such strong-willed personalities could undermine it.

It's interesting that Belichick would decide to go diva wide receiver redux after seeing how things ended with Moss. Ochocinco is not the unique deep threat that Moss was. He averaged just 12.4 yards per catch last season. But Belichick and the 33-year-old Ochocinco have a long-standing football bromance.

The two became infatuated with each other at the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season, when Belichick coached the AFC All-Stars. Ever since they've been NFL BFFs.

This is going to be a test of their relationship and Ochocinco's ability to subjugate his ego. He is going to be the No. 3 receiver with the Patriots, behind Wes Welker and Deion Branch. How that suits him remains to be seen considering that since entering the league in 2001 he has had the second-most passes of any receiver thrown his direction (1,340) with only Terrell Owens having the ball thrown his way more often.

Last year, Ochocinco, who had 67 catches for 831 yards and four touchdowns, was targeted 126 times, three more than Welker.

An AFC North scout who saw Ochocinco twice a year said he thought the wideout still had something left and that playing with Welker, Branch and the Patriots young tight ends will help Ochocinco hide his weaknesses. Will he see it that way if he's not getting a lot of opportunities to unsheathe his choreographed touchdown celebrations?

Haynesworth made it clear he did not want to play in a 3-4 in Washington and was an outspoken critic of the defense. His problem there was manning the nose. But even as a defensive end here, he is going to be asked to have some run responsibilities and do some of the dirty work to free up the linebackers.

Can he dig that?

It wasn't that long ago that Patriots fans pointed to the fact their team didn't have high-maintenance, high-profile talents as the reason they were the best team in football. Now, they are reasons to believe they can be again.

Looking at some possible Patriots in free agency

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 25, 2011 03:24 PM

Now that the NFL is open for business, a free agent frenzy the likes of which the league has never seen is going to kick off tomorrow, the first day that teams can start negotiating with free agents in this Indianapolis 500-pace offseason.

The Patriots tend to dip their toes into free agency delicately, but they might not have that luxury this time around. With approximately $7.5 million in cap space to play with, let's take a look at the top five free-agent needs in Fort Foxborough and some possible Patriots.

1. Outside linebacker/pass rush specialist -- The need at this spot was acute even before outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, the team's second-leading sacker from last season, underwent surgery for an abdominal injury that will keep him out for the next four or five weeks. One glaring stat from the Patriots' shocking playoff loss to the Jets is the number of sacks and quarterback hits the Patriots registered -- zero.

As Bill Belichick will tell you, it's not all about sacks, which the Patriots ranked tied for 14th in with 36. It's about being able to generate pressure consistently, something the Patriots struggled to do last season. That's a big part of the reason they were 30th in the league in pass defense and dead last in third-down defense. They need to add here if they're serious about returning to the Super Bowl.

Possibilities include Cleveland outside linebacker Matt Roth (the Patriots are tight with Roth's agent, Drew Rosenhaus), former BC star and Giants defensive end/outside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, 49ers outside linebacker Manny Lawson, Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards and Chargers situational rusher Antwan Barnes.

Top target: Roth. Kiwanuka, who is returning from a neck injury, is a better pure pass-rusher. But Roth played for Belichick buddy Nick Saban in Miami and Eric Mangini in Cleveland in a similar system. He only had 3.5 sacks last year, but Pro Football Focus said that only six 3-4 OLBs provided more pressures.

2. Wide receiver -- The Patriots led the NFL in scoring last season (32.4 points per game) and tied their own record for most 30 point-games in a season with eight, but another weakness Rex Ryan's team revealed in January was the lack of a play-making third-receiver for the Patriots. Somebody wake me when Brandon Tate gets separation on a designed deep pass.

The Patriots need a receiver with a different skill set than pint-sized, possession pass-catchers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, both of whom have contracts that expire after 2011.

New England's history with veteran free agent wideouts is like the Red Sox's with free agent shortstops, but there are some interesting UFAs -- Santonio Holmes, Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Malcom Floyd, Mike Sims-Walker and ...Randy Moss. Holmes and Rice are likely too pricey, and Moss wears out welcomes instead of defenses these days. Self-aggrandizing Cincinnati wideout Chad Ochocinco is not a UFA.

Top target: Edwards. He is physical and can stretch the field without busting the budget. Edwards had as many pass receptions of 25-plus yards last season as Dwayne Bowe (10), while averaging 17.1 yards per catch. He has averaged 15.8 per grab for his career.

3. Defensive line -- The team already made a free-agent signing here before the lockout, inking former Buffalo Bills lineman Marcus Stroud. Left defensive end Ty Warren is returning after missing all last season due to hip surgery, and Mike Wright, who led the team in sacks with 5.5 before concussion-related symptoms ended his season, is also back.

But the Patriots will probably go with a defensive line-by-committee approach again. They could make a play for Dallas defensive end Marcus Spears, a solid run-stuffer, or Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis, who would provide the team with more pass rush from the front three.

Top target: Ellis. The 34-year-old fits a need because he can rush the passer, and as a bonus you are stripping your archrival of one of their veteran leaders. The Jets will make a strong push to re-sign Ellis, but they have cap issues.

4. Offensive line -- Any discussion of the Patriots offensive line starts with left tackle Matt Light. If Light walks, then removing Nick Kaczur and his $4.3 million cap charge becomes harder. Remember Kaczur can not only play right tackle if Sebastian Vollmer slides over to replace Light, but Kaczur was slated to fill in for Logan Mankins at left guard last season before he was felled by a back injury.

The Patriots could add a depth player to compete with Dan Connolly at right guard and provide protection if Mankins holds out or gets hurt. Plus, center Dan Koppen is in the last year of his deal. We're talking about a veteran like 38-year-old center/guard Casey Wiegmann, a backup like Baltimore guard Chris Chester or bringing back a player like Quinn Ojinnaka. Don't expect big names here.

Top target: It has to be Light. If the Patriots can get him back they're just looking for depth.

5. Running back -- It seems a bit odd to list this as a need, considering the Patriots drafted a pair of running backs, Shane Vereen and Steven Ridley, in April and had a 1,000-yard rusher last season in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But Green-Ellis is a restricted free agent with a second-round tender, and it's possible some team trying to get to the new salary cap-spending floor could over-pay for him. Plus, I'm not sold he is a feature back, and judging by the draft the Patriots aren't either.

Free agent Kevin Faulk, who suffered a torn ACL last season, is not a lock to make the team even if he returns (think Tedy Bruschi in '09 training camp). The Patriots could make a move for a Fred Taylor-type. Keep an eye on Dolphins free agent running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Top target: Williams. He is a player Belichick has always respected, and even at 34 still has something left in the tank (4.2 yards per carry last season) because of his two hemp-induced hiatuses from football in 2004 and 2006.

Here's the deal: The NFLPA got a good one

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 22, 2011 03:33 PM

When is a done deal not a done deal? When it's an uneasy alliance between the NFL and its players, who can't reach a final accord without some last-minute discord. They agree to disagree on whether they have reached an agreement.

If you ask the NFL owners, who approved a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday during their meeting in Atlanta, then labor peace has been reached in our time and thru the 2020 season. Training camps will open next Wednesday, and it's game on.

Not so fast. The erstwhile NFL Players Association, which decertified as part of the labor sparring, says the owners have an agreement all right -- among themselves. And that's it. The NFLPA has yet to vote on and ratify the proposal. They didn't do it Thursday, and were not expected to do it today, so the lockout, the scourge of football fans across America, lives on.

"Player leadership is discussing the most recent written proposal with the NFL, which includes a settlement agreement, deal terms and the right process for addressing recertification," said NFLPA president Kevin Mawae in a statement today. "There will not be any further NFLPA statements today out of respect for the Kraft family while they mourn the loss of Myra Kraft."

The whole situation is like a "Saturday Night Live" skit, except it's not funny for millions of football-adoring fans who simply want a resolution to the long-running labor dispute, which has reached Day 133. Here is the deal: The NFL's New Deal is a good deal for the players, and they should make like Tom Brady and pass.

They'll never be confused with the omnipotent Major League Baseball Players Association, and they still have the least guaranteed contracts and the most dangerous jobs among the Big Four professional sports, but the NFLPA served its members well in this dispute.

The players might not like that the owners backed them into a CBA corner, and they certainly should check the fine print for any last-minute landmines. But by Monday morning the Great Lockout of 2011, which has become the debt ceiling debate of professional sports, should be over.

The longer they stall on ratification the more it raises the ire of the football public, which doesn't really care which side "won" the labor dispute because fans lost -- a normal NFL off-season and patience with both sides.

A lot of people thought the players were going to get routed like a 2007 Patriots' opponent in this labor dispute, but executive director DeMaurice Smith got his constituents some landmark health and safety gains while surrendering less money to the owners than initially expected.

The owners entered these negotiations shaking their tin cups for an extra $1 billion and asking for an 18-game season. They got neither.

According to estimates, the players surrendered about $200 million of revenue per year to the owners, a fifth of the original asking price, and the players got fail-safes that ensure their percentage of "all revenue" can't dip below 47 percent during the deal. An 18-game season can't be enacted until 2013, and it can't happen without the players' consent.

Meanwhile, the players got some significant workplace changes. Two-a-day practices in training camp are going the way of leather helmets and the single-bar facemask. There will be a reduction in off-season team activities (OTAs) from 14 to 10, and in a move that is sure to rankle Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a limit on the number of padded practices coaches can have during the regular season. His Hoodiness can only put his team in pads once a week, and during the final five weeks of the season he can only put them in pads in three of those weeks.

Somewhere Ted Johnson is smiling.

In addition, players now have the option of NFL health care coverage for life and up to $1.5 million of post-injury salary guarantees. They gave in on a sensible rookie salary structure, which the NBA and NHL already have. But got a raise in the minimum salary and the condition that the NFL must cash spend to 99 percent of the salary cap this year and next and 95 percent after that.

There are still outstanding issues with league discipline (Iron Roger Goodell has rankled players with his heavy-handed dispensing of discipline), drug testing, the anti-trust suit that counts Patriots players Brady and Logan Mankins among its 10 plaintiffs, workman's compensation and whether future labor disputes between the sides will be subject to the judicial system or before an arbitrator.

That last one is big because the NFL has a record like the 2008 Detroit Lions in court.

But the court of public opinion says this deal should be done. For much of this CBA negotiation, the owners have been portrayed as the antagonists. It's hard to bemoan the state of your business when Forbes lists the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world and all 32 of your teams are on the list.

Now, the players are feeling the wrath of the public. Their own pre-lockout slogan is coming back to haunt them -- "Let us play." The owners may have initiated the lockout, but it's the players who are keeping the doors from reopening right now.

Fans don't won't to hear about last-minute snags and legal posturing for future disputes. They don't want to hear Mawae say that they're not on the same timeline as the owners.

Actually, they are because they're on the same money line as the owners, and if a part of the $800-million preseason is lost then the deal could get blown up and real games along with it. If that happens, the players are not going to get a better deal than this one.

It's time to put the labor unrest to rest. Here's hoping the plume of white smoke goes up from NFLPA headquarters, so we can all get on with our lives.

This is one block Mankins shouldn't make

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 21, 2011 12:49 PM
The NFL lockout is like a villain from a hackneyed horror film -- it just won't die.

There are a few last minute issues that the players want addressed before declaring a done deal, kind of like agreeing to marry someone and then demanding they dye their hair and get plastic surgery days before the wedding.

One of them is the $320 million in benefits they forfeited last year during the final year of the previous collective bargaining agreement. The primary one is the settlement of the anti-trust lawsuit filed against the NFL, specifically plaintiffs Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Patriots left guard Logan Mankins, who are reportedly asking for $10 million each.

What happened to the players pre-lockout rallying cry of "Let us play"? Now, with football in sight it's "Let's get paid." The owners may have initiated the lockout, but it's the players who are keeping the doors from reopening right now. This is a public relations fumble worthy of Earnest Byner by the erstwhile NFLPA, which has gotten excellent leadership from executive director DeMaurice Smith.

On almost all other issues -- an 18-game season, overall compensation, player safety, long-term health care, off-season workout obligations, physical risk vs. owners' financial risk -- the players' position is the just one. But their moral compass is off on the settlement and benefits requests.

Fans don't won't to hear about last-minute snags and attempted stick-ups. The assumption was a tentative agreement was in place and that football would be back in business by the end of this week. The players side is standing in the way of that.

Which brings us back to Mankins and Jackson and the anti-trust lawsuit with Tom Brady's name on it. Blocking is what Logan Mankins does for a living and he's exceedingly good at, as the three Pro Bowls on his resume attest. But this is not the kind of block that Mankins wants to take credit for. This is blocking a deal to bring back football.

One of the admirable traits of Mankins is that he stood up and put principle above principal last season, withholding his services when he felt he was unfairly treated. But the $10 million settlement request on his behalf is a departure from that probity he learned growing up in the cattle ranching community of Catheys Valley, Calif.

There is also the matter of these demands seeming a bit indecorous with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the peacemakers of the labor process, dealing with the loss of his wife, Myra, who passed away yesterday.

There is no disputing that Mankins was victimized by the final league year rules and the Patriots' manipulation of them. Instead of being an unrestricted free agent last offseason or getting the $10.7 million 2010 franchise tag (the average of the top five highest salaries at the position) for offensive linemen, Mankins got a restricted free agent tender at $3.26 million. That tender was reduced to $1.54 million, 110 percent of his 2009 salary, when he didn't sign it by June 15.

In protest of his plight and the Patriots' alleged failure to honor a promise of a long-term deal for him, Mankins sat out the first eight weeks of the season. He returned, played at a Pro Bowl level, made approximately $800,000 and then got slapped with the 2011 franchise tag ($10.1 million).

Update (4:38 p.m.): So now Mankins's agent, Frank Bauer, is saying settlement demands were made without Mankins's consent.

If Mankins deserves damages from the NFL that's fine, but he should also be going after the NFLPA and his fellow players. It was the NFL Players Association and its members after all that signed off on the previous CBA, which contained these onerous and punitive provisions.

Right up until they read the fine print, many NFL players were crowing that the uncapped year was going to be a financial windfall for them. On the surface no salary cap sounded great, but the rules were heavily bent toward the teams if they had bothered to peruse what the NFLPA approved. The same logic applies to the $320 million in benefits the players want back. They negotiated them away in the last deal, a deal they approved.

The real issue here is the franchise tag. I despise the franchise tag. It's not quite the reserve clause from the olden days of baseball, but it's a distant relative. You're either a free agent or you're not. If both Mankins and Jackson were free agents now, instead of tagged, we're not having this discussion.

Eliminating or limiting the application of the franchise tag should have been one of the chief priorities of the players in this bargaining battle. It is unconscionable that teams can franchise players multiple times or in consecutive seasons. Often times players are tagged with no real eye toward a deal, only squeezing one more year of service out of their bodies (see: Samuel, Asante).

Details are scant on the new CBA, so it's hard to know what the players achieved -- or are still trying to. Owners were able to alter the tag, so that there were more position-specific tags. Instead of all lineman being lumped together there would be a breakdown between center, guard and the lucrative tackle spots.

A fair settlement for Mankins and Jackson, who parroted Mankins's plight last season, would be for both players to get the full value of their slashed $3.26 million RFA tenders and a pledge that their teams won't franchise them following this season. In addition, like some of the plaintiffs in the 1993 case, it could be declared that neither Mankins nor Jackson can be franchised by any team ever again.

That's a fair deal.

Many piled on the owners for their obvious avarice at the outset of these negotiations, and rightfully so when all 32 franchises show up on the Forbes list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises on the planet.

But the players are exhibiting the same gridiron greed as we reach the denouement of football's labor horror show.

Video: Gasper's three big answers

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff July 20, 2011 12:34 PM
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Christopher L. Gasper breaks down the the Patriots' ties with the NFL lockout including Logan Mankins, whether or not the Patriots will be ready for the season and the team's free agency needs.

Vrabel epitomized Patriots' reign

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 11, 2011 04:28 PM

mikevrabel609.jpg

Mike Vrabel retired after 14 seasons in the NFL and will be the new linebackers coach at Ohio State. (Jim Davis / Globe file)

Mike Vrabel epitomized what it meant to be a Patriot during the Belichick-Brady era. You can put him up there with Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Kevin Faulk as players who embody the essence of the Patriot Way. He was a tough, smart, versatile football player.

Vrabel announced his retirement today after 14 NFL seasons, which included eight with the Patriots and the last two with the Kansas City Chiefs. He's taking a job at his alma mater, Ohio State, as linebackers coach, naturally.

An argument can be made that outside of drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, the most crucial personnel move Bill Belichick made to build his football fiefdom in Foxborough was signing Vrabel as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2001. The other prototypical Patriots and championship cornerstone talents were already in place from previous regimes -- Faulk, Brown, Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Ty Law.

Vrabel was a player procured by Belichick and seemingly tailor-made for Belichick at a position, outside linebacker, that is not easy to fill, as the Patriots have learned since Vrabel's departure following the 2008 season.

"When Mike arrived in 2001, we knew we were adding a solid outside linebacker," Belichick said when Vrabel was traded to Kansas City in February of 2009. "But where Mike took it from there exceeded our highest hopes. Mike Vrabel epitomizes everything a coach could seek in a professional football player: toughness, intelligence, play-making, leadership, versatility and consistency at the highest level.

"Of all the players I have coached in my career, there is nobody I enjoyed working with more than Mike. In the same way people recognize guys like Troy Brown, we appreciate and thank Mike Vrabel. He is one of the very special Patriots champions."

No statistic will ever tell you just how valuable Vrabel was to the Patriots from 2001 to 2008 when he was a part of three Super Bowl winners and four AFC championship teams. He was a cerebral, unselfish, clutch player who helped execute Belichick's game plans on the field and could joke with the coach like few other players.

The quintessential Vrabel play is Law's interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI. Vrabel didn't get credit for the play, but he made it happen. Vrabel pressured St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner into a rushed throw and Law took it 47 yards for the first touchdown of a game that ushered in the Patriots' decade of NFL eminence.

The record will show that Vrabel only made one Pro Bowl and one All-Pro team, both in 2007. That was the season Belichick turned him loose as a thank you for playing inside linebacker in both 2005, when Monty Beisel went bust, and in 2006, when Junior Seau broke his forearm in the 11th game. All Vrabel did was accumulate 12.5 sacks, the most by a Patriots player in 20 years (Andre Tippett had 12.5 in 1987) and the most ever by a Patriot defender under Belichick.

Vrabel was victimized by playing with bigger names -- Seymour, Law, Bruschi, McGinest, Rodney Harrison -- and his own versatility. Those facts along with a tendency for some, ahem, mischievous maneuvers in piles that didn't endear him to opponents contributed to him not collecting more accolades.

But there was no Patriots defender more reliable or versatile. He was able to rush the passer, set the edge against the run and drop into coverage. He could toggle between outside linebacker or inside linebacker in Belichick's esoteric 3-4 defense, and, yes, occasionally moonlight at tight end, where every reception he had in his career (12) went for a touchdown, including two Super Bowl TD grabs.

The circumstances surrounding his departure from the Patriots following the 2008 season -- he was essentially a throw-in in the deal that sent Matt Cassel to Kansas City for a second-round pick that became Patrick Chung -- were mysterious and somewhat rancorous.

At the time of the deal, Vrabel, who is a member of the NFL Players Association's executive committee and has been involved in the ongoing NFL labor negotiations, was the Patriots' union player representative and had made critical comments about the Patriot Place shopping center during the 2008 season.

But that was Vrabel, blunt, bearded and barrel-chested. He spoke his mind and stuck to his convictions. He somehow managed to be both a company man for Belichick and his own man on a team where personality was stripped and suppressed at every turn.

You always knew where you stood with Vrabel. There was no sugar-coating the situation. When he was traded to Kansas City, I sent him an email asking if he had been traded. He responded with a one-word email: "Yes."

Classic Vrabel.

He could be brusque, shooing you away from his locker with a sardonic putdown uttered with a chunk of chewing tobacco the size of Wrentham in his mouth or brushing past you with a wry smile. Or he might engage you in a 15-minute conversation full of smiles, jokes and insightful football explanations.

Vrabel's two talents are football and sarcasm. He was as quick with a retort as he was to recognize offensive tendencies. But he was never truculent or mean-spirited. He was fair, honest and funny.

Such was the respect Belichick had for Vrabel's football intellect that the first season that the NFL allowed coach-to-player electronic defensive communication, the Patriots coach chose Vrabel to be the one with the headset in his helmet.

That, like the voice in Vrabel's helmet, spoke volumes.

"Mike Vrabel is as well-suited for coaching as any player I have ever coached," Belichick said in a statement released by Ohio State. "He has a tremendous feel for people, players, coaches and what his team needs regardless of the situation. He is outstanding in his knowledge of the game, which contributed to his excellence as a player.

"I have no doubt Mike will develop tough, intelligent, fundamentally sound winners."

It takes one to make one.

Take five on Patriots' draft

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 3, 2011 03:09 PM
Now that we've had a couple of days to digest and dissect the NFL Draft here are five thoughts on the Patriots' work:

1. In no rush -- Before the draft, Patriots coach Bill Belichick went on Sirius radio and said that he thought this draft would ultimately come down to how teams evaluated the front seven players. It must say something then that Belichick didn't pick any until the sixth round. Either the Patriots didn't like any of the outside linebackers in this draft, or they didn't like them enough to move up and make sure they got one. The same goes for defensive ends. I never understood the Cameron Jordan buzz. At 287-pounds, he was a tweener for the Patriots' 3-4 system, too big for linebacker and not big enough to hold up at defensive end.

The Patriots have high hopes for second-year outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, he of one career NFL sack. (Let's not mention that Cunningham's teammate at Florida, Carlos Dunlap, taken by the Bengals one pick later, had 9.5 sacks in 12 games last season.) Maybe, they have a poor man's Cameron Wake in UFL refugee Eric Moore. We can only hope.

Belichick told an excellent story at the draft about picking the best player on the board, regardless of positional need. He recalled how the Giants were excoriated in 1984 for drafting Carl Banks with the No. 3 pick when they already had five-time Pro Bowler Brad Van Pelt and Lawrence Taylor at outside linebacker.

But it also illustrated that outside of Mike Vrabel, the difference-making outside linebackers that Belichick has coached have been top 5 picks -- LT (No. 2 in 1981), Banks and Willie McGinest (No. 4 pick in 1994). That would indicate that sooner or later to get a player that meets his lofty standards at the position he's going to have to go up and get him.

2. On the run -- That Belichick used second- (Shane Vereen) and third-round (Stevan Ridley) picks on running backs should dispel the notion that the Patriots had the second-coming of Jim Brown in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. I felt running back was an area the Patriots could upgrade. Belichick agreed. That's not an indictment of Green-Ellis or helmeted folk hero Danny Woodhead. But too many people fixated on the fact that the eminently likable Green-Ellis ran for 1,000 yards last season (1,008). Subtract the games when he fattened up on Buffalo's league-worst run defense for 202 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and he averaged 56 yards a game.

Teams didn't fear the Patriots running game and found it preferential to Tom Brady taking to the air because it lacked a home run threat. New England didn't have single run longer than 36 yards last season. Giving Brady a potential breakaway back would prevent defenses from flooding the field with defensive backs with impunity. Green-Ellis is an excellent short-yardage runner with a nose for the end zone (13 touchdowns), but he is not a bellwether back. The real question is not whether the Patriots should have picked a running back, but whether they took the right one? They passed on Mark Ingram, who was taken with No. 28, a pick the Patriots traded to the Saints, and took Vereen over Mikel Leshoure, who went one pick later.

3. Oh, Ryan -- The Patriots using a high-round pick to take a QB made sense, and I thought it might happen. The only thing stronger than the rumors of Ryan Mallett's misdeeds is his Howitzer-arm. Mallett could be this year's Aaron Hernandez. Like Mallett, Hernandez was a first-round talent who dropped in the draft due to off-field behavioral issues. Mallett is the same kind of gamble as Hernandez, with an even bigger potential payoff.

Mallett does represent a risk, as there have been rumblings of drug use. Then there's his unusual behavior on at least two of his pre-draft visits, where he missed meetings with teams and claimed he was sick. In the case of the Carolina visit, there were reports he was out late the night before, which Mallett and his agent denied. Still, Mallett was excellent value in the third round, and it's understandable for the Patriots to at least try to start searching for Brady's successor.

4. Cornering the market -- Defensive back has become the new tight end for Belichick. For the fifth year in a row, the Patriots selected a corner in the first two rounds, taking Virginia's Ras-I Dowling with the first pick of the second round. In 2007 they drafted Brandon Meriweather in the first round to play corner before shifting him back to safety. In 2008, they took second-rounder Terrence Wheatley. In '09 Darius Butler went in Round 2. Last year, they finally got it right, drafting Pro Bowler Devin McCourty in the first round.

In today's air raid NFL it's a great advantage if you have three guys who can cover. Look at the Green Bay Packers with Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and rookie Sam Shields. The slot corner or "star" position was a real weakness for the Patriots last season. They had to shift safety Patrick Chung inside to try to cover and the results were mixed to be generous. Dowling is more of an outside corner, but either McCourty or Leigh Bodden could shift inside to man the "star." Plus, the Patriots still have Kyle Arrington. Good pick.

5. Buying Solder -- If history holds then left tackle Nate Solder, the Patriots ' first-round pick, should have an excellent NFL career. He won't be a bust. Solder, taken 17th, is the fourth player the Patriots have drafted in the top 20 during the Bill Belichick era. The others are Richard Seymour (No. 6 in 2001), Jerod Mayo (No. 10 in 2008) and Ty Warren (No. 13 in 2003). Those are all Pro Bowl-caliber players. Incredibly, Solder is the highest-selected offensive player Belichick has taken with the Patriots. Belichick doesn't miss with top 20 picks, yet another reason for the team to move up more often.

The future can't wait for the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 29, 2011 10:23 AM

Wait 'til next year used to be the slogan attached to the Red Sox; now it's the Patriot Way on draft day. When it comes to the NFL Draft and cashing in on their yearly cache of draft picks, the war room in Foxborough becomes a waiting room.

You wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick pushes his calendar a year ahead on New Year's Day each year, or if he has ever pushed the up button in an elevator.

After staying put at No. 17 and selecting left tackle Nate Solder -- a solid pick at a position of need -- with the first of their two first-round picks, Belichick created a down draft again. The Patriots shipped their second first-round pick (No. 28 overall) to the New Orleans Saints for a second-round pick, one of three second-rounders they have today, and a 2012 first-rounder, which if Drew Brees stay healthy should be in the same vicinity as the pick they sent away. The Saints used the pick to draft running back Mark Ingram, a player that many Patriots fans coveted.

The New Orleans trade marked the second time in three years that the Patriots traded out of the first round, and was the 12th time under Belichick they pulled off a draft day swap in which they moved down. Twelve is fitting because for the Patriots it's all about No. 12, Tom Brady.

While you have the golden gift of TB12 on your roster you have to do everything in your power to surround him with a Super Bowl team. Once he is gone so is your championship window in all likelihood, and then you're grasping at any one who can throw a football like the Minnesota Vikings.

In that regard the continuing trend of flipping picks forward might be flawed at this point, not because it's not good value -- it can be -- but because you're decreasing the value of Brady with each passing season that you do it. You'll never get those seasons back. There have already been too many years where Brady has had to play without a Deion Branch or a Richard Seymour.

Brady will be 34 this August. He's under contract for four more seasons. That is the championship window the Patriots are working with because even Belichick will be hard-pressed to pull another Brady out of his hoodie. It's possible that by the time the Patriots finally find an elusive pass-rusher, which has replaced the puck-moving defenseman as the Loch Ness monster of Boston sports, that Brady is merely a very good talent and not a transcendent one.

Due to paucity of pass rush, the Patriots were last in the NFL in third-down defense and ranked 30th in pass defense, despite the presence of two Pro Bowlers in the secondary, rookie cornerback Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather (stop snickering, Patriots fans).

It was apparent the Patriots didn't think their pass-rusher was in this draft. They had a chance to move up, as North Carolina's Robert Quinn fell all the way to No. 14, where the Rams snapped him up. Another pass rusher, Ryan Kerrigan, went one pick ahead of them to Washington.

"It’s great to say 'OK, we needed this position, so now we have a card to put up there in that spot,' but if that player isn’t able to really fulfill that area or that position then you’re coming back here the next year looking for the same thing again," said Belichick.

Fair enough.

Still, it was interesting to see the Atlanta Falcons, with former Patriots director of college scouting Thomas Dimitroff, at the helm make a bold, un-Belichick-like move up the board. The Falcons sacrificed five picks overall and two 2012 draft picks (including next year's first-rounder) to move from No. 27 to No. 6 and take wide receiver Julio Jones. Only time will tell if Dimitroff's go-for-broke gambit pays off, but it's worth noting that the Falcons have been one of the league's best drafting teams under his watch.

Dimitroff's thinking was that he has a franchise quarterback in Matt Ryan and he needs to maximize that valuable resource while he has it.

That should be the Patriots' line of thinking as well.

It's great to accumulate draft picks each year, but those picks are only as good as what you do with them. Despite all the flip-flopping, it still fundamentally comes down to who you choose with them. If you trade a pick a year ahead and use it to get in position to draft Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo the following year, then it's great value. If you use it to get in position to draft Ron Brace, as the Patriots did with a 2008 third-rounder they turned into a 2009 second-rounder, then not so much.

Solder's selection makes sense because it is tied to maximizing Brady. In recent years the players who have given incumbent left tackle Matt Light, who is a free agent, the most trouble are speed rushers. San Diego's Antwan Barnes gave Light fits last year. Solder, taken with the pick the Patriots got from Oakland in 2009 for Seymour, is the most athletic tackle in the draft and on paper should be able to match-up with speed rushers like Miami's Cameron Wake, Indianapolis's Dwight Freeney and noted Brady antagonist Terrell Suggs of the Ravens.

The Patriots have nine picks overall this year, including Solder. They drafted 12 players in each of the last two drafts, doing a tremendous job of restocking the roster to build a 14-2 team. But there comes a point where quality should trump quantity.

Surprisingly, the Patriots have actually traded up more often -- 15 times under Belichick -- than they have moved down. But they haven't moved up in the first round since 2003, when they popped up one spot to get Ty Warren. The play clock on Brady's greatness is ticking.

You can't keep putting the future off forever. If you do, it ends up becoming the past.

Patriots could have backup plans for Brady

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 22, 2011 01:37 PM

Ever since Tom Brady became Tom Brady, the Patriots have offered nothing more than a passing glance at the top quarterbacks in the NFL Draft each year. There was a better chance of Bill Belichick posting the MRIs of an injured player on his Facebook page than the Patriots using an early-round draft pick to take a quarterback.

brady275.jpgBut Brady is now chronologically closer to the end of his storybook career than the beginning. It is nearing time for New England to begin thinking about the long-term succession plan under center. It's an unpleasant thought, but also an undeniable eventuality. Ted Williams, Bill Russell, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird all signed off and so will Brady someday.

That's why coming off a 14-2 season it wouldn't be outlandish if the Patriots, armed with six picks in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, used one of them to bring aboard Brady's air apparent.

The team has taken a closer look at the top quarterbacks in the last two drafts, bringing in Tim Tebow last year and Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett this season for visits to Fort Foxborough. Patriots director of college scouting Jon Robinson said on the team's website that quarterback is among the strengths of this year's draft, which starts Thursday night with the first round.

Before you panic Patriots fans, the Patriots are not interested enough in Locker or Mallett to draft either with one of their two first-round picks (Nos. 17 or 28). The visits serve more as posturing for Belichick's draft-day wheeling and dealing. His Hoodiness knows he can extract a 2012 pick from some quarterback-starved team willing to trade back into the first round.

But Belichick also has to make certain he's not passing up a player that could do for him what Steve Young did for the San Francisco 49ers or Aaron Rodgers did for the Green Bay Packers.

Generally, I'm a proponent of the theory that the Patriots should do everything possible to maximize Brady's career, even if it means mortgaging the future because how often are you going to have a Hall of Fame QB? If there is an impact player that can help the team win a fourth Super Bowl during Brady's window of greatness then package three picks to move up and get him. Forget about 2014 second-round picks.

Obviously, the Patriots have more pressing needs -- -- pass rusher, defensive end, offensive line and running back -- right now than someone who in an ideal scenario will be a QB caddie for the next four years, minimum. Plus, Brady's backup, Brian Hoyer, has shown promise.

However, the NFL is a copycat and a quarterback league. Green Bay has become the model for quarterback succession. Rodgers went from a peculiar first-round pick in 2005, to Brett Favre's backup for three seasons to a Super Bowl-winning QB in his third season as a starter. Favre was 35 when the Packers picked Rodgers. Brady, entering the first year of a four-year, $72-million extension agreed to in September, will be 34 in August.

Quarterback is one of those positions that you usually have to invest in early or you pay the price later, which is why if Belichick deemed someone in this quarterback class worthy of a high-round pick it would be tough to argue his logic.

Brady, who went from sixth-round pick to three-time Super Bowl-winner, is the outlier. Look at all the other top QBs in the NFL -- Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Michael Vick. All except Brees were first-round picks, and Brees, who joined New Orleans as a free agent, was drafted by San Diego with the first pick of the second round in 2001, No. 32 overall, now the final pick of the first round.

No coach has had better luck with late-round QBs than BB. Besides Brady there was Matt Cassel, a 2005 seventh-round pick who won 10 games in 2008, when Brady was out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Cassel, traded to Kansas City for a second-round pick in 2009, led the Chiefs to the playoffs last season and made the Pro Bowl, replacing an injured Brady in the thankless exhibition.

What are the odds of lightning striking thrice for the Patriots with Hoyer, an undrafted free agent, becoming the quarterback of future in Foxborough?

The Patriots haven't drafted a quarterback in the first two rounds since taking Drew Bledsoe with the No. 1 overall pick in 1993. The only other teams that have gone that long are the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted Rick Mirer one pick after Bledsoe; the Chiefs, who haven't taken a quarterback in the first two rounds since 1992 and the New Orleans Saints, who last took a quarterback in the top two rounds 40 years ago, when they drafted Archie Manning, No. 2 overall.

Right now, Brady is at the peak of his powers as a quarterback. He's coming off a season in which he was the first unanimous MVP in league history, led the NFL in touchdowns passes with 36 and set a record for most attempts without an interception, going 335 attempts without a pick. He is the best quarterback on the planet (sorry, Peyton).

But No. 12 is heading into his 12th NFL season and has the scars to prove it. He is coming off another season where he suffered a major injury. In 2008, it was the ACL in his left knee. In 2009 he suffered fractured ribs and a broken finger. This off-season he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot.

Brady has stated he wants to play until he's 40 -- that's seven more seasons -- but you wonder if his body will cooperate that long.

Like any dynasty, the Patriots' one is dependent upon a line of succession -- instead of inheriting a throne, it's a huddle. So drafting a quarterback this year wouldn't be entirely out of line.

Brady borrowing Patriots' play for NFLPA

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 23, 2011 08:00 AM
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Patriots president Jonathan Kraft spoke with reporters on Monday at the NFL owners' meetings in New Orleans. (Getty Images)

It was former President Calvin Coolidge who proclaimed that the "business of America is business." That sentiment can be applied to the current NFL labor dispute, as the business of football right now is strictly business on both sides.

That's why it was interesting to read the comments of Patriots president Jonathan Kraft at the NFL owners' meetings in New Orleans when asked about quarterback Tom Brady being party to the NFL Players Association's anti-trust lawsuit against the league. Brady is one of the 10 plaintiffs in the case, known as Tom Brady, et al., v. National Football League, et al., because the lead plaintiff was chosen alphabetically.

Kraft said he hoped the Patriots franchise quarterback was "conflicted" about deciding to be part of the lawsuit.

"Look, on a personal level, myself and I think every member of my family feels extremely close to Tom," said the younger Kraft to reporters Monday. "I'd like to think Tom was conflicted before he made that decision, but you'd have to talk to Tom about it. He obviously feels like, I guess, he made a business decision that was the right thing for him. I’d like to think he was conflicted in making it, but I don’t know."

There is no question that Brady is close with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his family, but why should Brady be any more "conflicted" about this lawsuit than the Patriots were in franchising his pal Logan Mankins? Or using the final year rules of the collective bargaining agreement last year to tender Mankins as a restricted free agent and then reducing that tender to $1.54 million when he didn't sign it by June 15? Or cutting off healthcare to players and their families by exercising their right to impose a lockout? Or paying Brady $18 million per season over the next four years instead of say $20 million after his sterling MVP season?

It's a little hard to bemoan Brady's lack of loyalty in an industry where your own celebrated and successful business model is built on the absence of blind long-term allegiance or emotionally-driven decisions.

Brady's thinking is quintessential Patriots theory -- exercising all possible leverage to get the best deal, something the Patriots have done better than any other team in the NFL in contract showdowns. The CBA is simply the mother of all NFL contract squabbles. Brady is using what he's watched and learned all those years in fiscally-sound Foxborough.

His feelings for the Krafts are no less warm and fuzzy than when he said: "I really love being here and playing for Mr. Kraft and Jonathan," back in September. He meant that then, and he does now. He should because the Patriots are a first-class organization.

But Brady, an assistant player representative, owed it to his teammates and fellow NFL players, to stand up for their cause, no matter how familial he is with the Krafts. If Brady had elected to stand down, then he would have been a traitor to his own kind.

Brady's former teammate, Tedy Bruschi, advocating for a NFL draft boycott, said that everything quarterbacks do sends a message to teammates and is related to their ability to lead them. He was talking about incoming QBs Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton, but such thinking also applies to the most marquee of NFL QBs, which is why Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are all named in the lawsuit.

No matter how close he is with the Krafts, Brady's football family is comprised of the players in the Gillette Stadium locker room. His extended family in this case is made up of the players on the other 31 teams. As odd as it sounds, Brady is closer to loquacious linebackers and adversaries Terrell Suggs and Bart Scott in this instance than he is Robert and Jonathan Kraft.

It's understandable why the Krafts would be a little wounded to see Tommy Touchdown's name on this lawsuit.

Robert Kraft has often spoken of Brady being like a son, which would make him Jonathan's brother, so to speak. Being sued is never fun. Being sued by a family member is like biting into a chocolate bar with a screw in it. It's unexpected. It hurts, and it's distasteful.

But as another kind of New England patriot, Coolidge, once governor of Massachusetts, implied business is business. A man as savvy as Jonathan Kraft knows if you let personal relationships sway your thinking, you won't be in business very long.

Brady's people have often spoken of how important legacy is to him. It's one of the reasons he would rather remain in New England than take every last dollar available to him somewhere else. Being part of this lawsuit is part of Brady's legacy, just as sitting it out would have been as well. It would have been his Michael Jordan "Republicans buy shoes too" moment

When Brady is retired, the Krafts will still own the New England Patriots. Brady will still be a member of the Patriots family, but someone else, someone still on the field, will be the favored son.

If Brady is lucky, he will have left the organization on his own terms, like Bruschi.

But it's also conceivable that at some point coach Bill Belichick and/or the Krafts will make a business decision that employing TB12 as the Patriots quarterback is no longer in the team's best interests. That's how Brady got his job in the first place.

Drew Bledsoe was once a quasi-Kraft family member too, but that didn't save his job.

How many times have you heard Belichick say that the Patriots do what's in the best interest of the team? Brady is simply following his coach's and owner's game plan. He is doing what is in the best interest of his team, except this time that team is not the Patriots.

It's the NFLPA.

Nothing personal, it's just business.

NFLPA should pick fans over draft boycott

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 18, 2011 03:26 PM

Nothing about this NFL offseason is normal, nothing except the NFL Draft.

The labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Players Association has deteriorated into a mind-numbing maze of disputed financial numbers/models, public relations pleas, backbiting he-said, he-said, and litigation strategies. For legions of NFL fans the draft, to be held April 28, 29 and 30, loomed as the one unaffected football oasis to look forward to this offseason, a brief return to normalcy.

Mel Kiper's steel-reinforced hair, the Patriots trading down, the eternal optimism of the word "upside," it all never sounded so good, at least until earlier this week, when reports surfaced that the NFL Players Association was advising the top prospects to boycott the draft and instead show up at an NFLPA-produced draft celebration.

Astute NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs George Atallah quickly repositioned the potential protest, saying it wasn't a boycott, just a "different" draft experience. Like much of what we hear from both sides in the labor dispute that's semantics. If the top prospects don't show up at Radio City Music Hall when they otherwise would in any other year then it's a boycott, plain and simple.

It's a boycott that beats the fans over the head with the CBA unrest, and uses the NFL's newest players as pawns.

Comments about the boycott being a "suggestion" are bogus. If the NFLPA takes a stance that draftees shouldn't be at the league's draft there is very little that is voluntary about it. This is a league where veteran players get indignant when a rookie refuses to carry their shoulder pads and helmet off the field. What kind of hazing would a rookie who ignores the NFLPA's edict be subjected to when football finally resumes, and he has to answer to his veteran teammates?

How about this quote from Peter King's recent SI.com column from a prominent NFL agent: "There are a few quarterbacks who could get picked high in this draft and the NFL will invite to New York. All those quarterbacks would do by attending the draft for the NFL is giving DeMarcus Ware more incentive to knock their blocks off the first time they line up across the line of scrimmage from him.''

That doesn't sound voluntary to me. It is reminiscent of the hypocritical voluntary (but really completely mandatory) minicamps that NFL teams and coaches have lorded over the players unfairly for years.

Ironically, one major issue that the league and the NFLPA agree on is a rookie salary cap that reduces the inflated and potentially cap-crippling salaries and mega-signing bonuses for high-level first-round picks, precisely the type of players the NFLPA is asking to sacrifice their moment in the sun to join them in solidarity.

For months the NFLPA knew the draft was coming in April, and never raised this issue. They also knew that under the terms of the prior CBA both sides agreed that in the event of its expiration the draft would proceed as normal.

Locked in a rancorous dispute, it's understandable why the NFL Players Association is trying to politicize one of the NFL's marquee events, especially with the league pushing the first round of the draft, which was in primetime for the first time last year, further into prime time (from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) to reap its ratings potential on the NFL Network and ESPN.

Hit the owners, who have agitated the players with their condescension, where it hurts the most -- television content -- and take advantage of a captive football audience to advance the NFLPA's position.

Plus, why should the players shake hands and smile for photos with commissioner Roger Goodell when his league is locking them out. All sound arguments from the players' perspective.

But from a fan's perspective it seems selfish and self-serving. During the failed mediation process, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the players association digs the fans. If that's true they'll understand why the fans wouldn't dig a draft boycott.

For the NFLPA, the risk of alienating a largely supportive public by depriving them of the one CBA-free zone they could count on this offseason is not worth any potential gain made by thumbing their noses at the owners and the league.

One of the greatest victories the NFLPA won came not when Judge David Doty ruled against the owners in the lockout war chest case in Minneapolis federal district court, but in the court of public opinion via that same ruling. It painted a clear picture that the NFL had been planning to stop the game for its CBA gains for years.

Most people out there more easily identify with being an employee than being a billionaire businessman. Public sentiment has mostly been on the players side.

Now, that support is not going to mean much if anything in the courts or at the bargaining table, the places where the NFLPA can score a victory in this labor dispute. But neither is having the top prospects skip the draft. Both are for show.

The potential boycott doesn't strengthen the NFLPA's anti-trust lawsuit, which already has draft prospect Von Miller as a party, and it doesn't give them any leverage over the league. All it can do is anger fans and turn the draft into more collateral damage from the CBA dispute.

The draft should go on as normal, leaving the CBA issue in the background. Give the fans a break for three days.

Simply put, the NFLPA is picking the wrong event to make its point.

Owners need a new play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 4, 2011 12:59 PM

Remember all the talk prior to the 2010 NFL season about how hard it was for teams to do long-term deals with the impending labor uncertainty in the league? How it was imprudent to hogtie your team with a long-term contract if there was no collective bargaining agreement on the horizon?

Yesterday, mere hours before expected armageddon, with uncertainty the only certainty in the NFL, teams like the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints were signing players to long-term deals. The Saints signed running back Pierre Thomas to a four-year, $12 million extension. The Texans inked tight end Owen Daniels to a four-year, $22 million contract. Those extensions are just as meaningful as the 24-hour extension of CBA negotiations that the NFL and the NFL Players Association have entered into under the guidance of federal mediator George Cohen.

If deals like the ones given Thomas and Daniels are getting done in this environment then so can the mother of all NFL contracts -- a new CBA. It just requires the owners to drop the crying poor pretense and play let's make a deal.

The owners have been harboring plans for a lockout almost from the moment they exercised the early opt-out clause in the CBA in 2008. These guys didn't become billionaires by doing bad business deals, but that's exactly what they felt they did in 2006, when they were cajoled into providing a parting gift of labor peace for outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- and, for the most recent NFL season, 59.6 percent of total revenue to the players.

Anyone who covers the league has heard the terms "lockout fund" and "war chest" for at least two years now. The DirecTV deal that was part of the $4 billion in lockout-proof television funds recently shot down by US District Judge David Doty, the MVP of the CBA negotiations so far, was advertised as lucre for the lockout at the 2009 NFL owners' meetings in Dana Point, Calif.

But luckily for football fans it seems the owners have gotten cold feet about going ahead with their Cold War. There has been a noticeable shift in tone in the characterization of negotiations in Washington. The players are already willing to commit to a longer extension of seven to 10 days.

If the owners have really had a change of heart -- or at least of strategy -- and want to abandon the long-planned lockout then they will follow suit. Otherwise, we're headed for lawsuits, including a messy anti-trust one where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive lineman Logan Mankins, along with former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel are all plaintiffs.

That could be uncomfortable for the folks in Foxborough, and you have to believe that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been more optimistic and outspoken than most about the need to get a deal done, is pushing for an agreement to avoid that ugliness and Doty's unfriendly gavel.

While the more hawkish owners are going to want to proceed with the plan to lock the doors, enact a stalemate and bring the union to its knees to wring every possible concession out of their employees, that strategy is now as outdated as the Single Wing offense.

Really, at this point the negotiations boil down to risk, which has always been at the center of this dispute. For the owners it has been the risk that comes with stadium/construction debt on their balance sheets. For the players, it has been the risk of being betrayed by a body that was beaten and battered in the name of the NFL shield.

Now, there is additional risk for the owners and that's alienating their customers by proceeding with such a transparent lockout plan when there is the opportunity to get some, but not all, of the concessions they've demanded from the players -- rookie wage scale, an 18-game season, an additional $1 billion taken off the top of the Total Revenue pie.

Doty flagging the NFL for illegal procedure by ruling it knowingly and purposely negotiated favorable lockout payment conditions in the television contracts at the expense of increased rights fees, was not just a landmark victory for the players in US District Court. It was a huge win for the NFLPA in the court of public opinion.

It very plainly undressed ownership's long-standing plans for a lockout and for the casual fan gave them a very clear antagonist in a complicated process, where no one is without sin. Who negotiates a deal, as the league did with DirecTV, where you actually get more money if the games aren't played unless you're planning on not playing them all along?

That strategy was based on the union rank and file turning on executive director DeMaurice Smith, a man the owners have vastly underestimated, while the owners counted their TV money and paid their bills. Doty's ruling has stripped the owners of their financial hammer. Smith, who as a US attorney was once the recipient of death threats, has not been intimidated by NFL owners or commissioner Roger Goodell and has galvanized the players.

Like the Patriots in their playoff loss to the Jets, the owners' original game plan is not working.

Some of the league's most high-profile teams, including the Patriots, have high debt/value ratios, according to Forbes. If Doty's ruling is upheld and the television money is held up then not doing a deal becomes arguably a bigger risk than doing an imperfect one.

The owners can proceed with their scorched earth policy of a lockout and hope to emerge totally victorious from the ashes, or they can keep negotiating. It's a pressure-packed situation, not unlike what their employees deal with on the field all the time, when a play breaks down or a split-second judgment call needs to be made.

It's time to see if the owners are capable of making those famous in-game adjustments.

If they don't or won't, we all lose.

Patriots game paved way for Pack

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 4, 2011 03:45 PM

The last team to beat the Green Bay Packers this season? Your New England Patriots. And it's going to stay that way.

The Packers will honor the legacy of Vince Lombardi, make Green Bay "Titletown" once more and protect the Patriots' place in pro football lore by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday in North Dakota, er, North Texas. I picked the Packers to advance to the Super Bowl in the preseason, but I wasn't fully on board the Green Bay bandwagon until they came to Foxborough on Dec. 19 and, minus Aaron Rodgers, took the Patriots to the wire.

The old aphorism goes that there is no such thing as a moral victory, but the Packers got so much more out of their trip to Foxborough. Much like the Giants gained the confidence and the resolve to become Super Bowl champions by hanging tough with the Patriots in the 2007 season finale, Green Bay found its championship chops on a cold and cloudy night December night in New England.

Remember at the time the Patriots were coming off back-to-back thumpings of the Jets (45-3) and the Bears (36-7). Both of those contests, if you can call such lopsided affairs as much, were over faster than you could say Belichick. The Patriots enjoyed a 24-3 lead on the Jets and a 33-0 halftime advantage over Chicago. Dating back to the second half of the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, the Patriots had outscored their opponents by almost 100 points (116-17) in the last 10 quarters leading up to the Packers tilt.

The presumption in most precincts was that poor NBC was stuck with a dud of a Sunday Night game because Rodgers, injured the week before in a loss to the Lions, was out, and the Packers didn't have a frozen tundra's chance in Hades of beating the potent Patriots with backup QB Matt Flynn. The Packers were merely more fodder for Bill Belichick's wood-chipper of a team.

Then a funny thing happened. The Packers went out without their franchise quarterback and second-leading sack specialist, defensive end in Cullen Jenkins, and outplayed the Patriots for four quarters. They may have even won if coach Mike McCarthy or Flynn grasped the concept of time management.

Long before the Patriots' infamous fourth-quarter drive against the Jets in the playoffs, the Packers authored a drive to nowhere, burning off the final 4:22. The Patriots won the game, 31-27, thanks in part to the Packers bumbling final drive, a Flynn interception that was returned for a touchdown and Dan Connolly's memorable 71-yard kickoff return just before halftime, which set up a score.

"We expected to win in this locker room, a lot of people didn't give us a chance," said Green Bay safety Charlie Peprah afterward. "We felt we matched up real well with them. We expected to win this game. We had it, and we let it slip away. It hurts."

The Packers left Gillette with hurt feelings and with their playoff hopes on life-support, but also convinced they were the better team and a better team than their 8-6 record.

That was not a Lambeau Leap of logic. The Packers had more first downs (26 to 14), more yards (369 to 249), almost twice as many plays (80 to 43) and an outrageous time of possession edge (40:48 to 19:12) against the undisputed best team in football at the time.

Stats may be for losers, but in this case they'll also be for Lombardi Trophy winners because Green Bay's performance that night was a precursor to their Super Bowl run. Since that game the Packers have reeled off five straight wins in five straight must-win situations.

If you're looking for a team to root for in this Super Bowl pull for the Packers. Green Bay plays a style reminiscent of the vintage Patriots teams of 2003 and 2004. Those were teams that could beat you playing their style or yours or any in between.

The Packers, who have the No. 2 scoring defense in the league and the No. 9 scoring offense (based solely on offensive points scored), are a similarly adaptable bunch.

One week they beat the Jets, 9-0. The next they come back and blow out the Cowboys, 45-7. After losing to the Patriots, they exploded for 45 points against the Giants and the next week won a tense defensive struggle, 10-3, against the Bears to punch their ticket to the postseason.

In the playoffs, the defense saved the day against the Eagles with Tramon Williams's interception. Then Rodgers dismantled the Falcons' defense, powering the Packers to 48 points and 442 yards of offense. Last week in the NFC title game, the winning points came from B.J. Raji's interception return for a score.

The Packers ability and versatility is epitomized by the fact that Williams leads the NFL in postseason picks with three. On the other side of the ball wide receiver Greg Jennings leads all receivers with 17 catches and 239 yards.

Among all the crazy stats that get thrown out during Super Bowl week this one stands out -- the Packers have not trailed by more than seven points in any game this season.

That is with a roster that have been ravaged by injuries and lost a league-high 15 players to injured reserve. That is another trait these Packers share with their Patriot predecessors. The Patriots were renowned for their ability to build a deep roster and plug in players at will to overcome injuries. It became the Patriot Way.

It's Green Bay's way too. The Pack lost Pro Bowl-caliber performers like running back Ryan Grant, who was coming of back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, linebacker Nick Barnett, dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting right tackle Mark Tauscher for the season.

The Packers have the Patriots to thank for their Super Bowl trip. They couldn't have made it without them.

It's just a shame the Patriots weren't there to meet them.

Video: Super Bowl prediction

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 4, 2011 12:24 PM

Chris gives his Super Bowl XLV prediction.

Belichick needs new 'Spygate' gameplan

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 3, 2011 04:04 PM

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Bill Belichick has never been really chummy with the media, especially when it comes to Spygate. But maybe he should try a different tact. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun / Globe Staff)

No matter how many wins he racks up, how many Super Bowls his name is attached to, how many Coach of the Year trophies he is awarded, Bill Belichick will never be able to expunge Spygate from his otherwise sterling NFL coaching résumé.

Not until, and unless, he is willing to fully explain it someday.

It's as much a part of his legacy as winning seasons, hooded sweatshirts, situational football, defensive brilliance and oft-repeated bromides. Around here the whole sad and sordid signal-swiping saga has been mostly forgotten. We have more pressing Patriots matters, like finding a pass rusher and a third wide receiver.

But outside of these provincial parts there is a perception that the Patriots and Belichick never fully atoned for their sins, that they washed them off and walked away. That sentiment is obviously shared by the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell. Peter King's paean to the Commish in Sports Illustrated reopened an old wound.

Yesterday, Belichick was named the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year for the third time and deservedly so after coaxing a young, retooling team to a 14-2 season. Yet the honor was a footnote to Spygate. In the SI profile, Goodell revealed that he felt "deceived" that Belichick did not delve into more details about his actions.

As part of the punishment Goodell levied in 2007, which included $750,000 in fines and stripping the Patriots of a first-round pick, he expected Belichick to convey his contrition for the matter in a more public manner than the terse four-paragraph, 165-word statement the team sent out after the ruling.

Join the club, Mr. Goodell.

Outside of his years in Cleveland, it is perhaps the only time that Belichick's stolid approach at the podium came back to bite him. It was the one time he should have broken from his playbook of non sequiturs.

The day after the ruling, Belichick was asked repeatedly in his press conference about the circumstances of the signal-stealing operation, why the team had engaged in it and whether he acknowledged wrongdoing. At one point, he was asked if he would at least admit he made a mistake? His response: "I've made a statement, and I think all of that has been covered."

Talk about tone deaf.

In fairness, Belichick did eventually fall on his sword in an interview with CBS that aired on May 16, 2008, telling Armen Keteyian, "I made a mistake. I was wrong. I was wrong." And in a Feb. 2008 interview with the Globe, he delved deeper into the process of the signal taping, explaining that finished films weren't even completed until the Thursday or Friday of the week following the game they were taken. And that these films had "minimal" impact.

It's absurd to attribute all of the Patriots' success under Belichick to electronic espionage. The Patriots won three Super Bowls because they had a Hall of Fame coach and quarterback combination, clutch performers like Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison and Willie McGinest and the requisite amount of favorable fortune that all great teams need.

They've lost three straight playoffs games because of a combination of being outplayed and outcoached, because luck switched sidelines (see: Tyree, David) and because they simply don't have as many pressure performers as in the past.

Yet, Belichick makes it easier for his critics to point to the candid camera as the reason for his success because he's never fully explained why the Patriots were doing this in the first place. If there was no advantage then why waste the time and effort? If it was as minimal as Belichick has previously stated then why not explain why its minimal?

The everybody-does-it defense might have some truth to it, but it's a childish excuse. The only other team to be caught and punished by the league for illicit use of video equipment is the Denver Broncos, fined $50,000 by the league in November for taping the San Francisco 49ers walk-through before the two teams played in London in October.

The coach of the Broncos at the time was Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels.

When asked why the Broncos got off easier than the Patriots, NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said:

"Here you had, as best we can conclude, a single incident as opposed to, in New England, years of activity. You had an incident that, as best we could identify, was carried out by a single employee without direction from the coaching staff or anyone else at the club. That's obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity."

Don't think those words won't haunt Belichick someday in a Hall of Fame voting debate. Make no mistake, Belichick won't get the Pete Rose (gambling) or Mark McGwire (steroids) treatment. Our canonized coach will end up in Canton, but not before Spygate is dredged up again.

America is a country that eats up contrition like fried fast food. The only thing enjoyed more than the fall of a hero is his ultimate redemption. Look no further than a pair of bad boy quarterbacks from Pennsylvania, Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger. A hysterical headline from the satirical news site "The Onion" said it all.

Belichick's violation of the integrity of the game pales in comparison to the criminal conduct of Vick and the alleged sexual misconduct of Roethlisberger. Yet, both are probably viewed more favorably nationally because they've thrown themselves at the mercy of the court of public opinion.

That's not Belichick's style. He needs to realize accountability isn't just found in a final score. No amount of wins equals "I'm sorry."

During the infamous post-ruling press conference, Belichick was asked whether he thought that if he wins, will everything else will be forgotten. He answered, "There is nothing you can do about the past."

You can't change the past, Bill, but you can change how people view it.

Steelers, Packers is a Super matchup

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 24, 2011 01:26 PM

This is one Super Bowl where the commercials won't be the most eagerly anticipated viewing. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV is a football feast with all the trimmings.

It's a game that belongs on the History Channel and not Fox.

By both modern and historical precedent, the North Texas showdown features the two winningest franchises in NFL history. The Packers have won a combined 12 NFL titles and won the first two Super Bowls ever contested. The trophy that the Super Bowl winner hoists is named after legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

The Steelers, seeking their third Super Bowl title in six seasons, have won more Super Bowls (six) than any franchise in league history and are making a record eighth appearance in the Big Game. Pittsburgh is tied with Dallas for the most postseason victories in NFL history with 33 and Green Bay is next with 28.

We'll be reading stories about the storied pasts of the Packers and Steelers for two weeks and rightfully so. But even if you stripped both teams' lore of names like Starr and Bradshaw, Lombardi and Noll, Rooney and Lambeau and subtracted the Terrible Towel and the Styrofoam cheesehead, you would still have an intriguing matchup.

You have two of the game's best improvisational quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers), two of its keenest defensive minds (Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau and Green Bay's Dom Capers) and two of its most passionate fanbases.

The quarterbacks, among two of the best not named Brady or Manning, are going to get the hype and the headlines, but this game is going to be about defense. The Packers and Steelers are proof that defense is not a dying art in the NFL.

Both teams have top five defenses. The Steelers were second in total defense and the Packers were fifth. They were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in points allowed. Pittsburgh led the league at 14.5 points per game. The Packers were just behind at 15. They're also No. 1 and No. 2 in sacks. Are you listening, Patriots? Pass-rush is important. The Steelers led the league with 48 sacks, and the Packers were in a three-way tie for second place with the Chargers and the Raiders at 47 each.

These teams like to harass opposing offenses with all manner of exotic blitz schemes. There will be blitzers coming out of the stands of Cowboys Stadium, or possibly that bogus attendance-padding plaza outside it to chase Roethlisberger and Rodgers.

Can someone explain again why Capers, who took a 20th-ranked defense in Green Bay and has put it in the top two each of the last two seasons, was allowed to leave Foxborough after just one season as a do-nothing coach with the title of special assistant-secondary? Seems like Capers could have aided the young Patriots defense in some way, no?

By the way, it was Capers's brilliant zone-blitz call that led to the game-winning touchdown for the Pack in the NFC title game, an interception return for a score by nose tackle/Boston College alum B.J. Raji.

You're also looking at the top two rushing defenses in these playoffs. Pittsburgh, which hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and has gone 16 straight postseason games without allowing one, is first at 52.5 yards per game. Green Bay is next at 69.7 yards per game.

Due to the somewhat provincial bent of this region's sporting sentiment the obvious question is who should Patriots loyalists be backing in Super Bowl XLV? The answer is as apparent as the difference in difficulty of spelling Rodgers and Roethlisberger.

Pull for the Packers, Patriots fans. Familiarize yourselves with the words "Go, Pack, Go!" Forget about that little matter of Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XXXI because Green Bay is all that stands between Black and Gold preeminence. If you thought Jets fans were insufferable in their gloating after their playoff victory in Foxborough, wait until Steelers fans have more hardware to hold over your head.

If Big Ben and the men from the Steel City win their third Super Bowl in six seasons then the Patriots can no longer proclaim to be the league's gold standard for excellence. They'll be the Microsoft to Pittsburgh's Google. It will be a double playoff stomach-punch. Not only did the Patriots lose to the despised Jets and squander a 14-2 season and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs, but they opened the door to be usurped by Pittsburgh, a team they own, as the league's model franchise.

The Team of the Decade title was wrapped up by the Patriots. No one can take that from Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, but if the Steelers lug the Lombardi Trophy back to the former Fort Duquesne for the second time in three seasons it would be three titles for them since the last time the Patriots won one and two Super Bowls since New England last won...a playoff game. Those facts hurt worse than a James Harrison headshot.

Adding further insult would be that Roethlisberger, for all of his off-field faults and questionable conduct, would tie Brady in Super Bowl wins at three apiece, joining the exclusive club of three-time winners that includes four-time champions Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, who also netted three titles with the Cowboys.

Roethlisberger resembles a young Brady in that other quarterbacks rack up bigger stats and more fawning media attention, but all he does is make plays and win when it matters most. See Super Bowl XLIII.

Vegas has already installed the Packers as favorites. Patriots fans better hope the wiseguys are more accurate than Jay Cutler was yesterday.

Start the hype and cue the hyperbole. The Super Bowl is set and it's a super matchup.

The two weeks between the AFC and NFC championship games and the Super Bowl usually constitute an interminable football-free period (Pro Bowl? Please), but this time it should be worth the wait.

AFC, NFC title games rooted in pain

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 21, 2011 02:51 PM

The autopsy of the Patriots is still ongoing, but while football season is dead and gone in New England it rages on in Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, and gridiron's mecca, Green Bay.

It's championship weekend in the National Football League and if you can bear to watch after the Patriots' untimely demise at the hands of the jawing Jets then there should be some good football to fill up Sunday afternoon. The Steelers and Jets tangle in the AFC title game at Heinz Field, and eternal rivals the Bears and Packers are pitted against each other in the NFC title tilt at Soldier Field, or as Wes Welker might refer to it, Foot-Soldier Field.

I can't blame you if you choose not to watch. This playoff defeat for the Patriots stung like rubbing alcohol on a fresh wound. This weekend is reminiscent of the 2003 baseball playoffs, which around here was like the strike-shortened season of 1994 -- there was no World Series. If I have to tell you why you're either too young to remember Aaron Boone's blast or you've suppressed it from your memory. Good for you, either way.

This weekend is even tougher television viewing for the Foxborough Faithful because the NFL's Final Four is comprised of teams the Patriots beat during the regular-season, and in the cases of the Steelers, Bears, and Jets, handily. The AFC Championship Game is a particularly loathsome affair for the locals. Rooting for either of those teams feels a bit like a root canal.

The Jets are still taking shots at Tom Brady, while being all lovey-dovey with Ben Roethlisberger. You know, the same guy who missed the first four games of the season due to an NFL suspension that stemmed from allegations of sexual misconduct. But boy does Bart Scott admire the way Big Ben can take a hit. While it's impossible for the In Bill We Trust crowd to support the J-E-T-S, it is worth keeping in mind that Rex and his wrecking crew are now oddly defenders of the Patriots' legacy place.

If the Steelers advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons and then go on to win it, then it would be hard to argue that the Patriots are still the reigning royalty of the NFL, not with Pittsburgh winning three Super Bowls since the Patriots last held the Lombardi Trophy aloft. Another Super Bowl win would also tie Roethlisberger with Tom Brady, three a piece.

On the other hand, the only thing that will shush Team Snack Pack is having to eat their own words after losing in the AFC title game for the second straight year. If they win it's two more weeks of Jets unplugged. Mark Sanchez will have set an NFL record for most road playoff wins by a quarterback with five, and Ryan and his defense will have taken out the top three quarterbacks in the AFC -- Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Roethlisberger (sorry, Philip Rivers) on the way to North Texas.

We'll never hear the end of that from the jabbering Jets. Talk about a no-win situation for New England.

The Jets beat Pittsburgh in Week 15, 22-17, albeit the Steelers were without safety Troy Polamalu. It's not going to be easy for the Jets to go to the old ground-and-pound and shield Sanchez this time.

Pittsburgh allowed the fewest yards on the ground in the NFL this season (62.8). The latter day Steel Curtain didn't allow a 100-yard rusher all season and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 15 consecutive post-season games. Expect a slug-fest that the Jets pull out.

The NFC presents more likeable teams. Ever since the Packers came into Gillette Stadium with a great game plan and without Aaron Rodgers and nearly beat the Patriots, they've looked like Super Bowl contenders. Keep in mind the Pack had to win their last two regular-season games, including a 10-3 win over Chicago, just to get into the playoffs. So, they've basically won four straight playoff games.

Make it five. The Packers have the look of the 2007 Giants, but they remind me of the 2003-2004 Patriots. They're a team that can play any game and beat you at it. You want to trade haymakers and highlights in a high-scoring shootout? No problem, they have Rodgers, who is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw three touchdown passes in his first three postseason starts.

You want to play a grind-it-out, defense-first, turf-war? No problem. The Packers have an aggressive attacking defense with the best set of corners in the NFL in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson, an impact pass rusher in Clay Matthews and an underrated Pro Bowl safety in Nick Collins.

The Packers blew the doors off the Giants, 45-17, in Week 16 and then came back in the regular-season finale and bested the Bears, 10-3. They also have a 9-0 win over the Jets. Plus, coach Mike McCarthy always sounds like Elvis at the podium.

Chicago and Green Bay split their two regular-season meetings, but the Bears' 20-17 win on Sept 27 was a bit flukey. The Packers had a franchise-record 18 penalties, including a pass-interference penalty that wiped out a game-sealing pick by Jay Cutler (get ready to hear those words again) and instead set up the winning field goal with four seconds left. The Packers actually had two penalties late in the fourth quarter that negated Cutler interceptions.

I just don't trust Cutler in a game of this magnitude. Offensively, in eight quarters of football, Cutler and the Bears have one touchdown against the Green Bay defense. Cutler has thrown three interceptions, had two more wiped out by Packers' penalties and been sacked nine times, including six in the regular-season finale at Lambeau.

Da Bears are done. It's going to be Jets vs. Packers at Jerry Jones Texas' showplace in Super Bowl XLV. We'll see if it comes to fruition.

If you can stand to watch.

Brady's foot shows Patriots need longer legs

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 20, 2011 02:56 PM

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Tom Brady is having foot surgery and the Patriots should be worried. (Stan Grossfeld / Globe Staff)

Another offseason for Tom Brady and another injury to recover from.

The latest is surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. (It was the left knee that Bernard Pollard blew out when he plowed into Brady in the 2008 season opener.)

By his own count, Brady will play operation for the fifth time in nine years. That's not even counting last year, when Brady played the majority of the season with a broken finger and cracked ribs. He gleefully said last Jan. 26 at a charity appearance in Boston:"I'm very fortunate to walk off the field this year and end the season without having surgery, so that's not really a concern."

He was not so fortunate this season, even though the real pain he's feeling isn't from his foot, but from another premature playoff exit. Perhaps, the Patriots could get Jets coach Rex Ryan to take a look at Brady's foot since Ryan seems to fancy himself something of an, ahem, amateur podiatrist.

The point is that Brady has taken a beating in his 10 years as an NFL starter and you wonder when it's going to start taking a toll on TB12, who turns 34 in August. Football careers are finite. No one plays forever. Brady going under the knife only underscores that the Patriots have to do everything they can to maximize their championship window while Tommy is still in tow.

In the wake of the failure to launch against the Jets, there has been a lot of kvetching and discussion about what the Patriots need. No. 1 on the grocery list should be a pass rusher. The Patriots search for someone who can sack the quarterback is beginning to resemble the Bigfoot-esque quest of the Bruins for the ever elusive "puck-moving" defenseman -- promising Steve Kamper the latest to audition for role for the Black and Gold.

A better defense would certainly take some pressure off of Brady, but what would really help prolong Brady's career is a big-time running back. If the Patriots run of success is going to have legs, then Brady needs some too. The reality is that finesse and flinging the ball only goes so far.

Terry Bradshaw had Franco Harris. Troy Aikman had Emmitt Smith. John Elway didn't win a Super Bowl until he had Terrell Davis lining up behind him. The perception is that Joe Montana, who lifted four Lombardi Trophies, is the exception to the rule. That his short passing prowess was the 49ers running game. Not quite.

It is true that Joe Cool never had a franchise running back, although Roger Craig is memorable for a running style that had him lifting his legs higher than a Rockette. True, Montana didn't have a great running game in 1981, when he won his first Super Bowl.

However, in 1984, the 49ers finished third in the NFL in rushing at 154.1 yards per game, and Wendell Tyler was fifth in the league with 1,262 yards. In 1988, when San Francisco won title No. 3, the 49ers were second in the NFL in rushing at 157.7 yards per game, and Craig rushed for more than 1,500 yards. In 1989, the 49ers dipped to 10th, but Craig again went over 1,000 yards.

If there is a common theme from the Patriots last three playoff defeats it has been an inability to generate the big play on the ground. Teams like the Jets and Giants have flooded the field with defensive backs and dared the Patriots to run, while taking aim at Brady.

The greatest example of this was the Patriots' Congress-worthy filibustering, fourth-quarter drive on Sunday that took 7 minutes and 45 seconds off the clock and accomplished nothing. Simply, the Jets were willing to swap yards on the ground for time off the clock, all the while confident that the Patriots couldn't pop a long gainer to get back in the game.

New England averaged four yards a carry against the Jets, but the longest run was 11 yards via trick plays. Brandon Tate took an end around for 11 yards and a reverse to Julian Edelman went for 11 as well. The longest run by an actual running back was 10 yards by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had nine carries for 43 yards.

Last year, against the Ravens, the Patriots averaged 3.6 yards per rush and the longest run was only nine yards. The Patriots ran 16 times for an abysmal 45 yards in Super Bowl XLII. The longest rush was nine yards.

The Patriots did finish in the top 10 in the league in rushing this year, and Brady had a 1,000-yard rusher in Green-Ellis. It was the first time since 2004, when Corey Dillon ran for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. That also happens to be the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl. Coincidence?

It's one thing to rack up yards in the regular season it's another to be able to run when it matters most. Green-Ellis was a great story, but he's a grinder and not a game-breaker.

Forget another diva wide receiver that can run deep, Brady needs a running back that can carry some of the load.

Luckily, the Patriots have more chips in this draft than Frito-Lay. They have three of the top 33 picks (No. 17, No. 28 and No. 33) and six of the top 96, with three picks in each of the first three rounds. Unluckily, it's not a great running back group behind Alabama's Mark Ingram and Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams.

But Brady's latest injury/surgery is a reminder that one way from keeping your quarterback from having to heal is having him handoff more.

So, it's time for the Patriots to get grounded before it's too late for them and Brady.

Patriots young and restless after playoff loss

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 17, 2011 01:52 PM

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The Patriots' Patrick Chung had a tough time handling a fake punt in a tough loss to the New York Jets. (Jim Davis / Globe Staff)

FOXBOROUGH -- Most of the season for the Patriots youth was served. Yesterday, the Patriots' youth got served by the Jets.

That's why it's NFL nuclear winter in New England today after an unthinkable and unbearable 28-21 home playoff loss to the Jets.

The focus in the Patriots postmortem will be on the failed fake punt and a fruitless fourth quarter drive that took longer to play out than the last "Lord of the Rings" movie. Those were contributing factors in the Patriots' demise. However, the primary cause of postseason death was a lack of experience, especially on defense. That unit used only four players yesterday who have won a playoff game in a New England uniform -- Vince Wilfork, James Sanders, Tully Banta-Cain and Brandon Meriweather.

The Patriots had 16 players making their playoff debut, and half of their combined 22 offensive and defensive starters were making their first career playoff start. That's a serious lack of playoff mettle -- or medal.

You hate to say there is anything remotely accurate to the gloating chatter from the Jets, but braggart linebacker Bart Scott was right when he said the Jets looked at their roster and at the Patriots roster and it was clear that the playoff stripes were with the guys in green and white.

"That’s what we leaned on," said Scott. "We leaned on the fact that we knew we had more playoff experience than that team. We knew that when the pressure was on those young guys wouldn’t be able to perform at a high level."

For all the talk about the green quarterback the Jets had, it was (On The) Mark Sanchez who rose to the occasion while the defense he was facing showed its age.

There is a tendency to just lump Patriots teams from the last 10 years together like it's all the same formula from 2001 until now because you have the same incomparable coach, Bill Belichick, and canonized quarterback, Tom Brady. The reality is the ingredients have changed.

The Patriots of Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison reside only in NFL Films. Those teams made their name on winning games like yesterday's. When the Patriots were lifting Lombardi Trophies it wasn't all about TB12. Now, it is.

From 2001 to 2007, the Patriots allowed 28 or more points in a playoff game twice in 17 contests -- and never at home. In the last two home playoff games the Patriots have surrendered 33 and 28 points respectively.

Law, who had a famous pick-six in Super Bowl XXXVI, was in the house yesterday, his presence a reminder of just how difficult those teams will be to replicate.

"I mean that's one thing that they're always going to have to fight is the comparisons to our teams," Law told the Globe. "But they're going to have to find their own identity and they will. You still got a great head coach, the best that's out there, in Bill Belichick. You got the greatest quarterback in the game in Tom Brady. So you have enough pieces there to build your own identity around some of the pieces that have the experience and helped us do what we did as a team. They'll be just fine."

Eventually, yes. Yesterday, no. This iteration of the Patriots still has to prove it can win the big one. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a model Patriot and a worthy Pro Bowler, but he has yet to win a playoff game.

As great as Brady is, playoff football is still about defense. It's about making timely stops at crucial moments or generating momentum-turning plays, something Law's Patriots excelled at. It's a trait the precocious Patriots' defense showed all season long, with an eye-popping 38 turnovers, but it didn't translate to the playoffs.

The most crucial exchange in the game came after Brady and Co., cut the Jets lead to 14-11 with 13 seconds left in the third quarter. This was the time for the New England defense to make the mistake-prone Sanchez, who had turned the ball over eight times in his two previous trips to Foxborough, squirm, to prove that their 30th-ranked pass defense was a mirage, to silence their detractors.

Instead, it took all of five plays for the Jets to go 75 yards and get the touchdown back, with Sanchez completing all four of his passes attempts, including the final one to Santonio Holmes for a 7-yard touchdown.

As much as getting B-E-A-T by the J-E-T-S when it mattered most hurts, there is some perspective that needs to be applied to this season. Youth is a double-edged sword and while it created heartbreak yesterday it also fosters promise for the future.

This was not supposed to be a Super Bowl-or-bust season in Fort Foxborough. Who among us really expected this team to go 14-2 and earn the AFC's top seed?

The defense is going to get some veteran reinforcements with the return of injured defensive end Ty Warren and injured cornerback Leigh Bodden, both of whom missed the entire season. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty is a Pro Bowler and he's only going to get better. You would expect the same of Patrick Chung and Brandon Spikes.

Plus, the Patriots are armed with three of the top 33 picks in this year's draft and have two picks in each of the first three rounds. That's enough ammunition for Belichick to go get the impact pass rusher this team desperately needs and make additional upgrades to the front seven.

The youthful defense grew up a lot this season, but they still have a ways to go.

"They'll come back," said Law. "They're a young team, but when you get this far with the type of youth you have on this team the sky is the limit. I look forward to them being back in this same position next year, but doing a lot better."

Branch prepared to brave Revis Island

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 14, 2011 03:01 PM

Despite what Rex Ryan says the playoff game between the Jets and Patriots on Sunday is not about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan. But it could be about Deion Branch versus Darrelle Revis.

There is no one individual matchup that is going to decide the gridiron jihad with the Jets. However, next to Tom Brady there might not be a more pivotal player for the Patriots offense than Branch, who has been reborn in his return to a Patriots uniform. Branch set the tone for the 45-3 wrecking of Rex and the Jets last month. The prodigal pass catcher had all three of his receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, as the Patriots built a 17-0 lead from which the Jets never recovered.

There is not a better player on the Jets than Revis, the human Bermuda Triangle -- wide receivers just disappear from a quarterback's reads when he is covering them. That was clearly the case in the Jets' 17-16 wild-card weekend win over the Indianapolis Colts, as Reggie Wayne caught one pass for one yard against Revis.

Wayne, a five-time Pro Bowler was none too pleased that Peyton Manning treated him like he was radioactive with Revis on him.

Based on Branch's chemistry with Brady, history of prime-time playoff performances, and immolation of trash-talking Jets corner Antonio Cromartie in the last meeting it would make sense for New York to try to banish Branch to Revis Island.

"Well, when you go to Revis Island, the success rate going to that island probably isn’t that good, and Brady knows that," said Ryan, who didn't say who Revis would cover. "He can look at a different matchup that he probably likes better than that matchup. And that’s with any receiver in the league. This is a once-in-a-lifetime type corner, and that’s a fact. ...I don’t think it’s smart business to target him."

Ryan is probably right, but that doesn't mean that Branch is resigning himself to being a glorified decoy on Sunday if he draws Revis.

"No, that's not our thought over here," Branch said, cutting off yours truly. "We got a great quarterback who understands the game, who is going to pick and choose what he wants to do with the ball. Not disrespecting those guys, I think they're good, good players. But at the same time if it's a play that I got to get the ball and either Darrelle or Cromartie is on me he's going to throw me the ball."

Branch stated that just because to the casual observer it appeared Manning was more comfortable with Jim Caldwell's ill-conceived timeout than throwing the ball to his favorite receiver doesn't mean that Wayne wasn't available at times with Revis on him.

"It's quarterback decisions, sometimes it's game-planning, sometimes it's a good defensive stance," said Branch. "There is a lot of stuff that goes into it. Everybody looks at the big picture and gets the wrong grasp of it because you see the final numbers, but when you really sit down and watch the film you might say, 'Hey, well, [Wayne] was open 10 times and Peyton never got him the ball.' "

"There are a lot of things that you have to look into. ...There may have been a couple of times that he was getting doubled, but it looks like he's guarding him one-on-one. I think the biggest thing is the Jets did a great job. They went out there and they executed their game plan."

Ryan has already decried his game plan from the 45-3 game, which rendered Revis a non-factor. Brady and the Patriots steered clear of Revis, who seemed to spend most first and second downs wandering around in a one-man zone before taking Wes Welker on third downs.

Jets players, unable to dull their candor, said this week that what they need to do this time against Brady and Co., is funnel more passes to the middle. Branch did his damage in the first game lined up wide. That would seem to be yet another indication that Revis will spend some time acquainting himself with No. 84.

Welker remains a dangerous weapon over the middle, but he is still less than a year removed from his knee surgery and averaged fewer than 10 yards a catch this season. Branch has averaged 14.7 yards per catch in his 12 games with the Patriots, and his three catches against the NYJ were for 20, 19 and 25 yards.

It would be poetic in a way if Revis ended up on Branch, since it was Revis's stumping of Moss that highlighted Moss's limitations as a route-runner. That played a part in the Patriots' re-thinking their offensive approach and hastening the departure of Moss, who was fixated on his contract status. Moss's out pattern paved the way for Branch's comeback route and the Patriots' revival.

There is no doubt that Brady would like to go to Branch on Sunday. The diminutive receiver has a habit of coming up large in the biggest games for the Patriots. The last game he played as a Patriot prior to this season was New England's 2005 AFC divisional playoff loss to the Broncos. Lost in Benjamin Watson's Rocky Mountain race with Champ Bailey is that Branch had eight catches for 153 yards.

Then there is the little matter of Super Bowl XXXIX, when he won MVP honors with a Super Bowl-record-tying 11 catches for 133 yards. Frankly, he could have won it the year before too when he had 10 receptions for 143 yards and a score and set up Adam Vinatieri's winning kick with a 17-yard reception with nine seconds left that put the Patriots in field goal range.

While Branch is confident he can avoid exile to Revis Island, he'll accept losing the battle to win the game.

"The biggest thing is not individual stats, it's all about team stats, the team goal," Branch said. "If I get one ball and we win [Revis Island] probably won't even be brought up."

Video: Patriots-Jets Round 3

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2011 06:58 PM
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CineSport's Noah Coslov gets insight and predictions from Boston.com's Chris Gasper and the NY Post's Bart Hubbuch on Pats-Jets Round 3.

Patriots-Jets is ultimate 'us' against 'them'

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 11, 2011 02:38 PM

The Patriots-Jets rivalry isn't just a one-sided war of words, a bitter Border War and, right now, a playoff showdown. It's a cultural clash. New York versus Boston, 'nuff said.

They say that teams take on the personality of their coaches. That is certainly the case with the Patriots and their laconic coach, Bill Belichick, and the Jets and their bombastic boss, Rex Ryan. But these two organizations also embody the regions they represent.

New York and Boston is a civic rivalry as old as this country itself. The two cities are separated by approximately 215 miles and totally different mindsets. Big, bold and trendy versus quaint, reserved and customary.

The Jets are like the Big Apple -- brash, overbearing, boastful and over the top. New York calls itself the greatest city in the world. That's pretty presumptuous, just like the Jets. The descendants of Broadway braggart Joe Namath have been broadcasting since "Hard Knocks" that they're the best team in the NFL. New York is a city that fancies itself as the world's biggest stage, and the Jets are a team that craves the spotlight and the limelight. They are a raucous bunch that talks a good game and can play one too -- sometimes.

The Patriots behave like the Brahmins of Boston: elite, austere, tight-lipped and traditional. They don't feel the need to brag because their history of success and air of accomplishment speaks for itself. They're now old money as the NFL's model franchise. Their mien of superiority is palpable. Belichick's ingenious game plans mirror the labyrinth-like streets of Boston, full of frustrating wrong turns and pratfalls for those unfamiliar with the territory.

As the de facto capital of New England, Boston cherishes its status as a cradle of higher education and revolutionary thinking. The Patriots are the Rodin of this rivalry -- the thinking man's team. They are a club that's calling card is outsmarting the opponent and finding creative ways to use players (e.g. Dan Connolly playing fullback). The Patriots play a cerebral brand of football that relies more on execution than raw emotion.

It's really a fascinating dichotomy, even if I recognize we've stretched things a bit for entertainment purposes. The truth is the two cites and the two teams couldn't be more different. Opposites attract, but when they do they generate friction and fractiousness.

Ryan is right: Patriots-Jets is personal. But it's personal for the fans of these teams and the denizens of these regions as well. That's why any New York-Boston sports matchup matters.

If you went to college in Boston and had friends from the Tri-State area you no doubt recall them referring to New York simply as "the City," like it was the only one that mattered. They treated Baw-stun like this bucolic little suburb they had inhabited, a place that had strange accents (talk about hypocrisy) and didn't have their caw-fee, their bagels, their clam chowder or... the Yankees. You resented them ragging on a what is that rarest of entities -- a livable, manageable, world-class city.

You called them after the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. You'll call them after the Patriots beat the Jets.

I love New York. It is the cultural capital of our country. It has Wall Street, Times Square and Broadway. It's full of art, architecture, industry, entertainment and fashion. It's a great city -- to visit. You couldn't pay me to live there. I always feel trapped. The whole city feels like an ant colony for people. It's just teeming with humans. They're everywhere. You can not escape them or their concrete cage.

There is a thought that Boston has an inferiority complex when it comes to its more well-known neighbor. But in this football feud the inferiority complex belongs to the Jets. Ryan is constantly talking about how he's not as good as Belichick and taking shots at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Ryan's quarterback, Mark Sanchez, is an obvious Brady wannabee.

The Jets in general have been a nice little foil for the Patriots since Belichick eschewed their head coaching job in 2000 and joined New England.

The real enmity among the teams in the rivalry today stems from that messy little transaction. With gutless Jets president Steve Gutman questioning the mental stability of Belichick, a barb that His Hoodiness (can we still call him that if he doesn't wear one anymore?) has never forgiven or forgotten. Everything that has happened afterward -- Eric Mangini defecting to New York, Spygate, Ryan's arrival, the Jets trying to pull the Patriots into Trip-gate -- was spawned from that exchange.

By and large the Jets have been a speed bump for the Patriots on their way to bigger and better things since Belichick came to town. They have had a few moments like winning at Gillette Stadium in 2006 in the muck and advancing to the AFC title game last season, but recent history paints this rivalry as a pretty one-sided affair.

The Patriots have more meaningful rivalries with the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, teams that are closer to the Patriots' level than the J-E-T-S, and have represented more of a threat to their throne over the last decade.

This rivalry is manufactured, not by Ryan and his rhetoric, but geography. Think about it, is there any real reason to have as much disdain for the Jets as exists in these parts other than the fact that they have "New York" before their names?

If they were the Buffalo Jets or the Baltimore Jets or the Miami Jets would we care as much about a team that hasn't gone to a Super Bowl since before the lunar landing? Doubtful.

The Jets-Patriots rivalry is us against them, but the "us" and the "them" aren't just Ryan and Belichick and Brady and Sanchez. They're New Yorkers and Bostonians.

Rematch proves Jets aren't frauds

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 10, 2011 02:47 PM

Let's get this out of the way right now, whatever you want to say about the Jets and coach Rex Ryan this week they are not frauds.

Are they annoying braggarts? Yes. Is Ryan's over-the-top rhetoric, replete with verbal jabs at Tom Brady, tedious? Yes. (It's pretty rich that Ryan would criticize Brady for going to a play instead of watching the Jets play since the coach puts on a Broadway show every time he steps to the podium.) Is it cathartic to see the self-professed "Soon to be champs" lose. Yes.

Are the Jets all talk and no talent? No.

That was a popular opinion in these parts after the Patriots served a heaping helping of Bill Belichick's famous humble pie to Gang Green and their grandiloquent coach in what was billed as an AFC East showdown for the ages on Dec. 6. Instead, it was a 45-3 beatdown for the ages administered by the Patriots.

If the Jets were a bunch of Bernie Madoffs then we wouldn't be preparing for a rubber match between the fierce rivals. They would have been exposed long before reaching a return trip to Foxborough. Ryan told Belichick they'd meet again and for once actually backed up his words.

Charlatans-in-shoulder-pads wouldn't have won a must-win game in Pittsburgh, and they wouldn't have been able to relegate Peyton Manning's playoff sightings from here on out to selling Sony TVs and Oreo cookies.

J-E-T-S is a four-letter word around here, rightfully so given the history and histrionics between the teams. But you also have to give Ryan's team a little bit of R-E-S-P-E-C-T because they went into Indianapolis and held Indy to just 16 points and Manning to only one touchdown pass. You might even want to send them flowers since they eliminated the one player, Manning, that Patriots fans feared most in the playoffs.

It was only the second time all year that Manning's offense was held to just one touchdown. Any team that can hold Manning to 16 points and Brady to 14 in the same season is neither a punching bag nor a punchline. They are a formidable, if eminently unlikeable, opponent.

The Jets may not be frauds, but they are flawed. And the Patriots exposed every one of them on that memorable and thoroughly enjoyable Monday night. However, don't think it's going to be that easy the third time around. The Patriots are better than the Jets, but not 45-3 better. That was the margin of victory, but it's not the margin of ability between the teams.

Ask the New Orleans Saints what happens when you presume playoff victory.

Much of what Vociferous Rex spews in his press conferences is spurious boasting, empty-calorie quotes. But today when he went into self-flagellation/team-aggrandizement for a poor game plan that contributed to that Monday night meltdown there was some actual veracity in his voice.

Last time both teams had 11 days to prepare to play each other and Belichick used that time to dissect Ryan's defense and confuse his wannabee franchise quarterback. Ryan looked like he used the time to eat Thanksgiving Day leftovers.

"There are chess matches every week, but it was checkmate," Ryan told the New York media today. "He definitely out-coached me."

Ryan can talk all he wants about how he plans on being the best coach on Sunday, but almost any plan the Jets come up with will be better than the one they had last time.

"The plan might have looked good on paper but it wasn’t realistic," Ryan said. "When we had to make the adjustments, we couldn't execute. It really came down to coaching more than playing. It was obvious they were that much better -- Belichick was that much better than I was that last game."

It was.

Ryan had no clue how to handle the new-look New England offense, the one that didn't have Randy Moss as its centerpiece, the one Belichick created in part to beat the Jets. Brady spread the ball around and picked the Jets apart, going 21 of 29 for 326 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. The simulated pressure and blitz schemes that had thrown off Brady's timing in the teams' first meeting didn't even cause TB12 to bat an eyelash this time.

Brady didn't need to look at Buddy Ryan's Bears tape to figure out Rex's defense. On one dump-off to Danny Woodhead, the Jets had defensive lineman Mike DeVito responsible for the running back. The result was a 50-yard gain for the Jets castoff/Patriots cult hero.

Ryan's deployment, or lack there of, of shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis was baffling. Revis spent most of his time just playing centerfield in a short zone, roaming around the secondary like he was at a cocktail party.

Offensively, the Jets made a fatal miscalculation. They thought they could take advantage of the Patriots pass defense. The problem was the Patriots' perceived defensive weakness was also the Jets' offensive Achilles' heel.

Sanchez, who completed only 54.8 percent of his passes this season, was simply not accurate enough out of the shotgun spread to execute the game plan. He finished 17 of 33 for 164 yards and threw three straight interceptions in the second half.

Don't expect the Jets to make the same mistakes this time. The depleted Patriots defensive line will get a heavy dose of Shonn Greene and noted Patriot-hater LaDainian Tomlinson and the Jets ground-and-pound attack. Defensively, New York will take either Deion Branch, who destroyed Antonio Cromartie in the last meeting, or Wes Welker away from Brady using Revis.

Just like the Patriots learned from their mistakes in the Jets' 28-14 win in Week 2, New York will learn from theirs.

Yes, the Patriots have a better coach and a better quarterback. But those are advantages New England has against any team it plays, not just the Jets.

The Jets aren't frauds. They're foils who are capable of foiling the Patriots' playoff plans if they're underestimated.

Three days in April changed Patriots' season

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 7, 2011 02:43 PM

You can point to any number of seminal moments in the Patriots' season as the Tipping Point, the exact instance in which the they went from retooling to the ruling class of the league again.

Take your pick. There was the blowout win in Miami on a Monday night; the redemptive overtime victory over the Ravens, which had grizzled vets like Matt Light giddily running off the field; Tom Brady's biology-class-worthy dissection of the Steelers a week after the team got rocked by the Manginis in Cleveland; and of course James Sanders game-saving interception against Indy arch-nemesis Peyton Manning.

My pick is ... the draft. ESPN did a 30 for 30 film on the 2004 Red Sox entitled "Four Days in October" and the story of these Patriots should be entitled, "Three Days in April" because that is when the seeds of being the AFC's top seed were sown. You don't get home playoff games in January without last April's draft victories.

After a disappointing 10-6 campaign that exposed a paucity of developing players on the roster and an over-reliance on imported veterans, Bill Belichick and the Patriots needed an infusion of young talent, stat. I stated at the time that the 2010 draft was going to be the most critical of the Belichick era. It would decide whether the Patriots were a dynasty in decline or if the 2009 season merely represented pressing the pause button on their run of success.

The 2006 through 2008 drafts, always a point of contention in these parts (please stop telling me that Randy Moss and Wes Welker constituted draft picks in '07), were not "Grapes of Wrath"-style barren dust bowls. However, they weren't exactly good and plenty either with the assorted Chad Jacksons, Kareem Browns, Terrence Wheatleys and Shawn Crables dotting the register.

The 2009 crop, featuring four second-round picks, had shown promise, but Belichick still needed a home run in the draft -- badly. He hit a vintage David Ortiz walkoff. Totally clutch.

After Backwards Bill (said endearingly) traded down twice, he drafted Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty, a shutdown corner and a Ty Law clone, with the Patriots' first-round pick, on day one. Many media members, myself included, panned the pick. Mea culpa, coach. Next to Tom Brady, it might turn out to be the best selection Belichick's made in Foxborough, considering the circumstances and timing of the pick.

On day two, the Patriots used three second-round picks to take tight end Rob Gronkowski, who set a franchise record for touchdown catches by a tight end (10); outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who was the Patriots' most reliable edge-setter outside and had the pressure that forced Manning's aforementioned interception; and inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, who brought a rugged presence in the run game, despite his short attention span.

Day 3 brought fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez, a first-round talent who dropped because of character concerns. The Patriots took a gamble on the former Gator, and it's paid off in a big way. Along with Gronkowski, Hernandez allowed the Patriots to reshape the offense around the tight end position and move away from Moss. That in turn cleared the path for Deion Branch's return and Brady's transcendent season.

Hoping to find the punting version of Gostkowski, the only player left from the '06 draft, the Patriots took Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round. Mesko finished 11th in the NFL in net punting average (38.4). Seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick started four games and had two sacks before being suspended, and sixth-rounder Ted Larsen, who landed with the Buccaneers, started 11 games in Tampa Bay.

Of their first seven of 12 selections in the draft, six of them -- McCourty, Gronkowski, Cunningham, Spikes, Hernandez, Mesko -- combined to start 59 games, catch 87 passes for 1,109 yards, score 16 touchdowns, intercept eight passes, force four fumbles and record two sacks. And for all the talk of veteran leadership on this team, it's these young guys who have reoriented the locker room in the right (read: obedient) direction.

In one draft the Patriots went from a dominant crew in remission to one that had been reignited. Not a bad three days for Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Jon Robinson.

By comparison the Colts have not gotten near the impact from their picks that the Patriots have. First-round pick Jerry Hughes has six tackles and is still looking for his first NFL sack. Linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have started 20 games and look promising. But they were forced into action by injuries, and the Patriots abused both in the teams' regular-season meeting.

Another usually well-drafted outfit, the Ravens, used its top pick on linebacker Sergio Kindle, who hasn't played a down yet. Kindle fractured his skull falling down the stairs in July and was arrested on drunken driving charges the day after Christmas. The Ravens drafted a pair of tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and they've combined for 12 receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown.

The Jets? They took a corner Kyle Wilson one pick after McCourty. He has yet to record an interception. The Snack Pack gets a fail because the drafting of running back Joe McKnight clouded their judgment on Danny Woodhead. Pittsburgh got nice pick-ups in Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but their class lacks the overall depth of the Patriots'.

The importance of the Class of 2010 for the Patriots is heightened by the fact that some of their predecessors from '09 have endured sophomore slumps. Where would the Patriots be at cornerback if McCourty was a bust, considering that Darius Butler's play has plateaued? Julian Edelman is learning that the transition from college quarterback to pro pass catcher isn't that simple.

Games are won on the field, but championship teams are often forged in the front office. If they're able to complete their journey the Patriots will be no different. The road back to the Super Bowl started with three days in April.

Coaching decisions have paid off for Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 4, 2011 02:49 PM

As we pass out plaudits to the Patriots for their 14-2 regular season, the requisite credit goes to the divine duo of quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick. But after that, how about a tip of the headgear to a collection of young assistant coaches that was questioned, criticized and derided entering this season?

The Patriots started the season with eight assistant coaches, excluding the strength and conditioning crew, who were 40 years of age or younger and zero coordinators. Like the team, the callow coaching staff has exceeded expectations. Belichick's acolytes are brighter than most thought.

Rewind back to the sun-soaked days of summer and there was real debate and consternation about whether quarterbacks coach/de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien was fit to be at the wheel of a Brady-led offense. He was coming off an uneven performance in his first year as primary playcaller in place of Josh McDaniels. (Whatever happened to that guy anyway?) Adding to the reasonable doubt was that after the customary one-year initiation Belichick had elected not to bestow the offensive coordinator title upon O'Brien.

There are no questions about O'Brien's competency now, not after the Patriots scored an NFL-best 518 points, established an NFL record for fewest turnovers (10), tied an NFL record with eight straight games with 30 or more points and topped 30 points in 11 of their 16 games.

Only the almost-perfect 2007 Patriots, who scored an NFL-record 589 points, have ever lit up the scoreboard more for New England than the offense the aptly-nicknamed Billy O presides over. And he did it his way.

He stood up to Randy Moss in Miami and went away from the shotgun-heavy, feed-the-ball-to-Randy approach the Patriots had featured in recent years in favor of a two-tight end, diversified attack. The Patriots still use shotgun and the spread as key element of their offense, no doubt, but it's not the offense any more. This offense appears closer in lineage to what Charlie Weis ran than what McDaniels designed.

For those who quibble about points and the nine non-offensive touchdowns the team scored this season, the Patriots still led the league in offensive points scored with 456. That was 38 points more -- or a normal Patriots' output against the Bills -- than the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Diego Charges, who tied for second.

One complaint about O'Brien last year was that his play calling and, by extension, his offense, was as predictable as the results of a Venezuelan "election." Not so this year. On Sunday against the Dolphins, the Patriots thrice ran a fake-handoff, followed by wide receiver Julian Edelman sweeping behind on an end-around.

The first time Brady faked the end-around to Edelman and tossed a swing pass to him for 40 yards. The second time Brian Hoyer feigned the end-around to Edelman and went deep to Brandon Tate for a 42-yard touchdown. The third time Edelman got the ball and gained 13 yards to pick up a first down on third and 7. The only aspect of the play that was predictable was its success.

O'Brien coming into his own is the most obvious example of Belichick's faith in young, unproven coaches being rewarded, but there are other Belichick Youth members deserving of kudos. Linebackers coach Matt Patricia, 36, is Belichick's aide de camp on defense and basically co-coordinator with Belichick. Brian Flores, who turns 30 in February, is heavily involved in special teams with Scott O'Brien. The special teams unit has produced four touchdowns this season.

Secondary coach Josh Boyer had a difficult time dealing with some of the players in his room last season, and there were some untimely coverage breakdowns last season (see: Saints, New Orleans). That is in part why the Patriots brought in former Patriots player and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown to help coach the safeties.

But while the Patriots' defensive numbers this year aren't outstanding -- 30th against the pass -- the development of cornerback Devin McCourty is. The 33-year-old Boyer has to get some credit for helping to nurture New England's first-round pick into a Pro Bowl performer and for the fact the Patriots tied for the league low in pass plays of 40-plus yards allowed (four) while leading the league in interceptions with 25.

The boyish Boyer, who looks remarkably like the other Josh who was here, has done this without his best cornerback, Leigh Bodden, who was put on injured reserve before the season started with a torn rotator cuff.

While Darius Butler has backslid in his second year and safety Brandon Meriweather is inconsistent, second-year safety Patrick Chung has made major strides under Brown. Ditto for former undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington, the starter the majority of the year at right cornerback, under Hoyer.

If you were grading on a youth-to-performance scale, then perhaps the valedictorian of what the late David Halberstam called, "Belichick U," would be precocious Brian Ferentz, son of former Belichick assistant and current University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. The 27-year-old Ferentz is listed as an offensive assistant coach, but he's the tight ends coach.

Ferentz, aided by tight end/team sage Alge Crumpler, who is six years his senior, has done a remarkable job with rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, two crucial components of the Patriots offense. Gronk set the franchise record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 10 and has been a bulldozer in the running game. Hernandez, who caught a Patriots rookie tight end record 45 balls this season and added six touchdowns, has improved at reading zone defenses and running precise routes as the season has progressed.

That was one of the questions I had prior to the season about the younger members of this staff: Would they be able to develop the young players the Patriots were counting on this season? The resounding answer is yes, and Belichick deserves credit for believing that inexperienced coaches coaching inexperienced players could work.

They've all grown up together.

Pulling playoff rank for Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 3, 2011 12:49 PM

We know the where: Gillette Stadium. We know the when: Sunday, Jan. 16, 4:30 p.m. But we don't know who the AFC playoffs will serve up to the Patriots for sacrifice -- whoops, opposition -- in their first playoff game.

Only three teams could RSVP for a date with the top-seeded Patriots at Fort Foxborough in the AFC divisional playoffs -- the Kansas City Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens and everybody's favorite foot-in-mouth football team, the New York Jets. The Colts host the Jets on Saturday night, and the Ravens travel to Kansas City on Sunday.

The way the Patriots, who enter the playoffs as winners of eight straight, are playing, it's tempting to say the opponent doesn't matter. But it does. The NFL is a matchup league, even for the Patriots. Certain roads to Super Bowl XLV are less pockmarked than others.

Let's rank the possible playoff opponents for the Patriots from most favorable to least preferable:

1. Kansas City Chiefs -- The Patriots can only pray that their Missouri spinoff manages to knock off the Ravens, because they would be easy prey. They're a young team that would celebrate winning one round of the playoffs like they lifted the Lombardi Trophy. Plus, there is the impending departure of former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis.

The reason most often cited for the Chiefs being dangerous is the presence of Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, the Patriots' coordinators for all three of their Super Bowl titles. But that is negated by Bill Belichick's intimate knowledge of the shortcomings of Matt Cassel. The Chiefs are a bit limited personnel-wise on offense. They led the NFL in rushing behind breakaway back Jamaal Charles, but they had the 30th-rated passing attack.

Cassel completed only 58.2 percent of his passes. If you take away the play-action pass and Dwayne Bowe, the NFL leader in touchdown receptions, KC has few aerial options. Let's hope it's Kansas City, here they come.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers are the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, so they could meet the Patriots only in the AFC Championship game. Based on past history, we can only hope.

It seems odd to pick on the league's top-rated defense, but that's exactly what Tom Brady does. In seven games lifetime against the Steelers, Brady has completed 67.8 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Blitzing Brady plays right into his hands. The blitz-happy Steelers' weakness is cornerback and Brady exploited it earlier this season, turning the Steel Curtain into chiffon with 350 yards passing and three touchdowns.

The Steelers are one of those teams that don't change their gameplan a ton based on opponent. They're going to do what they do and believe they can do it better than you. The gameplan-specific Patriots prosper against such teams.

3. New York Jets -- The Jets have become punchlines and a punching bag recently, and they brought it on themselves with their brash style and bombastic coach. They limp into the playoffs as losers of three of five, starting with the 45-3 TKO in Foxborough. Still, ridicule Rex Ryan all you want, but his sixth-seeded team is one of two in the NFL to beat the Patriots this season.

Vociferous Rex almost seemed befuddled by the Randy Moss-less Patriots. His deployment of cornerback Darrell Revis -- or lack there of -- was baffling, and so was an offensive gameplan to come out firing with (Off The) Mark Sanchez. But given a second chance and a third game with the Patriots, it's doubtful that the snack-eating, smack-talking Jets would look quite so inept.

The wild card for the Patriots in any matchup with the Jets is Sanchez. In two career games at Gillette, Sanchez has looked like he wandered over from Walpole High football practice, turning the ball over eight times.

4. Baltimore Ravens -- There is another mouthy outfit that would love a rematch with the Patriots. The Ravens were beside themselves after blowing a 20-10 lead en route to a 23-20 overtime loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in October. Say this for the Ravens: they will not be intimidated playing a playoff game at Gillette Stadium, not after the 33-14 playoff beatdown they put on the Patriots last year -- a game Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo referred to "as last year's embarrassment against the Ravens."

None of Baltimore's four losses this season came by more than five points. The Ravens are also the last team to intercept a Brady pass, and they did it without sui generis safety Ed Reed, who opened the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list and still led the NFL in interceptions (eight).

Noted Brady antagonist Terrell Suggs and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata can provide pressure without forcing Baltimore to blitz. That allows the Ravens, who aren't strong at cornerback, to play zone coverage and disrupt the timing of the Patriots passing attack.

The Ravens have the offensive weapons, but is QB Joe Flacco, who had a nice season with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, capable of using them? Flacco only had to throw 10 passes in last year's Patriots' playoff loss. He would have to throw a lot more than that this time.

5. Indianapolis Colts -- Two words that send chills down the spine of Patriots fans: Peyton Manning. He is a Hoosier State heart-breaker with a recent penchant for piercing comebacks against the Patriots. No lead is safe with Manning on the field, and he nearly erased a 31-14 Patriots' advantage in November with another soul-sapping rally until James Sanders saved the day.

The convalescing Colts are a dangerous bunch now that running back Joseph Addai is back; their depleted defense has regained linebacker Gary Brackett, who missed the Patriots game; Manning is on the same page with Pierre Garcon and they've unearthed a bit of a running game. In the last four games of the season, the Colts, who finished 29th in rushing offense, averaged 133.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per rush.

Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis always give the Patriots problems and allow the Colts to get pressure on Brady without blitzing, which is the formula to slowing down the Patriots offense. Like Baltimore, Indy won't cower at coming to Foxborough for a playoff game.

Snub Hub?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 28, 2010 03:08 PM

Tom Brady said it best when asked about Pro Bowl berths, which will be announced tonight: The only bowl the Patriots care about is the Super Bowl.

It's the proper attitude to have about the Pro Bowl, a pigskin popularity contest that is by far the most meaningless and insipid of the major pro sports All-Star exhibitions.

However, recognition is always nice and one would think that the Patriots' status as the undisputed best team in football would befit some individual accolades. I'm all for the gridiron gestalt that Bill Belichick has created inside Gillette Stadium, but how can the league's best team not have at least some of its conference's best players? Right?

The Patriots, owners of the best record in the NFL at 13-2, have four very strong AFC Pro Bowl candidates: Brady, whose exploits this season have been well documented; nose tackle Vince Wilfork, a player for whom stats will never be able to measure his impact; inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is the NFL's leading tackler, and rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, who is tied for second in the NFL in interceptions with six.

You could also make cases for wide receiver Wes Welker and guard Logan Mankins, who despite a self-imposed seven-game sit-out is clearly among the best guards in the game.

Usually, the best regular-season teams are rewarded with Pro Bowl berths. The 2007 Patriots sent a franchise-record-tying eight. In 2008 the Tennessee Titans finished at 13-3, the NFL's best mark, and had seven Pro Bowlers. Ditto for the Colts last season, who finished atop the league at 14-2, a regular-season record the Patriots can equal with a win on Sunday against Miami.

But one wonders if the Patriots' remarkable season will be equally reflected in the voting, or if jealousy or Patriot Disdain around the league will penalize them. The NFL divides the voting up in equal parts between the fans, players and coaches. This might come as a surprise to some, but outside of these parts, the Patriots are not particularly popular with any of those factions.

The one deadbolt lock Pro Bowler the Patriots have is Brady, who was the leading vote-getter in the entire league at the conclusion of the fan voting on Dec. 20 with 1,877,079 votes. (Wilfork and Mayo were both in the top three in the fan voting, which bodes well.) To not vote for Brady with the season he's having, you'd either have to be brain dead or biased like Baltimore Ravens passrusher/trash-talker Terrell Suggs.

The quarrelsome Suggs curiously omitted Tom Terrific from his AFC Pro Bowl ballot altogether, voting for Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and, ahem, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Suggs should be an Olympic figure skating judge with that type of scoring.

But you wonder how many other Patriot-hating players or coaches out there followed suit with other Patriot players and gave them the Rodney Harrison treatment. The most likely candidate would be Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowler who is never afraid to mix it up a bit after the whistle.

Brady can overcome the anti-Patriot sentiment of a few players, but some of his teammates might not be so lucky. Wilfork will probably get in because he has been a Pro Bowler two of the last three seasons. The road could be tougher for Mayo and even more so for McCourty.

Mayo is a tackling-machine, but his body of work lacks the kind of game-changing plays that catch the attention of his peers when they watch SportsCenter. His first forced fumble of the season came this past Sunday against Buffalo, and he has yet to record an interception in his three seasons in the league. Plus, the Pro Bowl setup is not designed for a 3-4 defense, so Mayo is competing for a spot with pass rushers like Miami's Cameron Wake.

Last season, there were only two inside linebackers on the 43-man AFC squad -- Ray Lewis and DeMeco Ryans. Lewis will go again this season.

McCourty has enjoyed a standout rookie campaign, but his statistics are nearly identical to Cleveland Browns rookie Joe Haden, and McCourty simply doesn't have the swagger or the reputation of a Darrelle Revis or a Nnamdi Asomugha to pull in his peers.

My best guess is that the Patriots end up with three Pro Bowlers -- Brady, Wilfork and Mayo.

It certainly sounded like Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was bracing for some Patriot Pro Bowl snubs.

"I think it’s hard to reward every player that’s here. The Pro Bowl, it is what it is," said Caserio. "... It’s a fan vote. It’s a player vote. There are a number of things that go into it. I’d say that there are a number of players this year that have made a significant contribution to our team in some capacity. That’s the most important thing, and I think the players will probably tell you that as well.

"It’s nice to be recognized league-wide, but the most important thing is the recognition they receive and the respect that they receive from the players that they are with on a day-to-day basis. That’s the most important thing."

Anyways, if all goes to plan in Foxborough during the playoffs then there won't be any Patriots playing in the Pro Bowl on Jan. 30 in Hawaii, as Super Bowl participants skip out on the game. Instead they'll be arriving in the Lone Star State to play for the Lombardi Trophy.

Individual accomplishments have never really been the Patriots Way.

Pro Bowls are for others, the Super Bowl is for the Patriots.

Patriots have gap control in AFC East

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 27, 2010 01:22 PM

The other teams in the AFC East were probably hoping that Tom Brady would be marooned in Rochester, N.Y. permanently. It might be the only shot the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have at dethroning the Patriots as divisional dons.

The quarterback gap in the AFC East is still as wide as the education achievement gap in this country. That's obvious after watching the fate of the four teams yesterday.

The Patriots are the only ones with quarterbacking royalty, and they were the only ones who scored a victory. They used their seventh straight win to clinch their eighth AFC East crown in 10 seasons with a 34-3 victory over Buffalo. Meanwhile, the three AFC East have-nots lost games that their quarterbacks literally threw away.

Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick treated the ball like a high school graduate treats his mortar board following graduation, committing five turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles),

Jets savior (Off the) Mark Sanchez, playing through a bad shoulder, had a chance to drive his team for the winning points and...threw a game-sealing interception against the Chicago Bears as his team backed into the playoffs -- again.

Miami's Chad Henne, who was benched earlier this season, might soon be taking his talents out of South Beach. Bad Chad threw a pair of interceptions on back-to-back drives in the final 3:48 of the fourth quarter, the second returned for the game-winning score as the Dolphins lost, 34-27, at home to the Lions.

It reinforced the fact that the division will remain the eminent and imminent domain of the Patriots until one of the following happens: a) Brady stops breathing b) He retires to his Southern California manse with his model wife c) One of the other teams in the division finds a reasonable facsimile of New England's nonpareil passer.

It's just this simple: Have quarterback, will travel.

The only two instances in the last decade the Patriots didn't win the division involved unusual circumstances for TB12. The first came in 2002, Brady's first full season as a starter. For all of Brady's 2001 heroics, there was a learning curve to going from Cinderella signal-caller to franchise cornerstone QB.

The other season in which the Patriots went hat-and-T-shirt-less was 2008, when Brady was sidelined with a torn ligaments in his left knee in the first game of the season.

You knew Brady was going to be better this season than he was last season, which despite all the hand-wringing was not a terrible year. Brady had played 15 snaps of meaningful football in just more than 19 months between Super Bowl XLII and the season-opener last year against Buffalo. Plus, he was hampered by significant finger and rib injuries last season.

The quarterback divide in the division was never clearer than watching Brady, the ostensible MVP, face off with Fitzpatrick, who is trying to prove that he is the quarterback of the future in western New York.

While Brady was an efficient 15 of 27 for 140 yards and three touchdowns, extending his league-leading touchdown toss total to 34, Fitzpatrick accounted for five of the Bills' seven crippling turnovers.

The Harvard-educated Fitzpatrick is a bright guy. He can probably explain in Latin what happened on each of his miscues. That's a lot of mea culpas for Mr. Fitzpatrick, who was not surprisingly apt in describing his play.

"I killed the team today by turning the ball over," said Fitzpatrick. "You can’t do that on any day. When you play a team that is that good and that efficient on offense it hurts you that much more. ...You just can’t have them, and I really hurt our football team today."

That's something Brady rarely does. The only case this season was the loss to the Jets in Week 2. And everyone around here blames a certain receiver for that. Some of the discussion and conjecture about TB12 losing his touch that followed that game seems pretty silly right now when you compare Brady to his divisional counterparts.

The combined six interceptions thrown by Fitzpatrick, Henne and Sanchez yesterday are more than Brady (four) has all season. Yesterday, Brady established a new NFL record with 319 passes (and counting) without an interception. He also added to his own obscure NFL record of consecutive games with two or more touchdown passes and no interceptions, bumping it up to eight.

To put Brady's interception-free streak in perspective: His last interception -- a Hail Mary pickoff Ravens at the end of regulation by the Ravens -- came on Oct. 17. Brady is going to go through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's without an interception.

The other three QBs combined have thrown 46 picks this season. That's more than Brady has in the last five seasons combined. Since Oct. 17, Sanchez has thrown 13 interceptions, tossing one in nine of 10 games.

The division really isn't even a fair fight with Brady under center for the Patriots. It's like trying to defeat a samurai sword with a dull butter knife for the other teams, and it's going to remain that way.

At age 33, Brady is obviously still well within his prime, which for a quarterback these days can extend to 37 or 38 years old (see Elway, John). Brady will be 37 when his new extension expires.

Enjoy it while you can, Patriots fans. History says that once Brady is gone so is the Patriots' divine right to the division.

The Bills are still trying to find a successor to Jim Kelly. It's now abundantly clear to the folks in South Florida that Henne is the latest in a long line of quarterbacks that have failed to take the mantle from Dan Marino. Three decades later, the Jets are still looking for the next Joe Namath.

Eventually the QB balance of power in the division will shift away from the Patriots. But for now, the QB gap is a wide open as one of Brady's receivers.

Handing out some Boston sports gifts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2010 11:18 AM

'Tis the season for giving again, so it's time to hand out some Christmas gifts to our local sports teams. We've made our list and we've checked it twice; we know who has been naughty (What's next, Brandon Spikes?) and who has been nice (You've done it again, Bill Belichick).

Where else would you start then with a team named the Red Sox?

1. Red Sox -- Christmas came early for Sox fans this month when in a span of four days Theo Epstein traded for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez and then got must-have toy, outfielder Carl Crawford. Making it even better was that lefthander Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees, who ended up with a lump coal from the Hot Stove. So, what do you get for the team that seemingly has everything? How about another loss for the Yankees?

The best gift the Sox could get would be Andy Pettitte packing up his pinstripes for good and retiring. Pettitte, who was the Yankees No. 2 starter, is an important piece for the Pinstripes. So important that club president Randy Levine doesn't have dreams of sugarplums dancing through his head, he has Pettitte back in a Yankees uniform occupying his dreams.

The estimable lefty made the All-Star team last season at age 38 and went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average. He had an ERA under 3.00 when he went on the disabled list in July with a strained groin, an injury that forced him too miss two months of the season. With Lee in Philadelphia and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, the Yankees are running out of options to ramp up their rotation.

Stocking Stuffer: A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury.

2. Celtics -- The Celtics are the only Boston sports team playing on Christmas Day, as they bring their 14-game win streak to Orlando to face the extreme-makeover Magic. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gets the gift of being with his family on Christmas Day. But strictly basketball speaking the perfect present for the Celtics would be a healthy center. Hopefully, that is in Shaq-a-claus's sack this season.

The Celtics haven't had any missed games due to injury from the Big Three. But they've already lost an entire season due to injuries -- 82 man games missed. Right now they're making due without Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Delonte West.

But it's in the middle where they've been hurt the most -- literally. Center Jermaine O'Neal (sore left knee/flu) has missed 20 of 27 games. Shaq, who has missed a third of the season, is touch and go with a calf strain. The surprising Semih Erden, soldiering on despite a bad shoulder, is the healthiest center the Celtics have.

Stocking Stuffer: Continued good behavior from Glen Davis and Nate Robinson.

3. Patriots -- It has already been a season of joy for the Patriots. They are the scrooges of the NFL. They never give the ball up and they're always taking it away. Their nine turnovers this season and 29 turnovers forced are an integral part of their success. The only two games the Patriots have lost this year came when they lost the turnover tussle.

There are the obvious presents for the Pats -- a new hoodie for Belichick, a pair of scissors for Tom Brady, a GPS for maligned safety Brandon Meriweather. But what this team really needs for the playoff season is an improved pass rush.

Colleague Greg Bedard had an amazing stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders, last Sunday: just three of the Patriots' sacks have come on third down. The team had five sacks last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, but none on third down.

That explains why the Patriots have the worst third-down defense (49.2 percent conversion rate for opponents) in the league.

Stocking Stuffer: A couple of losses for the Raiders to bump up that 2011 first-round pick.

4. Bruins -- The spoked-Bs certainly showed some holiday spirit last night against the Atlanta Thrashers in a raucous and rough 4-1 win. Before that the appropriate gift would have been a pulse. But the Bruins showed some pluck in Thrashing Atlanta. So, the ideal gift now for the Bruins would be a return to form for center Marc Savard, who has three points in 10 games this season.

Savvy hasn't been the same since he suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March. He's dealt with post-concussion syndrome and depression, which delayed the start of his season. When he's right, Savard is one of the best playmaking pivots in the game and his presence makes the Bruins a deep and dangerous team. My hunch is Savard finding his game will allow Nathan Horton to reappear.

Stocking stuffer: One of these days the Bruins are going to get that premium puck-moving defenseman we hear so much about.

5. Revolution -- I know some of you don't consider soccer a major sport, but 'tis the season to be charitable. The Revolution, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, actually got their gift back in October, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft agreed to open up the coffers. They instructed soccer operations to pursue a designated player, which allows teams to go over the salary cap to bring in star players like David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and French star Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.

It's doubtful the Revolution will end up with a name that recognizable, but they should be able to procure an international talent or two -- MLS teams can sign two DPs and can trade/pay to get a third -- who can propel them back into contention. Previously, the Revolution had shied away from the DP, saying they were saving it for a player who would create scoring opportunities for the franchise off the pitch as well, i.e. Beckham.

Stocking Stuffer: The Revolution really need a soccer-specific home of their own.

Merry Christmas.

Packers provide Patriots playoff preview

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 20, 2010 12:55 PM

The knee-jerk reaction to the Patriots' nail-biting win over the Packers last night is sure to be that it was the result of a letdown, letting up because of the absence of Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or the now-popular-in-these-parts "trap game" excuse.

No, sir.

"I'm going to be honest with you, I felt like we prepared just as well as we have the past five weeks," said Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo in the aftermath of a 31-27 victory. "We just didn't go out and execute. ...We can't play like this next week."

Give game Green Bay, a team that matches up well with the Patriots schematically, credit. The Packers had a great game plan and a great deal to do with the lack of execution from Bill Belichick's crew.

Yet, that the Patriots won last night speaks to how good a team they are and why they should be playing in the House That Jerry Jones Built in February. The measure of a good team is the ability to win when it plays less than its best. Beating back the Pack on a night when its game plan didn't go to plan tells us far more about the Patriots than if they had continued their run of routs, because these are the type of tense, taut contests that are likely ahead of them in the playoffs.

Last year's Patriots would have folded faster than an origami crane under last night's circumstances. This was a character-builder and a gut-check for a young team that is paving its own Patriot Way.

The tendency is to lump all the Patriots teams from 2001 on together, but this is a very different group that lacks the postseason cachet or experience of previous Patriots playoff entrants.

There are only 12 players currently on the roster that have ever been on a Patriots team that advanced to the Super Bowl. Half of them were on the almost perfect '07 squad. Mayo, a team leader and defensive captain, has yet to be on a Patriots' team that has won a playoff game. That's to say that not a lot of these guys were in the photographs that Belichick had removed from Fort Foxborough.

With that lack of playoff experience, playing late-season games like the one against Green Bay are necessary for the Patriots. It's both a primer for the postseason and a reminder that the hardest part is yet to come. Let's face it, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins weren't going to be able to give the Patriots a reasonable facsimile of playoff play because neither is a playoff-caliber team.

The Packers were the last shot and they delivered -- even without their quarterback.

Green Bay left Gillette Stadium last night shaking their heads, but they were never quaking in their cleats about the prospect of playing the Patriots.

Several Packers said they felt they matched up quite well with New England -- due in part to the presence of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, which allowed Green Bay to play more man coverage than most teams against Tom Brady and his collection of toys while still blitzing.

"No one is invincible," said Green Bay linebacker Desmond Bishop. "They're good, probably one of the best, if not the best, but nobody is invincible."

The Patriots looked vincible against a Packers team minus Rodgers, Cullen Jenkins (the team's second-leading sacker) and Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, who left the game late in the first half with a rib injury.

The Packers had more first downs (26 to 14), more yards (369 to 249), almost twice as many plays (80 to 43) and an outrageous time of possession edge (40:48 to 19:12). But stats are for ... you know the rest. The Patriots led the only place it really counts.

The game really hinged on four key plays/decisions. The first was Charles Woodson's failure to intercept a Brady pass on the Patriots' first drive. Two plays later BenJarvus Green-Ellis ripped off a 33-yard touchdown run.

The second was the most memorable Patriots play in quite some time and already a YouTube staple: "Thunder" Dan Connolly's amazing 71-yard kickoff return in the second quarter, which allowed the Patriots to trim the Packers halftime lead to 17-14. Brady once called his lineman fat cows in training camp, but Connolly looked more like a Pamplona raging bull on his return for the record books.

The third play was Kyle Arrington's 36-yard interception return. There were certainly times that Green Bay substitute QB Matt Flynn looked a bit lost -- the Patriots ran the same blitz on back-to-back plays on Green Bay's first drive and confused him -- but it turns out the turnover wasn't one of them. Flynn threw the ball to the right spot, but his intended receiver, James Jones, ran into a defender and never arrived.

The fourth play wasn't a play at all, and that was the problem. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who channeled Sean Payton to hoodwink His Hoodieness with an on-sides kick, refused to go for it on fourth and goal from the 1, leading 24-21, early in the fourth quarter.

It was a baffling decision considering that the Patriots are the top scoring team in the NFL and anyone who has watched them knows there is a better chance of carpooling to work with a Christmas elf than beating Brady with field goals. Even more odd was that McCarthy's rationale was that he trusted his defense. If that's the case, then why not try to make it a two-score game (31-21, instead of 27-21) there? If you fail you've given your trusted defense 99 yards to play with.

Credit to the Patriots defense for forcing that decision with another goal-line stand against an NFC North foe.

The only "letdown" is that we probably won't see the Patriots win a game this exciting until the playoffs.

A modest proposal for the NFL playoffs

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 17, 2010 12:27 PM

Forget Major League Baseball expanding its playoffs, it is the NFL that needs to super-size the road to the Super Bowl.

The league is fixated on expanding to an 18-game regular season, but it needs to fix a loophole in the current playoff format as well.

Why the outcry for reform? Look West. With three games to go in the season there is the real possibility that the "winner" of the NFC West is going to finish with an 8-8 or 7-9 record. The co-leaders of the division, which should be re-named the NFC Worst, are 6-7 St. Louis and 6-7 Seattle. Both would have to win out to finish with winning records. That's not possible since they play each other in the regular-season finale in Seattle.

This situation has already sparked talk of tweaking the playoff format. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee, which recommends and oversees rules changes, said on Wednesday he is in favor of seeding the playoffs by record instead of automatically making the four division winners in each conference the top four seeds, with two wild card teams automatically slotted into the fifth and sixth seeds -- and first-round road games.

This is the equivalent of rearranging the furniture in a room with a hole in the wall. NFL decision-makers should expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 (from six berths per conference to seven).

Seeding is an easy fix, just like NFL overtime, simply change the rule so that a division champion must finish with a winning record to be a top-four seed. But the larger issue is rewarding mediocrity by geography.

The current four-division setup, which the league went to in 2002, has watered down being a division champion and has created a mechanism to possibly penalize more teams simply because they're in the wrong geographical grouping in a given year.

We know this firsthand here in New England. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 and watched the playoffs on their flat screens, while the 8-8 AFC West champion San Diego Chargers were postseason participants. This year it could be an NFC team like the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots' opponents this week, that gets left out.

This is what Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein would term a "fatal flaw."

The NFL has had a 12-team playoff set up since 1990, when a third wild card team in each conference was created. At the time, the league had three divisions per conference (East, Central and West), so there were three division champions and three wild cards. However, a wild card berth was sacrificed with the realignment to a four-division format -- so was playoff format fairness.

The league should restore the third wild card and keep the four division winners. It's a win-win. It would create more content for the NFL owners to profit from by virtue of an additional playoff game per conference (how about a playoff game on NFL Network?) and allow more teams to have a chance at lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

How would a 14-team playoff work?

The major change would be that instead of two first-round byes per conference there would just one, which could help the league with another problem -- the tanking of regular season games by teams that have locked up byes. Fewer teams would be able to routinely shut it down in the final two or three weeks -- I'm looking at you, Indianapolis Colts -- because they clinched a first-round bye.

Reducing tanking would result in what the NFL is billing an 18-game slate as -- an "enhanced season" -- because more would be at stake later in the year and having the best record in the AFC or the NFC would be a truly significant feat worth fighting for.

The primary concern with a 14-team postseason format is that the teams in each conference who earned the bye would have too much of an advantage.

However, playing on Wild Card Weekend is far from a Super Bowl death sentence. Since 2000, four Super Bowl winners and six Super Bowl participants have played in the first round, including a stretch of three straight seasons (2005, 2006 and 2007) where the Super Bowl champion didn't have the benefit of a bye.

The 2005 Steelers, 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the, ugh, 2007 New York Giants all won it all without any idle time.

The most recent team to play on Wild Card Weekend and end up playing on Super Bowl Sunday was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were 35 seconds -- and Santonio Holmes's tippy-toes -- away from being Super Bowl champions.

In a league that prides itself on parity and already has bye weeks worked into the regular season, having only one bye per conference shouldn't be enough of an argument against playoff expansion.

There is also the matter of historical precedent. The last time the league expanded the regular season, going from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, they added an additional wild-card berth in each conference.

The NFL has actually entertained a 14-team playoff. Patriots owner Robert Kraft co-sponsored a rules proposal with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003 that would have expanded the playoffs to 14 teams. But the proposal was never voted on by the teams and was withdrawn due to lack of support.

It takes a yea vote from 24 of the NFL's 32 teams for a rules proposal to be passed.

But the league should take another shot. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon it's the perfect time to expand the NFL's playoff horizons.

MLB's combined regular and postseason are already bloated with too many games, but the NFL still has room for improvement.

Patriots turning parity into parody

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 13, 2010 01:40 PM

CHICAGO -- In this season of parity in the NFL, the idea that there is no elite team like the Colts or Saints of last season is now a complete fallacy. There is, and that team resides in Foxborough.

"That's an elite team there, and to get to where we want to go those are the teams we have to beat," Bears quarter Jay Cutler said following the Patriots' 36-7 snowy smackdown of the Bears.

Coach Bill Belichick's chess pieces have turned parity into a parody with their play during a five-game win-streak, averaging 425.2 yards of offense and a 21.6-point margin of victory to go to 11-2. Sorry, Falcons, but the Patriots are in the NFL VIP with bottle service, and you're still shouting from behind the velvet rope for entree.

The notion that anyone other than New England was the class of the league shouldn't have been up for discussion after the Patriots dismantled the Jets, 45-3, last Monday. But some Bears (I'm looking at you Brian Urlacher) thought it was still a debate. Yesterday's shellacking of Chicago rendered the debate moot and doubters mute.

At the half, the Patriots led 33-0 and had as many points as the Bears had total yards. In this case, stats were for winners.

Bears safety Danieal Manning was asked if the Patriots were the best team Chicago -- which defeated another MVP-candidate QB two weeks earlier in Michael Vick -- had seen all season.

"Yeah, I mean they were clicking on defense, offense, special teams. They did a fabulous job," said Manning.

Was the Tom Brady-led team that invaded Soldier Field and put 475 yards of offense on a Bears' defense that hadn't allowed a 400-yard day all season (and had held eight of its last nine opponents below 300 yards) the team the Bears had seen on tape, or was it just a snowflake-fueled fluke?

"Team we saw on tape, team today. Man, they're just playing the way they've been playing all season and racking up points," said Manning.

You could have taken that quote and plunked it down right in the middle of any of the postmortems of Patriots' opponents form 2007. That was the last time the Patriots had a team this dominant.

Most of the comparisons so far for this Patriots team have been to the plucky 2001 squad that shocked the Rams and the football cognoscenti by winning the Super Bowl. But these Patriots are playing far closer to their 2007 point-a-palooza predecessors than the '01 overachievers of lore.

They're not defeating teams. They're demoralizing and demolishing them.

Sports expectations are like those mirrors you find in a funhouse. They bend, twist and distort appearances. That's happening a little bit with the Patriots, who have won their last three games by an aggregate score of 126-34 and have scored more than 30 points in five straight games without a single turnover.

With the rout by the Ravens still fresh in everyone's minds and a raft of rookies on the roster, the prevailing expectation for the Patriots -- at least from those using logic, not laundry -- was a playoff berth and then a roll of the dice.

Well, the Patriots clinched that playoff berth yesterday. At this point anything less than a trip to the Cowboys' opulent playpen in Arlington, Texas for Super Bowl XLV should be a disappointment.

The scary part for the rest of the NFL is that the Patriots are still improving.

The most obvious example of that is the defense. After struggling on third downs, allowing more movement through the air than the FAA, and letting opposing quarterbacks complete nearly 70 percent of their passes, the Patriots defense is playing its best football of the season.

You knew that a Belichick-designed and run defense would play better in December than September. But even the deapan don has to be impressed with the unit's progress. In their last three games, the Patriots defense has held Shaun Hill, Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler below a 60-percent completion rate. They forced the trio to throw seven interceptions against just one touchdown pass.

The collective completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks, which was 69.4 percent after 10 games, is now 66 percent, which is lower than Brady's 66.8 percent mark. The Bears were 3 of 8 on third downs (38 percent) yesterday, following up the Jets' 3 of 12 (25 percent) third-down conversion rate in the Monday Night Massacre.

Cutler said that the Patriots' prolific offense puts more pressure on opposing offenses to provide points, playing into the hands of the defense. Opponents always feel they're playing catch up.

That was the case in 2007 as well. Only one team caught up that year -- the New York Giants. The '07 team had a better defense with Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, etc. But this version of the Patriots defense already has intercepted more passes (20) than the almost-perfect Patriots (19).

That team peaked too early in retrospect, expending energy on a Spygate revenge tour. These Patriots are peaking at just the right time.

"Everybody knows in this league that going into the postseason you need to improve each week," said Patriots left tackle Matt Light. "....For us, we just have to keep improving individually, as a unit and then collectively as a team. This is a step in the right direction."

Forget Troy Polamalu. It is Brady and his long locks that should be touting Head & Shoulders shampoo, because the Samson of signal-callers and his team are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL right now.

Branch forces sight adjustment on Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 7, 2010 03:21 PM
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Deion Branch scored on this 25-yard play in the first half.
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots didn't win last night's game against the Jets in the 11 days of preparation leading up to last night's game. They won it during the six days in October when they sent Randy Moss packing and welcomed back Deion Branch.

The verdict is in and it's unanimous. The Patriots are a better team and a better offense with Branch than with Moss. It is a prime example of why football is different from the other major sports. Players make systems and systems make players, and playing football in Seattle is not the same as playing it in New England or Minnesota or Tennessee.

Chalk another one up for Bill Belichick. Even if he was somewhat duplicitous in his covering up for the mercurial Moss while he was here, Belichick knew when it was time to hit the eject button on the recalcitrant receiver. He did, and then he hit rewind to bring back Branch and the Patriots' Glory Days.

While it still strains credulity how quickly fans and media moved to strike from the record all of Moss's production and big play ability during his three-plus seasons in Fort Foxborough, football is a results-oriented business and the product this season is simply better with Branch.

Count me among the converted. I've seen the light, and it was shining bright on the scoreboard at Gillette Stadium last night, where Branch and the Patriots' issued a butt-kicking rebuttal to the New York Jets and took control of the AFC East.

It was a 42-point beatdown so epic that former Patriot Damien Woody told the New York media: "This is probably the easiest storyline you guys will ever write. We got our [butts] kicked tonight."

The Jets are the only opponent that faced both the Moss-pacifying Patriots and the Branch 2.0 version. They allowed 14 points and 291 yards offense to the former and surrendered 45 points and 405 yards of offense last night to the latter. Branch did all his damage in the first half, setting the tone. He had three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, a 25-yard effort that came when he ran a slant route on a Jets' blitz and hosed Antonio Cromartie.

You remember Cromartie. He's the same guy who held Moss catchless in the second half of the first meeting between the Patriots and the Jets.

But perhaps the most startling effect Branch's presence has on the Border War is that he renders Darrelle Revis irrelevant. Without Moss to sic on Revis, it almost seemed like Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't know what to do with his blue-chip cornerback. Revis spent some time on Wes Welker, but he wasn't locked on to any one Patriots' receiver. He seemed to be just wandering around the Jets secondary like a tourist in Faneuil Hall.

He should have been on Branch.

After the game, Revis spoke like a guy who had just been stood up on a date, someone who had waited and waited for the other party to arrive at his table, all the while picking at the bread, sipping the water and checking his phone. He lamented the fact that there were no balls thrown in his direction, and pretty much tried to backpedal away from this disaster.

"I did my job. I executed what the coaches wanted me to do," said Revis. "I didn't get no balls thrown to me tonight. You saw the game. It has nothing to do with me. I'm one piece of the puzzle to this team, and if the coach tells me to go play center I'm a go play center. I mean that's just what it is. I tried to execute my job the best way I can."

Translation: Don't blame me.

Revis was asked about the Patriots with Branch instead of Moss, and his answer told you the difficulty the Patriots now pose to the Jets.

"He's not really a vertical guy to me," said Revis. "They tried to pass him the ball deep today. I think that's just Belichick and the coaching staff just getting those guys more involved in the offense and trying to spread it out more."

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is no dummy. He's not going to challenge Revis, and now with Moss gone he doesn't have to.

Brady still has plenty of other weapons -- Branch, Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead -- and playing this egalitarian style of offense makes TB12 the ultimate weapon.

He doesn't have to placate Moss or try to pump him up in his futile feud with Revis. The reality is that in trying to coddle Moss and help him win his personal grudge match with Darrelle Revis -- remember last year's game in Foxborough when the Patriots threw a pity pass deep to Moss late in the game? -- they were concentrating on winning the gamesmanship and not the game.

No such problem with Branch, of whom coach Bill Belichick said after the Thanksgiving Day win over the Lions, "He's the best. You can't get better than that. He's totally about the team."

Branch has been rejuvenated by being reunited with Brady and Belichick. In eight games with the Patriots, he has 36 receptions for 497 yards and four touchdowns. That's more receiving yards and touchdowns than he had in 14 games last season in Seattle.

It's pretty obvious the issue with the Seahawks for Branch wasn't his health or the loss of explosiveness. It was being underutilized in an offense that didn't suit his skills.

"I'm having a lot of fun, winning does a lot for you," said Branch. "It's totally different. The guys I played with over there were great players. We just couldn't put it together for some reason. You feel great when you're involved with something special, and I think we got it."

They do now that they have Branch back.

Give me five for Foxborough

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 6, 2010 01:06 PM

Rumor has it that the Patriots and Jets are actually going to play a football game tonight and not just pontificate about playing one. It seems like the hype has been building for this clash of AFC East enemies for 11 weeks and not 11 days. Even the NBA's interminable playoff series don't take this long to play out. Finally, the anticipation is coming to an end and the action is about to begin.

The game is huge for both teams (division lead, inside track for homefield, general bragging rights), and here are five players who will play a large role in determining its outcome:

1. Mark Sanchez -- Which Jets quarterback shows up tonight, On the Mark or Off the Mark? It's still hard to buy that this is the quarterback of a Super Bowl team, even with his clutch finishes this season. The game plan of most teams that face the Jets is to make Sanchez beat them. That tells you they don't think he can. This is still a young quarterback who can be coaxed into miscues and mistakes (see last year when he turned it over five times in Foxborough or the eight interceptions he has in his last six games). You wouldn't know that Sanchez is a work in progress from how he played against the Patriots the first time, when he completed 70-percent of his passes and threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. If Sanchez is that efficient again then the Patriots lose. But if New England can put Peyton Manning into a funk, there is no reason they can't scramble Sanchez's brain.

2. Aaron Hernandez -- The Patriots rookie tight end has not been much of a factor of late -- he as two catches for 26 yards and a touchdown in his last three games after a two-touchdown day against the Browns -- but that has to change tonight. The Jets are a team that like to bring pressure, and that often forces man coverage scenarios, which is where Hernandez excels with his unique blend of wide receiver-like speed and tight end size. Hernandez had a 100-yard receiving day the first time the two teams met, and his 46-yard reception in that game is the longest pass play the Jets have allowed all season. He is a matchup problem for the Jets, who even tried cornerback Antonio Cromartie on him. Two of the five 100-yard receiving days the Jets have allowed this year have come via tight ends (Hernandez and Houston's Joel Dressen). Hernandez allows the Patriots, who have been stung by New York tight end Dustin Keller, to provide the Jets a little taste of their own medicine.

3. Deion Branch -- The Patriots remade their offense on the fly because of the debacle in the New Meadowlands the first time these teams met. Randy Moss ran a permanent out route, and wide receiver Deion Branch ran a comeback to Foxborough. The prevailing theory is that Moss, targeted 10 times in the first game with just two catches, was largely to blame for the loss because of his one-dimensional nature. It didn't have anything to do with the excellent defense the Jets played. We'll see if Branch -- and by extension Tom Brady -- is better equipped to deal with the Jets' pass defense this time. If the Jets cover Branch one-on-one with Cromartie, that is a matchup that Branch has to win. Cris Carter is wrong. Branch is way more than "just a guy," and he's certainly no "slouch" either, but there have been some games where teams have been able to remove him from the passing attack (San Diego, Minnesota, Cleveland). This can't be one of those games.

4. Darrelle Revis -- No more Moss-Revis drama. My guess is that Revis Island will be floating tonight and that Revis won't be so predictably locked on to one receiver as he was when he was single-covering Moss. The conventional wisdom is that removing Moss from the equation mutes the impact of Revis. I disagree. Now, Brady has to find Revis on each and every play instead of knowing he's surgically-attached to Moss. It makes Revis, who is rounding into form after early-season hamstring woes, more dangerous and could also help the Jets disguise their coverages. Who Revis covers and when will play a big part in the outcome of this game. He is capable of taking away Brady's two favorite receivers, Branch and Wes Welker, who destroyed the Jets last year with 15 catches for 192 yards. But he can't take away both at the same time.

5. Eric Smith -- Jim Leonhard's broken leg puts the erudite Smith in the spotlight as the quarterback of the secondary. He had just returned to the starting lineup against the Bengals, replacing Brodney Pool. Now he has to work with Pool in the Jets' secondary. Smith, who turned down Ivy League offers, is going to have to match wits with Brady and make sure the Jets' defensive communication doesn't go haywire when the Patriots go no-huddle. He's also going to be charged with the task of covering the Patriots' rookie tight ends, Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. That's a task he struggled with in the first game, forcing the Jets to switch to Pool in the second half.

In addition, Smith is a key special teams performer for the Jets, as he blocked a punt that New York returned for a touchdown last year against the Patriots and has a punt block this season. Smith is a bright guy, but that's a lot of information for anyone to process. You can bet the Patriots will test his mental capacity and physical ability tonight in place of Leonhard.

Patriots-Jets winner up in the air

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 3, 2010 03:04 PM

What shall come to pass between the Patriots and Jets on Monday night is going to be defined by the pass.

It's really just that simple.

The NFL has become a passing league, thanks to their look-but-don't-touch rulebook. The old bromides about defense and the running game don't apply any more, not like they used to. The 9-2 Patriots and their statistically bottom-feeding defense and middle-of-the-pack running game are proof of that.

In the new-age NFL, when it's winning time it usually comes down to the quarterbacks and the cornerbacks and the pass rushers and the pass catchers.

When the hype is hushed and the smokescreens clear, Monday night's game is going to come down to whichever team rules the air at Gillette Stadium. That team will also rule the AFC East on Tuesday morning.

If Tom Brady and the Patriots can pass on Rex Ryan like they did last year in Foxborough then they'll pass go to the division lead. If they can't, and New England's pass defense is as porous as it was in the teams' first meeting at the New Meadowlands then the hated Jets will complete a sweep of the Patriots.

Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said it best when he was coy about exactly who he would be covering with Randy Moss two teams removed in Tennessee: "Tom Brady, I'll be covering him."

That's how the Jets won the first meeting between the teams this season, 28-14 back in September. That game was a tale of two quarterbacks. The Jets forced Brady into two interceptions and a strip-sack in the second half and reduced him to 7 of 16 for a paltry 69 yards, minus Revis.

The Patriots meanwhile made (Off The) Mark Sanchez, who for the season is completing 55.2 percent of his passes, look positively Brady-esque, allowing the second-year signal-caller to complete 70 percent of his passes (20 of 31) for 220 yards and three touchdowns.

It's no coincidence that the Patriots' two losses this year came in games in which Brady's brilliance was muted. He went 20 of 36 against Rex and the Jets in Week 2 and 19 of 36 against Ryan's twin brother Rob, the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, in Week 9.

Quarterback trouble has also been a leading indicator of a Jets setback. Three times this season Sanchez has competed less than 50 percent of his passes. The Jets lost to the Ravens and the Packers, and the other occasion they would have lost to Minnesota if the good ol' gunslinger himself, Brett Favre, didn't throw an interception that was returned for a touchdown.

On paper the pass defense matchup is a mismatch, Ryan's defense has allowed just one 300-yard passing performance this season -- Chad Henne -- and is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 50.3 percent completion rate.

Throwing for 300 yards on the Patriots, who rank dead last in pass defense, requires only a pulse and a football, and they're allowing a ghastly 68.3 percent completion percentage.

But don't despair Patriots' fans, the teams are playing on a sliding scale that evens the odds. The Jets are facing a red-hot Brady, who looks so comfortable in the pocket these days he could swap his cleats for UGGs. The Patriots pass defense might be spotty and charitable, but so is the quarterback they're facing.

For all the talk of Sanchez's last-second heroics over the last six games he is still as unreliable as cell phone service inside a Big Dig tunnel. In the six-game sample that dates back to the Denver game, Sanchez has thrown eight touchdowns and all eight of his interceptions on the season. Sanchez has the Favre Factor in his game -- he makes plays for both teams.

That's perfect for a Patriots' pass defense that picks its spots well when it comes to picking off the ball, just ask Peyton Manning.

The other factor that works in the Patriots' favor is that they don't surrender big pass plays -- only one pass play of 40 yards this season. That's been a hallmark of the Jets' passing attack this season, particularly since Santonio Holmes returned from his four-game suspension, as Sanchez has completed nine passes of 40 yards or more in 11 games.

The more passes you make Sanchez throw the more likely he is to throw one to the other team or to the turf.

Defensively, this is a moment of truth for the Patriots, similar to the fateful final Colts drive in the Indianapolis game. They stepped up then, and they have to step up now. Let Braylon Edwards audition for "America's Best Dance Crew" in the end zone again, Santonio Holmes back up his trash talk or Dustin Keller, who writes a food column for the New York Times, eat up the pass defense and the Patriots are done.

With 11 days to prepare, Deion Branch back at his side and New York safety Jim Leonhard now a spectator, Brady figures to play much better than he did in September against Gang Green. He sounds confident that he can decipher the Jets defense. Still, this is not a game where the Patriots' defenders can count on having 30 points to play with as a margin for error, not unless they score some of those points themselves.

The Jets haven't allowed 30 points all season. The most they've surrendered is 27 to the Houston Texans, and that was a game where they built a 23-7 fourth-quarter lead.

This game figures to be played in the 20s both on the scoreboard and the thermometer.

That's not ideal passing weather, so Mother Nature might turn out to be an extra defender for both teams.

Whichever team is able to cool off the other's passing game is going to end up in the passing lane in the AFC East. The other team will simply be thrown for a loss.

Ryan, Belichick prove 'opposites' attractive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 2, 2010 02:55 PM

They're not really that different, you know, Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan. Both are brilliant defensive strategists, both are the sons of coaches, both have a Frank Sinatra-approach ("I did it my way") that is at the core of their coaching philosophy.

Both are witty and capable of rattling off quips as quickly as they diagram a blitz.

Belichick was asked what the coaches did with the supposed off-day yesterday and said the staff's focus was "totally about the Jets, other than the pony rides and canoeing." Well, played, Bill, well played.

Perhaps some of the common ground is why Ryan has garnered both Belichick's attention and his respect heading into their latest meeting of the minds Monday night. The jabbering Jets coach is much more than a punchline with a big waist line, Patriots fans. He represents the closest thing the unrivaled Belichick currently has to a coaching rival right now.

Finding a coach who can match minds with Belichick, even for a few games, is like finding an empty mall during the holiday season.

Tony Dungy is doing television. Nick Saban is enjoying his Southeastern Conference fiefdom at Alabama. Mike Shanahan is ensnared in the Daniel Snyder death trap in D.C. Belichick slices up the Steelers' schemes like he's a "Top Chef" contestant, and Chargers coach Norv Turner's teams don't always play heads-up football.

Ryan might not always look or act the part, but he's a coach who challenges the game's greatest coach to step up his game. It's a challenge you can bet Belichick welcomes. He wouldn't be who he is if he didn't.

Under that stoic exterior, he wants to kick Ryan's butt as much as Ryan wants to kick his -- probably more.

Ryan is the type of coach who says he's not going to kiss anyone's rings and you can kiss his you know what if you don't like his style. But behind the bumptious bravado, he's also a student of the game, like Belichick, and that's why there is a mutual admiration society between the two.

"I think he's the number one coach in this league. That's undisputable," said Ryan.

"I think he's creative. He has a lot of good ideas. ... He creates a lot of problems. He is an excellent coach, no doubt about that," said Belichick.

In a way, you have to admire Ryan's honesty in the fact he is so openly gunning for Belichick. Why sugarcoat it? He knows that if the Jets are going to become anything other than a foil for the Patriots, then he is going to have to beat the hooded Houdini.

He says things like he wants to kick Belichick's booty because Belichick is the coaching gold standard, not because he is trying to antagonize or belittle him. It's exactly the opposite.

More than any of Ryan's brash proclamations, what rankles Belichick is his second-half success against the Patriots. Under Belichick no team has been better at making halftime or in-game adjustments than the Patriots, but in the three meetings with Ramblin' Rex and the Jets, the Patriots have scored a total of seven points after halftime and been shut out twice, including the teams' first meeting this season.

Here is what the Patriots have done offensively against Ryan and the Jets in the second half of the teams' three meetings:

Sept. 2009 -- 0 second-half points, 102 yards of offense in the second half.
Nov. 2009 -- 7 second half points, 138 yards of offense in the second half. (The touchdown was set up by a Mark Sanchez interception that gave the Patriots the ball at the Jets' 25).
Sept. 2010 -- 0 second-half points, 80 yards of offense in the second half.

Belichick was asked about this earlier this week, and he started fidgeting behind the dais and tersely deflected away the question. Ryan's comments don't get under his skin, but the perception that the Jets are better adjusted than the Patriots does.

The Patriots' fearless leader has lost as many times to Ryan (twice) as he did to former protege Eric Mangini in seven games against the Jets, and for one of those Mangini defeats, he had Matt Cassel at quarterback and not Tom Brady.

Ryan talks a good game, but he can coach one as well.

You hear some people trying to make the suggestion that these Jets are a lucky 9-2. Well, at least one former Patriot doesn't feel that way, and neither does Belichick. The good teams like the Patriots and Jets know that, like Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design.

"Rex has done a really good job of putting that team together. They’re obviously well coached," said Belichick. "And in the games where they have had to make plays at the end of the game ... they’ve done it. So they're really doing a good job in clutch situations playing good situational football."

If you know anything about Belichick, you know that there is no higher compliment he can pay a coach than to say that his team excels at "situational football." It's like Warren Buffet praising your investment portfolio.

Lest anyone get all up in arms, let's be clear. Comparing résumés, there is no comparison between Ryan and Belichick. The only ring Ryan has as a head coach is his wedding ring.

There is no better football coach on planet Earth than Belichick. If I had to win one game anywhere, anytime, I want Belichick designing the game plan. Who else could turn a supposed retooling year into a real chance to pick up more Super Bowl hardware?

Belichick is still the undisputed champion of NFL coaches, and history says it will stay that way.

But Ryan has proven himself a worthy adversary, and there aren't many of those for Belichick.

Rivalry with Jets has really taken off

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 30, 2010 10:22 AM

Around here Jets is spelled H-A-T-E.

It wouldn't be Patriots-Jets week if we weren't revisiting the history of a rivalry that is defined by antipathy and acrimony, subterfuge and feuds, rancor and rhetoric, betrayal and bitterness.

Patriots-Jets is the helmeted version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, and the 101st regular-season meeting Monday night at Gillette Stadium will be no different. This latest renewal of the rivalry has more riding on it than usual, with first place in the AFC East and possibly home field throughout the playoffs at stake.

It's fitting the two teams' potential playoff paths are crossing.

The Jets and Patriots are forever intertwined via some interesting shared history: Bill Parcells's messy defection to the Jets, Curtis Martin running off to Gang Green, Bill Belichick's short (one-day) tenure as Jets coach and even shorter "resignation letter," Mo Lewis's kismet hit on Drew Bledsoe, Spygate and Rex Ryan's declaration that he wasn't puckering up for the Patriots' jewelry collection.

"You can't beat all the drama and all the subplots," Jets right tackle Damien Woody, a former Patriot, told New York reporters.

If you think about it the "hated" Jets are responsible for the two biggest components of the Patriots' success over the last decade. The Jets struck a deal with the Patriots to allow Belichick to become Patriots' coach in 2000, after he spit out the Jets job, settling for New England's first-, fourth- and seventh-round choices in 2001 in exchange for Belichick. Less than four months after Belichick arrived in New England, he drafted some kid named Tom Brady in the sixth round and the rest is history.

The Patriots got a decade of excellence in exchange for defensive end Shaun Ellis, defensive back Jamie Henderson, and defensive tackle James Reed. That makes the purchase of Manhattan by the Dutch look like a fair deal.

But Rex Ryan might be the Jets redeemer. He has won two of three against Belichick, led the Jets to the AFC title game last year, and has the attention and the respect of our sullen football sultan.

"Rex has done a really good job of putting that team together. They’re obviously well coached," said Belichick. "It’s a very solid football team and a big challenge for us Monday night. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re always looking forward to the matchup with the Jets."

Especially, because it's on their turf this time.

The Patriots have won 25 straight regular-season home games with Brady -- this streak is a little bogus because it includes the Bernard Pollard game, which Brady was in for all of 15 plays. Wouldn't you know it, the last time they lost, back in 2006, was to . . . the Jets.

You remember when the Patriots lost to Miami in 2001 and Belichick had the team bury the ball? They lost that game to Jets in the muck in '06 and they buried the entire field, replacing it with synthetic grass before the next home game. They'll raze the entire Razor if they lose this one.

It's fun to dredge up the Border War's back story, but it's about as relevant to the outcome of this matchup as the teams' first game this season, a 28-14 Jets' victory at New Meadowlands Stadium, way back on Sept. 19, which is to say not relevant at all.

That game was played when the weather was still warm and Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney were still Patriots. In other words, eons ago. These are different times and different teams after nine games in between meetings.

When last they met, Deion Branch was in Seattle, Logan Mankins was watching on television, and Danny Woodhead was presumed to be a Rudy-esque running back Belichick had picked up just to tweak the Jets, who had cut him.

Branch is now reborn as the Patriots' big-play receiver. Mankins is anchoring the interior of the offensive line, and Woodhead is the Patriots' answer to Dustin Pedroia.

But the alterations aren't all in the Pats favor. The Jets have undergone some changes as well. Shutdown corner Darrelle Revis played in that September showdown, but wasn't 100 percent. After missing all of training camp in a contract dispute he only lasted a half due to a sore hamstring and got posterized by Moss.

In the last four weeks, Revis has held Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Terrell Owens to a combined eight catches for 62 yards and no touchdowns. Once again he is proving the poet John Donne wrong. Revis is an island, entire of itself.

Santonio Holmes, who has become the Jets' game-breaker and get-out-of-jail-free card with winning catches against Cleveland and Houston, was still serving his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy when the Jets and Patriots first met. Outside linebacker Calvin Pace, who is tied for second on the team in sacks with 3.5, was out with a broken foot.

The Patriots are certainly hoping that recent history doesn't repeat itself. The second half of the first go-round with the Jets was about as bad as it gets for a Brady-led offense. They got shutout and had 80 yards of offense in the second half. Brady was 7 of 16 for 69 yards and two interceptions after intermission.

His frustration was palpable from the other side of the Hudson River.

"We couldn't do anything in the second half. ...We couldn’t run it. We couldn’t throw it, we just sucked," said Brady.

While Brady sputtered, his Broadway-wannabee Mark Sanchez had a coming of age performance, setting career-highs in touchdown passes (three) and completions (21).

But that was when Devin McCourty was still a green rookie in his second NFL game, not a clever cover corner with five interceptions, and Darius Butler was still a struggling starter at cornerback, not a recovering backup.

The past is always at play between these foes, but it's a current events test on Monday night.

Brady operating with surgical precision

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 26, 2010 12:51 PM

DETROIT -- If we didn't believe it already, yesterday was confirmation. The scar on Tom Brady's surgically-repaired left knee does not represent a line of demarcation in his career. There will be no designation between post-operation Brady and pre-operation Brady, just standard operating procedure for Brady.

It was classic No. 12 in the Patriots' 45-24 win over the Detroit Lions on Thursday, a performance you could have pulled out of 2003, 2005, or 2007. The QB who sliced up the Lions defense yesterday like a scalpel, posting a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3; the QB who went 11 of 14 for 241 yards and four touchdowns in the second half; the QB who is tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes (23) and hasn't thrown an interception since Oct. 17 is the QB we've become accustomed to watching for nearly 10 years now. The hair is just a little longer.

There was the fear and the idea last season, and following the September loss to Jets, that Brady would never quite be well... Brady again. That the clutch quarterback who led the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles was lost the fateful September day in Foxborough when Bernard Pollard plowed into his knee, tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments.

Unlike Brady, that theory proved to be wildly inaccurate. That's because Brady has not only come back from his knee injury, he is playing at as high a level as ever. Proof is that the only other time Brady posted a perfect passing rating before yesterday was in 2007, the apex of his powers, during a six-touchdown pass performance against the Miami Dolphins.

TB12 will never match the Xbox numbers he put up in '07, when he threw 50 TD passes and was named the league MVP, but in a way, what he's doing now is even more impressive -- because the talent around him is not. These precocious Patriots need him to be bloodlessly efficient and almost automated in avoiding miscues. He has been both as the Patriots have surged to a 9-2 mark.

The post-knee surgery Brady is a best-of-both worlds passer. He can put on an air show like '07 when called for or revert to mistake-free game manager mode.

In the last three weeks, Brady has thrown for a season-high 350 yards and three touchdowns to thrash the Pittsburgh Steelers. He has outplayed Peyton Manning without even throwing for 200 yards (186 yards and two touchdown passes), completing 76 percent of his passes. And he has riddled Detroit's defense for a season-high four touchdowns, while going 21 of 27 for 341 yards.

Yet, Brady's most impressive number right now is zero. That's the number of interceptions he has thrown in his last 199 attempts, a new franchise record. The last time Brady committed a miscue was Oct. 17 against the Ravens, when his Hail Mary at the end of regulation was picked off. Brady has just four interceptions for the season, after having eight through 11 games last year on his way to 13 INTs.

"I think he's just doing a great job of managing the game," said retread receiver Deion Branch, who was around when Brady managed to quarterback the Patriots to Super Bowls crowns in 2003 and 2004.

Brady's greatest weapon as a quarterback has always been his brain, his ability to process information quickly and make good decisions. But his decision-making seemed a little off at times last season. You can blame Randy Moss -- that seems convenient these days -- even though Moss didn't seem to hold Brady back in '07. But there was more to it than that.

After a year away from the game, his quarterback calibration seemed to be off just a tick. Remember the play in Denver last year where he drilled the ball at the feet of a wide open Wes Welker in the fourth quarter? Contrast that with his 79-yard touchdown pass to Branch yesterday.

Branch was not Brady's first read and the route he ran was not the one called out of the huddle. However, Brady intuitively knew that Branch was going to improvise and found him wide open.

"Yeah, that stuff starts in practice, and once we get into the film room the play that we run is designed to go to either me or Wes and the guys that are not getting the ball those are the guys that he focuses on," said Branch. "He'll tell them, 'Hey, I need you to run this route this way.'

"Brandon Tate, he's talking to Tate and saying, 'I need you to run this route this way just in case I don't throw to Deion.' Those are the type of things we go over in practice. That's Tom Brady. He's always teaching, always coaching and making sure the guys are in the right place. I think if we just do our job. He'll find us. He'll find us."

While the Patriots have silenced the doubters who said they were a team in decline, Brady has proven that he is not a franchise quarterback in decline. There were those quick to dismiss his 28 touchdown passes and 65.7 percent completion percentage last season while returning from the knee injury and fixate on his failures in the fourth quarter against Denver, Miami, and Houston.

The knee-jerk argument went that Drew Brees, after one Super Bowl title, had surpassed Brady in the franchise quarterback hierarchy.

Perhaps that is why we've seen a different Brady this season. For the first time in a while his ability had been doubted. He's been more demonstrative and irascible on the field, yelling at opponents and teammates a like. Off the field he's been blunt in his State of the Quarterback Addresses.

The message has been delivered loud and clear: I'm still here, and I'm as good as ever.

What Brady has proved this season by leading the Patriots to a 9-2 start is that his best days aren't like his knee injury -- a thing of the past.

Patriots are looking Super

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 22, 2010 01:55 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- James Sanders allowed the Patriots and a sports-crazed region to have their catharsis against the Colts.

They have peace of mind knowing that Peyton Manning doesn't have some fourth-quarter pox upon their house, that they can still beat the accursed Colts when it counts. They possess temporary bragging rights in the NFL's most fervent rivalry, via a 31-28 victory yesterday at Gillette Stadium.

The odds of Manning throwing a game-sealing interception in that scenario when he's already tossed two picked-off passes are slimmer than Kate Moss. Yet he did, and Sanders was there to make a great play. Right place, right time. That's the story of the Patriots' season thus far.

The Patriots are back in the good graces of the Gridiron Gods. You're starting to get the distinct feeling that this is simply the Patriots' year, that Bill Belichick's footballers of fortune, not the Colts, are the team that should sport a horseshoe on their helmets. I hear that North Texas is absolutely lovely in early February.

As good as it felt in these parts to exorcise the demons of fourth-and-2, the victory had much more significance than simply atoning for a crushing loss from last season. It upped the ante and the expectations for this season.

The young secondary, rookie tight ends and pedestrian pass rush are afterthoughts now. Before the month of November, most Patriots fans would have been happy if the Patriots had split with the Steelers and the Colts. Forget that. Sitting at 8-2, it's time to reassess this season. The renovation of the roster has led to a revelation: the Patriots aren't constructing a Super Bowl-winning team; they already have one.

The Patriots have beaten arguably the three biggest preseason favorites in the AFC -- the Ravens, the Steelers and the Colts. And truthfully, they outplayed every one of them. There were no flukes or qualifiers. A team capable of doing that is capable of going all the way, no matter what the statistics say.

These Patriots are a statistician's worst nightmare. Very few of their numbers, especially on defense, compute to being the best team in the NFL right now, which they are. Sorry, Jets and Falcons, we'll keep your résumés on file.

The Patriots are a tackling, passing contradiction.

They're 5-0 when allowing a 300-yard passing day. In this pass-happy era of NFL football, they rank 31st defensively against the pass, allowing 289.6 yards per game. They've given up more first downs via the pass (160) than any other team in the league. Their third-down defense is not only the worst in the league, allowing teams to obtain a first down more than 50 percent of the time (50.7), it is historically bad.

In modern NFL history no team has ever allowed teams to convert on third down more than half the time. The current mark was set by another Belichick-coached outfit, the 1995 Cleveland Browns, who allowed opposing offenses to convert 49.6 percent of third downs. That team finished 5-11 and re-emerged in Baltimore as the Ravens.

What the Patriots don't do is beat themselves with stupid mistakes or ill-advised decisions, and when the other team makes those moves they pounce on them. Hence, their 18 turnovers this year and 5-0 record in games with two or more takeaways.

Like their head coach, this team is calculating, efficient and opportunistic.

The Patriots have turned the ball over themselves just nine times this year, the second-lowest in the NFL behind the Kansas City Chiefs. They are the only team in the league that hasn't allowed multiple pass plays of 40 yards or more. The one they've surrendered this season, a 45-yarder by Jordan Shipley of the Bengals, came in the first game of the season.

That's remarkable considering how young their secondary is and that they faced big-time quarterbacks like Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Manning in the last month.

"[They're] a team that is scrappy on defense and has some young guys in the secondary who continue to fight, play hard," said Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne "They kind of have that mentality of bend, don't break, which is what we're familiar with. Whenever they have Tom Brady on the other side, the defense, they know they got a chance."

Brady has been brilliant this season (19 touchdowns and just four interceptions) and the Patriots do lead in the most important stat of all -- points scored (289).

Wouldn't it be the ultimately irony if this statistically-flawed football team did what the near flawless 2007 team could not -- win a championship?

The one major potential fly in the ointment to being in the Big Game at Jerry Jones' Arlington Cemetery this season is those pesky Jets. They're also 8-2, and they have the benefit of a head-to-head victory over the Patriots on Sept. 19.

The biggest game of the Patriots' season is Dec. 6 at home against Rex Ryan's rowdy bunch. Drop both games to the Jets and it will be tough to win the division, even if you finish at 12-4. That means you're a wild card and on the road for the first round.

The Jets and Patriots are both celebrating Thanksgiving on the field, facing the Bengals and Lions, respectively. After they face each other, they have three common opponents in the final four games. Both travel to Chicago to play the Bears. Both host Miami at home. Both play the Bills (Patriots on the road and Jets at home). The only difference is that the Patriots host the Packers on Dec. 19, while that day the Jets have to travel to Pittsburgh.

The odds of winning the division without beating the Jets are slim, but then again you can't put anything past these Patriots. Hasn't this whole Patriots season been about proving conventional wisdom wrong and overcoming the numbers?

See you at Super Bowl XLV.

The future is now for Patriots, Colts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 19, 2010 02:52 PM

We know what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning can do. We also know what they can't do, which is win the Patriots-Colts grudge match all by themselves.

For as much hype as there is about the premier passers being pitted against each other on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, it's unlikely that having one Canton-bound quarterback in the huddle (or no-huddle) vs. having the other is going to provide the difference.

No, this game is going to be decided by the Other Guys. Last year's instant classic in Indianapolis was the perfect example. The biggest play of the game was made by a Colts reserve safety who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2007. Patriots fans won't soon forget Melvin Bullitt, or the tackle he made on the now infamous fourth-and-2.

Some of the biggest plays on Sunday are going to be made by guys who aren't Brady or Manning. Colts-Patriots is more than a stage for star power. It's a passion play starring both teams' entire 53-man roster -- and those rosters are pretty green.

When the Patriots and Colts meet, it's not just a proving ground on the field, it's a measure of execution off of it. How well have these two franchises, who have pushed off parity and set the NFL gold standard for more than a decade, followed their philosophies and found their type of players? Have they tapped into the draft to replenish their rosters or has the trail of talent grown cold?

Player procurement in the NFL is somewhere between an inexact science and voodoo, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Colts president Bill Polian, and by extension the Patriots and the Colts, are two of the best at it. The ideology is different, the goal is the same.

"I think we’re two different teams just in terms of structurally how they put their team together," said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. "Some of the players that fit our team really don’t fit their team and vice versa. I think in the end you just have to identify whatever your philosophy is, whatever you believe in, whatever types of players fit your system, and you have to go out and find them accordingly, which they’ve done a great job of that through the years. ...Bill Polian is one of the most respected personnel men in the business. And he’s been at it a long time. They get good football players."

So have the Patriots in the last two drafts.

One of the biggest reasons the Patriots have been able to hit the F5 button on their run and reload the roster so quickly is a pair of productive drafts. After some, ahem, suspect drafting from 2006 to 2008 (always a sore subject with Patriots fans), the Patriots picked up seven rookies last April that are starter quality for them right now: cornerback Devin McCourty, tight end Rob Gronkowski, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, tight end Aaron Hernandez, punter Zoltan Mesko and defensive end Brandon Deaderick.

Mea culpa on the McCourty pick, as he has emerged as the team's top corner in the absence of the injured Leigh Bodden and has clearly outplayed Jerry Hughes, whom the Colts selected four picks later.

Add April's haul to a 2009 draft that brought safety Patrick Chung, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Tate, among others, and you have a youth movement that has moved the Patriots in the right direction.

If the Patriots are to beat the Colts, it is likely that two or three of those Other Guys, none of whom was even in the NFL when the Patriots last defeated the Colts in 2007, are going to have to rise to the occasion.

The same holds true for the horseshoe-helmeted visitors, who boast 13 rookies on their 53-man roster. There are some callow Colts that coach Jim Caldwell is going to be counting on coming up big on Sunday for his injury-riddled team.

With tight end Dallas Clark out for the year, the Colts are relying on third-year man Jacob Tamme. With Anthony Gonzalez out last year, second-year receiver Austin Collie, a former fourth-round pick, emerged last year as a trustworthy target opposite Reggie Wayne, as did '08 sixth-round pick Pierre Garcon, who has been inconsistent this season. Gonzalez is gonzo again this year with a knee injury. Undrafted rookie receiver Blair White could also play an important role if Collie can't go due to concussion symptoms.

Rookie linebacker Pat Angerer has started four games this season for the Colts and will start on Sunday. Second-year corner Jerraud Powers, a 2009 third-rounder, is tied for the team lead in interceptions (two) despite missing two games with an injury.

These are hardly households names we're talking about, but they could be after Sunday.

There is a lot of history between the Patriots and the Colts, but with so many young players on both sides, the balance of power in the rivalry will be determined by the future.

Real rivalry is Belichick vs. Manning

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 18, 2010 12:12 PM

300belichickmanning.jpgIt's been a long time since the Indianapolis Colts' NFL itinerary included a trip to Foxborough. The last time the Colts came to these parts, Gillette Stadium still had real turf, not FieldTurf, Deval Patrick was two days away from winning his first term as governor and Delonte West was the Celtics' starting point guard with Rajon Rondo as his backup.

Ah, 2006. Back then it was still reasonable to believe that Peyton Manning would never win the big one and that Patriots coach Bill Belichick could keep Peyton in place. Those theories now seem as outdated as the idea that hiding under a school desk would spare you in a nuclear attack.

It is now Manning who plays mind games with Belichick. The much-debated decision by Belichick in last year's game to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line with 2:08 remaining was a direct result of Manning being on the other sideline. It was a show of respect and resignation -- one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of the game convinced his best defense against Manning was not to play defense at all.

Even before that game, Manning was dictating Belichick's beliefs. The 2007 point-a-palooza season happened, in part, because Manning outgunned the Patriots in the 2006 AFC championship game.

As much as we like to compare and debate the merits of the two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in this unrivaled rivalry, Manning and Tom Brady, the real showdown has always been Belichick vs. Manning. Two football savants who learned at the knees of their football fathers, absorbed the game through osmosis and weren't born to be anything other than what they are.

"He understands the game," said Belichick. "He finds some little thing, some little technique or adds a little something to a play or a read or something that continues to create problems for the defense."

The question is can Belichick, with a still-developing defense that ranks 30th against the pass and applies an inconsistent pass rush, win the war of wits once again with Manning? Can he coax his young defense to come up with that key interception, third-down stop, or red zone parry?

When Belichick was playing Patriots Games with Manning's mind, the Patriots dominated the rivalry. New England won six straight games against Indy from 2001 through the 2004 playoffs. In those six contests, Manning completed 58.5 percent of his passes for 1,540 yards and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He enjoyed just one 300-yard passing game against the defenses drawn up by Belichick and then-defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

But since then the Colts and their iconic QB have reversed the rivalry, winning five of the last six meetings. Manning, the Megamind of NFL QBs, has cracked the code.

In those last half-dozen games, dating to the 2005 regular-season, Manning has completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 1,802 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has thrown for more than 300 yards four times, including last year's 35-34 Colts' victory in which he led Indianapolis from 17 down at the start of the fourth quarter and threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns (with two interceptions).

If you're thinking that removing the rivalry from the climate-controlled confines of Indianapolis will temper Manning's sudden success against Belichick, think again. Half of those four 300-yard days came in Foxborough, including a 326-yard performance in 2006, when the game-time temperature was below freezing (31 degrees).

Part of the reason for Manning's success can be traced to personnel. When the Patriots' game plan calls for the player wearing No. 24 trying to cover Reggie Wayne to be Jonathan Wilhite, and not Ty Law, you get results like last season's meeting, when Wayne torched Wilhite for 10 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.

Belichick's defensive parts simply haven't been as good as they were from 2001 to 2004. They're probably not now either, but they're the best they've been in the secondary since the Patriots' last win in the series in 2007, when they had Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison.

We're going to learn a lot about just how good Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung are in this game.

Conversely, the Indianapolis offense is probably as effete as it's been in a while. For the first time in a while, the Colts might not have the horses either.

The playing field is evened a bit by the fact that Manning has had a revolving door of targets this year due to injuries, disrupting the timing of the Colts' usually Swiss timepiece-precision attack.

Patriot-killer/Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who commanded a double-team last year, is out for the season with a wrist injury. Second-leading receiver Austin Collie had surgery to repair a thumb injury and missed last week's game with a concussion. Running back Joseph Addai has missed the last three games with a neck injury. Receiver Pierre Garcon missed two games with a hamstring injury and has had a case of the dropsies. Garcon dropped just five passes in 92 targets last year in a breakout season. He's already dropped six passes in 60 targets this year. That's not to mention Anthony Gonzalez, who slipped down the depth chart and then was knocked out for the season with a knee injury.

The rash of injuries has forced Manning to throw to guys like tight end Jacob Tamme and wide receiver Blair White. Of course Manning could be throwing to Snow White and still be effective.

But if Manning goes out and beats the Patriots with his current cast then it's official -- Belichick is as powerless to stop him as any other defensive coach in the NFL.

Then the only way you'll be able to watch the Patriots slow down Manning is if you fire up the DVD player and put on "Three Games to Glory" from '03 or' 04.

Coach-to-quarterback realization

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 15, 2010 03:27 PM

PITTSBURGH -- The only realization you can come to after watching the Patriots' pull apart the Pittsburgh Steelers, 39-26, last night at Heinz Field is that the Patriots are blessed to have the best quarterback-coach combination in the NFL and possibly the best combo in all of sports in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

Brady and Belichick, Tom and Bill, TB12 and BB. However you refer to them they're the ultimate pigskin power couple, like a football version of Brangelina or Jay-Z and Beyonce, or, well, Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen. Together, they flexed their muscle -- both physical and mental -- last night in the Steel City and made it clear that the 6-1 start wasn't a fluke. Just ask Pittsburgh, which got taken to school by Belichick and Brady last night on national television in their own black and gold backyard.

The 39 points were the most the Steelers have ever allowed at Heinz Field, and it would have been 40-plus if new kicker Shayne Graham hadn't missed an extra point.

There was a line of thinking that when the Patriots reached the point that the only reasons you could give for their presumed place among the NFL's elite was the canonized coach-QB couple, it was a sign of the franchise's demise. Rather, their presence seemingly ensures that as long at both are in place at Patriot Place, the Patriots can never be counted out, no matter how many injuries they suffer, how young their defense is, or how pedestrian their pass catchers look at times.

That's why the Patriots landed home today tied with the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the NFL at 7-2. It's why home field advantage throughout the playoffs is possible for a team that most pegged as a 10-win outfit at best. It's why Randy Moss will continue to pine for what he had in New England.

Last night was classic Brady and Belichick mastery of an opponent. Brady was chief operating officer of the offense and Belichick chief executive of the defense.

Forget all the phony stats that the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, who somehow ended up 30 of 49 for 387 yards and three touchdowns, piled up last night in a garbage time performance that would have even made former Celtic Ricky Davis blush. After three quarters, Big Ben was a big dud. Confused and pressured by Belichick and without his most reliable receiver, Hines Ward, Roethlisberger was 10 of 26 for 123 yards after three quarters, when the Patriots led 23-3.

After that it was all meaningless fantasy football numbers for Big Ben.

Belichick out-Steelered the Steelers. Knowing Pittsburgh was dealing with a makeshift offensive line due to injuries to left tackle Max Starks and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, the Patriots blitzed Roethlisberger, forcing he and his young receivers to make quick reads. The result was five Patriot sacks.

The Steelers had generated a league-high 21 interceptions coming into last night, but the only turnover of the game belonged to Belichick's opportunistic bunch, a fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown by safety James Sanders. Belichick had his fingerprints on that timely takeaway.

"We knew in certain formations that they were going to run a lot of crossing routes," said Sanders. "We suspected they were going to run some crosses. Pat [Chung] made a great play on the ball against [Antwaan] Randle-El, who was trying to run a ram route on him. I just read the quarterback, went to the ball and Pat made a great play. I just capitalized on it."

The Patriots were one step ahead, just like their quarterback. Brady put on a clinic against the Steelers, going 30 of 43 for 350 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added a 3-yard QB sneak for a TD. Brady should have come out postgame in hospital scrubs after the way he operated against the Steelers's vaunted defense.

Brady no doubt saw what Saints quarterback Drew Brees was able to do to the Steelers on "Sunday Night Football" two weeks ago, when Brees was 34 of 44 for 305 yards. In that game, New Orleans ran 67 plays and dropped back to pass 46 times. Against Pittsburgh, the Patriots ran 67 plays and sent Brady back to throw 43 times.

It's the type of game plan that you're not running against the Steelers, who had multiple takeaways in their last seven games, unless you trust your QB implicitly. Brady, whose brain is just as strong as his arm, diagnosed and dissected the Steelers to perfection.

"They spread us out and just took what we gave them," said Steelers safety Ryan Clark. "It was a very intelligent game plan, but very hard to execute."

At least it was supposed to be, but Brady made it look about as challenging as riding bikes with his sons.

Forget the unfair talk about family man Brady's best days being behind him or him adopting a laissez-faire Los Angeles attitude now that he spends the offseason on the West Coast. Brady's completion percentage (64.5 to 64.2) and touchdown pass total (17 to 16) are both higher than Peyton Manning's so far this season. Their interception totals are identical -- four. Not spending every waking hour in Foxborough for the off-season program has really set Brady back this season, huh?

The Patriots have beaten both the big, bad Steelers and the Ravens, teams that on paper have more talent than them. What those teams don't have is Brady and Belichick. That makes all the difference.

It's a duo that is driven by the naysayers and linked inextricably in pro football history. The two even appear to be rubbing off on each other. Brady's postgame press conferences have become banal and terse.

Meanwhile, Belichick left the locker room last night wearing a very stylish black fedora.

Both deserve a tip of the cap for what they've done to guide the joined-in-progress Patriots this far.

Patriots must pass quarterback test

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 12, 2010 03:29 PM

If you have Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in your fantasy league, now is a good week to start him, based on the way the Patriots have defended -- or not defended -- opposing quarterbacks this year.

It's hard to erase the memory of the Patriots being bowled over like candlepins last week in Cleveland by Peyton Hillis and the ground-and-pound Browns. With always rugged and run-ready Pittsburgh on tap Sunday, there is no doubt a lot of focus on the Patriots' ability to physically stand up to the Steelers. But repelling Pittsburgh's rushing attack won't be the Patriots' biggest problem on Sunday night in the Steel City. They're capable of mud wrestling in the trenches with the Steelers.

Passers vs. Patriots this season


Quarterback Yards Comp. pct.
Carson Palmer 345 68
Mark Sanchez 220 70
Ryan Fitzpatrick 247 71
Chad Henne 302 74
Joe Flacco 285 77
Phillip Rivers 336 68
Brett Favre 259 68
Colt McCoy 174 68
No, the most daunting and difficult task for the Patriots, based on the way they've played this season, will be disarming Roethlisberger, a big-time QB with Super Bowl jewelry, and the Pittsburgh passing attack.

The Patriots' youthful defense has certainly made strides and come up with timely turnovers and clutch stops on the way to a 6-2 record, but they rank 29th in the NFL in pass defense, surrendering 268.9 yards per game.

The Patriots' pass defense is easier to pick on than the Miami Heat.

Every opposing passer the Patriots have faced has completed at least 68 percent of his passes, and the defense ranks last in the league in completion percentage, allowing 70.1 percent of passes to find their intended target. By comparison, Saints signal-caller Drew Brees currently leads the league with a measly 69.8 completion percentage.

Another condemning statistic for the New England defense is what it has done when it has gotten teams in third-and-long situations, which are usually must-pass scenarios. The Patriots rank second to last in the NFL when it comes to stopping opponents on conversions of third and 10-plus. They've allowed nine conversion in 26 such opportunities.

The passing problems for the Patriots stem from a consistent lack of pressure and pass rush, inexperience and inconsistency in the secondary, and the fact their inside linebackers are not good in coverage. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are jackhammers in the middle, but they're less equipped to cover.

Containing prolific passers was a problem for the Patriots last year in the second half of the season. Combined, Brees, Houston's Matt Schaub and incomparable Colts QB Peyton Manning completed 66 percent of their passes (70 of 106) for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions against New England in a trio of Patriots' losses that helped frame a disappointing season.

Coach Bill Belichick must find a way to make the skies less friendly for opponents this season, or the season could start going south for the winter with Roethlisberger and Manning on tap in the next two games. You can survive serving up yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Buffalo Bills, but not against teams like the Steelers and Colts.

The scary part when looking at some of the Patriots' pass defense numbers is that they've only faced one elite QB so far this season, San Diego's Philip Rivers. We can debate the merits and mythology of Brett Favre's career until New Year's, but the fact is he is not performing like an upper echelon passer this season. Rivers, who leads the league in passing yards, is.

Playing against the Patriots without his two starting wide receivers and with his Pro Bowl tight end hobbled, Rivers still managed to complete 34 of 50 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown, with one interception. His team scored every time it touched the ball in the second half, save for a potential game-winning field goal that went awry. Rivers was the third passer to top 300 yards this season against the Patriots, joining Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and Chad Henne, who just got benched in Miami.

It's never a good sign when a quarterback who lost his job has a 300-yard game against you on his ledger.

Roethlisberger will certainly have better weapons than Rivers did in wily wideout Hines Ward and second-year receiver Mike Wallace, who is sporting a gaudy 23-yards-per-catch average. Roethlisberger is the best in the league at extending plays and improvising passes. That leads to big plays from Big Ben, who has completed five passes of 35 yards or more since returning from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. He is averaging 8.41 yards per pass attempt, not far off from the 8.6 he averaged last year, when he threw for a career-high 4,328 yards.

The Patriots have an opportunity to start the second half of the season off with a huge win. Pittsburgh and Roethlisberger represent a huge test.

It's pass or fail for the Patriots.

Patriots are halfway good

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 8, 2010 12:59 PM

CLEVELAND -- No one has been this happy to leave Cleveland behind since LeBron James.

The Patriots' pride-piercing 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns yesterday was worse than watching that self-serving LeBron Nike commercial, Clockwork Orange-style. But some perspective is needed after coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots were schooled by the Fightin' Manginis.

Halfway home, the Patriots are sitting at 6-2, tied for first place in the AFC East and the best record in the NFL. They've put themselves in the contender category, despite distractions and subtractions: Logan Mankins (conscientious contract objector for seven games), Kevin Faulk (torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game No. 2), Fred Taylor (inactive for five straight games with a toe injury), and Randy Moss (permanent out route). That's not even mentioning the preseason injuries to defensive starters Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden.

Are they a perfect team? Far from it. But just like beating Baltimore didn't allow them to pass go to the Super Bowl, losing to Cleveland doesn't end any hope of concluding the season in Arlington, Texas.

Even if you're upset about the Patriots having no answer for a Peyton whose last name isn't Manning, if someone told you this group would be 6-2 at the midway mark, you would have taken it. But what Peyton Hillis's 184-yard romp through the Patriots' defense, Rob Gronkowski's two fumble-ish plays, and Mangini's X's and O's outmaneuvering were all a stark reminder of is that there is a fine line between validating victories and disappointing defeats for these Patriots.

The margin for error for Belichick's rebooted Patriots is somewhere between slim and none. That was case during their five-game winning streak, which included an overtime win, self-immolation by San Diego, and a pair of fortuitous pass plays against Minnesota.

Juggernauts, they are not. Just like the rest of the league.

"In order to be a good football team we have to prove it on a week-by-week basis. You’re only as good as your last game," Brady told WEEI (850-AM) this morning in his weekly interview. "[Last week] we were great. God, we were the greatest team in football for... now, we [stink]. We can’t do anything. We're a terrible team and terrible coaches and players. We know what the truth is. The truth is when we play well we’re a pretty good team, when we play poorly we’re as bad as anybody else."

The Patriots are echoing the words of Aerosmith. They're livin' on the edge, and that's probably the way it's going to be for the rest of the season.

Fasten your seat belt for a fascinating second half that kicks off next Sunday night in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. That's the start of a four-game stretch for the Patriots that goes Steelers, Colts, Lions (on short rest and Thanksgiving Day) and then a rematch with Team Snack Pack, also known as the Jets, on Dec. 6.

The Patriots have traditionally played their best football under Belichick in November and December, so we'll know a lot more about the championship credentials of the Patriots at the three-quarter mark than we know now at mid-term.

The biggest caveat for the Patriots being taken seriously as a Super Bowl contestant is not getting crunched by Cleveland, but crunching some of their numbers after eight games, as they don't add up to a 6-2 team. We all know that stats are for losers, but how long can we dismiss the fetid ones attached to the Patriots' defense as inconsequential?

After getting rocked in Cleveland and allowing the Browns to set season-highs in yards (404), rushing yards (230), first downs (22), and time of possession (38 minutes, 8 seconds), the Patriots' defense ranks 29th in the NFL.

Subtract quarterback Tavaris Jackson's 33-yard scramble on Minnesota's final possession of the Patriots' 28-18, and the New England defense had allowed its previous three opponents to average just 2.8 yards per carry. But they couldn't contain the Browns yesterday, who rolled up 5.2 yards per rush. That put the Patriots back above allowing four yards per carry for the season, and that's far more alarming than any gimmick play working.

The Patriots are still last in the league in defensive third-down conversion, as opponents have converted 48.1 percent of the time. Further indication they sometimes have a hard time getting off the field is that they've allowed 16 scoring drives of 10 plays or more, the most in the NFL.

On the other hand, the offense has something to prove in the second half as well, especially considering the Steelers, entering tonight's game against the Bengals, are allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL this season.

The Brady-led offense sputtered like a junkyard jalopy against the Browns and has topped 400 total yards just once this season. Even with Brady having an MVP-type season, the Patriots rank 20th in total offense (324.4 yards per game). In the surprising stat of the day department, they're averaging as many yards passing per game as the quarterback-accursed San Francisco 49ers (217.2).

Like his team, Brady's margin for error is microscopic with a pair of rookie tight ends, a second-year receiver, a convalescing Wes Welker, and a gimpy Deion Branch to catch his passes. The term "wide open" has been erased from the local football lexicon for the time being.

By nature New Englanders are negative, but as Rosevelt Colvin used to say, "Calm down." Yes, yesterday was a lost opportunity for the Patriots. It doesn't mean the season is lost though. Far from it.

We know the rest of the schedule, but how it plays out from here on out for TB12 and the Patriots is still TBD.

At this point, we know they're better than halfway decent. They're halfway good.

Belichick's assistants haven't fit the Bill

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 5, 2010 01:45 PM
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The NFL is a copycat league, and naturally everyone wants a coach that fits the Bill.

Why not? Bill Belichick is the most successful professional football coach of his generation. Imitation is the sincerest form of pro football flattery, but with the Belichick assistant coaches, it's just an idea that has fallen flat. If you're an NFL owner and you want a piece of the Patriot mystique, you're better off handing control of your organization to a member of the front office in Foxborough (Thomas Dimitroff and the Falcons, Scott Pioli and the Chiefs) than a coach.

Or you're making a Patriot mistake.

Just ask Sunday's Patriots' opponent, the Cleveland Browns, who have gone with back-to-back former Belichick assistants as their head coach, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. The Browns, who had the real Belichick as their head coach from 1991 to 1995, have gotten one winning campaign and zero playoff appearances in five seasons out of their chips off the Belichick block. Unless Colt McCoy can channel Tom Brady circa 2001, it's pretty likely that season six is not going to result in a playoff berth either, as the Browns are 2-5.

The combined NFL head coaching record of Belichick coaching acolytes Mangini, Crennel, Josh McDaniels, and Nick Saban, who was Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland, is 79-112, a .414 winning percentage. (I won't even get into Charlie Weis's turn at Notre Dame, where he boasted of a "decided schematic advantage" and then produced two winning seasons in five years.)

Mangini, who in his fifth season as a head coach, has the lone playoff appearance among offshoots of the Belichick coaching tree, guiding the Jets to the playoffs in 2006. Back then he was inspiring back-page headlines that read "Mangenius" and making a cameo on "The Sopranos." Now, no one would be surprised if he got whacked by Browns football czar Mike Holmgren, a Bill Walsh coaching descendant, after this season.

The biggest problem with most of the Belichick disciples is that they try too hard to be Belichick. They copy not just his game-plan specific playbook, but his coaching demeanor and public persona. Belichick can get away with muzzling players and obfuscating media members because he is the latter-day Lombardi and his 30-plus years in coaching gives him a certain gridiron gravitas. He can demand of his employees that his way is the only way because his way is proven to work.

If you're a Mangini or a McDaniels, precocious coaches without intimidating miens, and you imitate Belichick's act right off the bat, you just look like you're arrogant, obstinate, or both.

In his first go-round as a coach, with the Jets, Mangini got to a point where he wouldn't utter the word, "hamstring" in regards to an injury, and he was fined by the NFL for covering up a Brett Favre arm injury.

McDaniels, who since his 6-0 start last season has gone 4-14, is an extremely bright coach and offensive guru. However, his insistence on altering the Broncos' long-successful zone blocking run game seems like a huge mistake now that Denver is ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing. The Broncos were always a club that could pull an old lady out of the supermarket and put her at running back and be able to rush the ball. Now they can't even get three yards a carry.

Such rigidity is in stark contract to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who won a Super Bowl in his second season. Tomlin was a Tony Dungy disciple, and Tampa-2 defense devotee, but when he got to Pittsburgh he had the good sense to leave the Steelers 3-4 defense intact. It wasn't his way, but he recognized it worked.

What Belichick learned after his first failed stint as a head coach was that he couldn't try to copy Bill Parcells, from whose coaching tree he sprung. He couldn't command a press conference like Parcells or needle players in the same way. He found his own coaching voice. It's a lesson that his former apprentices would do well to learn.

It doesn't take a genius to identify the second major reason that Belichick's former assistants haven't matched his success. They're not taking Brady with them. QB play is sine qua non to any coach's success. Name one legendary NFL coach who didn't have at least a borderline Hall of Fame QB under his command.

None of the former Belichick assistants have had a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of the one Belichick has employed as his starter since 2001, which coincidentally just happens to be when his legend as a head coach was built. Belichick had Vinny Testaverde in Cleveland, and ended up with one winning season. He has Brady, and he has nine straight winning seasons and three Super Bowl rings.

For most of his time in Cleveland, Crennel was saddled with Charlie Frye. The one year he had a Pro Bowl performer at the position, Derek Anderson in 2006, he won 10 games. Saban had a winning season (9-7) with Gus Frerotte, but then the Dolphins doctors told him that Daunte Culpepper and his knee were a safer bet than Drew Brees and his shoulder and when Alabama came calling, Saban saw an escape route from a no-win, no-QB situation in Miami.

Give one of these guys a top-five NFL quarterback and perhaps this is a different discussion.

At the end of the day, the lack of NFL head coaching success of his disciples probably only enhances Belichick's own legacy and reputation, instead of hurting it. It only adds to his legend.

He is one of a kind.

NFL teams could say no Moss

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 2, 2010 03:01 PM

It turns out that Randy Moss needed the Patriots more than they needed Randy Moss.

That's the only conclusion you can come to after watching the Patriots, relieved of Randy being Randy, roll to the best record in the league, and Moss end up on the NFL's version of eBay.

Even Manny Ramirez has never worn out a welcome as quickly as Moss did in Minnesota. After four games and 13 catches, Randy Redux is done in Minnesota. Who knew the Randy Ratio was teams to touchdowns?

The lesson once again for teams, fans, and media is that the laundry may change, but the athlete doesn't. Moss's one-handed catches always come with a catch. Just like he has a track record on the field, Moss has one off it.

The same was true of Ramirez and Rasheed Wallace. All are tremendous talents that come with a buyer-beware label attached that you can only ignore for so long.

They don't change. Only our opinion of them does, if they're wearing preferred laundry or not. So it is with Moss, who could still help the Patriots and quite a few other teams with his immense talent. But eventually there is a tipping a point, a point where the ability isn't worth the instability. Two teams, the Patriots and the Vikings, reached that point with Moss in the last 27 days. You wonder if Moss, now 33, is nearing the point where the entire NFL feels that way?

While Moss's immediate future is in question as his name dangles on the NFL waiver wire, so are his long-term prospects for NFL employment. If you were an NFL owner would you give Moss a three-year, $30-million deal after his behavior this season?

Moss's meltdown in a contract year is almost unprecedented. All he had to do was let his play make his case for a new contract by lighting up the league like he had the previous three seasons in New England, and he was going to get paid by someone, pre- or post-lockout. Even if he had just been a good foot soldier in Foxborough and followed through on the words he uttered in his bizarre address after the Patriots' season-opener, when he said, "I'm not here to start any trouble. I'm here to play my last year out of my contract," it would have been enough.

If his numbers were down, then another team would have chalked it up to his unhappiness with not having a contract, or the Patriots' desire to diversify their offense.

Instead, the man once known as The Freak had a freakout about his fate, forced his way out of Foxborough and then complained about the catering and the coaching in Minnesota, prodding Vikings coach Brad Childress to release him after less than a month.

At the beginning of this season, Moss had some control over his football fate. Now, he has none. If you go back to Moss's comments when he joined the Patriots in a draft-day trade in April of 2007, you'll understand that in his world that's more daunting than facing triple-coverage.

"I think that a lot of things have been said probably over the last week or two about...what team am I going to be on, and that really kind of bothered me because I really didn’t know my fate," said Moss back then. "Not knowing my fate really scares me, and what it scares me into doing is working out and getting my body conditioned so hopefully I can showcase my talent."

If Moss isn't careful, he will become the Allen Iverson of the NFL. Moss and Iverson have a lot in common, besides famous cornrows. They're signature players for their generation who always kept it real, sometimes to their professional detriment. Both were high-profile high school stars that got railroaded in racially-tinged fights that sent them to jail. Both are one-of-a-kind talents, and both had short-lived and unsuccessful reunions with their original teams.

For Moss, hopefully the parallels end there.

Iverson -- an 11-time NBA All-Star, four-time scoring champion and former league MVP -- is persona non grata in the NBA after his froward ways and refusal to accept a reduced role alienated the entire league. A.I. is not in the NBA. Last Friday, without any NBA takers, Iverson, 35, signed a two-year, $4-million contract to play with a Turkish team called Besiktas. There are no professional football teams in Turkey.

Moss's skills haven't quite declined the way Iverson's have, but there has been slippage. Moss still has five touchdowns this season and is averaging 14.2 yards per reception. He'd still be the best deep threat on the Patriots or nearly any other NFL team. However, he only has 22 catches in eight games this season and is without a reception of 40 yards or more, matching the longest stretch of his career to start a season without a 40-yarder, which came in 2001.

Without Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to coddle him and cover for him, Moss is at a career crossroads. He can either curb his act with his new team long enough to convince the league he's still worth the trouble, or he can continue to act in a self-centered manner and find himself flanked right out of the league.

The Patriots threw Moss a career lifeline once, in 2007, and he caught it. If he drops this next one, then the NFL could drop him. Permanently.

Belichick has Patriots at head of the class

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 1, 2010 12:45 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Imagine if Bill Belichick had decided to dedicate his considerable brain power to a calling other than professional football. He'd probably master cold fusion, find a cure for multiple sclerosis or figure out how to teleport to alternate dimensions.

All of those seemed more likely than him coaching the Patriots to a 6-1 record at this point of the season. Yet here we are.

The Patriots woke up this morning as the only one-loss team in the National Football League, and in large part they have their stolid savant of a head coach to thank. In Belichick They Trust.

"I think a lot of guys have taken his coaching, and I think that’s been a very fun part of this season for the players, is that what he comes in and says is usually the way it plays out in the game," quarterback Tom Brady said this morning during his weekly appearance on WEEI (850). "There’s no better coaching a player can have than a coach who goes in there on Wednesday and tells you the way the game is going to go, and that's how it happens on Sunday."

What Belichick is doing this season with this rendition of the Patriots is nothing short of sublime and rivals his work in the hallowed 2001 season. Belichick has lost three trusted veteran starters for the season to injury (Leigh Bodden, Ty Warren and Kevin Faulk), endured an acrimonious sit-out by his best offensive lineman (Logan Mankins) and traded away a recalcitrant receiver who scored 50 touchdowns over the last three-plus seasons (Randy Moss), and somehow made his team not just better, but the best in the NFL.

And to think some idiot said this guy was the third-best coach in town a month ago. Hand me a hoodie to cover my head in shame.

His team wore throwback uniforms yesterday in its 28-18 win over the Minnesota Vikings, but we've been getting vintage Belichick ever since the loss to Vociferous Rex and Jets.

Sure, the Patriots have had a little good fortune this season to win five in a row -- the Vikings gave them a gift reception and a gift interception that led to touchdowns yesterday. San Diego's self-inflicted wounds were the football equivalent of that gun-twirling twit who got killed off on the original "Beverly Hills: 90210" show. Rest in peace, Scott Scanlon.

But for the last four weeks Belichick's team has consistently out-played, out-witted, and out-lasted their opponents. This is old-school Patriots where you're not quite exactly sure how they won, and you're pretty sure the team they beat has more raw talent. But they just keep winning.

The Patriots are even starting to run some retro plays. How did you like that deft direct snap to running back Danny Woodhead on third and goal from the 3, following a timeout?

The thought at the beginning of the season was that the Patriots would go as far as their defense would allow them, and that meant it was on Belichick to coach it up. He has. Belichick is now coordinating a defense that hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns in a game in each of its last four games and is making key stops, despite being greener than a Toyota Prius.

Yesterday, Belichick's defense had rookies starting at left defensive end (Brandon Deaderick), inside linebacker (Brandon Spikes), outside linebacker (Jermaine Cunningham) and cornerback (Devin McCourty). He had a guy that the New Orleans Saints thought was a long-snapper at the other outside linebacker spot (Rob Ninkovich) and the cornerback he put on Randy Moss most of the day, Kyle Arrington, is an undrafted free agent from a school that no longer has a football program.

Still, Belichick scored another chalkboard checkmate yesterday, completely taking Moss out of the game by putting a safety over the top of him and instructing Arrington and others to rough up Randy (one catch for eight yards) like his name was Von Wafer.

Following that blueprint and some stellar red zone defense, the Patriots' defense held a Vikings team that has four future Hall of Famers on it -- Moss, Brett Favre, Adrian Peterson and Steve Hutchinson -- to just 18 points.

Belichick's game-plan was so good it had Moss waxing poetic about the Patriot Way and bemoaning his own team's state of readiness. Watch your back, Brad Childress. That Moss-Favre mutiny is afoot.

Ramblin' Randy, who called Belichick "the best coach in football history," wasn't the only former Patriot with the Vikings impressed by Belichick's mastery.

"They're bringing the younger guys along," said Greg Lewis. "They're doing a good job. Belichick, he does a good job with what he's given and what he has. He finds a way to put guys in position to succeed. He has proven that over the years."

The smartest move our resident gridiron genius made didn't come on the field. It was off it. He changed the culture of his locker room, which rotted the team from the inside out last season. He parted ways with the quick-fix veterans with whom he clashed and restored the locker room to its previous Pavlovian state of obedience with a bunch of Super Bowl-winning loyalists, naive NFL neophytes, and venerable veterans (see: Crumpler, Alge).

Brady was right in the spring, when he told Sports Illustrated's Peter King the team just had to listen to Belichick because the educated coach had all the answers.

"We've got the best football coach of all time. He's got the answers. We as a team have to take the teaching and the coaching we're being given," Brady said in May, looking back on last season.

They have and by heeding their head coach they're the head of the class in the NFL.

Can't mask loss of Moss

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 29, 2010 02:21 PM

Sunday is Halloween, so this is a fitting question: Does the Patriots' offense still put the same fear in opponents as it did when Randy Moss was dressed up as a Patriot?

No.

That's been obvious against two very good defenses the last two weeks in Baltimore and San Diego. The Patriots won both games because they out-executed the opponent when it mattered the most and displayed the type of gridiron gestalt that save for last season and 2002, has been a hallmark of Belichick teams since the Cinderella 2001 season. With or without Moss, the Patriots are a good T-E-A-M. Are you listening Miami Heat? That's team, not collection of talent.

However, without Moss, who makes his return to Foxborough on Sunday to face his former team, the margin for error on offense and Tom Brady's window to complete passes has shrunk considerably. This offense is now closer to the 2006 rendition than the 2007 one. It's OK, the Patriots can win with this offense. Just don't tell me it's better than the one with Moss.

Moss is gone and so is the thrill from the Patriots offense.

Even though some people are content to do so now, it's tough to just ignore those 50 touchdowns Moss had in his 52 games as a Patriot and act like they never happened. Let the record show that the last two passes Moss caught from Brady, against Buffalo, both went for touchdowns.

The sample size is very small -- two games -- but it's apparent that when Moss went to Minnesota he took the Patriots deep ball with him. The team has attempted two deep passes since Moss's departure, a long bomb to Brandon Tate on the final possession of the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens and a reverse flea-flicker to Deion Branch on their first possession last week against San Diego.

Both plays seemed designed to prove a point. Both times there was a better chance of Bill Belichick coaching with a Moss mask on Sunday than the pass being completed.

No where in the commandments of football does it say Thou Must Complete the Deep Pass. But it certainly helps to be able to have the threat of the deep pass to keep defenses honest, which Moss in his bizarre monologue following the season opener said was his job. The Patriots had that threat in the Glory Days in the form of David Patten. The last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl, 2004, Patten averaged 18.2 yards per catch and had seven touchdowns.

Teams simply have no reason to fear the deep pass from the Patriots any more. And it shows. Brady's passing yards per completion attempt with Moss this season was 7.47. Minus Moss it's 6.83.

The most glaringly example of tighter windows for Brady without No. 81 has come on third down. With Moss, the Patriots converted on third down at a 55.3 percent clip. The last two weeks they're 7 of 26 (26.9 percent).

Wideout Wes Welker, who is still working his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, was asked how Moss's presence as a vertical threat impacts defenses.

"I think it keeps the defense honest and wanting to make sure he’s not going deep," said Wes Welker. "You don’t know which play he’s going to all of a sudden take off on you. It definitely can put those safeties in check."

Now, when Welker meant you don't know which play he's going to take off on you, he didn't mean you don't know which play Randy is going to take a siesta on. And that did happen here. No question.

No one is arguing that the Moss trade was a bad deal. The Patriots are 2-0 without him. He had clearly become fixated on his contract situation and it was only a matter of time before the situation deteriorated and took the team down with it. Plus, it looks like father time has caught up with Moss just a bit, but the automatic conclusion that subtracting Moss from the mix made the Patriots' offense a better unit is a lot of revisionist history.

Before the season started the general consensus was that the strength of these Patriots would be their explosive offense. People pointed to Brady throwing to Moss and Welker and the young tight ends. Moss's presence was trumpeted as a reason the Patriots could win. Then suddenly it was his absence that made them better.

The change of popular opinion was enough to give you logic whiplash.

The Patriots went out and got Brady his security blanket back in Branch, and Branch has been great for the locker room and seamlessly adapted to the offense. In his first go-round with the Patriots, Branch was a deep threat. He has yet to display that same capability in his second Patriot act, and a bum hamstring this week isn't going to help matters.

A lot of the Patriots' receivers mimic each others' skills sets. Branch's strengths are similar to those of Welker. Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate both seem to be good in space with the ball in their hands and the ability to run. Moss may be one-dimensional, but it's a unique dimension.

The Patriots offense hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in the last three weeks. That includes Moss's final game as a Patriot when he had zero catches and was zero part of the gameplan.

It might not get much better on Sunday, with Moss having debriefed the Vikings coaches on the Patriots offense. It's not just anyone giving Minnesota Patriots intelligence, it's a player Belichick described today as being "as smart as any receiver I've coached."

Moss is no dummy, and if he thought that night in Miami the Patriots' offense had become too predictable, maybe the delivery was wrong, but the point was right.

Now that's a scary thought.

These Patriots are lucky and good

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 25, 2010 04:00 PM

SAN DIEGO — The snap judgment this morning is that the Patriots got lucky on the Left Coast yesterday. That they had horseshoes inside their helmets, and rabbits’ feet tucked into their cleats after surviving a furious fourth-quarter rally by the San Diego Chargers.

There was certainly some good fortune involved in holding on for dear life and a 23-20 victory over the Chargers yesterday at Qualcomm Stadium, but good teams make their own luck. At 5-1 the Patriots are a good team, and they’re getting better, especially on defense.

Coach Bill Belichick’s Soldiers of Fortune benefited from the residue of design and San Diego’s self-inflicted wounds, which, honestly, were one and the same.

The Patriots were aware of the explosiveness of the Chargers’ passing game. Philip Rivers had channeled Dan Fouts and the Air Coryell-era Chargers. San Diego entered yesterday’s game with the top-rated passing attack in the NFL (316.2 yards per game) and with 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more.

Through the first three quarters, the Patriots’ defense held the Chargers to just one pass play of more than 20 yards, a 25-yard completion to Richard Goodman, which was followed by Goodman putting the ball down to celebrate his reception, only to realize he had just fumbled because he never had been touched down.

That was typical for the Chargers, who turned the ball over on four straight first-half possessions. This year’s Bolts are dolts who beat themselves, and Belichick knew it.

The Chargers are the NFL’s version of a Southern California natural disaster. The Patriots’ defensive game plan was clear — make Rivers and the Chargers beat them, because if the Patriots didn’t get beat deep, like they did here two years ago, then the Chargers were likely to beat themselves.

“All the coaches coming into this game were just saying, ‘Make them earn it,’ ’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “That’s what we tried to do. They gave us a couple of plays. We take advantage of it. I think we definitely did make them earn it. I think we did a good job of that.’’

The one time the Chargers tried to go deep to Patrick Crayton, rookie Devin McCourty made a spectacular interception. San Diego’s scoring drives were 11, 12, 11, and nine plays. The Patriots bent over backward, but they didn’t break. The Chargers did.

Defensively, the effort was far from a work of art for the Patriots. When Rivers and Co. went no-huddle, they were able to move the ball with ease. But the Patriots stuck to the plan to the bitter end. On third and 10 from the Patriots’ 35 with 1:14 left, Rivers couldn’t find an open receiver, had to scramble to his right, and finally hit Antonio Gates, who was tackled by rookie safety Sergio Brown 2 yards shy of a first down. San Diego chose to attempt a tying field goal, and imploded again with a penalty that turned a 45-yarder into a 50-yarder.

“We knew we had to contain their passing game downfield,’’ said Vince Wilfork. “I think our secondary did a [heck] of a job with that. My hat goes off to those guys. Bill challenged those guys. We challenged them. We basically told them you got to handle those deep posts and those 20-yard, 30-yard routes, and we’ll handle the run game . . . I tip my hat to these guys. They played their butt off, and as a defense we played our butt off.

“As a defense we still can learn, we’ll keep building. These younger guys will keep getting older. The more games they play the better they’ll get. We’re 5-1 right now. We can’t complain right now. We’re going back home with a W.’’

That would not have been the case last year. This is the type of game and the type of lead (20-3 at the start of the fourth) that the Patriots would have lost last season because of busted coverages or panic penalties.

Yes, San Diego scored on its first three possessions of the second half and could have been 4 for 4 if Louis Vasquez didn’t get antsy and earn a false start that turned Kris Brown’s ill-fated field goal attempt into a 50-yarder.

Yes, Rivers ended up with a 336-yard day, but it took 50 throws to do it. Flingin’ Philip was 20 of 28 for 213 yards and a touchdown in the second half, but his leading receiver on the day was running back Darren Sproles (nine catches for 70 yards). In the second half, Rivers was sacked twice and often forced to hold the ball because of New England’s coverage.

With the game on the line Belichick once again elected to eschew his defense, going for it on fourth and 1 from his 49.

Now, the luck part for the Patriots is that the Chargers were playing without starting receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee and that Gates, who didn’t have a catch through three-plus quarters, was clearly hobbled with a toe injury. They caught the Chargers at a good time. That was their good fortune.

However, if the Patriots’ offense had been more productive with the Chargers’ offensive miscues in the first half — 38 yards of total offense — then the defense wouldn’t have had the misfortune of finding itself in a do-or-die scenario in the final 1:55 with the Chargers taking over at New England’s 47.

On the other hand, it was a scenario they were not afraid to be in.

“We already knew what time it was,’’ said safety Brandon Meriweather. “It was on us, just like it has been for the whole season. Defense has to stand up and be a backbone.’’

Meriweather was asked if the defense felt it got away with one. His answer spoke both the truth and volumes.

“No, we feel like we’re a good team,’’ he said.

Hits will keep on coming for NFL

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 19, 2010 07:59 PM
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
James Harrison of the Steelers was fined $75,000 for his hits.
The NFL has always been a Pat Benatar business -- hit me with your best shot. It is ingrained in the testosterone-fueled culture of the league. There are no amount of rules changes, fines or suspensions that are going to change that overnight.

The NFL made examples out of Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather ($50,000 fine), Steelers linebacker James Harrison ($75,000) and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ($50,000 fine) yesterday for their head shots on Sunday. League vice president of football operations Ray Anderson also sounded a clarion call that future headhunters would face not only fines but suspensions for egregious and dangerous hits.

But there is an old saying that you can't legislate common sense. You can make it against the law for someone not to wear their seat belt, but you can't prevent them from leaving the house without it fastened.

For all the "We are one" gestures on the opening weekend of the season by the players, it's pretty obvious that they either are unwilling or unable to protect each other. Last Sunday was a headbanger's ball in the league with several notable helmet-to-helmet hits, including Meriweather turning himself into a Patriot missile and trying to blow up Baltimore tight end Todd Heap on an incompletion. That blow was so reckless that even the baleful Harrison, who said it's his job to hurt people, called it a "nasty hit" and used it to defend his own on-field behavior.

No one, not players, coaches, league executives, media or fans can claim the moral high ground on this subject.

The NFL is always going to look a little sanctimonious with its outrage over these hits. The league had to be hit over the head with mounting evidence of the deleterious defects of concussions before they became more proactive with regard to prevention and treatment. For years they marketed and glorified cringe-worthy collisions as one of the more appealing parts of professional football. If NFL Films had been at the Roman Colosseum, the lions would have been the protagonists.

A lot of football fans remember enjoying "NFL's Greatest Hits" videos, a compilation of kill-shots on mostly defenseless players set to adrenaline-inducing music. Back then the rule was to blow those guys up -- at will. Big hits became the NFL's version of the NBA slam-dunk contest.

The NFL and headshot hits is akin to major league baseball and steroids. For years they buried their head in the sand, and once it became a public relations problem that couldn't go away they found religion. But it was relatively easy for major league baseball to eradicate steroids, all they had to do was try. It has proven harder for the NFL to eliminate concussion-causing hits because violence is part of the game's DNA. There is no testing that can weed out wanton disregard for a fellow player's safety or extraordinarily bad judgment.

It's a fine line -- and sometimes a fined line -- for players who know their job security rests on being able to pry the ball free from the opposition by any means necessary. There are franchises like the Raiders and the Steelers that have built their entire organizational ethos on fear, intimidation, and playing on the edge. Players will argue that if they don't find a way to do their job, teams with find someone else to do it for them. They're right.

Meriweather has been roundly criticized around here for not tackling and letting players bounce off him. He tries to be more physical, but goes about it all wrong. But let's be clear, coach Bill Belichick didn't take him off the field because of outrage over an ostensibly dirty play. He took him off because he committed an undisciplined and unnecessary penalty that cost the team yardage.

That's not an uncommon trait for a Patriots' safety.

Last year, Brandon McGowan was a starter for the first 11 games last season. This is a man who described his style of play as "reckless." Rodney Harrison was beloved during his Patriots career despite being regarded by his peers as one of the dirtiest players of his era. Lawyer Milloy enjoyed more successful launches than NASA. Poor Ty Law had the unfortunate fate of being the Ellis Burks to his gridiron Mike Greenwell.

For most of the NFL's existence, hits like the one Meriweather delivered were part of a safety's job. How many times have you heard an announcer say player X dropped the ball because he heard footsteps? It was not the pitter-patter of cleats that caused the drop, but the idea of being eviscerated. Intimidation is a 12th defender.

That's why the hits are going to keep on coming until the burden for them is shared not only by players, but by coaches and organizations. Fine coaches and owners for their players' conduct and then you might see a real change.

Steelers teammates and coach Mike Tomlin actually lauded James Harrison for his hits on Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi of the Browns. The remorseless Harrison displayed uncommon ignorance about concussions, especially playing for an organization that once employed Merril Hoge, who has become a concussion crusader.

"I thought Cribbs was asleep," Harrison said in an Associated Press story. "A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he's just sleeping. He's knocked out but he's going to be OK."

Tell that to Ted Johnson or Kevin Turner or John Mackey. If the NFL thought players like Cribbs were going to be okay, they wouldn't have instituted tougher guidelines for players to return from concussions last December or donated $1 million dollars earlier this year to the Boston University School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Headshots are creating a headache for the NFL. The league is taking steps in the right direction, but in a game as violent and competitive as football, the idea of player safety will always be precarious at best and an oxymoron at worst.

That's something NFL players won't forget no matter how many concussions they suffer.

Patriots can send direct message on Sunday

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 15, 2010 01:54 PM
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The Baltimore Ravens were the messengers and the direct message they sent to the Patriots in January was it was time to let go of the past or become part of it.

The 33-14 beatdown that Baltimore laid on the Patriots last January in the AFC playoffs shook Fort Foxborough to its core, the Ravens providing a rude requiem for the Team of the Decade.

Two months later, speaking at the NFL owners' meetings, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was still beside himself about the Baltimore blowout. He called it "really one of the most frustrating moments I've had since owning the franchise" and said he couldn't ever remember his team appearing to be "so non-competitive."

"Let me tell you, that really shook us all up," said Kraft, back in March. "That Baltimore [game]. I know what it did to me. That was the worst feeling that I could remember in a long time ...That was bad."

It was and it led to a lot of soul-searching, a locker room makeover, and some rather spartan redecorating of the halls of Gillette Stadium. Coach Bill Belichick basically decided he would rather reboot with a group of young but obedient football players than cast his lot with Hessian veterans looking for a ring while trying to extend a run that had run its course. So far, it looks like the right move as the precocious Patriots are 3-1.

The bullies from Baltimore are back in the Patriots' backyard this Sunday, and it's time to find out just how far the Patriots have come in the renovation process and how much remains for them to do to return to their championship form. Turning back the clock has been all the rage this week with the return of Deion Branch, but no one wants to repeat the past against the Ravens.

In one man's opinion, the Ravens are the best team in the AFC, even without sui generis safety Ed Reed. They're fierce, physical, talented and well-coached. By the way, great nugget in Sports Illustrated about the fact that it was Belichick who recommended the Ravens hire John Harbaugh.

This game is going to be kind of like the new Patriots playing the old Patriots. The Ravens can beat you playing your game or playing theirs. Take your pick, and either way they'll try to beat you up in the process.

The Ravens know the Patriots want revenge for the January massacre and their attitude is pretty much, "bring it on."

"I think it has to be in the back of their head," said Ravens running back Ray Rice, who tormented the Patriots. "Obviously, because what we did last year was uncommon for that kind of team. We went up there, we dominated them. We were hungry. We still are hungry, because the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl, and we have yet to do that. ...A lot of things have changed over there, but overall, we know what Bill Belichick stands for. He’s a great coach, and he’s going to build that team around team unity."

If the Patriots win this game, then the expectations for this season have to be raised, the learning curve has been accelerated. If they lose a close game, and go facemask to facemask with the Ravens for 60 minutes, then it's a sign of progress, a character-builder for a team feeling around for its identity. If they're abused like they were in January, then it's a sign that there is a lot of work to be done before the Patriots can regain AFC eminence, and that the most consistent aspect of a team that relies on so many first, second, and third-year players is its inconsistency.

While most of the focus on Sunday will be on how the Randy Moss-less offense fares, the reality is that this is more of a crucible for the coming-of-age New England defense. It was going to be tough to score points against the Ravens even with Moss. Their defense is just that good, and it hasn't allowed more than two touchdowns in any game this season.

The question about these Patriots is whether they are equipped to win a 17-14 game or a 20-17 game? I'm not sure we know that yet, but Baltimore should give us an idea.

Patriots defenders better buckle their chin straps extra tight. The Ravens rushed for 234 yards against the Patriots in that playoff game. They're coming off a 233-yard rushing effort against the Denver Broncos and old friend Josh McDaniels. It doesn't take Stephen Hawking to know that the Ravens are going to run right at the Patriots and see if they'll hold up or fold up like a beach chair.

Lost in the euphoria of the win over the Dolphins was the fact that the Patriots allowed 4.8 yards per carry to the Dolphins. They've allowed at least 4.3 yards per carry in each of their last three games. The indelible memory from New England's ignominious postseason exit is Rice busting through the line like a sprinter coming out of the blocks for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco only had to throw 10 passes all day.

Stop the run, and the Patriots have a chance to stop the Ravens. Get run over and it's a replay.

The Patriots have every reason to feel good about what happened in Miami. It was as complete a performance as the team has put together in quite some time. It was a sign of progress and improvement. But they're moving up a class in competition this week.

Win this game and it's the Patriots that are sending the message this time.

Looking past Moss

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 14, 2010 02:01 PM

In a season in which the past was supposed to be forgotten, wiped clean off the walls of Gillette Stadium, it has suddenly become the centerpiece. The new hope for nouveau New England is to kick it old school on offense. Diva wide receivers need not apply.

The past was once passe at Patriot Place. Remember all the talk about the pictures of Patriots' triumphs of yesteryear being taken away and the past put away? Now, with a pass-catching piece of it back in the fold, Deion Branch, it's all the rage. It's being cited as the reason the Patriots will not only survive, but thrive without the presence of Randy Moss and his 50 touchdowns the last three-plus seasons.

The Patriots are going back to the future.

Sunday's game against the Ravens (last seen pummeling and humbling the Patriots in the playoffs) is suddenly a reason to reminisce about the good old days, and hope for a return to them. Suddenly, Branch is back in the preferred laundry, and he's the perfect piece. Moss is no longer in the preferred attire, so he's as wanted as a cold sore.

When Bill Belichick spoke to the local media the day after the Moss trade, he referenced the fact the Patriots had won more games over the last decade than any other team. Belichick is usually loath to discuss the past. In this case, it's become what he's selling, minus Moss, who had an option route this year and decided he wanted to run a go pattern, forcing Belichick's hand.

We all tend to romanticize days gone by, but the reality is there is no going back most of the time. Perhaps, Branch is the rare exception, and it's obvious that Belichick and Tom Brady are thrilled to have him. Belichick could barely suppress a smile when asked a question about Branch yesterday. But while Branch is back the teams he played on when he won two Super Bowls here are not.

It's not the same coordinator, the same defense or the same locker room.

Now, the past being erased is Moss's. It's like football meets "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" around here.

We're supposed to forget Moss was ever a Patriot. That he was ever the best player not named Brady on this team. Moss was a three-and-a-half year dalliance, the Patriots' version of those experimental college years. It never happened, sort of like all those strident arguments that not signing Branch in 2006 was really a wise decision because if they had they wouldn't have gotten the explosive Moss the following off-season.

Bet you don't hear that one anymore from the pretzel-logic loyalists.

The Patriots had to make the trade of Moss and acquiring Branch was making the best out of a tough situation. It was a shrewd move by one of the league's best managed teams. But that doesn't mean the Patriots squad that faces the Ravens on Sunday is better than the one that beat Miami. That remains to be seen. It is in the future and no one can portend what the Patriots will be without Moss and with Branch, who over the last two seasons has averaged 9.5 yards per catch.

Look, removing Moss from the equation could free up Brady to play more mistake-free football than last season. The erudite football site, Pro Football Focus, had some very revealing analysis when it came to Moss and Brady. Based on their research, of the last 15 interceptions Brady has thrown (13 last season, two this year) nine were on passes intended for Moss.

Adding Branch to the Patriots could free him up to be the smart, perceptive, playmaker he was during his four seasons here, instead of the injury-prone, underperforming pass-catcher he was perceived as in Seattle.

However, Moss was great here. That's a fact. The Patriots were 26-4 in games in which he caught a touchdown pass. When he caught two touchdowns they were nearly unbeatable (14-1). The one loss was last season's controversial collapse against the Colts.

At this point with the Patriots it's a matter of belief. Do you believe they're better off without Moss? Do you believe that Branch is the same player he was when he left Foxborough four years ago? Do you believe the Patriots' past can be repeated?

The Patriots are going to score points without Moss. If Brady could lead the Patriots to the seventh-highest scoring offense in 2006, he'll be able to score points with this group now.

Maybe Brady and Branch can rekindle their magic, maybe Brandon Tate is what Chad Jackson was supposed to be, maybe Wes Welker doesn't need Moss to catch 100-plus balls. We're about to find out.

Removing Moss takes away the deep-ball threat, but it doesn't change this offense's personnel approach. That had already happened. The Patriots morphing from a shotgun-reliant, three-wide receiver team to more of a two-tight end offense with the emergence of rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

If Moss would have been content playing in such a diversified attack then it would have been ideal. He was not, so he's part of the past. The one most Patriots supporters are now more than happy to wipe from their memory.

Patriots defense plays press coverage

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 5, 2010 11:05 AM

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- The media did something Bill Belichick could not until last night -- get the Patriots defense to play better.

The Patriots entered last night's game ranked 29th in the NFL in points allowed per game (27.3). They were 27th in total defense, allowing 379.3 yards per game. They were coming off a game in which they surrendered 23 points to the Buffalo Bills. They had been harangued, maligned, and dismissed.

The pen proved mightier than the playbook, as Belichick resorted to the oldest trick in the coaching handbook, playing the disrespect card with his defenders. He pointed out that most Patriots pundits, including those in the team-produced publication, were picking the Miami Dolphins to win last night's game.

Who says Belichick doesn't like the media?

It worked, as the Patriots shut up their critics and silenced the raucous football-meets-frat party atmosphere that is a Dolphins a home game with a 41-14 victory last night at Sun Life Stadium.

The effort gave a new meaning to the idea of a defense playing press coverage.

"Yeah, you guys have been rough on us. I mean but deservedly so," said cornerback Kyle Arrington. "This was a great win. It was just an overall great team win, offense, defense, special teams. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves this game. There should be no excuse for why we can't continue."

For the record, yours truly selected the Patriots to win this game, and Belichick was employing this ploy even when the team was coming off back-to-back Super Bowls, but let's not let the facts get in the way of a good psychological gimmick or a marquee win in Miami.

Whatever their motivation, the Patriots' defense produced its most encouraging effort to date, allowing a season-low 14 points and producing four turnovers, including Patrick Chung's 51-yard interception return for a touchdown.

More importantly they did something that they were unable to do all of last season -- hold a second-half lead on the road. Last year's trip to Miami was marred by the Patriots blowing a 21-10 second-half lead on the way to devastating 22-21 loss.

"We started to do what we do in practice," said safety Brandon Meriweather. "We stopped trying to make every play and just settled down and let the game come to us."

Now, the Patriots go into the bye week with a performance to build on and a share of first place in the AFC East courtesy of a 3-1 record.

If the Patriots can get something approximating this type of defensive effort the rest of the way -- a big if -- then there is reason for optimism in Foxborough. It's as clear as the view from the top of the Prudential that the Patriots are going to go as far as their revamped defense allows them to. Last night it helped them win a key division game on the road. That's a sentence I wasn't sure I'd be typing this season.

On a night when Tom Brady went retro and posted pedestrian numbers (19 of 24 for 153, with a touchdown) and Randy Moss failed to register a reception, a Patriots defense put on the defensive over its play held a Dolphins team that scored 23 points against the New York Jets vaunted and vocal defense to just one touchdown in the second half.

Admit it, after the Patriots went up 27-14 at the end of the third quarter, you held your breath wondering if the defense could hold the lead. They didn't just hold it: they helped increase it. The Dolphins had four possessions after they pulled to 20-14 with 8:56 left in the third quarter, and they went blocked field goal, turnover on downs, interception and interception.

That's why the defensive effort was encouraging. Belichick and Brady can win the division with the defense that played last night. They can't with the one that allowed 28 points to the Jets or 23 to the Bills.

Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, and Richard Seymour aren't walking back through that door, and the draft isn't until April. So the Patriots have to ride or die with what they've got.

Special teams was the story of the game, but the defense did its part.

Most people are going to recall Chung's blocked field goal, which resulted in an Arrington touchdown return.

However, a key prelude to that came after the Dolphins, trailing 27-14, drove to the Patriots' 29. On second and 10, Rob Ninkovich, who had a pair of first-half interceptions that led to field goals, notched a sack. That forced third and 17. Henne's third-down pass was incomplete, leading to the long field goal attempt and a low kick that Chung swatted out of the air like Dwyane Wade.

On the next Dolphins possession, Miami had third and 3 from its 44. Ronnie Brown ran for a yard and on fourth down rookie cornerback Devin McCourty stopped a short pass to Brown for no gain. The next time Miami had the ball Chung intercepted a Henne pass and took it to the house for a 41-14 Patriots' lead.

No one is going to mistake last night's New England defense for the ones with Bruschi, Harrison and Vrabel. Ninkovich didn't suddenly morph into Vrabel. Chung is not Harrison. Mayo isn't Bruschi -- yet.

But everyone has to start somewhere, and last night the Patriots defense started to build confidence by finishing. The next step is to see if they can do it against a higher caliber of quarterback. They'll get that opportunity this month with games against Joe Flacco, who led a game-winning drive for Baltimore against the Steelers on Sunday, Philip Rivers, and Brett Favre.

Because in the end the only picks that should truly matter to the Patriots defense are the ones they generate.

This one is on Brady and Belichick

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 4, 2010 02:28 PM

300bradybelichick.jpgThe Patriots have the best quarterback and the most accomplished head coach in the AFC East. No one, not even Rex Ryan, would argue with that. The question, as the Patriots prepare to face the Miami Dolphins tonight in what feels like a do-or-die divisional clash, is whether the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick is enough to rule the division any more?

We're about to find out tonight at Sun Life Stadium.

Miami is as close to a must-win scenario for the Patriots as you can have just four weeks into a season. It's the biggest road test for Brady and Belichick since they turned 16.

The Patriots don't want to go into the bye week at 2-2, with two road losses to their two biggest division rivals, the Jets and the Dolphins, and with the Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, and Minnesota Vikings waiting for them on the other side of their idle turn. They don't want to go into the bye week without getting their issues away from home out of the way.

Yes, I know the Indianapolis Colts are 2-2 with two division losses, but they played in the Super Bowl last season. The Colts know who they are. These Patriots are still trying to forge an identity, and tonight could go a along way toward how we identify this team. Are they rebuilding or regressing?

Brady and Belichick know this is a litmus test for their nebulous team. You could sense the urgency in the voices of the canonized QB and coach this week, as they discussed the Dolphins matchup.

"These Monday night games tell you an awful lot about what kind of team you have just because with the buildup to the game and we’re playing a very good team on the road – a division opponent," said Brady. "It’s a real big game for us in the course of the season. We’re really going to find out what kind of team we are, and I think we’re excited about the challenge that it’s going to be."

Just another game? Check out this quote from coach one-game-at-a-time.

"Well, there are no bigger games than division games, and division games on the road are huge," said Belichick. "I know it’s only the fourth game of the season, but these are the kind of games that at the end of the year have a big impact on the division standings [with] tiebreakers and all of that. We all know that. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but we know that they’re important games."

If Belichick is talking about tie-breakers for an early October game, you know it's germane to the cause.

Belichick and Brady know these are the games the Patriots teams of old were at their best. It's what separated them from the rest of the division, and, to a degree, the league. That's why Brady was so agitated after the loss to the Jets two weeks ago.

But most of the players around for those clutch-play days are gone, they moved on, were let go, or in the case of Ty Warren and Kevin Faulk are currently hors de combat.

It is up to Brady and Belichick to walk this bunch of Patriots down the path that leads to the Patriot Way, holding their collective hands every step of the way.

If the Patriots are going to score their first significant road win in almost two years -- since they beat the Dolphins in South Florida in November 23, 2008 -- it's going to be because Brady and Belichick operated at their optimum Hall of Fame levels.

Brady, who is 40-11 as a starter in AFC East games, has to play a smart, mistake-free game while surgically disassembling the Dolphin secondary. He can't make throws like the long-ball interception to Antonio Cromartie against the Jets two weeks ago or the end zone interception he threw last year in Miami to Vontae Davis. He has to be cool, calm, calculating, efficient and egalitarian in where he goes with the football.

Expect Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who preceded Rex Ryan as Ravens defensive coordinator, to dial up a lot of blitzes and simulated pressure to try to rattle and confuse TB12, like the Jets did. If Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez can put together a three-touchdown, no-interception performance against the Dolphins in prime time, then Brady should be able to as well. If Brady turns the ball over more than once tonight, the Patriots are doomed. The margin for error is just that slim these days.

Speaking of margin for error, there isn't much for Belichick. This is his defense, and he has to find a way to get it to play above its talent level. Belichick is the master of masking personnel deficiencies with brilliant ideas. He needs an Edison-esque defensive game plan tonight.

The Dolphins coaching staff embarrassed Belichick and the Patriots defense with the Wildcat two years ago. Last year, they added a wrinkle with zone-read option quarterback Pat White, who was since cut by Miami. The Dolphins will have some wrinkle in the run game for the Patriots, and Belichick has to checkmate Miami quickly.

It used to be a given that a young, inexperienced quarterback facing a Bill Belichick defense looked as out of place as Blake Lively doing a horrible Boston accent in "The Town." Suddenly, though, younger quarterbacks like Sanchez, who had a three touchdown outing, and Miami's Chad Henne, who threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns with one interception last year, are acing the test. It's time for Belichick to turn his coverages back into hieroglyphics again.

It was now Dolphins consultant Duane Charles Parcells who said, "You can't dream up confidence. Confidence is born of demonstrated ability."

Brady and Belichick have demonstrated the ability to win games like tonight's, now it's time they show the rest of the Patriots how it's done.

Going on the defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 27, 2010 12:08 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- It was former Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas who said that winning makes everything seem a little bit better -- food, car, significant other. If you're the Patriots you can scratch your defense off that list of victory-enhanced items.

Yesterday's 38-30 hold-your-nose win over the Buffalo Bills was a reminder that the Patriots' will only go as far as their fledgling defense will allow them to this season. Right now, the Patriots are like a Ferrari with bad brakes. They can go as fast as they want and look great doing it, but if they can't stop when they need and want to then they're bound to crash. And it won't be pretty.

There is only so much coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady can do to cover for the defense if they can't cover opposing receivers.

For all those people clamoring for Brady and the Patriots offense to do a better job of shielding the defense by possessing the ball here is a stat of note from yesterday's game. Time of possession in the second half was 21:01 for the Patriots to 8:59 for the Bills, and the game still came down to Buffalo's last possession.

You have to put the defense on the field some time. Those are the rules of the game.

Let's get one thing straight about the 2010 Patriots: quarterback play is not one of this team's major problems. Yes, Brady didn't produce against the Jets in Week 2. Yes, after the season-opener against Buffalo last season he failed to conjure up his usual magic in late and close games, but blaming Brady for this team's inability to close out games is the ultimate case of losing the forest in the trees.

In the grand gridiron scheme of things, Brady is the Patriots panacea and not part of the problem, which leads us back to the work-in-progress defense.

Through three games they've allowed 82 points, the most since Bill Belichick ushered in the Era of Good Feelings in Foxborough in 2000. They wake up today ranked 27th in the NFL in yards allowed per game (379.3) and 28th out of 32 teams in points allowed per game (27.3).

They haven't consistently stopped the run -- the Jets and Bills both topped 100 yards -- or the pass.

Following the first half of the season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, for which the Patriots had an entire offseason to game plan, Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick have combined to complete 70.1 percent of their passes for 682 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.

Sure, Sanchez (15 of 28 for 256 yards) lit up the Miami defense last night for three touchdowns passes, but that same Miami defense held the Bills to 10 points.

The most disconcerting part is that the Patriots haven't even played any of the elite quarterbacks yet. They have dates with San Diego's Philip Rivers and Minnesota's Brett Favre next month. They have back-to-back games against Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning in November. December brings a visit from Green Bay gunslinger Aaron Rodgers. That's not to mention some pretty good QBs like Baltimore's Joe Flacco, whom they'll face on Oct. 17, and Chicago's Jay Cutler.

The easy way to explain away the permeable defense to date is youth, injuries and inexperience.

Season-ending injuries to cornerback Leigh Bodden and defensive end Ty Warren didn't help the cause. Those are two key defenders against the pass and the run, respectively.

Three of the four members of the team's starting secondary are in their first or second season. That didn't change yesterday with Kyle Arrington, a sophomore corner, taking over for 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler. The Patriots are relying on rookie linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham to be regular contributors.

The problem with the youth/inexperience alibi is how do you then explain what's happening on the other side of the ball? The Patriots are relying on rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who have emerged as instant impact additions. Second-year right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a trusted starter. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has earned an increased role in his third season. Second-year receiver Brandon Tate has improved tremendously and has the trust of Brady.

History says a Belichick defense will be better in December than September, but is this defense capable of improving enough to get this team where it wants to go? Is it going to improve enough to do something last year's defense couldn't, which is slow down prolific passers and high-octane offenses?

Belichick's defensive genius is well-documented, but if you listen to linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo there is not much more Belichick can do from a scheme standpoint. It's the players on the field that have to make the plays.

"We're young, but these guys are hungry and they're willing to learn. We have a great coach in coach Belichick, and he's putting us in positions, and we just have to execute better and make plays," said Mayo, following yesterday's game.

That's the scary part for the Patriots -- any improvement by this defense is going to have to come from within. The defense is what it is, to borrow a bromide. Either they have the right players or it's back to the drawing board -- and the draft board -- after this season.

Playing some five-on-five

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 23, 2010 03:19 PM

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where the sports analysis, talk, and speculation never cease. There is rarely a shortage of topics to discuss. Here are five that have been on my mind of late.

1.There are two offensive players who have defined the essence and ethos of the Bill Belichick Patriots. One was Troy Brown, and the other is Kevin Faulk, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The laconic Louisiana native is as stand-up a guy as you'll find in an NFL locker room. During the 2007 season, with Spygate swirling, Faulk, a team captain that season, was one of the few players who consistently stood at his locker and faced the barrage of questions. When asked why he did it, he simply relayed he felt it was his job as a captain.

Faulk is one of those players for whom statistics simply don't do justice. An example, he scored just one touchdown during the point-a-palooza 2007 season. It was the game-winner in the Patriots' epic comeback against the Colts, as Faulk willed his way over the goal line for the winning points, squeezing between Colts defenders. It was quintessential Faulk. When Faulk retires there is a place in the Hall at Patriot Place with his name on it.

2. Just curious what all those David Ortiz detractors are saying now. At the start of play on May 9, the last day the Yankees came to the Fens, Ortiz was batting .178 and the discussion was about how long before the Sox gave Big Papi his walking papers. ESPN's estimable Buster Olney wrote: "I'd be stunned if Ortiz finishes the month on the Boston roster."

Now, here we are on Sept. 23, and Ortiz is tied for fifth in the American League in home runs (31), is on pace to drive in 100 runs and has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OPS than the Yankees Mark Teixeira. To me it's a no-brainer for the Sox to pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million option, especially with Mike Lowell coming off the books. This team is already devoid of power and 30-homer sluggers don't grown on trees, at least not anymore. Ortiz is too proud to take a paycut to stay here. Ortiz is awful against lefties -- .205 and just two homers -- but do the Sox have a better option at DH? Compare Papi's numbers to Nationals slugger, Adam Dunn, long a Fenway front-office favorite. The on-base percentages (.362) are identical, so are the RBI totals (96). Dunn has hit .199 against lefties this year.

3. There has been considerable buzz building lately for Jayson Werth coming to Boston this winter. The hard-hitting and hirsute outfielder would fill the Sox' desperate need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder with pop. This year Werth ranks No. 16 in all of baseball in OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player's ballpark. He is ahead of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Evan Longoria. By comparison, Matt Holliday, last year's hot free-agent outfielder, is eighth in OPS-plus.

The question is whether Werth is worth the cost? Werth has hired Scott Boras as his agent, and SI.com's Jon Heyman, who frequently quotes Boras, guessed that it will take five years and $90 million to sign Werth via free agency. Do you want to give that long a contract to a player who turns 32 in May, when you're only willing to go two years on Victor Martinez, who turns 32 in December?

Anyone who read the recent Sports Illustrated piece on Werth has to wonder how he'd fare in Boston. It's one thing to go from bench player to cult hero in Philly. It's another to arrive in baseball-obsessed Boston as a big-ticket acquisition. The Red Sox haven't exactly hit a lot of home runs in free agency during the Theo Epstein regime. Plus, Werth's home-road splits this season are a little alarming, although he posted a higher on-base percentage away from home in 2009 and boasted more home runs and a better slugging percentage on the road in 2008.

If you have to spend that type of money on an outfielder then the safer investment in my mind would have been Holliday, who turns 31 in January and has a longer track record of success.

4. I'm not sure what to make of the Marc Savard saga, except it just seems like a headache for the Bruins. To me there are three possible scenarios and none of them are really good for the B's, considering that Savard's seven-year, $28-million extension kicks in this season. One, is that the team and Savard are telling the truth and at some point during the summer his post-concussion syndrome symptoms unexpectedly returned. Two, is the grassy-noll theory that Savard is ticked off about his name being bandied about in trade rumors all summer long and is going on a wildcat strike. Three, that the Bruins knew Savard was damaged goods and were trying to peddle him off before it became obvious he wasn't going to be ready for the start of camp. Here's hoping Savard returns healthy and happy.

5. Got to love the Celtics' logic when it comes to losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers has said that his team has never been beaten in a playoff series with the entire starting five at the Green's disposal, a point Paul Pierce agreed with. Kevin Garnett was hors de hoops in the 2009 playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins torn ACL in Game 6 of this year's Finals let the Lakers play volleyball on the boards in Game 7. The problem is that when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, LA was playing without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs that year with a dislocated left kneecap, a convenient fact that gets omitted over on Causeway Street. Here's hoping for a full-strength Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals rubber rematch this year.

Voices of reason needed at Gillette

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 21, 2010 01:49 PM

400gillette.jpgCan you hear me now? That's what Patriots fans are going to be asking quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday.

The most interesting aspect of the Patriots' matchup this Sunday with the boringly bad Buffalo Bills is going to be in the stands. Sunday's visit by the Bills marks the first game at Gillette Stadium since Brady revealed he was not a fan of the home crowd's performance in the Patriots' 38-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the season-opener.

A quick refresher: Last Wednesday, Brady said the atmosphere created by Jets fans "is very different than our friendly home crowd who when I looked up half the stadium was gone when we were up 21 points in the early fourth quarter, which I wasn’t so happy about. I don’t think the Jets fans leave early."

It's pretty hard to blame a Patriots fan for leaving Gillette early to escape the gridiron gridlock. Crowd control to Major Tom, not everyone can simply zoom home on Fidelity Way, like you, your teammates and the assorted VIP fans, most of whom consider crowd noise the clinking of wine glasses in the club seats.

Still, my guess is Brady and his teammates won't have to worry about their fans exiting early or failing to be heard this week. The Foxborough Faithful will be quite vocal, one way or another. Either they'll rise up, obey their beloved QB's clarion call-out, and create a hostile environment for the Bills, or angered by the loss to the Jets and the critique of their cheering, the "friendly" home folks will give Brady and his mates the sound and their fury if things aren't going well.

It will be interesting to see if Brady softens or further explains his crowd comments tomorrow in his weekly State of the Quarterback address. It's generally never a good idea for any performer to critique or tweak the paying customers. It's a no-win situation to antagonize your fans. But if you're going to criticize the crowd, it helps to come back home with a win, or you're just fanning the flames

However, Brady did have a point -- compared to other NFL facilities Gillette is not noisy -- and he's not the first Patriot to express disappointment with the crowd's comportment.

After the Patriots' 33-14 blowout playoff loss to Baltimore in January, nose tackle Vince Wilfork was a little miffed about the boo-birds that took flight early in the first quarter, when the Patriots went down 14-0.

"It felt like we were playing an away game," said Wilfork. "That's what it felt like, so even if we would have moved on from here we would have played two away games back-to-back. I'm telling you for so much this team has done in the past, I don't understand it.

"Of course they pay their money. They want to see a good show. They want to have the blowouts all the time. They want to have the big plays, but it don't happen like that all the time. That was tough, but, hey, they have their right to their opinion. That's how they feel and let us know. We didn't help by playing any better than we did. Take it for whatever it's worth."

Former cornerback Ellis Hobbs chastised Patriots fans for booing too quickly in 2008, when Miami sprung the Wildcat on the Patriots and the NFL at Gillette.

It's no secret that Patriots players wish their fans would pump up the volume when the opposition has the ball and elevate the audio level in key situations. There was a message on the Jumbotron at the New Meadowlands on Sunday when the Jets had the ball. It said, "Quiet: Offense at work." Sometimes it feels like that message is going out when the visiting team has the ball at Gillette.

Blame the open-ended architecture or the 6,600 cushy club seats, but Gillette is one of the stadiums in the league with the least ambient crowd noise. The crowd is simply not a factor for opposing offenses trying to run their plays. It's rare to see a team have to use a silent count at Gillette, thanks to the silent majority. When an enemy quarterback can't hear the plays being relayed into his helmet, it's usually because the coach-to-quarterback communication system has mysteriously gone on the fritz.

Indoor facilities like New Orleans' Superdome, Minneapolis' Metrodome and retractable-roof Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis are among the loudest in the league because of an acoustic advantage -- and sometimes it seems a bit more in Indianapolis. But there are loud and proud open-air facilities in Denver and Seattle, where the Seahawks raise a "12th-man" flag before each game, a symbol of the advantage of their clamorous crowd. The Pittsburgh crowd knows how to get loud.

Yet, not having boisterous backing has never hurt the Patriots at home. Since Gillette opened in 2002, the Patriots have the best home records in the NFL (60-13). They went 8-0 last season. What has always given the Patriots an edge at Gillette and made it a formidable place to play has been Brady, Bill Belichick and the execution and clutch playmaking of the Patriot team.

With those advantages waning a bit and a retooled defense that could use all the help it could get as it finds its sea legs, Brady may have just been asking for a little more vocal adrenaline to aid the team's cause.

In the end, if his remarks cause Gillette to be a tougher place to play for opposing teams to play this season, then he's done his job, which is to do every thing possible to get his team a win, even if it means damaging his Teflon Tom image. That's what leaders do. That's what captains do.

Just like Brady absorbs hits on the field for the good of the team, he's willing to absorb a public relations one off it to do the same.

Brady has been heard, now it's time for Patriots fans to do the same.

Adjusting the Ryan-Belichick matchup

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 20, 2010 01:21 PM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Here's a question that seems heretical but now has to be asked about the Jets-Patriots rivalry: Do the Patriots still enjoy a coaching advantage in this series?

It's ridiculous to suggest that the resume of Jets coach Rex Ryan matches up to Bill Belichick's illustrious body of work. But it's just as absurd to believe Ryan's self-effacing proclamation that anytime the Patriots and Jets play Gang Green is at a gross coaching disadvantage. That clearly wasn't the case yesterday in the Patriots' 28-14 loss to the Jets, and it hasn't been since the blabbermouth joined the Border War.

Face it Patriots fans, like him or not, Vociferous Rex is not just an empty sweater vest. The man can coach his snack-eating butt off, and he's now beaten His Hoodiness two out of three times while blanking one of the five greatest quarterbacks in NFL history in the second half two consecutive seasons to do it.

Suddenly, the two greatest advantages the Patriots have enjoyed during their remarkable reign over the AFC East, Belichick's coaching brilliance and Tom Brady's passing prowess, appear dulled against Ryan, whose big mouth is matched only by his defensive ingenuity and intellect.

Belichick and Brady are now 2-2 against Ryan-coached defenses, including the miracle Monday night win against the Ravens in 2007.

The defensive genius yesterday wasn't the guy on the New England sideline.

While Belichick's defense made (Off The) Mark Sanchez look like the second coming of Joe Namath with a career-high three touchdown tosses, Ryan stifled Brady and the Patriots' prolific offense to the point that the usually unflappable Brady proclaimed postgame the offense took in air profusely during the second half.

Ryan's defense held the Patriots to 80 yards of total offense in the second half yesterday, and limited Brady to 7 of 16 for 69 yards with a fumble and two interceptions. The Patriots were held to 1 of 4 on third-down conversions.

A trend is starting to develop when it comes to the critical halftime adjustments in the Jets-Patriots series -- the Jets are getting the better of the in-game tweaks. As another outspoken, opinionated gabber that Patriots fans like to pick on would say, that's fact, not opinion. Thanks, Felger.

Belichick was always lauded as being the master of halftime adaptations, but since Ryan has been the Jets coach the Patriots have been outscored after halftime by the J-E-T-S, 38-7.

When the Jets beat the Patriots last year at the Old Meadowlands, they shut them out in the second half and held them to 102 yards of total offense post-break. Brady was 8 of 20 for 66 yards, and the Patriots were 1 of 4 on third-down conversions in the second half.

Sounds eerily familiar.

Even when the Patriots pounded the Jets, 31-14, last season in Foxborough, they got a defensive touchdown on an interception in the first half and only scored seven points after halftime. Laurence Maroney (remember him?) scored on a 1-yard touchdown run after Brandon Meriweather (remember him?) intercepted Sanchez to give the Patriots the ball at the Jets 25. In that game, the Patriots amassed 138 yards in the second half. Brady completed 10 of 15 passes after the half, but only gained 83 yards through the air.

Belichick downplayed the idea of a lot of Jets' adjustments affecting yesterday's game, saying there were no tricks. Ryan had a slightly different take on the post-halftime tactics.

"As far as you [the media] know there weren’t a whole lot of adjustments going on, but that’s not true," said Ryan. "There were a few, there’s no question about it. [Defensive coordinator] Mike Pettine and company did a great job and had to make some adjustments on the fly."

The amazing corollary to what Ryan's defense did to the Patriots is that they did it without their best player, Darrelle Revis, who left the game at halftime after surrendering a 34-yard touchdown to Randy Moss late in the second quarter. Methinks Revis's injury was just as much wounded pride as it was a balky hamstring.

In addition to Revis, Ryan was without two other starters, outside linebacker Calvin Pace (broken foot) and nose tackle Kris Jenkins (torn ACL). It didn't matter. The Jets still found a way to win.

When Belichick was winning without his stars and starters it was held up as a testament to the system, a synonym for coaching acumen and scheme. If you're being consistent you have to afford the same praise to Ryan.

Former Patriots center Damien Woody, who played for Belichick, knows what coaching genius looks like.

"Rex is a mastermind on defense. We bring all types of stuff from everywhere," said Woody. "Tom is a great quarterback, no question about it. We got a heck of a defense. We got a lot of speed and a lot of very good athletes on defense. You know I thought the Patriots starting off they were driving the ball and moving the ball. It doesn't take Rex long to get into a groove and figure things out."

One player Ryan has figured out is Moss, who didn't catch a single ball after Revis retired to the locker room. In four games as a Patriot against Ryan defenses, including Baltimore, Moss has a total of 15 catches for 130 yards and three touchdowns.

Meanwhile Jets tight end Dustin Keller (seven catches for 115 yards and the game-sealing TD), who is to the Patriots what Andrew Toney was to the Celtics, said every time the Patriots made adjustments, the Jets made adjustments to counteract the New England adjustments.

And he didn't make it sound hard.

Nobody is suggesting the game has passed Belichick by, but it's hard not to think that Ryan has caught up.

Patriots looking for a road show

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 17, 2010 12:14 PM

The Jets like to move their mandibles, which is to say they like to talk. But it's the Patriots that can make the loudest statement on Sunday at New Meadowlands Stadium: That like the photos of previous glory inside Gillette Stadium, last year's road woes are a thing of the past.

Perhaps nothing marked the decline of the Patriots dynasty more than their inability to find a way to win away from home.

New England was road trippin' as all six of its defeats came on the road and it posted a 2-6 mark away from what quarterback Tom Brady termed this week "the friendly home crowd" in Foxborough. It matched the Patriots' worst road record under coach Bill Belichick. They also went 2-6 on the road in 2000, the dour don's first season as coach.

The 2-6 road record was even less impressive when you examine the two "road" wins. One of them was a 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London in what was a neutral-site game. Double-asterisk applies because there was nothing resembling a vocal home crowd and Tampa Bay barely qualified as an NFL team. The other road win was a 17-10 victory over the AFC East cellar-dwelling Buffalo Bills.

It's easy to chalk up the road difficulties to a team with some younger players. However, Brady wasn't immune from the road woes. He threw 17 touchdown passes and just three interceptions at home, while he tossed 11 TDs and 10 interceptions on the road. His completion percentage was a full 10 points lower away from Patriot Place -- 70.4 percent at home and 60.4 percent on the road.

All of the most disappointing on-field moments of the 2009 season happened away from Gillette. There was getting shut out after halftime in an overtime loss at Denver. There was the fourth-quarter collapse in Indianapolis. There were the busted coverages in the Bayou in a blowout loss to the Super Bowl champion Saints. There was Chad Henne channeling Dan Marino in a one-point loss to Miami. There was the team losing Wes Welker and a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in the regular-season finale in Houston.

You get the point.

If the Patriots are truly back and the rebuilding is ahead of schedule, then they'll win away from home this season. That's what good teams do in this league. The ones that don't are like the Jets, not as good as they think they are, or like last year's Patriots, not as good as they once were. Want proof?

Since the start of the 2000 season, the Patriots have the third-best road record in the NFL (51-29), trailing only the Indianapolis Colts and the Philadelphia Eagles. Last year's Super Bowl participants, the Colts and Saints both went 7-1 away from home. Both of their losses came in their regular-season finales, when winning meant walking away healthy. Since 2000, the only team to win a Super Bowl without a winning road record was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who went 4-4 on football field trips.

So, this is a tremendous opportunity for the Patriots to build up travelers assurance, set the tone away from home for the 2010 season and to kick the Jets while they're down.

The J-E-T-S are a M-E-S-S right now. It's a fun time to be in the New York tabloid business.

The only glimmer of an offensive display the Jets have rendered this season was their treatment of a female TV Azteca reporter. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is catching heat from Tedy Bruschi and Joe Namath. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer had to deny a post-game altercation between himself and blowhard coach Rex Ryan. Redoubtable cover corner Darrelle Revis has come down with a hamstring injury that could render Revis Island escapable. Fed up with the lack of discipline on the vaunted Jets defense, which piled up penalties in Monday night's loss to the Ravens, Ryan resorted to having his charges do push-ups in practice for infractions, like a high school team.

If the Jets start off slow against the Patriots, then that hostile environment Brady talked about at the New Meadowlands could become hostile for the Jets, as the crowd turns on them.

Winning on the road is important for the Patriots because it's going to be near impossible to duplicate last year's 8-0 home record, not with this year's schedule. In addition to division games against the Jets and Dolphins, the Patriots host the Ravens, the Colts, the Vikings, and the Packers. Their only "easy" home game left comes next week against the Buffalo Bills.

There are winnable games away from home on the schedule outside of the division -- Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago -- and tough road games down the line with San Diego and Pittsburgh.

It would be an important step forward for this team to score a significant road win, something it never did last season.

Brady went to Michigan, where the fight song is "Hail to the Victors." Hopefully, this season for Brady and his mates, the traveling music for the Patriots will be Hail to the Visitors.

Brady unrivaled in Border War

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 16, 2010 01:00 PM

The smack-talking, snack-eating New York Jets have the type of airtight defense that we thought the Red Sox were going to have, they have a cornerback with a more famous island than Manhattan, they have an entertaining, bombastic, beefy coach.

What they don't have is a quarterback.

That remains the single biggest and most important difference between Team Hard Knocks and your New England Patriots, as they prepare to meet on Sunday in suburban New Jersey.

We can compare and contrast poker face Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Vociferous Rex Ryan, the Jets coach with a bigger mouth than the Lincoln Tunnel, until we're blue in the face. We can talk about Darrelle Revis and Randy Moss and imaginary isles all week. We can talk about who has the better and more boisterous fans in the Border War.

But when it comes to quarterback there is no comparison.

The Patriots have a future Hall of Famer in Tom Brady and the Jets have Mark Sanchez, who to borrow a term Revis applied to Moss, is a "slouch" next to TB12. Both Brady and Sanchez have appeared in GQ, both hail from California, both play quarterback in the AFC East. That's pretty much where the similarities end.

Brady, the TMZ QB, is a bonafide icon with three Super Bowl rings, an MVP award and the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season. Everything from his haircut to his ride is scrutinized because he's just that good on the field. Brady is so revered that he can come out and criticize his own fans for not being loud enough and the silent supporters go into self-flagellation.

Sanchez is a Broadway Brady wannabee. The most memorable moments of his career so far are him eating a hot dog on the sidelines during a game, and coming to a press conference with copious, Ellsbury-esque notes. He's getting called out by the only real franchise quarterback in Jets history, Joe Namath, who via Twitter ripped into the Jets offense for their performance Monday night in a 10-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Football is a very complex and intricate game, but what's pretty simple about today's NFL is that it's a quarterback league. If you want to win a championship you need a competent QB. Until another one of the AFC East teams develops a legitimate, reliable, playmaking passer this is still the Patriots division

Maybe someday Sanchez will be that quarterback. Right now, he's not.

Ryan dubbed Sanchez the "Sanchize" last year as a rookie. After the J-E-T-S loss in their season-opener Sanchez needed to be sanitized because he and the rest of New York's offense stunk.

Sanchez was 10 of 21 for 74 yards. He guided an offense that had just six first downs and was 1 of 11 on third down.

Granted he was playing against a tremendous defense, but so was Ravens QB Joe Flacco, who managed to throw for 248 yards and help his team go 11 of 19 on third down. Flacco was intercepted, but that was primarily because he was actually trying to use the forward pass, unlike Sanchez, who looked like he thought the movie "Sideways" was a documentary on the Jets passing game.

It's pretty obvious that Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer don't trust Sanchez to make plays -- at least for their team. They want him to be a caretaker QB, instead of the careless one he was as a rookie. Sanchez had 20 interceptions and 10 fumbles (three lost), before he played some efficient, encouraging football during the Jets' playoff run.

Sanchez was asked yesterday what he expected from himself in his second year, a time in Brady's career in which he led the Patriots to a Super Bowl with a game-winning drive.

"Just making better decisions, like I did last week," said Sanchez. "I was pleased that I didn’t give them a chance to even come close to intercepting the ball. As long as I’m not throwing interceptions, we’ve got a chance to win every game, whether it’s the last drive or we’re winning from the first play and jumping out early. ...Last week wasn’t our best start, so we need to pick that up. I think the decision making is the most important."

Notice there was nothing in there about making plays.

It was all about avoiding mistakes, which Sanchez made a lot of the last time these two teams played, a 31-14 Patriots' victory at Gillette Stadium last November. Sanchez tossed four interceptions that day and had a fumble. Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden, who had three of his five picks on the season that game, should be paying Sanchez royalties on his new contract.

If we've learned anything from the Indianapolis Colts it's that the only way to beat Brady and Belichick consistently is to light up the scoreboard like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

The Patriots are never going to tell you that Sanchez isn't capable of that. They're the anti-Jets, so they threw a bunch of bouquets No. 6's way.

Belichick glossed over the Baltimore game and cited the fact the Jets went to the AFC Championship Game last year with Sanchez. He didn't mention that on the way there Sanchez completed 24 passes in two games, or one fewer than Brady had last week against the Bengals.

Safety Patrick Chung, who went to Oregon and faced Sanchez at Southern Cal, was asked how much Sanchez has grown from college.

"All I can say is he's good," said Chung. "I can't really see him unless I'm on the field with him going against him. I know he's good. He wouldn't be starting if he wasn't good, period. He can make the throws. He has a strong arm. Obviously, he's there for a reason."

Because the Jets don't have a Tom Brady. And until they do this isn't much of a rivalry.

Patriots offense runs option route

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 13, 2010 01:09 PM

The biggest impact Randy Moss made yesterday came not on the field, but postgame in his surreal, Ellsbury-esque address.

Ramblin' Randy's 14 minutes of truth are no doubt the talk of the town today, so it's easy to forget about the statement the Patriots' offense made on the field during their 38-24 regular-season ribbon-cutting win over the Cincinnati Bengals: This offense strives to be more than just pitch-and-catch with Moss and Wes Welker.

Those preseason proclamations of a more balanced and diverse attack turned out to be not just empty words. A Patriots offense that had grown as dependent on Moss and Welker as the US is on foreign oil weaned itself off its sublime receivers a bit and the results were encouraging.

Running back Fred Taylor (14 carries for 71 yards) led a rushing attack that averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez set up the Patriots' first score, Welker's welcome-back touchdown, with a 45-yard reception, created by coverage focused on Moss.

In the fourth quarter, when the Bengals crept back into the game, quarterback Tom Brady didn't force a pass to Moss or Welker on third-and-goal. Instead he lofted a TD toss to rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Welker (eight catches for 64 yards and a pair of touchdowns) and Moss (five catches for 59 yards) still accounted for more than half of Brady's completions, but the Other Guys -- Hernandez, Gronkowski, Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Brandon Tate -- made plays too. And all of them except Gronkowski, who had the lone non-No. 83 offensive TD, produced a play of 20 yards or more.

When push comes to shove, Moss and Welker are still going to carry the mail, but it's nice to have some other delivery options.

In financial terms, what the Patriots are doing is diversifying their portfolio, and just like in investing it's a sound plan in times of transition. Among the many truths you could take away from the Patriots' humbling playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens in January was the idea that the offense had invested too much in the tandem of Welker and Moss.

With Welker sidelined for that game with his torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Ravens ganged up on Moss and suddenly Brady was Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman" -- he had nowhere else to go.

Julian Edelman, another Patriots playmaker who didn't even play yesterday, did his best to be Wes, catching two touchdowns, and Faulk answered the call as always. But overall the offense bogged down against Baltimore. There were simply no big plays and not enough playmakers.

We are all in agreement that the offense is going to have to shield the defense until the latter finds its identity.

So, if the Patriots are going to beat excellent defensive teams like the Ravens and next week's opponent, the smack-talking, snack-eating New York Jets, then they need to have more diversity and versatility then they did last year, when Moss and Welker accounted for 57.5 percent of the team's receiving yards.

"The pressure can't always be on [Moss] in our offense, on Wes and Randy, then it's not a very good offense," said Brady this morning during his weekly WEEI check-in. "I was impressed when they were covering those two we were able to get the ball to other guys, and I think that's what makes a great offense."

As usual, No. 12 is on target.

The old bromide about the Patriots offense when the team was winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004 used to be that Brady's favorite receiver was ... the open one. Then in 2006, no one was really open with Deion Branch running a permanent out route, and the Patriots reacted by getting Welker and Moss.

Since Moss and Welker joined the Patriots before the 2007 season the team has increasingly relied on them more and more. Last year the two combined for 57.5 percent of the Patriots receiving yards. In 2008, the number was 57.3. In 2007, it was 54.9 percent.

Sense a trend here?

You get the sense coach Bill Belichick did, and he's trying to bring some balance back to the offense.

As an offensive coordinator it's so easy with talents like Welker and Moss to become entranced and entrenched by their ability. Your best game plan is to find a way to get those guys the ball. You don't need a Ph.D. from Belichick University to know that.

However, there is a fine line between dictating you get the ball to your playmakers and letting your playmakers dictate the game plan. Remember the ill-fated Randy Ratio that Mike Tice employed with the Vikings? Looking back was it a good thing that Welker had 123 catches last season, despite missing basically four games? Would Welker have caught that many passes if Joey Galloway had emerged as a viable third option?

Credit de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien with understanding the option(s) route is the way to go when building an offense. Consider the Bengals impressed with O'Brien's work in Week 1.

"They are very efficient. That is a very efficient offense," said Cincinnati safety Chris Crocker. "They executed well, and they beat us."

Only time will tell if the Patriots can stick to a less Randy-and-Wes-centric approach. It makes some sense to though. Welker is still coming back from ACL surgery and wearing a brace, and Moss said in his podium pontification that his 33-year-old body is a little beat up from not getting any days off during training camp.

But at the end of the day having more weapons, only makes Moss and Welker bigger ones for the Patriots.

Krafting the Brady deal

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 10, 2010 11:51 AM

Success always starts at the top. Sports is no different.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said at the start of training camp a deal for quarterback Tom Brady would get done one way or another. Kraft put his money where his mouth was, signing Brady to a four-year, $72 million extension that keeps him in Foxborough through the 2014 season.

That's good news for us in the media biz. Another half-decade of breathless Brady coverage, featuring everything from his tonsorial selection to his vehicular hiccups, is guaranteed like $48.5 million of Tom Terrific's new pact.

Best mock TV news headline I saw yesterday for Brady's car accident was the Brady Crunch (credit @jimmyfromhull). Bet Channel 7 is wishing they came up with that one while gassing up the helicopter.

It's nice to have a little good news to report around here when it comes to the 2010 Patriots, who have been all Belichickesque doom and gloom so far, and there is no better news than The Franchise being in the fold for five more seasons.

Kudos to the Krafts, owner Robert and team president Jonathan, for tossing the uncertain labor situation aside and doing what was right for their team and their fans by making Brady the game's highest paid player, if only until Peyton Manning tells the Colts to "cut that check."

That's what this came down to in a lot of ways, deciding whether to do what was best for their brethren in NFL ownership and the crusade for player cost-cutting or do what was best for their franchise, their player, their fans. They chose their franchise and their fans (how about that Bruins?) and they chose to pay Brady what he deserved pre-lockout instead of trying to prove a point.

For months we heard a Brady deal was complicated by the looming expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. No one knew what the system was going to be beyond the 2010 season and owners across the league, trying to make their case for an overhaul of a system that funnels nearly 59 percent of total football revenue to the players, were holding the line on mega-contracts.

Teams like the Jets certainly crossed that line and argued the CBA was not an impediment to deal-making, but paying an offensive lineman or a cornerback is different from doling out dough for one of the league's marquee QBs.

Guess what? Last night, when Brady put his John Hancock on an extension, there was no more clarity about the CBA negotiations than before. NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith came out the day before Brady's deal was done and told Bloomberg News he feels a lockout is coming in March.

The Kraft family is among the most-plugged-in and powerful ownership groups in the NFL, so perhaps they know something the rest of us, including Smith, don't. But it doesn't seem like the labor situation is any less complicated than it was back in June. It still looks like iceberg dead ahead for the NFL in 2011.

While the CBA negotiations don't have a happy ending yet, the Brady negotiations do.

It makes it a little harder for the owners to argue the system is broken when one of their most prominent members just handed out a $72 million deal, with $48.5 million guaranteed, on the same night that the 2010 season, the last of the onerous, untenable CBA, kicked off.

With Brady's involvement in the NFLPA, his remuneration is now a little bit of ammunition for the players at the labor line of scrimmage.

The Krafts know that. But they also know they have a franchise quarterback who goes into this season not wondering about his future, and they have a five-year window to tap into his talent and bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy to Patriot Place. Brady is as synonymous with these Patriots, as his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, was with the 49ers. You can't really put a price tag on a legacy.

Plus, the Patriots like to brag about the brand equity created by their winning ways. It's true that veterans in the latter stages of their career consider the Patriots because of their standing in the league. However, one such veteran once said that brand equity has less to do with the ownership and the coach than it does the quarterback. Other players want to play with Brady. He is a draw, not only for fans and sponsors, but for fellow players.

Since taking over the team in 1994, the Krafts have done everything in their power to make the Patriots one of the NFL's preeminent franchises, and they've succeeded. You don't win 65 percent of your games without ruffling some feathers or making some tough decisions.

For the sake of CBA solidarity, it would have been very easy for the Krafts to hold the line, make Brady play out this season with the $6.5 million in compensation left on his deal and then franchise him in February before the current CBA expired. Instead, they put winning on the field above everything else. That's what great owners do.

In the end, Brady's deal is a win-win-win. Brady is fairly compensated and doesn't have to take the risk of playing out this season -- or driving the streets of the Back Bay -- before he gets his money. He can also go back to his union brethren with his helmet held high because he didn't take another discounted deal.

The Krafts win because they have a happy quarterback and their cozy relationship with Brady remains intact. They can also point out the labor lunacy of Brady's guaranteed money being driven by the $50 million No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford got from the Rams.

Fans win because they don't have to fret over the idea of TB12's contract situation torpedoing the season.

Now, about that Logan Mankins situation ...

Moss, Patriots running a reverse

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 9, 2010 12:07 PM

Randy Moss might be feeling "not wanted" by the Patriots, but he is certainly needed in New England.

Asking if these Patriots need Randy Moss is like asking if TMZ needs Lindsay Lohan, if "Mad Men" needs Jon Hamm, if NESN needs the Red Sox.

The Patriots offense has been in the top five in the NFL in yards per game each of the seasons Moss has been on the team, including 2008, when Tom Brady played less than one quarter of one game.

As currently constructed, the Patriots are a team that is going to rely on an explosive offense to offset/mask a developing defense that will take some time to discover its identity. If the mercurial Moss suddenly says, "no mas" in a contract year then the Patriots' blueprint for success has a serious design defect and the season is likely to collapse.

If Moss's importance to the 2010 Patriots wasn't obvious simply by looking at his prolific production the last three years, it was reinforced by the verbal bouquets team personnel tossed Moss's way in the wake of his public pronouncement to CBSSports.com about what he perceives as the team's lack of interest in retaining him beyond this season, the final one of the three-year, $27 million contract he signed following his record-setting 2007 campaign. It's a tune Moss first started singing back in February at Heath Evans's charity softball game.

Desperate to massage his bruised ego, the Patriots launched a public relations campaign to show No. 81 he's still the one for them. It was like a nervous spouse being reassured their affection is not unrequited.

"I want him. He knows that," said quarterback Tom Brady. "I tell him every day. He’s everything we look for in a receiver. He’s been a great player for his whole career. Look at what he’s done here in terms of his productivity. Look at what he’s done this preseason in training camp. He’s been a great example, a great leader. We’re lucky to have him, we really are. He’s something."

As Moss enters what could be his final season as a Patriot, what's interesting is how much the tables have turned since he first came here in a draft day deal back in 2007. At the time it was Moss who desperately needed the Patriots to resurrect his career and rehabilitate his reputation.

When the Patriots acquired Moss for a fourth-round pick (which the Raiders used on immortal cornerback John Bowie) he was joining his third team in four seasons and had been traded for the second time in three years. He was 30 years old and this was his last shot to prove he could play well with others.

So deep was Moss's desire to be a Patriot he restructured his contract, erasing the final year and its $11.25 million payout and taking half of the $10 million (including a $250,000 Pro Bowl bonus) he could have made in 2007. He reduced his 2007 salary to $3 million ($500,000 bonus for being on the roster for the first game and a $2.5 million base salary), plus an additional $2 million in performance-based incentives. Don't think Moss has ever forgotten this financial gesture.

It was made clear to Moss upon his arrival it was the Patriot Way or the highway.

Now, it's the other way around, as the Patriots need Moss to help restore their image as an elite NFL team, to show they're a dynasty in transition, not in remission.

To do that, the Patriots need a fully engaged Moss to keep defensive coordinators up at night and make defensive backs quake in their cleats, so the team is bending over backwards to appease its recalcitrant receiver.

Perhaps, that says more about how the Patriots have changed in the last three years than Moss.

Yes, it is mutually beneficial for the Patriots and Moss if he has another huge season. It would certainly hurt the 33-year-old Moss's drive for a contract if he tanked in a contract year, but some team would sign him and just chalk up his decreased production to a bad situation and the need for a change of scenery.

That's what the Oakland Raiders did when they traded for Moss in 2005. It's what the Patriots did when they traded for Moss in 2007. He's going to get his money somewhere from someone. He's simply too good not to get paid.

The Patriots on the other hand are not good enough to win without him engaged. On a team devoid of game-changers, Moss is the league's ultimate game-changer. In three seasons in Foxborough, Moss has caught 47 touchdown passes, the most in the league during that span.

Take Moss out of the equation and Brady and the Patriots' offense are relying on a still-convalescing Wes Welker, a pair of promising but developing second-year wide receivers in Julian Edelman and Brandon Tate, a pair of rookie tight ends and an aging/injury-prone group of running backs.

The idea you can't win with Moss is a fallacy. He would have scored the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, if not for David Tyree's miracle helmet catch.

The Patriots are 25-3 in the regular season over the last three seasons when Moss catches a touchdown. That means the Patriots win 89.3 percent of the time when Moss reaches the end zone. The Patriots are 13-1 in games in which Moss catches two touchdowns, the lone loss is the famed fourth-and-2 game in Indianapolis last year.

The truth is the Patriots can't win without Moss. So when Moss starts warbling, "I Want You to Want Me" the Patriots oblige. They have no choice.

Whether they want Randy Moss moving forward or not they need Randy Moss right now.

That's why his professing feeling unwanted constitutes a whole new meaning to the term deep threat.

Losses are an opportunity for gains

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 3, 2010 11:12 AM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Remember when the Patriots could overcome any injury, replace any part? Ty Law went down and Asante Samuel and Randall Gay stepped up. The "system" acted as a team-building tourniquet. These aren't those Patriots -- not yet.

So, the good news from last night's preseason finale at the New Meadowlands Stadium (a little soul-less and anti-septic but definitely a welcome update) was that there were no more major injuries (that we know of) for Bill Belichick's depleted defense to deal with and no loss of manpower for the meal ticket of this team, the offense.

That's really all you want out of the final preseason game. The score is irrelevant. If you come out of the final faux football game without any new afflictions or ailments then consider yourself a winner. That's why rookie wide receiver Buddy Farnham was playing safety on the Giants' game-winning 60-yard touchdown pass. It's the reason linebacker Pierre Woods lined up at defensive end and cornerback and rookie offensive linemen Ted Larsen and Thomas Welch played on the defensive line late in the game.

It's all about preservation in preseason Game No. 4. Let the sacrificial lambs on the lower rung of the roster take the hits.

Belichick put his offense and defense out on the field for two series apiece in last night's 20-17 loss to the Giants and they came out unscathed. Well, the defense may have had its confidence bruised a little bit when Eli Manning and Co., marched down 86 yards on the opening possession for a touchdown that tight end Kevin Boss, who scored on a 13-yard toss from Manning the Younger, accurately described as a walk-in.

But the Patriots defenders bounced back to force a punt, call it a night and move on to the season opener against Cincinnati.

"Yeah, you really don't want to lose anybody for the regular season, so that's something that's definitely important," said outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain. "That's something that's a positive that we can take away, and obviously we didn't get the win but we still feel confident as a team. We were able to do some good things. There were obviously some not-so-good things. We'll look at the film and see what we got to do, but I think now that we're into the regular season the excitement is going to get a lot higher and hopefully the guys that we lose or lost health-wise will be able to recover fast."

Two of the guys who won't be convalescing quickly are defensive end Ty Warren (hip surgery) and cornerback Leigh Bodden (torn rotator cuff), both of whom are out for the season.

One way to look at the losses is that they don't bode well. Warren was an anchor at end for a defense that was run over by the Ravens. Bodden was the best cornerback for a defense that has allowed 52 touchdown passes the last two seasons, tied for 28th in the 32-team NFL.

On a defense with some question marks they were two proven, veteran answers at crucial positions.

Another way to view their losses is that this is a chance for the Patriots to silence the doubters and prove they're still the Patriots. That they can replace players at will. In 2008, the Patriots lost Tom Brady, their most indispensable player, and still won 11 games.

"Those guys are obviously huge impact guys on our defense, so really it's just looking to the guys that are playing behind them to step up," said Banta-Cain, who was around for the glory days of the plug-and-play Patriots, when a wide receiver (Troy Brown) played defensive back not in a meaningless preseason game but in the Super Bowl.

"Like I told them, usually the organization they get players for that kind of situation. Usually the guy behind the guy that gets hurt is a capable potential starter. So, the strength of our team has to be in our depth, and if one guy goes down the next guy has got to step up."

Banta-Cain knows what it's like to be an injury replacement. He was one in 2006, when inside linebacker Junior Seau broke his arm against the Bears. Belichick kicked Mike Vrabel inside and Banta-Cain, a 2003 seventh-round pick, got the first five starts of his NFL career.

It was enough of a sample size to get him a three-year, $8.9 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers, who employed Banta-Cain for two seasons before he was released and returned to Fort Foxborough.

"It gave me an opportunity to start the rest of the season," recalled Banta-Cain. "If that didn't happen, who knows where I'd be right now. That's an example of me getting an opportunity based on an injury to go show what I can do, so hopefully that's the case for our injuries this year."

I know a lot of you out there think I'm all doom and gloom, but there could be an upside to some of these injuries. It could be a chance for the Patriots to rediscover their soul. Instead of relying on veteran quick-fixes, they can develop internal fixes like the old days.

Maybe, Ron Brace can prove he isn't a bust after all by playing a role at defensive end. Terrence Wheatley has been written off, but the Patriots need him now with a thin and callow corps of cornerbacks. Maybe corner Kyle Arrington can prove he's more than a special teams cog.

Banta-Cain is a Californian, so he usually has a sunny disposition.

"In a positive light, it gives another guy a chance to establish himself, maybe a guy who maybe deserved being on the field," Banta-Cain said.

The Patriots can only hope so, lest they become the sacrificial lambs during the regular season.

Moss has option route in contract year

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 2, 2010 11:50 AM

300moss.jpgRandy Moss is great at eluding coverage.

His 148 touchdown receptions (second all-time) and 14,465 receiving yards speak to that. So, does the fact that as the preseason comes to a close tonight against the New York Giants not a word has been uttered by Moss about his contract status -- or anything else for that matter.

Moss has not spoken all preseason, taking a monk-like vow of silence until after the first regular-season game, or so we're told. There has been an abundance of words wasted speculating on the contract negotiations of franchise quarterback Tom Brady and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins, but not much musing about Moss's future in Foxborough.

However, how Moss handles his contract year will have a significant effect on the Patriots' season. Next to TB12, he is the Patriots' most indispensable player. If he's unhappy or unmotivated then losing Leigh Bodden will slip down the list of coach Bill Belichick's problems. All this talk of more balance and running the ball more isn't going to help the 33-year-old Moss's goal of getting a lucrative contract.

There have been some signs during the offseason that this could be a turbulent season for Moss, who took a team-friendly three-year, $27-million deal in 2008.

He's already on record as saying that he thinks this will be his last year as a Patriot and that the Patriots "don't really pay." He fired his long-time agent, Tim DiPiero, in May and signed on with Joel Segal in July. He spoke of wanting someone who could get him more endorsement dollars.

Moss in a contract year is like an episode of "Jersey Shore," because something entertaining is bound to happen, for better or worse. The last time Moss was in a contract year, he re-wrote the NFL receiving record book by breaking Jerry Rice's record for TD catches in a season with an incredible 23.

Moss now has an option route. He can be Adrian Beltre, or he can be Manny Ramirez.

He can do what he's been doing ever since he slipped on a Patriots uniform in 2007, which is light up the league and make defenses pay, to make sure someone pays him next season. Or he can sulk because the organization he has caught an NFL-best 47 touchdown receptions for over the last three seasons isn't making re-signing him a priority and check out like he did against the Carolina Panthers last season.

Moss and Manny are comparable in that their prodigious talents are matched only by their petulance and unpredictability. You can't get the talent without the temperament. They're a package deal. The talent allows teams to overlook or put up with the temperament -- at least until it becomes so overwhelming they can't ignore it. It allows the players to operate by a different set of rules.

Such was the case Wednesday night at the Patriots' Charitable Foundation Kickoff Gala at Gillette Stadium.

Moss was disengaged and aloof. While his teammates sat at tables with fans who had paid premium dollar for the honor of breaking bread with a Patriot in the name of charity, Moss was M.I.A.

Not in a charitable mood, he sat alone by an auction table with his headphones on during the formal part of the festivities. While guest speakers talked about their family's battles with cancer and Patriots owner Robert Kraft took to the dais to implore cancer screening, awareness and prevention, a misanthropic Moss kept his distance.

Comcast SportsNet showed video afterward of Moss turning down an adult autograph request. The signature-seeker asked Moss if he was excited for the start of the season, and the receiver's reply was succinct: "Nope."

Moss's behavior was at best childish and churlish and at worst disrespectful to the man that signs his check, Kraft, to whom the Gala is like opening his home. It's understood that Moss doesn't like signing autographs for adults -- he has a point there, by the way -- but this was a charity event. Moss wasn't even paying attention when his good buddy, Vince Wilfork, won the team's Ron Burton Community Service Award.

He separated himself from the team, like he has so many overmatched defensive backs.

One key difference between Moss and Manny is that while Ramirez's teammates often appeared to be merely tolerating him and his antics, Moss's teammates genuinely like him. One of Moss's closest friends on the team is running back Kevin Faulk, as no-nonsense a football player as there is. Moss is so popular that he was a team captain in 2008 and 2009.

Before Wednesday night, Moss had been a model citizen during the preseason. He was the team's most dedicated post-practice autograph signer, and had a memorable moment where he let a young fan in the stands toss him a pass.

Remember Ramirez reinvented himself, or tried to, in 2008, when he was trying to get a contract extension from the Red Sox. Once it became apparent that wasn't going to happen, Ramirez reverted to his petulant ways, paving his path out of town. After a brief image makeover in Southern California, the Real Ramirez reappeared this year in a contract year.

It's hard to know who the Real Randy Moss is.

Is it the playful guy who signed autographs all summer long or the sullen superstar that ignored everyone around him, including his own teammates, at a team charity event? Is it the guy who tied for the NFL-lead in touchdown catches last season with 13 (bet you forgot about that) and had 83 receptions for 1,264 yards or the guy who wouldn't even look Brady in the eyes on the sidelines last season during a tepid performance against the Panthers, who accused him of quitting?

Which way will Moss go with his behavior in a crucial season for him and the team? Like any cornerback not named Darrelle Revis, the Patriots can only guess and hope they don't get burned.

About last night ...

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 27, 2010 02:07 PM

brady607.jpg

Tom Brady has a word and a smile with an official after a challenge is upheld for a Patriots touchdown. (Jim Davis / Globe Staff)

FOXBOROUGH -- The good news for the Patriots is that NFL owners haven't rammed home an "enhanced" 18-game season yet, so last night's uninspiring 36-35 loss to the St. Louis Rams doesn't count, sort of like the players' opinion on an extended regular season.

Still, it was certainly disconcerting to watch a decidedly un-enhanced Patriots team make rookie quarterback Sam Bradford and the retooling Rams look like a playoff team. The only thing shorter than the responses of a dour and disappointed Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the game were the Patriots' first four offensive drives, which lasted a total of 5 minutes and 55 seconds and yielded one first down.

If you hit fast-forward on the DVR you missed entire Patriots possessions.

Before Tom Brady hit Wes Welker on a 39-yard catch-and-run with 3:26 left in the half, the Patriots had a total of 25 yards of offense. And between the offense and the defense, Brady and offense were the unit that was performing most effectively. The Rams rolled up 20 points and 241 yards of offense in the first half against the New England defense, which struggled to get off the field. St. Louis ran 42 first-half plays to the Patriots' 18.

"Terrible execution across the board. That’s the worst of it really," said running back Sammy Morris.

The Patriots better hope so.

After a pair of encouraging efforts against the defending Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons it was not what anyone was expecting from the Patriots in the third preseason game, which is supposed to be the most meaningful of the meaningless games. What does last night's game mean? Not anything more than the encouraging previous preseason performances.

It's easy to push the panic button, roll out the I-told-you-so's and write obituaries after a game like last night's.

However, if the Patriots had gone out and pounded the Rams, shutting out Bradford and lighting up Steve Spagnuolo's defense then the pronouncement would have been that they just beat up on a rookie quarterback and a rebuilding team that is coming off a 1-15 campaign. That wouldn't have proved the Patriots were improved, just like last night doesn't prove they're not.

It would have been no more reasonable to hail such a blowout as a sign the Patriots were a dominant team than to signal that last night's clunker indicates they're a terrible one. The Patriots were in a bit of a no-win situation playing the Rams, and they not only lost, they lost in poor form and fashion. For that they have no one to blame but themselves.

This game was a reminder that reading too much into preseason football -- good or bad -- is an exercise in futility. The Patriots are somewhere between the team that fell flatter than a blueberry pancake against a cupcake opponent and the one that showed promise against the Saints and Falcons. My guess is they're closer to the latter than the former, lest anyone would be willing to bet the declining value of their home on the Rams finishing with a better record than the Patriots this season.

Building up to the season is a step-by-step process and the Patriots stumbled, tripped and fell on their face last night. That doesn't mean they've fallen and they can't get up. They'll get up, dust themselves off and continue to prepare for the season-opener Sept. 12 against the Bengals. By then, hopefully, rookie cornerback Devin McCourty will not be biting on double-moves, rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes will react faster to a tight end lined up as a fullback coming out of the backfield, and Belichick will drum up some sort of way to generate a pass rush.

Brady, who is now in his 11th season, lent some perspective to last night's proceedings by pointing out where in the season the Patriots are now. If the season were a day, then Brady said the Patriots are at 6 a.m.

"I certainly didn't play perfect out there. There are some things I need to do better," said Brady. "It's early, it's really early. It's really early. It's the third preseason game, so what it means is there is a lot more to evaluate tomorrow. Kind of another game in the books, and we'll see how everybody competes."

Someday soon a game like last night's will count -- under an 18-game season last night would have been the season-opener -- but for now it doesn't.

It's simply a garbage performance in a throw-away game.

Nothing more and nothing less.

Patriots are off to a running start

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 20, 2010 03:31 PM

ATLANTA -- From here on out it's going to be difficult to gain much more insight into the Patriots during the preseason, but the early returns are encouraging and suggest that a changing of the guard in the AFC East isn't going to happen without a street fight.

The third preseason game is usually the most meaningful. However, this year the Patriots are playing the rebuilding St. Louis Rams, which is kind of like taking the driving test with Mr. Magoo as your instructor. The final faux football game of the preseason comes on Sept. 2 against the Giants at the New Meadowlands Stadium. This could be an intriguing matchup, except the winner of the final preseason game is always the team that exits the field with the fewest injuries.

So, last night's near full half of varsity action against the Falcons is probably the closest we'll see the Patriots to full-out football against a quality opponent until the season-opener on Sept. 12 against Cincinnati. The Patriots' runaway 28-10 victory in the ATL left a positive impression, not to mention tire tracks all over the Falcons defense via a New England offense that achieved balance by running right at and through the Falcons.

The assumption coming into last night's game was that the Falcons' weakness was pass defense. They were 28th in the league last year and went out and backed up the Brinks truck to bring cornerback Dunta Robinson in from Houston. The Falcons were tied for 10th in run defense.

So, Bill Belichick decided to use Atlanta to send a message. The Jets might be starring in "Hard Knocks" on HBO this summer, but the Patriots plan on delivering them on offense.

It's pretty obvious through two preseason games that Belichick, perhaps stirred to action by the Baltimore beatdown, has his team taking a more physical tack on offense.

If the preseason is preparation for the real thing then the Patriots are getting a running start. Last night, the Patriots ran the ball 30 times for 120 yards. More telling was that in the first half, when it was for most the part starters against starters, the Patriots ran the ball 14 times for 70 yards and dropped back to pass 15 times. It was a similar scenario against the Saints last Thursday, with 17 passes and 15 runs in the first half.

The Patriots' balanced and physical approach, personified by the presence of tight ends Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, caught the Falcons off guard. Playing inside the climate-controlled conditions of the Georgia Dome, Atlanta was expecting the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady to air it out.

Instead, the Patriots turned it loose on terra firma, as Fred Taylor ran 11 times for 54 yards and a score in the first half. Taylor and Sammy Morris combined to rush the ball 17 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns in the game.

"They were able to run the ball," said Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson. "You have to tip your hats to them. They're a pass-happy team, and I think that everybody on the defensive side of the ball and everyone in the stands thinks that they're going to throw the ball. When they come out and run it, sometimes, it's a shocker to you. That's not an excuse, but it's just great game-planning and a great scheme."

Lost in all the hype and hoopla over the return of wide receiver Wes Welker, who continued his remarkable recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, on the Patriots first drive was the fact that the last five plays of the TD march came via the ground. The Patriots handed off to Kevin Faulk on a shotgun delay on third and 7 from their 47, a presumptive passing situation.

Then it was four straight rushes, the last of which was a bruising effort by Fred Taylor, who bounced off the shoulder tackle of Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud on his way to a 28-yard touchdown.

A more stable running game plays into Welker's return. Since arriving on the team in 2007, no NFL receiver has caught more passes than Welker (346), yet his average yards at reception during that time period is 4.5. In the shotgun, spread attack Welker became the de facto running game and the Patriots may have reached a point where they relied on him too much.

Being able to run the ball and utilize more compact two- and three-tight end sets could reduce some wear and tear on Welker and better protect the team's most valuable asset, Brady. When Brady missed all but 15 snaps of the 2008 season with a torn ACL, the Patriots ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing and ran for 2,278 yards, their most since 1985.

Judging by the WWE-esque body blow Brady absorbed on Kroy Biermann's second quarter sack, running the ball a little more isn't such a bad idea, unless you have No. 12 on your fantasy team.

But back when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, Brady was never a fantasy football darling. As a wise coach once said, "Stats are for losers. The final score is for winners."

The Patriots are not going to abandon the pass. That would be silly with Brady, Welker and Moss. They'll be game-plan specific as they always have been.

"Yeah, I think we've always just kind of went into the game thinking that whatever is going to help us win the game is what we're going to do, whether it's throwing the ball 50 times or running the ball 50 times," said Morris, who had a 20-yard TD run in the third quarter.

But reinstating the run is both a statement by Belichick to his team and a remedy for an offense that at times was predictable in its predilection to passing.

It's always dangerous making predictions based off preseason play, but the Patriots commitment to the run doesn't look like a passing fancy.

Sox, Patriots rooted in double-standard

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 18, 2010 09:29 AM

Speaking as a sports fan, I can say that we're not always rational beings. Fan is short for fanatic, and biased emotional attachment and the abandonment of logic is part of the fun, really. But there is a double-standard among Boston sports fans that has always baffled and bothered me.

If you're considered a hardcore Red Sox fan -- not one of those Johnny-Damon-come-lately pink hats who hopped aboard when the Sox became the "Jersey Shore" of baseball -- then you must scrutinize manager Terry Francona's mishandling of the bullpen, point out all the team-building faults of native son general manager Theo Epstein, harp on the fact that principal owner John Henry is charging you for the second-most expensive seats in baseball, and repeatedly rail that for that prodigious price, money should never, ever keep the Sox from losing or acquiring a player.

The Sox cheaped out this season and it shows. They care more about the sell-out streak and making a profit than winning.

Many of those same fans pull for the Patriots, a franchise Forbes recently ranked as the fifth most-valuable in the world at $1.36 billion (the Sox came in 35th -- $870 million). The most dedicated and respected Pats fans know that you never, ever, question any coaching or personnel decision made by His Hoodiness. To do so is perfidious and blasphemous.

In Bill We Trust.

I've never heard a Patriots fan complain about ticket prices when a player gets away or the team stumbles. Yet, they too have the second-highest prices in their sport, and from the opening of Gillette Stadium in 2002 until 2008 the Patriots had the NFL's highest average ticket price. Instead, they're lauded for holding the line during contract negotiations.

They never overpay for a player. They get salary cap value, and when a player leaves the Patriots or an available one elects to sign elsewhere it's not because the team wouldn't pay top dollar. It's because the player is greedy -- no one is above the team or its salary structure.

Logan Mankins should get his butt into camp, and what's the deal with Tom Brady? He already has more money than he can ever spend, so just accept a team-friendly offer and let's get on with our season, okay, Tom?

I've gotten in arguments with my good friend Tony Mazz who says the fan bases don't have much overlap. I disagree. I remember covering a 2003 Patriots game against the Tennessee Titans and a roar going up when they showed Sox-A's playoffs highlights on the Jumbotron. It happened to coincide with a Titans' fourth-quarter touchdown.

It's the same fans, but with a different mentality.

The Sox, who have made the playoffs six of the last seven years and were one-and-done last postseason, get skewered for admitting that this season might be a "bridge year" and for claiming that the offense would be helped by "run prevention," otherwise known as pitching and defense.

Run prevention, you mean win prevention. This Sox team was never built to contend for a World Series.

The Patriots, who have made the playoffs six of the last seven years and were one-and-done playoff participants, meanwhile are projected as Super Bowl-bound with a defense that was last seen getting run over by the Ravens and is going to start a rookie or second-year player at inside linebacker, cornerback and safety. They plan, in part, to aid the young defense by running the ball more.

Makes sense, Belichick knows his best defense is a great offense.

Many hardcore Sox fans paint Epstein, who constructed teams that won two World Series in four seasons, as an Ivy League incompetent. They are upset because the third-place Sox have a $170-million payroll, a bad bullpen and, with Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury hurt most of the year, a makeshift outfield full of Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava. He overpaid for the overrated J.D. Drew and let Jason Bay get away.

Patriots fans hail Belichick, who won three Super Bowl titles in four seasons, as an infallible genius. Sure, the outside linebacking corps is shallow after Tully Banta-Cain, but the system will fix that. A third-round pick and a fifth-round pick wasn't overpaying for Burgess because he plays so much in the sub-package. That Downtown Crossing-like crater at left corner two-plus seasons after Asante Samuel left is no concern.

It's just presumed that one of the four corners the team has drafted since Samuel's departure will emerge. Even if they don't, it will be just like 2008, when Belichick tried to replace Samuel with low-cost corners Fernando Bryant, Jason Webster, Lewis Sanders and Deltha O'Neal and still found a way to win 11 games -- without Brady no less.

That was unequivocally one of the finest coaching jobs in the history of Boston sports.

Yet, try to compare it to the job Francona is doing this year and you'll draw scorn and ridicule. Francona, who has only averaged 94 wins since becoming Sox manager in 2004, is holding together an injury-riddled Red Sox team that has seen six of its Opening Day starters, including the first four in the batting order, and starting pitcher Josh Beckett go to the disabled list for an extended amount of time.

So, he's costing us games because he won't take Jonathan Papelbon out of the closer's role.

To be a Sox fan is to complain about what might have been. It's how the existence of the franchise was defined for more than eight decades. To be a Patriots fan is to be eternally thankful that the woebegone outfit on Route 1 you once rooted for is now the model football franchise of the new millennium.

Would it be so bad to be a little more forgiving of the Sox and a little more critical of the Patriots?

Neither makes you any less of a dedicated fan.

Patriots defense must develop finishing touch

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 13, 2010 12:42 PM

tombrady607.jpg

Tom Brady called out a play in the first half Thursday against the New Orleans Saints. Brady and the Patriots will put up plenty of points this season. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady and the Patriots offense are going to pile up stats and points this season. This is a football truth we hold self-evident. But what is going to determine whether the Patriots return to NFL eminence after a season in abeyance is the development of New England's nascent defense.

One of the most dismaying aspects of last season's Patriots team was their inability to hang on to leads and close out games, a hallmark of the Patriots' Glory Days. From 2001 to 2008, Bill Belichick's team was 69-1 when leading after three quarters. They closed a deal better than Don Draper. When it mattered most they made plays and won games.

Last season they resembled Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon in Toronto, as four of New England's six losses came in games they led after three quarters. Gone were several defensive stalwarts and with them went the team's ability to finish off opponents. It was a shocking turn of events for a team that prided itself on prevailing in tight contests and putting opponents away.

The overtime demise in Denver, the collapse against the Colts, Chad Henne's 52-pass attempt field day for the Dolphins and the Houston Texans' three-touchdown fourth quarter were the fateful and frustrating four fourth quarter losses.

Another fourth, fourth-and-2 in Indianapolis, was the biggest indictment of the lack of faith Belichick had in his defense's ability to deliver the finishing touch.

You can't draw any conclusions about the under-development defense after one faux football game, but there were signs of progress and potential, as well as concern, in the Patriots' 27-24 preseason christening victory over the New Orleans Saints last night.

The good news was that when it was first-team offense against first-team defense, the Patriots didn't allow Drew Brees and the Saints to collect chunks of yardage like beads flung freely from a Bourbon Street balcony. In three series, Brees's longest completion was 11 yards, a far cry from last November when New Orleans had four pass plays of 25-yards or more against the hapless Patriots defense that was singed by the Saints for season highs of 371 yards passing and 480 total yards of offense.

The first two times Brees and Co. took the field they barely had time to feel the ersatz grass beneath their feet before they were ushered off the field in a pair of three-and-outs, the first drive ending with a sack by Marques Murrell, who is that rarest of endangered species in Foxborough these days, a 3-4 outside linebacker.

However, the third New Orleans drive, which came right after the Patriots offense found the end zone, raised a red flag and brought back bad memories of last season, when too many times the Patriots couldn't come up with the big stop or any stop at all, really.

Preseason or not, 20-play drives are always ominous for a defense, especially one trying to discover its identity.

The Saints marathon march encompassed 86 yards in 20 plays, sapping more than 10 minutes off the clock. It ended with a Reggie Bush 2-yard touchdown run. It should have ended on fourth and 6 at the Patriots' 39, but second-year cornerback Darius Butler got beat deep by Lance Moore and had to take an illegal contact penalty to prevent a touchdown.

That extended the drive, which turned into an extended drive.

The Patriots had two more third-and-long opportunities to get New Orleans back to the bench, and both times allowed first downs, including a third-and-10 picked up by Bush on a draw play, further drawing out the possession.

"It's a long drive," said Butler. "You got to get off the field. I had a penalty on fourth down that kept us on the field. We got to get off the field when we can on third and fourth down."

It's always dangerous to make any assumptions about a football team based on the preseason. These games don't count and are a watered-down version of the real thing. They're really teachable moments, especially for a defense that started five players with two seasons or less of NFL experience. All you need to know about the youthful state of the Patriots' defense is that Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather, a 2007 first-round pick, is considered one of the veteran players.

So, you don't want to overreact to one elongated drive. However, based on last season's track-record of failing to finish off opponents it was not the way the Patriots wanted to end the varsity vs. varsity portion of the game.

"First team or second team we can't give up plays, so we have a long way to go," said second-year safety Patrick Chung, who was one of the bright spots on the evening and had a big hit on Bush.

Overall, there was more to be encouraged with than discouraged by with the retooled defense. Rookies Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty didn't look a bit out of place starting at inside linebacker and cornerback respectively. Spikes for certain is an upgrade inside. You can see why Belichick loves Spikes. He sniffs out plays like a blood-hound and finds his way to ball as if guided by GPS.

McCourty not only looked solid in coverage, but was physical coming up against the run and forced a fumble late in the game. That's not to mention the pair of 50-yard kickoff returns he had.

All and all it wasn't a bad first step for the developing defense. But as the Patriots defenders learned the hard way last season, it's now how you start, but rather how you finish that really matters.

Patriots are searching for new ring-leaders

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 12, 2010 12:18 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- When last seen taking the field at Gillette Stadium, as they will do tonight for their preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots were getting blown out and embarrassed by the Baltimore Ravens in a game they never led.

Fitting, because leadership was missing all season long, a point Tom Brady made both after the playoff loss to the Ravens and again in the spring.

"There are a lot of reasons that we didn't do well over the course of the year... a lot of the reasons why we've been successful, mental toughness, leadership, discipline and commitment," said Brady, immediately following the playoff defeat.

All compelling and condemning testimony from TB12, but it's the L-word that was most troubling. Lack of leadership, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, was a problem and it needs to be fixed this season. Coach Bill Belichick recognized as much: It was not a coincidence that of the 12 players the Patriots drafted back in April, five had been team captains in college.

Look, Brady is an unquestioned leader, but no quarterback no matter how exalted or respected can a lead a defense. That's like Josh Beckett telling Adrian Beltre how to hit and play third base.

Brady never had to worry about the leadership on the other side of the ball before last season because it always came from Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel or Rodney Harrison or Richard Seymour. Those players left the Patriots -- some of their own volition, others no so much -- and left a leadership void along the Patriots Way as large as one of those I-93 North sinkholes.

In retrospect, it was patently unfair for the Patriots to expect young players like linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was named a defensive captain last season, and safety Brandon Meriweather to emerge as instant leaders, to just add responsibility and stir. Suddenly, those who were instructed to speak only when spoken too were asked to speak for the team. It was too much to ask.

Mayo was only a year removed from being a rookie, which in the Patriots' locker room is the equivalent of being a Dickensian orphan. He tried to embrace his new role, but it seemed rushed and unnatural. Meriweather has only a year more experience than Mayo, and the searing memory of being berated for speaking-out-of-school comments he made as a rookie.

The soft-spoken safety is clearly more comfortable as one of the boys than as a front man, a point he made clear when he was asked a week ago about taking ownership of the secondary and leadership. When pressed on the paucity of Patriots' leadership last year Meriweather responded to the question while creating another one -- exactly who are the leaders on this team?

"What’s the definition of a leader?" asked Meriweather, who was then given the notion that it was someone who takes charge. "I don’t know. I think James Sanders is a leader and he don’t say nothing. So, just because you take charge, that makes you a leader? Or that just makes you somebody who talk a lot? You know. You let me know.

"Me personally, I think a leader is somebody who goes out, don’t really say much, but does everything he supposed to, but steps up when he's supposed to, you know, take charge by his action, not by what he says. So, by my definition of a leader I think everyone on our team is a leader."

That's specious Patriot-speak. Not everyone can be a leader. You knew who the ring-leaders (literally) were on the Patriots Super Bowl-title teams. If you need any reminding go back and watch the NFL Films episode entitled "Team of the Decade: The Story of the 2000-2009 New England Patriots" that was on ESPN recently.

The televised encomium encapsulated the Patriots' success, and it featured a whole lot of big plays being made by Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Vrabel, Bruschi and Harrison. The reality is leaders aren't found. They're forged, borne of big plays, well-timed words and professional comportment.

That's why on the offensive side of the ball a player as laconic as running back Kevin Faulk is a leader. His reputation and résumé speak volumes, even if he rarely does. It's not a coincidence that it was Faulk who upbraided his teammates on the bench during the loss to the Ravens.

There is hope on the leadership front. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, empowered by the five-year, $40 million deal the team gave him in the off-season, made it clear in March he planned to take on more of a leadership role. Wilfork is outgoing, honest and a Pro Bowl talent. Also, with a Super Bowl ring to his name from his rookie season of 2004, he's a link between the glorious past and the uncertain future. He remains the best candidate to fill the leadership vacuum.

However, the nature of the nose tackle position is anonymity and behind-the-scenes work. Wilfork is the best player on the defense, but his position might preclude him from emerging as the same type of leader as Bruschi or Harrison.

Perhaps, another candidate has emerged in camp. It seems silly to suggest that a rookie could emerge as a leader for the Patriots, but with so many young players on the defense, maybe they need to follow one of their own.

Rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes just has a swagger to him. He doesn't look or act like a rookie. Spikes, who has drawn praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, was the Tim Tebow of the Florida Gators defense in college. Spikes has already caught the eye of owner Robert Kraft, who made it a point to stop and talk to Spikes after practice yesterday.

Of course if a rookie is one of your most likely leaders, what does that say about the leadership in place in the first place? But before you can follow a leader, you have to find one.

No need to get out of joint over practices

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 10, 2010 08:01 AM

FOXBOROUGH -- Playing well with others is not exactly a hallmark of the Patriots. They're more of the loner type around the league. They like to do things on their own and their own way.

So, hence the intrigue and excitement surrounding the joint practice sessions the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick are holding with the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints today and tomorrow at Gillette Stadium. Opening the gates of furtive Fort Foxborough to another team is like Apple inviting Google to come to Cupertino, Calif., to check out the specs for the iPad.

It's been a long time since the Patriots had a preseason playdate, nine years to be exact. The last time they had training camp company, there was no such thing as "In Bill We Trust," and Gillette Stadium was a place for hard hats, not helmets. The team still held its training camp in Smithfield, R.I., at a school called Bryant College (it's now Bryant University), Tom Brady was a third-string quarterback with a buzz cut, John Henry owned a baseball team -- the Florida Marlins -- and Sept. 11 was just a date on the calendar.

Like this year, the Patriots bivouacked with the reigning NFC Champions, the New York Giants, back then. We all know how that '01 season ended, cue the U2. But no one who watched the Patriots' cooperative practice with the Giants ever would have guessed that it was New England that was the Super Bowl team on the field.

All business, Belichick was not in a nostalgic mood yesterday, so he brushed off a question about the 2001 joint practice and what he learned from it that year. None of the four remaining players to take part in that practice -- Tom Brady, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk and Stephen Neal -- felt like providing detailed recollections either. The whole theme of this Patriots' camp is leaving behind the past, so why revisit it?

No such problem here.

This will come as a shock to many of you out there in Patriotland: Yours truly was once an employee of the New England Patriots. Yep, that's right. In the summer of 2001, I worked Patriots training camp, and witnessed those joint practices. My title that summer was "circulation intern" for the team's in-house publication, Patriots Football Weekly.

"Circulation intern" is a euphemism, kind of like the NFL calling an expanded regular season an "enhanced season." I was a Patriots paperboy, hawking the team publication at training camp practices and out in the Foxboro Stadium parking lot before preseason games.

What I remember from those searing summer sessions with Jim Fassel's Big Blue is discovering the unbridled joy of a Del's frozen lemonade and being dejected at how rough and unpolished the Patriots looked next to the Giants of Michael Strahan, Tiki Barber and Amani Toomer. The best quarterback on the field for the practices wasn't Drew Bledsoe or Brady. It was Kerry Collins.

Part of the Globe account from that day summed up the feeling: "The pads were off, and there were plenty of water breaks. But it still wasn't hard to detect which of the two teams went to the Super Bowl last season. The Patriots have a long way to go."

If you had told me that those Patriots, who were coming off a 5-11 season, were a Super Bowl-team I would have assumed you meant the Eastern Mass. high school Super Bowls.

That's why this visit from Drew Brees and the boys from the Big Easy will be a good chance to break free from the monotony of training camp and simulate some game situations, but it's not going to tell us what type of team the Patriots are going to be. We shouldn't get too excited if they fare well or too dejected if the Saints outclass them as they did last November at the Superdome.

At the end of the day, novelty or not, we're still taking about practice, practice, as Allen Iverson would say.

"Yeah, you take everything in stride," said Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who went through joint practices as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. "You try not to over-analyze or over-think the situation, but you know it is an intense atmosphere. It's training camp. Guys are trying to make the roster, so you don't want to take it lightly, but at the same time we're not playing for a Super Bowl here this week. It's just a matter of guys trying to get better at what they do, and there is still time for us to improve as a team."

Putting stock in the outcome of these practices is like doing the same with preseason games. We've all been burned there. Michael Bishop was a preseason legend. Matt Cassel looked like Sam Cassell playing QB in the 2008 preseason. We all know who the better Patriots QB turned out to be.

The Patriots aren't going to go another nine years without a joint practice. They won't even go a full week, as after today and tomorrow's sessions with the Saints they'll have a shared practice with the Atlanta Falcons next week.

These joint practices aren't going away. The opposite, they'll become the routine de rigueur in the NFL, especially once the owners have their way and expand the regular season to 18 games, swapping out two of the four exhibition games for two regular-season contests.

It's inevitable, and NFL owners are meeting to discuss it on Aug. 25 during a special meeting in Atlanta, which just happens to be where the Patriots will be practicing with the Falcons next Tuesday and Wednesday, prior to the teams' exhibition game next Thursday.

If anything can be learned from 2001 it's that joint practices are more interesting to watch than intrasquad ones, but they don't decide what kind of squad you have.

Here's the kicker: Gostkowski is good

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 4, 2010 01:13 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- There are positions in this training camp where the Patriots have competition, uncertainty and intrigue. Kicker is not one of them.

Outside of starting quarterback there might not be another spot on the Patriots' roster more solidified than kicker. Stephen Gostkowski has a leg up on the competition because, well, there is no competition. There isn't a need for it. That's a testament to the reliability, consistency and mental toughness of Gostkowski, who has emerged as one of the NFL's best.

His .851 field goal accuracy percentage is the highest in team history. From his rookie season of 2006 until now, Gostkowski's lithe leg has accounted for 513 points. Only San Diego's Nate Kaeding has accounted for more kicking points during that span. Gostkowski owns the longest kicks in Gillette Stadium (53 yards) and Patriots' playoff history (50). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is that you rarely hear the name of his esteemed placekicking predecessor, Adam Vinatieri, mentioned in these parts.

Don't tell any of this to Gostkowski. Placekickers are the proletariat of the NFL. Their positions on the team are always precarious because they're eminently replaceable. It's normal to be a little uptight about putting the ball through the uprights. Insecurity is normal in a vocation with fleeting job security.

That's why now five seasons into his NFL career, having successfully succeeded a legend and with a Pro Bowl berth on his resume, Gostkowski still won't accept the notion that he has a foothold in Foxborough.

"There is a fine line between feeling established and being too comfortable," said the 26-year-old Gostkowski. "Just because you've done it before you can't come out here and go through the motions and start squirting the ball around everywhere and expect them to want to keep you.

"I still have to prove myself every year. It makes the transition going into the season a lot easier knowing that you've done it before. You have to go back on your past experience of success, especially when things aren't going right, to pick yourself back up. But you still have to prove yourself every year. If I come out here and can't make a kick they're going to have to find somebody that can, so it's my job to prove it to them that I can do it every year."

It doesn't seem that long ago that Gostkowski was a rookie fourth-round pick out of Memphis charged with the unenviable task of replacing Vinatieri, he of the Automatic Adam appellation and two field goals that put Super Bowl banners up in Gillette Stadium.

If he were less mentally tough, Gostkowski easily could have become the second-coming of Scott "Missin'" Sisson. Instead, he has become a lot like his football-booting forerunner -- a quiet, reliable, professional presence.

"It's not like I came in here and stole the job from Adam," said Gostkowski. "They decided to part ways with each other. They never put any pressure on me. I couldn't go out there my first game of the season and kick a game-winning Super Bowl kick. It just wasn't possible.

"Guys like [Adam] are what give kickers a good name these days. It was almost a bonus to be able to have a little success and to have people stop asking the questions. Maybe that drove me a little bit, but I didn't go out there and think that I had to prove anything. By going out there and doing good and making the team I felt like I'd proved something. I never really thought about it."

The truth is Gostkowski tries not to think about much. If your mind wanders so will your kicks. By the nature of their job kickers get isolated a bit from the rest of the team. They're alone with their thoughts a lot. Their own worst enemy at times can be themselves. A mental block is just as bad as a blocked kick. Gostkowski said in high school he'd be distraught if he missed a kick, now he's Even Stephen.

"We're to ourselves," said Gostkowski. "Only, me and Jake and Zoltan can understand what each other goes through. Jerod Mayo is not going to care if my leg is sore. He's not going to care that I don't feel that good today, so only we know what we go through mentally because we all sort of do the same thing.

"When you get out there you get one shot to perform, and it's real heartbreaking, it hurts when you don't do your job right. You feel like everybody is looking at you, and every time that you have a good experience or a bad experience it builds you up mentally. It toughens you up mentally, and you just got to be able to learn from it."

Sometimes it's heartbreaking when you don't get to attempt a kick, which was the case in Super Bowl XLII, when coach Bill Belichick eschewed a 49-yard Gostkowski field goal attempt to go for it on fourth and 13.

What has helped Gostkowski put kicking into perspective is that he became a father last December. He and his wife, Hallie, had a son, Slayden. Young Slayden doesn't care whether Gostkowski makes a 49-yard game-winner or misses a chip shot. He is there to greet Gostkowski with a grin and a gurgle.

"No, he's not worried if Daddy misses or not," Gostkowski said.

Gostkowski will never have that luxury, but he has learned to let go a bit. Hopefully the Patriots won't let go of him. Gostkowski is playing this season under the $1.759 million restricted free agent tender he signed after the team tendered him at the second-round level.

Gostkowski didn't want to talk contract, but he did indicate he likes it in New England. The feeling should be mutual.

They just wouldn't be the Patriots without a clutch kicker with a long surname and a long leg.

It could be a happier birthday for Brady

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 3, 2010 02:25 PM

Happy Birthday, Tom. Hopefully it's not the last one you celebrate as a Patriot.

Every year Tom Brady's birthday falls during training camp. TB12 turned 33 today. Hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday a fresh-faced, wide-eyed, and tonsorially irrelevant Brady was turning to Drew Bledsoe in disbelief to celebrate winning a Super Bowl.

You look up and, bang, Brady has Justin Bieber bangs and is a grizzled veteran of both the NFL and life. He has a wife, two kids, a scar on his left knee and a bi-coastal lifestyle. This is going to be his 11th NFL season. He won his first Super Bowl before Facebook, Twitter, and "American Idol."

Brady is a year older, but he's not old. His idol, Joe Montana, was 33 when he won his last Super Bowl. Bart Starr won one at 34. John Elway won a pair of Super Bowls at 37 and 38. Brett Favre nearly made it to a Super Bowl at 40.

So, what do you get the urbane man who has everything for his birthday? How about the one thing he really wants, can't give himself, and doesn't have -- a new contract?

That would be a nice gift from Patriots owner Robert Kraft to Brady --- and Patriots fans. It's not likely to be delivered today or any time soon though, despite Kraft's repeated insistence, sans tangible details, that Brady will remain a Patriot. Brady and the Patriots do not have the particulars of a deal in place.

If he didn't know it before, Brady is realizing that not even he is immune to the looming labor unrest in the NFL. Both Brady and his Colts compatriot, Peyton Manning, have become pawns in the collective bargaining agreement posturing between the players and the owners. This next CBA is hugely important for the owners, who opted out in 2008. It trumps anything else going on in the league, including the future of their own franchises and bitter rivalries.

So much so that the Patriots and their arch-enemies, the Indianapolis Colts, are actually in cahoots on the franchise quarterback issue.

The last thing the owners want is for Brady and Manning to get massive contracts under the old system, undercutting their argument that it is broken beyond repair and needs to be scrapped. Thus, instead of locking up their sainted signal-callers, the teams are assuring fans and media those players aren't going anywhere and hinting at the franchise tag.

Quick, which team owner said this recently about which future Hall of Fame QB: "The bottom line is we'll get something done and when it happens just depends."

If you guessed Kraft, you guessed wrong. Using uncannily similar language to the grand pooh-bah of Patriot Place, that was what Indy owner Jim Irsay said yesterday. Irsay, while reaffirming his pre-Super Bowl pledge to make Manning the game's highest-paid player, also said doing a deal wouldn't be easy because the next CBA is going to go back and recapture something from the uncapped year.

That's news to the NFLPA.

This is a case of the owners reminding the players who is boss and who their bosses are. They're using Brady and Manning as examples to the rank and file. It's been well-documented that Brady is an assistant player representative for the NFLPA. The players association believes that owners will respect and listen to someone like Brady. That he can cross the aisle between players and owners. That billionaire owners see Brady as somewhat of an equal, someone who is more than the hired help.

By treating iconic players like Brady and Manning like, well, just players the owners are sending a message. They're saying no one, not even the game's two more recognizable stars, can move them off their hardline CBA position. It's pure intimidation. It's also a huge risk.

The risk in this strategy is that you alienate a Brady or a Manning to the point where they resent their treatment, resent the franchise tag and do everything in their power to pack up their ball and go play somewhere else post-CBA. For Kraft, that's the ultimate case of winning the battle and losing the war.

Brady understands that he's being made an example of to some degree. He understands what the stakes are.

We all love the Brady-Manning comparison, but the reality as pointed out by colleague Albert Breer is that there is no comparison when it comes to paychecks. Manning entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 1998 and was instantly handed a six-year, $47.6 million deal. Brady was a sixth-round pick who entered on a three-year rookie deal.

Even after he won a Super Bowl, the deal he signed in August 2002 -- last time Brady entered camp in the final year of his contract -- was a four-year extension that brought his total payment package over five seasons to about $30 million. That's still $17.6 million less than Manning's rookie deal.

Brady is always chasing money versus Manning. This is his last chance to be in Manning's league from a salary standpoint. That league costs $17-$20 million a year. That type of salary for Brady is more about respect than cash flow. To be around Brady is to understand he's more about principle than principal.

Brady and Kraft were seen amiably chatting as they left the practice field yesterday. Yesterday, at an event to trumpet the installation of a solar power system at Patriot Place and the team's Hall of Fame, Kraft was asked if he and Brady were discussing plans for Brady's B-day.

"It's unbelievable when you think he came here when I guess he was 22," said Kraft. "Now, he's going to be 33. ...We look forward to celebrating many more birthdays with him right here in Foxborough."

Hopefully, that's the case. Or the Patriots probably won't be celebrating much of anything in Foxborough.

This finally has to be Maroney's year

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 30, 2010 07:53 AM

300maroney.jpgFOXBOROUGH -- It has become one of the rituals of the start of training camp, right up there with two-a-day practices, the double issuing of jersey numbers and punitive practice laps.

Every year around this time there is the annual Laurence Maroney "this is the year" story. This is the year that Maroney fulfills the potential that rests on his shoulder like a pair of oversized shoulder pads. This is the year he becomes the go-to back for the Patriots. This is the year he becomes a 1,000-yard rusher. It's kind of like the Red Sox pre-2004 -- wait, rinse, repeat.

This year is no different, but Maroney has to be. This is the year for the affable and gregarious running back, or it could be his last as a Patriot. Maroney's contract is up after this season, along with the rest of the Patriots running backs. The team has two first-round picks and two second-round picks in next year's draft. Picks they could use to take the feature back of the future, which is what they thought Maroney was when they tabbed him with the 21st selection in the 2006 draft.

It hasn't worked out that way. Maroney is entering the fifth year of his NFL career and in some people's minds, he is entering the fifth season of unfulfilled promise. Maroney has had both his toughness and his vision criticized in his four seasons in Foxborough. He has teased with his talent and frustrated teammates, coaches, fans, and himself with inconsistency and indecisiveness.

Know this about No. 39: it's never been an effort issue. If anything it's the opposite. He tries too hard to please too many people and has too many voices in his head. Maroney is not a knucklehead who doesn't care. He cares too much.

Maroney sounded more mature and circumspect yesterday. He is, believe it or not, one of the veterans now on this team, even though he is just 25 years old. His goal for this make-or-break season in New England was right out of the Bill Belichick Media Playbook.

"Win, that's the only reason that we're here for," said Maroney. "We ain't here to get personal stats are we? We're here for one thing and that's to win, so whatever I can do to help us win that's what I'm going to do."

It's easy to forget that Maroney has done that during his Patriots career. The Patriots have never lost a game, regular-season or playoffs, in which he toted the ball 20 or more times. They are 8-0. He was the team's leading rusher for the second time in three seasons with 757 yards last season and scored a career-high nine touchdowns.

However, he had a difficult time holding onto the football and had an uncharacteristic four fumbles. He carried just once in the Patriots' miserable playoff loss to Baltimore and was benched after he was bowled over by Ray Lewis on a blitz pickup.

Maroney may have dropped the ball at times last season, but he's willfully letting go of the baggage of the past.

"You know if I hold on to that I'm going to never progress," he said. "I'm always going to be thinking about the past. You just got to let it go and move on. You can't change it. I can't change what happened in the first four years. All I can do is dictate what's going to happen the next ones."

The Patriots favor a running back-by-committee approach, but, like it or not, Maroney is the team's best option for a bellwether back. He may never emerge as a game-breaker in the backfield, but the Patriots haven't seen his best yet and don't have better options.

Kevin Faulk excels in his third-down role. Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are 33 and 34, respectively. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a valuable and versatile backup, but far from a feature back. Still, Maroney was matter-of-fact about his role and earning the trust of Belichick.

"Just because I was a first-rounder, just because it's my fifth year doesn't mean I deserve anything," he said. "Nothing out here is deserved. You got to earn everything, so I'm just at the point to where if I want 20 carries, I just have to come out here and earn my 20 carries."

At times being a running back on an offense that features Tom Brady at quarterback can make you feel a bit like a pawn. That's a term that Maroney is familiar with. He let it slip yesterday that he is a chess player. He's been playing since high school, and is a member of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Maroney and the club donated 30 chess boards to the Taunton Boys & Girls Club.

"I look at it as chess can help with football because one thing about chess when you move you're not moving for right now you're moving to set up moves later on," said Maroney. "That's how football is. ... I can see the linebacker right here, but what move can I do to set this safety up too? I look at chess as just [the same] as playing football."

Pessimists are probably saying that at least Maroney can't get hurt playing chess, or that he tap-dances the pieces on the board before settling on a move.

That's OK because there has been a lot of shedding of past reputations recently inside -- or more accurately on -- the walls of Gillette Stadium. The message Belichick is sending is that this team has a blank slate -- Maroney included.

"I never thought of it that way, but now that you've said it could mean that. I'm just going to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to me," Maroney said.

He has to because this is the year or this is it as a Patriot.

Time to lower expectations for Patriots?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 29, 2010 07:54 AM

There are a lot of questions surrounding the 2010 New England Patriots, and today we start to get some answers -- or at least some some helpful hints.

But perhaps the most difficult query to answer as the Patriots commence training camp today at Fort Foxborough is not one that can be answered by coach Bill Belichick, or quarterback Tom Brady, or wide receiver Wes Welker, or an uninspiring group of outside linebackers or developing defensive backs Darius Butler and Devin McCourty.

It's a question that requires the Patriots fan to questions themselves: What are your realistic expectations for this edition of the Patriots?

It's difficult to know what to expect of the Patriots anymore. The rote practice of just penciling them in as a perennial Super Bowl favorite is easy and comforting, but not necessarily accurate.

Even the most ardent and unconditional Patriots fan who still holds his or her favorite team up as the apotheosis of professional football would have to admit there has been some slippage since the Glory Years. The nearly-perfect 2007 season was just three years ago and yet it seems in some ways like another lifetime.

We all thought with the return of Brady under center last season that the Patriots would pick up where they left off in the sublime 2007 season. They did, sort of, in that the season ended with a shocking playoff defeat. But the expectation that they would win 14 or 15 games and pass go to the Super Bowl proved to be wildly unreasonable.

The team struggled to find its stride and its identity all season long. It's going to take more than peeling the pictures of past players off the wall to fix that this year.

We (myself included) overlooked an unseasoned and unproven defense and underplayed the on-field and locker room loss of leaders like Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour. We expected the 2009 Patriots to play and comport themselves like the Patriots of the past simply because of the uniforms and helmets. It doesn't work that way.

"It's not the Patriots uniform that makes players play the Patriot Way," said Brady, after the season. "It's all the players and coaches collectively pulling in the same direction."

What direction exactly is this franchise going in now? The evidence would indicate it's headed away from the dominance that marked the previous decade.

A very real question in these parts is who is more likely to finish in third place, the Patriots or the Red Sox? I don't think the Patriots are a third-place team. I still give them a narrow edge over the Dolphins and Jets in the AFC East because it's a quarterback league and the Patriots have the best QB in the division, assuming he's not distracted by his uncertain contract status.

However, is it really that unfathomable for this team to end up in third place with say a 9-7 record? In the last 14 seasons there have been at least five teams to make the playoffs that were postseason bystanders the previous season. Some team that wasn't on the playoff guest list last season will be sitting in postseason VIP this year. Maybe they take the Cincinnati Bengals' spot. Maybe it's the Patriots' spot.

The Patriots are coming off back-to-back seasons of 11-5 and 10-6. They haven't won a playoff game in two seasons. They start camp with a roster that features two dozen draft picks from the last two years and just four players who have been around for and since the team's three Super Bowl titles last decade -- Brady, left tackle Matt Light, running back Kevin Faulk and right guard Stephen Neal. Three of the four (Brady, Light and Faulk) don't have contracts that go beyond this season. Wide receiver Randy Moss is also in the last year of his contract, and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is a holdout because he wants a new contract.

Yet, the Patriots are still the reigning AFC East champions. They still have the best coach in the game and the quarterback with the highest active winning percentage (.764). They still have the incomparable Moss at receiver. They re-signed nose tackle Vince Wilfork and cornerback Leigh Bodden. Welker is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

If the pieces fall into place ... The Patriots are a team framed by ifs.

If young players can emerge at cornerback and outside linebacker, if they can find a third wide receiver, if they can generate a pass rush, if the light goes on for running back Laurence Maroney, if they can win on the road this season, the Patriots will be fine. That's a lot of ifs, but pretty much every team in the NFL has a lot of ifs this time of year.

Last year at this time there were just as many ifs about the New Orleans Saints. The difference is that no one expects the Saints to win the Super Bowl every year, like it's some divine rite.

We know what the internal expectations are in Foxborough. Those don't change and they shouldn't. But it's probably time for lowered expectations outside Gillette Stadium. The Super Bowl or bust mentality that has pervaded the region since 2002 no longer applies.

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the Patriots run of success started with one of the most unexpected Super Bowl titles in NFL history. It was fun back then without the Wilfork-sized weight of expectations placed on the team each season.

We used to expect greatness from the Patriots. Now, that might be expecting too much.

Patriots coaching staff must come of age

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 23, 2010 02:45 PM

Patriots rookies report to training camp on Sunday. These players are young, inexperienced and unproven. That gives them something in common with the team's coaching staff.

If the Bill Belichick coaching tree once resembled a redwood, reaching to the upper echelon of the NFL, it is now a sapling replete with tree brace. That creates an interesting dynamic this season in Foxborough, where the Patriots are relying on a still-developing group of coaches to develop young players they need to perform in important roles like wide receiver, cornerback and outside linebacker.

Of the 12 assistant coaches, excluding strength and conditioning coaches, on the Patriots roster, eight are 40 years of age or younger. Offensive assistant Brian Ferentz, who will ostensibly coach the tight ends this year without the title, is 27. Veteran tight end Alge Crumpler is five years his senior.

While Belichick is searching for the next Ty Law or Deion Branch, he's also looking to develop the next Eric Mangini or Josh McDaniels, both of whom were precocious Patriots coaches who became coordinators and ultimately NFL head coaches. It was five years ago that Belichick had 34-year-old Mangini running the Patriots defense and 29-year-old McDaniels the offense (sans coordinator title) after the departure of Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis.

Going with such callow coaches now is clearly a gamble for the game's best coach. However, Belichick is more comfortable molding and educating his own coaches in his system rather than bringing in more experienced coaches from outside his school of thought.

After hinting following a second straight season without a playoff win that he would potentially be open to adding coaches to the staff that could provide more pushback, Belichick added one new coach, tapping 40-year-old Corwin Brown, a former Patriots player with three years of pro coaching experience.

Brown's role is to aid 33-year-old defensive backs coach Josh Boyer, who took over as defensive backs coach last season with no prior experience as a position coach. Not surprisingly -- but not necessarily solely a reflection on Boyer -- there were some cringe-worthy breakdowns in the back end last season, particularly Saints wide receiver Devery Henderson's 75-yard waltz to the end zone on a busted coverage.

When 60-year-old defensive coordinator Dean Pees left the team following last season, an official replacement wasn't named. The Patriots are officially going without offensive or defensive coordinators this year, a highly unusual step in today's speciously specialized NFL.

Unofficially those roles are being filled by 40-year-old quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien, who was the primary play-caller for the first time last season, and soon-to-be (Sept. 13) 36-year-old linebackers coach Matt Patricia, who will have the benefit of Belichick's self-purported increased role in the defense.

Other members of Belichick Youth are 29-year-old assistant coach offense/special teams Brian Flores, called "the next Mike Tomlin" by one former Patriots football operations employee; defensive assistant Patrick Graham, 30, and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea, 37.

Contrast the Patriots filling of the defensive coordinator void to that of the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins, who went out and got defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who has 12 seasons of NFL coordinator experience. Both of Miami's coordinators, Nolan and Dan Henning have been NFL head coaches.

The Patriots have stalwart experienced whistle-blowers in running backs coach Ivan Fears (20th season), sage offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia (29th season) and special teams coach Scott O'Brien (20th season). X's and O's acumen is not going to be a major issue for a Belichick staff as long as he's on it. But you do have to wonder if the wunderkinds can foster the development of their young players, something Scarnecchia in particular is adept at.

For all of the criticism of the Patriots drafting the last few years, with 2006, 2007 and 2008 the most notable examples, you wonder how much of the team's failure to assimilate young players is tied to incorrect talent evaluation and how much is the result of a lack of player development, a strength of the arch rival Indianapolis Colts.

The line between player evaluation and player development is blurred. They bleed into each other, and a deficiency in one area creates the appearance of one in the other.

What is unequivocal is that this is a franchise that once took guys like Hank Poteat and Earthwind Moreland off the street and turned them into passable NFL players, but is now struggling to get talents like 2008 second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and '08 third-round pick Shawn Crable on the field in contributing roles.

It's disheartening to watch a player like David Thomas, a 2006 third-round pick who was traded to New Orleans following the preseason last year, emerge as solid contributor for the Super Bowl champion Saints, while the Patriots start the season with two rookie tight ends and an aging veteran, Crumpler. Thomas actually played more snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus, at tight end for New Orleans than Jeremy Shockey (781 to 739) and recorded career-highs in catches (35) and receiving yards (356).

Belichick has displayed an aversion to young players, but he clearly doesn't have one to young coaches. Possibly, because he was one of them once.

He became special teams coach of the New York Giants at age 27. He was running the team's defense (without the coordinator title) at age 32 and became defensive coordinator at age 33. When he became a head coach for the first time, taking the reigns of the Cleveland Browns in 1991, he was 38 and the youngest coach in the league.

In the end, age is nothing but a number. It is not a predictor of success or failure. But if the Patriots coaching staff doesn't come of age this season to help its players do the same then New England's number could be up.

Brady is on the money

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 22, 2010 02:02 PM
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"People don't want to see well-to-do owners and well-to-do players squabbling about money." -- Patriots owner Robert Kraft, last October.

No they don't, especially when the well-to-do owner is Kraft and the well-to-do player is Tom Brady. That's not to suggest there is a quarrel between the Kraft family and their franchise quarterback. But with training camp commencing a week from today, what there clearly is not is any tangible sign of progress toward a new contract for Brady, who is heading into the final year of the six-year deal he inked in 2005.

The only holdout involving Brady is not coming from him, but the Patriots. He shouldn't have to threaten not to show up to camp to get a new contract. That's not how it worked for Eli Manning or Philip Rivers or Jay Cutler, all of whom got lucrative extensions worth north of $15 million within the last 11 months.

The Patriots are playing a dangerous game here with their most valuable asset. He has never started a season in the final year of a contract. It should never get that far, and it shouldn't have gotten this far now. Brady's future should not even be a topic for discussion seven days before the start of the 2010 season. It's an unwelcome distraction that both Brady and a teetering team don't need, but are going to have to deal with until there is a deal keeping him safe and sound in Fort Foxborough.

The CBA has become a rather convenient bit of CYA for the Patriots not to cut Brady a big, fat check.

Yes, there is looming collective bargaining uncertainty in the NFL -- although there certainly will be a lockout in 2011 -- that complicates a deal for Brady or his Colts counterpart Peyton Manning, who is also heading into the last year of his contract. Structuring a contract that will stand up to the new CBA is akin to constructing a building with a blueprint from memory, there simply aren't any foolproof guidelines to follow.

Yet, it's foolhardy to prevent that from locking up Brady. Bring Brady back on the mega-contract he deserves and then once the new CBA is nailed down -- as two of the most influential people in the NFL, Robert Kraft and his team-president progeny, Jonathan Kraft, have a pretty good idea of what the framework will look like -- adjust and build the team around him.

The only thing worse than doing a cap-crippling contract for Brady is not doing one and gambling that the NFL will be able to rout the NFL Players Association and force a deal that meets all the owners' demands while giving up nothing in return. There are already signs the NFLPA is targeting the abolition of the franchise tag as a major ownership concession.

Then you're Jeremy Jacobs and the Bruins after the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. Brady could simply say goodbye, Foxborough, and hello, San Francisco 49ers or Los Angeles Jaguars.

One thing that NFL owners, who are lavishly successful businessmen, seem to forget sometimes is that in the NFL the player is the product they're selling. They're not peddling an inanimate product like an iPod or a cool corporate logo. They're peddling the players and the team, not to be confused with the organization. Team and organization are not synonyms. One is a competitive athletic entity, the latter is a business venture.

For there to be a Patriot Way, Patriot Place, a Patriot "brand" and three Lombardi Trophies in the lobby there had to be Tom Brady. His value to the franchise, on and off-the field, is not immeasurable. It's quite the opposite.

A Forbes magazine study pegged the Patriots as the fifth-most valuable sports franchise in the world at $1.36 billion. That is a testament to the brilliant business acumen of the Kraft family, but also to the fact that everybody loves to be associated with a winner, which is what Brady and coach Bill Belichick transformed the franchise into.

Forbes also recently released a list of the highest-paid coaches in professional sports. Belichick was No. 2 on the list by Forbes, which calculated his salary at $7.5 million, making him the highest-paid coach in the NFL. But while the Patriots and Belichick are on these most valuable lists, the Patriots most valuable asset is not.

Yesterday, Sports Illustrated released its Fortunate 50, a ranking of the highest-grossing American athletes, among the local athletes on the list were Kevin Garnett, John Lackey, Paul Pierce and Vince Wilfork. Even Jermaine O'Neal, thanks to the whopping $23 million he made last season in Miami, made the cut. Quite conspicuous by his absence from the financially fecund 5-0 was No. 12.

Here was the explanation that SI gave when one was requested: "Tom Brady actually came pretty close -- combined numbers of around $16.5 million. His salary was comparatively low this year, which was a product of his renegotiation back in 2007 to accommodate Randy Moss. Being that he's in the final year of his contract, I'd guess that he'll be back next year if he and the Patriots agree to a fair new deal."

If...there should be no qualifier when it comes to the QB. He is soon-to-be 33 (Aug. 3), has seen his athletic mortality via an ACL injury, and this is likely the last deal he'll ever sign. It's time for Brady to get paid what he's worth, which would be a first.

How much more of a bargain can Brady be? The season he won the Patriots their first Super Bowl his base salary was $298,000. The Patriots already got lucky once with Brady replacing Drew Bledsoe. You're not going to magically pull another Hall of Fame quarterback out of a hat, or helmet as it would be, this time around, no offense to Brian Hoyer.

If you're the Patriots you can pay Brady what he wants now or pay for it later.

Boston sports are an 'LA Story'

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 21, 2010 01:35 PM

We just can't escape LA these days. The fate and fortunes of our traditional Big Four pro sports franchises -- the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Bruins -- are intertwined for better or worse with Los Angeles.

New York will always be Boston's chief rival sports city, but LA has become a noteworthy nemesis, a sunny, superficial antagonist that we love to beat and resent.

There couldn't be two more different cities than staid, historic, and compact Boston and capricious, trendy and sprawling Los Angeles. Yet it seems like everywhere you turn there is some Boston- LA link hovering above the sports scene like LA's infamous smog.

Let's start with the obvious LA story. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers just concluded a seven-game basketball battle royal to crown an NBA champion, meeting in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. The Lakers outlasted the Celtics to win their 16th championship. Fittingly, dead downtown Los Angeles could be the final burial ground for the Big Three era and the Celtics coaching career of Doc Rivers.

The two storied franchises have accounted for 33 of the NBA's 64 championships, with the Green, who beat LA two years ago for Banner No. 17, holding the slimmest of leads. It would be nothing short of a calamity if the Lakers, who are holding their championship parade today, tied or surpassed the Celtics as the most decorated team in professional hoops history.

Luckily, it can't legitimately happen. The "Los Angeles Lakers" claim of 16 championships rings a little hollow when in their own arena they hang prominent purple and gold banners for each of the LA championships and cram the five titles won in Minneapolis, before LA seduced the Lakers west for the 1960-61 season, with the game's first superstar, George Mikan, on to one measly flag marked "M.P.L.S"

The scoreboard should read Celtics: 17, Los Angeles Lakers: 11.

A Boston sports team did manage to defeat one of LA's beloved teams in a series, replete with "Beat LA" chants. The Red Sox just swept Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers out of Fenway, with nary a word uttered by the mercurial, peculiar and polarizing former Sox slugger, who went 5 for 12 with a home run and one run batted in during his letdown of a return to Fenway.

Manny being Manny has given way to Mannywood. The desperate for a dollar Dodgers have done a great job of marketing Manny's misfit -- and occasionally misanthropic -- personality. This is the final year of Ramirez's contract with the Dodgers and he and the team appear headed for a divorce. That's not a word that Dodgers fans are fond of, as there is prevalent fear in LA that the sticky divorce proceedings between team owner and former Boston real estate magnate Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, could leave the team financially hamstrung and unable to add the pieces it needs to reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Speaking of separation anxiety, that's what Patriots' fans are experiencing when it comes to their bi-coastal franchise quarterback, Tom Brady. Los Angeles may no longer have a pro football team (according to the NCAA they had one at USC under Pete Carroll), but they do have New England sports' most revered and recognized star.

Tom Terrific has generated some concern among the Foxborough Faithful by spending the majority of his off-season in the Los Angeles-area. Brady's eldest son, Jack, lives in La-La Land with his mother and the QB's former girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan. The canonized quarterback is building a home with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, in the posh Brentwood section of LA, and he was seen yucking it up with Lakers star Kobe Bryant after Game 3 of the Finals.

There have been as many photos of him hanging out at the UCLA spring game with David Beckham as there have been participating in Patriots off-season practices. And the purported "growing disconnect" between Brady, whose contract is up after this season, and the team is both financial and geographical. Brady isn't willing to take a hometown discount this time, at least not if the hometown is here.

LA stole the Dodgers and the Lakers, they won't hesitate to take the greatest football player in New England sports history. Brady could be quarterbacking the Los Angeles Jaguars in 2012.

It's not all bad from a Boston perspective when it comes to the City of Angels. LA could be about to deliver a savior to the most forlorn of Boston's Big Four, the Bruins. The NHL Entry Draft will be held Friday and Saturday in ... Los Angeles. The pick-a-palooza is at Staples Center, so the scene of the Celtics' demise could be the locale of the Bruins' resurrection.

Anybody who has been keeping up with the Bruins knows that the Black and Gold have the No. 2 pick in this draft and are assured of obtaining one of what the ice hockey intelligentsia have promised us are two genuine franchise forwards in winger Taylor Hall and center Tyler Seguin.

The last time the Bruins successfully drafted a face-of-the-franchise player, Los Angeles was involved. The Spoked-B's swapped goalie Ron Grahame to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 9, 1978 for a 1979 first-round pick. That pick ended up being used to select a young defenseman by the name of Ray Bourque. Thanks, LA.

See, it's not all bad with Los Angeles, although you do have to question a place where Miley Cyrus is a success. LA has the ultimate sports bar for the Boston sports diaspora, Sonny McLean's. It's delivered us Bourque and produced Paul Pierce, Willie McGinest, Fred Lynn and newly minted Patriots Hall of Famer Sam "Bam" Cunningham.

In return, we gave them Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Fair deal.

As Rodney King famously said while imploring an end to the violent 1992 LA riots, "Can't we all just get along?"

Boston and LA sports fans don't have a choice.

Thomas, Patriots both stand to lose

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 26, 2010 02:14 PM
300adalius.jpgAdalius Thomas had a saying that he got from his father, the good Rev. Adonis Thomas, while growing up in rural Alabama, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

It is because he stood up for himself that the curtain has finally fallen on his career as a New England Patriot. The inevitable happened earlier today when the team, following a season filled with strained relations and an incommunicado offseason, finally granted Thomas a divorce from a marriage that had become both dysfunctional and harmful to both sides.

No one wins in this separation. Thomas leaves New England with the patina of both a malcontent and a failed free agent acquisition, and the Patriots are still perilously thin at outside linebacker -- Tully Banta-Cain and a bunch of questions marks -- after they saw a $35 million investment go belly up.

Coach Bill Belichick botched his relationship with Thomas by not bridging the communication gap, but let's be clear, Thomas is not without either blame or responsibility in this situation.

He could have handled being a healthy scratch against Tennessee better, even if he was perturbed the news was delivered to him by linebackers coach Matt Patricia at the team hotel on game day. The same goes for being sent home as part of Lategate, even if Thomas was angered that he had called the team ahead on that snowy morning to let them know he'd be late and was only nine minutes tardy.

Airing a dispute and unveiling the fraying of the lines of communication with his coach in public was a no-win from the start for Thomas, even if he was standing up for himself. This is not exactly a market for honest, outspoken athletes who carry the perception of underperformance, and it's never a good idea to feud with your boss, especially if it's the latter-day Lombardi and one of the most successful coaches in the NFL.

That's why to most Patriots fans what Thomas's tenure stood for was a player whose best defense was played in interviews and not on the field.

They don't look at how Thomas, who led all NFL linebackers in sacks from 2004 to 2006 with 28, was utilized or miscast by the Patriots or focus on the fact he was coming back this season from a broken right forearm he suffered in 2008, when at the time he was tied for the team lead in sacks with five.

They've completely forgotten about Super Bowl XLII, when Thomas played his best game in the biggest game of the almost perfect '07 season, recording five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble, or that jaw-dropping 65-yard interception return he had against the Chargers the week after Spygate broke.

Thomas, who came here in 2007 with the promise of boosting an aging linebacker corps with a versatile impact player, instead became the poster boy for a Patriots' locker room in rebellion and the decline of a dynasty.

With his ability to play multiple positions -- Thomas once lined up opposite Chad Johnson/Ochocinco for the Ravens -- Thomas was supposed to be the perfect Patriots player, but his temperament was never suited for Fort Foxborough and his playing style definitely was not suited to being a 3-4 linebacker in Belichick's system.

The problem is that neither Thomas nor Belichick did their homework before getting hitched. It was an ill-conceived union of player and coach from the start. Thomas famously referenced "The Jetsons" when asked about being late on that wintry December day. He was on to something because Belichick desires players who resemble the Jetsons' maid, Rosie -- robots who respond to his every command.

Thomas had been in the league long enough and been on successful teams long enough, including a Super Bowl winner as a rookie, to know that the Patriot Way wasn't the only way to win in the NFL. That was a big problem.

Thomas came from Baltimore, where talking a good game was just as much a part of the culture of the team as playing one. The swashbuckling, swaggering, showboating Baltimore teams Thomas played on with linebackers Ray Lewis, Bart Scott and cornerback Deion Sanders were a perfect fit for his gregarious and candid personality.

The players ran that team and it took on their personality.

That does not happen in Fort Foxborough, where it's Belichick's Way or the highway, and individuality is repressed for the greater good of the team.

Looking back, it should have been telling that Thomas, who had the nickname "the coordinator" in Baltimore for his mastery of the Ravens' scheme, didn't start in the very game many thought the team had acquired him for. When the Patriots played Indianapolis in 2007, Belichick played Rodney Harrison at linebacker in the big nickel defense as Thomas was relegated to a reserve role.

For all of those clamoring for the Patriots to have made a bigger splash this offseason by adding players outside of their locker room, look at Thomas, the most expensive free agent acquisition in team history (five years, $35.04 million, $20 million in bonuses and guarantees) and a player the team is still paying for, even if its monetary obligation ended today.

Thomas seemed to be a sure thing for Belichick and the Patriots and vice versa. Thomas was coming off a Pro Bowl season where he was coached by Belichick in the Pro Bowl, and was coming to a team that coveted versatility and had been on the verge of a Super Bowl.

Three years later, both sides are standing up for what they believe in and both have taken a fall. 

Safety first for Belichick and the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 23, 2010 12:36 PM
FOXBOROUGH -- When did Bill Belichick's draft methods become as dull as his gameday wardrobe?

Belichick played it safe with a capital S last night, trading down twice to move from No. 22 to No. 27 to select Rutgers cornerback Devin McCourty. It's a safe selection because at worst McCourty, who blocked six punts and a field goal at Rutgers and also returned punts and kickoffs, will be a core special teams contributor.

He has the potential to be a "four-down player" as Belichick said. He could also end up as just a fourth-down player. He will not be a bust, because McCourty will be on the roster three years from now, unlike most of the 2007 draftees.

That's a good thing, but the problem is the Patriots need more than safe. They need Belichick to be bold, to find someone to boost their flagging pass rush or aging offense. They need a player who not only makes Belichick comfortable but who can make other teams uncomfortable.

With three second-round picks and a third round pick today, the Patriots can afford to take a risk on a player like USC edge rusher Everson Griffen, whose production doesn't match his immense physical talent, or diminutive Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster, who could be a game-breaking offensive weapon even if he can't be an every-down runner.

What they can't afford to do is play it safe or the playoffs will be O-fer and out again.  

This draft was the time to recast the mold a bit by taking a player like TCU pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who went 31st to the archrival Indianapolis Colts, or Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant, who went 24th to the Cowboys after the Patriots traded out of that spot.

Instead, the Patriots got McCourty, whose most special quality seems to be his ability to come in right away and make an impact on special teams.

"He's fast. He's tough. He is a good four-down football player, first, second, third and fourth," said Belichick. "In the kicking game, he's certainly one of the top guys in the draft in that area."

Belichick later went on to talk about how McCourty has been productive as a kickoff returner and on kickoff and punt coverage, and of course those seven blocked punts and kicks.

Great, but that's not going to make Patriots fans feel any more confident about warding off the Jets and Dolphins in the AFC East.

This is not a reflection on McCourty, who by all accounts seems like a nice kid with all the preferred Patriots' personality traits -- well-prepared, hard worker, loves football.

It's more of a reflection on Belichick.

The paradox of the Patriots' pick is that one of the most outside-the-box, innovative and inventive coaches in the history of the game, a man who once used Troy Brown as a defensive back, was smart enough to order his team to intentionally take a safety by snapping the ball off the goalpost, and brave enough to go for it on fourth and 2 in Indianapolis, would not see a use for a player like Hughes. Admittedly, Hughes does not fit the prototype of a Patriots' 3-4 outside linebacker, but he had 26 1/2 sacks in his last two years of college and could be another Elvis Dumervil.

Belichick, a coach that commands the respect of players like no other, also apparently didn't believe he could harness the talent of a diva wide receiver like Bryant.

With four picks in the top 53, including second-rounders No. 44, No. 47, and No. 53, the Patriots had the luxury of swinging for the fences in the first round. Maybe, they feel McCourty is a home run.

However, the Pro Football Weekly draft guide described him as a "low-risk selection with starter potential" and a player "who should contribute regularly as a core special teams player and nickel defender."

Doesn't exactly engender thoughts of Darrelle Revis.

An AFC North scout said McCourty would provide speed, return ability, and depth at an area of need for the Patriots. What he didn't say was that McCourty was a No. 1 corner.

It's funny that McCourty has a twin brother, Jason, who plays for the Titans because this Patriots draft sure bears a resemblance to previous ones.

This is the fourth year in a row the team has drafted a cornerback in the first two rounds. They get points for consistency and persistence.

In 2007, they took Brandon Meriweather with the hopes of him playing cornerback, but Meriweather turned out to be better suited to safety. In 2008, they drafted Terrence Wheatley (second-round) and Jonathan Wilhite (fourth round). Last year, they took Darius Butler in the second round.

The Patriots' best corner last year was none of the above. It was free agent acquisition Leigh Bodden, who led the team with five interceptions, and re-upped this off-season for four years and $22 million. The selection of McCourty serves as an indication of a lack of complete confidence in some of the previously selected corners.

A lot of fans are disappointed that the Patriots traded down again in the first round, especially after they did it last year and missed out on Ravens tackle Michael Oher and Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

They turned No. 22 overall and a fourth rounder (No. 119) into McCourty, No. 90 -- a third round pick that replaces the one they sent to Oakland for Derrick Burgess -- and a fourth rounder (No. 113). They now have five picks in the top 100 of a very deep draft and 13 overall.

Obviously, the Patriots' draft philosophy is there is safety in numbers. But they played it too safe with their No. 1 pick.

First-round NFL Draft Q&A

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff April 22, 2010 07:00 PM

Review the conversation we had during the first round of the NFL Draft.

Patriots' off-season, future hinge on warmer draft

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 22, 2010 02:05 PM
It's clear that the Patriots' off-season team-building plan has been building towards the NFL Draft.

The draft has become not just make-or-break for the success of this Patriots' off-season but for the extension of a run of excellence that is now entering its 10th season. That's an eternity in the ephemeral world of professional football. Time is not on the Patriots side, but is it on their roster.

Bill Belichick and Co., have become overly reliant on aging players like wide receiver Torry Holt (33), cornerback Shawn Springs (35) and running back Fred Taylor (34) at a time when their franchise quarterback is becoming one of those players. Hard to believe but Tom Brady, the real miracle quarterback, (Sorry, Jerry Jones), turns 33 in August.  

With a NFL-high tying 12 selections and four picks in the top 53 -- No. 22 in the first round and a trio of second rounders (No. 44, No. 47 and No. 53) -- the Patriots have an opportunity to infuse their team with needed youth and talent at positions like wide receiver, outside linebacker and defensive line.

They can also validate an off-season plan that has caused even some ardent worshippers of his Hoodieness to question the direction of the team after an unceremonious and ignominious exit in the first round of the playoffs. Smelling blood in the water, the Dolphins and Jets have made flashy free agent additions and pulled off blockbuster trades.

New England stood pat, re-signing their own free agents like nose tackle Vince Wilfork, cornerback Leigh Bodden, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain and running back Kevin Faulk.

But Belichick's plan is based on an "if" bigger than Wilfork, if the Patriots can hit on multiple picks in the three-day player procurement party.

Pro Football Weekly recently did a study of NFL's teams drafting from 2004 to 2008. It found that going by opening week rosters for the 2009 season, which would include players like departed tight end Benjamin Watson, the Patriots had the lowest percentage of remaining players on their team from those drafts of any team in the NFL at 31.7 percent.

The team with the next lowest percentage was the Detroit Lions (33.3 percent). The league average was 46.6 percent. The Indianapolis Colts had 50 percent of their players left from those five drafts. The New York Jets had 44.7 percent. The Baltimore Ravens had 57.1 percent.

As always, strictly numbers-based analysis like this can't be viewed solely in black and white. There is a shade of gray.

A player like quarterback Matt Cassel, a seventh-round pick in 2005, is no longer on the roster. That is a negative in the study, but no one would say that Cassel wasn't a shrewd and successful draft pick. He filled in admirably for Brady during the 2008 season, leading the team to an 11-5 record. The Patriots shipped him, along with Mike Vrabel, to Kansas City for a second-round pick in last year's draft, which they used on safety Patrick Chung.

On the other hand, a player like perpetual redshirt outside linebacker Shawn Crable, a third-round pick in 2008 who hasn't played a down yet in the NFL, is viewed as positive because he is still on the roster. So, is cornerback Terrence Wheatley, who was inactive for 11 of 16 games. That's a tough sell.

During this time period, the Patriots have done a good job with first-round picks.

In 2004, they had Wilfork and Watson. In 2005, they drafted Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. In 2006, they took running back Laurence Maroney. In 2007, they drafted Brandon Meriweather, who went to the Pro Bowl last season as an injury replacement. In 2008, they drafted linebacker Jerod Mayo, who was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Last year, they traded out of the first-round and ended up with four second round picks -- Chung, defensive lineman Ron Brace, cornerback Darius Butler and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.

But in 2006 and 2007, the Patriots drafted a total 19 players. Only three remain with the team and only one who wasn't a first-rounder, placekicker Stephen Gostkowski.

The 2007 draft is a hot-button issue for debating the merits of the Patriots' drafting of late. Proponents point out that the team came out of the '07 annual selection meeting with two record-setting wide receivers by the names of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Moss was acquired for a fourth-round pick, and Welker, courted as a restricted free agent, was obtained for second- and seventh-round picks after Patriots owner Robert Kraft and then-Miami owner Wayne Huizenga agreed to avoid an acrimonious offer sheet process.

What about 2004, when the Patriots swapped a second-round pick for running back Corey Dillon?

Well, if that's the standard then the Dolphins and Jets have already had great drafts without sending a single card to the table at Radio City Music Hall, trading for wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Santonio Holmes, respectively. New Redskins coach Mike Shanahan gets an A in his first draft without making a pick because he got a Pro Bowl quarterback in Donovan McNabb.

There is a difference between using draft picks as currency to better your team and what a team does with its actual player selections. The two avenues have to be separated to some degree.

The Patriots are masters of using the currency of draft picks to move up and down -- mostly down -- the board to get "value." Last year, they made seven trades, including the ones that gave them the additional second-round picks this year. However, of late they've done a lot more accumulating of picks than of talent.

That has to change, or the Patriots' place in the NFL's hierarchy will.

Ten for the Weekend

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 2, 2010 02:01 PM
It's hard sometimes to just limit the discussion to one timely topic, especially when your sports attention span is short and your mind is flipping through thoughts, opinions and postulations like an iPod Touch stuck on shuffle. Why only listen to Drake, when you can throw a little Carolina Liar into the mix?

So, with that in mind and a bountiful sports weekend on tap, here are Ten for the Weekend (that sounds like a cool name for a band). Unlike when you listen to your iPod, feedback is a good thing here, so feel free to chime in with comments.

1. NCAA men's tournament expansion -- Hate the idea of the men's NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams. The purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not deliver television content. There is virtually no chance that any team on the wrong side of the 65-team bubble was robbed of an NCAA title. With the tournament's TV contract having an opt-out clause, this is a straight cash grab by the NCAA.  It's also completely hypocritical to dismiss the idea of a football Final Four with a "plus-one" because it would increase missed class time and then say expanding the tournament and adding an extra level of games won't result in a significant increase in missed class time. The NCAA has run infomercials during the tournament with the slogan, "We put our money where our mission is." Let's not be naive, the mission is to make money.  

2. Cavalier attitude -- Anybody else think the Celtics need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden on Sunday to set themselves up for a playoff run? The Celtics haven't beaten a fellow Eastern Conference contender since Christmas Day in Orlando, and haven't beaten a legitimate title contender at home all season. There are some encouraging signs from the Green, mainly that Kevin Garnett looks more like Kevin Garnett, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping the faith. However, his team needs to stop talking like champions and start playing like champions. They need the confidence boost and street cred from beating the LeBrons.

3. It's called Bruins -- Saturday's game in Toronto is mission critical for the Bruins. They need to win to keep pace in the playoff chase and to make sure the first-round pick they have from the Maple Leafs, currently second-to-last in the NHL with 71 points, provides them the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and landing Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. If the Bruins end up out of the top two in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (wonder if there is an exit draft) the Phil Kessel trade could come up empty, like the Bruins offense. The Bruins have Toronto's 2011 first-rounder, but the Internet buzz is the 2011 class of NHL prospects could be one of the weakest in recent years.

4. Go BC -- Ruffled some Eagle feathers at The Heights with my last foray into Boston College basketball, but Al Skinner is no longer in place and the search is on for his replacement. The list of candidates that athletic director Gene DeFilippo has put together is intriguing with Steve Donahue of Cornell, Chris Mooney of Richmond and former BC assistants Bill Coen (Northeastern) and Ed Cooley (Fairfield). Another named should be added to the list, Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who led the Flyers to the NIT title last night. DeFilippo told WEEI he wants a coach like Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Gregory was associate head coach at Michigan State under Izzo and is regarded as a good recruiter and game manager.

5. Opening Night -- The Red Sox open their season and the entire major league baseball season against the Yankees at Fenway on Sunday night. Sure, the Sox and Yankees have opened the season before (2005 at Yankee Stadium), but it seems like a waste of the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Opening Day is always special and so are Sox-Yankees games. Why combine the two? Save some of the AL East's internecine struggle for later, when the baseball season has grown tedious with the Torontos and Baltimores.

6. Line 'em up  -- It's quite interesting that Terry Francona came out and said he'll bat J.D. Drew sixth behind David Ortiz in the Red Sox order to start the season. Francona is traditionally not a fan of grouping lefthanders together for matchup reasons, and the decision to bat Drew and his mighty .OPS behind Big Papi speaks to the uncertainty surrounding what the team can expect to get out of Adrian Beltre, he of one extra-base hit in 42 spring at-bats. But spring stats are bogus. Before the 2007 season, during which he set career-highs for runs driven in (120) and batting average (.324) and won the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell batted .170 in 53 spring ABs.

7. Women's equality -- If you haven't been watching the women's NCAA tournament you've missed some great basketball. It doesn't get much better than the buzzer-beating lay-up from Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen to send the Cardinal to the Final Four. The female Final Four, which tips off Sunday, has great story lines. Baylor, which has 6-foot-8-inch dunking machine Brittney Griner, takes on Connecticut, and Oklahoma, which boasts some famous kin on the court in Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hakeem) and Carlee Roethlisberger (sister of Ben), faces 35-1 Stanford. But the whole tournament has an air of inevitability thanks to UConn, which has won 76 straight games, and won its tournament games by an average of 47 per game. The women's game needs more parity  to match men's March Madness.

8. Tiger Woods tell-all -- Things just keep getting worse for Tiger Woods as he gets caught in the intricate web of lies he spun to fuel his philandering lifestyle. His mistresses should just get together and do a TV tell-all "The Bachelor"-style and have Chris Harrison host. Monday's press conference at Augusta National is Woods's last chance to really set the record straight. He doesn't have to go into the salacious details, but he needs to stop with the cover-up because his former consorts are more than willing to reveal his dirty little secrets. Take the hit, Tiger and move on.

9. Coaching 'em up -- You often hear about a coach having to coach up his young players, but you wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is doing a little bit of that with his staff. Belichick is going to have a greater role in the defense this season, which, now like the offense, doesn't have a coordinator. Locker room unrest, lack of a pass rush, and a banged-up Tom Brady were among the reasons the Patriots went 10-6 last season, but don't underestimate the role that callow coaches had in the team's tough season. Like the players, the coaches around Belichick must progress this year, especially quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and secondary coach Josh Boyer.  

10. Kelly green -- It's awfully hard to meet, talk with or watch Red Sox uber-prospect Casey Kelly and not come away impressed. The Sox want to tread carefully with Kelly, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 4, but you have to wonder if Junichi Tazawa's Tommy John surgery opens up the possibility that we could see Kelly in the big leagues this season. Even though the Sox rotation looks stacked now, if Tim Wakefield's back acts up or Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be plagued by nagging injuries the internal options for the Sox are not overwhelming (Boof Bonser? Michael Bowden? Kason Gabbard?). We might see Kelly, who will begin the season at Double A Portland,  sooner than we or the Red Sox had hoped. 

Tebow belongs in the NFL, but not with the Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 1, 2010 02:41 PM

Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer has the right attitude, but the wrong quarterback. Hoyer was asked today about Tim Tebow and the possibility of the University of Florida's sacrosanct signal-caller ending up with the Patriots.

"Bring him. Let's go," Hoyer told reporters.

No, please don't.

The closest Tebow should come to the Patriots is the North End dinner that the polarizing quarterback prospect had with Bill Belichick and Co. on Monday night. Hopefully, that was the last supper for Tebow and the Patriots.

Such words are sacrilege among the Tebow supporters who believe that no matter where Tebow is chosen in the NFL Draft, he is the Chosen One. You're either un-American or misanthropic if you doubt Him.

"I like everything about him," said Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan, a close friend of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. "If you can't root for a guy like Tebow, then, man, you don't like your kids."

But this isn't about whether you like Tebow or not, or feel he can succeed in the NFL coming out of Urban Meyer's spread offense with flawed but fixable mechanics, or whether you find his pious persona ingratiating or grating. It's about the Patriots. There is a team out there to take a chance on Tim Tebow, it just shouldn't be the one in Foxborough. Tebow is a luxury item for them, and the Patriots don't have the luxury of taking him.

If the Patriots want to remain a Super Bowl contender, they can't afford to use one of their precious top-53 picks (No. 22, No. 44, No. 47 and No. 53) on a project quarterback, even one who does missionary work in the Philippines, gives inspirational talks at prisons, is an admirable athletic role model, and was both a transcendent force and incomparable college quarterback.

There are simply too many other needs -- outside linebacker, tight end, wide receiver, defensive end, running back -- to gamble on the Gator God. A team that takes Tebow is hoping to find its patron saint. The Patriots already have one, and his name is Tom Brady. He possesses all of the intangible qualities that have been ascribed to Tebow, and is a proven NFL passer (you know that whole 50 touchdown passes thing in 2007).

The Patriots don't need to find their next QB just yet. They need to focus on helping the one they have return the team to the promise land (Super Bowl).

This is generally regarded as one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, and it is the Patriots' good fortune that it happens to coincide with them having a bundle of draft picks (12, tied with Cleveland for the most in the league). This draft will go a long way towards deciding whether the Patriots reign is really over or whether it's just in abeyance.

Some would argue that the drafting of Tebow could extend New England's run of success, a la the San Francisco 49ers following Joe Montana with Steve Young, another athletic, left-handed QB like Tebow.

Young needed to be cultivated by Bill Walsh after stints in the USFL and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his roots were as a pro-style passer. He played his college ball at pass-happy Brigham Young University. Young wasn't the college quarterback that Tebow, who became the first ever sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy in 2007, was, but he was a better passer. In his final season at BYU, Young threw the ball 429 times, completed 71.3 percent of his passes, and threw for 3,902 yards with 33 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.

Tebow's career completion percentage at Florida is outstanding -- 66.4 percent -- and he twice threw more than 30 touchdown passes in a season, but he is closer to Vince Young than Steve Young as a pure passer. Even one of Tebow's former receivers said he is not going to be an elite NFL passer.

"He’s got every intangible that you could ever want in a quarterback," said Chan Gailey, the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, another team that dined with Tebow. "The bottom line on him is, 'Is his delivery going to keep him from being able to play? How much work is there to be done? ...How much of a change can he make because if you go with the delivery he had he will really struggle in this league?'"

People talk about Tebow's athletic ability and his ability to play another position or function as a part-time QB for the Patriots. Do you want to use a high-round pick on such a limited player? The Dolphins did that last year with another lefty QB, taking Pat White, who happens to be the NCAA's all-time leading rusher as a quarterback (4,480 yards), in the second round with the 44th pick, the same spot the Patriots have as their initial second-rounder this year.

Save for one quarter of option football against the Patriots, White had zero impact.

Tebow is a winner -- he was on two national title teams and was 35-6 as a starter in three seasons -- but so is Texas's Colt McCoy, who won an NCAA-record 45 games as a starter and just had a workout that played to rave reviews.

Tebow deserves a shot at the NFL, and he's going to get it. If he fails, it won't be for lack of opportunity or lack of dedication or lack of effort, that much we know. The rest depends on what you believe or what you want to believe about Timmy Touchdown.

Ultimately, I'm a Tebow agnostic, but what I do believe is he is not right for the Patriots.

A-OK with new postseason OT format

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 24, 2010 10:15 AM
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Change is good. Especially when it means the kind that resembles what you drop into the Starbucks tip jar will no longer unduly influence the outcome of the NFL's most crucial games, including the Super Bowl. That's why the league's decision to overhaul its postseason overtime format is right on the money.

It's about time the league freed itself from its numismatic dependency in the extra period, and the upshot is a more equitable OT that increases the likelihood both teams will get a shot with the football.

Since 1994, when the kickoff was moved back from the 35-yard line to the 30, 59.8 percent of overtime games have been won by the team that won the opening coin toss. That doesn't mean they won on the first possession -- that happened 34.4 percent of the time -- but it was clearly influencing the outcome, along with the markedly improved accuracy of field goal kickers over the years.

Full disclosure, my support for this format is unconditional because it's one the league borrowed from a certain sportswriter. That bit of self-aggrandizement aside, the NFL deserves plaudits for altering OT even if the process was a bit clandestine.

There had to be a better way, and now there is, even if it has an elongated name -- "modified sudden-death overtime" -- and isn't easy to explain.

Basically, instead of a team winning the coin toss, getting the ball, and marching down the field for a field goal in traditional sudden death overtime (think the Saints win in last season's NFC title game or the Patriots' win in the Snow Bowl) that team would now need a touchdown to end it on the inaugural possession of the extra period. If they kick a field goal, then the other team gets an opportunity to possess the ball, and if that team scores a TD they win. If they kick a field goal to tie, then the format reverts to the familiar regular-season sudden-death format of first to score.

Just like in the traditional format, a kickoff return for a touchdown ends the game. So, does a defensive touchdown like the one Arizona, which lost the overtime coin toss, got on Green Bay's first possession in the teams' wild 51-45 NFC Wild Card game in January.

If you're kicking off to start OT there is reason to consider going Sean Payton because if you recover an on-side kick then you only need a field goal to win because the other team has had an "opportunity to possess," the key catchphrase of the revised rule.

The new format definitely adds a layer of strategy and gamesmanship for coaches. That's why some coaches are less than overjoyed by the overhaul of postseason overtime; the new format opens yet another Pandora's box of second-guessed decisions.

Should they defer or receive the kickoff? Should they kick the field goal on the first possession and send out the defense or go for the touchdown? Should they try to catch the opponent napping on an on-side kick?

But coaches are already Monday morning quarterbacked to death.

"You can be second-guessed on what you wear on the sideline in this league," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, this morning. "I think any time you get in a critical situation, whether the overtime rule had changed or stayed the same, you're going to be second-guessed for what you're doing. That's fine. We have people that care about the game and are passionate about it."

Brad Childress, coach of the Vikings, one of the four teams who voted against the new OT, said making hard decisions is part of the job description.

"That's what we get paid to do," said Childress. "As long as they put the rules forth and tell us what they are. That works. ...You're always going to be able to go back through all the snaps and say 'if-then, if-then, if-then.' "

As commissioner Roger Goodell said, the league shouldn't let better get in the way of perfect. There is no perfect overtime format. The college format where both teams get the ball at the opponents 20-yard line is a farce that inflates stats and removes a key element -- special teams -- from the game altogether.

The NFL's traditional sudden death format had devolved into an anticlimactic field goal kicking contest.

NFL field goal kickers made 81.3 percent of their kicks last season, down from a Super Bowl-era record of 84.5 percent in 2008.

From 1978 to 1993, NFL field goal kickers made 70.3 percent of their attempts and connected on 56.2 percent of their attempts from 40 to 49 yards. From 1994 to 2009 that jumped to 79.7 percent of attempts were makes and 68.3 percent from 40 to 49 yards.  

Plus, let's face it this whole raging debate over overtime is a great misdirection play by the NFL at these meetings to take the focus off the stalled labor negotiations, with the cloud of collective bargaining uncertainty threatening to damper the excitement around the 2010 season.

However, it is a little ridiculous that the new OT is postseason only. It's possible we won't even get to see it play out, which is a shame. There have only been 27 playoff games to go into overtime since 1958.

There is a push in the league to adopt the new overtime format for the regular season as well now that it's been shepherded through for the playoffs.

That would be good.

Then we could leave coin flips to more trivial NFL matters like whether the Jets or Giants get to host the first game in the new Meadowlands.

Brady deserves a pass on offseason program

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 19, 2010 01:51 PM
There was a story recently about a campaign being launched by the Archdiocese of Boston to try to get those of Catholic faith to go to confession more often. Perhaps, Tom Brady should take heed. It might do him some good to participate in the repentant rite since he has committed a mortal sin in the eyes of some Patriots followers.

"Forgive me Father for I have sinned," Brady can beg. "I'm not participating in the start of the Patriots offseason conditioning program."

Even a priest would have to chuckle at such a confession. It should be laughable because it's ridiculous.

Know this: Brady plans to be in Foxborough at some point during the offseason conditioning program, and it could be as soon as next week. But even if he never shows up, Brady, he of the three Super Bowl titles, two Super Bowl Most Valuable Player awards and the greatest passing season in NFL history, is the last guy on the Patriots whose commitment level should be questioned.

Isn't this the same guy who showed up to work in a snowstorm last season less than 24 hours after the birth of his second child, Benjamin? The same guy who played last season with a broken finger on his throwing hand, a debilitating rib injury, and a sore throwing shoulder and never complained?

His dedication and preparation have been above reproach since he entered the league as a skinny sixth-round pick from Michigan in 2000. That's hasn't changed, even if his life circumstances (fatherhood) and where he conducts his offseason workouts (Los Angeles) have.

Still, that doesn't stop some from claiming that Brady is letting down his team and his teammates by working out in Southern California instead of Fort Foxborough. They harp on the lack of locker room leadership last season for the Patriots as all the more reason TB12's presence is important for the start of the conditioning program.

They point to quotes like this one from nose tackle Vince Wilfork -- "We’re going to have to start in the offseason training. Everybody has to be accountable." -- as proof that Brady is shirking his responsibilities.

No way.

Locker room unrest was a problem last season -- for the Patriots defense. It's something Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo can fix, not Brady. A quarterback, no matter how good, can't be expected to be the leader of a defense. That was never the case for Brady's Patriots career, during which the defensive leaders were Bobby Hamilton, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison.

It's understandable that people are still upset over the Patriots disappointing 10-6 season and ignominious playoff defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, and they would have a point if this were power-lifting, but it's not. It's the NFL. They're not handing out trophies for offseason conditioning, just parking spots at Patriot Place.

Brady has decided his place is with his family in Los Angeles, where he is working out with his personal trainer and other NFL players. But somehow he is the one with misplaced priorities?

Brady wouldn't be in SoCal if it weren't copacetic with coach Bill Belichick. Yes, Belichick wants players who know football is important to them. But the only thing more important to Belichick than football is fatherhood.

Talk to people in the Patriots organization, and they'll tell you how much Belichick, who has three children, Amanda, Stephen and Brian, works at making time to be a father, not unsurprising considering the influence his own late father, Steve, had on him. Belichick's youngest, Brian, is a constant presence around the Patriots and attends home and road games.

It's not unusual to see Belichick and Brian tossing the football around on the practice field during training camp long after the players have left the field. Belichick understands the important of being a visible parent -- and when one of your children lives 3,000 miles away from where you work, which is the case with Brady, the offseason is the only time you can do that for an extended stretch.

Taking time out to be a parent doesn't mean you've lost your edge. If that's the case, then Belichick lost his a long time ago.

It's not a coincidence that the first time Brady wasn't a Patriots' offseason award winner was 2008. That was the off-season following the birth of his first son, Jack, who lives in the Los Angeles-area with his mother, actress Bridget Moynahan.

It was after that off-season that Brady announced he was giving up his preferred parking spot, saying he "chose not to compete" for it. Brady's 2008 season came to an abrupt end when Bernard Pollard plowed into his knee 15 offensive snaps into it, but that had nothing to do with how he spent his offseason.

If it did, then why did Jerod Mayo, who was one of the team's nine offseason award winners from last season, suffer a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the first quarter of last season's opener?

Participation in the offseason program doesn't guarantee greater production on the field. The NFL is about more than taking attendance in March. Among the Patriots' winners from last offseason were Benjamin Watson and Nick Kaczur.

Brady will be 33 in August. He is entering his 11th season. He is not the wide-eyed wonderboy from 2001. He is now a grown-up off the field and a grizzled veteran who has earned the right to miss voluntary activities.

He shouldn't be ashamed of spending of time with his family in the months before the season; we should be ashamed for criticizing him for it.

Imitating Indy

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 8, 2010 12:56 PM
Not to be a fatalist, but maybe the Mayans were right and the end is near. Because these are strange times.

Last week, it was nearly as warm here as it was in Fort Myers, Fla., Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, speaking at an MIT sports symposium, came out and defended Bill Belichick, and Belichick borrowed from the Colts' team-building blueprint during the start of NFL free agency.

The Patriots' focus in the first foray of free agency was on taking care of their own, building, or rebuilding, from within.

They signed franchise-tagged nose tackle Vince Wilfork to a five-year, $40 million deal, re-upped outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain with a three-year, $13.5 million deal (with incentives and escalators that could push the value of the deal near $19 million) and put off starting right guard Stephen Neal's retirement with a two-year deal.

All three players were brought into the league by the Patriots and developed by them. Banta-Cain, a 2003 seventh-round pick, had a two-year detour in San Francisco, but the prodigal pass rusher returned last season and led the team in sacks with 10.

The signings didn't just send an important message to the players in the locker room about the team's financial philosophy; it also sent an important message about the direction of the team. You would think that after a disappointing 10-6 season and the playoff obliteration at the hands of Baltimore that Belichick would be inclined to blow the team up and start over. Instead he's bringing it back and in the process creating the type of continuity the Colts have and the Patriots used to have.

The Patriots want to lock up cornerback Leigh Bodden, who is in Houston today, and defensive end Jarvis Green. We all expect running back Kevin Faulk to return.

The "Pay-tree-aughts" as Polian would say, also have four picks in the top 53, including a trio of second-rounders. This has been Polian's plan, shell out the money for the players on your roster you value and then build the rest of the team around them with draft picks or low-budget pickups.

Belichick has always said he does what is in the best interest of the team. The translation for that is that you can't pin him or the team down to any one way of doing business. But this does feel like a paradigm shift at Patriot Place.

Since the end of the 2006 season, the Patriots had become too reliant on Hessian soliders to fortify Fort Foxborough. They have assumed they can simply plug an accomplished or semi-accomplished veteran player into their system and he will succeed. But just like a suit sometimes reputation doesn't equal fit.

Belichick is going bespoke, with players he already knows are fits.

Bodden might be the biggest test of this strategy. While Bodden has had success playing in the Belichick system here and in Cleveland under former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, he is not as wedded to it as you might think.

Bodden was available to the Patriots at a discount ($2.25 million) last season because the Detroit Lions cut him before he had a roster bonus due that would have kicked in a four-year, $27 million extension.

When Bodden signed the extension with two years left on his deal, he essentially had a six-year contract for $30.5 million. You can guess that $5 million a year will be what he is aiming for this time around too. That might be a bit rich for the Patriots' blood at cornerback, a position where they believe the system covers receivers just as much as the player does.

However, the alternative could be a return to 2008, when they couldn't cover anyone. Corner and pass rusher are positions where you either have to draft well or pay well to get talent, and if you do the former you usually have to do the latter. That's what the Colts did with Kelvin Hayden, who got a five-year, $43 million deal with more than $22 million in guarantees.

Not everything in New England has been an inside job.

The Patriots did make plays for some big-name outside help in defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Both players would have filled immediate needs -- an upgraded pass rush and another outside receiver, opposite Randy Moss.

But re-signing Wilfork and bringing in Peppers wasn't going to happen, and I'll take the guy  who costs less and whose pilot light ignites every Sunday.

Boldin was a different situation. The Patriots didn't want to commit to an extension for the former Florida State star. He was traded to Baltimore, along with a fifth-round pick, for third- and fourth-round picks, plus the Ravens re-did his contract. The 29-year-old Boldin, who had one year at $3 million left on his contract, got three years and $25 million tacked on.

It might have been money well spent for the Patriots.

Buffalo's Josh Reed, who is scheduled to be in town today for a free agent visit, is no Boldin. He's merely a stopgap in the slot for Welker, and his signing could indicate the Patriots plan to play Julian Edelman some at the X receiver, something they did last year before Welker went down.

A pass-catching tight end would also be nice, and it might be worth a call to Denver to ask old pal Josh McDaniels what it would take to get Jay Cutler-sympathizer Tony Scheffler to come be the Patriots' version of Dallas Clark.

But the Patriots don't want to take too many pages from Polian's playbook. Because nobody remembers a 14-2 team that didn't win the Super Bowl, but a 16-0 one remains historic.

Patriots remain on a spending plan

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 22, 2010 05:45 PM
In the end, whether Randy Moss, Tom Brady or Vince Wilfork gets a new contract with the Patriots is not solely up to the Patriots and how much "value" they place on the players. It's up to those players and how much "value" -- if any at all -- they place on being a Patriot.

Realistically, there is no way the Patriots can retain their current financial philosophy and retain the contract-seeking trio of Moss, Brady and Wilfork. It's just not possible unless someone is willing to take well below market value to remain in Fort Foxborough. So, somebody goes and the monetary mantra stays in place.

When Moss made his comments at Heath Evans' charity softball game on Saturday that he thought 2010 was his last season with the Patriots he may have just done the math and realized he was the odd man out.

You can call the Patriots the misers of the NFL, but they're not going to change the way they do business. That's like asking an atheist to go to Easter Sunday Mass, the belief system is too ingrained. The team looks at its business model over the last decade and the success it has spawned as proof positive of their philosophy of fiscal restraint.

While it is frustrating to watch talented players leave for greener pastures and witness every contract negotiation the team goes through become a tedious tug of war until the player either capitulates or breaks free of the rope, the Patriots aren't a cut-rate operation, just a cutthroat one.

It's a little bit of a cheap shot to call them cheap.

Over the past five years the Patriots are in the top 16 in the NFL in actual dollars paid out to players -- or straight cash, homey, as Moss would say -- at $540 million. By comparison, the Colts and Jets spent $546 and $542 million, respectively, during the same time, as first reported by old pal Mike Reiss.

The top spenders during the last five years are Dallas, Washington and Oakland, who between them have three egomaniacal owners and one playoff win, the Cowboys' 34-14 wild card win over the Eagles in January, to show for it. That makes the point that it's not just what you spend, but how you spend.

That's where the Patriots are open to criticism.

In the end, the team would have been better served signing Asante Samuel to a long-term deal in 2007 than shelling out the largest free agent contract in team history to bring aboard linebacker Adalius Thomas (five years, $35 million). Right now, they would be better off signing Wilfork, which judging by the tone of the press release they put out to announce their decision to slap him with the franchise tag on Monday is their goal, than spending the money in pursuit of Julius Peppers, especially because they dealt away Richard Seymour.

Moss was partially right when he said "the Patriots don't pay," while talking about his belief he won't be brought back after his contract expires at the end of this season. They don't pay any more than they have to. Nickel and dime are not just defenses coach Bill Belichick employs; they're what the team will fight a player for. 

It's just the price they have to pay to keep their players has gone up.

Last year at the NFL owners' meeting, Patriots owner Robert Kraft touched on what he called the brand equity the Patriots had fostered with their track record of success. He astutely pointed out that it enabled the Patriots to bring in players like Moss, who reduced his salary to help facilitate the trade between the Patriots and the Raiders.

Like a lot of things in this economy the lure of playing for the Patriots has depreciated in market value. That's what two seasons without a playoff win will do.

Wilfork has already made it clear he's not going to offer a significant hometown discount to the Patriots, and Brady, whose contract is up after 2010, could follow suit if the Colts follow through on their promise to make Peyton Manning, also entering the final year of his deal, the highest-paid player in the game.

Reading between the lines of Moss's contract comments, the redoubtable wide receiver isn't going to do after this season what he did the last time his deal was up in 2007, which is take less to remain with the Patriots. That's a big reason he feels that 2010 could be his last season in a Patriot uniform.

"I think when you get around a good team and a great group of guys, that you fall in love with where you are," Moss said on Saturday night at the charity softball game of former teammate Heath Evans. "The guys that I've grown to appreciate and love -- Tom, [Kevin] Faulk, [Vince] Wilfork -- guys like that that I enjoy coming to work every day and leaving work. I'm having fun with what I'm doing, but like I've said this is a business. This is no longer football. This is a business."

Why should Moss take a pay cut to play for the Patriots? His chances of winning a Super Bowl in New England are not as great as they appeared after the almost-perfect 2007 season when he re-upped with the Patriots via a three-year, $27 million deal with a $12 million signing bonus. Even that deal was team-friendly, a euphemism for below-market, because Moss could have gotten more money from the Eagles.

The 33-year-old Moss, who is likely looking at the next contract of his career being the last, wasn't out to cause a panic with his comments. He was simply parroting the party line that we hear so often from teams when they let a player walk because he is no longer worth keeping -- "This is a business," and business decisions are always about money.

We know the Patriots' business-model won't change. Now, we'll see if the Patriots' players really plan to change theirs.

How to handle Moss a tough call for Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 11, 2010 01:24 PM

It's not often that Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss goes uncovered, but that's the case right now. The coverage of Moss's contract plight could best be described as cover zero.

Moss is entering the last year of the three-year extension he signed with the Patriots following his redemptive and record-setting 2007 season, but that fact has gone all but unnoticed in the contract consternation surrounding would-be free agent nose tackle Vince Wilfork and quarterback Tom Brady, who also has a deal that is up after 2010.

There is little suspense in what the Patriots will do with Wilfork. They're going to use the franchise tag on him sometime between today, which is the first day teams can slap the tag on players, and Feb. 25. For all the angst about Brady getting a new deal, few can envision a scenario where Patriots owner Robert Kraft doesn't make sure Brady is passing for the Patriots beyond the 2010 season.






But if Brady is playing QB for the Patriots after 2010, will he still have Moss as one of his targets? It's a real question, and there is the real possibility that 2010 could be the last time we see the Real Randy Moss in a Patriots uniform.

Moss signed a three-year, $27 million extension, including a $12 million signing bonus, with the Patriots following his Tour de Touchdown '07 season, when he set the NFL single-season record for TD receptions with 23.

He is slated to make $6.4 million in base salary this year and would have carried a cap charge of $11.26 million, if '10 were a capped season. Last season, Moss was the third-highest paid wide receiver in the league by cap hit at $9.65 million, trailing only Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald and Buccaneers receiver Antonio Bryant, who played under the franchise tag at $9.88 million.

It's safe to say Moss won't be looking for a pay cut.

Making a decision on the mercurial Moss, who is equal parts magnificent and high-maintenance, is going to be one of the toughest calls the Patriots face. Is Moss still worth the trouble?

Moss is still productive -- he was fifth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,264), averaged 15.2 yards per catch on 83 receptions and tied Larry Fitzgerald and Vernon Davis for the NFL lead in TD receptions last season (13) -- but who can forget the scene of him pouting on the sidelines against Carolina as Brady tried in vain to reach him?

Days after he was one of the four players caught up in Late Gate, Moss never showed up against the Panthers. Moss had more drops, two, than catches (one for 16 yards) in that game. The one reception he had he fumbled away, and his failure to finish an out route led to an interception by Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble, who after the game said Moss checked out effort-wise.

That capped a four-game stretch for Moss, starting with his second stay on Revis Island, where he had 11 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns.

It later came to light that Moss was playing with a separated shoulder, and he endured back spasms most of the season. However, neither seemed to bother him when he lit up Indianapolis for 9 receptions for a season-high 179 yards and two touchdowns the week before his four-game funk.

Then there is the added wrinkle of how the Patriots' plans for Moss could affect TB12. Most everyone agrees that Brady, who will be 33 in August, is not going to accept a team-discounted deal this time around, but he would also want assurances that he's not going to sign a lucrative deal only to be saddled with receivers that are less reliable than a Toyota gas pedal.

He's been down that road before in 2006, when his favorite receiver, Deion Branch, was shipped out of town the day after the season-opener.

It was the 2006 season, when Brady was throwing to the likes of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel that precipitated Moss's arrival in the first place.

There is no obvious heir apparent to Moss, who turns 33 this Saturday, on the roster right now. Moss is all the Patriots have at wide receiver heading into 2010, unless they're inclined to make a deal for Arizona's Anquan Boldin, who would cost them one of their three second-round picks.

All season long, the Patriots held open auditions to find a wideout opposite Moss, who usually plays flanker. The X (split end) remained unsolved in the Patriots' offensive equation. It was an epic failure, from Joey Galloway to Isaiah Stanback to Brandon Tate to Sam Aiken. Now, it's uncertain how long before -- or even if -- Wes Welker will return to form after having reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee.

But what will Moss be like in 2011, or whenever the next NFL season is?

Entering his 13th season, Moss is beginning to get into Kevin Garnett territory. There are a lot of miles on the odometer. To borrow a phrase Kobe Bryant used to describe Ray Allen, Moss, who was so adept at outleaping receivers that it became an eponymous description of the event, now has an elevator that only goes to the seventh floor. It's rare for him to go up and high-point a pass anymore.

The Patriots have always treated Moss like he has a "handle with care" sticker on his forehead. In contrast to Wilfork, they elected not to franchise Moss after the 2007 season, allowing him to become a free agent. It nearly cost them, as Moss flirted with Philadelphia before a phone call from Brady persuaded him to take less and return to Foxborough.

Now, the Patriots are faced with that choice again. Do they have Moss run another comeback after 2010 or do they send him on a permanent out pattern? 

End of the AD era is near

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 5, 2010 02:23 PM
Adalius Thomas went on 98.5 The Sports Hub yesterday to plug his marinade, but it was clear that Thomas, who twice last season was a healthy scratch, had some issues with Patriots coach Bill Belichick that marinated all season.

Thomas served them up for mass consumption, further cementing the end of the AD era here by violating the team's most sacred rule -- what happens in Foxborough, stays in Foxborough.

Thomas revealed that when Belichick booted him from Gillette Stadium on Dec. 9 after the outspoken linebacker was late for an 8 a.m. team meeting due to snowy roads and snarled traffic that the language wasn't PG-13. Thomas intimated that Belichick used an f-word, and it wasn't Foxborough.

"He just came over and in a whatever way you want to call it it was, 'Get out.' He didn't ask anything. He just said, 'Get out.' That's not his quote words," Thomas said on the Felger & Massarotti show on 98.5. "I can't even say his quote words. That's what was said. I don't even understand that so..."

Like a charred steak, Thomas, the most expensive free agent in team history, and the Patriots are well done. The Patriots don't want Thomas, who signed a five-year, $35.04 million deal, including $20 million in bonuses, back for a fourth season, and he doesn't want to be back.

Not only does releasing him save the Patriots his $4.9 million base salary, but with the imminent uncapped year it spares them the $8.8 million cap hit -- as well as any further verbal hits. It's best for both sides to move on from this ugly mess, pronto. Let it be a lesson for both sides.

It's natural to want to single out a villain here, but the reality is that both Thomas and Belichick deserve blame for this debacle. Both Belichick and Thomas are intelligent, passionate, strong-willed, proud men who worked hard to establish themselves in the NFL. Both were too stubborn to reach out and communicate to the other before things deteriorated to the point of no return, and this dust-up only damages both men's reputations moving forward.

For Belichick and the Patriots, Thomas is a popular and respected figure in the NFL player fraternity. His problems here will echo throughout the league and could make it harder for the Patriots to bring in veteran free agents. That process is already going to be more difficult because the biggest draw the Patriots have is winning. If that's in question, Foxborough is a much less desirable location.

Thomas's time here serves as evidence that the veteran quick fix isn't always the right one. It's easier to win in the NFL with veteran players, but it's also tougher to get them to buy in. That's why you build through the draft and then spend to keep the players you mold.

For Thomas, his recalcitrant behavior is going to make it easy for people to slap him with the label of locker room malcontent and mutineer. That's a tough label to shed. Regardless of how justified he may or may not have been in speaking out and standing up for himself, he put his interests ahead of his team's to do so. The bottom line is that Belichick is his boss and deserves to be treated with the respect that comes along with that, and if a team is paying you $35 million they can use you however they want to or not at all.

Comments like this -- "How do you expect to make plays if you're standing over there by the coach?" -- don't help your cause.

It's pretty obvious that the disconnect between Thomas and Belichick came right off the bat. Coming off a career-high 11 sacks and a Pro Bowl season, Thomas  thought he was coming here to boost the Patriots' pass rush. The Patriots envisioned Thomas, who came from Baltimore with the reputation as a jack-of-all trades, as a Vrabel-like versatile piece in their defense and plugged him in at middle linebacker next to Tedy Bruschi.

The sides never bridged that perception gap, and the deal was doomed because of it.

During his time here it was obvious that Thomas, who led all NFL linebackers in sacks from 2004 to '06 with 28, was best suited to play outside linebacker. Playing there, he was the Patriots' best player in Super Bowl XLII with a pair of sacks. In 2008, he played outside linebacker and was tied for the team lead in sacks with five when he broke his right forearm and was lost for the season.

Still, Thomas said he was told his role would change for the 2009 season and the Patriots seemed to be content to go with Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess, who produced more garbage sacks than a Glad factory, as their pass rushers. That made Thomas a two-down player. Thomas finished the season with three sacks, but also wasn't effective rushing the passer when given the chance to do so.

Thomas was also forced to slide back inside for a few games when Jerod Mayo sprained his medial cruciate ligament in the first quarter of the season-opener against Buffalo.

In that game, Thomas had five tackles and a sack, but was flagged for a fourth-quarter roughing-the-passer penalty. He and Gary Guyton struggled to contain the Bills' screen game. None of that endeared him to Belichick.

It was a conversation Thomas and Belichick had about Thomas's play in that game that Thomas said during the Sports Hub interview made him realize there was a rift. It should have ended there with a clear-the-air session, instead it lingered and only got worse with Thomas being being told by linebackers coach Matt Patricia, not Belichick, that he wasn't playing against the Titans on Oct. 18 and of course Late Gate.

It's far too late to save this relationship. Thomas is cooked as a Patriot and in the end both sides ended up getting burned. 

Pro Bowl is anything but super

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 29, 2010 02:20 PM
The NFL's annual apathetic All-Star game, the Pro Bowl, will be played Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLIV. The game has quickly become the football equivalent of a class field trip that no one wants to make, with those due to participate coming up with doctor's notes to get out of it.

This year the NFL only made it worse by clumping the game with the Super Bowl, which is like pairing a filet mignon from The Capital Grille with a plastic cup full of Kool-Aid.

It's time for the NFL to come to their senses and abolish the Pro Bowl, which has been played since 1951. Most players don't want to play in it. Most fans have no interest in it. And there is no need for it.

The league knows this, so in an attempt to broaden/force interest in the game, the NFL moved the Pro Bowl from its Honolulu home back to the mainland in Miami, putting it a week before the Super Bowl in an attempt to give it (more) relevance.

It's backfired. It was hard enough to get players to play in the game when it was a week after the Super Bowl, but at least there was the lure of a free trip to Hawaii. South Florida isn't exactly South Dakota, but NFL players party there all the time. The novelty is gone from the game, and so are they.

According to the Pro Bowl roster on NFL.com, there are 30 players who are not participating in the game because of injury or playing in the Super Bowl. That does not include 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who dropped out today, but does include all three AFC quarterbacks who bowed out -- Peyton Manning (something about a Super Bowl), Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. They were replaced by Houston's Matt Schaub, Tennessee's Vince Young, and Keanu Reeves from "The Replacements."

Ok, so Neo is not going. It's actually Jacksonville's David Garrard, but would anyone notice if Reeves did play?

Do you know what all those AFC fill-in QBs have in common? None of them made the playoffs. On the NFC side, the only original Pro Bowl QB participating is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, as Drew Brees is preparing the Saints for the Super Bowl and Brett Favre is at Sears deciding which TV to not watch the Pro Bowl on.

The NFL is a quarterback league. They are the brightest stars, yet only one of the six originally selected premium passers is participating in the Pro Bowl.

Of the original 86 players selected to the Pro Bowl, more than a third have taken a pass on playing in the game. That includes 14 players from the Colts and Saints, who square off in Super Bowl XLIV. Ravens safety Ed Reed, who was conspicuously absent from the AFC roster on Thursday, but has not been officially ruled out of the game, is more likely to show up at your Super Bowl party than to play in the Pro Bowl.

The reality is that players want the prestige of being named to the Pro Bowl, but no one wants to actually play in it, except for first-timers like Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who made the team as an injury replacement. He joins teammates Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins,  who were voted in.

The players from the winning team at the Pro Bowl get $45,000. The losing team gets $22,500. While we're all aware of the current economic difficulties in this country, that amount of money is hardly incentive enough for NFL players to risk their bodies in a faux football game after a season of pounding and punishment.

The Pro Bowl is by far the most meaningless of the Big Four professional sports All-Star games. Tons of fans remember when Magic Johnson came back and played with HIV in the 1992 NBA All-Star game, winning MVP honors. They recall the 1989 major league baseball All-Star game in Anaheim, when Bo Jackson and Wade Boggs hit back-to-back homers to lead off the game. Or have fond memories of Ray Bourque winning the MVP award of the 1996 NHL All-Star game on his home ice by potting the game-winning goal with 37 seconds left.

All memorable All-Star game moments.

The most memorable recent Pro Bowl moment was late Redskins safety Sean Taylor plowing poor Bills punter Brian Moorman on a fake punt in the 2006 game. The most memorable Pro Bowl moment for most Patriots followers happened in 1999, when Patriots running back Robert Edwards blew out his knee in a beach football game played before the Pro Bowl.

All-Star games are by nature exhibition contests, despite what Fox and MLB -- "This time it counts!" -- would have you believe. The NFL already has an entire summer of meaningless exhibition games that its players want no part of it and that fans have to pay for. It's euphemistically referred to as the preseason. That's enough exhibition football for the NFL.

Realistically, the league probably won't cancel the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but it should recognize piggy-backing on the Super Bowl is not a good idea. Neither is requiring that players from the Colts and Saints voted to the Pro Bowl be in town for the game, arriving in South Florida a day earlier than their respective teams, a decision that irascible Indianapolis team president Bill Polian called "stupid."

He is right.

Fortunately, the Pro Bowl is scheduled to be played back in Hawaii in 2011 and 2012. No date is set for the game, but as part of the agreement with the Hawaii Tourism Board, the league agreed to consider moving the Pro Bowl back to the Sunday after the Super Bowl.

What the league needs to consider is saying, "Aloha" to the game altogether after 2012. You can still vote for the team. Just don't play the game.

Patriots paying the price for losing valuable assets

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 28, 2010 02:13 PM

One way or another the Patriots are going to pay for Vince Wilfork.

They're either going to give in to the Pro Bowl nose tackle's desire for a long-term contract or they're going to pay dearly down the road for his absence in the middle of their 3-4 defense.

Franchising Wilfork is like handing him a one-way ticket out of Foxborough. He made that clear yesterday with his comments on WEEI-AM, equating the franchise tag to a slap in the face. (The Patriots have between Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 to designate Wilfork as their franchise player.)

Barring an unforeseen change in the financial philosophy in Foxborough, Wilfork will be slapped with the tag and then feel disenfranchised by and disenchanted with the team. Then the first chance he gets he'll bolt  Fort Foxborough for greener pastures.

If that scenario plays out then the Patriots will pay for Big Vince the same way they paid for Ty Law, Deion Branch, Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour -- on the field.

I recently wrote about the necessity of getting a contract extension done for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose contract expires after the 2010 season. I proposed another six-year deal to take Brady to the end of his career. I was astonished by some of the comments that pointed to Brady's age (he'll be 33 in August) and said the team shouldn't sign Brady to a big-money contract extension because the team shouldn't be paying for "past performance" and that Brady is past his prime.

Brady is closer to the end of his best days than the beginning, which is exactly why the Patriots have to do everything they can to win while Brady is still an elite NFL quarterback. That includes keeping the 28-year-old Wilfork, who is their most disruptive defensive player. The team has already let too many players and seasons get away because it held the line on long-term deals.

The Patriots were the Super Bowl champions in 2004 and did it despite only having Law at corner for seven games because he fractured the Lisfranc joint in his foot. Law, who regrettably called Patriots coach Bill Belichick "a liar" during the 2004 offseason, when the team wouldn't re-do his deal, had his request to be released honored by the club in February of 2005, the move made easier by Law's injury.

Law signed with the Jets and tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2005. (By the way you'll never guess who tied Law for the league-lead that year --Deltha O'Neal. Yeah, that Deltha O'Neal.)  

The Patriots traded for Duane Starks but would have been better off with John Starks at corner. The loss of Law, coupled with a season-ending knee injury to Rodney Harrison, made the pass defense easier to shred than an Enron document. The Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense at 231.4 yards per game. They tied for the league-high in pass plays of more than 40 yards allowed.

Fast forward to 2006, Deion Branch holds out wanting a new deal. The team doesn't budge and trades Branch after the 2006 season-opener against Buffalo. Brady struggles all season long with a pedestrian cast of pass catchers. Reche Caldwell, who was steady most of the season, drops the ball in the AFC Championship game against the Colts.

In response they get Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but one more championship opportunity goes down the drain.

Samuel played under a revised franchise tender in 2007 that allowed him to escape being tagged again if the team won 12 games or he played 60 percent of the defensive snaps. Both occurred, and he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots, who allowed the second most TD passes in the NFL in '08, tried to replace him with Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders and Jason Webster. His actual replacement ended up being O'Neal, signed the week of the season-opener. Actually, Samuel's replacement still hasn't been found.

Meanwhile, Samuel tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this season and is headed to his third straight Pro Bowl.

Seymour's absence was obvious in the Patriots' playoff loss to Baltimore. The Ravens rushed for 234 yards and Wilfork had to be shifted to Seymour's old spot, right defensive end, in the second half to try to stop the Ravens from running over the Patriots.

The Patriots got a glimpse of life without Wilfork for the final three games of the regular season. It wasn't pretty. In fairness, defensive end Ty Warren was also out in two of those games (Buffalo and Houston), but against the Bills rookie Ron Brace was skating backwards like Zdeno Chara. Buffalo's first drive was 14 plays and 69 yards and took 9:24 off the clock. The Bills ended up rushing for 105 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

It was even worse against Houston.

Entering that game the Texans ran as well as a Ford Pinto, to borrow a phrase from Kevin Garnett. Houston was 30th in the NFL in rushing at 88.7 yards per game. They ran smoother than a Maybach against the Patriots -- 144 yards on 27 carries. The 5.3 yards per carry average was Houston's season high.

Rookie Arian Foster rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries and two touchdowns. On the game-winning drive, pass-happy Houston was so confident it could run on the Patriots it handed the ball to Foster four straight times covering 28 yards to get the ball in the end zone.

Wilfork honored the onerous six-year contract the team saddled him with. Like the sign in his locker all season said: he did his job. But the Patriots don't owe him anything because of that. The NFL is a business. That's why the Patriots should make a smart business decision and not let Wilfork get away.

All they have to do is ask themselves if in the end they've truly gotten "value" by letting valuable pieces go?

Brady must apply pocket pressure to Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 26, 2010 02:23 PM

Before Patriots quarterback Tom Brady started playing flag football yesterday with 20 Boston-area kids as part of a charitable promotion sponsored by smartwater, he gathered the children in a huddle at center court of the Tobin Community Center gym and attempted to offer some incentive, beyond catching a pass from an iconic NFL QB, for the first touchdown.

"Whoever scores a touchdown gets...we'll have to come up with something," said Brady.

 Right then one of the children blurted out, "Money."

Always quick on his feet, Brady then offered up the $30,000 smartwater-shaped novelty check to benefit the Boston Centers for Youth & Families as the appropriate plume.

Money figures to be an unavoidable, if uncomfortable, subject of conversation for Brady this offseason. No. 12 is in the last year of the six-year, $60 million extension/renegotiation he signed in 2005 and making sure he doesn't play out the final year of the deal should be priority No. 1 for the Patriots this off-season.

It would send a terrible message to players and a fretful fan base already roiled by the team's near religious reluctance to pay out lucrative, long-term deals if Brady were allowed to go into the 2010 season without a new deal, regardless of how uncertain the collective bargaining landscape is in the NFL and with what seems like an impending lockout looming in 2011.

Right now the buzzword for the Patriots is financial flexibility -- wasn't that the Bruins' failed plan when the NHL lockout put the 2004-05 season on ice? -- heading into the final and uncapped year of the current CBA. But there is not a CBA agreement in the world that doesn't make signing Brady a smart business move on and off the field.

Brady is the pièce de résistance of Patriot Place and there shouldn't be even a speck of a chance of him playing elsewhere in 2011 or 2012 or whenever the next NFL season after this coming one is. This is non-negotiable, which is why you hope the sides are negotiating now.

Yesterday, Brady looked like he would have rather been picking up the tab for dinner with Bernard Pollard than discussing his financial fate.

"Umm...I really don't like...we're so fortunate to be playing," he said. "I mean I think we're way overpaid as it is, all of us. You get to go play football for a living. I love playing, and I'm very fortunate to play. I'm very fortunate to walk off the field this year and end the season without having surgery, so [the contract's] not really a concern."

Like he was at times in the beginning of the season, when his shoulder was hindering him more than his surgically-repaired knee, Brady is a little off the mark. He is not overpaid, not even close. By the salary standard set by his peers he has been underpaid for quite some time.

He'll never say that because he is well aware of the economic climate in this country and the fact that players can't win when they gripe about their contracts, even if it's completely legitimate and justified (see: Wilfork, Vince). He is not going to put any public pressure on the Patriots or owner Robert Kraft. That's not how Brady and his classy agent, Don Yee, who is the anti-Scott Boras, work.

But this time negotiations could be a little different for Brady and the Pats because he is an alternate player representative and might feel an obligation to his union brethren to not take as much of an ownership-friendly deal as he has in the past.

Brady's six-year, $60 million extension, which included $26.5 million in bonus money, was a team-friendly deal when he agreed to it in May of 2005, with two years remaining on the contract he had then. Brady did the deal more than a year after the Colts signed Peyton Manning to a seven-year, $99.7 million contract with $34.5 million in bonus money. Coincidentally, Manning's contract is also up after the 2010 season.

Manning, who turns 34 in March, is due to make $15.8 million in base salary this season. Brady is scheduled to make $3.5 million in base salary, plus a $3 million roster bonus that is due on the first day of the 2010 league year (March 5) and a little more than $6,700 in a workout bonus.

Brady's deal looks completely anachronistic in comparison to recent QB contracts.

With a year left on his deal, Peyton's brother, Eli Manning, received a seven-year, $106.9 million deal, which was actually a six-year, $97.5 million extension, last August. That same month Philip Rivers, who was entering the final year of his contract, signed a six-year, $92 million deal. The average annual value of Eli Manning's deal is $15.27 million. Rivers's deal is $15.3 mill