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Patriots

A final plan to fare well

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff March 1, 2013 10:45 AM

Note: After more than four years at the Boston Globe and Boston.com, this is Tony Massarotti's final blog entry on Boston.com.

The beauty of Boston is that the stories are always evolving, the teams always developing, the objectives always changing. The Bruins appear to be at the beginning of an extended run of success, the Patriots perhaps much closer to the end of one. The Celtics are clinging to hope. The Red Sox trying to rebuild it.

Where these teams end up remains as uncertain as ever, if only because there are no sure things in sports.

But then, ultimately, that is why we all watch.

Here, then, is a long-term prognosis for Boston's four major franchises, each of which has won a championship in the last eight years, each of which stands as a cornerstone in what is, subjectively, the very best professional sports town in America.

BRUINS
Tyler Seguin just turned 21. Dougie Hamilton is 19. Tuukka Rask is 26. Those three players are the axis around which the Bruins could swirl for the next 10-15 years, the kind of franchise nucleus that every team would like to possess.

And we haven't even begun to mention Brad Marchand (24), Patrice Bergeron (27), David Krejci (26) or Milan Lucic (24). The Bruins are young. They're generally signed. And they are seemingly in position to contend for Stanley Cups through the current decade, which is no small feat given where they were as recently as a few years ago.

Quite simply, it will be a disappointment if this team doesn't win another championship sometime in the new few years (or so).

The challenges? To stay healthy and focused. To avoid complacency. This is as true for management as it for the players, particularly as the annual trading deadline nears. The Bruins do not have a Sidney Crosby or a Steven Stamkos, and trades will be necessary to bolster the talent. Good trades result from good drafts, the recent lot of which have helped bring the Bruins to where they are.

On the cusp of another golden era of hockey in Boston.

Let's hope they relish the chance.

CELTICS
For those chanting that all-too-familiar refrain - Blow it up - be careful what you wish for. From the fall of 1993 through the spring of 2007 – the 14-year period between Larry Bird and Kevin Garnett – the Celtics ranked 23d among the 30 NBA teams in winning percentage. They missed the playoffs nine times. The Celtics went an aggregate 472-644, a .423 winning percentage that translated into an average annual record of 35-47.

Why are we reminding of you that? Because it took 14 years to sufficiently arm them with the pieces necessary to acquire Garnett.

Admittedly, this team is probably in better shape, though it would be interesting to see the same group return next year minus Garnett and Paul Pierce. Get the picture? If Danny Ainge were to have traded either Garnett or Pierce at the deadline for a collection of lesser players, the Celtics would be the Milwaukee Bucks. And just who, exactly, would they target as their next Garnett?

Yes, it could be some time before this team wins another championship. In the interim, we'll just have to ask the Celtics to max out. As disappointing as the recent five-game road trip may have been to some, the Celtics are 3-4 on the road since Rajon Rondo was lost to a season-ending injury. Prior to that, they went 7-14 away from the Garden. They're still no worse off than they basically were a month ago because they weren't going to win a championship anyway.

In the interim, enjoy the competitive basketball for as long as it lasts.

In the Eastern Conference, short of Miami, does anyone really want to face them in the playoffs?

PATRIOTS
As we all know, NFL contracts aren't worth the paper they are printed on. Tom Brady is now signed for the next five years, and there is every chance he will play that long, be it under the terms of this current deal or a renegotiated one. And so long as Brady is upright, the Patriots will continue to chase Super Bowls.

Beyond that, the Patriots now have a number of young pieces in place for the long term. Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Nate Solder, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Ryan Wendell, Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard, Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes are all basically 26 or younger. There are a host of other players who are between 26 and 30 (including Jerod Mayo). What Bill Belichick has effectively done in recent years is rebuild much of the New England roster save for a few places.

Of course, quarterback is one of them.

As the Baltimore Ravens recently proved, you don't need the best quarterback in the league to win a championship. You just need a good one. In the long term, that might make it a little easier to find Brady's successor, particularly given the age of the Patriots roster and the great flexibility with which New England is entering this offseason.

Obviously, the next 2-3 years are huge. While the roster is growing, Brady is still playing at a high level. Thus, the needs on this team are obvious to everyone. Belichick's ability to address them will determine the success of this club in the short term, and we all know the standard to which the Patriots hold themselves.

Super Bowl or bust.

RED SOX
Over the last 10 years, owner John Henry and his partners have almost entirely rebuilt Fenway Park. Now, oddly enough, the entire Boston baseball operation is undergoing the renovation.

And so, as they transition to the next era in their history, the please-pardon-our-appearance Red Sox enter 2013 with avalanche of questions and issues. For the first time in a long time, we really have no idea how this is all going to look. Ultimately, the idea is transition from a star-studded Hollywood cast to a pack of new up-and-comers, a process that will take months, if not years.

From (Humphrey) Bogart to (Xander) Bogaerts. Given the disdain with which we all held the Sox of September 2011-October 2012, let's remember that this is what we all wanted: to build something again. More than anything, what we need from the Red Sox this year are some real signs of progress in the second half of the season, by which the members of Red Sox Youth should be having a greater impact. Next offseason may prove the most important of the Henry Era - however long it lasts - because, by then, the Sox should have won many of you back.

And once the Red Sox get closer, will they stick to their plan of rebuilding from within? Or will they succumb to their indisputable urges and start focusing on the ratings again?

Growth, as we all know, is not necessarily linear. Over the next months and years, there will be an ebb and flow to this process. We will all need to be patient. But for now, at least, it certainly feels as if the Red Sox are building something again.

And this time, they truly seem to be building it as much for you as they are for themselves.

* * *

A few words on the end of this blog: Eventually, we all say goodbye. This seems a lot less final.

For those of who you care, I am fairly certain I will write again. I'm just not sure when or where. The Globe and Boston.com were gracious enough to keep me on as contributor when I pursued other endeavors late in 2009, and they were willing to keep me now. I cannot possibly thank them enough for that because I've recently wondered (quite frequently) whether I was really pulling my weight.

But as we all know, things change. Parenthood requires more and more energy as children grow older, and every endeavor demands greater focus and commitment over time. There just haven't been enough hours in the day for me of late. So that means cutting back, redistributing, reorganizing.

To all of you who have happily or critically read this blog, thank you for showing up. The Globe has indicated a willingness to keep blog archives accessible, so for nostalgia's sake, I've picked out a few of my personal favorites and identified them in the "Top 5" list on the side of this page.

Writing and talking about sports in Boston remains a passion of mine and always will. Thanks again to all of you for giving me the opportunity to do that, for keeping me in line, for offering validation. There is simply no better place in America to do what we do.

See you later.

Brady knows he can't win it all on his own

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff February 27, 2013 09:42 AM
Tom Brady always has been a team player, a model of competitiveness, a leader in many senses of the word. But the smartest people know what they cannot do. And Brady knows he cannot win alone.

And so without getting into too many particulars behind Brady's recent contract extension and deciding whether he has truly made a sacrifice, let's all agree on this: From a competitive standpoint, Brady had every reason that the Patriots did (and more?) to restructure his contract. Additional salary cap space for the Patriots means more talent around Brady, and that alone was incentive enough for Brady to agree. Over the next two years, Brady will receive the same money he would have received anyway, actually even a little bit more. But the Patriots now have an additional $15 million in cap space ($8 million this year, $7 million next) to surround Brady with the pieces they all need to make, perhaps, another series of Super Bowl runs.

Here's the point: as good as Brady generally has been over the past six seasons of his career, the Patriots have not been quite good enough. Brady and the Patriots lit the NFL ablaze in 2007 ... and ultimately lost in the Super Bowl. Brady won his second career Most Valuable Player Award in 2010 ... and the Patriots lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. And the Brady of 2012 threw more passes than he ever has in any season ... yet the Patriots tumbled to the Baltimore Ravens while going scoreless -- repeat,scoreless -- in the second half of the AFC Championship game.

The better Brady has been and the more the Patriots have relied upon him, the clearer the lesson.

Teams win.

Quarterbacks don't.

We all have our wants for this particular group of Patriots at this precise point in time -- defense first, maybe a big receiver second -- and we can all debate the particulars. A safety seems a priority. A coverage linebacker would be another. Brady could certainly use another big target beyond Rob Gronkowski, and that is assuming Wes Welker returns. With those pieces in place -- and the Patriots can now address all of them -- New England might very well be the favorite to win the Super Bowl next year in, of all places, New York.

Think Bill Belichick might enjoy celebrating on both the home field of his beloved New York Giants and his detestable New York Jets?

Methinks yes.

For Brady, the next two years are critical. If his play slipped at all this year, it wasn't by much. But at some point in the near future, Brady's play will begin to more rapidly deteriorate, because even he cannot beat time. Whether the Patriots can win with him -- and they obviously can -- depends on how much the Patriots improve in other areas of the game while Brady moves closer and closer to 40.

Whether Brady remains "elite" during the coming years is irrelevant. (This is one of the most overrated debates in the modern NFL.) What Joe Flacco and the Ravens just taught us is that a quarterback doesn't have to be elite so much as he has to be good enough to win with, and Brady certainly is that. Barring some sort of unforeseen and rapid deterioration of his skill set -- and Brady's mind remains his greatest weapon -- Brady is likely to be good enough for beyond two years.

If and when his projected $9 million salary becomes a bargain at that stage, Brady always has the right to renegotiate. If the Patriots have found a replacement for him by them, the team will hold the leverage. If they haven't Brady will hold the hammer, just as he has for the last several years. Contract or no contract, the Patriots are not going to play hardball with Brady because their entire on-field operation is essentially built around him.

Vince Wilfork? Logan Mankins? Welker? The Pats could (and did) leverage all of them. But until the Pats find their answer to Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers or even Andrew Luck, Brady is the franchise.

Beyond all of that, let's all again acknowledge what we have acknowledged in the past, namely Brady's undying desire to win. Professional sports are littered with players who win a championship early on, then never win another. Many of them regard a single title as some form of immunity. The greatest of the greats are the ones who win over and over again, who never get tired of it, who guard championships like personal possessions.

Bill Russell. Michael Jordan. Derek Jeter. Wayne Gretzky. Mark Messier. Joe Montana.

Tom Brady.

In the modern sports world, of course, desire is an immeasurable, which makes it a difficult concept for many to grasp. Yet, it might be the single greatest asset any athlete can have. In 2011, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup largely on desire. Josh Beckett had two championships by the age of 27, then inexplicably lost his competitive edge and has won one postseason game since. Does Kevin Garnett desire a championship as much as he did in 2008 -- or is loyalty now more important to him? And maybe it says something that LeBron James won his first championship when he stopped wishing for it and started wanting it.

Brett Favre won one championship and never won another. Flacco now has as many titles as Peyton Manning. Alex Rodriguez won one World Series and Barry Bonds didn't win any, and all are on a long list of players who won something, but probably didn't win enough.

This week, Tom Brady reminded us that he's on a different list.

A much, much shorter one.

Patriots can't stay the same while the game changes

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff February 1, 2013 12:09 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- In New England, where the aftershocks of defeat will last for some time, the Super Bowl still bears watching. The Baltimore Ravens are on the way out. The San Francisco 49ers are on the way in. And philosophies are being put to the test.

In the middle of it all stands Colin Kaepernick, the tattooed quarterback with the arm of a late-inning reliever, the legs of a world class sprinter, and the look of a US Marine.

Conventional wisdom will be on trial when the Niners and Ravens face off in New Orleans on Sunday, so Patriots fans take note. The NFL is changing. Or maybe it has already changed. Sunday’s game will feature running offenses, big-play quarterbacks (in a variety of styles), and hard-hitting defenses, all models for a Patriots team that has fallen short of a Super Bowl title now for eight years running.

If Bill Belichick is most guilty of anything during his time as coach of the Patriots, it is this: resisting some of the changes that have taken place in the league over a period of years. After the Patriots lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, it was as if Belichick decided that a quarterback like Peyton Manning simply could not be stopped anymore, so the way to win was to fight fire with fire. That offseason, Belichick bought quarterback Tom Brady a toy chest that included Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and the Patriots have generally been a modern day version of Air Coryell.

At least until recently, when the Patriots clearly put greater emphasis on both a more balanced offense and a pass rush, the latter of which they addressed (in theory) with the drafting of defensive end Chandler Jones.

Making his way through a series of radio interviews on Thursday, Belichick disciple and current Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff offered an array of thoughts on the ever-changing NFL. Asked to name the most important positions on the field after quarterback, Dimitroff came back with, in order, defensive end, cornerback, perhaps safety. Those three positions just happen to be the ones where the Patriots lacked playmaking ability in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, particularly given injuries to Jones and cornerback Aqib Talib.

The obvious question: Why has it taken Belichick so long to successfully address those areas? Until Jones was selected, the Patriots had never really drafted someone deemed to be a pure pass rusher. Belichick’s history of drafting corners has been so bad that the team had to acquire Talib during the season by trade. And the deficiency at safety has been so pronounced that Belichick had to take the one reasonably effective corner he did draft, Devin McCourty, and move him there.

Certainly, prior to the 2011 season, Belichick made an attempt to address the Patriots’ shortage of pass rushers by acquiring defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson via free agency. But the general point is that if Belichick begin molding his offensive personnel and philosophy to the air game following the 2006 season, why didn’t the same changes take place on his defense until years later?

For certain, assuming that the Patriots retain free agent Talib (or replace him with someone comparable), the defense is developing. But one of the questions now concerns whether NFL offenses are reacting, which brings us back to Kaepernick and, for that matter, similarly mobile quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, maybe even Cam Newton.

Think about it. As the game has become more pass happy, newer, younger executives like Dimitroff have put an emphasis on positions like defensive end and cornerback. In turn, some like San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has drafted a quarterback like Kaepernick and then boldly entrusted the team to him despite the relatively error-free play of his predecessor, all because Kaepernick brings a dimension – namely, speed – that allows him to make plays with his legs when he is being chased by those defensive ends or when those corners have his receivers covered. (Or both.)

The Ravens? Their formula is entirely different, a more time-tested approach of physicality on offense and defense, with a strong-armed quarterback who can heave the ball down the field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won multiple Super Bowls with that approach roughly 30 years ago. If the 49ers are faster than the Patriots – and they are – then the Ravens are more physical, which leaves the Patriots somewhere in between.

Of course, the Ravens and the Niners just happen to be the last two teams to have defeated the Patriots this season – both on the turf at Gillette Stadium.

In the coming weeks and months, Belichick must find ways to defeat not just one of those teams and philosophies, but both.

Over time, Brady's focus hasn't waned

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 18, 2013 10:18 AM

tombrady607.jpg

Tom Brady is possibly the greatest quarterback of all-time because of his laser-like focus. (Stephan Savoia / AP photo)

The metamorphosis of Tom Brady has taken place on the surface and beneath it, and it is still ongoing now. Brady has gone from a sixth-round draft pick to arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, from a game manager to an elite passer, from just one of the guys to the neatly-pressed cover boy, the GQB who comfortably stands in the fashion world and then effortlessly slides back into the pocket.

Along the way, one thing has remained constant for the incomparable quarterback of the New England Patriots.

His desire to win.

"He started winning playoff games the first year he really got a chance to participate in them," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters last Sunday after the Patriots defeated the Houston Texans to advance to this Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. "Tom is a great competitor. He had a great week of preparation, as he always does for every game, but especially the playoff games. He’s our leader and we all follow him. ...There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."

There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady. How many times has Belichick said this now? Excluding the 2008 season in which Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter of their first game, the Patriots now have been to the AFC title game a remarkable seven times in Brady's 11 years as a starter. That is a completion percentage of 63.6. With a win against the Ravens on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Brady will become the first quarterback in history to play in six Super Bowls, the kind of achievement that says a great deal about Brady's ability and even more about his never-ending pursuit for excellence.

The latter, of course, is what ultimately separates the greatest of the greats. Particularly in the modern world of sports marketing and multimillion dollar contracts, winning has become almost secondary. From Anna Kournikova and Michelle Wie to Alex Rodriguez and even LeBron James, there has often been a lot more energy invested in branding than winning, which certainly speaks to our culture as much as it does to each individual athlete.

But Brady? Brady won his first Super Bowl at the age of 24. He won another two years later, then another the year after that. And while the seven full seasons since have failed to produce a championship, Brady now has taken the Patriots back to the AFC title game for the fourth time in the last seven years, a period during which his competitiveness has waned little, if at all.

Peyton Manning, by contrast, has been to just three AFC Championship Games in his career. Manning will never have to answer the question as to why he didn't win a championship, but he should have to answer as to why he has not won more. Ditto for the supremely talented A-Rod. And while that may be some reflection on the ability of athletes like Manning and Rodriguez to perform under pressure, it may also be some commentary on their real desire to make a journey each has already made.

None of that makes Manning or Rodriguez different. Quite the contrary. It makes them normal. Few things are as rewarding as they are the very first time, because the thrill is often in the chase.

All of this brings us back to Brady, whose first championship was more extraordinary than most. Short of a 19-0 season, nothing can ever replicate the euphoria that accompanied the Patriots win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And yet, Brady keeps returning to this point with all the energy of a first-timer, which speaks to his desire, discipline, professionalism and sheer competitiveness.

When any player gets to this stage, getting up for the game is easy. But players like Brady find ways to stay focused for the November games against Buffalo, too, and we are as likely to see an eruption on the field or sidelines in those games as we are now.

None of this means Brady is perfect. (He's not.) But as many athletes age, life inevitably and invariably gets in the way. Relationships. Marriage. Children. Those complexities steal from our energy and focus, and the large majority of us have little choice but to adjust our standards, modify our expectations, simply set the bar lower.

What we learn is that winning isn't as important as we thought it was, a process we often write off as "maturing."

In the case of Brady, maybe he simply has not grown up yet. Or maybe he just does a far better job of managing those pressures, be they on the football field or at home. As quarterback of the Patriots, Brady's greatest assets always have been his smarts and his focus, not necessarily in that order. Quarterbacks are targeted from all sides, all the time, and Brady always has been more adept than most at processing the information, keeping his eyes fixed on the target, never losing sight of the objective.

On Sunday, he takes the field with a historic sixth Super Bowl appearance at stake.

He will do then what he has unfailingly sought to do.

He will try to win.

Over time, Brady's focus hasn't waned

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 18, 2013 10:18 AM

tombrady607.jpg

Tom Brady is possibly the greatest quarterback of all-time because of his laser-like focus. (Stephan Savoia / AP photo)

The metamorphosis of Tom Brady has taken place on the surface and beneath it, and it is still ongoing now. Brady has gone from a sixth-round draft pick to arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, from a game manager to an elite passer, from just one of the guys to the neatly-pressed cover boy, the GQB who comfortably stands in the fashion world and then effortlessly slides back into the pocket.

Along the way, one thing has remained constant for the incomparable quarterback of the New England Patriots.

His desire to win.

"He started winning playoff games the first year he really got a chance to participate in them," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters last Sunday after the Patriots defeated the Houston Texans to advance to this Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. "Tom is a great competitor. He had a great week of preparation, as he always does for every game, but especially the playoff games. He’s our leader and we all follow him. ...There’s no quarterback I’d rather have than Tom Brady."

There's no quarterback I'd rather have than Tom Brady. How many times has Belichick said this now? Excluding the 2008 season in which Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the first quarter of their first game, the Patriots now have been to the AFC title game a remarkable seven times in Brady's 11 years as a starter. That is a completion percentage of 63.6. With a win against the Ravens on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Brady will become the first quarterback in history to play in six Super Bowls, the kind of achievement that says a great deal about Brady's ability and even more about his never-ending pursuit for excellence.

The latter, of course, is what ultimately separates the greatest of the greats. Particularly in the modern world of sports marketing and multimillion dollar contracts, winning has become almost secondary. From Anna Kournikova and Michelle Wie to Alex Rodriguez and even LeBron James, there has often been a lot more energy invested in branding than winning, which certainly speaks to our culture as much as it does to each individual athlete.

But Brady? Brady won his first Super Bowl at the age of 24. He won another two years later, then another the year after that. And while the seven full seasons since have failed to produce a championship, Brady now has taken the Patriots back to the AFC title game for the fourth time in the last seven years, a period during which his competitiveness has waned little, if at all.

Peyton Manning, by contrast, has been to just three AFC Championship Games in his career. Manning will never have to answer the question as to why he didn't win a championship, but he should have to answer as to why he has not won more. Ditto for the supremely talented A-Rod. And while that may be some reflection on the ability of athletes like Manning and Rodriguez to perform under pressure, it may also be some commentary on their real desire to make a journey each has already made.

None of that makes Manning or Rodriguez different. Quite the contrary. It makes them normal. Few things are as rewarding as they are the very first time, because the thrill is often in the chase.

All of this brings us back to Brady, whose first championship was more extraordinary than most. Short of a 19-0 season, nothing can ever replicate the euphoria that accompanied the Patriots win over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. And yet, Brady keeps returning to this point with all the energy of a first-timer, which speaks to his desire, discipline, professionalism and sheer competitiveness.

When any player gets to this stage, getting up for the game is easy. But players like Brady find ways to stay focused for the November games against Buffalo, too, and we are as likely to see an eruption on the field or sidelines in those games as we are now.

None of this means Brady is perfect. (He's not.) But as many athletes age, life inevitably and invariably gets in the way. Relationships. Marriage. Children. Those complexities steal from our energy and focus, and the large majority of us have little choice but to adjust our standards, modify our expectations, simply set the bar lower.

What we learn is that winning isn't as important as we thought it was, a process we often write off as "maturing."

In the case of Brady, maybe he simply has not grown up yet. Or maybe he just does a far better job of managing those pressures, be they on the football field or at home. As quarterback of the Patriots, Brady's greatest assets always have been his smarts and his focus, not necessarily in that order. Quarterbacks are targeted from all sides, all the time, and Brady always has been more adept than most at processing the information, keeping his eyes fixed on the target, never losing sight of the objective.

On Sunday, he takes the field with a historic sixth Super Bowl appearance at stake.

He will do then what he has unfailingly sought to do.

He will try to win.

Don't take a Patriots win for granted

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2013 12:03 PM
We all believe the Patriots are better than the Houston Texans. We all believe the Patriots will win. But two days before the Patriots and Texans face off in a divisional playoff, one cannot help but feel we are succumbing to arrogance.

And by now, we should know better.

I am guilty of this, too, course, and my head, heart and instincts tell me that the Patriots will defeat the Texans on Sunday by something along the lines of a 31-23 score at Gillette Stadium. Most of the predictions I have seen fall into the same neighborhood, and finding any level of cynicism or skepticism over the Patriots' chances this week is an exercise in futility.

By chance, have you read Dan Shaughnessy's Friday column? In this era of Boston sports, Shaughnessy serves as our Prince of Darkness, a most sarcastic, cynical, and skeptical voice of gloom. But ask Shaughnessy about the Patriots' chances against the Texans on Sunday and it's as if he's spent the last 10 days in a isolated mountain cabin with nothing but an Anthony Robbins DVD set.

"No matter how much I study and prepare," Shaughnessy wrote, "I cannot come up with a scenario that has the Houston Texans defeating the New England Patriots Sunday night."

Holy smokes. Not even a single scenario from the Vincent Price of Boston sports, a man who is part Scrooge, part Grinch, part Glum? We'll never make it. We're doomed. Is there no one we can rely on anymore?

Let's make something clear here: if the Patriots play poorly on Sunday, they will lose. A mediocre effort might similarly end their season. The Houston Texans have their share of issues, to be sure, but professional sports - and football in particular - can be a cruel reminder that nothing should ever, ever be taken for granted.

So the Patriots defeated the Texans by a 42-14 score in Week 14. Big deal. As we all know, the Patriots defeated the New York Jets by a 45-3 score late in December 2010, then lost to the Jets in the divisional playoffs. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick reminded everyone earlier this week that football games are like snowflakes - each one is different - and one can only hope Belichick is privately pounding his players with memories of the Jets loss two years ago.

This Patriots team is the youngest of Belichick's tenure in New England, after all. Stevan Ridley has no real history of playoff success, Chandler Jones has no postseason experience. Ditto for Dont'a Hightower. Aqib Talib has never played in the postseason. Steve Gregory has one career playoff win on his resume. Nate Solder has never had to protect Tom Brady's backside with the season on the line.

And someone like Shaughnessy can't think of even a single scenario in which the Patriots lose?

How about something like this: Ridley fumbles, as he did in the playoffs last year. Brady throws an interception, as he has now done in five straight postseason games. Gregory blows an assignment or misses a tackle, as he did with some regularity earlier in the season. Hightower looks lost, as he has from time to time. Jones disappears. (He has not had a sack since Week 8.)

Now, are all of these things likely to happen? No. But the 42-14 blowout over Houston in Week 14 was not likely, either, and another blowout is even less likely given the outcome of the first game.

Certainly, the Texas have their own issues in this game, not the least of which is quarterback Matt Schaub, whose implosion at Foxborough in Week 14 has sent him spiraling. Beginning with his wretched performance against the Patriots, Schaub has thrown one touchdown pass - that's one - in his last five games. The Houston defense has shown great vulnerability against the pass over the course of the season and the Patriots shredded the Texans in Week 14 without tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Still, the Texans won 12 regular season games this season and claimed a 13th in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Defensive lineman J.J. Watt can alter a game by himself. The Texans defeated Denver, Baltimore, and Indianapolis during the season, and their team is more resilient than many think. Last season, with third-stringer T.J. Yates at quarterback, the Texans won in the wild-card round and nearly won at Baltimore in the divisional round, which speaks to the Texans' resolve.

And yet, many of us continue to sit here, two days before kickoff, showing little respect for the Texans or little thought of defeat.

Isn't at least some level of skepticism healthy?

And when did we become so cocky, so downright arrogant, that we ignored the first rule of sports.

There is a reason we actually play the games.

Patriots got lucky, now it's time for them to be really good

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff January 2, 2013 10:12 AM

'Tis better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes. Although in the NFL, it is best to be both.

And the Patriots certainly qualify.

Partly through their own doing, partly through the ineptitude of their competition, the Patriots will be standing by patiently when the NFL playoffs open on Saturday, just as they have been for so many of the last 12 years. Sunday was only the latest example of New England's tried-and-true formula. First, with everything to lose, the Houston Texans went out and lost to an Indianapolis Colts team that really had nothing to gain. Then the Patriots went out and did what the Texans could not, taking care of business against the Miami Dolphins to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC and an all-important bye in the first round of the playoffs.

Possessors of the top seed in the AFC entering Week 17, the Texans did not merely open the door for the Patriots on Sunday -- they put down a runner, they accepted the Pats' coat, hat, and gloves, too. Bill Belichick and his players then calmly and confidently strode through, proving an adage that has delivered the Patriots to at least the divisional round in eight of the last 11 seasons.

Ninety percent of life is just showing up.

Which is apparently too much to ask of a team like the Texans.

Or even, say, the New York Giants.

Slightly less than a year ago, lest we forget, the Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, albeit off a 9-7 regular season. Nonetheless, a title is a title. The Giants were 6-2 midway through this season while the Patriots were 5-3 -- the Texans were 7-1 -- and New York loomed over the potential playoff field like a skilled, seasoned fighter still in the prime of his career.

Know what the Giants did? They fell asleep, going 3-5 the rest, losing two of their last three games. The Texans were 11-1 before they came into Foxborough and got their doors blown off, that defeat not nearly as revealing as the subsequent confidence crisis that produced two more defeats in the next three games.

The Patriots, by contrast, were seemingly on the way to a similarly dispiriting loss against the San Francisco 49ers when they decided to, you know, rally through Week 16 and 17, something that ultimately earned them a vacation week while both the Giants (out of the playoffs entirely) and Texans (hosting Cincinnati on Saturday) are trying to figure out, to varying degrees, exactly what went wrong.

Um, guys?

The last 10 percent of life becomes much more difficult -- or downright impossible -- if you don't take care of the first 90.

For the Patriots, the last 10 percent makes all the difference in the world, of course, which speaks to the pedigree of the Belichick Era. Since they have been paired together, Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have been to six conference championships and five Super Bowls. And yet, the last seven seasons (and counting?) have failed to produce a Super Bowl title, which has left all of us wondering whether the Patriots have quite what it takes for the last 10 percent.

Over the last seven weeks, since the addition of defensive back Aqib Talib to the Patriots secondary, New England has ranked fifth in the league in defense based on points allowed. On third down, the Patriots have ranked 10th. Those are significant improvements over where the Patriots were prior to the addition of Talib, when the term "Patriots defense" too often seemed an oxymoron.

Beginning in the divisional round of the playoffs, those improvements should not be overlooked. In early December, after a huge Jerod Mayo sack stalled a Miami Dolphins drive and forced a field goal, the Patriots opened the month with a 23-16 win at Miami that featured an impressive, game-ending field goal drive that consumed most of the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago in Jacksonville, a game the Patriots won by an identical 23-16 score, the Patriots made a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions deep in their own territory to preserve the win. Miami and Jacksonville went a combined 9-23 this season, to be sure, but the Patriots showed at least some capacity to win the kind of game they have too frequently failed to win.

Prior to the Miami win, after all, the Patriots were 2-7 in their last nine games when scoring 23 points or fewer points. Their only two victories during that span came against Baltimore in last season's AFC Championship Game (when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a a potential, game-tying 32-yard bunny to end the game) and against Dallas last season (when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett all but sat on his hands despite a chance to run out the clock). Tighter, lower-scoring games have been the Patriots' demise in recent years, largely because they could only win games with their offense.

Prior to the first Miami game, the Patriots' defeats this season followed a similar pattern. Arizona shut them down. Seattle shut them down. In the loss to San Francisco, New England was down 31-3 before the Niners backed off some. All three clubs succeeded by playing New England aggressively and physically, and the Patriots defense was not imposing enough to win what was left.

Whether this group is truly different is certainly open to debate, though the Texans certainly made things easier by shrinking in December. Houston will get another chance in New England if the Texans win on Saturday, but the Patriots have not lost to an AFC opponent at home this year. A Houston defeat would mean a Foxborough visit for either Baltimore or Indianapolis, the former of whom has an aging and fading defense, the latter of whom got throttled at Gillette earlier this season.

What happens after that is obviously anyone's guess.

But wherever the Patriots go now, it will have far less to do with how lucky they are, and far more to do with how good.

The Jets are football's answer to the Red Sox

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff December 21, 2012 10:19 AM
Football's answer to the Red Sox resides roughly 200 miles to the south, partly in New York, partly in New Jersey, completely in disarray. The J-E-T-S are a joke, joke, joke, and there may no greater thing for New Englanders to celebrate come holiday season.

Joy to the world.

The Jets are done.

So puff out your chests, Patriots fans. Gang Green has gangrene. Head coach Rex Ryan arrived in New York vowing never to kiss Bill Belichick's rings, and he may now leave New York kissing Belichick's feet. Sexy Rexy and the Jets appear headed for a complete dismantling that could begin within hours of the conclusion of the 2012 regular season, and New York now looks like nothing more than a pothole during Belichick's 12-year journey over the AFC East.

Slightly more than a year ago, like the 2011 Red Sox, the Jets were 8-5 and seemingly positioned for a playoff spot. Then they self-destructed in a season-ending losing streak marked by dissension, infighting, turmoil and finger-pointing. New York's answer to its problems came in a man whom most everyone else regarded as a potential problem, the kind of lightning rod who translated into media attention and in retrospect, undue hype.

The Red Sox had Bobby Valentine. The Jets had Tim Tebow.

When you get right down to it, what's the difference?

Each was a bill of goods.

In the case of Tebow, he is hardly to blame for what has befallen the Jets. Like Valentine, Tebow was the pawn in an internal struggle between ownership and on-field operations. One side wanted him and the other did not. In the end, he has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Jets, of the kind of organizational dysfunction that can eat at a franchise from within.

And now, just like the Red Sox, there is talk of the jets selling off parts, of trading away Tebow and the wildly overpaid Mark Sanchez, who might be the Jets' equivalent to, say, John Lackey.

In recent Patriots history, we all know the story of The Border War. In these parts, the Jets were largely irrelevant until Bill Parcells broke from Patriots owner Robert Kraft and took over the New York operation. Subsequent spinoffs centered around Belichick and Eric Mangini, the Belichick protege who turned on his mentor. Mangini gave way to Ryan, the kind of rebellion a teenager makes under the weight of overbearing parents.

When the Jets hired Mangini, they told the world they wanted to be more like the Patriots. When they hired Ryan, they told world they wanted to be nothing like New England.

For a time, of course, the Jets played as if liberated. Ryan went 3-2 in his first five meetings against Belichick, one victory coming in the divisional playoffs at Foxboro Stadium. The Jets went to two consecutive AFC Championship Games while the Patriots failed to win even a single postseason game. The team were both 5-3 when the Patriots traveled to the Meadowlands last season for a Week 10 matchup, New England in a relatively fragile state while the Jets had won three straight.

And then, precipitously, everything flipped.

In the time since, beginning with a 37-16 win in New York, the Patriots have gone 20-5 while the Jets have gone 9-13. The gap between the teams now feels as big as it did before Parcells left New England. The Patriots have played in one Super Bowl and look at least as capable this year as any other NFL team, and the Jets are now prepared to cut tied with both Tebow and Sanchez, perhaps Ryan, maybe even general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

Seven or eight months from now, we can only wonder if the Jets and their followers will be talking about a bridge year.

And so now, presumably, Tebow will be gone from New York as quickly as Valentine was from Boston, their roles in the failures of two franchises indisputably clear. Neither man caused the problems on his team. But in some way, shape or form, each made it worse. And lest there be any doubt, neither Valentine nor Tebow deserves as much blame as the people who imported them, the kind of detached decision-making that cannot help but make you wonder whether the people running the franchise had any clue at all.

What happens to the Jets from here is anyone's guess, and the Patriots clearly have their own issues to worry about at the moment. New England has two regular season games remaining on its 2012 regular season schedule and the Patriots are currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC. The playoffs might very well begin in two weeks. The Border is now nothing but a memory, and Ryan looks like simply another man who tried to take at Belichick.

Happy Holidays, Patriots followers.

The New Year may or may not bring another trip to the Super Bowl, but you are far, far better off than the Jets.

Patriots got what they deserved vs. 49ers

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff December 17, 2012 10:29 AM

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New England was due for a dose of humility, so maybe it was best that it came in this form. The San Francisco 49ers came into Foxborough on Sunday and beat the Patriots at their own game. The 49ers forced turnovers. They scored. And they beat the Patriots up.

And so just like that, the Patriots went from pursuers of the No. 1 seed in the AFC to possessors of No. 3, to the team that would host the Cincinnati Bengals on wild card weekend if the playoffs opened this week. New England showed grit and resolve in this game, to be sure, but the simple truth is that the Patriots never led against a 49ers team that is - and can we all agree on this now? - a certified, bona fide Super Bowl threat.

No ifs, ands or buts. No excuses. No whining. The Niners just came in here and poked an array of holes in what seemed an air of invincibility following the Patriots' convincing win over the Houston Texans, and the only question now is whether the Patriots will be better off for it.

Or worse.


Despite the final score of this game, let the record show that the Niners used a familiar formula to unseat the Patriots: good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed defense. The Patriots went 2-for-13 on third down in this game, both conversions coming during an early third-quarter drive after the Niners had built a 31-3 lead that should have been even bigger. The Patriots started moving the ball in this game only after the Niners backed off some, and then the Patriots got on a roll that nearly made for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.

In the end, the Patriots got what they deserved in this game, if only because a team cannot expect to play 20 minutes of a 60-minute game and win against elite competition.

Now, does this mean the Patriots are cooked, that they are incapable of winning three games to reach the sixth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady Era? Of course not. It just means the road got longer and tougher. It means the Patriots still have some work to do in their secondary. And it means the Patriots still have some young players who are unknowns when it comes to playing the biggest games on the grandest stages against the toughest competition.

Stevan Ridley has fumbled in each of the last two games, after all, and he fumbled in the divisional playoffs against Denver last year. (He now has four fumbles this season.) Shane Vereen also fumbled in this game. Nate Solder was schooled by Aldon Smith in the earliest stages of play and allowed a huge sack late, and the New England secondary took a step back, Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick exploiting the safety play of Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty.

Whatever weaknesses the Patriots have possessed this season, the Niners seemingly took advantage of them. Which brings us to another issue, Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who showed no trepidation in taking on the great Belichick, faking a punt on fourth-and-10 from his own 41-yard line when it was just a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

How's that for gumption?

For the Patriots, the end result was a 1-3 record against the NFC West this season, with losses to Arizona, Seattle, and San Francisco, all of whom beat the Patriots up at the line of scrimmage and effectively contained the New England passing attack. And this game, unlike the others, was played on a cold, wet, and wintry New England night, the kind of conditions that are supposed to favor weathered New Englanders, not their visitors from the Bay Area.

The good news in all of this? There aren't many teams out there like the Niners, whom the Patriots would love to see again in the Super Bowl, if New England can get that far. And the Patriots still can. Though the Texans and surging Denver Broncos now stand ahead of the Patriots in the AFC hierarchy, New England has already defeated both teams, albeit on the home turf of Foxborough. Neither the Denver nor the Houston defense showed the real capacity to do to the Patriots what the Niners did, and there certainly is no one to fear in the AFC.

Over the coming weeks, then, the challenges for Belichick and the Patriots are obvious. Assuming that cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is fine, the Patriots need to continue improving in a secondary that already has made some strides. Offensively, a healthy Rob Gronkowski wouldn't hurt. With the exception of Wes Welker, New England receivers are more finesse than power - Welker is deceptively tough - though that changes dramatically when Gronkowski is on the field.

Months ago, when the New England schedule was released, the consecutive games against Houston and San Francisco clearly stood out as the gauntlet. The chances of making it through both unscathed seemed relatively slim. And yet, the Patriots had that chance when a Danny Woodhead touchdown run tied the score at 31-31 with 6:45 to play, even if the opportunity evaporated in a matter of seconds.

At that instant, the Patriots' chances of a first-round bye have similarly disappeared.

But their chances of going to the Super Bowl did not.

Patriots demolish Jets, New York's season in ruins

Posted by Staff November 23, 2012 09:29 AM

Boy, do the Jets stink or what?

And so with all due respect to the Patriots, who breezed in and out of MetLife Stadium on Thanksgiving as if it were a drive-thru window, we all know what happened here. Sometimes you deserve to win. Sometimes you deserve to lose. And sometimes all you have to do is show up because your opponents throw up on themselves like college freshmen during orientation week.

The final score: Patriots 49, New York Jets 19.

And the game never felt even remotely that close.

For the Patriots, the questions this morning are simple and clear: how much of this was the Jets? And is New England sufficiently improving, particularly on defense, to make us wonder whether the Patriots' early-season issues are permanently a thing of their past?

Let's start with the obvious. What the Jets did to themselves was one of the most extraordinary examples of self-destruction in the history of the sport. Watching an abandoned Mark Sanchez plant his face squarely between the cheeks of right guard Brandon Moore will go down as one of the great NFL bloopers of all-time, a Pisarcik-like moment that somehow evoked memories of, incredibly, Shaquille O'Neal.

How's my [butt] taste?

Wow. Talk about a humiliating, embarrassing play that will live in infamy. And for the Jets, that was only Step Two of a three-touchdown avalanche that continued just seconds later, when kickoff returner Joe McKnight spit up as if Devin McCourty had performed the Heimlich maneuver on him, the football popping out of of McKnight's grasp (and into the hands of a serendipitous Julian Edelman) as if it were a piece of popcorn chicken.

Just like that, the Jets went from potentially driving for a game tying score with a fourth-and-1 on the Patriots' 31-yard line to a 28-0 deficit, the kind of spontaneous combustion that left Jets coach Rex Ryan with a predictable, profanity-laced reaction.

Un-[expletive]-believable.

Indeed it was. Two series and a few minutes later, after Tom Brady effortlessly dropped a 56-yard touchdown pass into the hands of Edelman as if he were tossing an apple core into a dumpster, the Patriots had a 35-0 lead and everyone from Plymouth Rock to Alcatraz was ridiculing the Jets.

Game over.

Garbage time.

Now, if you're looking for reasons to feel better about the Patriots, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, there were still a few in the earlier parts of the game, before the onslaught. Yes, the Patriots gave up some yardage. Yes, they continued to be surprisingly vulnerable on the ground. But there were still a handful of developments that suggested progress, both in terms of philosophy and execution.

On Jets' very first offensive play of the game, for instance, the Patriots blitzed linebacker Dont'a Hightower and sacked Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez for a six-yard loss. That alone was a marked contrast from the Week 7 affair in which the Patriots blitzed Sanchez just five times on 45 dropbacks - and a further sign of Patriots aggressiveness following a Week 11 game in which the Patriots blitzed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck a season-high 17 times.

In the second quarter, in fact, the Patriots recorded their only other sack of the game on another linebacker blitz - this one by Jerod Mayo. Yes, the score was 28-0. But the Jets had moved from their 18-yard line to the 43 when the Patriots sent Mayo on a third-and-6, resulting in a nine-yard loss that forced the Jets to punt. Four plays later, Brady threw the apple to Edelman, and it was time to send in the clowns.

Beyond that, the Patriots had a pair of key stops - yes, actual (it)stops(end) - that should continue to build the defense's confidence. Of course, there was the fourth-down stop of Shonn Greene on the New England 31-yard line early in the second quarter, perhaps the biggest play of the game, at least in retrospect. But prior to that, with the game still scoreless roughly midway through the first quarter, the Jets had a second-and-6 at the New England 23-yard-line when safety Steve Gregory picked off Sanchez, a play far more revealing than we might otherwise give it credit for.

Two weeks ago, after all, the Buffalo Bills faced a fourth-down play in which receiver Stevie Johnson lined up against cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. As Globe football columnist Greg Bedard noted, Dennard bit on a fake to the inside despite the fact that he safety help there, ultimately leaving Johnson wide open on the outside for a simple conversion.

So what happened on Thursday night? As NBC color analyst Cris Collinsworth noted, nickel back Kyle Arrington angled receiver Jeremy Kerley to the inside of the field. Safety Gregory than made a read from the opposite side of the field and aggressively jumped Kerley's route, resulting in an interception that deprived the Jets of any points.

Of course, this is Sanchez we're talking about, and no quarterback in the league kills his own team's scoring drives quite like the QB of the NYJ. Still, the Patriots held Sanchez to just a 59.1 rating in the first half (which is all that mattered) and limited the Jets to just a combined 4-for-13 on third- and fourth-down conversions, both of which reflect a significant improvement over the same opponent in Week 7.

Savor those pearls, Patriots fans.

Because, unfortunately, you won't see the Jets again until 2013.

A few things things to believe in

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff November 5, 2012 11:43 AM

Halfway through the football season, I believe the NFL is as unpredictable as it has been in any year of recent memory, that line between winning and losing is microscopically thin, which is to say that the Patriots are every bit as good as a number of teams in both the AFC and the NFC.

Of course, that also suggests the Patriots are no better.

As a result, I believe Aqib Talib was worth the price of a fourth-round draft pick, whether he succeeds here or not, because the Patriots have the youngest team of Bill Belichick's tenure and because they do not need another fourth-round draft pick.

What they need is someone who can cover.

Now.

I believe that David Ortiz should thank his lucky stars that the Red Sox agreed to give him a two-year contract for a guaranteed $26 million, no matter how small the relative risk for Boston, because I believe there was no team out there willing to give up a high draft pick to sign a soon-to-be 37-year-old designated hitter who just missed 72 games with an Achilles injury.

But I also believe that the Red Sox needed left-handed power in their lineup and that the free-agent market is thin, and that Ortiz isn't the kind of potentially damaging signee that Carl Crawford was.

I believe Barack Obama will win the Presidential election on Tuesday.

I believe that Scott Brown will win the local Senatorial election.

And I believe that neither one of those predictions should be regarded as any reflection on my beliefs or voting intentions.

I believe the NBA would be a better league if the Los Angeles Lakers fell completely on their faces because there are two players in the league no more unlikeable than Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, no matter how many championships Bryant has won.

Though it is still worth noting that Howard has never won any.

I believe that NHL owners and players are on the brink of permanently damaging their league if they are not careful, that they should get back on the ice as quickly as possible.

Because I believe the Bruins are hurt as much as any team by this lockout, because the Bruins have a nucleus in place that should be able to contend for Stanley Cup Championships for years to come.

Unfortunately, I also believe that Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are obstructionists to a deal more than conduits.

I believe the Red Sox should sign Cody Ross to nothing more than a two-year contract with some sort of option for a third season, vesting or otherwise, and that Ross' salary should fall somewhere in the range of $7-9 million per year.

Because, while I like Ross, I believe he's quite replaceable.

I believe the Red Sox' catching problems are far more significant that we are giving them credit for.

And that the Red Sox should look into trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Ryan Lavaranway and picking one or the other.

I believe the Celtics will need time to develop chemistry, but that people are overrating the club and its potential, and that the Celtics are not nearly as good as many think they are.

Because Kevin Garnett is another year older.

And because so is Paul Pierce.

I believe that Devin McCourty is a far better safety than he is a cornerback, that the Patriots would be far more prudent to keep McCourty at safety along with Patrick Chung, and to start Talib at the left cornerback position with Alfonzo Dennard on the right side.

I believe that Chandler Jones is certified, bona fide, and undeniable freak, which is to say that I believe Jones has the chance to go down as one of the most prolific defensive players in Patriots history if he stays healthy, keeps his head screwed on straight and is committed to getting better.

I believe the Atlanta Falcons are still a bit of a mirage.

And that the Houston Texans are the real deal.

And that the Denver Broncos are rapidly become one of the more intriguing teams in the league.

I believe that Tyler Seguin is having one whale of a team in Switzerland, because there is no better place than Europe for a 20-year-old bachelor with world class skills and a pile of money.

And that there is also no more dangerous one.

I believe that "Argo" is worth seeing.

And that most science fiction movies are not.

And that any film featuring Kevin James or Adam Sandler (or both) is generally a waste of time.

I believe that Mike Aviles is in Cleveland now because Terry Francona wanted him there, because Francona always had an affection for players like Aviles and Willie Bloomquist or Eric Hinske and Mark Kotsay, who could play in the infield and outfield and make his life easier.

The way most any manager would.

I believe the Celtics will get significantly better the day Avery Bradley returns to the team because I believe the energy Bradley brings on defense is something the Celtics currently lack terribly.

I believe that Ray Allen acted like a baby.

And that John Farrell will not.

And I believe, with little hesitation or doubt, that the golden age of Boston sports is far from complete, that we have entered a stage in our sports history where our teams will be expected to contend for championships year in and year out, because success fuels success.

And because winning is terribly, terribly hard to give up.

Easy win, but no easy conclusions

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff October 1, 2012 10:30 AM

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Donald Jones caught the ball just seven yards from the line of scrimmage and bolted down the field, and it certainly felt like the Patriots season was escaping with him. The Buffalo Bills had a 21-7 lead and seemed well on their way to victory. The Patriots seemed headed for 1-3.

Instead, the Patriots are 2-2 today following a 52-28 victory in Orchard Park, NY on Sunday that had the feel of a chain reaction. In the final 26 minutes against the same old Bills, the Patriots scored 45 points in what felt like a contact-free drill. During one succession from the early part of the third quarter to the early part of the fourth, the Patriots scored on five straight possessions while the Bills ran just 13 plays (non punts) and managed just two first downs.

Patriots touchdown. Bills three-and-out. Patriots touchdown. Bills four-and-out. Patriots touchdown. Bills fumble. Patriots touchdown. Bills interception. Patriots touchdown.

In the process, the identities of the two most consistent franchises in the AFC East over the last dozen years were fortified. The Patriots are winners. The Bills are hopeless.

One quarter of this 2012 Patriots season is now in the books, as it is, and we can all agree that September didn't go exactly as many of us had envisioned. We never imagined being so happy to go 2-2. Coming off a second Super Bowl loss in five seasons, the Patriots seemed positioned to be a juggernaut this season, with a more balanced and perennially explosive offense, not to mention an improved, more aggressive defense. On top of it all, they had a schedule that looked softer than Kleenex.

One month in, have any of those storylines developed as we thought they would?

What the Patriots have experienced thus far has been nothing short of a true struggle, which is not a criticism as much as it is reality. Aaron Hernandez and Logan Mankins have been injured. The secondary still looks suspect. There have been surprises (the Arizona Cardinals are 4-0, after all) and confirmations (Tom Brady still has it), and there has been indisputable misconception.

For example: the softness of the schedule was determined largely because the Patriots play their non-conference games this season against the NFC West, which seemed to be one of the worst (if not the worst) divisions in football. It hasn't been. At the moment, teams in the NFC West are 11-5, which just happens to be the best aggregate record in football. At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers rank a respective second, third and fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, and we all know that defensive teams are the ones who have given the Patriots fits in recent years.

Thus far, of course, the Patriots have faced only the Cardinals, though that game remains the biggest blip on their schedule. If the suddenly worrisome Stephen Gostkowski had made a 42-yard field goal at the end of regulation in Week 2, the Patriots would be 3-1, pretty much right where we expected them to be.

Instead, the Patriots are 2-2. San Francisco comes here later in the year. The Patriots are at Seattle in two weeks. Even the Week 8 meeting against St. Louis (in London) looks to be a more challenging task than anyone predicted, the Rams having played quite respectably under new coach Jeff Fisher.

In the interim, the Patriots have their next meeting scheduled against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, who are 2-2. And before you suggest that Manning hasn't looked quite as sharp as he did, say, three years ago, remember that Denver's only two losses this season are against Atlanta and Houston, who are a combined 8-0.

In his other two games this season, Manning has completed 49 of 64 passes (76.6 percent) for 591 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Given the cracks Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco revealed in the Patriots defense last week, Sunday's upcoming affair in Foxboro should at least make you a little nervous.

In his last seven games against Bill Belichick, manning is 5-2 with 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a completion percentage of 65.4. Belichick's inability to stop Manning, in fact, remains the single greatest factor behind that infamous fourth-and-2.

The Patriots being the Patriots, we expect them to win every week. The Brady-Belichick era is measured almost exclusively in Super Bowls, which is a testament to their greatness. The most worrisome part about this early season is that the Patriots feel very much like they did last year ... or the year before ... or maybe even the year before that. New England has the coach and the quarterback to win a championship, it seems, but there is still significant question about that defense.

In fact, finding the Patriots' last win against a legitimate top 10 NFL quarterback is something of a challenge, one that might take you all the way back to Week 6 last year against Dallas or even Week 2 against San Diego. The Patriots still have ample time to develop between now and the start of the playoffs, but the first month of this season nonetheless made something quite clear.

For lots of reasons, the Patriots have more ground to cover than we might have initially believed.

Bills looking to knock Belichick off his pedestal

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff September 28, 2012 10:13 AM

"Listen, I want you to write this. The Patriots are where we want to be. If we're going to win the division, we've got to beat them. Then our next step is we want to be the favorite every year, just like they are. And if we're scared of them, we got no chance of doing that." -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix during the preseason

For the large majority of the last 11 years, the AFC East has remained firmly in the grasp of the great Bill Belichick. There have been few other contenders for the throne. Belichick and his players have taken to the field each summer wearing team-issued training garb, the words on their chests declaring the most indisputable truth in their division.

Property of the New England Patriots.

The Buffalo Bills fancy themselves as contenders for that division now, the latest indication coming in the form of a blockbuster contract the Bills dropped at the feet of defensive lineman Mario Williams, the former No. 1 overall draft selection (2006) acquired to spearhead Buffalo's defense. Williams was signed to be a difference-maker. And he was signed almost exclusively to get after Tom Brady, whose career against the Bills has produced an 18-2 record, 46 touchdowns, and just 17 interceptions.

In two games against Buffalo last year, Brady went 53 of 80 -- a 66.3 completion percentage -- for 725 yards and seven touchdowns. Yes, Brady threw four interceptions in the first meeting -- a 34-31 Buffalo win -- but it would be a stretch to say the Bills stopped him. New England scored 80 points in the two games.

Now the Bills are back. They have Williams. And they have a 2-1 record while New England comes in at 1-2, which puts an obvious emphasis on this week's game.

In a manner of speaking, the winner takes early-season control of the AFC. The Patriots by default. The Bills by force.

Since Brady's ascension in 2001, the Patriots have ruled the AFC East the way Tiger Woods once ruled the PGA. Someone else makes a run every now and then, but no one ever really sustained it. The New York Jets went 9-7 and claimed the division via tiebreaker in 2002. The Miami Dolphins did the same in 2008, when Brady effectively missed the entire year to injury. The New York Jets had more postseason success than the Patriots in 2009 and 2010, but New England, as always under Brady, ultimately maintained possession.

The Bills now believe it is their turn, general manager Nix even sounding a little bit like Jets coach Rex Ryan, who made it clear during his early days in New York that he was not there to kill Belichick's rings.

For those of us in New England, dismissing the Bills is easy based on the history of the Belichick Era. Buffalo's only two wins against the Patriots in the last 10 years came in the infamous Lawyer Milloy game in 2003, then again at Buffalo last season. (Interestingly, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl both years.) And yet, the Patriots have rarely needed a game against Buffalo the way they need this one on Sunday.

During the Brady-Belichick Era, much has been made of the Patriots' ability to bounce back from defeats, consecutive losses being a rarity. Until Sunday night's loss to the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots hadn't been under .500 during the regular season since 2003. (That was the aforementioned Milloy game, a 31-0 loss at Buffalo to open the season.) Now the Patriots face the possibility of a three-game losing streak for the first time since 2002, when they lost four straight after opening the season 3-0.

Does everyone see what is at stake this weekend? The last time the Patriots lost three straight during the Belichick Era was also the last time the Patriots failed to win at least 10 games in a season. They missed the playoffs for really the only time in Brady's career as a starter. (Again, Brady was hurt in 2008.) A defeat to the Bills on Sunday would be a very, very bad sign in the short term and the long, and it would offer some reason to wonder whether Buffalo is the new flavor of the month in the division.

For what it's worth, Buffalo last season scored 55 points in its first five quarters against the Patriots. While the Bills have an obvious question at running back in this game -- C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are both injured -- quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has other weapons, including wide receiver Stevie Johnson. The New England defense looked suddenly and suspiciously vulnerable against the Ravens on Sunday night, and the Bills, when healthy, may have every bit the offensive personnel the Ravens do, if not more.

What that all means this week is obviously anybody's guess.

But by the time the sun sets late Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, we may all have an answer as to just how much of a threat the Buffalo Bills really are this season, and whether the Patriots' annual place atop the AFC East is being questioned by the latest team to make a run.

We should have seen this Patriots loss coming

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff September 17, 2012 11:06 AM

These are the youngest Patriots of the Bill Belichick Era, as Globe football writer Greg Bedard recently told us, and so maybe we should have seen this coming. Maybe we should have anticipated the kind of no-show the Patriots had on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots generally looked unprepared from the start and their kicker looked lost at the finish.

Whatever your questions in the wake of a 20-18 defeat to the Arizona Cardinals that was, in a word, uncharacteristic, add them to the list. Why are the Patriots continuing to be stubborn with Brian Waters? Does Wes Welker have a place here or not? Can Stephen Gostkowski really make a big kick? Why are the Patriots running Danny Woodhead on third-and-6? (And why are they running him right?) What has happened to New England's once-vaunted special teams?

Most important: is this team as good as we thought it was as recently as six weeks ago, particularly entering a Week 3 matchup with a Baltimore Ravens team that is coming off a loss, that is 20-1 in its last 21 regular and postseason home games, that has something to prove after losing to the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game?

Nobody is suggesting the Patriots are in a crisis just yet, but short of Belichick, Tom Brady, and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, there is simply not enough of a track record with this personnel for us to just look the other way, either.

For years, after all, the Patriots have been immune to the kind of loss they suffered on Sunday, one in which the Patriots essentially entered as a 14-point favorite at home. Try to find another occasion in the Belichick Era where they have stumbled quite like this. Entering Sunday, even including Belichick's inaugural 2000 season, the Patriots had the best home record in the NFL (76-20). Since the start of the 2009 season, the Pats were 23-1 in Foxboro during the regular season. With Tom Brady as the starting quarterback, the Patriots were 35-1 in their previous 36 regular season home games, the only defeat coming last season to the New York Giants.

Those Giants ultimately won the Super Bowl. Is anyone willing to predict the same for these Cardinals, who may have a budding quarterback controversy between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton?

Personnel and coaching seemed at the core of this loss, which is not to say that Belichick solely is to blame. He is merely a good place to start. Belichick chose this roster following an offseason in which he loaded up with people like Robert Gallery, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and others, all while committing the draft to defense. The return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels further suggested offensive potency to go along with a defensive upgrade, all of which was on display in Week 1 at Tennessee.

That led people like Pete Prisco of CBS Sports to wonder whether the Patriots had the potential for another 16-0 regular season.

Now, suddenly, the Patriots have enough concerns on offense to choke Don Coryell. Independent of the uncertainty surrounding Wes Welker -- Bedard addresses that here -- Aaron Hernandez has been lost to injury. More critically, the Patriots have an offensive line that seems insufficient, the overmatched Donald Thomas starting at right guard on Sunday in place of the injured Dan Connolly.

Connolly, of course, was starting at right guard because the Pats are holding their ground with Waters, who went to the Pro Bowl last season. As if intent on making a point, the Patriots subsequently ran behind Thomas twice on third down in the second half of Sunday's game, producing on nine-yard loss with Danny Woodhead (on third-and-6) and a four-yard loss with Stevan Ridley (on third-and-4).

Last week, on more than one occasion, the Patriots demonstrated an ability to power the football behind the left side of their offensive line, particularly when tight end Rob Gronkowski joined the beastly tandem of Nate Solder and Logan Mankins. Why the Patriots didn't do the same on Sunday is open for debate, and it is a far more confounding question than to ask why the Patriots are running at all.

In the latter instance, at least we can rationalize the answer by noting the Patriots' continued inability to pass protect. They couldn't circle Brady in the preseason and they still can't circle him now. The Patriots ran 16 times in the first half on Sunday and threw the ball on just 12 occasions, and Brady was sacked four times overall on the afternoon, including three in the first half.

All things considered, the defense in this game was not bad. Arizona's only real touchdown drive was a costly one, to be sure, the Cardinals' extending their lead to 20-9 early in the fourth quarter on a nine-play, 75-yard drive that featured one play in which Kolb made a 26-yeard completion to tight end Todd Heap while the Patriots were simultaneously incurring a pair of personal fouls. Arizona's only other touchdown drive came after a blocked punt that gave the Cardinals a first down at the New England 2-yard line -- and after Arizona nearly blocked an earlier attempt by Zoltan Mesko.

Were the Patriots prepared for this? Did they do anything to adjust after the first near miss? Or were they all just blissfully ignorant, expecting to win because that is what the Patriots usually do?

Despite it all -- and thanks to some astonishing good fortune -- the Patriots still had a chance to win the game, a Ryan Williams fumble landing in their laps on the Arizona 30-yard line with 1:01 to play. And before Patriots fans lament a highly questionable holding call on Gronkowski that negated a game-winning touchdown run by Woodhead, remember that the Patriots ended up with a first-and-10 at the Arizona 18-yard line with 46 seconds still to play. After another penalty on Gronkowski -- this one a false start that cost the Patriots five yards -- the Patriots seemed curiously content with a 42-yard field goal attempt by Stephen Gostkowski when another five or 10 yards would have still made a difference.

In the end, Gostkowski did precisely what his teammates had done all day, despite a final score that suggested the game was evenly played.

He missed badly.

And he triggered an avalanche of questions in the process.

Plenty of room for improvement for Patriots

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff August 10, 2012 10:25 AM
Bill Belichick might have called it ugly, downright gruesome, though that would be only half the story. Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted his team "obviously [has] a lot of things to work on" in the wake of Thursday's preseason opener. And as usual, the coach was right.

Circling back on the five things we wanted to assess in the start of the preseason schedule:

* The offensive line. As we all know left tackle Nate Solder was quite possible the only Week 1 starter on the field when quarterback Tom Brady led the offense on the field for the first time. Regardless, the offensive line was a train wreck, at least as it pertained to pass blocking, and it felt like Solder made more mistakes in the first quarter than Matt Light did all of last year.

In the first 10 minutes of play, Solder was called for two holding penalties (one of which negated a first down) and allowed a strip sack of Brady, who got blindsided by New Orleans defensive end Will Smith. (Yikes.) Bravely, Belichick re-inserted Brady for the next series, though the Patriots called three runs and a screen pass on six plays from scrimmage.

On one of the other two pass plays -- a 17-yard completion to Brandon Lloyd -- Solder committed a holding penalty.

* Personnel on defense. With Brandon Spikes out, Dane Fletcher (later injured) started between Jerod Mayo at linebacker. Beyond that there were no major surprises.

Without question, the biggest bright spot for the Patriots was the play of defensive end Chandler Jones, who pressured New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees on the second play of the game and later drew a holding penalty on Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound three-year veteran who has started 14, 16 and 16 games over the last three seasons.

Late in the first quarter, on a third-and-10 near midfield, Jones reversed pursuit and chased down backup quarterback Chase Daniel from behind. As Bill Parcells might say, let's not put the kid in Canton just yet. But Jones looked like a beast at times, which is a very, very good sign.

* Brandon Lloyd. Officially speaking, Lloyd was targeted one time in this game, an incompletion along the right sideline on a back-shoulder throw from Brady. In reality, the Patriots threw to Lloyd two more times, both attempts negated by holding calls on Solder. The first was a deep post that Brady underthrew. The second was a 17-yard completion for a first down over the middle that was erased.

Did Lloyd look breathtakingly great? No. But he looked clued in and relatively sharp, the one potentially legitimate criticism the drop on the back-shoulder throw. Purely for comparison's sake, Chad Ochocinco was targeted four times in his first preseason game for the Patriots last year, catching two passes (one for a touchdown). But it's hard to remember Ochocinco ever looking like Lloyd looked last night, which is another good sign.

* Running back. Those who have been clamoring for Patriots running game in recent years got more than a sniff of one on Tuesday, both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen demonstrating quickness and good vision. Ridley played exclusively in the first half and carried eight times for 40 yards; Vereen played exclusively in the second adding another 64 yards on 11 carries.

Add it all up and you get 19 rushes for 104 yards, an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Vereen also caught two passes.

Undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden also carried eight times for 23 yards, but looked slow against front-end competition in the first half. Still, the running game was one of the few bright spots for the Patriots offense, Ridley clearly earning the more desirable reps with the starters early in the game.

* Backup quarterback and kickoff returns. The offensive line was an obvious problem for the Patriots in this game, so it should come as no surprise that the New England passing game, on the whole, looked rather wretched. Brian Hoyer was the best of the lot, but even Brady did not look particularly good. So let's take everything with a grain of salt.

Still, second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett was atrocious, completing just 8 of 19 passes for 89 yards with one interception. His rating was 34.8. Mallett missed some throws and demonstrated little touch. Two of his completions came on nearly identical plays on which the quarterback stepped up and slid to his right, dumping the ball off to his right.

On most all other throws, Mallett looked awful during a preseason that is critical for him.

As for the kick returns, the Patriots had only two of them -- both by Danny Woodhead and both in the second half. Woodhead averaged a dreadful 12 yards per return, hardly an encouraging sign for a Patriots team that ranked 29th in kickoff returns last season. Nobody is suggesting that kickoff returns will be this team's undoing, but it remains an area with considerable room for improvement.

But then, in this game, there were plenty.

Some things to believe in

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff June 15, 2012 07:14 AM

Today, on the one-year anniversary of the Bruins' Game 7 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, I believe that Boston is still the best sports town in America, that no one else really compares, that even in the absence of a title since then Boston has played for one championship (in the NFL) and came within a whisker of playing for another (in the NBA).

I believe that despite similar records since Sept. 1 of last year, the Red Sox are not at all like the Chicago Cubs and that comparing the plights of the two franchises is a convenience of mathematics and an obvious thing to do given the goings and comings of Theo Epstein.

I believe the Patriots are loaded, with a deep and talented roster, and that they are about to prove that losing the Super Bowl does not jinx your chances for the next one.

Rather, I believe the loss can improve them.

I believe that Kevin Garnett is going wake up one day and retire, that an impending departure from the NBA is what fueled him, and that Danny Ainge now faces perhaps his greatest challenge as the Celtics' basketball architect.

Because when Ainge rebuilt the Celtics the first time, we didn't have the expectations we do now.

I believe that as baseball detaches from the steroids era, pitching throughout the game has improved while the pitching in Boston has deteriorated.

And I would like to know why.

I believe that Tim Thomas is sticking it to the Bruins, at least on some level, though I believe there is probably a whole heck of a lot more to the story.

I believe that Aaron Hernandez is really a wide receiver, that Daniel Fells and Bo Scaife are now behind Rob Gronkowski on the depth chart, and that Tom Brady has more toys to play with this year than his children.

I believe that if Rajon Rondo can continue to improve as a shooter, that people like me will have to admit that we were wrong and that Rondo could become an indisputable force for years to come.

Because when Rondo made his jumpers in Game 2 of the Miami series, that is exactly what he was.

I believe that Theo Epstein was a good general manager here, that he inherited a good team from Dan Duquette, and that if media people could put aside their personal and professional biases they would have seen that a long time ago instead of seeing it now.

Because I believe that Epstein was responsible for, among others, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria, and J.D. Drew, and that he wanted Jose Contreras as badly as he wanted Matsuzaka.

I also believe that Epstein never wanted anything to do with John Lackey, that the Red Sox player development system generally flourished during his tenure, that Red Sox ownership should have coughed up the extra dough and listened to him when he wanted to sign Mark Teixeira.

Because I believe, in the event you have not noticed, that the balance of power in the American League East shifted when Teixeira ended up in New York, that the Red Sox have not won a playoff game since, that Boston ultimately had to give up basically the same money and highly regarded prospects to get Adrian Gonzalez.

I believe the Bruins need to add a top six forward because both Milan Lucic (restricted) and Nathan Horton (unrestricted) are free agents at the end of next season, and that a salary increase for either seems unwise.

I believe that Roger Clemens is guilty.

I believe the same of Jerry Sandusky.

And the same of Lance Armstrong.

I believe that LeBron James is getting closer, that he is maturing as a player and person, that he is finally starting to understand that all the world ever wanted was to see a little humility.

But I also believe that he is going to lose again this year.

I believe that the Miami Dolphins signed Chad Ochocinco almost exclusively for "Hard Knocks."

I believe that Tim Tebow will work out far better with the New York Jets than anyone imagines.

I believe that Devin McCourty should remain at safety unless or until the Patriots have injuries at cornerback.

I believe the Red Sox should do everything in their power to start making the transition now to younger players like Will Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish, and Ryan Lavarnway, because I think the Sox will be far better off in the long term as a result.

I also believe the Red Sox will be better off in the short term.

I believe that summer is now an underrated time of year in the world of professional sports, what with the major league trading deadline, free agency in the NHL and NBA, and the start of training camp and personnel evaluations in the NFL.

And I believe, finally, that Boston will somehow be among a group of cities in the middle of it all, that administrators for the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots and Bruins will looking to further extend what is already one of the great runs in professional sports, the local teams now having produced a stunning 16 trips to the league semifinals or better since the start of this millennium.

I believe that has to be some kind of record.

No need to couch these opinions

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff May 8, 2012 11:29 AM

Sights, sounds and observations while couch-ridden:

On those nights the shots are falling, like Sunday, the Celtics look positively unbeatable. There is no one to stop them. From Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to even Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma, the Celtics have a collection of shooters like few other teams in the league. That is why LeBron James, in April, called them the best jump-shooting team in the league.

James's remarks, of course, came in the wake of the Celtics' 115-107 win at Miami last month that remains the most impressive win of this Celtics season. The Celtics shot 60.6 percent that day. They shot a preposterous 64.3 percent (9 of 14) from 3-point distance. They all but repeated the trick on Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks in an avalanche of jump shots and 3-pointers that produced a 101-79 victory and a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Win or lose tonight in Game 5, the Celtics should rub out these Hawks in no more than six games. In the next round, the Celtics should rub out the Philadelphia 76ers or Chicago Bulls, too. All of that should set up a rematch with the Heat for the right to go to the NBA Finals, and this year's meetings with the Heat have proven that the Celtics indisputably have a chance.

A championship? That still seems unlikely. Even against Miami, the Heat (who will have home court) certainly will be favored. But short of unforseen injury, nothing should stop the Celtics from being in the NBA's final four.

For all of the credit being heaped upon Celtics vice president of basketball operations Danny Ainge this season, for all of the confidence Ainge allegedly showed in his team by failing to "blow it up," we all know better. We all know Ainge was willing to (and tried to) deal. Where Ainge really gets the credit now - and over these last five years - is for continuing to add shooters to a Celtics core of Garnett, Allen and Pierce, all of whom can consistently puncture opponents from the outside.

Generally speaking, think of the complementary players Ainge has brought to Boston in complementary roles over the last five years. James Posey. Eddie House. Sam Cassell. Rasheed Wallace. Pietrus. Bass. Even Keyon Dooling, Delonte West, Sasha Pavlovic and Von Wafer. All of them were at least respectable to above-average shooters at their respective positions, acquisitions designed to make the Celtrics tougher to defend in the half-court setting that invariably categorizes the postseason.

On Sunday, did you find yourself lamenting the Celtics' absence of a low-post offense, something that is almost never talked about anymore? What about their deficiencies in rebounding? The Celtics of today are, in many ways, no different than the Celtics of 2007-08, built on defense and jump shooting, save for the slashing of someone like Avery Bradley.

As Globe columnist Bob Ryan noted on Monday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers often has described the NBA as a "make-miss league."

When the Celtics make like they did Sunday, a trip to the Eastern Conference final seems like a can't-miss proposition.

* * *

Kevin Youkilis is doing all the right things, greeting Will Middlebrooks with smiles at the top step of the dugout, but we all know what is going on here. In four games, Middlebrooks is batting .381 with three home runs and nine RBIs, all as Youkilis and the Red Sox approach the end of a deal that has the Sox holding a $13 million option for next season.

Fact: if Middlebrooks keeps playing like this, Kevin Youkilis is not getting his job back. Not this year. Not as the Red Sox continue to plod along in what seems like the definition of a bridge year, a team without an identity and, it seems, much of a chance. If and when that changes, the Red Sox can adjust accordingly. But there is one (and only one reason) to play Youkilis over Middlebrooks if and when Youkilis is ready to return.

To trade him.

Of course, we are still in the early stages of the 2012 season, and so there is ample time to evaluate these Red Sox, decide what is best for the short term and the long. But in the next two months, the Red Sox will be playing for more than just a potential place among the contenders in the American League. They will be playing for the trading deadline, for the purpose of deciding who stays and who goes in what looks to be a transitional year.

If the Sox are not within reasonable striking distance of a playoff spot come July, Youkilis is trade bait, folks. Ditto for David Ortiz or Daisuke Matsuzaka or Cody Ross or Mike Aviles. For that matter, ditto for just about anyone who might leave the Sox this fall or next. (This means you, Jacoby Ellsbury.) In the wake of last year's September collapse, the Red Sox must take a hard look at anything and everything on the trade market, particularly with youngsters like Middlebrooks, Ryan Kalish, Ryan Lavarnway and Jose Iglesias, among others, now on the cusp of the big leagues.

Middlebrooks is now only the obvious.

* * *

In some ways, Matt Light is that rarest of the rare, an NFL starter since essentially the day he set foot in an NFL traning camp. Light played 12 years and 155 games in the NFL, 153 of them starts. He started every game he played from early in his rookie year. Light protected the blind side of Drew Bledsoe (some) and Tom Brady (mostly) during five trips to the Super Bowl, six trips to the AFC championship and three Super Bowl titles, and he did so with relative consistency, professionalism, dignity.

Was Light ever the best left tackle in pro football, a Hall of Fame-type talent? No. But he was better than average, a very good player for a long time on what has been the most successfuil organization in football during his tenure, which is hardly a coincidence.

Light, in many ways, was the model Patriot during his career, a workmanlike and efficient player who did not self-promote despite a high-profile position.

With regard to the Patriots, the impact of Light's departure could be profound. Logan Mankins will be out for the start of the season. Now the Patriots will have a new left tackle (presumably Nate Solder) on the left side, too. All of that means that Brady's blind side will be guarded by an entirely new tandem, at least in the early part of the season, which may now be the biggest question for a team that has loaded up on offense and defense in free agency and the draft, in that order.

Like any player, Matt Light had good years and bad years during his time with the Patriots.

Maybe now, in his absence, we will come to understand just how good


A little spring cleaning on the sports front

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff March 23, 2012 10:03 AM
Sprinkling the infield with a little sunshine, a little rain, and a whole lot of fertilizer ...

In the wake of their collapse, beating up on the New York Jets is the fashionable thing to do, just as it was to beat up on the 2011 Red Sox. The teams share some similarities, and they still share them entering their respective 2012 seasons.

Which is why neither should be dismissed.

Let's start with the Jets, who are now being mocked for being so downright stupid as to take on Tim Tebow, whom they acquired from the Denver Broncos for essentially a fourth-round pick. Why is this so dumb? The Jets have an inconsistent quarterback in what is now, more than ever, a quarterback league, and they failed in any pursuit of Peyton manning, however brief. So what were they supposed to do? Go into next season with the same situation at quarterback and offense that has proven insufficient for three years?

Here's what Tebow gives the Jets: options. New York isn't going to win a Super Bowl solely with its passing attack, and the Jets still may not win one now, either. But if the Jets are being truthful by saying about Drew Stanton is still their backup quarterback, then Tebow could provide them with an offensive wrinkle the way Kordell Stewart once did for the Steelers.

And there are these factors: Sanchez, who has been babied since he arrived in New York, needs competition, be it from Stanton or Tebow. And the Jets clearly need character in a locker room that badly lacked it, which something Tebow absolutely, positively possesses in bulk.

After all, look at the impact Tebow had on last year's Broncos, who quickly became believers once he began to play.

* Some of us still would have liked to see the Patriots invest in a true impact player on defense, but it's hard to argue too much with what the Patriots have done thus far in free agency. While retaining Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Dan Connolly and Wes Welker, among others, the Patriots now have added Brandon Lloyd, Daniel Fells, Robert Gallery, Jonathan Fanene, Trevor Scott, Will Allen, Donte Stallworth, Anthony Gonzalez, Steve Gregory and Spencer Larsen. Some of those players will prove to be nothing more than names in a pile of bodies, but the New England passing attack suddenly looks as prolific as ever.

At the moment, three questions remain -- two more significant than the other: the defense, the left side of the offensive line and, to a lesser extent, running back. (Fare thee well, Benjarvus Green-Ellis.) With Logan Mankins injured and Matt Light potentially calling it a career, Tom Brady's blindside is currently in question, with or without Gallery and Nate Solder. As for the defense, one can only hope the Patriots are planning to be aggressive in the draft, where they have two first-round selections and two second-round selections.

Could that be at least part of the reason the Patriots asked Brady to restructure his contract and free up even more salary cap space?

* We all have every right to criticize the Red Sox and question their character in the aftermath of last season, but let's not get silly. The Red Sox are not going to go 83-79. From May 13 through Aug. 31 of last season, the Red Sox went 66-32, a .673 winning percentage that translates into a 109-win pace over a 162-game schedule. There is plenty of talent to win. What this all comes down to is attitude and health, both of which are legitimately in question.

But talent? The Red Sox have plenty. In fact, they still have far more than most.

* Given Bobby Valentine's recent remarks about criticizing his players, can't help but wonder when Valentine said Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn't very "courteous" in pulling the plug on Thursday night's tie game, was that a fact or an opinion?

* Maybe it has something to do with the preponderance of people in this business from the Newhouse School of Communications, but does anyone else find Syracuse alumni to be disproportionately annoying? We're not saying Syracuse folks have quite entered the arena of Boston College, Duke, and Notre Dame folks, but for a school and program that has been smeared by a succession of scandals of late, Syracuse alums ought to be more red faces and fewer of that unsightly orange clothing.

* The New Orleans Saints got what they deserved, plain and simple. Placing prices on the heads of opposing players is disgraceful to begin with, and lying to cover it up is just as bad.

But as long as Drew Brees stays in uniform, the Saints are going to be a huge factor in the NFC South, especially when New Orleans' out-of-conference schedule features the AFC West.

Of course, New Orleans also has to play the NFC East.

* Peyton Manning immediately makes the Denver Broncos the favorite in the pathetic AFC West, but Denver's schedule in 2012 in hardly a cupcake. Thanks to its first place finish, Denver will face New England and Houston this season. Additionally, the Broncos have both the NFC South and the AFC North on their schedule, which means meetings with Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati. New Orleans and Atlanta, among others.

* We all know that Jose Iglesias probably is not quite ready to hit consistently in the major leagues, but many of us believe the Sox should give Iglesias the nod to start the year with the big club. The Sox can carry one fewer pitcher in the early going, anyway, and the team would benefit a great deal from having a young potentially dynamic player on its roster -- even if Iglesias is only dynamic on defense -- to start the season.

Think about it: when was the last time the Red Sox had a rookie everyone could truly get excited about? Jacoby Ellsbury certainly comes to mind, but that was four years ago. When the Atlanta Braves were at the peak of their reign during the `90s, the Braves liked to integrate about two new starters every three years, turning over the stock and keeping the team infused.

Particularly in the wake of last year, the Red Sox could use the positive energy and bounce Iglesias would bring. The team has too many overpriced veterans to begin with. If Iglesias proves overmatched offensively, the Sox can subsequently send him down to the minors, still leaving open for the possibility of a return late in the season.

What would be wrong with that?

Patriots have plenty of spending room to improve

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff March 12, 2012 11:02 AM
No matter what happens with Peyton Manning, the Patriots still have improvements to consider and decisions to make. The NFL salary cap is now firmly established at $120.6 million, and the Patriots have ample room to spend. They may end up with even more.

And this year, more than ever, we may get a true glimpse into the New England philosophy of team building.

Now five weeks removed from their Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants, the Patriots will join the remaining 31 teams in the NFL this week as free agency begins. Estimates place New England's cap flexibility in the neighborhood of $16 million, a number that puts them in the middle of the pack in terms of cap flexibility and a figure that could grow in the coming days or weeks.

And this year, for the first time, the NFL will conduct its draft next month with the benefit of cost control.

So now, the question is obvious:

Will the Patriots act more aggressively than they generally have in years past? Or will they continue with the measured approach that has helped them build the most consistent franchise in the NFL over the last 11 years?

After all, each clearly has its merits.

As is the case with any Patriots team at this time of year, the starting point is obvious: How good are they, really? And how much time does Tom Brady have left? Skeptics (ahem) will note that until defeating Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots did not defeat a single team that finished the 2011 regular season with a winning record. And yet, the Patriots came within a whisker of winning the Super Bowl, an accomplishment that should not be diminished and for which there is no shame.

Nonetheless, the Patriots have needs, most obviously on a defense that looked decent at times, downright wretched at others. Defensive ends Andre Carter and Mark Anderson played well for head coach Bill Belichick in 2011, but both are free agents. Beyond Jerod Mayo, the linebacker corps is inconsistent. Belichick was forced to play musical chairs with a secondary that improved at least some by year's end, but the Patriots still couldn't get off the field against the Giants in the Super Bowl.

Offensively, in addition to the franchised Wes Welker, the Patriots need another receiver. They are currently without a center. And there is still question as to whether they have the necessary elements for a reliable running game -- or whether they are even committed to one.

To this point in Belichick's tenure, we all know how the Patriots have operated. Generally speaking, New England has refrained from big financial commitments in the draft or on the free agent market, compiling draft picks as if they were all raffle tickets of equal value. From team president Jonathan Kraft to Belichick, the Pats have placed particular emphasis on the dreaded V-word -- value -- often forgoing picks in the earliest part of the draft for more cost-effective picks in the late-first round or beyond.

But with the new salary slotting now in place for the draft, will that be true anymore? Is Belichick intent on using the team's two first-round picks (Nos. 27 and 31) or will he trade one out, as he did last year? Will he combine them and actually try to trade up? How much does the presence of the two first-rounders impact the New England approach on the open market?

Or will the Patriots merely conduct business as usual, trading down or out of the higher draft slots while pursuing second-tier (or lower) free agents, all in the name of the salary cap?

And if that happens, won't that be an indication that New England's strategy has more to do with the quantity of players they add each offseason than the quality of players? With regard to the draft, at least, the cost of picks is going down, making the first-rounders more valuable. If the Patriots trade out again, independent of money, can't we say with absolute certainty that they would rather have two picks in the second round than one in the first?

With regard to the free agent market, the biggest fish on this year's market is obvious: defensive lineman Mario Williams. Williams would be a perfect fit in New England. He is a three-down player who can stop the run and pressure the quarterback. He is young. Williams would change everything about the way the Patriots play defense, giving Belichick the kind of dominating defensive end the Patriots have lacked since the departure of Richard Seymour.

The problem? Williams will likely command a contract equal to or greater than the one bestowed on Julius Peppers, who nailed down a six-year deal worth in excess of $90 million from the Chicago Bears two offseasons ago.

And while Patriots supporters will be quick to point out that Belichick dropped a pile of money in front of Adalius Thomas during the spring of 2007, the Patriots have never, ever, made that kind of financial commitment to anyone other than a quarterback.

In the last year, a great deal has changed in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts disintegrated. The bargaining agreement was renegotiated. The entire landscape of the NFL has changed, the AFC, in particular, pending Manning's decision, and Tom Brady is approaching his 35th birthday.

If the Patriots ever change their way of doing business, now would seemingly be the time.

Wouldn't it?

Even while favored, Patriots are underdogs

Posted by Jason Tuohey February 3, 2012 12:27 PM

This time, on the seventh Super Bowl trip in New England Patriots history, the forecast is riddled with uncertainty. Never, in fact, have the Patriots played a title game in which the outcome was so clearly in doubt.

All of which makes the national perspective on this game all the more curious, because the large majority of people seem to be picking the New York Giants.

Let's back up here for a moment and state the obvious: in the NFL, especially, Super Bowl predictions mean nothing. The St. Louis Rams (in Super Bowl XXXVI) and the Patriots (Super Bowl XLII) were considerable favorites, and both teams lost the game outright. Not a single one of us can predict what will happen on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and that would be true whether the Patriots were favored by seven or 17.

But here's what doesn't make sense about this game in particular: the Patriots essentially have been a three-point favorite from the start - the smallest Super Bowl point spread in roughly 30 years - and yet most everyone outside of New England is picking the Giants. Why? Based on what? When did such a mismatch become so clear? Everything about Sunday's game suggests that public sentiment should be split as evenly as it was in the 1960 presidential election, and yet the scale seems noticeably skewed in favor of New York.

If you don't understand this, you're not alone.

In New England, too, we all know how good the Giants can be. During New York's run to the Super Bowl, the Giants have played better and more complete football than any other team in what Bill Parcells often referred to as "the tournament." Beginning with a pair of regular season victories over the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17, the Giants have won five straight while allowing a measly 13.4 points per game. They have beaten the top two seeds in the NFC (the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers) on the road. They have beaten no team with anything worse than a .500 record.

Fine. We get it. The Giants are hot. But this is also a team with the capability to play very poorly, something everyone seems to have forgotten in the last month or so.

For example, did you know the Giants were actually outscored during the regular season? Did you know that prior to Week 16, they were a minus 38 for the year? Overall, their pass defense ranked 29th. Their rushing defense ranked 19th. Their rushing offense ranked 32nd. Simply put, there's a reason why the Giants went 7-7 through their first 14 games, something everyone is now too readily dismissing.

So are we just supposed to chuck 14 games of history out the window?

Yes, yes, yes - that was then and this is now. But those earlier games during the season are still at least part of who the Giants are whether New York fans want to admit it or not, just as surely as the Patriots' early-season performance is a part of theirs.

In New England, we know the Patriots' flaws all too well. The Patriots ranked 31st in pass defense, 17th in rushing defense, 20th in rushing offense. Sounds a lot like the Giants, right? Until New England's AFC Championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots had not beaten a team that finished the year with a winning record. Not one. The Patriots faced maybe three teams all year with an elite quarterback - the San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Giants - and lost two; the only victory came against San Diego in Week 2, when Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers looked more like Ryan Leaf.

So let's get this straight: the national audience is holding the Patriots' regular season against them, but not that of the Giants. Does that make any sense? The Patriots still have Tom Brady. The Patriots still have Bill Belichick. Vince Wilfork could be the best defensive player on either team to be playing in the Super Bowl, something we learned when Wilfork manhandled the Ravens in the AFC title game.

Everything about this game screams that it is a 50-50 proposition - a true coin flip - and yet people seem to be treating it nationally as if the Giants are the obvious choice.

For the Patriots, in some ways, this Super Bowl is unlike any other in which they have played. In Super Bowl XX, despite what people wanted to believe, the Chicago Bears were the obvious choice. Eleven years later, the Green Bay Packers were the clear favorite. The St. Louis Rams were the clear pick in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots were 18-0 entering the game and prohibitive favorites.

Nationally, some skewing of national predictions made sense. But this time?

During the height of the Belichick era, we all know how the Patriots operated. In 2003 and 2004, when the Patriots won back-to-back titles, the Patriots went a combined 34-4 and were clearly the best team in football. Nonetheless, Belichick somehow convinced his players that they were being disrespected, which we all deemed preposterous. The Patriots were damn good and everybody knew it - including them - and nobody disrespected them.

Now, years later, it feels as if people are indeed looking past New England.

Or maybe they're just a little too focused on the Giants.

Tony's Top 5

Favorite blog entries

5
The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
4
For 2011 Red Sox, there was plenty of blame to go around Oct. 1, 2011. The disgraceful collapse of the Red Sox stoked the fire in all of us.
3
Behind Garnett and James, Celtics and Heat are digging in June 4, 2012. Improbably, the Celtics pushed the Heat to the limit.
2
Thrill is back for Patriots Jan. 30, 2012. Another Super Bowl has even Bill Belichick musing.
1
You’ve got to believe June 15, 2011. On the morning of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, we all had reason to believe.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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