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Patriots' Kraft touches on number of topics, from Edelman to Los Angeles

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 31, 2014 02:49 PM

NEW YORK - Patriots owner Robert Kraft, like most of his fellow team owners, was on hand at the Rose Theater, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, on Friday for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's annual Super Bowl week address/press conference.

After, he spent several minutes talking to Boston-area and some national reporters, touching on a variety of topics.

On how the week has gone thus far in New York/New Jersey
It really has been great. I personally wanted to see this, in addition to the owners here. Especially after 9/11, I know we were privileged to win the Super Bowl that year just a few months after, and it really struck at the core of America, and to have this happening here, it’s a good signal to the world how we feel about this region, and it’s such a vibrant part of America – I love being here and I’m happy the game’s here.

Would you want a Super Bowl in Foxborough?
Well, let’s see how this goes. I’m a great supporter of playing this game in all elements. I think the most memorable games we’ve played up in Foxborough somehow have had either cold weather or snow associated with them. Probably the greatest game played in the old Foxboro Stadium was the so-called ‘Tuck Rule’ game. The ratings were great, and all the fans remember being there, so I’m a big supporter of the game here and I compliment New York/New Jersey and what they’ve done.

On Goodell's idea to add a seventh playoff team in each conference, thus giving only one team a bye week
Well, then you have to come in first and not second if you want to get the bye. But it’s really unbelievable – this year is the first time in a long time that the two teams seeded number one are playing in the Super Bowl, and that’s something…probably it’s a good thing to do and it will make the end of the season still on a numbers basis, more competitive games and every game will mean more, but the bye didn’t help us this season.

On whether Tom Brady was the league's MVP and how many great years Kraft envisions him having left
I hope it doesn’t stop for a long time, but to tell you the truth, with all due respect for Tommy, I think this year our team really performed unbelievably. I think it might be Bill [Belichick's]…I’ve had the relationship with him for 14 seasons and I think what’s happened here and as the whole season evolved, it’s just amazing the coaching job and the way the whole team came together, and I think we made it to the championship game and really had a chance to win the game, even though Peyton and the whole Broncos team, they played a flawless game, no turnovers. I don’t even think they had a penalty called. So our team really did function as a team this year, and I’m very proud of them and I’m proud that the team is so young and I’m anxiously looking forward to next year.

On whether there's an urgency to get Brady better offensive weapons because the quarterback is getting older
You know, once again, it’s about team building. I don’t know that people fully understood, with the advent of the salary cap, the importance of the bottom third of the roster. If you look at what happened to us this year, I think we had three starting defensive linemen who were undrafted free rookie agents [Joe Vellano was the only undrafted rookie on the D-line this season]. I think how you manage the bottom third of the roster is critical to your development, so how you invest your dollars, and it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but I think with what happened this year and the fact that we got to the championship game, it’s a pretty remarkable feat. You’re always looking to improve the team on both sides of the ball.

On the NFL returning to Los Angeles...Rams' owner Stan Kroenke has bought a 60-acre parcel of land in L.A. county, touching off speculation he's considering moving the team again
I personally feel that we should have a team in LA. Who the owner should be or whether a team moves there or whatever, I think it’s unfortunate that a generation of fans have grown up [without an LA-based team]. It’s good for the New England Patriots because we have a lot of fans in the LA market, but I don’t think it’s good for the NFL. I think we want to have young fans growing up, rooting and having a commitment to a team.

If he's picking a side on Sunday with former player Wes Welker and former coach Pete Carroll on opposite sidelines
I don’t know if I’m allowed to pick sides, to be honest. It’s really hard to even go or watch this game for us, but I do have people I feel very warmly to on both sides, so it’s really irrelevant how I feel after that.

The Patriots have $7.5 million in dead money against the salary cap in 2014 owed to Aaron Hernandez - are you trying to fight/reduce that?
We’re doing whatever we can to free up any money we can. My friend here [a reporter in the group] has said we need some players on the offensive side, other people say we need on the defensive side. We have a fella like Matt Slater, who is such an outstanding special teams player, he’s a free agent coming up (in 2014), so we have to balance a lot of things.

Have you instituted any changes in the organization since Hernandez's arrest?
Well we’ve made certain adjustments internally, in terms of our own checking. We have a wonderful individual who is a full-time pastor (Jack Easterby) who has I think been very strong in terms of his spiritual guidance, and we have our own internal disciplines. We probably have 100 young men come through the system, it’s hard to know everything, but I can assure you we’re being as vigilant as we can be.

On re-signing free agent WR Julian Edelman
I definitely want him back. He’s an outstanding young man. We hope he wants to be back, and once again, it’s about two sides coming together. He really came into his own this year, and what he did in returning punts, what he did on the field was tremendous. I really hope he’ll return with us.

On getting to know CB Aqib Talib since his arrival with the team, and re-signing him
He’s been a great young man in the locker room and fun to be with and he’s really been a great team player and the camaraderie has been terrific. He’s a fun guy. He’s a real good guy. ...Very much (want to re-sign him). I really would. Look what happened in the game in Denver when he went out – we see the impact he can have, and no matter how many weapons you have on offense, if you can’t stop the team on the other side, it doesn’t matter, and he really made a great contribution.

His thoughts on centralizing officiating, where officials in the league offices make replay decisions, as is done in the NHL
I personally like the idea of centralized; I’m not sure how the league feels. I think games should be standardized and we should have the same people making the calls and we don’t ever want to lose a game based on interpretation of a rule, correct or not. If we earn it, then we should get it. I just wouldn’t like to see it happen by poor interpretation of the rules. So the more it can be structured and centralized, I would be in support of that. I hope it’s possible to do it.

As part of that, should game officials be full-time league employees?
I would vote for that, yes – spending all their time doing it. I think officials can make a big difference in how they call the game. There’s so much hard work, preparation that goes in – it’s a year-round job and we only play 16 games before the playoffs, if we’re privileged to make it. Those calls…half of all our games are [decided by] seven points or less and half of those games, or 25 percent of all games, are by three points or less, so it’s two or three plays. One call can make the difference in a game. We had two games this year that at the end of the game some things happen, and think about it: if one of those games went the other way, we would have been playing at home in the championship game. So you think like that, you want to be sure that whatever calls were made at the end of those two games were the correct calls. I might have my opinion on what was correct, I’m not sure I’m completely objective, but I’d like to make sure it was done properly because the stakes are so big. So that’s the reason I’d like to see it centralized.

On recently-retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia
Well we hope to do something nice for Dante; he’s a very humble guy. Think of a man today – when I was sitting in the seats at Foxborough stadium, watching the Patriots, he was coaching, and then when I owned the team he’s the coach and he stays right through the 20 years. And he is off the charts. You see what’s happened with our offensive line, I don’t know how many years he’s been doing it, but how great they are. He’s just a quiet, humble, wonderful man and we’re honored to have Dante Scarnecchia as part of the Patriots. He is the ultimate Patriot.

Super Bowl beer guide: A brew for every fan

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 31, 2014 11:30 AM

Trilliumsuper.jpgTrillium Brewing Company Photo

Editor's note: The following is written by Boston.com and the Globe's beer guy, who is really a sports guy who dabbles in beer, although sometimes you wouldn't know it.

As much as the NFL's six-year, $1.2 billion deal with Anheuser-Busch InBev would like to convince you otherwise, Super Bowl Sunday is about choices. Choices in beer, choices in food, choices in the amount of time you're required to watch an NFL game the Patriots have no chance of winning.

You really, truly, do not have to drink Bud Light on Sunday, unless that's your jam, in which case, you really, truly have nothing to apologize for. No beer snobbery here, only tips to enhance your game day experience. Here are some beers you might want to drink this Sunday when you're not pounding BLs.

-- Light beer alternative: Narragansett Light

If you want a light beer but don't want to support the NFL machine, Grab a 'Gansett. At its peak in the late 1960s, Rhode Island's Narragansett beer had a 65 percent market share in New England. By 2005 the brand was in tatters, some 6,000 cases a year selling mostly in Rhode Island and Worcester. CEO Mark Hellendrung has brought the brand back to life, tweaking the recipe for Narragansett Lager away from some awful variations your dad used to drink and back to respectability. The light version is just 3.8 percent alcohol and comes in a tallboy can, perfect for starting your Sunday and finishing it, too.

-- A beer from Denver: Great Divide Rumble

Despite former Mayor Menino's statements to the contrary, Colorado makes some great beer. Great Divide Brewing Co. is one of many breweries churning out good beer. Rumble, an IPA from the brewery, is aged on French and American oak, balancing the hop bitterness with notes of vanilla.

-- A beer from Seattle: Elysian Brewing Co. Dragonstooth Oatmeal Stout

Elysian Brewing Co. is one of Seattle's best breweries, but you can't get the beer in New England. In fact, you can't really get any Seattle-brewed beer out here. If you're looking to take a road trip, people seem to dig this Elysian Dragonstooth Oatmeal Stout.

-- A beer from New England, because screw those guys

Where to start? Pick up a growler from Trillium Brewing in Fort Point. Grab a hoppy or smoky lager from Framingham's Jack's Abby. Go to town on something from Backlash, Mystic, Cape Ann, Berkshire Brewing, or Slumbrew. You can't go wrong.

-- Pregame beer: Founders Breakfast Stout

Depending on your time zone and how early you want to start, this stout with an enthusiastic toddler on the label is one of the best beers from this standout Michigan brewery. Intense bursts of coffee and chocolate are balanced by a bitter backbone.

-- A beer for Richard Sherman fans: Brash Beer The Bollocks

Brash has Texas roots, but these aggressive beers are brewed in Ipswich. The Bollocks is an imperial IPA with a whopping 12 percent alcohol by volume. It might leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth, but then you'll know how Michael Crabtree feels.

-- A beer for Peyton Manning fans: Yazoo Brewing Pale Ale

What, you thought we were going to say Bud Light? This beer from the state of Manning's alma mater rates just OK on Beer Advocate, which lines up with Manning's taste in beer and pizza.

coldsnap.jpg-- Best beer for the halftime show: Kona Brewing Co. Longboard Island Lager

Bruno Mars was born and raised in Honolulu. You can buy Kona products all over New England and kill two stones by also pretending you're someplace much warmer.

-- A beer to warm you up: St. Bernardus ABT 12

Did someone say they were playing this Super Bowl outside? A nice big bottle of St. Bernardus ABT 12, a Belgian Quadruple weighing in at 10 percent ABV and rivaling the best beers in the world, may just do the trick. If only the people shelling out a thousand bucks to sit in the nosebleeds at MetLife Stadium could carry in their own bottles.

-- A beer for Tom Brady fans: Samuel Adams Cold Snap

Too soon?

Super Bowl prediction: Seahawks over Broncos

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 31, 2014 11:27 AM

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Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch should be good for at least one game-changing run in Super Bowl XLVIII against the Denver Broncos. (Elaine Thompson / AP photo)

Lo and behold, the Seattle Seahawks are right where I thought they would be at the beginning of the season.

Let the chest-beating begin.

Back in September, the Boston.com staff tried to forecast the New England Patriots record while offering their proposed Super Bowl matchup. Yours truly correctly called a 12-4 season for the Patriots and proffered a Seahawks-Bengals title matchup.

Obviously I must’ve been moved by Cincinnati’s appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

But the Seahawks have lived up to everything I have expected, minus the turbulence Russell Wilson has provided. The defense has been monstrous, holding opposing offenses to a league-low 4,378 yards in the regular season, a league-low 2,752 yards passing, and a league-low 14.4 points per game. Stars like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Michael Bennett have made this a formidable group that doesn’t back down from the competition. Just look at how they handled the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.

But they face one of the top offenses in NFL history with the Denver Broncos. It all starts with Peyton Manning and a quartet of fantastic wide receivers. Manning threw for an NFL record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas (14 TDs), Eric Decker (11 TDs), Julius Thomas (12 TDs), and Wes Welker (10 TDs) are his four horsemen. The Broncos running game is nothing to smirk at either, with Knowshon Moreno (1,038 yards, 10 TDs) and Montee Ball (559 yards, 4 TDs).

In my view, this is an opportune game for the Seahawks to match up their star defenders with the Broncos’ playmakers. Sherman on Demaryius Thomas for a start, forcing Decker and Welker to have extraordinary games. I presume both the NFL’s top defense and top offenses to be rather average Sunday.

Instead, the Broncos defense, led by the likes of Terrance Knighton, Danny Trevathan, and Shaun Phillips will have to prove they can stop the fourth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch, who has broken more tackles than any other running back in the league (75), is bound for at least one game-changing run.

I also expect Wilson to make a few plays with his feet, a possible weakness for the Broncos. So I think you get the drift where I’m headed. And yes, there’s still quite a bit of chest beating to be done.

Seahawks (+3) vs. Broncos (-3)
My pick: Seahawks

Postseason: 3-3
Regular season: 123-133

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Who will win Super Bowl 48?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 31, 2014 09:18 AM

It's the question everyone's asking.

Make your pick:


Who will win Super Bowl 48?

Super Bowl practice report for Thursday: Lynch returns

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 30, 2014 07:48 PM

NEW YORK -- Thursday's Super Bowl injury report is out, and as expected, Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch returned to practice.

Lynch did not participate Wednesday, but Wednesday has been a rest day for him for much of the season. He practiced fully on Thursday.

The rest of the teams' injury reports were the same as the day before:

For the Seahawks
Full participation
WR Doug Baldwin (hip)
WR Percy Harvin (concussion)
RB Marshawn Lynch (not injury-related)
DT Brandon Mebane (ankle)

For the Broncos
Did not participate
DT Sione Fua (calf)

Full participation
TE Joel Dreessen (knee)
DT Terrance Knighton (knee)
DT Chris Kuper (ankle)
QB Peyton Manning (ankle)
RB Knowshon Moreno (ribs)
K Matt Prater (illness)
DT Mitch Unrein (knee)
CB Kayvon Webster (thumb)

Seahawks' Red Bryant discusses his close call with Patriots

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 30, 2014 04:42 PM

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – When free agency opened in 2012, the Patriots had their sights set on one player: Seahawks defensive lineman Red Bryant. Listed at 6-foot-5, 325 pounds, Bryant was coming off a strong season in '11, breaking through after Seattle moved him from tackle to end.

New England had a visit set up with Bryant, and his agent had been talking with Bill Belichick.

But before the Texas native could head for the East Coast, the Seahawks stepped up with a contract to keep him in Seattle.

"I had an opportunity to go there; they’ve got a great history, great tradition, I have the utmost respect for coach Belichick and Tom Brady and Mr. Robert Kraft," Bryant said on Thursday. "My big brother, Ty Warren, he played there and I called him and he gave me a background on what it would be like and the expectations and it would have been a great opportunity. The only thing that kept me was my love for this team and I envisioned us one day making it to a Super Bowl."

That and Seattle "made me a deal I couldn't refuse," Bryant admitted.

Warren left Texas A&M not long after Bryant began his playing career there, but he continued to return to the school to give advice to younger players, which is how Warren and Bryant forged their friendship.

Bryant ended up signing a five-year, $35 million contract with $14.5 million guaranteed to stay with the Seahawks, and is a leader on one of the league's best defenses, giving the pregame speech to the team every week and serving as a team captain.

A gentle giant off the field, Bryant is married to one of the daughters of Jacob Green, not only a Texas A&M Hall of Famer but also a member of the Seahawks' ring of honor after recording more than 100 sacks in a dozen seasons with the club. He has overcome dyslexia and spoke freely about how it impacted him, saying the learning disability wasn't an issue on the field: "football comes to me as easy as breathing."

Super Bowl injury/practice report for Wednesday

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 29, 2014 09:02 PM

NEW YORK - The first injury report of the week came out on Wednesday.

Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch did not practice (not injury related), but that is not unusual for him. WR Doug Baldwin (hip), WR Percy Harvin (concussion) and DT Brandon Mebane (ankle) were all listed as full participation.

“This is the day we rest Marshawn,” coach Pete Carroll said. “Wednesday is always a rest day for him. We’ve been doing that for years, and it’s always worked out great. We’re in great shape.”

The practice pool report said the Seahawks practiced at a fast tempo at the Giants’ indoor practice facility, with doors open to bring the cold air in. Players did not wear pads.

For the Broncos, DT Sione Fua (calf) did not practice; TE Joel Dreessen (knee), DT Terrance Knighton (knee), DT Chris Kuper (ankle), QB Peyton Manning (ankle), RB Knowshon Moreno (ribs), K Matt Prater (illness), DT Mitch Unrein (knee) and CB Kayvon Webster (thumb) were all listed as full participation.

Denver practiced in full pads on Wednesday, as it has done nearly every Wednesday this season, and was outside at the Jets’ facility.

“We’re pretty much weatherproof,” Fox said. “We practice in this stuff all the time. Being in Denver, we’ve played in a few elements. We practiced numerous times in single digit, played in single digit, played in wind. We’ve practiced in snow many times. We’re pretty much ready for anything.”

Patriots add defensive assistant Brendan Daly

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 29, 2014 01:24 PM

The Patriots hired eight-year NFL coaching veteran Brendan Daly as a defensive assistant coach.

Daly spent the past two years with the Minnesota Vikings as defensive line coach. Prior to that, he had also been a defensive line coach with the St. Louis Rams and in a prior stint with the Vikings.

Daly was also a defensive line coach in college at Villanova and a tight ends coach at Illinois State. He has 17 years of coaching experience and played tight end in college for Drake.

Ranking the Patriots' free agents

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 29, 2014 11:57 AM

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The Patriots will have to determine whether they want to pay LeGarrette Blount or continue to look to Stevan Ridley as the future of their running attack. (Matt Slocum / AP photo)

If you were to play the role of Bill Belichick, general manager and coach of the New England Patriots, how would you prioritize the Patriots’ free agents?

With six starters and 12 players overall slated for free agency, the Patriots have to make a determination on who they want to return and how much they’re willing to spend on each. The team’s window for those decisions begins on March 8, when they can start negotiating with unrestricted free agents, and on March 11 when they can start signing players.

Here’s my view of the order of importance for each Patriots free agent. You can share your view in the comments, or you can vote on what they should do with each player in our Keep Him or Let Him Go feature.

1. Aqib Talib — The star cornerback, hurt in the AFC Championship, is expected to be a hot commodity on the free agent market. Already the fifth highest salary against the Patriots’ 2013 cap at $4.8 million, he could garner a hefty sum on the market. If the Patriots place the franchise tag on Talib, he would earn more than $10 million for 2014. And his injury, which kept him out of action of the AFC title game, likely won’t require surgery, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It would be best to secure Talib long-term and continue to shore up the defense elsewhere.

2. LeGarrette Blount — Blount proved to be the top runner on the Patriots’ depth chart. With outstanding late season performances against the Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, and Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs, he certainly has the attention of running back starved teams. He made $680,000 in 2013 and could also see a significant bump in pay. Last year, running backs that were given the franchise tag earned $8.219 million. Blount finished with 772 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on only 153 attempts. But his fate may be tied to that of Stevan Ridley, who doesn’t become a free agent until 2015. The Patriots have the opportunity to carry two featured backs again, but might see Ridley as a cheaper option. Ridley is still under his rookie contract and will earn $777,750 in base salary next year.

3. Ryan Wendell —The center played every single snap on offense this year. Despite struggles at times against some of the league’s top pass rushers, he helped provide stability for a unit that saw quite a bit of flux. In 2013, he earned $1.015 million. The Patriots should consider bringing him back with small pay raise to keep the offensive line intact.

4. Julian Edelman — Tom Brady’s top receiver is certainly worthy of a payday. He caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns while serving as the team’s punt returner again. Last year, the market was lukewarm for Edelman’s services, and he returned to the Patriots, who were stockpiling wide receivers in free agency and in the draft. But he beat out everyone on the roster, proving himself to be the most consistent receiving threat on the team. His chemistry with Brady after five seasons doesn’t hurt either. He played on a 1-year deal for $765,000 and could earn much more on the market now that he’s proved to be steady and healthy.

5. Brandon Spikes — After a flare-up with his agent, who disputed the team’s notion that there was a mutual decision to put Spikes on injured reserve after the regular season, it doesn’t appear Spikes will come back. That’s not necessarily a good thing for the Patriots, who have come to rely upon Spikes’ toughness and run-stopping ability. He totaled 86 tackles and earned $870,000 in 2013.

6. Michael Hoomanawanui — Hoomanawanui is in a precarious position again with the team. The Patriots were reluctant to sign him to an offer sheet last season despite being a restricted free agent. He was forced to restructure his deal from $1.3 million base salary to $630,000, with incentives to reach $1 million. He was not viewed as a receiving option, despite soft hands, and finished with 12 receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown. He had a tough time run blocking, something tight end Matthew Mulligan helped shore up. He could very well find himself on a new team now that he’s an unrestricted free agent.

7. Matthew Mulligan — Mulligan proved to be a good blocking tight end for the Patriots and a nice backup for Rob Gronkowski as the Patriots shifted to a run-oriented offense late in the season. He earned $672,941 in 2013 and could possibly be brought back for similar numbers.

8. Danny Aiken — Aiken is the team’s only restricted free agent. As the long snapper, he’s part of a very small fraternity of NFL players lucky to have jobs. It helps that Belichick is a former special teams coach who never undervalues this position. Aiken had a base salary of $555,000 in 2013.

9. Dane Fletcher — The backup middle linebacker may find himself tied to Spikes. Does he stay or does he go, and what will that mean for him? Meanwhile, Steve Beauharnais waits in the wings. Fletcher earned $620,000 this year.

10. Will Svitek — The big tackle was supposed to be the insurance for both Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, but when both players went down the Patriots opted to use Marcus Cannon at right tackle and Logan Mankins at left tackle. Svitek had a hard time run blocking when he did play a three-game stretch while Cannon was out. It’s hard to see him having a place on this team when Vollmer returns and while Cannon is still expected to be the team’s primary backup at tackle. Svitek earned $950,000 in 2013.

11. Austin Collie — If the Patriots don’t want to sign Julian Edelman for the money, they can certainly opt to sign Collie who couldn’t find a home before Belichick threw him a bone. He caught key passes on the team’s game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints and was effective in the AFC Championship as well with four catches for 57 yards.

12. Andre Carter — The 12-year veteran defensive end was brought on after Week 7 of the season and expected to help with the team’s pass rush rush. He played 196 snaps and recorded two sacks. He counted as $326,471 against the team’s salary cap. The Patriots may not want to bring him back, allowing for younger players like Michael Buchanan and Jake Bequette to get more snaps going forward.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Denver's Fox on Super Bowl lessons: 'You don't want to lose'

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 29, 2014 11:43 AM

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Broncos head coach John Fox has been in this spot before. This is the second time he has brought a team to the Super Bowl, the first coming as head coach of the Panthers, when they lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Meeting with reporters on Wednesday morning, Fox was asked what has been easier about this trip than his previous Super Bowl experience, and compared it to a familiar sensation for many of us.

“It’s a little bit like as a kid when you went on a trip. On the way there, it seemed like forever and it was a little easier on the way home because you knew what to expect," he said. "So it’s a little bit like that phenomenon. I think it’s just having a better idea of what to expect."

He also learned a little something from that experience against the Patriots: "That you don't want to lose."

For groups that thrive off routine, Super Bowl week is anything but, with media obligations - this week the Broncos are on a small cruise ship docked outside their hotel - and a new locker room and practice facility to deal with, and a hundred other little details that are different from any other week of the season.

But it is all part of the job.

"We're on a business trip. There's kind of a big event coming Sunday, and that's what we're here for," Fox is reminding his players. "We've let them enjoy themselves some. Now we're dialing back in and getting back to our preparation [the Broncos practiced in full pads, just as they did most Wednesdays]."

In nine seasons with Carolina, Fox was 73-71, getting the team to the playoffs three times. But his results were inconsistent - the Panthers never posted back-to-back winning seasons on his watch (the closest they came was 11-5 in 2005 followed by 8-8 in '06). Since taking over in Denver in 2011, his teams have only gotten better, from 8-8 in his first season to 13-3 each of the last two.

Asked if he believes he's a better coach now than he was in Carolina or if he simply has better players, Fox had to give the reporter a reminder that the Panthers' best season was with him at the helm.

“I had good players in Carolina. I think that was the only Super Bowl they’ve ever been to," he said. "It was a great team, great locker room, as you’d expect. I think all these are different. This time of year from now, I’ll have a completely different team.

"It’s just the way of the National Football League. Coaches change teams. Players change teams. I’m just really soaking this one in. It’s a great bunch. I’m very proud of this bunch, just like I was with the Carolina team. So I’ve enjoyed, really, all my football teams and I think you get better. I think the more experience, or the more you do it, the better you get. You should, whether it’s your job or my job."

Patriots position by position grades: defense

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 29, 2014 09:00 AM

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Safeties Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory were a large part of the reason the Patriots' pass defense was better this year. (Barry Chin / Globe Staff)

We are continuing with our series of Patriots grades, position by position, moving on to the defense.

This unit found itself more touched up by injuries over the course of the season, affecting lineups week to week. But somehow, it impressed as the year went along and was able to excel all the way up until the AFC Championship.

Here are the grades for the offense.

Defensive line: C+

Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich were the unit’s top performers, even before injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly diminished the group’s abilities. Chandler Jones played a team-high 1,142 snaps, and Ninkovich trailed only slightly with 1,114 snaps. Their high performance in the running game overshadowed what they were able to accomplish rushing the quarterback. The Patriots were ranked 30th overall against the run, hurt by injuries and midseason changes. Chandler Jones led the team with 11.5 sacks and Ninkovich finished with 8.

It was clear during the entire season that Ninkovich, who kicked out to linebacker at times in a 3-4 setup, did a tremendous job setting the edge. He led the group with 91 tackles, second best on the team. Rookie Sealver Siliga, who only played 221 snaps, came on after Week 12 and helped shore up the interior run defense. He showed real potential for a future with this team. Fellow rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, each of whom immediately stepped in for Wilfork and Kelly, were much less effective against the run and the pass. Chris Jones finished with six sacks, but every one could be considered a coverage sack. Isaac Sopoaga, whom the Patriots traded for, played in only six games before being a healthy scratch in the final two weeks of the season and the playoffs.

This is a group that will see significant change in 2014 with the return of Wilfork, Kelly, and Armond Armstead, who missed the entire season after being placed on the non-football illness list. Armstead had surgery to treat an infection and was never deemed healthy enough to play. Only Andre Carter, signed midseason to help with the team’s pass rush, is a free agent. Rookie Michael Buchanan will likely get a shot next year and second-year veteran Jake Bequette will have to turn a corner to secure a roster spot again.

Linebackers: B

The defense struggled after losing Jerod Mayo in Week 6, going through a series of changes to adapt to the loss of its leader. Despite missing the majority of the season, Mayo still finished eighth on the team in total tackles with 55. In the end, Mayo’s injury ended up paving the way for the Patriots to utilize their younger group of linebackers who would likely have played more of a redshirt season.

Dont’a Hightower, who finished with a team-high 97 tackles, improved dramatically over the course of the year. He struggled early on, especially against the pass, but ended up being one of the strongest run stoppers on the team coupled with middle linebacker Brandon Spikes (86 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss). Between the two, the Patriots were much more stout against opponents than when they had five defensive backs on the field, usually a sign that either Hightower or Spikes was on the sideline. Spikes only played 694 defensive snaps despite being the team’s top run stuffer because he was seen as a liability in pass coverage. He had been dealing with a knee injury.

Top draft pick Jamie Collins (43 tackles), who was primarily a special teams player in the regular season, saw his snaps increase dramatically in Week 14 as the season began to wind down. He showed some playmaking ability and an ability to get to the quarterback, garnering praise as the season came to a close. Backup middle linebacker Dane Fletcher, used extensively on passing downs and as a starter in the playoffs when Spikes was out, had a much more mild season, never really having a good or bad performance. He had two coverage sacks and finished with 26 tackles. Both Fletcher and Spikes are free agents after this year, giving the Patriots an opportunity to consider how they want to shape the core of their defense.

Cornerbacks: B

Aqib Tailb had a remarkable season, despite missing three games, battling injuries for the second half of the season and getting knocked out of the AFC Championship for the second year in a row. He only allowed three touchdowns all season and picked off four passes while being widely regarded as one of the top cover corners in the game. Alfonzo Dennard was also solid in his time on the field. He missed three games and the majority of another with knee and shoulder injuries. He was one of the Patriots’ top defensive performers, allowing only four touchdowns and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 51.8 completion percentage when thrown in his direction.

Kyle Arrington, the Patriots’ slot corner, was by far the most targeted defensive back. Quarterbacks threw in his direction 98 times through the regular season and playoffs. He managed to hold opponents to a 62.2 completion percentage and six touchdowns. The Patriots saw a bit of boost when rookie Logan Ryan came into the mix, snagging five interceptions and holding opponents to only a 55.9 percent completion rate. Despite troubles in the linebackers group, the Patriots' pass defense was ranked 18th overall after the regular season – a jump from the previous three seasons at 29th, 31st, and 30th. Talib is the sole free agent in the group and is unquestionably the jewel of the bunch.

Safeties: B+

The duo of Devin McCourty and Steven Gregory proved to be more than a solid unit. Their pass coverage, helped mostly by the heady play of McCourty, helped shore up the Patriots’ most eye-popping deficiencies from the prior three seasons. McCourty’s season can probably best be defined by how many times he was targeted in coverage. While playing 1,039 defensive snaps, only 28 passes were thrown in his direction, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He was always in the right place at the right time. Teams were wary of his ability to track down the ball and break up plays. None of the other top safeties in the league saw as few plays in their direction as McCourty did.

Gregory, seen more as the strong safety of the two, was much more likely to miss a tackle (10) than wanted, but helped provide stability in his second season in New England. Rookie Duron Harmon subbed for both McCourty and Gregory when the two went down with injuries. For the most part, he had been consistent across the board in pass and run coverage. He had one blip on the screen against the Houston Texans, missing three tackles, but he recovered nicely.

Second-year safety Tavon Wilson was practically an afterthought, working mostly on special teams. His interception return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens was the top play of his season. Adrian Wilson, who was placed on injured reserve prior to the beginning of the season, may provide a different look for this group in 2014. Nate Ebner is seen as a special teams-only defensive back. He had eight special teams tackles and two fumble recoveries.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Denver players discuss Josh McDaniels

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 28, 2014 04:57 PM

NEWARK -- Josh McDaniels's time as the Broncos head coach didn't last long and didn't go too well, but he was responsible for drafting four of the team's offensive standouts as well as two defensive reserves.

The Patriots once-and-current offensive coordinator was in Denver for the 2009 and '10 drafts. And though just six of the 19 players the team took in those two years remain on the roster, the six have made an impact: running back Knowshon Moreno is enjoying a career year; Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker were the team's top two receivers this season and combined for 179 receptions, 2,718 yards and 25 touchdowns; Zane Beadles has started every game at left guard; defensive lineman Robert Ayers had 5.5 sacks in 15 games; and safety David Bruton played in all 16 games as a backup safety and special teamer.

"He did draft me, and I’m very thankful that he gave me the opportunity to be playing in the NFL, especially with such a great organization like Denver," Decker said. "I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a coach. He’s a brilliant mind, offensively. I’m sure, like any coach, he’s excited and he’s happy for the guys that he drafted."

Decker was a fourth-round pick out of Minnesota in 2010.

Moreno, who was McDaniels's first-ever pick (taken 12th overall in 2009 out of Georgia), was asked about his draft-day memories and mentioned his former coach.

"That was a special moment, just to be able to celebrate that with my family and friends," he said. "We were all there hanging out watching it on TV, so just for them to experience that definitely meant a lot to me.

"For Coach McDaniels, giving me the opportunity to play in the league and try to fight for a position ... even though you make it, even though you get drafted or whatever it is, maybe you’re not drafted, you’ve still got to compete. You’ve still got to get better each day just to have a spot on the team. I’m really thankful to [get] the opportunity."

McDaniels even brought the Broncos the man who is now their offensive coordinator: Adam Gase. When McDaniels was a graduate assistant at Michigan State in 1999-2000, he worked with Gase, an MSU alum and also an aspiring coach. McDaniels hired Gase to be his receivers coach in Denver.

When John Fox became head coach in 2011, he promoted Gase to quarterbacks coach, and Gase was promoted again, to coordinator, before this season, after Mike McCoy left to become the Chargers' head coach.

Gase was asked at Media Day Tuesday how he got to where he is today -- still just 35, he drew interest from teams in need of a head coach this month -- and credited "a little bit of luck. A little bit of meeting the right people at the right time."

He mentioned Nick Saban, whom he worked with at Michigan State and Louisiana State, Mike Martz, whom he worked with in Detroit and San Francisco, and McDaniels.

"Lucky enough to meet Josh McDaniels when I was 21 years old, and he became a head coach nine years later," Gase said.

Denver's Jack Del Rio takes pride in finally beating Brady, Belichick

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 28, 2014 04:17 PM

NEWARK – Going into this year's AFC Championship game, Tom Brady had done well against Jack Del Rio defenses – really well.

In seven games against Del Rio, when he was head coach in Jacksonville from 2003 to 2011 and as Denver's defensive coordinator since 2012, Brady was 7-0, completing 73 percent of his pass attempts (171 of 235, including a 26-for-28 showing in the 2007 Divisional round) for 1,771 yards, 17 touchdowns and no interceptions.

But Del Rio got his first win against Brady when it mattered most, nine days ago, a victory that put the Broncos in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998.

"We had a good plan," Del Rio said at Tuesday's Media Day. "We went out and executed a good plan and got to advance and that's what it was all about. Clearly, the combination of Tom and Bill (Belichick) has been a very productive combination and one that I hadn't seen a lot of success against.

"I took a lot of pride in the fact that we were able to put together a good plan, go out there and execute, play well and advance."

Brady still has not thrown an interception against a Del Rio defense, but over the first three quarters against Denver in the AFC title game, he was 13-for-22 for 142 yards and no touchdowns. In the fourth quarter, as the Patriots tried to storm back, Brady was 11-for-16 for 135 yards and a touchdown.

Wes Welker brushes off Belichick question but explains Talib hit

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 28, 2014 02:49 PM

In the wake of remarks Bill Belichick made the day after the Patriots were beaten by the Broncos in the AFC Championship, Denver wide receiver Wes Welker was asked at Super Bowl Media Day Tuesday whether he thinks the Patriots coach hates him.

Welker brushed that question off, but the former Patriot was more inclined to answer questions about the play that brought on Belichick's scorn, including what his job was in the second quarter of the game, when he ran into Aqib Talib, injuring the Patriots star cornerback.

"It’s a rub play that everybody runs," Welker said. “It’s one of those deals where you try to get a rub on that guy and, really, if you can get him to go over the top of you, the more separation the other receiver will have.

"That’s what I tried to do to get Demaryius [Thomas] a little more open and unfortunately we collided."

Welker said there was nothing uncommon or unusual about the play, and he added that it was something the Patriots have run before.

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Patriots position by position grades: offense

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 27, 2014 06:42 PM

Looking back, the 2013-14 season could have been better for the Patriots. With a play here and a play there, they would be in New Jersey right now talking about how to dismantle the Seattle Seahawks defense.

But that kind of thinking wouldn’t have allowed the Patriots to conduct some healthy introspection and address some of the core issues with this team, namely depth.

Effort, toughness, and a never-say-die attitude helped propel New England to a 12-4 record, a playoff win, and a matchup with the top offensive unit in NFL history. But it wasn’t enough to get Tom Brady and Bill Belichick into their sixth Super Bowl.

Injuries, injuries, and injuries continued to befuddle the Patriots. But they were also doomed in large part by a lack of chemistry. Now, facing the prospect of a dwindling window for Brady (and Belichick, for that matter), the Patriots can’t ignore the team’s depth if they want that elusive fourth title anytime soon.

That’s why it’s important to look back at where the Patriots ranked from position to position across the board. It’s a crucial piece of context as the Patriots move into the offseason, assess their wares, and make decisions on free agents as well as possible prospects in the draft and around the league.

Here’s my assessment of where the Patriots stand, position by position, on offense. I’ll post on the defense tomorrow.

Offensive line: C+

So much of the attention here is on either injured players, i.e. Sebastian Vollmer, or on Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. The Patriots are certainly in a good place with both players, as Vollmer continues to work to return to return from a broken leg. And along with starters Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly, the Patriots have a solid group. But they are not an elite unit, as once believed. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Patriots ranked 17th overall in the regular season in pass blocking and run blocking. Wendell led all centers with sacks allowed (6). Mankins was second among guards (9). Solder’s 10 sacks allowed were tied for the sixth-most among tackles. Connolly, who gave up only three sacks on the season, allowed more hurries (27) than anyone else on the team. But when it came down to running the ball, the Patriots were their most successful, finishing with 2,065 yards, ninth overall. That’s why backups Marcus Cannon, who played extensively after Vollmer went down in Week 8, and Will Svitek were such eyesores for the team. They both struggled significantly in run blocking. That has to be rectified, especially with the propensity for at least one offensive linemen to go down each year. Another backup tackle would be helpful.


Tight ends: C-

No other position group was more impacted by injuries than this one because of Rob Gronkowski. The All-Pro tight end missed the first six games of the season while recovering from forearm and back surgery, then played seven games and missed the final two after injuring his ACL and MCL. The Patriots tried to put Zach Sudfeld -- seen as a potential replacement early in the season -- on their practice squad, but he was picked up by the New York Jets. Matthew Mulligan helped out as a blocking tight end, but he had trouble in the running game, as did Michael Hoomanawanui. Both were much more more solid as pass protectors. In the end, Hoomanawanui and Mulligan were the Patriots’ top tight ends, with midseason pickup D.J. Williams an afterthought. Hoomanawanui and Mulligan combined for 14 receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns. That’s not nearly enough production for a team that has featured its tight ends prominently since Gronkowski’s rookie season. With a healthy Gronk, the Patriots should be looking to upgrade or better utilize their talents. Hoomanawanui is a free agent.

Wide receivers: C-

Julian Edelman led the way (105 receptions, 1,056 yards, 6 TDs) but was the only consistent threat. This group was also saddled with injuries, taking time away from Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins. What we saw in their presence wasn’t much better than their absence. Amendola finished with 54 receptions for 633 yards and 2 touchdowns. Dobson and Thompkins combined for 69 receptions for 985 yards and 8 TDs. Others like Josh Boyce (9 receptions, 121 yards) and Austin Collie (6 receptions, 63 yards) barely made a blip, with their contributions so far from what could be considered a regular occurrence. But worse, the combined effect of multiple underperforming receivers, injuries, and chemistry issues was a down year for the passing game. Brady finished with only 25 touchdown passes, his lowest total since 2006 (24), despite throwing the ball 628 times, the second-most passes he has attempted in his career. There’s certainly potential with Dobson, even Boyce, but there is more concern that Thompkins and even Amendola can carry their weight. Edelman is a free agent, making Amendola’s role on the team much easier to decide despite four years left on his contract. But Thompkins, as an undrafted rookie, still has more to prove. He should expect competition in the spring. The Patriots

Running backs: B+

Between LeGarrette Blount (772 yards rushing, 5.0 ypc) and Stevan Ridley (772 yards rushing, 4.3 ypc), the running game was in good hands. Along with Brandon Bolden (271 yards) and Shane Vereen (209), the Patriots finished with 2,065 yards on the ground, ninth overall in the NFL. This was one of the strongest groups for the Patriots overall, especially with Blount and Ridley at the helm. They’re both prolific at breaking tackles, tallying 49 broken tackles between them. If it were different circumstances, and the Patriots force-fed one back over the other, we’re sure he would be a 1,300-yard rusher. Without a doubt. But Blount, who will be a free agent after the season, should be a priority to bring back because he’s more secure with the football and has the ability to break more tackles at 250 pounds. With only 153 carries this season, he can be one of the elite runners in the NFL. Ridley is under contract until 2015 and, despite his fumbling woes, can still work his way back into the good graces of Belichick. Something will have to give here because both won’t be affordable in a year’s time.

Quarterback: B+

Brady played at least three seasons for the Patriots in 2013. There was a period in which he was absurdly upset with his receivers (think New York Jets Week 2), profoundly exquisite (Pittsburgh Steelers), and a passenger to Blount’s late-season mastery. His usual excellence wasn’t automatic. There were games, halves even, in which Patriots followers were completely puzzled by his human-like nature. But he always reserved his best for the fourth quarter, leading the team on five game-winning drives. With 4,343 yards passing, a 60.5 completion percentage, 25 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, he ranked 14th overall in the NFL based on his passer rating (87.3). What we didn’t see from Brady was any sort of decline because of his age, 36, or because of any suspected injuries. He's under contract until 2018. His backup, Ryan Mallett, spent another season without a snap. If Brady were to go down, only Belichick knows how Mallett would respond.

Look for a post tomorrow on the defense.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Reports: Caserio offered Dolphins' GM job, but turns it down

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 25, 2014 11:17 PM

The Miami Dolphins must have liked what they heard from Patriots’ director of player personnel Nick Caserio during his two interviews with the club for their general manager opening, because multiple reports Saturday night said the Dolphins offered Caserio the job.

But not long after those reports came out, there were follow-up reports that Caserio is staying put in New England.

Miami moved quickly with Caserio, who became the eighth person interviewed for the GM opening on Friday, and was one of three men to get a second interview on Saturday, as announced by the team.

Caserio, Titans’ vice president of football operations Lake Dawson, and Tampa Bay director of player personnel Dennis Hickey met with team owner Stephen Ross on Saturday, while the Dolphins’ current assistant general manager, Brian Gaine, had his second interview on Friday night (Caserio’s first interview was early Friday morning).

A member of the New England organization since 2001, Caserio has held his current position since 2008, though it remains to be seen whether he will get a change in job title from the Patriots now that he’s staying.

Scott Pioli was the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel when he left for Kansas City in 2009. Bill Belichick is the de facto general manager, and has final say over personnel matters.

His interviews with the Dolphins mark the first known time Caserio has talked with another team. Though he’s garnered interest in the past, he has turned down the chance to even interview.

In January 2012, the Colts reached out to Caserio after they fired longtime executive Bill Polian, and Caserio quickly said thanks, but no thanks.

“I would say that I’ve got a great job here in New England, I work with a great staff – I’m privileged to work for the head coach [Bill Belichick] that I do,” he explained at the time. “Today is no different than it was any other day and I enjoy being here.”

Miami is having a difficult time filling its GM opening, which has been open since the team and Jeff Ireland “mutually decided” to part ways on Jan. 7. The Dolphins have been transparent about the search, announcing who have been interviewed on the team's website.

But the organization is becoming a bit of a laughingstock, as four candidates declined to interview. One man who was considered a front-runner, Cleveland’s Ray Farmer, turned down a second interview.

And now Caserio has spurned them.

Part of the problem, apparently, is the structure of the organization. According to the Miami Herald, it is unclear who the eventual GM will report to and who will report to the GM.


Miami Dolphins eye Patriots' Nick Caserio for GM job

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 24, 2014 11:53 AM

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Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio has interviewed with the Miami Dolphins to become their general manager. (Robert E. Klein / File for the Boston Globe)

The Miami Dolphins are interested in Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio for the team's vacant general manager job.

The team confirmed Caserio interviewed for the position Friday in Miami. ESPN's Adam Schefter first reported the news.

The team has completed an interview with Nick Caserio, Director of Player Personnel, New England, for the open position of general manager.

— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 24, 2014

The Patriots have seen a number of departures in recent days with assistant head coach/offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring, linebackers coach Pepper Johnson leaving, and tight ends coach George Godsey joining the Houston Texans staff with former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

Caserio has been with the Patriots for 12 seasons, getting promoted to director of player personnel in 2008. He has, in some capacity, helped in the coaching department as well. Caserio was the team's wide receivers coach in 2007, the only year he was not in the personnel department. But he has often been a participant in the team's practices.

The Dolphins fired general manager Jeff Ireland after six years.

Tennessee Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson, Dolphins assistant general manager Brian Gaine, and Cleveland Browns assistant general manager Ray Farmer were all interviewed for the position, according to multiple reports.


What do you think of Nick Caserio possibly going to a division opponent?

Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 22, 2014 05:09 PM

Dante Scarnecchia is retiring after 30 years

The Patriots will lose one more top assistant this offseason with offensive line/assistant head coach Dante Scarnecchia retiring after 30 years with the team.

Scarnecchia, 65, was the longest-tenured Patriots assistant, having spent time under six coaches: Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll, Bill Parcells, Dick MacPherson, Raymond Berry, and Ron Meyer.

Meyer brought Scarnecchia onto the staff in 1982; he had worked with Meyer at SMU as offensive line coach. With the Patriots, Scarnecchia worked as a tight ends coach, special teams coach, special assistant, defensive assistant, and linebackers coach.

With Scarnecchia's retirement, the Patriots also announced that they have hired Dave DeGuglielmo to replace him. DeGuglielmo is a 22-year NFL coaching veteran, having spent time with the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and New York Giants.

"Dante Scarnecchia is a Patriot and NFL legend who defied the phrase ‘not for long,' " Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in a statement. "In an industry of constant change, Dante remained a fixture here for the simple reason that he helped every player reach his highest potential, regardless of who he was, how he was acquired, or how much raw talent he had.

"In whatever category a coach can be assessed -- evaluator, teacher, motivator, problem solver, disciplinarian, team player, winner – Dante is as good as it gets. As many games as he helped us win and as much as we would like to work with Dante forever, we are blessed with the opportunity to have been with him as long as we were."

Belichick elaborated on Scarnecchia on WEEI radio.

"This is a transition that we knew we were going to be making," Belichick said. "I feel good about the transition that we’re making.

"I think that the transition, even though it’s going to be a big one, is going to a smooth one."

Belichick statement on Pepper Johnson's departure

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 22, 2014 04:34 PM

Patriots coach Bill Belichick released a statement Wednesday on the departure of linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who had been with the team for 13 seasons, saying Johnson made him a better person and coach.

"I am proud and honored to have spent more years of my career with Pepper Johnson than any other player or coach," Belichick said. "Of all the people I coached or worked with, nobody has more passion and love for the game than Pepper. His energy and wisdom for football knows no limits.

"Pepper made me a better coach and person and helped create some of the greatest moments of my career. He is a great player, coach and lifelong friend and I am sure he will enjoy continued success as he moves forward."

Johnson announced his departure Tuesday in a statement to ESPN Boston. He had worked with Belichick since his time as a linebacker with the New York Giants, earning five Super Bowl rings while teamed with Belichick as either a coach or a player.

"I could never have asked for a better coach/boss/friend in those 26 years," Johnson wrote. "Thanks for always supporting me and I know Bill will continue to support me no matter what.

“Thank you New England Patriot fans I will miss you the most.”

Johnson did not elaborate on what his next move would be.

Important dates coming up for Patriots, NFL

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 22, 2014 03:16 PM

Here are some of the important dates for the Patriots and other NFL teams after the Super Bowl when the offseason fully gets underway.

(Note: This is not an all-inclusive list.)

Feb. 3

- Waivers begin for 2014.

Feb. 17

- Teams can start using the franchise and transition tags.

Feb. 19-25

- NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

March 3

- Deadline for teams to use franchise and transition tags by 4 p.m.

March 8

- Teams can begin negotiations with unrestricted free agents but cannot sign contracts until 4 p.m. March 11.

March 11

- 2013 player contracts expire at 4 p.m.

- 2014 league year and free agency period begins at 4 p.m.

- Teams must exercise 2014 option for all players with option clauses before 4 p.m.

- Also before 4 p.m., teams must submit qualifying offers to restricted free agents to retain right of first refusal as well as compensation.

- All teams must be under the 2014 salary cap before 4 p.m.

- Trading can begin at 4 p.m.

March 23-26

- Annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

April 7

- Teams with new head coaches may begin offseason workouts.

April 21

- Teams with returning head coaches may begin offseason workouts.

May 2

- Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.

May 7

- Deadline for teams to exercise right of first refusal on restricted free agents.

May 8-10

- NFL Draft in New York City.

May 19-21

- Spring league meeting in Atlanta.

July 15

- Deadline for teams to sign players that have the franchise tag to a multiyear contract. After 4 p.m., those players can only sign a one-year pact.

Mid-July

- Training camps open.

Sept. 4, 7-8

- Kickoff weekend.

Patriots sign seven to future contracts

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 20, 2014 04:43 PM

The Patriots announced Monday that they have signed seven players to futures contracts; all seven finished the season on the team's practice squad.

They are:

* OL Braxston Cave, 24. Listed at 6-3, 305 pounds, played at Notre Dame.

* OL Jordan Devey, 25. Listed at 6-6, 317 pounds, played at Memphis.

* WR Reggie Dunn, 25. Listed at 5-9, 178 pounds, played at Utah.

* OL R.J. Mattes, 23. Listed at 6-6, 315 pounds, played at North Carolina State.

* RB Sam McGuffie, 24. Listed at 5-10, 200 pounds, played at Rice.

* WR Greg Orton, 27. Listed at 6-3, 199 pounds, played at Purdue.

* LB Taylor Reed, 22. Listed at 5-11, 236 pounds, played at Southern Methodist.

DL Marcus Forston, the eighth member of the practice squad, did not receive a futures deal.

In the NFL, reserve/future contracts generally have no signing bonus and are for the league minimum, and will not be activated until the start of the league year, which for 2104 is 4 p.m. on March 11.

Andre Carter says Wes Welker hit was 'nasty'

Posted by Michael Vega, Globe Staff January 20, 2014 12:22 PM

By Michael Vega, Globe Staff

FOXBOROUGH – Andre Carter, the Patriots veteran pass rusher, echoed coach Bill Belichick's scathing criticism of Wes Welker's open-field hit on Aqib Talib, saying "That was nasty."

During his wrap-up press conference Monday at Gillette Stadium, Belichick ripped Welker's mid-field collision with Talib, which knocked the Patriot's top cover corner out of Sunday's 26-16 loss at Denver in the AFC Championship Game, calling it "one of the worst plays I've seen.''

Said Carter, "It was unfortunate that he went down in one of the biggest games of his life, that was definitely disappointing.''

Asked if he thought Welker intentionally targeted Talib, who was covering Demaryius Thomas on a crossing route over the middle, Carter said, "Unfortunately, that was nasty. I'm sure the NFL will review that and see what they can do to rectify those particular plays. Fortunately, Talib was able to walk, but if it got a lot more serious who knows what would've happened."

Carter said pick plays are commonplace in the league, but he said what made Welker's particularly "nasty"' was because of "the level of impact and the level of force," of the hit.

"If you step into the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be very devastating," Carter said. "It looked like it was intentional. But the NFL will review it and, hopefully, Talib will just heal and get ready for the following season.

"People will say it was dirty and people will say it was nasty. I can't really say it was uncalled for, but the play was unacceptable. At the end of the day, they won and we're moving forward."

5 takeaways from the 2013 Patriots season

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 20, 2014 11:41 AM

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By Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff

DENVER — With an offensive explosion by the Broncos — and a key defensive injury — the Patriots’ hopes of a Super Bowl title were dashed Sunday against a team with superior offensive weaponry.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The 2013 Patriots were depleted on defense and offense, they lacked a pass rush against the league’s top quarterback, they were down two of their top linebackers, and played without their top cornerback for the final two and a half quarters of their AFC title bout.

It marks the ninth year in a row in which coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady either couldn’t reach, or couldn’t complete, their ultimate goal.

But that shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments this team has had. With a season worth of memories to go on, here are our five takeaways from the 2013 Patriots.

1. Bloodied but unbowed — Go back to the second cut day, Aug. 31, 2013. That’s when the bleeding started. The Patriots placed safety Adrian Wilson — long forgotten — on injured reserve. The veteran safety was supposed to be a boost for the secondary. Things only got worse when Vince Wilfork, the team’s monster nose tackle, went down with an ACL injury against the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 29. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who had already been nursing a knee injury, was placed on IR Nov. 2. He was supposed to be the team’s other run stopper. Top linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 16) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 29) were both shelved with season-ending injuries. In another blow to the offense, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a devastating hit to the knee against the Cleveland Browns Dec. 8 after only playing seven games. It didn’t stop there. Wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) was placed on IR Jan. 2 and linebacker Brandon Spikes was put on IR, reluctantly, four days later. Despite all of this, Belichick was able to lead the Patriots to the AFC Championship without five of his projected defensive starters and two of his top offensive starters. That’s miracle work. It shouldn’t be surprising that the best offense in the history of the NFL was able to get a jump on the Patriots, let alone pile up 507 yards total yards. What the Patriots were able to accomplish, often hobbled every week with the players that remained active, is an astounding feat to be proud of.

2. The Patriots found different leaders each week, never quitting — The injuries created an adverse situation for New England, but calls for the “next man up” rang loudly in Foxborough, with each player passing the torch on a week to week basis. Against the Falcons, the Patriots could’ve wilted in the Georgia Dome. But Tom Brady and Aqib Talib were not having it. Shane Vereen, who missed eight games with a broken hand, played through the very same injury in Week 1 to help the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills. It was seismic effort, much like the team’s come-from-behind win against the Broncos in Week 12. Or their come-from-behind wins against New Orleans, Cleveland and Houston. Kenbrell Thompkins caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints. Danny Amendola caught one against the Browns. Stephen Gostkowski made three game-winning kicks. Logan Ryan had a key interception and sack against Baltimore. LeGarrette Blount came on as a force to be reckoned with in Week 17. And Julian Edelman proved to be a workhorse throughout. The Patriots never allowed themselves to be taken out of a game, with their greatest margin of defeat at six points. Nine of the Patriots’ 16 regular season games were decided by four points or less. There was a feeling, all the way up until Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, that each game would go down to the final possession. There was no such thing as quit for this team.

3. Youth in action — It wasn’t anticipated, certainly because of injuries, but the Patriots featured one of the youngest teams in the postseason. Seventeen players had never played in the playoffs before hitting the field against the Indianapolis Colts. A number of them were expected to just provide depth and develop this year, but were thrust into regular action. Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were expected to be integral parts of the team’s passing attack despite frequent injuries. Between them, they totaled 69 receptions for 985 yards and eight touchdowns. Defensive backs Logan Ryan (35 tackles, 5 interceptions, 1.5 sacks) and Duron Harmon (31 tackles, 2 interceptions), both out of Rutgers, helped shore up the team’s secondary as injuries took out defensive leaders Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory in spurts. And with Wilfork and Kelly out, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga worked extensively as the team’s interior pass rush. Jones had six sacks, Siliga had three, and Vellano finished with two. Linebacker Jamie Collins, who was kept to special teams duty for most of the regular season, exploded onto the scene in the playoffs as one of the team’s top linebackers. He had an interception and a sack against the Colts along with six tackles. He had seven tackles against the Broncos. They were all pivotal players in a season when none of them were expected to be.

4. Development of key veterans — Edelman certainly developed into the go-to slot receiver the Patriots had hoped for. He caught 105 passes in the regular season for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. But he wasn’t the only player who took the next step for the Patriots. Chandler Jones went from being a pass-rush only specialist his rookie year to an every down player. He played 1,142 defensive snaps, tops on the team, while recording 79 tackles and 11.5 sacks. Devin McCourty improved as well, earning second team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl nod. The change from cornerback to safety benefited the third-year player tremendously. He tallied 69 tackles, nine passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. But the most surprising improvement, at least in terms of development over the course of the season, may be reserved for second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower. He had a number of rough games in the early part of the season, but steadily and consistently improved as more and more responsibilities came his way. He finished with a team-high 97 tackles. The Patriots will benefit tremendously from their experience as they get back veterans from injury and plot their 2014 team.

5. Disappointments turn into opportunities — It was unfortunate that Stevan Ridley’s four fumbles reduced his playing time for the Patriots because he is a fantastic runner. But LeGarrette Blount, who finished with 772 yards rushing and a 5.0 yards per carry average on the regular season, took advantage of every opportunity given to him. He was seen as the team’s fourth running back option in training camp, with Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden ahead of him on the depth chart. But at the end of the season, he plowed his way through defenses with such a menacing style that he became, by default, the team’s featured running back. He ended the year on a tear with 355 yards in a two-week span. The Patriots had other small disappointments, like the trade for Isaac Sopoaga (inactive for the team’s final four games) and the overall play of Amendola (54 receptions, 633 yards, 2 TDs), but in each case there has been someone to pick up the slack. Edelman became the team’s top receiver. Siliga, banished to the practice squad on three different teams, made enough of an impact on the defensive line to become a starter. That was a big part of this season, players taking advantage of opportunities and not letting injuries or poor performance take down the team and its season.

In the end, to finish with 13 wins and 5 losses, the Patriots possibly overachieved. Next year will certainly be different.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Tom Brady: Only goal is to win a championship

Posted by Staff January 20, 2014 10:54 AM
At 36 years old, Tom Brady is a three-time Super Bowl Champion, a two-time NFL MVP, has been named to nine Pro Bowls, and has all the individual accolades to be a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But what the quarterback doesn’t have, as he sits on the high side of 35, is an elusive fourth Super Bowl ring that would put him in company with just two other quarterbacks in NFL history: Terry Bradshaw and Brady's childhood idol, Joe Montana.

“The difference at this point in my career is just there is only one thing that matters when you start the season,” Brady said Monday during his final weekly appearance of the season on WEEI’s “Dennis and Callahan” program. “Sometimes when you’re younger the personal accolades mean a little bit more; guys work really hard to get significant contracts and so forth.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have both of those things over the years to the point where now there’s only one goal, and that’s to win a championship, and we just fell short.”

With their 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game, it has now been almost a full decade since Brady and the Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. This is the fifth time since that day that the Patriots have made it to the NFL’s “Final Four.”

None of those appearances may have been less expected than the run the Patriots went on this year, after all of the receiver questions entering the season and ending the year with four starting defensive players and two star offensive players on injured reserve.

“There’s a lot to be gained by seasons like this,” Brady said. “You see players that have really emerged and become dependable players for our team, there’s a lot of things to be gained from it. But at the same time, I think we’ve established a certain level of play that we’re not satisfied unless we are the last team standing.”

Even after finishing the season much better than most anticipated, ending the season short of winning it all is still tough on the two-time Super Bowl MVP.

“Coach [Belichick] always talks about the abrupt end to the season because you put so much [as] you can into every week and like we did last week, we put a lot into the game; we put a lot into thinking about all the reasons why we’re going to win, and then when you lose, there’s no fall-back,” Brady said.

One player Brady had nothing but praise for was receiver Julian Edelman, who had a breakout season in his fifth year with 105 catches for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns.

“He had an incredible season, no one could have every predicted what he could accomplish for our team,” Brady said. “He was one guy who was just so consistent and dependable for us, I’m just proud of him because of his mental toughness and his maturity and his work ethic; he's spent a lot of time watching over the last four years, and to finally get an opportunity where he could be an every down player and the way he contributed to our team especially in a game like yesterday where he made so many big plays for us was great to see.

“I love [Edelman], he’s one of my best pals; I spend a lot of time with him. I’m just proud of him for everything he’s accomplished; he deserves the best.”

In dissecting the loss to the Broncos, Brady has one play in mind that stuck with him: a missed deep pass to a wide-open Edelman in the first quarter, one on which Edelman could have run into the end zone and given the Patriots an early 7-3 lead.

“That’s one that I think about, that could certainly impact the outcome of the game from my standpoint,” Brady said. “I need to hit that throw: that’s a throw that I am capable of making and I make nine out of 10 times, and I just didn’t make it yesterday. When you get in games like this, where the margin of errors is slim, you've got to make those plays, and I didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s not turnovers that affect games, sometimes it's missed opportunities, and I missed that opportunity.”

Super Bowl XLVIII will feature the Broncos taking on the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, but don’t expect Brady to be able to break down that game play-by-play. Brady says that he doesn’t even plan to watch the Big Game.

“I don’t have much of a rooting interest, truthfully,” he said. “Those games are hard to watch. I don’t really see myself sitting down to enjoy a football game or watch it…. Truthfully I could care less about watching the game.”

Heading into another offseason without a championship ring, however, means this was another unsuccessful season in the eyes of the man who only wants to win one more.

“It’s a very competitive league, to start the year there are 32 teams that have hope and we’re one of those teams that always has hope; we played well over the course of the season to give ourselves a chance to play in two weeks, but we didn’t play well enough yesterday. In that sense, it is an unsuccessful season.

“We’ve played in three AFC Championships in a row, and the goal will be to get to another one, and then you got to try and close the deal … Yesterday it would have taken a great effort by our team to win, and we just came up short.”

Bill Belichick calls Welker's takeout of Talib 'one of worst plays I've seen'

Posted by Staff January 20, 2014 10:10 AM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Without any solicitation for his opinion on the matter, Bill Belichick was quick to address Wes Welker’s open-field pick on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib in Sunday’s 26-16 loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots coach called Welker’s actions, “one of the worst plays I’ve seen,’’ he said.

Talib was knocked out of the game on the play.

“I feel badly for Aqib, the way that play turned out,’’ Belichick said at the beginning of his season-ending wrapup Monday morning at Gillette Stadium. “I went back and watched it, which I didn’t have a chance to [Sunday], it was a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib.’’

The play in question occurred in the second quarter with the Broncos leading 3-0 and facing a second-and-9 from their own 19 with 13:34 left. Denver came to the line of scrimmage in a four-wide formation with quarterback Peyton Manning in the shotgun, Welker lined up in the slot on the right side of the formation, and Demaryius Thomas, Manning’s intended target on the incomplete pass, lined up as the sole receiver lined up on the left side.

Talib was rolled up in press man coverage on Thomas.

Thomas broke from the formation and led Talib across the middle from the left side while Welker came running across from the opposite direction. Welker leveled Talib with an open-field hit that knocked the Patriots’ best cover corner out the game with a left knee injury.

Belichick alleged that Welker made “no attempt to get open.’’

“I’ll let the league handle the discipline on that play,’’ he added. “It’s not for me to decide. It was one of the worst plays I’ve seen and that’s all I’m going to say about that.’’

Talib had little to say about the play after Sunday’s game.

“I can’t even remember how the play went,” Talib said. “I was just upset [at being hurt].”

Welker denied that he was trying to hit Talib after the game.

“It was one of those plays; it was kind of a rub play and I was trying to get him to go over the top and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath, and you know just kind of collided,’’ Welker explained. “It wasn’t like I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he’s OK; he’s a great player and a big part of their defense.’’

When asked if Welker’s hit sent a message to the Patriots, Thomas said, “I don’t know if it was a message. It was kind of a pick play. It was a big collision and it knocked him out of the game. The main thing was to come out and play physical as a whole group and that’s what we did.’’

FULL ENTRY

Game changed when Aqib Talib went down

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 08:44 PM

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Aqib Talib was hurt in the second quarter of Sunday's AFC Championship game, significantly changing the Patriots' defense. (Jim Davis / Globe Staff)

DENVER — When Aqib Talib went down with a rib injury against the Denver Broncos in the second quarter of the AFC Championship, there were huge implications for the Patriots' defense.

The secondary, often hobbled and at times outmatched, was dependent upon Talib to shut down one of the Broncos' four horsemen — Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas, or Wes Welker — in order to give the defense a chance against the league's top scoring offense.

On Sunday, Talib's assignment appeared to be Demaryius Thomas, who also happens to be the league's top scoring wide receiver (14 touchdowns). But when he had to come out after being bulldozed by Wes Welker on a crossing pattern, the Patriots were forced to shuffle their defensive backs against the league's top offensive attack.

"It was a key play in the game," Belichick said. "I'll say he's a key player for us."

The injury didn't come without controversy. It appeared that Welker was trying to clear out Talib on the play, freeing up Demaryius Thomas on a Peyton Manning pass, instead of avoiding the contact.

"Yeah it was one of those plays where it's kind of a rough play and I was trying to get him to go over the top," Welker said. "And I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided. It wasn't a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he's OK. He's a great player and a big part of their defense."

With Talib out, Alfonzo Dennard moved into coverage against Demaryius Thomas, Logan Ryan came on to cover Decker, Kyle Arrington stayed on Welker, and Devin McCourty came down from the safety position to cover Julius Thomas when the tight end split out. With the Patriots' Pro Bowl cornerback knocked out of the game, Manning targeted Demaryius Thomas, who stands 6-foot-3, and attacked the 5-10 Dennard.

"Demaryius was going to be a big part of the game plan, whoever was covering him," said Manning. "When Talib went down, we certainly thought we have to get the ball to Demaryius again."

Manning took advantage of the matchup on the next Broncos drive, hitting Demaryius Thomas two plays in a row with Dennard chasing him around, going for 26 and 27 yards a bite.

In the third quarter, Manning zoned in on the rookie Ryan, who is 5-11, in coverage on Decker, who is 6-3. Manning connected with Decker for 18 and 8 yards.

After a dizzying display in the second half, with Dennard and Ryan the targets, Manning finished with 400 yards, heaped on in large part by both Thomases and Decker. Demaryius Thomas finished with seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown. Julius Thomas had eight catches for 85 yards. Decker caught five passes for 73 yards.

The Patriots were certainly a diminished defense without their Pro Bowl cornerback to help. But the Patriots weren't going to use that as an excuse, despite how much the defense shifted with his absence.

"It does change [without Talib]," Ryan said. "But we’re prepared for that. I think that’s the definition of the season. We’ve played with Talib out before and we’ve played with other guys being out before. It’s been the 'next man up' mentality the whole season. Unfortunately today, I wasn’t capable or able to make enough plays to make a difference."

Size, Ryan said, didn't matter.

"We played them earlier in the year and we did a great job against them," he said. "The same size, we’ve seen ‘em and they’ve seen us. And they were just able to make more plays today and more plays that counted in big situations to win the game.

"That's just how it is. We worked extremely hard, they worked extremely hard. Those 50-50 balls that we needed to come down with, we didn’t come down with them today."

Led by Manning's 400-yard passing effort, the Patriots allowed 507 total yards, the most by an opponent since Belichick became coach in 2000.

Belichick says he's proud of the team, wished he could've done better

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 07:52 PM

DENVER – Whether it was the 4th and 2 that the Patriots were unable to convert or the failed 2-point attempt Sunday against the Denver Broncos, there were key plays in the AFC Championship Game Patriots coach Bill Belichick would love to have back.

"Anytime you lose a game like this, there's definitely things that you don't feel great about and there's definitely things that I don't feel great about, and that shouldn't come as any big surprise," Belichick said. "But it's in the books so we can't do anything about it except look back on it, mark it, and move on.

"There are some calls, some plays we'd like to have back, I'm sure everybody who competed in the game would like to have some back. It's tough when your season ends."

Belichick said he was proud of this Patriots team after completing his 14th season at the helm in New England.

"I thought they played hard all year, played competitively every single week," he said. "Some weeks we played better than others, but there was never a lack of effort or toughness. Everybody trying to do their best, and I totally respect the team for that, and what they did. I'm proud to be their coach."

But for Belichick, who has now lost three AFC Championships, including two in a row, getting over Sunday's 26-16 defeat to the Denver Broncos may take some time.

"Unfortunately, we've been here before," he said. "We've won AFC Championship games and we've lost them, so, we'll move on. We have to. We're ahead of a lot of the other teams in the league. All except one, actually, in the AFC in terms of the offseason so we have a little bit of catching up to do. So starting tomorrow we are on to 2014."

FULL ENTRY

Broncos shut down Patriots running game

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 07:45 PM

DENVER — The Patriots' running game was effectively shut down by the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship, and running back LeGarrette Blount a non-factor in a 26-16 loss.

The Patriots had 64 yards rushing, with Blount getting only five carries for 6 yards. Blount didn’t get a single carry in the second half.

“I had big expectations,” Blount said. “They stopped us, that’s what made the difference.”

Blount said the Broncos didn’t do anything surprising or different from what the Patriots had scouted on film. After gaining 355 yards in the last two games, it was a huge disappointment to get knocked out of the playoffs with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

“There were plays that were out there that we didn’t make,” he said. “This is my first time getting this far into a season and losing, so yeah it hurts. There were plays out there that we could make that we didn’t make.”

Shane Vereen led the Patriots with 34 yards on four carries, mostly as the Patriots were fighting back from a 20-point deficit. Stevan Ridley had much better success, running for 17 yards on five carries, a 3.4 yards per carry average.

“I’m extremely proud of this team,” Blount said. “We overcame a lot with our injuries to our big guys and our big-time players. Every last guy I know wanted to go and play in two weeks.”

FULL ENTRY

Watch: Patriots-Broncos game recap

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 07:14 PM

Here's a look at the key plays in the Broncos' 26-16 victory over the Patriots on Sunday in AFC Championship Game in Denver.

Click full entry to see the video.

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Patriots fall to Broncos in AFC Championship, 26-16

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 06:07 PM

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DENVER — The last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl was nine years ago.

After losing to the Denver Broncos 26-16 Sunday in the AFC Championship, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady will have to wait one more year to chase that elusive fourth title.

Box score

Pictures: Patriots-Broncos scenes Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns and Broncos kicker Matt Prater converted on four field goal attempts to lead Denver to its first Super Bowl berth since 1998.

The Broncos will face the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers, in Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey on Feb. 2.

"I wish we could've done a little better today, especially me," Belichick said.

In the Belichick and Brady era, the Patriots fell to 3-3 on the road in the postseason and have lost two straight AFC Championships. It was the 15th meeting of the league’s two top quarterbacks, Manning and Brady, with Brady falling to 10-5. Brady had beaten a Manning-led team in three straight matchups.

"They are a really good football team, we just couldn't do enough today," Brady said. "We definitely had some chances on third down. It's just a tough day for our team, we fought hard, just came up short to a very good football team."

Belichick fell to 6-2 against Denver head coach John Fox.

Manning threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas with 7:52 left in the third quarter and a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Tamme in the second quarter as the Broncos jumped all over the Patriots.

Prater's four field goals, including a 54-yarder, helped the Broncos go up by as much as 20 points on the Patriots before Brady orchestrated a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives. He threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman and ran in a 5-yard touchdown on his own in the fourth quarter.

Stephen Gostkowski made a 47-yard field goal with 2:54 left in the first half to get the Patriots on the scoreboard. But the Patriots didn't get into the end zone until there was 9:52 left in the fourth quarter.

"Starting tomorrow we're on to 2014," Belichick said.

FULL ENTRY

Aqib Talib leaves for locker room with injury

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff January 19, 2014 04:22 PM

Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib is questionable to return to the AFC Championship Game after suffering a knee injury early in the second quarter.

Talib, essential to the Patriots' defensive backfield against the high-octane Broncos offense, was hit in the back and ribs by Wes Welker on a crossing pattern with 13:36 remaining in the second quarter. The pass, intended for Demaryius Thomas, was incomplete.

Talib remained on his back on the field for a couple of minutes before walking off on his own power. He headed to the Patriots locker room with trainers, returned to the sideline briefly midway through the second quarter, then returned to the locker room before halftime.

Aaron Dobson, Ryan Allen active for Patriots against Broncos

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 01:36 PM

By Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff

DENVER — The Patriots will get a boost at wide receiver with the return of Aaron Dobson, who missed last week’s playoff game with a stress fracture in his left foot.

Dobson is listed as active for Sunday’s AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos after suffering the stress fracture against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 of the regular season. He had been listed as questionable along with wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (concussion/hip), who is inactive.

Patriots punter Ryan Allen (shoulder) is also active for the Patriots. He left last week’s playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts with a shoulder injury and had been listed as questionable.

Inactive for the Patriots are linebacker Steve Beauharnais (illness), DT Isaac Sopoaga, DB Justin Green, OL Chris Barker, TE D.J. Williams, and DE Jake Bequette.

New Broncos cornerback Marquice Cole, formerly of the Patriots, was listed as inactive along with Zac Dysert, Ronnie Hillman, Vinston Painter, Chris Kuper, Joel Dreessen, and Sione Fua.

Welcome to Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 12:06 PM

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The view from the press box at Sports Authority Field in Denver ahead of Sunday's AFC Championship between the Patriots and the Broncos. (Zuri Berry / Boston.com Staff)

DENVER -- So far it's a beautiful day in Denver, hours ahead of kickoff for the AFC Championship.

It's 54 degrees, sunny, and winds are at 1 mile per hour. Live updates are already underway as the Patriots get ready to take on the Broncos. Follow along for all updates, insight, and commentary from Boston.com.

What to watch for in the AFC Championship

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 07:59 AM

DENVER — The AFC Championship won’t be like the Patriots’ last matchup with the Denver Broncos.

The weather in Denver, expected to hit a high of 60 degrees, won’t resemble the wintry conditions felt on Nov. 24, 2013 when the temperature at kickoff was 22. The Patriots won 34-31 in overtime with the weather feeling closer to 6 degrees thanks to the wind chill. Winds were gusting up to 22 miles per hour.

That heavy wind led to some interesting decision-making by the Patriots, who elected to kick off in overtime after winning the coin toss. But it also likely led to some keen decisions by the Broncos as well, who ended up running the ball 48 times.

That likely won’t be the case Sunday, making for one-on-one matchups to carry greater importance for the AFC Championship tilt.

Here’s what we’ll be watching:

1. Jamie Collins against Julius Thomas — The Patriots rookie linebacker will be tested against one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Julius Thomas. Thomas did not play in the first bout between the Patriots and Broncos. But after he caught 65 passes for 778 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, he is a well-known threat. With Thomas at 6-5 and 250 pounds, Collins (6-3, 250) may be the only Patriots player with the size to cover and compete with him.

2. Aqib Talib vs. Demaryius Thomas — Demaryius Thomas caught four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown last time around against the Patriots. He got the best of Aqib Talib in that matchup, catching three of those passes with Talib in coverage, including the touchdown. But he made sure to make things difficult for Thomas in overtime, denying him a pass on 3rd and 14. How Talib handles one of the league’s top boundary receivers in Round 2 will have huge implications on the game.

3. Containment of Shaun Phillips — Denver’s outside linebacker has replaced Von Miller as the team’s top pass rushing specialist. He tallied two sacks against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, in the AFC Divisional round and 10 sacks this season. Containing him should be a point of emphasis for the Patriots’ offensive line.

4. Peyton Manning’s foibles — The league’s top quarterback has had well-known meltdowns in the postseason. His 10-11 record in the playoffs is littered with games in which he has thrown an untimely interception, was unable to convert on a key play, or failed in the red zone when his team needed a touchdown most. For as much as this game is about how the Patriots can somehow limit the league’s top offense, led by the league’s top quarterback, it’s just as much about whether Manning can maintain his high level of play at a time when the best is expected of him.

5. Bill Belichick’s gamesmanship — Whether the goal is to shut down the Broncos’ passing attack or somehow rein in their running game, which was prolific in Week 12, the Patriots coach’s game plan has to somehow confuse and confound Broncos coach John Fox and Manning enough to render the best offense an average counterweight. In the Patriots and Broncos’ first meeting, there was an open-door sign for the Broncos to run on every down, with the Patriots benefiting greatly from the wind and Manning taking a backseat to Knowshon Moreno (224 yards). By the time the Broncos really started attacking the Patriots through the air, New England had already scored 28 straight points. That sort of gamesmanship, while successful against the Broncos with Jack Del Rio at the helm, likely won’t work twice. But that doesn’t mean Belichick won’t have something else up his sleeve.

6. Wes Welker’s redemption? — Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker did not have a good showing when he was back in New England. Back deep to return a punt in overtime, he hesitated to step up and make a fair catch that ended up bouncing off teammate Tony Carter and into the hands of Patriots defensive back Nate Ebner. That was the play that put the Patriots in field goal position for Stephen Gostkowski, who nailed the 31-yard game-winner. This time around, he’ll likely be kept to his wide receiving duties, a job in which he was only marginally effective last time around (four catches on eight targets for 31 yards). Will he have a redemptive performance? He surely must be thinking it.

7. Attacking cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Quentin Jammer — Because of an injury to starting cornerback Chris Harris, the Broncos are going to have to rely on defensive backs Champ Bailey, an early season starter turned slot corner, and Quentin Jammer, the team’s fourth defensive back. These veterans with 15 and 12 years of experience are not what they used to be, especially Jammer, who was abused by the Chargers last week. Patriots receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola will have their opportunities to attack guys like Jammer throughout the game. They have to take advantage.

8. Marquice Cole’s impact — Also because of the injury to Harris, the Broncos signed former Patriots defensive back Marquice Cole to fill the depth gap. Cole was a core special teams contributor for the Patriots this season and is a capable defensive back in a pinch. Whether or not he contributes, especially with only a week of practice, is not guaranteed. But all indications say that he will. What impact he may have is something else entirely.

9. Julian Edelman’s speed — As far as slights go, Edelman has a legitimate claim to the week’s top insult. Broncos safety Mike Adams said he was a “one speed” kind of guy. That’s more than enough incentive for Edelman, who caught 105 passes in the regular season, to show off his one speed. Maybe on his way to the end zone. Who knows?

10. Who’s available? — Wide receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (concussion) are both questionable. Punter Ryan Allen (shoulder) is also questionable. The Patriots could use another receiver to add a layer to their passing attack, especially one of Dobson’s size and ability. Allen is obviously pivotal to the Patriots’ special teams unit as punter and holder. Having at least Allen available could be a difference-maker if the Patriots were to have to deal with any long field goals or backed-up punts.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

AFC Championship preview: Patriots at Broncos

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 19, 2014 06:00 AM

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have an opportunity to guide the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl berth together while trying to realize their fourth championship, a journey that has now spanned nine years since claiming their last title.

With the opportunity to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII on the line, all that stands in Brady and Belichick’s way is Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Denver Broncos, a team that has put together a record-breaking offense featuring an array of playmakers who have caused fits for opponents.

Patriots vs. Broncos: How they match up

Patriots-Broncos predictions But this is a game hyped for its two popular quarterbacks and the history they share.

Brady is 10-4 all-time against Manning, with Brady victorious in his last three games against the Denver quarterback. However the last time these two faced off with a Super Bowl berth on the line, Manning, then with the Indianapolis Colts, was the one who came away victorious, winning 38-34.

Denver has the top-ranked offense in the NFL, breaking the 2007 Patriots' record for most points in a season with 606, including 76 touchdowns (just one more than the ’07 Patriots). And the Broncos feature five players who scored 10 or more touchdowns in the regular season, breaking the previous NFL mark of three.

Manning was particularly stellar, passing for a record 55 touchdowns (breaking Brady’s record of 50) and 5,477 yards.

“I don’t really think about those things truthfully,” Brady told members of the press earlier in the week. “It’s just not where my mind is. He’s a great player, they’ve got a great team and one of the best offenses in history. I think what that means for us is we'd better be ready to score some points, because that’s what they do best. They outscore you and they can score quickly, they can run the ball like they did against us last time.”

Belichick and Denver coach John Fox have their own history as well, with Belichick leading his counterpart, 6-1. Belichick bested Fox while he was with the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It is those matchup numbers that speak to a favorable outcome for the Patriots, who are 7-2 all-time in AFC Championship games. Manning, for his part, acknowledges that preparing for Belichick teams are some of his toughest games.

“It’s certainly a great challenge when you play against teams coached by Bill Belichick,” Manning said. “That goes back to my first couple of years when he was the defensive coordinator with the Jets, and then he gets the head job with the Patriots. His teams, his defenses when he was coordinator, like I said, [are] always well-coached, always well-disciplined, and you know it’s going to be a 60-minute fight.”

Manning helped guide the Broncos to a 24-point lead over the Patriots in Week 12 before seeing Brady and the Patriots chip away in the second half before walking away with a 34-31 loss on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal in overtime. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, with running back Knowshon Moreno tallying 224 yards on 37 carries. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman caught nine passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski caught seven passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.

But things have changed for both teams. The Patriots won’t have Gronkowski to help them over the middle of the field. Neither will they have linebacker Brandon Spikes to help stop the run game. It won’t be 22-degree weather (with a wind chill of 7) to affect game conditions. Broncos tight end Julius Thomas (65 receptions, 788 yards, 12 touchdowns) is back from a knee injury. Denver has lost linebacker Von Miller (torn ACL) and cornerback Chris Harris (torn ACL). All of that makes Sunday’s game a tossup with the Lamar Hunt trophy on the line.

Here are the details:

Kickoff: 3:05 p.m.

Records: Patriots 12-4 regular season (1-0 postseason); Broncos 13-3 regular season (1-0 postseason).

TV, radio: CBS (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson); 98.5 FM The Sports Hub (Bob Socci, Scott Zolak), Westwood One (Kevin Harlan, Dan Fouts, Tim Ryan), Univision radio (Raul Stricker, Jr., Joaquin Duro).

Projected starting lineups:
Based on information distributed to the media, practice observations, and injury reports.

Patriots offense: WR Kenbrell Thompkins, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Marcus Cannon, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Julian Edelman, QB Tom Brady, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Danny Amendola.

Patriots defense: LE Rob Ninkovich, DT Sealver Siliga, DT Chris Jones, DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Jamie Collins, CB Aqib Talib, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Devin McCourty, S Steve Gregory.

Broncos offense: WR Demaryius Thomas, LT Chris Clark, LG Zane Beadles, C Manny Ramirez, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Orlando Franklin, TE Julius Thomas, WR Eric Decker, WR Wes Welker, QB Peyton Manning, RB Knowshon Moreno.

Broncos defense: LDE Malik Jackson, DT Sylvester Williams, NT Terrance Knighton, RDE Shaun Phillips, SLB Nate Irving, MLB Wesley Woodyard, WLB Danny Trevathan, LCB Champ Bailey, RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SS Duke Ihenacho, FS Mike Adams.

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Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Scouting the Broncos: Q&A with USA TODAY Sports reporter Lindsay Jones

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 18, 2014 08:00 AM

011814trevathan.jpg

Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan may be an impact player for the Broncos on Sunday. (Stephan Savoia / AP photo)

USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Lindsay Jones was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about the Denver Broncos, a team she covered for 4 1/2 years while at the Denver Post until October 2012.

Consider it a view from the other side.

Follow Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.

1. Outside of the obvious subtractions on defense with Chris Harris and Von Miller being out, what changes should Patriots fans expect on Sunday?

Those are two significant losses for the Broncos defense, though Denver has proven it can play well without Miller this season. The Broncos went 6-0 without him to start the year, and are 2-0 in games since he suffered the torn ACL in the second-to-last game of the regular season. That said, perhaps the two best games Miller has played over the previous two seasons both came against the New England Patriots. The Chris Harris injury is more interesting because he had been the Broncos’ most consistent, and often best, defensive back this season, and he had played more defensive snaps than anyone else. We expect that Harris’s absence will mean a bigger role for Champ Bailey, who had been playing only about half of Denver’s defensive snaps over the past three games as he worked his way back from the foot injury that had bothered him all year.

Offensively, the biggest change for the Broncos since the last time they played New England is the return of tight end Julius Thomas, who has emerged as a star this year. While the addition of Wes Welker certainly upgraded the Broncos’ receiving corps, you could argue that Thomas has truly been the X-factor for Denver’s offense. Jacob Tamme had a nice game against the Patriots in November, but Thomas is a game-changer. Just look at how Manning went to Thomas – not Welker, not Demaryius Thomas, not Eric Decker – for three big third-down conversions last week against San Diego, including the third-and-17 in the fourth quarter.

2. There is a strong impression among fans that Bill Belichick has Peyton Manning’s number. John Fox’s number, too. Is there any truth to that perspective?

I would imagine that a lot of that is driven by the win-loss records, and it’s hard to argue with that. Belichick for years has challenged Manning unlike any other opposing coach, and the respect Manning has for Belichick was obvious this week when he said Belichick will go down as the best coach in NFL history. What makes these games so fun is that it is the mental side of the game that has always separated Manning from so many of his peers, and Belichick is the one coach who has consistently been able to drive him nuts with some sort of new game plan or coverage scheme that Manning either hasn’t seen or wasn’t ready for.

I think it would be fair to say the Broncos were outcoached by the Patriots in the 2012 game in Foxborough, when the Pats unveiled that super high-tempo offense and Denver’s defense just couldn’t keep up. We need to remember, too, that Fox wasn’t on the sideline for the teams’ earlier game this season. That was one of the four games he missed while recovering from heart surgery.

3. As far as numbers go, Wes Welker has had another fantastic season. How has his play changed following his two concussions? Has his role diminished after his return?

Welker missed the final three games of the regular season after suffering that second concussion, and it is fair to debate if he returned too quickly from the first one. He was asked that question earlier this week and dismissed it. His role was not diminished at all in his return to the lineup last week against San Diego, and the Broncos spent much of the game in their three-WR package with him. He caught his 11th TD of the season in that game, so it’s obvious that Manning is still looking for him in the red zone. But perhaps as important as Welker’s production when he’s in the lineup is the attention he draws from opposing defenses and what that means for his teammates Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas.

4. When the game is over, which player will fans come to know that they didn’t before?

I don’t think Julius Thomas is much of a surprise to anyone in the NFL right now, so I’ll go with someone on defense. Second-year linebacker Danny Trevathan is one of just two Broncos to start every game this season, and of the guys they have left, might be the one most capable of making a game-changing type of play. He’s the guy who intercepted Tony Romo to seal Denver’s win in Dallas in early October, and forced fumbles in games against the Patriots and Chiefs in November. For the Broncos to have a chance, they will need to at some point take the ball away from Tom Brady.

5. The Broncos will win Sunday if …

As much fun as Manning-Brady is, so much of the pressure to win this game for the Broncos should be on their defense. Denver has allowed only one 100-yard rusher this year (Ryan Mathews for San Diego in Week 15). They cannot afford to let Brady dictate the pace of the game as he has done so many times recently against the Broncos – notably that 2012 game, and the third quarter of the game in November. That said, Manning and the Broncos offense need to score more than they did last week against San Diego, when Manning threw an interception in the end zone (his first red zone pick of the year) and missed a field goal. That won’t work against Brady.

Consistency still the key for Patriots offensive line

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 17, 2014 09:02 PM

011814connolly.jpg

The Patriots offensive line has been helped this season by a core group of mainstays. (Jim Rogash / Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH — When LeGarrette Blount stood at his locker and extolled the virtues of his offensive line, one in which he was adamant had not received its fair due, the nods were forthcoming.

“They’ve been hot all season,” said Blount, “just haven’t been getting the recognition.”

Blount’s words ring true to a degree. Logan Mankins was named to the Pro Bowl for another stellar season. But if the Patriots’ breakout back could have it his way, all of the men who earn their wages in the trenches would be recognized.

That’s tough to argue after the team allowed 40 sacks on the season, 34 of which can be attributed to the offensive line, according to the statistical website ProFootballFocus.com. For comparison’s sake, Tom Brady was sacked more than twice as many times as Peyton Manning (18).

And yet the Patriots’ offensive line has somehow resolved in a difficult season, being stitched together one game after another. They lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a broken leg in Week 8, dealt without left tackle Nate Solder for a game, right tackle Marcus Cannon for two, used Mankins at left tackle, Josh Kline at left guard, and Will Svitek in spots, and basically scrambled to put together a line of defense for Brady at the edges in the second half of the season.

The mainstays have been the interior linemen, where Blount and Stevan Ridley have done their best work. Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, and right guard Dan Connolly have made all 16 starts. Consistency has been key. For Connolly, who started the year in a competition for his spot with Cannon, it’s been a priority to make sure he’s available each and every week.

“Well you know the most important thing is our team winning first of all,” Connolly said. “[But for me], every little bit that I can do to make sure that I’m healthy to help the team be successful. That’s the most important thing.”

In facing the Broncos, the Patriots' offensive line will see a somewhat diminished pass rush with Von Miller out with a torn ACL. They allowed three sacks and eight quarterback hurries on Brady in the game with Svitek taking over at right tackle for Cannon, including two sacks by Miller.

“They lost a great pass rusher for sure, but they’ve got plenty of great guys up there,” Connolly said. “They’ve got really good defensive linemen, good big guys. Good pocket pushers. Good run stoppers. It’s just going to take a lot of effort and a lot of hard work on our part.”

The Broncos’ current top pass rushing specialist is linebacker Shaun Philips, who finished the regular season with 10 sacks and had two sacks in the AFC Divisional playoff round against the San Diego Chargers.

With consistency, not just on the offensive line but with the tight ends group — Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan — as well as the running backs, the Patriots have had a core group that has been able to hold their opponents to only six sacks in the past four games.

But there’s no doubt that there is a considerable challenge posed by Denver despite the absence of one notable player. The Broncos tallied four sacks against the Chargers last week.

"The stakes are high and everybody is going to be playing their best football," Connolly said. "And that’s all we can ask for. To have the toughest opponent you could play and them give you all they got, and we give them all we got, and see who comes out on top."

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Allen, Dobson Thompkins all questionable; Beauharnais out

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 17, 2014 04:06 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Steve Beauharnais has been ruled out of Sunday's AFC Championship game by the Patriots, after the linebacker missed Friday's practice with an illness.

Beauharnais hasn't been a big contributor for the Patriots, playing in just four of their first 17 games. If he was dealing with the same medical issue that forced Tom Brady and Danny Aiken to miss Wednesday's practice -- especially with the team taking a four-hour flight to Denver today -- and the chance of Beauharnais playing against the Broncos was slim to begin with, better to just keep him home, so others won't catch it.

Three Patriots are listed as questionable: receivers Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip/concussion), and punter Ryan Allen (shoulder).

For the Patriots:

Out:
LB Steve Beauharnais (illness)

Questionable:
P Ryan Allen (shoulder)
WR Aaron Dobson (foot)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip/concussion)

Probable:
WR Danny Amendola (groin)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder)
LB Dane Fletcher (groin)
LB Dont'a Hightower (ankle)
G Logan Mankins (ankle)
RB Shane Vereen (groin)

For the Broncos:

Probable:
S Mike Adams (thigh)
TE Joel Dreessen (knee)
S Duke Ihenacho (knee)
T Winston Justice (finger)
G Chris Kuper (ankle)
QB Peyton Manning (ankle)
WR Demaryius Thomas (calf)
CB Kayvon Webster (thumb)

Brady: Despite relying on running game lately, Patriots offense can change

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 17, 2014 02:23 PM

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots ran for 643 yards in their last three games, with running back LeGarrette Blount leading the way with 431 yards and eight touchdowns.

But that doesn't mean that the team is locked in on having a run-oriented offense Sunday against the Denver Broncos.

"Every team has a little different game plan so every week seems to be a little bit different," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "I’m sure this week will have a different flavor than what last week had. Like I said about six hours ago when I was up here, I think that we always try to find a strength and weakness to the defense and then end up trying to figure out a way around that.

"So, if a team is really geared up to stop the run, then we have to do things to throw it well. If they’re trying to stop the run game, we have to try to pass it. If they’re trying to stop the inside runs, we have to run it outside. If they’re going to stop the outside runs, we run inside. If they’re going to stop the short pass, we have to throw it deep. If they’re going to stop the deep pass, we throw it short. If they’re going to stop the screens, we have to do something. That’s the idea behind offensive football is you really have to do enough things, have enough things in your arsenal to be able to adjust to whatever they’re doing."

The Patriots, after going down 24-0, ended up throwing the ball 50 times against the Broncos in their first meeting in November. The team's rushing game, led by Brandon Bolden, totaled 113 yards on the ground. It was a balanced effort against Denver that the Patriots are determined to have again.

"If your whole game plan is centered around one particular aspect of the game, then it’s going to be pretty easy to shut you down," Brady explained. "I think the best teams have the best variety and have enough players within their system to be capable enough to adapt and change and still ultimately go out and be effective in a lot of different areas, whether it’s a driving rainstorm like we had a few weeks ago or it’s perfect conditions like we may have this weekend, whether you’re down by 24 points like we have been at times, whether you’re up 24.

"All those different brands of football really come into play. I think to be a good team over the course of a long season, you have to be good at all those things and then play to whatever situation ends up happening."

Click full entry to see video of Brady's comments Friday.

FULL ENTRY

LeGarrette Blount: Bill Belichick basically told us, 'Don't be stupid'

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 17, 2014 12:47 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- With Colorado recently legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, coach Bill Belichick and some of his players were asked about the temptation that might exist with the team's weekend trip to Denver for the AFC Championship game.

Because of the time zone and altitude difference, the Patriots were scheduled to fly to Denver on Friday afternoon, after the week's final practice.

“It’s a busines trip. Nobody is going to care about that,” LeGarrette Blount said. “Bill told us about it, he basically told us, ‘Don’t go out there and be stupid.’ [That’s] really good advice.”

Belichick, obviously not thrilled with the line of questioning, said, “I think we know what the NFL policy is on that,” before directing the questioner to take the matter up with the league.

Tom Brady was another player who was asked if he thought he or any of his teammates would be temped to smoke.

“Hopefully not,” Brady said. “This is a very important game for us and it’s a business trip.”

Dobson practicing but won't say if he'll play in AFC title game

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 17, 2014 11:07 AM

FOXBOROUGH – Receiver Aaron Dobson has been on the practice field all week, which is a good sign for his availability on Sunday, but he isn't sure whether or not he'll be in uniform for the AFC Championship game.

The rookie, who aggravated a stress fracture in his foot against Buffalo on Dec. 29 and sat out last week's game against the Colts, said in the locker room on Friday that he's feeling better, but taking things one day at a time.

"It’s frustrating, but I’m trying to improve, keep getting better, keep rehabbing and keep doing what I have to do to go on the trip," Dobson said.

The problem first flared up against Denver in Week 12, and Dobson missed the next three games. He returned in Week 16 against the Ravens, and then pulled up in the first half against Buffalo as he was chasing a deep pass.

He did not practice during New England's postseason bye week or the days leading up to the Divisional game with the Colts, returning on Wednesday as the Patriots began preparations for the Broncos.

"It was hard, just to watch my team battle [Indianapolis] without me but they pulled it out, so I’m glad I get another opportunity hopefully to get back on the field this Sunday," Dobson said.

Just as he did during his three-game layoff, Dobson said he's made sure to study his playbook and take mental reps, doing everything he can to stay sharp mentally. When he returned against Baltimore, there was some rust to knock off in terms of timing and returning to game shape, but "nothing too crazy."

A healthy Dobson could be a big asset for the Patriots' offense. As the team's best deep threat, he does a lot of his work outside the numbers, while teammates Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and even Austin Collie work the middle of the field. Having Dobson could prevent the Denver defense from crowding the middle of the field to minimize things for Edelman/Amendola/Collie.

Asked about being mentioned as a player the Patriots will need, the 6-foot-3 receiver from Marshall University said, "I just try to go out there and do my job, I don’t really try to put too much on my shoulders, you know, I’ve got to go out there and do what I have to do and do what I have to do to help the team."

Dobson had 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns in 12 regular season games.

AFC title game: Friday practice peek - 52 of 53 players present

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 17, 2014 10:57 AM

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots are holding their final on-field practice of the week before packing up and heading out to Denver later this afternoon.

Colleague Michael Whitmer reports that 52 of 53 players were present, with rookie LB Steve Beauharnais the lone absentee during the media-access window.

Beauharnais, who has been active for just two games this season, has not been listed on the practice report previously this week.

Players were in shells and sweats.

FULL ENTRY

AFC, NFC championship picks

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 17, 2014 03:57 AM

There’s a sharp contrast between the AFC and NFC Championship games, with the former featuring the league’s hallmark quarterbacks and the latter featuring the game’s up-and-coming stars.

It’s hard not to notice when considering the juxtaposition that will arise in the Super Bowl, whoever the contestants are. It’s also hard to ignore that given the talent of each team, and the rivalries between each opponent, Sunday’s conference championships are much harder to pick than usual. One could, with a simple coin flip, make an argument for either and have some pretty good numbers to back them up.

But when you look at the line, there’s a clear divide between the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. And that helps guide my conference championship picks.

FULL ENTRY

Sealver Siliga proving to be a solid run stopper for Patriots

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 17, 2014 03:02 AM
The Patriots have been able to hold opponents to less yards
per game on the ground with Sealver Siliga in the starting
lineup. (Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff)

FOXBOROUGH — One of the takeaways from the aftermath of the first Patriots-Broncos game was the need to change the team’s run defense.

The Patriots allowed a season-high 280 yards rushing to the Broncos in Week 12, the 10th most in franchise history and the most yards on the ground allowed since since 1990. In the blistering cold, the Broncos relied heavily on running back Knowshon Moreno (224 yards), who gashed the Patriots up the middle.

Despite coming out with a 34-31 overtime win, changes needed to be made, particularly up front where the Broncos were able to take advantage of a weak interior defensive line.

That’s when Sealver Siliga got his first shot.

The third-year defensive tackle from West Jordan, Utah, had been signed to the Patriots’ practice squad Oct. 24. But he’s bounced around. He was signed as a rookie free agent by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 after his junior season at Utah before he was released out of training camp. That’s when he was picked up by the Broncos and signed to their practice squad. He played one game for Denver in 2012.

The Broncos decided to trade Siliga to the Seattle Seahawks in training camp last summer before he was cut again from Seattle’s practice squad. That was Oct. 4, 2013.

Siliga has the distinction of having played for all four teams in the conference championship games.

He made his first appearance for the Patriots in Week 13 against the Houston Texans, one week after the game against Denver. Siliga recorded two tackles while playing only 16 snaps. The following week against Cleveland, he got his first start and played 53 of the team’s 76 defensive snaps, recording only one tackle. But he was solid against the run, holding his gaps.

Siliga had one sack against both the Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens the next two weeks, but he didn’t really have a breakout effort until Week 17 — his fifth game and fourth start — tallying six tackles, all of which were either at the line of scrimmage for no gain or for a loss. His positive contributions have made him an integral part of the team’s defense that has held opponents to 111.2 yards per game rushing in his starts, a huge dip from the team's regular season average (134.1).

"He’s our run stopper," Patriots rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones said. "He’s good."

Siliga, 23, has the stamp of approval from his teammates, especially because of his journey from being a practice squad player to a starter for the Patriots.

"I've been in that same position where I was a practice squad guy and all you are doing is wanting a chance to show somebody that you can go play football," said Rob Ninkovich. "Sometimes it doesn’t happen the first or second year but you get a chance and you only have one shot so when you get that opportunity you can’t let it slip by."

With injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and unsatisfactory play from Isaac Sopoaga, Siliga has certainly made a case for himself to have a role on this team going forward. It’s that kind of opportunity, something he didn’t receive in his other three stops, that makes him so thankful. And it’s also why he carries a chip on his shoulder.

"Just because of where I started and where I’m at now, I'm always going to have something on my shoulder just to prove that I can play in this league, I have something to contribute and I have something to give," Siliga said.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Honorary captain Willie McGinest may be next in Patriots Hall of Fame

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 17, 2014 12:55 AM
Former defensive end and linebacker Willie McGinest, right,
and Patriots Hall of Fame player Tedy Bruschi embraced
before the Patriots faced the New York Jets in 2013.
McGinest may be next in line to be inducted into the Patriots
Hall of Fame. (Elise Amendola / AP photo)

The Patriots will have former defensive end and linebacker Willie McGinest as an honorary captain this Sunday for their AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos.

McGinest, who played the first 12 years of his 15-year NFL career in New England, will join former Bronco Rod Smith on the field for the game’s coin toss.

This sort of ceremonial gesture for former players are usually a precursor to something more, like recognizing a player in a franchise’s hall of fame. Smith was inducted to the Broncos’ Ring of Fame in 2012. McGinest’s former teammate Tedy Bruschi was named to the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2013. Bruschi had participated in a Patriots coin toss in 2010 during a day in his honor. So while it is a warm gesture for McGinest, it may mean something more later down the road. And seeing how he finished his career in 2008, he’s already eligible to be inducted.

“First and foremost it is an honor and I am humbled by it,” McGinest said in a teleconference with reporters Thursday. “Especially because for all the other great Patriots that played alongside me and I played with, just the respect and the professionalism Mr. [Robert] Kraft showed me, giving me my opportunity to come into an organization and help be a part of one of the blocks, one of the building blocks of creating what it is today. I take a lot of pride in that.

“One of the things is, I always messed with Mr. Kraft especially this year in the Thursday Night Football game I was giving him my measurements for my jacket size when we had Tedy Bruschi on set,” McGinest continued. “I’m sure it will come. I understand how things work. But I’m more than honored and happy for being a captain and the jackets and all that stuff will come. Me and Mr. Kraft, we had conversations about that. I’m excited. I’m excited for the guys that have already been inducted. Those guys, they put a lot of work, sacrifice, and commitment into that organization and I was happy for Tedy. I was able to be there to introduce him, have some fun with him. But I am sure my time is coming. I’m patient.”

As the team’s first draft pick under Robert Kraft’s ownership in 1994, and beloved by fans, there is certainly a sizable amount of sentimentality for McGinest. He won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, was named to two Pro Bowls, and had 86 career sacks (78 in New England). His enshrinement at The Hall at Patriot Place may come sooner than even he believes.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Elway says Manning has more in tank

Posted by Julian Benbow, Globe Staff January 16, 2014 07:24 PM

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- At 37 years old, Peyton Manning is only a year younger than John Elway was when he stepped away from the game. Elway had just won the second of back-to-back Super Bowls and was able to ride off into the twilight on top.

Whether or not that thought has crossed Manning's mind is something Elway isn't entirely sure of.

Speaking to a select gathering of reporters, Elway said, "I still think he's young and he's playing well. That's going to come down to Peyton. It's going to come down to what he wants to do.

"Having been a football player before, when you leave this game, you want to leave it on your last leg, and try not to leave anything on the table."

Two years removed from his fourth neck surgery, Manning threw for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards this season. By the time Elway retired in 1998, he no longer had a lateral meniscus in his left knee.

"Anybody that's a competitor, that's kind of the way they want to leave the game," Elway said. "I was just fortunate to be able to be on two great football teams and be able to win world championships when my last leg broke."

Manning spoke about his relationship with Elway, saying that for the most part Elway does his best not to impose, but as a quarterback, it's hard for Manning not to soak up some of Elway's experience.

"I think being an ex-quarterback, he has been a great resource," Manning said. "He doesn’t come to our quarterback meetings. He’s not on the phone with me during the game. I think he wants to make that clear that it’s his job to hire good people to communicate with me on those ends.

"At the same time, I think you’d be crazy not to ask a quarterback with his experience questions. It was kind of the same way growing up. My dad was never my coach by any means, but when you enjoy playing quarterback and you want to learn about the position, you try to use resources around you.

"I’ve asked John a number of questions and he’s provided me with knowledge or tidbits from experiences that he’s had. He’s been very helpful that way. Then, like all players, he’s been extremely supportive of players he’s picked for this team. You certainly appreciate that."

Mayor Walsh makes friendly bet with Denver mayor Hancock

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 16, 2014 04:56 PM

FOXBOROUGH — Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock have made a friendly wager for Sunday’s AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Broncos.

If the Patriots win, Hancock will wear a Patriots jersey at the U.S. Conference of Mayors next week in Washington D.C. and ship some green chile, a hoodie, hat, and skis from Icelantic Skis in Denver.

If the Broncos win, Walsh will wear a Broncos jersey to the conference, send 5 pounds of chocolate turtles from Phillips Candy House in Dorchester, and donate some locally inscribed books to Denver Public Libraries.

In a video posted to Instagram, Walsh says "I think you know what number" when referring to the jersey.

AFC title game: Thursday injury report - Brady removed from list

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 16, 2014 04:09 PM

FOXBOROUGH - Tom Brady insisted at his Thursday press conference that despite being sent home on Wednesday due to illness, he was feeling just fine - and the Patriots' injury report backs him up.

New England removed Brady (illness/right shoulder), LS Danny Aiken (illness) and CB Kyle Arrington (groin) from the injury report on Thursday.

The team also upgraded several players who had been listed as limited on Wednesday to full participants on Thursday, including CB Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder/knee), LB Dane Fletcher (groin), G Logan Mankins (ankle), and RB Shane Vereen (groin).

There remain five players who were limited on Thursday after also being limited on Wednesday: P Ryan Allen (shoulder), WR Danny Amendola (groin), WR Aaron Dobson (foot), LB Dont'a Hightower (ankle) and WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip/concussion).

The Broncos' injury report has not been sent yet, though coach John Fox told reporters in Denver that all players were full participants in Thursday's practice.

Shane Vereen talks red-hot Patriots' run game

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 16, 2014 02:48 PM
FOXBOROUGH -- Shane Vereen hasn't played a huge part in the recent resurgence of the Patriots' running game (he has 26 yards the last three games combined), but he has watched as his fellow running backs have turned what had been a bit of a question mark into an unmistakable team strength.

"[Running well] gives the offense confidence, knowing that if we can run the ball, other things will open up, especially the pass game. So it goes hand-in-hand," said Vereen, who has the same number of rushes this season (49, playoffs included) as receptions.

It has come along at the right time, with the Patriots getting ready to face Denver Sunday in the AFC Championship. Why did it take so long?

"That’s a good question," said Vereen. "I think maybe it just took a little longer this year than in past seasons. We were focusing on certain things that we weren’t focusing on before. Bottom line is, we’re trying to play physical, and when we run the ball well, it’s a good sign."

Tom Brady says he feels just fine

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 16, 2014 12:56 PM

FOXBOROUGH – Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he was feeling fine after missing Wednesday's practice with an illness.

He was back at practice on Thursday and spoke to the media in his first press conference ahead of Sunday's AFC Championship.

"It was nothing," Brady said. "I feel great. Nothing at all.”

Brady said he realizes the time to prepare before Sunday's game is important, despite missing practice.

"Everything is important at this point. You've got, whatever, six, six and a half days to prepare. You're really on the clock."

Hearing his stats from his last game after missing a practice, a 57.5 quarterback passer rating against the Baltimore Ravens Jan. 22, 2012 (a 23-20 win), he was asked what kind of performance could be expected of him again and whether fans should be worried.

"That's bad," Brady said. "It needs to be better than 57. "I hope not. I hope they shouldn't be worried. But this team is going to test us. I'm going to go out there and do my best. All the preparation that we've had to this point, is a part, and going forward we have three more days to really get after it. I'm going to do my very best."

FULL ENTRY

Brady, Aiken return to Patriots practice

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 16, 2014 11:11 AM

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FOXBOROUGH – Quarterback Tom Brady and long snapper Danny Aiken – the two players who missed Wednesday's practice because of illness – were back on the field for Thursday's workout, giving the Patriots perfect attendance.

The Patriots were in sweats and shells, working on one of the grass practice fields behind Gillette Stadium.

Brady and Aiken had both been at the football facility on Wednesday morning, then were sent home. Illness was the reason listed on the team's practice participation report, although Brady was also listed with a right shoulder injury, as he has for weeks.

FULL ENTRY

Tom Brady back at Patriots practice

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 16, 2014 09:34 AM
Quarterback Tom Brady, who missed Wednesday's Patriots practice because of an illness, was back at work on Thursday, according to Globe reporter Shalise Manza Young.

Tom Brady is back at Gillette today #exhale

— shalise manza young (@shalisemyoung) January 16, 2014 FULL ENTRY

Explaining Peyton Manning's 'Omaha' call: How Patriots players will handle it

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 16, 2014 08:26 AM

FOXBOROUGH — It’s now a running joke.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went to the podium Wednesday in Englewood, Colo., and humorously explained that “Omaha” is a running play.

“But it could be a pass play,” he said, “or a play-action pass, depending on a couple of things.

“The wind. Which way we’re going. The quarter. And the jerseys we’re wearing. So it really varies play to play.”

All good fun for the Denver Broncos quarterback who, through his histrionic display at the line of scrimmage Sunday, managed to foul up the normally disciplined San Diego Chargers defensive line in the AFC Divisional playoff round.

FULL ENTRY

Watch: Great rivals explain the Peyton Manning-Tom Brady rivalry

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 16, 2014 06:00 AM

Amid all the talk about the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry this week, whom better to ask for perspective than athletes who know what a rivalry is all about.

We're talking Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Those four and several more lend their voices to a video by NFL Network that explores the Manning-Brady rivalry, which will be renewed on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

Click the full entry button to see the feature.

FULL ENTRY

Concussions won't slow Wes Welker down

Posted by Julian Benbow, Globe Staff January 15, 2014 07:58 PM

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If Wes Welker has to wear an oversized helmet in order to take the field for the playoffs, so be it.

After suffering a pair of concussions this season, the 32-year-old Broncos receiver took extra precaution for last week’s divisional round win over the Chargers, going up a size in helmets.

The switch wasn’t a major issue, and Welker finished with six catches for 38 yards and a touchdown.

''It was the helmet they recommended to me and it felt the same to me,'' said the former Patriots receiver. ''Supposedly it protects me more. I’m still playing, so that’s all I care about.''

After taking a huge hit from Titans defensive back Bernard Pollard at the beginning of December, Welker sat out the final three weeks of the regular season and also used Denver's bye week in the first round of the playoffs to recover.

It was the most time Welker had spent away from the football field in his 10-year career.

''I feel a lot better,'' he said. ''Taking five weeks off is a little bit different, but it's still good to get that game under your belt, and moving on to the next one is good and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.''

With a chance to return to the Super Bowl, Welker said, he doesn’t expect his recent concussion history to affect the way he plays.

''At this point, AFC Championship game, all that stuff, I’m not worried about it at all,'' he said. ''I’m just going out there trying to get first downs, move the sticks, try to make plays for my team.''

Marquice Cole jumps at opportunity with Broncos

Posted by Julian Benbow, Globe Staff January 15, 2014 06:46 PM

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When word started to spread that former Patriots cornerback Marquice Cole had signed with the Broncos just days before the teams were set to meet in the AFC Championship game, some of the responses from Patriots fans on Twitter were predictably harsh.

But Cole had one supporter in the Patriots locker room in Aqib Talib.

''That’s my dog,'' Talib said. ''Cash that check, baby. Got to pay the bills, man.''

Cole, who was released by the Patriots four times this season (the last time coming the day after Christmas), appreciated the support.

''That’s my dog, he knows what it is,'' Cole said. ''Like he said, it is what it is. I [was at] home. If I get a call to be on a team and help contribute and make some money, then what am I supposed to say? No? Aqib knows what’s up. That’s my dog.''

Cole still had some of his belongings in his locker in Foxborough, even though he had no guarantees from the Patriots that he’d be back.

He was watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" with his son at his home in Illinois when he got the call from the Broncos.

''When I got the call, I had to jump on it,'' he said.

How Cole will be used in the game -- if at all -- is still a question.

''I better be able to answer an hour and a half before the game,'' Broncos coach John Fox joked.

As far as Peyton Manning picking his brain for some Patriots secrets, Cole said he doubted it. Their first conversation was brief.

''I just said, 'How are you doing? My name is Peyton. Good to have you here,' '' Manning said. ''So that’s the extent of it so far.''

But Cole couldn’t think of anything he would know that wouldn’t be in Manning’s mental notes already.

''He’s one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league,'' Cole said. ''So there’s nothing really I can tell him that he doesn’t already know.''

Peyton Manning explains 'Omaha' signal .... sort of

Posted by John Carney January 15, 2014 06:10 PM

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Peyton Manning wasn’t sure how to answer the question.

The Broncos quarterback had been asked before to explain ''Omaha,'' the signal call that now has become its own story. But he had never been asked how he feels about Nebraska’s largest city.

FULL ENTRY

Wednesday injury report: Illness sidelines Tom Brady, Danny Aiken

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 15, 2014 04:10 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady and Danny Aiken did indeed miss practice Wednesday, with illness listed by the Patriots as the reason.

Brady also had a right shoulder injury listed on the injury report, something he's had for a number of weeks. It hasn't forced him to miss any games.

Ten Patriots were limited in practice, including punter Ryan Allen, who was forced out of Saturday's playoff win over the Colts with a shoulder injury. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower was added to the list with an ankle injury, which he presumably suffered against the Colts. Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins sustained a concussion against the Colts, which forced him out; Thompkins was limited in practice Wednesday, as well.

FULL ENTRY

Belichick unfazed by road woes going into AFC Championship

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 15, 2014 03:59 PM
Bill Belichick has a 2-1 record on the road in the AFC
Championship. (Stephan Savoia / AP photo)

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots have not played a road playoff game since 2007, making Sunday's AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos an even more intriguing contest for a team that has struggled outside of Gillette Stadium.

Under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots are 3-2 in the postseason when playing on the road. The last time they did so, seven years ago, they lost in the AFC Championship to the Indianapolis Colts, 38-34.

That was also the last time Brady and Peyton Manning faced each other in the AFC title game.

While Manning has lost his last three matchups with the Patriots, including both with the Broncos, and is 1-2 against New England in the postseason, Denver is 6-2 in AFC Championship games and 2-0 when facing the Patriots at home in the postseason. The Broncos are 14-4 all-time at home in the postseason.

This is all quite pertinent when considering the Patriots went 4-4 on the road this season, losing close games to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Carolina Panthers, and Miami Dolphins. At one point, the Patriots were 2-3 on the road before climbing back to .500.

With all this in mind, Belichick does not see the atmosphere at Sports Authority Field as any kind of advantage.

"We play eight games on the road every year," Belichick said. "I think if we play well, we’ll have a good chance to win. If we don’t play well, I don’t think we’ll have a good chance to win. But I think it’s like that every Sunday home or away."

Sounds like a 50-50 chance. It just so happens that the Patriots are 7-2 in AFC Championships. But as for AFC Championships on the road, Belichick is just a tad better than .500 at 2-1.

Click full entry button to see Belichick's full interview Wednesday.

FULL ENTRY

Aqib Talib: 'Good luck, Quice. Cash that check'

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 15, 2014 03:29 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- For the second time in as many weeks, the Patriots' playoff opponent signed a former New England player.

Last week, it was the Colts bringing aboard wide receiver Deion Branch. Branch, who lives in the Indianapolis area, hadn't played for New England all season and wound up being inactive last Saturday night.

On Tuesday, the Broncos signed cornerback Marquice Cole. But unlike Branch, Cole not only fits a need -- Denver placed cornerback Chris Harris on injured reserve with a torn ACL -- but he's in game shape and was with the Patriots all season, so he does have a little intel he could pass along.

The news that Cole signed with Denver led some Patriots fans to send out angry messages on Twitter, alleging that he was a traitor (or "trader," as one wrote).

The reality, of course, is that Cole was unemployed and was offered a job, and former teammate Aqib Talib has no issues with his friend signing with Denver.

"That’s my dog, man," Talib said in the locker room Wednesday. "Good luck, Quice, man. Cash that check, baby. Pay those bills."

Asked if Cole could give the Broncos any information on the Patriots, Talib said, "Quice can’t tell Peyton Manning nothing that Peyton Manning don’t already know about us, man."

Double duty for Ryan Mallett

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 15, 2014 02:38 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- With Tom Brady missing practice because of an unspecified illness, it fell on Ryan Mallett to take all the quarterback snaps Wednesday. And when we say all, we mean all: Since there are no other quarterbacks on the Patriots roster, Mallett spent time working with the offense and also going against the defense as the scout-team quarterback.

So, in effect, Mallett played the roles of Brady and Peyton Manning on the same day.

"I was both. I like both of them, really, everybody gets to throw it," Mallett said in a very crowded locker room after practice. "Practice went just as planned. I took a lot more reps so I was a lot more fatigued than normal, that was the only difference."

The last game snap Mallett took was Aug. 29, during the Patriots' final preseason game. In a 28-20 win over the Giants, Mallett was 10 of 16 for 117 yards and a touchdown.

Brady played every single offensive snap in the regular season and the playoff win over the Colts.

Even though he didn't see the field at all during the season, Mallett knows he's a play away from being called upon, so he practices that way.

"Even when I’m not taking the snaps with the first team, I’m watching and playing the game in my head, so I can get in my reps in case something happens and I do go in the game," Mallett said.

The injury report is scheduled to come out later this afternoon, which is when we'll see how Brady is listed. He has been on the report in recent weeks listed with a right shoulder injury, but obviously he hasn't missed any time because of it. And while the assumption is that Brady will be healthy enough to play in Sunday's AFC Championship game at Denver, Mallett wasn't giving anything away.

"That [decision] is not in my pay grade," Mallett said, when asked if Brady will go.

Patriots practice peek: Tom Brady not present

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 15, 2014 11:00 AM

FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was not spotted at Wednesday's practice during the portion open to the media, according to the Globe's Shalise Manza Young.

He wasn't the only player missing. Long snapper Danny Aiken was also not spotted.

Meanwhile, wide receiver Aaron Dobson returned to practice after missing last week's AFC Divisional playoff game with a foot injury. He had been seen walking in a boot last week.

Patriots punter Ryan Allen, who suffered a shoulder injury against the Indianapolis Colts last week, was also at practice.

FULL ENTRY

LeGarrette Blount makes cover of Sports Illustrated

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff January 15, 2014 10:13 AM

LeGarrette Blount makes cover of Sports Illustrated

Repeat after me, there's no such thing as a Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

LeGarrette Blount forced his way into the record book Saturday night and now he's on the cover of this week's SI.

Against the Colts on Saturday, Blount set a team record -- regular season and postseason -- with his fourth rushing touchdown of the game. The fourth touchdown came on a 73-yard run in the fourth quarter, the second-longest TD run in Patriots playoff history.

He also tied former Patriots running back Curtis Martin for rushing yards in a playoff game with 166.

Blount had 772 rushing yards on 153 carries, and scored seven touchdowns in his first year in New England.

FULL ENTRY

Josh McDaniels: 'I'll definitely be here'

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 14, 2014 01:59 PM


Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, appearing on Tuesday's coaches' teleconference, addressed his decision to withdraw from consideration for the Browns' head coaching position. McDaniels met with Browns officials Jan. 4, confirmed the meeting to the media a week ago, then took his name out of the running.

Does it mean that McDaniels is expecting to be with the Patriots next season?

"I’ll definitely be here," he said.

Asked about the decision, McDaniels said, "I think all it means is I made a decision that this is the right time for me to be here. I’m really happy here, I’ve said that numerous times.

"There’s not really much else to it. It’s a process you go through sometimes, and you ultimately have to make choices based on what’s best for you and your family, and that’s what I tried to do."

Belichick not interested in talking about Allen, Spikes

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 14, 2014 01:40 PM


Bill Belichick was in no mood to give a medical update Tuesday on injured punter Ryan Allen, and didn't want to talk about Brandon Spikes, whose agent said Monday that the team's decision to place the linebacker on injured reserve was not a mutual one.

"We’ll put out our injury report tomorrow after practice, like we usually do," Belichick said during the weekly coaches' teleconference, when asked if he anticipates Allen being able to play against the Broncos in Sunday's AFC Championship game.

Allen suffered a shoulder injury in last Saturday's win over the Colts, which led to kicker Stephen Gostkowski taking over both roles the rest of the game.

Belichick cut off the questioner when asked for his reaction to the statement regarding Spikes, who was placed on IR Jan. 3. An ESPN report on Saturday said Spikes was late for a bye-week practice, which was part of the reason he was placed on IR.

"I don’t have any comment on any of the players ... we’ll talk about the game and the players that are on our roster," said Belichick. "I’m not going to talk about any players that aren’t currently on the active roster."

He was asked about the upcoming game, and praised Broncos tight end Julius Thomas, who missed the Nov. 24 game at Gillette Stadium with an injury.

"Excellent player," said Belichick. "Size, speed, he’s a good vertical receiver, gets down the field on seams and flags and over-routes, wheel routes, like he caught last week, things like that.

"He’s also good on catching [underneath] plays, he’s caught crossing patterns, diagonal patterns, out in the flat, things like that, where he’s made a catch for a small gain but then turned it into a long gain because of his ability to run after the catch and break tackles, [using] his size and speed.

"He’s just a good, solid, all-around tight end, been a big target for them in the red area with his size and his catching ability and his athleticism, so he’s a hard guy to match up with."

Belichick confirmed that the Patriots are considering flying to Denver on Friday, two days before the game. When they have played on the West Coast in recent years, they typically fly two days out, so they have an extra day to get acclimated to the time difference. In this case, perhaps they'd like extra time to get adjusted to the altitude.

Football dominated local television ratings last week

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 14, 2014 07:33 AM
Seven of the 10 highest-rated television programs in the Boston market last week were football-related, topped by the Patriots' victory over the Colts in the NFL playoffs.

The Patriots-Colts game had a 45.3 share and the game that determined New England's opponent in the AFC Championship was second with the Chargers-Broncos game drawing a 31.9.

Here's the ratings for the week of Jan. 6-12, provided by the Patriots (via Nielsen).

Colts-Patriots, 45.3
Chargers-Broncos, 31.9
Saints-Seahawks, 23.7
NFL Today Postgame Show (Saturday), 23.7
49ers at Panthers, 21.7
NFL Today Pregame Show (Saturday), 19.6
Golden Globe Awards, 16.8
NFL Today Pregame Show (Sunday), 16.3
60 Minutes, 16.0
The Big Bang Theory, 15.5

Agent: Brandon Spikes didn't want to go on IR

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 13, 2014 10:23 PM

Last week’s decision by the Patriots to place linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve was not a mutual one, according to Spikes’s agent, which contradicts reports that Spikes knew of the team’s intent and was OK with the move.

A statement issued Monday night by Premier Sports & Entertainment, the company that represents Spikes, took issue with “a few of the erroneous points which have been circulating” regarding the designation, which ended Spikes’s season. The fourth-year pro from Florida also has been dealing with a lingering knee injury, which played a factor in the IR decision. The statement said that Spikes, after getting a second opinion on Monday in Los Angeles, won’t need surgery at this time.

The Patriots placed Spikes on IR Jan. 6. An ESPN report on Saturday – hours before the Patriots beat the Colts in a divisional-round playoff game – said that part of the reason was because Spikes showed up late for a practice on Jan. 3. That was the day a big storm hit the area, dumping as much as two feet of snow.

While the statement released Monday night – which was attributed to Gary Uberstine, Spikes’s agent – didn't mention whether Spikes made it to practice on time, it stressed that he didn’t want to stop playing by being placed on IR.

“The team’s decision to place Brandon on Injured Reserve was not a mutual decision, nor need it be. Brandon had every intention to keep playing throughout the playoffs, despite the pain he was experiencing throughout the season,” the statement read in part. “We never had a single conversation with the Patriots in which they threatened to release him if he didn’t accept the Injured Reserve designation. Spikes has been a great teammate, and nobody can question the passion with which he plays the game, or how important he had been to the Patriots success.

“Although he is disappointed that he won’t be able to line up alongside his teammates this weekend against the Broncos, he won’t let these rumors serve as a distraction.”

Spikes will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Broncos just getting started on Patriots work

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 05:37 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- The Denver Broncos are just starting their preparation for the AFC Championship against the Patriots.

Broncos coach John Fox, who has a 1-6 record against New England with Carolina and now Denver, said his team was reacquainting itself with the Patriots after their last encounter in late November.

"They’re going to look at us, we’re going to look at them, but my experience is that these games -- even if it is the same opponent -- take on a completely different personality," Fox told the Denver media. "I don’t think this will be any different."

The bulk of the Broncos' work will begin on Wednesday.

“We’ll get a chance to form up -- they were in today, watched the game from yesterday and they got started on New England," Fox said. "They have tomorrow off, albeit a lot of them do come in and start viewing the upcoming opponent. We’ll form back up Wednesday and see where everybody is at that point."

Broncos safety breaks down the difference between Wes Welker and Julian Edelman

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 05:19 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Denver Broncos safety Mike Adams sees a huge difference between Wes Welker, his teammate, and Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman.

The two slot receivers are keys for the success of their teams, but short of how the Patriots use Edelman, Adams doesn't see much similarity between the two.

“I can’t compare the two because Wes is -- he’s something special," Adams told the Denver media. "He can jive up the ball and then speed out and have you off-balance.

"Edelman, he doesn’t do that. He’s a one-speed guy. He doesn’t have the same ability or the quickness that Wes has in the slot. I guess that is the main difference between them. But I don’t know if they use him the same as they used Wes because they’re totally different players."

Adams sees Edelman as the Patriots' biggest receiving threat, then Danny Amendola and running back Shane Vereen.

"We’ll have our hands full and this is going to be a battle," Adams said. "I’m prepared for it.”

Blount sees a different Broncos team than in regular season

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 04:28 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- It has been seven weeks since the Patriots played the Denver Broncos in the regular season.

With all the time that has passed since then, and as the days crawl before Sunday's AFC Championship game in Denver, the Patriots have to reacquaint themselves with their opponent.

"It’s a different team now than what we’ve seen earlier," Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount said. "We’ve got to go out and look at film and look at what they did against San Diego and see who we’re going to be playing against."

The Broncos beat the San Diego Chargers, 24-17, in the divisional round this past Sunday after going 13-3 in the regular season. Unlike the last time the Patriots saw the Broncos, there were no outstanding performances by a Denver player against San Diego that immediately stuck out on offense.

But the Broncos' defense was electric, combining for four sacks, including two by Shaun Phillips.

Phillips had two tackles and a forced fumble against the Patriots in Week 12.

"I mean, right about now is when a lot of guys are playing different football," Blount said. "Guys are getting on hot streaks. We've just got to go out there and see what they’re doing well, and see what they’re not doing well. and try to exploit it.

"We've got to get ready to go to Denver. It doesn’t matter who we play or where we play ‘em, we still gotta prepare."

Las Vegas favors the Broncos in AFC Championship

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 02:30 PM

The Patriots may have trounced the Denver Broncos in their Week 12 matchup this season, but that won't buy them any favor with Las Vegas oddsmakers.

The Broncos are 5-point favorites against the Patriots in the AFC Championship, making Tom Brady's claim that the Patriots are underdogs a legitimate one. Playing on the road and against the AFC's top team, there were bound to be doubters.

In the NFC Championship, the Seattle Seahawks are 3.5-point favorites over the San Francisco 49ers.

Tom Brady plays underdog card vs. Broncos

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 11:08 AM

It's not often the Patriots are underdogs going into a game, but the Denver Broncos are almost universally favored heading into the AFC Championship this weekend. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady embraced that role during an interview on WEEI's "Dennis & Callahan" Monday morning.

"I think the most satisfying part of being a player is to win the game," said Brady. "It doesn't matter what a person may think or say. Truthfully I don't turn the TV on, I don't read anything, I just try to focus on what I need to do and put all that stuff around us aside.

"I know at different times coach will make us aware of -- I know when we played Baltimore nobody picked us to win. I'm sure no one's going to pick us to win this week. We've had our backs against the wall for a while, really the whole season. We've lost players. Teams have counted us out. We've got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we'll be an underdog again."

Part of what makes Brady confident that his team can overcome the AFC's No. 1 seed is a resurgent New England running game. LeGarrette Blount rushed for four touchdowns, a franchise record, during Saturday's win over the Colts.

"I think our offensive line, they way they've played down the stretch has been incredible, and with LeGarrette, Steven, and Shane, and what they've done, it's been huge for our team. That's going to be a part of every game plan.

"I know that we're as tough and physical as we've ever been, and that's the way we're going to need to go out and play this game."

As is typical between the two star quarterbacks, Brady praised Peyton Manning during the interview. He also addressed Manning's use of the word "Omaha" during what seemed like every snap count, audible to anyone watching the Broncos-Chargers game on television.

"He does a good job of changing it," said Brady. "One time it means one thing and one time it means another. He got them offsides five or six times, which is the most I think I've ever seen.

"The defense starts listening and one time he says, 'Omaha,' and the ball is snapped, and then another time he says, 'Omaha, set, hut', and he won't snap it. Next thing you know, they jump offsides. He's probably got other cue words that he uses to let the team know what he really wants to do, his real intention."

With punter Ryan Allen injured vs. Indianapolis, Brady held for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Brady said he didn't know if he was listed as the team's No. 2 kicker on the depth chart.

"I've had experience in college doing it, and we have the best kicker in the league, so I think you could probably hold for him and he'd make 90 percent of them."

He added, "I've never even checked the depth chart. I wouldn't even know. I've never been to one of their meetings."

Brady was also asked whether or not he would reach out to former teammate Wes Welker this week.

"I think at this point we're both pretty focused on what we need to do," said Brady. "There's plenty of time for those things This is the biggest game of the year. All my attention is going to be focused on what I've got to do to help us win."

Broncos limiting ticket sales for AFC Championship to Colorado region

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 13, 2014 08:41 AM

The Denver Broncos will limit ticket sales for the AFC Championship game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, making it more difficult for New England Patriots fans to buy tickets for the game.

The Broncos announced that a limited number of tickets would go on sale Monday at noon Eastern time. Those tickets will be available to residents of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, and Western Kansas with prices ranging from $90 to $300 for reserved seats and $300 to $600 for club seats.

"It’s our normal procedure for playoff games," said Patrick Smythe, the Broncos' executive director for media relations.

More than 96 percent of season ticket holders elected to purchase playoff tickets, Smythe said, which limited the availability of game tickets to begin with.

"A lot of it consists of single seats," he said.

The Seattle Seahawks are also limiting ticket sales for their NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers. The Seahawks are allowing residents from Washington and five other states in their territory to buy tickets, but residents of California are not included.

Fans willing to travel to Denver can still pick up tickets on the secondary market, though likely at a much higher cost.

***

UPDATE: 12:12 p.m.

Tickets for the AFC Championship have already sold out, according to the Broncos.

AFC Championship Game Tickets have sold out. #NEvsDEN

— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) January 13, 2014

Patriots will face the Broncos in the AFC Championship

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 12, 2014 07:53 PM

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Peyton Manning helped lead the Denver Broncos to a 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers in the AFC divisional round. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)

There’s going to be a lot of talk of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the coming week.

The Denver Broncos will host the New England Patriots in the AFC title game following the Broncos’ 24-17 win over the San Diego Chargers Sunday, setting up a showdown between the league’s top signal callers.

The AFC title game is slated for 3 p.m. Sunday Jan. 19.

The Patriots have already beaten the Broncos once this season, a 34-31 overtime victory in Week 12, while coming back from a 24-point halftime deficit for the win. Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning field goal from 31 yards out.

The comeback was the Patriots’ largest in franchise history, outscoring the Broncos 34-7 from the second half on, while overcoming 280 yards rushing from Denver. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno ran for 224 yards and a touchdown on 37 carries.

But the game was fraught with turnovers amid chilly, wintry conditions. It was 22 degrees at kickoff. The two teams combined for 11 fumbles, six of which were lost. Manning also had an interception, finishing 19 of 36 passing for 150 yards.

Brady was much more solid in the cold weather, throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns, two of which went to Julian Edelman.

In head to head matchups, Brady is 10-4 against Manning football teams and was 2-1 in the postseason against Manning when he was with the Indianapolis Colts.

The Patriots are 7-2 in the AFC championship. But Brady is just 6-4 on the road in the playoffs and the last time he played an AFC Championship game on the road, Jan. 21, 2007, the Patriots lost 38-34 at the hands of Manning’s Colts.

Notable achievements from the Patriots' playoff victory over the Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 12, 2014 12:53 PM

In addition to a record setting performance by Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, there were significant milestones reached in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Blount had four rushing touchdowns, a franchise record, and 166 yards on the ground, tying the team's playoff record with Curtis Martin. His 24 total points were the most in NFL history in an AFC divisional playoff round game.

But as a team, adding in Stevan Ridley's two rushing TDs, the six rushing touchdowns were also a franchise record in any game, postseason or otherwise.

The Patriots also tied their franchise record for most interceptions in a postseason game with four. The last time they procured four interceptions in the playoffs was Jan. 18, 2004, also against the Colts.

The win gave Bill Belichick his 19th postseason win, tying him with Don Shula for the second most playoff victories by a head coach. Belichick is behind Tom Landry, who has 20. He can surpass him with a win in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl.

And with 198 yards passing Saturday, Tom Brady now has 6,147 yards passing in 25 playoff games. That's more than anyone else in the history of the game. Retired quarterback Brett Favre is now a distant second with 5,855. And those 25 starts are now the most in NFL history as well, passing Favre. His 18 playoff victories as a starting quarterback are still the most in NFL history. He's ahead of Joe Montana (16) in that category.

Blount can make an even bigger dent on the record books in the AFC Championship. He needs just one rushing touchdown to tie Curtis Martin for the franchise record for most postseason rushing TDs with five.

Saturday's win also marked the warmest playoff game in franchise history at home, with the starting temperature at 57 degrees.

Belichick will be watching Sunday's game with great interest

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 12, 2014 10:30 AM

Like the rest of us, Bill Belichick will be watching Sunday afternoon's AFC Divisional round game between the Broncos and Chargers with great interest, as he and the rest of his New England Patriots want to see who they will be facing in the AFC Championship game next week.

The Patriots stamped their ticket to the conference title game after Saturday night's 43-22 win over the Colts, putting them in the AFC Championship game for the third straight year and remarkably, the eighth time in 13 years of the Belichick and Tom Brady era.

"Whoever we play, these are the two best teams in the AFC and in order to play next week, you have to play well this week," Belichick said during a morning conference call. "We played well enough last night to deserve to play next week and whoever we play, we’re playing the other best team in the AFC. I think we’ve all seen in the playoffs it’s all about that game, that matchup, whatever happens that day."

Belichick and his staff have already done advance work breaking down game film from both Denver and San Diego, sequences from recent games they believe will be relevant, and putting together a preliminary scouting report on each.

"We'll definitely watch the game, I'll watch it," Belichick said. "Once it's over, we'll put one (report) in a file for next year and start getting to work on the other one. We've done preliminary work for both teams."

Though there were heavy rains at Gillette Stadium in the hours leading up to kickoff and expected wind gusts of up to 30 MPH, Belichick said weather did not really play a factor in the game against the Colts, unlike other games this season when Mother Nature had a bigger role.

"I thought it was really a minimal factor. We as a staff had talked about the different possibilities, rain like we had last week, wind maybe more like we had in Denver game, a combination of both, and in the end we really got neither," Belichick said. "Wind was minimal factor, the kickers hit ball in both ends, both punters (did well).

"Even though there was some light rain, there wasn’t the soaking that we had in Buffalo game – the field and the players weren’t just soaked out there. Overall I thought it was a clean game relative to the conditions, especially given what the forecasts were during the week."

5 takeaways from the Patriots-Colts game

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 12, 2014 03:17 AM

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The Patriots will go as far as Tom Brady and LeGarrette Blount take them. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

The Patriots have cradled eerily close to being what one would consider a running team in the past three weeks.

I know, it sounds weird.

In Saturday’s 43-22 win over the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots ran for 234 yards of offense, letting Tom Brady (13 of 25, 198 yards) take a backseat to the action. They had 267 yards rushing against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 and 142 yards on the ground in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens.

At this point in the season, after winning their AFC divisional playoff matchup against the Colts, it appears there is still quite a bit to learn about these Patriots. And, it appears, there is quite a bit the team is learning about itself.

Here’s what I saw Saturday:

1. Blount all day— We posited last week that LeGarrette Blount had earned the title of featured back on the team. Now we can say firmly that he has wrestled that title away from Stevan Ridley and taken the fortunes of this team on his back in doing so. He has given the team’s Super Bowl hopes more vigor. There’s no turning back now. With a franchise-tying 166 yards rushing and a franchise record four rushing touchdowns against the Colts, Blount has been more than the safety valve for a team that has suffered numerous injuries to its wide receivers group. He has helped set the tone on offense, breaking tackles and getting extra yardage. And he has done so now at the most critical juncture of the team’s season.

This all wouldn’t be possible had Blount not made some serious changes to his running style. The running back revealed that in order for him to be a better runner, he had to lower his pad level, a bit of advice Bill Belichick bestowed upon him during the regular season. When he started running at a lower pad level, he started to see the dividends immediately. That’s when he started breaking tackles and gaining extra yardage on plays.

“I wish he would’ve told me a long time ago,” Blount said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened.”

We’re sure the Patriots may have had a much more balanced approach as the season went along. And we’re also sure it wouldn’t have taken us until the postseason to declare him the team’s top back.

2. We now see what the Patriots see in Jamie Collins —Patriots veterans have been known to praise the rookie linebacker for his exceptional athleticism and talents. Bill Belichick has pointed to the plays he has made in special teams and the work he has done prior to being elevated to starter. On Saturday, we finally saw what all the hype was about.

Collins had six tackles, an interception, and a sack in what is easily the best game of his career. Both his sack and his interception were firsts for him.

“I don’t know why you guys are surprised that he plays like that,” teammate Dont’a Hightower said. “He’s a very gifted athlete. He’s a tremendous guy. He makes plays like that in practice all the time. In the Ravens game, the pick he almost had, he does that at practice. So whenever he doesn’t catch it, I don’t care how hard it falls or if he does three back flips, I expect him to catch it. But he played a helluva game and it’s something that I’m not surprised, anybody around here is not surprised. He’s a great dude.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with growth,” Hightower continued. “I think it’s just his time. They called his number, they threw at him, he read the route, the right coverage, he did everything the right way and he got rewarded for it.”

As the Patriots top draft choice in 2013, there’s quite a bit laid at Collins’ plate as far expectations go. But we now know, in the playoffs and with all eyes on the team’s tattered defense, he played some of his best football. That was evident for all to see. Finally.

3. A special performance —Tom Brady quipped post game that he hadn’t been the holder for a point after attempt since playing for Michigan in the Orange Bowl. That was 14 years ago.

The Patriots had the unfortunate luck of dealing with an injury in their special teams unit, causing a shuffling of the decks. Punter Ryan Allen, hurt on an errant snap over his head that turned into a safety, was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. He’s not only the team’s punter, but he’s also the holder for the team’s field goal unit.

With Allen out, Stephen Gostkowski took over punting duties and Brady did the holding on PATs.

“Maybe I’ll try renegotiating my contract or something for doing more work,” Brady joked.

It actually turned out well. Gostkowski had five punts for 209 yards, a 41.8 average, with a long of 53 yards. And the Patriots converted both of their PAT attempts with Brady as the holder in the fourth quarter.

“Stephen punts in practice and he’s done that before,” Belichick said. “Yeah, that was a great job. It was a great job; Brady holding, Gostkowski punting. That’s the kind of playoff football. Things like that happen. Guys get called on to do something maybe they haven’t done all year, haven’t done in several years and come through at a big time.”

Outside of Blount’s monster game, it was the most fantastic performance of the evening watching these two work in these “new” roles.

4. Luck’s turnovers prove disastrous for the Colts —After a regular season in which the Colts managed only 14 turnovers, Indianapolis managed to give away the ball eight times in the playoffs. Andrew Luck, in particular, threw four interceptions, forcing the ball at times where there was no open man.

But worst of all, two of his turnovers led to Patriots points. His first quarter interception, nabbed by Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, ended up becoming a 2-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount as the Patriots took the early lead. His fourth quarter pick to Collins, when the Colts were down 36-22, led to Ridley’s 3-yard touchdown run and put the game out of reach. It was very similar to Luck’s last performance against the Patriots. Harried and harassed in his first encounter with New England, he threw three picks, two of which were brought back for touchdowns.

“Mistakes from the first quarter in the first series to the last series,” Luck said. “Turnovers were indicative to our game win for us — for me really — on my shoulders for throwing those picks. We just couldn’t overcome it. So it stinks.”

Nobody’s denying that.

5. The matchup everybody wanted to see — Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib played a good portion of the game on Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, a matchup that was worthy of top billing in a prize fight. The speedy receiver had just exploded for 224 yards receiving against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Patriots had spent the better part of a week singing his praises when preparing to face him. Hilton still managed four receptions for 103 yards on six targets. Either from the slot or split outside, he was able to outrun Talib in coverage, drawing attention from safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty. Hilton caught a phenomenal pass for 46 yards, making it easy to see why he’s such a remarkable player. There wasn’t a passing down Saturday in which he didn’t face double or triple coverage, which may have led to LaVon Brazill’s two touchdowns, one for 38 yards while in one-on-one coverage from Dennard and another for 35 yards after getting behind McCourty and Gregory. An exceptional receiver like Hilton will always be problematic for the Patriots — problematic for any team — but they were still able to do enough to stunt Indianapolis’ passing game when it mattered. It helped that the defense forced four turnovers.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Watch: Patriots-Colts highlights

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 12, 2014 01:05 AM

Here are the key plays in the Patriots' 43-22 victory over the Colts in the AFC Divisional playoffs Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

Click Full Entry to watch the video.

FULL ENTRY

Watch: Andrew Luck's postgame comments

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 12, 2014 12:18 AM

Watch Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's comments after Indianapolis lost to the New England Patriots, 43-22, in the AFC Divisional playoffs on Saturday in Foxborough.

Click full entry to see the video.

FULL ENTRY

Survey: Who gets the game ball?

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 10:58 PM

There were some big-time performances in the Patriots' playoff victory over the Colts Saturday, but let's face it, the game ball debate really only comes down to two players.

Which was the most outstanding? Here's your chance to vote.


Which Patriot deserves the game ball for the playoff win over the Colts?

Ryan Allen goes to locker room after hard hit; Stephen Gostkowski fills in on punt

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff January 11, 2014 09:39 PM

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Patriots punter Ryan Allen left for the locker room with a shoulder injury after he was tackled while recovering a botched snap in the second quarter of a playoff game vs. the Colts. The Patriots announced he is questionable to return.

With 2 minutes and 28 seconds remaining in the first half, Patriots long-snapper Danny Aiken launched the football over Allen's head on fourth down from the Patriots 44.

Allen ran down the ball and recovered it, but as he was swarmed by Colts defenders, he fumbled (perhaps deliberately), and the ball bounced through the end zone for a safety, cutting the Patriots lead to 21-12.

Place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski handled the punting duties in Allen's place when the Patriots faced a fourth and 6 from their own 40 with 51 seconds left in the half.

Gostkowski boomed a 53-yard punt that Griff Whalen returned to the 16.

LeGarrette Blount breaks Patriots record with fourth rushing touchdown

Posted by Steve Silva, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 09:08 PM

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LeGarrette Blount forced his way into the record book.

Prior to Saturday's AFC divisional showdown with the Colts, Blount was one of 20 players on the Patriots’ 53-man active roster who had never been in uniform for an NFL playoff game.

Now, the bulldozing Blount has broken a Patriots record and tied another. Blount set a team record -- regular season and postseason -- with his fourth rushing touchdown of the game. The fourth touchdown came on a 73-yard run in the fourth quarter, the second-longest TD run in Patriots playoff history.

He also tied former Patriots running back Curtis Martin for rushing yards in a playoff game with 166.

Martin had three touchdowns in a playoff game against the Steelers on Jan. 5, 1997. In that game, Martin rushed for a franchise record 166 yards to go along with the three TDs, including a 78-yard touchdown run, the longest Patriots touchdown run in playoff history.

Blount had 24 carries in the Patriots' 43-22 victory. In the regular season, Blount had 772 rushing yards on 153 carries, and scored seven touchdowns in his first year in New England.

Each of Blount's first three scoring runs was from 2 yards out.

Click full entry to see video of Blount's postgame comments.

FULL ENTRY

Deion Branch inactive for Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 06:57 PM

By Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff

Despite placing linebacker Brandon Spikes on injured reserve with a knee injury, the Patriots opted to sit their third middle linebacker, Steve Beauharnais, for Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

Beauharnais is a healthy scratch. He joins Chris Barker, D.J. Williams, Jake Bequette, Justin Green, Isaac Sopoaga, and Aaron Dobson (foot) as inactive for Saturday’s game.

Meanwhile, former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch is a healthy scratch for Indianapolis. Along with Branch, Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring), Joe Reitz, Khaled Holmes, Daniel Adongo, Sheldon Price, and Josh Lenz are all inactive for the Colts.

Patriots receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) are both active after being listed as questionable.

Robert Kraft comments on passing of Foxborough's Sam Berns

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 02:58 PM
Patriots owner Robert Kraft issued a statement Saturday on the passing of Sam Berns, a 17-year-old from Foxborough who had the rare aging disease progeria.

Berns was to have been an honorary Patriots captain at Saturday's Patriots-Colts game at Gillette Stadium.

“I loved Sam Berns and am richer for having known him. He was a special young man whose inspirational story and positive outlook on life touched my heart. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with him and to get to know his incredible family. Together, they positively impacted the lives of people around the world in their quest to find a cure for Progeria. The HBO documentary, ‘Life According to Sam’ shared his incredible story with a national audience. It was so beautifully done. It made you laugh. It also made you cry. Today, it’s the latter for all who knew Sam or learned of his story through that documentary. Earlier this week, I had extended an invitation for Sam to be the Patriots’ honorary captain for tonight’s playoff game. I was looking forward to spending more time with Sam and his family. News of his passing came as a complete surprise. It is another reminder that we can’t take anything for granted. Be sure to give your loved ones hugs and kisses and tell them how much you love them. My heart aches for his parents, Scott and Leslie, his aunt Audrey and the rest of Sam’s extended family. Words cannot express the sadness or the depth of sympathy I feel for them today.”

Berns' story was documented by HBO in "Life According to Sam." Progeria is a fatal genetic condition that causes the appearance of advanced aging, including hair loss and lack of growth.

What to watch for as the Patriots host the Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 01:15 PM
Dane Fletcher will likely see an increased role against
the Indianapolis Colts. (Lynne Sladky / AP photo)

There are so many questions for the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts ahead of Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. We’re just going to dive right in and explore everything.

1. Will the Patriots be distracted? — The news of Brandon Spikes’ tardiness during the bye week, while not high on the Richter scale of Patriots scandals, is nonetheless fodder for the fans and reporters. But has the team already moved on from the issue? That’s likely the case, given that the incident occurred eight days ago. The team has probably discussed the issue internally and may in fact by surprised by its leak. But will the surprise over the leak distract them from the task at hand Saturday evening. Not likely.

2. Will Deion Branch be active? —There was a big hubbub this week when the Colts signed the former Patriots wide receiver. He had played parts of seven season in New England and was beloved during his tenure, especially for his chemistry with Tom Brady and his professionalism. The Colts have been dealing with injuries to their wide receivers group and had worked Branch out a few weeks ago, probably in case of losing another wideout down the stretch. He was signed after Darius Heyward-Bey hurt his hamstring against the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round. The Colts now have six receivers available for the game. With only a week of practice under his belt, there’s no guarantee that Branch will even be active.

3. Will Branch be booed? — As we stated, Branch is beloved. Should he be given the chance to play in Saturday’s game, how will fans react to him playing a role on rival’s team in the playoffs? Will he get the response worthy of someone who earned a Super Bowl MVP trophy? Will his entrance to the game be ignored? (He’s wearing No. 86.) Or will he be booed as a traitor?

4. The T.Y. Hilton problem — While still considering the Colts wide receivers, the Patriots will have quite a bit of headache in defending against the T.Y. Hilton, who scorched the Chiefs with 13 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs failed to contain Hilton in the fourth quarter, particularly on a game-winning 64-yard touchdown pass that was as egregious of a defensive error as it was a beautiful pitch and catch. The Patriots can opt to use someone like Aqib Talib against Hilton solely, but that didn’t work so well last time around. Hilton beat Talib for two touchdowns in their last meeting, including a 43-yard score in which he overcame a pass interference to still make the catch. Other viable candidates to cover Hilton include Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington (likely in the slot), and rookie Logan Ryan.

5. How will Andrew Luck fare? — The last time the Colts quarterback played the Patriots, it was certainly a mixed bag for the then rookie. He threw for for 334 yards and two touchdowns, but added three interceptions and a fumble. Two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns and one play after fumbling, the Patriots scored a touchdown. Luck threw three interceptions last week as well, giving the perception that he is turnover prone. But that’s far from the case. He finished the regular season with nine interceptions (two less than Brady) and his team finished with only 14 turnovers all season, a league low. How he fares in the turnover department could go a long way into determining who wins Saturday’s game.

6. How will Dane Fletcher perform? — As this week’s candidate for the “next man up” award, Fletcher will likely fill Spikes’ shoes as the middle linebacker in running situations. He had already played in nickel and dime packages, helping in pass coverage. As someone with experience for the Patriots in 2011, the year the Patriots went to the Super Bowl, he is a viable candidate to perform well under these situations. Should we expect a 15-tackle performance? Probably not. But we should see some expanded opportunities to make plays.

7. Blount all day? — Whether you are in the LeGarrette Blount camp or on team Stevan Ridley, there is consensus from Patriots coaches and players that both are running extremely hard right now. But Blount’s magnificent game against the Buffalo Bills legitimized his ability to be the team’s featured back. Against the Colts, a team that ranked 26th overall against the run (125.1 yards allowed per game), there should be some good opportunities for him to plow through some more tackles.

8. How the Patriots will handle the pass rush — Robert Mathis tallied 19.5 sacks this season. The outside linebacker is best described as relentless, pursuing quarterbacks with vigor from the first snap of the ball to the play is whistled dead. He’ll be an enormous challenge for tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. But it’s not just Mathis who is disruptive. Teammates Cory Redding and Erik Walden combined for 41 quarterback hurries (just a tad higher than Mathis’s 39). The Patriots will have to be wary of everyone

9. Who will be the X-factor? — For the Patriots offense, there’s always one player that steps up. Whether that has been Blount, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, or Kenbrell Thompkins, at least one of the Patriots’ top weapons has been able to be effective each week. There has yet to have been a week in which the offense has been shut down. Given the Colts’ solid passing defense, including above average corners Vontae Davis and Darius Butler, and Indianapolis’ 26th run defense, there are likely opportunities for players in the running game. Both Blount and Vereen will have opportunities. Vereen could play big in the run game and passing game.

10. How much will the wind be a factor? — First and foremost, the forecast calls for 100 percent chance of rain Saturday evening. It’ll be 47 degrees at kickoff, according to Weather.com. But what’s more important, the wind will be gusting south up to 22 miles per hour. That will have a huge influence over the kicking game. If the possibility of an overtime situation were to occur, like the Patriots’ Week 12 matchup with the Denver Broncos, some wacky calls could be made in favor of putting Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen in the best position to help the team. Against the Broncos, the Patriots elected to take the wind instead of the ball in overtime, a decision that proved to be significant in the team’s 34-31 win. Don’t be surprised if the same situation were to arise, Bill Belichick would roll the dice in the favor of his special teams unit again.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Report: Brandon Spikes' lateness to meeting was 'final straw' before IR move

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 11:20 AM

Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes was late to a bye week practice, and a report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen indicates it upset Patriots coach Bill Belichick enough to make it the "final straw" in the decision to place Spikes on injured reserve.

Spikes had been battling through a knee injury that could possibly require surgery, contributing to a mutual decision to put him on IR, Mortensen reported.

Brandon Spikes hobbled with knee but being late to Friday's bye week practice was final straw for Belichick. Mutually, to IR, per sources

— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) January 11, 2014

In 16 games for the Patriots this season, Spikes tallied 86 tackles, good for third on the team. The fourth-year linebacker's rookie contract is up after this season is complete.

Preview: Patriots vs. Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 11, 2014 03:13 AM

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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will be looking to make a run at their sixth Super Bowl starting Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts. (Lynne Sladky / AP photo)

By Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff

FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots will open postseason play against the Indianapolis Colts Saturday, the start of another hopeful Super Bowl run for the NFL’s most experienced active head coach and playoff quarterback.

Bill Belichick, in his 39th season, will be seeking his 19th postseason victory against the Colts, a team that is led by the second-year tandem of head coach Chuck Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck. The two are 0-1 against the Patriots, losing big last season in a regular season matchup, 59-24.

This Colts team has grown since that time.

“I think you’d have to say we’ve made progress,” Pagano told New England reporters. “Again, we’ve had some really good wins, and then we’ve had some disappointing losses this season. But the one thing that this group has done, and I think it’s because of players like Andrew and our veteran leadership, guys like Robert [Mathis] and Reggie [Wayne], even though Reggie’s been out since the Denver game, and Antoine Bethea and Adam Vinatieri and Cory Redding and all those guys. We’ve got great vets in the locker room, and whether it’s a big win or a disappointing loss, they’ve been sticking to the process and put it behind them and move on to the next game. So from that standpoint we’ve matured, and guys have a better understanding of what we want to get done in all three phases.”

The Patriots will have to go ahead without rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson. Dobson, who was seen in a walking boot this week, was ruled out Friday with a foot injury.

New England has played four games without Dobson this season, winning three of those contests. It’ll be another opportunity for top receivers Julian Edelman (105 receptions, 1056 yards) and Danny Amendola (54 receptions, 633 yards) as well as fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (32 receptions, 466 yards), who was listed as questionable with a hip injury, to make their mark.

Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) was listed as questionable while nine other Patriots players were listed as probable.

The Colts, coming off a stunning 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round, will be working without one of their top receivers as well. Darius Heyward-Bey was ruled out on Friday after missing the entire week of practice with a hamstring injury. Four other players, including safety LaRon Landry and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, were listed as probable.

This is the fourth time Brady has faced the Colts in the playoffs, winning two of three times. He’s 10-4 against Indianapolis all-time. Brady will be looking for his 18th playoff win. His 17 postseason victories are the most in NFL history for a starting quarterback.

Here are the details for the game:

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m.

Records: Patriots 12-4 regular season; Colts 11-5 regular season (1-0 postseason).

TV, radio: CBS (Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf, Allie LaForce); 98.5 FM The Sports Hub (Bob Socci, Scott Zolak); Westwood One (Ian Eagle, Trent Green, Tony Boselli).

Projected starting lineups:
Based on information distributed to the media, practice observations, and injury reports.

Patriots offense: WR Kenbrell Thompkins, LT Nate Solder, LG Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, RG Dan Connolly, RT Marcus Cannon, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Julian Edelman, QB Tom Brady, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Danny Amendola.

Patriots defense: LE Rob Ninkovich, DT Sealver Siliga, DT Chris Jones, DE Chandler Jones, LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Jamie Collins, CB Aqib Talib, CB Alfonzo Dennard, S Devin McCourty, S Steve Gregory.

Colts offense: WR T.Y. Hilton, LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Hugh Thornton, C Samson Satale, RG Jeff Linkenbach, RT Gosder Cherilus, TE Coby Fleener, WR Da’Rick Rogers, QB Andrew Luck, FB Stanley Havili, RB Donald Brown.

Colts defense: DE Cory Redding, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Ricky Jean Francois, SLB Erik Walden, MLB Kelvin Sheppard, WLB Jerrell Freeman, RUSH Robert Mathis, LCB Darius Butler, SS Antoine Bethea, FS LaRon Landry, RCB Vontae Davis.

Get linked

- Which Patriots CB should be matched up on Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton? Well, Erik Frenz examined that very issue.

- As the Patriots face the Colts Saturday evening, see what play the Patriots are most likely going to run with our play-predictor.

- Follow the game and comment on the action in our live blog.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Friday injury report: Dobson ruled out

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 10, 2014 04:04 PM


A foot injury will keep receiver Aaron Dobson from playing against the Colts Saturday, with the Patriots ruling the rookie out on Friday's injury report.

Two players were designated as questionable by the Patriots: cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) and receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip).

The Colts ruled receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who injured a hamstring in last Saturday's wild-card win, out for the game.

For the Patriots:

Out:
WR Aaron Dobson (foot)

Questionable:
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip)

Probable:
WR Danny Amendola (groin)
CB Kyle Arrington (groin)
QB Tom Brady (right shoulder)
LB Dane Fletcher (groin)
S Steve Gregory (finger/knee)
G Logan Mankins (ankle)
DB Devin McCourty (concussion)
OT Will Svitek (ankle)
RB Shane Vereen (groin)

strong>For the Colts:

Out:
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring)

Probable:
NT Aubrayo Franklin (rest)
CB Khaled Holmes (calf)
LB Josh McNary (concussion)
S Laron Landry (concussion)

NFL divisional playoff round picks

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 10, 2014 01:40 PM

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will have to do much better in his second bout with the Carolina Panthers. (Mike Roemer / AP photo)

By Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff

Without the chilling cold to consider in cities like Seattle and Carolina this weekend, as well more frosty climates like New England and Denver, the weather will be much less of a factor in this weekend’s NFL divisional playoff games than it was last week in the wild card round.

The San Francisco 49ers marched into the tundra of Green Bay, with Colin Kaepernick sleeveless and gloveless, and took down the Packers. New Orleans, on the road and outside of a dome, whipped the Philadelphia Eagles. And San Diego, far from their hometown climate, beat the favored Cincinnati Bengals.

The results led us to believe that each team, particular those that advanced, are impervious to the conditions.

What hasn’t changed is the predominantly strong favor home teams have this weekend and how that has affected the point spreads. It makes for a tough week in which those teams that we expect to win, we do not necessarily expect to cover.

Here are this week’s picks with that in mind:

Saints (+8) at Seahawks (-8) — The Seahawks simply dominated the Saints the last time they played, a 34-7 win on “Monday Night Football” in Week 13. The Seahawks are 15-1 at home the past two seasons and have won their past five playoff games at home. That doesn’t bode well for a Saints team that won its first postseason road game under Sean Payton last week. The oppressive noise of CenturyLink field will be more than advantageous for Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the league’s No. 1 ranked defense.
My pick: Seahawks

Colts (+7.5) at Patriots (-7.5) —The Patriots are remarkably stout at home, providing an enormous challenge for the Colts when traveling to Foxborough. New England is 10-3 at Gillette Stadium in the postseason and 27-12 at home in the playoffs overall. That plays a huge role when you add in the fact the Patriots are 10-6 in the AFC divisional round and 7-2 when playing that game at home. Bill Belichick’s Patriots and the Colts, led by head coach Chuck Pagano, have only faced each other once, last season in a 59-24 drubbing at Gillette Stadium. It was Andrew Luck’s 10th start. We expect Luck to be much improved from then, when he tossed three interceptions. We also expect him to be much improved from last week’s playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs, another three-interception performance. The Colts, with a league-low 14 giveaways in the regular season, have played 7 games in which the outcome was determined by the final possession. They went 6-1 in those game and are a league best 15-2 over the past two seasons under Pagano. But I don’t think they’ll win this one. There’s too much experience and determination on the Patriots’ front to allow someone like T.Y. Hilton, as talented as he is, to get behind them in the secondary down the stretch. But I do think Indy will cover.
My pick: Colts

49ers (-3) at Panthers (+3) —Last time these teams faced each other, a 10-9 win for the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw for only 91 yards on 11 of 22 passing, including an interception. He was sacked six times. The hard fought defensive game, which could be considered one of the Panthers’ marquee wins, still came without the Carolina defense having to deal with tight end Vernon Davis, who left the encounter with a concussion. Rookie safety Eric Reid, a big part of the 49ers’ secondary, also had to leave the game after being concussed. Which makes this new matchup intriguing, especially considering how Kaepernick has shown more growth as the season has progressed, all the way through last week’s 23-20 win over the Green Bay Packers. He was 3 of 6 passing on the team’s game-winning drive, running for 11 yards as well to help get San Francisco into field goal range for Phil Dawson. This is Panthers head coach Ron Rivera’s first playoff game, as it is for Cam Newton. The Panthers won 11 of their last 12 games and were 7-1 at home, winning the last seven. But Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers are 2-0 on the road in the postseason. This could swing either way. But my gut is set on the 49ers having a marginally better performance than they did in Week 10.
My pick: 49ers

Chargers (+9) at Broncos (-9) —It’s really tough to think that the San Diego Chargers, after splitting their season series with Denver Broncos, will still upset the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. But given the spread, at 9 points in favor of Denver on Friday, you have to consider that both of their regular season matchups were settled by eight points or less. And, more specifically, that despite playing Peyton Manning (5,477 yards, 55 touchdowns, 10 INTs), the veteran quarterback is 9-11 in the postseason and 3-5 in divisional playoff matchups. The Chargers took the Week 15 matchup with Denver, 27-20, and the Broncos took the Week 10 matchup, 28-20. Manning will have back Wes Welker, who did not play in the Broncos’ loss to San Diego on Dec. 12 after suffering from a concussion. He’s been a full participant in practice this week. All of which points to a Denver victory. But I doubt they can cover a playoff spread this large, even at full strength.
My pick: Chargers

Postseason: 2-2
Final regular Season: 123-133

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Thursday injury report: No change, Dobson still out

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 9, 2014 03:49 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- There were no changes to the Patriots' practice participation report from the day before, with receiver Aaron Dobson the only player missing Thursday's workout, and nine others limited.

For the Patriots:

Did not participate:
WR Aaron Dobson (foot)

Limited participation:
CB Kyle Arrington (groin)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder)
LB Dane Fletcher (groin)
S Steve Gregory (finger/knee)
G Logan Mankins (ankle)
DB Devin McCourty (concussion)
OT Will Svitek (ankle)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip)
RB Shane Vereen (groin)

Full participation:
WR Danny Amendola (groin)
QB Tom Brady (right shoulder)

For the Colts:

Did not participate:
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring)

Full participation:
NT Aubrayo Franklin (rest)
CB Khaled Holmes (calf)
LB Josh McNary (concussion)
S Laron Landry (concussion)

Drew Rosenhaus: Rob Gronkowski surgery went well

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 9, 2014 03:04 PM

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent successful surgery on his ACL and MCL in Pensacola, Fla., according to his agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Rosenhaus, the powerhouse sports agent, took to Twitter to share the news. Gronkowski's surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrew.

With Rob & Gordy in Pensacola. Good news the surgery is over. Dr Andrews said it went very well.

— Drew Rosenhaus (@RosenhausSports) January 9, 2014

Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and damaged MCL in the Patriots' Week 14 game against the Cleveland Browns.

State of the Colts: Key team story lines

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 9, 2014 12:26 PM

The Patriots will tell you they're focused on limiting their own mistakes and playing their game in this weekend's AFC Divisional matchup with Indianapolis, but it's nice to check in on the issues facing the Colts as well. Below are five areas to key in on, from season-long issues to recent ones.

1. They're really good or really bad. It's hard to know what to expect from the Colts this Saturday night. They've beaten some of the league's best teams:

Sept. 22: Colts 27, 49ers 7
Oct. 6: Colts 34, Seahawks 28
Oct. 20: Colts 39, Broncos 33

They've had some bad losses:

Nov. 10: Rams 38, Colts 8
Nov. 24: Cardinals 40, Colts 11

Two of their wins were blowouts over the awful Jaguars. It's nearly impossible to predict which Colts team will show up.

2. Andrew Luck is having his coming out party. Obviously the former No. 1 overall pick was never under the radar, but Luck's performance in a comeback win over the Chiefs last week generated these two bits of talk radio chatter: "You can close the debate on who the best young quarterback is" and "If he doesn't get hurt, he has a 90 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame".

Luck is clearly advanced in his second NFL season -- it took Tom Brady six playoff games to throw the four touchdown passes Luck threw last week. Is it too much hype too soon?

3. Luck has one weapon. One reason Luck's performance is being praised so highly is because he's doing it without much offensive help. Tight end Dwayne Allen was expected to be a major part of the offense this season but played only in the season opener. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne went down on Oct. 21. The Trent Richardson trade has been a disaster. Speedy receiver T.Y. Hilton is Luck's one offensive star.

4. Their defensive problems are overblown. They've been better than the Patriots, for one. Indy ranks 20th in the NFL in yards per game allowed. The Patriots are 26th. In total points allowed the Colts are actually 9th best, followed by the Patriots at 10.

5. They're not afraid to push the Patriots' buttons. Just like every other team. Indy offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton may or may not have been referencing Spygate when he made these comments to the Indy Star. Hamilton was on the staff of the New York Jets from 2003 to 2005:

"I do know for a fact that it was always a 60-minute chess match," he said. "It was ever-changing looks and disguises and they always tend to find ways to figure out some of your signals."

'Hut hut' ... taking a few snaps with the Patriots play predictor

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 9, 2014 12:15 PM

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There's a very cool feature on Boston.com today that allows you to run through various down-and-distance scenarios the Patriots have faced this season and it shows what plays they have run most often in those situations. It does the same for the Colts, Saturday's opponent in the AFC Divisional playoffs.

I took the Patriots Play Predictor for a spin this morning – it is essentially a sortable database of every play the teams have run this season – and found the following interesting:

-- As you would expect, when Brady and company were faced with third-and-long this season, they liked to throw the ball. On third-and-11 or more, the Patriots passed the ball 78 percent of the time.

Similarly obvious, on third-and-1 the Patriots ran the ball 72 percent of the time. Add another yard, though, and the ratio flips to 55 percent passing plays. Julian Edelman was Brady's top target in that situation with four targets in 22 plays.

-- The play predictor also allows you to drill down further into different scenarios. I was most curious about the red zone. On first-and-10 from inside the 20 the Patriots ran the ball 52 percent of the time. As a comparison, the Colts passed the ball 51 percent of the time on first-and-10 in the red zone.

In pressure situations -- third-and-whatever from inside the 10-yard line, the Patriots threw the ball 14 times and ran the ball four times. Rob Gronkowski was the target of two of those passes and assuredly would have been the target of more had he not been injured. When it really mattered for Indy inside the 10, the Colts ran the ball three times and passed it seven times.

-- Despite having what most people consider to be an inferior running game, the Colts ran the ball on 44 percent of their 418 first-and-10 plays. The Patriots ran the ball on 46 percent of their first-and-10's.

There's a lot you can do with the tool, but we're also open to suggestions on improvement. For example, I'd like to be able to select all downs and distances and look at every red zone play or every play in New England's half of the field.

Test it out, then keep it handy during Saturday's playoff game.

Thursday practice peek: Still no Dobson

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 9, 2014 10:50 AM

FOXBOROUGH – Aaron Dobson remains the only player not spotted at Patriots practice, making it highly unlikely that the rookie receiver will be healthy enough to play in Saturday night's AFC Divisional playoff game against the Colts.

Dobson is dealing with a foot injury, and was seen earlier this week wearing a walking boot. He hasn't practiced since aggravating the injury in the regular-season finale.

Once again, practice is being held on the game field inside Gillette Stadium. Open locker room follows, with offensive lineman Logan Mankins scheduled to take questions at the podium.

Wednesday injury report: No Dobson, nine players limited

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 8, 2014 04:16 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- Receiver Aaron Dobson was the only player who didn't practice Wednesday for the Patriots, with nine others limited. Dobson has a foot injury, and was spotted after practice wearing a walking boot on his left foot.

Those limited included left guard Logan Mankins, listed with an ankle injury, safety Devin McCourty (concussion), running back Shane Vereen (groin), and receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip).

For the Patriots:

Did not participate:
WR Aaron Dobson (foot)

Limited participation:
CB Kyle Arrington (groin)
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder)
LB Dane Fletcher (groin)
S Steve Gregory (finger/knee)
G Logan Mankins (ankle)
DB Devin McCourty (concussion)
OT Will Svitek (ankle)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip)
RB Shane Vereen (groin)

Full participation:
WR Danny Amendola (groin)
QB Tom Brady (right shoulder)

For the Colts:

Did not participate:
NT Aubrayo Franklin (rest)
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring)

Limited participation:
CB Khaled Holmes (calf)

Full participation:
LB Josh McNary (concussion)
S Laron Landry (concussion)

Report: Josh McDaniels withdraws from Browns coaching search

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 8, 2014 02:20 PM

FOXBOROUGH – Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who interviewed with the Cleveland Browns Saturday for their head coaching position, has essentially told the team, "Thanks, but no thanks," according to ESPN.

Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and other members of the front office flew to Massachusetts to interview McDaniels, and he was believed to be the front-runner for the job after an impressive showing during the day-long meeting.

Click Full Entry to read more and watch video.

FULL ENTRY

Aaron Dobson in walking boot

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 8, 2014 02:02 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson was seen in a walking boot in the team's locker room during Wednesday's media availability session.

Dobson did not speak with reporters.

The receiver aggravated a foot injury in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills. He had missed three straight games in December after hurting his foot against the Denver Broncos.

He has not participated in practice since the Bills game.

Divisional round practice peek: Dobson still missing

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 8, 2014 10:57 AM

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots are holding their second of three practices for the week, with players in sweats and shells as they're put through the paces on the Gillette Stadium field.

Colleague Michael Whitmer reports that rookie WR Aaron Dobson (foot) was the only player not spotted during the media-access window.

With Dobson missing all of last week in addition to the first two practices this week, it's unlikely he'll be in uniform Saturday night against Indianapolis.

Logan Mankins (ankle) and Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder) have been at practice each of the last two days, after getting last week off to rest and rehab.

Bill Belichick says Deion Branch giving Colts information is 'overrated'

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 8, 2014 10:35 AM

FOXBOROUGH — The idea that former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch could somehow provide information to his new employers, the Indianapolis Colts, is quite preposterous, according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“I think that’s way overrated,” said Belichick in answering a hypothetical on playing against a former player or with a former player of another team. “And a lot of times the information in those situations is sometimes misinformation because things have changed from whenever that person was [there]."

Click full entry to watch video of Belichick's comments Wednesday.

FULL ENTRY

Brady on Robert Mathis, Andrew Luck, and facing old teammates

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 7, 2014 05:17 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Struck with a cold and donning a knit cap, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady addressed the media ahead of Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

It will be the quarterback's 25th playoff game, and he'll be looking for his 18th victory as a starter. His 17 wins already are the most in NFL history.

So, naturally, with a promising young quarterback in Andrew Luck leading the Colts, Brady was asked about the challenge of playing against a budding star's team.

"I don’t necessarily approach it like that," Brady said. "My motivation is pretty simple. I just try to win, that’s what I try to do and try to be part of the reason why we’re successful. That’s part of doing my job and trying to be the best I can be for the team.

"It really doesn’t have anything to do with anybody on the other team and their motivation might be. To be a professional athlete and to play at this high level with this level of competition, winning is the only thing that’s important. That’s one goal and one objective that I’ve had for a very long time."

Brady was asked about rush linebacker Robert Mathis, the NFL's regular-season leader in sacks (19.5), who has a long history playing against the Patriots and taking Brady down.

"I can’t really run away from him, so that option’s out the door," Brady quipped. "You have to understand where he’s at. He really has a sense of urgency. It’s one thing to sack the quarterback. It’s another thing to strip-sack him and the ball’s flying all over the place.

"You have eliminate those types of plays. They’ve had a lot of those types of plays this year which have been a big benefit to their team where he runs the edge, the quarterback’s standing back there, here he comes and strip-sacks him. We just really can’t let that happen.

"That’s why he’s one of the best players in the league – because he makes those types of plays happen. He makes them on a regular basis, it’s not a fluke when he does it. That’s a trademark of their team and we have to try to stop one of their strengths, probably one of their best strengths and still go out there and be aggressive enough to move the football and get the ball in the end zone."

One of Brady's closest friends, Deion Branch, was signed by the Colts Monday, news that he welcomed.

"It’s nice to see guys get an opportunity, especially one of your great friends," said Brady.

Branch won't be the only former teammate Brady sees when Indianapolis comes to town. Darius Butler, a 2009 second-round draft pick by the Patriots, will be lining up as one of the Colts' starting cornerbacks after Greg Toler was placed on injured reserve.

Safety Sergio Brown, who played 26 games for New England, will be a backup in the Colts secondary.

And kicker Adam Vinatieri, who spent nine years with the Patriots and connected on game-winning field goals in two Super Bowls, will make his return to Gillette Stadium as well.

Brady remembers squaring off with Butler in practice quite well.

"He’s done a great job," said Brady. "I always had a lot of respect for Darius and what he was able to do. He’s an incredible athlete. I’ve thrown him a lot of interceptions on the practice field.

"Hopefully I don’t throw him one this weekend."

Patriots promote linebacker Ja'Gared Davis from practice squad

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 7, 2014 04:55 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots have signed linebacker Ja'Gared Davis to the 53-man roster.

Davis, who had been on the practice squad, takes linebacker Brandon Spikes's place on the roster.

The team also officially announced the signing of wide receiver Reggie Dunn to the practice squad. Dunn was a rookie free agent who spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, and Miami Dolphins. He played his college football at Utah, where he had five 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns, the most in NCAA history. The record for most overall kickoff returns for touchdowns in an NCAA career is seven.

Rob Ninkovich sees growing confidence in Andrew Luck

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 7, 2014 04:03 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- Count Patriots defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich as one of the people who see much growth and maturity in Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck.

With the huge comeback win last week and a second season under his belt leading the Colts to an 11-5 record, there is some obvious respect being given to the Patriots' upcoming opponent.

"I think Luck, this year, I think he's playing with more confidence," Ninkovich said. "Obviously last year being his first year and getting into situations and things that he can kind of control better this year, having that experience, just being more confident, that goes a long way as a quarterback, once you've seen everything, been in certain situations. Obviously them giving him a little bit more control with the things he does at the line of scrimmage for things versus what he sees."

The way Luck has played -- throwing for 3,822 yards and 23 touchdowns while cutting his interceptions in half (9) over his rookie campaign -- will most definitely affect the way opponents handle their pass rush.

"As a defensive linemen, linebacker, you have to obviously be aware of the things he's trying to check to if he sees a certain thing," Ninkovich said. "And as a defensive end, you have to be aware if something breaks down, [he can] pull the ball down and try to run for a first down."

Luck is the Colts' third-leading rusher, tallying 377 yards on the ground.

"But I wouldn't say he is a guy that is looking to run," Ninkovich said. "First and foremost, he wants to throw the ball down the field and make plays with his arm. And when there is a breakdown where the D-line lets him see a 15-yard opening, he's going to step up and he's going to pull it down and run for the first down.

"So as a D-line, you have to be smart with your pass-rush lanes and still get pressure on him, affect him in the pocket, but not give him those scramble-ability lanes just to get a first down."

Ninkovich was asked about linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was placed on injured reserve Monday, but the defensive captain didn't want to lament the loss of yet another Patriots defensive starter, saying that the team has handled significant injuries before and will continue to do so.

"You lose a guy that has some intensity," said Ninkovich. "In situations he comes in, he’s going to play hard. But again, the way this league works, you just have to deal with those losses.

"I think that for us to have the injuries and the things that we’ve had this year and still have success, it speaks volumes to the coaches and what they do to prepare everyone every week.

"Breaking down people’s individual roles and what they’re expected to do, that goes a long way. Whatever your role is, you perform and do it to the best of your abilities, and that’s how you win football games."

Colts will refocus on turnovers following outing against Chiefs

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 7, 2014 12:20 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- It was a glaring part of Indianapolis's comeback victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Though they stormed back from a 28-point second-half deficit -- the second-largest comeback in NFL postseason history -- the Colts' 45-44 win last Saturday was fraught with four turnovers, three of which were interceptions thrown by quarterback Andrew Luck, a drastic departure from the ball security the team displayed all season.

The last time Indianapolis turned the ball over four times was in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams, a 38-8 loss on its home turf.

With the Patriots on tap in the next round of the playoffs, Indianapolis is trying to button up that particular issue against a team that feasts on opponents' mistakes.

"We understand we can't survive on mistakes forever, especially against good, quality football playoff teams," Luck said Tuesday. "So we'll work on limiting those mistakes and hopefully give ourselves a chance.

"[Turnovers are] an emphasis every week, and that’s something coach [Chuck] Pagano has talked about since Day 1. Along with running the football and stopping the run, it’s turnover margin that he preaches day in and day out. And we took that to heart this year and managed to do a decent job. Obviously wasn’t great at it last week. But we know we can’t do it this week against the Patriots."

In the regular season, the Colts turned the ball over only 14 times, a league low, and sported a plus-13 turnover differential.

Luck also said he hadn't had a chance yet to work with new wide receiver Deion Branch, the former Patriot who worked out with the Colts a few weeks ago and was signed by them Monday following the injury to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in Saturday's game.

"It's been a quick morning," Luck said. "I definitely will pick his brain. He's going to be a great addition to our team. But I haven't had a chance to sit down yet. We've been rolling in and out of meetings."

Patriots practice peek: Aaron Dobson only player missing

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 7, 2014 11:26 AM

FOXBOROUGH -- Offensive lineman Logan Mankins and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard returned to practice for the Patriots on Tuesday while wide receiver Aaron Dobson was missing once again.

Dobson was the only Patriots player missing from practice, according to the Globe's Michael Whitmer.

Mankins and Dennard had missed practice last week during the Patriots' bye. Dobson played in the team's Week 17 matchup with the Buffalo Bills, leaving the game after re-aggravating his foot injury.

There was an unidentified wide receiver on the field as well, wearing the No. 84.

The team opted to practice inside the Dana-Farber Field House, working in shells and sweats.

Patriots place LB Brandon Spikes on season-ending IR

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 6, 2014 04:34 PM


Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who was the Patriots' second-leading tackler despite dealing with a knee injury for much of the season, has been placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

Spikes played in all 16 games, starting 11. According to team statistics, he finished the regular season with 134 tackles, a career high, and also had one interception, in Week 5 against the Bengals.

He becomes the fourth defensive starter to be placed on IR, joining defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo. On offense, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and tight end Rob Gronkowski have also been lost to season-ending injuries.

Despite playing hurt for much of the season, Spikes didn't miss a game for the first time in his four-year career. The Globe reported late in the season that Spikes had a ligament tear, and that the injury would require surgery once the season was over.

Well, Spikes's season is now over.

Colts sign former Patriots receiver Deion Branch

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 6, 2014 04:25 PM

The Colts have announced the signing of veteran wide receiver Deion Branch, just days before Indianapolis faces New England in a playoff game Saturday night.

A 2002 draft pick of the Patriots who was MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, Branch played 89 games over seven years with New England, including 10 games (four starts) last year, when he had 16 catches for 145 yards.

Indianapolis does have injuries at receiver -- Darrius Heyward-Bey hurt a hamstring in the wild-card round -- and brought in Branch for a tryout in December. On Monday afternoon, Colts coach Chuck Pagano told reporters that his team "needed some legs," and that Branch had a good workout.

Branch, 34, has long owned a home in the Indianapolis area.

McDaniels confirms Browns interview, but won't elaborate

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 6, 2014 01:25 PM


Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, in his first public comments since reports surfaced that the Browns wanted to interview him for their head coaching job, confirmed Monday that he met with Browns officials, but wouldn't offer any details on where talks stood.

With the Patriots preparing for Saturday's divisional playoff game against the Colts, McDaniels said his focus is firmly on the upcoming game.

"I appreciate the question, I understand it, and I know that’s something that comes up each time this year for other coaches, and the opportunities are certainly flattering if they come up," McDaniels said. "That being said, I’m going to try to keep my focus on the Colts and our preparation this week.

"Like I’ve said in the past, I’m fortunate to have the job I have, I love being here, love doing what I’m doing. Each opportunity that comes along is a little different. I’m going to leave it at that, and continue to focus and put my attention and my effort into the Colts this week."

McDaniels, a native of northeast Ohio, was rumored to be on the Browns' head coaching short list a season ago, when they ultimately hired Rob Chudzinski, who was fired after a 4-12 season. McDaniels, who had an 11-17 record as head coach of the Broncos from 2009-10, would only confirm that an interview took place over the weekend.

"We met, and that’s about all there is at this point," McDaniels said. "Nothing further."

Brady: After looking at themselves, Patriots turn focus to Colts

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff January 6, 2014 11:21 AM

Rather than focus on preparing for one or more of New England’s possible opponents, the Patriots “spent a lot of time on ourselves” during their playoff bye week, quarterback Tom Brady told WEEI Monday morning. Still, the Patriots quarterback said he caught “most of all” of the four wild card games played over the weekend.

“We’ve been identifying what we need to do better and the places where we’ve been really deficient, really over the course of the whole season,” Brady told the Dennis & Callahan show. “As soon as that game yesterday and we knew we were playing the Colts, the countdown really began.”

Brady said he saw some similarities in the way Indianapolis came back from a large deficit vs. the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday and the way the Patriots have climbed out of several holes this season.

“They kind of dug themselves in a little bit of a hole there and they dug their way out of it. We’ve been in that situation where we’ve been down and haven’t really played great at any point in the game, and all of a sudden you catch some momentum.”

While not meant as a slight to the young Colts quarterback, Brady said he hasn’t given one bit of thought to his “matchup” with Andrew Luck, or comparisons between the two players at similar points in their careers. Luck threw four touchdown passes vs. the Chiefs Saturday. It took Brady until his 6th career playoff game to throw his 4th touchdown pass.

“I’m not worried about the opposing quarterback,” said Brady. “I’m worried about the defense and what I need to do to play against them. I didn’t watch one snap of Indy’s offense, nor will I this week. I’ll be focused on the defense and what we need to do to score points. That’s what my job is.

“They can obviously score a lot of points on offense, and defensively they probably have the defensive player of the year in Robert Mathis. They’re a very good team, there’s no doubt about it. You can’t be playing this time of year without being a very good team.”

On Mathis, who has 19 1/2 sacks on the season, Brady said, “He wreaks a lot of havoc. We’ve got to be able to slow him down. We’ve got to be balanced on offense like we’ve been. We’ve got to run it. And when we throw it we’ve got to throw it good.”

“We’ve got to put everything in. It’s the biggest week of our year.”

Notes on the last time the Patriots played the Colts

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 6, 2014 01:59 AM

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Julian Edelman returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown last time the Patriots faced the Indianapolis Colts. (Jim Davis / Globe file photo)

The New England Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday in the divisional round of the playoffs, an extension of the exquisite rivalry that has delivered its fair share of memorable contests.

But much of the Patriots' ballyhooed history with the Colts stems from the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis, when the now-Denver Broncos quarterback barked audibles and fired off passes to the likes of Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garçon, Dallas Clark, and Marvin Harrison. Those Colts teams battled in epic fashion with Tom Brady and company.

This Colts team, led by second-year quarterback Andrew Luck and head coach Chuck Pagano, has a new flavor of football to it that's both excitable and explosive. But it's most certainly different. Brady is 10-4 against the Colts, including 2-1 in the postseason. The Patriots are 47-29 against the Colts franchise.

But Brady's Patriots have faced Pagano's team only once, last season on Nov. 18, 2012. It was a dominant showing for New England, which won 59-24 and scored in all three phases of the game.

Here are some notes from that game:

1. The difference maker -- Julian Edelman had quite an outing, catching five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, returning a punt 68 yards for another score, and breaking off a reverse for 47 yards. His punt return and receiving touchdowns marked the first time since 1985 the Patriots had a player score in both ways since Irving Fryar did it, also against the Colts. Edelman was also the Patriots' leading rusher that day with that sole carry.

2. Luck wasn't so great -- Much like Saturday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Colts quarterback had his struggles before finishing strong. He was 27 of 50 passing for 334 yards and two touchdowns. But that came with three interceptions and a lost fumble over the course of the game. Two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns and just one play after his fumble Brady hit Rob Gronkowski for a 24-yard touchdown. But it's key to remember that he was a rookie then playing in only his 10th game.

3. T.Y. Hilton was just as good -- Hilton didn't get the start for Indianapolis but he quickly became a large part of the Colts' game plan. He caught six passes for 100 yards, including two touchdowns. He beat Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib for both of his scores, setting up what we're sure will be a great matchup this time around.

4. Talib made his debut -- It was his first game in a Patriots uniform after being traded from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He made an impact right away, picking off Luck and going 59 yards for a touchdown. But he also got burned twice. He had a mixed game.

5. Alfonzo Dennard mades a big play -- Dennard got in on the fun, intercepting Luck and returning it 87 yards for a touchdown. It was a terrible throw by Luck, but it was a better runback by Dennard. He had to beat the speedy quarterback to get into the end zone. Tavon Wilson intercepted a pass as well.

6. Donald Brown was an afterthought -- The Colts' running back, who has been an integral part of Indianapolis' season this year, was just a bit player last time around. In spot duty, he had four carries for 17 yards and caught two passes for six yards. He was essentially a non-factor. Also inactive for the Colts in this particular contest, cornerback Vontae Davis and tight end Coby Fleener.

7. Gronkowski goes down with an injury -- The seemingly never-ending spiral of Rob Gronkowski injuries started when he broke his forearm on an extra point attempt in the fourth quarter. Prior to the injury, he had caught seven passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns. He was a big factor in the win.

8. The offensive line was good -- The Patriots were helped in part by a clean pocket against the Colts. Brady was only hit a couple of times, once by Robert Mathis and once by Dwight Freeney. And that was without their starting guards. Both Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly were out with injuries. Donald Thomas, now a Colt, and Nick McDonald (free agent) held it down in their place.

Despite the Colts' last showing against the Patriots, they've shown growth in the past year. After the way Indianapolis came back to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Saturday's wild card game, it appears that the quality of the rivalry between Patriots and their rival will continue to be played at a high level.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

NFL divisional playoff schedule

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 5, 2014 07:51 PM

Here is next week's schedule for the AFC and NFC divisional playoffs:

Saturday Jan. 11

NFC: 4:35 p.m. (ET) Saints at Seahawks (FOX)

AFC: 8:15 p.m. (ET) Colts at Patriots (CBS)

Sunday Jan. 12

NFC: 1:05 p.m. (ET) 49ers at Panthers (FOX)
AFC: 4:40 p.m. (ET) Chargers at Broncos (CBS)

Colts' win over Chiefs 'about as good as it gets', Bill Belichick says

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 5, 2014 07:00 PM

On Sunday evening, after it was clear that the Patriots would be hosting the Colts in Saturday's prime-time Divisional round matchup, Bill Belichick shared some thoughts on Indianapolis during a conference call.

“Obviously, it was an exciting game, watching the Colts and Kansas City,” Belichick said of Indianapolis’ thrilling 45-44 win. “It was a tremendous performance coming back in the second half. They did a really good job in all three areas of the game.

“It’s a team that’s well-coached, and had a real good season: beat two of the best teams in the league, in both the AFC and the NFC. We’ve gotten a little work done on them, but obviously have a lot more to do. We have a short week and have to gear it up and play our best football of the year, try to be competitive against this team.”

In three out of four weeks before their bye, the Colts beat the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos, and also won in Kansas City, though they also lost to the Dolphins, Cardinals and Rams.

That they were able to beat top teams, not let losses carry over, and came back the way they did against the Chiefs on Saturday – the Colts were down 31-10 at the half and 38-10 in the third quarter – reminds of the Patriots and their ability to persevere this season.

“I’d say the Colts have shown real good mental toughness this year. Starting out in the beginning of the season, going out and beating San Francisco in San Francisco, that was impressive,” Belichick said. “They obviously went out and beat Kansas City [on the road] a couple of weeks ago pretty decisively. They’ve shown mental toughness, I think, throughout the year. I think they’ve shown a lot of mental toughness.

“Yesterday’s game was about as good as it gets. To be that far behind in the third quarter, it didn’t look too good for them, and all of a sudden in a hurry you could feel them coming back, or at least I could…I think they’re a very explosive and dangerous team.”

Colts coach Chuck Pagano talked to reporters on Sunday morning, when it was still possible that his team would face Peyton Manning and the Broncos or Tom Brady and the Patriots.

The challenge would be stiff whichever quarterback his team would be facing, Pagano said.

“Both guys have played at a high level for a long, long time. It’s up-tempo. They find a way to get themselves, to get their offense, to get their team in the right play 99 percent of the time,” Pagano said. “They don’t allow you to do certain things from a defensive standpoint. They dictate the tempo. They’re great game managers. They do it all at the line of scrimmage and there’s nothing that they have not seen and been through.

“With a group back there that’s 100 percent, it’s a huge undertaking. So if guys aren’t 100 percent [healthy] or you’re missing some bodies back there, certainly it makes it even more of a challenge.”

New England and Indianapolis did not face each other this year during the regular season, the first time since 2002 that’s happened. But they did play in Week 11 in 2012, a 59-24 Patriots home win.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was a rookie then, but even with only two NFL seasons under his belt, he’s quickly shown that he isn’t easily rattled: the win over the Chiefs was the 11th fourth-quarter comeback in his brief career.

After an impressive career at Stanford and as the No. 1 overall pick, Luck’s success isn’t surprising, Belichick noted, but he expounded on what makes him good.

“He’s obviously a smart guy. He works hard, he’s tough, he has good leadership skills,” Belichick said. “He’s athletic, he can make plays with his feet and his arm: scramble plays, designed plays, plays that play out kind of the way they’re drawn up but he can improvise and make plays on his own. He does a good job of seeing down the field. He throws a very good deep ball, has good touch on some of the short and intermediate plays.

“There’s no question he’s a complete football player and one of the top quarterbacks in this league already. He has a great career in front of him but I think he’s already established himself as a very poised and talented player that can do a lot of things to beat you and he manages his team well and plays good situational football.”

With the game on Saturday, everything is moved up a day from the usual for New England: coaches will work on the game plan Monday, with installation starting with players on Wednesday and practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Patriots will host Indianapolis Colts in AFC divisional round

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 5, 2014 04:05 PM

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Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck recovered a fumble Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs and turned it into a touchdown. The Colts will travel to Foxborough to face the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

The New England Patriots will host the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC divisional playoffs following this weekend's wild card games.

With Cincinnati's loss to the sixth seeded San Diego Chargers, the Patriots will welcome the fourth seeded Colts to Gillette Stadium 8:15 p.m. Saturday Jan. 11.

A limited number of tickets will go on sale for the Patriots-Colts game Monday at 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster.

Indianapolis stormed back from a 28-point deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44, on Saturday. The Colts were down 38-10 in the third quarter before outscoring the Chiefs 35-6 down the stretch. Second-year quarterback Andrew Luck led the charge, completing 29 of 45 passes in the game for 443 yards and four touchdowns while recovering a fumble and running it in for another score. He accounted for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a 64-yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton with 4:21 remaining.

Hilton had an exceptional performance for the Colts against the Chiefs, catching 13 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

The Patriots last played the Colts on Nov. 18, 2012, a 59-24 win for New England. Luck threw three interceptions in that game, including a pick-six to then-newly acquired Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. And Rob Gronkowski first suffered a broken forearm on an extra point attempt.

Tom Brady is 10-4 all-time against the Colts, including 2-1 in the postseason. The last time the Patriots played the Colts in the postseason, Jan. 21, 2007, the Patriots came away with a 38-34 loss.

Divisional playoffs

Saturday Jan. 11

NFC: 4:35 p.m. (ET) Saints at Seahawks (FOX)

AFC: 8:15 p.m. (ET) Colts at Patriots (CBS)

Sunday Jan. 12

NFC: 1:05 p.m. (ET) Packers/49ers at Panthers (FOX)

AFC: 4:40 p.m. (ET) Chargers at Broncos (CBS)

NFL wild card weekend playoff picks

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff January 3, 2014 04:58 PM

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Temperatures at Green Bay's Lambeau Field are expected to fall below 0 degrees. (Matt Ludtke / AP photo)

For the NFL's wild card weekend, home field advantage and blistering cold will make a huge mark as the playoffs begin.

In Green Bay, record cold could be on tap for the visiting San Francisco 49ers. In Indianapolis, the Chiefs will have to find a way to shake Andrew Luck's confidence at Lucas Oil Stadium. And in Philadelphia, the New Orleans Saints will have to deal with the cold as well against an Eagles team that has dominated down the stretch.

Here are this week's NFL picks against the spread.

Saturday

Chiefs (+1) at Colts (-1) -- Looking back at the Colts' 23-7 win over the Chiefs in Week 16, there was little that went right for Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. Alex Smith was abnormally dull, getting intercepted once and sacked five times. He also had six passes broken up. It was a game worth forgetting. Take note that Andrew Luck is 2-0 against the Chiefs (1-0 against the Andy Reid coached Chiefs) and has won 13 of 16 games at home in his first two seasons. Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali (11.0 sacks) is questionable for Saturday's game while first-round draft pick and starting tackle Eric Fisher has been ruled out.
My pick: Colts

Saints (+2.5) at Eagles (-2.5) -- With all the record-breaking Peyton Manning was doing for the Denver Broncos, folks seemed to gloss over Drew Brees' third straight 5,000-yard passing season, his conference leading 39 touchdowns and, after losing the NFC South to the Panthers, his 11-5 New Orleans Saints. This is the third time these two teams have met in the postseason, the last of which came in 2006. Sean Payton is 4-2 in the playoffs and he's bolstered this season with the addition of a pretty good defense, ranked second overall against the pass (194.1 yards allowed per game). That'll come in handy against the Eagles (10-6), who are ninth throwing the ball and sport the top ranked rushing attack, none of which bodes well for New Orleans on the road. Philadelphia has won seven of their last eight games, including last four at home.
My pick: Eagles

Sunday

Chargers (+7) at Bengals (-7) -- The last time these two teams met each other in the postseason was 1982. Thankfully, there's much newer film to review. The Bengals beat the Chargers 17-10 in Week 13 with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for 92 yards and a touchdown as Cincinnati tallied 164 yards on the ground. The Bengals defense didn't allow San Diego into the red zone while the Chargers also hurt themselves with two lost fumbles. What's more, this Chargers pass defense is woeful, allowing 258.7 yards per game. The Bengals will surely eye A.J. Green (98 receptions, 1,426 yards, 10 TDs) more this time around after he only got seven targets in their last encounter. And Marvin Jones (51 receptions, 712 yards, 10 TDs), who saw increased opportunities as the season bore out, will keep the Chargers honest.
My pick: Bengals

49ers (-3) at Packers (+3) -- Jim Harbaugh's 49ers (12-4) are 3-0 against the Green Bay Packers (8-7-1), which may not mean much given Sunday's expected temperatures that will reach far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill. The Packers are 3-4 since 2002 when the temperatures reach 6 degrees or lower at Lambeau Field, according to Packers.com, possibly producing an epic run-oriented matchup with these two NFC powers. The 49ers, led by Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore (1,128 yards, 9 TDs), leads the third ranking rushing offense in the NFL. The 49ers also have the fourth ranked run defense, allowing just 95.9 yards per game. That'll help against a Packers team that runs it pretty good (133.5 yards per game, 7th overall) and has a dynamic running back of its own in rookie Eddie Lacy (1,178 yards, 11 TDs). It's the Packers' rushing defense that worries me, allowing 125.0 yards per game.
My pick: 49ers

Postseason: 0-0
Week 17: 7-9
Final regular Season: 123-133

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

Three Patriots named second-team All-Pro

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 3, 2014 12:33 PM

FOXBOROUGH - The Associated Press All-Pro teams were announced on Friday, and three Patriots players were recognized. OG Logan Mankins, CB Aqib Talib and S Devin McCourty were all named to the second team.

The All-Pro team is selected by a panel of 50 media members, and is considered more prestigious than the Pro Bowl, as players are not considered along conference lines - it is simply the best players in the NFL for the 2013 season.

This is the fifth time Mankins has been named an All-Pro; he was first team in 2010, and second team in 2007, '09 and 2011. The co-captain started all 16 games this season, including one at left tackle, when Nate Solder had to sit out.

This is the second time McCourty has been honored, and he now holds the distinction of being selected All-Pro at two different positions: at cornerback (second team) as a rookie in 2010, and this year at safety. This is the first time Talib has been honored.

Here is the full list of All-Pro selections:

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Denver.
(No second team quarterback; Manning was named on all ballots.)

Running backs: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia; Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
Second team: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota; Eddie Lacy, Green Bay

Fullback: Mike Tolbert, Carolina.
Second team: Marcel Reece, Oakland.

Tight End: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans.
Second team: Vernon Davis, San Francisco.

Wide receivers: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Josh Gordon, Cleveland.
Second team: A.J. Green, Cincinnati; Demaryius Thomas, Denver and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh.

Tackles: Joe Thomas, Cleveland; Jason Peters, Philadelphia.
Second team: Tyron Smith, Dallas; Joe Staley, San Francisco.

Guards: Louis Vasquez, Denver; Evan Mathis, Philadelphia.
Second team: Jahri Evans, New Orleans; Logan Mankins, New England and Josh Sitton, Green Bay.

Center: Ryan Kalil, Carolina. Second team: Alex Mack, Cleveland.

DEFENSE

Defensive end: J.J. Watt, Houston; Robert Quinn, St. Louis.
Second team: Mario Williams, Buffalo; Greg Hardy, Carolina.

Defensive tackle: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay; Ndamukong Suh, Detroit.
Second team: Dontari Poe, Kansas City; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, Jurrell Casey, Tennessee and Justin Smith, San Francisco.

Outside linebackers: Robert Mathis, Indianapolis; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay.
Second team: Tamba Hali, Kansas City; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco.

Inside linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco.
Second team: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati; Karlos Dansby, Arizona.

Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman, Seattle; Patrick Peterson, Arizona.
Second team: Aqib Talib, New England; Joe Haden, Cleveland and Alterraun Verner, Tennessee.

Safeties: Earl Thomas, Seattle; Eric Berry, Kansas City.
Second team: Eric Weddle, San Diego; Kam Chancellor, Seattle, Jairus Byrd, Buffalo, T.J. Ward, Cleveland, Devin McCourty, New England and Antrel Rolle, New York Giants.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Punter: Johnny Hekker, St. Louis.
Second team: Brandon Fields, Miami.

Placekicker: Justin Tucker, Baltimore.
Second team: Matt Prater, Denver.

Kick Returner: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota.
Second team: Dexter McCluster, Kansas City.

Patriots bye week: Friday practice peek

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 3, 2014 10:48 AM

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots did not let a little snow affect their workday, and have gathered at Gillette Stadium.

The team did move Friday's practice inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse, and it is a walkthrough. Reporters were allowed in and were present as players filed into the bubble, but they were not wearing numbered jerseys and the media was escorted out before we could get full attendance, so unfortunately we can't provide a clear answer on who was or was not present.

For the first two practices of the week, OL Logan Mankins, WR Aaron Dobson, CB Alfonzo Dennard, and WR Josh Boyce were absent. Boyce was placed on injured reserve on Thursday, ending his season.

Patriots re-sign Austin Collie, place Josh Boyce on IR

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 2, 2014 04:38 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots announced the re-signing of Austin Collie Thursday, and also placed Josh Boyce on season-ending injured reserve. Boyce has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.

It's the third time since the start of the season that Collie has signed with the team. He first joined them Oct. 3, was released Nov. 5, came back Dec. 5, and was released again Dec. 27. His initial release came two days after he suffered a knee injury against the Steelers.

In seven regular-season games, Collie had six catches for 63 yards.

When Collie was spotted at Thursday's practice inside Gillette Stadium, and all eight members of the Patriots practice squad were also spotted, speculation turned to which of the four injured players who hadn't been seen -- offensive lineman Logan Mankins, cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and receivers Boyce and Aaron Dobson -- might be moved to IR. It ended up being Boyce, who had nine catches in the regular season for 121 yards.

Same 4 players not spotted at Patriots practice; Austin Collie returns

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 2, 2014 11:34 AM

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The Patriots held practice inside a snowy Gillette Stadium Thursday. (Jonathan Wiggs photo)



FOXBOROUGH – Practicing in an empty Gillette Stadium with snow starting to fall steadily, the Patriots were missing the same four players as Wednesday's workout. Not spotted on Thursday were offensive lineman Logan Mankins, receivers Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.

Mankins briefly left Sunday's game with an ankle injury, while Dobson was forced out with a foot injury. Boyce (ankle) missed the last two games, while Dennard (knee/shoulder) sat out the regular-season finale. With no game this weekend, the Patriots might be giving those four injured players time to focus on getting healthy.

Or they could be putting one of them on season-ending injured reserve, which would free up a roster spot. Receiver Austin Collie, who was released on Dec. 27, is back at practice, and reportedly has been re-signed. Collie has played in seven games for the Patriots this season, catching six passes.

Belichick won't try to predict wild-card outcomes

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 1, 2014 04:56 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- For all the football knowledge Bill Belichick has amassed in his NFL coaching career -- he made his debut in 1975 -- one thing he's steered clear of is publicly predicting the outcome of games.

A pair of AFC playoff games this weekend will determine which team faces the Patriots on Jan. 11 at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round. But Belichick sure won't go out on a limb and say whom he thinks that will be.

"No, how can you?" said the coach. "Look at last weekend. I saw something where Pittsburgh had like a 1 percent chance of being in the playoffs, or whatever it was, some ridiculously low number, and yet they were within however close you want to call it to being in the playoffs -- a missed field goal, however much that field goal missed by, I don’t know, a foot?"

Belichick was referencing the end of the Chargers-Chiefs game, when Kansas City missed a field goal.

"I mean, nobody knows, the league is so competitive that, look, it isn’t even who has the better team, it’s just who plays better, who plays better on that day, how those two teams match up, and who plays better in that one competitive situation.

"It’s not four out of seven, or two out of three, or anything else. You get one opportunity to do it, and whatever team can perform better on that day moves on. Who knows who that’s going to be?"

As the No. 1 seed, the Broncos are guaranteed to play the worst remaining seed after the wild-card round. If the sixth-seeded Chargers beat the No. 3 Bengals on Sunday, San Diego travels to Denver, and the Patriots will play the winner of Saturday's Colts-Chiefs game. If the Bengals beat the Chargers, the Patriots will face Cincinnati.

With the opponent unknown, the Patriots will use practices on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to sharpen things in-house.

"We're working on things that we need to work on relative to just the Patriots, no matter who we play," Belichick said.

Brady might watch wild-card games, but might not

Posted by Mike Whitmer, Globe Staff January 1, 2014 02:09 PM

FOXBOROUGH -- With the Patriots not playing a game this weekend courtesy of their playoff bye, they'll have the opportunity to watch their upcoming opponent on television during wild-card weekend. Two games -- Chiefs at Colts, and Chargers at Bengals -- will determine which team visits Gillette Stadium for the Jan. 11 divisional-round game.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said after practice Wednesday that he might watch the two AFC games this weekend. Or, he might not.

"I’ve done both, I’ve watched and I haven’t watched," Brady said. "Sometimes you get really riled up watching the game and you start cheering for teams to win or lose.

"You don’t want to ride the wave, so I’ll use my time as best as possible to prepare myself. Whatever it needs to be, that’s what it will be."

Click the full entry button to watch video of Brady's comments Wednesday.

FULL ENTRY

Postseason bye week Wednesday practice peek - four not spotted

Posted by Shalise Manza Young, Globe Staff January 1, 2014 11:42 AM

FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots were on the lower field behind Gillette Stadium for the first of three practices scheduled during their postseason bye week.

There were four players not spotted during the media-access period: LG Logan Mankins, WR Aaron Dobson, WR Josh Boyce and CB Alfonzo Dennard.

Mankins suffered an ankle injury in the season finale against Buffalo, and Dobson aggravated a prior foot injury in that game as well. Boyce has not played since suffering an ankle injury in Miami in Week 15, and Dennard sat out the finale with shoulder and knee injuries.

On the plus side, S Devin McCourty was on the field for the first time since suffering a concussion against Baltimore in the second-to-last game of the season.

It was bitter cold on the practice field, and DT Chris Jones was the only player braving the conditions in short sleeves.

New England is not required to submit practice/injury reports this week.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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