Don't underestimate the Vikings
FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots took care of business in Buffalo and now enter a challenging three-game stretch, with a trip to Minnesota and then home games against the undefeated Colts and surprising Jets.
At 5-1, the Patriots have put themselves in position to be a contender in the AFC. The Colts (6-0) and Broncos (5-1) are the only other teams with five or more wins. Four teams are right behind with four wins -- the Jets (4-3), Ravens (4-2), Bengals (4-2) and Chargers (4-2).
When you look at those seven teams at this time, you'd have to put the Patriots as one of the prime clubs. Because of that, some e-mailers took me to task for sticking with an 11-5 prediction for the team's record this season.
We'll get right to the questions
Reading the mailbag and chat from last week, I agree with your belief that this week's game in Minnesota will be a difficult test for the Patriots. The dome setting on a Monday night will give Minnesota a definite home-field advantage. I have a couple of questions looking ahead to this matchup. Will Brad Johnson's lack of mobility enable to Patriots to disrupt his timing and upset his decision-making on the short patterns of the Brad Childress West Coast offense? Also, how will the Patriots combat the dominant run-blocking skills of Steve Hutchinson, especially if Richard Seymour is not able to go? I think stopping Minnesota's running attack will require a better effort from the likes of Rosevelt Colvin, who has not impressed with his play thus far.
Chad Williams, Midlothian, Va.
A: I don't think Johnson's lack of mobility will allow the Patriots to disrupt the timing of the Vikings' offense. From a very general standpoint, I would think the cornerbacks will have to play aggressive at the line of scrimmage on receivers, and try to disrupt the offense that way. In my experience, that's probably the most direct way to throw a wrench into a rhythm-based offense. As for Hutchinson and the run-blocking of the Vikings, the Patriots will probably play their traditional 3-4 alignment. The Patriots rank sixth in the NFL in both rushing yards allowed per game (83.8) and rushing average per carry allowed (3.5), so while the unit will be challenged, Hutchinson and the Vikings also face a significant test.
From your chats, you seem to think the Patriots will have trouble with the Vikings Monday night. Can you further expand on these thoughts? Also, any idea how Tom Brady has fared against the cover two defense the Vikings seem to favor? I am thinking with his experience versus the Colts (specifically Tony Dungy), he might do well.
Glenn Williams, Brighton
A: Playing a road Monday night game in a loud place like the Metrodome is a huge challenge. That should be a very tough environment. Also, the Vikings are a good team that doesn't make many mistakes in the form of turnovers, and plays solid defense. Minnesota is ranked first in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (70.8) and sixth for fewest points allowed (15.8). This is a quality opponent. As for Brady against this Vikings type defense, he has fared well. Look at his results against the Bills and Colts as examples of this, as Bill Belichick said on Monday that those defenses are in the same type of family as Minnesota's.
What is the status of Richard Seymour and Eugene Wilson? Both failed to finish the game. Someone asked Seymour if the injury was season-ending. Is it that serious? Also, what has happened to Rosevelt Colvin? He has become a one-dimensional player, he can attack the quarterback but can't stop the run. On the first play Sunday, he was caught inside on a run to the outside for an 8-yard gain. The same thing happened in the Denver game. Last year he did a much better job against the run. What can be done to correct this?
Jim Curley, Seminole, Fla.
A: Seymour (elbow) and Wilson (leg) will likely show up on the Patriots' injury report on Wednesday. That's the most information I have at this time. On Sunday, Seymour was given the chance to rule out the injury being a season-ending type of situation, and he didn't rule it out. As for Colvin, he has had some troubles setting the edge at times, but I did see him make some plays in that regard against the Bills. So while the first play wasn't his best effort, he did some positive things later in the game, forcing runs back inside.
Recently I believe you said you see the Pats finishing 11-5. Minnesota, Indy and Chicago were on the list of tough games ahead. Call me crazy, but I think we match up extremely well against these guys. Nobody is really scoring on our defense. If Cincinnati couldn't put up any points, how is Minnesota or Chicago? Grossman and the Bears looked terrible against Arizona, and there is no way the Pats self destruct like that. We won't have much trouble scoring against Minny either. Chicago will keep it low scoring, but we always win the close dog fights. As far as Indy goes, I'm not impressed this year. Normally they're the best team going into the playoffs, but just kinda choke, but this year, they have the best record, but haven't looked great doing it. I realize wins are all that matters, but if Indy is down by a score going into the fourth quarter against the Pats, you really think they can come up in the clutch? They have had a ton of trouble with just about everyone this year. Their defense has been run over by a lot less than Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney this year, and our defense isn't going to let up the late scores that have allowed Indy to crawl to the wins they've been getting. Do you really think we lose these three games? How do you see these playing out?
Rick Caldwell, Dracut
A: To recap, at the start of the season, I predicted the Patriots would finish 11-5 and I'm staying consistent with that thought. There are so many variables that could alter the equation over the final 10 games, with injuries perhaps the most significant. So when we project how games might "play out", that's incredibly hard to do, because we're doing so on the assumption that the current Patriots team is the one that is going to be taking the field every game. Each matchup is different as well, so I don't like to look at the Bears and how they struggled against Arizona, and then connect that to how they will fare against the Patriots. Or how the Patriots shut down the Bengals, so that means they'll shut down their next opponent. We've seen it so often that one performance seldom translates into the next week's performance. From a short-term view, I think the next three games are very tough -- at Minnesota, and home against the explosive Colts and surprising Jets. If the Patriots sweep those, I'd probably change my 11-5 prediction at that point. But whenever this topic comes up, I keep thinking back to what CBS analyst Phil Simms said a few weeks ago: Why do we have to have all the answers now anyway? Also, I think it's easy to forget how hard it is to win in the NFL.
Why do you think the Pats are going to lose all the games against the elite teams? Are we that bad? You could have given us 50-50 in those games (Colts, Bears, Jags, and even Miami)?
Jonas Yonzan, Boulder, Colo.
A: I don't necessarily think the Patriots will lose all those games, but I think they will all be challenging, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were losses. I'd add in the Vikings and Jets as games that should be especially tough, and you never know about the conditions in Green Bay, even in late November. The other games left on the schedule are against Detroit, Houston, and Tennessee, which I'd put in the not-so-tough category at this point. I think the Patriots have the pieces in place to be there at the end. I'm interested to see how it all unfolds, realizing that no one has any of the answers right now.
In the Bills game there was a fumble on the last play before the half where the Bills receiver fumbled it and a Pats player recovered it and returned it a few yards downfield. In all the box scores I don't see any record of this play. Was I imagining things?
Christian Koulichkovq, Boston
A: My understanding is that because the ball was never spotted by the official, there was never an official change of possession. I believe this is a technicality at the referees discretion, as the ball needs to be spotted by the official for the play to be officially a turnover in this situation. Bills receiver Lee Evans was credited with an 11-yard gain. I thought that was one of the underrated plays of the game as cornerback Ellis Hobbs made a heady play to keep Evans from the sideline, thus keeping the clock running.
The running game has been pretty good so far, but against the Bills it was awful. For example, Dillon was 14 carries for 47 yards. If you take away his three runs for 37 yards, he went 11 rushes for 10 yards. Your thoughts?
A: It looked to me like Buffalo played a bit with eight men in the box to take away the running game, and that opened some opportunities in the passing game. I thought the running game had some major positives, specifically Dillon's two touchdown runs. To score on touchdown runs of 8 and 12 yards is especially solid, and a sign of powering through the defense in the red zone, where there is less space to operate. Chad Jackson also made another big play in the running game, picking up a first down. Overall, the team had 27 carries for 94 yards and two touchdowns. It wasn't great, but I wouldn't rate it as awful.
Once again, Matt Light reveals himself as being at best average in what is arguably the most important position on the Patriots' offensive line: tackle on Brady's blind side. I'm surprised that the Patriots are exposing their most important asset at QB to harm. What's the answer, an eventual rotation with Nick Kaczur, a draft pick or even a conversion of someone from the team's overstocked defensive line?
Pete Clark, England
A: Light had a tough game against the Bills, but I think the answer is to stick with him. He's been the starting left tackle on three Super Bowl champions, and while past performance doesn't ensure future success, I still think he's a solid player that you can win with.
I hated to lose Adam Vinatieri but have you noticed the improvement in kickoffs? Adam almost never put the ball in the end zone. Now the ball almost always goes into the end zone and the other team usually starts at the 25 or less.
Chuck Mantia, Saratoga, NY
A: I have noticed the difference. Stephen Gostkowski has eight touchbacks in six games, and Vinatieri had 10 all of last season. The eight touchbacks tie Gostkowski for third in the NFL. The Patriots are winning the field position game on kickoffs, as evidenced by the stat that they rank seventh in opponents' average drive start, at the 23.3 yard-line.
After the 2006 season, who are the most likely two players to make it to free agency -- one on defense, one on offense? And by the way things are going with the Seahawks and their injuries, do you think their pick could end up in the top 15? And what's wrong with Ellis Hobbs? Samuel's doing better than him.
Jakenson Derosier, Seaford, Del.
A: I'd say cornerback Asante Samuel and tight end Daniel Graham will test free agency unless the team puts the franchise tag on one of them. As for the Seahawks, I'd be surprised if that pick was in the top 15. Meanwhile, Hobbs has been limited by his left wrist injury, and has been playing more in the slot, with Chad Scott starting in his place the last two games.
What's the story with Daniel Graham? I like the guy and there's a noticeable negative effect on the running game and pass protection when he's out. Plus, he is underrated as a skill player (screen pass TD run against Indy last year). But he seems to have become a permanent fixture on the injury report the last two years. Also, Nick Kaczur's had a bad shoulder since late last season. Why has he not had surgery and been put on IR?
Ken Ferrere, Dunstable
A: Graham has been banged up, with his shoulders nagging him in 2005 and this year with a bad ankle. I think part of it is related to his bruising, physical style of play. I agree that his absence hurt the running game and pass protection, and believe he's one of the most valuable players on the offense. As for Kaczur, he hasn't been placed on injured reserve because I'm assuming the Patriots believe his timetable for a return isn't long-term. He did play in the Oct. 1 game at Cincinnati.
Why doesn't Belichick give Matt Cassel some playing time during these blowouts? The kid hasn't taken one snap this year. I understand the Patriots passing game is still "work in progress" and there is plenty of fine-tuning that still needs to be done but it makes no sense to me to risk Brady getting hurt when they are up 20 points late in the fourth quarter. Let Cassel get a few plays under his belt during the regular season, especially in games like the Bengals and Bills where the game was over halfway through the fourth quarter. The kid hardly got any playing time in college and to expect him to produce for you if he is ever really needed is a little unfair if he can't be trusted during garbage time.
Mike Wells, Saratoga, NY
A: Brady was asked about this, in a hypothetical way, during his regularly scheduled appearance on sports radio WEEI 850 AM in Boston on Monday. One of the things he said was that it's a reward for a full week of preparation when you can kneel on the ball at the end of a game. In Sunday's game, I don't think getting Cassel a few snaps late in the game would put him any farther ahead than where he already is, and after the Patriots led 28-6, Brady threw only two more passes and both were of the quick-hit variety.
I would like to know why Jarvis Green is not a starter. The game changes so much when he is playing. Why doesn't Bill use him more? They play so much better with the 4-3 defense and with Jarvis in the game, don't you think?
Ann Elionfante, Meriden, Conn.
A: No matter what defense the Patriots are playing -- whether it's a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5 -- it's working. The team is allowing an average of 13.3 points per game, and not including the season-opening strip sack of Tom Brady that was recovered for a touchdown, the defense is surrendering just 12.1 points per game. So I don't think it's a 4-3 issue. As for Green, he usually comes on the field in sub-rushing situations, where he can pin his ears back and get after the passer. The reason he's not starting is that the team's base defense has primarily been a 3-4 and Richard Seymour is the starter at his spot. It's hard to argue Green should play over Seymour.
One player that has intrigued me is Willie Andrews. The guy is all over the place on coverage. Any idea why he isn't returning kickoffs as well? Wasn't he Baylor's all-time leading return man? I would switch him for Kevin Faulk.
A: That's been a topic of discussion over the last few weeks, and I recently said I'd put Andrews in for Maroney. After Maroney's 74-yard return against the Bills, I'm eating some crow on that one this week, but I'd still be nervous about him suffering an injury and then being unavailable at running back. Don't know why Andrews hasn't gotten his shot yet, but much like receiver Chad Jackson starting to see some time as a punt returner, I wouldn't be surprised if Andrews gets a crack at kickoff returns in the coming weeks. He could spell Faulk from time to time.
What's up with Stanley Morgan these days? Are the Patriots planning on honoring him in any way? I remember him as a player and he was always very explosive. A consistent deep threat for years on some very bad teams.
A: Morgan was selected as a member of the 35th anniversary team in 1994 by a panel of local writers and to the Patriots team of the century in 2000, which was selected by readers of Patriots Football Weekly, the team's official newspaper. Interestingly, he is not in the team's Hall of Fame. I am not aware of any plans to honor him at this time.
Just wondering when/if Marquise Hill will be able to contribute. It's been 2 years. What's the story?
A: The Patriots have been activating five defensive linemen on most game days: Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, and Mike Wright. With Seymour potentially sidelined with an elbow injury, this could be a chance for Hill to show how much progress he's made. Yet with all the linemen healthy, the only player Hill might overtake is Wright, but Wright has more value on special teams and with flexibility to play nose and end. In all, Hill has appeared in only 10 career games (including playoffs) since joining the team as a second-round pick.