Time to Bear down
Sunday's game is a test the Pats must pass
Now is the time. As someone said to me late Sunday night -- and I'll repeat it here -- the preliminary rounds are over in the NFL season. This is when the contenders stand up and make their runs.
So strike up the hype machine and get ready for the game of the season on Sunday, when the Bears (9-1) visit the Patriots (7-3) at Gillette Stadium. If the Patriots are going to make a run to the Super Bowl, I think this game is crucial for them.
Sure, the team could drop to 7-4 with a loss and still recover. But I think this week is all about momentum, all about shifting into high gear and building off one of the most impressive stats regarding the Patriots: Since the 2001 season, the team is 33-6 after Thanksgiving, the best record of any team over that span.
Up to this point, I've been generally reserved regarding the team, citing the week-to-week nature of the NFL and how there was still time for the team to evolve. But I think now is the time for the Patriots to make a move if they are to win a Super Bowl championship.
On to the questions ...
Please, before you wax poetic about the Pats' dismantling of a very poor Green Bay team missing its captain for half the game, let us not forget the Patriots fumbled the ball five times and still could not consistently run the ball. Where are my Patriots and who are these guys imitating the champs? Is it really the end of an era?
A: No waxing poetic from this seat. You're right about the fumbles, although the official game sheet noted it was four fumbles, not five. The Patriots recovered three of them and had some bounces go their way, no doubt. Still, aren't we splitting hairs a bit? A 35-0 win on the road is pretty rare, especially when you're shorthanded in the secondary. But I'll take your point as a good one in the sense that even in victory, the performance wasn't across-the-board perfect. As for the Patriots being an imitation of their past championship teams, I'm not sure what you're getting at. Are you suggesting that the Patriots never fumbled in their prior championship seasons? Are you saying that when the Patriots went 14-2 in both 2003 and 2004 that they won all their games cleanly and those games were never in doubt? I covered the teams in those years and I'll tell you, they had their struggles as well.
Now that is just some solid football -- 5-0 on the road now. I think the win over the Packers has calmed the masses, although I'm still hearing "It was only Green Bay". As I had written after the Jets game, I'm not too concerned about this team. I think we have the team to take it all this year and are playoff built. The only team I really think is going to be tough for us in the playoffs is going to be the Chargers. They have too many unstoppable players but even vs. them I like our chances. How was Lambeau? A lot of Pats fans?
Derron Darcy, Boxboro
A: The Packers wouldn't be in my top 15 list of teams, but my philosophy on the NFL is that it's hard to win, period. I really believe that. This isn't like the college game. I was at the University of Wisconsin on Saturday, and there was no doubt that the Badgers would beat up on the overmatched University of Buffalo, which they did, as students stumbled happily out of the game and made their way to local hotspot Ian's for a slice of pizza. In the NFL, when you go out and win 35-0, on the road no less, I think the winning team should feel good about itself that day. As for the playoffs, and the AFC teams that look like contenders, I'd rank the teams this way in terms of bad matchups for the Patriots: 1) Chargers; 2) Broncos; 3) Colts; 4) Ravens. Lambeau was terrific, and Richard Seymour noted that indeed, there were a lot of Pats fans there. Here was Seymour's comment: "I will tell you, there were a lot of fans in the stands, a lot of Patriots jerseys. I think we do have a lot of fans on this end, or traveling to come see us."
With everything he does, why, in your opinion, doesn't Troy Brown get credit where credit is due? He's remarkable.
A: On the whole, I do think Brown's contributions to the Patriots have been recognized as remarkable. As part of the team's nickel package on Sunday, he was covering Donald Driver, the NFL's leading receiver entering Sunday's action, which tells you all you need to know. Driver finished with two catches. Sure, Brown had help, but it was still a solid effort. If anything, I think part of the reason Brown sometimes flies under the radar is because he generally isn't around when the media is present at Gillette Stadium. So, in that sense, you don't see him being quoted in stories or hear his voice on clips on local radio stations. I guess he has his own radio show now, so maybe that will change.
Has Doug Gabriel done something beyond his ill-timed fumble in the Jets game to deserve being benched for this week's game as well? Members of the media have frequently characterized Coach Belichick as impersonal and aloof, but they have also praised his intellectual approach, work ethic and results. Without knowing the man personally, it's probably unfair to judge him, but it seems equally unjust to keep Gabriel on the sidelines when he has repeatedly made positive contributions on the field. Do you have any inside insight on the matter?
David Rosenbaum, Chicago
A: This seems to be a hot topic on the minds of some fans. I don't have any inside insight on why Gabriel was limited again on Sunday, playing mostly in the team's three-wide package, which was used sparingly. I'd assume the fumble is part of the reason, and perhaps he didn't respond in practice the way the coaches hoped.
I think that I have never seen Brett Favre look so bad. He made some of Tom Brady's recent performances look better. Did Doug Gabriel play? Was he benched because of last week's fumble? Does that kind of coaching response make sense? Corey Dillon's TD run was a real power shot. I think he got hit at the 2-yard line. How do you see the Pats matching up with the Bears?
David Curtin, Seattle
A: Agree on Favre. Some of that was probably due to the Patriots' defense, but he also missed some targets that appeared to be open. As for Gabriel, he played mostly in 3-wide sets, which the Patriots didn't seem to use that much. This game featured a plan based around tight ends, which was a response to the Packers' man coverage on defense. I think the Patriots are in a great spot against the Bears, who are playing their third straight road game this week. I like the Patriots this week.
What's up with Corey Dillon? For no less than the fifth or sixth time this year he leaves the game with an undisclosed "arm injury." Typical Belichick, he has yet to be on the injury report for an arm injury. What's really ailing him? Clearly this team should be running more. Is it something serious?
Michael Sandner, Springboro, Ohio
A: Dillon has been nagged by a stinger throughout the season, and it's the type of injury/pain that I understand reoccurs when you're taking as much contact as Dillon has. From my view, this is something the Patriots are going to have to live with. I think what we're seeing is the first sign of the changing of the guard, from Dillon to Maroney. I think Dillon is going to be an 8-12 carry guy the rest of the way, and should be used in the red zone, where he is a bull. I project Maroney to be in the 15-20 carry range moving forward. This Dillon-Maroney combo was a hot topic at the start of the season, and I remember projecting Dillon for 17 carries per game, Maroney for 6 and Faulk for 4 at the start of the year. Looks like it was more of a 50-50 split early, and now I see it tilting more toward Maroney. As for the team running more, it all comes down to production. I'm still not convinced the Patriots are a true running team, despite their impressive stats.
Maroney seems to be juking before running on most handoffs. He does not seem to be hitting holes as quickly as earlier in the year. Any concern about this on the staff? Also, two bad games on a soft field in Foxborough are sandwiched between two excellent games on hard fields away from home. I remember Brady saying before the Minnesota game that he liked to play on a hard field, with good footing. His throwing technique is superior. He uses his legs and torso to really drive the ball. A soft field may be more of a problem for him than it is for big arm guys like Brett Favre. Any thoughts on this?
Chip Moore, Cambridge
A: I think Maroney can hit the holes harder at times. I like this observation. As for concern among the staff regarding this, I don't think it's anything pressing. I believe they're quite happy with Maroney and the consistency in which he's come to work each day. On the field issue, I don't think the Patriots' performance in recent weeks has truly been dictated by the surface. It might have hurt in a few specific instances, such as at the end of the Jets' game when I remember seeing nose tackle Vince Wilfork struggle to gain his footing on a running play that helped New York run out the clock. But on the whole, I believe their wins over the Vikings and Packers were mostly a result of winning more of the one-on-one battles and coming through in the key situations (third down, red zone etc.).
Just curious if you or anyone else noticed a strange moment as the teams left the field at halftime during the Packers game. Favre was being carted off and the guy driving the cart looked like he was going a bit too fast. He barreled through a pack of Patriot players. One of the players, I think it was Ellis Hobbs, had to jump out of the way or he would have had his leg run over. Was wondering if Hobbs made any mention of almost being run over. Would have been a tough way to lose a starting cornerback.
Robert Sedlack, Vermont
A: There was a collective gasp in the press box when that happened, Robert. I believe there was a similar incident in the preseason with former Saints quarterback Adrian McPherson, when he was actually injured by a cart driven by a mascot. Hobbs was fortunate to avoid a similar fate.
Quick question: Pats have beaten the Bengals, Bills, Vikings and Packers by 25, 22, 24 and 35 points respectively. Matt Cassel has not attempted one pass all year. How many points do the Pats have to be ahead by before Brady gets pulled? I'm looking for a number, Mike. Just make one up and keep me happy.
Larry Whitcomb, Elizabeth, Maine
A: I think it's points and time on the clock. The two issues are combined here. I'd say they should be leading by 28 with less than eight minutes to play. Those would be the magic numbers -- 28 and eight.
Could you remind me again of that ridiculous excuse you gave someone a few weeks ago about why Belichick keeps Brady in the entire game when it's a blowout? Something about rewarding a QB who worked and prepared all week by allowing him to kneel on the ball to end the game. Mike, are you serious? Do you honestly believe Brady belongs in a game when the outcome has already been decided? Nothing good is going to come out of it. I'm just waiting for Brady to get hurt in one of these situations and see how Belichick defends himself. You're better than that, Mike. Don't drink the kool-aid all the time.
Timothy Brown, Revere
A: I wouldn't call it an excuse. I was relaying something Brady had said on Boston sports radio station WEEI when asked that question. He told the hosts of the show, John Dennis and Gerry Callahan, that as a quarterback he puts in a lot of preparation time each week and being able to kneel on the ball is the reward, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So to pin those comments on me is a bit ridiculous. I was simply relaying what Brady was saying.
I really believe the Pats made a huge mistake with their third- and fourth-round picks this year. David Thomas and Garrett Mills are two guys that almost every sports publication had as too small physically to play in the NFL. The Pats real need -- and it remains a need -- is linebacker and defensive back. Instead of drafting for need, they chose two players who I believe are not justified being drafted so high. Do you think these picks will come back to haunt them in the future?
A: To best answer the question, I think we need to look at the linebackers and defensive backs who were taken between or in the neighborhood of the Patriots' picks of Thomas (86th overall) and Mills (106th overall). On the picks between Thomas and Mills, the Ravens selected cornerback David Pittman (87th), the Panthers took outside linebacker James Anderson (88th), the Cowboys took outside linebacker Jason Hatcher (92nd), the Colts took inside linebacker Freddie Keiaho (94th) and the Giants took inside linebacker Gerris Wilkinson (96th). Meanwhile, in the neighborhood of the Mills pick, the Browns took inside linebacker Leon Williams (110th), Tennessee took inside linebacker Stephen Tulloch (116th) and the Bears took linebacker Jamar Williams (120th). I really don't know if any of those players could have helped the Patriots more than Thomas or Mills -- or if they'd fit in the team's system -- so let's keep an eye on how they progress and maybe we'll be able to judge more in the future. I do think Thomas was a good pick and provides the team security if Daniel Graham leaves in free agency after the season. Mills hasn't played yet, so the jury is still out on him.
Being around the team, what do you think about their return home? They are 5-0 on the road and 2-3 at home, which is really unusual, but the losses came against two very good teams (Broncos, Colts) and one that was playing for the division, essentially (Jets). Now, the Bears have shown that the Miami loss was an aberration and will come to town sky-high. Which Patriot team do you think will show up? It seems to me like they were embarrassed by the Jets and took it out on the Packers, but can that carry over is the big question. If they keep that attitude, no one can beat them, but that seems to be the key, doesn't it?
Lee Simmons, Erie, Pa.
A: No doubt, the Patriots need to play with the same urgency and focus at home as they do on the road. I do believe that is one of the keys to this week's game. As I said before, the preliminary round is over. This is the time when contenders stand up and make themselves accounted for. I think we'll find out a lot about the Patriots on Sunday.
What's the Pats' long-term injury outlook? More specifically, should we expect Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson back by December and does Rodney Harrison have a shot at being available for the playoffs?
Rob Gaucher, Kailua, Hawaii
A: I'd think Samuel is going to be out for a few more weeks. I base that opinion on the fact that the coaching staff was preparing for life without him immediately after that Jets' game on Nov. 12, which to me was an indication of the severity of Samuel's injury. On a hunch, I'd project him to be out another 2-3 weeks. As for Harrison, the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard Times had a report that Harrison would be out about six weeks. Haven't been able to confirm that, but that's the latest information out there that I've seen.
I thought I noticed Pierre Woods making a couple good special teams tackles. Any thoughts on his role and future?
Steve McCarthy, Andover
A: Woods, a rookie free agent from Michigan, was credited with a team-high two special teams tackles. He was activated before the game when it was determined that tight end David Thomas (groin) wasn't healthy enough to play. I'd put Woods' future in the Tully Banta-Cain category from a few years back -- he is developing from playing defensive end in college to outside linebacker in the pros and he shows enough promise for the coaches to continue wanting to work with him in making that transition.
Does the NFL keep track of game stats about how many plays each particular player is on the field for? For instance, if I wanted to know how many defensive snaps Richard Seymour was on the field for against Green Bay, is there anywhere I can find this information?
Russell Collins, Kingston, Ontario
A: I would think that the NFL and individual clubs keep a participation stat, although it's not available to the media/public. These stats are crucial for some players who have incentives based on playing time and that's why they are kept. The best way to find this information is to tape the game and chart it yourself, which of course, takes a lot of time.
There were numerous factors on why the grass field never held up at Gillette. One thing that has not been mentioned is why when they built the stadium they didn't leave the south end of the stadium open and they should have enclosed the north end of the Stadium. If the south side were open the field would have gotten more sun. With it closed the field got no sun and you need sun to grow grass. It sounds pretty simple but I believe this has to have been a mistake made when planning the stadium years ago. Has anybody talked about this in the organization?
Todd Zoppo, Cranston, RI
A: This comment from president Jonathan Kraft seemed to sum up the organization's feelings: "We knew having a very busy, multi-purpose stadium, in the Northeast, would make it difficult to keep a natural grass surface in place. We spent a lot of time, money and energy researching a system to do this, and we developed a system under that field, and spent millions of dollars on it. But unfortunately, the amount of sunlight the field gets after August isn't enough, because the stadium is tall. So the grass doesn't have a chance to recover after being used aggressively in April straight through January. No matter how good the system is underneath it, no one perfected a way to replace Mother Nature unless you go to an artificial surface. We haven't wanted to do that historically."
I've noticed Belichick talking directly to the players during the games, more than it seems from the past two seasons. Do you see this reflecting poorly on Josh McDaniels and Dean Pees? Or is Belichick just suddenly becoming more hands-on?
A: I've noticed Belichick drawing on the white board for defensive players and talking with Tom Brady and other offensive players on the sideline. But I don't think that's any different than past years. He's always done that, from what I've seen.
Any chance we could see Randy Moss in a Pats uniform next year? I'm thinking of a Corey Dillon-type reclamation project. We're not already looking at our receiving corps of the future, are we? By the way, where will Drew Bledsoe be next year? Oakland? Washington? I doubt he wants to retire, and surely there's one team out there willing to give him another shot.
Nathan Mills, Worcester
A: I'd say no on Moss. A lot would have to happen for Moss to wind up a Patriot and I just don't see it happening. I don't know much about Moss, but my view from afar he's too volatile of a personality to fit into the Patriots' locker room. I might be reading the situation incorrectly but it seems to me that it wouldn't be a fit. As for the receivers, I don't think this group is locked in for the foreseeable future. Tennessee's Drew Bennett is one of the top targets scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season and I think the Patriots will get into the bidding. Not sure about other receivers who will be free agents, but I don't think it's a deep group.
I know Mr. Borges will do his part, but what can we as fans can do to help persuade the panel to get one of the greatest Pats into the Hall of Fame -- linebacker Andre Tippett.
Sean McLaughlin, Hazleton, Pa.
A: I'm glad you mentioned Tippett, as last week's news that he has advanced to the semifinal round of Hall of Fame voting probably went too far under the radar. This has been something my colleague, Ron Borges, has been pushing for, and it looks like his clout really helped Tippett. From afar, I find the Hall of Fame process to be quite political. So to answer the question, if you're a fan interested in seeing Tippett elected to the Hall of Fame, I'd treat it like a politician does while running a campaign. Mobilize some people who feel the same way and try to win over the voters any way possible (save for lying, of course).