Eye on the playoffs
Boston Globe Patriots writer Mike Reiss checks in every Tuesday with his take on the Pats. Ask your question now, and come back next week to see if it was answered.
Looking ahead it seems the Pats will face Jacksonville, Kansas City, or San Diego in the first round of the playoffs. What's the most favorable matchup of the three scenarios?
Nissim Jabiles, Lima, Peru
A: Assuming the Patriots win the AFC East, and thus earn a No. 4 seed as the division winner with the worst record, they would play the No. 5 seed. Looks like Jaguars are a strong possibility. Jacksonville is 9-3 and has games remaining against Indianapolis, San Francisco, Houston and Tennessee, the last three of which are poor teams. I'd project the Jaguars, who will finish behind the Colts in the AFC South, for a 12-4 finish and a No. 5 seed. I think the Patriots match up well against them, and right now, I would pick them to beat the visiting Jaguars in the first round.
Predict your 12 playoff teams and seeding ...
2. Bengals (wins tiebreaker over Broncos)
(Kansas City and San Diego are hard to leave out, but they have tough schedules remaining, and play each other. Pittsburgh has the Bears and Lions at home, and the Vikings and Browns on the road.)
Can the Patriots clinch the division against the Bills this week?
A: Yes. The Patriots can clinch the division with a win in Buffalo, and a Dolphins loss in San Diego.
Are the Patriots going to get an honest test of their pass defense before the playoffs? J.P. Losman, Chris Simms, Brooks Bollinger again, and either Gus Frerotte or Sage Rosenfels. I would hope that this team could evolve into one that doesn't give up the long ball with a front seven that plays the run tough and can force some breaks to stop drives, but I don't see a good test coming before the playoffs.
Jon Averback, Washington, DC
A: Buffalo ranks 29th in passing yards per game; Tampa Bay ranks 22nd; the Jets rank 27th and the Dolphins rank 14th. So I'd say the Dolphins and Buccaneers are the two teams to watch. The Jets also might have Jay Fiedler back for the Dec. 26 game against the Patriots, which would be an upgrade over Brooks Bollinger. I agree with you, none of these teams present the same type of test the Patriots would face against the Colts, Bengals, Broncos, Chiefs or Chargers.
I have to say that I still haven't lost faith in our boys yet -- however, the first half of Sunday's game was enough to make even the most optimistic of fans nervous. In the second half, I saw a bit of the mojo that the team has been lacking for most of the season. I'm sure having Faulk and Dillon in there, as well as some better play by the D line, helped. Next week in Buffalo will not be easy, given that we had a tough time against them in October. What's your take on the team's overall second-half play, as well as your optimism for the rest of the season? Also, who do you think we're likely to face in the first round of playoffs if we make it there?
Jen Bullen, Hull
A: My feeling was that the Patriots played a solid second half against one of the worst teams in the NFL. As for the rest of the season, I think the Patriots will finish 10-6, losing just one more game along the way. I project the Patriots as a No. 4 seed, which means they'd play the No. 5 seed in the first round. I think Jacksonville (9-3), with three winnable games remaining, is a likely first-round opponent.
I am so glad that the players on the team are speaking out on the people who are at the games and the lack of crowd noise. Was that an away game on Sunday? As a person who has to watch the games at home, my living room is louder than the stadium. As I wrote to you before: Either you are a fan or a spectator. And it really, really gives the impression that the folks at the games are spectators.
Laura Badgett, Boston
A: This has been a hot topic since Richard Seymour made his feelings known about the lack of crowd noise after Sunday's game. In a less direct, more diplomatic way, I felt head coach Bill Belichick reiterated that point on Monday when he said he respected what his players had to say. And nose tackle Vince Wilfork, on his Web site vincewilfork75.com, had this to say: "It is disappointing to not feel the 12th man. I have never been to a stadium [as] quiet as ours. Last year they didn't make that much noise but this year is even worse. It is so quiet in there when defense is out that we can hear the QB; they make more noise when the offense is [on the field] and that is when they should be silent. The 12th man is vital."
Richard Seymour is right about the lack of fan noise. It is embarrassing and obviously a problem even watching on TV. It's something that needs to get bumped up to the Kraft (Robert and Jonathan) level because it is a major problem. Second, what is going on with Marquise Hill? Last year was a somewhat understandable mulligan and there are many bodies on the defensive line. But Hill's a second-round pick who shouldn't be a regular inactive at this stage. What is the story with this guy?
Scott McCandless, Alexandria, Va.
A: Quite a few questions on the crowd noise at Gillette Stadium came into the mailbag this week. As for Hill, it's important to remember he's 23 years old and came out of LSU as a junior last year. I think it's too early to call him a bust. That said, his lack of an impact this season has been a disappointment in my opinion. The Patriots dressed just five linemen on Sunday, making Hill a healthy scratch.
Could you compare the 2005 Pats to the 2001 Pats? Am I the only one that thinks our offense is a lot better, our special teams is about the same, and our much-maligned defense is at about the same level (weaker secondary but three first rounders on the D-line) and improving each week? Time to think positive people.
A: In comparing 2001 and the present Patriots, the big word that comes to mind is consistency. The 2001 team, I felt, was more consistent than the current team. That's why, on Monday, Bill Belichick said he still didn't know what kind of team he had this year. "I think a big part of our season has been defined by our lack of consistency in all three phases of the game. I think if we could develop a more consistent pattern, then there would be a lot better barometer on how the team is going to perform on a consistent basis, but we just haven't been able to do that."
For the first time this year I didn't hear much about our porous offensive line or how much we miss Rodney Harrison or Tyrone Poole and Randall Gay on the corners. Do you think the newcomers have finally learned how to play football or did the Jets make them look good?
Dennis Ludwig, Winnipeg, Canada
A: A little bit of both, Dennis. The offensive line struggled in the first half -- Nick Kaczur, Stephen Neal and Brandon Gorin all had penalties and Logan Mankins was beaten for a sack. As for the Patriots' play in the defensive backfield, I'd start by saying the Jets' offense was one of the worst I've seen in the last five years. Still, when the ball was thrown in their direction, the Patriots' corners and safeties came up with the play. A more aggressive approach up front, which forced quick throws by Jets quarterback Brooks Bollinger, helped the pass coverage as well.
Just wanted to first congratulate Tom Brady on being Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. No one has deserved it more than the true professional. My question is with Brady's numbers, what are the chances he wins his first regular season MVP? It seems he has to be a favorite due to his presence and the team's current record.
Chris Clancy, Augusta, Maine
A: Don't think the regular-season MVP will happen for Brady, who was just fourth in Pro Bowl fan balloting at quarterback as of last Thursday. He was behind Peyton Manning (Colts), Drew Brees (Chargers) and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers). Seattle's Shaun Alexander, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson and Manning are probably the front-runners for MVP right now. That said, when speaking with scouts and others around the league, they often say the same thing: "As long as Brady is there, the Patriots will have a chance."
Your thoughts on the mechanics of Tom Brady and the running backs of late. I believe they've gotten very lax with a lot of the fakes. I'm noticing more defensive players are not slowing down at all because the fake handoffs are very poorly executed, and then Brady ends up in trouble trying to buy time. Watch the difference as Peyton Manning or Trent Green work the play action.
Paul Iannelli, Acworth, Ga.
A: To be honest, I haven't watched his area closely enough, although one play comes to mind from Sunday's game. Third-and-2 from the Jets' 3. Brady sells a nice run fake, which the defense commits to, but then throws a shade behind Troy Brown in the end zone. It was the type of play Peyton Manning runs often; the fake was a good one. As for the Patriots doing that more consistently, my first thought is they simply need to run the ball more before the play-action can become more effective. The Patriots rank 27th in rushing yards per game (88.7).
What are those straps I see worn around so many of the players' arms (i.e. Mike Vrabel), right above the elbow? They remind me of a person about to give blood.
R. Kennedy, Needham
A: Here is Vrabel's explanation: "My grandmother asked me the same thing. It's just a thin wristband, strictly cosmetic. I've worn them since when I was at Ohio State."
Not to take anything away from Adam Vinatieri's achievement on Sunday, but of all the substandard performances among the Pats this season, our kicker has remained largely below the radar. Fact is, he's not having a great year. Two years ago when his accuracy was down, it was because of a sore back. Is his health OK? Also, an observation: Ellis Hobbs is not short of confidence, and I think that's a good thing. While he's still learning, I think that position requires a certain cockiness and arrogance. He may get beat occasionally, but he's a competitor.
Jason Rubin, Melrose
A: Vinatieri is 17-of-22 (77.2 percent) on the season, with four of the misses coming from 40 or more yards. He is a career 81.7 percent kicker. Last year, he was 31-of-33. I believe his health is fine this year; he recently said he feels as good as he has at any point of his career. As for Hobbs, he was the 17th cornerback selected in the NFL Draft, but he's shown considerable promise.
The million dollar question: which single position is most in need of an upgrade during the offseason? And has Vince Wilfork shown enough to be the long term guy at NT?
Jason Stringer, Wenham
A: I think cornerback/safety would be the position in need of an upgrade next season. As for Wilfork, I do believe he's shown enough to be a long-term fit at nose tackle.
With a relatively green secondary, and their lack of a pass rush causing so much of a problem with their pass defense, why haven't the Pats gone to a 4-3. I realize that they can show more looks with the 3-4 front but their defensive line -- Seymour, Warren, Wilfork and Green -- is one of the strengths of this team and they don't seem to be utilizing it.
A: This has been a theme that has popped up at times over the course of the year, and a subject I've flip-flopped on myself at times. One reason it's been a hot topic is because the Patriots played a 4-3 against the Steelers (Sept. 25) and were successful, perhaps playing their best defensive game of the season. Yet we haven't seen the 4-3 since. On this past Sunday, however, I think we saw some more pressure out of the 3-4 because of some more aggressive coaching decisions. So my thought is that just because the Patriots are in a 3-4 doesn't mean they can't attack. And based on the team's recent success stopping the run out of the 3-4, I no longer see them changing to the 4-3.
I have been really disappointed by the play of the defensive line. At the beginning of the year I really thought this unit was as good as any tandem in the league. While they have shown flashes against the run it has been inconsistent and the pass rush has been sketchy at best. Do you feel the D-Line has underachieved?
KC, New Jersey
A: I've actually felt the defensive line has been playing above average in recent weeks. Their position is not like a receiver, where you can measure success with tangible stats like receptions. But from what I've seen, the combination of Seymour-Wilfork-Warren has been strong at the point of attack. While the group could provide some more pressure, I'm not always sure the defensive scheme has called for that. Opponents have been limited in the running game in recent weeks and I think a big part of that is the D-line.
With the Patriots likely to have a higher seed but worse record than wild card teams, how does this affect draft position?
Baruch Katz, Detroit
A: That won't affect draft position; the team with the lowest winning percentage drafts first and the rest of the teams are placed in order from lowest winning percentage to highest. The Super Bowl winner drafts last (regardless of record) and the Super Bowl loser drafts next to last.
I am a Patriots fan dating back to having seen them play in Fenway Park. My knowledge of Gino Cappelletti is as a great player as well as a fine analyst. Once again the AFL's all-time leading scorer has been left off the Hall of Fame ballot. What possible reason is there for this omission? There are AFL and other players already in at Canton who were nowhere near Gino's class as a player.
David Rohlfing, Southbury, Conn.
A: Hall of Fame credentials are not one of my strong suits, so I passed this on to a national NFL reporter who has been around a lot longer than I have. His answer is that it's simply hard for a kicker to make it into the Hall, because they are only on the field about a dozen times per game. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Web site, only one placekicker is in the Hall of Fame -- Jan Stenerud (1967-1985). The question selectors have wrestled with in recent years: Do you say yes to a kicker and no to a player like former Redskins receiver Art Monk, or Giants linebacker Harry Carson?
My question pertains to OT Wesley Britt who is on the practice squad. How are his injuries healing, how is he progressing, etc. Do you see him in the mix for next year?
Ken Williams, Arcadia, Ind.
A: Here is Britt's take: "I'm just working hard to get better. Coach Scarnecchia is awesome, a great coach, and I just want to keep focusing on getting better. My plan is to just play hard and let Coach make the decision [for next year]." My feeling is that Britt's future with the team will depend on if Tom Ashworth, who is in the final year of his contract, returns next season. If Ashworth returns, that would mean Matt Light, Nick Kaczur, Brandon Gorin and Ashworth are all back, which would make it tough for Britt to emerge.
Can you tell us the financial deal, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, of the guys on the practice squad? What happens to a guy who was drafted (like P. K. Sam) when he lands on the practice squad?
Donald Christy, Ayer
A: According to the NFL Players Association, minimum salary for a practice squad player was $4,350 per week as of last year. Players on the practice squad practice with the team every day, often playing on the scout team. Practice squad safety Ray Ventrone, for example, has been awarded a Practice Player of the Week award multiple times this season. The Patriots give the award to the player who best helps the team prepare for that week's game.
Any credence to the theory that Belichick is kind of playing possum? What I mean, is that he is saving the 4-3 defense for the first round of the playoffs, and starting to keep injured players inactive until they are healed more fully. He must be thinking (he would never say it), that no one can really challenge for the division, so why rush guys back from injury, or throw a bunch of wrinkles in now? My guess is he's felt since this way since beating Buffalo five games ago.
Mike Bengtson, Walpole
A: I've considered the theory and it makes sense when it comes to bringing back injured players. There is no need to rush them back (i.e. Corey Dillon) because the AFC East has been so weak. And while I would imagine the Patriots are holding some of their strategic plans back for the playoffs, I just don't think this team, as presently constituted, could pull off what the 2004 team did in the Super Bowl -- playing an entirely different defense in the biggest game of the year. Consistency has been the team's biggest problem, and more than anything, I think Belichick would like to see the team string together 2-3-4 solid games together. I truly believe that is his focus, more than saving something for the playoffs.
I would like to know why the Patriots never use the "shovel pass" on offense. I can only think of one time they used it years ago and after catching the pass (I think from Tom Brady), Kevin Faulk fumbled. I see other teams use it with success. Why not give the defense one more thing to worry about?
Speros Zakas, Salem
A: The shovel pass, to me, is another form of a screen pass -- a play where the defensive pressure is allowed to get up the field and then the offense counter-punches with a short pass with blockers out in front. Seems the Patriots prefer the screen (thrown to one side of the field and in space) over the shovel pass (in traffic in the middle of the field). Maybe quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, who I believe is calling the plays on game-day, will read this and incorporate it into the game-plan.
Why don't the Patriots mix the "2-minute hurry-up" offense into the overall game plan anymore? I thought Brady used to do a great job calling plays on the fly. Also what happened to the "spread offense" formation with no one in the backfield and Brady in the shotgun? And why don't they use the short screen passes that made them famous for the first Super Bowl win?
Michael Pagliarulo, Los Angeles
A: Great points, and it should be noted this question came in before the Patriots-Jets game. All three of these elements were seen in Sunday's contest. Do you have a pipeline to Josh McDaniels? One criticism I had with the offensive play-calling prior to the win over the Jets was the shelving of the two-minute offense. Thought they ran it well at the end of the first half Sunday, with Kevin Faulk (injured since Week 3) making a real difference. The spread offense also briefly returned. The reason the team probably didn't use it more beforehand is to protect its offensive line, which has two rookies on the left side. When you go spread, those linemen have no help. As for the screens, we've seen them here and there, and maybe the play of the year was the tight end screen pass to Daniel Graham in Atlanta.
The 2004 NFL Combine had many standout athletes but no one stole the show like safety Bob Sanders. Sanders is only 5-foot-8 but had one of the fastest 40s, highest verticals, and was very aggressive in college. He "slipped" to the second round to Indy. I was bummed the Pats missed him, even though we had two first rounders. I'm not going to second-guess the Pats, because no one drafts like them, but this guy seemed like a can't miss. As far as I am concerned Sanders was the best safety in the draft (over Taylor). I think the next draft should concentrate on defensive speed and power: first safety; second at linebacker and third at cornerback. What do you think?
Ronnie DePesa Jr., Los Angeles
A: The Patriots took a close look at Sanders, bringing him to Gillette Stadium before the 2004 draft for a visit. The team had plenty of info on him, as one of Bill Belichick's close coaching friends, Kirk Ferentz, coached Sanders at Iowa. NFL teams generally had two questions on Sanders: his size (5-8, as you mentioned) and an injury he had at the time. So to say he was a can't-miss isn't 100 percent accurate. But there is no doubt, he is a rising star and the Colts got a steal in the second round. Agree with the safety-linebacker-cornerback rankings for next year's draft. Also think they might consider moving Eugene Wilson back to cornerback, which he played in college, and revamp the safety spot.
It seems that everybody is rooting for the Colts to go undefeated this season. The question is why is it any big accomplishment? The Colts by far have the easiest schedule in the entire NFL. The only team they have played this season that has had any real success is the Bengals and their defense is nothing great. The only other teams, the Patriots and the Steelers, that were supposed to be a real test for the Colts, are injured and unproductive. Last year, the Patriots shamelessly beat the very same Colts team that everybody seems to be praising this year. And if not for all the personnel changes they would have beaten them this year. Why does everyone kiss the Colts' butt?
Wayne Benwell, Portland, Maine
A: The Colts have a few tough games remaining -- at Jacksonville, vs. San Diego, and at Seattle. No doubt, it has helped that four games came against AFC South foes Tennessee and Houston. That said, given the physical nature of the game -- and how hard it is to get 53 players moving in the same direction week in and week out -- I feel it's remarkable that the team has been able to produce as consistently as it has. I became a believer after they beat the Steelers two weeks ago, a game I thought they would lose. That win, coupled with road victories at Cincinnati and New England, were most impressive to me.
The Patriots appear to be just about $50,000 under the cap. I know that is not a whole lot. What are the implications of going over the cap? Does a team pay a penalty if it chooses to go over similar to the NBA and MLB cap system? On a separate note, do you think the Pats will go after cornerback Lenny Walls even though he failed his physical with Oakland?
Felipe Basso, Boston
A: Penalties for going over -- or illegally manipulating the salary cap -- include fines and forfeiture of draft picks. Because all contracts must be cleared through the league office, no team is really allowed to go over the cap. One of the most recent examples was the Broncos, who had to surrender a third-round draft choice and reportedly pay a $950,000 fine for apparently making undisclosed salary agreements with players in the mid-to-late 1990s. As for Walls, my guess is that the Patriots won't go after him. I don't think they were ever that interested in the first place.
I heard that the Raiders released CB Lenny Walls after just signing him is that true, and will the Pats be able to sign him given their salary cap problems?
David Costa, New Bedford
A: The Patriots are definitely tight to the salary cap -- a result of having to sign so many players due to injury this season -- but I believe they could move some money around to sign a player if they wanted. Also, the players they have been signing are generally getting minimum veteran benefit contracts, which count less against the salary cap. I don't think they will go after Walls, however.
1.) Do you think the Pats will make a run at Lenny Walls since the Raiders waived for failing a physical? (Odd that happened, since Denver gave him a clean bill of health.)
2.) Do you think players perform down or fake injuries to be released? (Walls had expressed a strong interest in joining the Pats.)
Donald Pullen, Dayton, Ohio
A: Walls has been a hot name in recent weeks, but I don't think the Patriots will sign him. His agent did say that Walls had an interest in playing for the Patriots. To be fair, the agent was just doing his job, trying to drum up a market for his client. But I'm not sure the Patriots were ever that interested. On faking injuries, I would think that's pretty hard to do given all the medical folks working for each team.
Brady has been on the injury list all year (shoulder) and watching tapes of the Miami, New Orleans and Kansas City games, I wonder if there is something more going on with that injury than is being let on? Second, watching the Miami game again, on that Gus Frerotte touchdown -- where the ball was snapped early, it appeared to hit the receiver in motion before it was picked up and thrown. Why is that not a penalty. I thought the receiver has to be set when the ball is snapped. Is it not illegal motion?
Scott Mess, Boulder, Colo.
A: This was a question I had prior to Sunday's game vs. the Jets, and Brady's performance answered it for me. I don't believe the shoulder is any big problem. And I would reiterate the point again, scouts and personnel people around the league rave about Brady, calling him one of the best in the game. Sometimes, it's easy to forget he's human, such as last week in Kansas City (4 interceptions). He has so few of those games that they stick out a bit. On the illegal motion, my understanding of the rule is that one player can be in motion at the snap of the ball as long as he is not moving toward the line of scrimmage.
What effect do you think the lack of a wide-body to back up Vince Wilfork has had on the defensive line? It seems to me like it's been a very big issue and that the Pats may have made a mistake not re-signing Keith Traylor. In a related question, what do you think the future holds for Dan Klecko? I like the guy, but he seems invisible at NT, I've never seen him play DE and I'm guessing doesn't play well enough in space to play ILB. On offense, how would you evaluate Nick Kaczur and Logan Mankins at this point in the season? I know they're rookies, but they're really hurting the offense. Lastly, I don't think that the problems with the running game are Corey Dillon's fault. To me, the blocking is not as consistent and lacks the "attitude" it had in the past. What do you think?
Steve Kashiwabara, Bedford, NH
A: I think the team made a mistake not re-signing Traylor, which I felt at the time. He was making short money ($765,000) and played a crucial position. On Klecko's future, I'd say he's going to be in a major fight for a roster spot next year. If he doesn't make it here, I'd be interested to see if he might emerge in a place like Indianapolis or Atlanta, where smaller, quicker linemen are preferred. With the offensive line, I think Kaczur and Mankins have been one of the true bright spots of the team's inconsistent season to this point. Yes, Kaczur has been beaten at times. Mankins, too. But especially for Kaczur, you just don't see third-round rookies stepping in at left tackle like he has. I think he's hung in there and played well given the circumstances. Looks to me like the Patriots have two key o-line pieces for the future. Finally, on the running game, I mostly agree. This will sound a bit contradictory after the comments on Kaczur and Mankins, but the offensive line hasn't always opened up holes in that part of the game. That said, I don't think Dillon, or any other runner, should be spared complete accountability on that either.
What are the chances that we'll see Ty Law back with the Patriots next year?
Neal Smookler, Boston
A: If Law is a free agent, and the Patriots offer the most money, the chances are excellent. Just a hunch, but I'd say there is a 25 percent chance that happens.
When does the 2006 Patriots schedule come out? I would like to know so when I did my calendar for 2006 I can mark when the Patriots play on those dates.
Anthony Powell, Boynton Beach, Fla.
A: The schedule usually comes out around mid-April. While the dates have yet to be determined, all but two of the team's opponents are known due to the league's pre-determined scheduling formula. The Patriots will play the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Texans, Colts, Bears and Lions at home next season. One more home game, against the AFC West team that finishes in the same position in the standings as the Patriots (likely Denver), is yet to be determined. The Patriots will have road games against the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, Titans, Packers and Vikings. One more road game, against the AFC North team that finishes in the same position in the standings as the Patriots (likely Cincinnati), is yet to be determined.
Mike Cloud has been released and re-signed so many times in the past couple of years. I was wondering what goes through the head of a player who lives on the edge like that. Have you ever talked to him about that?
Malcolm Wong, Tokyo, Japan
A: Cloud spoke after Sunday's game about what last week was like for him, which provides some insight into what he was thinking: "It has been an emotional roller coaster through the last couple of days. I got the call to come back on Friday morning, so I had a lot of catching up to do to be active for the game. I had a lot of studying I had to do, like special teams plays and obviously the new plays on offense. I have to keep rolling with the punches and make plays."
Do you think the Patriots can beat the Indianapolis Colts in the playoffs. The Patriots are 9-4 in Indy. I believe with most of our people back by playoff time we can not only beat them but I still believe they can go to the Super Bowl.
Tenley Terrell, Jacksonville, Fla.
A: My thoughts haven't changed from the bye week -- when it looked like the AFC East was in shambles and the Patriots would win the division and get into the playoffs. The Patriots will have a home playoff game and I think they will win it. Then they will have to go to Indy, where they will probably be 10-point underdogs, and play their best game of the season. Would I be surprised if the Patriots won? No -- because this team is capable of playing its best game in the critical situation. But based on the inconsistent play we've seen so far -- and the fact there hasn't been one complete effort to this point -- would I bank on that happening? No.