Rest or reps?
FOXBOROUGH -- The play 'em or don't play 'em theme was prevalent in this week's upbeat mailbag.
With two games remaining, some fans feel the Patriots should rest all key players. Others aren't so sure.
Factoring into the decision is that the Patriots -- officially eliminated from a No. 1 or No. 2 seed -- will be playing on wild-card weekend. That means they would need to win three games to get to the Super Bowl, and two would likely be on the road.
The Ravens (2000) were the last team to play on wild-card weekend and win the Super Bowl.
Before getting into the 'bag, here are three outside-the-hash-marks Patriots thoughts:
Until next week, let's roll ...
Opinion I'm an ex New Englander living in the South Pacific (Vanuatu). My business here keeps me on the water most days, no TV coverage from the states, no football to watch. I get my news though nfl.com, the Patriots' web site and the Boston Globe site, which are great. Here is my question -- two weeks to go, do we sit everyone? Do we keep up the great effort going in to postseason and play 'em? Or do we rest 'em?
Corky Decker, Vanuatu, South Pacific
A: First, thanks for checking out the site here. I think we have some extremely talented professionals on the Globe and Boston.com staff and it's great to be a part of it. As for whether the Patriots should play 'em or rest 'em, I believe the answer is pretty simple based on the way the next few weeks play out. They should play the bulk of the starters at least a half against the Jets on Monday night, with the purpose of staying in rhythm and continuing to build positive momentum. Then, coming back on a short week to play the Dolphins, they should play a few series before heading to the bench. Because the Patriots won't have a first-round playoff bye, they would need to win three games in three weeks to make the Super Bowl -- with two likely on the road -- so that's why I wouldn't expect to see a start-to-finish effort from the same players against the Dolphins.
I think that this is Bill Belichick's best coaching performance ever considering the loss of his coordinators and the overwhelming injuries that had to be overcome. Shouldn't he be Coach of the Year?
Mike Steinberg, Salem
A: When the season is over, I wouldn't be surprised to hear Belichick say this was the most taxing season in his 31 years in the NFL. As for this being his best coaching performance ever, I think the story has yet to reach its final chapter, and thus, I'd hold off before making that judgment (2001 ranks No. 1). As for the Coach of the Year award, it often goes to the coach whose team wins the most, when in actuality, the best choice might be a coach who gets the most out of limited talent or directs his team through choppy waters. Belichick should warrant consideration, but based on how the award usually goes, I think right now the favorites are Tony Dungy (Colts), Lovie Smith (Bears), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Mike Holmgren (Seahawks) and Tom Coughlin (Giants). At this time, my vote would go to Lovie Smith because his team -- despite playing in the weakest division in the NFL -- has put together a remarkable run with a rookie quarterback (Kyle Orton). The Bears are 10-4 after going 5-11 last year.
I was wondering when the last time a team won the Super Bowl having to play in the wild-card round (i.e., 4 playoff wins in a row)? In New England's three Super Bowl seasons, we had the benefit of first-round byes and never played more than once on the road before the Super Bowl.
Nissim Jabiles, Lima, Peru
A: The 2000 Ravens were the last team to accomplish the feat. The Ravens were a No. 4 seed in 2000, and went on to beat the Broncos (21-3), Titans (24-10) and Raiders (16-3) before beating the Giants (34-7). According to the Ravens' website, that was only the fourth time that a team playing in the wild-card round won the Super Bowl - joining the 1997 Broncos, 1980 Raiders and 1969 Chiefs.
Mike, It is so nice to see the Patriots start to get their swagger back. I was disappointed with the run game against the Buccaneers, but how can we complain when the final score is 28-0? Can you give some insight on the health of our tight ends (Watson/Graham) and left tackle Nick Kaczur? Also, do you think the Pats can stop a top-rated offense? Obviously, we are on a collision course with the Colts. With the players on the roster now, (assuming the tight ends get healthy), what are the chances of the Pats beating a rested Colts team in Indy after Indy has a bye week?
Marty Cormier, Chatham, Ontario
A: Tom Brady was also disappointed, saying afterwards: "We are still struggling to run the ball a little bit." As for the health of the tight ends, I believe Benjamin Watson suffered a concussion against the Bills and Daniel Graham is dealing with a nagging shoulder situation that gets aggravated at times. Kaczur also has a shoulder injury, but I believe he was close to playing against the Buccaneers. Sure, the Patriots can beat a team with a top-rated offense, although I would still project them as double-digit underdogs against the Colts. It will come down to playing a perfect game on offense, defense and special teams, which the Patriots have shown they can do in pressure situations.
Is Vrabel's transition to inside linebacker grading out well from the defensive coaches viewpoint? That move, along with Colvin playing full-time outside and Bruschi coming back, has really seemed to stabilize the whole front. Seymour coming back doesn't hurt either.
Jim Kelleher, Northford, Conn.
A: Bill Belichick was asked about Mike Vrabel in his Monday press conference: "I think Mike gets better each week. Once Mike understands it, usually that's it. The great thing about Mike is that you feel like you're never re-paving the road. Once you go over something and he understands it, that's taken care of. Sometimes with a player, you cover one thing one week, and the next [week] you're on to something else, and the third week you're on to something, and the fourth week you're back to the first thing. That becomes a problem again. You just feel like you're not really making progress, two steps forward, one step back type of thing. We went back a couple weeks ago and looked at this Buffalo game [Dec. 11] and looked at the first Buffalo game [Oct. 30] and how much better he had gotten in that time-frame, doing things like taking on blocks, reading bootlegs, pass drops, stuff like that. There are still a lot of things he can do better but the amount of improvement has been significant."
I am looking ahead to playing the Colts in the playoffs. My two cents is that I think that the Patriots should rush two players and drop 9 men into coverage. With 5 possible receivers, there is an overlap of coverage, and the Colts will obviously run the ball. I just think that our chances would be better taking Manning and Harrison and his corps of receivers out of the game. This would take Manning's play action (which is excellent at holding the linebackers) out of the picture as well. But, what do I know? In Bill I trust.
Ray Gondola, Tewksbury
A: What is interesting, Ray, is that the Chargers used a very different blueprint on Sunday to hand the Colts their first loss. The Chargers got great pressure out of their 3-4 defense, specifically off the edge, and didn't allow Manning much time to set his feet. San Diego finished with four sacks and regularly hurried Manning. The Colts' offensive line, with right tackle Ryan Diem leaving the game in the first quarter, didn't hold up to the pressure. So do you pressure, or drop back and give Manning time by rushing fewer players? The Patriots have been successful with the latter option, but based on San Diego's success, the pressure package might be the way to go.
Mike, can't you feel the confetti falling? It is great to see a really great team play at its best, and they did look so good. How did these same people play so badly just a few weeks ago? It has to be the coaching staff. Let's hope that the coordinators are believing in their very good players and past being extremely conservative in "2 phases of the game." It was also gratifying to see a crossing pattern that went for some yardage, instead of the fly or square out exclusively. Your thoughts.
A: Hold the party, all the Patriots have won is the AFC East. It's a fine accomplishment, but if the season were to end in the wild-card playoff round, I don't think they'll be dropping confetti at Gillette Stadium. As for the question how the Patriots could play so badly just a few weeks ago, it's the same reason the Colts (13-1) submitted a dud on Sunday against the Chargers; how the Cowboys could implode in a crucial game Sunday; how the Broncos (11-3) could lose to the Dolphins by 24 on opening day; or how Jacksonville - a likely first-round playoff opponent for the Patriots - could barely sneak by the hapless 49ers on Sunday. No team is consistently great over the course of a 16-game season. Even the 2003 and 2004 Patriots had their blips. It's all about how you're playing down the stretch, and the Patriots are playing well, no doubt. I don't think the recent improvement is solely due to improved coaching; the players have a lot to do with it, too. They're playing better than they were before. As for the crossing pattern (to David Givens), that was because Tampa Bay was in man-to-man coverage, which the Patriots don't see often.
Great win. Now things are getting interesting. Not to be a naysayer, especially when your team beats a playoff contender, 28-0, but I thought the offensive execution was sub-par. It seemed to me between penalties and lost yardage there were far too many negative plays. Some you give credit to the Tampa defense, they are highly rated and they did make some plays but I think most of all, you have to question the offense's execution. While I'm not too worried about the offense, what do you think they need to do to elevate their game and remain consistent as the playoffs near?
Gregg Stephens, Manchester, NH
A: Run the ball more effectively on offense and keep stopping the run on defense. Overall, though, I don't share the viewpoint that the offensive execution was sub-par against the Buccaneers. While Tom Brady (20-of-31 for 258 yards 3 TDs) misfired on a few throws, I thought he was remarkable against one of the league's best defenses. Because Brady does it so often, it's easy to take his performance for granted. Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and cornerback Ronde Barber were raving about a few of the throws Brady made -- namely a 32-yard corner route to David Givens on the third play of the game -- saying only a few quarterbacks can make them.
After watching the game vs. the Buccaneers and then watching the Giants game, it got me thinking about the running game. First and foremost, the thing I noticed most is the difference in speeds between Corey Dillon and Tiki Barber. I know that Tiki may have a little more speed then Corey but Tiki was hitting the holes very hard and very fast; it looked like night and day to Corey. Based on Corey's body expressions it looks like if there isn't a hole, he hesitates or cuts outside. Is he still injured? Is this another Marion Butts? I think Corey is a great back and I love his style of punishing people but he is just not playing like himself these days. I am wondering if there is more to this.
Lee Conrad, San Antonio, Texas
A: Of the team's 14 games, Dillon was inactive for two, didn't play in another (Denver) and missed all but one play of another (Miami). So in 10 games, he's gained 656 yards on 183 carries (3.58 avg.), which is on pace to be the second lowest production of his 10-year career. Part of it is probably that he's not 100 percent (calf). Another part of it is that the team's offensive line has lacked stability and experience in some areas. And perhaps, some of the wear and tear of 10 seasons is catching up with him, although I believe he still has plenty to offer. Overall, in the case of Dillon vs. Tiki, the Patriots generally favor bigger, more punishing backs -- and Dillon is 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, while Barber is 5-10, 200. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Do you suppose Tom Brady gets a nugget of advice from Charlie Weis now and again?
Don Morgan, Saranac Lake, NY
A: Most definitely. Brady has said at times this season that he still speaks with Weis, who was present for Saturday's game against the Buccaneers.
What is the status of Matt Light? Do you think he will end up on IR or will he actually play this year?
Sushil, Johnston, RI
A: Light is listed as doubtful and hasn't been seen during media access for a few weeks now. He recently had a second procedure on his injured leg for blood pooling. Because the Patriots are so tight to the salary cap -- $38,500 as of last week -- it makes no sense to put Light on IR. Even with an open roster spot, the Patriots couldn't sign someone due to the cap. So my feeling is that the only way we see Light is if the Patriots advance to the AFC Championship Game or Super Bowl.
Is there any correlation with the recent improvement of the Patriots defense with the admission of Monty Beisel and Chad Brown to the FBI Witness Protection Program? Is it a case of the learning curve for the Pats style of defense being too steep for Chad and Monty? Have these guys been relegated to special teams duty? I haven't seen these guys on the injury report or the inactive list, so they must still be around somewhere. Just curious.
Frank Griffith, Derry, NH
A: Brown and Beisel are playing primarily special teams at this point, as Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel have taken over at inside linebacker. I wouldn't say that change alone is the difference in the team's defensive improvement, but it is a factor. The learning curve might have something to do with it, but pure talent does, too. Brown (13th year) is more of a pass rusher and not necessarily suited for inside linebacker duties. Beisel (fifth year) is still evolving as a player, with only 14 career starts.
In my opinion the Pats made two statements Saturday. The first was to the NFL: "Watch out, the Pats are back!" The second was to Doug Flutie. It was bad enough that Belichick didn't play Flutie for the fourth quarter, but to send him in with one minute left to take a knee was positively insulting.
Paul Wood, Naples, FL
A: I was curious why Brady -- who said it was a tough week because his injury restricted him from taking all practice snaps -- was still in the game at the point. The Patriots were leading 28-0 and had just fielded a punt at their own 20 with 7:15 left. The Patriots ran on eight of the next nine plays. Seemed like they could have lifted Brady to protect his injury and also give Flutie some snaps.
Everybody thinks older players get more injuries. Is this theory backed up by statistics? I think the Patriots have lost more young guys than older ones this year.
Dennis Ludwig, Winnipeg
A: The Patriots have placed nine players on injured reserve this year: linebacker Ryan Claridge (24 years old), cornerback Randall Gay (23), safety Rodney Harrison (33), center Dan Koppen (26), receiver Michael McGrew (23), cornerback Tyrone Poole (33), defensive back Chad Scott (31), safety Guss Scott (23) and cornerback Duane Starks (31). The average age is 27.4. This doesn't factor in players like Matt Light (27), who has been out since Week 3. But the answer is still right down the middle -- some older players, some younger players.
Does Corey Dillon have a medical condition such as asthma or something? I have never seen a back raise his hand to come out more often that he does. Any run over 10 yards and he's asking out. I can understand it if he does have some sort of condition. This has been happening since he first came here.
Mark Rowe, No. Andover
A: I don't know of any asthma condition for Dillon. Looks to me like he's trying to work himself back into condition and isn't quite where he needs to be right now.
Why do you think the Patriots have suffered with so many injuries over the past years? Could it be their conditioning? I realize that there are injuries in the NFL due to the type of play, but why is this team in deep trouble each year with the number and seriousness of injuries?
Ann Elionfante, Meriden, Conn.
A: Similar questions have popped into the mailbag throughout the season. I think the Patriots will look closer into this area, and perhaps alter some of their conditioning routines, but overall I don't think it's the main contributor to injuries. Players like Rodney Harrison (knee), Richard Seymour (knee), Dan Koppen (shoulder) and Randall Gay (ankle), for example, sustained football-specific injuries that no amount of conditioning could have helped avoid. Bill Belichick was recently asked why he feels the team has suffered so many injuries and said he didn't have an answer. My feeling is that it is a result of playing more games than any other team over the last three seasons, combined with some bad luck.
Why is it that the Patriots cannot seem to keep their first-string players on the field? Do they have a lower pain threshold? Are they saving them for the playoffs? Is there something wrong with the team's conditioning program? Major injuries are one thing (e.g., Harrison, Light, Koppen, etc.) but most of injured seem to be kept out because of minor dings.
Eric F. Saunders, Portland, Maine
A: All are good questions and unfortunately I don't have the answer. Apparently, neither does Bill Belichick, or maybe he was just unwilling to share it when recently asked why the team has had so many injuries. At this point of the year, however, I do think there is a part of it where the team is positioning some players for a return for the playoffs.
Now that our boys are starting to look like their old selves, it seems that the hot-and-cold national media are saying "oooh, could they make it back to the Super Bowl again?" I'm trying my best to maintain tempered enthusiasm. My question is not about our boys' chances of making it to Detroit, but I was curious to know if any Super Bowl stadium has hosted its home team? I know that the locations are chosen years in advance, based purely on the city's ability to host the masses, and it's not based on the host town's team's record at all. Just a little trivia to keep me distracted between games!
Jen Bullen, Hull
A: It's hasn't happened, although a few were close. In 1977, the Oakland Raiders played in the Super Bowl in Pasadena (about 375 miles away). In 1980, the Los Angeles Rams (whose home stadiums were the Los Angeles Coliseum and Anaheim Stadium) played in the Super Bowl in Pasadena. And in 1985, the 49ers played in the Super Bowl in Stanford (about 35 miles away). These weren't home stadiums for those teams, but were close for their fan base.
Will the Patriots win the Super Bowl?
Miher Patel, Benezett, Pa.
A: The odds say no, with only four teams having made the journey from the wild-card playoff round to Super Bowl champion.
What do you are the chances of the Patriots drafting Will Blackmon from BC? The secondary can use all the help it needs and he can return punts/kickoffs.
Steve Iannazzi, RI
A: Blackmon (6-0, 190) is currently projected to be drafted, and since Bill Belichick shares a close friendship with BC coach Tom O'Brien, there should be no shortage of scouting information for the Patriots to work with. A lot can happen between now and the draft, and no one knows how the draft board will unfold, but Blackmon is a good name to keep on the radar.
Mike -- How many picks do the Pats have in each round in the next draft? I believe thay made some deals last year that got them more picks this year.
A: The Patriots have selections in every round, and one additional selection in both the third round and fourth round. The extra third-round pick is Baltimore's, while the fourth round pick is Detroit's. Both should be high in the round. I believe the Patriots traded their own fifth round pick to the Browns for receiver Andre' Davis, and still have the fifth round pick acquired from the Raiders.
Every news outlet keeps reporting that Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer are probably the front runners for the MVP award and there is no mention of Tom Brady. No one person has contributed to the success of their team more then Brady. Why?
Jon, New Jersey
A: This question came into the mailbag two weeks ago, and the answer was that I didn't think it would happen for Brady, who leads the NFL in passing yards (3,888) and has been generally remarkable despite an inconsistent running game. I still think the favorite is Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander (1,668 yards, 24 TDs). Right behind is Manning, Brady, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. After the last two weeks, Brady is making a charge.
Why don't NFL punters, instead of lofting balls into the end zone, aim for the five yard line and kick them out of bounds? If they can kick the ball 40 yards into the air, why not take that power and translate it to accuracy and avoid a potential return for better yardage or a touchback?
Jake Ahrens, Melrose
A: Punter Josh Miller answered a similar question in a mailbag earlier this year: "A lot of it has to do with the referees. When you hit the ball out of bounds, no longer does the line judge make the call of where it went out. It now goes back to the guy who is behind the punter and watching four other things as far as personnel goes. After the ball is in the air, he tries to get in position to make the ball. They tell you 'We look at where it lands.' A lot of times it goes out of bounds at one spot and because it's a spiral, it cuts back. So where it lands doesn't mean that's where it went out. As a punter, you lose about 8-10 yards on the mark. So a lot of punters feel it's better off trying to get the ball downed, than losing 8-10 yards net."
Regarding the question about black kickers in the NFL from last week, he wasn't a placekicker, but Reggie Roby was a punter for the Dolphins for many years. Side note: He had a contract with Timex (or Casio) at the beginning of his career and because of that he'd wear a watch during games. He did this throughout his career, even after the sponsorship contract ended.
Matt Stone, Dorchester
A: Funny that you remember the watch, Matt, because when I think of Roby the first thing that comes to mind is the single-bar facemask. Gotta love the single-bar.
Do you think there is any possibility for New Englanders to see a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl XL? Imagine the stories we would get in the sports media: Tuna-Bledsoe-Glenn vs. Belichick-Brady-Dillon. Old Pats vs. New Pats. Master vs. Apprentice. Am I the only one who would love this?
Dan Hu, Sarasota, Fla.
A: A Patriots-Cowboys would be a long shot because it looks like both teams will be playing wild-card weekend, and that's assuming Dallas (8-6) -- with remaining games at Carolina and at home vs. St. Louis -- makes the playoffs at all. History shows teams that playing on wild-card weekend face longer odds of advancing to the Super Bowl than those who have byes.
Quick question regarding some personnel moves. It seems the team is looking for an OL, so what about Jason Ball? He came out of UNH two years ago and walked on to the Chargers. He started at center for them his rookie year. He could be an easy pick up? Next, I know it's early but in terms of possible draft pick ups: There are going to be some great RBs and LBs in this year's draft; so maybe it's time to bring in a young back to spell Dillon or possibly a run stopping MLB to help Bruschi?
Lee Conrad, San Antonio, Texas
A: Ball has been out of football since last season. He was briefly with the Dolphins last year but was waived after struggling with an ankle injury. I'm not aware of his current condition to know if he would be an option. As for the draft, both running back and linebacker are positions of need. Defensive back would be another area I would focus on.
When a player is listed as "questionable" on a teams injury report it is supposed to mean that player has a 50-50 chance of playing. At year end, does the NFL go back through each team's record and see what the reality was? In other words, count of the number of times players were listed as "questionable" and then compare against the number of times they actually played. If the percentage is way out of whack for a particular team is there league sanctions? This year, what is the Patriots percentage for all three categories "doubtful", "questionable", and "probable"? And how does this compare against league averages?
Dan Arnoldy, Durham, NH
A: Hoping to check with the league to ask how they enforce the injury reports in this regard. For example, if a team listed 100 players as questionable over the course of the year, and only 10 played, that's 10 percent. I am also curious if there are sanctions for something like this, as the questionable designation means a 50 percent chance of playing. As for the Patriots, I went through the injury reports and matched up the injury reports against who played and this is what I found: players have been listed doubtful six times and never played (0 percent); players have been listed questionable 162 times and played 96 times (59.2 percent); players have been listed as probable 13 times and played 13 times (100 percent). These numbers might be off by one or two, as this project generally results in a big headache. I was unable to attain league averages to compare these numbers.
Why the worry about what the Pats report or do not say in the injury report? The Patriots are very smart about their injury report. Why divulge who might or might not play or how healthy they are? It makes sense to keep your opponent guessing, doesn't it?
Tim Ryan, Quincy
A: The Patriots follow the guidelines set forth by the NFL regarding injury reports, and my feeling is that Bill Belichick feels the whole process should be overhauled. He's never mentioned that, but that's my vibe from him over the last four years. As for why I pay attention to it, this past week was a good example. The fact Tom Brady was reported to have missed practice time was significant in my opinion. Also, I was curious what happened to Benjamin Watson in the Bills' game, and the report indicated he had a head injury. Connecting the dots, I believe he suffered a concussion. So those are two good reasons right there to at least value some of the information on the report.
In order to stay under the salary cap, do the Patriots cut Mike Cloud on pay day and re-sign him the next day?
Mike Beard, Upper Uwchlan, Pa.
A: The salary cap is computed on a day-to-day basis, not just on pay day. When they were cutting him, and bringing him back, it was more a result of being so tight to the salary cap that the team had to cut a player to create the salary cap space to bring in another player.
Hey Mike. How is it decided who plays the wild-card game on Saturday, Jan. 7 or Sunday Jan. 8?
Nissim Jabiles, Lima, Peru
A: The networks are involved in that decision, and venue availability is another factor under consideration. There is no set formula.
In your opinion, based on what you've seen so far this year, what are the major differences between the Weis/Crennel defensive/offensive schemes, compared to the new regime?
A: Two things come to mind: Little bit less of the spread offense and more two tight end sets on offense; and defensively, less of the multiple packages that switch defensive fronts from snap to snap. So maybe the overall answer is that things seemed to be a little more vanilla, but I wonder if that's less a result of what they want to do, and more what they had to do, based on such volatile personnel.
Two questions, 1) If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, how long does a player have to be with a team in order to qualify for a Super Bowl ring (i.e. Michael Cloud); 2) Should we be using the word "hero" to describe sports figures, especially since there is a war going on?
Matthew MacKinnon, Norfolk
A: Interesting contrast in questions. There is no set criteria for Super Bowl rings, but a player like Cloud, I'm told, would receive a Super Bowl ring should the team win it this year. Any player that contributes to the team gets a ring, with the rarest of exceptions. No, I don't think we should be using the word "hero" to describe athletes, and not just because of the war.