When Tom Brady severely injured his left knee on the 15th offensive play of the regular season, how many Patriots fans envisioned this situation unfolding?
As a writer covering the team, I know I didnt.
But here we are, the final week of the regular season, and the Patriots still have a chance to qualify for the playoffs. They are 10-5 and Matt Cassel has been playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Now, will they make the playoffs?
The Patriots need to win at Buffalo, and they also need help either the Ravens (10-5) losing to the visiting Jaguars (5-10), or the Jets (9-6) beating the visiting Dolphins (10-5).
We all know the stakes, so lets get right to the questions.
Hi Mike, I just have a thought about really needing to depend on Mangini and the Jets in order to make the playoffs. I do believe now that the Jets game has been moved to four on Sunday that the Patriots have already been doomed. I believe that if the Patriots win, Mangini will bench his starters and just let Miami win the game and destroy the Pats chances of getting in the playoffs. He will say it had nothing to do with the Patriots, but do you really believe that if they have nothing to play for that they would try to win the game and doing so help the Patriots get into the playoffs. I don't think so I guess I'm rooting for the Jags next week. Your thoughts?
Travis, Brattleboro, Vt.
A: Travis, my first thought is that I think the NFL missed an opportunity to create an unforgettable three-hour window by having all three games played at the same time. I understand why they didnt its about TV ratings and money. As for the Jets motivation, I think the fact they can still qualify for the playoffs regardless of the Patriots result will ensure they will play hard. Even if the Patriots win at Buffalo at 1 p.m., the Jets can make it to the playoffs with a win and a Ravens loss. Will the Ravens lose at home to the 5-10 Jaguars? Probably not, but at the same time, it wouldnt be shocking if it happens. The last point Id make is that its possible Eric Mangini is coaching for his job, so I dont see him not playing his best players.
Mike, there are rumblings that the Dolphins-Jets game being flexed to 4:15 makes it likely that the Jets will phone it in if the Patriots win, so that the Patriots miss the playoffs. This seems like a pretty big leap, don't you think? We are talking about Favre - he who took a dive to give Strahan the sack record. We're also talking about Mangini. That being said, what is the best hope for the Jets in this game - air it out against that secondary (weather permitting) or running Jones and Washington as much as possible?
A: Rob, I sense some sarcasm in the question. Im obviously not as close to the Jets-Dolphins situation as much as the Patriots-Bills, but from afar, I think the first thing you have to look at when playing Miami is the turnover game. They are plus-14, which ties for the best mark in the NFL (26 takeaways, NFL-low 12 giveaways), so you know its likely to be a thin-margin-for-error type of game. Overall, the way Favre has been throwing the ball of late (not well), Im not sure the air-it-out approach will be a viable option. If it was, that would be my choice.
Mike, what do you think the chances are the Jets beat the Dolphins?
A: Faith, given the way the Jets have tanked, losing three of their last four games, it takes an optimist to pick them to beat the Dolphins. I think the fact the game is at home helps a bit. The Jets are favored by the oddsmakers, but still, Id take the Dolphins if I had to make a pick right now.
Mike, I was wondering if you happened to know Miami's all-time record playing at New York in the month of December?
A: Chris, the Dolphins all-time record playing at New York (since 1960) in the month of December is 1-2 the win coming in 1996 and the losses in 1968 and 1999. My thanks to Steven Kramer of the Dolphins media relations staff for digging that one up for me on short notice.
I am not thinking negative but when was the last time a team won 11 games and missed the playoffs? What was the Pats worst loss this year? I think it was against the Colts, because it helped revitalize a staunch rival while setting us back.
A: Barry, the 1985 Broncos won 11 games and didnt qualify for the playoffs (5 teams per conference made the playoffs at that time). But since the NFL went to its current playoff format of six teams per conference in 1990, no 11-win team has been shut out of the playoffs. Worst loss of the year: Ill take the Jets at home. Third-and-15 on the third play of overtime, and couldnt come up with the stop.
Hey Mike. Assuming the Pats win on Sunday, how will the players/coaches watch the Jets-Dolphins game? Will they hang out in the locker room or fly home and get updates from their cell phones? Or will the pilot be giving them updates? I just find it interesting to see what the players will be doing in this situation.
Rick, Louisville, Ky.
A: Rick, the Patriots usually hop right on their charter flight and I assume they'll somehow be getting some updates. A reader pointed out that Bill Belichick said on sports radio WEEI the other day that the team has TVs on its flight and will be able to follow what is taking place.
Mike, I hear a lot of Patriot fans grumbling about what a shame it will be if we don't make the playoffs at 11-5 and how it isn't fair that a lousy Denver (or San Diego) team makes it. The first point I agree with, it would be a shame, but it is perfectly fair. I have heard some suggest that the format should be different. Are you kidding me? Are they suggesting we go to the BCS? To me, the NFL system and schedule making is perfectly fair. What could you reasonably suggest as an alternative? Go Jets! Go Jaguars! Go Pats!
A: I agree with you, Alex. I think the current system is just fine, rewarding clubs for winning their division. I like that winning a division means something, especially considering that six of the 16 games are within the division. I also like that teams build their rosters with winning the division in mind (e.g. the Jets, Dolphins and Bills have made moves in recent years to match the Patriots style of play). The flip side of that is when a division is as weak as the NFC West and AFC West have been this year, 8-8 or 9-7 teams are making the playoffs as division champs. I guess one suggestion would be to just take the top six teams in each conference regardless of division, but I wouldnt endorse that change.
Buffalo is coming on at the wrong time for the Pats. I think the game Sunday is going to be a battle. Your thoughts?
Jason, San Diego
A: Overall, Jason, I think the Patriots have the Bills number and I believe New England will win the game. Im not sure I would classify Buffalo as coming on at this point, but I think the best thing they did was replace J.P. Losman at quarterback, which immediately gave them a better chance to win. Ill be interested to see how the weather affects the way the contest is played. Lets just say it wont be like the weather Junior Seau was experiencing on the beaches of San Diego as recently as early December. Amazing to think Seau has played 118 of a possible 174 snaps since signing Dec. 3.
Mike, I believe that Cassel will be franchised. What is the earliest date that a player can receive the franchise designation, how soon after that can the player be traded, and how and for how long will that handicap the Pats efforts to sign free agents?
A: There is a window before free agency begins in late February/early March in which teams can assign the franchise tag on a player, and once the league year officially begins (a.k.a. the start of free agency), the player can be traded. In the case of franchising Cassel, the Patriots would have about $28 million of their $123 million salary cap tied up between Brady and Cassel, which is far from ideal and runs counter to the teams philosophy to spread the wealth to a variety of players. So until the situation is resolved, theyd be limited in other moves they could make.
Mike, everyone is talking about the possibility of franchising Cassel. I would love to see the Pats get some value in a trade, but $14 million is a lot of money. If they use the franchise tag, is the money guaranteed? If the Pats can't trade Cassel, can they cut him or are they stuck paying the full salary?
A: Joe, the way the process works is that Cassel receives a one-year tender worth around $14 million. Once he signs it, that becomes guaranteed, but players assigned the franchise tag often dont sign their tenders for months (e.g. Asante Samuel) and that way they are not under contract and couldnt be fined for not showing up to training camp or offseason activities. When Cassel and his agents consider all the options with the possible franchise tag, the strategy of how fast to sign the tender would surely come up in discussions. His agents might advise him to sign it right away. From the Patriots perspective, they will have to keep $14 million open on their cap at all times, because Cassel could sign the tender at any time. This is a very complex situation, with many avenues it could head. The main reason the team might shy away from placing the franchise tag on Cassel, as you mentioned, is that $14 million is a significant figure.
Hey Mike, let's say that Pioli and McDaniels end up in Detroit. Also, the Pats franchise Cassel and trade him to the Lions. What could we expect in compensation? Obviously, there would be picks for Cassel, but what about Pioli? Would it be considered a "move up" and therefore no compensation? For Cassel I would assume we would get a 1 and a 3, if not more.
Lloyd, New Brunswick, Canada
A: Lloyd, Id start by saying that I dont think Pioli-McDaniels would be a package deal. If Pioli was hypothetically hired to run the Lions operation, I do not think McDaniels would be going with him to be the head coach. I also dont think Pioli, realizing that he needs more players to restock a talent-barren roster, would give up a draft pick(s) and the big contract to obtain Cassel. In terms of what the Patriots might realistically get for Cassel, its tough to project the market, but my conservative answer would be a single second-round draft choice. My estimate factors in the leverage that the team acquiring Cassel would have; they would know the Patriots probably wont want to keep two QBs at those prices and there are other veterans available if the price gets too high. On the compensation for Pioli, Im not 100 percent sure, but my initial thought is that it wouldnt be a situation where the team gets compensation.
Mike, I keep on hearing that Scott Pioli is a marked man - by other organizations. Two questions: Can you explain, from a practical point of view, what Scott Pioli does, and what his day-to-day working relationship with the coaching staff and Patriots upper management is?
A: I can understand why Pioli is being looked at by other organizations, as hes been part of a winning program with the Patriots and another franchise might look at that and envision him implementing a similar structure sort of like Bill Parcells has done in Miami and Thomas Dimitroff has done in Atlanta. Pioli, as I understand it, oversees all of the teams scouts and also evaluates players on the college and pro side. Sometimes hes in the office. Sometimes hes on the road. He is in high-level meetings with Robert Kraft, Jonathan Kraft and Bill Belichick. I think part of what makes the arrangement work is that Pioli and his personnel staff have good linkage to the coaching side, and they do well evaluating players based on how they would fit in the Patriots scheme. Pioli is obviously a big part of that.
It is hard to find something to complain about after the Pats dusted a "playoff" team off a snowy Gillette field, but I figured I'd give it a shot. This year, perhaps more than any other in the Belichick era has demonstrated how good Coach Belichick and Scott Pioli are at filling a complete roster from the first player to the last practice squad player. They have used everybody, plus a surfer and probably a couple of valets along the way. I am concerned that sooner or later Scott Pioli will bolt for one of the dozen teams that would be greatly improved by having him on their staff. What are the chances that the Patriots will be able to continue to retain his services and keep this run going a little longer? I fear that he has a more significant impact than anyone realizes.
A: Isaac, I think it all comes down to Piolis motivations, and Im not sure what hes thinking at this point. The one thing the Patriots cant offer him that others can is the chance to rebuild something on his own, which is sort of similar to Matt Cassels situation there are only 32 starting quarterback jobs in the NFL. Pioli has resisted the temptation to leave in the past because I think hes enjoyed the stability of being in one place in a profession where the only thing that seems to stay the same is change. But maybe now he has the motivation to try to build something on his own, like his father-in-law, Bill Parcells, in Miami. If Im Pioli and thinking along those lines, Im looking for the same type of position as Parcells, where I could hire a GM under me and oversee the entire operation in a president type of role. Summing it up, Pioli has obviously been a top contributor to the Patriots success, and I think it would be a significant hit if he leaves. At the same time, I believe someone like Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio could slide into that type of role and the overall program, with Bill Belichick as head coach, will remain successful.
I realize Arizona played terrible Sunday, but how did Jonathan Wilhite look? Was his coverage tight? Did he look to be in position to make plays?
A: Rick, I had Wilhite on for every play but one, which came in a short-yardage situation when he came off so the defense could add more bulk up front in a 4-4-3 alignment. Its sometimes hard to tell on the TV copy of the game I dont see coaches film but from what I could tell he was in position more often than not. It helped that the Patriots generated solid pressure as the Cardinals offensive line seemed be having some trouble with its footing.
Hi Mike, with Russ Hochstein getting a lot of playing time at FB and TE, it got me thinking of two questions. Does he have to report as eligible before every play or only once when he comes into the game? Also, can players report as "ineligible receivers"? I can't think of a situation where you'd want to do that (maybe if all your linemen were injured) but I was just curious as to the rules.
A: Steve, on each of the 33 snaps that Hochstein played Sunday, he had to report to referee Bill Leavy. And every time, Leavy announced over his microphone that 71 is reporting as eligible. As we know, the reason he does that is that offenses cant have their linemen downfield in the passing game before the ball is thrown, which is a penalty we sometimes see on screen passes when the timing is disrupted and the linemen have already released downfield. By reporting, Hochstein wouldnt be flagged in that situation and Leavy is letting his other officials, the defense, and the spectators know this. I have never seen a situation where someone reported as an ineligible receiver.
Mike, why were so many starters still in the game when the score went beyond 35-0. I know Belichick says its a 60-minute game but we could ill afford to lose anyone else - especially with a playoff berth online.
A: I said something similar at the game, Brian, but after watching the game over again, I actually did see plenty of backups in the game late. Matt Cassel, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Mike Vrabel and Lewis Sanders were rested for the final three series. Ty Warren didnt play in the second half. Matt Light came out at the end of the first half. Could they have come on a bit earlier? Maybe one or two series. But its tough in football, because there are only 45 players on the game-day roster and thus you cant sub 11 for 11 on each side of the ball.
With all the talk about the Patriots needs in the secondary and at linebacker I think there needs to be more talk about upgrading the offensive line. Except for Mankins, I think the line is below average. I agree that Cassel's high sack totals are in part a function of his holding the ball too long, but it seems that even though Brady took fewer sacks, he did take a lot of shots. I do not have stats to back this up but have watched Brady take some major shots over the past several years, particularly after Daniel Graham left the team. Although I believe Dante Scarnecchia is a top O-line coach, I think the Patriots need some infusion on their line. What are your thoughts on this, Mike?
Watson, Canton, Ohio
A: Watson, I happen to think the line is solid. Theyll need to continue to develop some young talent with the future in mind, as the starters at left guard (Logan Mankins), right guard (Stephen Neal) and right tackle (Nick Kaczur) all have contracts which expire after the 2009 season. So from the perspective of the present situation, I think the line is a winning unit, but the longer-term forecast is something to keep in mind.
I know this may be a little off topic but my question has to do with the safety position. Is Brandon Meriweather more of a free safety or Strong Safety? Only because the last month or so he has been used closer to the line of scrimmage (i.e. Seattle game and against Arizona, with the safety blitzes that have been called the past few weeks). But he has also been dropped into coverage also. I know Belichick preaches versatility with his defense so I'm not surprised to see Brandon used in multiple roles, but I just wanted your input and see if he is more of a FS or SS.
Brandon, Warwick, R.I.
A: I think you answered it, Brandon, as Meriweather is a little bit of both. A lot depends on the plan that week. Hes even played some corner. So I wouldnt typecast him into one role or the other. And when it comes to Meriweather, Id just point out the obvious he is really coming on. Watching the last few games over again, Meriweather has stood out to me as a player who looks like hes starting to play in a higher gear than the others around him. If this continues, he could be developing into something special. Since Rodney Harrison was lost with a season-ending injury Oct. 20, Meriweather has played every snap.
Mike, I'm curious of what you think of the long-term potential of Vince Redd and Gary Guyton. We know that the Pats have an aging group of linebackers (other than Mayo and maybe Crable). Redd and Guyton seem to have intriguing physical skills-even though their play this year seems mixed. Do they have a good future with the Pats?
A: Don, I think Guyton is a definite keeper. If his play has been mixed this year, its only because hes a rookie and few rookies step right in without having some growing pains. Redd hasnt played as much, but I think he shows promise as well. Watching him on special teams he was on the kickoff coverage team Sunday I was impressed with how well he ran for a player his size. Redd looks like hes on the Pierre Woods developmental track to me.
Mike, I have a draft question. The Patriots own the Chargers 2009 second-round draft pick. If the Chargers beat Denver on Sunday in their final game, they will end up with an 8-8 record. Normally a team with this record would not make the playoffs, and this would put the pick in the middle of the second round. But, since the Chargers would also clinch the AFC West, does the pick then end up among the bottom 12 (21-32) playoff teams, depending on how SD would do in the playoffs? If so, Denver's loss to the bills this past week could prove quite costly to the Pats.
A: David, the draft order is solely based on record, so the Chargers winning the division would not be a factor in where they pick in each round. The only factor to keep in mind is that regardless of record, the Super Bowl winner drafts in the No. 32 spot while the Super Bowl loser is in the No. 31 spot.
Mike, you mentioned last week about Dan Connolly being promoted to the 53 and how this was a look to the future. I am wondering what the difference would be in retaining a player for the next year on the 53-man roster vs. on the practice squad. I am thinking a player on the 53 would be an exclusive rights FA, but does a team have any exclusivity to a practice squad player? Meaning that is it easy for one to leave a team after a year on it and go to another team?
A: You nailed it, Jay. Its about controlling a players rights. Practice squad players can be signed by another team, to their 53-man roster, at any time. Also, those practice squad players are signed to one-year contracts. In the case of Connolly, when he was promoted to the active roster, it was with a contract through the 2009 season. So its just a way for the team to start planning for the next year, because Connolly technically could have been scooped up by another team while he was on the practice squad.
I noticed in last weeks mailbag that Carolina was due to visit Gillette next year. Could you share other teams we can expect to see at the Razor and where the Pats will be traveling to outside of the division?
Brendan, Manchester, N.H.
A: Brendan, at this time, 14 of the Patriots 16 opponents are already determined based on the NFLs pre-determined scheduling formula. The remaining two spots will be determined based on where the Patriots finish in the AFC East. As of now, this is what we know. Home games will be against the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, Titans, Falcons and Panthers. Road games will be against the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Colts, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers (in London).
I heard Mike Vrabel talking about how the team would not be watching the Ravens/Cowboys game this past Saturday night because they did not even have NFL Network in their hotel. Do they stay in hotels for home games?
A: Yes, Joe, the Patriots stay in a hotel as a team the night before home games.
You replied to an earlier question of mine that you thought Romeo Crennel would likely be welcomed back in Foxboro if he was fired this offseason. What about Eric Mangini? Or has that bridge been burned too much for any kind of reconciliation?
A: Walter, that bridge hasnt just been burned, its been blown up, demolished and torched. When Mangini and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum turned the Patriots into the league with the videotaping procedures and thus put a mark on Bill Belichick and the Patriots that is likely to follow them forever I think that irreparably harmed what was already a rocky relationship.
Mike, who is your NFL MVP this year? People are talking about Peyton Manning who is on a wild card team and Adrian Peterson, who did not have a good game against the Falcons. I think Wes Welker should be in consideration even though the Pats may not make the playoffs. Your thoughts?
A: Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, one of the top NFL writers in the country, has a nice piece where he detailed his contenders for the award. I began thinking of candidates for the ballot I am filling out for the Pro Football Weekly awards I am not a voter for the Associated Press MVP honor and my top choices were quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Chad Pennington. Adrian Peterson, James Harrison, the Giants offensive line and Wes Welker were other considerations as I went through the possibilities. Like Gosselin, I will wait until after Sundays games to make a final decision.