Finishing in impressive fashion
FOXBOROUGH The Patriots victory over the Jaguars was probably the teams most impressive game of the year. Although the final score (24-21) didnt reflect it, this was a dominating effort by the Patriots. Only a few big plays kept the Jaguars in it.
E-mails to the mailbag were varied this week. Several fans were curious if Jaguars rookie linebacker Clint Ingram should have been penalized for spearing on the fourth-quarter play on which quarterback Tom Brady was shaken up. By definition, it probably was spearing (leading with the crown of the helmet), but that happens a lot in the NFL and isnt called. Its probably one of the more inconsistent penalty calls that Ive seen. Maybe the NFL will make that a point of emphasis going forward, like it did the defensive contact rule a few years back.
Dec. 30 marks the deadline for NFL teams to use their excess salary cap space. So well be keeping an eye on possible contract extensions this week. Tight end Daniel Graham, cornerback Asante Samuel, and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain are three players scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency who would be candidates for a possible extension. Talks with Samuel havent yielded a deal, so Graham and Banta-Cain would probably be next on the list.
As for the playoffs, the Patriots can only finish as high as a No. 3 seed based on tiebreakers. So the team will host a playoff game on wild-card weekend (Jan. 6-7) as it makes a bid at another Super Bowl championship.
On to the questions
I was very impressed with the win over the Jags on Sunday, and after watching the Colts get beat by the Texans, and Bengals possibly bumble their way out of the playoffs, I believe the Pats have a good a chance as any to make it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos have a rookie QB and the Chargers have a first-year starter, and the Colts, they are sputtering. The only team that really scares me is the Ravens. Also, the Broncos scare me as they seem to have our number. Your thoughts?
Roxanne Collins, Harrisburg Pa.
A: I was also impressed with the win, and while I wouldnt get carried away by one result, I think the Patriots have strung together two solid efforts as they look to make a playoff push. I think they can beat every AFC team in the playoffs the way theyve played the last two weeks, although they will be at a disadvantage without a first-round bye. I wouldnt count them out.
I stumbled across NFL Network during the tail end of the late games this Sunday and the 2 anchors (I didn't catch their names) said that Maroney hadn't played the last couple of weeks in part because he was in Belichick's dog house, that he had been doing some things that the coach wasn't happy with. This is news to me. The guy's a stud and by all accounts was legitimately hurt. Is there any truth to Maroney being benched to send a message (a la Bethel Johnson a couple years ago)?
Jeff Teixeira, Charlotte, NC
A: Not that I am aware of, Jeff. We ran this by Maroney in the locker room late last week and he said he wasnt in the doghouse. Then again, what were we expecting him to say? I also thought this comment from Belichick last week was an indication that Maroney isnt in the doghouse: Laurence has come in and established himself as a dependable player. He's worked hard. He's a tough kid. I think everybody on the team respects him and likes him and hes fun to work with, but he works hard. He has a great attitude.
How will the Pats play the game against the Titans? Will they rest the regulars to keep them healthy for Jan 6-7? Will they keep Benjamin Watson and Vince Wilfork out even if they are ready to play? How is Tom Brady feeling after the hit he took on Sunday? Except for two plays that kept Jacksonville in the game (not playing to the whistle on Jones-Drew's run and the roughing the passer which negated Mike Vrabel's interception) the Pats would have blown the Jags out. Hopefully that is a good sign going forward. Do you see it that way?
Jim Curley, Seminole Fla.
A: I suspect the starters will prepare as if they will play the whole game, but several of them wont ultimately play the whole game. To me, this is about striking a balance between maintaining positive momentum and managing the roster so certain players can be rested and healthy leading into the playoffs. I wouldnt expect to see Watson or Wilfork at this point. Id think quarterback Tom Brady would also see reduced action. But one thing to keep in mind on the whole how-much-to-play-the-starters question is that its not like you can rest your entire starting crew. There simply arent enough players and roster spots on a 45-man game-day roster to do that, so its picking and choosing your spots. As for if Sunday is a positive sign going forward, I think it was. Bill Belichick spoke after the game about how he was pleased that the team had strung two solid games together, building some positive momentum heading into the playoffs.
Just how big of a disappointment has Chad Jackson been? Was it a total waste of a second round pick? Should the scouting staff be criticized?
Rick Meyer, Lethbridge, Ala.
A: Jackson has 11 catches for 129 yards and three touchdowns, to go with three rushes for 16 yards. Id say thats a disappointment. As for whether its a waste of a second-round pick, I feel its way too early to make that determination. If we judged the 2003 draft at this point of that season, Ty Warren could have been called a bust. So while Id say Jackson is a disappointment right now, I dont think that means it will be the case going forward.
How do Hobbs and Samuel rate within the CB pool in the league?
Jim Kelleher, Northford, Conn.
A: In the eyes of one scout, Samuel is considered a solid starter and Hobbs is best as a nickel back. Id take the scouts word for it over me.
I heard that Ted Johnson might be willing to come out of retirement to play for the Pats, giving us a little depth at inside linebacker on running plays (maybe freeing up Vrabel to go back outside). Is there any chance the Pats would sign him, or are the health concerns too great? Or did he burn his bridges by the way he retired at the worst possible moment?
Mike Shea, Washington, DC
A: I guess you never say never, but I dont see Johnsons return happening, based on a combination of factors his health, the way he left the team, and how long it would take him to get up to speed and contribute. Watching the Patriots defense on Sunday, Im not sure they need any reinforcements right now; this is a real solid unit. While they could use some backup help like most teams Id say they have personnel they can win with.
How come the Colts can afford to hold on to their proven stars, but the Patriots cannot?
Shaune Reardon, Orlando, Fla.
A: I know what youre saying, but I dont think this is entirely the case. The Colts have lost some key players in recent years, such as linebackers Mike Peterson and David Thornton, who would surely help their run porous defense this year. But I get your point, based on their ability to keep Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. And while the Patriots have kept Tom Brady and Richard Seymour, Im sensing that youre referring to Deion Branch. I think the teams operate with different philosophies. The Patriots prefer to pay more players more money (this includes mid-range roster spots), instead of having a few heavily-paid players and then having to fill the middle and back end of the roster with less experienced, minimum-salaried players.
First off, congrats on your prediction of 11-5 for the year (at most, you're one game off). I've been a Bam Childress fan (riding the Bamwagon, if you will) for the past two years, and I'm wondering what you hear about his performance. It looked as though he made the most of his opportunities. Also, is Tom Brady a little off, or are the receivers not quite where he expects them to be at times? He had a solid game overall, but seemed to miss a couple of gimmees. Not complaining, though. Playoffs, here we come!
Chris W., Bronx, NY
A: I never really get worked up over predictions, because its hard to project how a season will unfold with all its twists and turns. But thanks for the thought. Its one of the few predictions I have a chance to be right on this year (I also picked the Giants to make the Super Bowl). As for Childress, he was only in for four snaps on Sunday, but made two catches, one that was hauled in on a throw behind him. I think hes an overachieving type player. As for Brady, I thought some of his throws were off and he was helped out by the pass-catchers. But I dont think anything is wrong with him. His first throw after leaving the game clinched that thought that was a laser he fired into Daniel Graham for an 18-yard gain.
Which Pats are alternates for the Pro Bowl? Where can one find a complete list of the alternates?
Herb Weil, Victoria, British Columbia
A: Alternate selections are not publicized by the NFL. The head coaches of each team are aware of those selections, and they can make them public if they choose to do so. The Patriots havent made those public in the past, although as of Dec. 26 this year, I hadnt asked.
What is Larry Izzo missing to contribute more at ILB? He's been on the team for years and should know the playbook by heart. Is he too small or what is the reason he can't make an impact at what is "his" position?
Antti, Helsinki, Finland
A: The Boston Globes Ron Borges wrote an in-depth piece on Izzo on Sunday. I think this story will answer the question. I dont think its a matter of knowing the playbook, as much as knowing yourself as a player.
Hate to say it but I think Seymour was one of the worst Pro-Bowl picks this year. Granted, I think he has been playing hurt most of the year but Ty Warren has had a much better year than Seymour with almost two times as many tackles. Which leads me to my other question -- out of the three obvious Pats snubs, which one was the worst: Warren, Samuel or Brady? I have already made my case for Warren, Samuel has turned in as good a season at CB as anyone not named Champ. And Brady should make it in on name alone (a la Seymour) not to mention the 3,304 yards and 23 TDs while throwing to at-best pedestrian WR's.
A: To me, this all comes down to what the Pro Bowl is supposed to be about. Is it a game of NFL all-stars that takes into account more than this seasons results? Or is it solely based on this season? Im not sure what it is based on some of the selections year in and year out. If youre asking me if Seymour is one of the three best defensive linemen in the AFC, Id say yes. Hes a future Hall of Famer. If youre asking me if Seymour has been one of the three best defensive linemen in the AFC over the last 14-15 games, Id have a tougher time giving him the nod. As for which of the other players got snubbed, its the same thing as above. But Ill play along and say Brady. Even though his numbers are down this year, I think hes still had a superb season in several areas.
With a player like Gene Mruczkowski who is constantly being released and resigned, does he sign a new contract every time he is brought back, or are there provisions in the contract that allow the Pats to bring him back under the original contract?
Sean McMahon, Hudson
A: Mruczkowski mentioned that he signs a new contract each time he is released. One positive, of course, is that he already knows where to sign so maybe that speeds up the process.
A little off the beaten path here. What really happens to a player once they've been put on injured reserve? Last year, I could have sworn that I saw Rodney Harrison on the sidelines, so I got the impression that he was still "participating" with the team, even if he was only a cheerleader. Now I know that Junior Seau was only under contract for one year, but a player with his years of expertise must have some insight on opponents. So do these guys still contribute to the team after their season has been cut short?
Paul R., Standish, Maine
A: From what Ive seen, it really depends on the situation, Paul. But the majority of time, Ive noticed the players arent around. This year, veterans like Tebucky Jones, Mel Mitchell, Junior Seau, Randall Gay and Barry Gardner are probably better served resting at home based on the severity of their injuries. I also remember Harrison being around, which seems to me to be the exception than the rule.
Massachusetts native here in Bronco country. Just watching everyone jump on the Cutler bandwagon (he is going to be special). Anyways, while everyone has been spoiled by the success of the Patriots this decade, I still think it is wise to look at each individual season as a fresh experience. I am thrilled a team that I picked to be 7-9 is 11-4. While I have no reason to think the Pats can climb over San Diego, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Denver in the AFC, I am still happy they are competitive and are recent three-time champs. That said, do you think the Pats have as much fan interest now as they did five years ago when their success was more of a novelty? It just seems that Gillette sounds flat on TV and the team does not get "up" to play at home.
Brian L., Littleton, Colo.
A: I think there is significant fan interest, although Id agree that Gillette doesnt have the buzz Ive experienced in other road stadiums. As for the playoffs, I wouldnt count out the Patriots just yet. I think this team is coming on at the right time, and is better than some on the national scene might realize.
I remember when Brady was reworking his contract with the Patriots. It was reported that he took less money to aid in the signing of other quality players around him. Im sure he assumed they wouldn't let both Branch and Givens go. He is now working with a bunch of rookies and havent-ever-beens -- minus Watson and Brown -- and imagine how good Watson would be with good receivers around him. The Super Bowl was in reach this year with a good number one receiver. Waiting until next year only adds a year of age to our linebackers and wastes a year of Brady. Injuries aside, I think the philosophy of competing every year has gotten in the way of winning right now. Thoughts?
Andrew Love, Portland Ore.
A: I think thats a fair comment on Brady; that he probably assumed that both Branch and Givens would go. And while I think he was affected by Branchs departure, I do think hes on board with the way the Patriots are running their operation. I know this email came in before Sundays game, which gives the thoughts a different context after the win, but I thought the receivers really stepped up in a big way. That said, I still think its an area the Patriots will look to upgrade in the offseason, and I still think the loss of Deion Branch was more crippling than I anticipated. So there are a lot of layers to this question. Would the Patriots be better with Branch? Absolutely. But the team is still 11-4 and has a shot at another Super Bowl championship. Thats a significant accomplishment in my book. So to answer the question, I dont think the philosophy of competing every year has gotten in the way of winning right now, because the team is winning right now. Maybe they could be winning more, but theyre still in a solid spot.