All right, as nearly as I can determine, it's going to take Julius Peppers or someone to make Bill Belichick a genius again. Otherwise, he's traded (at worst) a perfectly suitable intact NFL quarterback -- and a perfectly suitable and relatively intact NFL linebacker -- to the Kansas City Chiefs in return for a bag of magic beans. The only way the complicated transaction that sent Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel to the land of milk and barbecue sauce makes any kind of sense is if its ultimate purpose was to clear enough space under the salary cap to bring in a free agent like Peppers, thereby shoring up an aging defense that was the prime non-Brady’s-knee reason the Patriots weren’t good enough for the playoffs last season.
Re-establishing Belichick’s reputation as the World’s Smartest Human is a formidable job for Peppers, heretofore a terrific defensive lineman, or for whoever else the Patriots might hire with the money that otherwise would have gone to Cassel and Vrabel. They’re going to have enough trouble learning the complicated New England defensive schemes without having the burden of playing so well that Bill Belichick will be smart again. (I’ve already heard one radio genius deplore a possible Peppers signing because Peppers hasn’t ever played in a 3-4 defense, thereby confusing the Patriots’ defensive huddle with a fusion lab. Trust me. He can pick it up.) However, the commentary since the two Patriots were shuffled out of town suggests that it may not be such a difficult job after all.
Anytime anyone brags again about what a tough, unsparing sports town this is, point them toward the past weekend. Every single argument for what the Patriots did boils down simply to “Bill Knows Best.” Period. This child-like faith came not only from civilians, but from a great number of the former football players who have taken jobs in the local commentariat.
“Well, Bill sees them every day in practice, so don’t you think he knows his value better than you do?”FULL ENTRY
BY LENNY MEGLIOLA
Every move you make, every step you take, I’ll be watching you. — The Police, “Every Breath You Take”
That would be you, Tom Brady. Yes, I know, you are probably thinking, “What’s new? Y’all been watching me forever. I walk Gisele’s dog, you’re there. She hand-feeds me on vacation, you’re there. I cough, and it’s a sound bite.
“You’re there, every step I take.”
That’s correct, Tom, and we do apologize. We feel your pain. A public life can be hell. Too bad you can’t give the slip to the paparazzi and burn the tabloids. You just can’t seem to step out of your long shadow. Damn shame.
And yet, I’d be hard pressed to find a guy in the Western Hemisphere who wouldn’t swap lives with you in a heartbeat. For just a day!
But, hey, let’s talk football. You’ve had a Hall of Fame career, but you had a lousy eight minutes last season, because that was your season. Somehow, the Patriots got by without you. Well, almost. They didn’t make the playoffs, and everybody knows they would have if you’d been around. Not that that Cassel guy was all that bad. No, no.
Well, Matt Cassel’s going to Kansas City, and even if that deal hadn’t been struck, Tom, the most compelling story of the 2009 season was going to be whether you could work your magic again. No use asking how you’re doing. Sure, you’ve been subjected to a couple of on-camera moments, but all you’ve said is that the knee is coming along fine, rehab’s right on schedule, blah blah blah. In Foxborough, it’s easier to get a bank loan than to pry loose info about how it’s going for you. The Belichickian silence is deafening.FULL ENTRY
With the surprising inclusion of veteran Mike Vrabel in the Matt Cassel trade to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second-round pick on Feb. 27, it’s pretty clear the Patriots are looking to get younger at the linebacker position.
The immediate impact of rookie Jerod Mayo may have convinced Patriots coach Bill Belichick that younger players can handle the position, even though the team has often relied upon more experienced players at linebacker.
One player who will likely see his role expanded in 2009 is Gary Guyton. The rookie saw more and more playing time as last season progressed, and the 23-year-old could be one of the keys to next season’s linebacking corps.
“I thought it was definitely a pretty good year for me,” said Guyton, who is spending the off-season in his hometown of Atlanta. “I feel I have a lot to learn and can get better. But I did think that I did well as an undrafted free agent, and I was ready when called.”
Guyton, who played at Georgia Tech, signed with the Patriots last May as a free agent. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the team’s opening-day roster. With a steady stream of injuries last season, Guyton was called upon to play inside and the less familiar outside linebacker.FULL ENTRY
After the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs in 2008, Bill Belichick thought missing the postseason for the first time in six years would give the organization a rare chance to take some time to attend to off-season matters.
As it turns out, Belichick has needed all the extra time he can get.
“It’s been a busy off-season, but I feel like it’s been a productive one,” said Belichick at the NFL scouting combine last weekend. “We definitely have a lot of work to do like the other 31 teams in the league.”
In the seven weeks since the Patriots played their final game of the regular season, other franchises have plucked their staff at a level usually reserved for Super Bowl champions.
The Broncos hired offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their head coach, special teams coach Brady Seely left for Cleveland, special assistant and secondary coach Dom Capers went to Green Bay, tight ends coach Pete Mangurian departed to become the Buccaneers’ offensive line coach, and former vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli is now the general manager in Kansas City.
As has become customary under Belichick, the coach tabbed replacements from within the organization. He stayed in-house for all but one spot: New special teams coach Scott O’Brien, who had worked with Belichick in Cleveland, came from Denver.FULL ENTRY
It was just the third play of the game during the Patriots’ Week 10 win over Buffalo.
Richard Seymour busted through the Bills’ offensive line and sacked quarterback Trent Edwards. It was his only sack of the game, but Buffalo had to pay extra attention to No. 93 the rest of the way. His early impact dictated the tone on that November afternoon, as it did all season.
After battling elbow and knee injuries the previous two years, Seymour was finally healthy in 2008, and he reestablished himself as the menacing presence on the defensive line that he had been since entering the league in 2001. When he feels right, the 6-foot-6-inch, 310-pounder knows he can make a difference.
“If you want to be a better player, you have to go through some things,” said Seymour during the season. “That’s what I always said. I want to always be a better player than I was when I first came into the league, and I think you have to go through some stretches where you can’t really rely on your physical ability.”
Entering the final year of his contract, the 29-year-old couldn’t have picked a better time to return to form. If the eight-year veteran hadn’t shown in 2008 that he could still be one of the league’s elite defensive players, the Patriots would have had to think twice about his $9.79 million salary cap figure in 2009.FULL ENTRY
After Bill Belichick selected at least one tight end for six consecutive years, the perception was that the New England coach just liked to build the tight end position through the draft. A look at the play-calling from this past season shows just how much Belichick enjoys employing the men at the end of the line.
The Patriots ran 1,102 offensive plays in 2008, and a tight end was on the field for 1,029 of them. New England also ran multiple-tight-end formations on more than 30 percent of its snaps.
With the April 25-26 draft now in focus, the question is whether Belichick will be tempted to grab a tight end — which he has not done in the last two drafts — or if he is content with Benjamin Watson and David Thomas, who are both entering the final year of their contracts.
Despite their consistent usage of tight ends this past season, the Patriots have become more of a receiver-based team in the past two years, with packages using three and four wide receivers to take advantage of the skills of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. And whether it’s Tom Brady or Matt Cassel running the offense next season, they figure to remain geared toward wideouts.
Watson has hinted at great potential throughout his five-year career, but after catching a career-high 49 balls in 2006, he snagged just 36 in 2007 and a disappointing 22 this season. He also seemed to have a problem with drops in 2008, and several were particularly memorable and ill-timed.FULL ENTRY
There was a time in this great land of ours when growing up to be a wealthy and successful athlete who also happened to be dating an internationally famous supermodel was an unambiguous validation of the American Dream. (Hell, it was an unambiguous validation of the Latvian Dream.) It signified a certain level of success in your chosen field. It was an indication that all your hard work was paying off. It was a foolproof measure of your having achieved The Good Life. It was also fun, or so I’m told. I’m obviously only going on uninformed speculation here.
Now, though, there seems to be some concern that our local quarterback has been photographed canoodling in the tropics with his current inamorata, who often is seen wearing expensive skivvies on the cover of very large magazines that come thumping through the door and make the whole foyer smell like a Parisian cathouse. Or so I’m told. I’m obviously only going on uninformed speculation there, too.
The local quarterback stands — or, more accurately, lounges — accused of insufficient dedication to ... well, to something, although I’m unclear as to what it is. The rehabilitation of his knee is reportedly ongoing, despite the setback after the initial surgery, so it can’t be that. The more I listen to this, the more I think that Tom Brady stands accused most vitally of insufficient dedication to maintaining the unicorn-and-golden-puppies dreams of his most devout fans. Face it. You can be a salt-of-the-earth, overachieving self-effacing athletic superstar and still date a supermodel. It is possible. I’d be willing to bet that you could go down the street to your local and find 15 or 20 salt-of-the-earth types who would be more than willing to give it a try, and I would win that bet.
What I think is that the problem is cameras.
It used to be that you’d know when your picture was being taken. Some guy in a fedora and a belted raincoat would show up waving something the size of a Hotpoint in your face. That gave you more than enough time to run away, duck behind a potted plant, or throw a raincoat over your head. There was a decent interval between the arrival of the photographer and the explosion of the supernova that would guarantee you a place in the next day’s tabloid newspaper. Cameras got smaller, but the principle obtained; even the paparazzi were easily spotted. They traveled in herds, like caribou come to graze on whatever was left of someone else’s dignity.FULL ENTRY
To get a read on how good Vince Wilfork is, all you have to do is talk to some of the offensive linemen assigned to block the Patriots nose tackle.
“He’s the type of player you never want to see, and the fact I have to play him two times a year is miserable,” said New York Jets center Nick Mangold at the Super Bowl last week.
His numbers aren’t as gaudy as those of other Pro Bowl-type players, but Wilfork is widely regarded throughout the league as one of the hardest defenders to block. The massive (6-foot-2, 325 pounds) Wilfork moves extremely well for such a big man.
Despite playing a physically demanding position, the 27-year-old appears to be entering his prime. He has missed just three games in his five years in the league. Against constant double teams, primarily setting up his teammates to make plays, Wilfork was third on the team with 66 tackles in 2008.
Bill Belichick and his staff figure to have a big decision on their hands after the 2009 season when Wilfork becomes a free agent. With Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, and Ellis Hobbs also entering the final year of their contracts, the Patriots will have to determine how much they want to commit to Wilfork in the long term.
Wilfork is still playing under his rookie contract (six years, $18 million), which he signed in 2004 when he was drafted No. 21 overall out of Miami. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2007.FULL ENTRY
In today's world of professional sports, you generally get what you deserve. There are no real flukes. You keep what you take, and nobody gives you anything.
Which brings us to the Patriots.
Fifty-two weeks removed from their heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots will be spectators this weekend when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals meet in Tampa in Super Bowl XLIII. Hopeless optimists continue to wonder if the Pats might have made hay in the postseason coming off a spirited late-season run, only fueling the notion that the Pats somehow got jobbed following an 11-5 regular season in the socialistic NFL.
If you are one of these people, you are:
a) a homer
d) a card-carrying Belichicklet, or
e) all of the above
Lest anyone interpret this as an indictment of the Patriots, it isn’t. Instead, it is quite the opposite. Somewhere along the line during this extraordinary run in the history of Boston sports — this is, after all, the Golden Age — we began to equate successful seasons with championships. They are not necessarily one and the same. Rarely are championships expected. Almost always, a successful season is one in which a team reaches its potential.
Once Tom Brady went down in Week 1, the standards completely changed for the Patriots. Most of us agreed that something in the vicinity of 10-6 would qualify as a very good year. The Pats ended up giving us one win more, something that primarily serves as testament to their coach (Bill Belichick) and backup quarterback (Matt Cassel), but reflects just as well on any man who wore a Patriots uniform this season, from BenJarvus Green-Ellis to Matthew Slater.
In the end, we owe them all a pat on the helmet for a job well done.
Ever since it happened on Sept. 7, Tom Brady has said almost nothing publicly.
There was the surprise appearance at the Patriots’ Salvation Army holiday party in December, but Brady deflected questions about his status.
The Pro Bowl quarterback had yet to address how his rehab from season-ending knee surgery is progressing. So when Brady finally did break his silence, most figured his first public comments would be to one of the major television networks or local newspapers, not a Toronto radio station known for covering hockey.
Brady went on The Fan 590 last week, and during a 10-minute interview, he said the rehab is going well despite reports that complications from surgery may affect whether he is ready to return for the 2009 season.
“I’m the most well-taken-care-of knee patient in history,” said Brady.
Brady underwent surgery on Oct. 6 in Los Angeles and had a second procedure a few weeks later after developing an infection.
Brady wasn’t asked if he expects to be back for training camp, and he wouldn’t give a timetable for his return, but he did say it was difficult for him to miss an entire season for the first time in his career.
“You play this game long enough and [expletive] happens, so to speak,” he said. “The reality is that it happens to everybody. I’m at a new part of my career and a different process that I’m excited about, rehabilitation and different challenges. The tough part is that you’re not experiencing something you love to do. But you get over that and focus on what you have to focus on. You just say, ‘OK, it happened, we’re moving on,’ and that’s what we’ve done.”FULL ENTRY
During his final press conference after the regular season, Bill Belichick said one advantage of finishing earlier than in years past is that the Patriots would have more time to rest in preparation for next season and do a thorough analysis and breakdown of the organization.
“I think the last two years — with the AFC Championship game two years ago, then having to go out and coach the Pro Bowl and then last year finishing another season in February — those have been two very long seasons for our players and our staff, not just the coaches, but the entire support staff, everybody involved,” said Belichick.
One disadvantage the Pats are facing for the first time since not making the playoffs in 2002 is that other teams have had the opportunity to interview personnel — a chance they would not have had if the team were still playing.
This year, special teams coach Brad Seely took a job as an assistant head coach/special teams coordinator with Cleveland — under newly hired head coach Eric Mangini, a former Patriots assistant who was fired as Jets head coach in December — and special assistant/secondary coach Dom Capers has agreed to become the Packers’ defensive coordinator.
But the most notable losses are offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and longtime player personnel man Scott Pioli. McDaniels is the Broncos’ new head coach, and Pioli has taken over as general manager of the Chiefs.FULL ENTRY
Watching the playoffs from home this year has to be especially difficult for the Patriots when they look at the NFC and see a team they beat by 40 points playing in the conference title game. But watching a player who will be going up against the Cardinals in the NFC championship game may be the most painful experience of all.
Asante Samuel spent the first five seasons of his career in New England, picking off 10 passes while being named an NFL All-Pro in 2006 and following that with six interceptions in 2007. The Patriots decided not to re-sign Samuel last winter.
Samuel hit the open market and brought his talents to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots struggled with their secondary all season, giving them a reason to second-guess not signing the 28-year-old.
Samuel signed a six-year, $57 million contract with the Eagles and has been worth every penny, especially since the postseason began. He had four interceptions and 21 passes defensed during the regular season and has had a pick in each of Philly’s two playoff victories. His interception of Eli Manning last Sunday was his seventh career postseason pick, and his 44-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Vikings in the first round was his NFL-record fourth career return for a score in the playoffs (the first three came with the Patriots).
New England never seemed to fill the void left by Samuel. Many felt the secondary was the main reason the team was 26th in the NFL in third-down defense and 31st in the red zone. Those statistics show the Patriots’ deficiencies in pass coverage and the pass rush.
Yet it may be premature to pass judgment on New England’s defensive backs. Both Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley were rookies, while Brandon Meriweather and Mike Richardson were in just their second seasons. Meriweather’s play at strong safety in place of Rodney Harrison, who was lost for the season in Week 7, drew raves from the coaching staff. He didn’t miss a single snap after Harrison went down. Samuel started just one game during his rookie season.FULL ENTRY
After the Patriots’ thorough dismantling of the Cardinals in Week 16 in the snow at Gillette Stadium, with the team’s playoff hopes still in question, left guard Logan Mankins was asked which game he’d most want to take back.
Mankins said he’d like a mulligan on the home losses to the Jets and the Dolphins.
“Those two division losses probably hurt us the most,” said Mankins. “But we have no one to be frustrated with but ourselves. We are the ones that lost all five of those games.”
Although winning 11 games, including their last four, without Tom Brady is an impressive accomplishment, the team is left lamenting the “what-ifs” of the five losses. Just one break along the way might have secured a playoff berth.
There was Jabar Gaffney’s drop of a sure touchdown in the 18-15 loss to the Colts, and Matt Slater’s fumble in a tight game with the Steelers that started a run of five consecutive turnovers. But ultimately the most damaging setbacks were the two division losses.
New England’s only home win in three division games came against the Bills. If the Patriots had taken care of business against division foes at Gillette Stadium, they would have captured their sixth consecutive AFC East title.FULL ENTRY
With all due respect, Bill Belichick didn't exactly do his best coaching job this season. What he did, however, was his second best. And so here we are, on the brink of the NFL playoff season and just a few days before the 2008 NFL Coach of the Year is announced, and here is the peculiar truth: Belichick may be more worthy of the honor this year than at any other time during his Patriots tenure. The one obvious exception may be 2001, when Belichick led the Pats to an 11-5 record and improbable division championship. Even then, the brilliance of his work was not appreciated until over a month later, in February 2002, after the Patriots had completed their historic run to the Super Bowl with what might have been the greatest NFL coaching job of all time.
That year, because the NFL Coach of the Year award was announced before the playoffs, the honor went to then-Chicago Bears coach Dick Jauron. Had the voting taken place several weeks later, Belichick would have won in a landslide.
The irony, of course, is that Belichick probably will not win the Coach of the Year award this season, either, but only because the competition is intense. Like Belichick, Miami’s Tony Sparano and Atlanta’s Mike Smith led their teams to 11-5 records. The Dolphins were coming off a 1-15 campaign; the 2007 Falcons went 4-12. The Patriots, as we all know, finished the 2007 regular season with a perfect record of 16-0.
The Coach of the Year last season?
He would almost assuredly trade every single catch for a postseason berth, but Wes Welker will have to settle for what is undoubtedly one of the greatest single-season performances by a wide receiver in Patriots history.
Welker finished the season with 111 catches, second in the NFL to Houston’s Andre Johnson, who had 115. And if not for the severe winds in Orchard Park, N.Y., last Sunday, he likely would have surpassed his own team record of 112, set in 2007.
“You have to do what you have to do in any particular situation,” said Welker after the 13-0 victory over the Bills. “The game was what it was, and you had to make sure that you were going out and doing your job each and every play, whether it is blocking or going out for passes or whatever it is.”
Although the whipping winds all but eliminated the passing game from New England’s offensive arsenal against Buffalo, the 5-foot-9 receiver still managed to contribute just as much as he has all season.
His two catches for 26 yards certainly don’t seem like much, but in the run-oriented contest he accounted for 33 percent of the team’s six receptions. Welker was responsible for roughly a third of the Patriots’ catches this season, hauling in 111 of 339.FULL ENTRY
Linebacker Mike Vrabel is in his 12th NFL season and has three Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. He helped create the 2nd & 7 Foundation to promote literacy in disadvantaged students. Along with co-authors (and former Ohio State teammates) Ryan Miller and Luke Fickell, he has written a kids’ book called The Hog Mollies and the Pickle Pie Party. He is also a member of the NFL Players Association Executive Committee. We spoke about the Patriots’ season, what lies ahead for the NFLPA, and his budding career as a children’s author.
TC: You created this foundation to encourage kids to read. Why was that important to you?
Vrabel: Our whole slogan is “try to tackle illiteracy.” In college, we had gone to a school and we had read to kids and could relate pretty easily to them. It was something that wasn’t out there. There are a lot of great causes, a lot of great charities, but this was something that was relatively untapped. The kids really enjoyed us coming into their schools and having us read to them and talk to them about the importance of comprehension and understanding what they would read and carry that through.
TC: I have two sons and you have two sons. Getting boys to read isn’t always that easy. What are your secrets to getting the boys to read?
Vrabel: You’re supposed to read 20 minutes a night. Pick something up that you find interesting. Tyler brings home every football book in the library. It’s the Giants, the Jets, the Chargers, and everything on down the line. As long as it’s something the kids enjoy reading. We try to make it fun. Really, the basis of our book was to give out a fun book that these kids wouldn’t mind picking up and reading. They’ll think it’s fun, they’ll think it’s entertaining, and they won’t think of it as a chore.FULL ENTRY
Although it seems that the mounting injuries have weakened nearly every area on the Patriots’ roster, one group has bucked the trend.
New England’s offensive line is completely healthy and getting stronger every week. And it’s no coincidence that the offense is clicking and putting up more impressive numbers each game.
Without Tom Brady at quarterback, the game plan has certainly changed from last year, but having Matt Cassel at the helm has enabled the offensive line to do something it wasn’t called upon to do very often last season — run block.
Though the running backs have been one of the most banged-up units on the team, it hasn’t mattered if it’s Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, Kevin Faulk, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting the carries; the Patriots have had success running the football.
With the gaudy numbers the passing game has produced recently, the Patriots are viewed as a pass-first team. They’re actually a better rushing team. They are ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing at 140.7 yards per game and 10th in passing at 233.1 yards per contest. But after sending three linemen to the Pro Bowl last season, New England didn’t get any selections this year.
“I don’t think we’re really focused on getting credit for being a rushing team,” said Morris, who has benefited most from New England’s stellar offensive line, with a team-high 642 yards rushing. “We’re trying to focus on winning the games.”FULL ENTRY
1. Beware of spoilers After starting the season 4-0, the Bills have gone just 3-8. But they’ve relished playing the role of spoiler: They downed the Broncos last Sunday, preventing Denver from clinching the AFC West. Buffalo nearly knocked off the Jets the previous week as well, losing on a defensive touchdown with just over two minutes remaining. New England’s defense limited the Bills to just 168 total yards in a 20-10 win in Foxborough on Nov. 9. It was the week before Matt Cassel busted out and started to put up prolific passing numbers, so New England turned to rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (26 carries, 105 yards) to anchor the offense.
2. Keep offense down and out Nearly all of Buffalo’s NFL rankings have drastically slipped during the past two months. The offense has been held to 10 points or less in three of the Bills’ last seven contests, and they are averaging 22.4 points per game (19th in the NFL), but that number was inflated by a 54-point outburst against the lowly Chiefs. Quarterback Trent Edwards has thrown for only 11 touchdowns in 13 games and has an 86.5 rating. His favorite target remains Lee Evans (58 catches, 954 yards). Evans leads the receiving corps with only three touchdowns. Running back Marshawn Lynch has picked up his production in recent weeks, with three 100-yard games in the past six contests, and has run for 1,036 yards and eight scores this season. Tackle Jason Peters was Buffalo’s lone Pro Bowl selection, but he missed last week’s game with a knee injury.
3. Employ aerial assault Buffalo’s defense has been solid, but as a team the Bills are not creating turnovers and have a –7 ratio on the season. They may struggle to contain the Patriots’ potent passing attack — they have the 17th-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Buffalo has the 18th-ranked defense overall (21.9 points per game) and 19th-ranked rush defense (118.5 yards). Cornerback Terrence McGee leads the secondary with three interceptions, while linebacker Kawika Mitchell and defensive end Ryan Denney top the team with four sacks. Paul Posluszny leads Buffalo with 104 tackles from his middle linebacker position.
A week ago, as the best indication yet that the national economy is gradually turning to garden mulch, the National Football League announced that it would be laying off 15 percent of the employees from the league's headquarters in New York City. I don't know exactly, but I would guess that most of the unfortunate newly unemployed were last-hired-first-fired types from the league’s marketing, merchandising, and accounting departments. I suspect that nobody got laid off who might in some way discomfit Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, who is the kind of arbitrary satrap that gives panjandrums a bad name. None of the necessary-but-regrettable defenestrations will touch him, I fear, and he will go on to ponder the great question of why an enterprise with an estimated $6.5 billion in revenues needs to shed payroll as though it were some family tool-and-dye business along the outer reaches of Route 20.
(This whole sad tale was enlivened by a columnist named Bonnie Erbe who, writing for the website of U.S. News, celebrated the sudden unemployment of 1,100 people who’d never done anything to her, because, as she put it, the NFL “glorifies overt machismo and intellectual nullity.” Well, if there’s anyone who can recognize “intellectual nullity” when she sees it, it’s someone who writes under the masthead of the St. Louis Rams of news magazines. U.S. News — If You Can’t Move Your Lips Fast Enough to Read Newsweek.)FULL ENTRY
The moment the official confirmation came that Tom Brady's season was over a half-quarter into the season, the vast national network of New England Patriots haters (headquarters: Bristol, Conn.) figuratively gathered, popped the Korbel, and danced on your favorite football team's grave. Again.
So in that regard, a tremendous amount of satisfaction can be found in the developments of the last 13 games. The 2008 Patriots, to the surprise of many who are paid to supposedly know better, have emerged as an admirable, entertaining, and -- as usual -- winning football team. And so it's a blessing that the majority of fans were shrewd enough to ignore the tired advice to wait 'til next year, because we would have missed out on a good amount of success and suspense this season, the latter regarding the Patriots' noble attempt to limp into the postseason. Basic math tells us a playoff berth isn't a sure thing -- it would certainly help the cause if the Jets remember it is their tradition to swallow their collective tongues or Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco remembers he's a rookie -- but just getting there would be an accomplishment worth savoring for this band of football brothers.FULL ENTRY
Steve Grogan was as tough as any quarterback in the NFL, but focusing on toughness alone doesn’t do justice to the man. Grogan was smart and quick, rushing for an NFL-record 12 touchdowns in 1976 and 35 in his 16 seasons with the Patriots. He also threw for more than 26,000 yards and 182 touchdowns.
These days, Grogan owns Grogan-Marciano Sporting Goods in Mansfield. I spoke to him about the emergence of Matt Cassel, the growth of Foxborough, and why most quarterbacks don’t run the ball anymore.
TC: When you look at this season as a whole, are you most impressed by how many injuries the Patriots have overcome or by the disappointment of their record compared to last season?
Grogan: I think it’s impressive that they have gotten to where they’ve gotten with as many injuries as they’ve had. I really thought when they lost [Tom] Brady they still had a chance to be a playoff-caliber team, but as the season has gone on and they’ve lost more and more guys on the defensive side of the ball, it’s just been amazing that they’ve hung in there and put themselves in a position to have a chance to make the playoffs.FULL ENTRY
It was Week 8 against the Rams.
Ellis Hobbs broke through the first wave of kickoff coverage, and only St. Louis
kicker Josh Brown stood between him and the end zone.
Brown forced Hobbs out of bounds at midfield, denying the fourth-year cornerback his first touchdown of the season.
With that memory — and his share of friendly ribbing by teammates — fresh in his mind, Hobbs wasn’t about to let the same scenario unfold last Sunday.
After Oakland’s Justin Miller had a 91-yard kickoff return to make it 28-14, Hobbs took the ensuing kickoff and again broke through the first wave of coverage. But this time, with Sebastian Janikowski in his way, Hobbs blazed right past the Raiders’ kicker. His 95-yard touchdown reestablished New England’s three-score advantage and ended Oakland’s brief hopes of a comeback.
“No way,” said Hobbs when asked about the possibility of being tackled by the kicker again. “When you come from a couple of weeks of frustration where you almost had it, you almost had it. That’s one where you really feel it. I just said, ‘You better not get tackled by Janikowski.’ ”FULL ENTRY
1. Don't give them momentum The Cardinals captured their first division championship since 1975 by clinching the NFC West with a 34-10 win over the Rams on Dec. 7. But after sewing up their first playoff appearance since 1998 and the franchise’s first home playoff game since 1947, Arizona didn’t look like the same team against the Vikings, getting beaten up physically in a 35-14 thrashing last Sunday. Arizona appears destined for the No. 4 seed in the NFC with no chance at a bye, so it will be interesting to see how motivated the Cardinals are to go all-out for a win against the Patriots.
2. Secondary will be tested With New England’s main weakness on defense being its secondary, the Cardinals figure to pose a host of problems — they have the second-best passing attack in the NFL at 299 yards per contest. They also have the second-best scoring offense at 27.6 points per game behind a pair of stellar wideouts in Larry Fitzgerald (88 catches, 1,200 yards, nine touchdowns) and Anquan Boldin (89 catches, 1,038 yards, 11 touchdowns). Orchestrating the attack is the resurgent Kurt Warner, who has thrown for 4,290 yards and 26 touchdowns. Conversely, the Cardinals’ running game is last in the NFL at just 73.1 yards per game. Edgerrin James has rushed for only 395 yards in limited action, while Tim Hightower has run for just 379 yards but does have 10 touchdowns.
3. Put up points All signs point to Arizona having a difficult time containing New England’s sixth-ranked offense; the Cardinals have allowed 25.6 points per game (27th in the NFL). They are in the middle of the pack in rush defense (14th), while New England has really emphasized the ground game the past few weeks and has moved up to the seventh-best rushing attack in football at 137.6 yards per game. Karlos Dansby anchors the linebacking corps with 102 tackles. Arizona’s 17th-ranked pass defense is led by fourth-year free safety Antrel Rolle and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (three interceptions).
One was surfing the previous week and the other hadn’t played all season. It didn’t matter. ¦ The plan was to use newly reacquired linebackers Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin sparingly, if at all, last Sunday. However, with the Patriots continuing to be decimated by injuries, particularly at linebacker, they didn’t have a choice. The Patriots were forced to use the grizzled veterans despite the fact that Seau had just one practice under his belt and Colvin two.
“When I left my kids, no longer going to their volleyball and football games, that stuff was over. It is time to play football,” said Seau after the Patriots’ 24-21 win over the Seahawks. “I expected to be thrown in there later on in the game, but obviously with the injuries that we had, I was rushed to it.”
The Patriots started the game without outside linebackers Pierre Woods (jaw) and Vince Redd (ankle), and Tedy Bruschi left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return. Bruschi was already listed as questionable with a knee injury before the game. Even Mike Vrabel got shaken up before returning.
That left an already depleted group relying on two veterans making their season debuts with the team’s playoff fate on the line.
“They’re professionals. They both prepared hard all week,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Of course Junior didn’t get in here until early Friday morning and only had one day of practice and a little walk-through [Dec. 4]. He’s a pro, and so is Rosy. Rosy worked hard all week and did a lot of things extra to be ready for the game, and we sure needed him.”FULL ENTRY
1. Kick 'em while they're down The Raiders have shown flashes at times this season, with wins over the Jets and Broncos and a pair of close losses to the Bills and Dolphins. But this Oakland squad doesn’t appear to be playing like the team that upset the Jets in October. The Raiders have lost six of their last seven and have gone 2-7 since they promoted offensive line coach Tom Cable to interim head coach in place of the fired Lane Kiffin just four games into the season after a public feud with owner Al Davis. This is only the third time the Patriots have met the Raiders since the famous Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule game in the 2002 playoffs.
2. Force the pass For the second time in three games, the Patriots will face an opponent coming off extra rest; the Raiders lost to the Chargers on Dec. 4, 34-7. But even a few extra days of practice might not help Oakland’s offense — the Raiders are 30th in the league at just 13.8 points per game and 31st in the NFL with 255.6 yards per contest. They also have the worst passing attack in the NFL at 137.2 yards per game, and second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell has struggled, with a 70.1 quarterback rating and a 51.4 completion percentage. Justin Fargas has emerged as the team’s No. 1 running back with 679 yards rushing; Fargas and exciting rookie Darren McFadden (88 carries, 405 yards) give the Raiders the 10th-best rushing attack in football at 118.5 yards per game. Oakland’s biggest threat may be kick returner Johnnie Lee Higgins, who has a pair of punt returns for touchdowns this season.
3. Run around Defensively, the Raiders may pose a problem to New England’s spread passing attack: They have the ninth-ranked pass defense at 193.9 yards per game behind strong safety Gibril Wilson (102 tackles). However, the Patriots’ running backs are as healthy as they’ve been in a while, and Oakland hasn’t been quite as stout against the run. The Raiders are 30th in the NFL in run defense at 158.7 yards per game and 26th in total yards at 352.6. Middle linebacker Kirk Morrison leads the team with 113 tackles.
In matters concerning the New England Patriots, we here in this little corner of OT generally prefer to press forward rather than dwell on the immediate past. Maybe that’s a blandly Belichickian outlook, but the honest feeling here is that there’s generally more fun in pondering the games to come than in rehashing Sunday’s leftovers.
But there’s no denying that this past weekend delivered an exception to that philosophy, and so the Patriots’ 33-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers is worth dwelling on a little longer, for one reason: The defeat offered a harsh reminder of what the Patriots must do in order to become an elite defense again.
While watching that fearsome Pittsburgh unit — undeniably the finest in the NFL at the moment, both statistically and viscerally — the reality belted us, oh, about as hard as Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark drilled Wes Welker: Now, this is what a championship defense looks like. And the Patriots’ D? It looks nothing like this right now. Sigh.
Compared to the fast and furious Pittsburgh linebackers — please, tell me again how a talent like James Harrison went undrafted and was cut multiple times — the Patriots’ linebackers looked as though they were playing in snowshoes. The Steelers’ rangy safeties — Troy Polamalu and the aforementioned Clark (bet Rodney Harrison didn’t think that was a cheap shot) were so visible and active that you couldn’t help but be reminded of the comparative mediocrity of the Patriots’ tandem. And so it went — the Pittsburgh crew was superior in every imaginable way. You know it was a rough night when Ben Watson proved to be the Patriots’ best open-field tackler.FULL ENTRY
With just about everyone on the Patriots’ roster making some sort of mistake against the Steelers in the miserable conditions last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the one guy the Pats could rely on is the same guy they’ve depended on for 10 seasons.All the attention has focused on Matt Cassel filling in so well for Tom Brady, but without Kevin Faulk stepping up for three injured running backs, the Patriots would probably not be in the playoff hunt at all.
Despite entering the season fourth on the depth chart, Faulk leads the team in rushing with 445 yards on 73 carries for a 6.1 yards-per-carry average and three touchdowns. In addition to his usual reliability as a receiver out of the backfield (43 catches, 363 yards), Faulk is just 86 yards behind team leader Wes Welker in combined yards. He has also accounted for more yards than Randy Moss.Faulk continues to be steady on special teams as well. After Matt Slater’s crippling fumble on a kickoff return in the third quarter against Pittsburgh, it was no coincidence that the sure-handed Faulk replaced Slater on the next return. But in the end, the Patriots’ five turnovers were too much to overcome in the 33-10 defeat.
“It’s always frustrating when you turn the ball over and then when you finish the game with a loss,” said Faulk. “That’s the most frustrating thing you can do, but the season’s not over yet. We have to come back, watch the film, look for our mistakes, and come back and be ready to play next week.”FULL ENTRY
1. Long drop from the top After winning the NFC West last season and making the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year, the Seahawks have been one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. It’s not exactly the kind of swan song head coach Mike Holmgren was looking for in what he has said will be his final season. They are coming off a 34-9 thumping at the hands of Dallas on Thanksgiving and have lost five in a row. Seattle’s only wins came against teams struggling almost as much in the Rams and 49ers.
2. Defense must set the tone New England’s defense has played poorly the past few weeks, but it figures to catch a break this weekend. The Seahawks have one of the worst offensive units in the NFL, ranking 26th in scoring (18 points per game), 31st in yards (257.3), and 31st in passing (148.8). They do have a decent running game (21st in the league, 108.5 yards per game) behind Julius Jones, who has rushed for 674 yards. T.J. Duckett has been a short-yardage weapon with six touchdowns. Seattle also has quarterback Matt Hasselbeck healthy. The Xaverian High and Boston College graduate has started only seven games this season while battling a back injury, and has thrown just five touchdown passes while getting picked off 10 times for an NFL-worst quarterback rating of 57.8.
3. Attack through the air The Seattle defense has also scuffled and will likely have a difficult time containing New England’s spread passing attack. The Seahawks are 25th in the league in points allowed (25.9 per game), 30th in yards per game (386.7), and last in passing yards (265.2). The defense also boasts a local product in King Philip High graduate Lofa Tatupu, who is the son of former Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu. The middle linebacker anchors Seattle’s run defense (22nd in the NFL, 121.5 yards per game) with 74 tackles, along with outside linebacker Leroy Hill, who leads the team with 84 tackles.
I came into this season believing that Bill Belichick and the Patriots needed to win the Super Bowl to secure their legacy, or at least the perception of their legacy. It was difficult to admit from a fan's standpoint, but the painful truth seemed obvious: SpyGate was a stain that could be removed only with a fourth championship.
Although it certainly would be a lovely affirmation, now I’m not so sure another Lombardi Trophy is a requirement. Perhaps this is all Belichick needed: an unexpected way to restore his and his franchise’s good names. Belichick and the 2008 New England Patriots, to the dismay of their countless skeptics, have greatly exceeded expectations without their MVP quarterback, not to mention countless other fallen members of the cast. It is a remarkable story of resilience, and Belichick’s accomplishments during this relentlessly compelling season should be enough to repair whatever dings and dents his reputation suffered a year ago.
Talk about your redemption songs. In the immediate aftermath of franchise quarterback Tom Brady’s devastating knee injury 7 minutes and 33 seconds into the new season, the pundits, experts, and multi-concussed ESPN analysts practically sprinted to declare the wicked witch in the gray hoodie dead. The tone of the moment was downright snide, almost gleeful. I’ve never understood the blatant and widespread animosity toward Belichick — it’s just so personal.
Sure, he’s about as glib as a chalkboard, and sometimes it seems he’s unforthcoming just for the sport of it. Perhaps he’s more of a bear and a bully behind the scenes than we know, but the collective vindictiveness when he fails or catches a bad break is just so unbecoming. I’ll never get it.FULL ENTRY
The onus was on the defensive line.
What was thought to be the strongest aspect of New England’s defense entering the
season was embarrassed by Miami Sept. 21.
The Dolphins had come into Foxborough talking trash and backed up every word while unveiling their wildcat package and running all over the Patriots in a 38-13 thrashing.
The Patriots were not about to let that happen again.
“It was a pretty tough game to come down into somebody else’s home and get a win like this,” said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame, we were ready for it, and we prepared well. My hat goes off to them, but at the same time I think that we wanted it more [Sunday] because of the last outcome.”
The pass defense may have left a little something to be desired during the Patriots’ 48-28 win in Sunday’s rematch, but the Pats limited the Dolphins to just 62 rushing yards and only 25 yards on eight wildcat plays.FULL ENTRY
1. Defense is ahead of the offense The Steelers have a one-game lead over Baltimore in the AFC North, but with five games remaining, things could change. This one could prove pivotal in determining the playoff participants, with the winner getting the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker. The Steelers are winning on the strength of their defense. Pittsburgh has not allowed 300 total yards of offense in any of its 11 games this season — the third-longest streak since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. But Ben Roethlisberger (80.5 quarterback rating, 11 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) and the offense have struggled. Pittsburgh should be well rested after beating lowly Cincinnati, 27-10, on Nov. 20.
2. Read the blitz schemes Matt Cassel has certainly looked impressive the past two weeks against the Jets and Dolphins, but the Steelers’ defense will be a much sterner test. Pittsburgh mainly utilizes a zone-blitz scheme aimed to confuse quarterbacks, and Sunday will show just how much Cassel has progressed. His ability to read the defense and where the blitzes are coming from should dictate New England’s success on offense. The offensive line will also have to improve: The Patriots have allowed 35 sacks this year, tied for fifth-worst in the league, while the Steelers are second in the NFL with 37 sacks behind James Harrison (12 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (10). Flamboyant safety Troy Polamalu is as good as ever with five interceptions, and inside linebacker James Farrior anchors the run defense with a team-high 81 tackles.
3. Keep them off the field Although Pittsburgh’s defense is first in the NFL in virtually every statistical category, the offense is 23rd in points per game (21.5), 18th in passing yards (204.3), and 24th in rushing (101.7). They had hoped to win with a solid ground game and efficient passing attack, but No. 1 running back Willie Parker has been unable to stay healthy, playing just six games this year. He is questionable for Sunday’s game. Mewelde Moore (109 carries, 432 yards) has filled in admirably. Eleventh-year wideout Hines Ward continues to be one of the top receivers in the league with 54 catches, 718 yards, and five touchdowns.
Brett Favre could not be stopped. In the beginning and end, and at various points in between, that was the problem. The New England Patriots had fought back from 18 points down in the first half to even the score at 31-all with a brilliant drive and a scoring strike from Matt Cassel to Randy Moss with one second left in the fourth quarter. But the Jets' quarterback devoured the Patriots' decimated defense like a piggish Thanksgiving guest, driving for a field goal in overtime that planted New York alone atop the AFC East for the first time in seven years and left a formerly raucous Gillette Stadium as silent as a tomb.
The tailgate party crowd that turned out for the Thursday night game in mid-November retreated, leaving empty cans and cold ashes, and a persistent drizzle ensured that even the faintest flicker of enthusiasm had been doused.
Members of the media flapped like vultures to slim pickings in the locker room afterward. Understandably, not everyone who showed for the postmortem wanted to chew the fat about one of the more indigestible losses in team history. “Not now, brother,” veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel said. The visage of Tedy Bruschi, the venerable face of the Patriots’ defense, was frozen in a frown.
“I don’t think we will find any positives out of this one,” he said.
Of those who, along with Bruschi, faced the phalanx of reporters, defensive end Richard Seymour offered no excuses. ‘‘We just didn’t stop them when we really needed to,’’ he said. ‘‘The offense did everything they could to try to keep us in the game, but defensively we just didn’t give our team a lot of opportunities to win.”
The Pats hope that their offense, bolstered largely by the emergence of Cassel, who passed for 400 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets, has solved problems posed by injuries. Now, in order for the struggling team to make a successful run down the regular-season stretch, a similarly crippled defense must somehow do the same.FULL ENTRY
Matt Cassel typically looks to pass to Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but the Jets had them blanketed, and the Patriots were staring at an 18-point deficit. If they were going to come back, Jabar Gaffney and Benjamin Watson would have to be the catalysts.
Gaffney had seven catches for 86 yards and a 19-yard touchdown catch — his first TD of the season — with 15 seconds left in the first half to start New England’s comeback on Nov. 13. He also had a 2-point conversion catch from Cassel on the final play of the third quarter to cut the Jets’ lead to 24-21.
Watson scored his first touchdown of the season and grabbed a team-high eight balls for 88 yards.
“They were doubling for most of the game, almost all of the game, so that just gave the other guys opportunities,” said Cassel. “We understood going in that they were going to probably try to take [Moss] away.”
With New York playing particularly physically against Welker in the slot and old friend Ty Law doing a great job containing Moss on the outside, Cassel had to go to his third, fourth, and sometimes even fifth options. The fact that he was able to get that far in his progression illustrates how far the first-year starter has come.FULL ENTRY
1. The great escape Miami escaped with a 17-15 win over the Raiders on Sunday to set up a battle of 6-4 teams. The Dolphins introduced their now-famous wildcat package in a 38-13 win on Sept. 21 at Gillette Stadium to end New England’s 21-game regular-season winning streak. Another loss for the Patriots (2-2 in the division) would prove doubly damaging, because Miami would hold the head-to-head and division tiebreakers. A Dolphins season sweep would likely end the Patriots’ chances for their sixth straight AFC East crown and relegate them to playing for a wild-card berth.
2. Beware of the wildcat The wildcat package seemed like a novelty in the first meeting, but Miami has had success with it all season. The Dolphins enter the game averaging 117.5 yards rushing per game, 12th in the league, behind the duo of Ronnie Brown (144 carries, 605 yards, 4.2 average, 9 TDs) and Ricky Williams (102 carries, 437 yards, 4.3 average, 3 TDs). But surprisingly, the passing game has been even more efficient behind Chad Pennington (below). Miami has the ninth-best passing attack in the NFL at 236 yards per contest. Pennington is third in the AFC with a 92.8 quarterback rating and third in completion percentage at 67 percent.
3. Employ air strikes Cassel had his worst performance of the season in the first meeting as the Dolphins limited him to 131 yards passing. But as Cassel showed in his second appearance against the Jets, he’s not the same quarterback he was in September. The Dolphins have a solid run defense, yielding 91.3 yards per game, ninth in the league, but Cassel should be able to find some passing lanes. Miami’s 20th-ranked pass defense allows 222.6 yards per contest. The Dolphins don’t blitz very often, but they generate an excellent pass rush because Joey Porter has been a beast from his linebacker position, with an NFL-high 13.5 sacks. First-year head coach Tony Sparano has instituted a low-risk, high-reward approach, and Miami has a plus-7 turnover ratio this season.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick won’t admit as much, but with all the injuries that have plagued his team this season, he has had to alter his coaching philosophy a little bit. Known for not usually playing rookies, Belichick has relied on numerous first-year players to start in place of all the veterans who have gone down. And so far, the results are better than he could have hoped.The Patriots have gotten Pro Bowl-type play out of first-round pick Jerod Mayo at middle linebacker and unexpected production from free-agent linebacker Gary Guyton. They’ve also gotten contributions in the depleted secondary from second-round pick Terrence Wheatley and fourth-round pick Jonathan Wilhite.But it all culminated in the performance of BenJarvus Green-Ellis on Sunday.
With the Patriots again limited to three running backs, Green-Ellis stepped up and ran for 105 yards on 26 carries and the game-sealing touchdown.“Whether it’s pass plays, blocking plays or running plays, I just try to do whatever I can to help the team,” said Green-Ellis. “I just take it one day at a time and go out there and work hard every day.”A player nobody had heard of a month ago now has 243 rushing yards for 3.9 yards per carry and four touchdowns this season.
Green-Ellis has been a godsend for a team decimated by injuries at running back. He has come a long way being undrafted as a free agent out of Mississippi in May and cut when the roster was set at 53 at the end of the preseason. He was placed on the practice squad and put on the active roster for the first time on Oct. 11.“He and Gary Guyton were both undrafted guys, and obviously they should have been drafted,” said Belichick. “They obviously had things going for them. … We give our scouts and organization credit for having a group of guys there, and fortunately those two have come through for us.”
The Patriots will have to hope that Guyton can continue to come through. His role will likely be expanded with the news that outside linebacker Adalius Thomas will miss the rest of the season with a broken arm.
1. Force them into mistakes The Jets have been like two different teams this season. They’ve been impressive with quality victories over the Dolphins, Cardinals, and Bills, but they’ve also struggled to beat the Bengals and Chiefs, and they had a terrible overtime loss to the lowly Raiders. They seem to have found some consistency with three straight wins since the loss to Oakland. New England didn’t have gaudy numbers in a 19-10 victory over New York on Sept. 14, with just four more total yards than the Jets, but the Patriots didn’t turn the ball over and had a key interception of Brett Favre in the third quarter that led to their only touchdown. Turnovers should again make a difference — Favre has thrown an NFL-high 12 interceptions.
2. Key up the D The Jets enter tonight’s game with the third-highest scoring offense in football. That total has been boosted by a 56-point performance against the Cardinals and Sunday’s 47-3 shellacking of the Rams. New York possesses a pair of excellent weapons on the outside in Jerricho Cotchery (43 catches, 510 yards) and Laveranues Coles (41 catches, 487 yards). But the biggest threat for New England’s 12th-ranked rush defense will be Thomas Jones. The ninth-year running back is having a career year, with 750 yards rushing, fifth in the NFL, for 4.7 yards per carry and eight touchdowns.
3. Pass, but be careful With Matt Cassel making his first career start, the Patriots’ defense carried them in the first meeting. Cassel is becoming more comfortable, and the Patriots should have a more efficient passing attack this time around; the Jets have the 21st-ranked pass defense in the NFL. However, New York has the fifth-best run defense in football and should be able to focus on containing Cassel. Second-year cornerback Darrelle Revis has picked off four passes this season, while defensive end Shaun Ellis has bolstered the team’s pass rush with seven sacks.
Typically, a young professional athlete's improvement is subtle and incremental, until one day you realize, Hey when did so-and-so learn to do such-and-such? (Someday, we hope to plug ‘‘Ben Watson’’ and ‘‘make a catch in traffic’’ into that sentence.)
The development of Matt Cassel, the accidental heir as the New England Patriots quarterback, is an exception — his progress from week to week is so obvious and rapid, even Fred Smerlas is on the verge of noticing.
And we’re not just talking about the big things, like, say, expertly conducting a late drive to beat the St. Louis Rams. Consider the small things, the intangible traits that came so naturally to his fallen predecessor and mentor.
In his first few performances after Tom Brady’s left knee was turned into lunch meat, Cassel’s inexperience was painfully obvious. (You may have heard this elsewhere, but he never started a game in college. No, it’s true! Not one!)
He was much too quick to abandon the chosen play and scramble aimlessly. He lacked poise, patience, and polish. The Patriots were getting pummeled in the press for not having an experienced backup to Brady on hand, and there were more than a few moments when the criticism seemed justified.
Well, how do you like him now? Still prefer Daunte Culpepper, Tim Rattay, or Brad Johnson? Yeah, neither do I.
A new man
So many optimistic adjectives suddenly apply to Cassel: calm, efficient, confident, accurate. He hit Randy Moss on a quick slant Sunday that was so perfectly thrown, it looked cribbed from a Brady highlight reel.
You might not hear a lot about Heath Evans, but if youÕre a Patriots fan, you should know him. The fullback’s job as lead blocker is to help open up holes for New England’s running backs. This season, the team has fielded a rotating group of running backs because of injuries. Despite those injuries, the Pats rank seventh in the NFL in rushing.
Evans has done an impressive job opening up holes in his 3½ years with the Patriots, but his work off the field is even more impressive. After his first season in New England, he created the Heath Evans Foundation (heathevans.org), a charity dedicated to helping children and families affected by sexual abuse. It’s a cause close to the heart of Evans, whose wife, Bethann, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The Evans family has used her story, and Heath’s high profile, to bring light to a subject most people would rather avoid.
TC: You actually watched your wife go through this healing process. It’s one thing to raise money, but you’re obviously very involved in trying to help others get through this.
Evans: We hire the best counselors money can buy. I always want people to understand that we aren’t doing the counseling. We are the friend, the big brother or big sister, the mommy or daddy influence that may be missing. We’re the mentor. My wife and I love the interaction that we get with some of these children that we’ve had the opportunity to bring into the foundation and really help them and their families out. The help that we most desire for these kids is done on a one-on-one basis with counselors that have been trained specifically for the sexual-abuse issue. Ultimately, that is what was used to help my beautiful bride through the tough times that she had to walk through.FULL ENTRY
The fact the Patriots are in first place without Tom Brady may come as somewhat of a surprise, but the most unexpected development at the season’s midpoint is the rapid improvement of New England’s main competition.
A year after the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins combined to go 12-36, all three teams are at .500 or better, and the AFC East is the strongest division in the conference.
“We have played two of the teams. We had a very competitive game with the Jets down there and got beat up by Miami pretty good,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I have kind of kept an eye on Buffalo. They have played a lot of teams that we have played, so we have seen them to some degree. But now is really when we start zeroing in on them.”
The Patriots have won five straight division titles, and Sunday’s game against the Bills begins a run of three straight games in the AFC East. They host the Jets next Thursday, then travel to Miami on Nov. 23.
New England entered the season with statistically the easiest schedule in football, mainly because of the six division games, but it certainly hasn’t worked out that way. The AFC East’s cumulative 19-13 record is tops in the conference.
New head coach Tony Sparano and new executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells have breathed new life into the Dolphins. At 4-4, Miami has already quadrupled its win total from a year ago. The Fish thumped the Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sept. 21.FULL ENTRY
1. Keep pouring it on The Bills surprised many when they got off to a 4-0 start, but they were feasting on weaker competition. The four wins came against teams with a combined record of 9-23. The opposition has gotten tougher in recent weeks, and Buffalo has lost three of its last four, including a blowout at Arizona and division defeats by the Dolphins and Jets the previous two weeks. Counting the victory over the struggling Chargers, all five of the Bills’ wins came against teams under .500 with a combined 12-28 mark. Their three losses are against teams at .500 or better, with a combined record of 14-10.
2. Beware the air The Bills had hoped to rely on a stout defense and a tough running game behind second-year running back Marshawn Lynch this season. After running for 1,115 yards in just 13 games last year, Lynch has rushed for only 466 yards in eight games this season. The emergence of quarterback Trent Edwards has turned Buffalo into a pass-first team. He has thrown for 1,725 yards, is fourth in the AFC with a 90.8 quarterback rating, and has the fifth-best completion percentage (68 percent) in the NFL. Buffalo has the 12th-best passing attack in the NFL while ranking just 26th in rushing. Lee Evans (below) should provide the biggest test for New England’s secondary: He is a legitimate big-play threat, with 678 yards receiving (sixth in the NFL) and 19.4 yards per catch.
3. Protect the QB The Patriots have steadily decreased their sacks allowed week by week, and that bodes well for Sunday. The Bills have had a tough time generating a pass rush, with just 13 sacks, tied for 25th in the league. Despite not getting to the quarterback, Buffalo is 10th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, 15th against the pass, and 12th against the rush. The Bills have gotten a real boost out of middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, in his second year out of Penn State. He leads the team with 57 tackles and is sixth in the AFC with 50 solo tackles.
The Game of the Century is now the game of the week, though even that is open to debate. Fifty-two weeks have passed since the Patriots last took on the Indianapolis Colts. When they meet again on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, a national audience certainly will know that time has not treated these teams well.
Patriots and Colts. It just doesn’t seem to have the same cachet anymore, does it? A year ago at this time, entering Week 9 of the 2007 season, the 8-0 Pats and 7-0 Colts were teams on a collision course with history. No one else really seemed to matter. The meeting came less than a year after the Colts’ historic comeback against the Patriots in the 2007 AFC championship game, only adding additional layers to what had become the best rivalry in football.
In the end, the Patriots eked out a 24-20 victory that sprung them to an undefeated regular season, the first 16-0 campaign in NFL history. The Colts finished a mere 13-3. Most assumed the teams would meet again for the AFC championship at Foxborough until the San Diego Chargers upset the Colts in a divisional playoff. Three weeks after that, the New York Giants upset the Patriots by a 17-14 count in Super Bowl XLII.
Since then, a most extraordinary thing has happened: The Pats and Colts have fallen back toward the pack. Already this season, Indianapolis (3-4) has lost as many regular-season games as in any full campaign since 2002; the Pats similarly have lost any air of invincibility. New England enters the game with a 5-2 mark, but the Patriots are succeeding thanks to guile and grit, a soft schedule, and the manipulations of a coach who must know, deep down, that he has a flawed team.
Last week, in the wake of an ugly 23-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams, Patriots coach Bill Belichick took his customary place at the podium in a conference room just outside the home locker room at Gillette Stadium. Truth be told, the room resembles a lecture hall, the coach looking up at tiered rows of seats as if he were a college professor. Belichick immediately began his opening statement, as he always does, offering an overview of the day and game before taking questions.
But prior to opening the floor, the coach concluded his initial remarks with this:
“Now it’s on to Indianapolis. We know what kind of test that will be.”
We did, once.
But do we anymore?
Do we really?FULL ENTRY
Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable. The Patriots’ offensive weapons were so limited that the likes of Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel were lining up on the outside.
This season, with injuries affecting nearly every area of the roster, the deepest unit on the team is arguably the wide receivers.
And with record-setting wideouts like Wes Welker and Randy Moss, the Patriots have transformed from the team that lost to the Colts in the AFC championship game two seasons ago to a franchise with perhaps the best receiving corps in the NFL.
Being so deep at wide receiver — and limited to just three healthy running backs — the Patriots used a base three-receiver set on 42 of 62 offensive plays against the Rams. Jabar Gaffney joined Moss and Welker the majority of the time.
Having such an experienced and effective group has eased quarterback Matt Cassel’s difficult transition into the starting role.
“[Cassel] played really well today,” said Welker after Sunday’s game. “He made all the right reads and was seeing the defense really well. I think there were some plays that we need to be better on that he was good on and we weren’t. And we need to put those things together.”
Welker had seven catches for 79 yards against St. Louis and became the fourth player in NFL history to have at least six receptions in every game for the first seven games of the season. He is tied for third in the NFL with 49 catches.
Moss made the 800th catch of his illustrious career in the first quarter. He is the 20th player in league history to reach that number. He also had his 58th career 100-yard game, the third most in NFL history.FULL ENTRY
1. Be ready for a fight This year’s game doesn’t quite have the cachet of those in years past, but it will actually be more important to the Colts than any of those highly touted matchups. After Monday’s 31-21 loss to the unbeaten Titans, the 3-4 Colts will be fighting for their playoff lives on Sunday night. Indianapolis will also likely see its run of five straight AFC South Division titles end; Tennessee holds a four-game lead.
2. Run around The Patriots’ pass protection was much improved against the Rams, which should prove integral against Indianapolis and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (right). Although Freeney and Mathis have combined for eight sacks, the Colts have just 10 as a team — 28th in the NFL. Despite being without strong safety Bob Sanders, the Colts have the second-best pass defense in the league. They haven’t fared as well against the run, allowing 144.1 yards per game (26th in the NFL). The Patriots will hope for the return of Sammy Morris or LaMont Jordan, because Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for just 76 yards on the ground against St. Louis.
3. Take away the pass Peyton Manning is coming off preseason knee surgery, and the Colts’ passing game hasn’t been as effective as it normally is, at ninth in the NFL. Manning has just 10 touchdown passes in seven games after averaging 35 per year the past four seasons. But the offensive struggles aren’t all Manning’s fault; the Colts have suffered injuries on the offensive line and have the worst rushing offense in football at 73.4 yards per game. The lack of a consistent running attack has taken away one of Manning’s top weapons, the play-action pass. If the Patriots’ run defense is as solid as it has been the past two weeks, the game will likely hinge on the depleted secondary’s ability to contain the passing game.
Adalius Thomas hung his wraparound shades just above his wraparound grin. For the first time in over a fortnight, it was a good time to be a New England Patriot again. “We don’t talk about San Diego any more,” the linebacker said. “Denver? Oh yeah, we
can talk about Denver, at least until tomorrow or the next day.” In the dimming, but still vaguely perceptible, spotlight of “Monday Night Football,” the Denver Broncos had been rudely dispatched in Foxborough, 41-7, in what may be the most perfect demonstration yet of the applicability to the NFL of William Goldman’s classic line about Hollywood.
Nobody knows anything.
The Broncos came in at 4-2. They did so because a referee and a placekicker were both incompetent in consecutive weeks. Meanwhile, New England was coming off a 30-10 gouging by a San Diego team on which the Broncos had put 39 points in the second game of the season. In their previous three games, the Patriots had surrendered an average of 27 points a game, including 21 to the San Francisco 49ers, who’d otherwise been playing so well that they’d started the process of defenestrating their coach at just about the moment that Denver and New England took the field. Naturally, and even with New England down to its backup quarterback and its backup running backs, the smart money was on a shootout. So, one suspects, was the dumb money and the drunken money. But very few of the assembled inebriates in Gillette Stadium could have been prepared for the sudden re-emergence of the Patriots as a defensive force. Well, Bill Belichick said he was, but you know how he is.
“We had our best week of practice of the year and we played our best game of the year,” he said. “It was a good complementary, complete game.” This caused Tedy Bruschi to chuckle, and to expound on his own personal variation on the Goldman Rule.FULL ENTRY
In a sadly appropriate sort of way, you had to figure this was the way it would end: with the aging and suddenly damaged football warrior being hauled off the field on a cart, a stoic look on his face but a hint of a tear in his eye, waving to a cheering crowd well aware that this is likely a mutual farewell.
If Monday night brought the end for Rodney Harrison, it sure made for a hell of a famous final scene. What, you thought he’d go willingly?
Heaven knows we’ve seen enough Patriot limbs twisted and mangled in high definition this year. So it was immediately apparent that Harrison’s injury, suffered when his left foot remained awkwardly planted in the turf while he was pursuing Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler three quarters of the way through the Patriots’ 41-7 victory, was as serious as it was gruesome.
The predictable confirmation came Tuesday (though not straight from the Patriots): Torn right quadriceps. Season over. Career very likely over. Ugh. Talk about your hard hits.
The loss of Harrison might not be the most devastating blow to clobber the Patriots this season — that particular injury, as we suspect you might recall, happened 7:37 into the new season — but he is, in a sense, the quarterback of the defense. It’s always a bummer to lose a player so popular and perhaps even iconic.FULL ENTRY
During the peak of the Patriots’ run, conventional wisdom was that Bill Belichick was such a genius that he could plug anybody into his system and still succeed.
Whether it’s true or not, that opinion is certainly being put to the test this season.
Lost in the euphoria of Monday night’s impressive 41-7 win over the Broncos were the injuries that seem to just keep piling up.
Although injuries are part of life for every team in the NFL, the Patriots have seemed particularly snakebit this season, which started with the catastrophic loss of Tom Brady in Week 1.
Starters Nick Kaczur and Jarvis Green went down two weeks ago against the Chargers and were unable to play against Denver. Then the Patriots announced that another starter was finished for the season, putting running back Laurence Maroney on injured reserve before Monday’s game.
“It’s obviously not something we like to see, but I think we’re used to it by now. It seems to happen quite a bit every year,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “We have a pretty deep team with a lot of talent, so we know we have guys that can fill in and take over.”FULL ENTRY
1. Tough timing
The Patriots would probably have been better served in this matchup three weeks ago, when the Rams were in turmoil. St. Louis started the year 0-4 and was outscored, 147-43. The team then fired head coach Scott Linehan before the bye week and promoted defensive coordinator and former New Orleans Saints head coach Jim Haslett (below) to interim head coach. The move paid immediate dividends as St. Louis shocked Washington, 19-17, in Haslett’s first game and then rolled to a stunning 34-14 win over Dallas on Sunday.
2. Contain Jackson
The most interesting matchup on Sunday figures to be Steven Jackson against the Patriots’ defense. Jackson, who has eclipsed 1,000 yards three years in a row, is coming off a 160-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Cowboys. The Patriots have allowed an average of 117.2 yards per game on the ground, 19th in the NFL. Jackson, however, might be somewhat limited: he strained his quadriceps late in the win over Dallas but is expected to play against New England. For the season, Jackson has run for 508 yards, an average of 4.2 yards per carry. He is fifth in the NFC in rushing yards.
3. Take a run at them
The first four lopsided losses have skewed the numbers a bit, but Haslett is known as a defensive coach. The Rams improved right away when he took over, allowing 17 points to the Redskins and 14 to the Cowboys. Overall, they are 30th in the NFL in points allowed at 29.2 per game. The running game keyed the Patriots’ success on offense against Denver on Monday, and whether it’s Sammy Morris, LaMont Jordan, or BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting the majority of the carries, the Patriots should be able to find some open running lanes Sunday. The Rams are 30th in the NFL in run defense at 161.5 yards per game.
Losing Tom Brady was one thing. But as we delve into the middle of this NFL season, as the Patriots suddenly look more and more like a makeshift outfit, New England no longer looks merely like a team without a quarterback. What the Patriots seem to be, too, is a team without a defense.
And we all know where the buck stops on that one.
And so now, one week after the San Diego Chargers toasted the Patriots -- and Deltha O'Neal, in particular -- in a 30-10 San Diego win on national TV, the Denver Broncos come to Foxborough in Week 7 with the top-ranked passing attack in the AFC. On Monday night this time, America once again will be watching. And the question now is whether Bill Belichick can save this team, whether the accomplished coach of the Pats can sufficiently fill the holes on his defense that, in many ways, are far more worrisome than the hole behind center.
When Brady went down, we expected the Patriots' offense to struggle.
With Belichick here, we did not expect the defense to disintegrate.
"I don't think the competitiveness of the game was reflected in the score," Belichick said on Monday in his weekly briefing on The Day After. "We did a lot of good things but we offset it with missing some opportunities and not being able to make a few plays at the right time."
Of course, we all know what the defensive formula has been in New England over the last several years. We know Belichick's philosophies and respect his pedigree. Make the offense work. Give up yards, not touchdowns. Stay in position and take no foolish risks, because any renegade behavior could undermine the success of the unit.
Yet now, in the wake of the San Diego loss, the Patriots seem to be crumbling in an array of areas, the most surprising of which comes on defense.
Against the Chargers, the Pats allowed three pass plays of 40 or more yards and were slapped with a 32-yard pass interference penalty. They gave up three passing touchdowns and more than 300 yards in the air. That came only two weeks after the Pats were all but undressed by Miami Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown and the rampaging wildcat offense, and it all makes you wonder what the heck is happening to a team and coach that so often prided themselves on being figuratively and literally one step ahead, even when the other guys had the ball.
Especially when the other guys had the ball.
"Anytime the ball gets thrown over your head in the secondary, that's not good," Belichick admitted. "It is every defensive back's job to keep the ball in front of [him]. The intent is to never get it thrown over your head, whether [there] is a pass rush or not. That is the last line of defense. You have to prevent the big play and if they hit them, then they can hit them in front of you. Ultimately, the long passes have to fall on the secondary. You are always looking for more pass rush and tighter coverage, but you have to defend the deep ball first. We didn't do a good job of that."FULL ENTRY
1. Solve the puzzle
The Patriots have had success against nearly every opponent in the Belichick era, but the Broncos have given them fits. Under Belichick, New England is just 2-6, including playoffs, against Denver. The Broncos beat the Patriots 17-7 in their last meeting, at Gillette Stadium in 2006. They beat New England twice in 2005, both times in Denver, including a 27-13 win in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots beat the Broncos in Denver in 2003 but lost to them in 2001 and 2002. But Belichick's first win as New England head coach came in 2000 against the Broncos. The 28-19 victory in Denver, with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, boosted the team's record to 1-4.
2. Get into the backfield
Denver has traditionally used a run-oriented approach, allowing numerous backs to share the workload. Head coach Mike Shanahan has altered his offensive game plan this season, with third-year quarterback Jay Cutler emerging as one of the top signal-callers in the NFL. Cutler leads the league in pass attempts per game, is third in passing yards, and is tied for fourth with 12 touchdown passes. One thing that hasn't changed is Denver's superior offensive line play. Cutler has been sacked just twice in six games -- the best ratio in the NFL.
3. Take advantage of the defense
Denver's defense has not matched its offense's prolific performance. The Broncos have allowed 25.7 points per game (24th in the NFL), 393.0 yards (30th), 137.5 rushing yards (26th), and a league-worst 255.5 passing yards per contest. After starting 3-0 and topping 34 points in each game, the Broncos suffered a stunning 33-19 loss to then-winless Kansas City. They bounced back to beat Tampa Bay the following week but are coming off a 24-17 home loss to the Jaguars. Denver (4-2) leads the AFC West.
The Patriots have the same offensive line that they did last year. They also have the same receiving corps, the same running backs, and the same tight ends.
Obviously the one thing that is not the same is the man under center. But could having Matt Cassel at quarterback instead of Tom Brady be the only reason New England has already allowed just one fewer sack in five games than it did all of last season?
"I think there are different reasons for that. It's not all one thing or the other," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels. "Obviously we don't want sacks, and we really don't want them in the red area. It's a combination of blocking them long enough, reading it quick, and getting it out to the people who can catch and run. You definitely don't want to have four or five sacks in a game, and we would like to cut down on that."
The Patriots have allowed 20 sacks in five games this year after yielding just 21 all of last season. The offensive line allowed fewer than 30 sacks in each of the previous three years. Last season's total of 21 sacks was the fewest allowed by the franchise in 30 years. Cassel was sacked four times against the Chargers on Sunday night and took off running seven times when he couldn't find anyone open or the protection broke down.FULL ENTRY
His legs were gone. Remember that? When the New England Patriots acquired Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders in April 2007, that was the first rumor headed east not far behind him. It was said that Moss had left the best parts of his legs in Minnesota during his seven years with the Vikings. There were chunks of vastus lateralis and rectus femoris lying all around the Metrodome. (Be careful when you order a hot dog there. You never know what’s in it.) The funniest thing about all these very reliable anonymous rumors was, of course, the fact that they emanated from a franchise owned and operated by Al Davis, who’s been a Kellogg’s Variety Pack of crazy for nearly a decade.
Make no mistake. Randy Moss didn’t get traded from Oakland. He got rescued. And just in the nick of time, too. You may have noticed that Davis himself called a press conference last week and announced that he was firing his 12-year-old coach, whose name, I believe, was Skippy. Skippy failed to heal what was wrong with the Raiders, possibly because he was neither the late Vince Lombardi nor St. Bernadette of Lourdes. So, out went Skippy, and the Crypt Keeper embarked on his latest rendition of the old Charlie Rich lament, “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” Now, of course, over a year later, one of the voices in Al’s head is making noises about New England’s having tampered with Moss prior to the deal. Tampering? The Patriots broke Moss out of that asylum. It’s a wonder there aren’t 50 Raiders digging tunnels under the practice field even as we speak.FULL ENTRY
With the Air Brady offensive attack of a season ago just a melancholy memory at this point — thanks for nothin’, Bernard Pollard — the weighty burden now falls on the Patriots defense if the team is going to achieve the goals that seemed so attainable before their franchise quarterback’s left knee was turned into pastrami.
To put it more specifically: The Patriots, 3-1 but still a work in progress behind understudy Matt Cassel, would have an infinitely better long-term prognosis this season if only someone would step up and become a Genuine Playmaker on defense.
And the sooner, the better.
In recent seasons, that player was cornerback Asante Samuel. (Yup, we’re conveniently ignoring his famous final stonehanded scene in the Super Bowl. You know how much he meant.) But Samuel backed up the Brink’s truck and bolted for the green of Philadelphia as a free agent in the offseason, leaving the Patriots not only with a gaping void in their defensive backfield, but without the one defender with a knack for making a clutch play when the moment called for it.FULL ENTRY
If anyone can appreciate the transition Jerod Mayo is making, it’s Andre Tippett. ¶ Although it has been 26 years since he was a rookie, the Hall of Fame linebacker remembers what it was like to be thrust into the world of the NFL.
“My head was spinning during my rookie year,” said Tippett. “We had five or six young linebackers who made the team that year, and we were all looking to contribute early. That’s the attitude you had to take back then, and that’s the attitude you have to take now.
“Mayo is a rookie and for him to be out there as a starter says a lot about his talent and dedication. A lot of rookies come in and get lost, and here’s a kid that worked hard all spring to get ready. A lot of guys don’t have that early dedication. You have to admire the kid. He’s worked hard, but there’s still a lot to learn.”
The 6-foot-1-inch, 242-pound Mayo was the 10th overall pick out of Tennessee and the first linebacker Patriots coach Bill Belichick drafted higher than the fifth round since taking over in 2000. He was on the field for every defensive snap in the first two games of the season, and in four games so far, he leads the team with 23 solo tackles.FULL ENTRY
1. Not the best of friends
The Patriots and Chargers are not division foes, but the teams have developed quite a rivalry in recent years. Last season, New England defeated San Diego in Week 2 and in the AFC championship game. The Patriots also knocked off the 14-2 Chargers in San Diego in the second round of the playoffs in 2007, when many Chargers, notably LaDainian Tomlinson, felt the Patriots showed disrespect toward them by mocking Shawne Merriman’s sack dance. Tomlinson said the Patriots “showed no class, and maybe that comes from the head coach.”
To a man, the New England Patriots players refuse to do it.
No matter how often they are asked, they consistently follow the lead of their stoic head coach and refuse to make the comparison.
Comparing a guy with two career starts under his belt to a two-time Super Bowl MVP and the single-season record holder in touchdown passes is an exercise in futility.
"How can you compare a guy who is only making his third start to a future Hall of Famer? That's not fair. You just can't do that," said safety Rodney Harrison. "You cannot compare Tom Brady to him. I know it's something [for] you guys in the sports media and for people to talk about, but to make that comparison is completely unjust."
After the team's impressive win over the Jets, many Patriots fans didn't expect radically different results this season without Brady. The players, however, realize that this is simply a different team with Matt Cassel under center and say there's no need to lament the loss of Brady.
"Well, Brady's done, so let's not speak about him," added Harrison. "Sometimes when your car breaks down, you've got to put different parts into it. And that's what it is. Brady's gone, Cassel's here and we all have to do our job better."
Said Cassel, "I don't really like to make comparisons to myself and Tom. Tom is who he is and he was the MVP of the league last year. I am who I am. I am just going to go out and try to execute and play my game, whatever that might be."FULL ENTRY
FOXBOROUGH -- Coming into the season, the Patriots' defensive line was seen not only as the strength of
the entire defense, but as one of the best units in all of the NFL.
Through three games, the unit hasn't exactly looked like the Fearsome Foursome.
Sunday seems like the opportune time to break out. San Francisco leads the league in sacks allowed: 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan has been taken down 19 times in four games. He has also lost three fumbles.
"Obviously for any defensive player that's the ultimate -- to get sacks on the quarterback," said Richard Seymour. "That's what we want to do, but we have to get them in those situations. We have to put them in situations where we can go after the quarterback and pin our ears back and kind of just let loose."
The Patriots have recorded six sacks in three games and forced just two turnovers. They fell behind early in the loss to Miami, enabling the Dolphins to run the ball, and the defensive line didn't have too many opportunities to rush the passer.
"It's not just the defensive line," said Seymour. "It wasn't like Miami ran through big, gaping holes. The holes were tight, it was just the funky formations that they threw at us. We're aware physically that we can get the job done, it's just going to take everyone on the defense, not just three guys up front."
Joining Seymour up front in New England's base 3-4 defense are end Ty Warren, who led the line with 83 tackles last season, and Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Jarvis Green gets a lot of snaps as well.
For the Patriots to exploit the 49ers' apparent weakness, they will have to shut down their strength. San Francisco has rushed for 474 yards in four games behind fourth-year running back Frank Gore. Gore has accounted for 369 of those yards (4.9 per carry) and three touchdowns.
"[Gore] is a guy that can make all the different types of runs, like a LaDainian Tomlinson," said Rodney Harrison. "He stays on the field all three downs and is a guy that can definitely hurt you in so many different ways."FULL ENTRY
1. O'Sullivan makes his mark
With Alex Smith on injured reserve, San Francisco has moved on from the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in 2005 and tabbed J.T. O'Sullivan as its starting quarterback. After appearing in just one game for the Green Bay Packers in 2004, O'Sullivan had a brief stint on the Patriots' practice squad in 2006. He didn't receive any significant playing time until last year, when he appeared in four games for the Detroit Lions, and he has worn eight different jerseys during his time in the league. But the 29-year-old seems to have finally established himself as a starter this season. In four games, he has thrown for 962 yards and four touchdowns as San Francisco has started the year 2-2. The 49ers went 5-11 last season.
2. Gore's the go-to guy
Although he finished sixth in yards from scrimmage for the season, Frank Gore (below) labored through an ankle injury and a broken hand suffered in training camp last year. This season, the fourth-year running back appears healthy and back to the form he showed in 2006 when he finished third in the league in rushing and set the franchise record for combined yards. He has run for 369 yards in four games, an average of 4.9 yards per carry, and scored three touchdowns. He had six TDs in 15 games a year ago.
3. Defense ripe for Pats' picking
If there ever was a time for the Patriots' offense to hit its stride, Sunday would appear to be it. Despite having Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary in his third year as the team's assistant head coach/defense, the San Francisco defensive unit ranks 21st in the league in points allowed (24.2), 22d in yards allowed (335.8), 19th in passing yards (211.2) and 21st in rushing yards (124.5).
In the wake of Tom Brady's injury, the consensus was that it would take a team effort for the New England Patriots to achieve their loftier goals this season.
JOIN THE CLUB: Patriots center Dan Koppen can't bear to watch the fourth-quarter carnage. From left: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Koppen, Billy Yates. (Jim Davis / Boston Globe)
All those optimistic answers we thought we had with the encouraging Week 2 win over the New York Jets? Forget 'em. After the Patriots' humiliating 38-13 loss to the previously hapless and hopeless Miami Dolphins, we have no answers about this particular football team, just more puzzling questions, questions that only the long season can answer.
For now, it's apparent our expectations and confidence will have to be tempered on a weekly basis. We simply don't know what we have here anymore. The Patriots, so consistent, so dependable, so damn good in the Brady/Belichick Era, are officially an enigma.
Consider what has happened so far this season: On their day of devastation, they somehow squeaked by a Kansas City Chiefs team that has a '76 Bucs vibe, then a week later roughed up an overhyped New York Jets squad led by an All-Pro narcissist who is apparently spending more time filming Wrangler commercials than he is learning the playbook.FULL ENTRY
After Sunday's shocking 38-13 setback against the Dolphins, many members of the Patriots expressed the need to immediately get back on the field, redeem themselves and get the bitter taste of defeat out of their mouths.
Instead, they will have to dwell on their first regular-season loss in over 21 months for an extra week.
"Absolutely it will be a long two weeks," said Richard Seymour, "but you have to take it for what it's worth. It's only one game, there's still a lot of football to be played. We can't get too low."
"Me, personally I'd like to get back on the football field," said Randy Moss. "We're going to have an off-week to take off and really focus on getting back to what we know how to do and look forward to the week after that."FULL ENTRY
FOXBOROUGH -- Matt Cassel was an easy target of blame for discontented fans at Gillette Stadium during New England's 38-13 loss to Miami on Sunday, but it wasn't just the first-year starter and his 68.1 quarterback rating that brought the Patriots' 21-game regular-season winning streak to a stunning end.
Even if Tom Brady had been under center, it would have been difficult for the record-setting quarterback to overcome a Miami attack that amassed 461 yards of total offense and 216 yards on the ground.
"We had trouble with their new stuff. We had trouble with their old stuff. We didn't play very well on defense. We didn't coach very well," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the game. "I know we are better than that."FULL ENTRY
OT beat writersMaureen Mullen brings you Red Sox information and insights.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots.
Scott Souza is all over the Celtics.
Danny Picard is on the ice with the Bruins.
Mike McDonald takes a look at the humorous side of Boston sports