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Losing Aqib Talib to the Broncos is tough, but it's foolish to fret about Patriots now

  March 12, 2014 10:47 AM


The Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl. They didn't win Day 1 of free agency, either.

If you're thinking what I'm thinking, there's only one thing left to do: Operation Overthrow.

No, that's a Steve Grogan reference. It's the plan. Right -- the plan.

Meet me in the parking lot of the Red Wing Diner on Route 1. You bring the tar, I'll supply the feathers.

It's happening, and it's overdue. We're storming the Gillette castle. It's time to depose this Belichick clown once and for all, before the Patriots, you know, actually have a losing season or something.

Sure, in an era in which the rules are stacked against consistency, let alone a dynasty, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls, could own at least two more Lombardi Trophies with a little luck and better health, have made the AFC title game three straight seasons, including during a 2013 season in which their transcendent tight end blew out his knee, their other, exceptionally versatile tight end decided it better to be a non-fictional Tony Montana than play with the modern-day Joe Montana, and multiplayer nucleus of the run defense ended up on injured reserve.

A dozen regular-season and a trip to the final four is all well and good, but let me ask you this: How many Free-Agency Winner banners hang in Gillette Stadium? That's right, none. None. Well, unless you were really excited about Danny Amendola last year. But that doesn't count. It was only worth a plaque.

And just look at these no-names and never-weres they're lining up for visits: Shelley Smith? He's less famous than the ESPN reporter. Brandon LaFell? Pretty sure that last name is French for "can't stay upright." Someone named Shaughnessy? OK, Belichick's flat trolling us now.

So who's with me? Tar. Feathers. A hoodie in tatters. Revenge.

All right, so maybe that's a little over the top. We can hold the feathers, I guess. But in a day in which I heard one sports radio caller (Hey, I Have To Listen�) say flat-out that Belichick is the worst general manager in football, even the stupidest theories and plans of attack seem somewhat feasible.

I understand why Patriots fans are frustrated today. Aqib Talib, an amusing and talented player whose arrival in 2013 changed the defense almost instantly, got an offer he couldn't refuse from the team that ended the Patriots season. Because he is not completely insane, he did not refuse it.

Forget that six years and $57 million -- with $26 million guaranteed -- is an absurd overpay for a player who had so much baggage he cost the Patriots just a fourth-round pick in the November 2012 deal with the Bucks. Talib will be missed. He was a damn good cornerback, fun to watch, gets too much grief for his postseason injuries (football players get hurt playing football at random times -- go figure), and he's joining a rival. Bummer.

But hey, at least it means the Broncos probably won't be signing Darrelle Revis too, unless they've figured out another way to cheat the salary cap. Wait -- does John Elway even know there's a salary cap? It's not like the Broncos abided by one when he was playing.

Envying teams that make a big move in free agency is understandable. And it's aggravating as hell when one of your team's best players joins the team that stood in the way of a sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the Tom Brady era. The notion that the Patriots should be loading up to get Brady that fourth ring is comes from the right place, even if it's undisciplined in the long term. If there's any solace to be taken in watching the Broncos do just that for Manning, it's the knowledge that sometime in January, he'll make sure they're best-laid plans implode spectacularly.

Maybe that comes before the Broncos and Patriots inevitably collide, maybe it comes after. But drawing conclusions on where the Patriots are, where they are headed, and whether they're roster-building strategy is sound is absolutely ignorant at this point in the process, roughly six months before they play their next game.

Losing Talib is disappointing, but there's no way he's worth that price. I suspect Alterraun Verner is raising an eyebrow in his agent's direction today, and I still think he would have been a great fit here.

cromartiefinn319.jpgAs useful consolation prizes, I wouldn't mind the best available Cromartie -- Antonio (tall, troubled at times, and freakishly talented), Dominique Rodgers-, even Warren here. There are good corners available, some of whom we would have preferred to Talib less than two years ago.

As for the Darrelle Revis sweepstakes, well, the mewling we've-got-to-get-him-or-else spoiled minority aren't particularly interested in context or perspective today. As cool as it would be to see him join the Patriots, it would rate as one of the great upsets in sports history if he takes an offer that isn't the most lucrative.

In the frustration of having not won a Super Bowl in the past nine years with Brady and Belichick at the helm of the operation, two things are lost.

1) It's damn hard to win a Super Bowl. Don't you remember that? You need more than talent and quality coaching -- you need breaks, and they ones they got in 2001, '03, and '04 haven't come their way in the biggest moments recently. Guess what? That's sports.

2) We have it so good with this team. In those nine years, they made two Super Bowls, five AFC title games, and won eight division titles. They've won more than any team of this era, and this era is not over even if they -- gasp -- didn't dazzle on Day 1 of free agency. I'm pretty sure they'll add some football players. Good ones, too. Maybe we'll even have heard of a few.

The Patriots' approach isn't splashy. On days like yesterday, it's not much fun. But man, it's almost always rewarding on those fall Sundays that matter. Try to enjoy it, will ya?

Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Colts

  January 11, 2014 12:47 PM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 18 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. The second-seeded Patriots, coming off a much-deserved and needed bye after a 12-4 regular season, host Bert Jones Art Schlichter Mark Herrmann Mike Pagel Jim Harbaugh Peyton Manning Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, who overcame a 38-10 deficit in the wild card round to beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 45-44. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...

1. T.Y. Hilton: The Colts' second-year receiver has put up these totals over the past two games, the regular-season finale against the Jaguars and the thrilling comeback in the wild-card round against the Chiefs:

Twenty-four catches, 379 yards, two touchdowns.

That's a pretty good month for most starting receivers. Hilton is obviously the No. 1 weapon among few in the Colts' offense, and that status makes him the first priority to stop at all times for the Patriots defense. It's not a myth that Bill Belichick's defenses have a knack for taking away what the opposition wants to do most, and with Aqib Talib and an assortment of other defensive backs with various skills, the Patriots should be able to contain Hilton Saturday night.

2. Robert Mathis: Mathis had the best season of his 11-year career in 2013, racking up 19.5 sacks. It's all the more impressive when you consider this is the first year he played without Dwight Freeney, now a Charger, drawing attention on the opposite side. But while Mathis surely is disruptive -- he had a pivotal strip-sack in the win over the Chiefs -- he may not be the threat at Gillette Stadium that he is at Lucas Oil Field. Thirteen of his sacks came at home, and he had just two sacks in the Colts' last six road games this season.

3. LeGarrette Blount: The Patriots have a variety of appealing and diverse options in their running game, with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both likely to play significant roles going forward. But Blount, who ran for 189 yards in the season finale versus Buffalo, looks like a classic cold-weather back in the Antowain Smith mold. He should feast on the Colts' 26th-ranked run defense.

Dan_Dierdorf.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: Going with The Dierdorf by default here since I couldn't find a card of Ty Law roughing up Marvin Harrison. Saturday's game will be the final broadcast of Dierdorf's 29-year career. No matter what you think of him as a broadcaster, that's a heck of a run. And if you don't like him as an analyst, let me remind you of this: He began his career at CBS in 1985 as a play-by-play guy. Imagine that.

5. Drew Bledsoe, Patriots, 1993: I'll stick with my standard Bledsoe line here -- there's no shame in being the second-best quarterback in franchise history. If you want to go with Jim Plunkett (1971) here, I'll respectful nod. If you want to go Vinny Testaverde (1987), I'll assume you're a member of his family.

bradshawterryfinn111.jpg4. Terry Bradshaw, Steelers, 1970: Four Super Bowl rings are a pretty decent argument, yes. But it did take him awhile to get going -- he completed 38.1 percent of his passes as a rookie, with six touchdowns and 24 interceptions.

3. Troy Aikman, Dallas, 1988: Imagine how Cowboys history would be different had Jimmy Johnson gone with Steve Walsh instead.

2. John Elway, Indianapolis, 1983: Elway never played for the Colts, of course, using his leverage as a Yankees outfield prospect to force a trade to the Broncos. And make no mistake, Elway was a big-time baseball prospect -- Baseball America rated him as the Yankees' No. 1 prospect entering 1983. Don Mattingly was ninth.

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, 1998: He'll be the most statistically accomplished passer in NFL history when he retires, if he's not considered so already. Hard to believe there was ever a debate whether Manning or Ryan Leaf -- who may have been a better athlete with a stronger arm -- would be the No. 1 pick.

I bring all of this up because it's conceivable, should Andrew Luck slightly exceed all of the high but possible realistic expectations attached to him now, that he could crack the top three on this list. Which would mean the Colts drafted the three best quarterbacks ever to go No. 1 overall. Pretty impressive, though not quite as impressive as drafting arguably the best quarterback ever at No. 199 overall.

I'm predicting one upset this week in the AFC Divisional Round, but it will happen in Denver, not Foxborough. The Colts are certainly a worthy opponent, well-coached and led by an accountable young quarterback ascending to superstardom. But the Patriots, so familiar with such situations in the Brady/Belichick era, will build an early lead, control the game with a rejuvenated running attack, and frustrate Luck enough that he'll surrender a costly turnover or two in the second half. Meanwhile, Philip Rivers and the Chargers will prevent another Manning/Brady showdown, with the current and former Colts quarterbacks seeing their seasons end on the same day.
Patriots 27, Colts 17

Officials' inexplicable no-call interferes with Patriots' chances in loss to Panthers

  November 19, 2013 07:00 AM

When this engaging, enraging frontrunner for NFL game of the year was all over ...

.... after a flag was thrown, then inexplicably picked up after a possible winning Tom Brady pass in the direction of a Luke Kuechly-adorned Rob Gronkowski was intercepted in the final seconds...

.... after the refs beat it hastily off the field as if they'd realized the hills might suddenly have eyes had the final score not favored the home team ....

.... after Tom Brady and unnecessary sidekick Ryan Mallett flagged down two officials and greeted them with language only David Ortiz can get away with on television ...

.... after it was all over but the relentless anti-Patriot schadenfreude, the losing quarterback took the postgame podium after his team's 24-20 loss, measured his words, and told a half-truth.

"I don't know whether it was a good call or a bad call,'' said Brady, who was 27 of 40 for 296 yards and one touchdown. "We shot ourselves in the foot too many times."

The latter half of his statement? Unflinching, undeniable honesty. The Patriots did shoot themselves in the foot time and again against an energetic, athletic Panthers team that has proved its contender bona fides the past two weeks with tight wins over the Niners and Patriots.

Stevan Ridley's fumble – a trio of words that should be a keyboard shortcut for Patriots reporters at this point – cost the Patriots at least three points in the first half, perhaps even a touchdown, which would have been a feat in itself since Carolina has allowed just one first-half TD all season.

Logan Mankins had a knuckleheaded personal foul penalty. Cam Newton, as electrifying as he is insincere, converted third down after third down with his arms and his feet, passing for 209 yards and three touchdowns and running for another 62 yards. Aqib Talib spent more time trying to maim Panthers receiver Steve Smith than he did covering him, and someone needs to write up an oral history, pronto, on that relationship..

Even when the Patriots found their rhythm in the second half, with Brady completing 13 straight passes at one point against Carolina's impressive second-ranked defense, their second-to-last drive, on which they took their first lead at 20-17, could have been more.

Instead of scoring a touchdown, they had to settle for a 26-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski with 6 minutes 2 seconds left to play, setting the stage for Carolina's winning drive, capped when Ted Ginn eluded Kyle Arrington after hauling in a Newton pass and scampered into the end zone with 59 seconds remaining.

Still, they had Brady and a healthy Gronkowski. Which means they had a chance.

After methodically marching 62 yards in 56 seconds – including a converted fourth and 10 to Gronkowski for 23 yards – Brady dropped back to pass at the Carolina 18 with three seconds remaining, trying to duplicate the final-play victory he helped pull off in October against the Saints.

Gronkowski headed for the back of the end zone, with Kuechly draped on him so blatantly that Gronk must have had a brief flashback to the after-party for his recent Football 101 Women's Clinic.

Brady's pass was short, picked off behind the goal line by Robert Lester.

There was only a brief celebration by the Panthers, who spotted that bright yellow harbinger on the turf. Was there pass interference? Illegal contact? There was something ... until the flag was picked up, the officials made their escape, and then there wasn't.

In the aftermath, voices such as Steve Young ("Gronk was kept from competing for the ball. That's pass interference") and Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Perreira ("Since the flag was thrown, they should have stayed with the call. There was clear contact before the ball was intercepted") were among a vast consensus who thought there should have been a penalty.

Even Kuechly, the former Boston College star who is a rising force in the NFL, had a tough time keeping a straight face. "They picked up the flag,'' he said, smiling. "So apparently I did all right."

While we half-seriously wait for old Facebook photos of referee Clete Blakeman decked out in Panthers gear to surface, his explanation to pool reporter Mike Reiss of what the officials saw basically boiled down to this: the ball was underthrown and Gronkowski didn't have a chance of catching it. Which is swell and semi-true -- he didn't have a chance of catching it, because Kuechly had made sure of it.

So about the first half of that aforementioned Brady comment? About not knowing whether it was a good call or a bad call? Pure misdirection. You bet Brady knew, which is why he ran down the officials in the aftermath of the waved-off, nothing-to-see-here call and offered these choice words: "That is [expletive] bull. That is unbelievable!"

He was right. And this was one of those times where you wished he'd dropped the diplomatic good-sport persona and said exactly what he was thinking, since the ESPN camera, I suspect unbeknownst to him, had already told us in that colorful language anyway.

Because while the Patriots did blow plenty of chances along the way, that doesn't mean it's just that a last chance to cover for those mistakes should unjustly be taken away. You play poorly, you deserve to lose? Sure, I guess that trope equates to justice. But you play poorly, you deserve to have the rules misused against you without immediate explanation during the most pivotal moment? That's not how it works.

This is twice this season that weird calls (or in this case, a no-call) has cost them in the final moment of a game, the first coming in an OT loss to the Jets. It was popular cliche last night on Twitter -- these things all even out in the end -- but it's really not true. Each is an independent event. Ask Cleveland fans if all things even out in the end.

Maybe it's time for someone with some cachet with the league to speak up. One well-timed, biting, I'm-serious-about-this comment from Brady about how he thought the league was rid of the replacement refs would go a long way toward making sure they get it right the next time a bizarre play occurs with the outcome hanging in the balance.

Which, with the way this odd but still potentially fulfilling Patriots season is going, probably means we should brace for some zebra weirdness Sunday night against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Who knows, maybe the Tuck Rule will come back into our lives again.

Yes, I know it no longer exists. You think that's going to stop these guys from calling it?

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Panthers

  November 15, 2013 08:52 AM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday around noon. Monday night, the 7-2 Patriots, coming off their bye week, visit Kerry Collins Chris Weinke Rodney Peete Steve Beuerlein Jake Delhomme Jimmy Clausen Cam Newton and the 6-3 Panthers, who confirmed their emergence as a team to be taken seriously with a victory over the Niners Sunday. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...


1. Cam Newton: The Panthers' quarterback isn't putting up the most electrifying stats of his career. He has just 13 touchdown passes, and he's rushed for 266 yards after eclipsing 700 in each of his first two seasons. But he has led the Panthers to five straight wins in their quest for their first playoff berth since 2008, and in the process he's become more efficient, completing a career-best 62.7 percent of his passes (including 23 of 32, or 71.9 percent, against the Niners), and the threat is always there of a big play via his arm or his legs.

kuechlylukefinn1115.JPG2. Luke Kuechly: Boston College fans aren't surprised by Kuechly's rapid ascent to NFL stardom -- he was a tackling machine for the Eagles well before he could legally have a pop at Mary Ann's. But it's been fun to watch him build his name from afar. Kuechly led the league in tackles last season and has 75 so far this year as the fulcrum of the Panthers' second-ranked defense. But it's his improvement in the passing game that has Bill Belichick particularly impressed.

[He's] very good pass defender,� Belichick said. �He�s got good speed, and you see him running with guys in the deep part of the field in their Tampa-2 coverage. He�s got good pursuit to the sideline, makes a lot of plays outside the numbers. Again, a very instinctive guy that can read the quarterback well."

Kuechly is tied for the Panthers' lead with three interceptions this season, and he also has five passes defensed. It'll be fascinating to see whether he's one of the rare linebackers who has the speed and strength to stay with Rob Gronkowski.

3. Shane Vereen: Vereen has played just one game this season, but it was a memorable one. In the opener against the Bills, he ran for 101 yards on 14 carries and picked up another 58 yards on seven receptions. The production became all the more impressive when it was revealed that he played through a hand injury that landed him on injured reserve. Vereen is expected to be active Sunday for the first time since the opener, and his versatile all-around skills should come in handy against the Panthers' tough defense.

No grievance, just a suggestion. This probably isn't one for the Derek Jeter Publishing House, but someone really needs to report the hell out of and write a book on the University of Florida football program circa 2008. Just look at the names on Urban Meyer's roster that season: Tim Tebow. Backup quarterback Cam Newton. Aaron Hernandez. The Pouncey goons. Unsung scumbag Chris Rainey. Riley Cooper. Percy Harvin. Brandon Spikes. Janoris Jenkins. That is an extraordinary collection of talent -- the Gators won the National Championship -- but an uncommon number of those characters lacked character. As the New York Times reported in the wake of Hernandez's arrest, 41 players on that roster were arrested while at Florida. Just imagine what we don't know about that team.

It must be a special kind of frustration to excel at two sports growing up, only to find out that you're not quite good enough to thrive at either once you get to the professional level. Weinke gave professional baseball a shot first, having been chosen out of Cretin-Derham High School in Minnesota by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 1990 MLB Draft. (That's also the alma mater of Joe Mauer, a hot-shot football recruit who turned out to be OK at baseball himself.) After hitting .248 with 69 homers in six seasons in the Jays system and peaking at Triple A, Weinke walked away from baseball to play quarterback at Florida State, where he started and starred for three seasons, even becoming the first senior citizen to win the Heisman Trophy in 2000. He was drafted by the Panthers at age 28, won his first start as a rookie ... then promptly lost his last 14 starts that season, including a 38-6 loss to the Patriots in the season finale. He won one more game in the NFL after that season. But hey, he was probably a better hitter than Gino Torretta, right?

This clip is relatively brief, just 5 minutes and 5 seconds of pregame , but there's a lot to it. You have a narrator whose script is so over-the top ("back and forth wind the cycles of football dominance") that you half-expect Stuart Scott to have a writing credit. You have a reminder, via the appearance of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Richard Seymour, Ty Law and more, of how much talent the Patriots had on defense in those days, not to mention that, yes, it really has been 10 years since the franchise won its second Super Bowl. And right around the 4:15 mark, you have what those envious of Tom Brady probably consider compelling evidence that he is indeed a bit of a nerd. Man, I still can't believe this was a decade ago.

I figure most of us marked this down as a relatively easy "W" for the Patriots when the schedule came out, which just goes to show how little we know about teams -- even ones that look hopeless on paper -- before the games have been played. I can't imagine anyone is looking at this one as a walkover now. The win Sunday over the Niners convinced me -- the Panthers are legit. The defense is ferocious and Newton is as versatile a quarterback as the Patriots will encounter this season. I still think the Patriots win -- Tom Brady has his weapon back on offense, provided that Rob Gronkowski doesn't have any ridiculous brand-building projects scheduled for Monday night. Aqib Talib, a defensive player of the year candidate before hurting his hip, is expected to be back, and the Patriots dodged a bullet when the essential Rob Ninkovich had to leave the game against the Steelers two weeks ago. It'll be a Monday night matchup worth watching to the end, when Stephen Gostkowski wins it just like Adam Vinatieri did all those years ago in higher-stakes circumstances. Patriots 32, Panthers 29

(Last week's prediction (before the bye): Patriots 20, Steelers 10. Final score: Patriots 55, Steelers 31. Season record: 5-4.)

Ed Reed's skills have faded, but smarts would make him worth risk for Patriots

  November 13, 2013 05:12 AM


Ed Reed has been such a singular force of nature during his 12-year NFL career that even the acknowledgement that his legs can no longer keep pace with his mind is hardly a deterrent to hoping he finally ends up playing for Bill Belichick.

The mutual respect between the Patriots coach and the longtime Raven (and brief, recently discarded Texan) is well documented, to the point where you're left wondering how Belichick ever passed him up for Daniel Graham in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft. Having Lawyer Milloy, Victor Green, and Tebucky Jones on the roster at the time is not a reason.

But should a reminder of the respect Belichick and Tom Brady have for Reed be required, just run a quick out-pattern over to YouTube and queue up this famous footage from the "A Football Life" documentary on the Patriots coach.

Here's the candid scene in Belichick's office, transcribed, as the coach and quarterback watch film on Reed and the Ravens during the 2009 season.

Bill Belichick: "And then Ed. I think we know about Ed. Favorite."

Tom Brady: "Ed Reed is Ed Reed. He covers up for a lot of stuff."

Belichick: "Everything he does he does at an exceptional level."

Brady: "He looks like he's guessing more than he ever has."

Belichick: "That's saying something."

It's an incredible clip, offering real insight into Brady and Belichick's relationship. They aren't discussing Reed so much as coach and quarterback but football brainiac to football brainiac. And it's apparent they recognize and respect the same level of intelligence and instinct for the game in Reed.

I'll admit, for a time I wondered about the authenticity of that moment -- after all, Belichick and Brady did use Reed's aggressiveness against him during that game. (How much would you love to know what they've said about the relentlessly duped Troy Polamalu over the years?) But there's no skepticism here about it now. As Brady essentially says later in the clip, the quarterback's eyes are always instinctively drawn to Reed upon breaking the huddle. Reed, not a certain squirrel-dancing middle linebacker of that era, is the player that had to be accounted for at all times. They knew who they were dealing with.

Four seasons later, the brutality of the sport has accelerated the toll on Reed. He is not the same player. A hip injury limited his effectiveness even as the Ravens made an improbable run to a Super Bowl victory last season, and once he got on the field for the Texans this season, the only resemblance to his former self was the name on the unfamiliar jersey.

The instincts that helped make him one of the great ballhawks in NFL history -- he has 70 interceptions and 11 defensive touchdowns, including the playoffs -- surely haven't abandoned him. But that creaky hip and his 35-year-old legs no longer carry him to where he knows he needs to be. In seven games, he had 16 tackles and did not create a single turnover.

The Patriots haven't had a spectacular track record when it comes to acquiring Belichick's presumed favorites from other teams. Chad Ochocinco was all Twitter and no production. Adalius Thomas was a phony product of playing with teammates who eased his responsibilities, among them Reed. Jason Taylor never even made it to New England, joining the Jets instead.

Maybe acquiring Reed now would be, like the player himself, a step or two late. Maybe the Patriots, having signed Adrian Wilson, another aging safety, ahead of him in the offseason is an indication that Belichick believes Reed's skills have eroded too much to help.

But maybe, given Reed's uncommon acumen for the sport, he's still capable of helping in a limited role.

He cleared waivers Wednesday afternoon, and now we wait to find out his next NFL destination. Sure, it's fair to say that everything he does he does is no longer at an exceptional level.

But even with the knowledge that he's now an old Ed Reed rather than the old Ed Reed, it's worth finding out if he can help. As the Patriots first found out by passing him up in the draft a dozen years ago, underestimating him has never been a wise thing to do.

The eight Boston pro sports champions since 2001, ranked in order of probability

  November 4, 2013 11:46 AM


Right, because the rest of the sports world doesn't find us obnoxious enough these days.

Hey, we could yowl about the four other potential championships during this run that were so close to belonging to the city and ... OK, I'll stop now.

There is an actual reason I bring this up, other than to offer a smug self-aggrandizing nod to how successful our sports teams have been the past dozen years.

(Rambler's aside: The City Hall celebration for Raymond Bourque, defenseman, Colorado Avalanche, feels like it happened 77 years ago. It was a desperate plea for a winner of our own disguised as a nice gesture.)

Anyway, the reason I bring this up: Too many among us are quick to anoint this 2013 Red Sox team as the most improbable champion of the eight who have boarded duck boats since the 2001 Patriots got the party started. One of our commemorative editions here at the Globe made such a proclamation on the cover.

Don't get me wrong -- it was a wonderful season, one we'll never forget. They did win 39 more games this year than they did during their injury- and Bobby V.-plagued 2012 season.

But the most improbable. No. Nope. No way. Second-most, OK. But No. 1 is unassailable -- the 2001 Patriots' run to victory in Super Bowl XXXVI. Someone scripted that, and he or she is a much better writer with a much better imagination for plot than yours truly.

For the sport of it -- and maybe to retroactively revel again -- here are the eight championships since 2001, ranked from most to least likely.

And don't try to argue the top spot. I mean, did you watch the Snow Bowl ...

* * *


8. 2004 Patriots

What a beast this team was. Basically, it was an updated replica of the 14-2 Super Bowl champ of a year previous plus Corey Dillon (1,635 rushing yards), rookie Vince Wilfork and a healthy Rosevelt Colvin. They won their first six games, building on the 15-game winning streak that carried over from '03, before falling at Pittsburgh in Week 8. They exacted their revenge with a 41-27 win in the AFC Championship Game, then held off the Eagles for their third Lombardi Trophy in four seasons. Man, they were stacked.

* * *


7. 2007 Red Sox

They're stuck in the middle now between a timeless 2004 champions and the 2013 squad that gave us one of the most fulfilling seasons imaginable. But don't dismiss their legacy -- the '07 Sox were a juggernaut, outscoring their opponents by 210 runs over the course of the 96-win season. Josh Beckett was a true ace, winning 20 games and dominating in the postseason, Mike Lowell hit .324 and drove in 120 runs, and there was a nice mix of players who won in 2004 (Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek) and those who would drive this year's champs (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury), with Big Papi the common thread through all three.

* * *


6. 2007-08 Celtics

In retrospect, it's easy to glance back and see them as the favorite all along. But remember, at the beginning there was skepticism about whether Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen would mesh, how Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins would be complement starters, and if there were any bench at all beyond James Posey. Garnett's inherent unselfishness went a long way toward making it work immediately -- they won their first eight games, 20 of 22, and 29 of 32.

* * *


5. 2003 Patriots

They proved a force of nature, going 14-2 and winning their last 15 games, including the postseason. The defense, led by Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, and free-agent newcomer Rodney Harrison, was the league's best, allowing just 14.9 points per game. But coming off a frustrating '02 season in which they missed the playoffs, there were mixed expectations entering the season, and genuine concerns after an opening 31-0 loss to Drew Bledsoe and the Bills.

* * *


4. 2010-11 Bruins

The memories are golden -- the brilliant postseason play of Tim Thomas and, subtly, David Krejci, the depth and regular-Joe (and regular-Patrice) camaraderie of one of the most likable teams we've ever seen across all sports -- that it's easy to forget what they had to overcome. The Bruins required three Game 7 victories to secure their first Stanley Cup since the days of yore (and Orr), and they did it with the ghastly memory of losing four straight (after taking a 3-0 lead in the series) to the Flyers the previous spring hanging over it all.

* * *


3. 2004 Red Sox

It was not improbable in the same way as this season. The Red Sox have never had, and may never have again, a roster that was as talented and charismatic as the 2003-04 Red Sox, which in my mind is a two-season single chapter of an extraordinary story of redemption and resilience. Add to that the burden of something of a championship drought -- I believe it was 86 years, but who really cares now? -- and the way that they won, with the comeback over the Yankees, because of course that's how it would happen, and nothing in Red Sox history matches this in terms of meaning and fulfillment. Was it improbable? In retrospect, no, because they were loaded with talent. But in those days, the dream still felt impossible, and the Yankees were nothing compared to that obstacle that had to be overcome.

* * *


2. 2013 Red Sox

I'm not going to say everything went right this season, because Joel Hanrahan probably doesn't see it that way when he looks at the fresh scar on his right elbow, and Andrew Miller and Andrew Bailey probably would have wished for better health as well. But almost everything went right, from the hiring of John Farrell (I'd say he was worth giving up Mike Aviles) to the seven significant free-agent signings to the reasonable health and/or improved seasons from all of the key holdovers (I still cannot believe David Ortiz remained healthy) to Koji Uehara's star turn as the club's fourth closer to the accelerated arrival of Xander Bogaerts to all of the timely hits in the postseason to ... well, to everything. Plus, bonus points for the beards. Good heavens, was this season, the whole wild thing, a good time.

* * *


1. 2001 Patriots

Still the most unlikely sports story ever come true in our neighborhood. There were plenty of similarities to this year's Red Sox tale, but on a grander scale. The Patriots' St. Louis opponent in the championship game was more fearsome than the Red Sox' St. Louis opponent. The Patriots, who added the likes of Mike Vrabel, Roman Phifer, and Antowain Smith the previous offseason, mastered the art of hoarding talented, proven, undervalued upper-midlevel free agents a dozen years before the Red Sox did. And as unlikely as so much of the Red Sox' success once seemed, there is nothing as unfathomably storybook as second-year quarterback Tom Brady's ascent in replacing perceived franchise player Drew Bledsoe. Plus, for all of the clutch plays this October, none of it matches Adam Vinatieri's winning kick in the Super Bowl. This was and is the most unexpected champion in the history of Boston sports. But hey, if other teams want to keep trying to match it, we'd all be happy to keep lining the parade route.

Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Steelers

  November 1, 2013 01:05 PM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The 6-2 Patriots, coming off a comeback victory over the Dolphins, host Joe Gilliam Terry Hanratty Terry Bradshaw Bubby Brister Kordell Stewart Ben Roethlisberger and the 2-5 Steelers. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...


1. Isaac Sopoaga: Vince Wilfork is about as close irreplaceable as a defensive lineman can be, but the Patriots have been smart and fortunate in their efforts to fill the massive hole left by his season-ending Achilles' injury. Chris Jones is on his third NFL team as a rookie, but there's no doubt he's found a home -- with 4.5 sacks, he trails only Chandler Jones among Patriots. And this week's acquisition of run-stuffer Sopoaga from the Eagles should prove a savvy move. He's a player who has been on Bill Belichick's radar since the 2004 draft, the same year the Patriots took Wilfork in Round 1.

"A pretty good fourth-round pick, I'd say,'' said Belichick Friday, suggesting the Patriots were going to choose him later that round, only to be beaten to the punch by the Niners. "If you knew what his career was going to be, he could have gone in the second -- he couldn't have gone in the first ahead of some people who were drafted in that round obviously. No, I'd say he's had a real good career. To be a fourth-round pick that's done what he's done, I'd say not too many of them have done that, right?"

Thumbnail image for sandersemmanualfinn1102.JPG2. Emmanuel Sanders: He probably would have helped, right? The Patriots signed the restricted free-agent receiver to a one-year, $2.5-million offer sheet in the offseason. The Steelers matched a few hours before the deadline, and he returned to the only organization he has known, where he's had a better than decent season, with 31 catches for 396 yards and two touchdowns. Presuming he'd have been in that class of pass catchers capable of coming in and picking up the offense quickly, he'd have probably prevented some of the growing pains that came with depending on Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson immediately. Worth remembering: Sanders is an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and Bill Belichick spoke admiringly of him this week.

3. Well, I was looking forward to watching Zoltan Mesko: The perception was that the Patriots' surprising decision to cut the well-liked punter in training camp was salary-cap related, and there was probably some truth there. But it's also more than fair halfway through the season to presume Bill Belichick just thought Ryan Allen was better. The rookie hasn't been the second coming of Ray Guy -- he's 14th in the league in net punting average (40.4), though he's put 16 punts inside the 20. But he's been much better than Mesko was in his first year with the Steelers before he was cut this week -- he was 29th in net, with a league-worst three punts inside the 20. And yes, this probably is the only time we'll ever mention the punters in this segment, at least until Guy makes that comeback.

lambertjackfinn112.JPGYEAH, DECENT DRAFT, I GUESS. BUT WHAT BECAME OF HUGH LICKISS AND OCTAVUS MORGAN, HUH? HUH!? The Steelers' 1974 draft has to be in the best one-year talent haul in the history of professional sports, right? In their first five picks, they chose four future Hall of Famers -- Lynn Swann (1st round, 21st overall), Jack Lambert (2, 46), John Stallworth (4, 82) and Mike Webster (5, 125). That quartet joined a collection of young talent that the Steelers had amassed between 1969-72 that included Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Jack Ham to form the core of the '70s Pittsburgh dynasty. Funny, the Patriots' best pick in that '74 draft was a linebacker chosen 12 picks before the Steelers took Lambert. I don't think anyone around here would gripe about the selection of tackling machine Steve Nelson, right? Heck, had he ended up in Pittsburgh, he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame himself.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK: I know, this has nothing to do with the Steelers. But if you need a real reason as a Patriots fan to loathe the Dolphins, this Jonathan Martin situation seems to be a good place to start. From the details we know, that team is apparently poisoned with the worst of jock culture.

malonemarkfinn111.JPGCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: I mean, he had to be trying to look like Magnum P.I., right? Grew the push-broom mustache, probably wore a Tigers hat, may have even referred to Louis Lipps as T.C., much to the receiver's confusion. Only possible difference? Tom Selleck had a higher completion percentage.

PREDICTION, OR GOOD THING THEY NEVER KNEW WHAT THEY HAD IN MIKE VRABEL: The Steelers' won-lost record isn't what you'd expect, but they've been too worthy a foe for the Patriots during the past decade or so to dismiss them. The defense is playing better, shutting out the Raiders in the second half last week, and they've allowed the fourth-fewest yards in the league. If Tom Brady's hand is an issue, the Patriots' offense could have a tough time getting going, especially if Steven Ridley remains underestimated by his own coaches. But the defense, with Aqib Talib and Tommy Kelly apparently expected to play, should hold down the Steelers' offense, sending the Patriots into the bye on a positive note. Patriots 20, Steelers 10

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 31, Dolphins 17. Final score: Patriots 27, Dolphins 17. Season record: 4-4.)

Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Dolphins

  October 25, 2013 11:39 AM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 8 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The 5-2 Patriots, coming off a frustrating loss at the Jets that familiarized all of us with an obscure rule, host Paul Warfield Nat Moore Duriel Harris Mark Duper Mark Clayton Mike Wallace and the 3-3 Dolphins. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...



1. Ryan Tannehill: The Dolphins quarterback's quietly respectable rookie season was overshadowed by the star turns of fellow freshmen Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, but there was enough there to expect him to further emerge as a dependable NFL starter. Tannehill got off to an encouraging start, completing 66.7 percent of his passes as the Dolphins won their first three games. But lately, as the cracks in the Dolphins' line have turned to full-blown holes, he's struggled, throwing five interceptions and completing 55.6 percent of his passes in three straight losses, including a crusher to the Bills last Sunday. Tannehill is yet to have a fond memory in Foxborough -- he was sacked seven times in a 28-0 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium last season.

2. Chandler Jones: The Dolphins have allowed a league-high 26 sacks this season. Their solution: Acquire 34-year-old Bryant McKinnie, who will totally be able to resist the temptations of South Beach. Having lost Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for the season, the Patriots need Jones to develop into a consistent, reliable force on defense. The state of the left side of the Dolphins line should provide him a great opportunity to do so.

3. Rob Gronkowski: Brady targeted him 17 times last week. And you thought you were happy to see him out there.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK Actually, it's a grievance of the last 41 years. We're almost halfway though the NFL season, and thanks to Peyton Manning's decision to go into Throat-Clutching Chipstrap-Yanking Postseason Mode during his Indianapolis homecoming last weekend, the only unbeaten team remaining in the NFL is ... the Kansas City Chiefs? Yep, the Kansas City Chiefs. It's a cute story, but it's only a matter of time before the insufferable '72 Dolphins pop up on a television near you to pop cheap champagne and pound cheaper Landshark Lager and celebrate the fall of the season's last unbeaten team. One of the smaller leftover laments from the end of the Patriots' 2007 season is the blown chance to make these guys go away once and for all.


The video runs 14 minutes and 41 seconds, which by my calculation is 6 hours 10 minutes and 9 seconds shorter than the montage of him yelling at his receivers after throwing an interception.

jensenjimfinn1025.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: Jensen, a product of the Boston University football program back when there was a Boston University football program, spent 12 years with the Dolphins after being chosen with the 291st overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft. A quarterback for the Terriers, he became a jack-of-all-trades and master of more than one for the Dolphins, making his mark (and earning the nickname "Crash") as a special-teams gunner before developing into a capable receiving threat who would end his career with 229 catches. In other words, he was everything Tim Tebow was imagined to be.

PREDICTION, OR IT'S TIME TO GET THINGS BACK TO NORMAL AROUND HERE Tom Brady has thrown for 300 yards in a game just once this season. The Patriots have surpassed 30 points just once this season. With Gronk back -- and presumably, remembering he can use both hands to catch the ball this week -- and Danny Amendola also expected to play, the Patriots' quarterback should put up his best numbers of the season against Miami's 25th-ranked pass defense, even with sore shoulder that landed him on the injury report for the first time this season. Patriots 31, Dolphins 17

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 21, Jets 6.* Final score: Jets 30, Patriots 27. Season record: 3-4.)

* -- No, the prediction wasn't made here, since I was in baseball mode all weekend. But I did make it someplace. Pinterest, probably.

Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Saints

  October 10, 2013 07:44 PM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 6 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The 4-1 Patriots, coming off a touchdown-free loss at, Cincinnati, host Billy Kilmer Archie Manning Wade Wilson John Fourcade Bobby Hebert Aaron Brooks Drew Brees and the 5-0 Saints. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...


1. Drew Brees: Well, obviously. I've always thought of Brees as just a notch below Brady and Manning among the premier quarterbacks of this era ... but you know what? He belongs with them. He does. He led the league in completion percentage every year from 2009-11. He's thrown for more than 5,000 yards three times and has led the league in passing yardage four times. He topped the NFL in touchdown passes four times in five years. And he has as many Super Bowl wins as Manning. And then there's the most notable record he owns: Had Brady thrown a touchdown pass last week against the Bengals, he'd be attempting to tie Brees's record of 54 straight games with a TD pass against Brees's team. Instead, Brady will try to make it one in a row.

2. Cameron Jordan: I don't think anyone is complaining about the Patriots' decision to select tackle Nate Solder with their first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. He's proven a worthy successor to Matt Light as the protector of Tom Brady's blind side. But If you recall, there seemed to be consensus feeling of frustration among Patriots fans that night, at least from those who A) believe Mike Mayock has nothing on their draft prep and B) have Twitter accounts and aren't afraid to use them. Jordan, a defensive end from Cal who looked the part of the pass rusher the Patriots needed at the time, and Alabama running back Mark Ingram were the two players designated to the Patriots in the first round in most mock drafts. Instead, the Pats took Solder, and traded their second first-rounder with Ingram on the board. Both ended up in New Orleans, and while Jordan has emerged as a quality pass rusher with four sacks this year, Ingram is a bit of an afterthought, averaging just 1.8 yards on 17 carries this year while dealing with a toe injury. In fact, the Patriots' fourth-round pick that year, Stevan Ridley, had more rushing yards last season than Ingram has in his career.

3. Joe Vellano/Chris Jones Well, someone has to play defensive tackle for the Patriots, and it doesn't look like Tommy Kelly will be one of them after missing three days of practice this week with a knee injury suffered against the Bengals. (Update: He's been ruled out. Anyone know where to find Ted Washington?) Saints running back Pierre Thomas is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry, but he may get his chances to gash the middle of the Patriots' defense on the occasions when the ball isn't in Brees's hands.

After watching the entertaining hagiography "Book of Manning" recently, I'm pretty much convinced that Peyton Manning's entire childhood was caught on camcorder, with clips dispersed to NFL Films at designated Archie-determined intervals throughout his career.

Oh, all right, I'll admit it: the Mannings, especially Archie and mom Olivia, seem like good and decent people.

But ... I'm still not going to admit Archie was a better quarterback than Steve Grogan. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. Both could run and throw. Both took an ungodly beating at times. Grogan played on better teams. But their numbers were remarkably similar.


Archie Manning, career passing:

G GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk
151 139 35-101-3 2011 3642 55.2 23911 125 173 67.1 396

Steve Grogan, career passing:

G GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Sk
149 135 75-60-0 1879 3593 52.3 26886 182 208 69.6 247
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2013.

Manning, rushing:

G GS Att Yds TD Y/A
151 139 384 2197 18 5.7

Grogan, rushing.

G GS Att Yds TD Y/A
149 135 445 2176 35 4.9
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/11/2013.

Pretty close, huh? The only category where the numbers aren't close is sacks -- Manning was hauled down 149 more times than Grogan in two more career games. Did the Saints field a three-man offensive line or something in those days?


Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Bengals

  October 3, 2013 06:52 PM
Welcome to Season 2, Episode 5 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The 4-0 Patriots, coming off an impressive 30-23 victory at Atlanta, head to Cincinnati to take on Homer Rice Forrest Gregg Sam Wyche David Shula Bruce Coslet Marvin Lewis and the 2-2 Bengals. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...

1. A.J. Green: The Bengals' third-year receiver is ... well, he's about as good as it gets, that's what he is. He had 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, and he's on pace for 104-1,200-12 this year. But you know how we can tell he's as respected as he is talented? When Bill Belichick draws a comparison to a past great at the position, as he did this week. His quote:


"His quickness, his ability to separate and get away from people is outstanding and his ability to go up and get the ball is very good too. Those other guys are big, strong guys that can go up and get it with good ball skills. He has that same kind of size, but I�d say it�s a different type of athleticism. He makes some really spectacular catches, like Lynn Swann-ish.

"I'd say Green is as good a pure route runner as we'll see. He's a very good pure receiver: quick off the ball, creates separation, excellent timing, judgment on the ball, good deep-ball receiver, good third down, red-area receiver."

Lynn Swann's place in the Hall of Fame may be of some debate -- he had just 336 catches in nine seasons, a number Green could surpass next season. But his status as one of the most graceful and spectacular receivers of all time is not. Maybe Green knows it, maybe he does not, but when Bill Belichick compares your knack for making incredible catches to Lynn Swann's, praise doesn't get much headier.

2. Aqib Talib: Four games, four interceptions this season, and you know what? I'll say it: He's the Patriots' best cornerback since Ty Law. Asante Samuel? No. He was a ballhawk, but tackling wasn't part of his job description, and his freelancing could be beyond detrimental to the defense. (I trust you don't require examples.) Law knew when to jump a route with the best of 'em, but he also played so physically that he's fortunate he never ran into Marvin Harrison in a dark alley. Hell, the rules were changed because of him. Talib is that same type of corner -- he can play the style the moment and matchup demand, and it's going to be fascinating to watch him deal with Green if that's what the Patriots plan to do.

3. Geno Atkins: Two things I just found out about the Bengals' relentless defensive tackle: 1) His dad was Gene Atkins, the former Saints safety. 2) The Bengals stole him in the fourth round in 2010, seven picks after the Patriots took Aaron Hernandez, and 30 picks after they chose Taylor Price.

More like a grievance from 31 years ago. Believe it or not, the Bengals -- the mostly hapless Bengals -- are a source of some lingering bitterness from my childhood. As I've mentioned here before, I was enamored with the Air Coryell Chargers as a kid. Dan Fouts, John Jefferson, the useful Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner -- man, they were one of the most exciting teams in NFL history. Yet they never made a Super Bowl. In 1979, they lost to Vernon Perry and the Houston Oilers, who, it turned out, had a copy of the Chargers playbook. The next year, the Raiders beat them by a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game. But the most frustrating of their what-could-have-been postseason losses came to the Bengals in the 1981 AFC Championship Game. The week before, the Chargers won a classic against the Dolphins in Miami in 88 degree temperatures. The next week, in Cincinnati, it was slightly less balmy -- the wind chill was minus-37. I'm going to assume now as I did then that the temperatures that day weren't particularly beneficial to a team from San Diego that had just won a grueling game in Miami. My grudge against the Bengals and their stupid weather lives on. And I'm not going to get over it, so stop saying that.

1. James Brooks: One of the unsung stars of those Air Coryell Chargers -- he had more than 2,000 total yards in '81 -- he was dealt to the Bengals before the '84 season for washed-up brute Pete Johnson. Brooks went on to run for more than 6,000 yards and gain another 3,000-plus receiving during eight seasons in Cincinnati.

2. Isaac Curtis: Elegant, effortlessly fast receiver averaged 17.1 yards per catch in his 12-year career, including 21.1 in '74.

3. David Fulcher: For a brief time in the late '80s and early '90s, the ferocious 235-pound safety did a fine imitation of vintage Ronnie Lott. Made three Pro Bowls, and was an All-Pro in '89 when he had eight interceptions.

Do you realize what a comedy jackpot it is when you're 8 years old and you open a pack of football cards to find a guy named Boobie? Thirty-five years and very little maturity later, I still have to resist giggling like Beavis and repeating "Boobie ... heh-heh ... his name is Boobie ..." every five seconds. By the way, Boobie's real name was Charles. Charles is not nearly as funny.

Lesson learned last week: Keep picking these resilient Patriots until there's a blemish in that loss column. It's not happening this week, even with Big Vince done for the season. Patriots 24, Bengals 21

(Last week's prediction: Falcons 20, Patriots 17. Final score: Patriots 30, Falcons 23. Season record: 3-1.)

No need for old reinforcements, Tom: Patriots' young receivers take right route

  September 23, 2013 07:42 AM


So far as I can tell, there's no truth to the rumor that Patriots receivers have been texting Brian Hoyer to gauge his availability in coming back to New England.

Oh, c'mon, don't click over to the 50 scariest Halloween movies gallery just yet. As cool as it was to hop over to the RedZone channel in time to see Hoyer, Tom Brady's longtime understudy who often looked capable of leading a team of his own, rally the Browns to a stirring victory, you know I'm kidding.

It just strikes me as rather amusing that the day that this interesting and completely believable item ...

... is reported happens to be the day that the Patriots' embattled young receivers show significant progress, sometimes in spite of the legendary quarterback who for once was the one who left some big plays on the field.

That's the No. 1 takeaway from Sunday's workmanlike 23-3 victory over once-and-future Big East big shot Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The young receivers, as lost as Bill Parcells's proverbial ball in tall grass at times during the first two victories over the Bills and Jets, are worth being excited about.

Kenbrell Thompkins (3 catches, 41 yards, 2 TDs) and Aaron Dobson (7 catches, 52 yards, one fourth-down conversion) were pretty close to indispensable in the Patriots' third straight victory to open the season.

What was especially encouraging is that they both showed significant progress in all of the myriad aspects of playing receiver in this offense while facing a Buccaneers defensive backfield dotted with superb talent (Darrelle Revis, Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson).

There's no doubt there will be more hiccups along the way, a step back once in a while for every couple of steps forward. That's OK; it's becoming clear Bill Belichick budgeted for this when he decided to go with the kids.

Rob Gronkowski will be back soon enough to ease the burden on everyone, Danny Amendola is refusing to be written off as an injury casualty despite an injury that makes any man shiver, Julian Edelman has become dependable, and the mix-and-match running game seems to have a worthy option for every situation. Meanwhile, the deep and talented defense continues to pick up the slack as the offense gets acclimated, and isn't that a refreshing plot twist?

With the Patriots now moving into the varsity portion of their schedule – they have the Falcons, Bengals and Saints over the next three weeks – the progress we saw from Thompkins and Dobson Sunday was imperative. And damned if they didn't offer the most encouraging confirmation yet that they are going to be a relevant part of this offense and all it accomplishes this year.

They have shown the ability to get open, even on plays that ended with their quarterback giving them the full Marino treatment. Now they're actually getting open while running the route and being in the place the rightful perfectionist of a quarterback demands, and they're holding on to the football and even picking up some yards after the catch. I'm enthused to discover what these guys will be once the calendar turns to January.

There is no doubt that they are capable of giving the Patriots much more than either Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch would. I liked Lloyd and his knack for the spectacular catch, but he was a weird bird who too often spent his Sunday afternoons looking like he was auditioning for a zombie movie. (It all makes sense now.)

Branch? What Patriots fan – or quarterback – doesn't adore the guy? He was always a right-place-at-the-right-time receiver, one who made all the plays in his prime – hell, he was the MVP of their last Super Bowl victory. But he's 34 years old now, could really run only one effective route a season ago when he had just 16 catches for 145 yards. He's a flashback, not a solution.

The Patriots don't need Deion Branch. They need the next Deion Branch, and throw in a David Givens or two as well.

No one knows this better than Brady. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he texted something approximating, "Hey, we could really use you, 84. Has Bill reached out?" to Branch, and probably checked in with the great thespian Lloyd as well.

The frustrations of the first two weeks left him longing for reliability rather than potential. So in a strange way, it was encouraging that it was Brady's spotty play (at least by his standards) that kept Thompkins and Dobson from shining even more.

On Barron's interception in the red zone – an extremely uncharacteristic gaffe for Brady – he locked in on Dobson. He also missed Thompkins wide-open down field on at least one occasion.

It was not Brady's sharpest performance by any stretch, and maybe that's one more encouraging takeaway from Sunday. The young receivers are playing better. And yet there's still room for the brilliant quarterback to play better, too.

Unconventional Preview: Patriots-Bucs

  September 19, 2013 07:58 PM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday around noon. The Patriots, coming off a tense 13-10 win over the Jets in which Tom Brady challenged Dan Marino's single-game expletives-aimed-at-receivers record, take on John McKay Leeman Bennett Sam Wyche Richard WilliamsonJon Gruden Bill Belichick-wannabe Greg Schiano and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...

Texans Patriots Football.JPEG-0004a.jpg

1. Rob Gronkowski:
Will he play? Should he play? I'm betting yes on the former, and even if he's at, oh, 87 percent, he'll obviously make an immense difference. As for the latter, the circumstances (Danny Amendola's injury, the trouble the young receivers have had holding on to the football) give me some trepidation that Gronkowski is being rushed back before he's completely ready. It's so much more important to have a healthy Gronk late in the season than to hurry him back now. I'm sure I'll feel better about it after he takes that first big hit, pops up, and does some sort of goofy "Gronk's Back!" celebration.

goldsondashonfinn920.JPG2. Dashon Goldson: Tom Brady this week described the former Niners All-Pro safety, who is in the first year of a five-year, $41.25 million contract with the Bucs, as one of his favorite players. Too bad they didn't become teammates when the Patriots had the chance. The Patriots brought in Goldson for a visit after the 2011 lockout, but he wasn't the established, fierce force then that he is now. The Patriots ended up making him an underwhelming contract offer, ultimately leading him to return to San Francisco. Old friend Greg Bedard talked to Goldson about the visit last January:

Goldson actually didn't have much of a choice. The Patriots offered Goldson a contract less than the one-year, $2 million deal he signed with the 49ers.

"Yeah," Goldson said when asked if it was a low offer. "And it was for one year, like San Francisco, so the choice was pretty easy."

Goldson said the chance to sit with Belichick for a few minutes made the trip worthwhile.

"Just the meeting alone," Goldson said. "I had a lot of respect for him, what he has done for the game of football and just giving me the opportunity to visit the organization."

Too bad the visit couldn't have last a few years longer. Goldson has a lot of similarities now to what Adrian Wilson was in his prime, and what Rodney Harrison and Lawyer Milloy were during their time as hard-hitting Patriots safeties.

3. Stevan Ridley: Threw this out on Twitter the other day in the aftermath of the stunning trade that sent second-year running back and former No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson from the Browns to the Colts:

Got a couple of dozen replies, and exactly one said Ridley. Now, I understand that. Richardson was the premium pick, the college superstar, not to mention someone who was chosen in the first couple of rounds of everyone's fantasy football draft this year. Ridley? He was a fine if unsung player at LSU, but he was a third-round pick three years ago and wasn't even the first back the Patriots chose that April, with Shane Vereen coming off the board a round earlier. And we know he puts the ball on the ground, which is a surefire way to end up with some unexpected downtime on Sunday afternoons.

Richardson has the pedigree. I'm just not sure it's so obvious that he's going to have the better career. He averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt last year, and 3.4 through two games and 31 carries so far this season. He doesn't grind for the extra yard -- that's something Ridley does very well -- and his work ethic was supposedly suspect. Ridley has his flaws -- did I mention the fumbling? -- but he is a relentless, shifty runner who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his career.

I know this: I wouldn't want the Patriots to trade a No. 1 pick for Richardson, as the Colts did. And I don't think I'd want them to trade Ridley straight up for him, either.


NFL Films was embedded with the Buccaneers during their inaugural and ultimately winless 1976 season, and the final product ended up being one of the best projects Steve Sabol and his father Ed ever put together, which is saying something. The Bucs were an overmatched mess -- they would lose their first 26 games, including all 14 in '76 -- but they were a wildly entertaining mess, thanks in large part to the wit of their exasperated coach, John McKay. Of all of the great anecdotes and scenes in these clips, I think my favorite is when they cross paths with the mighty Rams in the hallway of the stadium and look like a freshman team in awe of the varsity. Seriously, check these out if you have a spare hour in between putting together TPS reports. The humor and pathos of the '76 Bucs is NFL Films at its most brilliant.

bellrickyfinn920.JPGCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: If you missed it, Jeff Pearlman reported the hell out of this homage to Bell, a good player and better person who was dealt a cruel hand, for SB Nation recently. Bell, who died at age 29 in 1984 from heart failure caused by a horrific disease dermatomyositis, was the first pick in the 1977 draft. He was integral in the Bucs' quick emergence from laughing stock to contender in 1979, rushing for 1,263 yards as Tampa Bay charged to the NFC Championship Game. I'll always wonder how history might have been different had the Bucs taken Tony Dorsett with that first pick in '77, leaving Bell to presumably end up with a stacked Dallas team.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK, OR GET OVER YOURSELVES ALREADY: I've got two this week. The sea is angry, my friends:

1. Why is Darrelle Revis getting his own episode of "A Football Life" already? I know, he's a star player coming off a major injury who is starting fresh with a new team. That's mildly compelling in a pretty basic way. But there are dozens of players and personalities past and present who would make much more compelling subjects. Give me one on, I don't know, Ronnie Lott or Steve Young or ... hell, Ricky Bell. Anyone with an interesting back story. Revis? His story is still being told. And so far, it's not all that interesting, just a series of big plays and small gripes.

2. I'm tired of football coaches as a species. Not all of them, mind you. Just the ones who take who they are and what they do way too seriously. The self-important preeners who take a my-way-or-the-highway, this-is-war attitude about what is ultimately a dangerous, entertaining, but silly-in-it's-essence game. The Nick Sabans and Urtban Meyers and all of their tiny-emperor imitators. The ones who refuse to talk like normal human begins or make eye contact with their minions for fear of ... well, hell, I have no idea. This Greg Schiano character seems to have all of the macho, smug hubris of a successful coach, which is sort of amusing given that the Bucs have won one of their last eight games, his talented young quarterback is regressing by the Sunday, and Revis, who endured Rex Ryan, is already wary of his act.

buccobruce.jpgPREDICTION, OR IS THERE A LESS-INTIMIDATING MASCOT IN NFL HISTORY THAN BUCCO BRUCE? The answer, obviously, is no, though I know at least one of you said, "Yeah, Danny Woodhead." Not nice. Come to think of it, the Patriots offense could find a role for Woodhead and perhaps even swashbuckling ol' Bucco Bruce here given how inconsistent they have been in the early going. Tom Brady has the 31st-best completion percentage among qualified NFL quarterbacks thus far this season, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert and the Bucs' Freeman. Which is, of course, nuts. I wonder how much progress we'll see, if any, in the Patriots' aerial game this week given that Revis will be draped all over the only trustworthy receiver, Julian Edelman, who was roughly the sixth-best pass-catching option a season ago. It's going to be a grind, again, but the defense will feast on Freeman, and the Patriots will emerge with their third win.
Patriots 20, Bucs 13.

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 24, Jets 7. Final score: Patriots 13, Jets 10. Season record: 2-0.)

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Jets

  September 12, 2013 02:00 PM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs here every Friday around noon ... except for when it runs before a Thursday night game. The Patriots, who squeaked out a 23-21 victory at Buffalo in their season-opener Sunday, have a quick turnaround as they take on Lou Holtz Bruce Coslet Pete Carroll Rich Kotite Joe Walton Rex Ryan and the 1-0 Jets Thursday night. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this one underway ...

1. Stevan Ridley: Bill Belichick has no choice but to play him and play him a lot right? I mean, I suppose he could lock the door on the doghouse for another week and go with Brandon Boldin or LeGarrette Blount. But that seems counterproductive. While both are serviceable backs with specific skill sets, neither is capable of the all-around, Tony Collins-style performance Shane Vereen provided last week. Vereen is hurt. Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are doubtful. Julian Edelman is the Patriots' most dependable receiver at the moment, and dependable is a word that wasn't always attached to him. The Patriots must use their best players in Thursday night's division game, and even with his fumbling problems, which are somewhat exaggerated as it is, Stevan Ridley is irrefutably one of their best players. Unlock the doghouse, give him the football, and let's find out if the hold-on-to-the-football-or-else lesson has sunk in for him like it did for Kevin Faulk so many years ago.

2. Kenbrell Thompkins: Fourteen targets. Four catches. And alarmingly, more than a couple puzzled who-me? stares in Tom Brady's direction during the Patriots' win over the Bills. Not suggesting we're looking at Doug Gabriel Jr. here -- respected NFL observers such as Mike Mayock genuinely believe in him. But he needs to be better in his second NFL game than he was in his first, and it won't be easy with Antonio Cromartie and possibly rookie Dee Milliner defending him. Also: No more stink-eyes in Brady's direction. That's a good way to find yourself playing for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

3. Geno Smith: He was supposed to be the first quarterback chosen in the 2013 NFL Draft. Instead, it was E.J. Manuel who had that honor, going 16th overall to the Bills. Smith, who has said he thought he should have gone No. 1 overall in the entire draft, slid to the second round, where the Jets scooped him up with the 39th pick. It's going to be fascinating to watch Manuel and Smith develop -- if they develop -- over the next several seasons. But both are off to encouraging starts. Manuel had his moments of both excellence and inconsistency against the Pats, but he nearly helped pull off an unexpected victory. Smith's debut against the Bucs was similar, except that he did pull off the win. I don't expect him to be particularly effective Thursday against a Patriots defense that is going to be better than conventional wisdom expects. Manuel had it easy because the Patriots emphasized shutting down C.J. Spiller (and did it). The Patriots will focus on containing Smith and forcing mistakes. There will be more than a few.


I don't mean to punt Sanchez while he is down -- he apparently needs season-ending shoulder surgery, and who knows where his career goes from here. But I have to admit it was only recently that I realized how absurd the argument is that he deserves praise and even the starting job because he led the Jets to two AFC championship game appearances. I mean, I guess he was there with the rest of the Jets. But he didn't lead them anywhere -- if anything, he rode the coattails of a ferocious and justifiably cocky defense, a good coach in spite of himself, and a tough running game to two AFC Championship games. Had they had a quarterback during those years who was anything better than occasionally competent, the Jets' last championship might be more recent than Super Bowl III. Instead, here's how it's going to be: This clip will be remembered as the defining moment of Sanchez's career, and will be among the main visual evidence for the reporter who has to make Vince Wilfork's Hall of Fame case someday.


Best part: Pete Rozelle's pregnant pause right around the 30-second mark when he announces during the 1983 first-round that the Jets select "quarterback ... Ken O'Brien,'' then the John C. Reilly-looking guy in the crowd says he thought for sure they were getting Dan Marino. Also: Kyle Brady over Warren Sapp is good for a snort.

walkerwesleyfinn911.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD The Jets' version of Stanley Morgan in the late '70s through the '80s, Walker averaged 19 yards per catch in his 13-year career, all in the green-and-white, including a ridiculous 24.4 yards per catch on 44 receptions in '78. He came into the league in 1977 as the 33d overall choice, the same season Morgan was chosen 25th by the Patriots. Morgan had a slightly better career, with 534 catches for 10,352 yards, 67 touchdowns, and a 19.4 average during 13 years in New England before a final farewell season in Indianapolis. Walker finished with 438 catches for 8,306 yards and 71 touchdowns. But man, they were both something to behold, and Walker's degree-of-difficulty was higher given that he was legally blind in one eye and had Richard Todd throwing to him. They don't make many deep threats like these guys anymore.


I picked the Bucs to beat the Jets in our knockout pool here at Boston.com last week, something I immediately regretted for two reasons. 1) The Jets were playing at home. 2) Greg Schiano's Bucs make the Lions look heady and disciplined. Lo and behold, the Jets get a gift late-hit penalty after Bucs linebacker Lavonte David drilled quarterback Geno Smith out of bounds (and gave Pats fans Todd Collins/Kordell Stewart flashbacks), Nick Folk drilled a 48-yard field goal, and that mess of a team escapes with a 1-0 record. Last week, my reasoning wasn't rewarded, but that doesn't mean it was wrong. The Jets stink. They'll prove it tonight. Patriots 24, Jets 7

Like the rest of us, Tom Brady must be patient with Patriots' young receivers

  September 9, 2013 08:44 AM


I'll admit it if you will. When the Patriots' passing game struggled during Sunday's season-opening 23-21 escape against the Buffalo Bills -- in other words, on pretty much every possession that didn't result in a score -- I found myself wondering if going with Kenbrell Thompkins and the other kids at receiver was a mistake that should be rectified with a phone call or two early this week.

It's not necessarily that I want any Tom Brady targets of the recent past back on this football team. The end arrived for Deion Branch at the appropriate time, and there must be some valid reason Brandon Lloyd, who had an uneven but useful 74 catches and 911 receiving yards in this offense a season ago, remains out of the league as the new season begins.

But after what Wes Welker did for Denver Thursday night -- a quintessential Wes Welker performance, more or less -- and then seeing Randy Moss as, and this is still weird, a studio analyst, it was tough not to immediately long for the days when Brady's top targets not only were supremely talented, but consistently where he expected them to be on the football field.

Brady might have had such thoughts for old friends himself had he not been so tied up with the business at hand -- which, in a micro sort of way, was making sure Thompkins and Josh Boyce had a clue about where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do. The macro matter at hand, of course, was winning the dang football game, which is what Brady managed to do, completing six passes for 34 yards on the final drive to set up Stephen Gostkowski's winning field goal.

There were times when the young receivers looked like they were operating from a different playbook than Brady, let alone being on a different page. Thompkins, whose rise from undrafted free agent to starting receiver was one of the most compelling stories of training camp, caught just four of the 14 passes thrown his way.

For the first time he looked like ... well, he looked like an undrafted free agent playing his first real NFL game, that's what he looked like. Brady did nothing to hide his frustration with Thompkins's curious interpretation what his pass routes were supposed to be, especially when Thompkins froze on a broken play in the end zone midway on the drive that eventually cut the Bills' lead to 21-20.

Had Thompkins taken a step to his right, as Brady expected him to do, he'd have had his first NFL touchdown, and his preseason reputation as a playbook savant might still be intact. Instead, the pass fell to the turf, Brady slumped his shoulders and muttered, and the Patriots settled for three points instead of seven. Somewhere, Joey Galloway shivered.

I suspect there was some buyer's remorse yesterday from all of those New England-based fantasy football general managers who took Thompkins or Zach Sudfeld as a sleepah. But as frustrating as that performance was, it would be foolish to abandon him yet. He clearly has talent, and his performance in preseason could not have entirely been a mirage.

It was the first NFL game for Thompkins, and for Sudfeld and Boyce. It's a lot to handle, a boyhood dream fulfilled and a sensory assault all at once. We've all got to be patient with these guys -- injured second-rounder Aaron Dobson included -- until there is enough evidence as to whether they can play or they can't.

And that applies to the tall, frustrated, fastball-firing guy in the No. 12 jersey as well. You don't get to be Tom Brady, Great American Quarterback, without expecting perfection from yourself and everyone else. But sometimes -- oftentimes -- perfection is too much to demand. With this group, the best, most reasonable hope is rapid improvement from Sunday's uneven performances. Thursday, they better be better, and they should be better.

Besides, there were encouraging signs. It's natural and understandable to compare Danny Amendola to his predecessor Welker. But you know who he reminded me of more during his 10-catch, 104-yard performance? Troy Brown.

And not just because of the No. 80 on his jersey. His ability to contort himself and catch the ball with his arms outstretched in middle-of-the-field traffic reminded me of so many plays Brown made over the years, first for Drew Bledsoe before Brady took over.

He contributed perhaps the biggest play of the game, a 10-yard catch on third and 8 at the Bills 39 with roughly eight minutes remaining. He clearly has Brady's trust already. If he's healthy -- a relatively big if, sure -- mark him down for 100-plus catches this season.

As for the rest of 'em, I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a world in which Julian Edelman is the second-most-dependable receiver, but there he was Sunday with seven catches on nine targets for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Not a bad facsimile of a standard Welker performance, all things considered.

With such a quick turnaround before Thursday's home opener against the Jets, it might be a bit much to expect noticeable progress from Game 1 to Game 2 for Thompkins, Sudfeld, and the rest of the kids. But the progress will come, eventually and hopefully rapidly once the season begins to flow.

As tempting as it may be, there's no need to rush Rob Gronkowski back. Don't pine for Deion Branch or Brandon Lloyd, as hard as it may be to resist in the latter case. And the Aaron Hernandez Sunday-furlough jokes were in poor taste even before they got stale.

The young receivers may have been lost, but the Patriots still won. That's a formula worth enduring for now.

Don't write off Thompkins as a Taylor Price or Chad Jackson just yet. Let the new cast adjust to playing with a quarterback they grew up watching on TV. Give them a chance beyond the first real day of their NFL life.

And that especially applies to the famous quarterback himself, whose sometimes counterproductive impatience happens to be one of his own few football imperfections.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Bills

  September 7, 2013 09:53 AM

Welcome to Season 2, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that usually runs right here every Friday at noon. (Because our Patriots season preview ran Friday, this got bumped back.) The Patriots, coming off a tumultuous offseason but still among the handful of true contenders, take on Alex Van Pelt Rob Johnson J.P. Losman Trent Edwards E.J. Manuel and the new-look-yet-again Buffalo Bills. Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let's get this thing started already ...


1. E.J. Manuel: The first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft, Manuel missed most of the preseason after injuring a knee and requiring minor surgery. Even if he's not fully healthy and has never played an NFL game, the Florida State product is a better option than anything else the Bills have -- Matt Leinart failed an audition, bro, and Jeff Tuel is Jeff Tuel. Sure, the prudent thing might be to allow him to make sure he is 100 percent healthy and in command of Doug Marrone's up-tempo offense. But when you're the Bills and these are the quarterbacks who have played more than 12 games in a season for you since Tom Brady joined the Patriots ...

Games Passing
Rk Player Year GS Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate W L
1 Ryan Fitzpatrick 2012 15 306 505 60.59% 3400 24 16 83.3 6 10
2 Ryan Fitzpatrick 2011 16 353 569 62.04% 3832 24 23 79.1 5 8
3 Ryan Fitzpatrick 2010 13 255 441 57.82% 3000 23 15 81.8 4 9
4 Trent Edwards 2008 14 245 374 65.51% 2699 11 10 85.4 7 7
5 J.P. Losman 2006 16 268 429 62.47% 3051 19 14 84.9 7 9
6 Drew Bledsoe 2004 16 256 450 56.89% 2932 20 16 76.6 9 7
7 Drew Bledsoe 2003 16 274 471 58.17% 2860 11 12 73.0 6 10
8 Drew Bledsoe 2002 16 375 610 61.48% 4359 24 15 86.0 8 8
9 Alex Van Pelt 2001 8 178 307 57.98% 2056 12 11 76.4 2 6
10 Rob Johnson 2000 11 175 306 57.19% 2125 12 7 82.2 4 7
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/7/2013.

... well, you can't be faulted for wanting to see what E.J. Manuel can do as soon as possible. Jim Kelly has been retired for 17 years, you know?

2. Kenbrell Thompkins: Ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd has a sore foot and wants a trade. Stephon Gilmore, a budding star at cornerback, is expected to miss six weeks with a broken wrist. And Tom Brady is the Patriots' quarterback, as you probably know. Some young receiver is going to have a big day for the Patriots, and based on how quickly he appeared to acclimate in the preseason, the hunch here is that it is Thompkins, the talented yet undrafted rookie free agent out of Cincinnati.

3. Tommy Kelly: There seems to be a strong belief that Kelly can add something to the Patriots' defense that has been lacking in recent seasons -- an inside pass rush. In 2010-11 with the Raiders, he filled that role well, totaling 14.5 of his 34 career sacks in those two seasons. But he had just one last year in 16 games, and at age 32 it's fair to wonder exactly how much he has left. I'm actually pretty optimistic he'll help now that the stench of the Raiders has been washed away, but it would be reassuring to see him wreak a little bit of havoc alongside Vince Wilfork Sunday.


As you probably heard last week, Bills receiver Stevie Johnson offered some expert insight and evaluations of the Patriots defensive backfield, which was fine but for one problem: He thought Patrick Chung, who has moved on to be a half-step slow for the Eagles this season, still played for the Pats. As it turns out, that's not all Johnson got wrong. Here's the short list of other defensive backs Johnson still thinks play for the Patriots:

Rod McSwain

Prentice McCray

John Outlaw, which Johnson thinks is such a cool name that he immediate went out and got "John Outlaw" tattoed across his throat after hearing it.

Fred Marion

Hank Poteat

Dick Felt

[Pausing while you check to see if he's a real former Patriot.]

[He is.]

Earthwind Moreland

Tebucky Jones

Tim Fox

A second Tim Fox after the first Tim Fox hits him so hard he's seeing double.

Weirdly enough, Johnson totally knows Mike Haynes held out and was traded to the Raiders.


Unconventional preview: 2013 Patriots

  September 5, 2013 09:36 PM

Welcome to Season 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted and often nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. The Patriots open the 2013 Sunday with the usual high expectations when they take on the Buffalo Bills. We'll preview that particular game Saturday. But before we do, let's take a look at the big picture with ... well, call it an unconventional preview of the Patriots' new season. Gostkowski with the kickoff, and we're underway ...

1. Vince Wilfork Hard to believe this will be Big Vince's 10th season in New England. It seems like just yesterday some among us -- yeah, OK, me -- were whining about Bill Belichick's decision to take the University of Miami defensive tackle with the 21st pick in the first round when running backs Stephen Jackson and Kevin Jones were still on the board. Yeah, I'd say it worked out OK for the Patriots. Wilfork has been the fulcrum of the defense for years now, the planet around which everything else orbits. He's as close to irreplaceable as a defensive player can be. Not a bad career for a guy chosen one pick ahead of J.P. Losman.

2. Rob Gronkowski: Some Sundays, this core of unsung rookie receivers will look like they've been playing with Tom Brady for years. Other Sundays, they'll look like ... well, a core of rookie receivers who were in elementary school when Brady joined the Patriots. With Wes Welker in Denver, Aaron Hernandez in the Bristol County House of Correction, and Danny Amendola already having made his debut on the injury report, it's imperative that Gronk returns to good health and unstoppable form if the Patriots offense is going to operate at peak efficiency. He has a chance to be the greatest tight end who ever played. I just hope they're not rushing him back.

3. Aqib Talib: Let me tell you, it was tough to narrow this down to three. Chandler Jones, who indicated for half-a-season as a rookie that he's the pass rusher the Patriots have been looking for since Willie McGinest departed, is certainly worthy of consideration. Nate Solder has perhaps the most important duty on the team -- protecting Tom Brady's blindside, and we don't need to revisit a certain harrowing practice against the Bucs for a reminder of what can happen when he doesn't get the job done. Amendola is another option worth considering -- he needs to be Wes Welker 2.0. But the choice here is Aqib Talib, because as a genuine above-average cornerback, he allows all of the pieces to fit properly in the Patriots defensive backfield. Devin McCourty can become a ball-hawking safety know while the affably cocky Talib deals with the Stevie Johnsons and Mike Wallaces of the world.

I don't know about you guys, but I refuse to believe that the 2001 Patriots season -- the most improbably joyous journey I think most of us will ever have as sports fans -- actually happened in 2001. For one reason, the memories remain fresh. And the two most pivotal participants -- Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, obviously -- are still masterminding a prolonged run of incredible success for the Patriots. (Even if Lombardi Trophies have been hard to come by recently, what with winning a Lombardi Trophy being an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. And it's harder still to fathom that Brady, who completed his first NFL pass to, naturally, Rod Rutledge on Thanksgiving 2000 ...

... is now in his 13th season, 36 years old and searching for that elusive fourth Super Bowl title that would clinch his status as The Greatest Quarterback Ever, Including You, Joe Montana. On the surface Brady was as insanely brilliant as usual last year -- he threw 34 touchdown passes against just 8 interceptions, and his 4,827 passing yards were the second-most of his career. But ... his accuracy at times seemed to be less laser-precise than it has been before, and his 63-percent completion percentage, his lowest since 2006, would seem to suggest that he missed on a few throws he might have completed in the past. He's still playing at an elite-among-the-elite level, but he is 36, and most legendary quarterbacks have shown dents in the armor at a much younger age.

Here is the complete list of quarterbacks who have thrown for at least 3,500 yards and 27 touchdowns in a season at age 35 or older:

Rk Player Year Age Tm Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate
1 Peyton Manning 2012 36 DEN 400 583 68.61% 4659 37 11 105.8
2 Steve Young* 1998 37 SFO 322 517 62.28% 4170 36 12 101.1
3 Tom Brady 2012 35 NWE 401 637 62.95% 4827 34 8 98.7
4 Randall Cunningham 1998 35 MIN 259 425 60.94% 3704 34 10 106.0
5 Brett Favre 2009 40 MIN 363 531 68.36% 4202 33 7 107.2
6 Warren Moon* 1995 39 MIN 377 606 62.21% 4228 33 14 91.5
7 Brett Favre 2004 35 GNB 346 540 64.07% 4088 30 17 92.4
8 Kurt Warner 2008 37 ARI 401 598 67.06% 4583 30 14 96.9
9 Brett Favre 2007 38 GNB 356 535 66.54% 4155 28 15 95.7
10 John Elway* 1997 37 DEN 280 502 55.78% 3635 27 11 87.5
11 Rich Gannon 2001 36 OAK 361 549 65.76% 3828 27 9 95.5
12 Roger Staubach* 1979 37 DAL 267 461 57.92% 3586 27 11 92.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/6/2013.

I'm not suggesting you should brace yourself for the beginning of a subtle decline -- hell, maybe he will play this way at 40. I'm just offering a friendly reminder to enjoy it, because we'll never see anything like Tom Brady's prolonged, incredible heyday ever again.


Tim Tebow's fate, the Aaron Hernandez story, and 10 other Patriots thoughts

  August 29, 2013 09:58 AM


1. All right, third-string things first: I'm convinced the Patriots already know what they're going to do with Tim Tebow, and playing tonight (or not playing next week) really doesn't matter in the ultimate evaluation. And I do think they keep him -- Josh McDaniels did spend a first-round pick on him just three years ago, so there's something in that goofy skill-set that the Patriots offensive coordinator must believe is more than salvageable.

2. I'm all-in on Kenbrell Thompkins as a legitimate season-long contributor. I want to buy in on Zack Sudfeld as a competent Gronk replacement in the short-term, but he has to protect the ball better. Aaron Dobson? He'll hit on some spectacular catches and deep throws, but if he doesn't stop dropping passes and running into fellow receivers on routes, he's going to get that look -- I call it the Joey Galloway Hate Laser -- from Tom Brady if he isn't careful.

3. I believe the Patriots will have a top-10 defense this year. The schedule looks tough, but you know how that perception changes over the course of a season. They were ninth-best in the league in points allowed last year (20.7 per game) but just 25th in total yards (373.2). With Aqib Talib for a full season, Devin McCourty at safety, the logical expectation of Year 2 improvement from Chandler Jones and Donte' Hightower, wild-card Jamie Collins, and not-so-old standbys Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, and Jerod Mayo, this has the makings of their best defense in years.

4. Curious to see whether Tommy Kelly can add a legitimate and consistent inside pass-rush this season. He's getting good reviews, but I'm naturally skeptical of anyone with a recent Raiders affiliation.

5. But I'd take a reunion with this ex-Raider: Wish there were a way to bring Richard Seymour back here. He's 33, has creaky knees and is not what he once was, but I could see him being very valuable and versatile role player on a contending team. He's still a free agent, though, apparently because he still wants to be paid for what he was, not what he is.

6. A reader asked at the beginning of camp to name an established player within reason who might be a surprise cut. I suggested Adrian Wilson, because of age and salary and the possibility that he's lost a few feet beyond a step. But I didn't really expect him to be on the bubble. Now? I think I'd be surprised if he sticks. He just doesn't look like he can cover any ground in space anymore.

7. Thought my colleague Ben Volin did a great job dissecting Rolling Stone's Aaron Hernandez story here. It's common sense to wonder if Bill Belichick knew more about Hernandez than he's let on; he knows more about every player in that locker room than he lets on. But Rolling Stone was quick to put the burden on him with fairly thin details. I'm more interested in knowing what Urban Meyer knew about him, and I'm half-convinced Hernandez thinks Meyer is going to show up and make all of this go away any day now.

8. I'd be fine with keeping Danny Amendola out of Thursday's preseason finale against the Giants. His chemistry with Brady is already there, and like Randy Moss during the '07 preseason, it's better to keep him behind glass and make sure he's healthy for when the games actually matter.

9. Ras-IR Dowling, we hardly knew ya. Really. It says here you played nine games, but damned if I can even remember what number you were. It's too bad you couldn't stay on the field, though. Rumor was you could play before the parts started falling off.

10. The won/lost record for this team? All right, I'll play -- 13-3. The losses come at Atlanta, at Baltimore, and home against Denver, which is avenged in the AFC Championship Game. Optimistic? Yep.

11. Very impressed with how quickly Bob Socci and Scott Zolak have meshed on the Patriots radio broadcasts. Socci doesn't have Gil Santos's pipes -- who does? -- but his voice is pleasant and professional, and he tells you everything you need to know while still leaving room for Zolak to add his insights.

12. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:


Kind of amazing that Sam Bam remains the Patriots' all-time leading rusher 31 years after his last game with the team. With 3-4 more seasons like his last one, Stevan Ridley could actually catch him -- Cunningham ran for 5,443 yards, a low total for a franchise leader. Ridley is already at 1,704 just two years into his career.

Tom Brady grabs his leg, and it all stops

  August 14, 2013 03:26 PM

When Tom Brady got hurt -- when Tom Brady was injured -- a half a quarter into the 2008 season, we knew. We knew right away.

The first jarring clue that something had gone wrong was the scream heard on the CBS broadcast as the camera focused on the football floating downfield to Randy Moss.

You hear a lot of things during an NFL broadcast -- pads crashing together, fans cheering, analysts sharing insights and spouting inanities.

But screaming -- that's fairly unfamiliar unless Gus Johnson is involved.

The replay, of course, showed us who was screaming and why, and it was nothing a Patriots fan ever wanted to see again. Hell, it was nothing a Patriots fan wanted to see once.

Bernard Pollard, then an obscure Chiefs safety but one who would make a habit of being on the scene when things went wrong for the Patriots, plunged his helmet into Brady's left knee.

The replay showed a knee bent at an angle that doesn't happen without destruction. Even as he walked off the field, assisted by trainers, then down the stairs to the locker room, we knew. We wouldn't see him for a while, perhaps for the rest of the season. Which is exactly how it played out. The anticipated follow-up season to 2007's joy/disaster was set up to be a consolation prize before it even began.

It's a reminder why the NFL is my least-favorite pro sport. One injury can change everything to a degree that it's impossible to overcome.

I bring this up now, reluctantly, because ... because we're all sitting here waiting to exhale, that's why. You've heard the news, staying atop of each update as the details trickle out with your fingers crossed and unwanted visions of Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow playing meaningful snaps clouding your head.

Brady left practice against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with an apparent but thus far vague injury to his left leg. He went down, clutched his knee, returned, then disappeared.

At first, it didn't sound particularly alarming other than the fact that it happened to Tom Brady, who is as irreplaceable as irreplaceable gets across the entire spectrum of professional sports.

He grabbed his left leg after an incomplete pass to Aaron Dobson. Few saw what happened to Brady because they were doing what we did during the opener five years ago, what we all do watching football -- keeping an eye on the ball.

Brady left the field, returned to complete three passes, then conferred with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels before heading to the practice bubble, presumably to get the leg checked out.

I don't know what you thought upon hearing the first trickle of news, but here's what I thought: He threw three more passes. It can't be that bad. He's just being cautious. Brady will be fine.

Then we saw the video, captured by fan Chad Kopcak, and the potential exhale morphed into a oh-bleep gasp:

We don't know how badly Tom Brady is injured. Maybe he's just hurt, and today's events will be forgotten in a week's time. But watching him rock back and forth on the ground, clutching his knee after Nate Solder was bullrushed ... well, here's hoping for the best. At least Bernard Pollard is nowhere to be found.

Mobile users unable to see the video, click here.

Patriots formally announce changes to preseason broadcasts

  July 30, 2013 05:00 PM

The Patriots formally announced Tuesday their plans to change their preseason broadcasts to a non-traditional, less-formal format beginning with the Aug. 9 opener against the Eagles.

As previously reported in my Globe media column in June, Ch. 4 reporter Dan Roche and former Patriots tight end Christian Fauria will serve as the in-booth hosts of the revamped broadcast.

Rather than providing traditional down-and-distance play by play, particularly when the starters are out of the game, they will instead lead more of an informal discussion about players, issues, and other points worthy of analysis.

Former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham -- a budding star as an analyst -- will provide input from the sideline. Steve Burton will serve as the more conventional sideline reporter.

Here is what Kraft Sports Productions executive producer Matt Smith told me in June about his plans for the telecast:

“[The preseason broadcasts will be] a talk-radio-type program without the yelling and the screaming and the agenda-driven stuff. We’re looking at the preseason games as an opportunity to try something different. Make it more conversational, make it more analytical and insightful.

“How long are the starters in there for? The first game, a couple of series. The fourth game, a couple of series. When they’re in, we’re going to cover the game in a very traditional way. But that’s a small portion of the game. In the fourth quarter, it can get pretty stale. A preseason game is the perfect outlet to try it.’’

Patriots Football Weekly reporters Paul Perillo and Andy Hart will also be a part of the telecast, situated in a separate studio where they will offer observations throughout the game and will engage viewers via social media.

My not-up-for-debate list of the top 25 Boston athletes of the past 25 years

  July 30, 2013 06:00 AM


OK, I suppose it is up for debate. What fun would it be without a good argument?

You may have heard a couple of hosts on WEEI talking about this Monday. The Metro polled a few members of the local media, asking them to rank the top 25 Boston athletes of the past 25 years.

Great idea. Irresistible, actually.

I wasn't one of those polled, but you know I'm going to piggyback on this tremendous idea, which is way tougher than it seems on first glance.

You quickly realize in culling the list down to 25 great players who spent at least three years here (the Metro's guideline) how fortunate we have been around here to watch a wide variety of extraordinary athletes over that time.

So with apologies to Troy Brown, Zdeno Chara, Randy Moss, Robert Parish, Willie McGinest, Ben Coates and more very honorable mentions, here's my list of the top 25 from the four primary sports. Hit me with yours in the comments or on the Twitter address listed below:

* * *

25. Reggie Lewis
Because he's on my mind during this sad anniversary, and I don't want the memories to slip away.

martincurtisfinn729.JPG24. Curtis Martin
It was just three years before Bill Parcells stole him away. But the Patriots have never had a better running back save for maybe Corey Dillon in 2004. And they've never had one who was more fun to watch. If you want to put Troy Brown in this spot, I'm not going to argue with you.

23. Patrice Bergeron
If not for Jonathan Toews, he might be considered the best all-around forward in hockey. Scored a pair of goals in a clinching seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals on the road while doing pretty much everything else that night other than playing goalie. If you want to put Zdeno Chara in this spot, I'm not going to argue with you.

22. Drew Bledsoe
The second-best quarterback in franchise history gave way to the best. No shame in that. And he earned that ring. If you want to put Michael Bishop in this spot, I .. I am going to argue with you.

21. Tim Thomas
I can't recall a goalie ever playing better than he did during the Cup run three years ago. Loses points for bailing out on his team and the city, but, hey, Tuukka.

20. Wade Boggs
A force at the plate – he hit .366 with a .476 on-base percentage in '88 – and a Delta Force away from it.

garciaparranomarfinn729.JPG19. Nomar Garciaparra
Yeah, it ended badly. But from 1997-99, maybe longer, he was as beloved as Dustin Pedroia is now, played as hard, and was much more productive.

18. Tedy Bruschi
An emotional leader and a player who got the most out of his ability. Gotta admit, though, it was tempting to bump him for Mike Vrabel, a tremendous linebacker who also had eight regular-season receiving touchdowns, or as many as Ron Burton, Jabar Gaffney, and Michael Timpson.

17. Richard Seymour
When healthy, the most dominating defensive player the Patriots have had during the Belichick Era. Probably a better wide receiver than Koren Robinson and David Terrell, too.

16. Wes Welker
You've got a tough act to follow, Danny Amendola.

15. Dustin Pedroia
The rare case where fans appreciate what they have in the player, and the player appreciates what he has in the fans.

14. Curt Schilling
Came here to end an 86-year-old curse. Damned if he didn't do just that.

13. Roger Clemens
Clemens won his second of seven Cy Young awards in 1991, going 18-10 with a 2.62 ERA and 241 strikeouts. And you know what? He should have won in 1990, but the A's Bob Welch was rewarded for his 27 wins. And he should have won in 1992 – he led the AL, including hitters, in bWAR – but Dennis Eckersley won the MVP and Cy Young Award during his 80-inning, 51-save season. Clemens was pretty much excellent from 1988-95 with the Sox. Why is he 13th? For failing geography. Bet he still doesn't know Toronto is nowhere near Texas.

12. Kevin Garnett
Because anything was possible, including Banner 17.

lawtyfinn729.JPG11. Ty Law
I'm not sure a big-game cornerback is an actual thing, but if it is, I'm crediting Law as one of the inventors. Peyton Manning should be his Hall of Fame presenter – and that's his joke, not mine.

10. Cam Neely
Had 106 goals in 145 games from 1989-91, then scored 50 in 49 games with one decent leg in 1993-94. Could have ranked him as high as sixth,

9. Manny Ramirez
Insanely productive, insanely fun, and occasionally, just plain insane. Wish he was playing in Pawtucket right now, with the threat/possibility of a recall to Boston.

8. David Ortiz
Because he belongs back-to-back with Manny. Because he's actually been here longer than Manny. Because he has 89 more home runs and 287 more RBIs than Manny with the Red Sox. Because it seems too many are beginning to forget just how often he delivered when the moment demanded it, even as he continues to be a force today.

mchalekevinfinn729.JPG7. Kevin McHale
Can you imagine what Dwight Howard could be if absorbs 5 percent of what McHale knows about post play?

6. Adam Vinatieri
If one of the greatest clutch players in the history of the NFL doesn't get into Canton on the first try, there should be a hostile takeover of that room full of pretentious yeah-but-he's-just-a-kicker voters. Probably overdue, actually. Where's my pitchfork ...

5. Paul Pierce
He evolved into the quintessential Boston athlete – tough, confident, crafty, competitive as hell, and ultimately, a champion.

bourqueray729finn.jpg4. Ray Bourque
Won five Norris Trophies, had four seasons of at least 90 points, led the league in shots three times, played in two Cup Finals with the Bruins, but won his only Cup with the Avalanche. Can't imagine anyone coming closer to meeting the impossible standard for Bruins defensemen set by Bobby Orr.

3. Larry Bird
This was supposed to be a quick column. Should have known better. I spent about 20 minutes considering and reconsidering the top three, and I'm still not sure I have it right. If you want to put Larry Legend first, I'm not going to argue. I have him third because the two players ahead of him have had their extraordinary primes in the past 25 years; Bird peaked a little sooner, and it's still hard to fathom that his career spanned just 13 seasons. I don't want to talk about it anymore. Let's just watch some highlights, featuring music by The Outfield!

2. Pedro Martinez
A perfect combination of talent, charisma, and competitiveness. I still miss watching him pitch, and if you were here for the electric heyday, I know I don't have to explain why to you.

1. Tom Brady
What I've never understood is why some see two Super Bowl losses as a mark against his argument as the greatest quarterback of all-time. In both games, the defense gave up a lead – and didn't leave him enough time for a miracle – in the final minutes. Seems to me being the second-best team is a better claim to greatness than going unbeaten in the Super Bowl but being one-and-done in the playoffs multiple times. Either way, savor the brilliance. He's 36, and it's going to last, oh, only five more years, right? Don't bet against him.

Follow Chad Finn on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn

Is too much being asked of Tom Brady?

  July 26, 2013 10:37 AM


Want to hear something stupid?

(The correct answer is not, "Sort of expect to under this byline.")

Anyway, something stupid. Really stupid, and petty, and yet kind of predictable.

On pro-football-reference.com's Fan EloRater, which allows fans to vote on which of two statistically similar players are better, with the end-goal being a ranked list of the best players in NFL history, Tom Brady comes in at ... 205.

Right – 205. Two-hundred-and-five. Right there between Jack Pardee and Rosey Brown.

And that's not the shadiest aspect. Among offensive players, he's 97th. One spot behind this guy:

Bledsoe is the second-best quarterback in franchise history. But the only time he should rate ahead of Brady in anything related to football is when the Patriots all-time quarterbacks are listed by jersey number.

I know, take it for what it's worth. It's an Envy Tax – fans voting against the guy with the great winning percentage on the football field and an even better one in life.

Voting for say, Bob Griese (No. 72 among offensive players) in a matchup with Brady is pretty much the only way Dolphins fans can beat him. It's their own little irrelevant game of attempted comeuppance.

You do get the sense that some believe beyond their usual unfulfilled daydreams that Brady could get some comeuppance on the field this year. Wes Welker is in Denver. Brandon Lloyd is in free-agent limbo. Aaron Hernandez is in a cell. And Rob Gronkowski's return date from arm and back surgeries is still uncertain.

Include running back Danny Woodhead, who signed as a free agent with the Chargers, and that means the top five Patriots receivers from 2012 are either absent or elsewhere as training camp begins Friday.

And as strange as it seems, especially about a quarterback who threw for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns (against just 8 interceptions) last season, the time clock isn't in his favor. Brady turns 36 on August 3, and – this is pretty hard to fathom – he's beginning his 14th season. The Snow Bowl and all that followed cannot be so long ago. But it is.

I sometimes wonder whether the Patriots coaching staff has seen anything resembling slight regression – noticeable to them, the experts, but not to us – in Brady's game. His completion percentage last season (63.0) was damn good – and yet it was his worst since 2006, when his top two receivers in terms of yardage were Reche Caldwell and Ben Watson.

With all of the departures and the loss of Hernandez, whose versatility was essential in getting favorable matchups, it's fair to wonder whether this is the least-talented offense at the skill positions since '06.

It may be, but the strong belief here is that it will be much better in the long run. Gronkowski should be back early enough, Stevan Ridley is capable of leading an effective running game in Gronk's absence, Danny Amendola is a younger, productive Welker facsimile, and count me among those expecting big things from Shane Vereen in Year 3.

There is plenty of talent here. Some of it is in limbo, and some is unfamiliar, and it certainly would help if Brady connects with Aaron Dobson in a way that he hasn't with a rookie receiver since Deion Branch in '02. But there's talent. They're not going to be relying on Doug Gabriel, you know?

As for that headline, I think it's the wrong question, which is weird since I wrote the thing. Given that Brady has averaged 375 completions, 36 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and 4,654 passing yards over the past three seasons, a slight drop-off leaves him at merely exceptional.

I mean, look at those last three seasons:

Year Age GS QBrec Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Rate QBR
2010*+ 33 16 14-2-0 324 492 65.9 3900 36 7.3 4 0.8 111.0 76.83
2011* 34 16 13-3-0 401 611 65.6 5235 39 6.4 12 2.0 105.6 72.74
2012* 35 16 12-4-0 401 637 63.0 4827 34 5.3 8 1.3 98.7 77.05
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/26/2013.

The real question is this: Can too much be asked of him? Even at 36 (soon) and in his 14th season (seriously, where has the time gone?), there's no real reason to expect anything to change. It will someday. But right now and still, Tom Brady, the so-called 205th-best player of all-time, remains as great as any quarterback ever was.

Amid questions, Tom Brady stands as a reminder of what's right with the Patriots

  July 25, 2013 12:06 PM


Seventeen minutes into Tom Brady's meeting with reporters Thursday morning in the corner of a practice-field end zone Aaron Hernandez once knew well, Patriots public relations director Stacey James provided the equivalent of a two-minute warning:

"Last question, guys.''

Given the circumstances, the warning was necessary. The inquiries could have gone on all day. While Brady commented to Sports Illustrated's Peter King earlier in the week regarding Hernandez's arrest on a murder charge last month, further elaboration from the on-field leader of the Patriots was inevitable and necessary on the day players reported to training camp.

Brady handled it all with his affable, polished grace and, just as coach Bill Belichick had done the day before, immediately acknowledged the sadness that accompanies the loss of any life.

"It's a terrible thing that happened," Brady said. "In the city of Boston this year with what happened at the marathon, these are very terrible things you wish never happened to anybody. There's a very human, compassionate element that we all have, and when it's someone that has been on our team, it's a very sad thing. Hopefully nothing like this happens ever again."

When asked specifically the emotions he felt when Hernandez, his teammate of three seasons, was charged in the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd, Brady eluded specifics.

"Those feelings were just personal, you know,'' he said. "I'm sure there were probably like everyone else's. It was six weeks ago so it's hard to remember the exact emotion I felt but it's probably what everyone else here felt."

Sometimes, what Brady didn't say spoke louder than what he did.

How well do you think you knew Aaron?, he was asked.


"Don't think it matters at this point."

Have you spoken to him or had any communication with him?

[Shorter pause.]

"Stacey told me ... that's a good question but I'm not supposed to comment on any of those things."

Was Aaron part of the group of guys you trusted?

"I'm really not supposed to comment on Aaron. I wish I could."

As it turned out, It was the last question that elicited Brady's most thoughtful answer of the day:

Does a situation like this make you realize that as well as you think you know someone, sometimes you really don't?

"We all have relationships, and I'm not sure how you quantify those things,'' Brady said. "You have family members, you have friends, you have kids, even if you don't have kids, you try to do the best you can do. Everybody is ultimately responsible for their own decision-making, for the words that come out of your mouth, for the actions you take part in.

"I'm certainly accountable to a lot of people here, my family and to the community because I understand the role model I am. I try to go out and represent this organization the best way I know how."

In one sense, that was the purpose Thursday morning: to provide a reminder that Aaron Hernandez being hauled out of his mansion in handcuffs is not a fair image of the Patriots.

Removing Hernandez from a team's history is not as simple as having a jersey-buyback or taking down a photo or scrubbing his name off a brick. Every time we see him now, he is the image of cold-eyed, stone-faced defiance.

Thursday's gathering was small step toward escaping that association.

Among the players, Brady, who is entering -- yes, it's been this long already -- his 14th season, is undeniably the face of the franchise, one of the faces of the entire league.

He was joined on the practice field by the three returning defensive captains -- Vince Wilford, Jerod Mayo, and Devin McCourty, three players widely respected for their professionalism. They are that trustworthy ideal, for the fans, the franchise, and the quarterback himself.

"Look, you trust in your other teammates and you trust them to do their job so that you can do your job,'' he said. "The best teammates that I've ever had, guys like Wes [Welker] or Deion Branch, I never had to worry about. That allowed me to be able to do my job. I never have to worry about Vince, I never to worry about Jerod, I never have to worry about Devin [McCourty] or Matthew Slater, what their level of preparation is going to be. What that allows me to do is free my mental burden so I can focus 100 percent on what I have to do."

He'll be 36 on Aug. 3, nine years removed from the last time he hoisted a Lombardi Trophy, and at this point you almost expect him to spit out the old Danny Glover line from the "Lethal Weapon'' franchise: I don't need this ....

But cynicism isn't Brady's thing.

"That's what I appreciate about guys like that,'' he continues. "They allow me to be the best that I can be. When they can count on me, that's what makes a great team, is when guys can count on each other."

From this vantage point, a clear and often cloudless one, the Patriot Way is an ownership brand-building talking point and a term some in the media fall back on as a snarky punch-line whenever something goes wrong.

It's a term I've never heard Belichick, a man more interested in putting together a great football team than adhering to a vaguely-defined slogan, use.

I've never heard Brady mention it, either. But he was specifically asked if he believes in the Patriot Way, his affirmative reply provided his personal definition.

"You mean to win football games and represent well in the community? No question."

Maybe Brady has it right. Or maybe this is what the Patriots Way is now -- a micro philosophy that emphasizes the best the franchise has to offer, rather than a macro philosophy that implies everything associated with the franchise is admirable and unassailable.

In reintroducing us to Brady and Mayo and McCourty and Wilfork on the first official day of their new season, the Patriots certainly supplied the best the franchise has to offer.

And in doing so, they also did their best to distance themselves, measured word by measured word, from the worst of humankind.

Bill Belichick stands tall on 'sad day'

  July 24, 2013 02:16 PM


He said the name once, the eighth and ninth words in an 878-word statement, and then never again.

Come to think of it, it would be an upset if Bill Belichick ever says tight end-turned-alleged murderer Aaron Hernandez's name in front of a notepad or television camera for as long as he remains head coach of the New England Patriots.

And that's more than fine.

Choosing to not mention Hernandez by name more than a single time is his prerogative. And such obvious distancing from the accused is undoubtedly the advice of the team of lawyers who surely vetted and vetted again the Patriots coach's first public comments on Hernandez since his June 26 arrest on first-degree murder charges in the death of 27-year-old Odin Lloyd.

Besides, there's little left to be said.

Certainly not about the ex-player who now resides in a 70 square-foot cell that is smaller than the ridiculous doghouse behind his 7,000 square-foot mansion, an ex-player whose fall from stardom to something apparently utterly sinister grows more unfathomable by the day.

But more so, there's little left to be said because Belichick rose to the occasion Wednesday.

During a press conference that few in the media thought would happen and fewer still believed would provide actual substance, he revealed a feeling, affected person behind the usual unflinching, cliche-grunting persona.

Belichick did something that we've rarely experienced since he arrived here in 2000: He told us everything he could.

"I'm going to address the situation involving Aaron Hernandez today. I felt that it was important enough to do that prior to the start of camp," said Belichick in his opening statement.

"It's a sad day, it's really a sad day on so many levels. Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim and I extend my sympathy to everyone who's been impacted. A young man lost his life and his family has suffered a tragic loss, and there's no way to understate that."

That – an acknowledgement of the young life lost – was expected. So much of what followed was not. During his reading of the statement and brief question-and-answer session, which all told took 22 minutes, he was vaguely candid, or maybe it's candidly vague, but he still offered more insight than he usually does for the most mundane of football inquiries.

It was the best he could do, and it was more than enough.

He explained that he was out of the country when Hernandez was arrested and said he was in complete agreement with the decision to release him.

"Having someone in your organization that's involved in a murder investigation is a terrible thing,'' he said, and at one point the whole strange juxtaposition was captured by Comcast SportsNet New England on a split-screen.

On the left, there was Belichick, opening up. On the right, Hernandez, being led into an Attleboro courtroom for his probable cause hearing.

"Overall, I'm proud of the hundreds of players that have come through this program,'' Belichick said. "I'm personally disappointed and hurt in a situation like this."

Belichick said his mission statement during his 14 seasons as Patriots coach is to put together "a winning team that is a pillar of the community.''

He explained with eloquence the lengths the Patriots go to in order to learn as much about a potential draft pick or acquisition before they bring him to Foxborough.

"Our players are generally highly motivated and gifted athletes, they come from very different backgrounds,'' he said. "They've met many challenges along the way, and have done things to get here. Sometimes they've made bad or immature decisions, but we try to look at every single situation on a case-by-case basis and try to do what's best for the football team and what's best for the franchise. Most of those decisions have worked out, but some don't."

There was just one time when I found myself skeptical of Belichick's words. Maybe you did too. It was when he said this: "I'm not trying to make this story disappear.''

With the Patriots on the brink of official preparation for a new season, there's nothing more he'd prefer.

Perhaps Belichick's approach Wednesday does help the team begin to move on. It certainly should limit the questions about Hernandez going forward. There was much debate among media members – who care so much more about these sort of things than do the fans – about whether Belichick would and should decide to address the situation.

Maybe you were fortunate enough to tune out the brunt of it. I wasn't so lucky.

For a brief moment during a debate-turned-shouting-match on Comcast SportsNet New England Tuesday night, it appeared as though Lou Merloni would have to pull apart Kirk Minihane and Gary Tanguay like an elementary school gym teacher intervening in a fistfight at recess.

It got to be a little much. I'm not one who believed Belichick was obligated to speak. But I wanted him to, for the very reason that we ended up glad that he did. The honesty and relative insight felt strangely cathartic. We know how it affected him, too. Bill Belichick told us.

Patriots right to cut Aaron Hernandez

  June 26, 2013 10:46 AM

This isn't about the end of a Patriots career, but the end of a life.

Maybe you don't need the reminder. I'm not ashamed to admit I have at occasional points during this stunning Aaron Hernandez saga.

The tragedy is not that an incredibly gifted 23-year-old football player has, perhaps for the time being, perhaps forever, thrown his life of accolades and riches away for -- well, for what, exactly?

Misplaced loyalties to old friends, or something much more sinister?

The tragedy is that Odin Lloyd, 27-years-old, a brother, son, and friend, met his violent demise. Whether he was the victim of circumstance, poor choices, or something else, no man deserves to die by multiple gunshot wounds at the hand of another.

I'll remind myself of that even as the Hernandez story -- tragic, sad, surreal, and only just beginning with his arrest this morning at his North Attleboro home -- burrows into the national consciousness and we hear less and less about the victim with each passing day.

As someone who occasionally wonders if there's hypocrisy in the Patriots Way philosophy, I must give the Patriots kudos for acknowledging that there's more to this than just the family business of football.

Because Hernandez is such a valuable football player -- two weeks ago it appeared, with the absence of Rob Gronkowski, that the offense would be framed around him during the season's first Sundays -- it would have been understandable if they played the due process card.

They wouldn't be the first to do so with an essential player. The Ravens waited out Ray Lewis's court process after his arrest in connection with a double murder in 2000. Look for him on an NFL studio set this fall.

Instead, Hernandez's release was announced within the hour after his arrest. The wording was perfect, thoughtful and precise:

“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

It also left you wondering how much they know that we don't. The answers can't keep pace with the questions. What has he done that's yet to be discovered or revealed? Have they ever suspected that he was capable of something like this? What do they know about that bizarre Florida shooting? Has something changed in his life recently that changed him?

Or is this a case of warped loyalty to childhood friends who are no friends at all?

Would he have been better off being drafted by, say, the San Diego Chargers than the Patriots, so close to his Bristol, Connecticut youth?

It's impossible to avoid getting caught up in the conjecture and what-ifs. What we do know for sure also happens to be the least-important information in the story, albeit information that matters in our culture: losing Hernandez will have a major effect on the Patriots.

A month ago, wasn't a surer thing on the roster to be back, save for Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, and another cornerstone or two. He is as versatile and widely talented as any offensive player the Patriots have had in recent memory.

His ability to play multiple positions well -- and grasp the offense -- was crucial in the Patriots' no-huddle, high-octane offense.

After just three NFL seasons, he was already 23d on the franchise list for receptions (175). He had 18 receiving touchdowns, three more than Kevin Faulk, four fewer than Terry Glenn. His best season was 2011, when he made 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games.

Now, the Patriots' leading returning receiver is Julian Edelman, who had 21 catches for 235 yards last season. Tom Brady must he having Doug Gabriel flashbacks right now.

But how they fill in the gaps is a story for September.

One life has been lost. A promising football career has been wasted.

Praise to the Patriots for recognizing the former is so much more important than the latter.

Patriots should take a look at Tim Tebow

  April 29, 2013 10:43 AM


Well, suddenly I can think of someone who'd be ideal to take Gronk's spot on the extra-point blocking unit ...

My apologies for contributing to the inevitable Tim Tebow-to-the-Patriots speculation/saturation that's sure to ensue now that the scatter-armed, charismatic semi-quarterback has been released by the Jets.

It's just that to some small degree and with a couple of caveats, I do agree with the sentiment that he makes some sense for the Patriots.

And not just because any time you can acquire an inconsistent relentlessly over-hyped quarterback/occasional ball-carrier/punt-protection specialist/lone receiver Mark Sanchez actually hits, you have to do it.

mrichaljuanfinn427.pngIf you saw him at Florida -- and how could you miss him? -- you know Tebow has a superb collection of football skills. Unfortunately, they're not the set of skills that translate to success (or even usefulness) in the ultra-specialized National Football League. He has a strong arm, but he winds up like a southpaw Juan Marichal (see figure 1) and struggles to throw strikes. He runs relentlessly, but who knows if he could actually be a running back at that level. He looks the part of a tight end, but can he catch better than, say, Lovett Purnell in 1998?

He has talent. Just not the right talent, at least in a league in which skills for particular positions are generally rigidly defined.

It will require an open-minded and innovative thinker to pry real value out of Tebow -- and that's where the Patriots come in. They have a fondness for extraordinarily versatile players (Aaron Hernandez) and football misfits (Matt Slater, Nate Ebner), and Tebow fits both profiles.

And Bill Belichick has always thrown praise Tebow's way. Here is what he said about him in April 2010, prior to the draft and his selection with the 25th pick in 2010 by Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos:

"I think he's got real good ability. I don't think there's any question about that. He's the second- or third-leading passer in SEC history, so his record speaks for itself. He's an outstanding football player and he's an outstanding person. I've met and talked to Tim on a number of occasions. Obviously, we didn't talk about pro football when he was still in college, but now that he's eligible for the draft, we talked to him about being a professional quarterback."

I'll always wonder whether Belichick's open appreciation for Tebow was entirely genuine (you can see Belichick admiring his distinctive skill-set and dedication), whether it was a favor to Florida coach Urban Meyer, or even whether he was baiting McDaniels into drafting him.

This moment, right now, with Tebow available, his NFL career teetering in the balance, and the additional bonus of sticking it to the Jets hanging there like a pinata, will tell us what how Belichick truly feels about the player.

Maybe he'll decide the noise-to-production ratio won't be worth it. Tebow's followers can be a particularly irrational cult of fans. But you know Belichick will stonewall Tebow questions like a champ until they are no longer asked. The sideshow will be silenced here, and quick.

And remember: it's not out of the realm of possibility that Belichick -- or McDaniels -- is on the fringes of that cult, ready to rescue Tebow from the fringes of the NFL and send a message that Tebow can be a valuable asset to a team that knows how to use him.

The temptation of Tebow could be too much to resist. I hope they don't resist. I'm curious to know if he can play effectively in the NFL.

No team will put him in a better position to answer that question than the Patriots. All we know now? That the position isn't quarterback.

Thirty-two thoughts on the first round

  April 25, 2013 11:19 PM


I don't have a high motor, my hips most definitely do not have good swivel, and my Wonderlic score is in the Vince Young range. But I do have the skill-set to deliver 32 scattered thoughts on the NFL Draft after the first 32 picks, and for that Jon Gruden loves me and my grit ...

1. First reaction to the news the Patriots had traded the No. 29 overall pick to the Vikings for second-, third-, fourth-, and seventh-round choices: Bah, I knew it. We waited three-plus hours for their pick, only to have them trade it. Second reaction, which came an instant later: Whoa, four picks? Jackpot. I love the move, particularly in a draft that's fairly deep but lacking in elite talent.

2. I never have been one to get caught up in the angst when the Patriots trade down in the draft or trade out of the first round for more picks later. I learned my lesson from being bummed out in 2003 when they traded a late first-rounder to the Ravens for a first-rounder the next year. The Ravens took Kyle Boller. The Patriots used the pick the next year on Vince Wilfork. Sometimes patience pays off, and accumulating more picks tends to offer insurance against the enormous failure rate of first-rounders.

3. Besides, staying up to watch the Patriots' turn come around was worth it just to see that good man Joe Andruzzi get some much-deserved applause as the Patriots' representative.

4. To put it another way: I'm pretty sure the draft that offered the most instant gratification to fans was 2006, when the Pats took Laurence Maroney in Round 1, then traded up to get Chad Jackson in the second round. Finally, some weapons for Brady! We just don't know what the best approach is until we see the players on the football field.

5. Unless you're Dante Scarnecchia, it's tough to be particularly enthused about a draft in which three of the first four and four of the first seven picks are offensive linemen, and the top choice in a tackle from Central Michigan. In terms of star power, this was pretty much the polar opposite of the Troy Aikman/Tony Mandarich/Barry Sanders/Derrick Thomas/Deion Sanders top-five in '89, you know?

6.There's an Assistant Chair Technician at ESPN this morning who is very nervous. Could be an opening soon.

7. The Jets could announce that they're drafting Clone Dan Marino and their fans would still boo the pick. Of course, the Jets would totally draft Clone Ken O'Brien, because that's what they do. Speaking of which, a true YouTube classic:

Love Pete Rozelle's pregnant pause before announcing the Ken O'Brien pick. Might be the first instance of a commissioner trolling a fan base. But hey, Freeman McNeil was a heck of a pick in '81. Not sure the Jets have a better running back on the roster right now, and he's 54.

8. Jon Gruden is going to ride that 1983 middle school haircut to the bitter end, isn't he?

9. Saw one Jets reporter griping on Twitter that it's not fair to suggest Dee Milliner is replacing Darrelle Revis, because really it's Antonio Cromartie who is replacing Revis. I suppose. But when you trade one of the top two or three best players in franchise history and immediately spend your first-round pick on a player at his position, you're inviting the comparison.

10. I sympathized with green room detainee Geno Smith. That wasn't Aaron Rodgers, dropping to the 24th pick in the 2005 and looking defiant during the whole excruciating process. It was Rashard Lewis falling to the second round in the 1998 NBA Draft and bursting into tears along the way.

11. Sorry, I'm mesmerized here looking at that 2005 NFL Draft. I wonder whether the Cowboys considered taking Rodgers at 20. I also wonder how long it took the Jaguars to realize taking Matt Jones at 21 – three picks ahead of Rodgers – was a really, really stupid decision.

12. Turning the draft into weeknight prime-time programming was overdue long before 2010, I know. But I do wish it started, say, an hour earlier. Adam Schefter first mentioned the likelihood of a Patriots/Vikings trade at 11:11 p.m. That's a long time to wait for suspense to go unfulfilled.

13. Favorite pick in terms of player/team need/fit in the first round? Safety Kenny Vaccaro to the Saints. There's going to be an adjustment period for his teammates, who will have to get used to playing with a defensive back who actually tackles.

14. It's can't be a good sign that the first highlight ESPN showed for Barkevious Mingo (sixth, Cleveland) was a clip of him hitting a ballcarrier -- and needing the swarm to arrive to bring the guy down.

15. I'll admit it – I'm rooting for it to work for Mike Lombardi in Cleveland. Always came across as an engaging guy who knew his stuff during his interviews on Dennis and Callahan and on Bill Simmons's podcasts during his NFL Network days.

16. That said, I really hope he gives the Patriots something of significant substance for Ryan Mallett, even though it wouldn't be the best thing for the Browns.

17. Feel like the Steelers got it right with Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones at No. 17.

18. Feel like the Giants got it right with Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh at No. 19.

19. But that's probably because I almost always feel like the Steelers and Giants get it right.

20. Funny how the Patriots' AFC East opponents (rivals doesn't seem quite accurate) spent their first-round picks trying to find someone in the mold of a franchise great. Dee Milliner succeeds Darrelle Revis with the Jets. Dolphins pick Dion Jordan draws Jason Taylor comparisons. And EJ Manuel can be everything J.P. Losman was for the Bills and more.

21. OK, that was cheap. I don't know if Manuel was a smart pick for the Bills or not. But after hearing him speak with sweet eloquence about what this day means to his mom, I hope it works out for him.

22. So I guess we know Doug Marrone would have traded Ryan Nassib to Florida State straight-up for Manuel without a second thought, right?

23. Bronze-medal tweet of the night:

24. Silver-medal tweet of the night:

25. Gold-medal tweet of the night:

26. There are some pretty compelling names still on the board in the second round, from Smith and Nassib to Alabama running back Eddie Lacy and LSU enigma Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu would be a fascinating pick for the Patriots.

27. Oh yes, and Manti Te'o. Geez, you'd think ESPN and the NFL Network would mention him once in a while. Haven't heard his name once. Nope. Not once. Seriously, he's totally going to be their defensive-player version of Tim Tebow from now on, isn't he? The less relevant he is, the more we'll hear about him.

28. Well, it will be interesting following Cordarrelle Patterson's career. If he thrives in Minnesota, we'll never hear the end of how the Patriots passed him up to collect lesser draft picks. Felger and Mazz will probably bring this up within the first five minutes today. I'm sure they have him in the Hall of Fame already, a combination of Percy Harvin and Randy Moss.

29. But I read one scouting report about the kid that said he's not a polished route-runner and has not played in complex passing systems. Something tells me Patterson, for all of his talent, was not someone the Patriots envisioned thriving immediately here. Or ever, really.

30. One player I'll always keep an eye on is Florida safety Matt Elam, who went to the Ravens at 32. He was mentioned specifically by Patriots player personnel director Nick Caserio earlier this week, and his Gators pedigree and reputed skill set of intelligence/toughness suggests he's someone who genuinely did interest the Patriots. Just not enough to pass up the Vikings offer.

31. Trey Wingo takes over the studio hosting duties for Chris Berman on ESPN at the advent of Round 2. I think we can all agree this is a good thing, right?

32. Prediction for the first player the Patriots do select: Southern Cal receiver Robert Woods. So, yeah, we should probably go ahead and not expect that to happen right now.

Jackie Bradley Jr. comps? We've got 'em

  April 4, 2013 08:00 AM

How long has it been since I've done one of these Random Lists of Five thingies? Let's just say that in one of the more recent ones there was a reference to recently burned music CDs. Hey, at least I wasn't still using a Walkman. To the lists ...

609bradley__1364909546_5667.jpggriffeykenfinn34.JPGFive seasons I could see a prime-of-career Jackie Bradley Jr. duplicating, and I'll spare you J.D. Drew's 2000 season even though it's a decent potential comp:
1. Ken Griffey Sr., 1980: Forget any sports-radio hyperbole comparing the Red Sox' phenom to Junior Griffey. If Bradley's best seasons resemble Griffey Sr.'s, which spanned 1976 to '80, his promise will have been fulfilled. Griffey's '80 season, when he hit .294 with an .818 OPS, 13 homers, 10 triples, 23 steals in 24 attempts, is the standard bearer. And Bradley will be the better defender. (Papa Griffey never won a Gold Glove.)
2. Lyman Bostock, 1977: Murdered at age 27 in September 1978, Bostock will forever remain one of the great what-ifs in baseball history. He played just four major league seasons, the finest of which was spectacular. In 1977, Bostock hit .336 with 14 homers, 62 extra-base hits, 16 steals, and an .897 OPS for the Twins before joining the Angels as a free agent over the winter. Bradley at his best projects to be more patient and a better defender but with perhaps a little lower batting average.
3. Shane Mack, 1992: Red Sox fans may remember Mack as a sore-shouldered flop with mish-mashed 1997 club, but he should be remembered for a string of outstanding seasons with the Twins in the early '90s. In '92, he hit .315 with a .394 OBP, 16 homers and 26 steals, a high-end expectation for Bradley.
4. Jose Cruz, 1983: One of the more underrated hitters of the '70s and early '80s, "Cheo" hit .318 with 14 homers, 30 steals, and a league-high 189 hits while finishing sixth in the NL MVP ballotinng.
5. Jackie Robinson, 1952: Well, the on-base percentage -- a league-best .440 -- is probably unattainable, but the .308 average with 19 homers and 24 steals is more than reasonable. And it just seems right to match him up with the most admirable of Jackies.

Top five selections in the 1990 NHL Draft:
1. Owen Nolan, Nordiques: NHL goal total: 422
2. Petr Nedved, Canucks: NHL goal total: 310
3. Keith Primeau, Red Wings: NHL goal total: 266
4. Mike Ricci, Flyers: NHL goal total: 243
5. Jaromir Jagr, Penguins: NHL goal total: 679 and counting.

Top five selections by the Bruins in the 1991 NHL Draft:
1. Glen Murray. NHL goal total: 227
2. Jozef Stumpel. NHL goal total: 196
3. Marcel Cousineau. NHL goal total. 0. But he did have an assist once.
4. Brad Tiley. NHL goal total: 0. Played 11 NHL games.
5. Mariusz Czerkawski. NHL goal total: 215

Five best draft choices, in order and weighted by where the player was selected, by the Patriots during the Bill Belichick era. (Excluding the 199th overall pick in 2000, the best pick in league history):
1. Rob Gronkowski, 42d overall, 2010: If healthy -- and I hate that if, too -- he's a game-changer, with 38 touchdowns in 43 career games.
2. David Givens, 253d overall, 2002: Had a touchdown catch in seven consecutive postseason games.
3. Vince Wilfork, 21st overall, 2004: Yeah, he was a first-rounder, but at that position, getting the ideal fulcrum for the defensive scheme was an absolute heist.
4. Aaron Hernandez, 113th overall, 2010: A tight end with a receiver's skill-set and a running back's open-field instincts.
5. Dan Koppen, 164th overall, 2003: Played 121 games at center during nine seasons in New England, had Tom Brady's utmost trust.

And the five worst, which actually could all be defensive backs:
1. Chad Jackson, 36th overall, 2006: Traded up to get the Florida receiver. Sixteen picks later, Green Bay, which traded down, chose Greg Jennings.
2. Terrence Wheatley, 62d overall, 2008: Played just 11 games for the Patriots. Are we sure he existed?
3. Shawn Crable, 78th overall, 2008: Limited to six games due to injury, mostly to his matchstick legs.
4. Ron Brace, 40th overall, 2009: How could anyone so large so often be invisible?
5. Brock Williams, 86th overall, 2001: Foreshadowed all the failed draft picks in the defensive backfield to follow.

mcadoofinn34.JPGFive basketball legends who played for the Celtics in the '70s and '80s after making their name elsewhere:
1. Ernie DiGregorio: Averaged 2.4 assists in 10.1 minutes per game in 1977-78, his final year in the league.
2. Dave Bing: Hall of Famer and Pistons great retired after averaging 13.4 ppg in 1977-78,
3. Bob McAdoo: Averaged 20.6 ppg in 20 games for dismal, fractured 1978-79 squad.
4. Tiny Archibald: Made three All-Star teams in five seasons in Boston (1979-83) and averaged 13.8 ppg for 1980-81 champs.
5. Pete Maravich: In 20 games for the 1979-80 Celtics, he averaged 11.5 ppg in his final year at age 32. Can't help but imagine what it would have been like to watch Pistol Pete at the peak of his powers play with Larry Bird.

Five partial player comments from the 1997 Baseball Prospectus annual:
1. On Mariano Rivera: "... I think he needs a better second pitch and more work. The better second pitch is a big issue, because Rivera got hit worst when he fell behind and had to come in with a fastball for a strike. Without one, I think he'll decline further this year.
2. On Trot Nixon: "One of the more overrated prospects in baseball. Nixon has more tools than Home Depot, but he uses them about as well as the government uses tax revenues. His back troubles have damaged his game as well. As Boston's #1 pick in 1993, he'll get plenty of chances to embarrass himself in the majors."
3. On Tim Wakefield: "Three years after nearly washing out of baseball, two years after nearly winning the Cy Young and just months after a temporary demotion to the pen, Wakefield may have found his niche: middle-of-the-rotation innings eater."
4. On Jeff Bagwell: "A fine defender, intelligent baserunner, and one of the best power hitters in the game. Still looks like an adult Bud Bundy ...."
5. On David Ortiz: "... He is very young, and the Twins may want him to have more than a half-season at Double A before they hand him a starting job in the majors, but his upside is very high. Think Dave Parker."

iginlajaromefinn34.JPGFive players chosen in the first round of the 1995 NHL Draft:
1. Bryan Berard, defenseman, No.1 overall, Ottawa
2. Wade Redden, defenseman, No. 2 overall, NY Islanders
3. Kyle McLaren, defenseman, No. 9 overall, Boston
4. Jarome Iginla, forward, No. 11 overall, Dallas
5. Petr Sykora, forward, No. 18 overall, New Jersey

Five players drafted ahead of Rajon Rondo (21st overall) in the 2006 NBA Draft:
1. Adam Morrison, Charlotte, No. 3 overall: Hey, he did win two championships with the Lakers. He also scored a total of 84 points over those two seasons.
2. Shelden Williams, Atlanta, No. 5: Go ahead. Make the shoulda-drafted-Candice Parker joke. I'll wait.
3. Patrick O'Bryant, Golden State, No. 9: I remember the precise moment I knew he was never going to be a viable backup for the Celtics -- when spent pregame warmups during a game against the Raptors trying to beat Big Baby Davis with crossover moves.
4. Mouhamed Sene, Seattle, No. 10
5. Oleksiy Pecherov, Minnesota, No. 19.

Five most talented receivers (in order) to play for the Patriots since I began paying attention in 1978:
1.Randy Moss (2007-10). 52 games, 50 touchdowns.
2. Terry Glenn (1996-2001). Made it look so easy when he was in the right frame of mind. Telling that when Troy Brown was asked last season which former teammate of his the '12 Patriots could use most, he cited No. 88.
3. Irving Fryar (1984-92).Watch out for those Foxborough trees.
4. Stanley Morgan (1977-89). 534 catches at 19.4 per
5. Wes Welker (2007-12). No, he wasn't a deep threat. But he somehow managed to be an upgrade on the great Troy Brown as a slot receiver, and that's a tribute to his talent as well as his oft-cited determination.

What else do the Patriots need to do?

  March 26, 2013 03:31 PM


Today marks two weeks since the frenzied start of NFL free agency, and we required far fewer than 21 days to recognize that the Patriots played the game very well.

They retained cornerback Aqib Talib (one year, $5 million) and tackle Sebastian Vollmer ($8.5 million guaranteed, up to $27 million over four years) on deals that confirmed they were wise in deciding not to franchise either player.

Re-signing both also should ease to some degree any concerns about Talib's character or Vollmer's physical condition. If the Patriots trust them enough to keep them around, that's reassuring enough.

It's difficult to resist coveting the big splash in free agency -- the closest the Patriots came this year was signing Danny Amendola as Wes Welker's successor in the slot, though 33-year-old four-time All-Pro Adrian Wilson is the most decorated arrival. Pursuing the big name with corresponding big salary has rarely been their approach, save for Rosevelt Colvin in 2003 and Adalius Thomas in '07.

As they've often proven, the value of retaining players who are known commodities on the field and off is often the smartest play, which is why I didn't blink at Kyle Arrington's $6.5 million signing bonus. All it suggests is that they know and appreciate his work as a slot corner, and they value it highly.

All of that said ... I hope there's more to come. Free-agency has been fairly fulfilling, even for those among us who get a nostalgic tear in our eye whenever Wes Welker's hair plug commercial comes on the radio. But there are so many interesting names still available at possibly bargain rates -- for instance, might ex-Raiders Michael Huff and Darrius Heyward-Bey thrive in a competent organization? -- that the current situation seems like a golden chance for the Patriots to fortify the depth chart even further beyond the Will Sviteks and Niko Koutevideses

While we wait to see what -- or who -- is next, here are a few quick thoughts on five who have either arrived, departed, or remain in limbo.

Brandon Lloyd: Am I alone in hoping they bring him back? Sure, his down-field ability was underwhelming (this guy averaged 18.8 yards per catch two years ago?), and you've all heard the chatter about his, um, quirky personality. But he still managed 74 receptions and 911 yards as essentially the fourth option when everyone was healthy, he was masterful at making catches along the sidelines, and there's mounting evidence that adjusting to playing with Tom Brady isn't as easy as it should be for previously accomplished receivers. Donald Jones is an interesting pickup, and he might also be Sam Aiken. Bring back Lloyd. For a perceived underachiever, he was pretty productive

Danny Amendola: I still say the price the market set for Welker was a price the Patriots should have paid. I also recognize I'll probably be proven wrong, if not this year than next, since I strongly suspect the Patriots have seen some regression in Welker that isn't yet evident to all of us who are citizens of the couch on fall Sundays. Amendola, 4 1/2 years Welker's junior, is a talented (if fragile) slot receiver, and if he can stay on the field, he shouldn't take him long to build rapport with Brady. Whether he can do it to the degree that Welker did -- not to mention as immediately -- is an answer we'll have to wait until September to receive.

wilsonadrianfinn326.JPGAdrian Wilson: Hello, my name is Hypocrite. At the advent of free agency, I listed Wilson as one of five players the Patriots shouldn't pursue. So why was I so excited when the Patriots signed him the same day he visited? A couple of reasons. First, I'm fascinated at how they plan to use him. Will he be that safety/linebacker hybrid that Tank Williams was once supposed to be? Even if he's lost a step or two, with his instincts and much-needed hitting ability, he could thrive in that role. And the other reason? I figure if Bill Belichick pursues another safety when Ed Reed is available, he must have tremendous respect and even admiration for that player. I'll be glad to be wrong about this one. Already am, actually.

Leon Washington: I wonder if Danny Woodhead would still be here if he had any effectiveness at all as a return man. As it is, by signing the 30-year-old former Jet and Seahawk who averaged 29 yards per kickoff return last season, the Patriots have quietly addressed what was one of their biggest flaws last season.

John Abraham: How long has Abraham been around? He was one of the Jets' four first-round picks in 2000 -- the other three being Chad Pennington, Anthony Becht, and Shaun Ellis. (The Patriots have one pick remaining from that draft. He wears No. 12.) Abraham will be 35 in May, but he was still very effective last season for the Falcons (10 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 7 passes defensed), and he has the ideal size to thrive as a situational rusher in the Patriots' system. Should Dwight Freeney end up in Denver, Abraham could end up a bargain for the Patriots. If that happens, the Patriots offseason is an unqualified success no matter what.

Farewell to the Tuck Rule

  March 20, 2013 01:11 PM


It was a ridiculous rule that helped commence a reign, and if a line from a rulebook could be inducted into a team's Hall of Fame without bringing on mockery, appropriate homage to the infamous Tuck Rule would have been paid at Patriot Place a long time ago.

Sure, there's an easy argument to made that the Tuck Rule -- which informed us against all football logic that a passer who lost the ball while bringing it back toward his body was "throwing" an incomplete pass rather than committing what your eyes told you was a fairly obvious fumble -- never should have existed in the first place.

Now it exists no more. Eleven seasons after referee Walt Coleman's correct interpretation of an counterintuitive, confusing, downright foolish rule played a pivotal role in the Patriots' unforgettable overtime victory over the Raiders in a Jan. 19, 2002, playoff game, NFL owners voted to eliminate the rule Wednesday.

The Steelers voted to keep the rule as is. The Redskins and Patriots abstained. The other 29 teams voted to change it so that when a player loses the ball while bringing it back toward his body, it's exactly what it always appeared to be -- a fumble. I believe that's what you call a consensus.

Didn't you chuckle at the news that the Patriots abstained? Owner Robert Kraft said Monday that he "[loves] the Tuck Rule and fiorever will" and hinted that he might have to abstain because of his "great bond" with the rule. The decision to abstain was essentially him saying, "Yeah, it's a dumb rule, but you know, we've got to respect it. It kind of worked for us that one time, as some of you might recall."

More than anything else, the discussion and demise of the Tuck Rule is a fine excuse to relive the final moments of that glorious snow globe of a football game, the last and best in Foxboro Stadium's goofy history ...

... and yet it's also a reason to consider all that came after. It's impossible not to indulge in the what-if game -- heck, the Raiders, who did go to the Super Bowl the following year, have been doing it pretty much every moment since Coleman's ruling. When Jon Gruden talks about it, the Chucky Face isn't a camera-ready affectation for once. Bill Romanowski may or may not have mauled a random dude who was wearing a black-and-white-striped shirt simply because it gave him a flashback. And it would not shock me at all if Al Davis found a way to tweet this from the great beyond:

Purely conjecture here -- that should probably be the name of this blog, actually -- but wouldn't it be something if Charles Woodson, who dislodged the ball from his college teammate Brady on the fourth-quarter play, ended up coming to the Patriots as a free agent all these years later? How many questions into his introductory press conference would we be before the play is brought up? I'm setting the over/under at 1. And taking the under.

Of course, there's that other what-if aspect, the ready-made, let's-kill-an-easy-four-hours-here sports radio topic: Would the Patriots' dynasty have existed had Coleman not made the call, after which the Patriots tied and eventually won the game in overtime? Or would there have been some sort of football butterfly effect, with a change in that one moment altering everything that came after?

I believe, without a doubt, that the Patriots still would have emerged as the team of the decade and won a Super Bowl or two, though I suppose you can't say without absolute certainty that they would have won in 2003-04. But remember, the dynasty didn't really take off until after the hiccup of a 2002 season, when the safety trio of Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, and Victor Green didn't quite thrive as planned and there were essential new arrivals (Deion Branch, David Givens) and requisite busts (Donald Hayes, the forefather of a long run of receivers who couldn't master the playbook).

The peak occurred as Brady kept becoming greater and greater and reinforcements such as Rodney Harrison and Corey Dillon arrived to create a truly great team. That 2003-04 dominance had little direct relation to the Patriots' good fortune one snowy night in January 2002.

Bill Belichick's brilliance was proven during the '01 season no matter whether it had ended against the Raiders or, as it turned out, they went on to become the most improbable Super Bowl champion ever with stirring victories over the cocky Steelers and even cockier Rams.

And Tom Brady still would have become Tom Brady -- knowing what we now know about his competitiveness and work ethic, the loss would have fueled him even more. The Snow Bowl is actually more relevant to Adam Vinatieri's legacy -- he should be the second kicker inducted into the Hall of Fame, and his tying and winning field goals in the Snow Bowl will be as much a part of his case as his two Super Bowl game-winners.

Related to that, stop booing the guy, you knuckleheads. If you watch the above clips -- and that is your assigned viewing for the day -- you'll realize that the only people who ought to boo Vinatieri are Raiders fans. Even though a certain rule is gone, they can never let that night go. Around here, we'll just keep on enjoying the reminders.

Media notes: Sapp, Simmons, Sarandis ...

  March 15, 2013 11:21 AM

brickleyandyfinn316.JPGDon't forget: Chat at 2:30. So, you know, 2:35 ... 2:38 at the latest.

Today's media column on the Bruins' massive ratings on NESN is here. Talked to Andy Brickley, not exactly a disinterested observer, about why he believes fans in Boston came back so quickly after the lockout. Here is one thought from Brick that I didn't use in the column, on how the accessibility of the players seemed to accelerate the fans' forgiveness.

"One of the things you try to do is expose these guys so that the fans get to know these players and their personalities,'' said Brickley. "I don’t think a Belichickian approach works in hockey. Everybody knows that hockey players are salt-of-the-earth people. But they’re in the community, and fans have access. They live in town and are out and about in town but they live the right way. They’re out amongst their fanbase and you get to know them. That matters to people."

Because today's column was a one-topic deal, here are a few items I wanted to touch on but didn't have the room. I may make this a regular Friday feature. Consider them the deleted scenes:

ESPN formally announced the hiring of Ray Lewis as an NFL analyst/personality this week, a story Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch was all over several weeks ago. While his history makes him something of a controversial choice, his appeal to ESPN is obvious -- he's a truly great player with the charisma to succeed. I'm curious how they'll use him -- I supect he'll be turned into a fake-preaching cartoon character designated to give "inspirational speeches'' to various teams and players. I do hope he's not a significant part of the "Monday Night Football'' broadcast -- Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden tandem is just fine as is. And it will probably be an adjustment for Lewis, getting less camera time now in an actual TV gig than he did all those years playing to the cameras before, during, and after Ravens games.

The NFL Network apologized Wednesday, a day after someone on their set -- believed to be Warren Sapp -- commented in less-than-network-friendly language about a segment that was underway featuring Scott Pioli discussing the Patriots' philosophy in team-building. While Pioli, who worked in the Patriots front office under Bill Belichick during the three Super Bowl victories, was talking with host Scott Hanson, Sapp The Voice could be heard whispering, “It’s the same [expletive] segment we had Mike Lombardi do. The [expletive] Bill Belichick [expletive] angle.” Chris Rose presented the apology, saying in part, "Last night during some live programming, we accidentally aired an expletive. It will not happen again." I suppose the apology was necessary, but what the network should really apologize for is continuing to employ Sapp. It's obvious why information about the Patriots matters -- insight about what they do and how they've maintained their run of success for more than a decade is at a premium. No one is asking much about the 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs these days, you know?

The rumor that Bob Ryan is co-hosting a show on 1510 is not accurate. He is doing six hits a week with Marty Tirrell on Yahoo! Sports Radio's "Calling All Sports,'' which is broadcast on 1510. But it's not a full-time thing, and he says he doesn't want one. He is expected to join Sean Grande as the color analyst on the Celtics-Bobcats game Saturday night on WEEI, possibly in an every-other-quarter role with ESPN's Ryen Russillo. They will be filling in for Cedric Maxwell, who is being honored by the Atlantic-10.

Regarding Bill Simmons's three-day Twitter suspension by his ESPN bosses for a series of tweets criticizing Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's battle with Skip Bayless on the abomination known as "First Take,'' I'll stick to what I more or less said on ... well, Twitter. Maybe as an employee Simmons should have had more discretion, and I'm sure he was warned before. (He was previously suspended for ripping WEEI, which has a partnership with ESPN). But man, was he ever right. Kudos to him for speaking the truth.

Dale Arnold, Gerry Callahan, and Kirk Minihane is a very good show. As we heard this morning, Callahan and Minihane alone (with the latter handling getting in and out of the breaks and other duties that the absent John Dennis does well) might be even better. If there was any concern before this week regarding how to repair the morning show, there shouldn't be now. Seems to me they've found two solutions.

Looking for a Ted Sarandis update? You know you have, and we've got one for you. The former voice of Boston College basketball and WEEI evening host (among other gigs) will debut a new college basketball program on WATD 95.9 beginning this Sunday at 9 p.m. Titled "College Basketball Tonight,'' it is co-hosted by former BC coach Al Skinner and will air through the end of the month. It also will be streamed online at hoopville.com.

Jerry Remy won't be part of NESN's spring training Red Sox broadcasts over the weekend. The network said it is because of a previously planned family commitment. Jim Rice will fill in tonight against the Twins. It's one of their co-produced telecasts, so Twins analyst Ron Coomer will team up with Rice. Don Orsillo will split time with Twins play-by-play announcer Dick Bremer. Orsillo and Rice will handle Sunday's game with the Rays. Guess a Rays legend like Ryan Rupe, Tanyon Sturtze or Julio Lugo wasn't available to share the booth.

Should the Patriots pursue Bernard Pollard?

  March 14, 2013 11:14 AM

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free NFL throwaway lines for you ...


1. It's easy to daydream about Ed Reed joining the Patriots ? he's Ed Reed! after all, and we've been doing it pretty much since he was passed up for Daniel Graham (a need and a solid player) in the 2002 draft. But is it crazy to suggest that the available former Ravens safety that the Patriots should be pursuing is actually Bernard Pollard? He keeps getting better and better -- he was essentially roster fodder in Kansas City and Houston before becoming a key cog in the Ravens' championship defense. His ferocious style, which does not need to be rehashed here, is something the Patriots desperately need in their defensive backfield. I'd like to see it happen, as weird as it would be.

2. Of course, it might be awkward to bring Pollard here after the carnage he's caused to the Patriots through the years. Though he's an introspective, articulate, likeable guy in person – I know, I know, you don't want to hear that – I think Chris Gasper hit it on the head when we were discussing it after Wednesday's "Boston Sports Live'' program. Bringing Pollard to the Patriots would be equal to Bill Laimbeer joining the Celtics in, say, 1991. Some fences are beyond repair.

3. So about Danny Amendola on the Day After. I probably haven't given him enough credit -- anyone who once had 15 catches in a game, as he did last year in Week 2 against the Redskins, has some legitimate ability, and he shouldn't be pigeonholed as just a slot guy. He'll be an asset, perhaps a very valuable one, provided two things happen: He avoids the same kind of freakish injuries similar to those that have gotten Jacoby Ellsbury slapped with an unfair injury-prone label. And he gets on the same page with Tom Brady instantly, which Welker did and few others have done.

4. I'm sure the Patriots will get the receiver depth chart straightened out and bolstered, whether it's by signing a couple of unsung Donnie Jones types or using a high pick on one of the several promising speedsters in this year's draft. And I'm not as down on Brandon Lloyd as the majority seems to be. But man, it's tough to look at that Denver roster right now, with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and now Welker, and not have some envy.

5. The interest in Joshua Cribbs and the news that Seahawks kick returner Leon Washington will visit Foxborough Thursday suggests that the Patriots are emphasizing greater production on kick returns in the coming season. Which is a welcome development. After watching the likes of Devin McCourty scramble to get to the 20 too many times last year, I was almost to the point of wishing they'd bring back Laurence Maroney or Bethel Johnson for the sole purpose of returning kicks.

6. Aaron Hernandez has the talent, the contract, and now, the responsibility. I can't recall the Patriots having a more versatile offensive player in my lifetime (Kevin Faulk or Andy Johnson may get some votes, I suppose), but with Welker gone, it's imperative that he remains healthy and becomes more reliable in big games.

7. If Mike Lombardi gives up anything higher than a fourth-round pick for Ryan Mallett, he'll be back on the NFL Network before he knows it.

8. Ultimately, Matt Cassel will be regarded as a bust in Kansas City, his 1-7 record as a starter during his final season the last and lasting memory of his time there. But it's more complicated than that – Cassel did have one outstanding season among his four, throwing for 3,116 yards and 27 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions in 2010 while winning 10 of his 15 starts. Don't know about you, but I'd welcome him back as Brady's backup.

9. I'll miss Welker in the same way I miss Troy Brown -- it's never fun to say goodbye to an incredibly productive, tough, dedicated, disciplined, bright player. Yes, he left for a rival, and a championship eluded him. But there were some pretty great times during his six seasons here, and he should always be remembered well.

10. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

If you're a fan of the semi-annual, whenever-we-can-get-a-team-to-agree-to it "Hard Knocks" series on HBO, you may remember being introduced Amendola in 2008, when his attempt to make the Cowboys as a rookie free agent was one of the chief story lines. Like Welker with the Chargers, he didn't stick his first time and had to fight his way into the league.

Wes Welker, Denver Broncos bargain

  March 13, 2013 02:59 PM


They didn't really want him. And in the end, he didn't want them.

Oh, sure, the Patriots would have taken Wes Welker back literally on their terms -- say, two years, $14 million, or whatever the terms of that reportedly longstanding take-it-or-beat it offer happened to be.

[Update: Greg Bedard is reporting it was for two years and $10 million, an insult by NFL salary standards that essentially dared Welker to find something better.]

Based on what we know at the moment, the offer was either an intentional slap in the face, or a miscalculation that had little to do with the actual dollars, and everything to do with respect.

Did they imagine their offer -- apparently singular, impersonal and nonnegotiable -- would frustrate Welker so much that he'd take a cheap deal elsewhere just so he'd never have to deal with them again?

If the reported terms of Welker's new contract with the Denver Broncos are correct -- two years, $12 million, and that's not per year but total -- then no other conclusion can be drawn.

Perhaps it's lost in the shock of his departure -- make that the shock of the price of his departure -- but right now there seems no other logical explanation for this other than Welker's desire to pay back the Patriots for their refusal to pay him.

They thought he would be their bargain. Instead, they drove him to become a rival's bargain.

And like that, the once-perfect marriage between Welker and the Patriots is shattered.

This is what happens when a business-first mentality backfires, when human nature is discarded as irrelevant. The Patriots valued Welker at a certain, specific price, a price much lower than a receiver who averaged 112 receptions per season as a central figure to one of the most prolific offenses the NFL has known would seem to warrant.

If ever there were a time to make a small exception to their rigid salary structure and appease their franchise quarterback who less than three weeks ago restructured his contract to give the Patriots the leeway to do such things as, oh, keep his most trusted target at a slightly higher sticker price than the numbers crunchers might prefer, it's now, in this flat-cap season in which they have roughly $15 million to use on free agents.

They could have done it. It wouldn't have irreparably altered the salary structure. Yet they didn't. They really didn't want Wes Welker anymore, at least not enough to confirm it with cash.

Ten million dollars per season would have been fair given that he made $9.4 million last year. Instead, they offered him two years and a $4.4 million pay cut. You'd be angry too. This isn't the Patriots version of the Ray Allen/Celtics breakup. The Celtics made Allen the best offer.

The whole ugly process drove Welker away, and the thank-you message from Peyton Manning should be arriving at Linda Holliday's Twitter account any moment now.

Kudos to John Elway and the Broncos for playing the waiting game brilliantly and getting a bargain, for Welker will make less in two years than new Miami trinket Mike Wallace will make in one.

The Patriots are not in the business of paying for past performance, and that's almost always smart. But save for some high-profile drops, Welker is still a pass-catching machine in the slot, and anyone who thinks someone such as Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola is capable of matching his production simply isn't giving him his due.

Yet the way the Patriots handled this suggest they're skeptical of future performance even as he's coming off the fourth-best receiving season in franchise history.

They wouldn't give him what he felt he was worth, even if it meant that Welker, his disdain hundreds of degrees past mild at this point, would join forces with arguably the Patriots' chief rival in the AFC next season, not to mention Brady's chief rival as the greatest quarterback of this generation.

Wes Welker, wearing that traffic-cone orange jersey and catching pass after pass in the slot from Manning? Yeah, it's going to take a lot of Sundays before that scene looks right.

But Welker is going to Colorado, and we're left with one more reminder that there's no room for sentimentality beneath the Patriots' salary cap. Bill Belichick again had the cold discipline not to exceed the value he set for the particular player, and I suppose it should be noted that such an approach has generally served him well.

Letting beloved veterans depart unceremoniously has rarely come back to haunt the franchise during their prolonged, almost unfathomable run of championship contention virtually every season in the salary cap era. You want nostalgia?, they seem to ask. Fine, but enjoy going 8-8.

Fiscal responsibility is the price of winning. Veterans they have paid -- Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork -- had to fight for every dollar, and long-term deals for younger players have inevitably proven bargains (compare Rob Gronkowski's salary to Jared Cook's, or Dannell Ellerbe's to Jerod Mayo's).

But this feels ... different, and not just because Welker is now someone else's bargain.

Maybe it's because the Patriots at the moment have a shell-casing of a receiving corps that must be giving Brady (who must be livid) serious Reche Caldwell flashbacks, or maybe it's because Welker owns the top five reception seasons in franchise history and three of the top five receiving yardage seasons, or maybe it's because it took him all of six seasons to exceed predecessor and 13-year Patriot Troy Brown's franchise record for receptions, or maybe it's because he just seems like a Patriots lifer even if he did have previous stops in San Diego and Miami before arriving here before the 2007 season, but the timing of his departure just doesn't feel right.

It's too soon. There's unfinished business. Welker was part of some great times during his six seasons here, but I don't need to remind you that he never won a Super Bowl. That lack of a title does complicate his legacy, especially because he had game-altering drops in their last two season-ending losses, in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants and in this past season's AFC Championship defeat at the hands of the Ravens.

It's probably not fair, but my enduring image of him isn't of one of his 672 regular-season receptions, but of him fighting back tears in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, the picture of devastation yet answering every question after the last Super Bowl loss.

Now, there are new images popping to mind, mental ones of him heading toward the mountains with vengeance on his mind and catching Manning pass after Manning pass and getting down low and zipping past defensive backs and linebackers who can't understand how he eludes them.

It was a joy to watch him play for six seasons in New England. Yet in the end, the Patriots were fine with letting him elude them, too. I'll let you know when I fully comprehend why.

Five players the Patriots should try to sign in free agency, and five they should not

  March 12, 2013 11:06 AM


My general policy when it comes to evaluating Patriots personnel matters is this:

Ditto To Whatever Bedard Said.

And he -- that being Greg Bedard, the Globe's NFL columnist -- has a typically insightful, reasonable, detailed take today on the state of the Patriots roster and how exactly they should fill their various voids via free agency and the draft.

If you haven't read it, well, sprint the heck out of here and absorb some real knowledge first before you dive into my usual pecked-out heaves of conjecture and fantasy.

No, really, go. I'll wait.

(Plays 103 games of Temple Run while simultaneously watching two episodes of "Arrested Development" on Netflix. Man, Buster is the greatest.)

OK, you're back? Appreciate the return. Now that we're all properly informed, let's get to some fun speculation on the players the Patriots should and shouldn't sign as the "tampering period" ends and NFL free agency formally commences at 4 p.m. with what hopefully will be a free-for-all.

I have my lists of five players they should sign and five they shouldn't -- the presumption being in all cases that the terms are reasonable for both the player and the Patriots -- and man, let me tell you, it wasn't easy.

I would love to see them go after Greg Jennings and Josh Cribbs, to name two I ultimately excluded; I just couldn't convince myself that they will. I even thought about a Richard Seymour reunion for a brief moment before recognizing about 93,000 reasons why it won't happen.

Here's my five and five, with the caveat that I hope and believe there will be some fascinating surprises. Hit me with yours in the comments or via Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.


Wes Welker: The closer we get to 4 p.m., the more I believe we'll be hearing news about a five-year, $45 million deal with the Colts or Broncos in the coming days. And while Welker isn't irreplaceable -- I believe the more frequent drops of catchable passes are a sign of subtle regression -- he is still a tremendous asset to the Patriots and Tom Brady, and it blows my mind that so many seem willing to throw the talented, inconsistent Aaron Hernandez into the slot and send Welker on his way. Welker owns the top five seasons in franchise history in terms of receptions, with his 118 catches in 2012 ranking as third-best. He has three of the top five in receiving yards, with last season's 1,354-yard output ranking as fourth-best. He is still an incredibly -- heck, historically -- productive player, and if you're taking him for granted now, mark my words, you'll regret that when he's putting up those numbers elsewhere and the Patriots are learning that not all slot receivers are built to do what he has done.

Aqib Talib: Yeah, I'm wary, too. Of the baggage, of his inability to stay on the field when the Patriots needed him most last season, of how he'll handle long-term security. But ... well, they need him, and they know him now, and he did solidify the defensive backfield (he seemed to play very well in tandem with safety Devin McCourty), and unless they want to get in on the upscale bidding for Sean Smith or believe Nnamdi Asomugha can still play, it makes sense to bring him back and hope he stays on the field and behaves himself away from it.

nelsondavidfinn313.JPGDavid Nelson: In three career games against the Patriots, Nelson has eight catches for 107 yards and no touchdowns. I actually thought his output was more impressive than that, because the rangy 6-foot-5-inch University of Florida product always seems to make a good impression. He's coming off a torn ACL that ended his season in Week 1 last season, but if healthy, he'd provide a useful big target for Tom Brady. He could be a savvy, inexpensive pickup later on in the free agent process.

Osi Umenyiora: Dwight Freeney would be my first choice to fill the role of relatively pricey situational pass rusher, but the suspicion is that he rejoins the Cult of Peyton in Denver. Umenyiora, who had nine sacks in nine games last year, 40.5 over the past four, and is vowing to be the Defensive Player of the Year next season, would be a heck of a consolation prize.

Kenny Phillips: An interesting name, I think. A versatile, talented safety who might be had at a bargain rate because of his injury history. He missed nine games with a sprained right MCL last season for the Giants and required microfracture surgery on the same knee in 2009. There's risk, but the 26-year-old former first-rounder could conceivably help more than some of the bigger-name veterans on the market such as Charles Woodson.

Victor Cruz: He's a very easy player to root for because of his winding path to success and his appreciation for his place in the game, and it would be a blast to see the UMass product make New England his football home again. (Cruz had a huge and vocal cheering section at the 2011 regular-season game between the Patriots and Giants at Gillette Stadium.) And he would be the perfect successor to Welker. So why is he on this side of the list? The cost. It's simply too much, and that's without even considering the salary he'll demand. Cruz is a restricted free agent who was tendered by the Giants, meaning the Patriots would lose their first-round pick as compensation. There's a reason no one has signed a restricted free agent since Laveranues Coles went to the Redskins in 2003. It's generally detrimental to team-building.

Danny Amendola: Just because he went to the same college as Welker and runs similar routes to Welker and has some of the same physical attributes as Welker doesn't mean he is Welker. He's an injury-prone, less-expensive consolation prize if Welker signs elsewhere, and frankly, it's not much of a consolation at all.

wilsonadrianfinn311.JPGAdrian Wilson: He was a wonderful player for a long time, a five-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, and it's shame the Cardinals were so often irrelevant that his only real exposure came during their improbable run to Super Bowl XLIII. But the reality is that his best days are behind him. He'll be 34 in October and lost significant playing time as the 2012 season went on. This wouldn't be akin to bringing in 30-year-old Rodney Harrison in 2003. It would be akin to bringing in Rodney Harrison in 2007.

James Harrison: He's 35 in May, injury-prone, doesn't fit their scheme, and replaced Joey Porter as the Steeler who talked the most junk about Tom Brady. Pass. Let him become another team's rapidly declining mistake. He'd make a great Jet.

Ed Reed: Oh, let me tell you, if he did somehow end up with the Patriots, I'd reverse field on this like ... well, like Reed running back a Ben Roethlisberger pick and be as excited as the rest of you that Bill Belichick finally brought aboard one of his presumed all-time favorites. But while I still have my relative wits about me, I can't help but think that the time has passed, that bringing in an oft-injured safety who will be 35 when the season kicks off isn't the smartest way to utilize that cap room, especially since it would probably require moving McCourty back to cornerback. Because we're talking about one of the most talented, brightest, and instinctive players ever to play the position, I'll give the Patriots the benefit of the doubt if Reed does end up here. But if he doesn't, and gets big money elsewhere, it might just feel like a bullet dodged.

Watch: What Brady's deal means

  February 27, 2013 04:28 PM

Tom Brady signed a three-year, $27 million contract extension with the Patriots until 2017, freeing up cap space for the team. Watch my discussion about the deal with CineSport's Noah Coslov.

Deal is a winning statement by Tom Brady

  February 25, 2013 04:51 PM


Tom Brady, as adept at diplomacy as he is at throwing a football, has never proclaimed publicly that the Patriots absolutely must retain a certain player, at least as far as I can recall.

Surely Brady shares his blunt personnel opinions with Bill Belichick far away from us media types -- in fact, if the Patriots aren't soliciting them from the brilliant, decorated quarterback, they're not as thorough as we believe they are.

But publicly? No, I can't recall him offering much more than casual praise and boilerplate plaudits. The closest he may have come was before the 2006 season when Deion Branch was locked in the contract battle that eventually led to a trade to Seattle and an unforgivable reliance on the likes of Reche Caldwell the following season.

Even then, I don't believe Brady ever came close to saying "We have to have Deion,'' at least when the cameras and microphones were on. It's not his style.

I bring this up now because I was curious whether that diplomatic policy might change this offseason.

There are few quarterback/receiver tandems in NFL history that have produced to the degree that Tom Brady and Wes Welker have during the latter's six seasons in Foxborough. Welker has 672 regular-season receptions (123 coming in 2009, when Matt Cassel filled in during the year the unthinkable happened.)

He had what felt something like a down year for him last season -- and he still pulled in 118 catches for 1,354 yards, one of the greatest statistical seasons a Patriots receiver has ever had. He's almost 32, and it feels like he drops more passes than he used to in big moments, and you know what? He remains absolutely essential to what the Patriots do.

No one knows that more than Brady. The quarterback trusts him implicitly, and if ever there were a player on whose behalf Brady would make a Don't Let Him Get Away speech, wouldn't it be Welker or no one, ever?

I bring this up not because Brady has made such a speech. He hasn't. Instead, he did something more. He put his money where his mouth wasn't.

The bombshell by Peter King (so this is why we still read him) that Brady had agreed to a three-year, $27 million contract extension, taking him through 2017 and that 40th birthday he's always said he wanted to play beyond, saves the Patriots $15 million toward the cap over the next two years.

But Brady's extension -- the second time in his career he's reworked a deal for salary cap relief, the first coming in 2005 -- does so much more than that.

It allows the Patriots, who are reportedly $23 million under the cap this year, more flexibility in retaining their key free agents, from Welker to Aqib Talib to Sebastian Vollmer to Danny Woodhead, to the point that if someone departs, chances are it will be because they didn't value the player as much as we thought rather than because of a price they couldn't meet.

It also allows the Patriots the possibility of adding both quality and quantity when free agency begins March 12, a year in which the flat cap (roughly $121 million) will prevent the majority of teams from making significant moves without paring their roster.

There will be bargains to be found, and here's hoping they find a few unheralded gems as they did during the 2000-01 offseason, when the likes of Mike Vrabel, David Patten, Roman Phifer (who, as Chris Gasper pointed out on Boston Sports Live today, they never have replaced) and Antowain Smith came aboard for the most improbable Super Bowl run in NFL history.

But they can also afford to go to the ritzy shopping district, as they did before the '03 season when they added game-changer Rodney Harrison at safety and Rosevelt Colvin at linebacker.

Patriots fans can peruse the free agent lists now know that daydreams may become reality.

Perhaps an Ed Reed acquisition became more realistic today. Maybe Mike Wallace will come aboard as the deep threat they have lacked since Randy Moss's exit. Would Paul Kruger be a fit? Anything is possible.

While a cynic might note that Brady literally can afford to make such financial sacrifices, what with Gisele being as successful in her field as he is in his, it's a fairly extraordinary gesture given the going-rate for franchise quarterbacks nowadays. It will look even better if the Ravens lose Reed or Kruger to the Patriots because they must meet the demands of postseason star Joe Flacco.

He's a willing bargain, because being a bargain gives him a better chance at something that matters far more to him than money -- winning that fourth championship, and maybe one or two more beyond.

Brady's decision benefits his team, it benefits him in his quest to be the greatest who ever played, and it may just benefit his trusted buddy Wes, whom Brady undoubtedly believes is crucial to that championship quest.

Maybe he hasn't actually said as much. But his actions speak louder than any verbal statement he could possibly have made.

Monday mailbag: Iglesias or Drew?

  February 24, 2013 01:32 PM


Realized the other day that it's been about three years since I last pulled together a mailbag. Not sure why I got away from it -- they're always fun to do, and I'm inexcusably awful at staying on top of email these days, so I figure this is a good way to catch up on some of it. Other questions arrived via Twitter as well as outtakes from the Friday chat. We'll do another one before 2016, I promise. In the meantime, let's get to it, and keep the questions coming ...

troutmikefinn222.JPGBeyond the fact that it is creepy do you have a problem with sportswriters jumping all over themselves to document the increase in body mass of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout? I get that it is a "story" in the sense that these are two of the biggest stars in baseball, but at the same time if these writers were reading stories written in this manner that were published back in 1998 there would be a chorus of "we should have known betters". Are "BEST SHAPE OF THEIR CAREER" stories really that enticing? Or just that easy? -- Neil (DC)

"Best shape of their career" is of course one of the great recurring cliches of spring training, at least unless you're talking about Felix Doubront, aka Southpaw Guapo. The guys at "Hardball Talk'' especially have a great bit of fun with that particular spring-training narrative, and it's understandable, but in the case of Trout in particular, it's actually a worthwhile storyline. He came in at 241 pounds, which is huge given that he's a rangy center fielder and one of the most electric and efficient basestealers we've ever seen. For someone coming off a historically brilliant rookie season, it's a bit jarring to see him make such a drastic change to his physique. His first year was so incredible that it's a reasonable to ask whether he will ever have a better one. If he slips a bit this year -- and as Baseball Prospectus's Ben Lindbergh writes today, it's reasonable to expect that he will -- there will be questions about his offseason workout regimen, whether that's fair or not.

Chad, the likelihood of all the things you say in your Unconventional Preview column today that need to happen for the Red Sox to be a winning team actually happening is remote. Like winning the lottery remote.
-- Your Name

Sure. But I don't think all of those things -- everyone staying healthy, the Victorino/Napoli/Drew newbies bouncing back, Buchholz and Lester thriving -- will happen. But I think it's reasonable to expect that, oh, half of it does. And if Lester finds his old form but Buchholz can't stay healthy, Victorino hits like he did in '11 while Napoli needs a walker by midseason, Ellsbury is an MVP candidate while Papi gets hurt, that sort of split -- they still have a chance to be pretty good.Everything went wrong last year. They won 18 of their final 60 games. They lacked more than talent. They lacked competence. They will be much better in both regards this season.

Hope you're right with your prediction of 87 wins [for the Red Sox]. Maybe it's the pre-2004 in me popping up, but I'm not so optimistic. I'm old and old-school when it comes to baseball, and a shortstop who can save 50 runs a year really appeals to me. I should not judge Stephen by J.D., but I drew my conclusions by watching the former No. 7 and having him on a few Rotisserie teams. Except for the grand slam [in the 2007 ALCS against the Indians], of course, almost as big a hit as David Ortiz's homer in the first inning of Game 7 vs. the Yankees.
-- Peter S.

If Iglesias saves 50 runs over the course of a season, he will be the greatest defensive shortstop in the history of baseball, bar none. Brendan Ryan -- a decent comp for what Iglesias might ultimately become -- led the majors in Defensive Runs Saved by a shortstop last year ... with 27. Iglesias's sensational defense simply will not compensate for his wet noodle bat at this point. Give Drew a chance. If his ankle is right, he'll be capable at shortstop and an asset in the lineup.

finnshaq222.jpg I agree with your feelings on a trade involving either Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett for guys with questionable attitudes. It's just incredibly frustrating as a Celtics fan to see this team continue to fail to get a decent true center. Garnett doesn't count. He's told you he's really a 4; and at age 36 I think he might collapse from exhaustion banging around at the 5, basically by himself. I like Danny Ainge, but am I crazy to say he has completely failed in this regard? The best center we've had since Perk has been a 39-year-old Shaq. Is it really that hard?
-- Bob P.

You know ... it kind of is that hard. The results haven't been great, but given how challenging it is to fill in a roster already dotted with highly-compensated stars, I have no problem with the process. Trying to wring a little more high-quality play out of Shaq, Rasheed Wallace, and even Jermaine O'Neal as complementary players to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen-Rondo core made a lot of sense. It was something Red would have done, and did, with players like Pete Maravich, Bill Walton, Scott Wedman, or the Lakers with a guy like Bob McAdoo. It just didn't happen to work, but because it's so difficult to find a decent big man -- I mean, Michael Olowakandi was a No. 1 overall pick, Todd Fuller went ahead of Kobe Bryant, and on and on -- that it seems the best way to go is to take that risk on a player who actually has accomplished some things.

marrerodevenfinn222.JPGNo longer sold that Jose Iglesias is the shorttop of the future. He is more likely the next Rey Ordonez. I say let Drew man the job until Xander Bogaerts is ready, because he is the SS of the future. Or until they convert Will Middlebrooks to 1B and Bogaerts to 3B, when Deven Marerro is ready at SS. Either way, Iglesias is not the answer. If he can't hit AAA pitching after 2 years, he's a lost cause.
-- Peter G.

I don't know that he's a lost cause. While comparing him to Ozzie Smith or Alan Trammell at the same age, as his defenders have done, simply does not work (Ozzie was in the majors after one minor league season, and Trammell hit .300 at age 22 in his third full season). And anyone who thinks being the next Rey Ordonez is a compliment was familiar with him only from Web Gems. He had a .600 OPS in the majors -- miserable, and yet better than Iglesias's in Triple A after two years. I suppose there's a glimmer of hope in the Omar Vizquel comps -- he had just a .598 OPS in Triple A. But the hunch here is he gets passed by Bogaerts, and with Deven Marrero getting a chance to advance quickly, it's now or never for Iglesias with the Red Sox.

Given the media's recent (last two seasons) predictions of grandeur, why exactly should The Nation listen now that they predict A Bridge To Nowhere?
-- BigONo

Depends who you're listening to in the media. Lot of reasonable voices out there who explain their thinking -- PeteAbe, Gordon Edes, Alex Speier, and many others. I try to be among them. The "Best Team Ever'' stuff is the work of headline writers trying to get you to buy the paper. Be discerning in who you read and who you believe. Also, read and believe me, always.

I enjoy your coverage of the radio wars. While I listen to both stations the question I have is why is Jason Wolfe not taking a huge hit for WEEI?s troubles? A lot of this is on him and his decisions.
-- Howard F.

Been getting this question a lot lately, for obvious reasons. Jason played a huge role in WEEI's success, and also contributed to the institutional arrogance that put them into their current position. But I think he is taking a huge hit -- he had to fire Glenn Ordway, someone with whom he had a long, successful, lucrative run, and presumably someone who is a good friend. That couldn't have been easy, and it won't be his last difficult task. If he does survive this, and I actually believe he should, some of the burden should be off him. These recent decisions are on Jeff Brown, Entercom Boston's VP market manager and Jason's boss, and if they don't work beyond saving a few bucks, he deserves as much heat as Jason is receiving.

lewisreggiefinn222.jpgWhen I look back on Celts after 1st Big 3, I see Len Bias, Reggie Lewis and a bum lottery ping-pong ball. Can't the Celts hope for better draft luck next time around?
-- Duncan

It's certainly overdue -- perhaps sending someone other than M.L. Carr and his lousy just-tanked-for-this-chance karma would be a better idea this time. (Who was the lottery rep in the Greg Oden/Kevin Durant year? It was Wyc, right?) Sheesh, the first time around they weren't even lucky enough to get Keith Van-Bleepin' Horn. But the history of the post-Big Three Celtics is often retold without enough of an emphasis on Reggie Lewis's death. Len Bias was incredible, but given how many players in that '86 draft washed out because of drugs, who's to say that wouldn't have been his fate had he survived past the night after the draft? Reggie, though ... we already knew what we had and what he could be. It didn't go straight from Larry Bird to Dominique Wilkins, you know? Also: Ainge would have totally taken Durant.

Gun to your head, which game 7 are you taking back; Lakers in 2010 or Miami last year? Banner 18 or the chance to say you beat the team nobody said you could beat and that pill LeBron doesnt have a ring. I think I'm taking Miami. Thoughts?
-- Jake

Lakers. No doubt. None. If Perk had been healthy ... if Doc had given Nate Robinson a few extra minutes ... If Artest's cheap-shot on Ray Allen earlier in the series hadn't mess up his quad ... If Sheed didn't run out of gas ... If Artest's heave doesn't drop ...If KG didn't get out-rebounded by 15 by Pau Gasol, and yes, I feel horrible for bringing it up ... those are the ifs you've got to live with. LeBron? I have the utmost respect for the way he plays the game. Game 6 was the pivotal performance of his career, and in retrospect, it's starting to feel inevitable. Plus, that Celtics team overachieved.




Are you still convinced the Sox are going to trade Andrew Bailey? I never understood your logic. He was hurt most of last year, and had 7.04 ERA. Talk about selling low.
-- Todd

Not so much, in part because there will probably be attrition, and also because I haven't heard a peep about him wanting to close elsewhere. (Doesn't hurt that Bruce Rondon is hitting 100 miles per hour in Tigers camp, either.) But it still wouldn't completely surprise me -- there were rumors he was headed to Toronto as compensation for John Farrell before it ended up being Mike Aviles.

hernandezaaronretro222.JPGThe Aaron Hernandez deal seemed smart at the time. It was the exact thing they didn't do with other guys (Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins) that eventually got them into trouble. Doing Rob Gronkowski deal early certainly seemed smart too.

But did they swing too much to the other guardrail with Hernandez? Especially after they already locked up Gronkowski? Should they have waited for it to play out with Hernandez?

If they didn't do Hernandez deal early, he would be going into the last year of his rookie deal this year, at chump change.

What they gave him is more total dollars than it would take to keep Welker at this point, and the $16 million guaranteed dollars Hernandez got is probably in spitting distance of the guaranteed dollars Welker would want at this point. Same for the $8 million a year Hernandez is getting.

Anyway if you had to have one guy next year, Welker or Hernandez who would it be? in my opinion, hands down, Welker.
-- Larry

Interesting take. Hernandez is so talented and versatile, but he's lost some luster because of his struggles to stay on the field and his inconsistency in big games. (Is that fair? I think that's fair.) But given the choice right now, I take Hernandez without a second thought. He's just 23, and his best days should be ahead. No matter where Welker signs or the amount he signs for, at 32, there's no denying he'll be getting paid for past performance rather than what he is likely to be. Welker should have a couple more highly productive seasons ahead. I hope the Pats keep him. But forced to make a choice between one or the other, there's not really a choice at all.

Ever wonder what your demographic is for the chat? Might be interesting to put that up as a question (ie, are you 18-34, 34-50, etc.) Might be risky for you though. :)
-- DMV

Tend to think my demo is roughly my age group or younger, extraordinarily handsome, and generally much smarter than me. I suspect there's pretty decent demographic appeal there than, say, what you'd find in the comments section of a Bleacher Report slideshow.

I can't be the only one who thinks that Big Papi plays in less than 81 games this year.
-- Jackie

Beginning to think the same way, Jackie. He's 37, admitted recently that there was a partial tear in the Achilles' has played one game since last July 16, and doesn't exactly look like he was addicted to cardio (for understandable reasons) this offseason. He was great when healthy last year, but it's hard to fathom right now that he has 150 games or so ahead of him this year.

Alfonso Soriano is available from Cubs with significant salary relief. His OPS '10-12 .816/.754/.815. Jonny Gomes in the same span: .749/.704/.853. Worth a shot?
-- Thom H.

Meh. He did hit 32 homers last year, but he's redundant with Gomes. Maybe if he hit lefthanded. Actually wonder if he ends up with the Yankees since Curtis Granderson is out for a couple of months. Brian Cashman has denied it, which sometimes foreshadows it actually happening. By the way, I refuse to believe Soriano is 37. I still think of him as the young fella in the Yankees lineup who couldn't hit Pedro's breaking ball even if he had one of those giant red plastic bats.

dempsjefffinn222.JPGHow do you see Jeff Demps fitting into the Patriots offense next year?
-- Eric M.

Honestly, no clue. He obviously has electric speed and should be what they desperately need in the kicking game, but he's coming off a redshirt season and needed to put on some weight after making the transition from Olympic sprinter. Seems like overall expectations are higher than they should be. He was productive at Florida, but let's not anoint him the second coming of Percy Harvin until he, you know, actually plays some football. What did he have, three catches last preseason?

Every time I see a writer take a shot at Bobby Valentine, I'm reminded of a quote from "Married with Children"--"If you give a gun to a chimp, and the chimp shoots someone, don't blame the chimp." Thanks for 2012, Larry Lucchino!
-- Studio 00

Obviously. What you should do is name the chimp athletic director. Standard procedure.

Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, and the Patriots

  February 4, 2013 11:36 AM

Some scattered NFL thoughts while while wonder if "Steve Tasker" is Buster Olney's alter ego during football season ...

reedfinnsuper23.jpgIt's certainly understandable if the last couple of weeks have given Patriots fans a case of Anquan Boldin envy.

The Ravens' fearless, dependable receiver came through time and again in the Super Bowl, with six catches for 104 yards and the game's first touchdown. Two weeks ago, of course, he scored a pair of second half touchdowns as the Ravens ended the Patriots season in the AFC Championship game.

The Patriots could use someone exactly like him, and he's sure to be on the radar again in New England should he somehow end up a salary-cap casualty this offseason.

I say "again,'' because it's worth remembering that the Patriots were in on him three years ago, when his dissatisfaction with this contract led the Cardinals to deal him to the Ravens along with a fifth-round pick for third- and fourth-rounders in the 2010 draft.

For whatever reason, the Patriots didn't outbid the Ravens for Boldin -- perhaps it's because they didn't have a fourth-round pick, having dealt it to Oakland for Derrick Burgess, or perhaps they didn't want to meet Boldin's contract demands, which led to him immediately signing a four-year, $28-million deal with the Ravens, with $10 million guaranteed.

Instead, the day Boldin went to Baltimore (and Julius Peppers, another player they were reportedly pursuing, agreed to a contract worth potentially $91.5 million with the Bears), the Patriots took care of some in-house business, re-signing Vince Wilfork, Stephen Neal, and Tully Banta-Cain.

If they had a do-over on that day, you have to figure they'd pay the price for Boldin. I hope they get a chance to do so this offseason.

* * *

I know there was a time when I thought Phil Simms was an incisive analyst, but damned if I can remember it today.

It would not surprise me in the least if he's still sitting in the broadcast booth at the Superdome, debating with himself as to whether there should have been a flag on the final pass to Michael Crabtree while constantly contradicting himself and never coming to a real conclusion.

When did he become so reluctant to actually have an opinion? Was it before or after the snowball to the face? And how does Jim Nantz, who seemed annoyed at times at Simms's waffling, resist the temptation to say, "C'mon, friend, give me some analysis here."

Even before the blackout threw the entire production out of whack and exposed CBS's lack of preparation for such a circumstance, I found myself wishing for Cris Collinsworth, Al Michaels, and the NBC "Sunday Night Football" crew.

And don't even get me started on Shannon Sharpe, who carried himself like he was one Dennis Pitta injury away from a comeback.

* * *

I'm not sure this makes sense, but that's never stopped me before, so here it is: I'd be giddy if Ed Reed ends up with the Patriots, but I also don't think they should pursue him, presuming he gets paid based on his stature and past accomplishment rather than what he will be the next couple of years.

He still has tremendous instincts and intelligence, but he'll be 35 next year, seems to limp off the field at least once every game, and plays free safety when the Patriots' true need is a bruising strong safety.

Taking sentiment out of it, the timing just isn't right, and we'll just have go on lamenting what might have been had Bill Belichick chosen him instead of Daniel Graham in the first round of the 2002 draft.

* * *

John Harbaugh has always struck me as incredibly gracious in victory or defeat, but deep down he has to be as insanely competitive as his comically intense brother, doesn't he? I suspect he's just learned to hide it better and that both were equally guilty of flipping over the "Chutes and Ladders" board when they'd lose as kids.

* * *

Can Randy Moss win a jump ball anymore? I thought Colin Kaepernick should have taken at least one shot with him in the end zone, and Vernon Davis seems underutilized in the red zone as well. Part of his evolution will included breaking that odd fixation on Michael Crabtree, who is a good receiver, but not one worth habitually depending upon.

* * *

And I'll never get why the Niners didn't run Frank Gore right up the middle at least once on their final possession. Haloti Ngata was injured, and Ray Lewis was about as useful as a blood-stained suit. The Niners didn't play to their strengths on that fateful goal-line stand, nor did they play to the Ravens' weaknesses.

* * *

The more I see of Niners safety Dashon Goldson, the more I'm reminded of Patriots-era Lawyer Milloy. The pile moves backward when he comes rocketing on the TV screen to finish off a hit, but as a pass defender, well, he's a heck of a run-stopper.

* * *

Joe Flacco is a tremendous quarterback, and while the 11-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio this postseason confirms it, it's been the case for awhile. I'm convinced his slack-faced lack of charisma has actually delayed most fans from recognizing how good he really is, with one of the best arms in the league, the mobility to escape the pocket and throw strikes on the run, and the good sense to look Boldin's way when a first down absolutely must be secured.

* * *

As for today's Completely Random Football Card:


He's no Boldin, but he's probably the closest thing the Patriots have had, with touchdowns in seven consecutive playoff games from 2003-05. Givens and David Patten are two of the most underrated players of the Patriots' championship era.

Unconventional preview: Super Bowl

  January 31, 2013 08:59 PM

Welcome to the 19th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup ... that unfortunately has nothing to do with the Patriots this week. Yeah, like that little detail of their season's abrupt ending and the residual bitterness will stop the schtick. The Ravens, who unceremoniously halted the Patriots season two weeks ago with a 28-13 win in the AFC Championship game, are 3.5 point underdogs to Colin Kaepernick and the NFC Champion 49ers in what is a fascinating Super Bowl matchup. This game should have a little bit of everything, so let's get to it.

1. Joe Flacco: I suppose it's a backhanded compliment to say he's easily the best quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl for the Ravens, so let's just come out and admit it without a qualifier: He's really good. He's not the most charismatic leader, and he doesn't hit a particularly high percentage of his passes, but he throws a beautiful deep ball, habitually plays well in big games (eight TDs, no INTs this postseason), and really does not make many mistakes anymore. He needs to be at his best for the Ravens to win Sunday, and he's risen to every challenge so far.

2. Dashon Goldson: Man, why didn't the Patriots offer him more money? The hard-hitting Niners safety is exactly what they need in their secondary.

3. Frank Gore: Much if not most of the buzz when it comes to the Niners offense relates to dynamic second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and that's totally understandable. With a win Sunday, he'll have authored the most compelling tale of rapid ascent from relative obscurity to quarterbacking a Super Bowl champion since Tom Brady in 2001. But indications are that the Ravens will first and foremost focus on stopping Kaepernick from breaking loose in the running game, which means the unsung veteran Gore will get plenty of touches. Eight seasons and a couple of knee surgeries into his career, Gore is still a brute of a runner, and the educated hunch here is that he's the player who does the most to carry the Niners to their sixth Super Bowl victory Sunday.


1. Gets hit by Bernard Pollard so viciously he briefly wonders if he's wearing a Patriots uniform.

2. Gets pancaked blocked by Randy Moss.

3. Suffers an epiphany that his teammates regard Ed Reed as their true leader and cries for real for once.

4. Is mauled by a rogue pack of vengeful squirrels angry that he's destroyed their reputations as dancers.

5. Arrives at the stadium to find the white suit hanging in his locker.

6. Gets gored by Gore for the winning Niners touchdown. (Al or Frank. Either will suffice.)

7. Is told he's not allowed to join in any (rein)deer games (like football).

8. Tears a hamstring, two biceps and a groin during his pregame dance and can't go.

9. Spontaneous combustion, that real trick of the devil.


1. Seriously, which was the better throw, the one Joe Montana threads to John Taylor between two closing defenders, or the one Steve Young improbably if not practically impossibly sticks in there to Terrell Owens?

2. After listening to both these clips, with the great Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the former and Pat Summerall and John Madden equally brilliant on the latter (I love Summerall's understated calls), does it become even more evident that Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are nothing better than vanilla as far as top broadcast teams go?

As we were reminded again this week with his casual proclamation that he's the greatest receiver football has ever known, the NFL is a little bit more fun when Randy Moss is a part of it, and not just because there's always the chance his celebrations will cause a mortified Joe Buck to collapse on his fainting couch. Moss's unapologetic confidence -- call it arrogance if you wish -- is such that he probably thought he was the best player in the league last season, when he wasn't even in the league. There's no doubt in my mind that actually does believe he's better than Rice, and it doesn't matter one iota to him that no one agrees. Moss may be the most talented receiver ever, and the best deep threat, and maybe even the flashiest, but even his greatest feat -- catching a record 23 touchdown passes for the '07 Patriots -- is arguably less impressive than Rice catching 22 in 12 games during the strike-abbreviated '87 season. There's no contest between them as players, because there's no contest between Rice and anyone. But Moss is awesome in his own way, and I hope he scores the winning touchdown on Sunday.

Man, must be tough for Jim Harbaugh to coach against the team that he guided to a 5-7 record in 12 starts in 1998. The memories he must have of lighting up the sky with deep passes to Floyd Turner and Michael Jackson. Oh, right, and there's the brother thing, too. Honest question: Who would you rather have as a your coach going forward -- Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, or Bill Belichick? I imagine most of us around here go with Belichick without a second thought, and I'm with those who do. But these Harbaugh fellas are damn are good. Jim seems like an uptight control freak, but he's a genuine quarterback whisperer, and he does delegate, particularly to offensive coordinator Greg Roman. John's a little more outwardly laid-back, but there's a respectful give-and-take with his players, and there is clearly real substance there to get that veteran team to consistently play for him. He's the easier one to root for. But that doesn't apply to his team. The Niners are the better team, too, but not by much. Jim will trump big brother in what very well may be the first of a couple Niners Super Bowl victories over the few seasons. Niners 35, Ravens 31

Which team is closest to a championship?

  January 29, 2013 09:29 AM


New England sports fans have been so incredibly blessed during the last decade-plus, with the four major sports franchises (sorry, Revo) tallying seven championships since 2001. But we're also reminded of that old Tom Brady go-to line when he's asked which championship is his favorite: "The next one.''

I chatted with Kevin Paul Dupont on the topic of which Boston team will deliver that next one on "Globe 10.0" the other day. But two minutes of jovial bickering apparently didn't do the topic justice since the idea has been ricocheting around in my skull ever since, so here's a couple hundred bonus words on the topic ...

Championship contention? This franchise? I don't know. Do you know? I don't know.

I've gone on record time and again this winter as approving of Ben Cherington's long-range approach toward restoring this franchise's credibility on and off the field. Signing proven, respected veterans to short-term deals as the bridge to a core of prospects the organization truly believes in, all the while holding the reasonable expectation that previously established high-caliber players will return to health and/or form, is a very prudent way to go.

The 2013 Red Sox are going to be better than conventional wisdom suggests, in part because it's actually overlooked how dismal their roster was from August 1 on last season, when they lost 42 of their final 58 games. They're going to be likable and capable, and it feels like they have been neither for a long time, so at least we have that.

But does that translate to true contention? Probably not, unless a deep bullpen masks all question marks in the rotation, everyone in the lineup has a healthy, productive year, a premier player who fits their needs becomes available at midseason, and either Jackie Bradley or Xander Bogaerts emerges ahead of schedule. That's probably too much to ask, but at least the Red Sox will be worth your time again.

Next season of serious contention: I'm telling you, they'll be in the wild card mix this year, but that doesn't count, does it? Let's go with 2015, though I don't think even Cherington's crystal ball can provide an accurate forecast at this point.

If we couldn't admit it before Rajon Rondo's injury, we can now: The only way the Celtics were going to have a shot at reaching the NBA Finals is if Dwyane Wade went on a league-wide rampage of cheap shots unprecedented since the collective 1987 Pistons, with his misguided hackery, undercutting, and elbow-stomping somehow claiming teammate LeBron James along the way. So yes, we're saying there was a chance.

I'll miss watching Rondo doing stuff like this ...

... and this ...

... and I have no idea where Danny Ainge goes from here, though Zach Lowe's suggestion that the Celtics and Warriors might have a match with a Paul Pierce for Harrison Barnes/Richard Jefferson swap at least elicited a "hmmmm, interesting."

Next season of serious contention: Probably about the time Tim Duncan's son is eligible for the draft. He's five.

Rodney Harrison, whom Bill Belichick really should have cloned for future use during his peak years, is on The Dan Patrick Show as I'm writing this, and he just admitted to something that surprised me, though maybe it shouldn't. After some prodding by Patrick and a couple of verbal detours about the challenges of Super Bowl week, Harrison admitted that he thinks about the Patriots' Super Bowl loss in 2007 far more often than he considers the victories in 2003 and '04.

I suppose it's not news that he's tormented by the David Tyree catch, but it was a jarring reminder that the Patriots have had an almost unfathomable string of "what-ifs" since that last championship eight years ago. What if Harrison can pry that ball loose? What if Rob Gronkowski isn't injured last season and again this year? What if Deion Branch was still here in '06? What if ... well, that's enough. You don't require the reminders.

It's been a truly extraordinary dozen years for the Patriots -- they don't get enough credit for essentially turning over their entire roster save for the quarterback without as much as a hiccup -- and that should never be taken for granted. I just hope we never get to the point around here of remembering the disappointments ahead of the many victories.

Next season of serious contention: The pursuit of the elusive fourth ring -- that coveted "next one'' -- for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick begins anew in September.

Now, I'm not disregarding all of the people who lost income when the NHL owners and players were engaged in their petty little lockout showdown. But purely from a hockey sense, is it possible that all of the labor melodrama actually benefited the Bruins in a meaningful way?

A league-high 12 of their players went overseas, giving them somewhat of a conditioning advantage. The core of their championship team from two years ago is still intact, so perhaps training camp isn't as essential to them as it is to teams with considerable roster turnover. They have tremendous depth and should be able to navigate the condensed schedule with relative ease. Nathan Horton got extra time to make sure the clouds had gone away.

And how about that fortunate timing, essentially beginning their season as the Patriots were fading out? I think that went a long way toward limiting the potential lockout backlash, almost as if Boston fans realized, "Wait, how fortunate are we to be going from one championship contender right into the season of another?" OK, maybe it didn't quite work that way. You guys just can't resist hockey.

Next season of serious contention: We're five games into it. Thank goodness they came back.

Patriots were so good, and not good enough

  January 21, 2013 07:43 AM


FOXBOROUGH -- The image has become all too familiar, a solemn reminder worth a thousand expletives to Patriots fans. The shot of Tom Brady, eyes to the ground, shoulders slumped, inanimate crowd behind him, is no longer necessary as a reminder of the franchise's own unique purgatory.

We've seen the image before, last February against the conquering Giants in Indianapolis, and the winter before at the end of a Jets lockdown on the Gillette Stadium that becomes more unfathomable in retrospect with each passing season, and the season before against the same brash and fierce opponent that ended their season Sunday night. "Bummed Brady" has become the opposite of Red Auerbach's victory cigar in recent seasons, the confirmation that another season has ended short of the lofty, not-quite-attainable goal, that the confetti will fall on someone else.

Oh, the Patriots' prolonged run of excellence as a genuine championship contender virtually every season since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces is extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented, particularly in the salary-cap era. That must be acknowledged, even in the gray aftermath of the Ravens' 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium Sunday. The were well-positioned to win a Super Bowl this year, and they will be next barring catastrophe or accelerated aging by the still-exceptional quarterback. But that is about as much solace as can be found this morning. The Patriots have now gone eight seasons without being able secure a fourth Lombardi Trophy. This season of such promise ends with a lot of wins and another what-might-have been ending. They're so damn good, and not good enough.

There are probably statistics to counter the emotion, but it sure feels like a long time since Brady has commanded the Patriots to a playoff victory with his ability and smarts and sheer will, and it's hard not to notice that he's 7-7 in his last 14 playoff games after beginning his career an almost unfathomable 10-0. He surpassed Brett Favre as the all-time postseason passing yardage leader Sunday, a hollow record given the circumstances in which it was attained and one we suspect Brady could not value any less at the moment. The legacy he covets is as football's preeminent winner, and while it seems foolish to punish him for helming teams that lose in conference title games (twice) or in the final two minutes of a Super Bowl (twice), particularly since his closest peer of his era, Peyton Manning, has eight postseason one-and-dones on his résumé, But the reality is that the last eight seasons for the Patriots have been a run of unfulfilling brilliance.

Brady has not won a Super Bowl since 2004, when Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour and so many more long-since-departed stalwarts were still here. Yet if Brady's not the same quarterback he was then, he's off by just a minor calibration, with the wisdom of experience presumably making up for any minor erosion in skill. Yet that wisdom was shockingly absent during one pivotal moment Sunday. In the final moments of the first half, deep in Ravens territory, Brady inexplicably allowed the clock to tick to four seconds before calling a timeout after a scramble, thus forcing the Patriots to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. They went into the half with a 13-7 lead, but they left potential points on the field that they would never recoup.

That frustrating end to the half wasn't the only ominous twist. In the first quarter. Aqib Talib, the cornerback whose in-season acquisition from the Buccaneers stabilized the defensive backfield and allowed others to slide into more fitting roles, departed after the third defensive series, clutching his right hamstring. The injury came after Talib had again demonstrated his value, busting up a third-down pass to Anquan Boldin. He was replaced by Kyle Arrington. During the postgame, Flacco said the Ravens made a conscious effort to try to beat the Patriots with the pass. Such a strategy may have been less of a consideration -- and may have been less successful -- had Talib's season not ended three quarters before his teammates'.

Joe Flacco, the Ravens' strong-armed, much-improved quarterback, threw all three of his touchdown passes in the second half, and Brady, stunningly, could not come close to keeping pace, an outcome that was the opposite of the conventional expectation. The Patriots were shut out in the second half, the first time an opponent slapped a zero on them after the break since a 2009 game against the Jets. So much for the thought perpetrated here throughout the season that this was the most diversely talented collection of players Brady has had at his disposal since he's been here. Brandon Lloyd is decent but hardly dependable. Aaron Hernandez, an obvious choice to pick up the slack for injured Rob Gronkowski (can we agree we actually underestimated his absence and vow to never do so again?), was terrific in the first half but had just two receptions on five targets in the second, finishing with nine catches overall. There's still too much inconsistency in his game.

Then there is Wes Welker. He's been an exemplary Patriot, so easy to root for, so willing to do whatever it takes to make a play. He's made so many of those plays, with 672 regular-season receptions during his six seasons in New England, that it doesn't seem fair that a second straight season ends with discussion surrounding a play he should have made but couldn't. But it does. On the Patriots' first possession of the second half, they drove to the Baltimore 34, with a 24-yard strike to Welker plus a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Pollard seeming to tilt the momentum the Patriots' way. But on third-and-8, a wide-open Welker dropped Brady's on-target throw near the 20, forcing a punt. A chance to take a 20-7 lead was wasted, and while the mistake wasn't as instantly devastating as Welker's late drop that might have clinched Super Bowl XLVI, it was an easier catch and thus more egregious. Welker has not been part of a Super Bowl champion in New England, and with potential free agency looming, the chance may have slipped through his hands for good. Perhaps this is sentiment speaking, but here's hoping another comes his way. He can still be essential. If anything, he's depended upon too much.

The Patriots had designs of running the ball in the hurry-up offense until the aging Ravens gasped for breath and lost their grip, but Baltimore's will proved too strong, and the Patriots reverted to being a one-dimensional offense. They gained 108 yards on 28 carries, with just 33 yards coming in the second half. Stevan Ridley, who ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in his breakthrough second NFL season, was literally knocked out early in the fourth quarter on a vicious hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who apparently doesn't consider a game official until he has injured a Patriot. The injury was accompanied by insult -- Ridley, his lights turned off, plopped the ball to the turf. Baltimore recovered at the Patriots 47, and four plays later, Joe Flacco found Anquan Boldin for his second touchdown of the quarter. It was 28-13, and the lights were off for the rest of the Patriots as well.

I don't know about you, but I'll insist deep into the offseason that this year's roster, with a remodeled defense, was better than the one that got to the Super Bowl last year. That they're not going back only serves as evidence of how difficult it is, and so once again you, me, and perhaps even the guy in the photograph are left to ponder those days when they made winning championships seem so much easier.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Ravens

  January 17, 2013 05:30 PM

Welcome to the 18th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the Patriots, one win from their sixth Super Bowl appearance since 2001, host the tough Baltimore Ravens in a much-anticipated rematch of last year's AFC Championship.


RAY LEWIS: "So gonna mention me or what, son? You wrote all those words and didn't mention ol' No. 52. [Twitches.] I'm retiring, you know. Seventeen years, thousands of tackles, endless inspiration. Seventeen years. Seventeen. Years. Amen. I've believe I've told you time and again, through my football sermons and selfless leadership and interpretive dance, you'd better respect me. I've left my heart and soul on that field. [Twitches.] Seventeen years. And yet, all those words, no mention. No respect. Hmm. I see. If you don't pay proper respect to the most fearsome linebacker ever to dance like a squirrel, I'll catch up to you just like I do every running back after 12 yards of down field pursuit. Kinda wish I was wearing my home whites -- a white suit, if you get my drift. Ha ha, just kidding, son. Ray forgives. We're good. [Twitches.] Now, if you'll excuse me, I must ...



(Too much? Probably. But he did, as Drew Magary pointed out on Deadspin, essentially take credit for Joe Flacco's miracle completion to Jacoby Jones in the win over the Broncos. Which is somewhere between absurd and insane, and yet totally predictable. Enough Ray Lewis. Let's get to the details.)

Joe Flacco: He's 7-4 in the postseason, has won five playoff games on the road in his career, threw just 10 interceptions this year, dropped 382 pass yards on the Patriots in Week 3 and 973 total in their last three meetings, and unlike Matt Schaub, doesn't habitually throw the ball away on third down after dodging the first wave of pass rushers. He may not be elite, but he's getting there, and he's earned his respect.

Devin McCourty: I was surprised that he got a vote for the AP All-Pro team as a safety this year, since he just shifted over to the position after Aqib Talib's arrival. I'll be surprised if he doesn't get many more in the future. He's found his ideal role at safety, and I fully expect him to make at least one big play ranging to cut off a deep ball thrown down the right sideline by Flacco on Sunday.

Ed Reed: Lewis is getting all of the attention, and the tributes to his various accomplishments on the field are just, but it should also be acknowledged that Reed, one of the premier defensive playmakers in league history, could be playing his final game with the Ravens Sunday. He's 34 and has a little bit of gray in his hair now, and maybe he doesn't have much left to add to that highlight reel. But he deserves his share of tributes, too, and you can bet Bill Belichick has been giving him one during team meetings and film sessions this week. I hope it's Chung out, Reed in next year.

After Reed and perhaps Ray Rice, there may not be a player on the Ravens I respect more than Boldin, the talented, trustworthy, and extremely tough 32-year-old receiver. Boldin finished with 921 receiving yards during the regular season, but he has been at his best in the postseason, with 11 receptions for 216 yards and a touchdown in wins over Indianapolis and Denver. Presuming Talib's assignment is to spend Sunday evening running with deep-threat Torrey Smith, Boldin will likely be a difficult matchup over the middle of the field -- and it wouldn't come as a total shock if the former short-timer at quarterback during his Florida State days is an active participant in a trick play or two.

I think we'd all agree that it's coincidence more than a tribute to his abilities that James Ihedigbo is playing in his third consecutive AFC Championship game, particularly since there's the telling fact that he's doing it with his third team (Jets, Patriots, Ravens, and yes, the Jets, that butt-fumble of a franchise, really were in the AFC Championship game just two years ago.) He's a good teammate and a capable special-teams player and sub-replacement level at safety, which is sort of what I'm getting at here. Ihedigbo started at safety for the Patriots in last year's AFC Championship game. So did Patrick Chung. Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington were the cornerbacks. Sterling Moore saw significant time, and of course, made a game-saving pass breakup. In effect, they had two underachievers surrounded by journeymen. This year, it's so much better. With the arrival of Talib, the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard, and the shift of McCourty to safety, the Patriots defensive backfield is far superior to the one that was a couple of minutes from winning a Super Bowl a season ago.

There's some sentiment that Pees, who lost his job as the Patriots' defensive coordinator after the embarrassing no-show against the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, might gain some measure of revenge against his former team, what with his presumed relative knowledge of their offensive preferences and tendencies. Uh-huh, good luck with that revenge fantasy. Maybe the habitual spouters of conventional wisdom haven't noticed, but this isn't 2000 and the Ravens aren't the defensive terrors they used to be. Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and Lewis are aging and injured. Cornerback Lardarius Webb, arguably their best defensive player earlier in the year, is out for the season. They are coming off a double-overtime game in the high altitude of Denver, have been on the field for 186 plays over the past two weeks, and should be in no condition to deal with the Patriots' accelerated hurry-up offense in which Tom Brady should have no trouble identifying mismatches, especially if Lewis can't get off the field. The Ravens, with a deep, versatile offense, will score their share of points, but they won't be able to keep pace with the Patriots long enough to create much suspense. It's back to New Orleans, where the first championship of this extraordinary run began. Patriots 38, Ravens 27.

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 38, Texans 27. Final score: Patriots 41, Texans 28. Season record: 13-4. And for what it's worth, I'd have picked against them for the first time this season had they gone to Denver.)

Patriots can prevail without Gronkowski

  January 15, 2013 01:27 PM


There's no denying that Rob Gronkowski's absence adds degrees of difficulty to the Patriots' chances of overcoming the Baltimore Ravens Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium and advancing to their sixth Super Bowl since 2001.

Save for perhaps Randy Moss's vintage I'll-show-you performance in 2007, Gronk is the most unstoppable pass-catching force the Patriots have ever had. I'll take him at the peak of his powers over a motivated Moss without much of a second thought. And I liked and still like Moss.

So please don't count me among those underestimating Gronk's loss, even if I happen to believe in the talent remaining on the Patriots offense. There's no need to send out the bat signal for Kellen Winslow Jr. or Visanthe Shiancoe, not that they'd help much anyway. Gronk's void will be filled as much as possible by Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and the deep cache of weapons already in Brady's arsenal.

The small blessing, if we can call it that, is that this scenario is not a new one. They played five games without him after he first broke his arm November 18 against the Colts. They averaged 34.2 points per game while he was out. They will not find themselves in confused disarray, which was sometimes the case in the last Super Bowl when his injured ankle relegated him to a limping decoy.

bavaromark114.jpgThe Patriots can beat the Ravens without him, and I believe with their much-improved secondary and their diverse, rapid-fire offense -- among various other attributes -- they will be departing for New Orleans soon.

Me, I'm more frustrated we don't get to watch him anymore, at least for this season. Gronk, with his rampaging runs after the catch and comically ferocious celebratory spikes, is as fun to watch as any Patriot I can recall, and that includes Moss, an engaged Terry Glenn, young Curtis Martin, and even in a sense Tom Brady, whose efficient brilliance is so familiar and expected that it rarely dazzles (though that 33-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen Sunday was a recent, pure "Wow, we're lucky to watch this" moment).

His talent is of course otherworldly -- three seasons into his career, he's already among the most productive tight ends ever, with as many career touchdown catches (38) as John Mackey and one fewer than Mark Bavaro. Considering he'd be in the league for his blocking skills even if he had the hands of, say, Lovett Purnell, it does not require a leap of hyperbole to suggest he could be the greatest ever to play the position.

I'm not going to question why he was on the field Sunday -- the break is apparently in a slightly different spot that will always be at risk because of the nature of the first repair, and while his obvious protection of the injured wing suggested he didn't fully trust that it was healed, no one put his helmet on for him. Accepting the physical danger and brutal toll of the game, as Jason Taylor recently elaborated upon in gruesome detail, is turf tread by everyone who has ever played the game. Gronk knew what he was doing.

The frustration, for him and for us, is that he doesn't get to do what he does best Sunday, or two weeks beyond. It's not difficult to imagine a healthy Gronk exploiting a mismatch for the ages, beating the Ravens' Ray Lewis and turning the squirrel into proverbial road kill, or perhaps somehow avenging the season-altering ankle injury Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard caused last year.

But imagining it is all Patriots fans can do. Gronk is out, that massive and suddenly vulnerable forearm back in a cast, and while the team survives and possibly thrives without him, it's not the same.

We've seen the last of Gronk this year, but optimism prevails about this team and the player. This injury is not yet enough to make me wonder if we've already seen the best of him.

This should be Ray Lewis's last dance

  January 15, 2013 09:17 AM

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free throwaway lines for you ...

lewis.r.jpg1. The chance to watch the Patriots end Ray Lewis's praise-the-Lord-but-keep-the-camera-on-me charade is almost too delicious to contemplate. In defeat on the road, would he dare to do one final dance, perhaps called "Squirrel to Hibernation and then ESPN,'' in which he orders the Ravens' p.r. guy to put extra turf and random acorns on the field for him to toss around? He belongs in the NFL and the Self-Promotion Hall of Fames, joining Deion Sanders among others in both. But he's much better at the latter than the former, and has been for years.

2. If the Patriots go with their accelerated offense -- and if they don't immediately against an aging, injured Ravens defense that is coming off a double-overtime game in Denver's high altitude, you have to suspect John Fox has somehow taken over the play calling for Josh McDaniels -- Lewis will be completely exposed, particularly if Aaron Hernandez plays with the explosiveness and consistency he did against the Texans. With Rob Gronkowski out for the playoffs, the Patriots need Hernandez to be steadily excellent -- he wasn't in last year's Super Bowl loss -- and he'll get a great opportunity Sunday to prove he's as dependable as he is talented.

morsemikefinn113.JPG3. I'm not sold on Mike Morse as a Plan B if the Mike Napoli deal falls through. He's never played more than 146 games in a season, which he accomplished during his his 31-homer, .910 breakthrough season in 2011, and he's played more than 102 just twice. There's some appeal in watching the 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound former shortstop take aim at the Monster, but he's no safe bet to be durable, and acquiring him would cost legitimate prospects and/or roster players. Signing Napoli on a one-year deal seems like a better plan, even with the questions about how long his hip will hold up.

4. Wouldn't mind the Red Sox bringing back Casey Kotchman as a lefty option/defensive replacement. While it's probably fair to presume at this point that he's never going to live up to his pre-2005 billing as the sixth-best prospect in baseball, he's excellent with the glove, is one year removed from an .800 OPS season in 563 plate appearances with the Rays, and he won't be 30 until February.

Thumbnail image for eckersleyfinn114.jpg5. I mentioned on Twitter a week or so ago that on the back of Dennis Eckersley's 1992 baseball card -- the one pictured here -- he lists his favorite singer as Richard Marx. Good thing I let it stand on its own and resisted the usual snark or I might have had a story to tell along the lines of this one. (Is it me, or does the writer come across as the real jerk in this piece? I'll be right here waiting for your answer.)

6. Enjoyed my colleague Fluto Shinzawa's item in his notebook Sunday on Chris Bourque's quest for a spot on the Bruins' third line as he tries to establish himself as a member of the team for which his dad starred for so long. Figure it also has to be the first story in the Globe archives in which the phrase "Bourque's defensive shortcomings" appears, wouldn't you say?

7. Ed Reed was the 24th pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Players chosen ahead of him included David Carr, Joey Harrington, Mike Williams, Wendell Bryant, Donte' Stallworth, William Green, T.J. Duckett, Ashley Lelie, and, by the Patriots, Daniel Graham. I suspect Reed, not Lewis, is the most respected opponent among the Patriots this week, and he's a free agent after this season. Though he's 34 and injuries have taken a toll, here's hoping Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium is a precursor to Reed playing his home games in Foxborough next season.

8. Even with Jared Sullinger's emergence as a legitimate starter on a good team -- his instincts, intelligence, and extraordinary hands, especially rebounding in traffic, have made him a favorite already -- the Celtics are going to require another rebounder if they're going to play on as far as they hope. Danny Ainge will make a trade. I just hope it can be consummated without giving up Courtney Lee, who after an ugly start has really found his niche as a dogged defender who can run on the break with Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. He fits more than Jason Terry does at this point.

9. Bradley is so tenacious and matrix-quick that he's the rare player whom you look forward to watching play defense. He recently tormented James Harden so relentlessly that late in the game the Houston star probably half-expected Bradley to leap out of his beard to poke the ball away. And his ability to force turnovers and turn them into easy scoring opportunities is essential on a team that goes through weird droughts in its halfcourt sets. So we can say it, right? His value to the Celtics was not exaggerated whatsoever in his absence.

armondhillfinn114.jpg10. As for today's Completely Random Basketball card:

You might recognize him as the stoic assistant coach usually seated a few seats down from Doc Rivers on the Celtics bench, but he preceded Doc as the Hawks' point guard (and feeling the four-letter-word wrath of Hubie Brown) and was briefly his teammate during 1983-84, Doc's first season and Hill's last.

Shane Vereen runs with opportunity

  January 13, 2013 04:28 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- If you had Shane Vereen pegged as the Patriots' secret weapon in this one, well, hey, nice job helping Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels mastermind such an unexpected and successful game-plan. Might I suggest submitting your résumé for the Jets' offensive coordinator opening?

Obligatory facetiousness aside, let's now commence with the platitudes, starting with Vereen, the Patriots' second-year running back out of Cal who submitted the performance of his young career last night in the Patriots' 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in their AFC Divisional round matchup.

Vereen, whose role was increased by an early thumb injury to versatile Danny Woodhead, scored three touchdowns (two receiving) while becoming the first Patriot since current teammate Deion Branch in the 2004 AFC Championship at Pittsburgh to have a rushing and receiving touchdown in the same postseason game.

The Patriots' occasionally suspenseful victory capped an extraordinary weekend in the NFL, with the Broncos' Peyton Manning faltering in the postseason again, the Niners' Colin Kaepernick running past the beleaguered Packers seemingly at will, and the Falcons surviving the Seahawks.

The Patriots will now host the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game for the second straight year, and it should be a brawl. A sixth trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick/Tom Brady is era at stake, not to mention a chance at ending Ray Lewis's brilliant run of Hall-of-Fame-caliber linebacker play and astonishing gift for self-aggrandizement.

"It's going to be a great matchup,'' said Vereen, who was surrounded by a media swarm that spilled past a couple of teammates' lockers. "It's always between us and the Ravens.''

He finished with seven carries for 41 yards and five receptions for 83 yards, and the final numbers don't seem to emphasize how well he played his large role on short notice.

"I don't come into the game knowing how much anyone is going to play,'' he said. "I come into the game ready to go and if my number is called I do my best.''

Vereen's best was plenty good enough, but his was not the only superb performance. Brady became the winningest quarterback in postseason history, surpassing boyhood hero Joe Montana with a 17th career playoff win in which he threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns while expertly avoiding Texans pass-rusher extraordinaire J.J. Watt. Wes Welker had eight catches for 137 yards, and Aaron Hernandez contributed six catches for 85 yards. The trio were outstanding even by their usual high standards.

But Vereen's was the most unexpected superb performance, given that he contributed exactly 400 yards (251 rushing, 149 receiving, or precisely 25 total yards per game) to the Patriots' offense this season. He had flashes of explosiveness and potential in his sophomore season -- an 83-yard touchdown reception in Week 12 against the Jets stands out -- but after fumbling on his only touch against the 49ers in Week 15, he had just eight touches over the final three games.

"Shane had a great game,'' said Brady. "Really just a huge growing-up moment for him, so special. There were a lot of guys that made a lot of plays, and we needed it.''

His resilience deserves acknowledgment. Patriots players, when faced with an injury to a teammate, often cite a next-man-up philosophy, and it's something we'll be hearing even more this week in the wake of the lousy news that Rob Gronkowski will miss the remainder of the postseason after reinjuring his left forearm/wrist last night. The next-man-up approach may seem callous, but it keeps them focused, and Vereen's performance was that weathered cliche come to life. His opportunity arrived, and he seized it.

"We hate to lose Woody,'' said Vereen. "He is such a key part of our offense, but at the same time all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to step up when somebody does go down.''

Brady acknowledged that it took the Patriots offense a few possessions to find its bearings after losing both Woodhead and Gronkowski.

"We had a whole plan built for [Gronkowski] and Woody,'' said Brady. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change. I think a little bit of it was 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?' But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game. Obviously it's a bummer to lose anybody, but someone of Rob's importance or Danny's importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void, whether it's this game or any game after.

Vereen's ability to step up and help the offense find its rhythm became evident in the first quarter -- he contributed two crucial plays on the Patriots' first scoring drive. Houston had jumped to a 3-0 lead before the smoke from the pregame fireworks cleared, settling for Shayne Graham's 27-yard field goal three plays after Danial Manning's 94-yard kickoff return put them on the doorstep. But on the Patriots' third possession, Vereen's 25-yard catch and run, which included a nifty spin move, took the ball from the Houston 40 to the 15 with 2:38 left in the first quarter. One 14-yard catch by Aaron Hernandez later, Vereen ran in from the 1 to put the Patriots up, 7-3, capping a six-play, 65-yard drive.

The Patriots never trailed again, in part because Vereen, who tied a season-high with 12 touches, never relented. On the Patriots' next possession, Vereen accounted for 36 yards on three carries, with back-to-back carries totaling 30 yards coming when the Patriots sped up the pace to keep the Texans from getting extra defensive backs off the field. He also had a 12-yard catch on the drive, which culminated with a 37-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to give the Patriots a 10-3 lead with 10:16 left in the second quarter.

Less than seven minutes later, there was Vereen again, putting the finishing touches on a seven-play, 80-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown reception in which the Texans appeared to forget to account for him. Perhaps they were too fixated on Welker, who had six catches for 120 yards in the first half and must have given Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips at least a fleeting A.J. Green flashback with his 47-yard catch down the left sideline on the play previous to the score, which made it 17-3.

The Texans scored the final 10 points of the first half, including a Foster scoring run with 1:15 remaining and, after a sluggish three-and-out by the Patriots, a 55-yard field goal by Graham, who had missed his two attempts from beyond 50 yards during the regular season.

The Texans' rally -- and the Patriots' apparent passivity on their final first-half possession, which contradicted the the foxhole mentality Belichick uncharacteristically espoused during the week -- might have added an element of extra tension to the proceedings for those expecting a blowout. But it didn't last. The Patriots eased nerves in living rooms throughout New England with a seven-play, 69-yard drive to begin the half, an Aaron Hernandez 40-yard catch-and-run setting up an eight-yard scoring run by Stevan Ridley to give the Patriots a 24-13 lead.

Brandon Lloyd's 5-yard touchdown catch and another Vereen score -- this one a spectacular catch covering 33 yards to put the Patriots up 38-13 -- ended all real suspense, even as the Texans closed to within 10 with 5:11 left.

The Texans weren't tomato cans, as the saying goes. But they were no match for Shane Vereen, and who saw that coming?

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Texans

  January 11, 2013 12:02 PM

Welcome to the 17th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the second-seeded Patriots host the third-seeded Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Patriots routed the Texans, 42-14, on Dec. 10, sending them into a semi-tailspin in which they lost three of the final four games and a shot at a bye. An uneventful victory over the Bengals last week set up their shot at vengeance against the Patriots. Let's get to the details.

Arian Foster: Though he ran for just 46 yards on 15 carries in the previous meeting, you have to respect the Texans running back's talent at least as much as you do his avatar-making skills. He's the closest thing in style I've ever seen to Eric Dickerson, his graceful, long open-field strides accounting for a chunk of his 1,421 rushing yards this year. (He has 4,264 rushing yards over the past three seasons.) The Patriots -- perhaps with an assist to the Texans' play-calling -- contained him on Dec. 10, and Gary Kubiak probably abandoned him too soon. It's hard to imagine he'll be so easily contained again.

wilforkfinn11.jpgVince Wilfork: All of the attention J.J. Watt receives is completely justified -- he's relentless and extraordinarily athletic, and he's as an easy a choice for defensive player of the year as I can remember. But it must be noted that he was not the most disruptive defensive lineman in the first meeting between the teams. That designation belongs to Vince Wilfork, who dominated the interior of the Texans offensive line in what might have been his best performance since he did the very same thing to the Ravens in last year's AFC Championship game. He had a sack, a pass defensed, four tackles, and his presence allowed the linebackers behind him to make play after play as Foster was bottled up. Wilfork has had one of his best seasons in what is a borderline Hall of Fame career. The Patriots need another gem from him Sunday.

J.J. Watt: Watt had just four tackles in the last meeting, but he did hit Brady five times, and if the Texans are going to create the turnovers they'll need to beat the Patriots, chances are he'll be in the middle of it. His presence makes it imperative again that Brady can make his reads and get rid of the ball quickly. If the Patriots have faced an opponent this year who deserves more respect than Watt, it's that Buick-pushing quarterback in Denver and no one else.

The Patriots and Texans really don't have a whole lot of mutual history, having played just four times since the latter's inception in 2002. The Texans have beaten them once, 34-27 in 2009 in the game in which the Reliant Stadium turf claimed Wes Welker's knee as a victim. I'm sure as heck not using that as our video clip of the week in this space, and there's not much of a film vault to draw from given the teams' limited history. (That was probably evident the first time they played this season, we went with Houston Oilers highlights.) So for lack of anything better -- the footage from the Patriots' 42-14 win Dec. 10 is still too new, I say -- here's a clip of the NFL Network's America's Game look at the 2004 Super Bowl champion Patriots. I'm not sure why this comes up on a search for "Patriots-Texans,'' but it's tremendous, especially the segment on Steve Belichick, and at this time of the year, it's never a bad idea to get a reminder of what a Super Bowl champion looks like..

Give me a One-Armed Gronk over a Two-Armed Hoomanawanui any day. Of course, a Two-Armed Rob Gronkowski is much preferable, and there is some level of concern as to whether that busted left forearm that cost him five late-season games is fully healed. It was apparent that he was protecting it upon his return in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, the wing hanging indifferently by his side even as he was running with the football. Hopefully the two weeks of rest have helped him return to full strength. His value to the passing game needs no further explanation -- he had a touchdown against the Dolphins even as he shook the rust off -- and his extraordinary blocking makes the workday easier for Stevan Ridley and the running backs. Here's looking forward to seeing him close to 100 percent come Sunday. Now, if Wade Phillips would just say he's no A.J. Green ...

Quick question: Is that Matt Schaub, or Brad Garrett's slightly less giant brother? Discuss. I suppose if we're in the game of attempting to give the Texans quarterback credit, it could be noted that he has one more career postseason victory than current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. So he's got that going for him, at least for now. But make no mistake: the pressure is on him this week to finally deliver in a big moment. He's put up big numbers -- in 2009 he threw for 4,770 yards and 29 TDs -- but the defining win of his career came ... well, last week, in that snoozer against the Bengals. A large part of his legacy as a quarterback is on the line this week. Given how underwhelming he's been recently, it's hard to find someone clear of mind who expects him to deliver.

Well, sure, it's possible. There's some extraordinary talent on this team, from Foster to Watt to Andre Johnson, and any one of them is capable of making a significant impact on the outcome of this game. But is it likely? I don't think so, and for more than a couple of reasons. There's no indication that Wade Phillips will have the good sense to change up what he always does and resist blitzing Brady, who stuck the Texans defense for the three touchdowns when they blitzed in the previous meeting. Whether it's a reflection of their coach, their quarterback, or their team culture, the Texans just don't seem to have the collective mental toughness to come into a place where they lost by 28 points a month ago in what they called the biggest game in their history. As Ted Johnson noted in my media column today, the Texans need a lot to go right -- Foster has to run for 150 or so yards so they can control the clock, Schaub needs to convert consistently on third-and-short, and they need to win the turnover battle by at least two. It's too much for them to ask, and while the Texans will probably keep it closer, they're not leaving with a new "playoff win'' pin for their letter jackets. Meet me in Denver. Patriots 38, Texans 27.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 27, Dolphins 13. Final score: Patriots 28, Dolphins 0. Season record: 12-4.

Texans-Patriots won't be tough to watch

  January 7, 2013 02:41 AM


I wouldn't go so far as to suggest it's the best weekend of the sports year -- that designation is reserved for that little basketball tournament in March when the field pares to 16 -- but considering how much collective anticipation NFL fans understandably shared for the just-concluded four-game wild-card round, it's fair to suggest in retrospect that it was a bit of a letdown, no?

The Packers and Ravens cruised to uneventful, apparently inevitable victories past overmatched opponents. The Texans' win over the Bengals wasn't much better, though an on-target deep ball or two from Andy Dalton might have changed that. And while the Redskins-Seahawks matchup lived up to the billing as the weekend's must-see matchup for a while, only Seattle fans and the misguided stragglers who thought Pete Carroll was a decent coach here enjoyed how it played out. The rest of us were left with the lousy feeling of wondering whether Robert Griffin III's knee and Mike Shanahan's soul were in equal tatters.

Any hope for four suspenseful games gave way to scattered random questions. Who graduated first from the Elaine Benes School of Dance, Ray Lewis or Pitbull?

What's in that little shed RGIII retreated to when he was hurt or injured or however his balky knee was classified early in the game?

How could the at least adequate Brian Hoyer spent so much of the season waiting for a roster spot to open up when the likes of Joe Webb, a one-man Spergon Wynn tribute band, were one injury from a starting role?

Of course, this weekend's unfulfilled expectations don't temper the enthusiasm for what's ahead, nor should they. Packers-Niners, Falcons-Seahawks, and Ravens-Broncos are all fascinating showdowns that could play out with countless plot twists and outcomes, and around here we get to shift our football focus back to the rested Patriots, who will host the Texans Sunday, 34 days after figuratively repossessing their lettermen jackets with a 42-14 victory on "Monday Night Football" that proved pivotal in determining the seeding in the AFC.

Personally, I was hoping the Ravens would end up as the Patriots' divisional playoff foe, if only for the opportunity to watch them end the mythical career -- emphasis on myth -- of Ray Lewis, a wonderful player for several years but one of the most unaccountable, preening narcissists in league history. Gillette would have been a fine place to end the shameful hagiography.

But a rematch with the Texans will have to do, and the story lines are interesting if easily conjured. After beginning the season 11-1, Houston lost three of its final four games to punt away a bye, the trip to Foxborough a reminder of one opportunity already muffed. If there's any question about the Patriots being favored by 9.5 points, keep in mind that in the first meeting they were up 21 in the first half and glided from there -- without Rob Gronkowski.

Revenge will be an obvious motivator for the Texans, but let's not confuse them with the 2010 Jets, who avenged a 45-3 late-season loss to the Patriots by ending their season with a 28-21 victory in the divisional round a little more than a month later. Those Jets were tougher and more talented than the punch line they have become. Given the stakes, that loss is worth a small reminder, however, and Bill Belichick acknowledged during a conference call over the weekend that what happened that season has been talked about "many, many times." I recommend sparing yourself from the many, many other reminders on sports radio this week.

If there's a playoff opponent in recent Patriots history of which the Texans are reminiscent, it's probably the 2006 or '07 San Diego Chargers. The '06 team went 14-2, racked up 492 points, lost to the Patriots in the divisional round (see: Troy Brown vs. Marlon McCree), and like these Texans, had Wade Phillips as a defensive coordinator. The '07 team is a better comp even though Phillips had moved on -- they went 11-5, scored 412 points (two fewer than this year's Texans team) and had extraordinary talent that wasn't good enough to overcome the 17-0 Patriots in the AFC Championship game.

They were also ... well, I'm reluctant to call any NFL player or team soft, especially in the hours after a player like RGIII is convinced it's part of the job requirement to play through an injury that robbed him of a large portion of his skill. So let's put it this way. The Texans weren't ready for prime-time before, but I seriously doubt we'll see Arian Foster bundled up in a giant parka on the sidelines, LaDainian Tomlinson-style, while his team forges on without him.

fosterarianfinn127.jpgIf the Texans are going to give a good accounting in their latest Biggest Game In Franchise History, their superstars must lead them. Defensive player of the year shoo-in J.J. Watt's motor is permanently stuck on overdrive, and Foster, who had just 46 yards against the Patriots, ran for 140 against the Bengals. Cincinnati would be wise to put the ball in his hands 30-plus times and see where he can take them.

The Texans may not be as tough or tested as the Patriots, but their victory over the Bengals showed at least some measure of fortitude. Still, it was the Bengals, who from what I gather haven't won a playoff game since Boobie Clark was their feature back. The Texans have earned a couple of stripes, but can they gain full redemption on the same field where it took a turn for the worse just a month ago? Knowing what we think we know about them -- and what we do know about the Patriots -- let's just say this: letterman jackets can be bought. But banners, they have to be earned.

Patriots won't look ahead, but ...

  December 30, 2012 05:29 PM

Thumbnail image for gronkfinntd1231.jpg

Around here, we should require no reminder to let all of the scenes play out, to let the entire plot untangle before we offer our review of the film.

The Denver Broncos and Patriots both began the season 3-3, and any serious frustrations and concerns fans here or in the Colorado area code had six weeks into the season -- Can Peyton Manning still throw downfield? Can the Patriots cover anyone? -- should have long since given way to the optimism that comes from victorious Sunday after victorious Sunday, right up until you find your team is a favorite in The Tournament.

We shouldn't have drawn conclusions early in the season, and we probably should not now. But man, the foreshadowing of the final scenes are tough to ignore on this morning after the final Sunday of the regular season, one in which the Broncos and Patriots locked up the respective Nos. 1 and 2 seeds with impressive authority.

Right now, it is impossible to resist envisioning how at the least the early stages of the postseason will play out. So how about we allow the Patriots to avoid any more bumps and bruises, breeze past the ancillary details and warmup acts, and just skip ahead to January 20 at Sports Authority Stadium and the inevitable AFC Championship Game classic-in-waiting with Manning and the Broncos?

Thumbnail image for manningpeytonfinn1231.jpgbradytom65finn.JPGI know, I know, we're not supposed to think that way, let alone say it or put it in print. One game at a time and all that. And Patriots players surely have been trained to know better than to even consider looking past the bye week, let alone the Texans, Ravens, or Colts, their potential AFC Divisional Playoff opponents. If Brady has had a thought about another duel with Manning, his generational and historic rival, surely it was a fleeting one.

The Patriots must focus on the task at hand, which is simultaneously getting as healthy as possible over the next two weeks -- can we now acknowledge that the bye is essential for this talented but hobbling team? -- while preparing for that yet-to-be-determined opponent. But for us, the couch-bound commentariat, looking ahead is an enjoyable temptation, especially after pretty much everything save for a Broncos loss to the Chiefs -- a wish ultimately too unrealistic to be fulfilled -- went according to plan Sunday.

The top-seeded Texans lost to the inspired Colts, and Gary Kubiak's Chargers-soft team has been reeling since its 28-point loss to the Patriots roughly a month ago. I suspect those infamous lettermen jackets, given the team's 1-3 record since their unveiling, will end up in the bonfire at the next pep rally. There was even some satisfaction to be found in the NFC, where the Giants, those two-time Super Bowl spoilers, were eliminated.

All right, in the here and now, you have to feel good about the state of the Patriots. The 28-0 shutout of the shivering Dolphins was one of those encouraging, empowering regular-season finales, somewhat reminiscent of the 38-6 rout of the hapless Panthers in 2001, the 31-0 vengeful whitewashing of the Bills in '03, or even the methodical 21-7 win over the Niners in '04. It's just the way a championship aspirer is supposed to end the regular season, with a tune-up to make sure all parts of the machine are working in unison.

Coming off a sluggish win over lowly Jacksonville that left Brady infuriated, the Patriots were all business Sunday. It felt like they were constantly on the Miami 30-yard-line or so and threatening, and you saw what you needed to see. The One-Armed Gronk returned after a five-week absence, making his first catch midway through the first quarter and opening up the field for others as only he does for a Wes Welker scoring grab seconds later. It was great to see him again.

Stevan Ridley ran for two scores and didn't put the ball on the ground, encouraging signs given his tough and skilled running style is going to be crucial to postseason success. Danny Woodhead capped a truly excellent season with another strong performance (eight touches on offense, 97 yards), and oncoming Justin Francis led a shorthanded-but-swarming defense with three sacks, which is 0.5 less than Mark Anderson and Andre Carter had combined all season.

The only aggravation was that ultimate NFL equalizer -- an injury to a key player. While Jim Nantz and Phil Simms prattled on about seeding and Dolphins kicker Nate Kaeding warmed up for one of his traditional late-season misses, Patriots fans held their collective breath as Rob Ninkovich, who is just now gaining national notice for all of the Vrabelian things he does, had to be be helped off the field with what the team said was hip injury.

Here's hoping the bye week helps his recovery, because the challenge would be tougher without him. But barring catastrophe, I still believe the Patriots will meet it. I've felt for several weeks now that this would be another Super Bowl season. I still do. Now we just know the route. It begins two weeks from now in Foxborough and it goes through Denver.

It should be noted that this the first time the Broncos and the Patriots have entered the playoffs 1-2 since the '96 postseason. The Patriots advanced to New Orleans that year. Sixteen seasons later -- and 11 after the first championship of this historic run was secured on the same site -- they will again.

Not that we're getting ahead of ourselves or anything.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Dolphins II

  December 27, 2012 09:52 PM


Welcome to the 16th and final regular-season installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish.

The 11-4 Patriots, coming off sluggish 23-16 win over the Jaguars, wrap up the regular season and determine their playoff seeding when they take on Don Nottingham Jim Kiick Benny Malone Delvin Williams Sammy Smith Bernie Parmalee Abdul-Karim Al-Jabbar Ricky Williams Reggie Bush and the 7-8 Miami Dolphins.

Let's get to the details.

1. Brandon Lloyd: Yeah, I know, he's got his flaws. He's not big on yards after the catch, he hasn't been much of a deep threat, and he still isn't entirely simpatico with Tom Brady on his reads. But you probably knew all of those things, since for whatever reason the negative is often dwelled upon when it comes to Lloyd at the expense of all that he has brought to the offense. I don't know that the Patriots have ever had a better receiver along the sidelines, and his knack for the spectacular has been fun to watch. Lloyd enters Sunday's game with 902 receiving yards, and I hope he has another 100 or so in him against the Dolphins. Should he go over 1,000 yards for the season, perhaps that would put an end to all foolish Chad Ochocinco comparisons for good.

2. Brian Hartline: In the first meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins this season, Hartline had five receptions for 84 yards. Solid numbers, but they could have been spectacular had rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill been able to find him when he was wide open on at least a couple of his other five targets. Hartline has over 1,000 receiving yards this season, and he'll bump up that number provided that his quarterback does a better job of getting him the ball Sunday.

3. Dont'a Hightower: I have little doubt that he's going to be a very valuable and versatile cog in this defense for at least the next half-dozen years, but the camera on Sunday caught him in jogging-it mode when there was a play to be made at least once, and special-teams lifer Tracy White outplayed him against the Jaguars. Letting the quality of the opponent determine effort level is a common rookie mistake, but it's one Hightower needs to grow out of immediately.

I've long admired Bill Barnwell's football writing -- whether the outlet was Patriots Daily, Football Outsiders, his contributions to the Patriots Maple Street Press Annuals I edited, or now at Grantland -- for many reasons, but at the top of the attributes list is his determination not to let the facts become clouded by conventional wisdom. He's true to what he sees and what the data tells him, which is why he has extra credibility when he does something seemingly unconventional -- such as, say, selecting Ninkovich as one of the linebackers on his AFC All-Pro team. Here's what he wrote:

I'll excuse you if you take a step back from the computer screen right now, but Ninkovich always seems to show up when the Patriots need him most. He's managed to make huge plays in a number of games over the past year, most notably when he strip-sacked Mark Sanchez to end the Pats-Jets overtime game earlier this year. His impact stretches across the stat sheet, as Ninkovich ranks among the league leaders in sacks (eight), stuffs (seven), and forced fumbles (five). Once a practice squad journeyman and backup long snapper, Ninkovich has become an essential part of the New England defense virtually overnight.

Ninkovich has become sort of a less-heralded version of Mike Vrabel, minus all the goal-line touchdown receptions. He's not Vrabel's equal, but he's a reasonable facsimile, and that's pretty impressive for a guy who bounced back and forth between the Dolphins and Saints before he was an under-the-radar signing by the Patriots in August 2009.

Speaking of former Dolphins who are thriving with the Patriots, here's an updated scorecard on the deal that sent Wes Welker from Miami to New England for second- and seventh-round picks in March 2007.

Welker with the Patriots (regular season): 92 games, 664 receptions, 7,365 yards, 36 touchdowns.

Second-round pick with the Dolphins: Center Samson Satele started all 32 games during his two seasons in Miami before he was traded to the Raiders to make room for center Jake Grove. He's now with the Colts.

Seventh-round pick with the Dolphins: Defensive end Abraham Wright out of Colorado never played a game for Miami after injuring his knee during training camp.

Figure that's a timely update given the opponent and that we're currently in the season of giving. There haven't been many football gifts to the Patriots through the years better than that one.

This 14-minute-plus clip from the NBC pregame show before the Patriots-Dolphins AFC Championship game in 1985 is gold for many reasons, not the least of which is the reminder of how enjoyable Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were as a broadcast team during their '80s heyday. I recommend watching the entire flashback if you've got a few minutes, but if you don't, just skip ahead to the 9-minute mark and some hilariously canned trash-talk between Julius Adams and a completely goofy Dan Marino, who apparently found the time to record the clip in between pushing Isotoners and yelling at Mark Duper and Mark Clayton.

Well, a lot, I'd think, which makes for a fun day of football. The best-case scenario is a Texans loss to the Colts in the 1 p.m. game, which would allow the Patriots to secure a bye with a win no matter what the Broncos do against the Chiefs. That seems more than feasible, though I wonder how much of a priority Bill Belchick will put on resting some of his battered regulars such as Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, and the entire offensive line more or less. The hunch here is that at the end of the day, the Patriots wind up as the No. 2 seed and get that much-needed week of rest before the games that determine legacies begin. Patriots 27, Dolphins 13

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 45, Jaguars 17. Final score: Patriots 23, Jaguars 16: Season record: 11-4.)

Tom Brady, Patriots take lumps in victory

  December 24, 2012 08:19 AM


They won.


They won.

In the general scheme of the NFL, nothing matters more than whether a particular game is chalked up in the W column or the L column. It's trite and rudimentary, sure, but it's the trite and rudimentary truth. Potential and expectations lie, but the standings do not.

The fella surveying the scene in the above photo will take a frustrating win over a loss that comes with encouraging signs every single time. Which is why Bill Belichick's postgame mood after the Patriots' 23-16 win over the allegedly hapless Jacksonville Jaguars was better than his string of monosyllabic snorts after the 41-34 loss to the Niners a week ago.

The Patriots began Sunday with 10 wins and a shot at a first-round bye. They end it with 11 wins and -- in part thanks to the Texans' loss to the Minnesota Petersons -- a still-reasonable shot at that first-round bye.

They won. Exhale. They did what they needed to do. This was no sequel to the bizarre, late loss to the lousy Miami Dolphins in 2004. Only the Red Sox celebrate eight-year anniversaries.

Playing the Jaguars, who entered with a 2-12 record and an apparently unjust reputation for going through the motions, was a situation that should not have required an escape. But when one was necessary, the Patriots pulled off their Houdini routine, with Patrick Chung intercepting Chad Henne's pass on the game's final play. It was the maligned Chung's second interception of the afternoon, one more indicator that this game didn't follow any ordinary game plan.

So now that we've reminded and reestablished, in way too many words, that a win is a win is a win, feel free to join along in the brief hunt for context and the briefer but necessary airing of grievances.

First, context. Or more precisely, the utter lack thereof at the moment. It's pretty much impossible to get a read on the Patriots' Super Bowl chances at the moment, because there has been wild fluctuation in their play, as well as the play of some of their chief competitors.

After their 42-14 dismantling of the Texans two weeks ago, there was a giddiness that has been familiar this time of year during this decade-plus run. They were rolling, and anyone east of Denver who watched them that Monday night had to believe they were the heavy favorite in the AFC. They looked like world-beaters, potential champions. If you're particularly optimistic, probable champions.

But six days later on the same field, they were late arrivals against the powerful Niners, falling behind 31-3 before scoring 28 points in fewer than 15 minutes to tie a game they would eventually lose. Cue the Belichick snorts, dim the giddiness.

Sunday's ugly win did little to offer a gauge on the likelihood of winning that fourth Super Bowl at the same place they won their first. Frankly, after watching the Texans lose to the Vikings, the Ravens drive a stake through the Giants, the Broncos continue to breeze through their cushy schedule with a victory over the Browns, and the Seahawks' ferocious dismantling of the Niners, it's a fool's errand to try to project anything week-to-week in this league right now. The trends are as scattered as a Jets quarterback's passes.

Which is where the grievances -- one primary grievance, really -- come in to play. There's no doubt in my mind that the Patriots can win the Super Bowl this year; I've believed for a while and still believe that they will win the AFC, bye or no bye, and wouldn't a showdown/rematch with Pete Carroll's Seahawks or the Niners be something?

But man, they have to do a better job of preventing Tom Brady from being spindled and mutilated. It's one thing to succumb to the Niners' pass rush a couple of times. That's going to happen. But Sunday, Brady was sacked three times and hit -- often belted -- nine more by the Jaguars. He's lucky he was in good enough condition to rip into his teammates for their lack of effort and execution before the media was permitted in the locker room after the game.

The Patriots are dealing with more than the usual array of late-season injuries -- Aaron Hernandez's inconsistency is in part due to his physical state, Brandon Spikes and Alfonzo Dennard stayed behind with Rob Gronkowski Sunday, and Aqib Talib probably should have too, given that he was limping around like Fred Sanford. But continuing to put Brady in danger endangers everything, and there will be plenty of concern about the condition of his right hand after he bounced it off Jason Babin's helmet while throwing a pass.

It's at the point where after the latest vicious hit, you hold your breath until he gets up. Thank goodness he did, every time, ultimately delivering the win, and so the Patriots and their fans could exhale yesterday when all was said and done. A bye is still in play. It could have been worse.

The Dolphins are next up, the final regular season matchup before the games that determine legacies and reputations begin.

I don't know about you, but a win by any means or margin -- and no more bruises for Brady and his most essential teammates -- sound like reasonable requests to me.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Jaguars

  December 21, 2012 11:27 AM

Welcome to the 15th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. The 10-4 Patriots, coming off a wild 41-31 loss to the Niners Monday night, get a moment to exhale when they take on Mark Brunell Rob Johnson Jonathan Quinn Byron Leftwich David Garrard Quinn Gray Blaine Gabbert and the wretched 2-12 future-home-of-Tim Tebow Jacksonville Jaguars. Let's get to the details.

Cecil Shorts III: The Jaguars are 31st in the league in total offense, 31st in total defense, 31st in points scored, and 29th in points allowed. Their best player, Maurice Jones-Drew, the league's top rusher last year, has not played since Week 7 because of a foot injury and did not practice Thursday. Chad Henne is their quarterback, and while he's comparably competent to Blaine Gabbert and has had his moments against the Patriots, he's Chad Henne, for pete's sake. As you may have surmised by their .142 winning percentage, there's not a lot worth watching on the Jaguars unless rubbernecking at ineptitude is your thing. So by semi-default, I'll be keeping an eye on Shorts, the second-year deep-threat out of Mount Union with the cool name and increasingly impressive statistics (49 catches, 925 yards, 7 touchdowns).

Stevan Ridley: Ridley has four fumbles, two lost, in 252 carries this season. Old friend BenJarvus Green-Ellis, renowned for never coughing up the ball during his time with the Patriots, has three this season, two lost, in 263 carries for the Bengals. I'm not dismissing Ridley's recent troubles in holding on to the football -- it's impossible not to have some concern that he may commit a pivotal turnover in the playoffs. But I desperately hope he doesn't get buried because of this. Ridley has been an essential contributor to the Patriots' offense this season (1,105 yards, 10 rushing touchdowns), and his ascent is one reason some of us believe this year's team is superior to last year's AFC champs. I'll always wonder if he could have made a difference in the Super Bowl last year had he not been relegated to the doghouse. Continuing to have faith in him is a risk worth taking.

Jeremy Mincey: A sixth-round pick of the Patriots in 2006, he never played a down for the team, and stands as the rare discard who has gone on to success elsewhere. He has 10 sacks and six forced fumbles for the Jaguars over the past two seasons.

Arguably the greatest player in Jaguars history and a respected Patriot for his final two seasons, Taylor ranks 15th in NFL history with 11,695 rushing yards, which I believe is 100 yards or so more than Adrian Peterson's total so far this season.

What Taylor accomplished in his 13 NFL seasons is all the more remarkable considering he missed more than a quarter of his career with injuries, having played in 153 out of a possible 208 games by my rudimentary calculations. In a weird, ironic way, maybe all of the injuries helped his longevity by keeping his legs fresh.

Despite the durability issues, Taylor truly was a special back, running with an uncommon blend of power and speed when he was at his best. The Jaguars drafted in him in the first round in 1998 -- the same year the Patriots selected Robert Edwards -- and he ended New England's season that year, running for 162 yards in Jacksonville's 25-10 victory over Scott Zolak and the Patriots in the AFC playoffs. His peak was probably five years later, when at age 27 he ran 345 times for 1,572 yards.

Always a favorite at this address, I wish he'd been able to stay healthy -- a recurring lament, sure, and it's possible he pulled his hamstring during this photoshoot -- during his two seasons here, because he still could get four yards a pop with talent and guile while showing flashes from time to time of the threat he once was.

Good thing Ed Hochuli wasn't the ref that night. He'd still be explaining how electricity works.

(Also: Jim Gray, sideline reporter. The worst.)

(Also, Part II: It gets lost in all of the amazing moments that have happened over the past decade or so, but the 1996 Patriots' run to the Super Bowl was an absolute blast, probably the most enjoyable Patriots team of my lifetime to that point.)

No. No, it is not. Sure, I suppose there are cautionary tales of a Patriots team underestimating or playing poorly late in the season against an opponent that should be easily outclassed, especially if you're willing to go back eight years. But obviously it's rare, very rare, and though even Bill Belichick struggled to come up with platitudes and plaudits for the Jags this week, focus should not be an issue after Sunday's tough loss to the Niners. Tom Brady will extend his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass to 47, seven shy of Drew Brees's record, before giving way to Ryan Mallett, Ridley will get through the game without putting the ball on the ground, and Henne's attempts to go deep to Shorts and Justin Blackmon won't come close to keeping pace with the Patriots' historically potent offense. No drama, no worries, and one more win closer to the games that really matter. Patriots 45, Jaguars 17.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 31, Niners 21. Final score: Niners 41, Patriots 34. Season record: 10-4.

Here's hoping Patriots, Niners meet again

  December 17, 2012 08:32 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- Well, sign me up for the sequel to that right now.

For much of this season -- heck, even as far back as the immediate aftermath of the disappointment in Indianapolis last February -- the recurring football wish in this space is that February 3 in New Orleans would deliver us a third Super Bowl showdown between the Patriots and the Giants.

The catharsis of getting that fourth Super Bowl victory against the franchise that has been been both lucky and good in denying the Patriots twice seemed both appropriate and reasonable.

But after Sunday night's abstract, thrilling, ultimately frustrating 41-34 loss to the ferocious San Francisco 49ers, that wish has evaporated like, oh, a 28-point lead against a ticked-off Tom Brady. And not just because the Giants don't appear, at least for the moment, capable of living up to the NFC end of the bargain.

We've found something better, just as potentially fulfilling and even more fascinating. Play it again, Patriots and Niners. Now this is the matchup I want to see in Super Bowl XLVII. You with me?

I know, I know -- one game at a time, we're getting ahead of ourselves, it's a long, difficult road just to get there, platitude, platitude, cliche, cliche, all of that. Of course. The Niners are still battling for their division title, with their biggest game of the season not the pelt they just claimed, but the one ahead Sunday night at Seattle.

(Aside: You bet I'm mystified by a football universe in which Pete Carroll has taken a turn for the ruthless, fake punting up 30 points Sunday, and the Patriots are falling behind by four touchdowns at home to anyone in December, a month in which they'd had 20 consecutive victories on their home turf.)

And as exhilarating as it was to watch Brady rally the Patriots with four unanswered touchdowns in a span of 14 minutes and 17 seconds in the second half -- the sequence, and I just know you're reading along with me from the game book at home, was Danny Woodhead touchdown run, Andy Lee punt, Brady touchdown run, Andy Lee punt, Aaron Hernandez touchdown catch, Andy Lee punt, Danny Woodhead touchdown run -- the reality is that they still lost, and a better opportunity may have been lost with it.

The Denver Broncos, winners of nine in a row and now 11-3 behind Tim Tebow's successor, you know, that Buick-pushing what's-his-name, slipped past the Patriots into the No. 2 spot in the conference standings behind the Houston Texans (12-2).

With home games against Cleveland and Kansas City ahead, the Broncos aren't losing again before the playoffs barring catastrophe, while the Texans would have to lose to the Vikings and Colts with the Patriots winning out in order to be supplanted as a top-two seed.

The loss all but assured that the Patriots will require detours through Houston and Denver to get to New Orleans. That is a gauntlet. Coming just six days after the Patriots' affirming, now-we're-rolling 42-14 destruction of the Texans, it was undeniably a frustrating step backward, and that early-season loss to the Cardinals looks worse by the week.

"They won, give them credit. I'm more worried about our team. Talk to Jim [Harbaugh] about his team. We just didn't do a good enough job,'' Belichick said. "We did some things that were all right tonight, but not enough of them. We made too many mistakes. We just did too many things that weren't good.''

It's true, and they are not difficult to pinpoint. The Niners' 7-0 lead after the first quarter felt like 17-0 so thoroughly did they dominate, and less than five minutes into the third quarter the score did jibe with their performance -- they went up 31-3 after the first of Michael Crabtree's two touchdown receptions. His second proved the winner, coming one play after a special-teams disaster -- a recurring theme -- allowed LaMichael James to return the kickoff 62 yards after the Patriots had tied it at 31-31. Crabtree's winning catch was the third one-play touchdown drive of the night for the Niners, which tells you something, and whatever it is does not reflect well on the Patriots.

What else wasn't good? Well, Stevan Ridley is getting slapped with the Fumbler label again, having coughed up the football once and nearly doing so earlier in the game, and it has to stop. They need him -- I'll always wonder if he might have made a difference against the Giants had he not been stapled to the bench for similar ball-protection infractions -- but first they need to be able to trust him.

It would have been nice, too, had the Patriots been able to recover more than just one of the Niners' six official fumbles, or had the offense not delayed its arrival until the second half.

"It was just execution.'' said Tom Brady, who surpassed 4,000 passing yards on the season, threw his 30th touchdown pass to keep his consecutive games streak with a TD throw alive at 48, and didn't seem to particularly care about any of the milestones. "It wasn't like there was a magic formula to what we were doing. We just stopped killing ourselves. We just can't turn the ball over and we can't miss plays that we have opportunities at."

There's frustration in not being able to turn the comeback into victory and more secure playoff positioning, and it would have been cool symmetry for Brady to join his boyhood hero Joe Montana as the only quarterback to rally his team from a 28-point deficit to win in the regular season. But good things, encouraging things, did occur -- Brandon Lloyd submitted his best game as a Patriot, with 10 catches for 190 yards, and don't look now but he has a decent shot at a 1,000-yard season. Woodhead proved essential in moderation yet again. Most important, the Patriots showed their competitive spirit won't be broken against an extraordinarily fast and physical opponent, even when the deficit might seem insurmountable to skeptics and couch-bound coordinators.

Man, what a game that was, an entertaining, unpredictable, no-quit-in-anyone bout between two outstanding teams. Ed Hochuli couldn't even explain some of what was going on, though did he ever try. It's a game to appreciate, even if the outcome means you can't truly enjoy it.

The reality of who the Patriots are is in the middle between what we saw last week and this one. They're not as unstoppable as they looked against the Texans, and not as inept as they were through the first half against the Niners. But their championship aspirations are real. The Niners, a damn good team, won this round, and barely.

Here's hoping there's a second six or so weeks from now. I suspect the lesson has been learned and the Patriots will show up well before halftime for that one.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-49ers

  December 14, 2012 06:26 PM

Welcome to the 14th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. The 10-3 Patriots, coming off a 42-14 Monday night throttling of the AFC top-seed-for-the-moment Houston Texans, face their second elite opponent in six days when they take on John Brodie Steve DeBerg Joe Montana Steve Young Jim Druckenmiller That Goat Farmer Guy Picked Ahead of Brady Alex Smith Colin Kaepernick and the hard-hitting 9-3-1 Niners. Let's get to the details.

Aldon Smith: The Niners' freakishly talented second-year end has 19.5 sacks, including a record 5.5 in one game against the Bears. He needs three in the final three games to tie Michael Strahan's single-season Favre-assisted NFL record, and if the Patriots can limit him to one, that would have to be considered a victory. Wanna feel old? He was born nine months and three days after Joe Montana, John Taylor and the Niners beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII.

Wes Welker: No, he didn't have his best game against the Texans, with a couple of drops among his three catches for 52 yards. But chances are he will be essential against the Niners' ferocious pass-rush, and a more typical 10-catch, 100-yard performance is probable.

Colin Kaepernick: Since taking over for Alex Smith during the Week 11 tie with the Rams, the strong-armed and swift second-year quarterback has completed 67 percent of his passes. A week ago, his 50-yard scoring run was the key play in the win over the Dolphins. And though he just recently began accruing playing time, he has a higher quarterback ranking than the likes of Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, and Andy Dalton. While the Patriots may well puzzle him and solve the Pistol, it's safe to presume that Kaepernick presents much more of a challenge than the marginal game-manager Smith.

There's no chance Brady requires a reminder, of course, even after all that he's accomplished. But just for the sport of it, here again is the "Brady 6" -- the half-dozen quarterbacks chosen ahead of him in the 2000 NFL Draft: Tee Martin, Marc Bulger, Chris Redman, Spergon Wynn, Chad Pennington, and Giovanni Carmazzi, who went to Brady's beloved Niners in the third round and never threw an NFL regular-season pass.

If you don't want to click on the Carmazzi portion of the "Brady 6" in the above clip, here are the two most relevant sentences.

"He lives two hours north of San Francisco, and describes himself as as a yoga-exercising farmer. [Pause for a close-up of a goat.] He has five goats."

His linkedin page, however, suggests a more mainstream existence. Also, there is no mention of his current goat count.

Sometimes Moss's ridiculous 2007 -- in which he had a record 23 touchdown receptions and was 2 minutes away from being able to say he scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl -- feels like just a few calendars' worth of Sundays ago. Other times, he feels like closer to a decade than just five years -- it feels like such a fundamentally different offensive era it's easy to overlook that for at least a couple of games he was teammates with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. After spending last year out of football, he's found and apparently accepted his niche at age 35 as a role player (21 receptions) for the Niners. The respect is genuine and mutual between him and Bill Belichick, but I wouldn't put it past him to pull off one extraordinary and long touchdown reception Sunday, a flashback to some pretty good times.

WHILE WE WAIT FOR THE INEVITABLE FOOTAGE OF JOHN HARBAUGH ON "PARKER LEWIS CAN'T LOSE" TO EMERGE ... This clip, unearthed by Doug Farrar at Yahoo!'s tremendous Shutdown Corner blog, of current Niners coach and then-Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh appearing on "Saved By The Bell" is an entire wheel of early '90s cheese. Kudos to Harbaugh, though -- he sold his role as Screech's good-hearted football-playing cousin pretty well considering he looks -- and still acts -- like the kind of guy who in high school would have bounced Screech off a couple of lockers just because he could. Slater totally would have put him in his place, though.


This, from Greg Garber's January 2008 feature on Tom Brady for ESPN.com:

On the day Joe Montana threw the pass that became "The Catch," Brady was in the stands at Candlestick Park. He was 4½ years old, and he cried through most of the first half because his dad wouldn't buy him a foam "No. 1" finger. The Bradys had season tickets to the 49ers games, and little Tom always wore his Montana jersey.

OK, admit it -- at least once, you've looked at this footage, maybe searched for a ticked-off kid in a No. 16 jersey, and wondered where he was sitting, haven't you?

PREDICTION, OR 'IS THIS THE WEEK THIS NITWIT FINALLY PICKS AGAINST THE PATRIOTS? No. But almost. How can you not have enormous respect for this 49ers team, particularly the defense, which features not only the aforementioned Aldon Smith, but also the fierce Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman ... the pure talent and tireless energy of the entire group is enviable, and to notice that they are second in the league in total defense is to wonder how they're not ahead of Pittsburgh. Their matchup with the Patriots' No. 1-ranked offense is the definition of a clash,, and there may be another level of intrigue if Rob Gronkowski returns from his broken forearm. In a sense, my pick comes down to believing that the Patriots' improving defense, which has forced 34 turnovers and has everyone in the proper place after the acquisition of Aqib Talib, forces young Kaepernick into the kind of costly mistakes that his counterpart won't make. It's perhaps a Super Bowl preview, and undoubtedly the Patriots' toughest test yet. Behind Brady, they'll pass. Patriots 31, Niners 21.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 41, Texans 27. Final score: Patriots 42, Texans 14. Season record: 10-3.

For Patriots, no jacket required

  December 11, 2012 10:19 AM

Thumbnail image for 2012-12-11T022904Z_01_FOX06_RTRMDNP_3_NFL.jpg

FOXBOROUGH -- The Houston Texans showed up at Gillette Stadium Sunday night adorned in letterman jackets purchased just for the occasion, an attempt at a unifying sartorial gesture masterminded by Shaun Cody and Connor Barwin, and possibly Joe Maddon.

So much for dressing for success. Forty-two Patriots points and 60 minutes of embarrassment later, the Texans departed looking like a rag-tag junior varsity, having been put in their place by the big man on campus who has embarrassed so many other wannabes before. The lesson, delivered in blunt fashion by Tom Brady once and again, was this: Good idea buying those jackets, fellas. Because I think we all know you're not earning one at my expense.

Brady threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, Aaron Hernandez had a pair of scoring receptions, and an improving defense stalled the Texans' potent offense as the Patriots scored the game's first 28 points en route to a 42-14 victory over Houston (11-2), the top seed in the AFC.

Well, for now. The Patriots (10-3) are No. 2 in the current AFC standings. But Monday they proved they are the team to beat.

"That's a good locker room in there right now,'' said Patriots coach Bill Belichick during his postgame press conference. "Those guys feel real good about the way they played, and they should. The players really did a heck of a job tonight, all the way across the board. We got good contributions from all three phases. I thought these guys really tried to play the game the way we need to play it. Houston is a good a football team, but we just did a few things better than they did tonight.''

That's about as effusive as Belichick gets, but it's understandable -- even with the tough 49ers due in Sunday and so much still at stake, this is a victory worth savoring. Sure, the Texans may have arrived at Gillette Stadium dressed like they were paying homage to "Happy Days'' and confident Monday night would be just that, but the visitors did not try to hide the importance of this game in establishing their credibility as a true contender.

Wide receiver Andre Johnson suggested it was the biggest game in franchise history, a curious statement given the Texans played two playoff games last season, but indicative of how Houston valued the chance to make a statement against the perennially championship-contending Patriots.

The Texans' reputation would have been made with a win. They'd have been branded as The Team To Beat. Instead, it was the Patriots who made a statement, one that has been building through their seven consecutive victories since that silly loss in Seattle: The road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxborough. Again? You'd better believe it.

Brady affably refused to acknowledge as much after the game, but this victory had the feel of a message game. At their best during this extraordinary 11-season-and-still-going run, the Patriots have found tremendous motivation and satisfaction in putting a supposed contender -- particularly one that talks a lot or is getting credit for things it hasn't yet accomplished -- in its place. In style and substance, it reminded me of a win the 2003-2004 teams so often put together en route to an eventual celebration beneath a sky of falling confetti.

Brady was so pumped up after his 37-yard touchdown pass to the unjustly maligned Brandon Lloyd to cap a brutally efficient six-play, 82-yard first-quarter drive to put the Patriots up 14-0 that you'd have thought yappy former Steeler Anthony Smith was in coverage. He was even more animated after he ran for six yards on third and 5 to keep a drive alive on the final play of the third quarter. This meant more than the usual W, though he wasn't about to admit it.

"I don't run too often, so I've got to show them I can do it a little bit. I was pretty fired up at that point,'' Brady said. A couple of questions later, he denied that there was any motivation to be found in the hype surrounding the Texans. "Well, they deserve it,'' he said after leading the Patriots to 419 total yards, 27 first-downs, and a 50 percent conversion rate on third down. "They're a good team, so they deserve a lot of the credit."

Meanwhile, Belichick dismissed the question of whether Brady is the Most Valuable Player in a way only Donald Trump's good buddy Bob can. "I don't know,'' Belichick said. "We don't play everybody in the league. He's our quarterback and we're glad we've got him.''

OK then. Let's turn to Texans coach Gary Kubiak, who knows brilliant quarterback play when he sees it, having backed up and later served as the offensive coordinator for John Elway in Denver as well as winning a championship as the QB coach for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. His appreciation of Brady was more apparent than any disappointment he had in his own team's performance.

"That's the type of team they are,'' said Kubiak. "They make you look really bad. They're hurrying up and getting in a formation and if you're not on top of your stuff, No. 12 is not going to miss it. He doesn't miss many, and he sure as hell didn't tonight. That's what it takes to get to where that team has been for a long time. They did it again tonight. Credit to them."

If this movie seems familiar, well, it should. What the Patriots are accomplishing now is an enhanced version of what they pulled off last season. The offense, on pace for 581 points, which would be eight shy of the NFL record set in 2007, is more versatile than it is has ever been. Shadow-roster refugees such as Donte' Stallworth are contributing -- he had a 63-yard touchdown reception -- and Rob Gronkowski, an offense unto himself, should be back in a week or two.

But it's not just about the offense; something good is happening on the opportunistic, hard-hitting defense, which is getting extraordinary weekly performances out of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, while Brandon Spikes sets the physical tone in the way Rodney Harrison or Lawyer Milloy used to. If Aqib Talib's hip is OK, the pieces are finally in the right places in the secondary, especially now that Devin McCourty is thriving as a play-making safety -- his interception in the end zone thwarted Houston's second drive.

It may not have felt like December in New England -- it was 59 degrees at opening kickoff, so who needs a jacket anyway, Barwin? -- but the results were the same. The Patriots have now won 20 consecutive games at home in December. This is their time of year, and based on recent performance and results, who's betting now against us saying the same thing in February?

The only suspense in the second half, if you care about such matters, was the question of when Belichick would relieve Brady, who did take more than the usual amount of hard hits. Let the record show that second-year backup Ryan Mallett got 5 minutes and 9 seconds of playing time.

Whether that's enough for him to receive the proverbial varsity letter is undetermined. What we do know after this decade-plus of extraordinary success is that here in New England is that such honors are earned, not bought or prematurely bestowed.

Bo Jackson is still a draw

  December 10, 2012 01:27 PM


It probably should not come as a surprise that the documentary on Bo Jackson, which debuted Saturday, is the highest-rated film yet in ESPN's superb "30 for 30'' series, earning a 2.3 rating in major markets. "You Don't Know Bo'' was a perfect marriage and near-perfect execution of subject and format. I'm not sure which I've looked forward to more this week -- that film, or Monday's Patriots-Texans game. Both had the anticipatory vibe of major events.

The "30 for 30'' series, originally conceived by Bill Simmons as a way for ESPN to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2009 by celebrating stories, moments, and personalities that shaped the sports landscape along the way, is an extraordinary ongoing success and now includes more than 50 films under its own or the "ESPN Presents" umbrella.

My personal rating of "You Don't Know Bo," which was directed by Michael Bonfiglio, among "30 for 30" films more or less corresponds with the Nielsen ratings. My four previous favorites are "The Best That Never Was" (directed by Jonathan Hock, on former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree), "The Two Escobars" (Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist), "Into the Wind" (directed by Steve Nash and Ezra Holland, on Terry Fox) and "The Announcement" (Nelson George). Bo makes five. Organize them any way you see fit.

You almost wonder why Bo, whose did-he-really-just-do-that? athletic feats as an outfielder for the Kansas City Royals and as a running back/hobbyist for the Los Angeles Raiders made him a legend in his own, unfortunately abbreviated, time, wasn't a topic sooner. He's one of the first names I thought of when the project was announced. His 50th birthday was last week -- yeah, it was that long ago -- so this is as appropriate a time as any to pay proper homage.

Of course, you knew the legend of Bo. At least, I hope you did, and Saturday's film served as an entertaining, damn-they-got-this-right reminder rather than an introduction. He was an understated, matter-of-fact but engaging interview, clearly proud of his accomplishments but not defined by them. We were awed, but his shrug-and-a-smile tenor suggests that's who he always was, and thus expected to be.

I supposed I had some minor -- well, they aren't even big enough to be gripes. Call them observations of a trained nitpicker. I would have liked to have heard from football/baseball combo athletes who attempted the same crossover move, such as Brian Jordan or Deion Sanders, and yes, that's the only time I'll ever say I want to hear from Deion Sanders. Mark Gubicza and Marcellus Wiley were perhaps too prominent at the expense of more anecdotal voices, and there was redundancy in some talking heads' praise of his physical talent. Perhaps some more former teammates (though George Brett, who admitted he put off going to the bathroom to watch Bo hit, was tremendous) or a contemporary running back who marveled at Bo like the rest of us could have added more nuance.

And I disagree that he was a mythical figure in part because of a smaller media universe -- there was "SportsCenter'' to provide every amazing highlight no matter the season. The difference is that there was no Skip and Stephen A. to boil up some fake outrage the next morning. We saw what we needed and wanted to see with Bo -- the public trampling of Brian Bosworth on "Monday Night Football,'' the home run off Rick Reuschel in the '89 All-Star game -- without all of the ancillary noise.

But as I get older and farther away from Bo's late-'80s and early-'90s heyday as a sports and cultural icon, I've sometimes wondered whether the generations of sports fans that followed thought we were doing the "back in my day ...'' old guy's routine, that he couldn't have been the impossibly superheroic meteor we fans of a certain age reminisce about. You had to see Gale Sayers or Tony C. yourself, like your dad or granddad did, you know?

But he's one athlete whose highlights render hyperbole ineffective, and whether it was a former coach pointing out where he hit a home run that may or may not have ever landed, or footage of him running full speed up a wall while wearing spikes or leaving the Seattle Seahawks defense in his vapors, it was pleasant reaffirmation that Bo Jackson still resonates. Perhaps best of all is the coda at the end, when he hangs out in what he calls his man cave -- middle-aged Bo isn't above middle-aged-man jargon -- while carving arrows after growing bored watching football with his wife. There is no discernible regret that it ended so fast, no lament to be found. And you realize that Bo always knew and stayed true to the real Bo, even when the rest of us were reveling in the whirlwind.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Texans

  December 7, 2012 08:54 AM

Welcome to the 13th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the 9-3 Patriots, who clinched their ninth AFC title in 10 seasons last Sunday, prepare for their showdown of the season (so far) in a Monday night matchup against David Carr Dave Ragone Tony Banks Matt Leinart Matt Schaub and the 11-1 Houston Texans. It has the potential to be a thriller, with added element of playoff positioning at stake. Let's get to the details.

Jerod Mayo: He's second in the NFL in tackles, at least by the NFL's measure, and he's coming off what my colleague Greg Bedard called "his finest game this season'' that included a sack and a couple of other big plays in the running game. His unassuming manner and steady but not flashy play probably work against him, but should he contribute to stopping Arian Foster in the same manner he did in shutting down Reggie Bush last week, maybe he'll get his due attention.

Andre Johnson: Wasn't this guy supposed to have slowed down this season? Weren't the recurring hamstring issues supposed to have robbed him of a step? We should all age so gracefully. Johnson, 31, has 74 catches for 1,114 yards this season, his eighth in the NFL after being drafted third overall by the Texans in 2003. Johnson had 14 catches for 273 yards in Week 10 against Jacksonville, then followed that up with nine receptions for 188 yards on Thanksgiving against the Lions. I suspect we're going to find out a lot about Aqib Talib Monday night.

Patriots guards: Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Patriots' game-clinching 16-play drive late in the Miami game is that they ran the ball down the Dolphins' throats behind a line that was absent starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly. Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald were stellar on that drive, but Tom Brady also got belted a couple of times in that game, and the Patriots haven't faced an inside pass rush like the Texans' since last February. Mankins practiced Thursday, an encouraging sign, because his return may be essential this week.

Call it a pre-grievance, because I'm pretty sure I'll have one after ESPN's "Monday Night Football'' broadcast. Jon Gruden has already said this season that J.J. Watt is a future Hall of Famer -- he may be right, but the kid had played all of 21 NFL games at that point -- and is better at his position than any other player is at his particular position in the league. Now, don't get me wrong -- Watt is an absolute force, and as dependable as Nate Solder has been, you wish all those mock drafts that had the Patriots getting him with the 17th pick last year had become reality -- but you just know that Gruden is going to take his Watt-gushing to Favreian levels Monday night. I'm already annoyed by it. I'm pre-annoyed.

I recognize it's not the same franchise, the Texans' predecessor in Houston having packed up their fear-striking powder blue jerseys and bolted for Tennessee in 1997. But I'm old and incurably retro, and when I think of Houston and the NFL, I still think of the Oilers, and Earl Campbell, and the greatest prime-of-career running back I've ever seen, and then I inevitably end up watching the above clip a dozen times. I'll betcha Isiah Robertson, the Rams linebacker who probably still has the oil derrick decal from Campbell's helmet imprinted in his chest, does too.

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Vince Wilfork praised the Texans and specifically Johnson for their considerable ability this week, and I'm sure his sentiments are genuine. But I bet in a private moment both he and Johnson would agree that this year's Houston edition doesn't have the pure, top-of-the-depth chart talent of a team that they both played on more than a decade ago.

The 2001 Miami Hurricanes are widely regarded as the most talented roster in college football history, with 17 future first-round picks, many of whom are still NFL stars today. The roster included Wilfork, Johnson, Ed Reed, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow Jr., Jeremy Shockey, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, D.J. Williams, Bryant McKinnie, William Joseph, Phillip Buchanon, Vernon Carey, Devin Hester, Roscoe Parrish, Antrel Rolle, and Jerome McDougle ... among others.

Even a marginal quarterback such as Ken Dorsey could win with that crew. Which he did. Not sure about Gino Torretta, though.

First of all, nope, and second of all, who are you calling a nitwit, son? Johnson said this is the biggest game in Texans history, which sort of dismisses the franchise's first playoff victory last January over the Bengals but also tells you how much this game means to Houston. Their approach in attempting to the beat the Patriots probably is no secret. They'll try to control the ball with the great Arian Foster -- the Texans average 36 minutes of possession time, so that is their usual mode of operation. They'll take a few shots with Johnson. And they'll count on Watt and friends to pressure Brady up the middle and try to hide the deficiencies in their tattered defensive backfield. Watt will get Brady once or twice; Brady will get the Texans' cornerbacks much more often. It's going to be wildly fun, especially for the home team, which will be the consensus favorite in the AFC after the final gun if it isn't already. Patriots 41, Texans 27.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 38, Dolphins 17. Final score: Patriots 23, Dolphins 16. Season record: 9-3.

In victory, Patriots shut a few traps

  December 3, 2012 10:52 AM

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That wasn't a trap game. No. It was a shove-it-down-their-trap game.

Should we consider, a few years from now, the Patriots' 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins Sunday -- a win that secured the franchise's ninth AFC East crown in 10 years -- chances are it won't be recalled as much more than another W on the schedule, one with a relatively close score.

There are so many highlights and legendary victories already in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Era -- and logically, quite a few still ahead -- that semi-dramatic division-clinching victories are often relegated to the footnotes.

It's an extraordinarily fortunate problem to have as a fan. But even those among us who too often ignore context and perspective for hysterics and concerns, who search for traps around all corners and find little joy in the journey, must recognize that value and meaning in Sunday's victory.

Maybe you did, maybe you didn't. But Tom Brady left no doubt about where he stood.

"That wasn't ugly, that was a great win," said Brady, who completed 24 of 40 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown. "They made it tough on us, there's no question about it. We fought hard, we made some terrific plays when we had to. They played really well; every single play was a challenge. We made some plays when we needed to. So it was a great win."

It was a great win, a meaningful win, and not just because it was punctuated with the ol' postgame hat and t-shirt of a division champion. It's meaningful because it's one that very well may serve as a harbinger for how they will win in January and beyond when or if Brady isn't at his sharpest on a given day.

Forget that it was just the Dolphins, who entered at 5-6 under new coach Joe Philbin and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots went into a place that is chronically difficult on opponents (Brady has lost in Miami five times as a starter), against a flawed but upstart Dolphins team itching to make its season by taking a pelt from the Patriots, and behind an offensive line that had been forced to plug backups Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald in at guard, proceeded to hammer out a 16-play, 77-yard fourth-quarter drive in which they ran the ball down the throats of the Dolphins' well-regarded run defense. Stephen Gostkowski punctuated the drive, which took 7 minutes and 16 seconds off the clock, with a 20-yard field goal that made it a two-score game with 1:10 remaining.

That's how you do it. That's how you close a victory emphatically, something they have struggled to do even in certain games they ultimately won. And they did it by essentially handing the ball to Stevan Ridley and telling him, "Here you go, kid. Carry us to the end."

Ridley, the second-year back who went over 1,000 yards for the season Sunday, picked up 46 of his hard-fought 71 yards on that drive. The Dolphins knew what was coming and could do nothing to stop it, which speaks not only of the Patriots' ability to run the ball when they need to, but suggests the relentless Ridley is capable of being the big-game back that Corey Dillon was in 2004 and Antowain Smith was at times in 2001 and '03. I keep trying to come up with a comparison for Ridley in terms of style and skill, but I always end up back at the same place: He's exactly what everyone wanted Laurence Maroney to be.

With the running game picking up the slack Sunday and the opportunistic defense finding its identity, Patriots fans should be encouraged and emboldened as they face a fascinating two-week stretch in which they play the Texans and Niners, the top team in each conference according to the standings.

So much -- everything, really -- is yet to be determined regarding seeding and byes. But with the Texans immediately ahead and Baltimore falling to Pittsburgh Sunday night to essentially cause three-way tie between the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens for the No. 2 seed, the Patriots have a huge say in whether they secure a bye.

The magnitude of what's ahead the next two weeks is apparent even to the habitual yowlers, the sports-radio jargon-spewers, and the incurably concerned. No one is calling these trap games. But after what the Patriots did to the Dolphins, it might be wise to remember that one as a shut-your-trap game.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Miami

  November 30, 2012 12:14 PM

Welcome to the 12th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noonish. This week, the 8-3 and rolling Patriots host David Woodley Scott Mitchell Craig Erickson John Beck Cleo Lemon Ryan Tannehill and the better-than-you'd-ever-have-thought-after-watching-"Hard Knocks" Miami Dolphins. Let's get to the details.


1. Reggie Bush:
Impressively and somewhat surprisingly, the most well-paid running back in Southern Cal history has done a heck of a job reviving his career in Miami after washing out with the Saints. He's rushed for 662 yards and 4.4 yards per pop and also has 24 receptions. Have to figure the Patriots' emphasis on defense will be containing him. Who knows, maybe they'll even have some help from another Boston athlete. Rajon Rondo may have a budding vendetta against Kim Kardashian's exes, and he does have a couple of days off all of a sudden. Bet he'd make a heck of a free safety.

2. The unsung Patriots offensive player of the week: For all of the legitimate star-caliber talent on the Patriots offense, it's pretty remarkable how at least one of the perceived secondary or role players makes a significant contribution every week. Against the Jets, it was Shane Vereen with the 83-yard catch-and-humiliate-Bart Scott. Danny Woodhead had a couple of touchdowns against the Bills in Week 10. Julian Edelman has been everywhere lately. Based on how the season has played out, you have to figure one of them will be utilized to productive effect by Josh McDaniels Sunday. The money here is on Woodhead.

3. Justin Francis and Trevor Scott: With Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Chandler Jones expected to miss his second straight game with an ankle injury and Jermaine Cunningham beginning his four-game suspension for violated the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, the Patriots will require meaningful contributions from the lower tiers of the depth chart. Francis, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Rutgers, has impressive quickness, while Scott had 13.5 sacks in four years with the Raiders.

It seems like so long ago now, and I guess it was, but the Patriots' victory at Miami in the 1985 AFC Championship Game was the biggest victory in franchise history to that point, and so improbable that it's still worth celebrating. The Dolphins had owned the Patriots at the Orange Bowl, winning 18 consecutive matchups there -- every single one -- since their first season of existence in 1966. But the Patriots, who had knocked off the Raiders and Jets on the road to get there, were ready for their moment. The defense forced six turnovers, Tony Eason stayed upright long enough to throw three touchdown passes, and Craig James, Tony Collins, and Robert Weathers ran for a combined 243 yards behind John Hannah in a redemptive 31-14 rout. The best part of this clip? There are a lot of best parts, actually, but I'll keep it to two. 1. Watching the late, beloved Mosi Tatupu plow into the end zone for the final touchdown/punctuation mark. 2. Steve Nelson, not exactly the outwardly sentimental sort even by inside linebacker standards -- think Ron Swanson -- raising his arms toward the crown and yelling, "New England, I love you!'' Good stuff.

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You know, now that you mention it, Yepremian did throw a football exactly the way he looks like he'd throw a football.

You know what my grievance of the week is? That I keep having to come up with a grievance of the week. I've come to realize while trying to put together this segment each week that generally, I'm just not aggrieved when it comes to the Patriots. I mean, I suppose I could put on a concerned face about the PED suspensions, but I'd be faking it. I can't imagine being so naive to be surprised when someone who must be enormous and/or unfathomably fast to keep his high-paying, rewarding job tries to gain a chemical advantage, especially when it's easier to get away with it than it is to get caught. And grievances about the team itself? C'mon. Doesn't this look familiar? They're 3-0 in the second half, 19-0 after the midway point over the last three years, and barring catastrophe they'll enter the postseason as a Super Bowl favorite whether they have a bye or not. Don't gripe about it. Enjoy it. In a related note, I'll probably change the title of this to Unicorns, Rainbows and Ice Creams of the Week next week. Nothing wrong with a little sunshine when it's deserved, right?

Though this clip from the Dolphins' 39-36 win over the Patriots in the '94 opener would be much more enjoyable if it were done in the classic NFL Film style rather than the bells-and-whistles-and-sound-effects-and-talking-heads style the NFL Network sadly is shifting toward, it's still pretty entertaining, just to watch young Drew Bledsoe alternate between trading bullets with Dan Marino and apparent barbs on the sideline with Bill Parcells. Can't help but thinking while watching this that our hopes then for what Bledsoe might become -- essentially, the next Marino, but with a title or two -- ended up being fulfilled and even exceeded not by him, but by his successor.

Marinodanfinn1130.JPGBy the way, my top-five all-time NFL quarterbacks, acknowledging full bias toward the ones I actually saw play (sorry, Johnny U.):

1. John Elway: Incredible arm, mobile, did the most with the least talent around him. I mean, he got them to Super Bowls with Sammy Winder and Vance Johnson as his best weapons.

2. Joe Montana: If you want to flip him with Elway, I won't argue. No one was cooler under pressure.

3. Tom Brady: And he's still building the resume. One more Lombardi Trophy and he's at the top. Also, is there any doubt he's breaking Drew Brees's record of consecutive games with a TD pass. Any at all?

4. Peyton Manning: Some will have him higher. But as his Buick Verano could probably tell him, the idea of being the greatest quarterback ever takes a hit when your kid brother has won more championships.

5. Marino: Arguably the best pure passer ever. No one has ever had a quicker release. I just wish he'd stare a hole through Shannon Sharpe on the "NFL Today'' set whenever he says something stupid like he used to do to his receivers when they dropped a pass. Of course, that would require a lot of staring. Endless staring, really. Like, permanent hate-lasers.

The suggestion that this could a "trap game" for the Patriots is easily summoned by certain faux-concerned members of the media, who love the time-killing notion of such things as ... well, trap games. But there's no way the Patriots get trapped here. Bill Belichick made it clear, with detailed conviction, of how impressed he is with what the Dolphins have done to turn their program around. It's a tough, disciplined, well-coached team, which is kind of surprising given coach Joe Philbin's utter lack of charisma and conviction during "Hard Knocks." Who knew he wasn't a natural-born performer like that old "Hard Knocks'' snack-grabbing superstar Rex Ryan? Miami is headed the right way and is positioned to be the closest thing to a challenger over the next couple of years to the Patriots' AFC East supremacy. But their time is not here yet. The Patriots will contain Bush, and Tannehill and pesky Davone Bess won't be able to sustain enough drives to stay with a Patriots offense that is averaging 37.0 points per game this season and 47.5 points over its last four. The result? The clinching of a ninth division title in 10 years. Patriots 38, Dolphins 17.

Previous game's prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 17. Final score: Patriots 49, Jets 19, Mark Sanchez's dignity 0. Season record: 8-3. Just for posterity's sake -- and posterior's sake -- here it is, one more time before the next time, because it will never get old:

Patriots turn Jets into butt of joke

  November 23, 2012 10:47 AM


OK, no more puns about buns, promise. But you must agree that if there's a single play that symbolizes not just the Patriots' 49-19 thrashing of the Jets Thanksgiving night but the current standing of the respective franchises ... well, you probably don't need to be told which particular play that would be.

It was the redefinition of the term "head-butt" (sorry, last one, honest), and it was part of NFL legend before the first half was complete. Unless there's a Ryan Leaf blunder I've forgotten, Mark Sanchez must be the first quarterback in NFL history to get laid out and have a fumble forced by his own lineman's backside.

Depending upon your rooting interests, it was either hilarious or humiliating, with no open field in between. I haven't confirmed on the stat sheet, but I believe Jets' guard Brandon Moore's rear end was among the Jets leading tacklers last night. It may have even been credited with a half-sack.

While the Jets are perfectly capable of making themselves look foolish, this particular shame was initiated by Vince Wilfork, who snowplowed Moore into Sanchez while the quarterback was trying to salvage a busted play. You can watch it all unfold in this clip ...

... and it's guaranteed it will make an appearance on every Football Follies DVD from now until they begin stuffing the football rather than blowing it up.

It's too bad Steve Sabol isn't with us to provide context on where it would rank among the goofiest gaffes in NFL history, but it should be noted that the most infamous blunders in league history -- Joe Pisarcik's fumble ...

... Leon Lett's various comedic brain-locks, whatever -- did not begin with head-on collision with a teammate's butt. That was comedic genius at its best. I'm putting it at No. 1 for the moment.

The truly funny thing is that in the context of trying to win a football game, that may not have been the Jets' most embarrassing moment of the night. Nick Folk's 32-yard field goal on the final play of the first half got the Jets on the scoreboard, but going for 3 when you're already down 35 points in that quarter alone is more or less an acknowledgment of surrender. As he left the field, Rex Ryan was berated by a fan dressed as a turkey. It was a toss-up as to who had more dignity at the moment.

It was all over but the halfhearted chanting for Tim Tebow by then, the Patriots having given us Doug Williams flashbacks by dropping 35 points on the Jets during the second frame. The Patriots scored four touchdowns in six minutes, and three within a span of 52 seconds, including an 83-yard sprint down the sideline by Shane Vereen, a 32-yard fumble recovery for a score by Steve Gregory (who had a Patrick Chung-against-the-Dolphins kind of night, with an interception and two fumble recoveries), and a Julian Edelman 22-yard scoring return on a fumble recovery.

hodsontommyfinn1024.jpgIt was a staggering display of force and firepower even by the standards of the 8-3 Patriots, who scored 108 points in two games over five days. The victory was the 200th of Belichick's career -- his first came in Week 2 of the 1991 season, a 20-0 win for his Browns over the Patriots in which New England quarterback Tommy Hodson threw for all of 95 yards. I don't think it's a leap in logic to suggest that Belichick wouldn't have minded dropping 200 points on the Jets in a symmetric celebration of the milestone and the current state of the franchises.

The Jets are such a clown-show -- Tebow would be totally justified in reminding the other 52 players in green and white that they're pretty terrible too -- that it's tough to use them as a measuring stick. But even those among us who are reluctant to express enthusiasm for whatever reason must admit it's beginning to look a lot like last year around here, when the Patriots ran the table in the second half en route to a trip to Indianapolis.

In fact, it's looking better than last year. Start with the defense, which may well have repaired its most obvious flaw -- pass defense -- with the acquisition of Aqib Talib and the emergence of Alfonzo Dennard. And even if there are still tweaks to make, it at least has proven remarkably opportunistic, with an AFC-leading 32 takeaways. This is a young group, it hits hard and relentlessly (Brandon Spikes has risen into a force), and you have to like the direction in which it is trending.

Offensively, each new week seems to bring a reminder of the depth of their personnel, and how Josh McDaniels is utilizing players depending upon matchups. One game, it's Danny Woodhead stepping up with a couple of scores. The next, it's Julian Edelman, or Vereen, or both. Stevan Ridley (97 yards) is the best back they've had since Corey Dillon.

Aaron Hernandez returned and looked healthy, and as a blocker, Daniel Fells filled in ably for Rob Gronkowski, who probably spent Thanksgiving chasing around his brothers and trying to bash them with the cast on his left arm. He's missed, but he wasn't missed, at least in his first week of absence.

Brady (323 yards, three passing touchdowns, one more on the ground) was brilliant, his default mode. He has not thrown an interception since Week 6 against Seattle, with 14 touchdowns since. Yeah, we can probably table that who-is-his-successor? silliness for now.

All in all, it was a fulfilling victory in all phases, such a thorough dismantling that the most creatively challenged sports talk show hosts surely were calling for the backup extra point unit before halftime.

Taking out the starters to protect their health? Now that's a rich team problem.

I guess it's a much easier concern to live with than worrying about the next time your quarterback will be decked by his own lineman's hindquarters.


Unconventional preview: Patriots-Jets II

  November 21, 2012 11:47 AM

Welcome to the 11th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon ... except for when it runs the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. This week, the 7-3 Gronk-less Patriots host Richard Todd Browning Nagle Glenn Foley Ray Lucas Mark Sanchez and those annual AFC leaders in melodrama, the New York Jets. Let's get to the details.


1. Aqib Talib: Yeah, he was minus-1 in his debut against the Colts -- gave up two touchdowns, and returned an interception for a score. In context, though, I was very impressed. He hadn't played a meaningful game in more than a month, he had great coverage on the first TD he allowed (just a perfect throw from Andrew Luck), and his presence freed up Devin McCourty to roam the field as a safety. Really interested to see what he does in Game 2.

shiancoevisanthefinn.JPG2. The committee to replace Gronk: Small consolation, I know, but there may not be another team in the NFL more suited to temporarily replacing such an integral player than the Patriots are with Gronk. Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker will all be even more prominent in the passing game. Daniel Fells and/or Michael Hoomanawanui will take on his blocking duties. Visanthe Shiancoe (18 touchdowns in 2007-08 with the Vikings) will be the red-zone threat. Of course Gronkowski will be missed -- he really does already rate among the greatest at his position in NFL history, with 36 touchdowns in 42 regular-season games. But his absence can be overcome because of the Patriots' uncommon quality of depth.

3. Tim Tebow: Well, if offensive mastermind Tony Sparano doesn't find a way to utilize the NFL's version of the spork -- semi-useful in two different ways! -- in this season-in-the-balance matchup with their chief rival ... oh, never mind, who am I kidding. Tebow is the most hyped roster afterthought in sports history, and if they use him for anything beyond one trick play, it's too much. It's just that the one trick play, destined to end in disaster for the Jets, will be more interesting than what most of the other 52 Jets are capable of mustering, at least on the field.

I don't know if it's symmetry, coincidence, irony, or just one of those goofy random things that happen. Hell, probably this is a reach to connect some dots. But it is kind of cool that Charlie Batch, who was the best quarterback on the field when rookie Tom Brady made his NFL debut, will be making a rare start (just his eighth since 2001) during a week in which Brady is again playing on the holiday.

Now that I read it again, that connection definitely is a reach. But it does provide us a segue into the details of a notable day in Patriots history, even if it hardly felt notable at time.

The date was November 23, 2000, Brady's rookie season, Bill Belichick's first as coach, and one of recovery and transition for the Patriots, who were beginning to dig out from the pathetic drafting and salary-cap mismanagement from the Bobby Grier/Pete Carroll era. Their problems were never more evident than on that thanks-for-nothing Thanksgiving, when the Lions dropped the Patriots to 3-9 with a 34-9 pasting. Drew Bledsoe, playing with an injured thumb, threw a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Batch, then just 46 years old and having finally beaten out Greg Landry for the starting job, at least as I recall, had his way with the Patriots defense, completing 16 of 24 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown while running for another score.

It was embarrassing, as emphasized by the headline on the Patriots notebook in the Globe the next day: Sickening Losses Are Getting Harder To Stomach. But there was hope to be found, though we didn't have a clue then. Down in the last segment of notes in that same column was a single line about the rookie quarterback who relieved Bledsoe long after it was out of hand:

Tom Brady, who attended Michigan, was the quarterback for the Patriots' final series, completing 1 of 3 attempts for 6 yards.

If you knew his first completion was to Rod Rutledge, well, you either have an extraordinary memory for Patriots trivia, watched the clip above, or you're Rod Rutledge. But perhaps you don't recall the circumstances of why Brady, whose hagiographic lore reminds us that he was a fourth stringer as a rookie, got into the game. Backup John Friesz was injured, and Michael Bishop was in the midst of a controversy because it was whispered that he didn't know the playbook. In fact, leading up to game day, there was a possibility that because of Bledsoe's thumb injury, Brady would actually start. Here's what he told Nick Cafardo the day before about the possibility:

"[Bledsoe] goes out and gives it all he's got every game," Brady said. "It can be tough gripping the ball, especially as the weather gets colder. He will play as long and as hard as he can. It's obvious he wants to be out there because he could have turned it in a long time ago. He has the respect of his teammates and that is important because everyone gets hurt out there."

Everyone gets hurt out there. Little did any of us know another Bledsoe injury less than a year later would lead to that first Brady start and a sea change in Patriots history.

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Man, for an All-Pro he sure does look contemplative, even forlorn. It's as if his AFC-leading 107 points and the 22 field goals he made during that '78 season have been booted to the deep recesses of his mind, and he's tormented, again, by one he missed.

It occurred in the final seconds of the Patriots' 19-17 victory over the Jets on November 19, 1978. Surely you've seen the replay through the years -- it's the one in which Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson whispered words of, um, wisdom to Leahy as the kicker crumpled in disappointment.

Here's how Will McDonough wrote it up in the next's day's Globe:

"I don't want to say what I said to him," said Nelson, the Patriots' defensive captain, avoiding comment on his "talk" with Jets kicker Pat Leahy seconds after Leahy missed the field goal that would have beaten the Patriots ...

"I shouldn't have said what I said to him," said Nelson. "Sometimes you become irrational out there, and that was one of them."

After he missed the kick, Leahy slumped to both knees in obvious mental anguish. Nelson walked over, put his hands on Leahy's shoulder pads, and was obviously delivering some kind of message.

"I didn't hear what he said," Leahy said later. "I was thinking about what happened on the kick. I wasn't paying attention to him."

"I think Nellie just told him he was glad he missed," said linebacker Steve King, with a wink.

You bet I looked for that video. Anyone with superior internet sleuthing skills to mine who can find it -- and who has a similar lack of sympathy for the lonesome kicker -- is saluted in advance for sending it along.

It's a bummer Gronk won't be around the next four weeks or so, and it does strike me as tempting disaster to have a player of his magnitude on the field at all with a few minutes remaining in a blowout. But the social media, tabloid and sports radio overreaction without context in the aftermath of his injury was way over the top. I mean, it was karma? C'mon now. Aaron Schatz wrote a tremendous piece on Deadspin explaining why star players are still on the field when the outcome is settled, noting that Robert Griffin III and Drew Brees were among those who remained in the game with a huge lead just the past Sunday. Everyone does it, in part because they don't want status issues in the locker room, in part because the depth chart doesn't allow for everyone to be replaced, and it part because football players want to play football no matter the score. The reasoning was explained and supported by the likes of Matt Chatham, Tedy Bruschi, Ron Jaworski, and Bill Parcells among others this week. It stinks that Gronk got hurt when the game was out of reach. But those who know the game best aren't caterwauling about it. We shouldn't either.

The common perception of the Jets coach around here is that he's one part sweater vest, one part caricature, and many parts foot-in-his-mouth buffoon. And there's some accuracy in all of that. But he's also a heck of a defensive coach, one who dials up some pretty effective defenses against Brady from time to time, and the Jets would be making a mistake to fire him after this season. They don't have a quarterback who deserves to start. They don't have a running back worth featuring. Their offensive coordinator is a fist-pumping goof. But they do have a good head coach, and he'll help his team keep it closer than it should be against a Patriots squad on three days' rest. Take the hard-earned win, eat some late-night turkey, and let the tryptophan do its thing. Patriots 27, Jets 17.

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 37, Colts 24. Final score: Patriots 59, Colts 24. Season record: 7-3. Well, I got the Colts score on the nose. Never thought that putting the Patriots down for 37 points would come up 22 short.)

It won't be the same without Gronkowski

  November 19, 2012 07:34 AM


FOXBOROUGH -- There's no satisfaction found behind this keyboard from writing discouraging words at the conclusion of an encouraging day. It's just that after the Patriots' 59-24 victory over Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts Sunday -- a show of force usually reserved for teams coached by Jeff Fisher -- an unexpected addendum arrived that put a damper on the optimism, at least temporarily.

If you checked out last night before the news came down, I presume your breakfast suddenly lost all flavor when you read the news. Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' ferocious, record-setting, official-terrifying, irresistibly likable third-year tight end, suffered a broken forearm while blocking on the Patriots' final extra-point attempt of their 59-24 victory over the Colts. He will have surgery Monday and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. That the essential Gronkowski was injured turning a 34-point lead into a 35-point lead with all of 3 minutes and 55 seconds remaining should provide plenty of ammo to those who wonder why the starters play so late into a blowout.

The time of the injury is irrelevant compared to the crucial question -- exactly how much time will he miss? The Patriots have been relatively fortunate with injuries this season. It may not feel that way given their extensive weekly injury reports, but it's true. Logan Mankins has been banged up, and Aaron Hernandez has played just four games, and there are scattered other injury-related absences every weekend. But it's selfish to gripe when the Texans have lost Brian Cushing, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's arm is in a sling, and the Jets are stranded without Darrelle Revis, and the Ravens must play on without LaDarius Webb and Ray Lewis. Perhaps the greatest frustration of watching the NFL is how quickly one injury can alter a team's fortunes, but it happens. It happened, to some still immeasurable degree, to the Patriots Sunday.

If Gronkowski is out for a month, well, the Patriots will survive just fine, because that's what they do.They have an incredible ability, one both admirable and impersonal, to plug in the next player, rally around him, and move on when a teammate falls. Such an approach made Matt Cassel a very rich man. Hernandez is expected back for Thursday's matchup with the Jets, and that tight end depth they've carried all season now looks like accidental foresight. Visanthe Shiancoe, step right up. It's your opportunity to seize.

But playing at the same level without Gronkowski is going to be so tough, and wouldn't it be nice to see their entire offensive arsenal intact at least once this season? Those hopes of running the table into the postseason probably are no longer realistic with road games at the Jets and Dolphins and home heavyweight bouts against the Texans and Niners due up over the next four weeks. The possibility of a bye seems less. Six weeks? That takes him through the rest of the regular season.

It's telling, both regarding his toughness and my willful obliviousness, that the first question that came to mind when I heard a few minutes after the leaving the Patriots locker room for the press box was: "Can he play with it?" Hey, if anyone can play tight end with an arm encased in plaster, it's Gronk, right? He'd still be able to spike, too. He's gonna be OK! I believe that's what's known as denial.

We learned last year that while Gronkowski may be Superman on the field, leaping for footballs and stampeding defensive backs in a single bound, he's not actually made of steel. The high-ankle sprain he suffered during the AFC Championship game altered the eventual outcome of the Super Bowl; I will always believe there's no way they lose that game if he's even a reasonable facsimile of the force who had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. And after that injury, he actually returned to the game -- probably not the best move in retrospect -- and was walking around barefoot in the locker room afterward, albeit with an ankle the size of a regulation softball. Sunday, tellingly, there was no sign of him.

For all of the encouraging performances and outcomes Sunday -- the Patriots teaching the upstart Colts about the difference between contending at 6-3 and pretending at 6-3, Aqib Talib's 59-yard interception return that required about 120 yards of running when his east-west moves were calculated, Julian Edelman's electrifying 222 all-purpose yards -- Gronkowski's 7-catch, 137-yard, 2-touchdown effort might have been the best.

I won't go so far as to say it was one of the best games of his career, because there are a lot of candidates 42 regular-season games into this thing, but I'll hear your argument if you want to make the case. I'll say this: He looked as healthy as he has all season, as healthy as he has since late in the third quarter against the Ravens last January.

And Gronkowski at the height of his powers enhances everything else within the Patriots offense, as Brady explained during his postgame press conference. (Wonder if he was aware of the injury at that point.) On the drive that culminated with his first TD reception, Gronkowski had three catches -- one beating a cornerback, one beating a safety, and one beating a tight end.

"They try,'' Brady responded when asked why defenses don't put more of an emphasis of stopping Gronkowski at all costs. "It's definitely something they try. It's just hard because, OK, do you want to blitz, do you not want to blitz? When you're a tight end, you're really on the inside part of the field. You can run basically wherever you want. It's not like you're an outside receiver, where your route has to complement other people's routes. As a tight end, you go right, left, deep, short, you really do whatever you want. And the more you put on him, the less are on Wes, the less guys are rushing, the less on Brandon, Julian. That's why it's team football.''

It's team football, but it was a hell of an individual performance Sunday. Gronkowski literally caught everything thrown his way, hauling in his seven passes on seven targets, and he achieved a couple of milestones that reminded us that Canton is inevitable barring injury more serious than a busted forearm.

He became the third tight end in NFL history -- joining Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, which is as exclusive as contemporary company at the position gets -- to have 10 or more touchdowns in three straight seasons. But Gronk also stands higher than they do, for he is the only one to do it in his first three seasons.

The two touchdowns -- a 4-yarder in the first quarter and 24-yarder in the third to make it 38-17 -- gave him 37 for his career. That's one shy of John Mackey's career total, two fewer than Mark Bavaro (and nine more than Bavaro had as a Giant), and just seven fewer than Kellen Winslow (not his brief teammate this season, his dad).

Sunday's two scores allowed Gronkowski to tie and surpass be-goggled Chargers flash John Jefferson for the third-most receiving touchdowns by a player in his first three seasons. Randy Moss -- the record-holder at 43 and Gronk's former teammate for a brief time -- might have been in sight if not for the injury.

Now, for the foreseeable future, no records are in danger; Gronkowski will be out of sight. It's team football, as the quarterback reminds us, and others will step up -- Wes Welker, of course, and maybe Lloyd, and Stevan Ridley in the running game. But it won't be as easy or much fun without Gronk, that supremely talented individual, the touchdown machine whose one flaw apparently is that he's not unbreakable.

Unconventional preview: Colts-Patriots

  November 16, 2012 02:08 PM

Welcome to the 10th installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This week, the 6-3 Patriots host Johnny Unitas Bert Jones Art Schlichter Peyton Manning Andrew Luck and the upstart Indianpolis Colts, also 6-3. Let's get to the details.

Aqib Talib: He has the talent to be an above-average cornerback and plays a physical style that should mesh with what the Patriots' scheme asks him to do. Sunday won't be an easy first test, especially if he's lined up opposite Reggie Wayne for much of the day, but there's a very reasonable chance he can be a significant factor in correcting the Patriots' single glaring weakness. Can't wait to start finding out the answers.

waynereggiefinn1017.JPGReggie Wayne: It's been said and written this week that the Colts are using the great veteran receiver Wayne in similar manner to how the Steelers used to utilize Hines Ward. I'll presume that refers to Wayne's tremendous season catching the ball -- he has 69 receptions and needs 69 yards Sunday for his eighth 1,000-yard season -- and not some new Ward-like habit of lunging for some unsuspecting linebacker's knees. I'm not one who is particularly down on Brandon Lloyd, but man, can you imagine what the Patriots offense would be accomplishing if Wayne had signed here as a free agent?

Stevan Ridley: I feel like he's one of the three players slotted here just about every week -- come to think of it, he may alternate the spot with Devin McCourty. But that just goes to show, I think, the significance of the second-year back to the Patriots offense. Ridley is fifth in the NFL and second in the AFC in rushing yards (814, trailing only Houston's Arian Foster in the conference). He averaged 4.7 yards per attempt, and he has played a crucial role in bringing balance to the offense -- the Patriots are actually higher in the rushing yardage rankings (fifth) than they are in passing (seventh). Against Indianapolis's 22d-ranked run defense, Ridley could be poised for another fine day.

If you're reading this column, most likely you're a Patriots fan, and it would be absurd to suggest you root for their opponent any given week. I'm not about to do that. But after watching Chuck Pagano, the first-year head coach who is on leave while being treated for leukemia (he is now in remission), speak to his team after the Colts' 23-20 victory over the Dolphins two weeks ago ... well, I'm trying here, but nothing I can write is going to even approach the genuine emotion of the moment, so evident in the ailing coach's eyes. Let's just say Pagano is a very easy man to root for, and that will continue beyond that wonderful day when he returns to the sideline in full health.

Thumbnail image for jonesbert1117finn.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
I sort of joked in the intro about the interesting history of Colts quarterbacks, and while they have had their share of all-time greats (not so fast, Mike Pagel), there's one who could have joined Unitas and Manning as a Canton-bronzed legend if only he'd been able to stay healthy.

If you were a child of the '70s, you remember the exceptional Bert Jones, the rifle-armed and mobile quarterback from LSU who won the 1976 Most Valuable Player award at age 25 but who suffered a career-altering shoulder injury. He was everything you wanted Steve Grogan to be. During that '76 season, he led the Colts to an 11-3 record -- same as the awesome '76 Patriots, with whom they split a pair of games -- by throwing for a league-leading 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also ran for 321 yards and another three scores.

Brief video interlude:

End of brief video interlude.

So how good was Jones, and how good could he have been? Consider this: On the Friday before Super Bowl XLII, Bill Belichick was asked about the greatest passers he had ever seen. After naming Tom Brady and some more decorated players, Belichick said this:

"As a pure passer I don't think I could put anybody ahead of Bert Jones. I know he had a short career and the shoulder injury, but when I was there and he was just starting his career, the success that he had and his ability to throw the ball as a pure passer and as an athlete, it would be hard to put anybody ahead of Bert Jones at that point in time."

... I loved this response from the Patriots coach Friday morning when he was asked whether Adam Vinatieri, the brilliant former Patriots kicker who returns with the Colts Sunday, should join Jan Stenerud as the lone kickers in the Hall of Fame:

He’s certainly one of the greatest kickers I’ve ever seen since I’ve been in the league [Belichick began coaching with the '75 Colts]. The longevity, the production, the performance in championships and big games, I mean, what more could he do? What more could he do? Go out there and play wide receiver and catch a bunch of passes? I don’t know. Is that what he needs to do? I don’t know, what more could he do? I don’t know what more [former Giants punter] Dave Jennings could have done at his position, or Ray Guy, or guys like that. What else would they have had to do? Get a bunch of interceptions? We don’t judge quarterbacks on their rushing yardage, we don’t judge them on how many tackles they made, I don’t even know if we judge them on how many games they win. We judge them on a lot of their quarterback rating and stats, and running backs on rushing yardage. I don’t know, what’s a guy have to do if he excels at his position? Is that good enough? I don’t know. Like I said, you’d have to ask somebody that knows a lot more about it than I do, because I don’t understand what the criteria is.”

By my quick count, that's four "I don't knows" and an "I don't even know" from Belichick. But every other word in that answer tells you that he absolutely knows, you know? There's no doubt that Vinatieri, who has two Super Bowl winning kicks and neither of them is his most impressive, belongs in Canton someday.

It's still strange seeing Vinatieri in that Colts uniform -- it's sort of like seeing Carlton Fisk come to town with the White Sox, though Vinatieri needs three more years in Indy to match his longevity here. But it will not be strange at all to see him making a speech in that mustard-colored jacket someday.

It's going to be a blast to get a chance to watch Luck and Brady duel, and don't doubt for a second that the Patriots' quarterback will find an extra kernel or two of motivation by showing the young fella how it's done. But I'll also be glad when it's over, because the Manning-to-Luck happy accident of succession led to way too much verbal hand-wringing this week about how the Patriots will replace Brady when the time comes. (And yes, I was guilty of it too on Boston Sports Live. Excuse: I don't pick the topics. You know I'd have rather done 20 minutes on the Marlins-Jays trade.) Brady has a shot at hitting 3,000 yards on the season Sunday. He's thrown 18 touchdowns to three interceptions. Yes, he's 35, and he can't play forever. But barring another catastrophic run-in with Bernard Pollard, the day of reckoning is seasons away. Tom Brady will be the best quarterback on the field Sunday, and the Patriots will win, just as the story usually goes. Patriots 37, Colts 24.

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 45, Bills 21. Final score: Patriots 37, Bills 31. Season record: 6-3. You know, I should probably pick against the Patriots one of these weeks. But I probably won't. For whatever their flaws happen to be, I still genuinely believe they will win each week.)

Five questions with Jim Nantz

  November 15, 2012 01:10 PM


Hello, friends. What? That's taken as a go-to intro already? Ah, I'm sure Jim Nantz won't mind, especially since CBS's signature play-by-play voice took more than a few minutes this week to discuss Sunday's Patriots-Colts matchup, which he will call alongside Phil Simms. It's the fifth time CBS's top NFL broadcasting tandem will call a Patriots game this season, and the third time in New England's last four games. They've seen the Patriots dozens of times over the years, and let's just say Nantz thinks any discussion about finding a successor to Brady -- a popular topic around here this week -- is way too premature.

1. It's still jarring watching the Colts and not seeing Peyton Manning under center. How much of a chance have you had to see Andrew Luck?

Nantz: “We did one game, and it was probably their worst performance of the year. It was against the Jets, and they got thumped. For whatever reason that day it just didn’t come together. Chalk it up to a youthful team that when things go sideways they may not always have the solution to correct it. That was one of their poorer performances of the season. Still, though, in the meetings we had with the Colts before the game, and getting to the stadium early and watching warm-ups, and having time to spend with Andrew, you can see it. You can see there’s a whole lot there. It’s a pretty amazing and quick transformation for a team that pretty much jettisoned everybody and put a whole new roster together, Reggie Wayne and a few others excluded. It’s amazing on paper that they’re 6-3, but I’ve gotta say, when you watch the film and even when you see them on the field on a bad day like the day that we saw them, you can tell that there really is a lot there.’’

2. There has to be some envy around the league when it comes to the Colts, who have Manning for 14 years, have one awful season when he's hurt, and have the good fortune of hitting the jackpot with Luck. Especially given how crucial quality play is from that position.

Nantz: “This is a true testament to how important the quarterback position is in the National Football League. It’s a true eye-opener here as to how important it is to have a franchise quarterback. There aren’t 32 of them to go around. That’s the problem. You’re lucky if you can sit down and really say there are 10 in the league that I would entrust to build my franchise around for the next 10 years. I was doing a radio tour Tuesday and I got a question about whether Brady was getting some age on him. People are starting to feel like, ‘Hey, the window must be closing. Like I said, we see the Patriots about every other week, and I don’t see it at all. Tom’s always said he wants to play for a long, long time, and I think he will. There’s no slowing down. He fires it in there like he did 10 years ago. Even though I know the birth certificate says he’s a certain age, the way he’s taken care of himself, he’s got a long run to go. And then you get questions about Manning, too. Earlier in the year we had several Broncos games, four of their games overall, and we’ve transitioned from questions being asked “Is Manning ever going to make it all the way back and be the same player?’ to 'Is he the MVP.'

“I have to say that when you look at the success of the Colts and how they’ve built this back up so fast, it’s got to leave fans in cities like Jacksonville and Buffalo shaking their head and saying, “Wait a minute, we’re trying to slowly gain on this thing every year and build something sustainable, and we’re not. And we’re signing high-priced free agents like Mario Williams. How does this happen? We’ve got the same record we had the year before, the year before, and the year before that. Indianapolis blows up in one year, comes in gets, Luck, and wow, they’re 6-3 and making a playoff run again. It really gets down to the quarterback, again, though there are other factors, none as important as a franchise quarterback.’’

3. Sports radio being what it is, the Manning/Luck thing has made discussing the Tom Brady succession plan a popular topic up here. Is that something even worth considering at this point?

Nantz: “I don’t think they need to worry about that right now. I really don’t think that’s anything of a concern right now. Who knows, maybe Ryan Mallett develops, but I don’t see this as two or three years in the offing, by any means. Yeah, one day, that franchise is going to face an important crossroads – yeah, what do we do now at quarterback? – but that day is a long way away. I don’t even want to add to the speculation. That is not something right now that’s a big priority for them.

4. Can you maybe call a couple of programs up here and share that point of view?

Nantz: [Laughs.] "People are just playing the numbers. Playing the age numbers. Because I look at his numbers and I see 18 touchdowns against three interceptions. A 6-1 ratio. I’m looking at the Patriots putting 30 points on the board every week and there is my mind no concern with their quarterback position this year, next year, or the year after that. Probably several years beyond."

5. At this point a season ago, the Patriots had the same record and the same most obvious flaw -- an inconsistent-at-best pass defense. They ended up winning the rest of their games until the Super Bowl. Is this team capable of a similar run?

Nantz: “I don’t think there’s any question they’re capable of it. There’s that two-week stretch that everyone knows coming up in December. San Francisco and Houston back to back. But they get them at home, and the schedule other than those two – and that’s a big 'other' –it’s an extremely favorable schedule, and you’re looking at a team that has three losses by four points, and while I can hear Belichick saying “We are what our record says we are,’’ this team right now could be 9-0. And it’s not like somebody really whipped ‘em. I know there have probably been some nailbiters the fan base isn’t accustomed to, like this past weekend, but that’s the NFL. That’s the NFL. If the Patriots end up cranking out wins the rest of the year and go 13-3 or 12-4, there’s not going to be anything wrong with that."

Patriots get closure for the moment

  November 12, 2012 10:15 AM


FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots will tell you, time and again and to a man, that a "W is a W," the implication being that a haphazard route is easier to endure if victory proves to be destination.

They repeat a "W is a W'' or a slight variation so often -- from their iconic quarterback to diminutive running back who scored Sunday on the ground and in the air to the the maligned cornerback/safety who secured their latest win -- that it's a mild upset that the phrase doesn't hang among the inspirational phrases that adorn signs on the walls along the hallway from the Patriots locker room to the field.

(There is, however, a quote from Lou Holtz. Surprisingly, it does not reference his 3-10 record with the '76 Jets.)

The chief reason why they say it so often is obvious on the surface -- it's because they win so often, especially against the Buffalo Bills, who are essentially a mental W for Patriots fans, if not the laser-focused, count-no-victory-before-it-has-hatched players, the day the schedule is released.

What's left unsaid, or only surreptitiously hinted at, is that a W won't always be the result if the Patriots can't find a way to mask their fundamental flaws against teams more capable of exposing them than the perennially irrelevant Bills.

The Patriots' 37-31 victory Sunday was their 12th straight at home and 23d in the teams' last 25 meetings over Buffalo. The Bills' longest-tenured employees must look at Tom Brady the way the Washington Generals did Meadowlark Lemon.

While countless statistics reaffirm and reaffirm again how much the Patriots dominate the Bills -- this is the 10th time in 12 years they've swept the season series -- the truth is that they did not dominate this particular game.

At times it felt as if they were in complete command, such as when they build leads of 17-3 (on a Danny Woodhead 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter), 24-10 (Rob Gronkowski 1-yard scoring reception with just under 4 minutes remaining in the first half, sadly unaccompanied by a stateside Little Nutcracker Dude Who Guards The House celebration) and even 31-17 (Woodhead, 18-yard catch-and-run midway through the third quarter, and how terrific has he been used in appropriate moderation?)

The Patriots had a run of 11 straight scoring drives against the Bills, dating to their 52-28 rout in Week 3, snapped on a two-play, 31-second, let's-get-to-the-locker-room-already possession at the end of the first half.

If it didn't quite feel like a rout in the making, it never felt particularly close, either.

Yet there the Patriots were in the final moments, staring down potential defeat, clinging to a 37-31 lead, the football in Ryan Fitzpatrick's hands with 28 seconds remaining and the end zone 15 yards away. The former Harvard star has a history of throwing crushing late-game interceptions, having done so with less than three minutes remaining in a 38-30 Patriots win here two years ago, and he could not help but oblige again Sunday, throwing a strike to a perfectly positioned Devin McCourty to halt any hopes the Bills had of departing with a rare W.

The Patriots gave up 481 yards to the Bills. Hey, at least it wasn't 496.

"We are not disappointed at all about winning the ballgame,'' said Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who forced a fumble leading to the first Patriots touchdown, one of three Buffalo turnovers, "but there are some things that we have to do better and there are some things we did well out there, but at the same time, the main goal is to win, and we did."

The W is a W, and maybe the Patriots can continue to live dangerously. In some regard, the escape against the Bills that pushes their record to 6-3, as it was through nine games a second ago, feels like it balances out one of the losses -- to Seattle, Baltimore, and most regrettably with hindsight, Arizona -- in which they couldn't close.

While Deion Branch ("Kudos and thanks to our defense, man -- they did a great job of saving us") was among the Patriots to credit the save to McCourty and friends, the reality is that save for the three turnovers and some well-timed big hits, it was again the defense that allowed the opposition to stay with the Patriots' prodigious offense, which may be the deepest and most balanced unit of the Brady era.

Unfortunately, the Bills offense was made to look as effective and explosive as the Patriots offense, and can you imagine the numbers Brady would put up if he got to face the likes of Kyle Arrington and Steve Gregory on a Sunday?

Fitzpatrick threw for 337 yards while Fred Jackson and the dynamic C.J. Spiller combined for 150 on the ground. Missed tackles were an epidemic -- McCourty and Jerod Mayo, two usually dependable hitters, were particularly guilty -- and the Bills picked up double-digit chunks of yardage over the middle of the field almost at will. Let's just say any notion that repairs were made to the pass defense during the bye week were disproved quickly and repeatedly.

"Everyone has different problems on their teams, offensively, defensively, and [we] just have to keep working and improving things each week,'' McCourty said.

The question that lingers heading into next week's matchup against Andrew Luck and the Colts is whether there's really been any improvement at all. A W is a W, sure, and McCourty made the big play at the end, and the defense was opportunistic, and Brandon Spikes got into Fitzpatrick's head after nearly knocking it off, and still, there's no way around the fact that in the final minute the Bills had a chance to steal a game that should have been settled so much sooner.

There are recent times in which the Patriots have prevailed in such a situation -- last year's victory in the AFC Championship over the Ravens being the most notable, with Sterling Moore's brilliant play on Lee Evans saving the day.

But it is impossible not to watch a team driving down the field in a quest for a winning touchdown in the final moments and not think of the two Super Bowl opportunities lost because the game was 60 minutes long rather than 59.

"I think that shows the true characteristics of a team when you're in a close battle you have to fight down in the fourth quarter with two minutes to go and you have to win,'' said McCourty, and he's right. But you also wonder why they can't make it easier on themselves, that the 45-7 victory over the Rams two weeks ago was a harbinger that they were about to put it all together and take a whole lot of unnecessary suspense and degree of difficulty out of their victories.

This defense should be better. The quality runs deeper than seven players at defensive line and linebacker -- even Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham are contributing -- and the defensive backfield has better talent than it did at this point a season ago, when the Patriots were also 6-3 and one game into a 10-game winning streak that would carry them to Indianapolis.

Perhaps Aqib Talib will stay out of trouble and help and they'll solve it to the degree they did a season ago, when it was the offense as much the defense that let them down in the end. This season's Patriots offense is awesome in its balance, the running game (fifth in the NFL) actually ranking higher than the passing game (seventh) for the No. 1 overall offense.

If they can just correct that very real flaw in the pass defense, the Patriots can win the Super Bowl this season. They can claim that elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy, put Bill Belichick on that four-time-winners podium alongside Chuck Noll and allow Tom Brady to shake Troy Aikman and join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the QB with the most rings as a starter.

This team is better than the one that was a play or two short last February, and even on the occasional frustrating Sunday, we should never lose sight of how remarkable this run has been, in this modern NFL structured toward the the Land of 8-8 that Pete Rozelle desired and the Cloudy-Eyed Land of 9-9 that Roger Goodell dreams of.

"I'll take any win,'' Bill Belichick said Sunday. "I'll take any win."

Because -- say it with me, say it with them -- a W is a W. Even if they must fix that maddening habit of allowing some to teeter unnecessarily close to being an L.

Unconventional preview: Bills-Patriots II

  November 9, 2012 10:57 AM

Welcome to the ninth installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon.

This Sunday, the 5-3 Patriots come off their bye week by hosting the 3-5 Bills, who put a scare into them in Week 4 before the Patriots offense went into unstoppable mode in the second half en route to a 52-28 rout. Despite the addition of Mario Williams (thus far an underachiever) and the emergence of C.J. Spiller, Buffalo seems destined to plod toward another season of mediocrity. Meanwhile, the Patriots will take their first step in their attempt to match what they accomplished last season, winning their final eight regular-season games after a 5-3 start to cruise into the playoffs. It would be stunning if this isn't their first victory of the second half. Let's dig in to the rest of the preview.

1. Devin McCourty: With the acquisition of talented, troubled cornerback Aqib Talib from the Buccaneers, it seems all but certain that McCourty, a solid tackler who inexplicably lost the instincts he showed as a rookie when it comes to playing the ball in the air, will make the switch from cornerback to safety. But Talib's debut is delayed by a week because of his four-game ban for violating the league's performance-enhancing drugs policy, so it's worth keeping an eye on whether McCourty has what could be his farewell performance at cornerback against Stevie Johnson (who is hampered by a thigh injury) and the Bills' receivers.

2. C.J. Spiller: The Bills' explosive third-year running back is averaging 7.2 yards per carry, and while that might suggest coach Chan Gailey is utilizing him just right, the argument can be made that he doesn't get the ball enough. Spiller hasn't had more than 15 carries in any game this season, the high coming in Week 2 when he followed up a 14-carry, 169-yard performance against the Jets with 123 yards on the ground against the Chiefs. In the last three weeks, Spiller, who suffered a collarbone injury September 23 but didn't miss a game, has had just 45 total touches -- 30 carries, 15 receptions. If the Bills are going to be able to match the Patriots on the scoreboard, Spiller used more often and not in moderation.

3. Stevan Ridley: The Patriots racked up 247 yards on the ground in that first meeting with the Bills, including 106 and a pair of touchdowns by Ridley, the increasingly impressive second-year running back. He had 22 carries in the first matchup, and with Brandon Bolden, who had 16 attempts for 137 yards in that game, banged up, it will be interesting to see whether Ridley takes on more of the load or someone such as speedy Shane Vereen gets a decent chunk of carries.

It's pretty amazing how both the Bills and Patriots hosed the 49ers in late-'70s trades that sent a seemingly washed-up star to San Francisco for a bushel of draft picks. The Patriots did it, as you may remember, with Jim Plunkett, the former No. 1 overall pick who during his five seasons with the Patriots took a weekly beating akin to what Michael Vick is enduring this season. Perceived as damaged goods and having lost his job to Steve Grogan, he was sent to the Niners before the 1976 Draft for three first-round picks (two in '76, one in '77), a second-rounder ('77) and backup quarterback Tom Owen. The Patriots turned those picks into Pete Brock, Tim Fox, Raymond Clayborn and Horace Ivory, while Plunkett didn't find redemption until he moved on to the Raiders.

But the Bills pulled off an even bigger heist in March 1978, trading washed-up franchise icon O.J. Simpson to his hometown Niners for five picks. With the selections, they ended up with three marginal players -- defensive ends Scott Hutchinson and Ken Johnson and receiver Danny Fulton -- but also hit the jackpot twice. Joe Cribbs, a running back chosen in the second round in '80, ran for 1,000 yards three times and in 1981 averaged 15 yards per catch out of the backfield. Another of the picks turned out to be the top choice in the 1979 draft, which the Bills used on linebacker Tom Cousineau. He did not sign with them and went to play in Canada, but they did eventually trade him to Cleveland for the pick that would net them Jim Kelly. Simpson played just two seasons in San Francisco, totaling a little more than a 1,000 yards. No idea what became of him after football.

You asked for it -- no, demanded it -- and now you've got it. Yes, it's a highlight reel of Vince Young's greatest plays as a member of the Buffalo Bills. So what if he never actually played a regular-season game for the franchise, having cut him in late August to make room for clipboard-holding specialist Tavaris Jackson. And so what if the clip is set to horrible music and includes multiple slo-mo replays to make it appear as if the former Rose Bowl hero and third overall pick in the 2006 draft had more big moments during the Bills' pursuit of the preseason championship than he actually did. Someone put together a Vince Young-as-a-Bill highlight film, and the least you can do to reward that effort is to watch the damn thing. Snickering and snark is optional.

My grievances, like the Patriots, were also on a bye week. I'll be back to yelping about the injustices of something like a diva wide receiver next week.

In the teams' first meeting in Week 4, Tom Brady led the Patriots on six consecutive touchdown drives in the second half, an extraordinary display of the potency and potential of their offense. But that's not what the players will remember -- Bill Belichick will have it drilled into their brains that Buffalo led by 14 points in the second half, and that it's imperative to play a complete game, just as they did against the Rams in the week before the bye. Buffalo's secondary is banged up, which means a big day for Brady and a busy day for the Gillette Stadium scoreboard operator. Patriots 45, Bills 21.

(Previous game's prediction: Patriots 27, Rams 16. Final score: Patriots 45, Rams 7. Season record: 5-3.)

Aqib Talib is a risk Patriots can't pass up

  November 2, 2012 09:22 AM


Tell me how the season ends, and I'll tell you if the Patriots paid too much for Aqib Talib, the talented, troubled cornerback who was acquired along with a seventh-round pick Thursday from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a fourth-rounder.
I know, that reads like total cop-out. But I don't think it is. Sometimes the sports media's ever-increasing emphasis on instant, polarizing reaction -- He's a shutdown corner, New Orleans here we come! Are you kidding, they've lost their moral compass! -- overwhelms all long-term thinking and common sense. And by sometimes, I mean most of the time.

The deal for Talib is a particularly glaring example. This is a situation that demands the passage of time and the application of common sense before any honest conclusion can be drawn. It's a daring trade, one that should enhance to some degree their short-term championship hopes but comes with absolutely nothing resembling a guarantee.

Talib is a 26-year-old former first-round pick who instantly becomes their best cover cornerback and who plays a physical style that should make him an immediate fit. He also instantly becomes the Patriot most likely to make the All-Police Log Team, a perception that is emphasized when you Google his name and the photo that comes with his Wikipedia bio is a mugshot that looks like J.B. Smoove's evil twin. Talib is an accomplished knucklehead.

Yeah, there's risk, though given the leadership of the Patriots, the impressive maturity and intelligence of most of their core players on defense, and that he has just eight games left on his contract probably diminishes the likelihood that he'll be a locker-room nuisance.

If he is, they can send him on the Adalius Thomas Memorial Acela train straight out of town. But the possibility of reward is tough to resist, and for now Patriots fans should be glad they didn't.

No one around here needs to be reminded that the difference between winning a Super Bowl and forever lamenting a lost opportunity can come down to one play, one interception, one deflected pass, one tackle shy of the first-down marker. Ravens will always be bitter about Sterling Moore's touchdown-saving play against Lee Evans in the AFC Championship Game. Patriots fans will never erase Mario Manningham and David Tyree from the football vaults in their minds. Those lost opportunities stay with you, even in an era of extraordinary, almost impossibly prolonged, success.

The Patriots are again in a position as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl -- and probably in better position than they were a season ago at this time, a season that ended with ... well, you know. At midseason last year, they were 5-3, having lost two straight games coming out of the bye, to the Steelers and Giants. The defensive backfield was a mess (sound familiar?), with the likes of Josh Barrett, Antwaun Molden and James Ihedigbo playing significant roles in those two defeats. Eventually, they sorted it out to some degree, with Devin McCourty moving to safety and Moore emerging into a key role, enough so that they made it to Indianapolis, where they wound up ... again, you know, just a play or two short.

Talib is a superior cornerback to anyone who was on the roster last year, and his acquisition is the first real admission of the obvious this year by the Patriots, namely that this disheveled defensive backfield is the Achilles' heel of this entire team. The offense has extraordinary balance, leading the NFL in total yardage while ranking fifth in both rushing and passing. The defense has promise, with a deep, talented front seven that should become more creative with the return of Dont'a Hightower. They may not run the table from the ninth game to the Super Bowl as they did last year, but it is not hard to envision this team winning a championship.

They've essentially admitted to their problem -- perhaps their sole legitimate problem, not their 1-percenter "problems" like figuring out to utilize Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski in the passing game -- by acquiring someone else's problem.

A fourth-round pick will feel like a steep price if Talib falters here. But perhaps, as the Patriots reshuffle their defensive backfield just as they did a year ago, he will prove to be that guy who makes the big play in the big moment, the ultimate difference between a fourth championship and being stuck on three for the eighth straight season.

Tell me how the season ends, and then I'll tell you whether giving up that fourth-rounder for him was the correct thing to do. But for now, I'll tell you this: I'm glad they're going to find out.

Perhaps it works, perhaps it doesn't, but bringing him in confirms beyond all doubt that the only goal right now is to win Super Bowl XLVII.

Patriots aren't half bad at all against Rams

  October 29, 2012 10:18 AM


All right, Patriots fans, whether you want one or not, it seems we've got a weekend to exhale now.

The bye week arrives at both the right time (heal up, Aaron Hernandez) and the wrong time (so much for maintaining the momentum after Sunday's 45-7 shellacking of the Rams), but either way the reality is we won't see the Patriots again until Nov. 11 when they host the Bills.

Feels like a long time from now, doesn't it? Especially after the way it all came together Sunday, with the Patriots putting together the all-around performance we've been awaiting.

The Patriots, who hit their midseason break with a 5-3 record, a first-place standing in the AFC East, a lot to be encouraged about, and much to be improved upon, will and should savor their time off. (Are we sure multi-continent cult hero Rob Gronkowski didn't stay behind in London to chill with Pippa and the little Nutcracker dudes who guard the house?) The first half has been an unexpected grind, and yet they reach the midway point with the same record they had through eight games a season ago. Last year, you might recall, they turned 5-3 into 13-3. A sequel to such a hot streak may be a lot to ask, but with the Bills, Colts and Jets the next three games on the schedule, there is a chance to seize some momentum.

That is, after the momentum-stalling break. So for those of us who watch rather than play, it's time to pay some back dues and catch up on all of those autumn duties that get neglected on autumn Sundays from 1-4 p.m. -- stacking wood, raking leaves, and apparently cleaning up post-Sandy debris in the yard. Maybe a nice trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond. At least apple-picking season has been dodged. Anyone know how the World Series is going?

The arrival of the Celtics will help us get our Boston sports fix, but even with the Patriots on their brief hiatus, they won't be far from mind. For one thing, the break at the precise midpoint allows for easy math games regarding their projected production, and there are some damn fun numbers at play with this offense in particular:

  • Tom Brady is on pace for 418 completions, 4,816 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. In other words, his usual brilliance. As if that brief clip of Scott Secules during the Seattle game wasn't enough of a reminder not to take Brady for granted.

  • Rob Gronkowski, despite limiting hip and back issues, is on an 86-catch, 1,160-yard, 14-TD track, which is down slightly from his transcendent 2011 season but is a career year for most wide receivers, let alone a tight end. I can't think of five players I've seen in my 30+ years of following the Patriots who have been more fun to watch.

  • Though the impressive Shane Vereen may cut into his carries, Stevan Ridley is having a sensational season -- he's averaging 4.8 yards per pop and is halfway to 1,432 yards and 10 TDs. It's not Corey Dillon in 2004, but it's extremely encouraging.

The Patriots' overall numbers, at least on offense, are beyond impressive -- did I mention they're averaging 440.8 yards per game, tops in the NFL and more than 30 yards ahead of the No. 2-ranked team, the Lions? Maybe the defending AFC champions are not quite where we expected them to be after eight games -- 6-2 seemed a reasonable estimate, and that lost opportunity in Seattle does particularly sting -- but after Sunday, we're comfortable saying that they're going to be OK, and probably much, much better than OK.

The beginning did not foreshadow what was to follow. Instead, it seemed all too annoyingly familiar. Stealing a page from the best-selling Russell Wilson Heave-It-Up-And-Good-Things-Might-Happen Guide To Beating the Patriots (a clunky title to be sure, but an accurate one), Rams quarterback Sam Bradford rolled right, set himself, and heaved a 50-yard touchdown pass to Chris Givens to toast Tavon Wilson and put the Rams up, 7-0, just 2:35 into the game. I wonder how many Patriots fans saw that Givens had 270 yards on 10 catches entering the game and started him on their fantasy team, knowing he'd get his shots downfield against the Patriots' abysmal pass defense.

It's frustrating on those rare occasions when the Patriots are trailing before Brady even takes the field, and that was magnified Sunday because of the familiar way the Rams scored their first touchdown. Little did we know it would be their only touchdown, and that the many local pundits who picked the Rams would recognize their folly by halftime at the latest.

Brady and the Patriots offense, from Gronkowski (eight catches, 146 yards, two touchdowns, two classic celebrations) to Brandon Lloyd (two TDs) to Ridley (127 yards and a TD on 15 carries), would systematically dismantle Jeff Fisher's defense, scoring five touchdowns and a field goal on their first six possessions, five of which lasted at least eight plays.

On the downside, they did have their seventh three-and-out of the season late in the third quarter, though that might just have been their way of getting Zoltan Mesko involved. Facetiousness aside, it was exactly what you wanted to see in the big picture, and contained within the victory were several smaller satisfactions:

Big hits from Justin Francis and Dont'a Hightower. The guy wearing No. 32 in the opposing defensive backfield having a worse day than the guy wearing No. 32 in the Patriots' defensive backfield. The extra gear Vereen gives the offense. Some encouraging plays on the ball by Alfonzo Dennard. A lineman finally called for holding Chandler Jones. A lead big enough that you don't have to worry about letting it slip in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots' midseason condition is not perfect, of course, but it is promising. Here's hoping those concerns of the first half -- namely that 28th-ranked pass defense -- get addressed during the week off and gradually evaporate as this team plays to its potential straight through February.

But after Sunday's encouraging sendoff into the bye, the only complaint I have about this team is a mild one: Just when they're at their best, they're hit with a week of rest.

Hurry up and get here, Nov. 11. We want to see the team we saw Sunday again, just as soon as we can.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Rams

  October 26, 2012 11:22 AM

Welcome to the eighth installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This Sunday, the 4-3 Patriots travel to London to take on the 3-4 St. Louis Rams, who have become a more disciplined team under new coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher always seemed to have the Titans ready to play against the Patriots during his decade-plus in Tennessee, and his new team has accomplished something Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co. could not do -- they defeated Seattle, albeit at home. A win would send the Patriots into the bye week with the lead in the division. Let's get to the rest of the preview.


1. Sam Bradford: Despite the former No. 1 overall pick's obvious talent, the Rams have just the 24th-rated passing offense in the NFL, sandwiched between Christian Ponder and the Vikings and the Chiefs of the Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn two-headed debacle. But the Rams would be foolish to remain completely conservative against the Patriots' blundering 29th-ranked pass defense. The Rams' cast of receivers doesn't exactly provide flashbacks to the "Greatest Show on Turf'' days, but Chris Givens, who has 10 catches for 270 yards -- yes, math whizzes, that's 27.0 per catch -- should be able to get open behind the defense a time or two if given the chance.

2. Brandon Lloyd: By statistical standards, the Patriots' offense has been excellent -- it is first in the league in scoring (31 points per game) and total offense (436.1 yards per game). But to watch them from week to week is to know that they've had their battles of inconsistency, in part, I think, because of nagging injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the latter of whom apparently hasn't made the trip to London. Lloyd had a knack for the exceptional and a habit of making rudimentary mistakes, and he's coming off a subpar game against the Jets. Playing against a former team, he should have extra motivation and focus this week, and the Patriots are going to need him to be at his best.

3. Greg Zuerlein: The Rams' thunder-footed rookie kicker is already a hit in London -- they do seem to prefer kicking to throwing or catching over there. He started the season brilliantly, hitting his first 15 field-goal attempts, and even when he misses it's exciting -- included among his three off-target kicks against the Dolphins two weeks ago was a 66-yarder. He's got the leg to make one from that far, and perhaps it will happen Sunday.


Not that we ever need an excuse to watch this, but playing the Rams provides an easy one, so here it is -- the final 1 minute and 21 seconds of the greatest victory in franchise history. I agree the Snow Bowl was more aesthetically pleasing, but nothing tops winning your first Super Bowl in this manner. Let's walk through the final moments:

1:21: Rams receiver Ricky Proehl celebrates his tying touchdown on the sideline. For all of our gripes about the Patriots' recent issues with closing, keep in mind that the Rams erased a 14-point Patriots lead in slightly more than 10 minutes of the fourth quarter in this one. Of course, it was one of the great offenses in league history. But man, was it ever close to getting away.

1:21, as Tom Brady and the offense walk to the line of scrimmage: "With no timeouts, I think that the Patriots, with this field position, you have to just run the clock out, you have to play for overtime now.'' I can't imagine that John Madden was ever so wrong as he was at that moment.

:33 Brady hits J.R. Redmond for third time on the drive, and Redmond fights to convert his second down of the drive. Weird seeing Kevin Faulk standing on the sideline while Redmond, whose NFL career ended in 2004, makes the type of clutch plays that Faulk became famous for. Also: This, right here, is when it started to feel like Adam Vinatieri was going to get a chance.

:21: Brady to Troy Brown, 23 yards, and he gets out of bounds. Amazing how calm Brady looks -- you almost expect him to point out the ghost of John Candy in the stands. As for Brown, it was one more big play in a season full of them. Randy Moss was spectacular in 2007, but no one was more reliable than Troy Brown, 2001.

:14: Brady to Jermaine Wiggins for five crucial yards. Wonder if he yelled "WIGGS OUT!'' after the play.

:07: Brady spikes it. Here comes Vinatieri, who looks insanely calm. Madden: "I'll tell you, what Tom Brady just did gives me goosebumps." We'll take that as the mea culpa, big fella.

:07: Not that the Fox network was trying to jinx Vinatieri or anything, but they did show him missing a kick in pregame and flashed a graphic that said "Has Never Missed a Field Goal Indoors in Six-Year Career (24/24).

:00: Pat Summerall, with one of the most understated yet effective calls of a last-second, Super Bowl-winning field goal imaginable: "... and it's right down the pipe. [Pause.] Adam Vinatieri ... no time on the clock, and the Patriots have won Super Bowl 36." It doesn't quite deliver the chills of the joyous radio call by Gil and Gino, but man is that ever fun to relive.

Oh, and watch all the way to end, when Brady is pounding a bemused-looking Drew Bledsoe on the shoulder pads and yelling in the most awkward way imaginable, "We %**#*# won!" It's a great scene, a reminder of how naive Brady was. You have to figure he'd be more aware of Bledsoe's bittersweet perspective these days.

Hmmmm. It appears there is no major grievance this week. The Patriots survived against the Jets. Drew Magary has my usual gripes about fan entitlement covered (and then some) over at Deadspin. The above video reminds me that Ty Law should have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI, but how can you complain about anything from that game, and besides, the statute of limitations has probably expired there. So I'll give you this, a mini-grievance: Here's hoping the proprietors of the Rams website learn how to spell Abbey Road before they depart London. On the plus side, Ringo has never looked better.

jacksonharoldrams1976.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD
Brandon Lloyd isn't the only high-quality receiver to play for the Rams before coming to the Patriots, and no, that's not a reference to Greg Salas.

We'll start with Harold Jackson came over from the Rams in '78 to fill the void left by the Darryl Stingley tragedy and, though he was on the wrong side of 30, gave Steve Grogan a dual deep threat to Stanley Morgan in the late '70s and early '80s. In 1979, he had 1,013 yards receiving, averaging 22.5 yards per catch.

Then there was Henry Ellard, who had four straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Rams (1988-91) and closed his career as late-season roster-filler for the '98 Patriots, making five catches. Finally, we can't forget Torry Holt ...


... who got hurt and never played for the Patriots after signing as a free agent before the 2010 season but who still made a contribution to franchise lore by ducking for cover time and again during Super Bowl XXXVI.

Jackson, Ellard, and Holt had 2,313 catches between them during their NFL careers, and given the chance, they could probably do some damage against the Patriots' hapless defensive backfield Sunday.

Though the Rams' receiver corps doesn't have much name recognition beyond Danny Amendola (who may not and probably shouldn't play after suffering a scary collarbone injury just a few weeks ago), at this point, it would be foolish to expect the Patriots pass defense to shut down any opponent based on what we've seen so far. Bradford will hit on at least one deep ball at some point. On the other side of the ball, Chris Long and the rest of the Rams should at the very least play the Patriots physically. (Think Cortland Finnegan has decided which Patriots receiver he is going to cheap shot this week? Or is the correct answer "all of them''?) That's not my way of saying the Patriots are primed to be upset. That's my way of saying they're going to win, but probably not as handily as one might have expected when we first looked at this game on the schedule. They'll go into the bye week with five wins, three losses, a lot of reasons for optimism, and a lot of things to work on. Patriots 27, Rams 16

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 37, Jets 13. Final score: Patriots 29, Jets 26, OT. Season record: 4-3.)

Patriots finally flip script in win over Jets

  October 21, 2012 09:02 PM


Unless you're devoid of most context and perspective or, like Jim Nantz, apparently oblivious to the actual outcome, I suppose there's some satisfaction to be found somewhere in the Patriots' 29-26 overtime victory Sunday over the Jets.

Stephen Gostkowski, a fine kicker who replaced an iconic one, drilled two of the biggest kicks of his career. That's big for the future as well as the present. The Patriots are alone in first place in the AFC East. They beat the Jets, which is always enjoyable around here no matter the circumstances. They improved to 7-0 when wearing the classic red jersey and Pat Patriot logo, further evidence that it should be their mandatory uniform every Sunday.

And ... well, that's about it, unless you're some kind of weirdo who counts blowing another fourth-quarter lead by this time avoiding the crushing last-minute defeat as satisfying. Otherwise, those postgame fireworks at Gillette Stadium after Mark Sanchez's fumble in overtime officially permitted the Patriots to escape had all the effect of your hammered uncle running around with a couple of sparklers on the Fourth of July.

This was no cause for celebration. It was cause to look away, exhale, and get the hell out of there, hoping with limited confidence that it will all get better soon.

The plot that has become all too familiar during recent postseasons has repeated a couple of times during the strange first seven games of this season. The Patriots build a lead, seem on the verge of putting their opponent away on multiple occasions, can't quite make that key conversion or stop that would keep the momentum in their favor, let the opponent creep back in, and somehow time it perfectly so that they give up the lead when there's just enough time left on the clock for one abbreviated, ill-fated desperation drive.

It happened last February in Indianapolis, it happened in Week 3 in Baltimore, it happened last weekend in jacked-and-pumped Seattle, and it happened Sunday. Had they actually lost, the Patriots might be considered the worst October closer since Calvin Schiraldi in 1986.

It's as exasperating as it is predictable, though some of us still miss the clues and the harbingers. Silly me, this fool believed that the extremely impressive team -- or offense, at least -- we saw in the second half against the Bills or for the majority of the victory over the Broncos was the one we'd see against the Jets. The Patriots are usually reliable coming off a tough loss, and they're usually ferocious against a division opponent, and they usually find great joy in beating the Jets.

154531329.jpgIt started well enough, with a 16-7 lead at halftime, and I thought the Patriots had it all but locked up when Rob Gronkowski's second touchdown of the day capped a 15-play, 83-yard drive to give the Patriots a 23-13 lead with less than 18 minutes left in the game.

The Jets, down 10 points, on the road, without injured stars Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes and, perhaps more damning, with Mark Sanchez, surely wouldn't have the ability or spirit to fight back the way the Seahawks did a week ago. The Jets put together a 14-play, 92-yard drive, capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Dustin Keller to cut it to 23-20.

I suppose the Patriots deserve some credit for winning the game even after hitting what sure felt like their season nadir Sunday, which to be precise was the moment when the Jets took a 26-23 lead with 1 minute 37 seconds left on Nick Folk's 43-yard field goal, which came 29 seconds and one inexcusable Devin McCourty fumble after his game-tying 43-yard field goal.

Losing to Pete Carroll this way is annoying enough, but losing that way to the trash-talking, win-nothing Jets would be a whole different level of aggravation.

Yet somehow the Patriots salvaged their Sunday, despite giving up the lead late, despite allowing the inept Sanchez to pass for 328 yards, exactly four times as much as he accumulated against the Colts last week, and despite further chronic ineptitude from their exasperating defensive backfield.

Kyle Arrington is regressing just like everyone who played before him, McCourty is an enigma we're not close to solving, Pat Chung has stagnated and now has his annual injury, Steve Gregory plays like all of his football knowledge was bestowed by Norv Turner, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard are learning on the fly, and Ras-I Dowling ... I mean, what's is it with this kid? The "I" might stand for injured, or maybe ineffective, but it's surely not for incompletion.

Seven games into a season that still could be fulfilling, I still don't know what to make of this team. Do you? Does Bill Belichick? Who are they now, and who will they be in two months? They should be better than this and they aren't, and that applies not just to Matt Patricia's defense, but even to the talent-rich offense.

Brady is consistently off-target on deep throws, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gets too cute too often, especially with a lead. You wonder whether Brady rolls his eyes when he sees a flea-flicker in the game plan and thinks to himself, C'mon, Josh, can't I just throw it to Rob or Aaron or Wes or Brandon, you know, when one of them inevitably gets open? With the talent they have on offense, there's no need to turn to trickery. If efficiency and discipline are prioritized over style, the fireworks will come naturally.

Come to think of it, that serves as a reminder of one last plus from this game: Gronkowski, who has been banged up but who also seems to be taken for granted at times, had six catches for 78 yards, including two touchdowns. He had nine targets, the most he's had since the Buffalo game Sept. 30. He was not an afterthought or a decoy or a third offensive tackle. He was involved to the level he should be.

Gronkowski is essential, one of the game's great weapons, and if his own team needs a reminder of how much he matters, how much he can help control momentum single-handedly, maybe they should do this: take a moment and ponder what he could accomplish if he got to play against the Patriots' defense.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Jets

  October 19, 2012 10:53 AM

Welcome to the seventh installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This Sunday, the 3-3 Patriots host the 3-3 Jets, who have proven surprisingly resilient given the injuries to Darrelle Revis, Santonio Holmes, and the apparently undiagnosed ones to the throwing arms of all of their quarterbacks. Let's get to it.

1. Devin McCourty: I'm fascinated by Bill Belichick's impassioned defense of the third-year cornerback. It's rare that Belichick singles out any one player for praise, particularly one who by all appearances to the relatively untrained eye is struggling mightily. It suggests one of two things. The problems with the Elvis "Toast" Patterson Tribute Band that is the Patriots secondary is not McCourty's fault, and there have been times when safety help he was waiting for never arrived. Or, the coach figures a vote of confidence is what McCourty needs more than anything else to succeed again as he did as a rookie. Either way, this much we all know: Kyle Arrington has been much worse with far less criticism.

2. Dustin Keller: The Jets' talented tight end and Mark Sanchez's security blankey has had his moments against the Patriots through the years, including 7 catches for 115 yards and a score in the second game of the 2010 season, a 28-14 Jets win. He's been out with a hamstring injury for much of the season, finally returning last week in the rout of the Colts. His importance to the Jets offense was explained nicely by Conor Orr in the Newark Star-Ledger last week when he noted that Keller was involved in some relevant way in 15 of Sanchez's 26 touchdown passes last season:

Whether it was catching the touchdown (five), drawing a double-team on the same side of the field as the receiver who caught the touchdown (six), drawing a triple-team while another receiver was able to break completely free in the end zone (two), selling a play action to keep a linebacker from dropping into coverage (one) or altering a route to draw a corner out of covering the backfield (one), he managed to operate in strength behind the scenes.

It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots attempt to cover him, because even if he's not at full strength, he's capable of exposing Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo.

3. Tim Tebow: Because CBS won't give us a choice. He'll continue to lead the league in camera-time-to-playing-time ratio (CTTPTR! I invented a stat with an acronym! Take that, Barnwell!) I look forward to his incomplete pass off the back of Jason Hill's head and his five carries for seven yards.

IS IT ME, OR WAS CHRIS BERMAN SLIGHTLY LESS ANNOYING 18 YEARS AGO? Believe it or not, the answer is yes. This 1994 clip from "NFL PrimeTime'' -- the must-see postgame wrapup show until the NFL Network and NBC's "Football Night in America'' came along -- serves as a reminder of why Berman was once so popular before he essentially became a lifelike caricature of Fred Flintstone. He narrates the highlights with energy and humor ("You'd have to be an idiot to think the Jets could lose this game at the Meadowlands," he says, right before the Jets lost that game at the Meadowlands), and he even avoids multiple opportunities to refer to a certain Jets defensive back as James Hasty Pudding.

But Boomer is not the reason I'm including this clip. I'm including it because it includes a wildly eclectic mix of players, including the other Boomer -- Esiason, who was the Jets quarterback at the time, as well as Art Monk, the original Mark Ingram, Rob (Rod Tidwell) Moore, and Dan Marino doing Dan Marino things such as ripping off his chinstrap and throwing absolute lasers.

And I'm also including it because it's the game the Dolphins beat the Jets with the fake spike. I still cannot believe the Patriots lost to Pete Carroll. That's my grievance of the week, by the way, and probably will remain that way until Belichick gets another shot at the Khaki Koach again

ALTERNATE GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK Wait, wait, I've got another one. Actually, this is a prologue to an inevitable grievance. You can bet Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are going to talk about the absence of Revis pretty much every time Brady completes a pass to a wide receiver. And what he brings, or brought, to the Jets should be acknowledged -- he's a great player. But his ability and contributions don't quite match the hype -- I believe ESPN referred to him as the best player in franchise history when he was injured, which is absurd given that Hall of Famer Curtis Martin ran for over 10,000 yards in his eight seasons in New York. Revis is talented, and he's had his moments, and they miss him, but let's put it this way -- I've never seen him have a game against the Patriots like Seattle's unsung Richard Sherman had last week.

Jets running back Shonn Greene had the game of his NFL life last Sunday, running for 161 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts. He won't come close to that against the Patriots' stout run defense Sunday -- one-third of that output seems about right Sunday. But the Jets will need him, mostly because they don't have any other alternative. Backups Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight are injured. Tebow is supposed to see some time at running back, which is probably closer to his natural position than quarterback, but he's not exactly going to be John Riggins back there, or even Tim Riggins for that matter. Maybe Freeman McNeil is available?

After whiffing on last week's prediction and enduring the well-deserved slings and arrows, it's tempting to get out of the prediction game. But then I thought, did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? And then I thought Shaughnessy probably has copy rights to references to "Animal House." And then I thought, aw, the hell with it, there's no way they're losing to the Jets and I'll get my redemption. So here it is: Mark Sanchez will surpass 82 yards passing for the first week in a row, Brady will surpass 82 yards in the first quarter, and the Patriots quarterback will improve to 17-5 career against the Jets with little drama. Patriots 37, Jets 13

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 31, Seahawks 13. Final score: Patriots Defensive Backs 24, Patriots 23. Season record: 3-3.)

Patriots can't cover flaws vs. Seahawks

  October 15, 2012 12:54 PM

Patriots Seahawks Football.JPEG-050b0.jpg

Well, that was quite a hideous bit of irony, an aggravating plot twist that reminded us not only of who the Patriots used to be but who they are in danger of becoming.

Bill Belichick's Patriots blundered away a 13-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday in a 24-23 loss to the tough, flawed Seattle Seahawks. They did it in a manner that has become all too familiar in the recent seasons of this mostly glorious era, whether you're recalling the two painful Super Bowl losses or the three losses by a total of four points this season. They failed to close.

Until recently, that was not something we'd have even considered to be a characteristic of a Bill Belichick/Tom Brady-helmed team, let alone a troubling recurring defect. The first true instance of it came in the 2006 AFC Championship game against the Colts, and I'll spare you the details since you surely do not need or want any reminder.

Of course, this season, it seems like reminders of this curious problem are coming roughly every other Sunday. Whether it's the lack of a killer instinct, the absence of a single cornerback with a functioning GPS system, or various somethings in between, the Patriots struggle far too often to choke out an opponent when they have it by the throat.

In Week 2, they held a third-quarter lead at home against Arizona and lost. In Week 3, they held a 9-point fourth-quarter lead at Baltimore and lost. Sunday, they led 23-10 with just over nine minutes to play, and yet it somehow ended with Pete Carroll jumping around in victory like a delirious jacked-and-pumped fool and Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman taunting Tom Brady, who was left with no comeback, verbal or otherwise.

The most frustrating aspect of the loss for those of us -- ahem -- who said they'd never lose to a Pete Carroll team is that they lost to a Pete Carroll team pretty much in the way they habitually lost when he was the well-meaning but overmatched head coach here from 1997-99. The offense became one-dimensional (Brady flung it a Bledsoeian 58 times Sunday) because the run was increasingly ineffective (Stevan Ridley had 16 yards on seven fourth-quarter carries). There were dumb penalties (Brady was twice called for intentional grounding, once heaving one through Dan Connolly's five-hole) and inexcusable mistakes (failing to score during a pair of trips inside the 10, going 1 for 6 in the red zone, terrible clock management at the end of the first half that cost them three points).

All that was missing all that was missing from the full Pete Carroll Flashback Experience was Terry Glenn hamstring injury and a Chris Canty dance recital after giving up 11 yards on third and 10.

poteathankfinn1015.JPGThe Patriots' pass defense at least had the dignity not to break out "Rump Shaker'' every time rookie Russell Wilson, the 30th-ranked passer in the league entering the game, rolled out, let it fly (he completed 16 passes for 293 yards), and jogged the 40 or so yards to the new line of scrimmage. But otherwise, they were an embarrassment, and with the chronic regression of player after player under the watch of Belichick, Matt Patricia, and Josh Boyer, maybe it's time for desperate measures. That's right, I'm saying that maybe it is time for Belichick to mend fences with Eric Mangini, rescue him from the personal, unthinkable hell of sitting opposite Skip Bayless on ESPN, and bring back someone who managed to coach up the likes of Hank Poteat, Randall Gay, Troy Brown and Earthwind Moreland into serviceable defensive backs. I'm only half-kidding, and that also goes for the suggestion that they should pull Ty Law off the CSNNE studio to become the nickel back. At least he'd know where to be. Most of these guys -- and let's include Kyle Arrington, who has actually been worse than the maligned Devin McCourty -- have worse ball skills than Ian Rapoport.

A Patriots fan can't help but have serious defensive back envy watching the Seahawks. Kam Chancellor was chosen 133d overall in 2010 -- 106 spots after the regressing McCourty, who isn't bad for someone who apparently can't turn his head in either direction. Richard Sherman, who talks a lot and more than backs it up, was chosen 155th last year -- 122 spots after Ras-I Dowling, who barely sees the field. Earl Thomas is what you once hoped Patrick Chung or the departed Brandon Merriweather might be. Sunday was a reminder of how much of a futile daydream that is.

Seattle's defense is legitimately ferocious -- they hadn't given up a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver until Sunday, when Brady and the fearless Wes Welker broke two of those three barriers -- and while I'll never question Brady's toughness, let's just say there was more evidence submitted Sunday in the case of whether he's more wary of the pass rush than he was pre-Bernard Pollard. Brady still has better-than-average pocket presence, but sometimes he bobs and weaves when there are more shadows than pass rushers. I'm pretty sure that on one second-half sack, Nate Solder got credit for the tackle.

That considered, the biggest play of the game for the Seahawks might not have been anything their quarterback did, but something they did to the quarterback. Brady was drilled in the chin on the final play of the fourth quarter, drawing an unnecessary roughness flag on the Seahawks' Jason Jones. The 15-yards were more than worth it. The numbers suggest that after that blow, Brady was playing through clouds -- he completed just 5 of 13 passes in the fourth quarter for 81 yards, and 15 of those game on the final 4th-and-17 completion to Welker. He was called for grounding, took a sack, and threw an interception inside the 10 in that quarter. It was if the footage CBS showed of Scott Secules somehow transferred to Brady. He seemed fine after the game, but for whatever reason he clearly was not himself during its final 15 minutes.

With the reset button having been hit on the AFC East -- everyone is 3-3 -- and the ain't-dead-yet Jets lurking, next Sunday will bring the ultimate test of the growing notion that the best offense against the Patriots is to throw the ball long and far and wait for something good to happen. The matchup of the resistible something-less-than-a-force -- Mark Sanchez's arm -- against the movable object known as the Patriots defensive backfield should be a fascinating battle of ineptitude. But looking ahead is for later in the week. Right now, we're left with an increasingly familiar lament:

How many more victories would the Patriots have in recent seasons if games were just 55 minutes long?


Unconventional preview: Patriots-Seahawks

  October 12, 2012 11:36 AM

Welcome to the sixth installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This Sunday, the 3-2 Patriots are in Seattle to take on the feisty Seahawks, whose "12th Man'' home-field advantage should be negated by having Pete Carroll as their head coach. Let's get to it.

Red Bryant:
Seattle's defense is giving up the fewest yards per game in the league, and its rush defense is third-best at 66.6 yards per game. (Somehow that number has to be attributable to Tim Tebow.) Bryant, the Seahawks' tough fifth-year strong-side defensive end, is a significant part of their success in stopping the opposing ground game. And his presence should warrant extra attention from Patriots fans -- Bill Belichick coveted him in free agency this offseason. When he chose to remain with Seattle, the Patriots signed Jonathan Fanene as a consolation prize. He didn't make it out of camp.

wilsonrussellfinn1013.jpg.jpgRussell Wilson: His charisma, confidence, mobility, and knack for making the occasional big play have won him a lot of believers as a rookie, starting with his coach. But he's also undersized, inexperienced, and not particularly effective -- he's 26th in quarterback rating (75.2) and 33d in yards per game (163), ahead of just Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert. His upside might not be far from what Doug Flutie was at his best, and that's not an insult, but right now, Matt Flynn should be playing. You want a bold prediction? Here's a bold prediction: Wilson is going to make Devin McCourty look good come Sunday.

Stevan Ridley: So the 151 rushing yards will supersede that late fumble against the Broncos, right? He's so dynamic, the closest thing they've had to a true, must-be-accounted-for feature back since Corey Dillon in 2004, that Bill Belichick can't bury him this year like he did last postseason ... can he?

warnercurt1012.JPGCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: Curtis Martin, who in my completely biased opinion is among the most underrated players in league history, the most underrated great New York athlete in history, and Bob Kraft's biggest blunder (other than that audition video, I suppose), is what Curt Warner would have been had he not blown out his knee 10 carries into his second NFL season. Now that I mention it, I can't think of two NFL players who were more similar than Martin and Warner, and no, the Barber twins don't count.

Upon first glance and with absolutely no context, Pete Carroll's three-year run in New England doesn't look so bad. He went 27-21 in three season. He made the playoffs twice. He was enthusiastic. He had a swell winning percentage.

And you know what else? He was a failure who along with Bobby Grier ruined the foundation that Bill Parcells had built. That's not harsh. That's the truth. If you cared about the Patriots then, you don't need to be told this. You know. You remember. You remember what it was like when Curtis Martin was allowed to get away, when Terry Glenn was unaccountable and never called on it, when Ty Law became a flag-magnet, when Chris Slade rolled his eyes and checked out, when Bruce Armstrong plodded up the back stairs, when Vincent Brisby and Lawyer Milloy brawled and brawled again, and when Milloy raged about it all.

They got a little worse every season Carroll was here. They were a little more undisciplined, a little less accountable, with each passing season. They habitually regressed over a season's course, most notably in his final season, when they began 4-0 and ended 8-8.

They had talent, a lot of it -- Drew Bledsoe, Glenn, Law, Willie McGinest, and so on -- but the roster was thin, and the stars didn't play up to their ability. The weren't unlike the current Cowboys or Jets, full of fading talent and false confidence.

The Patriots, stacked with additional picks in part from losing Martin to the Jets, drafted horribly under Grier -- of the 27 players drafted from 1997-99, only Damien Woody was a full-time starter by the end of Bill Belichick's first season. But Carroll was responsible, too -- no one developed on his watch. He had Tebucky Jones playing cornerback, for Pete's sake. If there's a hypothetical enduring image of his tenure, it's of Carroll fist-pumping and jumping around like the first male cheerleader in franchise history after a supposed big play, then seeing the yellow flag and looking puzzled as the official announces that the Patriots had 13 players on the field.

His enthusiasm was impressive. He seemed like a decent man. And he had no business being the head coach of this professional football team at that point in time. Any other narrative is as incomplete as a Michael Bishop Hail Mary.


For the longest time, the run I considered the best I had ever seen was pulled off by a decent early-'80s running back for the Falcons named Lynn Cain. I can't remember the year or the game or the circumstances or much else, really. Just that I was about 10 years old, he broke a half-dozen tackles, or maybe it was a dozen, with an endless, anticipatory array of jukes and fakes and spins, and the play left me so amazed that sometime over the next few days I traded all of my Walter Payton football cards for Lynn Cain football cards. Now those are the details you do remember. The "Sweetness"-surpassing superstardom I envisioned never panned out -- I think Cain blew out a knee -- but his run stuck with me as something so spectacular that not even Barry Sanders turning Harlon Barnett into a spinning top could bounce it out of my top spot. But something finally did -- Marshawn Lynch, NFL wild-card game versus the Saints, January 2011. Sorry, Lynn Cain, wherever you are. That is the best run I've ever seen.

Have I made it clear how I feel about Pete Carroll? Too subtle? Let's put it this way: Seattle's "12th man" is awesome, a true home-field advantage. The defense is effective and mean, especially its hard-hitting defensive backfield, and they're no treat to run against, either. I look forward to seeing how Tom Brady will attack them (think we may see a lot of Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead in this one), and I look forward to Lynch against Vince Wilford, Brandon Spikes, and the Patriots run defense. Ultimately, though, the headline says it all -- there's no way they're losing to a doggone Pete Carroll team. None. Patriots 31, Seahawks 13

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 45, Broncos 24. Final score: Patriots 31, Broncos 21. Season record: 3-2.)

A long run for Kevin Faulk

  October 9, 2012 10:33 AM


Well, no, he hasn't quite been around that long. Kevin Faulk never wore a leather helmet, or even the timeless Pat Patriot logo, at least before retro became the lucrative rage.

But it was a different time and era when he arrived in Foxborough in 1999 as a second-round pick after an exceptional career at Louisiana State. The jerseys were a lighter shade of blue, and for too many of the players who wore them -- even eventual championship cornerstones such as Willie McGinest -- underachievement was the norm.

Over his 13 seasons, Faulk proved anything but the underachiever. He's the longest-tenured running back in franchise history, but he was so much more than the position designation suggests. He retires at age 35 as the Patriots' all-time leader in all-purpose yards (12,349), kickoff-return yards (4,098) and is fifth in rushing yards (3,607) and receptions (431).

All of those numbers offer a clue to his extraordinary versatility, but they don't come close to doing the player justice.

The Patriots have had better players than Faulk, but very few who were better at what they were asked to do. It seemed like every other 5-yard run came on a pivotal third-and-4 situation in which he deked on last linebacker to get that extra yard, and every 8-yard catch happened when they needed seven crucial yards late in the third quarter. He earned those yards, his choppy steps and endless array of dekes compensating for his lack of breakaway speed (he supposedly ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the combine, which was undoubtedly slower than many linebackers he'd eventually leave in the dust).

Faulk was smart, shifty, and clutch, and a player of his size had no business being such an effective blocker, especially on blitz pickup. Feel free to pause here and ponder for the 33d or so time about how the 2008 season might have gone had Faulk not been suspended for the fateful season opener. Chances are Tom Brady would have fewer scars on his knee and cretinous Chiefs fans never would have been introduced to Matt Cassel.

Even now, he probably could have stepped off the dais Tuesday morning, lined up behind Brady, and taken a direct snap to complete a two-point conversion ... and it's a moment he probably would have appreciated given that he still had hopes of playing this season. Last season was his farewell -- sort of like Troy Brown's beloved veteran emeritus status during final season in 2007 -- and it perhaps took awhile for him to realize as much. When he did, he Tuesday's official, warm Bill Belichick Bon Voyage, a salute from the coach on the occasion of retirement given to players he truly admired and appreciated.

Faulkfinn109.JPGThere's something appropriate about the coincidence of Faulk, one of the brightest and most versatile players in franchise lore, officially announcing his retirement the same week the Patriots are preparing to play a Pete Carroll team. Faulk was the last remnant of that frustrating Carroll/Bobby Grier era of regression, one of the few who made it from the 1997-99 drafts.

For a time, it seemed Faulk might be one of those players who, while not a flat-out flop such as Chris Canty, Andy Katzenmoyer or Tony Simmons, probably wouldn't live up to his draft position. Carroll initially miscast the 5-foot-8-inch Faulk as a potential feature back, a deployment that may not have been egregious as trying to shoehorn Tebucky Jones in at cornerback but certainly indicated a lack of logic in terms of the best way to utilize personnel. Faulk had 10 carries for 17 yards in his first game as a Patriot before journeyman Terry Allen took the majority of the carries the rest of the way.

In a sense, Faulk stands as a lesson in being patient with a young player. Early in his career, he was not trustworthy with the football, fumbling nine times in his first 27 games, including six times in Belichick's first season here, 2000. In 2001, it was J.R. Redmond who was the Snow Bowl and Super Bowl hero in the role of third-down back, and in 2002 at least one certain idiot columnist suggested Faulk should be cut after he failed to pursue a fumble in a loss to the Packers.

Instead, he stuck around, stopped giving the ball away, found and excelled in his various niches, and became essential, rushing for a career-high 638 yards in 2003 while also catching 48 passes for 440 yards for the Super Bowl champs. It was his finest season, though many more fine ones followed.

Somewhere during that outstanding run that was celebrated Tuesday, the transformation happened. For a time -- a different, long-ago time -- it seemed like he would be one more Carroll/Grier refugee who wouldn't cut it as a Belichick player.

Instead, little Kevin Faulk grew into the epitome of one.

Patriots can't run away from Stevan Ridley

  October 7, 2012 10:47 PM


FOXBOROUGH -- Stevan Ridley's professional football career is still young, a mere 21 games after the Patriots' 31-21 victory over the Denver Broncos Sunday. But already he's acquainted with the disappointment of fumbling away an opportunity.

Here's hoping Ridley's familiar mistake Sunday isn't foreshadowing that it's about to happen again.

As a rookie a year ago, Ridley emerged as one of the more intriguing young players on a roster dotted with first- and second-year promise, running for 97 yards on 10 carries against the Raiders in his fourth professional game and closing out the regular season with three straight strong performances in which he totaled 210 yards on 39 carries. But in the finale against the Bills, he fumbled the football out of bounds, and two weeks later in the Patriots' AFC Division Round matchup with the Broncos, he coughed up the football with 8:46 remaining in the third quarter and the Patriots ahead, 42-7.

That was the last time Ridley carried the ball as a rookie. He was inactive for the AFC Championship Game victory over Baltimore, and dressed but did not play in the Super Bowl against the Giants.

With hindsight, wondering whether Ridley might have been able to make a difference in the 3-point defeat to the Giants is hauntingly irresistible. But the lesson from Bill Belichick was harsh and probably necessary given what was at stake:

You lose the football, you lose our trust, and you lose your playing time.

That cold teaching moment was dredged up again Sunday when Ridley spit up the football with 5:19 remaining and the Patriots trying to finish off the Broncos after a 31-7 lead had been reduced to 31-21.

The fumble did not prove disastrous, and Ridley would not be the Alcoa Running Back Goat of the Day -- that dubious distinction went to Denver's Willis McGahee, who dropped a fourth-and-1 pass that killed one drive (cue Manning ripping off his chin strap), then fumbled the ball right back to the Patriots after Ridley's blunder (cue Manning calling Edgerrin James's agent on the Broncos' behalf).

But it did prove to be his final carry of the day -- Brandon Bolden came on to close out the victory with three carries on the final clock-killing possession. And rather than punctuating his career-best performance (28 carries, 151 yards, 1 TD, and plenty of scene-stealing from the marquee Manning/Tom Brady showdown) with one more exclamation point, Ridley ended it as somewhat of a question mark.

Asked afterward whether he would remember the good or the bad from the game, he did not hesitate in his replay.

"The negative. Not going to lie,'' he said. "It was late in the game, you've got to close it out, you've got to run the football, and I told myself before that play that I had to hold on to the football. ... You can't make any excuses, I messed up.''

Presumably Ridley spent the offseason with the football glued to his hands wherever he went, just like the Omar Epps character in "The Program.'' So, sure, it is a disconcerting that he lost his grip on it Sunday, and you couldn't help but wonder had it happened earlier in the game when or if he would have returned to the field.

"I'm sure Coach is going to have something to say about it, but like I said there's always another day tomorrow,'' Ridley said. "So I'll be back to work and working ball security high and tight. And that's all I can do."

garyclevelandfinn108.jpgIt's easy to get stuck with a reputation as a fumbler, and once you have it, it's tougher to shake than an unblocked Brandon Spikes. Ridley may be on the verge of getting slapped with such a label, but he doesn't deserve it. Sunday's fumble was the fourth of his NFL career in 202 touches. That's not great, but it's not Cleveland Gary putting the ball on the ground 12 times for the 1990 Rams, either.

In college, Ridley fumbled three times. Fumbling is a problem Kevin Faulk had early in his career and overcame, and it's something that never was a consideration with BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who suddenly has the first two of his pro career this season in Cincinnati.

It's football. They hit each other hard. It's going to happen even to the most surehanded ball carriers.

Ridley still needs to prove that he can hold on to the ball under pressure, when the game's momentum is teetering in the balance and the defense expects the run. But even if Ridley is at the point now where defenses are on alert about his occasional inability to protect the football, Belichick should not and most likely will not bury him like he did last postseason. Because this much has changed: He's become essential.

The Patriots piled up 251 yards on the ground Sunday, the second straight week they've surpassed 200. The balance on offense -- Wes Welker had 13 receptions, Tom Brady threw for 233 yards, and the 35 first downs set a franchise standard -- was remarkable, especially when you remember that the last time they played the Broncos, Aaron Hernandez led the way with 61 rushing yards.

It is not an exaggeration to say this could be the most well-rounded offense they have had in the Brady/Belichick era, and yes, that includes 2007. The running game won't match what they had in 1976 or '78 in John Hannah's heyday, or even in the mid-80s with Craig James and Tony Collins. But it's a heck of a lot better than the tap-dancing Laurence Maroney gave them five years ago, and it could be the best they've had since Corey Dillon was at the peak of his powers.

Not that Belichick was about to agree to any such comparisons Sunday.

"I don't know. I think we're looking a whole lot different -- I'd say it's a lot different,'' Belichick said. "Scheme, multiple players, there's no Corey Dillon. It's a different style, different types of running plays, different style of runners.''

The different style of runners is what is making this work. The pieces fit beautifully, but only if Ridley is at the forefront. He is the closest thing they have to a prototypical feature back, a close-to-ideal combination of power and speed; three or four times a game he comes close to breaking one.

Five games into his career, Bolden (54 yards Sunday) is already established as another rookie free-agent steal. While he's not quite as powerful and has a little more elusiveness, it's impossible to watch him and not be reminded of his predecessor Green-Ellis. Danny Woodhead (47 yards on seven carries and one huge third-down conversion) is very effective when used in moderation. Even Shane Vereen chipped in with a one-yard touchdown run, prompting this comical postgame exchange between a reporter and Belichick:

Reporter: "What is it about Vereen that has you favoring him on the goal line?"

Belichick: "What are you talking about?"

Reporter: "The touchdown run that he had earlier."

Belichick: "He was in the game.''

The same couldn't be said for Ridley at the end. But despite his gaffe Sunday that jostled those memories of his gaffes as a rookie, it will be more often than not.

"It didn't end the way I wanted, but besides that I'm just thankful to be out there. Some thngs are going in my favor and some aren't,'' he said. ''For me, I just need to come back in here and get back to work. But we're going to continue to work hard. That's the only way they do it around here, and that's the team way."


Unconventional preview: Broncos-Patriots

  October 5, 2012 10:55 AM

I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. So here is the fifth installment of what we're calling the Unconventional Preview. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I have putting it together, and I promise to abandon this silly intro sometime soon.


1. Patrick Chung: For all of the success the Patriots had against Manning and the Colts through the years, the image of him stepping up and finding Dallas Clark wide-open 18 yards down the field was so common, especially later on, that it's practically on perpetual replay whenever you think of Manning. If the Patriots have one true concern at this point, it is probably the play of their safeties -- Steve Gregory has regressed and lost playing time to Tavon Wilson, and Chung was a step late when he wasn't getting downright torched against the Bills. He must play better Sunday, because he is going to be wearing a bull's-eye.

lloydbrandon105finn.JPG2. Brandon Lloyd: At first I thought Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey was throwing around the hyperbole, being kind to an ex-teammate, or just trying to soften up an opponent when he said this week that Lloyd is the best athlete in the NFL. But the more I think about it, the more I realize the Patriots receiver is at least in the argument. While a player like Rob Gronkowski -- huge, multi-talented and faster than he has any right to be -- probably deserves some consideration, I think the consensus is that the best athletes on the field are probably the receivers and cornerbacks, with safeties and outside linebackers in the argument. While my vote my goes to someone like Patrick Peterson, there isn't a receiver in the league who makes more acrobatic catches than Lloyd, and his footwork along the sideline is as good as it gets. If someone like Bailey, who at his peak might have been the best athlete in the league himself, says Lloyd is, who am I not to nod in agreement?

3. Stevan Ridley and his ball-carrying friends: Against the Bills, the Patriots flashed back to the late '70s Sam Cunningham/Don Calhoun/Horace Ivory/Andy Johnson days, when it seemed like four running backs would pile up about 200 yards running behind John Hannah and Leon Gray. Ridley and rookie Brandon Bolden combined for 243 yards on the ground. While such numbers probably aren't likely againt the Broncos -- Denver's run defense is decent at ninth in the league at 87.5 yards per game -- the Patriots are going to test them, with Ridley and either Bolden or Danny Woodhead (who had 15 carries against Baltimore) depending upon matchups.

You'd think it might bother Eli Manning that his big brother is better at both football and comedy, but then again, whenever he's feeling blue he can just casually mention to Peyton that he has twice as many Super Bowl rings and instantly feel much better about himself. (Sorry I had to bring that up.) Anyway, Peyton was a far better host on SNL than Eli or Tom Brady for that matter -- heck, he could probably do a better President Obama than Fred Armisen ever did. Hulu doesn't let you imbed the clip of Peyton's greatest performance on Saturday Night Live, so here's the link to that. The video above is a collection of Manning's best commercials -- yes, he's a better pitchman than he's brother, too, something of which we'll be reminded of with every single break in the action Sunday.

davisterreellfinn.pngGRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK:
No grievance this week. I am without grievance, I suppose, unless you want to revisit this, my plea for some among you to actually enjoy that three-hour block on Sunday when you get to watch this team. I do have a question, however, that may cause some disagreement: Is Terrell Davis a Hall of Famer? The former Broncos running back (1995-2001) is on the ballot again this year, and he's a fascinating case. He played just seven seasons -- and was healthy for just four, really -- totally 77 games over the entirety of his career. Yet he was the star, more so than even John Elway, of a pair of Super Bowl champions, and in the span from 1995-97, when Denver was a team you wished the Patriots could somehow become, he ran for 5,246 yards and 49 touchdowns -- in three years! I know he wasn't transcendent like Gale Sayers, another wonderful offensive player whose career was abbreviated to 68 games by injuries, but Davis was more than a flash. He was brilliant. I'd vote for him. You?

It's barely an exaggeration to say the Patriots offensive coordinator and former Broncos head coach is about as popular in Denver as Eric Mangini is in New England. He got on their bad side by trading Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, deals that in retrospect prove he knew more than they did. Drafting Tim Tebow in the first round in 2010, ahead of the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, probably isn't quite so forgivable, and maybe there was something to the notion that the hubris that came from McDaniels's association with Bill Belichick was off-putting. So it's a bit surprising that in the buildup to this game, there hasn't been much revisiting of the McDaniels era in the Denver media, at least from what I've seen so far. Either way, we know McDaniels, who won his first six games as Broncos coach but was fired before his second season was through in part because of a videotaping scandal, will have revenge as a motive Sunday -- hell, it's human nature. The Patriots' offense will make their coordinator look as smart as the Broncos believed he was when they first hired him. Patriots 45, Broncos 24

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 30, Bills 20. Final score: Patriots 52, Bills 28. Season record: 2-2.)

'Cleveland '95: A Football Life' is superb

  October 3, 2012 11:03 AM


The reminder is probably unnecessary and even unwelcome, but it's relevant to this discussion since it is one that has come around for the Patriots and their fans a couple of times in the past half-decade or so:

No matter how talented a football team you have, it is extremely difficult to win a Super Bowl. (Let alone three, or four, or five ...) An unfortunate bounce here, a receiver catching the ball by clamping it to his helmet there, and the confetti that was supposed to rain down on your head is falling on the other, victorious side.

That disclaimer aside, I can tell you this: After watching a screening of "Cleveland '95: A Football Life,'' the latest installment of NFL Films' extraordinary documentary series that premieres on the NFL Network at 8 p.m. Wednesday, I'm almost certain the Browns under coach Bill Belichick would have won at least one Super Bowl and probably more had everything remained in place during his time there.

Of course, you know it played out differently, a story of greed, desperation, and abandonment so ugly that it became instant sports legend. Nothing remained in place other than a jilted, devastated fan base. Word of debt-ridden owner Art Modell's heartless plan to move Cleveland's cherished Browns to Baltimore leaked out during the 1995 season, Belichick's doomed final year among his five as the franchise's head coach.

The result over the rest of the promising season -- Sports Illustrated had picked the Browns to go to the Super Bowl -- was escalating chaos fueled by fan anger, resulting in a toxic lame-duck situation unprecedented in professional sports. It was hopeless.

"I felt bad for the team and the players and the coaches who were working so hard with less than no support,'' Belichick says. "The owner was nowhere to be found. He was in Baltimore. You kind of felt like you were on a deserted island, fending for yourself."

As you might have guessed, this film isn't exactly a warm eulogy for the recently deceased Modell. Nor should it be. He fled the city before taking his team with him, unaccountable to the end. Belichick, as we are reminded with some downright eerie final-game footage, was left behind as a victim of the misguided wrath, receiving death threats and being hanged in effigy in the stadium parking lot. Jim Schwartz, the current Lions coach who was on Belichick's remarkably talented staff at the time, remembers his work being interrupted multiple times a day by bomb threats.

The team collapsed under the weight of it all, and during the final home game, on Dec. 17, 1995, the stadium was in effect torn apart around them, with fans bringing hammers and saws into the ancient venue to take a memento with them. What they didn't want was discarded onto the field during the game.

"I personally never felt threatened,'' Belichick recalls. "But it certainly was not like a normal home game.''

Ozzie Newsome, the legendary Browns tight end and current Ravens general manager who was breaking into coaching on Belichick's staff, summed up the hopelessness of it all: "It's hard enough to win with no distractions in this league. When you have a distraction like that, you've got no chance. No chance.''

Seventeen years after the Browns' departure, it's still impossible not to sympathize with Cleveland, which was awarded an expansion team, retained its name and records, but hasn't made any meaningful history since. But for a Patriots fan, there is another truth in the subtext: All of the great things that have happened here since Belichick's arrival in 2000 never would have been had Modell not moved the Browns and scapegoated his coach.

The Patriots were blessed because of Cleveland's loss. Belichick had a plan there that was aborted by factors beyond his control. In New England, he proved he had the right ideas.

The film, flawlessly executed with that familiar, irresistible NFL Films formula of gorgeous video, miked-up personnel, and candid interviews, leaves little doubt that great things were on the verge of happening in Cleveland. The behind-the-scenes footage of Belichick's early days as head coach are the closest a Patriots fan will ever come to seeing the Patriots on "Hard Knocks.''

In one early scene, Mike Lombardi, the Browns' player personnel director under Belichick who is now a respected analyst on the NFL Network, talks about his boss's attention to detail, specifically how he wanted a writeup of every single opposing player --"not how I would write it up, how he wanted it written up.''

The film then cuts to footage of Belichick (who apparently favored Mizuno shirts and hideous pastel-highlighted sweaters in those days) and Lombardi sitting in an office, presumably in 1991, going over the personnel of that week's opponent.

"Before we get into the X's and O's,'' Belichick tells him, "we're going through each player. Strengths, weaknesses, overall physical abilities, what his history is, speed, you know, all that [expletive]."

Lombardi offers an eager medley of criticism on a couple of players. "I'm not sure this guy's got enough arm strength left to play,'' he says of one.

"OK, so that's a typical report right there,'' said Belichick, his eyes smiling. "Everybody on their team stinks, nobody has any athletic ability, so unless the coaches [expletive] this game up, there's no way we could lose."

In retrospect, it's surprising that while building his program, it took Belichick until his fourth season to have a winning record. His coaching and personnel staffs were stacked with future stars, with nine future NFL head coaches or GMs and three successful college coaches on his staff.

"What was Bill looking for in people?" recalled Newsome. "Bill was looking for Bill. And he found a lot of little Bills.''

Alabama coach Nick Saban was his defensive coordinator for four years. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was plucked from the University of Maine to oversee the offensive line. Schwartz, Newsome, Tom Dimitroff, Eric Mangini, and Scott Pioli were among the self-proclaimed "slappies'' who got their first break from Belichick, much the way Belichick had been given a break by Colts coach Ted Marchibroda in 1975. (Included is some outstanding footage of a very young Belichick lurking on the Colts sideline, holding a clipboard and various colored pens.)

Among the film's most mesmerizing scenes is one in a coaches room in which the respect and trust between Belichick and his staff is evident. Saban -- skinny, bespectacled, and apparently willing then to make eye contact with other human beings -- laments to Belichick about how that week's opponent had beaten them in a previous meeting:

Saban: "I mean, if we don't play our [expletives] off, they'll beat us."

Belichick: "Oh, I agree.We've got to do everything we can to get our team to the highest level we can this week. Pull out all the [expletive] stops, no matter what they are."

Saban: "And I'll tell you what. We may not have had a very good plan, but we had [expletive] preparation the last time we played these guys."

Belichick: "No question."

His coaches were permitted such candor if they had his respect, so they strove desperately to earn it. Newsome, who has been an outstanding general manager in Baltimore, said the lessons he learned from Belichick were applied during his first draft with the Ravens in 1996.

Modell wanted running back Lawrence Phillips in the first round, a troubled, talented player who fit a need. But Newsome remembered Belichick's first rule of draft day: Always stick to your board and take the best player. He chose the player tops on his board, UCLA tackle Jonathan Ogden, with the fourth pick, then at No. 26 selected Miami linebacker Ray Lewis. Combined, they made 24 Pro Bowls -- Lewis could make another one or two on reputation -- and they will be reunited in Canton someday.

Newsome and so many others on that staff learned their lessons well. It's less certain that Modell ever did. When "Cleveland '95: A Football Life'' is complete, his legacy is more complicated than before. Stealing the Browns from Cleveland still stands as his cruelest move. But his dumbest? Not taking Belichick with him.

How about a little faith in the Patriots?

  October 1, 2012 03:30 PM


Man, I've been there. I know, I remember, what it's like to get frustrated -- irrationally so -- about a team for which you cheer each Sunday with high expectations and a low tolerance for perceived underachievement.

After a 28-10 loss to the Packers during the 2002 season, when I worked at a different newspaper and scarcely masked how much I cared about the local teams, I remember writing a column imploring the Patriots -- the defending champion Patriots -- to cut a young running back who had failed to pursue a fumble that eventually stood up as a crucial play in the game.

In retrospect, I'm glad Bill Belichick wasn't a Concord Monitor subscriber. Knowing how heavily influenced he is by us media goofs, I'd have hated to be responsible for him cutting Kevin Faulk four seasons into his wonderful career.

Of course, I still have my small grievances and recurring complaints. I'm becoming convinced that Patrick Chung, someone I've hoped could be the defense's hard-hitting center fielder since he got here in 2009, is just good enough to be in position to not make a play. But my concerns in watching this extraordinary football team, one that has had an unfathomable run of success in the salary cap era, are based on mounting evidence, not hyperbole, gathered over the span of weeks rather than a lousy half-hour of football.

And that's where I differ from a lot of Patriots fans I've been hearing from lately. I will never understand the rush to be the first to declare that run over, to go over-the-top caterwauling with equal measures of entitlement and ignorance about this team that is still on the short list of Super Bowl favorites.

I recognize that some missed opportunities -- the two Super Bowl losses to the Giants, and the difficult-to-justify loss to the Colts in the '06 AFC Championship game -- have added a layer of cynicism or skepticism. They've been stuck on three Lombardi Trophies for seven seasons. There could have been more, and there should have been, and there will always be that tinge of regret.

But the complaints about this team seem to be unfiltered this year, more bitter and demanding in tone. I think I hit my personal tipping point during Friday's chat when one reader asked me to "talk me off the ledge'' about this team. The ledge? The fewest games they've won since 2001 is nine -- and that was 10 years ago.

And I officially tipped over Sunday when I filled in as the host for the in-game chat. The negativity when the Patriots fell behind by seven points in the first half floored me -- I took a survey at halftime and 68 percent thought the Patriots would lose the game.

Sixty-eight percent. I know it's just a small sampling of Patriots fans ... but 68 percent?

I'm not saying it should have been all happy-happy, joy-joy, with visions of unicorns, puppy dogs and Lombardi Trophies dancing in our heads as we zipped to the fridge at halftime. They played like the Chiefs in the first half -- the Saints, even. They wasted golden opportunities on turnovers. But we've seen this movie before -- perform sluggishly by their standards in the first half, adjust, destroy opponent in the second half, take the win and move on.

And yet the cynicism -- the downright anger -- was such that I found myself moderating comments such as these:

BB will make an example of somebody on Monday "if" they fall. Maybe McCourty gets cut

Devin McCourty is a bright, thoughtful, talented kid who is probably too honest about his confidence issues and had a brutal second season. He was also has had such success in this league that he was named All-Pro as a rookie. You don't cut that guy. You repair him.

what is most disgusting is that the Pats seem to accept their fate..no fire in the belly

This one came after Gronk's first-half fumble ... in which he coughed up the ball after trying to gain an extra yard or two, something he does as well as anyone in football. Yes, he played the first half like he was still wearing the Hulk Hands from his ESPN photo shoot. But he redeemed himself. Seems like a character trait that most of his teammates have as well.

enough of the apologies - these are very highly paid paid players- nothing less than excellence and incredible effort is acceptable

The Bills are paid, too. They gave up 45 points in the second half. I hope their checks bounce. That'll show 'em.

it's amazing how the patriots can look as bad as the red sox.

The only thing the 2012 Patriots have in common with the 2012 Red Sox is a single-digit win total in September.

here is an interesting fact.... Brady started dating Giselle in the winter of 2007... the pats haven't won a super bowl since...

Right, because Tara Reid was a WINNAH. Actually, Tara Reid may have written this ... with ink made of Bridget Moynahan's blood!

No receiver worth his weight on the roster, except Welker. Welker is in downward spiral and will be with another team next year. What is the matter with Grankowski? no much effort there. ... Grab a fan from the crowd and they would be a better player !!!

Nope. Not even if Bob Gladieux was at the game.

Pats will struggle to win 6 games this year

OK, I ... It's just ... I ... six. Six wins ... [Deep breath] ... OK, I'm going to give this a shot: It's tempting to say they'll have six wins by the end of this month, but I'll be conservative here and say they have six wins by Nov. 11. They have Denver this Sunday, then at Seattle, home against the national punch-line known as the Jets, and then at the Rams to close out October. Then there's the bye week, and the Bills again on the 11th. They could lose to Peyton Pennington and the Broncos, since he might be capable of exposing their safety issues, and at Seattle is a tough game even with the real refs. But they're winning at least 4 of the next 5, which puts them at 6-3.


The SB loser curse seems to be in effect.

Shut up, you.

no passion, no fire

Shut up, YOU.

The problems start and end with Belichek ... he owns this team and it might be time to realize his genius is past.

All right, that's enough. Way too much, actually. But sheesh, talk about first-world problems. With Belichick, whose scheme is outdated despite 136 wins since the beginning of the 2001 season and 27 the past two years, and Brady, who isn't the player he was in '07, and McCourty, who should be cut, and Welker, who is being phased out, and Gronk who partied away his mojo with actresses over the summer, somehow they dropped 42 points in the second half, scored 52, lead the NFL in points scored, have lost two games by a total of three points to teams that are combined 7-1, and they've done it without Aaron Hernandez, arguably the most versatile offensive player in the league.

Yep, it's a mess. But it's nothing Rex Ryan couldn't fix. Now there's a coach.

All right, now I'm getting hyperbolic. It's apparently contagious. Listen, I get the negativity to some extent. I do. Overreaction is part of being a fan. Maybe griping about this team helps you blow off steam after a long week at work or a long morning of apple picking against your will.

I've been there. But this is too much. You've got it so good, and some of you -- not all by any stretch, but a vocal some -- seem to take it for granted.

Maybe I'm too sentimental or sappy, but whenever I arrive at Gillette Stadium on game day and walk through the hordes of tailgaters in the parking lot, grilling food that I'm tempted to steal if only I had breakaway speed, I remember it's a privilege to be there at this particular place and time, covering this team. And that's me, a sports writer, miserable by law if not nature.

I know -- you pay those those prices -- for tickets, a jersey, a parking space a mile down Rt. 1, whatever -- and you're entitled to do what you want. Of course. That's the fan's prerogative. But you know why you still pay those prices? Because it's a damn good thing they have going, and it's worth it.

The defense is fast and young. The offense is as well-rounded as it has ever been, including 2007. There are a couple of intriguing running backs. Brady is playing brilliantly. Dante Scarnecchia is piecing together another good line. Brandon Lloyd has added another element to the passing game.

I don't care that they're 2-2. This is a more talented team than the one that was a play or two from winning the Super Bowl.

Here's what really stinks. Someday, the naysayers will be right. There's going to be a time when Belichick has retired to become a hoodie model and the quarterback is distinguished Senator Brady or retired to a private beach in Costa Rica or both, and some rudimentary passer, probably named Ryan, is going to be quarterbacking this team. They'll be something far less than what they are now, and the search for things to complain about will be fruitful.

If you need misery to be fulfilled, look up Marc Wilson on pro-football-reference.com some time. But damn, think for yourselves, and maintain perspective. Enjoy this team while you have it.

Maybe some of you learned that lesson in the second half. That halftime poll I harangued you about earlier in which 68 percent thought the Patriots would lose?

It was down to 61 percent by the game's end.

I'll count that as progress.


Patriots-Bills fan chat at 1 p.m.

  September 30, 2012 08:37 AM

Stop by at 1 p.m. on Sunday to talk Patriots-Bills throughout the game in Buffalo.

Unconventional preview: Patriots at Bills

  September 28, 2012 12:22 PM

I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. So here is the fourth installment of what we're calling the Unconventional Preview. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I have putting it together.

1. Mario Williams: He was high on the wish-list of a lot Patriots fans this offseason when he entered free agency, and given his age (27), football pedigree (No. 1 overall pick in 2006) and production (53 career sacks entering this season), coveting him as the player who would finally replace Willie McGinest all these years later made sense. Instead, he signed with Buffalo on a six-year deal with $50 million guaranteed, and while he has just 1.5 sacks, watching him battle Nate Solder at left tackle will be an interesting sidelight to the game. He's a great player, but I'm still left with a question, Patriots fans: Would you rather have Williams for the next six years, or Chandler Jones?

2. Wes Welker: For all of the drama about his role this season, the Patriots' slot receiver has still been very productive, with 16 receptions for 251 yards. (He still awaiting his first TD.) Of course, the Bills could be excused if those numbers don't look particularly impressive to them, since Welker's output thus far through three games essentially mirrors what he put up in a single game against the Bills last year. Welker went 16-217-2 in Buffalo's Week 3 victory, then had six catches in limited time in the Patriots' Week 17 win. The Bills couldn't stop him last year. Josh McDaniels would be wise to make a note of that Sunday.

byrdgilfinn.jpg3. Jairus Byrd: Why Jairus Byrd? Well, because he's a ballhawk at safety for the Bills, but mostly because he's the son of former defensive back Gill Byrd, and that tidbit gives me a semi-justifiable reason to shoehorn the wildly entertaining 1980s San Diego Chargers into this column for the third week in a row. OK, I'll stop.*

*-- At least until next week.

I honestly don't know what to make of the third-year defensive back at this point. Do you? He had a superb rookie season, probably the best any rookie Patriots cornerback has had save for Mike Haynes in '76, proving steady in coverage, tackling well for his position, and repeatedly demonstrating a knack for coming away with the ball. (The interception he ripped out of Percy Harvin's hands might have been his definitive play of the season.) McCourty second season was whatever the opposite of superb is. He was a mess, and the bright, introspective McCourty admitted as much. So here we are in the pivotal Year 3, the rubber-match in determining exactly what he is as a player. He appeared to have the goat horns attached to his helmet after the 31-30 loss to the Ravens committing a crucial pass interference penalty, dropping a pair of potential picks, and drawing such constant attention from Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter that he might as well have aimed a laser pointer at him before throwing the ball. Yet my colleague Greg Bedard, whose work I respect endlessly, wrote after watching the film that "this was [McCourty's] best game in some time with four pass breakups, a pass defensed, and another good pass coverage." And you have to admit that had he held on to just one of the potential picks, the perception of his performance would be completely different. McCourty had his issues with the Bills' Stevie Johnson last year. I'm not sure what to make of him right now because of the contradictions of his play. I guess we'll just wait for more evidence one way or the other to be compiled Sunday.

Thumbnail image for smerlasfred928.jpgBOOKS WRITTEN 1, BOOKS READ 0
You know, I'd actually read this. I like Carucci, who I presume made sure there were punctuation marks at the end of sentences and that there actually were sentences, and Smerlas, who was one hell of a football player, does have his fleeting moments of genuine humor and insight. Also: I'll bet you the cover price that he still wears that shirt today. The pants he gave to Ordway.

Did you see that little lollipop Grogan threw to Russ Francis with four guys around him? That was Grogan in a nutshell, but it was also a reminder that Francis was ahead of his time. He was an extraordinarily talented football player -- All-World, some might say -- and yet he never had more than 41 receptions in a season with the Pats. Imagine the numbers he'd put up in this offense and era. My dad always insisted he was better than Kellen Winslow Sr. Francis is just 59. Maybe TE-hoarder Bill Belichick can bring him in to replace Kellen Winslow Jr.

GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK Know what? I don't have one, at least relative to the current state of the game. The real officials are back on the job, and it's such a universally joyous occasion after that Monday night clown show in Seattle that Walt Coleman would probably get a standing ovation in Oakland right now. All is well right up until the moment when they remind us that they too have sporadic fits of incompetence on any given Sunday. (By the way, have all the preening, "oh-I'll-just-casually-flex-here-while-I-explain-this-call-in-unnecessary-detail" gun shows jacked up Ed Hochuli's Q-rating or what? I don't know if I heard another official mentioned by name during the lockout. He's the face of the zebras.)

reedandrefinn.jpgCOMPLETELY RANDOM FOOTBALL CARD: OK, I guess this is kind of a grievance, at least an ongoing or recurring one. Former Bills receiver Andre Reed is nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the seventh time, joining 127 other candidates, among them ex-Patriots Smerlas, Drew Bledsoe, Ben Coates, and Stanley Morgan, none of whom seems likely to be a finalist, let alone an inductee. Reed has been a finalist for the past six years, but he's been caught in that backlog at the position that includes Tim Brown, Sterling Sharpe and Cris Carter. Reed, who was essential to the K-Gun offense on the Bills' four Super Bowl teams, finished his 16-year career with 951 receptions, 13,198 yards, and 87 touchdowns. While he doesn't have a 100-reception season -- it was a different era, folks -- and wasn't the flashiest player, I think of him as the Tim Raines to Jerry Rice's Rickey Henderson, a truly great player who was overshadowed and unsung because his career overlapped with the greatest ever. Here's hoping seven proves his lucky number, because Andre Reed belongs in Canton.

I've always figured the mutual admiration between Flutie, who spent his 20th professional season as a Patriot, and Bill Belichick came down to two things: 1, Belichick's appreciation of NFL history and unconventional, successful players, and 2, Flutie's mastery of the obvious in knowing that Tom Brady was one quarterback behind whom he deserved to sit. I'll always wonder against whom Flutie holds the biggest grudge. Mike Ditka? Raymond Berry? Wade Phillips? Bum Phillips for siring Wade? Mrs. Phillips for not feigning a headache that fateful night? Rob Johnson? Rob Johnson's bandanna? This is my roundabout way of saying that "Doug Flutie: A Football Life" is long overdue.

The Bills' defensive line is fierce, Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson (who may or may not be healthy enough to be effective) are well-established as Patriots pests, and it would be foolish to count this victory before it has hatched given Buffalo's 34-31 win in Week 3 last year. Buffalo is the second-best team in the AFC East. Unfortunately for them, they're playing the best Sunday, and Tom Brady and the Patriots aren't about to fall to 1-3. Patriots 30, Bills 20

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 20, Ravens 17. Final score: Ravens 31, Patriots 30. Season record: 1-2. And suddenly, I'm realizing that my final record will probably be identical the Patriots' record. I'm cool with that.)

Patriots have to get Gronkowski involved

  September 26, 2012 01:36 PM


I figured we'd find the explanation in the All-22 game film, learn frame-by-frame that Rob Gronkowski's exclusion as a featured receiver during the Patriots' 31-30 loss to the Ravens Sunday was justified based on circumstances.

The Patriots' dynamic tight end is such an effective blocker that he would have a secure spot in the NFL even if he were merely an adequate receiver rather than an exceptional one. That aspect of his game the reason that the who's-better? debate between Gronk and the Saints' Jimmy Graham really is no debate at all.

If Gronkowski stays healthy -- yeah, I hate that qualifier too, but it's necessary at that particular position in this particular sport with his particular style of play -- he has a chance to be the greatest tight end in league history. Heck, 35 regular-season games and 29 touchdowns into his career, he's already in the argument.

Gronk The Blocker is sometimes necessary and, of course, absolutely no fun, because it prevents us from witnesses one of our favorite recurring football joys -- watching him destroy defensive backs like he was produced by Michael Bay en route to the end zone, leading to another celebration in which you're almost certain is usually prefaced by him mouthing the self-encouraging words, "THIS TIME ROB GRONK SPIKE FOOTBALL THROUGH GROUND!!"

But because of his ability to assist the offensive line in its sporadically successful quest to keep Tom Brady from being spindled, folded and mutilated, there will be times when his blocking takes precedence over his duties as a receiver. We get it.

But as it turned out, the truth was revealed before the All-22 became available, and it wasn't within a Hail Mary pass of what you expected. My colleague Greg Bedard noted in the essential Wednesday analysis column he writes after watching the game again that Gronkowski "didn't pass block that much at all." Mike Reiss drew the same conclusion with numbers at ESPN Boston: Of the Patriots offense's 49 snaps, Gronkowski stayed in to protect just 16 times.

In other words, he ran 33 routes, and was targeted on the following plays:

  • 9:45 second quarter: T.Brady pass short left to R.Gronkowski to NE 24 for 9 yards (E.Reed, J.McClain).
  • 1:37 second quarter: T.Brady (shotgun) pass short right to R.Gronkowski to NE 31 for 12 yards (D.Ellerbe, B.Pollard).
  • 2:06 fourth quarter: T.Brady (shotgun) pass incomplete short right to R.Gronkowski (B.Pollard, P.Kruger).

That's it. Three targets, two receptions, 21 yards.

That's the same number of targets and catches as Deion Branch. That's one more target and catch than Kellen Winslow Jr., who had been with the team less than a week. It's one more catch than Michael Hoomanawanui, whose name I may have actually spelled right there.

It's one more catch -- and 15 fewer touches -- than Danny Woodhead, and two fewer receptions, four fewer touches, and four fewer targets than Julian Edelman, the undersized, limited, semi-useful role players who have apparently become Josh McDaniels's new favorite toys in some weird quest to add additional degrees of difficulty to the Patriots' offense. Perhaps he thinks the AFC East is now a 6-feet-and-under division?

Thirty-three routes run. Three targets. And that follows the Week 2 loss to the Cardinals in which he had two first-half targets before the Patriots took him out of the garage when the game was in doubt. You see Gronk at the Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru more often these days than you do with the football on Sundays.

That has to change. Unless Gronk is still experiencing some lingering effects of the ankle injury that in effect cost the Patriots a fourth Super Bowl -- he's healthy, they win, and it's that simple -- there's no excuse not to emphasize him more, even to the point of forcing the ball his way from time to time. He's the best weapon the Patriots have. He's arguably the best weapon any team has. He's often open when he's covered. Throw it his way, throw it high, and he'll be dragging helpless defensive backs toward the end zone like a dad horsing around with the neighborhood kids just as he did last year, when he had 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns.

I recognize that there's only one football to go around. Gronk's limited role thus far can be justified to some degree when it's Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- who combined for 17 catches for 250 yards Sunday -- who are targeted instead. Both are outstanding players, though I could spend another 1,000 words on the attempted marginalization of Welker. But when Gronkowski is an afterthought to Woodhead and Edelman, well, that's as damn frustrating as anything unrelated to the replacement officials that has happened to the Patriots season.

You, me, and Chad Jackson know the Patriots offense is complicated. McDaniels is making it too much so. Edelman and Woodhead are fine complementary players. Give 'em a well-placed couple of plays. But jeez, don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Rob Gronkowski is on your side, and the opposition is grateful every time you forget that.

Officially, an exasperating loss for Patriots

  September 23, 2012 10:08 PM


Maybe the language could have been more elegant, but the point had to be made, and it was, effectively. It's doubtful anyone on either sideline of the ferocious Patriots-Ravens rivalry would dispute that the prolonged two-syllable chant by those in attendance at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday nailed the sentiment regarding the sham Roger Goodell and those he serves are perpetrating on the league with these hapless, helpless replacement officials.

You only wish someone with some clout said the same thing, on the record, and with the same bluntness. Brandon Spikes had the right idea with his instantly legendary tweet Sunday night, but he could be easily dismissed by Goodell's minions as a loose cannon who left his credibility on Chatroulette.

Sure, to rip the abysmal guessing game disguised as NFL officiating Sunday -- and every week of this young season so far -- might have made Tom Brady look like a sore loser in the moments after a maddening-for-many-reasons 31-30 loss to the Ravens Sunday night, and he does have an image to protect.

But just think what a few words of blunt criticism of the league -- hell, even if he chose eloquence over vulgarity -- from a player of his magnitude might finally push this charade to the tipping point. Instead, we're stuck with the constant reminder that Ed Hochuli was actually quite competent once you got past the preening.

Instead, Brady, ever the diplomat even when his eyes are burning with fury, sidestepped a postgame query about the refereeing by saying he can only worry about doing his job. Bill Belichick directed all postgame questions about the refs to the refs, though he made his feelings clear before he left the field when he grabbed one and appeared to offer some choice commentary.

It was an unbecoming display, and it was a reminder that we should sympathize with the refs to some degree. They've been put into a position to do a job for which they are unqualified and incapable. But there will be more scenes of furious coaches accosting puzzled, saucer-eyed officials every single week until this thing is settled. This is at critical mass, the product is compromised, and even the hard-liners who want to prolong this to break the union must know it. I mean, they do, right? Tell me they do. Would Bob Kraft be a hypocrite if he paid the inevitable five-figure fine coming down from Goodell on Belichick's behalf? Geez, if he'd just do the right thing here ...

It's not the officials' fault that the Patriots return to Foxborough with a 1-2 record, and I probably should have acknowledged that a few paragraphs ago. There seems to be almost an inevitability that these teams will meet again with something bigger at stake, and the Patriots got another reminder that the Ravens are the tough rival the Jets think they are.

The Ravens exposed some flaws in the Patriots -- the pass rush was nonexistent, and relatedly, Devin McCourty was absolutely dismantled by Joe Flacco, who completed 71.8 percent of his passes for 382 yards and led four touchdown drives of at least 80 yards.

Offensively, Tom Brady had a tremendous game considering the relentlessness of the opponent, but Josh McDaniels continues to get cute at the expense of effectiveness and efficiency. Role players Julian Edelman and Danny Woodhead had featured roles while Rob Gronkowski was targeted just three times. At least Wes Welker (eight catches, 142 yards) wasn't marginalized this week. There will be a lot of Chicken Little stuff this week, but this team is going to be fine.

Whether we can say the same about the league as a whole in 2012 remains to be seen, though of course we'll tune in no matter what, something Goodell is banking on. But this is not the NFL, not as we know it and love it. It's entertaining, in its current haphazard way, but it's not the same game that carries us through each fall. The disjointed and inept officiating is altering the game in ways that cannot be predicted. You simply hope they get it wrong in the favor of the team for which you're rooting.

To put it another way: there were 24 penalties called for 218 yards, with 11 accounting for a first down ... and yet for all of the yellow flags, they had absolutely no control over the behavior of the players. Logan Mankins and Haloti Ngata are probably still standing at midfield taking turns headbutting each other as we speak.

The rest of us, we're left banging our heads, waiting for the officials and the integrity of the game to return.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Ravens

  September 21, 2012 11:15 AM

As one of the cool duties that comes with that new byline up there, I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. So here is the third installment of what we're calling the Unconventional Preview. Hope you have as much fun reading it as I have putting it together.

1. Ray Rice: Yeah, it's just two games, but when you hold former 2,000-yard runner CHRIS JOHNSON to 4 measly yards in the opener and enter Week 3 allowing just 2.6 yards per carry, it's understandable to be very encouraged about the Patriots run defense. (And defense as a whole, really: It's currently ranked second in the league to Houston in yards allowed.) But the Patriots may not face a more dangerous running back than they do this week. The Ravens' Ray Rice, who ran for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago, is off to a terrific start this year, with 167 yards (6.4 per carry) and a pair of scores. If the Patriots can hold him in check, the run defense will deserve every accolade it gets.

2. BERNARD POLLARD: Because you've always got to keep an eye on him when he plays the Patriots, that's why. Don't make me talk about it anymore.

winslowkellenfin922.JPG3. KELLEN WINSLOW JR.: I know, he's said ("I'm a soldier!") and done (purchasing a dirt bike -- not a good idea) some regrettable things. And while he's had a respectable career, with four seasons of at least 75 receptions, he's never lived up to his surname, tight end pedigree, or billing as the sixth pick in the 2004 draft. Yet I kind of root for him -- his dad was one of my all-time favorite players, and yes, this is an excuse to shoehorn in a card of an Air Coryell Charger for the second week in a row. But also because he is one tough dude, playing on a knee that would have many players on injured reserve or angling for an analyst job on one of the networks. Perhaps he'll be a factor filling in for Aaron Hernandez -- he did have 75 catches last year -- or perhaps he's just here as insurance. But I'm glad he's here. He was a knucklehead as a young player who grew up into a dedicated, respected professional. I never thought Kellen Winslow Jr. would be one of those guys, but he is, and you can never have enough of them around.

Bill Belichick, looking not at all awkward (nope not at all) in 1992 as the coach of the team that would steal away to Baltimore ...

Thumbnail image for belichickfinn1921.JPG

... but not looking nearly as goofy as the charming if overmatched coach of the Patriots at the time.


HELLO, MY NAME IS STERLING MOORE. I PLAY CORNERBACK FOR THE PATRIOTS. NICE TO MEET YOU TOO. NOW HOW ABOUT GIVING ME SOME #*$@&% CREDIT? This can also double as my grievance of the week, I suppose. It's astounding to me that so many media members habitually refer to a particular, pivotal late play in the 2011 AFC Championship Game as a drop. Lee Evans did not drop that pass. Sterling Moore knocked it out of his hands. It wasn't Evans pulling a Jackie Smith, as it has so often been portrayed leading up this rematch -- it was Moore making a clutch, smart, athletic play at a precise moment when the Patriots' defense needed one if they were going to play one more game. I'm not sure whether calling it a drop -- and there are 302,000 results for "Lee Evans drop" on Google -- is laziness, faulty memory, or just a disingenuous way to emphasize how close the Patriots were to losing that game. But watch the video. It wasn't a drop. It was a hell of a play by Sterling Moore, and it should be remembered that way. Though I do suppose Lee Evans might have had 302,000 drops in his career.

I had the chance to talk to Sabol, the affable NFL Films mastermind who died of cancer Tuesday, just once, back in September 2010, when I was a newbie on the media beat and he was less than a year from learning he was ill. As someone who, like most football fans, has long been mesmerized and influenced by countless NFL Films productions and programs ("The Brady 6,'' the ones featuring '70s free-thinkers Fred Dryer and Tim Rossovitch, and a look back at the famous Chargers-Dolphins playoff game are among my favorites) it was a privilege to talk to him. And he was exactly as he seemed on the air -- engaging, enthusiastic, and a fountain of anecdotes and information. I wish I got to talk to him more, but I feel fortunate to have done it once.

Some superb remembrances:

Richard Sandomir, The New York Times.
N.F.L. Loses Steve Sabol, Its Loving Filmmaker
"Sabol was an eternal youth and an auteur. He stood always on the edge of childlike joy knowing that all he did in his adult life was shape the image of the sport he loved. He did it with his father in a way that rival sports leagues envied but could not imitate."

Joe Posnanski, Sports on Earth
Masterpiece Theatre
"He really did help create today’s NFL essence. Much of it was subtle. The brilliant coach. The intense linebacker. The audacious quarterback. The indomitable runner. These are NFL Films themes. And it’s likely when you think back to a favorite NFL moment, you are really thinking back to how NFL Films framed that moment. When you think of the Immaculate Reception, you probably think of that blurry film of Franco Harris jogging and the ball floating, in slow motion, into his arms, as if by fate."

Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal
Football Loses Its Storyteller
"NFL Films could be bombastic, easy to satirize, but these qualities only seemed to make it more beloved. The older stuff is a pure blast. You watch an NFL Film from the 1970s and it's like being transported into an episode of "Starsky & Hutch"—you can practically smell the Brut and shag carpet.".

Speaking of NFL Films ...

OK, maybe that's not quite how it went. But I wouldn't put it past Lewis, who may have more look-at-me tendencies than any defensive star since Deion Sanders. Heck, maybe Mark Gastineau.

I'm sure there was a time when the Ravens linebacker's habitual speechifying was genuine and natural and inspiring. But watching "Ray Lewis: A Football Life'' the other night, I was entertained -- his workout routine includes road cycling, which makes for a pretty unexpected visual -- and I gained some measure of respect for him. He does seem to try to be a good dad, though I don't believe it was ever acknowledged that his six kids are by four different mothers.

But I also came to this conclusion, one I've been on the verge of ever since his ridiculous dancing became a part of every NFL pregame show: He's completely full of it. He's an incredible, charismatic public speaker, but when you listen to what he's saying, he's really not saying anything at all. I'd love to know whether any of the students in the Harvard Law class he spoke to bought his explanation for his 2000 arrest in connection with a double murder outside a nightclub in Atlanta.

Explaining it away by saying there was no evidence probably isn't going to cut it in front of the Ridiculously Bright Future Prosecutors of America, you know?

Hard to expect anything other than a typical Patriots-Ravens battle -- in other words, it will be ferociously physical (probably more so with the replacement refs standing around in some combination of fear and awe and gulping down their whistles), Tom Brady will hang tough in the pocket behind that worrisome line long enough to make a couple of huge plays, Joe Flacco will alternately look terrific and Sanchezian, and it will come down to the final series, if not the final play. Put me down for a day of redemption for Stephen Gostkowski. Patriots 20, Ravens 17

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 37, Cardinals 14. Final score: Yeah, nothing close to that. Season record: 1-1.)


Wes Welker, Troy Brown, and the end

  September 18, 2012 02:27 PM


There have been so many cherished memories to tuck away since 2001, so much to remember, rewind and replay that a Patriots fan's gauzy recollections may mislead from time to time, one highlight colliding and melding with the next. The Sabols can only document so much, you know? It's up to us to retain the rest, and even with some painful hiccups in recent years, we're blessed around here that there are so many impossibly great moments of which to keep track.

So it would be perfectly understandable if -- brace yourself for a goofy hypothetical -- that guy in the crisp blue No. 83 jersey the next tailgate over Sunday insisted that Wes Welker and Troy Brown were teammates for one very good year, perhaps two, possibly three, while your buddy in the red No. 80 throwback was adamant that the extraordinary slot receivers never shared space on the roster at all, being players of the same position, similar skill, and entirely separate seasons.

welkerwesfinn918.jpg.JPGYes, our personal recollections of time and place may vary, but the record does not lie, and so it is that pro-football-reference.com reminds us that Welker and Brown were teammates for one season and played together for precisely one game.

The year was 2007, the one of offensive brilliance, near perfection, and ultimate disappointment. It was Welker's first year in New England, having been the bounty in an intradivisional heist in which they stole the frequent Patriot nuisance from the inept Miami Dolphins for second- and seventh-round picks. It was also his first as a bona-fide star, his bond with Tom Brady almost immediate and stunningly effective. He caught a franchise-record 112 passes, breaking the mark set by Brown six years earlier.

For Brown, the season was his victory lap, essentially a season-long honorary roster spot for a player who wasn't ready to say goodbye and still had something to offer off the field if not on. He saw the field for one game, two days before Christmas, in a 28-7 win over the one-win Dolphins. He didn't catch a pass, but returned six punts, one for 28 yards (he fumbled another).

It was a respectful way to treat a franchise cornerstone in his final season, similar to how Kevin Faulk, the Brown of running backs, was treated last year.

Goofy hypothetical and hackneyed literary devices aside, most of us probably do remember that Brown and Welker were teammates for that single season. Brown's performance had actually begun to naturally decline before Welker arrived -- from 2003-06, his annual reception totals had landed between 17 and 43, and his greatest contribution to the '04 champs might have come as a Hank Poteat stunt double at defensive back -- but the succession plan was officially implemented in '07.

While much of the credit for their success goes to Brady, the relationships have been mutually beneficial. There's probably not a quarterback in league history who has been fortunate enough to have two such smart, talented, tough slot receivers in his huddle over the course of his full career. I imagine if Brady swapped his usual diplomacy for candor he would admit Welker is the superior receiver -- he does hold the top four spots on the franchise's single-season receptions list and set the yardage record last year with 1,569 -- though one wonders whether he might prefer Welker in October but Brown in January. As far as I know, no quarterback's supermodel wife ever criticized Brown's hands.

The similarities between Brown and Welker, the feats they've accomplished and the respect they've won, sure made for a strange juxtaposition Sunday. While Brown, who was inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame Saturday, was treated like last year's homecoming king returning home from college to a warm reception and that old familiar revelry, Welker was inexplicably being marginalized. He might have spent Sunday as a wallflower on the Patriots' sideline had Aaron Hernandez not been knocked from the game on the offense's third play from scrimmage.

While he didn't play as many snaps as perennial project Julian Edelman, who started ahead of him for the second straight week, Welker was enough of a factor that, in a coincidental confluence of place and timing, he surpassed Brown's franchise record for career receptions. With five catches for 95 yards Sunday, he now has 562 receptions as a Patriot, five more in his five-plus seasons here than Brown had in 15 years.

It should have been cause for celebration. Instead, it was an afterthought, lost in the mire of an ugly 20-18 loss to the underestimated Cardinals and the controversy surrounding Welker's initial role as a bit player. After what I saw at Gillette Stadium Sunday, I do believe Welker is deliberately being marginalized.

I have absolutely no idea why.

If it's for purely a football reason, I wish Belichick would explain it -- right, good luck with that -- not only to hear the fascinating reasoning and to learn something, but because it was also put a halt to all of the conspiracy theories filling the airwaves and clogging my Twitter feed.

I refuse to believe Belichick would be so petty as to diminish Welker's playing time because of his contract status or his limited play in preseason or because he got hair plugs and endorsed adult diapers, or because of that damned drop in the Super Bowl.

But Belichick is not going to say much beyond the standard, "It is what it is. We do what's best for this football team,'' and so we're left trying to solve the mystery ourselves. That, too, tends to lead us down dead ends in the maze, where we find more contradictions than conclusions.

I do believe Belichick will recognize any subtle decline in Welker's skills long before you, me, or even Welker himself will, and maybe he's seen something.

I don't believe that Welker at 31 years old will decline much in one offseason from the receiver who had 22 more receptions than any other NFL player last season, who had those 1,500-plus yards, who had a career-high in yards per catch (12.9) and scored nine touchdowns.

I do believe they need him, desperately so with Hernandez on crutches, and diminishing the role of someone who seemingly gives them a better chance of winning now, in Tom Brady's age-35 season, is shortsighted even if it gives them a better read on whether Edelman is a worthy heir.

I don't believe that Welker will get the graceful farewell, that the stage has been set for him to move elsewhere just as Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Willie McGinest and many others did when their salaries exceeded their usefulness by Belichick's accounting.

I do believe, like Troy Brown before him, that he deserves one.

About three years from now.

Strange schemes by the Patriots' offense

  September 16, 2012 12:26 PM


FOXBOROUGH – It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to suggest the Patriots’ offense fell into disarray the moment do-everything tight end Aaron Hernandez was knocked from an eventual, maddening 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals with a right ankle injury.

After all, Hernandez’s injury, which looked immediately serious and familiar enough that one was quickly tempted to scan the Cardinals roster for nemesis Bernard Pollard’s name, occurred on the Patriots’ second possession and third play from scrimmage, just 6 minutes and 23 seconds into the game.

Even by that still-early point, the Patriots, who dropped an effortless 34 points on the Tennessee Titans a week ago, had already dropped a hint that it may be a jarringly disjointed performance by Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack. On the very first play, Brady’s pass intended for Hernandez was tipped by Arizona defensive lineman Darnell Dockett and picked off by Patrick Peterson at the New England 36-yard-line. It’s not a safety on the first possession of the Super Bowl, but it was pretty ugly nonetheless.

Losing the essential Hernandez, who had by some accounts emerged as Brady’s top target in camp and is on a very short list of the most versatile offensive players in the NFL, had a significant impact on how the remaining 53:37 played out, though an advanced degree in football calculus might be required to gauge precisely how much his departure truly affected the game plan. Only Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels know the extent to which their plans were foiled or altered by his injury, and Belichick wasn’t in the mood to elaborate – “I don’t know,’’ he said when asked that precise question. But Wes Welker, who understands the nuances of the game plan even as he’s apparently a diminishing part of it, offered a candid assessment.

"Yeah, absolutely [Hernandez’s injury affected the game plan],’’ said Welker, who had five receptions for 95 yards while surpassing halftime honoree and Patriots Hall of Fame inductee Troy Brown as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions. “Aaron's in there almost every play. It changes quite a bit. You've got to go to a different attack. We didn't play the way we need to or execute the way we need to. It wasn't enough."

Hernandez’s injury occurred when teammate Julian Edelman, running behind Hernandez on a bubble screen along the left sideline, was tackled and rolled up the back of his teammate’s legs. Hernandez was in obvious pain, and the television replay revealed it to be reminiscent of the injury Rob Gronkowski suffered when the Ravens’ Pollard hauled him down in the AFC Championship Game. Ankles aren’t built to bend in the direction his did.

My apologies for dwelling on it, but it’s difficult to avoid acknowledging that it wasn’t the only infamous Patriots injury that flashed to mind -- watching Hernandez slowly descend down the stairs to the x-ray room, limping and flanked by training staff personnel attempting to bear his weight for him, the scene was all too familiar to the one that unfolded in the agonizing seconds after Pollard blew out Brady’s knee in the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season. You wondered when – or whether -- you’d see him emerge again.

It was just a few ticks of the play clock beyond that when the press box PA announcer confirmed the obvious, announcing that Hernandez had an ankle injury, punctuating it by adding that his return was questionable. He meant for the game. He could have meant for … well, for who knows how long? Perhaps until the Foxborough weather is much more frigid.

Maybe there is reason for optimism regarding Hernandez’s status -- he was seen in the locker room afterward leaning on crutches with his leg in a boot, and there were reports Sunday night that it was a sprain rather than a break. But until No. 81 – and we don’t mean Stephen Starring -- is back that huddle, the question about his status will linger. And given some unusual happenings with the offense not only for all of the three plays he was on the field, but for the 71 plays they ran from scrimmage after his day ended, it’s fair to presume it won’t be the only question that follows them at least until they win in convincing fashion again.

welkerfinn91.jpgJosh McDaniels’s bona fides as an offensive coordinator should not require detailed explanation around here; the 589 points (36.8 per game) the team scored under his guidance in 2007, as well as its relative success with untested Matt Cassel at quarterback a year later, should buy him a lot of leeway even if he is the person who once spent a first-round pick on Tim Tebow. This offense is going to keep the numbers on the scoreboard changing rapidly more Sundays (and Mondays, and even Thanksgiving Thursday) than not.

Still … man, the approach Sunday was puzzling, wasn’t it? So much of it made so little sense. Even with the knowledge that the play calling would have been different had Hernandez been out there, some of the personnel choices and plans of attack were so unorthodox that it seemed like they were expecting bonus points for degree of difficulty.

There was too much Danny Woodhead (eight carries, 18 yards, one reception, 12 yards) and not enough Rob Gronkowski (six catches, 75 yards, 1 touchdown, and a holding call on, coincidentally, what would have been a go-ahead Woodhead TD run with 58 second left). Gronk was targeted just twice in the first half, and considering he’s one of the few players in the league who is open when he’s covered, that’s inexcusable. Brandon Lloyd was targeted 13 times, catching 8 balls but also reading things differently than the quarterback on a couple of pivotal plays, including an incompletion with 4:08 left in the third quarter when he broke outside while Brady threw a strike that would have gone for a sure touchdown had Lloyd stayed the course.

More baffling was the decision to start Edelman over Welker. While they have some similar attributes as quick, jittery slot receivers, there is absolutely no way the former should be starting over the latter. Last week I bought the suggestion that Welker’s diminished role was related to particular matchups with the Titans. But two weeks in a row? Sunday he played fewer snaps than Edelman, who has 49 catches in his career, or 73 fewer than Welker had just last season. It’s inexplicable and inexcusable.

After Hernandez got hurt, the Patriots seemed more interested in getting Edelman and Woodhead involved than they did Welker and Gronkowski. Perhaps I’m missing something – again, that football calculus – but if this happens again, I may start wondering whether the phrase “offensive scheme’’ applies not to their game plan, but how they are treating Welker.

When asked by the Globe's Greg Bedard whether he was “on board’’ with Edelman playing in front of Welker, Brady looked briefly surprised, then offered a diplomatic answer.

“There are plays that Julian is in for,’’ said Brady, who did not extend his streak of games with a TD pass to 34 until the fourth quarter. “There are a lot of plays Wes is in there for. I like both those guys and they both work really hard. That’s always coach’s decision. Who’s out there, that’s not really my decision.’’

But Brady also offered this on Welker: “He’s a phenomenal player and when he makes plays it really sparks our whole offense. He made a bunch of them today. That’s what we need. We just have to do a little bit more to get the ball in the end zone.”

That might be tougher to do in Hernandez’s absence. Getting the ball to the best players next Sunday against the Ravens would be a decent start. And at least they may not have to deal with Pollard's Patriots-harming karma -- he got hurt Sunday too.

Unconventional preview: Cards-Patriots

  September 14, 2012 12:28 PM

As one of the cool duties that comes with that new byline up there, I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. This column is still a work in progress in Week 2, something you probably won't need to be reminded of after reading it. Some features will reoccur every week, and others will be opponent-specific or even one-and-done. But it will be right here every Friday around noon, and I think it's going to be fun. Hope you do too. And yes, this is the last time I'll use this ridiculously long intro.

1. Chandler Jones, defensive end:
Willie McGinest played his final game as a Patriot on January 7, 2006, a 27-14 playoff loss to the Broncos that ended the bid for three straight Super Bowl victories. While it was probably time for him to go -- he went on to three nondescript seasons in Cleveland where he totaled eight sacks -- the Patriots have never come close to replacing all that he provided to their defense. I've seen Jones, the first-round pick out of Syracuse, play exactly one NFL game, just as you have. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who watched that strip-sack of Jake Locker Sunday and thought, "They've got the guy. McGinest has finally been replaced."

2. Dont'a Hightower, linebacker: So this is what it looks like to have fast, relentless young playmakers on defense.

jeffersonjohnfinn914.JPG3. Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver, Cardinals: For the past couple of seasons, if you'd told me that the Patriots could steal one player off another team's roster without repercussion from Overlord Goodell, Fitzgerald might have been my first choice. Can you imagine him playing with Brady rather than the parade of McCowns and honorary McCowns he's played with in Arizona? Fitzgerald has been surpassed by Calvin Johnson as the league's most dynamic receiver, and his list of career comps isn't quite as impressive as you'd expect. According to pro-footballreference.com, his most similar receiver in career "quality and shape" through five seasons is receiver John Jefferson, who was a brilliant flash rather than an enduring great. But at 29, Fitzgerald is still in his prime, and I suspect his own quarterback will do a better job of minimizing his impact Sunday than the Patriots defensive backs will.


There are game-changers. And then there are those even rarer players who can have such a profound impact on a particular play that it is essential to go to great lengths to avoid giving him a chance to tilt the game's outcome. The Cardinals' Patrick Peterson, a second-year return man and cornerback, is fast becoming one of those players. As a rookie last season, Peterson tied the NFL record with four punt returns for touchdowns, joining Devin Hester, Rick Upchurch, and Jack Christiansen. (Haynes had two for the '76 Patriots, the first season in his Hall of Fame career). As a cornerback, he's on a track to become the player Darrelle Revis is purported to be. I'm not saying it's best for the Patriots if Zoltan Mesko avoids him at all costs, but ... well, watch at your own risk.

I bet Bill Belichick, with his historical and tactical appreciation for multi-skilled football players, loved Roy Green. If you only vaguely remember him -- and that's excusable, because while he was a heck of a player, ranking 51st all-time with 8,965 receiving yards in 14 NFL seasons, 12 of those seasons were spent in the NFL witness protection program playing for the Cardinals -- he's worth revisiting. Green's career was sort of the reverse of Troy Brown's, the great Patriots receiver and occasional defensive back who will be inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame Saturday. Brown played defensive back on essentially an emergency basis beginning in 2004, his 12th NFL season, even picking off three passes for the Super Bowl champs. Green began his career in 1979 as a cornerback, but was so dynamic as a kick returner that he began getting time on offense, and had 33 catches at more than 20 yards per pop in '81. He made the transition to receiver full-time in 1982. Heck of a player, heck of a career, and someone worth remembering.

welkerwesfinn914.jpgGRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
The notion that Wes Welker, who had three catches for 14 yards in the opener, has become an afterthought or is being phased out because of his contract status, is the height of hysterical, contrived sports-radio-driven ridiculousness, and fans who give credence to this really need to start thinking for themselves. Yes, the three-for-14 is an unusually low output for Welker, who had 122 receptions last year, 22 more than any other receiver in the league. But c'mon, do you really think Tom Brady is conspiring to throw him the ball less? You know better -- the Patriots offense is absolutely stacked, as deep and versatile as imaginable with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd, and because Brady can spread the ball around depending upon the defense and particular matchups, someone among them is always going to end up with fewer chances than you'd expect for a player of accomplishment. Last week it was Welker. Guess what? It's been Welker before. Last season, he had two catches for 22 yards in Week 11 against the Chiefs. In 2010, he had three games with three catches and three more with four, and he finished that season with 86 receptions coming off a knee injury. Even in the record-setting 2007 season, when Welker busted out as an NFL star with 112 catches, he had three games with three receptions. It's probably magnified because it happened in the first week of the season. But it's not going to be a trend. Don't be suckered in to thinking something devious is at play here.

Wrote this way back in, let's see ... um, it was last week. It was my sixth blind heave at a dartboard fearless 2012 NFL prediction in a gallery of a dozen, and hopefully will prove my most embarrassing:

The Cardinals' John Skelton will prove valuable in both real and fantasy football. It seems like a quarterback or two emerges every season from relative obscurity to become a dependable starter. Think Matt Moore or Ryan Fitzpatrick last year. Our bet to put up unexpectedly good numbers this season is the Cardinals' Skelton, who threw for 1,913 yards last year in eight games, is more comfortable in his third season, and has Larry Fitzgerald on his side.

Well, that was fun while it lasted ... which was, precisely, 51 minutes and 27 seconds of the Cardinals' season-opening victory over the Seahawks last Sunday. That's how long Skelton lasted before suffering a high ankle sprain that apparently was painful enough that he required the assistance of the cart to get off the field with 7:33 remaining in the fourth quarter.

And to be honest, it actually wasn't that fun while he was playing -- he finished just 14 of 28 with an interception before giving way to Kevin Kolb, who guided the Cardinals to victory and will start Sunday. Here's a makeup prediction: Kolb will be just as mediocre against the Patriots as Skelton was against Seattle, providing us with more evidence that this Patriots defense has been seriously upgraded. Come to think of it, the Cardinals might be best off starting Neil Lomax. Patriots 37, Cardinals 14

(Last week's prediction: Patriots 34, Titans 17. Final score: Patriots, 34-13. Record: 1-0.)

First and goals to go for Patriots

  September 10, 2012 06:30 AM


The first chance in more than seven months to see the Patriots play a game that matters couldn't have been more satisfying. The outcome, a 34-13 victory over the Titans in which more the than usual cast of Patriots played extremely well, perfectly fit the game plan regarding how fans daydreamed it might go.

With that first victory came so many other firsts -- the first 30-plus-point performance (a number they achieved in their first five games last year and their first eight in 2007), the first clues that this offense is going to be as versatile as any they have ever had (122-catch receiver Wes Welker was practically an afterthought), the first Tom Brady milestone (he threw career TD passes Nos. 301 and 302, breaking a tie with John Elway for fifth), and the season's first successfully executed GRONKSPIKE! ...

Well, OK, we're still waiting on that last one, with all-world Russ Francis Rob Gronkowski doing something during his celebration he rarely does when a pass is thrown his way -- he lost his grip on the football. There will be other spikes, roughly one per week, so he'll have plenty of chances to repair that part of his game.

Here are a few other firsts in a performance so thoroughly entertaining that next Sunday's matchup with the Cardinals already feels much too far away.

First touchdown: Let the record show that it went to tight end/wide receiver/running back Aaron Hernandez, who hauled in a 23-yard changeup down the middle from Brady and breezed into the end zone with 1 minute 59 seconds left in the first quarter.

While there were other appropriate choices to be the first to find the end zone this year -- Welker or Gronkowski to name the most obvious -- it does seem fitting that it was Hernandez, as if foreshadowing the monster season most of us believe is coming from him.

The Patriots have never had anything like Hernandez -- the best comparison I can come up with in terms of being a Swiss Army knife for the offense is Keith Byars, and they couldn't be more different physically or athletically. Byars would need five steps to cover the ground Hernandez does in one stride.

What an incredible weapon.

First catch by a newly acquired receiver who can really play: I'm irrationally excited about watching Brandon Lloyd carve out his niche in this offense. Not that their passing game needed much, but he's exactly what their passing game needed, you know? As evidenced by his 27-yard grab on the Patriots' first play of the second quarter, he can get open down the field, something the offense lacked all of last season.

And that's not all there is to like about Lloyd. He's as versatile a receiver as the Patriots have had in Brady's time here, he's going to thrive in this system because he already has, and he reminds me of Terry Glenn in the graceful way he contorts to catch everything with his hands.

He was good Sunday -- five catches, 69 yards, and a near-miss on a sure touchdown -- and he's only going to get better as he and Brady develop chemistry.

Thumbnail image for ridleystevn99.jpgFirst running back to show a burst: Two seasons ago, Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards. To match that output this season, he's going to need, let's see, 2,002 yards over the final 15 games. The Patriots' run defense did an extraordinary job of preventing Johnson from stepping on the accelerator, with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo at the forefront as usual.

The most effective and dazzling back on the field Sunday wasn't Johnson, but his young counterpart with the Patriots, Stevan Ridley. The second-year back out of LSU piled up 125 yards on 21 carries while flashing everything you want to see out of a feature back -- elusiveness, power, speed, instincts, durability, consistency, tenacity, you name it.

Oh, yes, and he also didn't put the football on the ground, a habit that put an abbreviated end to his playing time last postseason. Maybe Ridley needed the offseason to mature and adjust and improve, but the player we saw Sunday really could have helped in Indianapolis in February. And he's going to help a lot this year as the breakaway threat dependable but limited BenJarvus Green-Ellis never could be.

hightowerfinn99.jpgFirst indication that the defense might actually make some big plays this year: At the 11:07 mark of the second quarter, rookie first-round pick Chandler Jones blew through a double team and strip-sacked Titans quarterback Jake Locker. Rookie first-round pick Dont'a Hightower scooped up the bouncing ball cleanly, made one sharp cut, and ran 6 yards (or two more than CJ2K's rushing output for the day) into the end zone for a score.

And suddenly, we were reminded for the first time in awhile what a young, playmaking defense can look like.

Now, I'm not saying Jones and Hightower should begin preparing their Hall of Fame speeches for Patriot Place yet, let alone Canton. But watching the two dynamic rookies make what was the pivotal play of the game, you couldn't help but pleasantly flash back to Willie McGinest and Tedy Bruschi doing something similar back when this run of excellent all began.

First cringe-worthy moment: I hate thinking this way, but I think this way, so I might as well admit it.

In the buildup to this game -- which pretty much began in June given the pathetic descent into irrelevance by the Red Sox this summer -- I couldn't help but ponder some ugly potential symmetry.

The Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants in 2007, then lost Tom Brady in the opener the next year.

The Patriots lost the Super Bowl to the Giants in February, then ... well, nothing, thank goodness, and again, I hate even mentioning it, though I must admit it did not go unnoticed when the 7:27 mark of the first quarter passed without incident Sunday.

Not that Brady didn't take a few lumps. Brady briefly looked dazed and confused when he got belted from behind by the Titans' Kamerion Wimbley in the second quarter, his legs folding up like a card table beneath him, but all he ended up with was a bloody and possibly broken nose.

No real harm, and the only real foul is that there's a good chance the nose bandage he wore in his postgame press conference will become the next misguided fashion symbol for NBA stars next season. Russell Westbrook probably has Band-Aids stuck all over his face already.

Unconventional preview: Patriots-Titans

  September 7, 2012 10:46 AM

As one of the cool duties that comes with that new byline up there, I'll be writing a conventional Patriots column after every game this season. So I figured that to preview the game each week, I'd try something a little less conventional and yet still in the spirit of the serious-but-lighthearted, often-nostalgic prism with which TATB has always viewed sports. This column is still a work in progress in Week 1, something you probably won't need to be reminded of after reading it. Some features will reoccur every week, and others will be opponent-specific or even one-and-done. But it will be right here every Friday around noon, and I think it's going to be fun. Hope you do too.

1. Brandon Lloyd, wide receiver: He does not excel in one specific aspect of playing wide receiver like slot machine Wes Welker or deep threat Randy Moss do/did, but he's the most well-rounded receiver the Patriots have had in Tom Brady's time here. He'll surpass Chad Ochocinco's 2011 season output of 15 receptions after Week 3.

2. Ras-I Dowling, cornerback: If Devin McCourty -- a bright and talented player who has already succeeded in the NFL -- can overcome his disappointing sophomore season and one other young defensive back emerges, the Patriots should be able to make significant progress in their pass defense. Perhaps they'll even get off the field on third down once in a while. The best hope is that Dowling, who drew comparisons to McCourty as the first pick in the second round a year ago, becomes that player.

3. Brian Waters, guard: Whaddaya mean he's not here? HIS NAMEPLATE IS STILL ON HIS LOCKER! [Update: Um, it's not anymore.] While the temptation to fret is real -- Waters probably was their best lineman a year ago, though Matt Light had a darned good year -- Dante Scarnecchia will turn these guys into a cohesive unit with or without him.

I'm not one with a lot of gripes, so this will probably be a recurring feature at best. And I hate to be a scold or a nag or a finger-waver or ... well, you know. And I should note this applies to a minority of Patriots fans -- a vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. Now with all of the qualifiers out of the way, let me just make this request. Please stop overreacting to every little unexpected transaction Bill Belichick makes. Please. Sure, it was disappointing to see Deion Branch, a likable dude and a big-game player, get cut. And it was surprising that Branch, Jabar Gaffney, and Donte' Stallworth all got cut, though it's not out of the realm of possibility that at least one returns. And Belichick has had his share of foibles in free agency. But geez, the Patriots are 123-37 over the past decade, an almost unfathomable run of excellent in an era of free agency and relative parity. One-twenty-three and thirty-seven! And yet Belichick gets relentlessly second-guessed in the comments sections and mailbags by some of the couch-bound general managers among us as if he's football's version of Isiah Thomas or something. Before the 2010 draft, the consensus yelp was that the Patriots didn't have any tight ends. Enter Gronk and Hernandez. Two-plus years later, now the yelp is that he's accumulating too many tight ends at the expense of receivers. I happen to appreciate a coach/personnel boss who makes every decision based on who fits and who belongs, not on name recognition and past accomplishment. Please, let it play out -- chances are it's all going to be better than OK.

[Addendum: If the Patriots really are cheaping out on Waters, I'm right there with you on this one. Squawk away, because it's absurd. Also, hello, my name is Hypocrite.]

A year or so ago, Ballard wrote a feature on free-thinking former quarterback Jake Plummer that ranks as one of my favorite pieces I've ever read in the magazine. His piece in last week's issue on Rob Gronkowski is nearly as good, which means it's downright brilliant. Segments such as the one that follows here further confirmed my perception of Gronk as a fratboy/jock prototype -- yes, usually an annoying phylum for sure -- who is so genuine and guileless that you can't help but love the guy.

He paused, grabbed a nearby pillow, cradled it like a football. "I like going out, meeting new people, having a good time," he continued. "I guess that's why I'm all over the papers. I don't have any girlfriends, no kids. Basically I work out two hours every single day, and then I have 12 hours to do whatever I want."

He looked at me, and I nodded, because it did sound simple. In 10 years, Gronkowski will be worried about so much: concussions and aching joints, possibly a wife and children, bad publicity, who knows what else. For now, though, he exists in that electric, untenable flash of time that is being young, supremely gifted and on top of the world. He is, for a fleeting moment, invincible.

Here's hoping the moment isn't so fleeting, because Gronk is about as fun as it gets.


Half-formed takeaways from a 1 minute 34 second clip: Mack Herron could scoot, though that didn't help him much after he put the ball on the ground ... Prentice McCray tackled like he was foreshadowing the ascent of Asante Samuel ... Oilers running back Don Hardeman -- nicknamed "Jaws,'' Pat Summerall tells us -- looked like a fierce runner, just not as fierce as the guy who replaced him three years later. Then again, no one I've seen ran with as much ferocity as Earl Campbell.

Warren Moon is 55 years old, and I still wouldn't bet against him having a better fastball now than anyone who will suit up at quarterback for the Titans Sunday. Save for Jeff George -- yes, Jeff George -- nobody zipped a tight spiral more effortlessly than Moon. Imagine the numbers he'd have put up if he got a chance in the NFL before he was 28 years old.

Well, sure they do -- I mean, Chad Henne dropped 416 yards on the Patriots in Week 1 last year, and chances are Jake Locker will perform well enough this year that he doesn't go the Henne route and end up banished to Jacksonville as a backup. Of course, the Dolphins didn't actually win that game, losing 38-24. The Titans are a tough, well-coached, well-rounded team, and running back Chris Johnson (CJ2K in 2010, CJ1.047K last year) can score from anywhere on the field. But the Patriots scored at least 30 points in each of their first five games last year, and their offense is deeper and more versatile this year than it was a season ago. The Titans won't be able to keep up. Few will. Patriots 34, Titans 17.

Cutting good players is actually a good sign

  August 31, 2012 04:41 PM


There are few crueler reminders than NFL cutdown that one person's fulfilled dreams are often countered by the denial or deference of someone else's.

It's a particular bummer when familiar, accomplished players are told that Coach Belichick wants to see you, and oh, bring your playbook. It's never easy to say goodbye to Dan Koppen, a sturdy anchor on a couple of Super Bowl winners, or Deion Branch, the Most Valuable Player of the Patriots' last Super Bowl victory who might have helped secure another title or even two had he not taken a four-year detour to Seattle.

Branch and Koppen were victims of time and The Turk Friday, the two veterans with a total of 19 NFL seasons and four Super Bowl rings between them standing out as the most notable names among those released by the Patriots during the unsparing cutdown to the final 53.

Brian Hoyer, Tom Brady's apprentice the past couple of seasons, was dropped as well. Tough James Ihedigbo, too.

It's understandable to want to pay appropriate homage to Patriots players who have been a part of so many fulfilling Sundays. Heck, pour out 12 ounces of whatever the official gameday beverage that helps you stay hydrated happens to be, wear that No. 84 jersey (No. 83 if you still have the old-school Branch kicking around) when you do yard work tomorrow, salute them in your own way.

But if you're tempted to take to Twitter or the local airwaves to caterwaul about the injustice of it all, first, remind yourself of a couple things.

Bill Belichick knows better than -- well, certainly than the person writing this and all of you reading it combined -- about what is best for this team. Rarely do his cuts come back to haunt the franchise. And sometimes, the cuts actually come back -- I wouldn't be surprised to see Branch or Jabar Gaffney back on this roster in a week or so.

Also, consider: When familiar names are cut for football reasons, that's not necessarily bad -- in fact, it's a strong suggestion that young players are emerging and that there's depth on the roster beyond the starting 22.

If this is Branch's final goodbye here, shoot, I'll miss him, too. He's a wonderful, positive guy who got the most out of his ability, who rose to the occasion in many huge moments. (You can cite last season's Super Bowl as an example of when he didn't. I wasn't planning on it.) I'll always believe Peyton Manning's Super Bowl ring count would still be at zero had Branch, rather than Reche Caldwell or Doug Gabriel, been a part of the '06 team.

But once the moment of acknowledgement has passed, it's pretty foolish to dwell on who isn't here rather than who is. One of the reasons these name players were let go Friday is because this team is loaded. Tom Brady may not approach the records he set in 2007, but this offense, with Brandon Lloyd joining Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez, is more diverse than the one he had five years ago.

The defense features steady veterans such as Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, two extraordinarily talented rookies in Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, and a fascinating group of core players of various accomplishment moving into their prime.

The offense will be spectacular, and the defense should be much improved just by showing up.

Sure, there are concerns -- after the way the shorthanded offensive line performed in preseason, you wish Tom Brady's canine paraphernalia included a protective invisible fence. Ras-I Dowling needs to stay healthy and Devin McCourty needs to stay confident, and both cornerbacks could benefit greatly by the assistance provided by a decent pass rush.

But the Patriots' list of concerns is comparatively quite short. I look up and down this roster and stare at the depth charts, and though they feature fewer familiar names than they did just a few hours ago, I cannot help but think that this team is so loaded that with good health and good luck, it's well-positioned to accomplish what was denied the '08 club the moment Brady went down halfway through the first quarter of the first game:

Tear through the league, from Week 1 all the way to the Super Bowl, eventually avenging an agonizing Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Optimistic? Sure. I don't understand Patriots fans who aren't, to be honest. Did the Red Sox beat you down that much?

It's too bad Branch probably won't be around for this season's ride. But that's how it goes, that vicious cycle of NFL life that becomes magnified on cutdown day -- one player's sad departure opens the door for another's dream to come true.


Gino Cappelletti retires from Patriots radio team

  July 20, 2012 05:00 AM

When the Patriots make their preseason debut August 9, a voice that accompanied generations of fans on autumn Sundays for more than three decades will be absent from the team’s radio broadcast.

Gino Cappelletti, known affectionately as “Mr. Patriot” for his on-field exploits during the franchise’s early years before embarking on a 32-year career as the popular color analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts, has decided to retire.

Gil Santos, his partner for 28 years on the broadcasts and the past 21 consecutively, will return for his 36th year in the booth. Scott Zolak, the former Patriots quarterback who thrived in an innovative sideline-based third analyst role last season, is expected to succeed Cappelletti on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s broadcasts, though that decision is yet to be finalized.

The gentlemanly Cappelletti, 78, was not available for comment Thursday night, but he said in a statement through CBS Radio that it has been tremendously rewarding to watch the Patriots develop into one of the NFL’s signature franchises

“Through five decades, my romance with football and my relationship with the Patriots organization have provided me with a lifetime of wonderful memories,” said Cappelletti a rookie wide receiver/kicker/defensive back on the franchise’s inaugural team in the American Football League in 1960 who would go on to be an MVP, a five-time All-Star, the league’s all-time leading scorer, and a member of the all-time All-AFL team.

“I have had the privilege of sharing the broadcast of six Super Bowls, and amazingly, five in the past decade. The memory of the first Super Bowl victory will always be fresh in my mind. For me, it serves as a special reminder of how far this franchise has come, the challenges that were met, and the adversity we faced in those early years. But as they say in the huddle after a long, successful day’s work, it’s time to take a knee and celebrate the win.’’

Santos and Cappelletti, paired together from 1972-78 and consecutively from 1991 through last season, had many successful days of work. With Santos’s classic baritone and Cappelletti’s genial manner, they were the unofficial voices of fall in New England. During their heyday Patriots fans liked to say they turned down the sound on the television so they could listen to the broadcasters they knew simply as Gil and Gino. Their call of Adam Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVI remains an all-time classic.

But in recent years, the game seemed to speed up on Cappelletti, and gaffes became more prevalent during the broadcast. Adding Zolak to the team last year was a graceful way of providing support while letting Cappelletti go out on his own terms. But for generations of Patriots fans, it won’t be quite the same without him.

“Gino is a beloved sports legend in the region who has earned this well-deserved retirement,’’ said CBS Radio Boston senior vice president and market manager Mark Hannon. “Listening to the Patriots games without the voice of Cappelletti will be a big change.”

Good to see Jacoby Ellsbury in leading role

  July 16, 2012 10:39 AM

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free throwaway lines for you ...

ellsburyjacobyfinn716.jpg1. I suppose the five hits he has in nine at-bats since his return to the lineup has served as a reminder, but I thought not enough was made of Jacoby Ellsbury's absence and the effect it had on the Red Sox. Based on MVP balloting, he was the best offensive player in the league last season, and his numbers (212 hits, 32 homers, 46 doubles, 39 stolen bases, .928 OPS) stand as a historically great season. Future NL-pinch-hitter-extraordinaire Daniel Nava filled in beyond expectations in Ellsbury and Carl Crawford's absence, and Scott Podsednik had his moments, but the Red Sox also had to endure 268 mostly fruitless at-bats from Marlon Byrd, Darnell McDonald, and Ryan Kalish while biding their time until the varsity (copyright Larry Lucchino) returned. Seeing Ellsbury back at the top of the lineup makes it easier to have optimism about this team without searching too hard for it.

2. A three-run homer every once in a while would be swell, but any grievances regarding Adrian Gonzalez should stop well shy of suggesting he's jaking it by missing games due to illness and a back issue recently. He's a player who prides himself of being in there every day -- the fewest games he's played any season among the previous five is 159. He may be a disappointment, but he's not a malingerer.

3. One way to kill time before the start of Patriots camp, which can't get here soon enough: Stare at the depth chart, rattle off the names, and marvel at the talent Tom Brady will have at his disposal this season in the passing game alone: Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch, Donte' Stallworth, Julian Edelman, as well as Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. There will be attrition, of course, and someone like Stallworth may not even make the cut. The passing game probably won't be as productive as the record-setting Randy Moss/Wes Welker fireworks show of 2007, but it will be able to torment a defense in more ways.

4. As far as the running backs beyond Woodhead are concerned, you have to figure Stevan Ridley, who suffered from acute fumbleitis late in his rookie season, will pick up most of BenJarvus Green-Ellis's carries, presuming he spent the offseason carrying a football everywhere he went like Darnell Jefferson in the "The Program.'' I can't envision Joseph Addai being anything more than the new Fred Taylor. Shane Vereen, whose rookie season was lost from the beginning, is my sleeper. The kid is electric in the open field.

5. Bruins one-timer: I'm probably in the minority on this, but I'd rather trade Milan Lucic than David Krejci in a deal for Anaheim's Bobby Ryan or another top-shelf forward. As enigmatic as Krejci can be -- he reminds me of Rajon Rondo in that regard to some degree -- he also has a track record of playing his best when the spotlight is brightest. But if it's Krejci or Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, forget it.

6. The theory that he was having ex-Celtics Remorse is interesting, and Ray Allen was certainly subdued at his introductory press conference (perhaps he was expecting a house DJ and maybe some pyrotechnics?) but it's hard for me to figure anyone going to Miami for millions of dollars to play with LeBron James is going to be bummed about much of anything for long.

mantlemickeyfinn.jpg7. As you probably can imagine, I can't get over the story about the haul of rare baseball cards found in someone's attic in Ohio. It's every baseball fan's daydream. Or a fan of loot and money, for that matter. I spent hours as a kid scouring my grandmother's attic trying to find my dad's extensive collection of '50s baseball cards, with not a trace of vintage '52 cardboard to be found. We all have a similar story, don't we? I can tell you this: Those cards, estimated to be bring $3 million if they are sold or auctioned, will go for a lot more than that. I'd bet double.

8. So assuming that Andrew Bailey returns to the Red Sox while the games still matter this season, is he the closer immediately, does he have to prove himself in a setup role first, or has Alfredo Aceves done enough to keep it? I'm leaning toward the latter, though there are fantasy baseball biases at play there.

9. Brent Lillibridge has a minus-33 OPS+ in 16 plate appearances for the Red Sox. It's a puny sample-size to be sure, but I look at his career 67 OPS+ in 600 at-bats -- not a puny sample size -- and I find myself hoping that the Red Sox don't ditch Ryan Sweeney to keep Lillibridge around, even considering his speed and defensive prowess. For some noodle-bat perspective, Craig Grebeck had a minus-55 OPS+ during his 43 plate-appearances with the Red Sox in 2001, while Cesar Crespo put up a beastly minus-4 OPS+ in 79 plate appearances in 2003.

10. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:


Still waiting for Lucchino's report on how "cheerful" he was after Bobby Valentine called him out for a lackadaisical defensive play Sunday.

Dolphins to be featured on 'Hard Knocks'

  May 29, 2012 03:14 PM


After a year's hiatus, the popular NFL reality program "Hard Knocks'' will return to HBO late this summer when it documents the training camp of the Miami Dolphins.

"We are delighted that 'Hard Knocks' will be returning this summer and placing the spotlight on the Miami Dolphins, a venerable franchise that had an exciting off-season activity," said HBO Sports president Ken Hershman in a press release announcing the decision. "This marks the first time that the series has featured a first-year head coach and we are extremely grateful to both Coach [Joe] Philbin and the entire organization for agreeing to participate. As always, there will be plenty on the line for veterans, free agents and rookies."

"Hard Knocks'' debuts Aug. 7 with the first of five one-hour episodes. This year, it will air on Tuesdays in prime time after previously being shown on Wednesdays.

The Dolphins may initially seem a curious choice for the behind-the-scenes candor that helped the network, which co-produces "Hard Knocks'' with NFL Films, win three Emmy Awards the last time it aired two years ago while featuring the New York Jets.

But while the Dolphins, who have had a losing record in seven of the past eight seasons, may not feature star power and natural story lines of the Jets, and Philbin is unlikely to utter lines as memorable as Jets coach Rex Ryan's "Now let's go eat a [expletive] snack,'' it won't require much of a search to find interesting angles for the 24-person NFL Films crew that will shoot more than 1,000 hours of video over the course of the series.

And there are interesting personalities. Philbin, formerly the offensive coordinator for the Packers, didn't get to bring Aaron Rodgers along with him when he was hired in January. Instead, he inherits a quarterback competition featuring first-round pick Ryan Tannehill, veteran David Garrard, and incumbent Matt Moore.

Philbin is working for a general manager in Jeff Ireland (a Bill Parcells protégé) who is reputed to be on the secretive side and an owner in Stephen Ross who courts celebrity. It shouldn't take two guesses to determine which one of them signed off on "Hard Knocks,'' which did not air last year because of the NFL lockout and seemed in jeopardy this year because of an apparent unwillingness of teams to commit to the program.

“All the decisions that have been made this off-season have had one guiding principle -- will it help our players and organization reach its full potential?,'' Philbin said in a statement. "This one is no different. We are convinced that our affiliation with NFL Films and HBO will allow football fans everywhere an opportunity to comprehend the significant sacrifices and demands that our players endure each day along their journey in training camp as a Miami Dolphin."

Charismatic running back Reggie Bush, a darling of the tabloids when he dated Kim Kardashian, is coming off the best season of his career. And it is the 40th anniversary of the franchise's 17-0 season in 1972.

"On the 40th anniversary of the greatest season in NFL history -- Don Shula’s perfect ’72 Dolphins -- it is perfectly fitting that Hard Knocks is heading to Miami to capture the start of a new era for one of the league’s proudest teams,” says NFL Films president Steve Sabol in a statement. “After Hard Knocks’ hiatus last summer, I know our team at NFL Films can’t wait to get back on the field.”

Pierce's health, and other points of interest

  May 14, 2012 11:33 AM

Ten free minutes for me, 10 throwaway lines for you ...

1. I learned long ago not to write off this particular group of Celtics until the final buzzer has sounded, and that goes for a particular game or this remarkable season as a whole. But while I do think they get by the fledgling Sixers even with an injured Paul Pierce, it has been somewhat disheartening to watch him struggle to play through a knee injury that is hampering him significantly. He's unable to beat defenders off the dribble, and his uncanny knack for gaining position and leverage on his defender has been neutralized. He's also struggled with his passing, especially when the Sixers (and Hawks previously) run an additional defender at him and then jump the passing lane on the rotation. I think the Celtics could beat Miami with a healthy Pierce (and Ray Allen, and Avery Bradley). It'll be disappointing if this injury prevents us from finding out for sure.

navadaniel514.jpg2. Never thought we'd see Daniel Nava playing for the home team at Fenway Park ever again, but I guess that's what happens when the outfield depth chart reads like a list of casualties (Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Repko, Darnell McDonald, and even Ryan Kalish). And kudos to Nava for being ready for it. He's reached base in 12 of 16 plate appearances, and the way I understand it, a .750 on-base percentage is not bad. What he's done this time around is more impressive than when he first arrived in '10, which is saying something considering -- and I think this is mentioned on the Sox radio broadcast every time he comes to the plate -- he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw.

Thumbnail image for rondorajon515.jpg3. Two favorite non-KG moments from Game 1: Avery Bradley beating Rajon Rondo to the loose ball and taking it all the way for a reverse layup. Man, that kid has some mega-jets. Also, Rondo's three-quarter-court perfect strike to Bradley for an in-stride layup. I could get used to watching these two play together for the next half-dozen years or so. OK, and an obvious tied for third -- Rondo's presence of mind to foul Jrue Holiday with a little more than three seconds left, then, on the inbound pass, recognizing that Evan Turner couldn't keep up with him as he dribbled out the clock. Anyone who questions Rondo's hoops IQ should be required to watch the fourth quarter of that game on an endless loop.

4. The suggestion that a player established at one position should move to an unfamiliar one to accommodate another player or to fix a logjam at one spot usually drives me nuts. I still don't like the idea of Adrian Gonzalez playing the outfield, though we'll probably see it in Philadelphia over the weekend. And I know it's not practical to put Kevin Youkilis in left field when he returns -- when he played the position briefly in 2006, he made Manny Ramirez look like Paul Blair, and that's when Youk was healthy. But I do believe Bobby Valentine needs to find a creative way to keep Will Middlebrooks in the lineup when Youkilis returns, and if that means he plays a super-utility role until his inevitable next injury, maybe that is the best way to go.

5. Really curious to see how the Patriots' wide-receiver situation shakes out. I loved the Jabar Gaffney signing -- he came in during '06 and instantly earned Tom Brady's trust -- and I'd be surprised if either Donte' Stallworth or Chad Ochocinco make the team. This much we know for sure: Some established names are going to have a tough time making the Patriots' final 53.


Matt Light and the second round

  May 8, 2012 03:07 PM


I probably should have had my thoughts in order for this since it was the worst-kept secret in Foxborough this offseason, but Matt Light's hilarious and introspective retirement announcement Monday left me with some mixed feelings.

It would be weirdly selfish, particularly in light of recent events, to suggest a player should not walk away from the game on his own volition just because it's apparent that he can still play. Light is going to do extraordinarily well after football -- the NFL Network and ESPN should be wooing him right now, because he is articulate and witty and would be a star analyst immediately -- and he's one of the lucky ones in that he departs on his own terms and right of mind.

But from a less significant standpoint -- the football-related one -- his retirement is the first real blow to the Patriots in an offseason that has delivered almost entirely positive personnel news, from the drafting of Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower to the savvy signing of Jabar Gaffney and several other quality depth pieces.

With Light, who has protected Tom Brady's blind side from snorting, slobbering pass rushers for virtually every snap of his career, moving on, suddenly there's a second-year player at left tackle in Nate Solder, while right tackle is a question mark if Sebastian Vollmer's bad back continues to be a problem. Solder has a chance to be an excellent player. But I doubt he will be the immediate equal of Light, who leaves after one of the best seasons of his 11-year career.

Drafted in the second round in '01 out of Purdue, Light became such an essential player, handling his unglamorous but crucial role with distinction for five Super Bowl teams, that it got me wondering whether he was the best player ever selected by the Patriots in that particular round.

After letting it percolate for about two seconds, I realized the answer was a resounding no, but he is on the short-list of candidates to follow a certain Hall of Famer who has the top spot locked down.

Just for the fun of it, here's my top seven second-rounders in Patriots history, in order:

1. Andre Tippett '82: The Patriots had to be confident they were getting a future defensive superstar in the '82 draft. It just wasn't who they thought. While No. 1 overall pick Ken Sims, a defensive end from Texas, let his sluggishness supersede his talent in a mostly wasted career, the Patriots found the greatest defensive player in franchise history with the 41st overall pick. Tippett was the second-greatest pass rushing linebacker of his era (he was to Lawrence Taylor what Tim Raines was to Rickey Henderson as a leadoff hitter), finishing with 100 sacks in his 12-year career, and he should have been voted into the Hall of Fame long before he was.

nelsonsteve58finn.jpg2. Steve Nelson, '74: When I first began watching the Patriots in the late '70s, it seemed like the announcer (probably Don Criqui) informed us after every play, "Number 57, Steve Nelson with the tackle." I probably believed he made every one. In 1984, Nellie came about as close as possible to doing just that, finishing with an astounding 207 while making his second of three Pro Bowl appearances.

3. Julius Adams, '71: If you want to drop Adams, a very good pass-rushing defensive end who was also stout against the run, down to No. 5 on this list and move the next two guys up, I'm cool with that. I slotted him because of steadiness and durability more than anything else. He played 206 games from 1971-85 and '87.

4. Matt Light, '01: Light followed in the immediate footsteps of the consensus greatest left tackle in franchise history, Bruce Armstrong, whose 14-year Patriots career concluded in 2000. Light doesn't match Armstrong in longevity (a franchise-record 212 games, all starts) or accolades (six Pro Bowl appearances), but factors such as leadership are included, I think I'd go with the guy who just retired on my all-time Patriots team.

5. Kevin Faulk, '99: The Troy Brown of running backs, he's done everything the team has asked of him and just a little bit more. He also remains the only evidence Bobby Grier can point to and exclaim, "See? I got something right!"

millloylawyerrookiefinn5.jpg6. Lawyer Milloy '96: In the first three rounds over a span of four years (1993-96), the Patriots drafted Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Terry Glenn, Ted Johnson, and Milloy. That's how to build it, Tuna. Milloy and Law were the leaders of the defensive backfield that pummeled the delicate Rams receivers in Super Bowl XXXVI. One of the lasting images among many from that game is Bill Belichick hugging one of his children and Milloy in the immediate moments after Adam Vinatieri's field goal proved true.

7. Rob Gronkowski, '10: Yep, it's been just two years. But hell, it was tempting to rank him higher, and I doubt you guys would have objected. After all, in those two seasons, he has 132 receptions for 1,873 yards and 27 touchdowns. If he'd had two healthy ankles in February, the Patriots would have a fourth Super Bowl title. Provided he can stay healthy -- a big if given how overmatched would-be tacklers go for his legs -- he will be the greatest tight end of all-time.

leekevinfinn58.jpgOne fine receiver and a bunch of busts: Deion Branch '02 has 312 regular-season receptions as a Patriot. That's 193 more than fellow second-round receivers Kevin Lee '94 (8 receptions), Darryal Wilson '83 (0 receptions), Tony Simmons '98 (58), Bethel Johnson '03 (39), and Chad Jackson '06 (14) combined for in their entire careers. Heck, Branch has more Super Bowl receptions (24) than Wilson, Lee and Jackson totaled during the regular season.

Other quality second-rounders of various levels of accomplishment: Patrick Chung '09, Sebastian Vollmer '09, Eugene Wilson '03, Ted Johnson '95, Vincent Brown '88, Garin Veris '85, Tony Collins '81, Larry McGrew '80, Horace Ivory '77, Rod Shoate '75, Brandon Spikes '10, Chris Slade, '93, and Lee Roy Jordan, '63 (never played for the Pats, who drafted him as a center, but starred at linebacker for the Cowboys for 14 years).


Remembering Junior Seau, Patriot

  May 2, 2012 05:48 PM


He will forever be associated with the San Diego Chargers for reasons both triumphant and tragic. But the coda to Junior Seau's brilliant 20-year NFL career came here in New England, where he spent 38 regular-season games over four seasons proving how a player of such individual distinction could become a wonderfully enthusiastic role player and teammate.

Seau, who died Wednesday from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at age 43, was a favorite of the coach, Bill Belichick, who once coached Lawrence Taylor with the Giants and has an obvious affection for linebackers of extraordinary skill and ability. While Seau's greatest days came as a San Diego Charger, the franchise for which he made 12 Pro Bowl appearances in his 13 seasons, Patriots fans have their snapshots of him, too.

He is remembered foremost for his toughness. After suffering a gruesomely broken arm in a November 2006 game, he walked off the field saluting the fans (with his good wing), then returned the following season to play all 16 games.

He is remembered for his enthusiastic willingness to join the Patriots in the middle of a season when Belichick would call to tell him his services were needed. Once, he said the call came while he was on a surf board, enjoying his retirement that was about to prove temporary again.

And he is remembered, admiringly despite the outcome, for his words of encouragement to Tedy Bruschi -- "Get a stop. We've just got to get a stop'' -- as the defense prepared to take the field for the final time in Super Bowl XLII. His teammates seemed to want that ring for him as badly as they wanted one for themselves.

When we watched him in his Patriot years, it was impossible not to recall one glaring what-if that hovered over the franchise for years. Seau could have, and probably should have, been a Patriot so much sooner.

In the 1990 NFL Draft, the Pats owned the third overall selection, courtesy of a 5-11 record the previous season. Rather than keeping the coveted selection for themselves, the Patriots did what they did in those days -- they made a decision that would haunt them, trading out of the spot, giving Seattle the pick along with a second-rounder in exchange for two first-rounders (Nos. 8-10), and a third-rounder.

The Seahawks selected Cortez Kennedy, who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in February.

Two picks later, the Chargers chose Seau, who will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame the first moment he is eligible for consideration.

And with the No. 8 pick, the Patriots, in dire need of linebacker help, chose ... Chris Singleton from Arizona. He played six years in the league, finishing with seven career sacks. He did not make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Patriots went 1-15 in 1990.

Patriots history would be changed beyond recognition if they'd chosen the right player that day. Maybe Seau gives them instant defensive credibility, and the franchise is never in position to draft Drew Bledsoe (No. 1 overall, 1993) or Seau's Southern Cal successor, Willie McGinest (No. 4 overall, '94). But even in a Patriot fan's lament, this much is certain: Seau ended up where he belonged.

He wasn't just a Charger, he was the Chargers, crackling with electricity every time the ball was snapped. Relentless, ferocious and impossibly athletic from his linebacker position, he was superb at every aspect of playing the position. His talent, knowledge and instincts were such that he got away with freelancing more than any linebacker who didn't answer to L.T.

Before coming to New England, Seau spent three years in Miami, and his first 13 of his 20 NFL seasons with the Chargers. He's arguably that franchise's all-time most beloved and iconic player. Wednesday, he became part of their tortured legacy, becoming the eighth member of their 1994 Super Bowl team to die.

As a Patriots fan, it was easy to envy the Chargers fans who were lucky enough to have watched Seau wreak havoc on opposing offenses every Sunday in his heyday. You wished he could have arrived in New England sooner than he did. But Monday, football fans everywhere were united in sadness, wondering why he had to go.


Tyler Seguin, and a lesson in patience

  April 24, 2012 08:44 AM


Question, Boston sports fans: How many times did you replay Tyler Seguin's winning goal in Game 6 immediately after it happened? Five? A dozen? Or are you still hitting the rewind/play combo on your DVR this morning, two days after one of the most beautiful big-moment goals you'll ever see and a day before one of the most delicious events in sports, a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

There were so many reasons to watch his game-winner, then watch it again and again and one more time again. The magnitude of it, for starters, for his OT score kept the defending champions' season alive against Alex Ovechkin and the gifted, enigmatic Washington Capitals. Milan Lucic's gorgeous, almost casual, pass that sent Seguin on his way. The roadrunner-on-skates beep-beep speed with which he left the defense in his wake and closed in on Caps goalie Braden Holtby. The shot itself, which was from an angle you didn't need to be a geometrician to appreciate.

For me, and probably a lot of you too, there was one aspect of the play that impressed me more than the rest: Seguin's extraordinary patience.

I mean, for a 20-year-old athlete to have the presence of mind in that situation to wait ... and wait ... and wait to shoot the puck until the goalie all but says, "Will you please *$*@*($@ shoot the puck already, eh?'' before committing and essentially leaving an open net ... well, the poise Seguin showed under those circumstances, when he could have shot sooner, is just an incredible thing. That's why I kept hitting rewind and babbling to my sighing 8-year-old daughter why the play was so special.

Pardon me if this strikes you as a stretch of a connection, but I don't believe it is. See, it hit me like a Zdeno Chara check in the aftermath of the Game 6 victory that there is something all of us can take from Seguin's approach to that moment when it comes to our approach to following professional sports:

The value of patience.

To me, it seems like it's in shorter supply among sports fans and media members nowadays than it has ever been. I'm sure a large part of it is due to the prevalent sports-radio culture, in which every loss and negative play is magnified and dissected beyond recognition, and two losses in a row guarantee that the carcass will be picked bare. Everyone has to have a take, and you're not going to get your 30 seconds on the air with your favorite over-caffeinated host by being reasonable.

I don't like that, but I do get it. What I don't understand is how it rewards you as a fan, or where the satisfaction comes from when patience pays off. What do fans who were yelping for Danny Ainge to "blow it up'' and trade Rajon Rondo just a few weeks ago -- usually without any logical solutions regarding what they could and should get in return -- think now that the Celtics are the team no one wants to play in the Eastern Conference playoffs and Rondo has played his way into All-NBA consideration?

Do they admit that waiting it all out is sometimes the best route? Do they find joy in watching this fascinating team, which bickers like family and has each others' backs like family? Or when the going gets good, do they just move on to the next projected crisis, finding more satisfaction in griping than in success?

I suspect the same people who were piling on Danny Ainge back in February are the same ones who will shriek when Bill Belichick passes up that outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid you just know is the perfect fit for the Belichick scheme, if only he'd see it himself, to take a defensive tackle or a guard in the first round during the upcoming draft.

And yes, of course this is about the Red Sox. They've been awful, no doubt. Hideous.