AFC East: 2013 Week 14 Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 8, 2013

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' stunning 27-26 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Everything. Not the outcome of the game, which was another amazing Patriots comeback that was only solidified after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was short with a 58-yard attempt at the final gun. Tight end Rob Gronkowski being carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a serious leg injury is a season changer for New England. Gronkowski is that much of a difference-maker. In the postgame news conference Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Rob was taken to the hospital for a observation and evaluation on his injury. That's all I have on that."

Measuring Gronkowski's impact: Since his return to action on Oct. 20, Gronkowski almost single-handedly changed the Patriots' offense. The Patriots were 22nd in points per game before Gronkowski returned; they were seventh entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 30th in red zone efficiency without Gronkowski; they were 11th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 19th in passing yards per game without Gronkowski; they were 10th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 16th in first downs per game before Gronkowski returned; they were fifth entering Sunday's game.

Where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski: Assuming tests reveal what many assume -- that Gronkowski will be out for the season with a leg/knee injury -- the Patriots won't be able to find a player to replace his production. They'll need to find new ways to create offense, such as what we saw in parts of the second half with running back Shane Vereen becoming a greater part of the passing offense. From a pure 1-for-1 personnel standpoint, tight end D.J. Williams -- who was released on Wednesday -- could be brought back to add another tight end, along with Matthew Mulligan and recovering Michael Hoomanawanui (knee).

Unbelievable comeback: Gronkowski's injury cast a cloud over a remarkable comeback. How do the Patriots keep digging themselves into an early hole, when it seems the game is lost, only to pull it out? It's one of their most redeeming qualities -- they are hard to knock out and play all 60 minutes (and sometimes beyond). This was simply stunning, requiring an onside kick to be recovered with one minute remaining -- and the benefit of what looked like a generous 29-yard pass-interference penalty -- to set up the winning touchdown. Wow. Patriots fans have seen some of the ugliest football the Patriots have ever played this season ... and also some of the most remarkable comebacks.

Where's the protection? When considering why the Patriots' offense struggled as much as it did, after crediting the Browns' defense, one area to look at from a New England perspective is inconsistent offensive line play. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure at various points in the game. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, arguably the two best linemen on the team, were beaten for sacks.

Stock watch -- coaching staff: Falling: One week after being praised for its in-game adjustments, the Patriots' staff finds itself in this category, as the Patriots sputtered out of the gate with another slow start. Something isn't getting through.

Ridley back in the mix with 17 snaps: After he was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston because of ball-security issues, running back Stevan Ridley was active and used as part of a committee with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. Ridley was the third player in the mix, as we counted him on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties).

What's next: The Patriots travel to South Florida to face the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15 (1 p.m. ET).

Rapid Reaction: Miami Dolphins

December, 8, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Miami Dolphins34-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

What it means: It wasn’t easy, but the Dolphins picked up a crucial road win to improve to 7-6 and significantly improve their playoff hopes. Miami survived six lead changes, culminating with a game-winning touchdown by tight end Charles Clay, to remain in firm standing for the final wild-card spot in the AFC with three games remaining. This was the first time this season that Miami scored 30 points or more. The Dolphins also are above .500 for the first time since Week 6. They are at home for two of their last three games.

Stock watch: Clay gave the Steelers’ defense a lot of trouble. He caught seven passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake also had a huge sack and forced fumble in the first half. Wake stripped Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the turnover led to a touchdown. Miami’s secondary has been solid most of the season, but it struggled against Pittsburgh’s passing game. Roethlisberger threw for three touchdowns. The Dolphins struggled sticking to Pittsburgh’s receivers in the bad weather. But Miami's defense held tough in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and closed out the game.

Concussion watch: The Dolphins lost their starting running back, Lamar Miller, to a concussion. He was knocked out of the game in the third quarter after being hit hard by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark. Miller was immediately taken out of the game and replaced by backup tailback Daniel Thomas. Miller’s status for the next game is uncertain.

What’s next: The games only get tougher. The Dolphins will host the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots next Sunday. New England beat Miami 27-17 in October and will be looking for the season sweep.

Rapid Reaction: Buffalo Bills

December, 8, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the Buffalo Bills' 27-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: This one was ugly. The Bills didn't come to play, and it showed. Bobby Rainey's 80-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game set the tone as the Buccaneers cruised to an easy win. The Bills drop to 1-5 on the road and are now tied for the second-worst record in the AFC. If their late-season slide continues, it will be a troubling sign for the rebuilding efforts of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley.

Manuel hits new low: This was EJ Manuel's worst game of the season. He was intercepted four times, although there is some question as to whether a third-quarter pick by Lavonte David was instead a fumble by Robert Woods, who was hit hard by Darrelle Revis on the play. Manuel finished 18-for-33 for 184 yards, no touchdowns and four interceptions. His 31.2 passer rating was a season low, and he is now 0-4 on the road with the Bills. It's far too early to write off Manuel in Buffalo, but the Bills need to start thinking about insurance if he plays poorly into next season.

Stock watch: Falling: Offensive line. It was a pitiful performance from all facets of the offense, but the play of the offensive line in particular has to sting Marrone, who has a background coaching the position. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson combined for just 34 yards on 16 carries, while Manuel was sacked seven times. It's tough to pin all of that on the front five, but they were also called for a slew of penalties in the game. One embarrassing third-quarter sequence saw Marrone win a challenge that confirmed a 9-yard catch by Woods, only to have that yardage lost on back-to-back false-start penalties by Eric Wood and Erik Pears.

What's next: The 4-9 Bills will return to Florida next weekend to square off with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have won four of their past five games. It's another road test for Manuel and the young Bills, and one that could further solidify Buffalo's position near the top of the first round in the 2014 draft.

Rapid Reaction: New York Jets

December, 8, 2013

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New York Jets' 37-27 win over the Oakland Raiders at MetLife Stadium:

What it means: The Jets (6-7) snapped a three-game losing streak, avoiding the first four-game skid of the Rex Ryan era. This was their biggest scoring day since Week 1 of the 2012 season. Yes, really. Mathematically, they still have a shot at the playoffs, but that wasn't the story of the game. They needed this win for their own sanity, preventing a once-promising season from careening off the rails. A loss to the injury-plagued and talent-starved Raiders (4-9), who played with backup QB Matt McGloin, would've been devastating for Ryan. Before the game, he received a quasi vote of confidence from owner Woody Johnson, who said in a radio interview he's "happy" with the direction of the franchise. They equaled last season's win total.

Stock watch: Rookie QB Geno Smith, clinging to his job, delivered his best game in two months. He threw his first touchdown pass in seven games, ran for a touchdown and committed only one turnover, his 20th interception. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, desperate to spark the slumping offense, used a lot of no-huddle and moved the pocket, allowing Smith to throw on the run. He also dusted off some read-option plays, one resulting in Smith's 8-yard touchdown run. Smith was far from perfect -- he missed open receivers -- but it should be a much-needed boost of confidence.

Offensive explosion: The Jets scored more points than they did in their previous three games combined. Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley provided a spark in his return, scoring the first touchdown, but this was a balanced attack. They ran well, led by Chris Ivory, and they handled the Raiders' blitz without too many problems. For a change, they resembled a real NFL offense. They began the day with an eight-quarter touchdown drought.

The defense rests: The biggest downer of the day was the defense, which allowed 63- and 48-yard touchdowns. That's inexcusable. They also allowed a 100-yard rusher (fourth-string running back Marcel Reece) and a 100-yard receiver (Rod Streater). Interestingly, the Raiders challenged cornerback Antonio Cromartie more than struggling rookie Dee Milliner.

Reed's role tweaked: Safety Ed Reed made his first interception of the season, setting up a field goal. It came on a day in which he lost some playing time, sharing snaps in the first half with Antonio Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett. Reed, an every-down player in his first three games, was used only on passing downs early on. Ryan should've used him this way from Day 1, but he forced the future Hall of Famer into a full-time role.

What's ahead: It gets tougher for the Jets -- a lot tougher -- as they go on the road to face the Carolina Panthers (9-3).