AFC East: Aaron Rodgers

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Aaron Rodgers won't need to double-check this one: The Buffalo Bills' defense is for real.

Any questions about the unit -- which were fair after flimsy outings earlier this season against Philip Rivers and Tom Brady -- were quieted with an emphatic thud Sunday when the Bills turned Rodgers' first career start at Ralph Wilson Stadium into a nightmare.

Entering the game at the forefront of the MVP discussion and as arguably the game's best quarterback this season, Rodgers was held to a 34.3 passer rating -- the worst of his career -- in a 21-13 Bills win over the Green Bay Packers, one that kept the Bills (8-6) alive in the AFC playoff hunt.

[+] EnlargeBills defense
AP Photo/Gary WiepertGetting physical on defense was key for the Bills, who notched this safety late in Sunday's win.
One week after holding Peyton Manning to a 56.9 passer rating -- his worst since 2008 -- during a loss in Denver, the Bills' stifling effort against another future Hall of Fame quarterback further proves that they have one of the NFL's best defenses.

"It was frustrating," Rodgers said after the game. "They did a good job on defense, kind of slowed us down a little bit. We had some opportunities and didn't execute very well on them."

Sure, some of the Packers' passing woes were self-inflicted. Of Rodgers' career-high 25 incompletions, several were simple misfires on his part, while another seven were dropped by his receivers -- the most by a team in a single game since 2008. Had a wide-open Jordy Nelson not let a perfect throw from Rodgers late in the third quarter fall through his hands, the Bills' defense would still be trying to chase him down.

But this was a day for the Bills' defense -- one that dropped a couple of easy interceptions of its own -- and not for Rodgers and the NFL's highest-scoring offense. To say that the Bills slowed down the Packers "a little bit" is quite the understatement.

It's hardly anything new for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's group, one that allowed the NFL's fourth-fewest points and held opposing quarterbacks to the league's second-lowest Total QBR entering Week 15.

The Bills racked up an NFL-best 48 sacks prior to Sunday's game, yet were able to force the Packers' offense to fizzle even without pressure on Rodgers, who wasn't sacked until Green Bay's final offensive snap.

"The protection was great," Rodgers said. "There was not much of the pass rush that bothered me. I was able to move around the pocket."

So how did the Bills contain the Packers' offense?

"They were physical and got away with it more than we expected," Rodgers said.

While being physical was part of the coaches' messages during the week, Schwartz and secondary coach Donnie Henderson focused on keeping the scheme simple for defensive backs tasked with slowing down Rodgers, Nelson and Randall Cobb.

"Communication, communication, communication. That's all there was to it," cornerback Nickell Robey said. "We ain't going to make it a magical formula or whatever like that. It was just communication. Making the game simple for us. Going down there and just getting their guy. Don't get beat. If [Rodgers] scrambles, stay with your man. Trust in each other out there on the field.

"Communication and trusting each other. Those were the two main things today and that's what we [followed] through on and we finished the game out with a win."

Veteran cornerback Corey Graham, who has started the past four games after Leodis McKelvin went down with a season-ending ankle injury, didn't complicate the approach.

"Just cover. That's what we do," he said. "Pretty much what you get out of us. It's gonna be a lot of man-on-man, you get your cat. Everybody's gonna be out there, got their own guys. Everybody gonna hold you accountable to get your guy."

Though the defensive line didn't record a sack until late in the fourth quarter -- when Mario Williams strip-sacked Rodgers for a safety to seal the victory -- the rock-solid front line still played a part in the defense's strategy.

"We know that we had to keep Aaron Rodgers from scrambling around. He scrambles around a lot, tries to buy time with his feet," Graham explained. "For the most part, our D-line did a great job keeping him in the pocket, keeping him from moving around too much and keeping him from buying too much time. So we wanted to do that and we were able to do that today."

Whether it's the Bills' front seven or their secondary, their defense sent a clear message to Rodgers and the rest of the NFL: Don't discount us.

"It's been two weeks in a row that we played against probably the best quarterbacks in the league," Graham said, "and we held our own regardless."

Rapid Reaction: Buffalo Bills

December, 14, 2014
12/14/14
4:25
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A few thoughts on the Buffalo Bills' 21-13 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium:

What it means: The Bills (8-6) took down the NFL's hottest team in the Packers (10-4), who fell to 0-6 all time in Buffalo. While Buffalo's offense -- especially quarterback Kyle Orton, who finished with a 54.2 quarterback rating -- was inconsistent Sunday, the Bills' defense and special teams won the day. The Bills have won eight games for the first time since 2004. Considering the strength of the AFC, they'll still need to win their final two games to have a chance at the playoffs.

Stock watch: Defense -- up. There isn't one player to single out from this unit, but they proved Sunday that they are the real deal and should be in the discussion as the NFL's best defense. After holding Peyton Manning to a 56.9 quarterback rating last week, the Bills' defense was truly stifling Sunday, limiting Aaron Rodgers to a 34.3 rating -- the worst of his career. The winning formula was tight coverage from the Bills' secondary, a slew of bad throws from the game's best quarterback and plenty of drops from his receivers. Rodgers had a 40 percent completion rate and averaged 4.4 yards per attempt, some of the worst statistics of his storied career.

Game ball: Safety Bacarri Rambo. The most unlikely of heroes for the Bills in their win, Rambo intercepted Rodgers twice in the second half after entering in the third quarter for an injured Duke Williams. It was Rambo's first extensive action with the Bills since being signed last month. Who would've guessed?

Carpenter perfect: As anemic as the Bills' offense has been, kicker Dan Carpenter has been solid. He was a perfect 4-for-4 on field goals Sunday, including 51- and 48-yard kicks. Carpenter is second in the NFL with 28 field goals.

What's next: The Bills close out their regular season with back-to-back road games. They'll travel cross-country Friday for a game Sunday against the Oakland Raiders (2-12), and then finish out at New England (11-3) in Week 17.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Julius Peppers strolled through the Best Buy store in suburban Ashwaubenon, located just two miles down Oneida Street from Lambeau Field, looking for a new case for his iPhone this week.

No one stopped him for an autograph or asked to take a selfie with him.

[+] EnlargeJerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Bills fans
Bill Wippert/Associated PressGreen Bay and Buffalo are similar in many ways, including player-fan celebrations.
He's not even sure if anyone gawked.

Such is life for a Green Bay Packers' player in the NFL's smallest city.

"These people around here are used to having Brett Favre here, Reggie White here," Peppers said. "They’ve got A-Rod [Aaron Rodgers] in their town, so it's not like it's anything special to see a high-profile football player out. I think people around here handle it pretty good. I don't get bothered at all really."

Peppers imagines it's much the same in Buffalo, New York, the NFL's second-smallest outpost. That makes this week's game between the Packers and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium different from a normal NFL Sunday.

No, these aren't the one-stoplight, cow towns they're often made out to be -- Green Bay is home to 104,779 in the city proper and Buffalo has 258,959, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures -- but they're not Chicago or even Charlotte, North Carolina, where Peppers split his first 12 NFL seasons. In Northeast Wisconsin and Western New York, the NFL is either the only game in town or the biggest one.

"It's kind of similar to Green Bay's fanbase," Peppers said. "Small town. Those guys love their Bills. It's going to be one of those atmospheres that's going to be a challenge as well to go into an environment like that and perform."

Given their NFC-AFC affiliations, the Packers and Bills play just once every four years and go eight years between visits to each other's city. Only three players -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker A.J. Hawk and special teamer Jarrett Bush -- were with the Packers the last time they played at Buffalo in 2006, and Rodgers was still two years away from becoming the starter.

That's why on Wednesday, during his first address to the team this week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked his players through what to expect on Sunday in Buffalo.

"Talked about the small town, similar characteristics to Green Bay, the passion of their fanbase and really the type of environment that we're getting ready to go into," McCarthy said of his speech to the team. "It's an older stadium, small locker room. It's old-school NFL football. It's something I've always appreciated playing there in the past, and once again you have to make sure your team is ready for that."

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsPackers running back James Starks was raised in Western New York and went to the University at Buffalo, making Sunday a homecoming for him.
Few know how similar the NFL life can be in Green Bay and Buffalo better than Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt, who joined McCarthy's coaching staff in 2012, played all nine of his NFL seasons in Buffalo, where he was mostly a backup from 1995 to 2003 but started 11 games.

"Not just the similarities of the organizations, but the city," Van Pelt said. "It's a safe place. It's a good place to raise a family. The values and everything are good there. It reminds me of a Midwest town with the blue-collar workmanship. A lot of those are very similar here. When people ask me how's Green Bay? I'm like, 'Well, it's a little bit smaller than Buffalo but very similar.'"

Except perhaps for the fans.

Van Pelt called Bills' supporters "some of the best fans I've been around” in part because "they understand they can get loud when they need to. Quarterback starts to audible, you'll hear the crowd get higher and higher."

"But maybe a little rougher than say, the Green Bay crowd," Van Pelt added. "I remember coming here as a player and the fans telling you on the way out, 'Good job. Good luck the rest of the year.' You may not get that in Buffalo."

Independent of Van Pelt, Packers running back James Starks made a similar point. Starks grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, went to college at Buffalo and as a kid attended Thurman Thomas' football camps in Orchard Park, New York, where the Bills' stadium is located.

"They're very similar," said Starks, who has tickets for 20 relatives attending Sunday's game. "Real small. The football organizations bring in a lot to the community. Loyal fans. I think Green Bay's are a little more respectful and stuff. Their fans are a little more, I don't know ..."

Starks, wearing a Brooklyn Nets hat and a New York hoodie, didn't finish his thought on Friday afternoon. It was time to go home, first to his Green Bay locale and then to his real home this weekend.

"There’s no place like home," McCarthy said. "Obviously, everybody enjoys going back to their hometown, and I know this is special for James and his family. James is always smiling; his smile is bigger this week."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Back in 2011, when the Green Bay Packers were unbeatable – 13-0 unbeatable – they mowed down an impressive list of quarterbacks: Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer among them.

Then came Kyle Orton.

Actually, they beat him once, too. In Week 4 of that season, he quarterbacked the Denver Broncos in a 49-23 loss at Lambeau Field.

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
Bill Wippert/Associated PressKyle Orton has had success against the Packers in his career, going 4-2 against Green Bay.
Nearly two months later, though, it was Orton -- this time at the helm of the Kansas City Chiefs after the Broncos went with Tim Tebow -- who became the only quarterback to beat the Packers in their 15-1 regular season.

If for no other reason than that long December day three years ago, the Packers know they must be cognizant of what the journeyman quarterback can do when they play him and the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Orton will make his seventh start against the Packers for his fourth different team, and it might come as a surprise that this largely unheralded veteran has quite the record against Green Bay. He went 3-1 against them as an on-and-off starter with the Chicago Bears from 2005 to 2008 and then split those 2011 games for a 4-2 career mark as a starter.

The 32-year-old, who walked away from a backup job with Dallas Cowboys last summer and was seemingly retired, took over the Bills after four games this season and has led them to a 5-4 record since then. At 7-6, the Bills are still fighting for their playoff lives.

"He knows what he's doing," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He manages the game extremely well. We played against him twice that year against Denver and Kansas City, and he was the one guy who beat us."

In six career starts against the Packers, Orton has never had a 300-yard game. If fact, he's only had two 200-yard passing games against them. One came with the Chiefs in 2011, when he completed 23-of-31 passes for 299 yards but didn't throw a touchdown. He has only one other game with more than 142 yards against the Packers and has more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (five) against them.

Orton once led the Bears to a 19-7 victory over the Packers by completing just six passes for 68 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in 2005. And yes, he played the full game. He also has beaten the Packers with passing yardage totals of 104 and 142 yards, both with the Bears.

Orton's numbers aren't gaudy this season, either. He ranks 30th in Total QBR (42.1), 30th in yards per attempt (6.77) and 17th in passer rating (89.2). The Bills rank 17th in passing yards per game (230.9) and 20th in offensive points scored per game (20.0), although that includes the first four games with EJ Manuel at quarterback.

"I've always thought he's been very productive," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We've obviously played against him in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City. Played very well against us in Kansas City down there in 2011. He has complete understanding of the offense. He can make all the throws. He can still sling it. I think he does a very good job with their offense."

Orton and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers actually have a long-standing friendship that began in 2004, when both attended the Elite 11 quarterback camp as counselors during their college days.

"I've had some great battles against [Orton] over the years," Rodgers said on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show this week.

W2W4: Miami Dolphins at New York Jets

December, 1, 2014
12/01/14
1:30
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Miami Dolphins (6-5) will play a national, prime-time game against the New York Jets (2-9) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

Here are three things to watch from Miami's perspective:

1. Toughen up: Miami’s defensive coaches and players admitted they were pushed around in last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos. The Dolphins allowed a season-high 39 points, 201 rushing yards and four passing touchdowns. However, Miami’s fifth-ranked defense expects a bounce-back performance against the Jets. Physicality and poor tackling were not issues for the Dolphins until last week. They are out to prove last week's poor performance was an anomaly.

2. Rattling Geno: The Dolphins have had a tough stretch of opposing quarterbacks. They have faced Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers in recent weeks. Miami’s defense should get a relative respite Monday against the Jets' Geno Smith, who is one of the NFL’s lowest-rated quarterbacks this season. Smith was named the starter this week after losing his job earlier in the season. New York’s passing game has been a mess and is ranked dead last in the NFL. Miami’s defense generally plays well against the pass and should have success in this matchup.

3. Who’s at cornerback? The Dolphins will enter the game very thin at cornerback. Starter Cortland Finnegan is listed as doubtful and not expected to play with an ankle injury and second-year backup Jamar Taylor is ruled out with a shoulder injury. That leaves Miami with limited options at corner opposite Pro Bowler Brent Grimes. The team has to choose between rookie Walt Aikens or R.J. Stanford, who was just signed off the street less than a week ago. Expect the Jets to attack whichever player starts in what could be a possible weakness in the Miami defense.

It should be an interesting divisional game at MetLife Stadium. Be sure to check out ESPN.com's Dolphins page and follow on Twitter @JamesWalkerNFL throughout the day and evening for all the latest news.

CHICAGO -- So this is what Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill looks like at his absolute best.

Miami's 27-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday finally showed what a consistent, dominant Tannehill looks like under center. Better yet for the Dolphins, it happened over four full quarters -- not the usual one good half or quarter Tannehill has provided this season.

How locked in was the third-year quarterback? On his second touchdown pass of the day, the Bears took away his first and second options. So Tannehill went to his third progression -- which he rarely does successfully -- to complete a 10-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace.

Wallace said after the game that the Dolphins (3-3) couldn't even hit that play in practice. But with Tannehill in the zone, they made it look easy when it mattered most, giving Miami a lead it never relinquished.

"I was the last read on the play," Wallace said. "On that play in practice, I've been working that [route] probably since I was in Pittsburgh and never got the ball, not one time, on that play. That was the first time.

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastQB Ryan Tannehill capitalized on short passes to lift the Dolphins over Chicago in Week 7.
"You could fall asleep on that play, but you gotta stay focused. Honestly, I got that same play on Tuesday or Wednesday in practice and he threw it. We didn't connect on it, and I told him I will be better on it the next time. Tonight was our next time, and we were better."

There have been games when Tannehill was good, but never the best player on the field. That changed in Chicago. Afterward, backup quarterback Matt Moore got a chuckle out of Tannehill by telling him, "You inspire me."

Tannehill's day started with 14 straight completions, and he finished with 277 yards and two touchdown passes. He posted a career-high 123.6 passer rating and didn't have his first incompletion until 54 seconds left in the first half.

First-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is getting a better grasp of his quarterback's capabilities. The Dolphins used a well-devised game plan that highlighted Tannehill's strengths: throwing short and intermediate passes. His longest completion was for 26 yards to backup tight end Dion Sims. Tannehill also used his athleticism by rolling out of the pocket on passing plays, rushing for 48 yards on six carries.

Dolphins tight end Charles Clay said Tannehill's confidence was at an all-time high, especially after getting hot early.

"It's hard to pinpoint, but it was just something about him," said Clay, who had four receptions and caught Tannehill's first touchdown pass. "It gave me confidence, and I'm sure it gave everybody else in the huddle confidence."

Tannehill said he has never completed 14 straight passes to start a game at any level. He did complete 14 straight between the second and third quarters this season against the Oakland Raiders, but this performance was from the start and more dominant.

On this day, if you were open, Tannehill easily identified it and made the right decisions. He completed 78.1 percent of his passes, and eight Dolphins players had at least two receptions.

"Everyone was getting open," Tannehill said. "It's fun to be able to spread the ball around like that."

Was this a one-game performance or a potential career turning point? That remains to be seen.

One of the biggest critiques of Tannehill is he rarely strings together strong games in back-to-back weeks. This season alone he has struggled from half to half. That is one of the major reasons Tannehill is just 18-20 as a starter and still trying to prove he is Miami's long-term solution.

But Sunday's lights-out performance at least provided a one-game snapshot that Tannehill is capable of dominating a game. He has good athleticism and can make most of the throws needed to thrive in the NFL, with the exception of a consistent deep ball.

After six games, it's clear the Dolphins will go only as far as Tannehill takes them this season.

"We're definitely playoff-caliber, and if he's playing like [Sunday], we could be Super Bowl-caliber, honestly," Wallace said. "But we got to put in the work every day. We know it's not going to just come to us. We have to keep grinding and stay focused."

Miami Dolphins Stock Watch

October, 13, 2014
10/13/14
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The Miami Dolphins fell to 2-3 on the season with a 27-24 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Here is a look at whose stock is rising and falling in Miami:

Falling

Philbin
1. Joe Philbin, head coach: Miami was held back again due to poor coaching decisions. So a lot rests on Philbin’s shoulders. The Dolphins’ head coach seemed unsure late in the fourth quarter if he wanted to aggressively try to win the game or conservatively play not to lose. Miami oddly did something in between and opened the door for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to work his magic with 10 points in the final 4:09. Miami’s timeout on fourth-and-10 also gave the Packers a chance to regroup. Too often Philbin struggles with game management before the half and at the end of games. It’s not easy to do, but Philbin is paid a lot of money to make these decisions. He mismanaged the game on Sunday.

2. Kevin Coyle, defensive coordinator: The Dolphins' defense played hard for four quarters, and they held a Packers' offense that was averaging 40 points per game the past two weeks to just 20 points until the final touchdown with three seconds remaining. But Coyle was outcoached down the stretch in the game's crucial moments. The Packers got the mismatch they wanted with tight end Andrew Quarless outside and one-on-one with Philip Wheeler, who is Miami's worst coverage linebacker. The Dolphins also seemed caught off guard by Rodgers' fake spike, as well, which goes back to preparation.

3. Philip Wheeler, linebacker: Wheeler did not play a lot of snaps. He only had one tackle in limited playing time. But it was the play he didn't make that cost Miami. Wheeler had poor coverage against Quarless during a 4-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining. After the game, Wheeler admitted he didn't make the play but also blamed Coyle for bad coaching. According to Wheeler, Rodgers knew the defense was in man-to-man. But Wheeler deserves some blame for not making a play.

Rising

Landry
1. Jarvis Landry, wide receiver: Miami’s rookie second-round pick made the most of his opportunity to play the slot full-time. With veteran Brandon Gibson sidelined with a hamstring injury, Landry led the Dolphins with six receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown. He also had a 54-yard return in the first quarter that set up an early field goal. Landry made a strong case for more playing time, even when Gibson returns.

2. Olivier Vernon, defensive end: Vernon had a season-high seven tackles and 1.5 sacks. He also held up well against the run by protecting the edge, which is an area Vernon continues to make strides. The Packers averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Vernon has now had a sack in three of Miami's five games this season.

3. Cameron Wake, defensive end: It was a strong game for Miami's defensive line, which clearly had an advantage over Green Bay’s offensive line on paper. That played out as Wake also gave the Packers trouble. He finished with three tackles and 1.5 sacks on Rodgers. Wake also was credited for three quarterbacks hits in one of his best games so far this season.
DAVIE, Fla. -- When you mention top receivers in the NFL, names such as Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas usually come to mind.

But rarely is Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson's name put in the same category, despite putting up comparable numbers the past few years.

Nelson
Grimes
Grimes
"I don't know why," Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes said of Nelson. "He does it all the time. He makes great plays and great catches. ... He has all the tools. If people don’t want to talk about him, he will just keep doing his thing under the radar."

Grimes will face one of his toughest matchups of the season with Nelson when the Packers (3-2) travel to face the Dolphins (2-2) on Sunday. Entering Week 5, Nelson was second in the NFL in receiving yards (525) and second in touchdown catches (four).

It will be up to Grimes and fellow veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan to stop Green Bay's top receiving threat. Nelson is by far the favorite target for Packers Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Nelson has 10 more receptions than the next most productive Packers receiver, Randall Cobb, who has 24 catches for 273 yards.

Nelson, who is 6-feet-3 and 217 pounds, also has a distinct size advantage that he aims to use against Miami's smaller starting cornerbacks. Both Grimes and Finnegan are listed at 5-feet-10 and 190 pounds.

"He’s strong and he’s bigger than you think he is," Grimes explained of Nelson. "And he has great hands. Aaron Rodgers puts the ball where it has to be and he makes the catch. I think his strongest thing is after he makes the catch, he’s not easy to bring down."

Green Bay's offense is hitting its stride during its two-game winning streak. The Packers are averaging 40 points per game in victories against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers has seven touchdown passes and zero interceptions in that span.

Miami’s secondary also enters Sunday’s game with momentum. Grimes, safety Jimmy Wilson and rookie Walt Aikens all had interceptions in Miami’s recent win against the Oakland Raiders, and Finnegan also had a fumble return for a touchdown.

The Dolphins' secondary must continue to make plays for Miami to have a chance at upsetting Green Bay.

"I guess you can say it’s shown that if you come off a good game, the confidence is a little higher," Grimes said. "It might not be every individual. But it might be some people on the team that see some things happen, get on a roll and roll like that. Me? I approach every game one game at a time."
DAVIE, Fla. -- So, Aaron Rodgers, what is your best Joe Philbin story?

“Hmm, that’s tough,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said this week on a conference call with the Miami media. “I have so many good ones.”

The answer sparked laughter from those, like myself, who cover the Miami Dolphins. Philbin isn’t known in South Florida to be the funniest or most charismatic head coach.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images"I owe a lot of my success to working under him," Aaron Rodgers said of his former offensive coordinator, Joe Philbin.
But those in Green Bay paint a different picture of Philbin, who grew through the ranks as a former position coach from 2003-06 and offensive coordinator from 2007-11. That included one Super Bowl championship following the 2010 season and eventually led to Philbin landing his first opportunity as a head coach with the Dolphins in 2012.

“He used to always give us the Saturday morning speeches -- he called it his Saturday 'Cup of Joe' and I always enjoyed those,” Rodgers said. “He was always a guy who could control a room.”

The Dolphins (2-2) will host the Packers (3-2) Sunday at Sun Life Stadium in an important game for both teams. This week Philbin's former team is talking glowingly of its former offensive coordinator.

“Every time he stood up in front of the offense and talked, he had the respect of the players,” Rodgers said. “Because we saw how hard he worked, his passion for the game, the way that he talked and the way that he cared about his players. Those were all qualities that a good head coach needs. So it was tough to see him go, but you can definitely see it back then.

“I owe a lot of my success to working under him. He helped me a lot over the years with different reminders.”

But Philbin's results have been mixed in Miami. After two seasons without a winning record, this is a big third year for Philbin to prove that he can be Miami's long-term solution at head coach. Philbin’s record is just 17-19 so far, which isn't good enough.

The inconsistent Dolphins have yet to win two games in a row this season, and this is an opportunity to make a statement against a good team. Philbin has downplayed his internal knowledge of the Packers’ offense this week. Green Bay is averaging 40 points per game the past two contests, and Philbin knows this scheme and many of the players well.

Rodgers admitted few opponents will have as much inside information on the Packers this year as Miami.

“You have to be aware of that,” Rodgers said. “You have to change up your signals and change up some of the things you do that you're known for just to avoid playing right into their hands. Joe is helping out the defense and some of the things we do cadence-wise and formations and tendencies. I wouldn't expect him to do any different.”

Less is more for Ryan Tannehill

October, 3, 2014
10/03/14
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The Miami Dolphins are still trying to figure out third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, despite the fact he has 36 starts under his belt.

Tannehill is 17-19 as a starter, which isn’t great but not awful, either. He has split four games this year, and there already was speculation that Tannehill could be pulled entering Week 4, But he responded with his best game of the season (278 yards, two touchdowns) in a blowout win over the Oakland Raiders to quiet those rumblings.

Tannehill
Miami's starting quarterback has done enough to keep his job the past three seasons but not enough to convince the Dolphins he is a franchise quarterback and the team’s long-term solution.

There are several strengths and weaknesses in Tannehill’s game. But the one statistic that has stood out is Tannehill’s win-loss record based on pass attempts.

Tannehill is 1-8 (11.1 winning percentage) in games in which he has 40 or more pass attempts. 16-11 with fewer than 40 attempts.

This is a telling statistic that proves less is more for Tannehill. It has rarely worked the past three seasons when the Dolphins put the game on Tannehill’s shoulders -- hence the 1-8 record. But when Tannehill is asked to manage the game and reduce the amount of risk involved, the Dolphins win nearly 60 percent of the time.

I’ve said during the preseason that Tannehill’s ceiling is closer to Alex Smith than it is an elite quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers. Tannehill has good athleticism and a solid arm, but there are too many holes in his game to expect him to become one of the dominant players in the league. But if Tannehill is coached properly, surrounded with quality talent and manages the game, you can win with his tools.

Last week’s blowout victory against Oakland was a perfect example. Tannehill threw the football just 31 times. He completed 23 and had a lot of confidence-building throws in the first half. Miami’s running game also added 157 yards and the defense forced four turnovers. The Dolphins didn't put too much on Tannehill's shoulders to go win the game.

Statistics show this is the best way to manage Tannehill going forward. But Tannehill does not significantly improve, is this level of quarterback play enough for Miami to commit long term?

Is Joe Philbin overprotecting Tannehill?

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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DAVIE, Fla. -- A day later, I'm still trying to decode a statement from Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin regarding starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Here is the background: Philbin was asked by Miami Herald reporter Armando Salguero Tuesday about Tannehill's inability to take over games. Tannehill is 12-15 as a starter and rarely puts up huge numbers. It's a fair question.

Here was Philbin's response:
“Football is still a team game as far as I am concerned. I have never been around anybody that one person that can carry a football team. It takes 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, 11 guys on special teams. I think [Tannehill] has had some very, very good games here, I anticipate that he will continue to do so. I have been coaching for 30 years, I have never seen one player win a game on his own.”

Philbin was then pressed by Salguero, who followed up by asking if Aaron Rodgers took over games when Philbin was offense coordinator with the Green Bay Packers?

“Not necessarily,” Philbin responded. “I am not going to comment on those specifics. I am going to tell you that in 30 years of coaching football is a team game and it takes 11 guys to execute in any phase.”

What exactly does Philbin mean?

Most would agree that Rodgers -- a Super Bowl-winning quarterback -- has taken over plenty of games in his career. He is an elite quarterback who gets hot, puts up big numbers and wins big games every year. The Packers are a mediocre team this season without Rodgers, who is currently injured. There is no debating this.

It appears Philbin went too far out his way to overprotect Tannehill for not taking over games. Either that or Philbin took a shot at Rodgers, which I'm sure was not Philbin's intent.

Philbin needs to take the kid's gloves off Tannehill, who is no longer a rookie. Tannehill must do more to lift his team down the stretch if the Dolphins (5-6) want to have a chance at making a postseason push. Having a big game Sunday against the New York Jets (5-6) would be a good start for Tannehill.

Morning take: Ranking Tom Brady

July, 22, 2013
7/22/13
9:30
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I am back from vacation and it’s time for training camp and the preseason. Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC East: Morning take: The Brady-Peyton Manning debate is always close. But most agree that Aaron Rodgers is the NFL's top quarterback entering the 2013 season. Brady deserves kudos for still being at the top of his game at the age of 35.
Morning take: The top candidates are Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, defensive end Mario Williams and corner Stephon Gilmore. Buffalo has talent. It will just take better coaching from new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Morning take: Holmes is desperately needed this season, but he's still not fully healed from last year's foot injury. It could be a long season for the Jets’ offense if Holmes can’t return to form.
Morning take: This is the time when running backs must prove themselves. Training camp and the preseason are more physical and I expect players like Miller, Daniel Thomas and rookie Mike Gillislee to be more assertive.

AFC East Stock Watch

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
10:00
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Let's take a look at whose stock is rising and falling in the AFC East.

Falling

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesWith tight end Rob Gronkowski out for the rest of the season, the Patriots will have to rely on their depth to advance to the Super Bowl.
1. New England Patriots' tight-end depth: The Patriots lost dynamic Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season after he broke his arm for a second time Sunday against the Houston Texans. The Patriots must adjust to life without Gronkowski, especially in the red zone. Gronkowski had 11 touchdown receptions in just 11 games this season. No other Patriot had more than six touchdown receptions. New England still has dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, but will have to rely on the inexperienced Michael Hoomanawanui to fill that second tight end role. Hoomanawanui is more of a blocking tight end who has just five catches receptions this season.

2. New York Jets' GM search: Does anyone want to run the Jets next season? It doesn't seem that way after New York's prolonged general manager search is approaching three weeks. Jay Glazer of FoxSports.com recently reported the Jets "can't give the position away" and are coming back to candidates who turned the team down earlier and asking them to reconsider. That is harsh. But it's understandable why New York's general manager position is not a desirable job. First, the team is well over the cap with old and overpaid players. Second, the Jets need to fix their extremely broken quarterback situation. Finally, the new general manager must work with Rex Ryan and cannot hire their own head coach. Add it up and you have a mess that apparently no top candidate wants to clean up.

3. Patriots kickoff coverage: New England had some rare mistakes last week in kick coverage. Houston had 230 kickoff return yards in the divisional round, which included a 94-yard return to start the game. The hidden yards and winning in the third phase made the final margin betwen the Patriots and Texans closer than it really was. New England head coach Bill Belichick defended his special teams this week and doesn't believe it will be an issue in the AFC title game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Rising

1. Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: Brady became the all-time winningest quarterback in NFL playoff history with a win over the Texans. Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and improved to 17-6 in the postseason. Brady has a chance to advance to his sixth Super Bowl with a win next week against the Baltimore Ravens. With other elite quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers knocked out of the divisional round, New England has a significant advantage at quarterback among the final four teams.

2. Shane Vereen, Patriots tailback: I knew Vereen was a threat catching out of the backfield. But I didn’t know Vereen was this dangerous. New England's second-year running back made some great catches in Sunday's playoff win over the Texans. Vereen finished with 83 receiving yards, 41 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. Vereen and fellow running back Stevan Ridley are coming of age together for New England in the postseason. That makes the Patriots even more dangerous.

3. Buffalo Bills defense: The Bills made some quality hires on defense to land former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and former Jets defensive line coach Anthony Weaver. Both did a solid job in New York and will bring that experience to Buffalo. The Bills drastically underachieved on defense under Dave Wannstedt. Buffalo was 22nd in total defense and 31st against the run, despite having a defensive line that included Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Pettine is known to get the most out of his players. Expect the Bills' hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 defense to improve in 2013.

Have the stars aligned for Patriots?

January, 13, 2013
1/13/13
11:00
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just two weeks ago, we were discussing the New England Patriots hosting a wild-card game, then potentially traveling to Houston and Denver in order to advance to the Super Bowl. But thanks to some good fortune, the reigning AFC champion Patriots do not have to leave Foxborough to make it to New Orleans.

The stars have aligned just right to boost New England's chances of another Super Bowl run. The second-seeded Patriots will host the Houston Texans Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET. If the Patriots advance, they also will host the fourth-seeded Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium in next week's AFC Championship Game.

Houston's loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season finale gave the Patriots a valuable first-round bye. But Baltimore's overtime upset of the top-seeded Broncos Saturday was the biggest surprise. It provided New England an unexpected home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Of course, none of this matters unless New England can take care of business on the field. Nothing in the postseason is easy. But home games against Houston and Baltimore in the playoffs is more appealing for the Patriots than playing a wild-card game and two postseason games at Houston and at Denver.

The Patriots are aware that anything can happen in the playoffs. It's interesting to note that elite quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers were both knocked out in the divisional round Saturday. Tom Brady & Co. must play their best football Sunday against the Texans to avoid joining that list.

Video: Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady?

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
4:00
PM ET

Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith debate whether Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL.

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