AFC East: Anthony Gonzalez
This reshuffles a crowded field of receivers for the reigning AFC champs. Let's take a look at the updated roster at the position:
Locks: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney
Skinny: Welker and Lloyd are the two starters and guaranteed locks to make the team. Gaffney was an underrated free-agent signing who should help the Patriots. He is one of quarterback Tom Brady's favorite receivers, and that carries a lot of weight in New England.
Solid footing: Deion Branch, Matthew Slater
Skinny: Branch is a veteran who knows the system well and continues to produce. A starter in 2011, Branch is a good receiver to have around for depth and knowledge. Slater is New England's best special-teams player and a captain. Slater might not help much on offense, but he's one of the NFL's best in the third phase of the game. That's enough for him to stick.
Work to do: Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Jeremy Ebert
Skinny: The Patriots are probably going to keep six or seven receivers on their 53-man roster. The recent release of Ochocinco and Gonzalez helps relieve some of the pressure. But these are the three receivers fighting for the final one or two roster spots. The easy prediction is Edelman and Stallworth if New England keeps seven receivers; Ebert is a seventh-round pick and a long shot. If the Patriots choose only six, Edelman might have an advantage with his versatility.
Welker turned 31 this month, but he has caught more than 100 passes in four of the past five seasons, including a whopping 122 last year. How much does the premier slot receiver of this generation have left? That is hard to guess, but Welker still creates all sorts of problems for every defense he faces and Tom Brady has extreme confidence in him.
With Lloyd in the picture, Welker’s catch total could decrease, as Lloyd is sure to find some favorable matchups now on the perimeter -- often deep downfield. He is an acrobatic receiver who has a ton of big-play ability. Lloyd’s downfield ability is a huge reason New England added him to an already extremely potent passing attack.
Branch will be 33 before the season starts and has appeared in all 16 games only one time in his 11 seasons. Branch is a Brady favorite, but Lloyd is going to cut into Branch’s production in a big way. Still a solid receiver, Branch isn’t someone who can consistently torture single coverage like Lloyd can.
Gaffney hasn’t missed a game in five years and quietly had a pretty good season for the Redskins last year, despite a questionable supporting cast. He is also over 30. I could see him sticking in New England, as the Patriots were very aggressive in pursuing him after his release in Washington.
Gonzalez didn’t play a snap last year and has appeared in only 39 games in his five-year career. Durability is clearly the biggest knock on Gonzalez, but at one point, he and Peyton Manning had a good thing going. This former first-round pick might surprise in a new uniform if he is able to stay healthy.
The 34-year-old Ochocinco was a great player in Cincinnati, but did next to nothing in his first year in New England. He lacks the discipline in his route running to be a regular contributor and is wildly inconsistent, with very few impressive showings. Ochocinco was not a good fit in New England from the start.
Stallworth is yet another over-30 wideout with a checkered history. He is also a former first-round selection and still has the speed to get deep, which is an element the Patriots look to infuse back into their passing attack. One interesting aspect of choosing which wideouts to keep from this huge group is that most of the veteran receivers discussed above offer little-to-nothing on special teams. But any way you cut it, the Pats are pretty loaded at wideout.
2. Buffalo Bills: Although the Bills locked up Steve Johnson, wide receiver is a spot where you can argue they are not noticeably improved from a year ago. Johnson is clearly the top option at wide receiver for Buffalo, but the Bills also will have Donald Jones, David Nelson, Marcus Easley and third round pick T.J. Graham competing for playing time in an offensive system that could feature a high percentage of three-wide receiver sets.
Johnson eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past two seasons and crossed the goal line 17 times over that stretch. He has had some ups and downs and isn’t a special talent when comparing him to other teams’ top wide receivers, but there is also a lot to like about what Johnson brings to the Bills’ offense. He has done some of his best work against the top corners in this league.
Jones played only eight games last year, catching just 23 passes with one touchdown. But he has good deep speed and flashes some big-play ability to go along with enough size to be a starter opposite Johnson. Nelson is a big-bodied slot receiver in the Marques Colston mold. He stepped up for the Bills last season and is the second-most reliable member of this group. I especially like what Nelson offers in the red zone.
Easley showed promise coming out of college but has no production yet in the NFL due to injuries. But he is big and fast. Keep an eye on him. I like his chances in this offense. Graham has a ton of work to do with his development as a wide receiver, but he has extreme speed and explosiveness. It might take time for him to be able to get on the field, but once he does, Graham could open up a lot of room for everyone in this offense.
He isn’t a wide receiver so I am not including him in my ranking process, but with Fred Jackson back to being healthy, I expect C.J. Spiller to line up more on the outside and run wide receiver routes.
3. New York Jets: I am still very much a believer in Santonio Holmes as a player, but outside of Holmes, the wide receiver cabinet is rather bare for New York. You can blame the quarterback play for sure, but there is no way around it -- Holmes had a dismal season for the Jets last year. A player who has shown up huge on the biggest of stages, Holmes was clearly frustrated with his situation last season en route to accumulating a measly 654 receiving yards. I can’t say I condone Holmes’ behavior last season, but his numbers likely would have been much better with more efficient quarterback play.
To bolster this position for the long term, the Jets used a second-round pick on Stephen Hill. Hill is the ultimate size/speed prospect and should immediately have an impact on deep routes to help keep the Jets’ opponents off the line of scrimmage to some degree. But Hill has a lot of work to do with the route tree before he can be considered a true complement to Holmes.
They also picked up the often-injured Chaz Schilens in free agency. Schilens appeared in 15 games last year for the Raiders but accumulated only 271 receiving yards. In the two seasons prior, Schilens missed 19 of a possible 32 games with injury. When healthy, Schilens has used his size, route running and strong hands to move the chains in this league. The Jets could really use that.
Jeremy Kerley could be poised to make an impact in his second season. He demonstrates a lot of quickness and could become the next big contributor out of the slot in the AFC East. Patrick Turner saw snaps last year and is still in the equation. He is a big-bodied receiver who doesn’t separate all that well or stretch the field. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Jets were to add another free-agent wide receiver to the mix before training camp.
4. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins could presently have the worst group of wide receivers in the NFL. Davone Bess and Brian Hartline top Miami’s depth chart. That is frightening.
Bess is a prototypical slot receiver with excellent short-area quickness. He is good after the catch and can thrive with a strong supporting cast on the outside, but he is by no means a feature receiver. Bess is dependable, but not much of a factor near the goal line. Hartline can stretch the field, but he too doesn’t excel in the red zone. To me, Hartline is a borderline starter in any situation. He also will not be able to be the focal point of the passing attack. In what is sure to be a run-first offense in Miami, Bess and Hartline also offer very little as blockers.
The only other notable veteran here is Legedu Naanee, who was unspectacular for the Panthers in 2011. Naanee does have some ability and his blocking will endear him to this coaching staff in their run-first offense. Maybe this change of scenery and opportunity for playing time pays off for Naanee. Clyde Gates, a fourth-round pick from a year ago, will get ample opportunity to step up in his second season. Gates has rare long speed but caught only two passes in his rookie season. A full offseason could help quite a bit, but he has a long way to go in terms of learning the nuances of the position.
The Dolphins used late-round picks to add B.J. Cunningham and Rishard Matthews to this equation. In a deep receiver draft, the Dolphins made excellent value picks here, as both youngsters have intriguing size and movement skills. But counting on late-round rookies to kick start a passing game is far from a wise wager. The Dolphins need to improve at wide receiver in a big way, especially if they plan on maturing Ryan Tannehill as an NFL quarterback properly.
Akhilesh from Massachusetts writes: Why do you think the Patriots drafted Tavon Wilson, a low-ranked safety, in the second round? Is it just that Bill Belichick knows something others don't or was it poor drafting?
James Walker: Wilson was a player Belichick really liked -- apparently more than anyone else. Drafting Wilson that high is certainly a risk. The Patriots might have been able to wait another round or two. This puts some pressure on Wilson to perform. If he turns out to be a solid starter, no one will care where he was drafted.
Jorge Garcia from Mexico City writes: Which Patriots veteran do you see being released when all the final roster cuts are in?
Walker: You have to look at the deep group at receivers. There's no way the Patriots will keep all 11. I think players like Chad Ochocinco, Anthony Gonzalez, Donte' Stallworth and Julian Edelman will all have to fight hard for roster spots.
Jim from Toms River, N.J., writes: What's the possibility Donald Driver lands in Miami and what would that mean for the Dolphins?
Walker: If Driver is cut by the Green Bay Packers, which looks like a possibility, Miami will be high on his radar. For one, a starting job is waiting for Driver in Miami, and that won't be the case in most places. Second, former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin is now the head coach in Miami. There's a comfort level there. But none of this is possible unless Driver is released.
Shaggy Lewis from Shreveport, La., writes: What are the chances Terrell Owens signs with Miami?
Walker: Zero. Miami is rebuilding and does not want players with character questions in its locker room. Owens would not be a good fit.
Ben from Buffalo writes: It seems to me that the No. 2 receiver spot on the Bills is completely up for grabs. Given the lack of production from the guys they put out there last season, do you think T.J. Graham is the front-runner?
Walker: It’s too early to pick a front-runner. But Graham would make it very easy on the Bills if he was ready right away. That was the hope when the Bills drafted Graham in the third round. But that could be asking a lot. David Nelson is better in the slot, and if Graham and Donald Jones can step in, Buffalo's passing offense could be solid.
John from Germany writes: If you were C.J. Spiller, would you be a little upset that you're not the starter? If you are, would you leave the Bills at the end of your rookie contract?
Walker: Spiller has a gripe. But the reality is that he's not a better running back than Fred Jackson at this stage of their careers. Spiller has three more seasons on his rookie contract. By then, Jackson most likely will be ready to step aside. So it's not a certainty that Spiller walks down the road.
Chris from MA writes: I feel like I am beating my head against the wall. But could it make any more sense for the Jets to bring in Vernon Carey?
Walker: I'm surprised Carey hasn't gotten more interest. He's probably going to be one of those veterans who signs after there is a camp injury. The Jets won't sign him because they are pretty tight on salary-cap space.
Ben from Baltimore writes: Do you think Mark Sanchez still has the potential, with the right weapons and players stepping up, to have a comeback year?
Walker: I didn't like what I saw from Sanchez last year. It was my first year in the AFC East, so that was the most I've watched him on a week-to-week basis. Sanchez is in his fourth season, and I don't think his ceiling is much higher than what we've seen. But that doesn't mean Sanchez isn’t capable of playing better, or being a better decision-maker, or lowering his fumble and interception totals. These are things the Jets hope he cleans up in 2012. I doubt Sanchez will ever become an elite quarterback, but if he can make those aforementioned improvements, the Jets can win with him.
AFC East Homer of the Week
This week's homer is a BIG Chad Henne supporter.
Rick from Miami writes: James, I don't think you are dumb but please look at the facts before you write something stupid. Henne had played the equivalent of two seasons and has improved each season. He carried a team with no run game or pass defense in 2010 to seven wins and would had more if he had any run support of the defense. Look at the stats. Miami was top 16 in passing ypg with Henne and dropped to 23rd with Matt Moore. That shows Miami only won six games because of their D and run game. Stop bad-mouthing players before you read he facts. Henne is better than Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez and a whole bunch of current starters. Maybe you should read the facts instead of going with idiotic public opinion. Dan Marino thinks Henne can start in this league. Do you know more than Marino about QBs? I think not. Henne will take the Jacksonville Jaguars to the playoffs before Miami wins six games in a season.
Walker: I'm always shocked by the number of Chad Henne supporters still out there in Miami. Henne had four years with the Dolphins to show what he could do and finished with more career interceptions (37) than touchdowns (31). In fact, Henne has never had a season in which he threw more touchdowns than interceptions. Henne was robotic, a below-average decision-maker and didn't have natural leadership ability. Four years is enough time to see that. But there's still a section of people, like Rick, who defend Henne and think he should have been the long-term solution in Miami. But, Rick, it’s the last statement that makes you our AFC East Homer of the Week. Henne will not lead the Jaguars to the playoffs this year. He might not even be the starter, because the team is invested in Blaine Gabbert. Congrats on being our Homer of the Week.
There is one thing for certain about the Patriots: You do not fight the machine.
Welker is facing an uphill battle he cannot win. Many have tried before him and failed. Welker is not the exception.
Welker has yet to sign his franchise tender and hasn't decided how long he's going to protest New England's one-year, $9.5 million offer. The potential distraction has been held to a minimum thus far, but it would only grow stronger if Welker continued to skip New England's offseason program.
The Patriots' mandatory minicamp is scheduled for June 12. The best advice is for Welker to have his mind made up by that time. Missing New England's current voluntary program is not a big thing. But if Welker also chooses to skip the Patriots' three-day veteran minicamp, that is when he's hurting the team in the eyes of the coaching staff.
At that point the gloves may come off -- and Welker doesn't want that.
New England is emotionless and shrewd in negotiations. Just ask three-time Super Bowl winner Willie McGinest, who apparently still carries some level of bitterness about how he was handled by the Patriots at the end of his career. McGinest recently got into a Twitter spat with Welker about his contract situation and delivered this stern message.
"We're all expendable at Patriot Place," McGinest tweeted to Welker.
McGinest is right. NFL players in general are expendable, but even more so in New England.
Welker needs to be more mindful of how the Patriots often treat players like replaceable and interchangeable parts. It happened to McGinest, who spent the final three years of his career with the struggling Cleveland Browns. It happened to Richard Seymour, who was great for eight seasons with the Patriots and suddenly shipped to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round draft pick. The Patriots also traded future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings when Moss grew unhappy about his contract.
Welker should know better. No one player is above the team in New England. That is the Patriot Way.
Welker remains steadfast in shedding the franchise tag for a long-term contract.
"Through my body of work, through the past five years, I think what I've done I've earned a long-term deal,” Welker recently told ESPN Boston Radio. "It's what I am looking for and what I want. Hopefully that's the case and hopefully we come to something where we can make that happen."
Do not think for one second that New England is not prepared for the worst. All the Patriots have done this offseason is sign wide receivers.
New England signed receivers Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney, Anthony Gonzalez and Donte’ Stallworth in free agency. All are productive veterans who have a chance to add something to the offense. The Patriots also re-signed veteran Deion Branch, backup Matthew Slater, and drafted rookie receiver Jeremy Ebert. Chad Ochocinco and Julian Edelman also remain on the roster.
New England will have an elite passing game next season with or without Welker.
If Welker decides to stage a lengthy holdout, Lloyd and Gaffney would be the starters, while Branch, Gonzalez, Stallworth and Ochocinco compete in training camp for backup roles. New England also runs a lot of two tight-end sets with Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. This is still a very deep and talented group of targets for Brady, who also has a knack for making everyone around him a couple of notches better.
Despite 122 receptions and 1,569 yards last year, the Patriots have found a way to make Welker replaceable. But that's only if Welker chooses to be and doesn't sign his franchise tender.
The next move should be the best move by Welker. He should sign the franchise tag, take the $9.5 million and see if anything changes over the next several months at Patriot Place.
Because there's always a chance the Patriots could have a change of heart between now and August. New England has the salary-cap room to extend the 31-year-old Welker and give him the long-term security he's seeking. But it's going to be on the Patriots' terms, not Welker's.
NFL Network analyst and former NFL general manager Charley Casserly weighs in on what the Bills can expect from defensive end Mario Williams.
The Bills have scheduled visits or have already met with 16 of their 30 allotted draft prospects.
Defensive end Cameron Wake, unhappy with his current contract, was missing from the start of the Dolphins' offseason program.
In hopes of filling a void at outside linebacker, the team has worked out free agents Jonathan Goff, Quentin Groves, Gary Guyton and Bryan Kehl.
New England Patriots
Anthony Gonzalez joked on Tuesday about a "policy" that led him to sign with New England. “I was joking with my friends. I have a very strict Hall of Famer only policy,” he said. “Just stay with that group. It’s good. It’s wonderful, obviously. Quarterbacks make receivers look very good, and hopefully I can get some opportunities with him [Tom Brady]."
Re-signing with the Patriots was an easy decision for Matthew Slater.
New York Jets
Woody Johnson says the Jets didn’t trade for Tim Tebow to sell jerseys.
Dustin Keller, Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes got an early start on offseason workouts.
- Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey said a contract extension is in the works for starting running back Fred Jackson.
- The Cleveland Browns reportedly will host Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill for a visit.
- New England Patriots receiver Deion Branch says competition will be good in training camp.
- The New York Jets and Tebowmania have ruled the NFL meetings.
Consider that problem solved Saturday, after the Patriots agreed to terms with veteran big-play receiver Brandon Lloyd. The move was expected for weeks, as Lloyd reunites with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The pair were very successful during their stint together with the Denver Broncos.
Lloyd joins a dangerous cast of receivers and tight ends that include Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski and up-and-coming tight end Aaron Hernandez. Lloyd averages 15.4 yards per reception for his career and gives future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady the deep threat he's been missing since Randy Moss. The Patriots' offense will be a matchup nightmare for opponents next season.
New England also has depth behind the starters with former Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman and newly-signed receiver Anthony Gonzalez. There may be a small question with the experience of New England's stable of running backs. But look for New England to air it out anyway to set up the run.
Lloyd is a typical Patriots free-agent signing. He was not the biggest name on the market, but Lloyd should be very productive.
New England no longer has to worry about any facet of its high-powered offense for 2012. Now, the Patriots can use the rest of their resources in free agency and the draft to focus on their 31st-ranked defense.
The former Colt has had an injury-plagued career. Gonzalez has played a total of eight games since 2009 and has just five receptions in that span.
This signing could turn out to be a non-factor for the Patriots. Gonzalez, 27, will first have to prove he's healthy and still productive enough to make New England's roster in training camp.
When healthy, Gonzalez was a Wes Welker-type who could find openings in the defense from the slot. But Gonzalez hasn't been that type of player in almost four years.
There's no reason for Patriots fans to get too excited over this signing. The team remains in pursuit of bigger names like veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd and hard-hitting safety LaRon Landry who are more certain to make an immediate impact.
But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.
They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis.
ESPN.com AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.
Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.
Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.
PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.
TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.
PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?
TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.
PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.
TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.
TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.
PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.
TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.
PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.
TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?
PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."
TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?
PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.
We've already gotten Dilfer's take on how the Jets' offense can propel them to victory, but Hoge noted the Colts' offense can draw upon the blueprint they used last year to beat the Jets in the AFC title game.
"This is not the well-oiled machine that we're used to watching from the Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning being able to orchestrate this flawless offense," Hoge said. "There's a lot of new parts here."
Indianapolis' personnel isn't as talented this time around. Tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez are on injured reserve.
Even so, Hoge insisted the X's and O's are there for the Colts to exploit.
"If you go back to that playoff game, the AFC Championship Game, they probably really exposed this Jets defense and went at it where you need to target," Hoge said. "They spread them out, and they attacked the middle of the field. They used tight ends and good wide receivers to attack linebackers and safeties.
"We have seen that all year long [against the Jets]. The Patriots did it to them. The Cincinnati Bengals did that to them. The Chicago Bears did that to them.
"I would expect the Colts to use those kinds of matchups again, focus on attacking in the middle of the field, and make those linebackers play, make those safeties play."
1. The Jets can find positive energy from last year's loss in the AFC Championship game. The Jets are a dangerous road team. Before they went 6-2 away from the Meadowlands this year, they upset a pair of division champs in the playoffs and held a third-quarter lead over the Colts in the AFC title game with a rookie quarterback last year. QB Mark Sanchez has been erratic in his sophomore season, but he has several clutch moments to draw from in addition to the knowledge he has been in this situation before and held his own.
2. These aren't the same old, dominant Colts. These aren't the 2009 Jets. The 2009 Colts were undefeated when they met the Jets in the regular season and probably should have been unblemished entering the AFC Championship Game. They were awesome and clinched the AFC's top seed early. But they went to the wire this year, not qualifying for the playoffs until Sunday. Peyton Manning doesn't have star tight end Dallas Clark or receivers Austin Collie or Anthony Gonzalez. The Colts also have nine defensive backs on injured reserve. The Jets, meanwhile, aren't the run-dominant offense they were a year ago. Last year's playoff star, Shonn Greene, still is on the team. But they have enhanced their receiving weaponry, adding Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson to give them a dimension they couldn't dial up when they trailed late against the Colts. That said, the Jets aren't as overwhelming on defense this time around either.
3. The Colts ranked 20th in run defense and tied for 29th in average per carry. The diversified Jets have the ability to pass, but they'll take whatever a defense will give them. The Colts are forgiving on the ground. They went into Week 17 allowing an average of 132 yards a game and 4.7 yards a carry. Playing indoors and on artificial turf could be a boon for Tomlinson, whose production has flagged as the season wore on. The longtime San Diego star hasn't played indoors or in a warm environment since Week 9 at Detroit.
|Douglas Jones/US Presswire|
|Colts tight end Dallas Clark helped Peyton Manning make the most of their time on offense|
MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins' defense defied everything that established its identity last year.
A proud defense went limp Monday night and gave away a game that was absurdly lopsided in Miami's favor. The Indianapolis Colts defeated the slack-jawed Dolphins 27-23 at Land Shark Stadium, a result that was far from unexpected until you looked at the box score.
"It's really disheartening," Miami coach Tony Sparano said in his postgame news conference. "I'd like to ask you guys how many times you've seen games like that."
Nary a one, Coach.
The Dolphins kept the ball out of Peyton Manning's hands like few teams could. Miami had the ball for 45 minutes, 7 seconds -- eclipsing their team time-of-possession record by 88 seconds. They rushed for 239 yards. They ran 84 plays from scrimmage. The Colts ran just 35 -- three in the entire third quarter; their previous record for fewest offensive plays in a game was 37.
The Colts converted only three third downs, for crissakes. The Dolphins converted an incredible 15 of 21.
"That's exactly the formula to beat that team," Sparano said, "exactly the formula."
Miami's smashmouth defense, however, turned toothless.
Dan Carpenter kicked a 45-yard field goal to give the Dolphins a three-point lead with 3:50 remaining.
Manning glanced up at the clock and knew that would be more than enough. The Colts had all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning. With the way he was turning the Dolphins into ribbons, he could have taken a knee or two just to make the finish a little more interesting.
|Steve Mitchell/US Presswire|
|Joey Porter could not rattle Peyton Manning when it counted.|
Four plays are all it took. Even with AFC reigning sackmaster Joey Porter and NFL active career sacks leader Jason Taylor on the field and Manning certain to be throwing, the Dolphins still couldn't disrupt him.
Manning found Reggie Wayne for 15 yards to give the Colts some breathing room.
"Once you give them a chunk play like that and let them out of that end of the field," Sparano said, "all of a sudden the candy store's open."
Then Manning found tight end Dallas Clark -- as he had all evening -- for 17 more yards to close in on field-goal territory with a comfy 3:39 to play.
But that possibility was rendered moot when Manning threw a screen pass to Pierre Garcon, who darted past a few Dolphins who probably should have brought him down at some point before he traveled 48 yards for a touchdown.
It was vintage Manning, yet that provided no solace in Miami's locker room.
"There's no consolation prizes," Taylor said. "You don't get anything for being in second place besides a T-shirt, and that thing will shrink in two weeks.
"Who cares about finishing close, or 'You had them until the end and they're just great?' The Colts are a good football team, but they’re beatable. We should have won the game, and we didn't."
Since the NFL started tracking time of possession in 1977, no team has won with such a paltry number (14:53), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
So you can imagine what Manning did with those 35 measly plays. Even without injured No. 2 receiver Anthony Gonzalez, the Colts averaged 10.3 yards a snap.
Manning and Clark connected on the game's first play for an 80-yard touchdown to render Land Shark Stadium a mausoleum. Clark finished with seven catches for 183 yards, often abusing inside linebacker Channing Crowder.
Miami's offense, meanwhile, was relentlessly efficient.
Brown made the Wildcat look dangerous again after so many games of pedestrian results. He took a direct snap and darted for a 14-yard touchdown on Miami's first drive, its first Wildcat touchdown since Week 10 of last year.
And the Dolphins wasted all of it in their home opener.
"They did a good job tonight, and we failed them," Taylor said of the offense. "We failed the team on defense."
Miami surrendered crucial gains throughout the night, but they were scattered about because Indianapolis never seemed to be on the field.
Manning hit Clark for a 20-yard gain to set up a 48-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal with two seconds left in the first half. That "cheap field goal," as Porter put it, tied the game at 13.
But the Dolphins' offense downright dominated in the second half. Miami opened with an 11-play drive, held the Colts to a three-and-out and went on a 13-play touchdown drive that ended 1:37 into the fourth quarter.
As Sparano said, it was the perfect game plan. But his team is 0-2, the only team in the AFC East without a victory.
"Nobody's crowned champion after two weeks," Porter said. "True enough, we would love to be 2-0 instead of 0-2, but we're not good enough to give away games.
"Those are the games that are going to hurt. When you have a team in position to put them away, you've got to put them away. Good teams do."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
MIAMI -- The Indianapolis Colts have scratched safety Bob Sanders for Monday night's game in Land Shark Stadium, while the Miami Dolphins have deactivated the same eight players as they did in Week 1.
Dolphins rookie Pat White will be the second quarterback again so he can run Wildcat plays without concern over the third-quarterback rule.
- Quarterback Curtis Painter
- Receiver Anthony Gonzalez
- Tight end Tim Santi
- Guard Jamey Richard
- Defensive end Fili Moala
- Safety Bob Sanders
- Defensive back Jerraud Powers
- Defensive back Jamie Silva
Note: It originally was announced in the press box defensive end Keyunta Dawson, and not Moala, was inactive.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|The Dolphins will keep a close watch on Colts tight end Dallas Clark.|
Unusual occurrences hurt the Miami Dolphins in their season-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
In one game, they committed 31 percent of their turnover output from last year. Pro Bowl left tackle gave up only a half sack less than the total he allowed his entire rookie season.
Add one more uncharacteristic lapse to the list.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez caught five passes for 73 yards -- not all that big of a deal on the surface. But three of his receptions were for more than 15 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown.
The Dolphins didn't allow a tight end to score from more than 15 yards out last year.
On Monday night, they'll have to defend another of the NFL's elite receiving ends, Dallas Clark of the Indianapolis Colts.
"The guy is outstanding out in space," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "You've got to be prepared in man-to-man coverage that they are going to feed him the ball. You've got to get him on the ground in a hurry. He has really strong hands in traffic, and you have to try to win the battle up front, one-on-one with your linebacker, let’s say, on his head."
That would be strong-side outside linebacker Jason Taylor, who's still learning the 3-4 position after so many great years as a 4-3 right defensive end.
Gonzalez led all tight ends with 23 receptions of 15 yards or longer. Clark was tied for fifth with 18.
Ginn was viewed as a luxury item, a speedy kick returner with ordinary receiving skills. Then the Dolphins gave the return duties to undrafted rookie Davone Bess this year.
The Dolphins, however, have gotten creative in using Ginn. He has 54 catches for 719 yards and one touchdown -- nothing spectacular. But he has twice as many touchdowns on reverses than receptions.
In Sunday's 38-31 triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs, he showed again how dangerous he can, running 31 yards for a touchdown. He had a 40-yard run for a touchdown in a Week 11 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
Elias Sports Bureau discovered Ginn became the first receiver in 47 years to score two touchdowns on runs of 30 yards or more.
|Highlights of the Dolphins 38-31 victory over the Chiefs|
The last to do it was Buffalo Bills receiver Elbert Dubenion, who ripped off TD runs of 65 and 72 yards in 1961.
Miami Herald reporter Barry Jackson recently wrote a story about Ginn's potential to develop into a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
"He hasn't developed into a No. 1 yet," former Dolphins receiver O.J. McDuffie said. "We've seen flashes and we've also seen disappearances. No. 1s don't disappear. It's been a roller-coaster ride. It's surprising he has dropped a couple passes because his hands are stellar. Besides his speed, I like the way he catches in traffic. He runs decent routes."