AFC East: Danny Amendola
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
With this in mind, here are five players who were limited in some form in 2013 that will pique our interest to see how they've progressed:
DT Armond Armstead -- The Patriots signed him from the Canadian Football League last year and had high hopes for him, with Bill Belichick at one point referring to him as a top-3 player in the rotation before a surprise infection prior to training camp landed him on season-ending injured reserve. If Armstead is healthy, he could help provide an interior pass rush.
WR Josh Boyce -- The high 2013 fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian came out as a junior and this is considered a big year for his development after he played just 14.1 percent of the offensive snaps last season. Boyce, who is considered a smart player, talked about the mental challenge as a rookie and a full year in the team's system should help him.
WR Mark Harrison -- At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, the former undrafted free agent from Rutgers fits a different physical profile than the rest of the team's receivers. We still think he'd be a possible fit as a move tight end, but Bill Belichick said the plans are to keep him at receiver for now after he missed his rookie season with a foot injury.
TE D.J. Williams -- A 2011 fifth-round draft choice of the Packers, the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Williams projects as the top "move" tight end on the roster at this time. He played in 11 offensive snaps for the Patriots last season, so this is a great opportunity for him to show he's capable.
35. TE Rob Gronkowski (third at position)
58. RB Shane Vereen (26th at position)
61. WR Julian Edelman (24th at position)
66. RB Stevan Ridley (28th at position)
97. WR Danny Amendola (42nd at position)
111. QB Tom Brady (12th at position)
136. WR Aaron Dobson (51st at position)
148. Patriots defense/special teams (ninth as a unit)
152. K Stephen Gostkowski (second at position)
170. WR Brandon LaFell (57th at position)
As the piece notes, these rankings are based on a 10-team ESPN standard league with 16-player rosters, starting one quarterback, two running backs, two wide receivers, one tight end, one flex (RB/WR/TE), a team defense and a kicker.
Key free agents: CB Aqib Talib, WR Julian Edelman, RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Brandon Spikes, C Ryan Wendell
Where they stand: The Patriots would like Talib back, and Brent Grimes' four-year, $32 million contract with $16 million guaranteed in Miami provides a ballpark for the marketplace. Is that too rich for the Patriots? The club would also like Edelman back, but after investing in a receiver with a similar skill set last offseason (Danny Amendola), it will be interesting to see how far the Patriots are willing to extend to do so. Talib is the key piece, and similar to Wes Welker last year, it makes sense to think the team will quickly move to Plan B if a deal isn't struck by the start of free agency.
What to expect: The Patriots aren't flush with cap space, and Bill Belichick often says that free agency is one slice of the team-building process, along with the draft and trades. A focus on retaining their own, with a few complementary pieces from other teams added in free agency, would be our best guess as to how the Patriots approach things in 2014. Key spots in addition to retaining Talib and Edelman are adding a more dynamic presence at tight end, more pass-rush help and depth at defensive tackle.
And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.
The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.
ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?
Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.
The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?
Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.
Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.
Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?
Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.
Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?
Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.
Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.
The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?
Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.
Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?
Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.
Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.
Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?
Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.
The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?
Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.
They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.
Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?
Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.
Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?
Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.
There will be no media access, as the players spoke with reporters for the final time on Thursday afternoon.
Below are a few highlights from Gillette:
Gostkowski’s pregame routine. Many sports fans and young athletes grow up visualizing a signature moment, be it catching a touchdown or hitting a free throw at the professional level.
“I always just try to visualize myself doing well and not getting overexcited or too hyped up in the moment,” he said, before adding lightheartedly, “Most of those guys are banging heads. I’m trying to like listen to Enya before the game to calm myself down. All I do is just try to -- the worst thing you can do in situations where, for me personally, where the situation gets bigger is get too excited.”
The veteran kicker added that he watches cut-ups of previous kicks that he has made to help put himself in a positive frame of mind before games.
Mankins talks beards. Guard Logan Mankins is currently sporting a thick beard, as he often has in the past. It stacks up with almost any other on the team, perhaps trailing only defensive end Rob Ninkovich's in terms of thickness.
“Rob, he’s got a nice beard,” Mankins said of his teammate’s facial hair, before joking. “I think he’s got some PEDs in there or something, but it looks good.”
Beards have become a popular look among Boston sports teams of late, with the Red Sox recently generating plenty of buzz for their bearded look during their 2013 World Series winning season.
“Those guys, they looked good,” Mankins said of the Sox. “Especially the ones with grey in [them]. Those ones are always my favorites.”
Amendola ready for postseason debut. While many Patriots are veterans of the postseason, this marks wide receiver Danny Amendola's first trip.
Asked Thursday if he anticipates the game will feel any different than a regular-season contest, Amendola said, “I’m ready. I’m ready to get going. It’s playoff time, you know?”
Reaching the postseason was one of the first goals laid out for Amendola and his team at the beginning of the season.
“We have a goal at the beginning of the year to make the playoffs, wherever you are,” he said. “You work just as hard throughout the year. We put a lot of hard work in this year -- overcame a lot of obstacles and adversity. So, we’re all ready to go and we’re all excited.”
One of Patriots' best halves of the season: This has been, across the board, some of the best football the Patriots have played this season. All three phases are getting it done. On offense, a commitment to the ground game has stood out. On defense, the turnovers are back. And the special teams coverage has been outstanding, sparked by captain Matthew Slater. For the Ravens, quarterback Joe Flacco doesn't look completely comfortable.
Replay review critical for Patriots: Danny Amendola's late second-quarter fumble was overturned on replay, which was crucial for the Patriots because it could have been a momentum-swinging turn of events -- the Ravens getting the ball on a short field and then at the start of the third quarter. Turnovers are such a big part of the action, as we saw in the first quarter for the Patriots (Logan Ryan interception sets up the second touchdown).
Red-zone struggles corrected: One of the big storylines entering the game was the Patriots' red-zone performance (1 of 4 vs. Miami). They are 2 of 2 today, with a power running game (LeGarrette Blount) and then a well-designed pass play (Shane Vereen) the successful formula.
A lot of penalties: Ron Winter's crew has been busy tonight. It's always difficult to tell while watching live if all the calls are warranted, but our general preference are games with fewer flags. It seemed like a long half because of it, with little flow. This reminds us of the 2009 Patriots-Ravens regular-season game, in Foxborough, in which Winter was also the referee.
Injuries to monitor: Vereen left in the second quarter with a groin injury and has not returned. Brandon Bolden has assumed his role as the top "passing back." ... Safety Steve Gregory left in the second quarter with what looked like a right knee/leg injury. It looked signficant, and rookie Duron Harmon took his place. ... Linebacker Dont'a Hightower left the game briefly in the second quarter, but returned.
Ravens get the ball: The Patriots had called heads at the opening toss and it came up tails, with the Ravens deferring the choice to the second half. So the Ravens get the ball to open the second half.
That game marked a turning point for the Texans.
The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.
The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.
It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.
Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.
ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.
Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?
Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.
I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?
Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.
Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?
Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.
I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.
Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.
Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?
Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.
One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?
Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.
Cornerback Aqib Talib led the list of six players who practiced on a limited basis, joined by fellow cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard (knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin) and tight end Rob Gronkowski, who continues to be limited by a hamstring injury to go with his recovery from offseason back and forearm surgeries.
Talib has not played since Week 6, though he sounded upbeat Thursday in talking to reporters for the first time since the injury, declaring himself "day-to-day."
Wide receiver Danny Amendola was a full participant in practice for the first time since suffering a groin injury in Week 1, as was quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder).
The Patriots will take the practice field on Friday for their third of four practices this week.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked Monday about the team's plans to fill it, and his answer provided insight as to how the coaching staff currently views the receiver depth chart.
So that puts rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce as the top candidates to vie for Collie's playing time in the No. 4 spot, which averaged 22 snaps per game over the past three weeks. Both were healthy scratches last week against the Steelers.
"KT and Josh Boyce will also factor into the competition in terms of who is active and how we go about forming the game plan," McDaniels said. "You never like to have a player get hurt, and certainly Austin was helping us and doing what we asked of him, but any time you have a situation like this that comes up during the course of the season, it provides a little spark of competition, and [I] think that is healthy for any group on the team. We will look forward to the receivers going out there and having a good week of practice and then trying to let it unfold from there."
Thompkins has 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns in eight games played. Boyce has been inactive for each of the past four games, and has one catch for 24 yards this season.
His return was an impactful one, despite the team falling in overtime, as he hauled in eight catches for 114 yards.
But while they got back arguably their best player not named Tom Brady, the Patriots aren’t entirely out of the woods yet on the injury front. Wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) has practiced on a limited basis this week and is listed as questionable to play Sunday. Cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), who has also practiced on a limited basis this week, also is questionable for Week 8.
The Patriots always put a premium on division games, and they’ll play their fourth of the season on Sunday and their first against the Miami Dolphins, who were hopeful to make the leap this season after a 7-9 campaign in 2012. While the Patriots are looking to bounce back from a disappointing Week 7 loss, the Dolphins are try to break a three-game losing streak and climb back above .500.
When the two square off on Sunday, here’s what we’ll be looking for.
1. Talib and Amendola’s availability. Amendola was the team’s most notable offseason acquisition, while Talib has proven to be an indispensable member of this defense. Getting both of them back for Sunday would be a boon for the Patriots, as the offense needs Amendola to help kick-start its production, while Talib is playing like one of the best cornerbacks in all of football. The Dolphins haven’t been able to generate much on the ground this season, but with a receiving corps that features Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and a capable slot presence in Brandon Gibson, getting Talib back would be a big step in slowing down their passing game. Two players we know the Patriots won’t have: defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle), who have been ruled out by the team.
2. Can Brady find his rhythm? Brady hasn’t lost any confidence despite recent struggles, as he shouldn’t have. That being said, the veteran quarterback needs to raise his level of play as the season progresses, as he’s completed fewer than 56 percent of his throws. The Patriots' offense has dealt with moving parts, but the potential to have Gronkowski and Amendola on the field at the same time opens things up. Can the offense get it going against a Dolphins defense that made steep investments on players at all three levels this offseason?
3. Exposing the Dolphins' pass protection. The Dolphins made the decision to pass on Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson when they traded up to the third pick in this year’s draft to grab defensive end Dion Jordan. With second-year player Jonathan Martin struggling, the team acted on a trade opportunity to acquire veteran Bryant McKinnie from Baltimore this past week, which could eventually swing Martin over to the right side and move Tyson Clabo into a reserve role. Regardless of who mans the left side, the Patriots have an opportunity to generate pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Veteran Andre Carter, signed this week, isn’t likely to start for the team, but he could be an effective edge rusher with a natural nose for the quarterback.
4. Containing the Dolphins' pass rush. By the numbers, the Dolphins' pass rush hasn’t been particularly strong, but that’s due in part to time missed by standout Cameron Wake, who is now healthy after dealing with a knee issue earlier this season. Bill Belichick said of Wake: “He’s just a good football player. I don’t think there’s any one thing that just jumps off about him. It’s just all solid and good. He plays strong, he’s athletic, he’s active. He can rush the edge but he can also rush with power. He’s got a good variety of moves.” Wake, who primarily aligns on the defense’s left side, will be the responsibility of Sebastian Vollmer to contain. Vollmer has been his usual solid self this season, and Sunday will mark yet another test for the towering right tackle.
5. Punt game in focus. Dolphins punter Brandon Fields leads the league in both gross and net punting, a testament to both his strong leg and directional punting ability. But the Dolphins have allowed an average of 9.9 yards per return, which could be tied to Fields at times outkicking his coverage. Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is the NFL's active leader in punt-return average, and he had a brilliant return against the Jets last weekend. He’s the only NFL player to return a punt for a touchdown in each of the past three seasons, and he may have a chance to find space and room to maneuver if Fields unloads on a punt.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion/groin) and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip), who both practiced each day this week on a limited basis, are questionable to play after missing Week 7 due to injury.
Amendola will need to pass the NFL's concussion protocol, if he has not already, before returning to game action. Coach Bill Belichick did not indicate whether the receiver had taken it when asked Wednesday. On Friday, Amendola said, "I'm healthy and I'm ready to play."
Tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm), who made his season debut on Sunday, is listed as probable after practicing every day this week. Earlier in the week, he indicated that he was ready to put his current injuries behind him.
The Patriots have ruled out just two players for Sunday, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and running back Leon Washington (ankle), who have each been out since leaving a Week 5 game against the Bengals.
Here are the full reports:
Talib sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday of last week before returning to practice on a limited basis on Friday, though he was unable to suit up for the team's game against the Jets. In five games this season, Talib has recorded four interceptions and has established himself as arguably the most important defender on the team's active roster.
Amendola, meanwhile, was back on the field for the first time since a big hit taken back in Week 6 that forced him to miss his fourth game this season. In order to return to game action, he must pass the NFL's concussion testing protocol. He has 16 catches for 159 yards in three games played this season.
Kelly's absence from practice continues for the third straight week, as he was injured in the team's Week 5 game against the Bengals. In his absence, the team has relied on rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones as primary starters. Washington, who was also injured in Week 5, has been limited to just two games this season.
Newly acquired defensive end Andre Carter, wearing number 96, was present for practice, as was practice squad pick-up Sealver Siliga, wearing number 71.
Our best guess on the list for Sunday's road game against the New York Jets:
Danny Amendola: Receiver sustained a concussion last Sunday, has been held out of practice all week, and is already ruled out by the team.
Chris Barker: Rookie offensive guard could be active if there are concerns with those above him on the depth chart, Dan Connolly (concussion) and Marcus Cannon (shoulder).
Tommy Kelly: Veteran defensive tackle has missed the last two weeks of practice with a right knee injury and has already been ruled out.
Matthew Slater: Special-teams captain has been at practice but still has a cast on his left wrist, which makes us think it might be too early to expect him back.
Aqib Talib: Cornerback missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a left hip injury and didn't look fully comfortable in his return to practice Friday.
Leon Washington: Veteran running back missed the last two weeks of practice with an ankle injury and has already been ruled out.
Tavon Wilson: Reserve safety and core special-teams player has been limited with a hamstring injury and has missed the last two games.
It will be the fourth missed game for Amendola this season, as he also sat out three weeks due to a groin injury earlier this season. In his absence, the Patriots have relied on veteran Julian Edelman, a trio of rookie pass-catchers and recently signed Austin Collie, the former Indianapolis Colt.
The Patriots are also likely to be without their best defensive player still on the active roster, as cornerback Aqib Talib, who played a pivotal role in holding Saints tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch last week, is doubtful to play due to a hip injury suffered in Week 6. He returned to practice on Friday, though he was noticeably impacted by the injury.
Already forced to play without two defensive captains, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, each on injured reserve, the Patriots will also be without veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee). He and running back Leon Washington (ankle) will miss their second straight game this Sunday.
The Patriots listed eight players as questionable, including special-teams captain Matthew Slater (wrist) and starting right guard Dan Connolly (concussion).
Here are the full injury reports for the Patriots and Jets.