AFC East: Danny Woodhead

Every Wednesday during the season, we'll lead off the day with a quick recap of some notable former New England Patriots players and their standing with new teams.

Patrick Chung (Eagles)
Misses his second straight game, a victory over the Giants, with a shoulder injury.
Season snapshot: Has started three of five games and is credited with 18 tackles.

Jermaine Cunningham (49ers)
After reaching an injury settlement with the Patriots at the end of the preseason, defensive end/outside linebacker signs with the 49ers on Oct. 1.
Season snapshot: Wearing jersey No. 50, he has yet to play in a game.

Brandon Deaderick (Jaguars)
Plays 33 snaps and totals three tackles in road loss to the Rams.
Season snapshot: Has played 122 total snaps; has totaled seven tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery.

Brian Hoyer (Browns)
Quarterback tears his ACL in his third start and is out for the season.
Season snapshot: Led the Browns to two wins in two starts before his injury; 57-of-96 for 615 yards with 5 TDs and 3 INTs.

Zoltan Mesko (Steelers)
Bye week after the Steelers had dropped to 0-4 in loss to Vikings in London.
Season snapshot: 20 punts for 41.9 average (31st in NFL) and 37.6 net (27th in NFL)

Trevor Scott (Buccaneers)
Bye week.
Season snapshot: 45 total snaps at defensive end.

Zach Sudfeld (Jets)
Claimed on waivers on Oct. 4
Season snapshot: Wearing jersey No. 44, tight end was inactive for Monday's win over the Falcons.

Donald Thomas (Colts)
Lands on season-ending injured reserve after injuring his quadriceps in Week 2 home loss to Dolphins.
Season snapshot: Was opening-day starter at left guard and now faces long rehab.

Wes Welker (Broncos)
Five catches for 49 yards and one touchdown in 51-48 win over Cowboys; plays 73 of 79 snaps.
Season snapshot: Receiver has played 275 of 373 offensive snaps (73.7 percent), and has 31 catches for 315 yards and seven touchdowns.

Danny Woodhead (Chargers)
Running back plays 45 of 72 snaps in road loss to Raiders and totals nine rushes for 13 yards, and adds nine receptions for 58 yards and TD. Also fumbles (returned for TD) and is stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Season snapshot: Is second on the team with 31 receptions (for 220 yards and 3 TDs), and has carried the ball 28 times for 103 yards. Has played 154 offensive snaps.

Previewing Patriots' top free agents

January, 21, 2013
1/21/13
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Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker obviously is the biggest name. But that's not the only key player the reigning AFC East champion New England Patriots could lose in free agency.

Here is an early look at New England's top players who are scheduled to hit the open market this offseason:

[+] EnlargeAqib Talib
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellAqib Talib came to the Patriots with a lot of baggage, but he was their best cornerback when healthy.
Aqib Talib, cornerback

2012 stats: 19 tackles, one interception, one touchdown

Analysis: Talib will be a very interesting case for the Patriots. He was a good midseason addition to New England's defense. The Patriots acquired Talib in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who wanted to get rid of the often-troubled corner. But Talib was a model citizen for several months in New England, and the Patriots must decide if that is enough to warrant offering him a long-term contract. On the field, Talib was easily New England's best cornerback. It was obvious when the Patriots’ pass coverage fell apart following Talib’s first-quarter injury in Sunday’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots need Talib or another corner of his caliber in the secondary, or it could be another long year for the pass defense.

Sebastian Vollmer, right tackle


2012 stats: 15 starts

Analysis: Vollmer is one of the most underrated players in the NFL. He is extremely steady and does an excellent job protecting the front side for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Vollmer also is tough and plays through pain. I think he’s the best right tackle in the AFC East. Vollmer has been a bargain find for the Patriots and he deservedly will look to get a sizable raise this offseason. New England must consider his injury history before committing to him with a long-term contract.

Julian Edelman, wide receiver


2012 stats: 21 receptions, 235 yards, three touchdowns

Analysis: The Patriots could have an interesting cat-and-mouse game in free agency with Edelman and Welker. These are New England’s best slot receivers, and the Patriots need to bring one back in the fold. However, the team may use one player against the other in order to get the best value in free agency. Most likely, the Patriots will re-sign Edelman because he is younger and much cheaper. Edelman split time with Welker in the slot this year and did pretty well. Edelman also is great on special teams. Welker had 112 receptions last year and made $9.5 million. His asking price could be too much for the Patriots.

Patrick Chung, safety


2012 stats: 44 tackles, two interceptions

Analysis: Chung was a disappointment this season. He continued dealing with injuries and was not consistent in pass coverage. The Patriots kept waiting for Chung to stay healthy and turn the corner, but he never developed into the playmaking safety they envisioned. In a contract year, Chung slid down the depth chart behind converted corner Devin McCourty and veteran Steve Gregory. It’s probably best for Chung and the Patriots to part ways.

Danny Woodhead, running back


2012 stats: 301 rushing yards, four touchdowns

Analysis: Woodhead is the type of player the Patriots like. He’s dependable and won’t make many mistakes. Woodhead has proved to be a valuable backup behind tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Woodhead also will come relatively cheap. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots bring him back with a team-friendly contract.

Kyle Arrington, cornerback


2012 stats: 74 tackles

Analysis: Arrington may have played his last game as a Patriot. He has good hands, as evidenced by his seven interceptions in 2011. But Arrington struggles mightily in man-to-man coverage. Often, Arrington was a liability this season that the Patriots tried to hide. New England played a lot of zone before the Talib trade and moved Arrington to the slot after the trade. Arrington also failed to step up when Talib was injured in Sunday’s AFC title game. The Patriots need better cover corners.

Deion Branch, wide receiver


2012 stats: 16 receptions, 145 yards

Analysis: Branch is at the point of his career where he won’t be a priority for the Patriots, but he’s usually on the waiting list. I don’t expect New England to re-sign Branch early in the offseason. He may get a job somewhere else. But the Patriots would only bring him back next season if they need his leadership. Branch doesn't bring much value in terms of production at this stage in his career. New England needs to find youth and athleticism at receiver.

Ravens-Patriots Friday injury report

January, 18, 2013
1/18/13
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The time for practice is over for the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots. We are 48 hours away from the AFC Championship Game, and the winner will advance to Super Bowl XLVII.

Here is the final injury report for both teams:

Patriots


Probable: DE Chandler Jones (ankle), CB Marquice Cole (finger), OL Nick McDonald (shoulder), DE Trevor Scott (knee), RB Danny Woodhead (thumb)

Ravens

Out: CB Asa Jackson (thigh)

Questionable: LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), FB Vonta Leach (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (knee), WR David Reed (thigh)

Probable: WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder), RB Anthony Allen (head), CB Chykie Brown (shoulder), DT Terrence Cody (ankle), G Gino Gradkowski (head), DT Arthur Jones (thigh), LB Ray Lewis (triceps), LB Albert McClellan (shoulder), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), DT Haloti Ngata (knee), S Bernard Pollard (chest), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Torrey Smith (back), LB Terrell Suggs (achilles), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)

Analysis: The Patriots are very healthy, considering it is late in the season. New England lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the playoffs last week, and that is the biggest concern. However, the Patriots are 4-1 this season without Gronkowski and have been down this road before. The Ravens have already played two tough playoff games, and it shows on the injury report. But all the big names will most likely be ready for the AFC Championship Game.
Steven Ridley and Shane VereenGetty ImagesStevan Ridley and Shane Vereen accounted for over half of the Patriots' offensive yards in the playoff win over Houston.
Last year in the AFC Championship Game, New England Patriots running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were two rookies in street clothes -- and neither player was happy about it.

Ridley showed flashes in his first year with the Patriots by rushing for 441 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But fumbles in consecutive games landed him on the inactive list for the rest of the playoffs. Vereen had an injury-plagued rookie campaign, played in just five games and was never able to get on track.

But perseverance and dedication have changed the fortunes of New England’s second-year running backs. This season, Ridley played in all 16 games and led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He carried the load for New England in the regular season. Vereen mostly stayed healthy in his sophomore campaign, playing in 13 games and adding 251 rushing yards off the bench.

But most importantly, the tailbacks have been double trouble in the playoffs. Ridley and Vereen combined for 219 total yards and four touchdowns in New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round. The pair beat Houston on the ground and through the air, which was essential after the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) for the playoffs.

After sitting on the bench last year against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, both Patriots tailbacks will have significant roles in Sunday's postseason rematch.

“Last year, it was kind of devastating and heartbreaking to not be out there with the team in a big game,” Vereen said this week. “This year, I am able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.”

Trust is huge in New England. Ridley learned that lesson the hard way.

Talent was never an issue for the 2011 third-round pick. Ridley impressed coaches with his running style as a rookie and started to consistently earn double-digit carries in December.

But with more opportunities, Ridley had a couple of untimely fumbles. He put the ball on the ground in New England’s regular-season finale, which was recovered, then lost a fumble against the Denver Broncos in the first playoff game.

At that point, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had seen enough. Belichick clipped the already short leash with Ridley and made the rookie inactive in the AFC Championship Game and in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. Ridley understood the decision.

“This is an organization that is built on a lot of tradition, and they have been doing things the right way for a long time,” Ridley said. “If you don’t want to play football the [right] way, you’re not going to be here.”

Last season’s rookie disappointment motivated Ridley and Vereen to become better second-year players. The jump both players have made in Year 2 showed this past week against Houston.

[+] EnlargeShane Vereen
Elsa/Getty ImagesStevan Ridley, left, and Shane Vereen were in the mood to celebrate last week after combining to score four TDs against the Texans.
New England started more experienced and sure-handed Danny Woodhead, who injured his thumb against the Texans on the first carry. Ridley and Vereen took over from there.

Ridley rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. Vereen rushed for 41 yards, had five receptions for 83 yards and scored three touchdowns. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called Vereen’s impressive, 33-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to put the game out of reach a coming-of-age moment.

“On the last one, Tom threw a perfect, perfect pass and I was only able to bring it in because of where the ball was at,” Vereen explained. “It was a matchup that we were hoping to get, and we were able to execute the play. Everything lined up right, and Tom threw a perfect pass.”

Can Ridley and Vereen shine again? Last week was the first time both young tailbacks performed well in a pressure-packed playoff atmosphere.

The Patriots are heavy favorites for the second straight week. But New England knows better than to overlook Baltimore. The Ravens were underdogs this past week when they knocked off the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The past three meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by three or fewer points. So expect another close game.

The running games could be huge for both teams, especially in the second half. Ridley and Vereen were sideline spectators last year in the AFC title game. But this pair must produce for the Patriots for a second game in a row to secure a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.

“They’re a great football team. I don’t care what the numbers say,” Ridley said of Baltimore. “History shows what they do in the playoffs: They go on the road and they win. They have great leadership. They have one of the best players to ever play the game. We have ultimate respect for the Ravens.”
The New England Patriots received good news on the health front Wednesday. Starting defensive end Chandler Jones and tailback Danny Woodhead were both at the start of practice, ESPNBoston.com reports.

Jones tweaked his ankle in the second half of last weekend's playoff win over the Houston Texans. He didn't finish the game but remained dressed on the sideline. Woodhead injured his thumb on his first carry and also didn't return.

The Patriots will need as many healthy players as possible Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. New England already lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the playoffs with a broken arm.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

What it means: The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game to face the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium for the second year in a row. New England moves one step closer to its sixth Super Bowl appearance under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Brady also set a new NFL record with 17 career playoff victories.

Young RBs growing up: New England's young running backs came of age in this playoff game. Second-year players Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley scored New England’s first three touchdowns -- and four touchdowns total -- in the win. Vereen showed his versatility with 41 rushing yards, 83 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. Ridley added 82 rushing yards and one touchdown. Neither player was a factor in New England's playoff run last year. But both made significant contributions in New England’s opening playoff game this year.

Gronkowski may be out for season: The biggest injury concern coming out of this game is the health of Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. He re-injured his previously broken left arm in the first quarter and didn't return. He was in major pain before going to the locker room. Early reports indicate that Gronkowski could be out for the season. (Update: Sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that Gronkowski is out for the rest of the playoffs.) This is the second straight year Gronkowski is significantly injured for the playoffs.

Welker hard to guard: With Gronkowski out, Wes Welker became the focal part of the passing offense. Welker recorded eight receptions for 131 yards against Houston. He had six catches for 120 yards in the first half. Welker made several key catches to keep the chains moving.

Other injuries: The Patriots had several other key injuries to monitor next week. In addition to Gronkowski, New England starting defensive end Chandler Jones re-injured his ankle in the third quarter and didn’t return. The Patriots’ other defensive end, Rob Ninkovich, also was injured in the fourth quarter, and New England running back Danny Woodhead injured his thumb in the first quarter and didn’t return. New England needs its key players healthy for next week.

What’s next: The Patriots will host Baltimore in the AFC title game for the second straight year at Gillette Stadium. Both teams have had a good rivalry in recent years. Baltimore beat New England in Week 3 of the regular season and will be emotionally charged during linebacker Ray Lewis’ final playoff run. The Patriots will try to avoid being swept by the Ravens in two games this season.

Final Word: Texans at Patriots

January, 11, 2013
1/11/13
1:30
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NFC Final Word: Packers-49ers | Seahawks-Falcons AFC: Ravens-Broncos | Texans-Pats

Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Houston Texans-New England Patriots divisional-round playoff game at Gillette Stadium:

Guarding against overconfidence: The New England Patriots are heavily favored against the Texans. New England trounced Houston 42-14 last month. But that means all the pressure is on New England to win again at home. This game could have shades of the Patriots' 2010 playoffs if New England isn't careful. That year New England drilled the rival New York Jets in the regular season 45-3, only to get overconfident and lose to the Jets in the playoffs. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that lost in the regular season by 28 points or more are 11-11 in rematches in the postseason.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerRob Gronkowski did not play in New England's win against the Texans earlier this season.
Gronkowski's impact: Despite the Patriots' blowout win over Houston, it is notable to mention that New England Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski did not play in the first matchup. Gronkowski missed five games with a broken forearm. He returned in the final regular-season game against the Miami Dolphins to shake off the rust and recorded two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. He has had two weeks to get back in rhythm and continue to get closer to 100 percent. Gronkowski is New England's top red-zone threat and has 11 touchdowns in 11 games. "It will be big for us," Patriots receiver Deion Branch told reporters this week. "I'm pretty sure the coaches are going to continue to install Gronk through the game plan to make sure he gets his touches and he's around the ball."

Can Brady pass Montana? New England quarterback Tom Brady has a chance at another record that he would be proud of. With a win over Houston, Brady would pass his childhood hero -- Joe Montana -- for the most postseason wins in NFL history. Brady is 16-6 during the playoffs in his career, although he went 10-0 to start his postseason career.

Talib vs. Johnson: One of the key matchups in this game will be the cornerback-receiver matchup of Aqib Talib of the Patriots versus Andre Johnson of the Texans. They will see a lot of each other Sunday. Talib was acquired in a midseason trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quickly became New England's best cover corner. It has allowed the Patriots to played more man-to-man defense. Johnson had another monster, Pro Bowl year. He caught 112 catches for 1,598 yards this season, with eight catches for 95 yards in the first meeting.

Tailback concerns: The Patriots will enter this game with concerns at tailback. New England second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen have minimal combined playoff experience. They will have to earn the trust of New England’s coaching staff. Ridley and Vereen have had some untimely fumbles late in the season. Both lost fumbles in New England’s most recent loss, to the San Francisco 49ers. Ball security will be crucial in the playoffs. As a result, the Patriots may increase the workload for sure-handed veteran tailback Danny Woodhead.
Tom Brady and JJ WattGetty ImagesThe Texans sacked Tom Brady, left, just once in their first meeting with the Patriots. Can J.J. Watt and the front seven do a better job in the rematch?

The Patriots seemingly snickered after they blew out Houston on "Monday Night Football" back on Dec. 10.

The Texans arrived in New England wearing letterman jackets that they thought showed team unity, but instead came off as high schoolish, particularly after they were easily dispatched in what Andre Johnson called the biggest game in franchise history.

For the Patriots it was the next game on the schedule.

Before the Texans got on the bus, middle linebacker Bradie James said the Patriots had delivered a lesson in championship football. The Texans headed back to Houston, humbled and officially in a slump. They lost two of their next three, fumbling away the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

A win over Cincinnati in the wild-card round earned the Texans a trip back to Gillette Stadium.

Can the Texans put up a better fight as major underdogs Sunday? James Walker of the AFC East blog joins me to discuss the game.

Paul Kuharsky: Tom Brady shredded the Texans in that regular-season game, James. He threw four touchdown passes in no time, recognizing Houston couldn’t keep up with his targets, particularly Aaron Hernandez. Now, Brady has Rob Gronkowski back.

Do you see any way the Texans can get Brady off his game at home in the playoffs?

James Walker: The key to stopping Brady is not a secret: You must beat him up. Brady doesn’t like getting hit in the face, especially at age 35. The problem is that is much easier said than done. New England is extremely good at self-scouting and schemes very well to keep Brady upright. Houston got only one sack against Brady in the first meeting, so it was no surprise that he threw four touchdowns. I expect New England to once again keep some running backs and tight ends in protection to keep Houston’s pass rush off Brady. The Texans will need to throw caution to the wind and blitz more defenders than New England has blockers, and that’s where the chess match begins. Brady is tremendous at reading the blitz and rarely gets fooled with coverages. That's why he's so difficult to beat. Speaking of quarterbacks, what do you expect from Houston counterpart Matt Schaub in his first divisional-round playoff game?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Mike Carter/US PresswireMatt Schaub's ability to connect on big plays downfield could be key for the Texans.
PK: Schaub finally had his first playoff experience last week and he’s now 1-0 in the postseason. But facing Cincinnati at home and New England on the road are two different things. He did fine against the Bengals, but I felt like coach Gary Kubiak was especially careful not to require many throws that were even moderately risky -- especially after Schaub threw that bad pick-six. Schaub has a bit of an unfair reputation for not being good in big games, mostly because he hasn't been in many big games. To spring an upset here, he’ll have to supplement the run game with some big plays and, obviously, avoid killer mistakes. To have a chance, the Texans need to really ride Arian Foster. He has gone over 100 yards in all three of his playoff games. He had 19 touches in that regular-season blowout. To maximize their chances, I’d say he’s got to have close to 30 this time.

JW: Paul, I agree: Foster is the biggest key for the Texans in this game. He enters with some momentum after rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown last week against the Bengals. Getting Foster 30 or more productive carries would not only wear on New England’s defense, it would keep the Patriots’ high-scoring, up-tempo offense off the field. New England has thrived this year by getting off more plays and offensive possessions than its opponents. Houston's best chance is to slow down the game and make it ugly. Teams that beat the Patriots this year, such as San Francisco and Baltimore, ran the football well and limited New England’s possessions.

PK: What’s the status of the Patriots' run game? Stevan Ridley ran fine in the regular-season game, gaining 72 yards on 19 carries. He earned a little doghouse time late in the season because of some fumbling issues. Has he regained the trust of Bill Belichick and the staff? And how much does it matter? It’s not as though New England needs to run or is afraid to play a game without handing it off a lot and we know that they will keep throwing it even in a blowout situation. So does it even matter if they can run it?

JW: Trust is big in New England, and Ridley has yet to earn it in the playoffs. Last year Ridley fumbled in the divisional round and didn’t play for the remainder of the postseason. The Patriots do not have the luxury to bench him again this year, which makes Ridley a key player to watch. New England’s offense usually passes to set up the run, but the ground game is more important than most people think. The Patriots rarely blow leads because they can run successfully when they need to. That time usually comes in the second half once they’re ahead.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/John BazemoreStevan Ridley may not figure heavily in the game plan, but he needs to make the most of his opportunities and limit mistakes.
I don’t expect Ridley to be a huge part of the game plan. His carries probably will be in the teens. But he needs to make the most of each carry and take care of the football. If Ridley doesn’t step up, look for the Patriots to go to a more dependable and sure-handed option such as Danny Woodhead. The Texans' defense allowed 42 points and 419 yards in the first meeting. What adjustments will Houston’s defense need to make to be more successful in the rematch?

PK: The coverage has to be way tighter. Johnathan Joseph played in the first meeting but had not been practicing and had missed time with groin and hamstring injuries. Brandon Harris was starting for the first time as the nickel after Brice McCain’s foot injury. The Texans set out to slow Wes Welker and they did, then got killed by everyone else. They know they aren’t going to get more than a sack or two on Brady because of how he gets rid of the ball and how skilled he is at changing protections. I expect they’ll mix it up on Hernandez and Gronkowski but they won’t be afraid to treat them as receivers.

The secondary had a bad night in Foxborough and a bad final quarter of the season. Joseph and Kareem Jackson and safeties Glover Quin and Danieal Manning are all better cover guys than they showed that night, when they were even getting beaten by Donte' Stallworth, who had been back in the league for barely five minutes. They simply have to be better if the Texans are going to be in this game.

JW: I was with you in Houston last weekend, and I noticed the secondary played much better than the last time I saw the Texans in Foxborough. Joseph looked more like himself and did a good job, for the most part, on Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green. On the other hand, I think an intriguing matchup will be Patriots corner Aqib Talib against Houston’s Johnson, who had another monster season. Big games and matchups like this are why the Patriots acquired Talib in a midseason trade. He instantly became New England’s best cover corner. The Patriots usually play a lot of zone, but they’ve been able to mix zone and man coverages a lot better in the second half of the season with Talib in the lineup. Houston will have a few opportunities to take shots down the field with Johnson against Talib one-on-one, and I think whoever wins those battles will have an impact on this game.

PK: It’ll be hard for the Texans to pull a surprise if there aren’t a couple of big Schaub-to-Johnson connections.

Houston will arrive in New England with an "us-against-the-world" mentality, because the Texans are heavy underdogs. The Patriots aren’t invincible. But if they start fast, they may look that way to the Texans yet again.

Patriots-Texans II: Three sleepers

January, 8, 2013
1/08/13
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It is playoff time for the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots. Each year, the great teams get surprise contributors to advance and make a deep playoff run.

Will the Patriots be one of those teams this year? Here are some low-key, under-the-radar players who could make an impact for New England on Sunday against the Houston Texans:

1. CB Alfonzo Dennard

Analysis: The rookie seventh-round pick has been one of the biggest surprises in the AFC East. Dennard was nearly "Mr. Irrelevant" in the 2012 draft and wound up starting seven games for a Super Bowl contender. Dennard will be tested often in the postseason opposite talented corner Aqib Talib. But Dennard has three interceptions and is getting better as the season has gone on. Dennard should get some opportunities to make plays and make an impact.

2. RB Danny Woodhead

Analysis: This is the time of year when a role player like Woodhead really excels. Woodhead, the backup tailback, is the 2013 version of Kevin Faulk. He always knows his assignments and rarely makes mental or physical errors. Woodhead shares time with young tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. But Ridley and Vereen have limited playoff experience and are prone to mistakes. Woodhead is a dependable player Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels can trust. In a postseason game where every play counts, Woodhead's opportunities could increase.

3. DE Justin Francis

Analysis: Where was Francis all season? That had to be the question Patriots fans were thinking after Francis recorded his first three sacks of the season all in Week 17 against the Dolphins. The rookie has been mostly a non-factor, but came on strong in December. He had five tackles in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers. That earned him more playing time and set the table for his three-sack performance in the regular-season finale. Was that a fluke or a sign of things to come in the playoffs? Francis has certainly earned a chance in the pass-rush rotation.

AFC East Stock Watch

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
9:00
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The AFC East had a rough 1-3 record in Week 15.

Let’s take a look at who’s stock is rising and falling in the AFC East.

Falling

1. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: The Jets' playoff chances were erased by their starting quarterback. In a must-win game, Sanchez threw four interceptions in a 14-10 loss to a bad Tennessee Titans (5-9) team. The Jets (6-8) hung around the entire game with their defense, but Sanchez kept turning over the ball, including an interception and a botched snap on the final two drives. Sanchez is not the long-term solution in New York. However, he will make $8.25 million guaranteed next year and could be the starter again for the Jets in 2013.

2. Chan Gailey, Buffalo Bills coach: It’s not looking good for Gailey. His Bills looked ill-prepared and showed little effort in a 50-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Toronto. Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix has publicly backed Gailey, and a couple of weeks ago I thought he had a good shot to return in 2013. But Gailey’s coaching performances the past two weeks makes me question his job security. I think Gailey must do a better job in these next two games to return in 2013.

3. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots tailback: Ridley struggled and had a costly fumble in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Ridley is continuing last year’s late-season trend of not holding onto the football for the second year in a row. This is the second straight week Ridley fumbled in a big game. Last week, his fumble was recovered by teammate Aaron Hernandez. The difference is this season New England is counting on Ridley. The Patriots cannot bench Ridley for the playoffs and hand the ball to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who bolted in free agency. Perhaps backup Danny Woodhead will get a stronger workload, because he is more reliable. But Ridley needs to step up his game down the stretch.

Rising

1. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins quarterback: Few quarterbacks needed a big game like Tannehill. He hit the rookie wall around midseason and the Dolphins were struggling as a result. Tannehill responded with 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-3 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tannehill also rushed for a career-high 52 yards. The rookie first-round pick needs to continue to show growth in the final two weeks of the season.

2. Reggie Bush, Dolphins tailback: Bush had his first 100-yard game since Week 2 against the Jaguars. Bush rushed for 104 yards on 25 carries. His longest rush was for 53 yards. Bush continues to make his case to return to Miami. But the Dolphins are currently not negotiating with Bush and probably aren’t willing to throw big money at him in the offseason.

3. Danny Woodhead, Patriots tailback: As Ridley's stock is falling, Woodhead’s is rising. The dependable backup is not flashy but does his job when his number is called. The Patriots seem to have a strong comfort level with Woodhead. He doesn’t have the big-play capability of Patriots tailbacks Ridley and Shane Vereen, but Woodhead makes steady plays that keep the chains moving. If Ridley and Vereen continue to fumble, Woodhead coach get a majority of the carries in the playoffs.

Tom Brady's subtle jab toward Jets

November, 12, 2012
11/12/12
5:30
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When you talk as much trash and lose as many games as the New York Jets, it’s natural to be the butt of some jokes. Rival New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the latest to poke fun at Rex Ryan and Co.

Brady, in an interview with WEEI in Boston, told the station he doesn’t understand how the Jets could give up on a player like Danny Woodhead. The running back was cut by Ryan and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum in 2010. Woodhead was picked up by the Patriots soon after and he's been a valuable contributor.

Brady even pointed out how the Jets misused Woodhead as a receiver when he was clearly a running back in college. It was a subtle way of Brady saying the Jets didn’t know what they were doing.

The irony is that New York could use a change-of-pace running back like Woodhead this season.

Final Word: AFC East

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Miami's ground attack: The Dolphins’ passing struggles this preseason have been well documented in this space. Now that the games count, expect Miami to be more conservative with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins would be wise to draw up a simple game plan to run as much as possible against the dangerous Houston Texans. Miami has a decent stable of running backs, led by starter Reggie Bush, and deploying them successfully is the best way to keep the game close. If Miami falls behind early and tries to pass its way back in the game, look out! The Texans’ pass rush could cause the Dolphins major problems.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Kim Klement/US PresswireStevan Ridley is likely to receive the lion's share
of carries for New England against Tennessee.
Ridley the focus: New England Patriots tailback Shane Vereen has been held out of practice this week with a foot injury and is not expected to play. That means most of the responsibility will be on second-year tailback Stevan Ridley. He beat out Vereen in training camp for the starting job but was still expected to share carries. For Sunday’s game against Tennessee, Ridley likely will be the workhorse, with help from backup Danny Woodhead.

Sanchez must perform: Perhaps no starting quarterback in the NFL faces more pressure to perform in Week 1 than Mark Sanchez. His job security has been in question from the day the New York Jets traded for the popular Tim Tebow. Then Sanchez failed to lead the Jets to a single preseason touchdown. There is no way around it: Sanchez enters the season on a short leash. He must play well against the Buffalo Bills at home Sunday or questions will increase about his job security.

Statement for Jets' D: New York talked this offseason about the potential of having the best defense in the league. The Jets can go out and prove it Sunday against the Bills. New York -- particularly at cornerback -- has matched up well against Buffalo’s multi-receiver offense in recent seasons, winning five consecutive games in the series. The matchup between Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis and Bills No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson, if healthy, will be huge. Johnson has done well against Revis in the past but is nursing a groin injury. Johnson said he expects to play but is listed as questionable. Meanwhile, Revis will be motivated to start the season strong.

Fitzpatrick crossroads: Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick enters a pivotal year in his career. The Bills will go as far as Fitzpatrick takes them this season. He is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the NFL. At his best, Fitzpatrick can get hot and beat any team. But at his worst, he's prone to multiple turnovers that are difficult to overcome. Fitzpatrick has worked on fundamentals and consistency, and he will need it on the road against the Jets' excellent defense.

Do the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots need another dynamic threat on offense?

With Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and young, exciting tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen all at quarterback Tom Brady's disposal, the Patriots seemed like the last team that needed more speed offensively.

But the Patriots like to make a move when you least expect it. They surprisingly won the Jeff Demps sweepstakes and are expected to sign the Olympic silver medalist, according to ESPN’s John Clayton. Demps had interest from various teams -- including the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- but the allure of playing for a title contender in New England made a difference. Demps even turned down playing with former college teammate Tim Tebow with New England’s division rival.

It's easy to see why Demps would want to play for a winning program in New England. But why would the Patriots be interested in Demps?

New England already has a crowded backfield filled with young talent. Ridley and Vereen have a lot of potential, and Danny Woodhead is a solid third-down back. Where does Demps fit, especially after missing all of training camp to pursue the Olympics? He will start fourth on the depth chart and must prove himself quickly. Demps most likely can contribute right away returning kicks.

Do the Patriots need Demps? Not really. But at the very least, they acquired another elite athlete and potentially kept Demps from a division rival.

Demps may have won a silver medal this summer. But it's clear the Patriots are going for the gold.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- You would think there was a playoff game at Gillette Stadium this week.

Patriots logoIn front of a packed house, the New England Patriots hosted the New Orleans Saints for a pair of high-quality joint practices. Even famous musician Jon Bon Jovi and supermodel (and Tom Brady's wife) Gisele Bundchen showed up for a glimpse of the action.

The talent on the practice field was immense. You had future Hall of Famers Brady and Drew Brees at quarterback, Pro Bowl tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham and two hungry defenses eager to improve. The tempo was fast and intense.

The Patriots could have easily practiced against themselves this week like the rest of the league. But there is a method to Bill Belichick's madness. It's Super Bowl or bust for New England. And even in August, the Patriots want to test themselves as much as possible against another playoff contender.

"We know that there are a lot of other great organizations and teams and players and coaches out there," Belichick explained. "It’s a good challenge every week, and certainly the Saints are one of the top teams in professional football. As I said, they're well-coached, they have great talent, good players, good scheme [and] they win a lot of games. We played against them two years ago, practiced against them two years ago in their championship season. There isn’t any team we have more respect for than the Saints from top to bottom."

The reigning AFC champions are loaded. Their roster is deeper and more talented than last year's team that finished 13-3. With the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL, the Patriots are expected to match or surpass last season's win total. Some pundits even believe a 16-0 regular season is within reach. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How much better is the defense? The Patriots' defense has improved. New England was ranked 31st in total defense and 31st against the pass in 2011. So the Patriots cannot get much worse.

The Patriots invested all their draft picks except a seventh-rounder in defense. The biggest coups were first-round picks Dont'a Hightower at linebacker and defensive end Chandler Jones. Both rookies received a lot of reps with the first team this week and appear to be learning fast. They also provide athleticism and aggressiveness to New England's front seven.

Second-round pick and defensive back Tavon Wilson also has looked better than advertised. Belichick received a lot of criticism for drafting Wilson that high when most projected him to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick. Free agent Steve Gregory also is New England's starting safety and is an upgrade over the rotating door New England had at the position last year.

With a high-powered offense, the Patriots don't need a top-10 defense. But if the defensive-minded Belichick can get this group in the top 20, New England will be very hard to beat.

"We're just trying to be aggressive and be competitive in everything out there," Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said of improving. "From the front all the way throughout the secondary, guys are just trying to develop an attitude. Defense has a lot to do with attitude and how you approach the game, so we’re trying to keep attitude and trying to do it day in and day out."

[+] EnlargeNate Solder
Stew Milne/US PresswireSecond-year left tackle Nate Solder has shined early in Patriots training camp.
2. Who will man the offensive line? It is difficult to gauge the performance of the offensive line in training camp. About half of training camp practices are in shorts, and that significantly reduces contact in the trenches. But replacements need to be ready because four of New England's starters from last year are injured, retired or contemplating retirement.

New England's offensive line is a M.A.S.H. unit. Starting guards Logan Mankins (knee) and Brian Waters (personal reasons) have yet to practice with the team, and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer has a back injury. Longtime starting left tackle Matt Light retired, and so did free-agent signee Robert Gallery.

The Patriots are trying to find the right combination up front in training camp in preparation for Week 1 of the regular season. So far, the best lineman in camp has been second-year left tackle Nate Solder, who gained some starting experience last year in his rookie season.

Holdovers such as guard Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Marcus Cannon are all trying to carve out roles -- at least until starters Mankins, Vollmer and (maybe) Waters return. Brady and the Patriots will pass the football a lot this year, so development of the offensive line is important.

"We're going to play whoever is here, and whatever happens, we're going to be here working hard," Solder said this week.

3. Who will run the football? Dependable tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis bolted to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. That leaves second-year tailbacks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen trying to pick up the slack in 2012. Neither player has much experience. Ridley did pretty well in limited playing time his rookie year, amassing 441 yards and a touchdown. Vereen was injured most of his rookie season and wasn’t a factor.

Ridley has the inside track and has looked impressive. He has good vision and burst. Ball security has been the only question. But Ridley believes he made rookie mistakes that he will fix in Year 2.

"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," Ridley said. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."

Backup running back Danny Woodhead also will assist Ridley and Vereen, particularly on third downs.

Reason for optimism

This is the best collection of talented skill players Brady has ever had. If everyone stays healthy, I do not see any reason the Patriots cannot be near the top of the league in scoring and passing offense. New England should average at least 30 points per game.

Brady has a Pro Bowl tight end in Gronkowski, a Pro Bowl receiver in Wes Welker, a top-five tight end in Aaron Hernandez and a much-needed deep threat in Brandon Lloyd. The Patriots' passing game should be able to do it all. Brady can go underneath to Welker and Gronkowski or deep to Lloyd and Hernandez. It will be very difficult for opponents to game plan.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Brady said. "We're trying to come out and string practices together."

Reason for pessimism

I'm still not confident in New England's secondary. This was the weakest part of the Patriots last year, and 2012 could be a repeat.

Cornerbacks McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore and Ras-I Dowling all have question marks. The Saints’ offense had their way with New England’s corners during this week’s joint practices. No one among the Patriots’ corners made enough plays to really stand out.

Perhaps the biggest problem is New England's corners are not shutdown, man-to-man defenders. That forces New England to play a lot of zone to try to get stops. That leads to a bend-but-don’t-break mentality we saw last year.

Expect many opponents to attack New England's cornerbacks until this group proves it can cover and shut down receivers consistently.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
    AP Photo/Robert E. KleinNot many tight ends have the athletic ability to be a punt returner. The Patriots' Aaron Hernandez does.
  • Speaking of McCourty, he is playing exclusively at corner in training camp. It shows the coaching staff is comfortable that McCourty will bounce back from a shoulder injury and poor play that led to a position change to safety late last season. McCourty is competing hard and trying to get back to his rookie form, when he made the Pro Bowl in 2010.
  • How athletic is Hernandez? New England is experimenting with its No. 2 tight end at punt return and running back. Hernandez did a good job running the football in the Patriots' playoff win over the Denver Broncos. It was a nice wrinkle added by Belichick. Hernandez is elusive in the open field and has good hands, so returning punts could make sense as another way to get the ball into Hernandez's hands.
  • I'm not sure why more teams do not have joint practices in training camp. Both the Patriots and Saints gave rave reviews of how well things went this week. It was well organized; both teams got a lot of work done; and there were no injuries. Most importantly, it is a change of pace from hitting your teammates the entire summer. In talking with players, they got a kick out of practicing against an unfamiliar opponent.
  • The Brady-to-Lloyd combination is still a work in progress. Brady missed Lloyd on several opportunities this week, as the first-time teammates continue to work on their chemistry. Lloyd is the best deep threat Brady has had since Randy Moss. Brady and Moss got on the same page quickly in their first season together. Brady hopes for the same results with Lloyd.
  • Keep an eye out for undrafted rookie defensive end Justin Francis. I wasn't familiar with the Rutgers product before my training camp visit, but after a few practices, I noticed Francis stood out. Francis has a good motor and athleticism for a defensive end. Francis is a sleeper pick to make New England's 53-man roster, but he must show that he can translate his play on the practice field to the preseason games.
  • The No. 2 quarterback race between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett favors Hoyer at this stage of camp. Hoyer had a solid week of practice leading into Thursday's preseason opener. Hoyer was more accurate and made some nice throws. Mallett has a lot of physical ability but has a lot to work on. He had trouble with taking some of the velocity off his passes when needed. The preseason games will matter most, but Hoyer has the lead so far.
  • Linebacker Bobby Carpenter has been a pleasant surprise for New England. The former first-round pick has underachieved at his previous stops in Dallas, Miami and Detroit. But Carpenter has fit in well as a backup linebacker for the Patriots in training camp and is in good shape to make the team. Carpenter even got a little work with the first team this week because of injuries.

Next stop: New England Patriots

August, 5, 2012
8/05/12
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The AFC East blog is having a great time visiting every training camp in the division. We started with the Miami Dolphins, then hit the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets last week.

Next up are the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots. We are en route to Foxborough, Mass., where we will join the Patriots for a fun string of practices this week.

Here are some things we are looking for:
  • The offense gets all the publicity. But I know that side of the football will be fine. I will be paying attention to the Patriots’ defense. New England was ranked 31st last year and made a lot of additions via the draft and free agency. The Patriots are hoping additions like rookies Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones and veteran Steve Gregory help. The defense is getting a good test every day against New England’s offense.
  • We’re really looking forward to New England’s scrimmage this week against the New Orleans Saints. It’s not something has happens often these days. The Patriots have been fighting a lot in practice recently, and this chance to hit someone else comes at the right time. New Orleans has had a ton of offseason issues. But the Saints are talented, particularly on offense, and they will give New England a nice test on the practice field before the teams meet Thursday in the preseason opener for both.
  • I have a lot of questions about New England’s offensive line. The guard position, in particular, is very thin. Robert Gallery just retired. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins is on the physically-unable-to-perform list after knee surgery, and guard Brian Waters’ status is still unknown. The Patriots also have health issues with Sebastian Vollmer. A lot of players have to step up.
  • Finally, it’s almost decision time for the Patriots at running back. New England has to choose among Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead by the end of the preseason. Ridley and Vereen, both second-year players, are the favorites. This is the time for one of these young running backs to step forward.

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