AFC East: Dont'a Hightower

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 22, 2013
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BALTIMORE -- Sharing some halftime thoughts of the New England Patriots' game against the Ravens (New England leads 17-0):

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.

Checking in with Dont'a Hightower

November, 28, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the unusual aspects of the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos was the in-game disappearance of second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower. He played the first 33 defensive snaps and that was it.

Hightower
Hightower appeared to be dealing with some type of physical ailment during the game, but it wasn't enough to land him on the injury report as he participated in full on Wednesday in the first practice of the new week.

"The best way to put it was that it's how things worked out -- me coming out for a series and I don't want to go too far into it," he said."But things happened during the game, I came out a series, and then the way things were working I didn't really have to go back in. Dane [Fletcher] finished the game and played a helluva game."

Fletcher added a bit more speed to the lineup in playing over Hightower, who on one of his final plays had trouble with a screen pass on third-and-20 that the Broncos converted. Hightower was pushed out of the way rather easily.

"I tried to make a play, setting up the inside guy to hit the outside guy, but the inside guy hit me and obviously threw me out. I messed up on that, misread it a little bit. Just tried to make a different play on it and split the defenders, but didn't get it done," Hightower said. "It was a really good play [by the offense]. More or less I just have to be able to take out both of those guys so hopefully my teammates can rally up and get there [and] just definitely trying to alert everyone else prior to the play."

Hightower has now played 72.4 percent of the defensive snaps this season, which is up from 51 percent last year. With Jerod Mayo lost to a season-ending injury on Oct. 13, he says, the "burden has been pushed on a lot of guys with all the injuries going around, and guys having to step up and things they haven't been doing."

For Hightower, that has sometimes meant leading the huddle and showing younger players the ropes.

"In the long run, and the reason why I love New England, I could care less about making the big play. I could care less about making the strip sack or the fumble, or anything," he said. "All those things are good, but if I can put my teammates in position to make that play, that's fine with me. I don't have to be the star. I can be the guy that everybody says ‘whatever' about, but as long as we get the W and the job done, I don't care either way."

Quick-hit thoughts after first quarter

October, 27, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Miami Dolphins, 7-0. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Brady picked on first throw. On his first throw of the afternoon, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Dolphins cornerback Dimitri Patterson. It wasn't the start Brady was looking for, as it gave the Dolphins the ball at the Patriots' 40-yard line. The turnover was particularly costly, as it led to a Miami touchdown just minutes later.

2. Blount the lead back early. Despite scores in each of the past two games, Stevan Ridley was not the starter in the Patriots' backfield, as LeGarrette Blount earned the start. Ridley didn't play a single snap in the first quarter.

3. Offensive struggles persist. Two-plus drives, and just about nothing for the Patriots' offense. The offense looked out of sync early, and although he didn't have many opportunities, it's possible that Brady is working through discomfort on his right hand. Though it was not listed on the injury report, Brady did have two fingers taped together during a photo on Saturday.

4. Gregory wearing green dot. Safety Steve Gregory is wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, a sign that he is the on-field point of communication for the coaches. He's responsible for making the defensive calls in the huddle, a previous duty for Jerod Mayo. Last week, Dont'a Hightower wore the green dot.

5. Penalty box. No Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter.

Ups and downs for the Patriots

October, 20, 2013
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At an initial glance, a look at the New England Patriots players whose performance was "up" in Sunday's game against the New York Jets, and those at the opposite end of the spectrum:

Up
Stephen Gostkowski -- Kicker hits from 44 yards with 16 seconds remaining to tie the game at 27.

Chandler Jones -- Right defensive end creates pressure while working against D'Brickashaw Ferguson.

Devin McCourty -- Safety breaks up a pass in the end zone and draws an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone.

Down
Kyle Arrington -- Cornerback struggles early against receiver Jeremy Kerley and is replaced by Marquice Cole.

Tom Brady -- Quarterback throws a pick-six early in the third quarter that helps the Jets, trailing 21-10 at the time, get back into the game.

Dont'a Hightower -- Linebacker appears to struggle in coverage.

Nate Solder/offensive line -- Breakdowns in protection, highlighted at left tackle, contribute to the Jets taking control of the game in the third quarter.

Defensive snaps: Gregory & McCourty

August, 23, 2013
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DETROIT -- A look at the snaps played by Patriots defenders in the first half, when most of the top players were in the game, and analyzing what it might mean (includes penalties):

CB Kyle Arrington -- 36 of 36
S Steve Gregory -- 36 of 36
DE Chandler Jones -- 36 of 36
DE Rob Ninkovich -- 36 of 36
CB Aqib Talib -- 36 of 36
DT Tommy Kelly -- 26 of 36
LB Dont'a Hightower -- 23 of 36
LB Brandon Spikes -- 23 of 36
DT Joe Vellano -- 23 of 36
CB Logan Ryan -- 19 of 36
S Duron Harmon -- 18 of 36
S Devin McCourty -- 16 of 36
S Adrian Wilson -- 15 of 36
DE Marcus Benard -- 13 of 36
LB Jerod Mayo -- 13 of 36
LB Jamie Collins -- 11 of 36
DT Marcus Forston -- 10 of 36
LB Dane Fletcher -- 6 of 36

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: The biggest personnel notes on defense were with starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork being held out of the game, which gave the coaching staff an extended look at rookie free-agent Joe Vellano. Also, starting linebacker Jerod Mayo only played in the dime package, so rookie Jamie Collins started alongside Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower and Dane Fletcher also came on for two series in the base defense. ... Against a strong vertical passing offense, it's probably not a coincidence that Steve Gregory got the start next to Devin McCourty at safety as they are considered the team's best cover safeties. It will be interesting to see if that changes against teams who aren't as threatening in that area of the game, which could open the door for a bigger safety (e.g. Adrian Wilson) to step in to that role. Wilson played solely in the dime package in the first half, in a linebacker-type role. That bumped Tavon Wilson out of that spot. ... Rookie Logan Ryan served as the fifth defensive back in the nickel. ... McCourty's playing time was limited as it was his first action this preseason as he's been managed closely after offseason shoulder surgery. ... Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, as expected, are the top ends and they won't come off the field often. ... Tommy Kelly looks like a difference-maker at defensive tackle and the type of player who would never leave the field, but the Patriots probably want to find some time to give him a breather at times, which is what we saw Thursday night. ... Marcus Benard came on in sub situations as an interior rusher, which was the niche that Jermaine Cunningham (currently injured) had carved out for himself early in 2012.
Tom Brady, Danny AmendolaStew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Danny Amendola got some quality work done early against Tampa Bay.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots improved to 2-0 in the preseason with a 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night, their first exhibition game at Gillette Stadium of 2013.

The win wraps up a second straight week of joint practices, as the Buccaneers spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday working alongside the Patriots in advance of the game.

Below are 12 takeaways from Friday's action, including some underlying storylines that may have gone unnoticed upon first glance:

1. So much for the concerns about how a recent knee injury might impact Tom Brady's performance, as the quarterback was masterful two days after going down in a scary moment during Wednesday's practice. Brady had just one incompletion on the evening, carving the Buccaneers defense on an opening-drive score and looking precise on nearly every one of his throws. Brady had his usual command of the offense, and continues to be in sync with his new cast of receivers, led by Danny Amendola.

2. Amendola was the best receiver on the field Friday night, and he showed off what makes him unique as a player: his precise route running, stop-on-a-dime quickness with the ball in his hands, and the ability to stress a defense up the field as well. Amendola sneaked behind the defense on a post for a score, and the spacing on the route was an important takeaway. The 2013 version of the Patriots offense, at least in early viewings, has shown an ability to spread a defense thin both horizontally and vertically. They have some perimeter presence with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but also some slot stressers in Amendola and the tight ends. This isn't to say that this year's offense will be better than last year's, just different.

3. After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained he that decided to receive after winning the coin toss in order to give his team a chance for a fast start. The move paid off with a touchdown for his offense, and the defense followed suit, forcing a stop on the Bucs' opening drive. The first defensive play from scrimmage was a blitz-up-the-middle sack from linebacker Brandon Spikes, one of three first-quarter sacks for the Patriots. That's a critical component to this defense's success, as they struggled to pressure the various Eagles quarterbacks last week. Each of the Patriots' starters at defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, recorded at least one sack as well.

[+] EnlargeZach Sudfeld
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsZach Sudfeld caught this two-point conversion from Tom Brady and later added a 22-yard TD from Ryan Mallett.
4. There were some ups and downs from Ryan Mallett during the second quarter, as he came in to relieve Brady, completing 12-of-20 passes, including a 22-yard score to tight end Zach Sudfeld. We've learned before that the evaluation process of a backup quarterback extends far beyond preseason game action, as many will recall an uneasy 2008 preseason for Matt Cassel that left many outside of the organization uncomfortable with the thought of him as a fill-in starter. Cassel went on to help the team to 11 wins that season, reinforcing that we have to look at preseason games as just a piece of the puzzle. Mallett flexed his effortless arm strength on some throws, while he had misses that you'd count on him to make if he were the starter. The most important takeaway from tonight is an evaluation of a player's traits. For Mallett, we still want to see more before making a hard-line evaluation one way or another.

5. There's been an abundance of talk about the Patriots' rookie receivers during training camp (and we'll include Sudfeld in that group), but it was the one who was drafted highest, Aaron Dobson, who appeared to have the smallest role in the early portion of the game. Dobson took just one snap during the opening drive, far fewer than Kenbrell Thompkins, and that could be a sign that Dobson is further down the depth chart at this time. The two are different types of perimeter receivers, with Thompkins a more refined route runner and with better quickness, but Dobson holds the edge in size and length, an important set of traits in the red zone and competitive catch situations.

6. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork didn't play a heavy dose of snaps tonight (neither did Jerod Mayo), which gave us a chance to check out the rotation of defensive tackles behind him. Veteran Tommy Kelly is effectively the second starter in our estimation, but the picture becomes much less clear after that. Marcus Forston flashed on a goal-line play that resulted in a tackle for loss, while undrafted rookies Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano also showed some ability to generate interior push. Forston was a surprise to make the 53-man roster last season as an undrafted free agent, and the door appears to be open for another undrafted free agent to land on the active roster this year, especially if Armond Armstead is unable to return before the start of the regular season.

7. A few special-teams thoughts: Kickoff coverage was an area of strength for the Patriots throughout the 2012 season, but tonight it fell short of expectations. The Bucs returned their first kickoff 63 yards, far too much to give up. On the positive side, ace special-teamer Matthew Slater had a textbook take-down in punt coverage from his gunner position, a role he drew praise from Bill Belichick for earlier this week. Finally, for the second straight game, we'll give the edge to punter Zoltan Mesko over Ryan Allen in the competition (this week was a clear victory for the incumbent starter). Allen was unable to pin a plus-50 punt deep in Tampa territory, and Mesko had a substantial edge in overall average (44.3 to 39).

8. While the Patriots feel good about their starting trio of cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington -- the depth at the position is an area to monitor. Rookie Logan Ryan had the defensive play of the night, hauling in an interception for a touchdown. That comes after last week's failed interception against the Eagles. Veteran Marquice Cole provides some slot presence and special-teams value, but Ryan duplicates much of what Cole is able to do. If Ras-I Dowling is unable to return soon from injury, Ryan could effectively work himself into the fourth cornerback job, which could turn into third cornerback duties if Alfonzo Dennard faces jail time stemming from his July arrest.

9. Preseason games aren't always predictive of what the regular season will hold, but we saw quite a few two-back sets from the Patriots early on in the game. That's not something we saw much of last season or even last week, but fullback James Develin was on the field to start the game and played a handful of snaps on the Patriots' 15-play opening drive. When Josh McDaniels returned to New England, there was a belief that he might bring more two-back sets with him. Although that wasn't the case in 2012, we saw a steady dose of it on Friday night. Develin could be in competition with Michael Hoomanawanui for a roster spot.

10. There may not even be a starting job for him to win, but second-round pick Jamie Collins had strong stretches on defense Friday night, the second time in as many preseason games that he's impressed. The rangy, long 23-year-old worked almost exclusively as a strong-side linebacker from a stand-up alignment, which appears to be the role he has settled into (and one that Dont'a Hightower handles among the starting group). What will be interesting is to see if his movement skills are enough to translate into a prominent coverage linebacker role in sub defensive packages. One area that stood out for Collins tonight: his ability to stack and shed in the running game, an area we though he could improve upon from his college tape.

11. Left tackle Nate Solder took some heat this week after allowing his defender to rush through him during practice, which led to Brady going down and dinging his knee. Truth be told, that's a part of playing left tackle in the NFL -- there are many talented rushers -- but it looked like Solder had a steady performance tonight. That's par for the course for the 25-year-old, viewed by many as a high-upside left tackle, but he deserves credit for bouncing back after what was likely a long Wednesday night for him.

12. For the second consecutive week, Jake Ballard was used as the blocking tight end with the starting offense. From our initial viewing, it looked like another strong effort from the burly tight end, as he helped to set the edge and kick-start the running game. He played 19 snaps tonight, seven more than his 12 against the Eagles.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

August, 15, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday in the second preseason game for both teams (Fox, 8 p.m. ET), and here are a few things we'll be keeping a close eye on:

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1. Brady and the quarterback reps. After Wednesday's scare, in which he suffered a bruised left knee, quarterback Tom Brady returned to practice Thursday and wore a knee brace while going through the entire practice without limitation. Brady played 16 snaps in the preseason opener, and perhaps the coaching staff alters its plans against the Buccaneers based on the injury. Top backup Ryan Mallett played 25 snaps in the opener and could be line for more work. Tim Tebow was on for 31 snaps in the opener. One more thought on this: Let's also watch the matchup of Patriots left tackle Nate Solder versus Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn, since it was Clayborn's bull-rush -- during which he pushed Solder back -- that led to Brady's injury.

2. Sturdy run defense with the front seven. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin can be a handful and represents a good test for a Patriots front seven that should have Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at end, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at tackle and a linebacker trio of Brandon Spikes (middle), Dont'a Hightower (strongside) and Jerod Mayo (weakside). Not that there figures to be any big game planning for a preseason game, but the Patriots talk often about making the opposition one-dimensional by taking away the run. With limited opportunities in preseason to work on run fits with live tackling, this will be one of their best chances to do so.

PatriotsBuccaneers3. Ballard ready for increased workload? Tight end Jake Ballard remains a player of interest from this perspective. Returning from serious knee surgery in 2012, he has been managed carefully in practice and played 12 snaps in the preseason opener, all with the first-unit offense. The top tight-end pairing of late has been Ballard and rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld. With veteran Daniel Fells unlikely to suit up -- he's been out of practice the past few days due to an undisclosed injury -- is Ballard ready for some more work? If so, the areas we'll be watching closest are his inline blocking and how more snaps might affect his knee.

4. Bounce-back for Gostkowski and field goal operation. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed field goals from 44 and 53 yards in the preseason opener -- not exactly chip shots -- and, as Bill Belichick sometimes points out, it isn't always on the kicker. It's the entire operation -- snap, hold, kick. Gostkowski, who hit from 34 yards in the game, looks like he's had a strong week of practice. Also on special teams, the ongoing competition between incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen is a good one. Allen has a strong leg but the key for both is going to be consistency.

5. Can the rookie receivers do it again? We've spent a lot of time focusing on the rookie trio of Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) and their assimilation into the offense. So far, so good. Brady had made the point that by the middle of training camp the team would have a better feel on its receiving corps, and one thing is clear: The rookies are a big part of it. Of the group, Thompkins might be the most impressive to this point. He had four catches in the preseason opener and was on the same page with Brady early.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.

Training camp preview: Patriots

July, 25, 2013
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After a rough offseason, the New England Patriots will begin their 2013 season Friday with the start of training camp.

New England remains the preseason favorite to win the AFC East. But this team is weaker than previous years due to several offseason circumstances.

Here are three things to watch in Patriots camp:

1. Can New England block out distractions?

Analysis: Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did a smart thing Wednesday. He faced the Aaron Hernandez situation head-on before training camp, because questions were coming either way. Belichick relieved some of the media pressure surrounding Hernandez's arrest on murder and other charges and the team's subsequent release of the star tight end. But this story will follow the Patriots to some degree all summer and beyond. The players must prove they can overcome the loss on the field as well as answer Hernandez questions off it. New England is a team which despises distractions, but this will be a challenge.

2. Will wide receivers step up?

Analysis: It’s been a question all offseason. Now, it’s time for some answers. Which receivers will step up in New England’s offense? Danny Amendola, if he stays healthy, is a proven commodity. But the rest of the Patriots’ receivers have plenty of question marks. New England lost a ton of production by not bringing back 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. This year’s group includes veterans Michael Jenkins, Lavelle Hawkins, Kamar Aiken and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady is good at raising the level of his supporting cast -- but it is asking a lot of Brady to try to lead this group to another Super Bowl title.

3. How much better is the defense?

Analysis: One of the bright spots for the Patriots this offseason has been the additions on defense. New England spent resources in free agency and the draft to improve this side of the football. The Patriots signed veteran free-agent safety Adrian Wilson and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to toughen up the defense. They also drafted three defenders in the first three rounds to infuse some youth and energy. If other young defenders such as Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower take their games to another level, the Patriots defense could make good strides in 2013.

The New England Patriots have been the dominant force in the AFC East for the past dozen years. Since head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady formed their power pairing in 2001, the Patriots have won 10 division titles, made five Super Bowl appearances and won three championships.

No AFC East team has come close to matching New England’s consistency over that span. But there appears to be a young, up-and-coming group on the horizon in the Miami Dolphins, who were very aggressive this offseason. Miami spent more than $200 million in free-agent contracts, including $117 million in guaranteed money, and traded up to get No. 3 overall draft pick Dion Jordan to boost its pass rush. The Dolphins made all of their offseason moves with the goal of closing the gap with New England.

Can Miami provide a legitimate threat to the Patriots in 2013? ESPN.com AFC East blogger James Walker and ESPNBoston.com’s Mike Reiss debate.

James Walker: Mike, I think we both called this back in December when the Patriots pulled out a tough 23-16 win against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. We saw something that Sunday that showed Miami could be a problem for New England in future seasons. The effort was there, but Miami just didn’t have the horses to beat the Patriots, and that’s a big reason the Dolphins used so many resources in the draft and free agency to boost their roster. The Dolphins got much better in the passing game by adding tight end Dustin Keller and receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson. They are younger and more athletic at linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and cornerback Brent Grimes could be a stud in the secondary this season if he stays healthy. The Jordan pick was also made to improve Miami’s pass rush and to pressure Brady twice a season. Miami made a lot of smart moves this offseason. But, Mike, should the consistently dominant Patriots be concerned about the Dolphins?

Mike Reiss: James, for 2013, the Dolphins clearly look like the AFC East opponent closest to the Patriots. One contrast that stands out to me is the moves both teams made on offense this offseason -- the Dolphins decisively added more weapons, while the Patriots currently have an abundance of questions in the passing game. So looking at this from a Dolphins perspective, I think that’s something to feel good about right now. Of course, it all comes back to the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. If he doesn’t take the next step, and the Dolphins struggle to protect him, it won’t matter much. The other part that I think looks good for Miami is when the games against the Patriots will be played -- Oct. 27 in New England and Dec. 15 in South Florida. That’s probably how you want it set up, avoiding the cold-weather game in the Northeast late in the season.

Walker: That’s a very good point, Mike. Miami played in Foxborough in the final game of the 2012 regular season and was pounded 28-0. I don’t see the Dolphins winning at Gillette Stadium this season, but their chances do increase in October. However, that December meeting at Sun Life Stadium could be very important, with both teams possibly fighting for playoff positioning and the division title. I agree that the most important player for Miami this season is Tannehill. The biggest advantage the Patriots have had for a long time in the AFC East is at quarterback. Brady, in my mind, is one of the top five all-time quarterbacks. The Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets do not have anyone close to matching Brady over the past dozen seasons. But Miami might have something in Tannehill. The game didn’t look too big for him last season. Tannehill has a good poise about him, and physically he’s a good athlete who can make all the throws. With vastly improved weapons, I expect Tannehill to make a nice jump this season. As he improves, so will the Dolphins. But we can’t have a “Double Coverage” involving the Patriots without discussing Brady, who will be 36 in August. I’ve said several times in the AFC East blog that New England’s passing attack will take a step back this season. The Patriots lost too much production at receiver and have various issues involving star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Mike, how do you view Brady and New England’s passing attack in 2013?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady and Ryan Tannehill
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsAre Ryan Tannehill, left, and Miami ready to be the top division rival for Tom Brady's Patriots?
Reiss: Based on what we saw in June’s minicamps, the Patriots’ passing attack wasn’t up to the standard we’ve seen in recent seasons. In the three-receiver set, the top players Brady was throwing to were 10-year veteran Michael Jenkins, free-agent signee Danny Amendola and either third-year man Kamar Aiken or rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. The Patriots also didn’t have top tight ends Gronkowski (back/forearm) and Hernandez (recovering from shoulder surgery) on the field. If that’s the way it unfolds when the games start to count, I think it’s fair to expect a step back. But, as we’ve seen in the past, things can change from June to September, and I’d expect that to be the case for the Patriots. I still think they’ll be tough to defend. Amendola looks terrific at this point. Hernandez, assuming some of these recent legal issues don’t keep him off the field, makes a big difference. I think Julian Edelman can help them if healthy. There’s always the possibility of an acquisition, similar to the early-season signing of Jabar Gaffney in 2006 that paid solid dividends for them. No doubt, there are a lot of questions right now, and I think the concern some have in New England about the passing attack is fair. But as you’ve pointed out, they still have Brady throwing the football, and that’s one guy I wouldn’t bet against. He’s done more with less in the past (e.g., 2006). It’s interesting to me that we’ve reached this point without touching on the defense; in the end, you wonder if that will ultimately be the key for both of these teams.

Walker: Absolutely, Mike. It usually comes down to defense late in the season, and that’s where New England fell short. The Patriots rely too much on their offense, and it cost them last season in the AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens and two seasons ago against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. We were both at those games, and the problem was the same: pass defense. New England was 29th against the pass last season and 27th in yards allowed after the catch (YAC), according to ESPN Stats & Information. That means the Patriots’ defensive backs are not covering well or tackling well. The addition of safety Adrian Wilson should help from a tackling and physicality perspective, but I don’t think he’s much of an upgrade in coverage. Ironically, Miami has similar issues defending the pass. The Dolphins were ranked 27th in pass defense in 2012. Miami’s cornerbacks were too inconsistent, which is why the Dolphins signed Grimes in free agency and drafted cornerbacks -- Jamar Taylor and Will Davis -- in the second and third rounds. Grimes looks really good in offseason workouts coming off an Achilles injury. He must stay healthy for Miami’s secondary to have success. Veteran Richard Marshall is average, but he’s the other starting cornerback right now. The Dolphins hope one of their young draft picks can step up in sub packages or eventually into the starting lineup. It’s strange to think how similar these defenses are, Mike. Both the Patriots and Dolphins are solid against the run but need to improve their pass rush and pass coverage.

Reiss: For the Patriots, the hope is that continuity leads to success. They return their entire starting defense, with the one change coming at defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork because the team decided to move on from co-starters Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. So you have the same secondary together again, with a full season of No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib, who was acquired midway through last season and changed the way they played defense in some respects. You’re also committing to Devin McCourty for a full season at safety, at which he showed promise in 2012. Add in the size and physicality of Wilson (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) in some form at safety, which was something they didn’t have last season, and it looks like a net gain for the Patriots. In theory, that should lead to better communication and better results. Then, of course, it comes back to the pass rush that has been a consistent topic around the team over the past five seasons or so. Does 2012 first-round draft choice Chandler Jones become the dominant pass-rusher the Patriots hope he can be? He was impressive in the first half of last season before an ankle injury slowed him down a bit. Does fellow 2012 first-rounder Dont'a Hightower become a true three-down linebacker? The defense looked much further ahead of the offense in spring workouts, which hasn’t been the case in recent seasons. There is some positive momentum for them, but can they sustain it when it counts?

Walker: Mike, in terms 2013 outlook, I think the AFC East has a chance to put two teams in the playoffs this season. I view the Patriots as a little worse than last season's team, and the Dolphins are improved. That alone should close the gap. But it was so wide to begin with that the Patriots are still preseason favorites in my book. However, the Dolphins are a young team on the rise with a lot of potential. A good season for Miami would be to grab a wild card in the AFC and split its two games with New England in the division. If that's the case, then we could see the start of a new and competitive rivalry in the AFC East for the next several seasons.

Reiss: It seems like every season has brought a new challenger to the Patriots, James, but none of the other three teams in the AFC East has been able to sustain. In fact, last year at this time, I think many of us were saying some of the same things about the Bills (after signing Mario Williams, among other moves) as we are about the Dolphins now. So I’m interested to see if the Dolphins can be that team to not just close the gap in 2013, but in future years as well. Maybe part of the reason I have doubts is that we’ve seen this script play out before and it hasn’t happened. The Patriots do have some big questions, and those can’t be overlooked, but I still think they win the division by at least two games.

Eight in the Box: Breakout player

April, 12, 2013
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» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one potential breakout player for each AFC East team in 2013?

Buffalo Bills: Last year Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller was one of the breakout players in the entire NFL. This season, Buffalo's breakout star most likely will be on the other side of the football. Bills starting cornerback Stephon Gilmore showed a lot of tools in his rookie season when he recorded 61 tackles, forced three fumbles and nabbed an interception. The Bills had the NFL's 10th-ranked pass defense and Gilmore took on the challenge as a rookie to guard the opponent’s best receiver each week. He is a fearless player who is already solid in a lot of areas. But Gilmore needs to work on making more big plays for the Bills this season and beyond in order to take the next step.

Miami Dolphins: The tailback who led the Dolphins in yards per carry last season was not Reggie Bush. It was actually second-year running back Lamar Miller, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012. Miller shined in limited opportunities during his rookie season. He displayed good vision and explosiveness, and appears to be a natural fit for Miami's West Coast offense under head coach Joe Philbin. Miller is the reason Miami had no issues letting Bush walk in free agency. Bush signed with the Detroit Lions after getting little interest from the Dolphins. Miller will get a lot more carries this season and pair with backup Daniel Thomas in Miami's backfield. Miller's weakness is pass protection, but he looked great last year carrying the football.

New England Patriots: The Patriots didn't necessarily need to draft a linebacker last year, but Dont'a Hightower was too good to pass up at the end of the first round. Hightower was considered an NFL-ready prospect and made an immediate impact with the Patriots. He recorded 60 tackles and four sacks with New England. Another year of experience should make Hightower even better in Year 2. Health permitting, Hightower should be a physical force in New England for years to come.

New York Jets: The Jets made several low-cost signings this offseason due to a tight salary cap. However, the free-agent signing that stands out for the Jets is running back Mike Goodson. He spent his career backing up quality tailbacks such as DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Goodson averages 4.5 yards per carry in his career and is a projected starter for the first time in New York. Goodson has the quickness to fit in well with the Jets' change to a West Coast offense under Marty Mornhinweg. He'll need to keep up the same production with the increased workload.

AFC East 2013 breakout players

March, 29, 2013
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Chandler Jones/Ryan Tannehill/Stephon GilmoreGetty ImagesChandler Jones, left, Ryan Tannehill and Stephon Gilmore head the next generation of AFC East stars.
The AFC East saw several breakout players make their marks last season. Buffalo Bills tailback C.J. Spiller, New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, and Miami Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline are among the players who had career years in 2012.

So who are this year's under-the-radar players who could have a big season in 2013? Here are seven breakout stars to keep an eye on the AFC East:

No. 7: DeMario Davis, LB, New York Jets

2012 stats: 35 tackles

Analysis: Jets head coach Rex Ryan put a lot of pressure on Davis before his rookie season. Ryan compared Davis, a third-round pick from Arkansas State, to a young Ray Lewis, which certainly raised some eyebrows. But by the end of the season, you could see some of the things Ryan bragged about. Davis was athletic, aggressive and finished with 35 tackles. The Jets believe Davis is ready to go into his second season as a full-time starter. New York released Bart Scott this offseason, and Davis is up next. Health permitting, Davis should be able to build off his rookie season.

No. 6: Stephon Gilmore, CB, Bills

2012 stats: 61 tackles, one INT

Analysis: Gilmore was viewed as one of the safer picks in last year's NFL draft. He was considered an NFL-ready cornerback who could start in Week 1, which is why Buffalo invested its first-round pick. Gilmore suffered through rookie mistakes like most young cornerbacks, but he did start all 16 games. Expect a lot more consistency from the 22-year-old, who is already Buffalo’s best cornerback. New Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a reputation of making cornerbacks better. He worked well with former Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in New York. Pettine is excited about the opportunity to make Gilmore one of the better cornerbacks in the AFC East this year and beyond.

No. 5: Kyle Wilson, CB, Jets

2012 stats: 48 tackles, one INT

Analysis: Wilson, 25, is the oldest player in this bunch. The three-year veteran spent most of his career backing up Pro Bowl cornerbacks Cromartie and Revis. But Wilson finally got consistent playing time in the starting lineup in 2012 after the season-ending knee injury to Revis. Wilson held his own but didn’t make a lot of big plays. He had one interception and one forced fumble in 16 games. But the Jets believe Wilson is capable of taking over Revis’ spot full-time in the starting lineup. That is why New York has been in trade discussions about Revis, who will be a free agent in 2014. I expect a Revis trade to happen before the start of the season, which means Wilson must step up and be a better playmaker.

No. 4: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins

2012 stats: 51 carries, 250 yards, one TD

Analysis: Most people who do not watch the Dolphins on a regular basis aren’t familiar with Miller. He never had more than 10 carries in a game. But those who closely follow the Dolphins know Miller was dangerous nearly every time he touched the football. He led the Dolphins with a yards-per-carry average of 4.9. Miller showed good vision and burst. The Dolphins also believe Miller is a better fit for their system than former tailback Reggie Bush. That is why Miami didn’t try to keep Bush from signing with the Detroit Lions in free agency. Miller should combine with Daniel Thomas to be a formidable young backfield. Miller’s biggest weakness is pass protection against the blitz. But with all-new weapons in Miami at receiver and tight end, Miller should have some open running lanes.

No. 3: Dont'a Hightower, LB, Patriots

2012 stats: 60 tackles, four sacks

Analysis: It’s surprising how Hightower’s rookie year went virtually unnoticed. He immediately added toughness, athleticism and playmaking ability to New England’s front seven. Hightower also got better as the year went on. He started 13 games for the Patriots and had seven games with at least five tackles. Hightower was unusually steady for a rookie linebacker. He didn’t make many mental errors, and also showed a knack for blitzing, as evidenced by his four sacks. Another year under Bill Belichick’s tutelage will only make Hightower a bigger force. Playing next to linebacker Jerod Mayo and behind defensive lineman Vince Wilfork will only make Hightower a better player in Year 2.

No. 2: Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots

2012 stats: 45 tackles, six sacks

Analysis: The Patriots haven’t had a consistently dominant pass-rusher since Mike Vrabel. Jones has a good chance to end that search and become a consistent double-digit sack player for New England. Jones started fast his rookie season and registered six sacks in his first eight games. But an ankle injury caused Jones to miss two games, and he didn’t have the same burst and production when he returned. Injuries have been an issue for Jones dating to college. But if he can stay healthy for 16 games, he could have a big 2013 season for the Patriots.

No. 1: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Dolphins

2012 stats: 3,294 yards, 12 TDs, 13 INTs

Analysis: It's too early to determine whether Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. But Miami’s front office thinks Tannehill has a great shot after a strong rookie year, so the Dolphins added as many weapons as possible around him in Year 2. Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland signed dynamic former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, former St. Louis Rams receiver Brandon Gibson and former New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller. The Dolphins added pass-catchers that fit Tannehill and their offensive system. Tannehill (3,294) threw for more yards last season than fellow 2012 draft picks Robert Griffin III (3,200) and Russell Wilson (3,118). Tannehill could be poised for his first 4,000-yard season, and certainly more touchdowns, with a much stronger supporting cast.

Patriots' title window is still open

January, 23, 2013
1/23/13
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Tom Brady and Bill BelichickKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsWith Tom Brady and Bill Belichick back for another season together in New England, the Patriots remain the strong favorite to win the AFC East.
The day after the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens felt like a funeral in the heart of Patriots country.

The employees at my Foxborough, Mass., hotel -- some who sported Patriots jerseys -- were sullen. The day seemed gloomy outside, and Logan International Airport didn't have the same buzz and energy it did when I arrived two days earlier.

This was expected to be the season the Patriots got over the hump and celebrated their first Super Bowl victory since the 2004 season. New England had the top-rated offense, an improved defense and a 35-year-old quarterback still playing at an MVP level. In addition, the Patriots caught breaks the past few weeks that gave the team home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

But the tough and talented Ravens had other plans.

New England's upset loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game will sting Patriots fans for a while. But New Englanders shouldn't fret. The Patriots are primed and ready to make another title push in 2013.

Here are five reasons the Patriots' championship window remains open:

Reason No. 1: Tom Brady

Analysis: Yes, Brady will be 36 at the start of next season. But Brady has shown no signs of slowing down and should be an elite quarterback for at least the next two or three seasons. Brady threw for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2012, receiving strong MVP consideration once again. But Brady's recent playoff struggles are well-documented. After a 10-0 start in the postseason, Brady is just 7-7 in his past 14 playoff starts. However, Brady has done enough to get the Patriots in position for another title. The Patriots have been within a drive of winning two Super Bowls and gone 2-2 in AFC Championship Games since 2005. As long as New England continues to knock on the championship door, the team has a chance to break through. With a healthy Brady in 2013, there’s no reason the Patriots shouldn't be one of the favorites again in the AFC.

Reason No. 2: Bill Belichick

Analysis: There are a lot of people who do not like Belichick's demeanor. He’s not the most likeable head coach in the NFL or the best sportsman, according to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But Belichick is the league's best head coach. Three championships and five Super Bowl appearances highlight a résumé no other current coach can match. As long as Belichick is roaming the sidelines, the Patriots usually have the coaching advantage on game days. Belichick has delivered double-digit wins in New England every season since 2003. That is a mark of tremendous consistency. New England has the winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history with Belichick and Brady. No other club has this level of elite coaching and quarterbacking.

Reason No. 3: Weak AFC East

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Is the window closed on the Patriots winning another Super Bowl?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,080)

Analysis: For the Patriots to fall from the top of the AFC East, another team has to rise up in the division. Based on the '12 season, there is still a significant gap between the Patriots and everyone else. The New York Jets are a mess that will take at least a year or two to clean up. The Buffalo Bills are starting over and rebuilding under a rookie head coach in Doug Marrone and probably a new quarterback. The Bills will have to suffer through a learning curve next season. The Miami Dolphins have the best chance to immediately challenge New England in 2013. Miami has a good, young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and plenty of cap room and draft picks to build a strong roster. But the Dolphins have to make all the right moves in order to become an immediate contender. New England's gateway to success and the playoffs has been winning the AFC East. The Patriots will enter next season as the hands-down favorite once again to win the division.

Reason No. 4: Young talent

Analysis: The Patriots often get the reputation of a veteran team because of leaders like Brady on offense and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on defense. However, New England won 13 games this season, including playoffs, with a host of young players. The Patriots had 16 players who were 26 or under starting full or part time. Starting running back Stevan Ridley and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are just 23 years old. Starting left tackle Nate Solder is 24. Rookies such as linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also round out a strong and productive rookie class. If most or all of these young players continue to improve and develop into their roles, New England will be even more dangerous next season.

Reason No. 5: Improving defense

Analysis: New England's defense made good strides in 2012, particularly in the second half of the season. The Patriots were 25th in total defense -- up six spots from a year ago -- and ninth in both scoring and run defense. New England learned in the AFC title game loss to the Ravens that it still needs significant improvement in the secondary. The cornerback position is very thin, and the team fell apart when Aqib Talib left the game with a thigh injury. Talib will be an unrestricted free agent, and that is an area New England must address in the offseason. New England's aforementioned draft that included Hightower, Jones and Dennard played a large part in the Patriots' defensive improvements.

The Patriots have done a masterful job the past dozen years of reloading and not rebuilding. Having an elite quarterback such as Brady in the fold certainly makes a huge difference.

But New England's window will not be open forever. The time is now for the Patriots to make another title run before Brady and Belichick call it quits. Once this power pair walks away from New England in a few years, the Patriots will have ups and downs like every other NFL franchise.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC East: Morning take: Peter Tebow saw the stir that is caused and decided to apologize. But we already know how he really feels.
Morning take: Miami-Dade County taxpayers don’t have much left to give after helping fund the Miami Marlins new stadium. Ross deserves a lot of credit for footing much of the bill.
Morning take: The Bills and Jets are interestingly taking two methods to the offseason. Buffalo is moving on fast, while New York is taking its time.
Morning take: Young players like Chandler Jones, Alfonzo Dennard and Dont’a Hightower have improved and lifted the level of the defense with them. New England’s defense needs to step up big in the playoffs and keep the Ravens from making big plays.
PatriotsUS Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Patriots defense -- led by Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib -- will try Sunday to shut down the potent Houston offense for the second time this season.
Everyone knows quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots' top-rated offense will be ready for the postseason. But what exactly do we make of New England’s inconsistent defense?

Will we see the aggressive Patriots defense that shut out the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago in the regular-season finale? Or will we see the Patriots defense that was ranked 25th throughout the season, including 29th against the pass?

We will find out if New England's much-maligned defense is playoff-ready when the Patriots (12-4) host the Houston Texans (13-4) Sunday at Gillette Stadium. New England has the worst defense statistically of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. In the AFC, the defenses of the Denver Broncos (No. 2), Houston Texans (No. 7) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 17) are all ranked significantly ahead of the Patriots.

The Patriots have made several strides defensively from a season ago. But if the old NFL cliché of "defense wins championships" still stands, this could be what derails New England's Super Bowl hopes.

"Obviously when you get a group of guys together for an extended period of time, you're going to get better," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the defensive improvements. "But there are also things we had to improve at -- especially communication, getting on the same page and doing things like that."

Last season, New England's porous defense didn't cost the team until the final drive in the Super Bowl. When the Patriots needed a big stop in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants, they couldn't get it and lost the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.

This season, New England's defense is younger, faster and more dynamic. The Patriots were 31st in total defense in 2011 and improved six spots in 2012. But is that good enough?

The Patriots' biggest strength defensively is their physical front seven. New England is ninth against the run, allowing just 101.9 rushing yards per game. Baltimore tailback Ray Rice is the only player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Patriots. Two of New England's seven Pro Bowlers this season are on defense in Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who must lead the way in the playoffs.

"We have guys that have been here before and we have guys that haven’t been here before," said Wilfork, who won his only Super Bowl with the Patriots in his rookie season in 2004. "So our job is to make these guys understand what it takes to win, especially in a situation like this."

Stopping the run will be huge against Houston. Texans tailback Arian Foster is the foundation of Houston's offense. The Texans have the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL, and that opens up Houston's dangerous play-action passes.

New England trounced Houston 42-14 in Week 14. The Patriots stuffed Foster in that meeting, holding the running back to just 46 yards on 15 carries. But Foster is coming to Gillette Stadium with momentum after a 140-yard performance in a wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I expect to see the best. Whatever they have, I expect to see it -- the kitchen sink if it’s called for," Wilfork said. "But last week you saw why [Foster] is one of the top offensive players in the game -- not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game."

New England did very well defensively in the last draft. That is one of the key reasons the Patriots are younger, physical and more athletic. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard have all made an impact.

"Those guys really bring a lot of energy. Those guys are hungry," Mayo said. "Those guys have really kind of fit in very well. They came in trying to learn as much as they could. I always talk about when I came in as a rookie trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could, and those guys have done the same."

This is also a big game for Patriots No. 1 corner Aqib Talib. New England acquired Talib in a midseason trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the move has paid immediate dividends.

Talib is easily New England's best cover corner and will see a lot of Houston Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson in this game.

"Talib's ability to match up on the opponent's best receiver is huge," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They now play much more man coverage and blitz more, which helps an average pass rush. It gives Bill Belichick more options, which is exactly what he wants."

New England's defense still has a sour taste in its mouth from last year's postseason. The Patriots cruised in the divisional round against Denver, won a tight contest against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, then had a chance to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. But Eli Manning's heroics against New England's defense killed the Patriots down the stretch. With 3:46 left in the game, New England allowed New York to drive 88 yards on nine plays for the game-winning touchdown.

If the Patriots aim to win a title this year, their defense must be ready to step up and make key stops throughout the playoffs.

"Everyone in the league is hungry for a Super Bowl," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I want to get back there just like everybody else that’s in the playoffs. The No. 1 goal in your head coming into training camp is, 'Let's get to the Super Bowl.'

"This is what we play the game for."

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