AFC East: Fred Taylor
Readiness factor: The Patriots' organization might have the NFL's most established infrastructure. Players dutifully follow Bill Belichick's scripted, proven routines. Leadership from players such as Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light (if he returns) and Vince Wilfork will help the Patriots galvanize more speedily than most clubs.
Biggest challenge: The Patriots need to manufacture a pass rush. It will be interesting to see whether Belichick pursues assistance through free agency or sticks with the youngsters on his roster. The Patriots tied for 14th in sacks last season with 36. Starting outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham combined for just 10 sacks and 26 quarterback hits.
Backfield in motion: The Patriots had an entertaining tandem with BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounding out the carries (1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Danny Woodhead electrifying fans as a combo runner-receiver (926 yards from scrimmage and six TDs) last season. But the rest of the backfield depth chart could be erased (see below), and the DanJarvus Green-Woodhead attack probably won't handle as much responsibility. The Patriots drafted running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley back-to-back in the second round.
Key players without contracts for 2011: Mankins' contract has expired, but the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. Light, running backs Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor and safety Brandon McGowan are up in the air.
Clayton considers the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots to be legitimate options, rating them Nos. 3 and 5 because they could use a complementary back who does what Barber can.
On the Dolphins, Clayton writes: "Coach Tony Sparano has to decide if he can bring Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown back to the roster. Neither back, though, fills the role of pass-catcher. The Dolphins plan to remain a running team, so it wouldn't hurt to have a veteran back with Barber's experience in big games."
On the Patriots, Clayton writes: "No coach in football appreciates older backs as much as Bill Belichick. Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor are 35. Sammy Morris is 34. If Faulk retires or the Patriots don’t re-sign him, Faulk's role in the Patriots' backfield fits Barber’s skills."
Why the Patriots took him: The Patriots wanted to diversify their offense with a running back who can do more than one thing. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's a one-dimensional power runner. Vereen rushed for 1,167 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He averaged 25 receptions over his three seasons.
How it affects the roster: Green-Ellis and Woodhead aren't going anywhere. But the rest of the backfield needs to be evaluated. Kevin Faulk is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and will turn 35 in June. Fred Taylor is 35. Sammy Morris is 34. All three are free agents.
Scouts Inc. says: Experienced and natural pass catcher. Is accustomed to working out of the slot and splitting out wide. Runs good routes for a college running back and shows upper echelon hands. Can adjust to poorly thrown ball. Shows understanding for pass pro. Is willing to mix it up and has adequate toughness. Can do a better job with leverage and sustaining but is capable of pass blocking in the NFL.
Smith was the Jets' top kickoff returner, bringing back two for touchdowns in the regular season. He also is a potent weapon in the run game as an option quarterback in their Wildcat-style offense.
Newsworthy for the Patriots is that tight end Aaron Hernandez is active after missing the last two regular-season games with a hip injury.
Here are the rest of Sunday's scratches:
New York Jets
- Quarterback Kellen Clemens
- Fullback John Conner
- Tight end Matthew Mulligan
- Tight end Jeff Cumberland
- Defensive tackle Marcus Dixon
- Defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert
- Outside linebacker Vernon Gholston
New England Patriots
Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets at Patriots divisional playoff game:
The Jets simply cannot pull off a 43-point swing in six weeks. Essentially, the same Jets are going into the same Gillette Stadium to play the same Patriots that obliterated them 45-3 on Dec. 6. The Jets must do two things: 1) find a way to undercut the Patriots, who have scored at least 31 points eight straight games; 2) escalate production from an offense that has been known to disappear without relying too heavily on erratic quarterback Mark Sanchez. I don't see the Jets holding the Patriots to 16 points like they did the short-handed Colts. The Jets' best shot to close the gap will be with a domineering ground attack from LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The Jets have been running the ball effectively, and the Patriots appear most vulnerable on the defensive line. But rushing their way to four or five touchdowns doesn't sound plausible.
The Patriots have more potent defense and special teams, too. The Jets lost their reputation for being opportunistic. Brad Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Dwight Lowery had two defensive touchdown returns, and Cole had one. But the Patriots scored nine touchdowns on defense and special teams. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton, Kyle Arrington and kick returner Brandon Tate scored two touchdowns apiece. The Patriots also led the NFL with 25 interceptions and tied for seventh with 13 fumble recoveries. The Jets finished second with 18 fumble recoveries but collected only 12 interceptions.
Of all the players to choose from -- Ricky Williams, Ronnie Brown, LaDainian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene, Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, C.J. Spiller, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney -- somebody buried on his team's depth chart topped them all.
Seventeen players rushed for at least 1,000 yards, but Green-Ellis was alone in the division. He finished with 1,008 yards. His 13 touchdowns ranked second in the league.
It was one of a few surprising stats for AFC East breakout performers this year.
But a few notables fell short of milestones.
Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake went into the final weekend with the NFL sacks lead, but he was surpassed by Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali. Wake finished third with 14 sacks.
Patriots running back Danny Woodhead needed 93 yards to reach 1,000 from scrimmage, but he left Sunday's game against the Dolphins with a head injury after gaining just 19 yards. Woodhead did break the club record for rushing average at 5.68 yards, edging Don Calhoun.
Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson, a 2008 seventh-round draft choice, needed another touchdown catch to tie the franchise record of 11 held by Billy Brooks, but the Bills' offense was blanked. Johnson eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards earlier.
Established stars attained some milestones.
As expected, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won the passing crown with a 111.0 rating. He threw an NFL-high 36 touchdowns and an NFL-low (among qualifying passers) four interceptions.
Brady also extended his streak of attempts without an interception to 335. He'll pick that back up in September.
Because of Brady's efficiency, the Patriots broke the record for fewest turnovers. The finished with 10, three fewer than the Dolphins and New York Giants from 2008 and two fewer than the Chiefs in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall had his streak of 100 reception seasons snapped at three (as did the deactivated Wes Welker), but Marshall did gain over 1,000 yards a fourth straight time.
Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo finished as the unofficial tackles leader with 175.
And for the rookies:
New England's Rob Gronkowski had 10 touchdown catches to tie Antonio Gates and Marcedes Lewis for the most among all tight ends.
Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty had seven interceptions, one behind Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed for the league lead.
Taylor shrugged with an expression that indicated he doubted there have been praises left unsung. There wasn't much more to add.
And then Taylor compared Brady to a super robot from a Japanese science-fiction cartoon.
"I've played with a lot of quarterbacks in my career," Taylor said. "If you put all of them together and form a Voltron, they might be as good as he is."
So apparently Brady can keep pushing the limits of description.
Brady wasn't prolific but was nonetheless in command Sunday, guiding the Patriots to a 34-3 pillaging of the Buffalo Bills in snow-sprinkled Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Patriots clinched their eighth AFC East title in 10 seasons, and Brady cemented himself as the league's most valuable player ahead of Michael Vick.
By any measure, the MVP discussion comes down to Brady versus Vick. True enough, Vick is enjoying a magical season, the best of his career. His controversial history, however, is what sets him up as an inspirational story of redemption that skews the debate.
"He's having a pretty good season, but it's been magnified because of the stuff that he's done," Taylor said. "He's handled himself well, though."
Brady's campaign could rank as the most impressive of his decorated career. He's not approaching the obnoxious stats he posted in 2007, but circumstances are what set this season apart for the three-time champion and five-time Pro Bowler.
Brady's the conductor of the NFL's most dominant offense. They've flourished minus Randy Moss and with Wes Welker's knee still in recovery for much of the year. And then there's rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and castoff running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead.
The Patriots aren't that dynamic spread offense that operates out of the shotgun anymore. They've morphed into another team.
"There wasn't any lapse," Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "The transition was seamless from one right to the other.
"When they had Moss, you had to worry about him so much as the deep threat. Now, the Patriots pick you apart a little at a time, working their way down the field."
And that's the scariest part. If you're a New York Jets, Miami Dolphins or Bills fan waiting around for the Patriots to go through a rebuilding phase, then you've already missed your chance. It happened this year.
Brady has carried a team with a flawed defense to the league's best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Patriots rank at or near the bottom of the NFL in several defensive categories and have one of the all-time worst third-down defenses.
The Patriots are on pace to allow 5,987 yards. Comcast SportsNet New England reporter Tom E. Curran pointed out this week that teams that have allowed 6,000 yards since the turn of the century have gone a combined 80-179, with no winning records or playoff appearances among them.
Why are the Patriots the anomaly?
Green-Ellis and Woodhead moved the offense Sunday. They rushed for a combined 197 yards and one touchdown.
But there was no doubt who was in control. Brady's numbers were modest because they didn't need to be garish. The Bills committed seven turnovers.
Brady left the game one possession into the fourth quarter and with the game locked up. He completed 15 of his 27 passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns -- two to Gronkowski -- with no interceptions.
Brady has completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,701 yards and 34 touchdowns with four interceptions. He owns a 109.8 passer rating.
Brady broke Bernie Kosar's 19-year-old record for consecutive attempts without an interception. Brady is at 319 passes and counting since he threw a pair of interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 17.
He has gone nine straight games without an interception, and the Patriots have gone an NFL-record seven games in a row without a turnover of any kind. He has notched at least two touchdown passes and no interceptions in an NFL-record eight straight games.
"What he does, nothing is shocking," Patriots center Dan Koppen said.
Brady has thrown fewer than eight interceptions only twice in his career: his rookie season when he played in one game, and in 2008 when he threw 11 passes before undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.
With nothing left on the line, Brady likely won't air it out in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. He should finish with the second-lowest interception percentage in NFL history. He's at 0.84 percent. Damon Huard holds the record at 0.41 percent (one interception on 244 attempts) in 2006.
You probably could throw Huard into that Voltron assembly of Taylor's and it still wouldn't measure up to Brady.
"Sometimes you have to choose your words right when you talk about him," Taylor said. "He's just special."
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:
Don't be surprised if the Patriots deliver a letdown game. ESPN analyst Herm Edwards is known as an excitable guy. He was just as passionate a head coach as he was a player. Nobody ever could accuse him of not giving his all. But even Edwards recognizes a team can't maintain fevered emotion without an occasional dip, which is what he expects from the Patriots this week. The Patriots have been playing with an acute intensity. In the fourth quarter of Monday night's blowout victory against the Jets, running back Fred Tayor entered the game for mop-up duty, and Tom Brady screamed: "C'mon, Freddy, take it to the [expletive] house!" But that energy is bound to wane, and this week's game against the Bears at Soldier Field offers a confluence of banana peels. The Patriots are coming off a short week after beating a division rival. They're on the road against an NFC team that plays on an atrocious field. And, as ESPN.com columnist Ross Tucker wrote this week, the rookie wall is looming large for a lot of important contributors. If the Patriots can leave Chicago with a victory, then it will be an admirably gritty effort.
The weather at Ralph Wilson Stadium should be fitting for the Browns and Bills. A nasty storm is headed for the Great Lakes on Sunday. Arctic air. ... Snow turning to rain turning to ice turning to misery. ... Wind gusts. ... Should be a hoot. But this Bills-Browns series has been nothing but ugly lately anyway. Last year's 6-3 Browns victory ranks as the worst game I've witnessed. Browns quarterback Derek Anderson completed two of 17 passes -- and won. In 2008, the Bills committed four turnovers and lost on a field goal with 1:39 left. Three years ago, the Browns won 8-0 in a Cleveland blizzard. Sunday should be Chan Gailey's first game with Buffalo in its infamous wintery conditions. "I don't know that I'd say I look forward to it, but I know it's going to happen," Gailey said. "You've got to choose to make it a home-field advantage. You can gripe and complain, or you can get excited about the opportunity."
Jason Taylor has something to prove down the stretch. Taylor goes into Sunday's game against his former team as the Jets' leader with four sacks. But he hasn't recorded any in his past three games and has just two in his past nine games. Jets coach Rex Ryan accepted blame for their failure to deploy Taylor more often against the Patriots on Monday night. That admission, plus going up against his old mates, could mean an inspired performance. ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini reported Taylor's 2011 salary is dependent on his sack output. If he doesn't register seven sacks, then his $750,000 guarantee for next year is voided. If Taylor can hit double-digits, then his guaranteed salary will rise to $1.25 million. If he gets to 12 sacks, then Taylor's salary will jump to $2 million. So Taylor better get cracking. One of his sacks this year was against the Dolphins in Week 3. On a semi-related note, Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake leads the NFL with 12 sacks.
The best rivalry debate can't be settled by one weekend. I woke up Tuesday morning to see James Walker declaring "Checkmate" for our debate last week -- which rivalry was better, the Ravens-Steelers or the Jets-Patriots -- because of what happened in their Week 13 games. What our Lionel Hutz of the AFC North obviously doesn't understand, apparently in addition to the premise of last week's debate, is what happens inside one weekend doesn't make a rivalry. In fact, it can be argued Monday night's 45-3 verdict adds another layer to the Jets-Patriots series because the team that won so handily in the rematch lost by two touchdowns just two months earlier. In 2006, the Ravens beat the Steelers by a combined score of 58-7. In their first meeting the next year, the Steelers won by 29 points. Did those blowouts end that rivalry or enhance it? These division foes will continue to play twice a year and perhaps in the playoffs. Since he declared "Checkmate," maybe somebody should inform Walker his king's exposed.
Both clubs played won on Thanksgiving. For the Patriots, it was their third victory in 11 days.
The Jets have won four straight, and in that span have played nearly 18 quarters because of back-to-back overtime road games.
Good thing for them -- and for our maximum viewing pleasure -- they'll have 11 days to rest up for their big Monday night showdown in Week 13. The more complete these teams are, the more we'll know which truly is best in the AFC East and perhaps the entire league.
"I think both teams are going to be at full strength," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "That's kind of how you want it. You know, it's the marquee game of the year."
The Patriots would seem to benefit most from the extra prep and recovery time. They've been without right guard Stephen Neal and defensive lineman Mike Wright. Running back Fred Taylor was active Thursday but didn't get on the field. Quarterback Tom Brady has been dealing with a minor foot injury.
The Jets could use the extra time to get receiver Jerricho Cotchery's groin healed. Cornerback Dwight Lowery missed Thursday's game because of a concussion. Right tackle Damien Woody played despite not practicing Monday through Wednesday because of a knee injury.
"When you look at both teams and all that at 9-2, it's not going to get much bigger than that," Ryan said. "So the fact that it's a divisional game, I guess the only way it would be better if it was the last game of the regular season. But this is pretty good right here. Obviously, the team that wins it is going to have to play fantastic. We're just hoping it's us."
- Running back Joseph Addai
- Running back Mike Hart
- Guard Jaimie Thomas
- Defensive tackle Ricardo Mathews
- Linebacker Clint Session
- Linebacker Gary Brackett
- Cornerback Justin Tryon
- Safety Bob Sanders
New England Patriots
- Running back Fred Taylor
- Receiver Taylor Price
- Guard Stephen Neal
- Guard Rich Ohrnberger
- Tackle Mark LeVoir
- Defensive lineman Myron Pryor
- Cornerback Jonathan Wilhite
- Safety Jarrad Page
Connolly was pried from his left guard position last week because two-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins ended his contract standoff. But Connolly likely will be in Sunday's lineup against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
The Patriots have announced right guard Stephen Neal (shoulder), running back Fred Taylor (toe), defensive lineman Myron Pryor (back) and safety Jarrad Page (calf) have been ruled out with injuries.
Before this season, Connolly had four career starts, all at right guard for Neal last year.
"He filled in last year and did a great job," Neal told me two weeks ago for a story about Connolly. "He plays good football and has just been waiting around for an opportunity.
"He can play center, guard, fullback, tight end. He's a great asset for this team. I don't think it's a surprise to anyone in this locker room what he's doing out there."
Here are the inactives:
- Quarterback Joe Webb
- Running back Albert Young
- Receiver Hank Baskett
- Guard Chris DeGeare
- Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy
- Linebacker Erin Henerson
- Cornerback Lito Sheppard
- Safety Tyrell Johnson
For the past few weeks, I've been compiling a playlist from some of the AFC East's biggest names in hopes of providing readers a little glimpse into what gets players focused and their blood coursing.
"I don't know if I technically have a go-to song, but I have a go-to artist," Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "It would be Lil Wayne. I hit his beats. I'm more of a beat kind of guy than a lyrical guy. The beat is exciting, a party kind of beat. It gets you hyped and puts you in that mood."
Ricky Williams couldn't give me a song for the list because he listens to music devoid of lyrics.
"I don't listen to music when I'm in the locker room because it blocks me out from everything that's going on," Williams said. "On the bus from the hotel to the stadium I listen to ambient music, not a lot of words, just a beat with a little chanting. Something like you might hear at Starbucks. It's abstract and helps me get into a certain frame of mind."
Perhaps a couple seats away on the same charter bus, Dolphins left tackle Jake Long is listening to genres substantially more common around the NFL.
"On the drive in I'll listen to some country and relax a little bit," Long said. "When I'm getting taped I'll listen to AC/DC and Kid Rock and Metallica and Black Label Society, some hardcore stuff to get the juices flowing and get me excited."
Here's your AFC East pregame playlist, to which ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss contributed:
- "Ambitionz as a Ridah" by Tupac Shakur (Bills receiver Lee Evans): "I've been listening to it since my college days. It's my all-time, go-to game day song. It gets me hyped."
- "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC (Dolphins left tackle Jake Long): "I listen to it a lot. That one gets me going."
- "Turn my Swag On" by Soldier Boy (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski): "I just listen to the top hip-hop music."
- "U Don't Know Me" by TI (Jets right tackle Damien Woody)
- "Up All Night" by Drake (Bills safety Donte Whitner): "There's a line that song that says 'I love my team.' Anything that correlates with getting ready to play football."
- "Right Above It" by Lil Wayne and Drake (Patriots safety Patrick Chung)
- "The Frayed End of Sanity" by Metallica (Jets center Nick Mangold)
- "Freak on a Leash" by Korn (Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny): "Not so much the words, but the instruments, the drums and guitars. I like how it builds up as the song goes on. It gets me pumped up."
- "One Love" by Bob Marley (Jets safety Jim Leonhard): "I don't want to waste all of my energy in the pregame. You need some songs to calm you down, keep it mellow. Then maybe the next song jacks you up again."
- "Tears of Joy" by Rick Ross (Patriots running back Fred Taylor): "A lot of times we don't realize we have people looking up to us. It puts me in a place where I remember my childhood, out there playing. Then I end up here. That song reminds me to ask 'What did I do to deserve this?' It gets me in one of those 'Nobody better mess with me' moods.' "
- "Dead or Alive" by Bon Jovi (Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington): "Old school."
- "Lose Yourself" by Eminem (Jets tight end Dustin Keller)
- "Jesus is All" by Fred Hammonds (Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby): "Just to get my soul right."
- "I'm a King" by TI (Bills running back Fred Jackson)
- "Public Service Announcement" by Jay-Z (Jets outside linebacker Jason Taylor)
- Receiver Donte' Stallworth
- Tackle Scott Kooistra
- Tackle Jared Gaither
- Defensive tackle Arthur Jones
- Defensive tackle Lamar Divens
- Defensive end Paul Kruger
- Linebacker Tavares Gooden
- Cornerback Josh Wilson
Reason for hope: The Patriots went into their break with an emphatic reminder they must be taken seriously as a division contender. They showed their resourcefulness with a gargantuan special-teams performance to compensate for a questionable defense in Monday night's victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Cause for concern: The Patriots can't depend on 100-yard kickoff returns and 21 points off special teams to bail them out every week. Pass defense remains the biggest question mark. They rank 28th at 272.2 yards allowed per game. The secondary needs to get settled. Inexperienced cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Darius Butler need to grow up quickly. A pass rush needs to come from somewhere. They've registered seven sacks.
The subtraction of Randy Moss from the offense will weaken New England. It won't be able to stretch the field like before. Defenses can key on Welker more. As effective as Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have been out of the backfield, the Patriots will miss injured veteran Kevin Faulk.
Time to heal: The Patriots' active roster is in decent shape. Running back Fred Taylor certainly could use a week off to help overcome his toe problem. Welker's knee certainly will benefit, too. Left guard Nick Kaczur has the most serious injury. He's recovering from back surgery, and Belichick recently said Kaczur was doing well in his recovery. Cornerback Terrence Wheatley is nearing a return from a foot injury late in preseason.
AccuScore forecast: The Patriots are projected to win 10 games, with a 33 percent chance to claim the division title and a 61 percent chance to reach the playoffs.