AFC East: Kenbrell Thompkins

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 29, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts at halftime of the New England Patriots' regular-season finale against the Bills (New England leads 16-3):

Mankins' toughness is evident: When starting left guard Logan Mankins was helped off the field in the second quarter, it was natural to assume it was serious. Mankins is one of the toughest Patriots players, once playing on a torn ACL. But after going to the locker room, Mankins soon returned to action. It very well might be serious, but they don't come much tougher than Mankins.

Dobson foot injury could lead to Collie call: With rookie receiver Aaron Dobson limping off the field in the first quarter (and not returning), it moved Kenbrell Thompkins up the depth chart into some two-receiver packages. Also, Danny Amendola played in some two-receiver packages along with Julian Edelman after opening the game exclusively as the No. 3. One thought: If Dobson's injury is serious enough to keep him out, it could lead to a quick call back for Austin Collie.

Edelman's milestone: Edelman has arguably been the Patriots' most consistent offensive player this season, and he hit both the 100-catch and 1,000-yard receiving marks today. The spark he is providing the offense is Wes Welker-like.

Wet ball a factor: With the game being played under heavy rain, ballhandling has been shaky on both sides. New England's Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount had fumbles, both of which were recovered by the Patriots. Amendola dropped a pass. It looked like one long throw might have slipped out of Tom Brady's hand.

Style of play reminds of 2004 season: When the Patriots run the ball like they have today, and also last Sunday against Baltimore, it brings back memories of the 2004 season when Corey Dillon was rumbling through opposing defenses. Dillon was a big back, and while Blount is not in that class, his size stands out.

Credit to the defense: The Patriots are piecing things together on defense, but credit to the unit for coming up with the stops in the critical situations (e.g. fourth-and-1). It doesn't always look pretty, and the Bills have helped in some areas with sloppy play, but the New England defense has done its part so far today.

Bills get the ball: The Bills won the opening toss and elected to defer, so they will get the ball at the start of the second half.

Solder, Vereen, Thompkins active

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting New England Patriots left tackle Nate Solder and running back Shane Vereen are both active for today's game against the Buffalo Bills, which is the most notable takeaway from the team's list of inactive players.

Solder missed last Sunday's win against the Ravens with a concussion, and Vereen was limited to seven snaps with a groin injury in the game.

Also, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) is active after missing the past three games.

The full list of inactives:

DE Jake Bequette
OL Chris Barker
DT Isaac Sopoaga
CB Alfonzo Dennard
S Devin McCourty
LB Steve Beauharnais
WR Josh Boyce

ANALYSIS: Sopoaga is a healthy scratch for the second straight week. He has slipped to fourth on the defensive tackle depth chart behind Sealver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano, and the Patriots need the depth in other areas ... Dennard was a game-time decision last week (shoulder/knee) and he gets the rest today; hence the promotion of practice squad cornerback Justin Green on Saturday.

Bills inactives:

QB EJ Manuel (knee)
WR Stevie Johnson (personal)
WR Cordell Roberson
RB Ronnie Wingo
DB Brandon Smith
G Mark Asper
G Antoine McClain
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (concussion) and wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two players absent from Thursday's practice, while defensive end Rob Ninkovich was the only addition to the injury report, with an ankle issue that limited him on Thursday.

It is not known when the injury to Ninkovich occurred or how much it has limited him. He was seen in the locker room Thursday without any noticeable limp or hitch in his step.

If McCourty and Boyce are unable to practice on Friday, it would cast doubt on their availability for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Bills.

A total of 12 players were limited in practice Thursday, a list that included left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), both of whom missed the Week 16 game in Baltimore.


McCourty, Boyce absent from practice

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting safety Devin McCourty and rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two New England Patriots not spotted at the team's walkthrough on Tuesday morning.

Joyce
Boyce
McCourty
McCourty left Sunday's game after tackling Ravens tight end Ed Dickson in the third quarter and did not return. The team officially announced it as a head injury, although it is unclear if McCourty suffered a concussion. Rookie safety Duron Harmon filled in for McCourty.

Boyce, meanwhile, suffered a Week 15 ankle injury against the Dolphins that kept him off the practice field all of last week and out of Sunday's game. The timetable for his return is unclear.

Running back Shane Vereen, who left Sunday's game with a groin injury, was on the field and taking part in team stretching. Safety Steve Gregory, who left the game Sunday with an undisclosed injury but did return, was present for the walkthrough but spent the media-access portion of it on the sidelines.

Left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) were also present for the indoor walkthrough.

One additional note: Running back LeGarrette Blount was still wearing his AFC East Champions hat. He obviously likes the fit.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Texans

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
12:00
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Andre Johnson and Chandler JonesUSA Today SportsAndre Johnson, left, and the Texans hope to surprise Chandler Jones and the Patriots.
HOUSTON -- The last time the Houston Texans faced the New England Patriots during the regular season, Houston was 11-1 and the hottest team in the league. To celebrate their youthful camaraderie, they ordered letterman jackets, the kind high school teams wear, and the jackets happened to come in right before the Patriots game.

That game marked a turning point for the Texans.

The timing of the jackets had nothing to do with the opponent; former Texans Connor Barwin and Shaun Cody were simply trying to create a tradition. That they lost so badly just after unveiling them turned the jackets into a punch line.

The Patriots won 42-14, and the Texans finished their season having lost three of their last four games. That meant losing the home-field advantage that seemed theirs before that game and led to another meeting with the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs. New England won again, 41-28.

It was a lesson for the Texans in what it takes to be a great team.

Heading into this season, many thought the Texans were positioned to be one of the top teams in the NFL. The Patriots seemed poised for a down year, by their standards, but here we are in Week 13 and they sit in their usual spot atop the AFC East.

ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the matchup.

Ganguli: Mike, how has the loss of so many of his top targets from last season impacted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Reiss: We saw it impact Brady more significantly through the first eight games. But things have started to click the past two games, and it’s no coincidence that it coincides with tight end Rob Gronkowski's reaching a new level of comfort since his return Oct. 20, and running back Shane Vereen's coming off the injured reserve list. With those two joining receivers Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Kenbrell Thompkins, the pass-catching corps has been as stocked as we’ve seen all season.

I know it’s been a down year for the Texans, but is J.J. Watt still creating havoc? Is that defense still tough?

Ganguli: Watt is still creating havoc. He has 9.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed. He is someone opposing offenses must track on every play. The Texans' defense has played well, but it has holes. On Sunday, the Jaguars had success with the matchup of receiver Cecil Shorts against cornerback Brandon Harris in the slot. Injuries to middle linebacker Brian Cushing and strong safety Danieal Manning have been particularly damaging. The Texans have statistically been much better with Cushing than without him since he was drafted. Their attempt to add some mental toughness with Ed Reed didn’t work as they had hoped, so two young players are starting at safety -- Shiloh Keo at free safety and D.J. Swearinger at strong safety. Swearinger is the Texans’ rookie second-round pick. He will be really good, but right now he’s learning a lot about playing at this level. They haven’t allowed a lot of yards, but have allowed too many points and not created enough turnovers.

Speaking of turnovers, as I watched Sunday night’s Patriots game against the Broncos, it seemed every time I looked up the Patriots had either committed or forced a turnover. What did you make of that? Was it an aberration?

Reiss: The forced turnovers were the norm, as the Patriots recently ended a streak of 36 games with at least one forced turnover (Nov. 18 vs. Carolina). The Patriots' committing turnovers was a little more out of character, although one of the pressing issues facing the club is what to do with lead running back Stevan Ridley (3 lost fumbles in the past three games). The Patriots are traditionally strong in turnover differential, and this season is no different, as they are plus-8 with 23 takeaways and 15 giveaways.

I know this probably comes out of left field, but how is the playing surface at Reliant Stadium? Patriots followers remember the last visit, in 2009, when Wes Welker tore his ACL. I saw a recent game, and it looks like there are patches of grass on the field with noticeable seams in certain parts.

Ganguli: Not out of left field at all. If the game you saw was the Texans’ Nov. 3 Sunday night game against the Indianapolis Colts, this was a major topic of conversation that night. The field looked pretty bad, mostly because there was a college game played on the same grass that week. They replaced the center of the field, but the outer grass was a mess. The University of Houston has played five games at Reliant Stadium this season while its stadium is being renovated. It has played most of them on field turf. The Cougars will play again on Friday morning, and none of the grass will be replaced between that game and the Texans-Patriots game Sunday. I believe the thinking is that will give it enough time to recover. Something to watch, though.

Let’s talk more about defense to wrap up here. Will Aqib Talib be assigned to Andre Johnson on Sunday? How do you think he’ll fare?

Reiss: That would make a lot of sense, as Talib has often been assigned the opponent’s top receiver. After a rocky game Nov. 18 against Carolina and Steve Smith, he was very good this past Sunday night against Demaryius Thomas in the 34-31 win against the Broncos. Talib has been key for the pass defense. Meanwhile, the loss of key players to season-ending injuries (defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, and linebacker Jerod Mayo) has hurt the run defense at times, such as in the Broncos game. But they played a 4-2-5 nickel for most of the game, and I don’t think that will be as much of a factor against the Texans. The Patriots will probably be in their base defense more often, and they played well against the Panthers’ tough running attack in that package.

One thing I think Patriots followers would be interested to hear is what has happened to the Texans? How could a team go so quickly from the AFC divisional round of the playoffs and talking about “letterman” jackets to vying for the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Ganguli: Even with some of the missteps in the offseason, it would have been difficult to foresee this. There are a lot of issues, but I'll focus on the quarterback situation. The biggest mystery is what happened to quarterback Matt Schaub. He was never on the level of Brady, but he gave the Texans what they needed. He was consistent and productive. He actually played really well in leading comebacks against the San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans this season. That seems so long ago. The Texans' turnover margin has been among the worst in the league all season, and Schaub was part of that. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four consecutive games. He threw one on the first pass of the game against the San Francisco 49ers, and that game marked the only time this season Schaub played poorly from start to finish. There were myriad other problems, but Schaub lost his starting spot when he suffered a foot and ankle injury in Week 6. First-year quarterback Case Keenum took over, but his play hasn't meant victories. In his first three starts, he played well in the first half and not so well in the second half. His most recent game, against Jacksonville, was his worst of the season. Keenum threw for 169 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

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Dobson's absence adds injury context

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was not present for the start of today's practice, which adds context to a personnel switch the team made in the second half of Sunday's 34-31 overtime win against the Broncos.

Dobson
Dobson, it appears, was dealing with some form of injury. That would explain why he played only two of his 37 snaps in the second half. He was replaced by fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who played 41 of his 44 snaps in the second half.

On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked about the switch from Thompkins to Dobson and referenced the idea of riding the hot hand as Thompkins had some immediate production in the third quarter to spark the stagnant offense.

It appears there was also some injury consideration in play with Dobson, which will become clearer when the team releases its first injury report later Wednesday. The injury status of linebacker Dont'a Hightower will also be something to note, as he didn't play the final 45 minutes of Sunday's game.

Elsewhere at practice, tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon (ankle) were the other players not spotted. There was also a new player on the field who appeared to be an offensive lineman.

The Patriots practiced inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse because of rain and high winds in the region.

Josh McDaniels on filling No. 4 WR void

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
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When the New England Patriots released veteran Austin Collie last Tuesday after he injured his knee, it created a void at the No. 4 receiver spot.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked Monday about the team's plans to fill it, and his answer provided insight as to how the coaching staff currently views the receiver depth chart.

McDaniels
McDaniels
First, McDaniels said that the idea of settling on a top three (Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola) has been part of the mindset, with the idea of "being able to try to have some consistency in terms of the things we are doing with those guys."

So that puts rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce as the top candidates to vie for Collie's playing time in the No. 4 spot, which averaged 22 snaps per game over the past three weeks. Both were healthy scratches last week against the Steelers.

"KT and Josh Boyce will also factor into the competition in terms of who is active and how we go about forming the game plan," McDaniels said. "You never like to have a player get hurt, and certainly Austin was helping us and doing what we asked of him, but any time you have a situation like this that comes up during the course of the season, it provides a little spark of competition, and [I] think that is healthy for any group on the team. We will look forward to the receivers going out there and having a good week of practice and then trying to let it unfold from there."

Thompkins has 23 receptions for 334 yards and four touchdowns in eight games played. Boyce has been inactive for each of the past four games, and has one catch for 24 yards this season.

Progress report: Rookies chip in

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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The New England Patriots have received significant contributions from their rookie class this season. In Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, this season ranks near the top of the list, if not at the top, in this area.

Following up Field Yates' progress report on second-year players from this morning, here is a rookie breakdown (alphabetical order):

Allen
Punter Ryan Allen: The undrafted free agent ranks 10th in the NFL with a 46.4 average and 16th in net punting (39.9) as he's proven to be up to the task of replacing veteran Zoltan Mesko. He's also the holder on field goals, and Stephen Gostkowski is 22 of 23 this season. Allen's eight touchbacks are tied for the NFL high, which is an area for improvement.

Guard Chris Barker: Claimed on waivers from the Dolphins at the final roster cutdown, the undrafted free agent from Nevada dressed for the first three games of the season as veteran backup Will Svitek was working his way back from a knee injury, but hasn't played on offense. This looks like a red-shirt year for him as the Patriots have avoided the risk of another team claiming him on waivers (Dolphins?) should they try to move him to the practice squad.

Linebacker Steve Beauharnais: The seventh-round draft choice from Rutgers has dressed for three games, but hasn't played on defense. This appears to be more of a red-shirt year for him.

Receiver Josh Boyce: The fourth-round draft choice from Texas Christian played in the first five games (1 catch, 24 yards) but has been inactive for the past four as veteran Austin Collie was viewed as a more consistent option. Boyce is one of the fastest receivers on the team, but appears to need a little more time to put it all together.

Defensive end Michael Buchanan: The seventh-round pick from Illinois opened the season as the primary right defensive end in sub packages, but a few struggles with rush-lane integrity (Oct. 6 vs. Bengals and Oct. 20 vs. Jets) led to the signing of veteran Andre Carter, who has since taken over that role. Buchanan contributes on special teams and is now No. 4 on the overall defensive end depth chart, with obvious upside.

Linebacker Jamie Collins: The second-round pick from Southern Mississippi has been a core special teams player and was integrated a bit more defensively after linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost to a season-ending injury Oct. 13. But after flashing a bit Oct. 20 vs. the Jets, he was pushed around in the first half against the Dolphins on Oct. 27 and has played sparingly on defense since. He has all the tools, but appears to need a bit more time.

Dobson
Receiver Aaron Dobson: The second-round pick from Marshall has come on strong in recent weeks, elevating to the top spot on the depth chart as the X outside target. He has 31 receptions for 454 yards with four touchdowns, and at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds gives the Patriots a combination of size and speed that they haven't had at the position since Randy Moss.

Safety Duron Harmon: Considered a reach as a third-round pick, the Rutgers product has been a top backup behind starters Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory, playing in some sub packages. He also filled in on special teams when core player Tavon Wilson was out with a hamstring injury. Teammates have talked about his smarts and his professional approach.

Defensive tackle Chris Jones: Claimed on waivers from the Buccaneers on Sept. 11, he earns our vote for Patriots "rookie of the first half" with five sacks in six games played. At 6-foot-1 and 309 pounds, his quickness has been an asset as an interior rusher, and he's been competitive from a strength/physical standpoint on run plays. Waived by the Texans, who drafted him in the sixth round, he briefly landed in Tampa before the Buccaneers let him go and the Patriots pounced. He has proven to be a steal.

Ryan
Cornerback Logan Ryan: The third-round pick from Rutgers has made some big plays, such as an interception return for a touchdown against the Jets on Oct. 20, as he's been thrust into a top reserve role in recent weeks with Aqib Talib out. At 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, he has mostly been competitive in coverage and shown a willingness to play the run.

Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins: The undrafted free agent from Cincinnati has slid down the depth chart the past two weeks after serving mostly as the primary X option on the outside (23 catches, 334 yards, 4 TDs) through the first seven games. He made the big game-winning catch against the Saints on Oct. 13, but has since been passed on the depth chart by Dobson.

Defensive tackle Joe Vellano: The undrafted free agent from Maryland is one of the surprises of the season. After opening the season as the No. 3 option behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, he has been thrust into a starting role as both veterans have been lost to season-ending injuries. At 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds, he might be viewed as undersized by some, but he wins with technique and scrappiness.

Talib, Thompkins among inactives

November, 3, 2013
11/03/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cornerback Aqib Talib will miss his third straight game for the Patriots with a hip injury and rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins is a healthy scratch for the first time this season.

Talib
Talib
Those were the biggest takeaways from the Patriots' list of inactive players today:

CB Aqib Talib
WR Kenbrell Thompkins
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
RB Leon Washington
LB Steve Beauharnais
G Chris Barker

ANALYSIS: Thompkins' snaps declined last week (14) as he had slid down the depth chart at receiver behind Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Austin Collie. In the end, the Patriots decided to go with a fullback/third tight end over a fifth receiver. ... With Talib inactive for the third straight game, it gives him two more weeks to heal as the Patriots are on the bye next week. ... Ditto for Washington, who appears to be getting closer to returning from an ankle injury. ... Rookie guard Josh Kline, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday, gets the nod over fellow rookie Chris Barker on the 46-man game-day roster. The Patriots obviously like Barker's potential, but view Kline as more game-ready right now.

Steelers inactives:

QB Landry Jones
WR Markus Wheaton
CB Curtis Brown
TE Richard Gordon
LB Kion Wilson
G David DeCastro
DT Hebron Fangupo

Last-second drive worthy of a replay

October, 13, 2013
10/13/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots players involved in a dramatic eight-play, game-winning touchdown drive brought it back to life in a jubilant postgame locker room.

The situation had been dire -- 1:13 remaining, trailing 27-23, the ball on their 30-yard line, no timeouts -- which made reliving the improbable finish that much sweeter.

[+] EnlargeKenbrell Thompkins
Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports"It was just a deep ball, zone coverage, the DB [Jabari Greer] ended up letting me get behind him and I just went up there and made a play," Kenbrell Thompkins said of his winning TD catch.
“Before we went out, everyone was just focused, trying to prepare for the situation. We work on that situation on Thursdays a bunch, Coach [Bill Belichick] makes it really hard on us, so we’re just focused at that point,” receiver Julian Edelman said. “We were trying to get back from what we had dug ourselves into it. We just wanted to go out there and start it off right.”

They did so with Edelman’s 23-yard catch over the middle on a laser from quarterback Tom Brady, the team employing a four-receiver package (Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Austin Collie) to get more speed on the field.

“It was Tampa 2 [defense], a middle read, and Tommy put it on the line and I went up and got it,” Edelman said of the drive-starting play, in which he had lined up in the right slot and got behind linebacker David Hawthorne and found the opening in front of safety Rafael Bush. “You can’t think of anything else at that point. You just have to give the ball to the ref and get back to the next play.”

Everyone was on the same page.

"I’m thinking, 'We have to get back to the ball and make another play. There is still a lot of field to cover, probably less than a minute now,'" Dobson said.

Indeed, the Patriots didn’t snap the ball again until there were 53 seconds remaining, Brady connecting on a 15-yard pass over the middle to Collie, who had bumped up the depth chart after Danny Amendola had previously left the game with a head injury. Collie had played just one snap prior to the final drive.

“It was an in-route, I saw the middle of the field vacant, and kind of knew I was a viable option,” Collie said of the play in which he lined up in the left slot. “The ball came my way, I caught it, got down as quick as I could, then gave the ball to the ref.”

Collie’s quick work was imperative as the Patriots were back at the line of scrimmage for their next play with 39 seconds remaining.

Considering Sunday was Collie’s 11th day as a Patriot, his ability to come through in that critical situation, without the benefit of a huddle, was not overlooked by Belichick. The coach praised Collie, telling reporters he has spent more than two hours daily working overtime with position coach Chad O’Shea. It showed on the final march.

"That whole drive was me making sure I’m dialed in, making sure I was where I needed to be, and reminding myself 'expect the ball to be coming to you on this play,'" Collie said.

The ball now at the Saints 32, Brady then connected with Dobson on a 6-yard pass to the right side.

“Just an off-the-ball pass,” Dobson explained. “The DB [Keenan Lewis] on me was way off and [Brady] kind of looked at me and we were on the same page. I knew I had to get out of bounds and [Lewis] helped me get out.”

That stopped the clock with 35 seconds remaining, setting up back-to-back incompletions over the deep middle to Edelman from the Saints 26.

“I wish I could have had the second one back, I got banged at the end. You have to make that catch,” said Edelman, who was banged up on the play and left the game as tight end Michael Hoomanawanui came on in his place.

Then, once again, Collie rose up in the critical situation: fourth-and-4, with 24 seconds remaining.

“Got an out-route and you just make sure you get separation and make sure you catch the ball when it comes to you,” he said of the 9-yard catch in which he shook safety Malcolm Jenkins with authority. “It was a big down.”

Dobson That's a very memorable moment for me, probably one of the best football games I've played in.

-- Patriots WR Aaron Dobson
Because Collie couldn’t get out of bounds, players hustled back to the line for a spike to stop the clock, setting up the final touchdown, Brady firing a 17-yard strike to Thompkins in the back left-hand corner of the end zone. Thompkins rose up to make the catch, keeping his feet in bounds with five seconds remaining.

“We had everybody going in the end zone and he kind of snuck into the corner and I put it up there for him,” Brady said. “He came down and made a great catch.”

“It was just a deep ball, zone coverage, the DB [Jabari Greer] ended up letting me get behind him and I just went up there and made a play,” said Thompkins, who pumped his right fist in the air repeatedly in celebration.

“Just awesome. Perfect textbook catch, the timing, getting his feet in,” Hoomanawanui added. “He just made an unreal play but it’s nothing new to us. We see that kind of stuff every day from him. It was just awesome to see it in that situation at the end of the game, and let the fans see it.”

Parts of Gillette Stadium had actually emptied out by that point, those who left missing one of the most dramatic finishes in recent Patriots memory.

Those who stayed had seen this type of Brady magic before. The difference, of course, was that the supporting cast was almost entirely new.

“That’s a very memorable moment for me, probably one of the best football games I’ve played in,” said Dobson, the second-round pick from Marshall. “Going through that as a rookie, a last drive type of thing, and we all had a catch. I just felt we all contributed.”
Kenbrell ThompkinsKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins' 18-yard diving touchdown catch put the Patriots up 27-13.

ATLANTA -- Midway through the fourth quarter, we were ready to write it in all capital letters for the New England Patriots: BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

Then came a near collapse, so let’s just call it the best win of the season.

They did it in the Georgia Dome, one of the toughest places for visitors to emerge victorious. They did it against an Atlanta Falcons team that since 2008 has only lost back-to-back games three times. And they did it after taking control of the game with a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 remaining. But then they almost gave it away after about half of the sellout crowd had headed to the exits.

Talk about creating your own adversity, then overcoming it. That’s what Sunday night’s 30-23 victory represented for the Patriots: a 60-minute roller coaster of sudden swings with a happy ending.

For those curious how players reacted, it was mostly a happy Patriots' locker room afterward, even though it seemed like quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t in the smiling mood. Maybe he was just exhausted. Or maybe he was peeved that a fumbled snap on fourth down with 1:54 remaining, when the Patriots needed to advance just a few inches to seal the win, nearly cost the team a victory.

Instead, it took cornerback Aqib Talib's fourth-down pass breakup, in the end zone, to finally extinguish the threat.

“We slugged it out,” Brady said early Monday morning. “We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play. They have a very good team. It’s nice to win and be 4-0.”

“I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They made a good example of what it takes to win in the league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football. We have to do a better job of finishing out the game. Obviously we could have played a little better in the end, but it’s good to be 4-0 and get out of here with a win.”

As one player was quick to remind a reporter, few pundits predicted the Patriots would be in this position, which was a reminder that media buzz does resonate inside the locker room walls at times -- stuff like the Patriots defense needing to prove it can shut down a top-level quarterback, or the inconsistent offense being able to hold up its end of the bargain.

[+] EnlargeVince Wilfork
AP Photo/David GoldmanHaving Vince Wilfork carted off with an injury puts a damper on a 4-0 start.
There will be fewer questions about the defense after this one, and anyone who might have doubted Talib’s value to the unit has to be having second thoughts. He’s been a big-time difference maker, the first real shutdown man corner the team has had since Ty Law (1995-2004), and he showed it again Sunday night.

But that doesn’t mean there are not concerns. Starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left the Georgia Dome with a protective boot on his right foot after being carted to the locker room in the first quarter. Belichick was speaking with Wilfork’s wife, Bianca, outside the team’s locker room after the game -- a conversation that both obviously hoped they wouldn’t be having.

The Boston Globe reports Wilfork has a torn right Achilles tendon and likely is done for the season.
Meanwhile, promoted cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who started in the base defense over Kyle Arrington for the first time this season, hobbled off late and didn’t finish. And rookie receiver Aaron Dobson left in the third quarter with a neck injury and never returned.

So the Patriots left Atlanta a battered team. But it’s safe to say they aren’t as bruised and beaten as the Falcons, who were steamrolled by a power running game that had shades of 2004, when Corey Dillon was tearing up opposing defenses. The Patriots, who owned a decisive size advantage over the Falcons, wanted to play old-fashioned big-boy football.

Wide-smiling 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount, who romped for a 47-yard touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter, relayed to the media that that was the crux of Belichick’s message all week -- physical play.

That’s why Brady had only nine pass attempts in the first half, the Patriots preferring to keep it on the ground (they only had three possessions) before their passing game erupted in the second half. Receivers Julian Edelman (7 catches, 118 yards) and Kenbrell Thompkins (6 catches, 127 yards and a TD) were immense.

“I’m just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called,” said the unassuming Thompkins, whose diving 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was similar to a play he failed to make in Week 2 against the New York Jets.

The play, in a sense, epitomizes the growth that players such as Thompkins and the Patriots have shown in a short time. And if the past is any indication, they should only get better.

When there was 6:31 remaining, and it was 30-13, it didn’t seem like a stretch to say the Patriots were putting together the type of performance that brought back memories of their Super Bowl championship past.

It had all the makings of the BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.

The ending, and near collapse, almost changed everything.

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Tom Brady and Matt RyanGetty ImagesTom Brady and Matt Ryan have both come in for heaping praise ahead of Sunday's meeting.

ATLANTA -- There are $100 million reasons why Matt Ryan should be talked about among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. One thing the Atlanta Falcons quarterback doesn’t have that his Sunday-night counterpart possesses is a Super Bowl ring.

Ryan's showdown with New England Patriots star Tom Brady is sure to be a hot topic throughout Week 4. He already lost one such head-to-head matchup, when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints got the better of Ryan and the Falcons in the season opener (23-17).

So how will Ryan fare against the Pats? He’ll need help from all phases, something he didn’t receive in last week’s loss to the Miami Dolphins.

ESPN.com Falcons team reporter Vaughn McClure and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss break it down:

McClure: The Falcons were touted as a Super Bowl contender -- and possibly a favorite -- going into the season. But now, at 1-2, they find themselves in almost a must-win situation at home. How will the Patriots respond to the hostile environment they’ll enter Sunday night at the Georgia Dome?

Reiss: With 13 rookies on the 53-man roster -- including receivers Aaron Dobson (second round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), who are playing key roles -- there is an element of unknown for the Patriots when projecting how the team will respond. Some of these players simply haven’t experienced this environment and prime-time stage. It’s rare for a Patriots team to be relying on such a large number of rookies for significant contributions, and that is one of the interesting storylines from a New England perspective this week. Other storylines are if this might be tight end Rob Gronkowski's season debut, if receiver Danny Amendola will also return after missing two games with a groin injury and if the defense -- which has been solid against lesser competition (Jets, Bills, Buccaneers) -- can limit an explosive passing game that is easily the best the unit has seen to this point in the season. Give us a feel for how things are going for the Falcons on offense.

McClure: Not too well, at the moment. Head coach Mike Smith’s biggest complaint is how inefficient his team has been in the red zone. During the Week 3 loss to the Dolphins, the Falcons were 2-of-5 in red zone opportunities. For the season, they are 6-of-12 (50 percent) in terms of touchdowns in the red zone, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wants that number to be a bit higher. Having bruising running back Steven Jackson in the lineup would no doubt help in goal-line situations, but Jackson will miss Sunday’s game while nursing a hamstring injury. Receiver Roddy White is also a solid red zone target, but White is not 100 percent healthy coming off a high-ankle sprain. Ryan still has Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as primary scoring weapons. How do you think the Patriots will keep up with the speedy receiver and ageless tight end?

Reiss: I think it starts with how they decide to match up against the Falcons’ “11 personnel” (one back, one tight end), because that looks like the most explosive package -- receivers Jones, White and Harry Douglas, with Gonzalez at tight end and either Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling at running back. Last Sunday against the Buccaneers’ “11 personnel,” the Patriots stayed in their base defense but played with three cornerbacks in the secondary -- their way of staying sturdy against the run but adding a coverage element to the secondary. I’d be surprised if we see that this week because the Falcons are much more potent in the passing game. So I could envision the Patriots turning to a coverage-heavy dime defense (six defensive backs), specifically with Jones and Gonzalez in mind, with the thought that a lighter box might be enough to limit the running game. For the Falcons, how are things shaping up on defense?

McClure: The defense has had its issues. Take the Miami game, for example. The Falcons held a 23-20 lead with just less than five minutes remaining in regulation. The defense needed to close, needed to put pressure on Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, needed to lock down the receivers. Instead, the Falcons played soft coverage after the Dolphins reached midfield and couldn’t disrupt Tannehill’s rhythm. In the end, Tannehill engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with his game-winning touchdown pass to Dion Sims. Not playing tight coverage and not wrapping up on tackles cost the Falcons in that game, and it could cost them the rest of the season if they don’t find a way to correct those problems immediately. They could use their defensive leader, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who was placed on injured reserve (foot) with a designation to return in Week 11. One other aspect noticeable in Miami was how the Dolphins tight ends won their one-on-one matchups against the Falcons on that final drive. That being said, will Atlanta have to contend with one of the best tight ends in the league, Gronkowski?

Reiss: We might not know the answer for sure until 90 minutes before kickoff, but things have been pointing in that direction. The one area the Patriots could use Gronkowski most, at least initially, is in the red zone. One season after ranking first in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage (which we acknowledge isn't a foolproof stat), the Patriots rank last (4-of-13). It’s going to be hard to win a game like this settling for field goals. Speaking of which, let’s not overlook special teams. The Patriots are getting good contributions in that third phase of the game, with a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski a highlight in Sunday’s victory over the Buccaneers. How about the Falcons?

McClure: Yet another area in which the Falcons could use much improvement. Against the Dolphins, returner Douglas fumbled a punt he admitted he shouldn’t have fielded in the first place. It translated into a Dolphins touchdown three plays later. The usually reliable Matt Bryant missed a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. And the Falcons had three penalties on special teams: two holds and an illegal block above the waist. Through three games, the Falcons are ranked 26th in punt return average and 30th in kickoff return average, although they’ve returned just one kickoff. Those special-teams issues are enough to cause special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong to blow a gasket. Speaking of that, is Brady still yelling at his receivers?

Reiss: Could you hear him down there in Atlanta? That was probably the most talked about storyline after New England's 13-10 win over the Jets on Sept. 12, whether Brady’s on-field frustrations were making things tougher on the young receivers than they needed to be. But it was mostly yelling at himself this past Sunday. He was upset with an end zone interception he said he shouldn’t have thrown. And he missed some open receivers, too. So while Brady’s stats were better last week, his performance wasn’t up to his own high standard, and it was actually more about him than the young pass-catchers, who turned in their best performance of the season. What is Ryan saying about this matchup?

McClure: Ryan said plenty about the Patriots when he addressed the media in the locker room Wednesday. He said he expects to see a lot of man-to-man coverage and complimented the Patriots for being very sound with their technique. He believes the front seven does a great job of creating pressure in both the run game and against the pass. Of course, Ryan gave much credit to Brady for being one of the top quarterbacks in the league for such a long time. In fact, Ryan joked that he hoped to be around as long as Brady. And Ryan singled out Vince Wilfork for not only being a disruptive force up front, but for being a 325-pound guy who plays a lot of snaps. So what’s the word from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick complimented Ryan, saying among other things that Ryan has very few bad plays. He shared his belief that consistency is the mark of any great player and Ryan is “pretty consistent -- every play, every game, every series.” And, according to Brady, Belichick said the following to players this week: “If you love football, then Sunday night at 8:30 in Atlanta will be the place to be.” Hard to imagine many would disagree about that. This is going to be fun.

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Rapid Reaction: Patriots 23, Bucs 3

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
4:00
PM ET

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Thoughts on the New England Patriots' 23-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

What it means: The Patriots improve to 3-0 for the first time since their undefeated 2007 regular season. Some ineptitude from the Buccaneers helped their cause, but this was also a day in which the Patriots' defense continued to play well and the team's rookie receivers turned in their best game of the season.

Dobson and Thompkins bounce back: After more than a week of talk about quarterback Tom Brady's on-field frustration with his young receivers, the kids responded well. Specifically, second-round pick Aaron Dobson rose up with a strong effort, after struggling to hold on to the ball last week, while Kenbrell Thompkins caught two touchdowns. There still figures to be growing pains ahead, but this was a step in the right direction for the Patriots' rookie pass-catchers. If anything, it was Brady himself who was a bit off in this game based on his usual standard.

Stock watch: Rising -- cornerback Aqib Talib. Playing against his former team, he matched up against receiver Vincent Jackson in critical situations and also intercepted a Josh Freeman pass late in the second quarter to set up a 53-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. Talib now has three interceptions on the season.

Defense delivers: For the third week in a row, the Patriots' defense has been tough to crack. The unit had three fourth-down stops against the Buccaneers, which were essentially three turnovers, and added the Talib interception. They came up with the key stop in a 23-21 season-opening win over the Buffalo Bills, then held down the New York Jets in a 13-10 victory on Sept. 12. As the offense still works to find a more consistent groove, the defense has picked up the slack in a big way.

Bolden's leading role in debut: Second-year running back Brandon Bolden made his debut after missing the first two games with a knee injury and played more than 25 snaps as he was integrated into the mix alongside Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.

Injuries to monitor: The Patriots played without tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm/back), receiver Danny Amendola (groin) and special teams captain Matthew Slater (wrist); their status will be watched closely this week. Also, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer didn't play in the second half because of a foot injury.

What’s next: The Patriots visit the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night.

What next at wide receiver for Patriots?

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
8:30
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Where do the New England Patriots go from here at wide receiver?

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAaron Dobson was targeted 10 times Thursday night but finished with only three catches.
That has been a popular question after Thursday night's win over the Jets -- one of the more inept performances for the team’s passing game since Tom Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001.

Too many drops. Too much miscommunication and too many fundamental breakdowns. Too much frustration for Brady.

So now, many who panned veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd during the 2012 season are wondering if a comeback might be possible. Others are asking if Deion Branch might be an upgrade. Or Donte' Stallworth.

Maybe Bill Belichick ultimately decides that’s the way to go. Maybe he saw how uncomfortable Brady looked early on Thursday, considers that Danny Amendola is currently sidelined with a groin injury and determines there is value in bringing back a veteran with knowledge of the system, even if the initial intention was to move on from them.

Still, I’d be surprised if he does that at this point.

As ugly as it was on Thursday night, and no one is saying otherwise, the feeling here is that this is no time to abort the team’s "re-do" with youthful receivers. Instead, the smarter play is to invest further in youth and realize that almost all of the mistakes made Thursday are correctable – the numerous drops, the failure of Aaron Dobson to get his head around at the top of his route and Kenbrell Thompkins not getting enough depth on his routes among them.

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No one said this would be seamless. We all knew there would be growing pains, even if the ones we’ve seen the first two games have been a bit more extreme than anticipated. Brady previously said he’s had to be more of a teacher this year, which requires more patience because this might be the greatest challenge of his career, breaking in the young guys.

As for the topic that lit up some parts of Boston sports radio on Friday -- whether the Patriots have done enough to surround a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback with potent weapons -- it seems fair to ask the question.

But here’s another thought: Perhaps those who are thinking along those lines have lost some perspective of how the Patriots used to win games in their championship days. Those days weren’t always filled with offensive fireworks, as former Patriot and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi brought up on “NFL Live” Friday.

“Tom Brady is holding them to a standard that they can’t maintain, and that’s Tom Brady’s standard. He expects them to be perfect because at times he rarely makes mistakes,” Bruschi said. “He has to lower his standards for these receivers right now. The defense is good and will buy him some time.

“I remember back in 2001, we had a quality defense and we had to pick up our weight a little bit more, pick up the slack, because we had a young quarterback by the name of Tom Brady. We had to wait for him. Now he has to wait for them.”

[+] EnlargeKenbrell Thompkins
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKenbrell Thompkins couldn't hold on to a pass in the end zone just before halftime.
Belichick does, too.

Part of grooming and cultivating young talent is enduring some early struggles. It’s a different sport, but I often wonder how the course of Dustin Pedroia’s Boston Red Sox career might be different had manager Terry Francona not stuck with him in 2007 when Pedroia was batting .172 with no home runs and two RBIs after a month in his first full season in the big leagues. It’s laughable to think back now and remember that some were calling for Pedroia to be sent down to Pawtucket in favor of Alex Cora.

There is a fine line here, and as Patriots captain Logan Mankins said Thursday night, “This is the NFL, you can’t be too patient for too long. You have to produce. You can’t wait forever.”

Two games in five days isn’t forever.

If the 2-0 Patriots are in the same spot two weeks from now, a quarter of the way into the season, maybe then it’ll be time to start thinking about reinforcements at wide receiver.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 13, Jets 10

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
11:59
PM ET


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – My thoughts on the New England Patriots' 13-10 victory over the New York Jets on Thursday night:

What it means: In one of the uglier football games we’ve seen the Patriots play in recent memory, they get the victory. But are the Patriots still one of the AFC’s elite teams? It’s hard to answer that with an authoritative “yes” after the past two weeks. While they played without receiver Danny Amendola on Thursday night and will benefit from the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski (possibly as soon as Week 3), there are plenty of questions surrounding the offense right now.

Brady’s struggles: Quarterback Tom Brady’s frustration boiled over at times. It’s rare to see a game in which Brady hovers below the 50 percent completion mark, but he just couldn’t get on the same page with anyone outside of receiver Julian Edelman (New England's best offensive player). Brady previously talked about the need for more patience this year. His patience was put to the test in this game.

Stock watch: Falling -- rookie receivers. It was a tough night for Aaron Dobson (second-round pick) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), as the Patriots’ passing game was stuck in neutral. Dobson caught a 39-yard touchdown pass on his first career play, but otherwise struggled with drops on a night when the conditions got wetter and sloppier as the game progressed. While everyone expected some growing pains for the Patriots’ passing game with young receivers, I’m not sure we expected them at this level.

Defense delivers: The Patriots created four turnovers on defense (two interceptions by Aqib Talib, one pick by Alfonzo Dennard and a fumble return by Devin McCourty created by Talib), as it was a night in which the D had to keep the team in the game because of the anemic offensive performance (some credit goes to the Jets’ defense for owning third down). This is the second week in a row that the Patriots’ defense stood tall late in the game. While the unit deserves credit, it’s also notable that the Jets (1-1), with rookie Geno Smith at quarterback, are one of the NFL’s offensively challenged teams.

What’s next: The Patriots (2-0) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 22 (1 p.m. ET). Having played Thursday night, they’ll have extra time to prepare. The Buccaneers host the New Orleans Saints this Sunday.

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