AFC East: Matt Cassel

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

Bills defense: Trick or treat?

August, 17, 2013
On the surface, Friday night's preseason win over the Minnesota Vikings looked like an impressive showing by the Buffalo Bills defense.

After all, they held the Vikings to just three points through the first three quarters. The Bills had four sacks, forced a fumble, and limited Minnesota to just 41 first-half rushing yards. They even added a touchdown on a fumble recovery.

This part is true: the Bills defense kept the Vikings on their heels, especially early in the game. Never did Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel look comfortable under center.

But before anyone gets carried away with the success of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's pressure schemes, let's remember one thing: Ponder and Cassel were two of the NFL's worst quarterbacks last season.

The Vikings held their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, out of action on Friday night, but beyond that, Minnesota did not seem to anticipate the aggression of the Bills defense in the teams' second preseason contest.

"Everybody has their way of approaching the preseason, and that’s their choice," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said after the game. "They did some good things. It’s preseason. They have the option to do whatever they want to do. We didn’t spend a lot of time preparing to play Buffalo."

"Just their whole defense was pretty exotic. They had some exotic personnel and different schemes, it was a little different and sometimes it was a little hard for us to identify," Ponder added.

Was the Vikings not being ready for Pettine's defense the Bills' problem? Not at all. And come the regular season, when teams do prepare for it, Pettine still has ways of keeping defenses off balance.

After the New York Jets were routed 45-3 by the New England Patriots in Dec. 2010, the Pettine-coached Jets defense turned to a coverage-heavy, extra defensive back- scheme in the teams' ensuing playoff game. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, expecting blitzes and pressure looks, was stymied, and the Patriots fell to the Jets, 28-21.

It's that unpredictable element that the Bills hope Pettine will bring to the defensive philosophy this season. It won't always be about pressure and sacks.

But for right now, the performance of the Bills defense on Friday night shouldn't be made into anything more than a step in the right direction. It was encouraging, but not excellent.
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.

Observation deck: Bills-Vikings

August, 16, 2013

Observations from the Buffalo Bills' 20-16 preseason win over the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night:

Kolb gets his chance, plays full half: In his first action of the preseason, Kevin Kolb played the entire first half, finishing 13-of-21 passing for 111 yards and an interception. The Bills always have said they would give both Kolb and rookie EJ Manuel a fair shot at the starting job, and tonight might have been Kolb's best chance to prove himself. The results weren't overly positive, although Kolb led the Bills offense on two scoring drives late in the first half, looking more comfortable than he did in the early stages of the game.

Buffalo BillsManuel again solid, but not spectacular: Manuel entered the game at the start of the second half and led the Bills on an 80-yard touchdown drive, completing all six of his passes for 44 yards. More importantly, Manuel did not throw an interception for a second consecutive game. However, the Bills (or Manuel) opted not to take any shots downfield, something they are expected to incorporate into their offense this season. Instead, many of Manuel's throws were in the short range, but he did complete a 27-yard pass to rookie receiver Brandon Kaufman in the third quarter. Manuel also had the benefit of playing against the Vikings' second-team defense.

Penalties becoming a major issue: The Bills were flagged 14 times for 106 yards in the contest, one week after being penalized nine times against the Indianapolis Colts. The flags have to be a growing concern for head coach Doug Marrone, especially considering nine of them came in the first half, when many of his starters were still in the game. Among the flags was a key holding call in the red zone against Colin Brown, who made his second consecutive start at left guard. In what remains an open battle, that won't help his case.

Defense generating pressure: The Bills' defense kept the pressure on Vikings quarterbacks throughout the game, finishing with four sacks for 38 yards. Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes had two sacks, including a sack and forced fumble of Matt Cassel in the second quarter.

Hogan, young receivers making strides: First-year receiver Chris Hogan continued to stand out for the Bills, playing nearly the entire game. Hogan was the team's leading receiver with four catches for 34 yards and was targeted a team-high seven times. Meanwhile, Kaufman and Marcus Easley continue to be second-half standouts, with five catches for 91 yards between them. Undrafted rookie Da'Rick Rogers had a quiet night, being targeted twice and making one catch for six yards. On special teams, second-round pick Robert Woods returned a punt 34 yards, one week after third-round pick Marquise Goodwin had two long kickoff returns.

Mario sits out: Defensive end Mario Williams (foot) dressed but was announced as an inactive for the game. He played in two series in the preseason opener, and the Bills continue to manage the health this preseason of their highest-paid player.

What's next: The Bills return to St. John Fisher College for their final four practices of training camp, beginning Sunday. They travel to face the Washington Redskins in the third preseason game next Saturday.

The New York Jets have been looking far and wide for legitimate quarterback competition for Mark Sanchez. The best the Jets could do so far was David Garrard, who hasn't thrown a pass in the regular season since 2010.

But another enticing option emerged for the Jets on Friday when the Arizona Cardinals released former starter Kevin Kolb. New York would be wise to go after Kolb's services. In fact, there are reasons to believe the Jets may be the favorites.

Kolb spent the early part of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles developing under Marty Mornhinweg, who is now the offensive coordinator in New York. Kolb is proficient in the West Coast offense and knows Mornhinweg's version of the system well. Kolb also will have a chance to compete for a starting job in New York, which has to be appealing.

As usual, a potential Jets-Kolb marriage could come down to money. The Jets have a tight salary cap and must be careful not to be outbid by other teams with deeper pockets. Matt Cassel recently signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings, and Kolb may get similar offers on the open market. If the Jets get into a bidding war, that would lower New York's chances.

Kolb is not the long-term solution for a quarterback to build a team around. But right now the Jets need competency at quarterback during this rough rebuilding stage. Kolb certainly fits that description.

Unless the Jets are falling asleep at the wheel in free agency, expect New York to be strong contenders for Kolb.
The thin free-agent quarterback market just gained a new player. The Kansas City Chiefs released quarterback Matt Cassel on Thursday after four up-and-down seasons.

Cassel made his name with the New England Patriots before leaving for Kansas City in 2009. Could Cassel rejoin the AFC East?

Let's examine.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills should be interested in anyone and everyone who becomes available at quarterback. This team is desperate after cutting former starter Ryan Fitzpatrick this week. The Bills are left with backup Tarvaris Jackson, who is not the long-term solution. Buffalo will almost certainly draft a rookie quarterback next month, but it could use another veteran quarterback like Cassel to compete. Perhaps the biggest issue is Cassel does not necessarily fit the wide-open, spread offense Buffalo wants to run under new coach Doug Marrone. Buffalo would have to tailor its offense to fit Cassel's limitations.

New York Jets

The Jets just signed veteran quarterback David Garrard to compete with Mark Sanchez. Going after another veteran quarterback, especially with very little cap room, might be overkill for a team that must fill so many other needs. I do not expect the Jets to go after Cassel. But if Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb soon becomes available, which is a strong possibility, New York might consider it. New Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg coached Kolb in Philadelphia and will run a similar West Coast system.

New England Patriots

Cassel made his name in New England when he replaced the injured Tom Brady in 2008 and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. That performance earned Cassel a big contract with Kansas City. There is a chance Cassel could return full circle with the Patriots if they decide to trade young backup quarterback Ryan Mallett. The Patriots reportedly are getting some interest around the league in Mallett. Cassel could be an insurance policy to back up Brady if New England receives an offer it cannot refuse for Mallett.
The New York Jets' quarterback situation is a mess. They are stuck with incumbent Mark Sanchez and his guaranteed $8.25 million salary this year and don’t have any easy answers.


Who's the best quarterback option for the Jets in 2013?


Discuss (Total votes: 8,927)

Earlier Friday the AFC East blog examined the quarterbacks in the AFC East. Now it’s your turn to weigh in on New York.

Who should be the Jets' starting quarterback in 2013? There are several potential options.

Should it be Sanchez? He’s started for the Jets since 2009. Sanchez hasn't lived up to his potential as a former first-round pick. But the Jets are paying him a lot of money this season and may not be able to afford to have more than $8 million sitting on the bench. Is Sanchez the answer for one more year?

What about Matt Flynn? First-year Jets general manager John Idzik has ties to the Seattle Seahawks and could be willing to trade for their backup. Flynn was signed in free agency in 2012 but was beat out by rookie quarterback Russell Wilson. Flynn would have a chance to compete in New York.

Matt Cassel also is an option. The soon-to-be former Kansas City Chief is expected to be released after this week’s agreement to trade for Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. Cassel has plenty of starting experience with Kansas City and the New England Patriots. Should the Jets consider Cassel when he’s released?

There are also options like Brady Quinn, who also played for the Chiefs, and Tim Tebow. The Jets still have Tebow on the roster and want to trade the former first-round pick.

Using our SportsNation poll, vote on the Jets' best option at quarterback. You can also share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Should Jets consider QB Matt Cassel?

February, 28, 2013
The New York Jets are desperate for a quarterback and need to turn over every rock to find competition for the embattled Mark Sanchez.

Should the Jets consider signing Matt Cassel this offseason?

The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback is about to be released now that the team has agreed to trade for San Francisco's Alex Smith. The Chiefs have a new head coach in Andy Reid and a new quarterback in Smith. It's time for the Chiefs to part ways with Cassel after four seasons.

Cassel, 30, would not be a long-term solution for New York. He threw for just 1,796 yards with six touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. But Cassel could add immediate competition for Sanchez, which would only make both players better. Cassel also has plenty of starting experience with Kansas City and New England and he made the Pro Bowl in 2010.

Most importantly, Cassel could provide the Jets a cheap alternative. Other options like Seattle Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn would require the Jets trading draft picks and accepting a larger salary. The Jets have a tight salary cap this offseason and need to make wise, cost-effective decisions.

Did Bill Belichick take swipe at Colts?

December, 2, 2011
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was on ESPN's "Mike and Mike" radio show Friday morning. Probably the most interesting comment from Belichick was about his quarterback -- Tom Brady -- and the comparison with the Indianapolis Colts, who are this week's opponent.

Belichick said there is no quarterback he'd rather have besides Brady. But Belichick also added he's proud "that without Tom Brady we still won 11 games in 2008. We have a program here."

Is Belichick suggesting the Colts do not have a program without quarterback Peyton Manning?

If so, I would agree with Belichick's subtle swipe at Indianapolis. It's clearly evident, as the Colts (0-11) haven't won a game without Manning under center. Indianapolis is a mess and was exposed without having a dominant quarterback.

Some think the Patriots would be in the same boat this season without Brady. There's no way of knowing that for sure unless Brady were injured. But the one time that's happened for a long period was in 2008, which Belichick referenced, and New England went 11-5 with former backup quarterback Matt Cassel.

I doubt New England would go 11-5 this season without Brady, but the Patriots wouldn't be 0-11, either.

It's interesting that Belichick tooted his own horn for something that happened three years ago. I'm sure New England's head coach is hopeful he doesn't have to put that "program" theory to the test again any time soon.

Dolphins should pass on Kyle Orton

November, 22, 2011
Don't be greedy, Miami Dolphins.

Let one of the playoff contenders with injured quarterbacks claim Kyle Orton and the $2.5 million remaining on his contract.

The Dolphins may have been interested in Orton at one time before the season. But they certainly don't need Orton now. Orton can't get Miami to the playoffs and Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore is doing just fine in the starting role.

Moore has won three straight games for the Dolphins and posted the highest Total Quarterback Rating in the NFL last week. You can't bench a player who is performing that well.

Therefore, if Orton can't start for the 3-7 Dolphins, there's no point in claiming him. Teams like the Chicago Bears (7-3) and Houston Texans (7-3) would love to have Orton down the stretch. Quarterbacks Matt Schaub (foot) and Jay Cutler (thumb) are out indefinitely for Houston and Chicago, respectively. Even the Kansas City Chiefs (4-6), without starting quarterback Matt Cassel (hand), could use Orton with still an outside chance of making a run at the AFC West division.

Because of record, Miami has waiver priority over all these teams. But the Dolphins making such a move would be out of greed, not need. That wouldn't be wise.

Patriots putting AFC East on ice

November, 22, 2011
The AFC East is virtually in the bag for the New England Patriots. New England improved to 7-3 with an easy, 34-3, victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on "Monday Night Football."

New England now owns a two-game lead over the Buffalo Bills (5-5) and essentially a three-game lead over the New York Jets (5-5) after sweeping "Gang Green" this season. There's nothing to suggest the Bills or Jets, who are both struggling, can make up that deficit this late in the season.

The only question remaining for the Patriots is can they secure home-field advantage? New England is tied with the Baltimore Ravens (7-3), Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3) and Houston Texans (7-3) for the best record in the AFC. New England also has the easiest remaining schedule. The Patriots' final six opponents do not have winning records.

Texans starting quarterback Matt Schaub (foot) is lost for the season. Houston will likely be out of the running for the No. 1 seed.

New England's biggest competition is Pittsburgh and Baltimore. But the Ravens play the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving, in addition to a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals (6-4). The Steelers also play the Bengals and 49ers.

Pittsburgh holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over New England and would get the top seed if the Steelers win the AFC North and have a similar record. But, barring injury, the Patriots appears to be a lock for at least the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC.

Final Word: AFC East

November, 18, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Here are five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Prime-time Patriots: The New England Patriots will play their second prime-time game in a row and third this season. That's good news, because New England has stepped up this season when the spotlight is at its brightest. The Patriots are 2-0 in prime-time games and both were won in impressive fashion. New England outscored the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins in night games by a combined score of 75-40. The Patriots also will be heavy favorites at home against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesTom Brady and the Patriots are looking to go 3-0 in prime time with a win against the Chiefs.
Pressuring Palko: Look for New England to do some heavy blitzing this week. Kansas City will start little-known backup quarterback Tyler Palko because of a hand injury to Matt Cassel. Palko has thrown just 13 career passes. The Patriots are ranked last in the NFL in total defense, but played a great game last week against the Jets. New England registered a season-high five sacks against New York. Starting defensive end Andre Carter had 4.5 of those sacks. The Chiefs were 27th in passing when Cassel was healthy. Don't expect it to get much better with Palko.

Gut check for Buffalo: The Buffalo Bills are falling out of the playoff race and running out of time. Buffalo is fortunate for its fast start. The Bills remain in the AFC East and wild-card race despite being 2-4 in their past six games. But Buffalo cannot afford to continue its slide and has a huge gut-check game Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. If the Bills (5-4) can't beat the 2-7 Dolphins, they're clearly not a playoff team this season.

Dolphins getting defensive: Last year's sixth-ranked defense finally showed up to play in the 2011 season. Miami’s defense has been lights out the past two weeks, allowing just six points per game in that span. Miami hasn't allowed a touchdown since Oct. 30. The Dolphins’ defense has gradually climbed up the rankings and is now at No. 20 in yards allowed. Miami also gets to face a Buffalo offense that has struggled as of late.

Wild-card watch: The Bills and Jets will be watching several teams of interest this weekend. The biggest game involves the AFC North battle between the Baltimore Ravens (6-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-3). If the season ended today, those teams would be the two wild cards in the AFC. Baltimore owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over New York. The Bengals own the head-to-head advantage over the Bills. Also in the mix are the Tennessee Titans (5-4), who play on the road against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday morning in the AFC East:
  • The New England Patriots won't face Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, who is out indefinitely with a hand injury.
Morning take: New England's easy schedule gets even easier with the struggling Chiefs missing their starting quarterback. Enter Tyler Palko at Gillette Stadium on "Monday Night Football." Oh boy.
Morning take: Those are big words from Dansby. I disagree that he’s the NFL’s No. 1 linebacker but I think it’s good that he feels that way. More importantly, Dansby needs to continue to play that way and help Miami win games.
Morning take: This is a big blow to the Bills, who already have injuries on the offensive line. Wood was the quarterback in the trenches who worked well with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Morning take: Pool definitely could have helped New York’s pass defense last weekend against New England. He’s the team’s most athletic safety.
Coming into the season, the Buffalo Bills were not sure of their starting quarterback beyond the 2011 season.

But on Friday, Buffalo officially made its decision. The Bills signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a six-year extension worth $59 million, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports. The contract guarantees Fitzpatrick $24 million.

Fitzpatrick is off to a good start for the surprising Bills (4-2). He has thrown for 1,477 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. That was enough to convince Buffalo's front office to make Fitzpatrick, 28, its long-term solution. The Bills had to make a decision before the end of the season. Fitzpatrick was due to become a free agent next year.

Fitzpatrick is worth more to the Bills than any other team. He fits Buffalo's spread offense well and has become a leader in the locker room. I like this signing for all those reasons.

But Buffalo also made a huge financial investment in Fitzpatrick, who remains somewhat unproven. He has never thrown for more than 3,000 yards.

The contract now puts Fitzpatrick in the second tier of quarterbacks, under eilte players like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Fitzpatrick will average nearly $10 million per season. There is pressure that comes with that.

Other quarterbacks, such as Kevin Kolb of the Arizona Cardinals and Matt Cassel of the Kansas City Chiefs, recently received similar deals. I would take Fitzpatrick over both of those players.

So far, Kolb and Cassel are proving they're not worth their approximate $10 million-per-year salaries. It will be up to Fitzpatrick to prove to the Bills he won't follow in those footsteps.

Lockout impact on Mallett, other rookie QBs

June, 1, 2011
ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi discussed the importance of informal lockout practices for getting rookie quarterbacks ready to play in 2011.

Bruschi said New England Patriots rookie Ryan Mallett is in the best situation because he won't need to be ready to play on opening day and has time to learn the system from Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick.

"Mallett is going to have the best chance to succeed because he is going to get to sit, he's going to get to watch and he is going to get to learn," Bruschi said. "He's not going to have a lot of pressure on him. So he will just develop slowly, which I believe is what every quarterback should have."

"SportsCenter" host Linda Cohn compared Mallett's situation to that of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, a seventh-round draft choice who watched for three years in New England before starting one season and striking it rich.

"You can’t underestimate the value of these young quarterbacks, to be able to sit there and look at a professional like a Peyton Manning or a Tom Brady, to see how they approach their craft," Bruschi said. "They learn. They process it all up here. And when their chance comes, that's when they can cash it all in."