AFC East: Matthew Slater

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater likes what he sees at this early stage of the 2014 league year, while at the same time acknowledging this is just the start of a long journey.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Slater
Mike Reiss/ESPNMatthew Slater talks to the media at Gillette Stadium.
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” Slater said Tuesday at Gillette Stadium after participating in the second day of the team’s voluntary offseason program, which as expected, had exemplary attendance including quarterback Tom Brady and cornerback Darrelle Revis. “There are some extremely talented players that we’ve added to the roster, along with some extremely talented players that we’ve had here for a while.

“But all that’s on paper and it really doesn’t mean anything right now. We haven’t even had one practice together, so we have a long way to go.”

Slater represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl this year, and he talked Tuesday about spending time with Revis in Hawaii. Now they’re teammates in New England.

“Obviously when you get a player like that, you’re excited about the opportunity to play with him. You know what he brings to the table,” Slater said. “He’s really a good guy, does everything the right way, plays the game the right way, and you respect that about the guy, no matter who he plays for. If he plays the game hard, plays the game the right way, you respect it. And he’s definitely one of those guys.”

Slater, who adds depth to the receiving corps, looks forward to competing against Revis in practice.

“I’m sure that will be fun,” he said. “As competitors, no matter what it is you’re doing, I feel like all of us want to go against the best and we feel like he’s definitely one of the best. He’s proven that. I think it’s just going to make everyone better going against a guy like that, as well as the other guys we’ve added. There will be a lot of competition, as there is every year, and I think that breeds success.”
DENVER -- After 15 minutes of play, the New England Patriots trail the Denver Broncos 3-0 in the AFC Championship Game. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the first quarter.

1. Pats' O starts slow. The Patriots' offense needed just one play to find the end zone last Saturday, but the start wasn't quite the same today, as the offense went three and out on its first drive and punted on each of the first two drives. Some notable personnel factors: Aaron Dobson is playing some in two-receiver sets, LeGarrette Blount once again is handling lead back duties and both Matthew Slater and Austin Collie have been targeted on third-down plays.

2. Perfect conditions. The weather is idyllic in Denver today, with a temperature of 61 degrees at kickoff. There's hardly a cloud in the sky, and there's minimal wind. A strong glare has made things difficult on returners fielding punts deep.

3. Broncos open the scoring. The Broncos got on the board first with a field goal late in the first quarter. The drive was helped by a long completion from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas on a third and 10 play. The Patriots were able to hold the Broncos from the 10-yard line, however, forcing the field goal from Matt Prater.

4. Patriots' offense driving. The Patriots' offense generated a little bit of buzz at the end of the quarter, crossing into Denver territory. The second quarter will open with the Patriots facing a fourth down from Denver's 39.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (offensive pass interference).
After practicing in cold and windy conditions on Wednesday, then in the snow on Thursday, the New England Patriots moved this morning's practice inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse and dialed back the pace with more of a mental-based, walkthrough-type session.

This reflects the theme of the week as the Patriots balanced two hard days of practice in which they mostly focused on themselves (instead of a specific opponent) with making sure they get some rest.

"I’m encouraged by what we’ve been able to do so far," special-teams captain Matthew Slater said on Thursday. "We got some good work in the elements, which I thought was good. You expect to play in something like that at some point this year. I think we’ve gotten [a chance] to go back to the basics and focus on the fundamentals ... and then as the weekend comes, hopefully we can take advantage of some time off and get off our feet and try to get our legs back underneath us."

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich said another good use of time this week has been revisiting the team's 13-6 loss to the Bengals on Oct. 6, as the Bengals are one of New England's three potential opponents in the second weekend of the playoffs (the Pats have a first-round bye). By doing so, players can "see the things that worked for them, and they’ll probably try against you [again]," he said.

The Patriots' next scheduled practice is Tuesday.

Pro Bowl selections: New England Patriots

December, 27, 2013
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Sharing some thoughts on the New England Patriots' Pro Bowl selections:

Who's in: Quarterback Tom Brady, left guard Logan Mankins, cornerback Aqib Talib, special-teamer Matthew Slater.

Key stats: This is Brady's ninth Pro Bowl berth, tying offensive lineman John Hannah for most in team history. ... For Mankins, this is his sixth Pro Bowl berth, and fifth in a row. ... This is Talib's first Pro Bowl. ... Slater gets his third straight nod.

Who cashed in: Talib. By earning a Pro Bowl nod, he reaches a $500,000 incentive in his contract. Slater gets an additional $300,000.

A case could be made for: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski. He's been excellent this season, but Denver's Matt Prater and Baltimore's Justin Tucker earned the two selections.

Others on the outside looking in: At safety, Devin McCourty could have made a strong case for a third spot alongside Earl Thomas (Seahawks) and Eric Weddle (Chargers), but it went to Jairus Byrd (Bills) -- probably more based on reputation. The NFL announced its selections as "unconferenced" this year, meaning that Patriots were competing against players from both the AFC and NFC. ... Defensive end is a tough position to crack, so while Chandler Jones has had an excellent season, it was going to be hard to break through. ... At punt returner, Julian Edelman is one of the best in the business but the spots went to Antonio Brown (Steelers) and Dexter McCluster (Chiefs).

Final thoughts: Brady, Talib and Slater were locks from this viewpoint. Slater is the new Larry Izzo. As long as he's healthy, he's going to keep ringing up Pro Bowl trips. Mankins, who has a well-earned reputation as one of the best in the game, was a tougher call because guards aren't always the first players your eyes are drawn to. But after some rocky moments this season (e.g. Oct. 27 vs. Miami), he's been playing at an elite level down the stretch.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl roster.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

October, 19, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday's road game against the New York Jets:

Danny Amendola: Receiver sustained a concussion last Sunday, has been held out of practice all week, and is already ruled out by the team.

Chris Barker: Rookie offensive guard could be active if there are concerns with those above him on the depth chart, Dan Connolly (concussion) and Marcus Cannon (shoulder).

Tommy Kelly: Veteran defensive tackle has missed the last two weeks of practice with a right knee injury and has already been ruled out.

Matthew Slater: Special-teams captain has been at practice but still has a cast on his left wrist, which makes us think it might be too early to expect him back.

Aqib Talib: Cornerback missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a left hip injury and didn't look fully comfortable in his return to practice Friday.

Leon Washington: Veteran running back missed the last two weeks of practice with an ankle injury and has already been ruled out.

Tavon Wilson: Reserve safety and core special-teams player has been limited with a hamstring injury and has missed the last two games.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

October, 5, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday's road game against the Cincinnati Bengals:

Chris Barker: Developmental rookie guard was a healthy scratch last week now that veteran Will Svitek, who had been battling a knee injury, is healthy enough to dress.

Steve Beauharnais: Rookie linebacker has been a healthy scratch the last three games.

Jake Bequette: Second-year defensive end was inactive last week as rookie Michael Buchanan is ahead of him on the depth chart.

Aaron Dobson: Rookie receiver took a big hit in Sunday night's game against the Falcons, injuring his neck. He's been limited in practice, and we wonder if the Patriots would have signed Austin Collie if they felt Dobson was ready to go.

Rob Gronkowski: Tight end has been making positive strides, but if this is mostly about his comfort level, perhaps they'll wait another week so he can have his first game at home.

Stevan Ridley: Running back has already been ruled out with a knee injury, meaning LeGarrette Blount almost certainly steps into the No. 1 role.

Matthew Slater: Special-teams captain returned to practice Friday for the first time since injuring his left wrist, and was sporting a black cast. He is officially doubtful.

Extra point: The Patriots have two open roster spots, which are likely to be filled with practice squad promotions. Our best guess: DT Marcus Forston and S Kanorris Davis.

Welcome to the Georgia Dome

September, 29, 2013
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Georgia Dome Mike Reiss/ESPNThe Falcons' indoor stadium, with a seating capacity of 71,250, is one of the loudest venues in the NFL.
ATLANTA -- Welcome to the Georgia Dome, where the New England Patriots visit the Atlanta Falcons (8:30 p.m. ET):

Indoor football. Weather conditions aren’t a factor as this marks the Patriots’ first regular-season game inside a pure dome since Thanksgiving of 2010 (vs. Lions, on Thanksgiving). The Georgia Dome has a permanent seating capacity of 71,250 and is one of the loudest venues in the NFL. Since 2008, the Falcons are 34-7 at home, which is the best record in the NFC.

A feel for inside the dome. Plans to build the Georgia Dome, for $210 million, were first introduced in 1989. The Georgia Dome, which opened in 1992, has hosted two Super Bowls (XXVIII, XXXIV), gymnastics and basketball events for the 1996 Olympic Games, and most recently the NCAA Men’s Final Four for the third time. For football, the mostly red seats and Falcon at midfield give the dome a unique look. Banners hang above from the team’s six division championships, as well as some of former Falcon greats, including Deion Sanders, Jessie Tuggle and Steve Bartkowski.

Four more inactive Patriots players: The Patriots have already ruled tight end Rob Gronkowski and receivers Danny Amendola and Matthew Slater out for the game. That means four more players must be declared inactive, with those decisions turned in to the NFL 90 minutes before kickoff.

Extra points: The Falcons have outscored opponents 31-0 in the first quarter this season. … Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 22-3 after a loss. … This marks the Patriots’ second of five scheduled nationally televised games this season. … The 34 total points allowed by the Patriots are the fewest for the team through three games since 1979.

Coleman gets the call: Veteran referee Walt Coleman has been assigned tonight’s game. Patriots fans remember Coleman from the “Tuck Rule” game.

Television broadcast: Tonight’s game will be on NBC, with Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya on the call.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

September, 28, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday night's road game against the Atlanta Falcons:

Danny Amendola: Receiver is listed as questionable on the injury report (groin) and looked better on the practice field this week, but the hunch here is that he might need some more time.

Steve Beauharnais: Rookie linebacker has been a healthy scratch the last two games.

Rob Gronkowski: Tight end has been making positive strides, but the educated guess here is that he'd like an increased level of comfort before taking the field.

Chris Jones: Rookie defensive tackle is a developmental prospect who has yet to dress for a game since being claimed on waivers from the Buccaneers.

Matthew Slater: Special-teams captain has already been declared out with a wrist injury.

Sebastian Vollmer: Starting right tackle missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a foot injury, and while he returned for Friday's light practice, the feeling here is that he's more likely to play Oct. 6 in Cincinnati.

Leon Washington: Veteran running back was inactive last week with a thigh injury and remained limited in practice all week.

How Patriots filled Matthew Slater void

September, 23, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots were without special-teams captain Matthew Slater in Sunday's 23-3 victory over the Buccaneers. A big part of Slater's value is that he plays on each of the "Big 4" units -- kickoff return, kickoff coverage, punt return, punt coverage -- so when a player like that is injured it often means multiple players are tapped to fill the void.

Here is a look at how the Patriots compensated:

Duron Harmon on punt coverage. The third-round pick from Rutgers was the choice to serve as one of the team's gunners opposite Marquice Cole. Slater's work as a gunner, where he often faces double teams, is considered exemplary.

Brandon Bolden on kickoff return. Slater is usually back deep on the kickoff return, mostly as the fullback on the unit. Second-year running back Bolden, who played for the first time this season after missing the first two games while recovering from a knee injury, took over that role.

Michael Buchanan on kickoff coverage. In an unusual switch, defensive end Buchanan was the new player on the kickoff coverage unit in place of Slater. At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Buchanan has a different body type than the 6-foot, 210-pound Slater and fills a different role. Buchanan had played on the kickoff coverage unit in the season opener along with Slater, but was bumped off in Week 2 when Harmon dressed for the first time this season.

Jake Bequette on punt return. While not a 1-for-1 switch, and while acknowledging that the Patriots can have different units based on whether they are setting up a return or electing to rush more players, second-year player Bequette was a notable addition to the punt return team. Similar to Buchanan, he has a different body type than Slater and fills a different role. This was the first we've seen of Bequette in this role in 2013.

ANALYSIS: This is a good example of how Slater's absence led to four-pronged juggling by the coaching staff. Bill Belichick has spoken in the past about how his experience as a special-teams coach prepared him well for his role as a head coach in terms of managing the overall 53-man roster, and this is a perfect example to illustrate that point. It also highlights how Slater's skills are unique and no one player can fill the void. ... Players who were on all four units Sunday were LB Jamie Collins, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Chris White and S Tavon Wilson, which reflects their special-teams value and why, among other reasons, they are locks for the 46-man game-day roster on a weekly basis. ... Players on three units were CB Marquice Cole, S Nate Ebner and S Duron Harmon. ... The wedge players on the kickoff return were FB James Develin, TE Michael Hoomanawanui and TE Matthew Mulligan.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

September, 21, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday's home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Danny Amendola -- Receiver was listed as doubtful on the injury report (groin) and doesn't look like he's ready to play at this point.

Steve Beauharnais -- Linebacker was a healthy scratch last week, as his primary contributions would come on special teams at this point.

Brandon Bolden -- Running back has missed the first two games and is questionable with a knee injury. The Patriots could use his special-teams presence with Matthew Slater, out but he might need a little more time. He said Friday that he was unsure of his status.

Dan Connolly -- Starting right guard has been limited all week with a finger injury, which raises questions about his availability. Could mean Marcus Cannon steps in.

Rob Gronkowski -- If this was a playoff game, or even the Super Bowl, the feeling is that the tight end would be ready to play. But no need to rush things in Week 3 of the regular season.

Chris Jones -- Defensive tackle was claimed on waivers last week from the Buccaneers and is still being integrated into the system.

Matthew Slater -- Special-teams captain has already been declared out with a wrist injury.

Extra point: With Slater out, safety Kanorris Davis could be in line for a promotion from the practice squad. If that happens, tight end Matthew Mulligan and defensive tackle Chris Jones would be candidates to potentially create a spot for Davis.

Matthew Slater lone absence at practice

September, 19, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) were again on the practice field for the Patriots on Thursday, though their status for Sunday's contest against the Buccaneers remains unclear at this time.

The two were each listed as limited during Wednesday's practice report. The team will officially submit their status for Sunday's game on Friday afternoon.

Wide receiver Matthew Slater (wrist) was the lone player not spotted during the full-pads workout, as veteran cornerback Marquice Cole returned after missing Wednesday's practice with a non-injury related matter. Slater, the team's top special-teams player, reportedly broke his wrist during the Week 2 game against the Jets.

Pondering life without Matthew Slater

September, 17, 2013
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Special-teams captain Matthew Slater is the latest injured Patriots player.

On Monday, Ben Volin of the Boston Globe reported that Slater has a broken bone in his hand, putting his status in question for Sunday's game against the Buccaneers. That was followed up by Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald reporting that Slater could miss four to six weeks with a broken wrist.

A few Slater thoughts:

1. Core special-teamer. The Patriots have five players who would be considered "core" special-teamers based on playing the "Big 4" units -- Slater, safety Tavon Wilson and linebackers Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher and Chris White. When a team loses a core player on special teams, it often means that multiple players are tapped to fill the void. If the Patriots look to the practice squad for help, rookie safety Kanorris Davis (Troy) could be an ideal candidate. He caught the eye with strong special-teams play in the preseason.

2. Best in the business. Slater is a two-time Pro Bowler. After Thursday's win over the Jets, coach Rex Ryan was explaining why he didn't have a punt returner back on a few attempts and said, "That Slater kid is a heck of a football player.” So this is naturally a big hit for the Patriots in an often overlooked area of the game.

3. Emergency option at receiver. Slater has seldom been a big factor on offense, but in the event of emergency, he was a fallback option at receiver. Given that depth is already thinned at the position with Danny Amendola's availability in doubt, this could spark some roster/practice-squad movement. Perhaps the club brings back Quentin Sims on the practice squad.
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.
Players in the New England Patriots' locker room are not taking the route of Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy this week. The reigning AFC champs are showing the Houston Texans plenty of respect leading into Sunday's playoff game, despite trouncing Houston, 42-14, in Week 14.

"Trust me, you're going to see a different Texans team," Patriots veteran receiver Deion Branch explained. "That we all know, I promise you that. They're a great team. They've been a great team all season long. Unfortunately they ran into a couple stumbles but that's football. Trust me, it won't be the same team that we played five weeks ago."

New England knows it is difficult to beat the same team in both the regular season and postseason. The Patriots failed to pull that off during the 2010 season, when the New York Jets upset New England in the playoffs at Gillette Stadium after a blowout loss there in Week 13.

The Patriots cannot get overconfident against Houston and must prove they have learned from that experience .

"We expect it to be a totally different ballgame," Patriots special-teams ace Matthew Slater said. "We expect this to be a different team that shows up here this weekend and we know we’re in for a fight."

Starting fast will be important. New England took a 21-0 lead at halftime and was never in danger in Week 14. Houston must be sharper and set the tone early in this playoff rematch and let New England know it's going to be a much tougher contest.

"They didn’t play their best game," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "They know that and we know that. Come Sunday we are expecting their best."
The New England Patriots will hold a mandatory three-day minicamp this week. The AFC East blog will be at Gillette Stadium to catch some of the action.

Here are three things we are keeping an eye on:

No. 1: Defensive improvements

There is only one big question I have about the reigning AFC champs: Can the defense make improvements following a horrible 2011 season? The Patriots know their 31st-ranked defense is a problem. They drafted all defensive players this year until the seventh round. Rookies such as defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson are expected to make immediate contributions. Will the pass rush improve? Can the Patriots get better play from their corners and safeties? New England's offense will be a juggernaut again this year. But the defense must carry its weight.

No. 2: Who takes over at running back?

The Patriots have mostly unproven players at running back. But the coaching staff was confident enough in this group to let sure-handed tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis walk in free agency. Second-year players Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to make up for the production lost when Green-Ellis left. Ridley and Vereen have just 102 career carries between them. Free-agent pickup Joseph Addai and backup Danny Woodhead also will be in the mix. The Patriots like to have a committee of running backs at their disposal and often go with the hot hand. We will keep an eye on which tailbacks are separating from the pack early.

No. 3: Wide receivers

The Patriots have so much depth at receiver that they didn't flinch to cut six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco last week. That provides some clarity to the position, but there is still work to be done. Free-agent additions such as Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney are virtual locks, along with Pro Bowler Wes Welker. But other players such as Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, Donte' Stallworth, Matthew Slater and rookie Jeremy Ebert will compete for roster spots. It will be a competitive summer for this group, and minicamp is part of that evaluation.

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