AFC East: New England Patriots

CINCINNATI -- After three weeks of seeing the Cincinnati Bengals run trick plays and trot out unique formations, opposing coaches and players are beginning to take note.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt had his defense practice against the very receiver-to-quarterback pass the Bengals employed in their 33-7 win over Tennessee. Whisenhunt's teaching wasn't quite enough, as Mohamed Sanu was able to complete the pass to Andy Dalton, who ran for a touchdown.

The New England Patriots' preparation for Sunday night's game also has included preparing for the unexpected. During a news conference earlier this week, Bill Belichick was asked about how defending the quirky plays of the Bengals could affect the quickness with which his defense can react.

"If you don't see [a particular trick play] very often, you aren't thinking about it or maybe you're not respecting it enough, and then it comes and it hits you," Belichick said. "Then you don't see it again for another year, but the damage is done. That's the way I would characterize those plays.

"Not that there's not a way to defend them, not that there's a magic to the play, but it's a play you haven't seen that we're not practicing against, because I'm sure the ones that [the Bengals] have already run, they're probably less inclined to run those. They're probably more inclined to run a new play that they're working on, and that's the one that we'll have to react to in the game. That's the challenge of those plays. The challenge on the other side of it is execution. Some play that you don't run very much, it's calling it at the right time to get maybe a look that you think will be good against that and then being able to execute it well. The Bengals have done a very good job of executing those plays."

Belichick said the key to defending the trick play is one fundamental principle.

"It comes down to everybody doing their job," he said. "It isn't everybody's job to stop everything. It's one person's job to handle a certain responsibility, whatever that is. It's somebody else's job to handle other plays. If they're running a sweep one way, then you have to play the sweep. Somebody else has to play the reverse. One guy's not playing both plays. That's kind of the 'do your job' mentality of taking care of what you have to take care of. Somebody else has to take care of what they have to take care of.

"I've never coached a defense where you tell the players, 'Well, we don't have a reverse on this play if they run it.' That would be a touchdown. Or if they run a halfback pass, that nobody is responsible for that and that will be a touchdown. Or if they run an end around, we don't really have that play. I just don't think you could coach like that. Somebody has to be responsible for plays over there. If they start over there, then somebody has to be responsible for a play back there. If a guy reverses his field or they run a reverse or they throw a double pass or the quarterback peels out of the backfield, whatever it is, there are fundamental responsibilities, and those plays are part of the responsibilities."

Patriots vs. Chiefs preview

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
8:00
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The Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) and New England Patriots (2-1) meet in this week's "Monday Night Football" game at Arrowhead Stadium. It's the first game between the teams in Kansas City since 2005 and only the third Tom Brady has played at Arrowhead.

The Chiefs won their first game of the season 34-15 last week against the Dolphins in Miami. The Patriots have won two straight, including last week's 16-9 home win over the Oakland Raiders.

Here, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss the game.

Teicher: Mike, what stands out about the Patriots through the first three games is how much better they're playing defensively. New England is third in total defense and No. 1 against the pass. What are the factors in the improvement, or is it too small of a sample size to yet say the Patriots have indeed improved?

Reiss: There has definitely been improvement, Adam, but important context comes in mentioning they haven't played high-powered offenses the past two weeks in the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings and then the Derek Carr-led Raiders. After struggling against the run in the season opener, in part because of a flawed game plan that didn't have Chandler Jones at an end-of-the-line position, they have been much better the past two weeks at the line of scrimmage. The presence of cornerback Darrelle Revis has made a difference (he was excellent against Greg Jennings in Week 2), and 2012 first-round draft picks Jones and Dont'a Hightower are playing at a high level.

For the Chiefs, the presence of defensive tackle Dontari Poe and outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston stands out on defense. How are offenses accounting for them to make sure they don't take over games?

Teicher: All three are playing well. Poe had his best game of the season last week, and Houston and Hali each had a sack. With the injuries the Chiefs are dealing with on defense (four starters didn't play in Miami), those three have to play well for the defense to play well. The Chiefs are again effective with their pass rush (they are fourth in the league in sacks per opponent pass attempt) but are allowing fewer big pass plays this season. The Chiefs have yielded only five pass plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the league lead. Big pass plays were their undoing last season. The Chiefs have been hurt by long running plays. They have allowed 14 runs of 10 or more yards, and only two teams have allowed more.

Mike, we're not used to seeing Brady so far down the passer rankings. He's 26th among 35 qualifiers in passer rating. What explains the reasons for his down season?

Reiss: Like many things in football, there are multiple factors. If I had to choose one overriding factor, it's been inconsistent play on the offensive line. This particularly showed up in the second half of the season opener at Miami and throughout last Sunday's closer-than-expected win over the Raiders. Brady has been under duress often, to the point that I'm not sure there is any quarterback who could be successful in that situation. On top of that, a lack of a threatening option outside of receiver Julian Edelman and tight end Rob Gronkowski still working his way into a full-time mix has been part of it.

Offensively, it seems like the running game is the key for the Chiefs. If you'd agree with that sentiment, how has that manifested itself with and without Jamaal Charles?

Teicher: It would be difficult for the Chiefs to be successful without a solid running game. Alex Smith isn't the type of quarterback capable of carrying a team on his back. Charles' season has barely started. He didn't get much use in the season opener and then left the game with an ankle or foot injury in the first quarter in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos. He hasn't played since. If Charles doesn't play Monday night, the Chiefs still are quite capable in the running game. Knile Davis had 132 yards and a touchdown in last week's win against the Dolphins. At 227 pounds, he's bigger and more powerful than Charles and perhaps just as fast, so he has big-play ability. He doesn't have Charles' skills in making defenders miss. He has also fumbled three times this season and is a liability as a pass protector and receiver.

The Chiefs have had problems adequately protecting Smith this season. He's already been sacked 11 times, including five by the Dolphins. Pressure came from everywhere in that game. Five Dolphins had at least a half-sack. Who in addition to Jones do the Chiefs need to worry about when it comes to New England's pass rush?

Reiss: Rob Ninkovich, at the left defensive end spot, is a solid, dependable edge-setter and pass-rusher. We've seen the team's second 2012 first-round draft choice, Hightower, be a factor in that area more than he has in past seasons. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is a good blitzer up the middle, while first-round pick Dominique Easley -- as an interior sub-rusher -- flashed at times in training camp. I wouldn't call the Patriots a relentless pass-rushing team, but they scheme it up at times, dropping linemen up and disguising their intentions on who is coming.

Tell us more about some of the wild-card players on the Chiefs who people might not be aware of.

Teicher: He's not a secret anymore after catching a couple of touchdown passes in last week's game, but running back Joe McKnight was out of football last season and a surprise to even make it to the regular season with the Chiefs because he was injured for much of training camp. Patriots fans might remember McKnight from his days with the New York Jets. Likewise, tight end Travis Kelce sat out all of his rookie season last year with an ailing knee but caught his first touchdown pass last week. He leads the Chiefs in receiving yardage. On defense, end Allen Bailey is unheralded but played well against both the run and pass last week. Punter Dustin Colquitt is in his 10th season with the Chiefs but still does a tremendous job. His ability to plant kicks inside the 20 and avoid the end zone is fantastic.

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Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 8. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests Mike Reiss (New England Patriots reporter) and Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings reporter) discuss a range of topics from the Bills going on the market to the ongoing controversy surrounding the name of the NFL’s Washington, D.C. franchise to garage sales, yes, garage sales. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
There's another potential suitor for tight end Jermichael Finley, but it's with the same caveat as there is with the Green Bay Packers.

Bush
Finley
Everything hinges on Finley's surgically repaired neck.

The free-agent tight end visited the New England Patriots last Friday, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. The trip to Foxborough came less than a week after Finley was in Green Bay to check in with the Packers' team doctors.

Finley has reportedly been cleared by the doctor who performed his neck fusion surgery, Dr. Joseph Maroon. But the Packers' doctors did not put Finley through the full battery of tests that would need to be done in order to clear him to return to the team.

Last week, Packers tight end Brandon Bostick, one of Finley's closest former teammates, said he believes Finley will play in the NFL again but was not sure whether it would be in Green Bay.

Finley bruised his spinal cord -- an injury that left him briefly without movement and feeling -- after taking a hit in the Oct. 20 game against the Cleveland Browns. He has not played since. Less than a month later, he had his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae fused together.

He was in the final season of a two-year, $14 million contract when he was injured. As an unrestricted free agent, he is allowed to visit and be examined by any team.

The Patriots' interest in Finley makes sense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off ACL reconstruction. The other tight ends on their roster are former Packers draft pick D.J. Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs - AFC East

May, 7, 2014
May 7
2:01
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Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?

The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.

Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.

The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?



Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?

Mike Reiss: The Patriots get the nod here because they added the best overall player in cornerback Darrelle Revis and re-signed receiver Julian Edelman (the Jets had explored poaching him), but I don't think it's a large gap to the next club. I like what the Dolphins have done to start rebuilding their offensive line (Branden Albert, Shelley Smith) while also bringing in defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes and potentially getting some value with cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.

James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."


Second Down

Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?



Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.

Reiss: Yes. One of the things that has become clear in the build-up to the draft is that this is a good year for clubs looking for a developmental quarterback. ESPN's Mel Kiper said he has spoken with teams who have identified as many as 15-20 draftable quarterbacks this year, which is higher than the norm. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said he has 10 signal-callers with grades within the first three rounds, which is about double the norm. I think Buffalo (insurance for EJ Manuel) and New England (backup Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season) are the spots to look within the division.

Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.

Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.


Third Down


What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?



Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.

Reiss: The Patriots have a well-placed bye week and some of their biggest games around it. A Nov. 2 home game against the Broncos precedes the bye, then coming out of it is a Nov. 16 road game against the Colts. Fun, fun. If that's not the iron of the schedule, then back-to-back road games against the Packers (Nov. 30) and Chargers (Dec. 7) probably qualifies. Also, with the season concluding with three straight division games, the AFC East could still be up for grabs late.

Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.

Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.


Fourth Down


Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?



Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.

Reiss: Bills quarterback EJ Manuel would be my choice. He looked like a foundation-type player in the season opener against the Patriots last year, and had a few bright spots in ensuing weeks, but overall had an uneven first year in the NFL that was affected by injuries. The Bills surprised many by using a first-round draft choice to select him last year, and because of that Manuel gets the nod here over Jets quarterback Geno Smith, a second-round pick. It will be intriguing to see how things unfold with Smith now that the Jets have also signed Michael Vick, but I think the discovery process on Manuel in Year 2 -- is he really a franchise quarterback? -- trumps it.

Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.

Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.

Live blog: Patriots at Ravens

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
2:30
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Baltimore Ravens. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 
Tom Brady  and Joe Flacco AP PhotoSunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens has playoff implications for both teams.
Whenever the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens meet, there is always something at stake. Sunday's clash at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games, is no different.

The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.

New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:

Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?

Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.

As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.

Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."

This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?

Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.

Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.

Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."

Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.

Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.

With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?

Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.

Live blog: Patriots at Texans

December, 1, 2013
12/01/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Houston Texans. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

New England versus Carolina looked like a prime-time bust two months ago. Could it now be a Super Bowl preview?

The Panthers (6-3) have won five straight games and six of their past seven after an 0-2 start to emerge as a contender in the NFC. New England (7-2), as usual, is one of the top teams in the AFC.

There hasn't been a game of this magnitude between these teams since they met in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season. New England won that one 32-29 on a last-second field goal.

Panthers team reporter David Newton and Patriots team reporter Mike Reiss are here to break down this "Monday Night Football" matchup in Charlotte, N.C.:

Newton: Mike, New England will have had 15 days to prepare for Carolina. Does that give the Patriots an advantage?

Reiss: The Patriots have been excellent in games after the bye under coach Bill Belichick, with a 10-3 record. The main thing the bye did for New England was allow more time to heal for some banged-up difference-making players, such as cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed the past 3½ games with a hip injury. Belichick gave the players six straight days off, which is a bit rare but was a reward after 13 straight weeks of games going back to the preseason.

As it relates to the Panthers, the big question many in New England have is how much of their success is a result of their pre-49ers-game schedule. How do you assess it?

Newton: Yeah, the first five wins did come against teams that didn't have winning records. But the key is the Panthers didn't just slip past those teams. They beat them by 15 or more points, averaging more than 30 points a game. What beating up on down teams did was allow a Carolina team that hadn't had a winning record since 2008 time to grow confidence -- particularly on offense.

The defense has played well enough to win every game, and that is the one constant that makes this team dangerous every week. Sunday's 10-9 victory at San Francisco was no fluke, and it should quiet the critics of the schedule that, ironically, was rated the toughest in the league before the season. Speaking of the Carolina defense, it ranks second in the league against the run. How will a New England team that is using the run more attack it?

Reiss: Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels often talk about having an identity as a game-plan offense, meaning they morph their approach weekly to hit at what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. So if they view the Panthers' front seven as a strength, and it sure looks like it to many, I don't think they'll just run it for the sake of running it. They instead would attempt to spread things out a bit and possibly use the short passing game as an extension of the running game while picking their spots in the running game to maintain some semblance of balance. The potential return of running back Shane Vereen (wrist), who is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list, would be a boost as he is a versatile option as a rusher and a pass-catcher. How do you think the Panthers will approach things offensively?

Newton: They won't change much, if anything. Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula are committed to the run. They keep coming at you with fresh backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart -- and a dose of quarterback Cam Newton running and throwing. They're best when Newton is hitting the short passes and making quick decisions. It's all about consistency and keeping the chains moving, which is why they lead the league in time of possession. If the Patriots commit to keeping Newton in the pocket, that could open up the edges for short passes to the backs.

Speaking of consistency, I see Tom Brady's completion percentage is below 60 percent for the first time in his career. What's happening there?

Reiss: The hallmarks of Brady's play over 13 seasons (not including his rookie 2000 campaign) have been accuracy and decision-making. Those have been a bit sporadic this season, for a variety of reasons -- Brady himself, all the changes around him and injuries.

But, for the first time this season, it all came together in the 55-31 win over the Steelers on Nov. 3, which was the Patriots' most recent game. They scored seven touchdowns, and six came out of different personnel groupings and we saw the impact of what tight end Rob Gronkowski (three games played this season, averaging 44 snaps per game) rounding into form means to this offense.

While we're focusing on the quarterback of the Patriots' offense, I wanted to ask you about the "quarterback" of the Panthers' defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly, because many in New England are familiar with him from his time at Boston College. A star in the making?

Newton: No. He already is a star. He proved that last season when he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He's not having to make as many tackles this year because the front line is much improved and is stopping many plays before they get to him. But the St. Louis game tells you all you need to know. The Rams revamped their blocking scheme from what they had done all season to account for Kuechly. When teams devise a game plan for you, you've arrived. Kuechly is the heart of this defense not only in that he makes plays but also because he plays without an ego. His unselfishness spills over onto the rest of this defense, which has helped create the chemistry that makes the Panthers effective.

Back to the quarterback on offense: How have the Patriots fared against mobile quarterbacks such as Newton?

Reiss: They've seen their fair share of mobile quarterbacks this year, with EJ Manuel (Bills), Geno Smith (Jets) and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) most notable, and one would think the plan against Newton will be the same as it was against them: Keep him in the pocket and see whether he can beat you from there.

Belichick was miked up in the Steelers game, and that strategy was the theme of the clip shown on NFL.com -- he kept stressing the importance of keeping Roethlisberger in the pocket. So, rush-lane integrity, particularly from ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter, likely will be a crucial part of the New England plan.

Those quarterback scrambles can be backbreakers, sort of like a special-teams return that swings momentum. I've noticed a few of those from Ted Ginn this year, and, given some Patriots coverage struggles of late, I'd imagine the Pats are concerned about him.

Newton: The Panthers added a small wrinkle to their return game this past Sunday in the positioning of a second deep man for blocking, and Ginn averaged more than 21 yards per punt return. He almost broke a couple. But where I believe Ginn is a bigger threat to New England is as a receiver. He didn't get deep against San Francisco, but he has really become a threat, not only on the go route but on the slant and on short passes in the flat. He has the speed to blow past defenders and has shown the ability to catch passes in traffic, something he hasn't done before. If the Patriots stack the defense to stop the run, he could be a game-changer.

Ben Kotwica: 'We don't coach pushing'

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica, commenting for the first time on the New England Patriots' illegal "push" play, refused to confirm or deny he warned the officials beforehand to watch out for the tactic. Kotwica was more expansive on Bill Belichick's accusation that the New York Jets used it, too.

Kotwica
No way, Kotwica said.

"We don't coach pushing or anything along those lines," said Kotwica, adding: "I don't know what they were trying to do. I just know this: We teach a technique and a scheme on how to block field goals and it's within the regulations of the game."

Kotwica echoed Rex Ryan, who fired back at Belichick Wednesday by saying the allegation is "not true." It appeared that Quinton Coples gave teammate Muhammad Wilkerson a one-armed push on Stephen Gostkowski's field goal at the end of regulation. It was "incidental contact," according to Kotwica.

Kotwica said he took no offense to Belichick calling out the Jets.

"No, I don't take it personally," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for Coach Belichick and what he's done for the game. That's his opinion. I wouldn't take it personally."

On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported the Jets' sidelined tipped off the officials during the game. It probably was Kotwica, who routinely speaks with officials during the week and before each game. Publicly, the Jets haven't confirmed that they alerted officials to the Patriots' previous use of the push play.

Kotwica cleverly danced around questions, saying he always communicates with the league office during the week to discuss rules and points of emphasis. He also speaks with the umpire before every game to discuss "different formations you have, different guys that are eligible ... and anything else that might happen during the game."

Asked point-blank if he brought up the subject last Sunday, Kotwica he preferred to keep those conversations private.

Everybody knows what happened. Nick Folk's field-goal miss from 56 yards in overtime was nullified because the Patriots' Chris Jones was penalized 15 yards for pushing a teammate into the Jets' formation. On his second try, from 42 yards, Nick was successful, lifting the Jets to a 30-27 upset.

"My initial reaction (to the penalty) was, 'I hope it's on them,'" said Kotwica, claiming he had no idea it would for pushing.

Green Day: Patriots always win Round 2

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
6:00
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- They say the third time is the charm. We definitely know it's not the second time for the New York Jets, at least not when it comes to their season series with the New England Patriots.

In each of the past four seasons (i.e. the Rex Ryan era), the Jets lost the second meeting between the two AFC East rivals. That's not a coincidence, it's a trend. When it was mentioned to Ryan, he tried to explain it by saying the Patriots benefitted from having the second game at home. In fact, that applies only to 2009 and 2010.

"Well, there goes that theory," he said, laughing.

Turning serious, Ryan said, "I think when you look at their team, their team historically, in that second half of the season, they don't lose much. Whatever it is, they've obviously done a better job than we have."

A much better job.

In each season, the second meeting was a blowout, including last year's 49-19 debacle on Thanksgiving night -- aka the Butt Fumble Game. In 2011, the Jets lost again in prime time, 37-16, a game best remembered for Ryan cursing out a fan at halftime -- and receiving a hefty fine from the NFL. It was a similar story in 2010, 45-3, except the Jets got the last laugh, stunning the Patriots in the playoffs.

The Patriots' ability to raise their level in the rematch is a testament to Bill Belichick and his coaching staff, their ability to make adjustments and react to the Jets' adjustments.

It certainly doesn't bode well for the Jets on Sunday.

ICYMI: Antonio Cromartie gave a brutally honest self-evaluation of his performance this season: Not good enough. ... In addition to returning kickoffs, newly-acquired Josh Cribbs may get a chance to return punts. And maybe, just maybe he'll be the personal protector on the punt team. ... Santonio Holmes won't play Sunday, as expected, and blamed the media for disrupting his rehab routine. ... Ryan has reached a crossroads in what he could be final season. Enough already, he needs to beat the Patriots.

Live blog: Patriots at Bengals

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the New England Patriots' visit to the Cincinnati Bengals. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

A week ago, Sunday’s New England-Cincinnati game looked like the perfect precursor to a possible rematch in this season's AFC Championship Game. Both teams were trending in a positive direction. Their defenses were stout and healthy. And their offenses looked like they were finally getting into nice rhythms and flows after an offseason that saw both go through personnel changes.

What a difference a week makes.

The Patriots still have that upward trend going. Fresh off a confidence-building 30-23 win in Atlanta, New England comes to Cincinnati this weekend 4-0 and looking like one of the best teams in the league. The only real change is that its once-healthy defense took a major hit with veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s season-ending injury.

The Bengals are still dealing with their own health issues as a trio of defensive backs are trying to return this week. Without them, the entire team took a big step backward in a 17-6 loss at Cleveland that had players and coaches searching for answers. They hope they find them this weekend. If not, they’ll fall to 2-3.

For this edition of Double Coverage, we turn to ESPN.com Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss:

Harvey: Mike, we’ll go on and get to the big question I’m sure people all over New England have been asking the past few days: Who in the world is Joe Vellano and can he be an adequate replacement for Vince Wilfork?

Reiss: No, Coley, but that’s not as much of a knock on Vellano as it is a reflection of Wilfork’s excellence. Vellano is an undrafted rookie from the University of Maryland and he had one of the big defensive plays of the Patriots’ 30-23 win over the Falcons on Sunday night -- a third-quarter sack in which he made a quick move on center Peter Konz. He’s considered a bit undersized by NFL standards at 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds but plays with good technique, and Bill Belichick said he’s a first-on-the-field, last-to-leave type of player. Belichick also said there aren’t many Vince Wilforks out there. So it’s a big hit for the Patriots. How are things looking on the Bengals’ injury front?

Harvey: Before covering the Bengals, I got to know Mr. Vellano's play quite well while covering ACC football. Belichick’s assessment is pretty spot on. I’ll certainly be interested to see if, in the interim, he’s able to take over the line in a manner reminiscent of what he did in college.

One other thing I’ll be keeping my eye on this week in Cincinnati is the Bengals’ defensive backfield. Last weekend, three defensive backs (corners Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Reggie Nelson) were declared inactive because of hamstring injuries. The Bengals actually handled Cleveland’s receivers OK without them. The replacements only botched one or two third downs and dropped a couple of interceptions. All signs point to Kirkpatrick making a return this week, but the biggest spots of concern are Hall’s and Nelson’s positions. It could be a rough week if Cincinnati is without them again. Speaking of secondary play, it seems as though Aqib Talib has a pigskin magnet in his hands. What explains his four interceptions?

Reiss: Talib has been a real difference-maker for the Patriots since they acquired him last November from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a trade. He is playing very well, at a Pro Bowl level in my view, and his presence has been a big part of the defense playing at the high level it has through four games. I don’t believe the Patriots have had a true man-to-man matchup cornerback with Talib’s complete package since Ty Law (1995-2004) and that includes Asante Samuel. In Week 3, we saw Talib essentially follow Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson all over the field. It’s possible we see the same type of approach against A.J. Green on Sunday. Fill us in on what makes this Bengals offense go … assuming it’s going anywhere at this point.

Harvey: Well, if we used last week as the only reference point, we would see that the Bengals’ offense isn’t being motored by much at all. There’s no ground game to speak of and the passing game has been inconsistent. The offensive line and tight ends are the only ones who have played at a solid level all season. Aside from the four times Andy Dalton was sacked against Green Bay, the line has mostly kept him upright this season.

In theory, the Bengals want their offensive identity to hinge upon the run setting up the pass. (Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden admitted the unit is still searching for just what that identity is.) They have two running backs in former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard, who are more than capable of picking up big yards at any time, but for whatever reason they just haven’t done that consistently this season. Beyond that, Dalton and Green have formed a formidable duo in the passing game.

It looks as though Tom Brady has a few weapons on offense this year. Who are turning into his top targets with Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski out?

Reiss: It has been Julian Edelman and undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins (the former Cincinnati Bearcat) playing the majority of snaps at receiver. Edelman is tied for the NFL lead with 34 receptions and he might be one of the more undersold stories in the league. A seventh-round draft choice in 2009 from Kent State who made the transition from college quarterback to NFL receiver/punt returner, he was supposed to be the heir apparent to Wes Welker if the day ever came that Welker was no longer with the club. But a confluence of events, most notably a series of injuries, led to him becoming a free agent this past offseason and he received little interest on the open market. So he came back to New England on a minimum-level, one-year deal, with the chance to earn more in incentives, as the Patriots paid the big bucks to Amendola instead. But with Amendola out the past three games, they’ve needed Edelman more than ever before. He has delivered. Neat story. As I look at the Bengals, one question that keeps cropping up is whether Dalton is that franchise guy to build around. What have you seen from him in that regard?

Harvey: Two Ohio men doing work for the Patriots. I’m sure there will be some proud Buck -- er, Bearcats and Flashes, at Paul Brown Stadium this weekend.

With respect to Dalton, you know, I’m trying to stand in the guy’s corner as long as I can. But the more he has games like last Sunday’s, the tougher it gets to defend him. The thing is this: Dalton has had some really great games in his career. He has thrown for more than 300 yards five times, he has finally beaten the Steelers and Ravens and owns a win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, too. As good as some of those highlights have been, though, he has had some dark days. Few have been as ugly as this past Sunday. He had a season-low 29.7 QBR. Brutal.

On the flip side, Brady looks as though he’s still adding to a Hall of Fame résumé. How much help has he gotten from New England’s rushing game this year? Does it appear the Patriots have a truly balanced scheme this year?

Reiss: The running game has been solid for three of the first four games of the season, the exception being the Sept. 12 win over the Jets (credit to a strong Jets run D that day). The interesting part has been how all the backs are contributing. It’s a true committee with Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden the top three at this time as Shane Vereen is on the injured reserve/designated to return list. The Patriots aren’t afraid to keep it on the ground, as we saw Sunday night when they ran it 10 straight times at one point. Overall, it’s a team that is playing some good complementary football the past two weeks -- offense, defense, special teams. I try not to overlook that third phase, where kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been particularly solid for them. So how do the Bengals look in that area?

Harvey: Last week’s injuries actually forced the Bengals to keep their most electric returner, Adam Jones, off the field in special teams situations. To make sure they had enough healthy corners, they made sure to relegate him to defense-only status. If the Bengals get a little healthier in the secondary, expect to see him back in return scenarios this week. Cincinnati’s punter, Kevin Huber, has been solid all year. Twice this season he has been recognized by ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon as his Punter of the Week awards. Final question: You asked about Dalton. Now I’m asking about Brady. How much longer can he put up the kind of numbers that has made his career so special so far?

Reiss: There is no sign of decline. Part of what has been so impressive about his work this year is that he’s had to break in so many new targets. He said earlier in the year that it has required more patience, and he’s not generally the patient type, but he’s really like another coach. It’s impressive to watch, and because he takes such good care of himself, I wouldn’t count him out from playing past his 40th birthday. Obviously, there needs to be some good health-based fortune for that to happen. But the clock is ticking and one of the storylines that resonated in New England this year was if the team put enough weapons around him to maximize the special opportunity it has with a once-in-a-lifetime talent. It has been a good debate, but here they are at 4-0 and chugging along, with Brady the catalyst.

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NFLN says: 3-0 Super Bowl contenders?

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
6:55
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Smith, Cutler & BreesGetty ImagesAlex Smith, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees have led their teams to a 3-0 start.
The danger in getting excited about a 3-0 start is that pesky little thing known as "The Other Thirteen Games." Victories in the first three weeks can lead to a 15-1 season, as they did for the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Or they could mean a 2-11 finish and a fired coaching staff, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year.

So let's keep our wits as we analyze the seven teams that have started this season 3-0. It has been four years since that many teams were still perfect after three weeks. The 2009 season offers another lesson in early conclusions: One of the seven (the New Orleans Saints) won the Super Bowl but two finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs altogether (the New York Giants and Denver Broncos).

So who is this year's version of the 2009 Saints? Are there any candidates to emulate the 2012 Cardinals? NFL Nation has some thoughts.

If there is anything to glean from the first three weeks of this season, it's the emergence of two early powerhouses. The Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos have outscored opponents by a combined 213-98, and their individual point differentials of 59 and 56, respectively, are by far the best in the NFL. (The next best is the Kansas City Chiefs at 37).

The Seahawks' path to Super Bowl XLVIII seems clear: Clinch home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where they have won 10 consecutive games, and book their ticket to New York. The Broncos, meanwhile, have scored the second-most points through three games in NFL history and only figure to improve as defensive stalwarts Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury) return to the lineup.

What about the rest?

Has Andy Reid built an instant Super Bowl contender in Kansas City, or will his Chiefs level off? Has Ryan Tannehill really developed into a championship-caliber quarterback for the Miami Dolphins?

Are the Chicago Bears for real after two fourth-quarterback comebacks followed by two defensive touchdowns in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers? The New England Patriots are fortunate to be 3-0, right? And has Sean Payton restored the Saints' magic? Let's take the pulse of NFL Nation.

Which 3-0 teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

The Saints should definitely be considered as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, based on their offensive track record under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2009, but their offense was even better in 2011, when they finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards gained in a season (7,474). I don't expect an exact repeat this year, but I think that's closer to the norm than last year's 7-9 season.

Especially with tight end Jimmy Graham healthy again and back to being one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Clearly, however, the Saints need to improve a run game that has been practically non-existent to keep defenses honest and keep Brees upright.

Meanwhile, the Saints' young defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. I still expect a few growing pains before the season is over. But they don't need to be dominant for the Saints to succeed. And I think they can continue to come up big in some big moments. Players are clearly responding to Ryan's energetic approach and versatile schemes. And they have some bona fide talent to work with in every unit -- including emerging young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season. If the defense can keep playing anywhere near this level, the Saints could run away with the NFC South title.

The undefeated Miami Dolphins are arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins be serious Super Bowl contenders? Let's temper those expectations. The Dolphins absolutely have playoff potential. This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2008. Ending that streak and having a winning season should be Miami's primary goals.

A 3-0 start is terrific, especially after beating the talented Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. But the Dolphins certainly have holes.

Depth is an issue in several areas and will be tested. Miami could be without several defensive starters -- defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) -- against the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The Dolphins also face issues such as pass protection (14 sacks allowed) and having the 28th-ranked rushing attack.

In addition to the undefeated Saints, Miami has tough games against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1), New England Patriots (3-0) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) before the end of October. The Dolphins cannot rest on their early success. They must continue to improve.

The health and production of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the biggest key. However, the Dolphins have a lot to prove over the course of 16 games.

Miami has a perfect record, but it's far from perfect.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the Kansas City Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are No. 1 in the AFC in scoring defense, No. 2 in the conference in scoring differential and, most importantly, tied for first place with a 3-0 record.

But it's another number, one that will be impossible to sustain, that's feeding the Chiefs' success and threatens to reveal them as pretenders once it begins its inevitable correction.

The Chiefs are leading the league in turnover differential at plus-9. They are one of two NFL teams yet to commit a turnover. That's a statistic capable of making a good team look great as long as it lasts. The trouble is, it never does last, at least not at this rate. Once their turnover differential starts to balance out, here is the advantage the Chiefs will lose:

The Chiefs have started 10 possessions on their opponents' end of the field. Their opponents have started one in Kansas City's territory, and even that drive began at the Chiefs' 49.

Such consistently favorable field position can make life easy for a team, and credit to the Chiefs for enjoying the ride while it lasts.

It won't forever. When it ends, the Chiefs will have to make their own way.

Their defense looks capable of doing that, but their offense needs a boost. When it doesn't get one, the Chiefs will suddenly look mortal.

This 3-0 team is better than the Bears squad from 2012, which started 7-1, and is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for a variety of reasons. The Bears have already scored three defensive touchdowns, but the major difference is the club is getting contributions from both sides of the ball and special teams.

Chicago provided evidence of that with quarterback Jay Cutler engineering back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota to start the season, before coming through in the clutch on the road Sunday, bailing out a struggling defense to clinch a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears racked up nine defensive touchdowns last season, which tied for the second most in NFL history. But at this juncture last year, the unit had only one score, yet basically carried the entire team through its impressive first half.

Through the 7-1 start in 2012, skepticism existed because the Bears simply hadn't played good teams. This year, the combined record of the teams first three opponents is 2-7. But don't be fooled, this is a better Bears team.

Cutler is one of the main reasons for that. He's matured. He's accepted the coaching. He's putting in more time to sharpen his craft, while shedding the enigmatic gunslinger persona for a more controlled approach. His protection is better. The front office has surrounded him with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman, who is the architect of a system Cutler believes in.

If there has been one constant of Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams since 2000, it's that they usually get better as the season progresses. Surely, there have been exceptions (2009 comes to mind), but there are no indications this year's team is headed down that path at this point.

The defense has exceeded expectations through three games, although a lingering question is how much of the unit's success is a result of playing weaker competition. Sunday night's game on the road, against the fast-starting Atlanta Falcons, should tell us more about the unit. And while the offense has struggled to find its groove, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski should provide a boost and with Danny Amendola saying he envisions being 100 percent shortly, big-time reinforcements are on the way.

So if you're judging on the present picture, it's understandable that one would say this team isn't a Super Bowl contender. In a game against the Denver Broncos, right now, you would have to pick the Broncos. But this is about projecting what the Patriots could be, and at this point, there's no reason to think they won't evolve as past Belichick teams have. Many of those clubs have been Super Bowl contenders. 

Ferguson fined for fracas in Foxborough

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
5:30
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As expected, D'Brickashaw Ferguson was fined by the league for his role in last Thursday's melee with the Patriots, the left tackle confirmed Wednesday. Ferguson wouldn't reveal the amount of the fine.

Guard Willie Colon and center Nick Mangold said they hadn't heard from the NFL as of Wednesday afternoon. Colon made contact with referee Carl Cheffers and Mangold was penalized for a late hit on cornerback Aqib Talib, who was returning an interception in the final minute. Mangold's tackle triggered the skirmish. Colon and Ferguson, who threw a punch at cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, were ejected from the game.

Some thought Mangold's tackle was a cheap shot, but Talib told ESPN.com Wednesday that he believes it was a clean hit.

UPDATE: A league source said that Ferguson was fined $15,000 for the fight.

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