AFC East: Road to the Superdome

"The Tuna" is heading to Canton, Ohio.

After three years of missing the cut, former coach Bill Parcells was voted into the 2013 Hall of Fame class. He will join a distinguished modern-era group that includes Jonathan Ogden, Cris Carter, Warren Sapp and Larry Allen. Dave Robinson and Curley Culp are two additional entrants not from the modern era.

Parcells is best known for changing the fortunes of franchises. He won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Parcells also got the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl. In his NFL swan song, Parcells led the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs in his first year as team president in 2008.

He was a rarity in that he could both recognize talent as good as any general manager and coach them up on the field. Many have tried that approach and failed.

The news was good for Parcells, but not good for fellow AFC East representative Andre Reed. The former Buffalo Bills receiver was passed over as a finalist for the seventh time.

Reed's Hall of Fame window might be closing. We are in the era of high-volume passing in the NFL, and soon there will be more and more receivers coming down the pipe with off-the-chart numbers. Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss, when he retires, are three that immediately come to mind.

The more time that goes by, the less impressive Reed's numbers from the 1980s and 1990s will appear.

While Parcells celebrates Saturday, Reed has to look ahead to another tough year of waiting for a Hall of Fame call.
The New England Patriots were 0-3 this season against the two teams competing in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVII. The Baltimore Ravens beat New England both the regular season and playoffs, and the San Francisco 49ers entered Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots in December.

Both teams taught the Patriots a valuable lesson: New England must improve its overall physicality in 2013.

The Patriots advanced to the AFC title game and was just one step away from making the Super Bowl. But New England got beaten up and pounded this season when facing top teams like San Francisco and Baltimore. The 49ers and Ravens accounted for three of the Patriots’ five losses, and the common theme was that New England lost to the more physical teams. Indeed, the Seattle Seahawks used the same blueprint of beating up the Patriots to win in Week 6.

The Patriots are not a soft team, but there are finesse elements in their schemes. For example, New England runs a spread offense that relies much more on tempo than physicality. Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd are good, finesse players upon whom San Francisco and Baltimore pounded for four quarters. On defense, New England could not consistently get to the quarterback, and receivers and tight ends had no fear making tough catches against its secondary.

New England doesn't need to tweak much to remain in the title hunt in 2013. But being more physical is one thing the Patriots should work on if they want to get past bruising teams like the Ravens and 49ers.

AFC East Super Bowl connections

January, 28, 2013
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It is Super Bowl week in New Orleans, as the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens and NFC champion San Francisco 49ers take over the bayou.

Obviously, the AFC East will not participate in the biggest game of the season. But there are some Super Bowl connections from this division to keep an eye on.

Here is your handy Super Bowl guide as it pertains to the AFC East:
  • Future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss is back in the Super Bowl for the first time since getting there as a member of the New England Patriots following the 2007 season. Moss recorded a career-high 23 touchdowns that year with Tom Brady and played three seasons total in New England. Moss is now a role player with the 49ers and has 28 receptions this season.
  • Baltimore backup safety James Ihedigbo is in the Super Bowl for the second straight year. Last season he made it as a safety for New England. This year’s Ihedigbo is in as a member of Baltimore. Ihedigbo also played with the New York Jets for three seasons.
  • Former Buffalo Bills safety Donte Whitner is now a standout player for the 49ers. Whitner is a former Bills first-round pick who spent five seasons in Buffalo. He bolted Buffalo to play with a winning team in San Francisco and now is playing in his first Super Bowl. Whitner also played in last year’s NFC Championship Game.
  • Ravens defensive tackle Arthur Jones never played in the AFC East. But he is the older brother of New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones. The two brothers played this year and Arthur got the best of the younger Chandler both times.
  • San Francisco wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. is a former first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. Ginn played three seasons in Miami and was mostly a disappointment. He caught 128 receptions but did most of his damage on kick returns for the Dolphins.

Video: Will Brady be disciplined?

January, 23, 2013
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Adam Schefter discusses whether the NFL might discipline Tom Brady for his slide near Ed Reed in the AFC Championship Game.

Patriots' title window is still open

January, 23, 2013
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Tom Brady and Bill BelichickKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsWith Tom Brady and Bill Belichick back for another season together in New England, the Patriots remain the strong favorite to win the AFC East.
The day after the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens felt like a funeral in the heart of Patriots country.

The employees at my Foxborough, Mass., hotel -- some who sported Patriots jerseys -- were sullen. The day seemed gloomy outside, and Logan International Airport didn't have the same buzz and energy it did when I arrived two days earlier.

This was expected to be the season the Patriots got over the hump and celebrated their first Super Bowl victory since the 2004 season. New England had the top-rated offense, an improved defense and a 35-year-old quarterback still playing at an MVP level. In addition, the Patriots caught breaks the past few weeks that gave the team home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

But the tough and talented Ravens had other plans.

New England's upset loss to Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game will sting Patriots fans for a while. But New Englanders shouldn't fret. The Patriots are primed and ready to make another title push in 2013.

Here are five reasons the Patriots' championship window remains open:

Reason No. 1: Tom Brady

Analysis: Yes, Brady will be 36 at the start of next season. But Brady has shown no signs of slowing down and should be an elite quarterback for at least the next two or three seasons. Brady threw for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2012, receiving strong MVP consideration once again. But Brady's recent playoff struggles are well-documented. After a 10-0 start in the postseason, Brady is just 7-7 in his past 14 playoff starts. However, Brady has done enough to get the Patriots in position for another title. The Patriots have been within a drive of winning two Super Bowls and gone 2-2 in AFC Championship Games since 2005. As long as New England continues to knock on the championship door, the team has a chance to break through. With a healthy Brady in 2013, there’s no reason the Patriots shouldn't be one of the favorites again in the AFC.

Reason No. 2: Bill Belichick

Analysis: There are a lot of people who do not like Belichick's demeanor. He’s not the most likeable head coach in the NFL or the best sportsman, according to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. But Belichick is the league's best head coach. Three championships and five Super Bowl appearances highlight a résumé no other current coach can match. As long as Belichick is roaming the sidelines, the Patriots usually have the coaching advantage on game days. Belichick has delivered double-digit wins in New England every season since 2003. That is a mark of tremendous consistency. New England has the winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history with Belichick and Brady. No other club has this level of elite coaching and quarterbacking.

Reason No. 3: Weak AFC East

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Is the window closed on the Patriots winning another Super Bowl?

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    28%
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    57%
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    15%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,080)

Analysis: For the Patriots to fall from the top of the AFC East, another team has to rise up in the division. Based on the '12 season, there is still a significant gap between the Patriots and everyone else. The New York Jets are a mess that will take at least a year or two to clean up. The Buffalo Bills are starting over and rebuilding under a rookie head coach in Doug Marrone and probably a new quarterback. The Bills will have to suffer through a learning curve next season. The Miami Dolphins have the best chance to immediately challenge New England in 2013. Miami has a good, young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and plenty of cap room and draft picks to build a strong roster. But the Dolphins have to make all the right moves in order to become an immediate contender. New England's gateway to success and the playoffs has been winning the AFC East. The Patriots will enter next season as the hands-down favorite once again to win the division.

Reason No. 4: Young talent

Analysis: The Patriots often get the reputation of a veteran team because of leaders like Brady on offense and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork on defense. However, New England won 13 games this season, including playoffs, with a host of young players. The Patriots had 16 players who were 26 or under starting full or part time. Starting running back Stevan Ridley and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are just 23 years old. Starting left tackle Nate Solder is 24. Rookies such as linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chandler Jones and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard also round out a strong and productive rookie class. If most or all of these young players continue to improve and develop into their roles, New England will be even more dangerous next season.

Reason No. 5: Improving defense

Analysis: New England's defense made good strides in 2012, particularly in the second half of the season. The Patriots were 25th in total defense -- up six spots from a year ago -- and ninth in both scoring and run defense. New England learned in the AFC title game loss to the Ravens that it still needs significant improvement in the secondary. The cornerback position is very thin, and the team fell apart when Aqib Talib left the game with a thigh injury. Talib will be an unrestricted free agent, and that is an area New England must address in the offseason. New England's aforementioned draft that included Hightower, Jones and Dennard played a large part in the Patriots' defensive improvements.

The Patriots have done a masterful job the past dozen years of reloading and not rebuilding. Having an elite quarterback such as Brady in the fold certainly makes a huge difference.

But New England's window will not be open forever. The time is now for the Patriots to make another title run before Brady and Belichick call it quits. Once this power pair walks away from New England in a few years, the Patriots will have ups and downs like every other NFL franchise.

Tom Brady apologizes to Ed Reed

January, 22, 2013
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Ravens safety Ed Reed told WJZ-FM in Baltimore that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady apologized to Reed for his controversial slide in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

Toward the end of the first half, Brady slid and lifted his leg toward Reed's knee on a play that could have caused an injury. There has been plenty of debate in the past 48 hours whether Brady's actions were intentional. According to a SportsNation poll Tuesday in the AFC East blog, an overwhelming amount of readers believe that was a dirty play by Brady.

But Brady cleared the air with Reed by personally apologizing. The next step is to see what happens with the NFL. The league is reviewing the play to see if Brady will be fined.

Poll: Was Tom Brady's slide dirty?

January, 22, 2013
1/22/13
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The fallout from the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens continues.

SportsNation

Does Tom Brady deserve a fine for his cleats-up slide into Ed Reed in the AFC Championship Game?

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    69%
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    31%

Discuss (Total votes: 122,813)

The latest development is that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's controversial slide near the end of the first half is under review. The NFL will determine whether Brady will be fined by the NFL for lifting his leg and connecting with the knee of Ravens Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed.

Was Brady protecting himself or was this a dirty play?

The replay will be played over and over in the NFL offices this week. But now is your time to play commissioner.

Feel free to vote here in our SportsNation poll on Brady's controversial play. You can also share your thoughts in the comments section below.
There was a time when quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick were untouchable in big games. The New England Patriots' power pair was undefeated in their first 10 playoff games together, which included a run of three Super Bowls in four years from 2001-2004.

But since then, the Hall of Fame duo has been hit or miss in the postseason. The Patriots are just 7-7 in their past 14 playoff games, which includes a 0-2 record in Super Bowls and Sunday’s upset loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Are Brady and Belichick no longer clutch? That's a fair question to ask at this stage of their careers.

Brady and Belichick have amassed more wins than any quarterback and coach combination in NFL history. But for all their early success in big games, New England has had just as many playoff disappointments in recent years. The Patriots were beaten twice by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl the past four seasons.

Some have classified New England's loss to Baltimore Sunday as a choke job. The Patriots were more than a touchdown favorite and never lost at home in an AFC title game.

I disagree and I think the Ravens were just a better team. Baltimore proved it by beating the Patriots over eight quarters this year in both the regular season and playoffs.

Counting on Brady and Belichick to come through in a big game is no longer a safe assumption. The pair has developed a reputation for being clutch due to their early Super Bowl wins, but that equity has run out.

They have built a tremendous legacy together, but just as their first four years will be remembered for key performances and championship wins, their past eight years will be known for coming up short in big games.

Video: Is this the end of Patriots era?

January, 22, 2013
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The "NFL Live" panel discusses whether the New England Patriots have reached the end of their title window.

Reviewing the Patriots' blame game

January, 21, 2013
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The key third-quarter drop by Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker certainly wasn’t the only reason the New England Patriots lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Baltimore Ravens. There was plenty of blame to go around.

Here are several key plays and players that crushed New England’s hopes to advance to Super Bowl XLVII:
  • The pass coverage was horrendous once Aqib Talib went out with a thigh injury in the first quarter. Backup cornerback Kyle Arrington and rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard struggled against Baltimore’s tandem of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin had two touchdown receptions and made several big catches in traffic in which he won the one-on-one battles. New England’s linebackers also failed to cover over the middle. Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, in particular, had trouble keeping up with Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who had five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown.
  • Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played one of his worst games of the season. Brady, who has struggled against Baltimore in his career, was 29-of-54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Ravens did a masterful job against Brady by not allowing many big plays. His longest completion was for 36 yards, but that was in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Baltimore also didn’t get any sacks but hit Brady seven times, which was enough to rattle him. One interception was off a deflection, and another was in the end zone to Ravens cornerback Cary Williams.
  • Speaking of Brady, his rare poor clock management at the end of the first half was inexcusable. New England was leading by a field goal and had a chance to go up by 10 points with a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. Brady connected with Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for 17 yards to get to Baltimore’s 10-yard line with 26 seconds left. Brady only got one play off in 26 seconds, which was a quarterback sneak, before using New England’s final timeout. The Patriots settled for a field goal to go up 13-7 at halftime. But a touchdown to go up 17-7 at the half could have dramatically changed the momentum of the game for New England.
  • Patriots starting tailback Stevan Ridley’s fumbling issues came up again in a big spot. Ridley was knocked out of the game with a concussion during a fourth-quarter fumble that sealed any hopes of the Patriots coming back in the game. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard delivered a crushing blow to Ridley, who walked off the field under his own power.

Baltimore outplayed New England in just about every facet of this game. This is further proof that you always have to be at your best in the playoffs.
Wes Welker Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWes Welker will be a polarizing figure this offseason as the Patriots decide whether to sign him to an extension or to let him walk as a free agent.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There were so much media surrounding Wes Welker's locker Sunday night that the diminutive, 5-foot-9 receiver had to raise his voice to clear a pathway.

"Can I get to my locker, please?" Welker said tersely. "Thank you."

The stern tone of his voice was telling. Welker was clearly frustrated after the New England Patriots suffered a 28-13 home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

Welker's final stats look solid. He had eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. But for the second year in a row, Welker had another infamous postseason drop that will go down in Patriots lore.

On third-and-8 with New England leading 13-7, the Patriots drove to the Ravens' 34-yard line aiming to take control of the game. New England quarterback Tom Brady found Welker wide open to his left that would have been another first down. Instead, Welker dropped the pass and forced New England to punt.

The game went downhill for the Patriots after that. New England didn't score the rest of the way and the Ravens recorded 21 unanswered points to advance to Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers.

Welker’s drops have a way of propelling other teams to victory in the playoffs. His fourth-quarter drop in last year’s Super Bowl led to the New York Giants’ game-winning drive and more heartache for the Patriots.

On Sunday, Welker played well otherwise. But he was roughed up in an important third quarter. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard put a helmet-to-helmet hit on Welker and was flagged 15 yards just three plays before his drop.

"Yeah, I was fine, I was fine," Welker said, not making any excuses. "It was just, you know, a missed opportunity."

The once sure-handed Welker has had a lot of "missed opportunities," as he calls it, since Super Bowl XLVI. In fact, Welker led the AFC with 11 drops during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Based on that trend, it wasn't a surprise Welker's hands failed him again in a big spot in Sunday's AFC title game.

Welker is now an unrestricted free agent and will enter the offseason as a polarizing figure. Will Patriots fans most remember Welker's five 100-catch seasons, or the two huge drops in the Super Bowl and AFC title game? That's also a question for the Patriots to answer at the negotiating table.

Welker's production will command a large extension and big annual salary. It's difficult to imagine New England's offense without him. However, it’s also difficult to imagine the Patriots overpaying for a receiver who will be 32 in May, especially after recently paying large extensions to tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

The franchise tag also seems unlikely. New England paid Welker a one-year franchise tender of $9.5 million to retain him this season. But that number goes up to $11.4 million in 2013. That is too expensive for a one-year rental and would eat up New England's salary cap.

It appears it's either a multi-year extension or bust for Welker and the Patriots, who both have about five weeks to make a decision before the Pro Bowl receiver hits the open market.

“I’m really not worried about it at all,” Welker said of his contract status. “This is a tough loss and I’m just trying to get over it at the moment. Like I said, I’m not worried about any of it.”

New England was outplayed in just about every facet. Baltimore was much better in the red zone and won the turnover battle 3-to-1. Welker’s drop was a major turning point, but Patriots players and coaches refused to talk about just one play Sunday night.

“There are a lot of plays in the game; there’s a lot of things we could have done better -- all of us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It really wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t as good as the Ravens tonight. That’s why they’re moving on and we’re not. They were just better than we were in really everything.”

Welker dressed slowly at his locker Sunday night. You imagine the emotions going through his head after a tough loss and wonder whether this was his final shot to win a title with the Patriots.

The final question asked to Welker was how will he get over this game under tough circumstances.

“Same way I did last time,” Welker explained. “The sun will come up tomorrow and you just try to move on.”

But has the sun set on Welker’s career in New England? That is the multimillion dollar question.


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game:

What it means: The AFC title game was the end of the road for the Patriots. Quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick were 3-0 in this round at home, but Baltimore did a good job of controlling the pace of the game, then pulling away in the fourth quarter with timely plays to advance to the Super Bowl. New England was swept by the Ravens in two meetings this season. Brady also fell short of his goal of a sixth Super Bowl appearance. That would have set a record for a starting quarterback. Time is running out for Brady to win another championship. He will be 36 at the start of next season.

Secondary struggles: The Patriots suffered a huge injury in the first quarter and never recovered. New England No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring and was knocked out of the game. Talib is New England's best cover corner, and his absence changed the way the team played defense. Without Talib, Baltimore’s offense took advantage and made plays against rookie corner Alfonzo Dennard and inconsistent teammate Kyle Arrington. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had another good outing. He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns against New England's poor secondary.

No filling in for Gronkowski: The Patriots needed other players to step up for injured Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. New England got good contributions from tight end Aaron Hernandez (nine catches) and receivers Brandon Lloyd (seven catches) and Wes Welker (eight catches), but it wasn't enough. None of these players was able to make the big plays, especially to get in the end zone. Welker had a big drop on third down that had a chance to change the momentum of the game. New England's 13 points was its lowest total of the season.

Other injuries: In addition to Talib, the Patriots had key injuries to starting running back Stevan Ridley and defensive tackle Kyle Love. Ridley suffered a concussion after taking a devastating hit by Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. Love injured his knee in the first quarter and didn't return.

What’s next: The Patriots' season is over. New England will now enter the offseason trying to improve in several areas. The Patriots are in pretty good shape with the cap and in free agency. The biggest question is: What will they do with pending free agents Welker and Talib?
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots lead the Baltimore Ravens, 13-7, at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:
  • Injuries are becoming a factor for New England. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring in the first quarter and didn't return. He is New England's best cover corner and his return was announced as questionable. But it wouldn't be shocking if Talib is done for this game. Patriots defensive lineman Kyle Love also left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury and didn't return in the first half. His return was announced as questionable. New England rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) dressed for the game but hasn't played in the first half.
  • New England receiver Brandon Lloyd had one of his best first halves of the season. Lloyd has four receptions for 40 yards. Someone had to step up in the absence of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the postseason with a broken arm. Brady and Lloyd haven’t been on the same page for much of the season, but that wasn’t the case in the first half. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez also has six receptions.
  • The Patriots used some trickery in the first quarter. New England put quarterback Ryan Mallett on the field in what appeared to be a fake punt on fourth-and-2. It was a play the Patriots haven’t used all season. Baltimore blew a timeout after seeing the unfamiliar alignment.
  • Overall, it was an ugly first half by both teams. Neither club really got its offense going and both teams struggled on third-down conversions. The Patriots even botched some clock management before halftime and settle for a field goal. Expect a better played second half by both teams.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the New England Patriots you won’t see in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens:

Countdown Live: AFC Championship Game

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
2:30
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the AFC Championship Game between the Baltimore Ravens and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. See you there.

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