AFC East: Rob Gronkowski

The Miami Dolphins suffered an ugly 41-13 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday. The loss dropped Miami to 7-7, and the 28-point margin was the largest in a loss for the team this season.

Here are five additional notes and observations on the Dolphins:

  • There will be plenty of speculation over the next two weeks about the future of Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. Owner Stephen Ross was clear this summer that he wanted "improvement" after last year’s 8-8 season, and the Dolphins are currently 7-7. Philbin must win the final two games to make a case to return in 2015. An additional loss could spell the end of the Philbin era in Miami – and there is still a chance that Ross could make a change after a 9-7 finish. Philbin is 22-24 in three seasons and had plenty of time to implement his program. The past two Decembers could be enough proof that Philbin cannot get the Dolphins to the next level.
  • [+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
    Winslow Townson/USA TODAY SportsDespite the lopsided score, Ryan Tannehill wracked up 346 passing yards and made strides in the deep passing game.
    I criticized quarterback Ryan Tannehill often for his lack of deep throws, so it’s only right that I complement his big plays against New England. Tannehill threw the deep ball as consistently as I’ve seen in his three seasons. He connected twice for 50 and 35 yards to Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace and drew a pass-interference penalty on Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner on another deep throw. Even two deep misses to receiver Brian Hartline and running back Damien Williams were not Tannehill's fault. It remains to be seen if this was an anomaly or a sign of things to come. The Dolphins should continue to try to take deep shots with Tannehill in the final two weeks to see if he can consistently execute.
  • Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s motivation of using Dolphins quotes after their Week 1 victory was more manufactured than anything. Miami is not a trash-talking team, and the players were very respectful of New England heading into this week. Belichick had to dig deep and go back to the first week of the season when Dolphins players explained their win – and most of those quotes weren't inflammatory. But credit Belichick for motivating his players. Several Patriots, including cornerback Darrelle Revis, referenced the Dolphins trash-talking even when it can be argued that wasn't the case.
  • Dolphins rookie receiver Jarvis Landry continues to impress. It was somewhat surprising that Belichick opted to put Revis on Landry often on third downs. That is a sign of respect for what Landry has done this season. Landry made a couple of catches over Revis and finished with eight receptions for 99 yards. The 2014 second-round pick has a bright future and will continue to get better.
  • Miami starting linebacker Philip Wheeler had two really poor plays that stood out Sunday. His first was the inability to catch Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during a 17-yard scramble that seemingly went in slow motion. Wheeler chased after Brady, stumbled and couldn’t keep his feet, which allowed Brady to get the big gain. The second play was Wheeler one-on-one against Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski for a 35-yard reception that later set up another touchdown. Wheeler was beaten badly on the play. It’s also partially the fault of the coaching staff to expect Wheeler to cover Gronkowski.
The Miami Dolphins (7-6) will travel to face the New England Patriots (10-3) in a must-win game for Miami.

Here is the team’s final injury report:

Out: G Nate Garner (illness), Anthony Johnson (ankle)

Doubtful: LB Koa Misi (hamstring, knee), LB Jelani Jenkins (foot), LB Jonathan Freeny (hamstring)

Questionable: TE Charles Clay (hamstring, knee), CB Cortland Finnegan (ankle), LB Chris McCain (ankle), CB Jamar Taylor (shoulder)

Probable: DB Walt Aikens (illness), DE Dion Jordan (ankle), TE Dion Sims (neck), S Jimmy Wilson (hamstring)

Analysis: The Dolphins, as expected, will be very thin at linebacker. Misi and Jenkins are not expected to play. Miami will have a tough time defending Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. The Dolphins should be healthier in the secondary. Finnegan and Taylor are both questionable but practiced every day this week. So there is a strong chance one or both will play. This is a must-win game for Miami and the team needs all the healthy players it can get.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins (7-6) are aware their season is on the line Sunday when they travel to face the AFC East-leading New England Patriots (10-3). Miami must run the table in the final three weeks to have a chance at the postseason, while the Patriots can clinch the division title with a victory.

However, if Miami is to keep its season alive, the team most likely must do it with several backup players taking on key roles.

Safety Jimmy Wilson and backup linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Jason Trusnik are all projected to start against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Injuries hit Miami’s defense hard this week. The team lost starting safety Louis Delmas (knee) for the season in last week’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Starting linebackers Koa Misi (hamstring, knee) and Jelani Jenkins (foot) also missed all three practices this week, which puts their status in doubt.

Miami will release its final injury report Friday afternoon.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Wilson said. “We put ourselves here and the only way we’re going to get out of it is if we come to play and fight this Sunday.”

Wilson has received plenty of playing time. He started the first four games of the season -- including the Week 1 win over the Patriots -- due to the suspension of safety Reshad Jones. Now, Wilson will start the final three games following Delmas’ injury.

In between, Wilson was a valuable nickel cornerback for Miami. He has 39 tackles and one interception this season and is looking forward to the opportunity to start against arguably the hottest team in the NFL.

Despite being sizable underdogs, Miami often plays New England tough and has won the past two games in this series.

“It’s going to be a good game,” Wilson said. “I don’t know what everybody is thinking. But we’re going up there to try to come out with a victory. We have to start with this one.”

Look for the Patriots to try to take advantage of Miami’s injuries at linebacker. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski has 73 receptions for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He has the potential to give Miami’s defense major issues.

Trusnik is an eight-year veteran with 34 tackles this season, several of which came on special teams. He started five games due to injuries at linebacker and most likely will make his sixth start of the year Sunday.

Sheppard joined the Dolphins this season and has 12 tackles in limited playing time. But he has 31 career starts with the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills.

“If that’s what it is, I’m ready,” Sheppard said. “I’ve been a starter in this league for three years prior to me coming here. So if that’s what the challenge holds, I’m definitely up for the test.”
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins (7-6) held their third practice of the week in preparation for the New England Patriots (10-3).

Here are some notes and observations:
  • Misi
    The Dolphins were without starting linebackers Jelani Jenkins (foot) and Koa Misi (hamstring, knee) for the third straight practice. This is an awful sign for Miami, who could be very thin at the position. Without Jenkins and Misi, the Dolphins might look to backups Jason Trusnik and Kelvin Sheppard as potential replacements. The Patriots will look to exploit the matchup with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
  • Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Jamar Taylor practiced for the third straight day, which is an encouraging sign. Finnegan missed the past three games with an ankle injury, and Taylor missed the past two with a shoulder injury. Miami needs its cornerback depth against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
  • Backup guard Nate Garner and rookie defensive back Walt Aikens were not present during Thursday’s portion of practice open to the media. Garner has an illness. Aikens had no reported injuries on Wednesday.

The Dolphins will release their final injury report with game designations on Friday. They will travel to Foxborough on Saturday in preparation for Sunday’s must-win game.
DAVIE, Fla. – The Miami Dolphins (7-6) will host the New England Patriots (10-3) Sunday in a big division rivalry game.

Here are some notes on Miami from Wednesday’s practice:
  • The Dolphins were without two starting linebackers for the second day in a row. Leading tackler Jelani Jenkins (foot) and Koa Misi (hamstring) did not participate during the portion of practice open to the media. It would be bad news if either or both were not able to play. Containing Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a major focus for Miami, and it will be a lot tougher playing backup linebackers and a new safety.
  • Miami rookie linebacker Chris McCain returned to practice after missing Tuesday’s session with an ankle injury. Linebacker Jonathan Freeny (hamstring) did not practice and guard Nate Garner (illness) was not present.
  • Cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan (ankle) and Jamar Taylor (shoulder) practiced for the second day in a row, which is good news. The Dolphins certainly need cornerback depth, and both are on track to play after missing five combined games.

The Dolphins will hold their next practice on Thursday.

W2W4: Patriots at Dolphins

September, 6, 2014
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We will know right away if the Miami Dolphins are contenders in the AFC East. They will host the reigning division champion New England Patriots Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.

Here are three things to watch in this matchup:

1. Lazor's offense: There has been a lot of hype surrounding Miami's new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. He is bringing a faster, up-tempo scheme to Miami and many of the same principles he learned under Chip Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles. According to the Dolphins, Lazor has shown only a small portion of the offense in the preseason. Receiver Mike Wallace estimates about “12 percent” of the playbook was used in the four exhibition games. Sunday against New England will be the true unveiling of Lazor's scheme -- for better or for worse.

2. Defending Gronk: The Dolphins' defense will have their hands full with the expected return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who deemed himself ready to return this week from last year's season-ending knee injury. Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties. Miami's linebackers have particularly struggled against the pass last season, and that will be an area Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will look to exploit. Gronkowski, who missed the entire preseason, isn't expected to play every snap. But Gronkowski can still make an impact in 20-30 snaps.

3. Heat index: The Dolphins are hoping for 90-degree weather or close upon kickoff at Sun Life Stadium. Miami has practiced in the blistering heat all summer to get acclimated to the September weather, which the Dolphins expect will be an advantage in their two early home games. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week that his team must be well-conditioned and focused on the fundamentals to get through the heat. Keep an eye on this development, particularly in the third and fourth quarters.
The Miami Dolphins will make their regular-season debut Sunday against the rival New England Patriots.

Here is the final injury report for both teams:

Dolphins

Out: C Mike Pouncey (hip), LB Jordan Tripp (chest), DE Terrence Fede (knee), LB Philip Wheeler (thumb)

Doubtful: G Billy Turner (foot)

Probable: S Walt Aikens (hand), LB Koa Misi (shoulder), CB Jamar Taylor (hip), LB Chris McCain (hip)

Patriots

Out: DL Michael Buchanan (ankle), DT Chris Jones (ankle)

Questionable: QB Tom Brady (calf), TE Rob Gronkowski (knee), DT Sealver Siliga (hand)

Injury analysis: Miami has a sizable injury report for Week 1. The biggest absence is for Wheeler, a starting outside linebacker. He practiced some during the week but was ruled out Friday. The Dolphins, who already have issues at linebacker, will have to look at backup options such as Jason Trusnik, McCain or Jelani Jenkins. Pouncey, Tripp and Fede hadn’t practiced all week and were expected to miss this game. For the Patriots, Brady and Gronkowski are the biggest names. But both are expected to play.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The first offering of bad news happened this morning for the Miami Dolphins' defense: New England Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski declared himself ready to return in Week 1.

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
Miami’s defense has traditionally struggled against the Patriots’ offense. The Dolphins will be preparing for a New England team at full strength Sept. 7 at Sun Life Stadium to open the regular season.

Though Gronkowski’s return is news to the rest of the league, the Dolphins were not surprised. Miami was bracing for Gronkowski, who is coming off an ACL tear, as soon as the NFL schedule was released in April.

"We were fully prepared. We saw he was on the 53-man roster so we have to be prepared for every combination," Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said Monday. "He’s an excellent player. He’s been very productive throughout his career. So we will have a good plan in place. ... We will be ready for him, for sure."

Gronkowski provides perhaps the biggest matchup problem Miami has on defense. The Dolphins' linebackers are one of the most inconsistent groups on the team -- both against the run and the pass. Gronkowski is arguably the NFL’s best tight end when healthy and New England quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target in the red zone.

However, if the Dolphins focus too much on one player it could open things up for others on New England's offense, such as receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.

"We’ve got to defend their entire group and that’s a big enough chore as it is," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "We assumed that he would be playing. So that’s kind of how we’ve been proceeding since the spring."

This will be an interesting chess match between two division opponents who know each other well. The team which best took advantage of the extra prep time will start the regular season 1-0.

"You’re always able to spend more time on your first opponent -- and that goes back to spring," Coyle said. "Certain things that we worked on, and certain things we exposed our players to, I think they have a better feeling now than if it were Game 5 or 6 during the regular season."
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.
The term is often used when it comes to football personnel -- "We need a No. 1."

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
Matt Williamson of ESPN.com's Insider team attempts to quantify exactly what that means, listing out his criteria for what makes a true No. 1 pass-catcher Insider. Considering a formula of getting open, having the necessary strength and size, productivity and consistency, Williamson then ranks his top "No. 1" pass-catchers in the NFL.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is trumped by only one player -- and he's in Detroit.

"If healthy, Gronk is the perfect tight end, and frankly, he could be the most impressive tight end who has ever played this game," Williamson writes.

Williamson's piece sparks thoughts about Gronkowski and how the Patriots' offense takes on a different look when he's on the field. It also shines a brighter spotlight on the team's tight end personnel, which currently includes Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams. It's possible bigger receiver Mark Harrison could also be included in the mix.

While the Patriots have been active in free agency and appear to have improved overall, the greatest improvement might simply be Gronkowski's return to the field, whenever that may be.

New England Patriots season wrap-up

January, 22, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 4
Preseason power ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: How about a murder charge to a tight end who had previously been thought of as a centerpiece of the team? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge threatened to sink the Patriots' season before it even started, but in a credit to Bill Belichick, his staff and the players, it was hardly a distraction as they once again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. There were no on-field surprises that could come close to topping that.

.Biggest disappointment: Rob Gronkowski's knee injury Dec. 8. This falls into the wider-ranging category of “season-ending injuries to top players” and the Patriots had their fair share early in the season -- defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6), linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 27). But Gronkowski’s felt like a season-changer in some respects, deflating some of the optimism that had been built up at that point because the offense looked markedly different with him back on the field.

Biggest need: Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. The four-game stretch of football he played from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13 was as impressive as we’ve seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, the highlight coming when he was matched up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch before leaving in the third quarter with injury. The 2013 season showed how the Patriots’ defense is different with a healthy No. 1 matchup option like Talib, with the final piece of evidence coming in the AFC Championship Game when he left with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Team MVP: It has to be quarterback Tom Brady, with Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski the other strong candidates. This was a “do more with less” type season for Brady, similar to 2006, and he willed the offense to productive results despite almost a complete overhaul. He’s the consummate leader, almost like another coach, and the Patriots don’t advance to the conference championship without him.

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Agent: Gronk's ACL surgery 'went very well'

January, 9, 2014
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Gronkowski
Gronkowski
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent surgery on his torn right ACL on Thursday, his agent said.

Noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed the procedure.

“Dr. Andrews said it went very well,” agent Drew Rosenhaus tweeted.

Gronkowski tore both his ACL and MCL in a game against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 8. Surgery on the ACL was delayed to allow time for the MCL to heal.

The surgery gives Gronkowski a 6 1/2-month window until the projected start of 2014 training camp in late July.

Unique sight as players go to movies

December, 20, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In shutting down the laptop and packing up the work bag around 12:15 p.m. today, it turned out to be good timing to see a most unique sight in departing Gillette Stadium:

Patriots players, as a group, were heading to the movies at nearby Patriot Place.

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
One by one, they walked out of the large blue gate that separates the pavilion area outside of the team Hall of Fame from the Gillette Stadium playing field, before proceeding to elevators that brought them to the level of the nearby cinema. The theater itself is essentially a long Tom Brady touchdown pass away from the team's locker room.

Many of those shopping in the area quickly took out their phones to snap pictures, and one image stood out above all else -- head athletic trainer Jim Whalen pushing injured tight end Rob Gronkowski in a wheelchair, with Gronkowski's right knee/leg elevated.

As colleague Field Yates noted, sometimes trips like this can serve as a bonding experience, as long as they don't come at the expense of work. And at this point of the week, most of the Patriots' work is completed. Then again, the Jets tried something similar the night before a November game against the Bills, with a team excursion to Dave & Busters, but it didn't produce the desired result.

In the end, the idea of breaking routine, ever so slightly, comes down to a head coach's feel for his team.

Bill Belichick was expansive and engaging in his morning news conference, going into detail on a variety of topics. Players relayed in the locker room early this morning that Belichick has generally been pretty positive with them this week as well.

That seems to be a theme of the past few days.

After a tough loss to the Dolphins, and now a challenging road game at Baltimore on Sunday, the out-of-the-norm vibe has been notable at Gillette Stadium. This could, among other things, be geared toward keeping a younger team loose as the playoff stakes get higher.
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.

Power Rankings: No. 4 New England

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
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A weekly examination of the Patriots' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 6 | Last Week: 4 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Patriots remain in the No. 4 spot for the third straight week. They trail the Seahawks, Broncos and Saints in the rankings. A look at the voting shows that they received two third-place votes, one fourth-place vote, one fifth-place vote and two sixth-place votes.

Are they really the fourth-best team in the NFL?

I think it's generous right now, especially after the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury. But that doesn't mean the chances of being No. 1 when it counts most are necessarily eliminated.

The Patriots are in the hunt, and that's all most teams can ask for at this time of year. This is a week for them to recalibrate and, first and foremost, clinch the AFC East championship (which happens with a victory). Then the focus could intensify on potential playoff positioning.

The Patriots' remaining games are on the road against the Dolphins (16) and Ravens (14) before the season finale at home against the Bills (26).

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