AFC North: New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will be without their best pass-rusher, Chandler Jones, for "about a month," according to the Boston Globe. With that news breaking Tuesday night and the Dallas Cowboys releasing defensive end Michael Sam off their practice squad, some have asked on Twitter if the Patriots and Sam might be a match.

Sam is the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, and there is widespread interest in his next potential landing spot.

The Patriots lost a pass-rusher, and Sam's greatest football attribute is pass-rushing, so it makes sense that these dots have been connected. The Patriots also have openings on their practice squad.

So how about it?

If the Patriots didn't just trade for Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers and didn't have other end-of-the-line players on the practice squad in Jake Bequette and Darius Fleming, I'd feel stronger about the possibility of Sam landing on New England's practice squad. Even with Jones sidelined, the Patriots have a bit of a logjam at the position when factoring in their active roster (53 players) and practice squad (10 players).

Between rookie Zach Moore (sixth round, Concordia), Bequette and Fleming, those are three younger defensive end/outside linebackers that Sam would essentially duplicate when looking at the 63-player snapshot.

Practice-squad players are critical in that they fill out depth so the team can have a productive practice and top players won't be overworked, and that's why I think it's unlikely that the Patriots would bring Sam aboard instead of filling in other areas where they have more of a depth shortage.

Bengals vs. Patriots preview

October, 3, 2014
Sunday night’s game between the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium has intrigue on both sides.

Are the efficient, attacking Bengals, who at 3-0 have been as impressive as any team through the first quarter of the season, for real?

And will the 2-2 Patriots, who are reeling after an embarrassing 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night, turn in a second straight dud on national television that will elevate the heightened panic level in New England that much more? NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Coley Harvey (Bengals) break it down:

Reiss: Coley, the Bengals are coming off their bye and the Patriots have the short week after the "Monday Night Football" meltdown. How fair is it to say this game is a measuring stick for the Bengals, or are they more past that at this point?

Harvey: Personally, Mike, I think it’s fair to call this a measuring stick type of game for the Bengals. If you ask the players and coaches, though, they’ll give you a far different answer. As defensive end Wallace Gilberry was quick to put it earlier this week: “There are still 13 games to play, man.” Indeed, it’s early, and indeed there are other games on the schedule that certainly will let the Bengals know how good they are, but this is a good early test. Not only are they playing a Patriots team desperate to prove that last Monday at Kansas City was a fluke -- Gilberry was among those in Cincinnati’s locker room who dismissed the notion that the blowout was a precursor to something bigger for New England -- but the Bengals also are facing a team that defends its home turf quite well. Like the Bengals, the Patriots are on a double-digit home winning streak. Still, having said all of that, I contend that a Bengals win inside what should be a hostile Gillette Stadium would prove that they are worthy of the No. 1 Power Ranking that several others and I have been quick to bestow upon them since they stomped Tennessee to improve to 3-0 in Week 3. A win also would prove that Andy Dalton, a quarterback who has lost four of six career regular-season games in prime time, is better this season than he has been in years past.

The Patriots don’t often crumble on a big stage the way they did Monday night in Kansas City. As someone who has been around these guys for a while, what is it about this team, Mike, that could convince you they respond -- even on a short week -- with a much more favorable outcome in Sunday's game?

Reiss: The leadership in the locker room would be the main thing, Coley. They have some good men in that room, starting with quarterback Tom Brady, and that leadership helped them recover from a disappointing Week 1 loss at Miami. I sensed from talking to players this week that they were disgusted with their performance Monday, starting with a lack of energy and emotion from the get-go. You can’t go into that frenzied environment that way and think that's acceptable. I expect them to play with greater passion on Sunday night. Whether that will be good enough, or if it's more of a talent issue, we'll find out.

The Bengals released former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis at the end of the preseason. Many in New England would probably be interested to know what led to that and how the team’s offense has taken shape in his absence.

Harvey: All Patriots fans need to know about Green-Ellis’ release is the following date: May 9, 2014. That was the night the Bengals took running back Jeremy Hill with the 55th pick in the draft. Even though Bengals coaches staunchly defended Green-Ellis and said Hill’s selection had nothing to do with the veteran, the writing appeared on the wall for the Law Firm. His days were numbered. As soon as Hill started practicing in organized team activities and minicamp, it became clear that he was the future. He ran like a new Porsche off the showroom floor. Green-Ellis was remarkably slower and less agile, sputtering along like a 1985 jalopy with a sluggish transmission. When Green-Ellis got hurt near the end of the preseason and didn’t play in the last two games, it seemed likely that he would be cut. And then he was. Green-Ellis’ 3.4 yards per carry and lacking reliability with the football in his hands last season also had an adverse effect on his chances of staying with the team. After not fumbling once in New England, Green-Ellis fumbled five times in his two seasons with the Bengals.

I’m stunned I’m actually typing these words, but: The Patriots’ offense through four games ranks among the worst in the league in several categories. To me, it all seemed like premature conjecture this offseason when debates raged over whether Brady was getting over the hill. But it seems like the question does appear a legitimate one to pose: Have we seen the best of Brady?

Reiss: To play off your analogy, Coley, this offense is in need of a big-time tuneup. There are several issues, and Brady contributed to them on Monday with some poor decision-making. But my take after film study has been that Brady’s struggles are more a result of factors around him -- poor, inconsistent offensive line play and limited options in the passing game are tops on the list -- and I still believe that. Put Brady around different talent -- the Broncos', for example -- and I think we’d see markedly different results.

As for the defense that Brady faces Sunday night, what are the Bengals doing, and who are some of the key players making them so effective?

Harvey: It’s funny, some of my colleagues here in Cincinnati and I were joking about how you’re hard-pressed to find anyone who mentions Mike Zimmer’s name around Paul Brown Stadium these days. That’s not a knock on Zimmer, the current Vikings head coach who left his six-year post as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator in January. Instead it’s a credit to how well Paul Guenther has taught his scheme to his players. As good as the Bengals were under Zimmer -- they ranked third in total defense last season -- they look even better under Guenther, even if the rankings are lower in most respects. There’s a modified bend-but-don’t break philosophy that has made them one of the better units so far this year. The Bengals may allow big yards on first and second down, but come third down, they largely buckle down and hold. They rank second in third-down defense. Guenther is the big key to the defense’s effectiveness, particularly because of how well he has taught his aggressive defense. He was in charge of blitz calls and third-down scheming when Zimmer was in charge. It’s evident that that was Guenther’s strength, too, because all the Bengals seemingly do on third down is blitz. As far as players, you have to acknowledge Gilberry and fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap for solid play, as well as the three veteran cornerbacks Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman, for keeping the unit afloat while linebacker Vontaze Burfict has struggled with concussion issues.

Despite allowing 41 points this week, New England’s defense has been rather strong all season. The unit has given up nine or fewer points twice this year, and ranks in the top 5 in yards per game allowed, passing yards per game allowed and opposing quarterbacks’ QBR. Where does the Patriots’ best pressure appear to come, Mike? I ask because Dalton has been much better about handling it this year as opposed to years' past.

Reiss: The defense has been way too inconsistent, specifically against the run. Meanwhile, the pressure has been nonexistent for long stretches, which is a big concern. Chandler Jones is their best pass-rusher at right defensive end, and he has a right shoulder injury suffered in the second quarter Monday night that bears monitoring. They’ve been effective blitzing up the middle at times with linebacker Jerod Mayo, but I wouldn’t call them a pressure-based defense. In a game like this, where Dalton gets the ball out so quickly, it will be interesting to see how many pressure-based calls the Patriots make. My educated guess would be they are minimal.
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.
FOXBORO, Mass. -- Josh Gordon continues to set new standards for himself, and the league.

Gordon had his fourth amazing game in a row in the Cleveland Browns' 27-26 loss to New England, accounting for 37 percent of the Browns' offense with 151 yards receiving and 34 rushing on a reverse.

[+] EnlargeJosh Gordon
David Butler II/USA TODAY SportsGoing up against Patriots CB Aqib Talib, Josh Gordon creates room to run. The Browns' WR finished Sunday's game with 185 total yards.
The 34 yards led the Browns.

Gordon also scored an 80-yard touchdown, giving him touchdowns the past two weeks of 95 and 80 yards. Both were eye-opening, as he ran away from defenders with what looks like little effort.

On Sunday's touchdown, he caught a slant from Jason Campbell -- who had quite a day on his own with 391 yards and three TDs -- and ran away from Aqib Talib.

Talib is one of the league’s most physical and talented corners, and the New England Patriots used him a lot on Gordon.

But Gordon was more physical.

"Hey," Talib said. "He’s a hell of a player, man ... He's going to make some noise in this league."


He already is.

In his past four games, Gordon has 774 yards receiving -- an NFL record. In his last three, he has 649.

He also has 1,400 yards for the season -- a Browns record (that, probably thankfully, breaks the mark held by Braylon Edwards).

He has seven 100-yard games this season, and five touchdowns the last four games. Tight end Jordan Cameron is having an excellent season (72 catches, seven TDs), but Gordon’s play is unprecedented.

The way he ran away from Talib on the touchdown was a sight to behold. Talib had the early angle on Gordon when he caught the pass, but within four steps Gordon was pulling away.

The skills, size, speed and talent that prompted Tom Heckert to shock the league by taking Gordon in the second round of the supplemental draft are exploding on the NFL scene. He is an extremely talented player doing everything he can to help his team.

Too, one of these weeks the Browns will actually win one of these games in which Gordon is so special.

Live blog: Browns at Patriots

December, 8, 2013
Join our NFL experts as they break down the Cleveland Browns' visit to the New England Patriots. 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.
NFL coaches can usually find a kind word, or a thousand, about an upcoming opponent.

Even a bad team becomes disciplined and well coached when they’re the upcoming opponent.

So perhaps Ray Horton’s adoration of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady should be taken with a grain of salt.

Or perhaps it shouldn’t.

“I believe he’s the greatest draft pick in the history of football,” Horton, the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator, said. “I might go so far as to say he may be the greatest player that’s ever played. That’s not just because we’re playing him.

“That’s my belief.”

He continued.

“The things he’s overcome, his will, his heart, his preparation for the game, I don’t know if there’s a better player in the history of the game than Tom Brady,” Horton said.

Brady was a sixth-round draft pick, someone every team in the league passed on several times before New England chose him in 2000 -- after the Browns had taken Spergon Wynn.

Horton’s challenge now is drawing up a way to defend Brady.

“You’ve got to give him different looks,” Horton said. “You’ve got to pressure him. You have to play at your best because I’m pretty sure he’s going to prepare; he won’t take any game, an opponent lightly.

“It’s an ultimate test for me as a coordinator, this one player. I think he’s everything you want in a franchise quarterback.”
Josh Gordon and Aqib TalibUSA TODAY SportsJosh Gordon is one player Aqib Talib and the New England defense need to keep an eye on.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The last time the New England Patriots faced the Cleveland Browns, it wasn’t pretty. The Browns posted a resounding 34-14 win.

Eric Mangini was the Browns’ coach at the time, Mike Holmgren was the president and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a still-learning-the-ropes rookie whose miscue in attempting to field a kickoff contributed to a forgettable on-the-road disaster for New England.

The year was 2010, and that game turned out to be a high point for Mangini before he ultimately was fired at the end of the season. The Browns later hired Pat Shurmur as coach, but he was let go after two seasons, in part because of a change in ownership and front-office structure.

The new Browns regime, led by CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi, has since talked about building a sustainable team with the long haul in mind. One model it'd be happy to emulate is that of the Patriots, who just clinched their 13th straight winning season, three shy of the post-NFL-merger record set by the Cowboys and 49ers.

Here to break down the matchup are NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Pat McManamon (Browns):

Reiss: Pat, let’s open it up with a big-picture look at the Browns. Lombardi worked under Bill Belichick with the Browns in the early-to-mid 1990s, and that connection has been well documented. I often enjoyed reading and listening to Lombardi’s media-based analysis, and now he’s back in the team-building business. How would you describe his first year on the job and how the Browns are positioning themselves for sustainability?

McManamon: Well, Mike, the short term is pretty gruesome. Last weekend’s loss to Jacksonville was as bad as any since 1999, and the team is an emotional mess. Cleveland actually believed it could and would take a step forward this season, but in all likelihood the Browns are headed for their sixth season in a row with four or five wins. How’s that for consistency and sustainability? The only thing the Browns confirmed this season is they’d rather not have Brandon Weeden at quarterback next season. Other than that, they’re as muddled today as they were when training camp started. The drafted players have not helped, there is no run game, there is no second receiver and the defense let Chad Henne go 80 yards for a game-winning drive on Sunday. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ...

Mike, as you say, the Patriots are a model of sustainability. Part of that reason is they hit on Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. How much of their sustained success is due to Brady and how much is due to other factors? And can you say what those factors are that the Browns might be lacking?

Reiss: Brady is a huge factor in what the Patriots have accomplished, as his excellence helps mask other deficiencies. At the same time, it was no fluke that in the one year he tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play of the season (2008), the Patriots finished with an 11-5 record. That accomplishment continues to look better as the years go by, especially when looking at a team like the 2013 Packers and how they are struggling without injured starter Aaron Rodgers in recent weeks.

Belichick has built a strong program from top to bottom, and one of the key parts of it is depth. Many teams talk about building a roster that is strong from 1 to 61 (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad), but it takes discipline to follow through on it. Some unpopular decisions have to be made at times for clubs that take that approach. This year is a good example, as the Patriots have lost some big-time players on defense (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo) to season-ending injuries, but it hasn’t sunk their season. This is an exceptionally well-coached team, and the players, for the most part, buy in to the team concept.

So, no doubt, it’s huge to have someone like Brady to build around. And that’s a position that I’d expect, from this faraway view, the Browns to target in 2014. That said, quarterback Brian Hoyer was the backup in New England from 2009 to 2011, and it looked like he created a spark for the Browns before tearing his ACL. What do you think his future looks like in Cleveland?

McManamon: He did create a spark, and at this moment he probably heads into 2014 as the Browns' starter. Hoyer is recovering and rehabbing aggressively from his surgery, to the point that no limp or sign of the injury is visible when he walks. Hoyer played with smarts and savvy, and played well. But the problem is that he played only two games, which is hardly a fair sample size. So Hoyer should expect competition, whether it’s another veteran free agent, whether it’s Jason Campbell returning or whether it’s a drafted player. Hoyer will be back, but he’ll have to prove himself again.

Mike, Josh Gordon is the Browns' lone bright spot. His 498 receiving yards over the past two games is an NFL record. He’s also the first to have more than 200 yards in a season. Am I correct in assuming that Aqib Talib will cover him, and what do you think Belichick will do to disrupt Gordon’s route running? The guy is so big and strong that it’s extremely hard to rough him up at the line the way Belichick likes to do.

Reiss: One thing Belichick often says is that if a defense decides it’s going to take away something from an offense, it usually can. It’s just a matter of how many resources the defense wants to devote to do so because it will weaken itself in other areas. Several times this season, we’ve seen Talib match up against the opponent’s top receiver, and outside of one game, Nov. 18 at Carolina against Steve Smith, he has been excellent. So it makes sense to think that would be a matchup the Patriots consider, in addition to devoting safety help to Gordon’s side of the field, if they feel that strongly about Gordon’s big-play ability. It doesn’t look like the Browns have many other top weapons that could make that type of plan hurt.

Pat, if we go back to our early-season predictions, which show that the term “expert” should be taken lightly in my case, I picked the Browns as a surprise playoff team in part because I thought their defense would carry them. Call it my mistake by the Lake. Even as they are building with 2014 in mind, which seemed to be the plan from the get-go, I thought they’d be further along this year. So why the struggles?

McManamon: Pretty simple -- they were overrated. The Browns have some decent players, and one guy pushing to be great (Joe Haden), but they don’t have a great player yet. Combine that with learning a new system and an offense that has turned the ball over 11 times the past three games, and struggles will follow. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has backed up his claims about his guys with numbers, but at some point the old adage “stats are for losers” comes into play. No defense that gives up an 80-yard touchdown drive to the 32nd-ranked offense can call itself great, or even good.

Mike, on paper, this is a huge mismatch. Do you see any way Brady or Belichick kicks this away and lets the Browns steal this game?

Reiss: I don’t, Pat, but let’s toss out a scenario that could give the Browns their best chance. They would have to possess the ball, playing keep-away from Brady, and somehow come up with a “bonus” score on either defense or special teams. The Patriots’ defense has looked vulnerable the past two games, so it’s not like this is an invincible unit that can’t be exploited in certain areas. But given the quarterback questions the Browns have entering this one, and their general struggles overall, it’s just hard for me to see how they can escape Gillette Stadium -- traditionally one of the toughest places to win at this time of year -- with a victory unless Belichick decided to give his pal Lombardi an early holiday gift to take some of the pressure off him.

Live blog: Steelers at Patriots

November, 3, 2013
Join our NFL experts as they break down the Pittsburgh Steelers' visit to the New England Patriots. 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.

Sanders to face team he nearly joined

November, 1, 2013
PITTSBURGH -- The Patriots liked Emmanuel Sanders enough that they were willing to part with a third-round draft pick for a wide receiver who has never had a 100-yard game in the NFL.

Bill Belichick explained why the Patriots signed Sanders to a one-year, $2.5 million deal last April (the Steelers matched it and thus kept the player who was a restricted free agent.)

“He’s an outstanding player,” Belichick said of Sanders. “He’s fast, he runs well with the ball in his hands, he gets open, he’s a hard guy to cover, a hard guy to tackle and has value in the kicking game. I think he’s got a lot of things going for him.”

Sanders could very well end up in New England in 2014.

He will be an unrestricted free agent after this season as the Steelers didn’t see enough from the fourth-year veteran to sign him to a multi-year deal. That is something they typically do with core players who are going into the final year of their contract.

Sanders acknowledged that it was flattering to have a team as accomplished as the Patriots covet him last offseason.

“It was pretty cool what took place not only the New England Patriots wanting me but the other teams that were also involved with the deal,” Sanders said. “I work extremely hard and when Mike [Wallace] and Antonio [Brown] were here I was the No. 3. I felt like I was hidden a little bit, but it felt good to know that other teams recognized my talents.”

Sanders’ talent is undeniable, but the Steelers need him to do more than just flash it from time to time -- as he did in catching a 55-yard touchdown pass against the Jets or nearly breaking a 107-yard kickoff return against the Ravens.

The increased opportunities that were supposed to come with Sanders moving into the starting lineup have not translated into consistent production from the former third-round pick.

Sanders has caught 31 passes – 25 less than Antonio Brown – for 396 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Steelers need Sanders to step up more in the second half of the season, particularly with teams paying more attention to Brown.

What happens with Sanders in the future remains to be seen. And Sanders said he won’t be thinking about how close he came to playing for the Patriots this season when he lines up against them on Sunday.

“Right now I’m playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers and we’re searching for win No. 3,” Sanders said. “That’s all that’s on my mind.”

Double Coverage: Steelers at Patriots

November, 1, 2013
Ben Roethlisberger/Tom BradyGetty ImagesBen Roethlisberger leads the struggling Steelers against Tom Brady and the injury-plagued Pats.
When the NFL schedule was released six months ago, an early November game between the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots looked like it would be a clash between two of the top contenders in the AFC.

Yet as is often the case in the ever-changing NFL, it hasn’t unfolded that way.

The Steelers (2-5) are starting games slow, and in turn, their season got off to slow start. Meanwhile, the Patriots are 6-2 but have looked like a 2-6 team at times.

Can the Steelers turn it around? Will the Patriots ultimately play more consistently and have the look of a contender?

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Scott Brown (Steelers) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) help us break it down.

Reiss: Scott, take us inside the Steelers locker room for a feel on where things have gone wrong this season.

Brown: I think the players are truly perplexed at how they have gotten to this point. Effort hasn’t been an issue, and the Steelers have gone into the fourth quarter of every loss this season with a chance to win. Injuries have been a problem, but they can’t be an excuse since most if not all teams have to overcome them during the course of the season.

The biggest problem has been the different units not playing well off one another for the most part this season. The offense couldn’t do anything in the first two weeks of the season, but the defense kept the Steelers in both games. Two weeks later in London, the offense finally broke out but the defense couldn’t stop Matt Cassel of all quarterbacks in a loss to the one-win Vikings.

The Steelers’ 21-18 loss at Oakland offers a perfect summation of the kind of season they have endured. The defense played lights out in the second half after a shaky start. Ben Roethlisberger brought the Steelers back in the fourth quarter as he has done so many times throughout his career. In the end, the Steelers fell agonizingly short in large part because kicker Shaun Suisham, who had been automatic this season, missed a pair of field goals inside of 35 yards.

It seems like the Patriots have been just the opposite of the Steelers this season in that they find ways to win. I’m not sure many outside of New England can name the Patriots’ wide receivers and the defense has had to overcome the losses of nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo.

Mike, how are the Patriots doing it?

Reiss: It’s a question that even Tom Brady recently acknowledged was a good one, because it has looked ugly at times. If I had to sum it up, the answer would be that their depth players (e.g. rookie defensive tackles Joe Vellano and Chris Jones) have answered the challenge when pressed into bigger roles and the team has made the few critical plays in the crucial situations that often determine the outcome of games. Furthermore, their turnover differential is solid, as it usually is with this team. That’s one of the big differences I noticed between the Patriots and Steelers -- the Patriots are plus-7 and the Steelers minus-9.

I know it’s probably an unusual question, as punters aren’t often a hot topic of conversation, but I’m sure Patriots followers are interested to hear about what unfolded with Zoltan Mesko, who punted in New England from 2010-2012. Also, maybe a little bit on receiver Emmanuel Sanders, whom the Patriots tried to sign to an offer sheet in the offseason as a restricted free agent that the Steelers matched.

Brown: You knew Mesko had been served notice when Mike Tomlin said last week that the former Patriot needed to eliminate the one “junior varsity” punt he seemed to have a game. You knew he was in trouble when Tomlin gave him an earful as Mesko walked to the Steelers’ bench after a 30-yard punt last Sunday in Oakland.

Some might argue he took the fall for the Steelers’ third consecutive loss in Oakland since punters are so expendable, but Mesko didn’t help himself with the inconsistent punting that ultimately earned him a pink slip.

Sanders has had his moments, but he has too frequently been what Tomlin would call just another guy. The fourth-year veteran is still without a 100-yard receiving game this season -- and his career. The Steelers should be getting more production from Sanders (31 catches for 396 yards), particularly with Antonio Brown drawing so much attention from opposing defensive backs. I’m guessing the Steelers now wish they hadn’t matched the Patriots’ offer to Sanders and taken a third-round draft pick for him.

Speaking of receivers, Mike, can you provide an update on Danny Amendola and how much of an impact he might make Sunday? Count me among those who just assumed that New England would be able to plug Amendola into Wes Welker's spot with little to no drop-off at slot receiver because of Brady’s greatness.

Reiss: Interesting thoughts on Mesko and Sanders. Mesko was a very popular player in New England and many were disappointed to see him lose a training camp competition to rookie Ryan Allen. The Patriots took some heat for that, as they did for not being more aggressive with their offer sheet to Sanders, who could be a Patriots target in free agency again this offseason.

As for Amendola, the big issue has been health, which is a knock against him that he’s fought over his NFL career. He was sensational in the season-opener against the Bills, but injured his groin and was knocked out for the next three games. Then he came back for two games, but in the second contest suffered a concussion which knocked him out for another game. So he’s only played four games this season, and the groin is probably something that’s going to have to be managed throughout the season. In his first game back from the concussion this past Sunday, Amendola had three catches for 15 yards and played 39 of 65 snaps (including penalties). That number is likely to rise in the coming weeks, so he should be a bigger factor.

I’m thinking big-picture here, because one of the big questions here in New England has been when the Patriots’ run of success might end. It seems like it’s been talked about, on and off, since 2006. What are your thoughts about the Steelers along these lines? Are they positioned for success, or are we witnessing a franchise primed for a little slide?

Brown: Rebuilding is a blasphemous term around a facility that displays six Lombardi Trophies in its library. The Steelers won’t even use the word transition when talking about where they are as a team. That said, all signs point to the Steelers being in decline. They need to win six of their last nine games just to go 8-8, a record they deemed unacceptable after posting it last season.

Their defense isn’t getting any younger and it’s still too early to tell if youngsters such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Cortez Allen will be difference-makers. I do think the Steelers have the most important piece in place as far as turning it around -- whether it is this season or in 2013. Roethlisberger is still in his prime, and if you have a quarterback in the NFL, you have a chance.

The Patriots have been masterful this season in finding ways to win, something the Steelers used to do with regularity. But are they legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and what do you need to see from them to believe that they are?

Reiss: I wouldn’t count them out, Scott. Bill Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, and in the end, you have to give credit to the players for stepping up in the critical moments. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but I see enough in the key areas -- such as turnover differential, adapting to elements, situational defense and the like -- to think this team will be a factor coming down the stretch. That’s the thing about the NFL. It’s not necessarily what you look like right now, it’s what the picture will look like as we get to Thanksgiving and beyond, assuming you’re still in the hunt. They’ve positioned themselves well at this point.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens were looking for tight ends in the 2010 draft, and they passed on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. A few months ago, you could criticize the Bengals and Ravens for doing so. Now, these AFC North teams could make out in the long run.

Gronkowski has undergone four surgeries on his left forearm and had back surgery this month. His back problems in college caused many teams, including the Ravens, to take him off their draft board. Hernandez, meanwhile, has been in the middle of a homicide investigation since the body of a friend was found shot in the back of the head last Monday in an industrial park near Hernandez's home. Both of their situations make them question marks heading into this season and beyond.

Three years ago, the Bengals went with Jermaine Gresham with the No. 21 overall pick, making him the first tight end taken that year. Gresham's career statistics compare favorably with Hernandez and he has 15 fewer receptions than Gronkowski. His 2.3 average yards after the catch ranks only behind Gronkowski (2.54) among tight ends over the past three seasons.

Like the Patriots, the Ravens selected two tight ends in the 2010 draft, taking Ed Dickson in the third round and Dennis Pitta in the fourth. While Dickson's numbers fell last season, Pitta had a breakthrough season. Pitta figures to be the Ravens' No. 1 or No. 2 pass-catcher this season after Baltimore traded Anquan Boldin to San Francisco. He also scored eight touchdowns in his final 12 games, including the playoffs.

In terms of tight ends, the biggest steal of that draft was New Orleans' Jimmy Graham. He was selected in the third round, 11 spots after the Bengals chose wide receiver Jordan Shipley and 25 spots after the Ravens drafted Dickson.

Over the past three seasons, the Bengals and Ravens would have been more productive in the passing game with Gronkowski and Hernandez. But, when projecting the next three seasons, Cincinnati and Baltimore may fare better with its current tight ends if they choose to keep them. Gresham is a free agent after the 2014 season for the Bengals, who drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round this year. Pitta and Dickson are entering the final year of their contracts.
You thought the AFC North blog would be one of the Tebow-free places on the site. Well, you thought wrong.

Tim Tebow officially signed with the New England Patriots, the team announced on Tuesday. How does that have anything to do with this division?

Tebow reunites with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was Tebow's coach in Denver. McDaniels wanted Tebow so much in the 2010 draft that he traded three picks to the Baltimore Ravens in order to get the unconventional quarterback with the No. 25 overall pick.

The Ravens certainly made out on that deal. Baltimore used those picks on linebacker Sergio Kindle (second round), tight end Ed Dickson (third round) and tight end Dennis Pitta (fourth round). While Kindle never got his career on track after falling down two flights of stairs before his first training camp, Dickson and Pitta have become key components of the offense. Pitta caught 61 passes and seven touchdowns last year, and Dickson had 54 receptions and five touchdowns in 2011.

Before getting traded to the New York Jets in 2012, Tebow did win a playoff game, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011. He threw for a career-high 316 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas on the first play of overtime for a 29-23 victory.

Some members of the Steelers defense told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last week that Tebow belongs in the NFL.

"He won some games, had some success,” linebacker Larry Foote said last week when Tebow had been sitting on the free-agent market for over a month. “We know it first-hand. I think he should be somewhere at least competing for a job. I think he's earned that.”

Said cornerback Ike Taylor, who gave up that winning touchdown: “Tim Tebow is real decent,” Taylor said. “As far as being a competitor, he's one of the best competitors I've seen.”
The Patriots have reportedly signed Emmanuel Sanders, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. I love this move -- for New England.

New England is short on wide receivers, and getting Sanders for a late third-round pick (Sanders’ draft slot in 2010) would make this contending team better right away. Sanders has battled injuries, but there is no shame being stuck behind Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown during his time in Pittsburgh.

Like Brown, Sanders isn’t the biggest receiver around, but he is extremely quick and very good after the catch -- which is a must in the Patriots’ timing-based offense that Tom Brady runs so very well with great precision and accurate throws.

Sanders also has some deep-ball ability, and can line up outside the numbers or in the slot, although New England is pretty set with slot options Danny Amendola and Aaron Hernandez. But we all know that Bill Belichick craves players -- at any position -- with a wide skill set and capable of contributing in many ways. Sanders fits that, and is a great potential pickup for the price.

Not only would Sanders be a strong addition to the Patriots, but the move would also weaken a fellow AFC contender. With Wallace now in Miami, wide receiver is as great of a need for Pittsburgh as any other position. Sanders appeared to be set up to show what he could do as a starter opposite Brown. New England has far more salary-cap space and overall flexibility than the Steelers.

But worst of all for Pittsburgh, Sanders’ signing of this offer sheet forces the Steelers to make a decision they did not want to make. This is not the type of organization that wants other franchises to negotiate contracts for it -- which is essentially what New England did if Pittsburgh chooses to match, and matching could force the Steelers to further shuffle their roster and salary cap.

Also, I don’t think that the Steelers are excited about dealing a young, promising starting wide receiver for a very late third-round pick. Although they are not the clear contender the Patriots are, the Steelers are not in rebuilding mode, and who knows how much longer Ben Roethlisberger can continue playing at a high level with all the punishment he has withstood.

How will Pittsburgh respond? None of us know, but my hunch is the Steelers are not especially happy about either option presented to them.
As Super Bowl champions, or what's left of that team, the Baltimore Ravens get the honor of kicking off the 2013 season with a home Thursday night prime-time game. The opponent for the season-opening game is typically announced at the NFL owners meetings, which are currently taking place in Phoenix, Ariz.

My prediction is the Ravens will open against the Patriots, which is a rematch of the past two AFC Championship games. The popular choice on the AFC North blog, according to a SportsNation poll last month, is the Steelers (41 percent). Based on the Ravens' home schedule, the top other candidates are: the Bengals, Packers and Texans.

The reason I'm going with New England is based on a couple of trends. In the nine years of the defending champion opening on Thursday night, only twice has the matchup been against a team in its own division, and both times it was the NFC East (which makes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati long shots). Also, there was just one time when the reigning champion played a team in the other conference (which makes Green Bay unlikely).

So, if the choices are New England and Houston, it makes sense to go with the Patriots considering their playoff history with the Ravens. Of course, the Texans would have a stronger storyline if they sign safety Ed Reed.

The AFC North blog will pass along the news as soon as the NFL announces it.