AFC North: New England Patriots

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.

George Godsey to be Texans QB coach

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
10:43
PM ET
To lead a position whose development will be critical to Bill O'Brien's success, the new Houston Texans head coach has chosen a man who once played for him.

Former New England Patriots tight ends coach George Godsey will be the Texans new quarterbacks coach.

Godsey and O'Brien's history goes back to O'Brien's time at Georgia Tech. O'Brien was promoted to quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech in 2001, Godsey's final year in the program. When O'Brien became the Patriots' offensive coordinator, Godsey became an offensive assistant in New England.

O'Brien tried to take Godsey with him to Penn State when he left New England, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick prevented it.

Godsey's last stint as a quarterbacks coach was from 2005 to 2008 when he served the role for the University of Central Florida.

It's very possible O'Brien could be grooming Godsey to become a playcaller. It's similar to the path he took to becoming the Patriots' offensive coordinator. This season O'Brien will call offensive plays, and it's not looking like he's going to hire an offensive coordinator.

A position that remains unfilled is that of offensive line coach. Mike Munchak, the former Oilers offensive lineman who was fired as Tennessee Titans head coach earlier this month, chose to work for the Pittsburgh Steelers instead.

Although most of his staff is set, O'Brien won't announce the staff until it's officially complete.

Cowher dismisses impact of 'Spygate'

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
4:00
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher has a message for Pittsburgh Steelers fans who think their team was cheated out of a trip to the Super Bowl 10 years ago: Get over it.

The Steelers were drummed by New England, 41-27, in the 2004 AFC Championship Game at Heinz field, a loss that came under suspicion a couple of years later when the Patriots were caught trying to steal signals and formations by illegally videotaping opposing teams.

“We didn’t lose the game because of any 'Spygate,' because of them having any additional things,” Cowher told 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday. “[If] they’re guilty of anything they’re guilty of arrogance because they were told not to do something but it was something everybody does. They got caught doing it with a camera.”

Cowher, who coached the Steelers from 1992-2006, said what the Patriots did happened regularly in the NFL before the league allowed coordinators to relay plays to their quarterback and defensive signal-caller via a helmet radio.

“Stealing someone’s signals was a part of the game and everybody attempted to do that. We had people that always tried to steal signals,” said Cowher, whose 2004 team won 16 consecutive games before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game. “What happened when we lost that game is they outplayed us. It had nothing to do with stealing signals or cheating or anything else.”

Cowher, an NFL studio analyst for CBS, interviewed Patriots coach Bill Belichick last week, and he said the two talked extensively afterward, the first time they had done so since they were both NFL assistant coaches.

Cowher professed his admiration for Belichick and the sustained success he has enjoyed in the salary-cap era.

The Pittsburgh native also made it clear on Wednesday that he won’t be matching wits against Belichick -- or any other NFL head coach -- anytime soon.

Cowher reiterated that he has “no interest” in returning to the sideline even though his name has been linked to head-coaching vacancies every year since he retired from the Steelers in January 2007.

Cowher, who went 149-90-1 and won a Super Bowl in 15 seasons with the Steelers, acknowledged that he has received his share of inquiries about returning to coaching.

“It’s flattering but it never gets very far,” Cowher said. “If I ever want to get back into coaching I should be calling teams they shouldn’t be calling me. That’s when you know you really want to do it.”

Live blog: Patriots at Ravens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanders to face team he nearly joined

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
3:30
PM ET
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.

Sanders
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.”

Live blog: Patriots at Bengals

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

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

What a difference a week makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

Why the Patriots need Ed Reed

February, 13, 2013
2/13/13
1:05
PM ET
ESPN Insider KC Joyner makes the case that free agent safety Ed Reed is the key ingredient for New England to make another Super Bowl run. Joyner:
At first glance, this offseason does not look to be one where the Patriots will make one of those moves, as their current roster situation could make them place a higher priority on keeping players such as Welker, Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Woodhead and Aqib Talib on the 2013 roster.

As important as those players are, the potential decline of Tom Brady and the fact that the distance between New England the rest of the AFC title contenders is likely diminishing means a return to the status quo won't be enough for the Patriots to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLVIII.

To do that, they need to find a way to sign Ed Reed.

But can the Patriots woo Reed to New England? The cash-strapped Ravens may be hard-pressed to keep him. Joyner:
It's not as if this move is an impossible pipe dream, as Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome has indicated he will not place the franchise tag on Reed, and at last check the Patriots had $18 million in cap space. In addition, as noted by AFC East blogger James Walker, New England will likely make additional roster moves to add more salary cap space, so the Patriots may be able to make an offer that the cap-challenged Ravens will not be able to match.

Read the rest of Joyner's story here .

Countdown Live: AFC Championship Game

January, 20, 2013
1/20/13
2:30
PM ET
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.

Video: Reaction to Harbaugh's comments

May, 1, 2012
5/01/12
7:00
PM ET

Tedy Bruschi and Eric Mangini discuss John Harbaugh's comments about the New England Patriots.
Mike WallaceGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesWide receiver Mike Wallace would add another dimension to New England's offense if the Patriots managed to sign him.
Here's one way the New England Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl: Sign receiver Mike Wallace, one of the best players in free agency.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowler is a restricted free agent who is ripe for the taking. Pittsburgh has salary-cap issues this offseason and cut many of its veteran players. The team also could not afford to put a franchise tag on Wallace.

A first-round pick and a good contract offer are the only things standing in the way of Wallace joining the reigning AFC champions. New England should be the first team in line to throw caution to the wind and pry Wallace from Pittsburgh next week when free agency begins.

Here are several reasons why this is a smart move for New England:

Reason No. 1: Patriots have plenty of draft picks, cap space

This is the perfect year for the Patriots to pounce. Unlike the Steelers, New England has plenty of cap room and more than enough draft picks to make a solid pitch for Wallace.

The cost for Wallace would be a first-round pick and a contract extension. New England has two first-rounders (No. 27 and No. 31) and two second-rounders. Losing one of those early picks would not hurt the Patriots. New England likely would not get an immediate, Pro Bowl-caliber player at the end of the first round anyway. Wallace would count as part of the Patriots' draft class. New England could add a top-10 receiver in his prime.

New England's best chance is to offer Wallace a front-loaded contract. The key is to provide a high amount of guaranteed money and salary in the first season, which would count against this year's cap. The Patriots have that luxury over Pittsburgh and can use it to their advantage.

The Patriots entered the offseason with more cap space than any team in the AFC East. Receiver Wes Welker's franchise tag would take up some of that, but the Patriots still can offer Wallace more than Pittsburgh. New England may have to eventually work out an extension with Welker, as a result, but the Patriots are considering that option anyway.

Reason No. 2: Patriots need a deep threat

Imagine the possibilities: Tom Brady throwing to Welker and Rob Gronkowski underneath, and Wallace and Aaron Hernandez vertically. That would be a passing attack that is tough to stop.

New England's best deep threat last year was Hernandez, its backup tight end. He was the only player who could consistently get vertical and was a threat for making huge plays.

Wallace's speed would bring a unique element to New England's offense. He is arguably the best deep threat in the NFL and has 23 receptions of 40 yards or more the past three seasons. The Patriots' offense hasn't had that type of big-play capability since Randy Moss.

There are criticisms that Wallace is a "one-trick pony." That’s debatable. But getting deep is really all the Patriots would need from Wallace. New England's other receivers and tight ends will take care of the underneath routes and allow Wallace to focus on what he does best.

Reason No. 3: It hurts a big AFC rival

The Steelers are one of the most well-run and respected franchises in the NFL. The ownership, front office and coaching are all top notch.

Therefore, Pittsburgh consistently poses one of the biggest threats to New England in the AFC. The Steelers and Patriots combined for eight Super Bowl appearances the past 11 years. If Pittsburgh didn't get "Tebowed" by the Denver Broncos in January, the Patriots would've had another tough playoff matchup against Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat New England in the regular season.

Signing Wallace away from Pittsburgh would simultaneously strengthen New England and hurt the Steelers' depth at receiver. The Steelers already released team captain and all-time leading receiver Hines Ward. In terms of leadership, Ward leaves a huge void that is tough to replace. Losing Wallace, Pittsburgh's best receiver, would be another big blow.

Pittsburgh also cut starting linebacker James Farrior, starting guard Chris Kemoeatu and veteran defensive end Aaron Smith. Years of manipulating the cap is finally catching up to the Steelers, and it could cost the team Wallace if New England or another team goes after him.

Reason No. 4: No harm, no foul

Let's say the Steelers find a way to match New England's offer. That could still work in New England's favor.

The Patriots would retain their first-round pick and cap room, while forcing Pittsburgh overpay on a front-loaded contract to keep Wallace. The Steelers, as a result, would have more issues with the cap. For the Patriots, there's no harm in trying.

New England also has options. The Patriots could quickly turn its attention to veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is a viable Plan B. Lloyd wants to reunite with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and would be happy to join the reigning AFC champs. Instead of the home run (Wallace), New England could settle for a triple (Lloyd).

Going after Wallace in free agency is a win-win for the Patriots, regardless of the result.
QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady fell short of his fourth game-winning touchdown drive in a Super Bowl. He overcame a ragged start to find his groove. He set a Super Bowl record with 16 straight completions, including 15 straight on two touchdown passes. His first touchdown pass, a 4-yarder to Danny Woodhead, showed his patience to wait for the running back to break free of the linebacker. Brady's second one, a 12-yarder, was quicker recognition to find tight end Aaron Hernandez against the middle linebacker. Brady did get hit on his interception (which turned out to be a long punt) and seemed to hurt his already banged-up left shoulder. He started off the scoring but not the way he intended. His intentional grounding penalty on the Patriots' first play led to a safety, a strange mistake for a quarterback known for such great awareness. Grade: B-plus.

OFFENSE: The Patriots' receivers let Brady down in the fourth quarter with drops from Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Hernandez. The passing game was limited with tight end Rob Gronkowski less than full strength with a high-ankle sprain. He didn't get a catch until three minutes left in the first half. Hernandez picked up the slack with a 12-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter. The offensive line held up quite well against a Giants pass rush that recorded five sacks of Brady in the last Super Bowl matchup. Welker was a hot target in the passing game, although he couldn't pull down a key reception late in the fourth quarter. Grade: C.

DEFENSE: The Patriots' much-maligned defense came up big in the biggest game of the season. Playing both safeties deep to defend against the deep pass, the Patriots made it tough for Eli Manning and forced him to throw into tight windows. The New England run defense got pushed around early (70 yards rushing allowed in the first half), but fared better in the second half. The Patriots played more physical after they were sparked by Patrick Chung's hit on Hakeem Nicks along the sideline. The Patriots then allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to score a 6-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left, so they could get the ball back into the hands of Brady. Grade: B-minus.

COACHING: Bill Belichick lost his second straight Super Bowl. The Patriots had a great game plan defensively and were running an efficient offense. But it was questionable to throw on second-and-11 in the fourth quarter — which resulted in an incompletion to Welker and stopped the clock with four minutes left in the game. Then, the challenge on the Mario Manningham catch on the Giants' final drive cost the Patriots a timeout. Belichick prides himself on precision and discipline, which is why having 12 men on the field for defense was so surprising. That penalty negated a recovered fumble for the New England defense and led to the Giants' first touchdown (a Victor Cruz 2-yard catch in the first quarter). Grade: B.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 29-yard field goal. The kickoff coverage team allowed a 34-yard return early in the third quarter. The Patriots' return game was virtually non-existent. Punter Zoltan Mesko was outplayed by Steve Weatherford, averaging 38 yards per punt. Grade: C.
INDIANAPOLIS -- If the pregame predictions are any indication, this will be a very, very closely contested Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

In the SportsNation poll, it's split right down the middle -- 50 percent say the Giants and 50 percent say the Patriots. This poll has included votes from 760,000 fans and comes an hour before kickoff.

It's almost as close on the predictions on ESPN.com: 39 picked the Giants and 32 went with the Patriots.

This is a tough one to call because both teams are confident and are on a hot streak. The Patriots have won 10 straight games (their last loss came Nov. 6 against the Giants). The Giants' winning streak is only at five games, but New York defeated the top two seeds in the NFC to reach the Super Bowl.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider