Alan Branch excited to face former team

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
2:40
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Alan Branch was talking to two reporters earlier this week about longevity in the NFL as a burly defensive tackle, saying, "For a big fella, I feel like it's different, for sure. Every play you're actually hitting somebody. There is never a play you're not being touched."

Branch
At that point, cornerback Kyle Arrington just happened to be walking by and he playfully interjected himself into the discussion.
Arrington: What are you trying to say?

Branch: Nothing against you, brother! You're running a lot. I don't do that running. I do the hitting.

And with that, the two had a good chuckle. It was an exchange that highlighted, in some ways, what Branch has brought to the Patriots, and how he's fit into the locker-room culture, since signing a one-year deal Oct. 29 after having been released by the Bills in August.

An eight-year veteran, Branch has brought size (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) and power to the interior of the defensive line, while also working to immerse himself into the way the Patriots do things. He had never joined a team in the middle of the season, so between the playbook terminology and learning 52 new teammates, plus 10 practice squad players, this has been his biggest challenge.

Branch's contributions (11 tackles, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defended) are topical to spotlight this week as he prepares for Sunday's game against his former team, the Bills.

He is averaging 19.2 defensive snaps per game (including penalties), while his size has also shown up on the field goal block unit. Last Sunday against the Jets, when the Patriots played more base defense to defend the run, he was part of a three-defensive tackle rotation with Vince Wilfork (6-2, 325) and Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) that provided significant resistance up the middle.

Branch was part of an impressive defensive line in Buffalo, and he also likes the group he's part of in New England. He said any discussion about Patriots defensive linemen starts with Wilfork.

“V, of course, is the leader," he said. "He knows what he's doing, knows what’s coming your way based on the set of the offense and having a vet like him on the front with you is a nice thing to have. He can give you a heads-up what’s going on," said Branch, who has played with Arizona, Seattle and Buffalo prior to joining the Patriots. "In my eighth year, I like to learn from new people all the time. Just seeing the way he attacks the study and the meetings, it’s a new thing for me to see. I'm trying to absorb what he does with that.”

As for Sunday, Branch said, "I’m excited for the game, you always like to play the teams you used to play on. [My time in Buffalo] is in the past, so I haven't given it a second thought. In my head, I’m a Patriot. I like it a lot. I love being on the team, the scheme, the guys we have in the locker room. I’m enjoying the time here now.”

RB Jonas Gray is lone absence at practice

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
12:35
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray was the lone player missing from the team’s practice on Friday.

Gray, who has been listed on the team’s injury report with an ankle injury, has been limited all week in practice. During the open media portion of practice earlier in the week that involved individual position drills, Gray was off to the side not participating.

Gray had six carries for five yards in Sunday’s 17-16 win over the Jets. While he has seen his ups and downs this season, Gray is a key chip in the backfield rotation with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. The Patriots will want him to be healthy in the playoffs to provide another option in the running game.

Despite a long list of players dealing with injuries, Gray is the only player to have missed practice this week.

Bill Belichick: Jimmy Garoppolo 'keeps getting better'

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
10:35
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass -- Quick hits from New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s news conference on Friday:

Jimmy G time? Because Sunday’s game against the Bills is a meaningless in terms of postseason implications, rookie backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will likely see some action. Belichick was asked about Garoppolo’s progress.

“Jimmy has worked hard and consistently improved every week,” Belichick said. “He’s running different offenses with the scout team and having to keep up with what we are doing and our installation and our game plan on a weekly basis. He’s been durable, healthy, out there every day, keeps getting better. [He] has worked on a lot of things that we have identified for him to do. He’s been better and has a better understanding of the league. These last three weeks have been good for him.”

Fair catch interference. Twice this season (Malcolm Butler versus Jets, Jamie Collins versus Bengals), the Patriots have not recognized a fair catch call on a punt and been penalized for unnecessary roughness. Belichick explained that plays like that are unacceptable no matter how quick a fair catch signal is.

“You have to get your eyes up. You have to see the returner [or] we will have interference every time a guy makes a signal,” Belichick said. “In high school or something whoever sees it can yell it, fair catch. But, we can’t. Games are all sold out. We can’t count on that. We have to be able to recognize it.”

Value of all-in-one kicker. The Bills carry two kickers on their roster (Dan Carpenter for field goals and Jordan Gay for kickoffs). Belichick was asked if he has ever had a kickoff specialist.

“I don’t believe I have ever had one,” Belichick said. “Certainly the better a player is the more he can do, the more valuable he is. Most teams have that.”

Allen’s situational improvements. Punter Ryan Allen has made a leap from his rookie to sophomore season in the NFL with regard to his situational awareness.

“Everything has been better -- consistency, situational play,” Belichick said. “I’d say he made a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2. I think he still has a ways to go. He has a lot in front of him. But he’s definitely made a jump. He studies everything about it -- obviously the mechanics -- but the situational part of it.”

Patriots-Bills: ESPN Boston's picks

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
10:05
AM ET
videoHere's how ESPNBoston.com's experts see Sunday's game between the Patriots and Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS) playing out. What is your prediction? Leave your pick in the comments section.

Stat check: Bills at Patriots

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
8:00
AM ET
A look at the 12-3 New England Patriots in our weekly "stat check" while also bringing this week's opponent, the 8-7 Buffalo Bills, into the discussion:

Points per game
This week: First (30.6)
Last week:
First (31.5)
Last season: Third (27.75)
Bills in 2014: 18th (21.7)

Points allowed per game
This week: Eighth (19.7)
Last week:
Eighth (20.0)
Last season: 10th (21.12)
Bills in 2014: Fifth (18.6)

Third-down offense
This week: Sixth (93 of 206, 45.1 percent)
Last week:
Sixth (87 of 193, 45.1 percent)
Last season: 16th (83 of 221, 37.6 percent)
Bills in 2014: 25th (79 of 218, 36.2 percent)

Third-down defense
This week:
16th (79 of 198, 39.9 percent)
Last week:
16th (74 of 185, 40.0 percent)
Last season: 26th (98 of 232, 42.2 percent)
Bills in 2014: First (68 of 205, 33.2 percent)

Turnover differential
This week: Tied-3rd (plus-11, 24 takeaways, 13 giveaways)
Last week:
Fourth (plus-11, 23 takeaways, 12 giveaways)
Last season: Eighth (plus-9, 29 takeaways, 20 giveaways)
Bills in 2014: Tied-6th (plus-8, 30 takeaways, 22 giveaways)

Red zone offense (based on TD percentage)
This week: Sixth (39 of 63)
Last week:
Seventh (37 of 59)
Last season: 15th (36 of 65)
Bills in 2014: 31st (20 of 49)

Red zone defense (based on TD percentage)
This week: Sixth (20 of 44)
Last week:
Ninth (20 of 41)
Last season: 16th (28 of 50)
Bills in 2014: 18th (22 of 40)

Key contract notes for Patriots players

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
5:00
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As is the case for teams around the league, the Patriots have several contractual notes to monitor at this time of year. Below are some of the intriguing contract-related notes pertinent to the team.

Quarterback Tom Brady: Brady signed an extension through 2017 back during the 2013 offseason, which includes base salaries of $7 million, $8 million and $9 million over the next three years, respectively. At the moment of signing the deal, those figures were guaranteed for injury only, meaning that in the event Brady suffered an injury that prevented him from continuing his career or the Patriots released him for an injury reason, he would still receive that money. On Saturday at 4 p.m. EST, those salaries become fully guaranteed. In a league where quarterbacks are exceedingly difficult to find and there are several cases of a quarterback whose play on the field does not meet his salary, Brady’s pact – by almost any measure – qualifies as one of the best in the league.

Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer: As ESPNBoston.com reported earlier this season, the Patriots re-tooled Vollmer’s playing-time incentives, lowering the requisite percentage of snaps played to earn up to $2 million. If Vollmer plays more than 70 percent of the offensive snaps this season, he earns $1 million; if he plays more than 80 percent of the snaps, he makes $2 million (previously, the two barometers were 80 and 90 percent). If Vollmer surpasses the 70 percent threshold, it also triggers a $1 million roster bonus due on the third day of the 2015 league year. He's on target to hit the 80-percent mark.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman: The Patriots built in a $500,000 bonus for Edelman for each of the four years of his contract signed this past offseason. For 2014, there are four ways he can earn that bonus: 1,057 receiving yards; 70 receptions plus seven touchdowns; 80 receptions plus 13 regular season wins; 80 receptions plus a Super Bowl appearance. Edelman’s status (thigh/concussion) for Week 17 is still unknown, but because he has already surpassed the 80-reception threshold, a win on Sunday would result in a pay-day for Edelman. If he does play, he needs just 85 receiving yards to earn the bonus, which would render the outcome of the game moot as it relates to his contract.

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork: Wilfork restructured and extended his deal this offseason, and the Patriots have until the final day of the 2014 league year (which actually extends into March of 2015), to decide whether or not to exercise the two-year option for 2015-2016. As it relates to 2014, Wilfork has $3 million available in incentives. If he plays at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps, Wilfork earns $2 million. If he plays at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps and the team reaches the divisional round of the playoffs, Wilfork earns $2.5 million (note: the Patriots clinched a first-round bye and thus will play in the divisional round). If Wilfork plays at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps and the team finishes in the top 10 in scoring defense, he earns another $500,000. Entering Week 17, the Patriots are eighth in scoring defense at 19.7 points per game. The 11th-ranked 49ers allow 21.5 points per game. Our tabulations have Wilfork at 74.4 percent of the defensive snaps played this season.

Note: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski ($50,000) and special teamer Matthew Slater ($300,000) have already earned bonuses for reaching the Pro Bowl.
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In the final episode of the season, ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss previews New England's regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills, breaks down the Pats' wide receiver position and sits down with WR Brian Tyms.

Bills at Patriots preview

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
8:00
AM ET
video When: 1 p.m., Sunday Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts TV: CBS

The New England Patriots are locked into the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while the Buffalo Bills' long shot playoff hopes were dashed last Sunday when they lost in Oakland. So from that standpoint, nothing can be gained when the teams meet up Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

But don't tell that to coaches Bill Belichick and Doug Marrone.

Each in his own way, they have stressed this week that there are no meaningless games in the NFL.

ESPN Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Mike Rodak (Bills) preview the matchup with some bigger-picture thoughts:

Reiss: Mike, with the Bills having been eliminated from the playoffs, it’s time to look to the future. What do you think the team needs to threaten the Patriots for the top spot in the division?

Rodak: The Bills have put a lot of pieces in place, but quarterback isn’t one of them. Taking EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft was a whiff that put the Bills back three years at that position. Without a first-round pick next May, it’s going to be a challenge for the Bills to find the right quarterback for next season. The reality is that whoever they decide will be their starter -- whether it’s Orton, Manuel, a second-day draft pick, a free agent or a trade acquisition -- will be flawed in some way, and the Bills will still have to make up for it elsewhere on their roster. Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin III have both been the subject of media-based speculation, and at least from this perspective, the Bills should consider taking a shot at both if they’re available on the trade market.

Mike, the Patriots won by the skin of their teeth in the Meadowlands last weekend. Was it an anomaly or true cause for concern for the playoffs?

Reiss: More of the former, but that doesn’t mean some of the issues that cropped up should just be swept under the locker room rug. They have to protect quarterback Tom Brady better, establish more of a running game early and generate more of a consistent pass rush. The Jets often play the Patriots tough, and they won more one-on-one matchups on defense; that's a credit to them. In that sense, it had a little bit of a feel of the past two Super Bowl losses for the Patriots, where struggles up front paralyze the rest of the offense for stretches. The Patriots are searching for some answers and more consistency on offense right now, and the return of injured left guard Dan Connolly (knee) and receiver Julian Edelman (concussion) in the playoffs should help them find them.

Specific to the Bills, things seemed to come together pretty nicely for them on defense this year. What contributed most to that?

Rodak: It starts up front with the defensive line, which just sent three players to the 2015 Pro Bowl this week: Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, and Marcell Dareus. Along with Jerry Hughes, that line has been able to produce all sorts of pressure on quarterbacks this season. When you do that, it takes a tremendous burden off the linebackers and secondary. While there are good players in the Bills’ back seven -- Stephon Gilmore (first) and Aaron Williams (second) are both former high-round picks -- the success of the group as a whole is a result of the talent up front. They set the tone. To Marrone’s credit, he has brought in accomplished coaches from the outside as his defensive coordinators -- Mike Pettine last season and Jim Schwartz this season -- who have done well at maximizing the unit’s strengths.

If the Bills are playing for anything in this game, it’s a chance to win at Gillette Stadium for the first time in that building’s history. Given that the Patriots have now locked up the top seed in the AFC playoffs, do you expect them to take the foot off the gas at all?

Reiss: Yes, I view this game as being similar to a fourth preseason contest when the third preseason game doesn’t go as well as planned. I could envision a scenario where the Patriots want to develop a little momentum on offense, and if that comes early, they start making some personnel changes such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski taking a seat. On defense, key players such as cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, among others, figure to be "protected" as well. The team also has the luxury of allowing some of its injured players extra time to recover, which I’d expect them to do. So their approach preparation-wise won’t change, but I do believe their personnel-related approach will be different than the norm. How significant, and if Brady and Co. play at all, is obviously something we'll be watching closely.

The Bills don’t have a first-round draft pick in 2015 after trading it to move up five spots for receiver Sammy Watkins. Good trade? Bad trade?

Rodak: Bad trade. General manager Doug Whaley’s reasoning was clear when he swung the deal back in May, but the truth is that it hasn’t panned out. Here’s what Whaley said about the deal right after making it: “The high costs not making the playoffs is something we weighed in and we thought this guy was going to get us to the playoffs.” The Bills, of course, did not make the playoffs this season. Here’s what else Whaley said: “This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers. He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better as a team.” The Bills benched their quarterback at the time, Manuel, after four games this season, so it’s hard to argue that Watkins made him better. From both of those angles, the trade was a failure that left the organization behind the 8-ball in the 2015 draft.

Let’s look ahead to the playoffs. The Patriots lost to the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens in the past two AFC championship games. If there’s a team in the AFC that could knock them out this year, who do you think it would be?

Reiss: I’ll pick the Patriots, because I believe if they play up to their capabilities, the only team that can beat them is themselves. We spend a lot of time around these parts worrying about “teams you’d like to avoid” or “problem areas that could sink the season,” and part of that is the talk-radio mentality that often sets the agenda. I play along with it at times, too, but I truly think it’s all about the Patriots this year. If forced to pick one team, I’d still go with Denver.

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Terry McAulay assigned as Pats-Bills ref

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
5:00
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Referee Terry McAulay has been assigned Sunday's season finale between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Entering Week 16, McAulay's crew ranked sixth in terms of most penalties called per game (17.2).

Penalties have been a hot topic of discussion with the Patriots, who have been flagged for the most accepted penalties in Bill Belichick's 15 years as coach (115, for 1,025 yards).

Though Belichick felt that the Patriots didn't play their best game this past Sunday against the Jets, he said one positive was a lower penalty total (6 total, 5 accepted). Also, cornerback Brandon Browner wasn't flagged in the game after picking up three the week before.

Here is the weekly Patriots breakdown:

PENALTY LEADERBOARD
CB Brandon Browner – 15
OT Nate Solder – 9
CB Logan Ryan – 8
TE Rob Gronkowski – 7
WR Brandon LaFell – 7
CB Malcolm Butler – 5
OT Marcus Cannon – 5
S Patrick Chung – 5
LB Jamie Collins -- 5
OL Jordan Devey – 5
C Bryan Stork – 5
CB Darrelle Revis – 4
Eight tied with 3 apiece

MOST FREQUENT INFRACTION

False start – 20
Holding (offensive) – 16
Holding (defensive) – 14
Pass interference (defense) – 11
Holding (special teams) – 8
Unnecessary roughness – 8
Illegal use of hands – 7
Illegal block above the waist (special teams) – 7
Pass interference (offensive) – 7
Facemask – 4
Illegal contact – 4
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray, who was limited to four carries in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Jets and was replaced by Brandon Bolden on the final drive, showed up on the team’s injury report Wednesday. Gray has an injured ankle and was one of 15 players limited in practice.

In addition to Gray, new additions to the team’s injury report this week include cornerback Brandon Browner (groin) and linebacker Jamie Collins (hip).

The rest of the injury report remained the same as last week, with receiver Julian Edelman limited with a concussion. Edelman missed Sunday’s win over the Jets.

Darrelle Revis: Team goals much more important than Pro Bowl nod

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
3:50
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis on Wednesday downplayed being named to his sixth Pro Bowl, saying "team goals" are much more important.

Revis
"We got team goals that we want to accomplish, and the Pro Bowl is definitely not one of them," Revis said. "I think a bunch of guys got in -- Tom [Brady], Rob [Gronkowski], [Matthew] Slate [Slater], Steve [Gostkowski].

"We all appreciate getting honored, but at the same time, collectively as a whole group, as a team, we can just throw that under the bus, because we're focused more on the team."

After a long regular season and the AFC’s No. 1 seed heading into the postseason, Revis repeated the Patriots’ team-centric approach that coach Bill Belichick instills in his players.

Revis and the Patriots have their eyes set on a week-to-week approach that ends with their hands on the Lombardi Trophy.

Revis was asked if it was weird to be named to the Pro Bowl -- a game that he won’t play in if the Patriots make the Super Bowl.

"I don't even know the date or whatever," Revis said. "I know that, but I don't know the exact actual date."

For the record, the Pro Bowl will be played Jan. 25, the Sunday before the Super Bowl, in Glendale, Arizona.

A humbled Revis deflected credit to his teammates and the Patriots’ coaching staff.

"You know, it's an honor to be on a list of great, talented guys, some of the greatest players in the game," Revis said. "It is. It shows you -- especially coming from the ACL [injury] -- but it just shows the important work you put in, and I just have to thank my teammates for making my job a little bit easier.

"It all works together, the pass rush, the schemes that we do that the coaches draw up. I thank the coaches, as well, and my teammates for making my job easier."

Bill Belichick breaks down tipped FG try

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
1:20
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick's weekly breakdown of key plays following a win, on Patriots.com, highlighted some specifics behind blocking kicks.

Belichick made two points about Nick Folk's 52-yard field attempt that Vince Wilfork got his hand on last Sunday.

The first thing was the late movement, "going from a wider rush to a little bit of a tighter rush." The Patriots wanted their rush up the middle because the ball was being kicked from the middle of the field, so they planned for that area for their "surge to hit."

Ultimately, the Patriots got that surge over Damon Harrison, a defensive lineman playing on the field-goal protection unit.

"In the initial alignment, they might think the pressure is coming in the C gap here, [and] around the end and wing," Belichick said. "After the stem, now we end up with [Alan] Branch and Wilfork on Harrison."

Belichick also pointed out how the Patriots blocked a kick the week before (Jamie Collins) and almost had a second in the same area (Jonathan Casillas), which might have been a factor in the play because the Jets were probably aware of it and it "lightened the load for us inside."

Other plays noted by Belichick:

Ayers on kickoff coverage. Akeem Ayers only played five snaps on defense, but was a core contributor on special teams. Belichick referred to his tackle on the opening kickoff as a tone-setting play. Ayers, who was cited for doing a nice job of fitting and attacking the wedge on the play, tied for the team lead with two special teams tackles on the day. "Thought it was a great play to start the game," he said.

Two aspects to Collins' INT. Belichick highlighted the two parts of Jamie Collins' critical third-quarter interception, starting with defensive end Chandler Jones' strong inside rush, then lauding Collins' man coverage on tight end Jace Amaro and ability to high-point the ball.

Red zone defense a strength. Belichick liked the way the Patriots played red zone defense, pointing out Jones' sack (fourth quarter) and how it was a combination of good coverage and rush. On the rush, Jones won to the outside, which was different from his inside rush on Collins' interception.

Hightower's sack sparked by late shift. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was praised for his call on the sack that pushed the Jets back to a 52-yard field-goal attempt, showing how some late shifting by defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Chris Jones and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins appeared to create confusion for the Jets' front.

All present at Patriots practice

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
12:24
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots had perfect attendance for practice on Wednesday. The practice was held inside of Gillette Stadium on a wet day.

The Patriots were in full pads for the first time since Nov. 12. Head coach Bill Belichick has preached that the team needs to close out the season strong despite Sunday's game against the Bills having no effect on the postseason. The full pads provide some extra incentive to put in the extra effort at practice.

Wide receiver Julian Edelman, who missed Sunday’s game against the Jets with a thigh injury and more notably a concussion, ran a couple routes at practice.

Patriots' offensive line needs to improve

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
10:00
AM ET
video
ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses one unit that needs to improve before the playoffs.

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