New England Patriots: Three-Point Stance

Three-point stance: Baltimore Ravens

January, 18, 2013
In Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, the Ravens will try to join the 2010 Jets as the second team ever to beat Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the same postseason.

RavensBaltimore is no stranger to big road games, as only the Packers (10) and Cowboys (nine) have more road playoff wins than the Ravens (eight). That’s an impressive total given the Packers’ first road win was in 1936, 60 years before the Ravens existed.

Ray Lewis, the last remaining original Raven, isn’t the only one with a legacy on the line Sunday. A win would put Tom Brady in line to be the first quarterback to start six Super Bowls, and allow Bill Belichick to tie Don Shula’s record six Super Bowl appearances by a head coach.

Here are three specific areas to watch Sunday:

• Joe Flacco has been excellent throwing deep in two playoff games this season. Flacco is 8 of 12 for 324 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on throws at least 20 yards downfield in the playoffs. Baltimore’s vertical passing game hurt the Patriots in Week 3 as well, with Flacco completing 4 of 8 deep throws for 111 yards and a touchdown to Torrey Smith. However, none of the players in coverage on Flacco’s four completions is still starting or playing the position he did in that game. Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard were not on the active roster in Week 3, and Devin McCourty's move to safety greatly improved the Patriots’ defense on deep throws. After Talib joined the team, only the Titans allowed fewer 30-yard pass plays on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield than the Patriots. Overall, the New England defense had seven interceptions on throws at least 20 yards downfield this season, with only Atlanta (eight) recording more.

• In Week 3, Wes Welker (142 yards) and Brandon Lloyd (108) posted two of the top-five yardage totals by wide receivers against the Baltimore defense this season. Welker’s 142 yards were a season high for both him and the Ravens’ defense, and he gained 85 of those yards after the catch. Overall, Baltimore allowed 146 yards after catch to Patriots receivers, the only unit in the league to post at least 100 yards after catch in every game this season. High-percentage throws and yards after catch have been a recipe for success this season for Brady, who has made no secret of his respect for Ravens safety Ed Reed’s impact on deep passing. Brady is 6 of 22 (27.3 percent) with four interceptions on passes more than 10 yards downfield against the Ravens in their past two postseason meetings. Brady has thrown six interceptions on passes more than 10 yards downfield against the Ravens since the start of 2008 (including playoffs), two more than he has thrown against any other opponent during that time.

• Ray Rice has the most yards from scrimmage per game against the Patriots of any player in history. Rice has averaged 133 yards in his five career games against New England, an average he raised with 150 yards in Baltimore’s Week 3 win. A big reason for Cam Cameron’s late-season firing as offensive coordinator was the way the Ravens used Rice on offense. Rice received one or no touches on third down in four of Cameron’s 13 games as offensive coordinator this season. Rice has posted at least 115 yards from scrimmage in three of five games under Jim Caldwell, and he rested for most of a meaningless Week 17 game with the Bengals. Rice is the focal point of the offense, but has been spelled at times by the effective Bernard Pierce. Pierce has gained at least 90 yards from scrimmage in three of the past four games.

Three-point stance: Texans

January, 9, 2013
In Week 14, the Patriots dismantled the Texans 42-14 on Monday Night Football, the start of a 1-3 stretch to finish the season for Houston.

TexansThe Texans missed pass-rush specialist Brooks Reed in that game, sacking Tom Brady only once, while cornerback Johnathan Joseph (groin injury) and middle linebacker Bradie James (hamstring injury) played at less than full strength.

Will the return of Reed and relative health of Joseph and James be enough to change the result, or will the Patriots (with Rob Gronkowski added to the mix) roll again? The answer, as it usually does, lies in the ability to disrupt New England’s passing game.

Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. How will the Texans’ defense pressure Brady? Houston entered Week 14 with the highest blitz percentage (43.9 percent) and lowest Total QBR allowed (22.1) when sending at least five rushers. The Texans sent extra rushers on over half of Brady’s dropbacks, but Brady finished 13-of-19 for 148 yards and three touchdowns on those plays. More importantly, Brady was sacked only once, a testament to New England’s ability to pick up the pressure and buy Brady time. In the four games since Brady picked the Texans apart, Houston’s defense has turned up the heat, sending extra rushers on 54.5 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. Brady has a plus-20 TD-Int differential against added pressure, and he is the only quarterback to throw 20 touchdowns in a season against extra rushers in the last five years. The situation is reminiscent of the Patriots' 2010 divisional playoff loss to the Jets, in that Brady had mastered their blitz (8-of-13, 199 yards, 3 TDs) during the last regular-season meeting only weeks before a playoff rematch. The Jets used the threat of pressure as a decoy in the playoffs, sending extra pressure on just 6-of-50 dropbacks in the playoffs (4-of-5, 51 yards, sack) and disrupting Brady’s timing by dropping defenders in coverage. The Texans are not well suited to playing from behind, so the way Houston pressures Brady will be a crucial angle to watch.

2. Bill Belichick is known for his ability to take away the main strength of an opposing offense, and that strength for Houston is Arian Foster. Last week against the Bengals, Foster had a career-high 40 touches with 174 yards from scrimmage and the only Houston touchdown of the game. Foster joined Jamaal Charles as the second back of the season to record 140 rushing yards and 30 receiving yards in a game. Foster’s rushing prowess is well known, but the game highlighted another aspect to keep an eye on. Foster caught all of his season-high eight targets in the game, serving as Matt Schaub’s safety valve in passing situations. Belichick’s game plan will focus on Foster, as Schaub’s ability to beat the Patriots with a neutralized running game is questionable. Schaub has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt with one touchdown and three interceptions in his last five games without using a play-action fake, connecting for one 30+ yard pass play.

3. The Texans defense has generally covered tight ends well this season, ranking second in the league with 5.6 yards per attempt allowed and a league-low 52.5 completion percentage. While those rates are excellent, Houston has allowed 11 receiving touchdowns by tight ends, tied with the Broncos for the most in the league. Even more troubling for the Texans is the success Brady had in the previous meeting without Gronkowski, connecting eight times with Aaron Hernandez, twice for touchdowns. Texans strong safety Glover Quin was responsible for shutting down Jermaine Gresham last week (though Gresham did have two critical drops), but he can’t cover both Hernandez and Gronkowski.

Three-point stance: Pats at the bye

January, 4, 2013
For many teams, a 12-4 record, division title and first-round bye is considered a significant success. For Bill Belichick’s Patriots, it’s become the expectation. The Patriots have now reached double-digit win totals in 11 of Belichick’s 13 seasons in Foxborough (most in the league over that span) and is in the divisional playoffs for the ninth time in those 13 seasons. Here’s a look at three ways the Patriots earned the luxury of watching wild card weekend from the couch:

Patriots* New England’s aggressive defensive play calling has paid off. Week 17’s win against Miami marked New England’s fourth straight game with an interception using added pressure. Since Aqib Talib joined the Patriots in Week 11, they have sent five or more pass rushers on 35.1 percent of dropbacks. That number has jumped from 15.0 percent over the first nine weeks of the season, the most conservative number in the league. When healthy, Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard have provided quality cornerback play and enabled New England to commit extra pass rushers. Since the Talib addition, the Patriots have allowed opposing quarterbacks a 51.1 completion percentage, three touchdowns and five interceptions with at least five rushers (73.6 completion percentage, four touchdowns and no interceptions in first nine games).

[+] EnlargeIvan Fears, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots are 12-0 this season when rushing for at least 100 yards and 0-4 when they don't.
* The Patriots exhibited a renewed commitment to the rushing game this season, posting 2,184 yards (seventh in NFL) and a league-best 25 touchdowns. Some concerns have been raised over the team’s performance in this area in recent weeks. The Patriots averaged only 3.92 yards per rush over the last five games (23rd in NFL), which included matchups with the 49ers and Texans. Stevan Ridley has fumbled twice over that span, second most among running backs. Still, the Patriots have four capable backfield options in Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Bolden’s 4.89 yards per rush ranked 13th in the league among 72 players with at least 50 rushes. The most promising note on New England’s ground game comes in its best performance. The Patriots rushed for a season-high 251 yards and three touchdowns in a Week 5 win against the Broncos, the top seed in the AFC. Overall, the Patriots are 12-0 this season when rushing for at least 100 yards and 0-4 when failing to reach that mark.

* It was just another impressive season for Tom Brady. He threw an interception every 79.6 attempts, the best mark in the league. His plus-26 touchdown-to-interception differential tied for second-best in the league, and only eight other quarterbacks threw 26 touchdowns this season. Brady’s top weapon once again was Wes Welker, whose 118 catches tied for second most in the league this year. Brady’s success is more impressive when examining the injury report: star tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have appeared together in only five games this season. It was a down year for the rest of the AFC East, but Brady didn’t just feast on poor opposition. Against the six playoff defenses Brady faced this season, he averaged 337 passing yards per game with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. All three of Brady’s potential playoff foes will be repeat matchups, with Brady posting a 65.8 completion percentage, eight touchdowns and no interceptions against the Colts, Ravens and Texans this season.

Three-point stance: Dolphins

December, 27, 2012
The Patriots capitalized on Miami mistakes in the last meeting against the Dolphins, a 23-16 New England victory that clinched the AFC East title less than a month ago. The Patriots scored 17 points off Dolphins mistakes, including a pair of crucial special teams errors. New England also used 7:18 of clock time with an impressive 16-play, 77-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive.

DolphinsIn addition to professional pride and spoiling New England’s seeding hopes, the Dolphins are trying to avoid tying a franchise record with a fourth straight losing season. The Patriots can earn a first-round bye with a win and either Broncos or Texans loss.

Here are three areas to watch on Sunday:

1. The Dolphins’ running game has been boom or bust, flashing an ability to finish drives when Miami backs have avoided fumbling. At times, Miami has moved the ball effectively, rushing for at least 180 yards in five games this season (tied for most in the league). Also, the Dolphins have scored touchdowns in 83.3 percent of goal-to-go situations, the highest percentage in the league. However, ball security concerns have hindered consistent productivity. Only the Eagles and Redskins have more fumbles than the Dolphins (nine), and only Willis McGahee and Jamaal Charles have more fumbles among running backs than Reggie Bush (four). As a result, the Dolphins have rushed for fewer than 100 yards nine times this season, tied for sixth most in the league.

2. Ryan Tannehill had a tough day in the Week 13 meeting. Miami’s rookie quarterback finished 13-of-29 for 186 yards and no touchdowns. Tannehill was sacked three times, including twice by reserve lineman Trevor Scott. Since Week 13, Tannehill hasn’t been particularly efficient but has avoided turnovers, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 500 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against the 49ers, Jaguars and Bills. Statistically, the book has not changed on how to beat Tannehill. His 51.4 Total QBR against four or fewer pass rushers is 27th in the league, and his 57.9 completion percentage against standard pressure ranks 32nd among 38 qualified quarterbacks (one spot above Mark Sanchez).

3. Miami’s pass defense has played well down the stretch. The Dolphins’ defense is one of two that has not allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for at least 250 yards in the last seven games (the Bills are the other). Miami has been aggressive this season, but only sent added pressure in Week 13 on 27.9 percent of dropbacks, the Dolphins’ second-lowest rate this season. The Dolphins’ hesitancy to blitz Tom Brady made sense -- Brady’s 20 touchdown passes against five or more rushers this season are the most by a quarterback against added pressure in the last five seasons, and Brady hasn’t thrown an interception against five or more rushers in more than a year (Week 14 vs. Washington, 2011). The Dolphins slowed Brady (24-of-40, 238 yards, TD, Int) and may employ a similar strategy Sunday.

Three-point stance: Jacksonville Jaguars

December, 20, 2012
The Patriots are 8-1 all-time against the Jaguars including the playoffs, with the only loss a 25-10 defeat at the hands of Mark Brunell in the 1998-99 AFC wild card playoffs.

This year's Jaguars team bears almost no resemblance to that team. Jacksonville is tied with the Chiefs for the worst record in the league (2-12).

Second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggled earlier in the season before being placed on injured reserve. The Jaguars' offense is Chad Henne's to run, a task made tougher considering the patchwork nature of Jacksonville's running game. Maurice Jones-Drew has 414 rushing yards this season, and is still the Jaguars' leading rusher despite missing the last eight games. Add in an underwhelming defense, and this week presents a good opportunity for the Patriots to get back on track after Sunday's tough loss.

Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

Rest for weary O-line? After back-to-back matchups with the Texans and 49ers, the Patriots' offensive line could use a breather. Tom Brady was frequently pressured but was sacked only four times in the last two weeks, and the Jaguars will not bring the same pass-rushing threat on Sunday. Jacksonville's defense has recorded a sack every 34.3 dropbacks, second-worst in the league (Raiders). The Jaguars' weak pass rush and weaker record led to Jason Babin's waiver acquisition before Week 13. Babin has only one sack in the three games since, getting to Mark Sanchez in Week 14 as part of a six-man pass rush. Defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, a former first-round draft pick with three sacks this season, is the only Jaguar with more than two sacks and can offer some interior threat. Jacksonville's defensive front is not on the level of San Francisco's or Houston's, and Brady should have time to throw.

How will Henne fare? Chad Henne is no stranger to Bill Belichick. As the starter in Miami, Henne was 1-4 against the Patriots from 2009-11 with varying degrees of success. Henne threw for a career-high 416 yards and two touchdowns in last year's season-opener, but posted only a 59.0 completion percentage and minus-1 TD-INT differential in four other matchups. Henne is not particularly efficient, with a 51.9 completion percentage that ranks last among 35 qualified quarterbacks this season. His completion percentage reflects a tendency toward deeper throws. Henne's average pass length is 9.0 yards downfield, the eighth-highest in the league, and since Week 12 (his first start this season) Henne has attempted 39 throws deeper than 15 yards downfield, fourth-most in the league. Henne's favorite deep target is not first-round pick Justin Blackmon, but rather second-year speedster Cecil Shorts III, who has nine receptions of at least 30 yards this season. Only Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson have more.

Jags not running well: The Jaguars are among the worst rushing teams in the league. A Jacksonville back has rushed for more than 80 yards in a game only twice this season. Jacksonville as a team has rushed for 100 yards or less in 11 of 14 games this season, most of any team in the league. Jones-Drew missed the last eight games, but even before his injury, ranked 18th in the league. He is questionable for Sunday, and Jacksonville's options are limited if Jones-Drew misses his ninth straight game with a foot injury. Rashad Jennings has yet to pass a concussion test as of Wednesday, and Montell Owens appears to be in line for the majority of the work. Owens, a former Maine Black Bear, had 25 rushes for 138 yards and a touchdown in the last two games.

Three-point stance: San Francisco 49ers

December, 13, 2012
The Patriots play host to a second prime-time game in as many weeks Sunday night when the 49ers visit.

49ersLike Houston, San Francisco brings a defense brimming with impact talent and a consistent running game. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are centerpieces of a formidable unit that ranks among the league’s best against both pass and run. The addition of Colin Kaepernick under center has added a dimension to San Francisco’s offense, already capable of running the ball.

A win puts San Francisco in the playoffs, and an accompanying Seattle loss also awards the Niners a division title.

Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. Pressure's On: Sunday brings another tall task for the offensive line. The 49ers’ defense features a dominant duo along the line of scrimmage in outside linebacker Aldon Smith and defensive tackle/end Justin Smith. In his second season in the league, Aldon Smith is three sacks shy of Michael Strahan’s single-season record. His 33.5 career sack total through two seasons is an NFL record since 1982 (when sacks became official). Teammate Justin Smith is a disruptive force as well, and the play of those two is a big reason why San Francisco doesn’t commit extra defenders to the pass rush. The 49ers send four or fewer rushers on 80.0 percent of dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate in the league. San Francisco excels at both getting to quarterbacks (league-most 30 sacks) and defending passes (5.9 yards per attempt allowed, second in NFL) with just a four-man rush. Veteran safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are fast and physical, pacing a capable secondary that will offer more resistance than the Texans did last Monday.

2. The X Factor: Colin Kaepernick is the only real question mark in the 49ers’ lineup. His early returns have been positive, with a 3-1 record in four starts. Kaepernick has flashed big-play ability both throwing and running, though he has been conservative since his first start against the Bears. Kaepernick’s average throw traveled 10.2 yards downfield in that game, and he finished 16-of-23 for 243 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the three starts since, his average pass has been 6.7 yards downfield, and he’s averaged 208 passing yards per game with a touchdown and an interception combined. His considerable mobility adds another dimension to San Francisco’s offense. Kaepernick leads all NFL quarterbacks with 9.1 yards per rush and four touchdowns on option rushes this season. Kaepernick has a 50-plus yard rush in each of the last two games, the first quarterback to have multiple runs that long since Randall Cunningham in 1990 according to Elias.

3. Ground Control: San Francisco is very strong on both sides of the running game. The 49ers’ defense has allowed only six rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons, with the next-closest team allowing 11 (Texans). San Francisco tackles very well, with a 1.2 yards after contact per rush allowed average that rates as lowest in the NFL, and an improvement on their league-best 1.5 average from a year ago. Offensively, only four running backs with at least 100 rushes have a better yards-per-rush average than Frank Gore (4.9) this season. A big part of San Francisco’s success comes from quality offensive line play. The 49ers have three former first-round picks on the line, including starting tackles Anthony Davis and Joe Staley, and the 49ers’ 3.64 yards before contact per rush average ranks second in the league.

Three-point stance: Houston Texans

December, 6, 2012
Monday night offers a first-hand look at how quickly things can change in the NFL.

TexansTwo years ago, the Texans' defense ranked among the league's worst. No team allowed more passing touchdowns, and Houston's plus-20 touchdown-to-interception differential was the league's worst. The Texans brought in Wade Phillips to run the defense, and good investments through the draft and free agency have remade Houston into a talented and deep defense.

The depth has been especially important, given the injuries to impact players. Week 1 starters Brian Cushing, Johnathan Joseph, Bradie James and Brooks Reed have all missed significant time with injuries this season, but the Texans are still 11-1 and in the AFC driver's seat.

Here are three areas to watch for on Monday night:

1. High Watt-age: J.J. Watt has been incredible this season, especially when considering the traditional responsibilities of a 3-4 defensive end. After a Wednesday stat correction awarded him a sack on a Jake Locker fumble, Watt has 16.5 sacks this season and trails Aldon Smith by one for the league lead. This alone is impressive, but also represents only part of Watt's impact. He's defended 15 passes this season as well, a total that trails only Tim Jennings (19). Watt's 31.5 dropbacks disrupted (sacks, passes defensed and interceptions) this season are 12.5 more than the next-closest player, and Watt has been responsible for disrupting 6.15 percent of all dropbacks the Texans have faced this season. The player with the next-highest disrupted percentage is Smith (3.82 percent, 17.5 dropbacks disrupted). Given that Houston has also allowed the second-fewest rush yards (1,051) and fewest rushing touchdowns (two) this year, Watt seems to be the clear front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Ground and pound: Houston runs the ball more than any team, averaging 34.4 rushes per game. Arian Foster is the clear focal point of the Houston ground game, with 68.5 percent of the total rushes and 64.4 percent of the rushing yards. Foster is the only back in the league with rushing touchdowns in nine different games this season, and his 13 rushing touchdowns are four more than the next-closest backs (Pats' Stevan Ridley and Bucs' Doug Martin). Though the Texans' reputation is that of an elite rushing team, their production reflects quantity over quality. The Texans average 4.1 yards per rush, 17th in the league, and Foster's 3.9 yards per rush average ranks 28th out of 45 qualified rushers. Foster is averaging a half-yard less than last year, and losses along the offensive line can't be blamed. The full half-yard difference is coming in Foster's yards after contact average, which has dipped from 1.8 (35th of 53 qualified rushers) last year to 1.3 (41st of 45) this year.

3. Play-action passing: One by-product of Houston's reliance on the run is an increased emphasis on play-action passing. Matt Schaub has 10 touchdowns and two interceptions on play-action passes this season. His 10 touchdowns (tied with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees) and plus-8 differential both lead the league. Andre Johnson has come alive of late as well, and has been used effectively to stretch the field for Schaub in recent weeks. Johnson's average target depth is 17.3 yards downfield on play-action passes this season, compared with 10.4 yards downfield on passes without play-action fakes. Though he wasn't targeted deep in Sunday's win against the Titans, Johnson caught 8 of 14 targets at least 15 yards downfield in wins against the Jaguars and Lions before that. He's among the most talented receivers in football, and if Houston can establish its running game early, Schaub is likely to employ play-action and take a shot downfield.

Three-point stance: Dolphins

November, 29, 2012
Week 13 brings the first meeting between the Dolphins and Patriots of the season, the latest they’ve met for the first time in 15 years.

DolphinsDan Marino tied a career high with 60 attempts in a 27-24 Patriots win in Week 13 of 1997, the last time these teams met for the first time this late. Marino threw three interceptions in that game, with Larry Whigham and Jimmy Hitchcock returning two for touchdowns. There was only one touchdown pass that afternoon, with bonus points available for identifying the duo responsible for that 35-yard connection.

This edition of the Dolphins features Ryan Tannehill, the latest in a long line of quarterbacks that Fins fans have hoped would fill Marino’s shoes. Like most rookie quarterbacks (and the rest of the Dolphins), Tannehill has had ups and downs this season.

Here are three areas to watch for when the Dolphins host the Patriots on Sunday afternoon:

1. Rookie QB: At times this season, Tannehill has looked every bit the first-round pick he was in April’s NFL Draft. Teams tried to blitz Tannehill early in the season, and he faced at least five rushers on 16.7 dropbacks per game through his first four games. After Tannehill threw for 298 yards against added pressure (and 431 yards total) in a Week 4 loss to the Cardinals, teams have sent added rushers on only 8.0 dropbacks per game. Tannehill has been poor when defenses sit back in coverage, with a 56.7 completion percentage against four or fewer rushers, which ranks 32nd out of 34 qualified quarterbacks. The Patriots send four or fewer rushers on 82.7 percent of dropbacks, the second-highest percentage in the league. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is not generally kind to rookies, either: Rookie quarterbacks are 4-11 in 15 starts against the Patriots in the Belichick era, though they have won two of the last three.

2. Pressure defense: The Dolphins’ defense has been aggressive this season. Miami has sent at least five rushers on 40.9 percent of dropbacks, second highest in the league. It will be interesting to see if the Dolphins adjust their strategy, given Tom Brady’s success against extra pressure. Brady has thrown 14 touchdowns and no interceptions this season against added pressure, both numbers the best in the league. Though the Dolphins haven’t been shy about committing extra defenders to the rush, consistent production has been lacking from individual players other than Cameron Wake. He has 5.5 sacks with added pressure, third most in the league, while no teammate has at least two. The Dolphins have had sacks every 15.3 dropbacks with added pressure (19th in NFL), and neutralizing Wake should keep Brady upright Sunday.

3. Stopping the rush: The Patriots are likely to throw too, given the relative strength of Miami’s rushing defense. The Dolphins have allowed 3.7 yards per rush this season, fifth best in the league. No defense has allowed fewer first downs on the ground than Miami, an area of strength for the Patriots and Stevan Ridley in particular. Ridley’s 61 total first downs is one behind Arian Foster for the league lead, and only Andre Brown (34.2 percent) has a higher first-down percentage of his rushes than Ridley (29.6 pct). The front seven has been excellent at winning the line of scrimmage and diagnosing run quickly, as Miami’s 2.07 yards before contact allowed ranks fourth in the NFL and trails only the Vikings, Eagles and Buccaneers.

Three-point stance: Jets

November, 21, 2012
Florham Park is certainly never boring.

JetsBetween the incessant Sanchez/Tebow discussions and Bart Scott’s recent mutiny against the media, the Jets have no shortage of headlines. They are running short on time, though -- the 4-6 Jets are tied with the Bills and Dolphins in the AFC East, two games behind the Steelers and Colts for the two wild-card spots.

Injuries to the likes of Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes have left New York short on impact talent, with Jeremy Kerley the most-targeted Jets receiver this season and the pass defense tied for third worst in the league with a plus-4 TD-Int differential on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield. Still, easy games are never the expectation against the Jets, particularly on the road.

Here are three areas to watch for on Thanksgiving night:

1. Sanchez has bettered Brady. Mark Sanchez has a winning record against the Patriots at home, winning two of his three career starts. Sanchez has averaged 7.6 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions in those games. Sanchez actually has outplayed Brady in those three games. He faces a taller task this Thursday than in previous years, given the weapons around him. Though Holmes hasn’t played since Week 4, he still ranks second on the team with 272 receiving yards and 117 yards after catch. This patchwork group of receivers produced in the first meeting between the teams, with Kerley and Dustin Keller posting seven catches each and combining for 213 yards and a touchdown. Chaz Schilens also has been productive, catching Sanchez’s only two passing touchdowns over the last three games. Given that Sanchez threw for more than 300 yards in the last meeting (also without Holmes), moving venues might make them even better.

2. Tackling a problem. If Bart Scott attacked running backs the way he did the media last week, the Jets might not rank last in rush yards allowed after contact. New York has allowed 599 yards after contact this season, a total that would rank 19th among running backs in total rushing yards. That total averages to 1.9 yards after contact per rush, 29th in the league, and is a big reason why the Jets have the seventh-worst rushing defense in the league. From 2008-11, the Jets' run defense had been excellent, ranking fourth in the league with a 3.76-yards-per-rush average from 2009-11 (the start of the Rex Ryan era), and ranking 11th in yards after contact per rush over that span. The Patriots cycled running backs in during the Week 7 meeting between the teams, with Shane Vereen posting career highs with eight rushes for 49 yards and three first downs to go with Stevan Ridley’s 65 yards on 17 carries. The Patriots should exploit the Jets’ vulnerability against the run.

3. Ground to a halt. Ground and pound has been the espoused mantra for Ryan, but the Jets simply been an ineffective unit. New York ranks as the seventh-worst rushing team in the league with a 3.73-yards-per-rush average. Shonn Greene’s production has been inconsistent this season, but the offensive line shares blame. The Jets average 2.13 yards before contact per rush, eighth worst in the league. A Week 6 win against the Colts (252 rushing yards) was the only time this season the Jets have rushed for at least 130 yards, while they have given up at least 130 rushing yards on six occasions.

Three-point stance: Indianapolis Colts

November, 15, 2012
How have the Colts tripled their 2011 win total through nine games?

BillsTheir defensive production this season has not been that much different from a year ago, when Indianapolis struggled through a 2-14 season. They’ve allowed 4.7 yards per rush, fourth worst in the league, and the pass defense is slightly improved. Additionally, 42.7 percent of the Colts’ yards from scrimmage have been recorded by players drafted this year, the highest percentage of any team in the league. Yet, the Colts, featuring a rookie-heavy offense and mediocre defense, are tied with the Patriots, Steelers and Broncos in the AFC playoff picture.

Has Andrew Luck really made that much of a difference? In short, yes.

Here are three areas to watch on Sunday:

1. Luck's versatility: Andrew Luck’s rookie season has been outstanding. Luck ranks fourth in the league with a 77.6 Total QB Rating, trailing only Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. In the last three weeks, Luck has averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, fourth best among quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts. This should be an interesting matchup for new Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, as Luck has a clear favorite target in Reggie Wayne. Wayne has the most targets (105) and catches (69) in the league this season, averaging 7.7 receptions per game. In addition to the passing success, Luck has been excellent at identifying when to scramble, with 13 of his 22 scrambles going for first downs. Luck’s 59.1 first-down percentage on scrambles is third out of 16 quarterbacks with at least 10 scrambles, trailing only Jay Cutler (8-of-12) and Jake Locker (6-of-10). Luck’s mobility isn’t limited to scrambles -- he’s been Indianapolis’ goal-line back, as well. Luck has five rushing touchdowns at or inside the five-yard line, third-most of any player in the league. No other Colt has more than one rush at or inside the five, with Delone Carter the only other Colt with a touchdown.

2. Aggressive defense: The Colts' defense looks a lot different from years past. Coach Chuck Pagano instituted a 3-4 base defense in the offseason, and the defensive play calling has been far more aggressive. Indianapolis has sent at least five rushers after opposing quarterbacks on 41.6 percent of dropbacks, third highest in the league. A year ago, Indianapolis sent extra rushers on 18.1 percent of dropbacks, the lowest total in the league. They’ve generated more pressure, averaging a sack every 15.6 dropbacks this season compared with 18.6 a year ago, but has the coverage improved? The Colts' defense has allowed a 58.3 Total QBR this season, 16th in the league and an improvement on last season’s third-worst 66.9 Total QBR. A weakness the Patriots may exploit is a susceptibility to big plays. Indianapolis has yielded a 30-yard play once every 37.1 passes after surrendering one every 41.1 attempts last year.

3. Trouble stopping run: The Colts' defense has had problems stopping the run as part of implementing their new defensive philosophy. Never known for their ability to stop the run, the Colts defense hadn’t finished in the top half of the league in yards per rush allowed in the last five years. But this is a bad rush defense, even by Colts standards, ranking 29th with 4.7 yards per rush allowed. The front seven has struggled in diagnosing the run and winning the line of scrimmage, with a 3.08 yards before contact per rush average that ranks 30th in the league. Given New England’s 3.00 yards before contact per rush average this season, seventh best in the league, it could be a big day for Stevan Ridley. Ridley also has 260 yards after contact this season, ranked 10th in the league.

Three-point stance: Buffalo Bills

November, 8, 2012
The Patriots have set a very high bar in the last two seasons down the stretch. New England has not lost a game in the second half of the season since Week 17 of 2009 in Houston, finishing both 2010 and 2011 with 8-0 records.

BillsThe start of the second half presents a favorable matchup with Buffalo, who didn’t present much of a problem after halftime in their Week 4 meeting. Tom Brady led six straight scoring drives for a convincing 52-28 win. The game featured four Patriots gaining 100 yards from scrimmage for the first time in team history, and was the second time in Bills franchise history they had surrendered at least 50 points in a home game.

The additions of Logan Mankins and Aaron Hernandez to the Patriots lineup for this meeting won’t help the Bills, nor will traveling to Foxborough. The Bills haven’t beaten the Patriots on the road since a 16-13 Buffalo win in Week 10 of 2000, the first year of the Bill Belichick era.

Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. Deep thoughts: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a known commodity at this point. He’s at his best when afforded the opportunity to complete short throws, but cannot be relied on to hit deep balls consistently. As a result, his average pass length is 7.2 yards downfield, third lowest of 33 qualified quarterbacks. Fitzpatrick has a plus-5 TD-INT differential on throws 10 yards or fewer, tied for 10th in the league, but Fitzpatrick has missed on 44.4 percent of his attempts deeper than 10 yards downfield, the highest percentage in the league. Overall, Fitzpatrick’s 43.1 completion percentage on deep throws ranks 29th among qualified quarterbacks. New England’s pass defense has invited deep attempts this season by allowing a league-high 14 plays of at least 30 yards on throws deeper than 10 yards downfield. In Week 4, Fitzpatrick was 8-of-20 (both season highs) with three touchdowns and three interceptions deeper than 10 yards downfield, including 1-of-7 for 16 yards and two interceptions targeting Stevie Johnson. It will be interesting to see if Fitzpatrick continues to attack the Patriots' defense downfield, and who exactly that would benefit.

2. Running it up: Buffalo’s rush defense has been dreadful this season, posting league worsts with 5.6 yards per rush allowed, 13 rushes of at least 20 yards, 14 touchdowns and 79 first downs. Buffalo’s defense has allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Texans, Bears, Lions, 49ers, Patriots and Dolphins combined (12). The Bills invested a lot of resources (draft picks and free-agent contracts) in improving the defensive line, but the return on investment has been very poor. Buffalo has allowed a staggering 4.1 yards before contact per rush. Even if no rusher had gained a single yard after contact against the Bills all season, they would still have only the 12th-best rush defense in the league. The Patriots rushed for 247 yards in Week 4, with 200 coming inside the tackles, and rushed for 19 first downs, the highest single-game total of any team this season. Until the Bills show they can stop the run, there’s no reason for the Patriots to stop trying.

3. Spilling over: While Fred Jackson has been productive for a few years in Buffalo’s offense, C.J. Spiller has been effective this season for the Bills while playing through a shoulder injury. Spiller and Jackson have been splitting rushing duties in the five games since Jackson’s return from a Week 1 right knee sprain. The problem that Spiller and Jackson have is lack of opportunity. Buffalo’s point differential this season is minus-68, fourth worst in the league, and the Bills haven’t been able to run the ball due to frequently playing from behind. Spiller, in particular, needs to be more involved with Buffalo’s offense. Spiller has averaged 5.6 yards per rush in the last five games with Jackson, fifth best among qualified running backs, but is only averaging 9.0 rushes per game. Thirty running backs have more rushes than Spiller over the last six weeks. Factoring in Spiller’s impact in the passing game pushes him to 62 touches during that span (29th among backs), despite a 6.1 yards-per-touch average that trails only Doug Martin (7.4) and Adrian Peterson (6.4) among backs with that many touches.

Three-point stance: Pats at midseason

October, 31, 2012
The bye week offers a good opportunity to assess the current state of the Patriots. At 5-3 and in first place in the AFC East, there are reasons for cautious optimism among Patriots fans.

PatriotsStatistically, Tom Brady looks as consistent as ever. Over the last four seasons Brady’s completion percentage has been between 65.0 and 66.0 percent every year. Brady leads the league with 2,408 passing yards and is tied for second with a plus-13 touchdown-to-interception differential.

On the other end of the spectrum is the pass defense, which remains the team’s biggest obstacle to a prolonged postseason run. However, both sides of the running game have been sharp this season, a trend that should help in the second half. Here are three areas of interest through the halfway point of the Patriots’ season:

1. The Patriots have had the best rushing defense in the league through the first eight weeks. New England has allowed a league-best 3.5 yards per rush and only one rush of at least 20 yards, a 20-yard run by Daryl Richardson last Sunday. The Texans are the only team that has not allowed a rush of at least 20 yards this season. The Patriots have allowed only 1.08 yards after contact per rush, the lowest in the league and more than a half-yard lower than last year (1.71). Much of that can be attributed to quality play from a linebacking corps that has recorded 13 tackles for loss, fourth-most of any unit in the league. It appears the road to the Super Bowl runs through Arian Foster and the Houston Texans, a team that has ranked third with 248 rushes this season. The Patriots’ shut-down run defense will serve them well should it continue through a potential playoff berth.

2. The Patriots pass defense is among the worst in the league on throws deeper than 20 yards downfield. This is the fourth consecutive year that the completion percentage New England has allowed on those throws has risen. The Patriots allowed an NFL-worst 48.4 completion percentage on throws longer than 20 yards downfield last season, and have been even worse through eight weeks this year. Not surprisingly, the injury status of Patrick Chung has had a major impact on the team’s performance. When Chung is on the field, the Patriots have allowed 7.6 yards per pass attempt, which would still rank 25th in the league. Bad becomes worse with Chung on the sidelines -- he has been out the last two weeks -- as the Patriots have allowed 9.7 yards per pass attempt. That average would rank dead last in the league by over a half-yard.

[+] EnlargeRidley
AP Photo/Matt DunhamStevan Ridley has led a Patriots running attack that ranks third in rushing yards in the NFL.
3. New England’s prolific rushing attack this season holds up well against the three Super-Bowl winning teams. The current Patriots lead the NFL with 276 rushes, 12 rushing touchdowns and 84 first downs, and are third in rushing yards (1,197) so far this season. The Patriots have averaged 149.6 yards on 34.5 rushes per game, both the highest averages by a Patriots team during Bill Belichick’s tenure. New England has rushed for first downs on 30.4 percent of total rushes, best in both the NFL and Belichick era. Stevan Ridley has been both explosive and powerful this season, with five rushes of at least 20 yards (tied for fourth in NFL) and 239 yards after contact (seventh). It’s not just Ridley -- the Patriots are one of two teams in the league (Panthers) with three players (Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Danny Woodhead) rushing for at least 150 yards.

Click HERE for more midseason stats on the Pats.

Three-point stance: St. Louis Rams

October, 25, 2012
RamsThe Patriots are in London for the second time in the six seasons the NFL has played a regular-season game overseas. The Patriots' first trip, in 2009, was successful, a 35-7 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers featuring plenty of highlights. The Patriots scored three touchdowns of at least 30 yards in length, all by players no longer with the team (Sam Aiken, Ben Watson and Brandon Meriweather).

Only 14 players are still with the team who played in that win, and this year’s opponent will likely be a little tougher than that Buccaneers team. The 3-4 Rams have already surpassed last year’s two-win record, including victories over the Seahawks and Cardinals. The Patriots are looking to avoid starting 0-3 against the NFC West before Week 15 brings the 49ers to Foxborough. Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. Look out for "Big-play" Richardson: Steven Jackson has been the primary back in St. Louis since 2005, posting seven straight 1,000-yard seasons and accounting for 72.9 percent of St. Louis’ rushing yards from 2005 until last season. When the Rams used a second-round pick on Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead, it seemed a clear signal that Jackson was no longer St. Louis’ only option rushing the ball. While that has held true, it hasn’t been Pead but rookie seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson getting the extra touches. In the last two weeks, Richardson has outgained Jackson on fewer rushes and flashed big-play ability with a 44-yard rush in Week 6 against the Dolphins. Richardson’s 5.1-yards-per-rush average ranks fifth among qualified running backs this season, and his emergence has let the Rams ease Jackson’s workload.

2. Rams can defend the pass: The Rams’ pass defense has been very effective this season, thanks in no small part to the additions of cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan. Jenkins is tied for the league lead with nine passes defended, breaking up seven passes in addition to his two interceptions. Finnegan, who was signed from the Titans in the offseason, is tied for fourth in the league with three interceptions through seven games. Their arrival is a major reason why the Rams’ defense ranks third in the league with 5.6 yards allowed per attempt on passes outside the numbers. The Rams are more vulnerable inside the numbers, ranking 27th with a 71.1 completion percentage allowed, but quarterbacks have to get the pass off. The Rams have 21 sacks, tied for fifth-most in the league. A year after posting five sacks in his rookie campaign, Robert Quinn has seven sacks through seven games and trails only J.J. Watt and Clay Matthews. Quinn and teammate Chris Long have combined for six sacks in the last three weeks.

3. Bradford can be had: Sam Bradford is improving slowly under center for the Rams, but improving nonetheless. Bradford’s completion percentage, yards per attempt and Total QBR against four or fewer pass rushers all have improved this season. The third-year quarterback just needs time -- the Rams’ offensive line has struggled to keep Bradford upright. Bradford has been sacked 14 times with four or fewer rushers, a total that trails only Aaron Rodgers. Bradford has been sacked every 10.6 dropbacks against standard pressure, the worst total in the league. How bad is the Rams’ offensive line situation? Wayne Hunter has improved their results. The Rams have allowed a Bradford sack every 12.8 dropbacks with Hunter on the field and once every 9.4 dropbacks with him on the sideline.

Three-point stance: New York Jets

October, 18, 2012
PatriotsWhat to make of the Jets’ first six games? The Jekyll-and-Hyde Jets arrive in Foxborough at 3-3, just like the rest of the AFC East. On paper, the Jets look to have beaten up on bad teams and struggled against quality opponents. New York lost back-to-back home games against the 49ers (34-0) and Texans (23-17), but scored a decisive 35-9 victory against the Colts.

They have Rex Ryan’s customary swagger and a similar-looking offense to years past, but the pass defense has been surprisingly stingy even after losing its best player. Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. Are Jets OK without Revis?: Ryan’s preferred pressure schemes put a lot of responsibility on cornerbacks to shut down receivers in man-to-man coverage, and few players in the league (if any) did that as well as All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis. So when Revis went down in Week 3 against Miami with a season-ending knee injury, few expected the unit to actually become more effective in coverage when using extra pass rushers. Last Sunday, the Jets defense held Andrew Luck to 5-of-13 passing for 85 yards and an interception when using at least five pass rushers. Quarterbacks completed 72.7 percent of passes against at least five rushers when the Jets had Revis, as compared to 42.1 percent since his knee injury. Is the defense better without Revis? Of course not. The Jets are still allowing 7.0 yards per pass attempt with Revis off the field as compared to 5.4 yards per attempt with Revis playing this season. They have picked their spots to pressure more effectively though, and the early returns without Revis will not dissuade Ryan from creative pressure.

2. Sanchez’s woes: Mark Sanchez is still the starter at quarterback for the Jets, which at this point should be music to the ears of Patriots fans. Sanchez has missed (over or underthrown) on 26.6 percent of his total attempts, the highest percentage of any qualified quarterback. He is the only qualified quarterback in the league with a sub-50.0 completion percentage, and his shortcomings are magnified on shorter throws. Sanchez’s completion percentage 5 yards or less downfield is 47.6 percent. The next-closest mark belongs to Josh Freeman with a 58.6 completion percentage. Need more? A quarterback’s Points Above Average measures the number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback. Since the start of the 2008 season, no quarterback has cost his team more net points than Sanchez if replaced by a league-average quarterback. Sanchez has been worth -75.0 points to the Jets over his career, worse than JaMarcus Russell, Jimmy Clausen, Derek Anderson and others who eventually lost their starting jobs.

3. Jets weak against the run: The Patriots are 3-0 when running on more than half of their plays from scrimmage and 0-3 when rushing on less than 50.0 percent of plays. On a related note, the Jets defense has lost a step against the run. Only the Bills (nine) have allowed more rushing touchdowns than the Jets (eight), and New York is allowing 2.2 yards after contact per rush this season, third-worst in the league. The Jets have allowed 4.6 yards per rush inside the tackles, sixth-worst in the league and almost a full yard worse than their 3.7 yards per rush inside the tackles mark from a year ago. Considering the Jets signed safeties Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry with stopping the Patriots tight end-heavy passing game in mind, flipping the script could pay dividends.

To check out ESPN New York's "Three-point stance" this week on Jets-Patriots, CLICK HERE.

Three-point stance: Seattle Seahawks

October, 10, 2012
A frequent criticism of today’s NFL is the lack of a true home-field advantage, a claim most likely made by people who have never seen a game in Seattle. CenturyLink Field often is cited as among the NFL’s best home-field advantages, and there are numbers to back it up.

SeahawksOver the last 10 years, there have been 143 false-start penalties on visiting teams in Seattle, second-most of any home venue in the league (Minnesota has 145) and the most of any open-air stadium. Over the same time frame, the Seahawks have a +430 point differential at home and a -361 differential on the road. That 791-point variance between home and road point differentials is the second-biggest disparity of any team in the league (Baltimore, 833).

The stadium is going to be loud on Sunday, but there are plenty of distractions on the field for the Patriots to focus on. Here are three areas to watch for in Tom Brady’s first career start at Seattle:

[+] EnlargeChris Clemons
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireSeattle defensive end Chris Clemons has 5.5 sacks on the season.
1. The Seahawks feature a ferocious four-man pass rush that has recorded a sack once every 10.8 dropbacks, second best in the league. First-round draft pick Bruce Irvin (4.5 sacks) and veteran rusher Chris Clemons (5.5 sacks) are one of two sets of teammates with at least four sacks so far this season (Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson of the Bengals). Overall, Seahawks defensive linemen have accounted for 14.5 sacks this season, trailing only the Bears (16) among NFL defensive line groupings. One of the things that makes this unit special is its ability to impact plays even when they don’t sack the quarterback. Seahawks defensive linemen have defended 11 passes this season, three more than the next-closest team (Vikings). The five teams New England has faced this year (Titans, Cardinals, Ravens, Bills and Broncos) have combined for 12 passes defended by defensive linemen. This is a disruptive unit, and while the Patriots' offensive linemen has been competent in pass protection, they have not seen a defense like this.

2. The quarterback position is a question mark for the Seahawks. Russell Wilson, the rookie from Wisconsin, has thrown an interception once every 20.8 attempts. The only three quarterbacks in the league more likely than Wilson to throw an interception are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tony Romo and Matt Cassel. Wilson has kept his throws short, with the fourth-lowest average throw distance (6.5 yards downfield) among 33 qualified quarterbacks this season. Since the well-publicized Monday night Hail Mary to Golden Tate that beat the Packers, Wilson has been a more effective quarterback overall but still needs to limit his mistakes. Wilson completed 72.0 percent of his passes in the last two weeks, third-best in the NFL over that span, but threw only one touchdown and five interceptions. If he can limit his turnovers, he can be an effective complement to Seattle’s potent rushing attack.

3. There just aren’t many backs in the league that run as hard as Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is the only running back in the NFL who has run for at least 85 yards in every game this season, and he gets his yards the hard way. Lynch has recorded an NFL-best 229 yards after contact this season, averaging an extra 2.0 yards after contact per rush (third-best out of the 27 backs with at least 50 rushes). Lynch’s effect isn’t just on the running game -- when defenses have focused on stopping Lynch, Wilson has been able to use play action effectively. Wilson has completed 73.5 percent of his play-action passes (fourth best in NFL), with both of Seattle’s 30-plus yard pass plays coming on play-action fakes.