Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. The Patriots opened training camp 130 days ago, and on that day, the first-unit defensive ends were Rob Ninkovich (right) and Trevor Scott (left). It's timely to revisit that pairing, because that's the way the Patriots -- for the first time -- are expected to primarily line up today against the Dolphins. We all remember what happened to change plans. Ninkovich tweaked his oblique a few days into camp, thrusting rookie Chandler Jones into the top unit, and Jones emerged quicker than anyone expected. That bumped Scott, a free-agent signing from Oakland who some were comparing to Mark Anderson at the time, down the depth chart. So while Jones misses another game today due to an ankle injury, and Jermaine Cunningham is on suspension, it's easy to forget that the coaching staff initially viewed Scott (14.2 percent of snaps) as a starting-caliber player.
2. The 49ers' decision to go with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, over Alex Smith, gives the Dec. 16 Sunday night game between the visiting 49ers and Patriots a different dynamic. I think it makes the 49ers a tougher matchup for the Patriots because of Kaepernick's ability to beat a defense with his arm and legs. If Smith was quarterback, the question I had was whether the 49ers could score enough points to keep up with the Patriots. I think Kaepernick gives them a better chance to potentially do so.
3. One reason to pull for the 11-1 Atlanta Falcons: The chance for 36-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez to finally win a Super Bowl ring. For all the talk about Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and the "new era" of tight ends, it was impressive to watch the classy Gonzalez, now in his 16th season, still playing at such a high level in Thursday's big win over the Saints.
4. Things have worked out well for former Patriots center Dan Koppen, who signed with the Broncos after the first week of the season and has played every snap since starter J.D. Walton went on season-ending injured reserve in Week 4. Koppen now has the unique perspective of having snapped to two of the NFL's all-time greats -- Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Any thoughts on this year's MVP race, Dan?
5. Between safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David, is there another team in the league that is getting more from its top three draft picks as the Buccaneers are this season? The trade up for Martin at the end of the first round (31st overall), in which the Buccaneers gave up a second-round pick and swapped fourth-rounders with the Broncos, has turned out to be one of the best deals across the NFL this season.
6. Third-year offensive guard Mitch Petrus has been with the Patriots since Nov. 13, and this is how he describes the approach of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has been highly praised for his work: "It's the KISS method -- 'keep it simple, stupid.' He doesn't overthink things. He keeps it really basic -- 'this is what I want you to do and get it as close to this as you can.' He wants you to give full effort every play, and as long as you're doing that, let the chips fall where they may. He's real old-school, the living definition of [old-school]."
7. After watching the Eagles lose at home to the Panthers on Monday night, it's hard to envision coach Andy Reid keeping his job this offseason. When Reid ultimately is relieved of his duties as many expect, it will make Bill Belichick the longest-tenured coach with the same team (2013 will be his 14th season in New England). Such Steelers-like stability is what Robert Kraft was hoping for when he initially hired Belichick, but few teams can pull it off, as we're likely to see this offseason when there figure to be significant head-coaching changes.
8. Kraft might someday be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it won't be this year. The Hall announced its 27 semifinalists Friday, a group thinned from 127, and Kraft didn't make the cut. That was to be expected, as one's candidacy often takes multiple years to build momentum.
9. For those who might share the same interest in officiating as this writer: The Patriots haven't had a game with Ed Hochuli as referee this season. Maybe the NFL is saving of its best for one of the team's next two games, versus Houston and San Francisco at Gillette Stadium, because they are prime-time marquee matchups.
10. From the doesn't-always-have-to-be-so serious department: The Carolina Panthers have lost all 12 opening tosses this season, so head coach Ron Rivera asked the fans to call today's toss against the host Chiefs by logging on to Facebook. Nice touch.
11. Anyone else have the same thought when looking at the NFC playoff picture: As the Packers jockey for position, and the Seahawks are in the mix too, that Week 3 "Fail Mary" game in which the Seahawks recorded a last-second win on a play that never should have counted is still a dark cloud hanging over the NFL.
12. Thanks to all the Patriots fans who came out Saturday to "Boston's on the Beach" for a tweet-up. What an enjoyable two hours in a great location. Some great Patriots discussion.