Quick-hit thoughts around Pats & NFL

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
5:00
AM ET
Welker-EdelmanGetty ImagesJulian Edelman, right, has filled in admirably for former Patriots receiver Wes Welker.
BALTIMORE -- Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:

1. The last time the Patriots visited the Baltimore Ravens, in Week 3 of last season, one of the top storylines was receiver Wes Welker's reduced workload. Julian Edelman was pushing him for playing time, and with Welker playing on the franchise tag and in hope of a long-term deal, the storyline naturally made sports talk-radio buzz. With the Patriots back in Baltimore on Sunday, it's timely to revisit the Welker/Edelman dynamic. Welker, who will miss his second consecutive game with a concussion with the Broncos, has played 770 of 1,055 snaps this season (72.9 percent). Meanwhile, Edelman leads all Patriots receivers, playing 895 of 1,059 snaps (84.5 percent). It's been a reversal in a sense: Welker (73 catches, tied for 16th in NFL) was long known for his durability while the big knock on Edelman (89 catches, fifth in NFL) was if he could stay healthy. Meanwhile, the player the Patriots projected as the top replacement for Welker, receiver Danny Amendola, has played 514 of 1,059 snaps (48.5 percent).

2. Second-year kicker Justin Tucker has been a major catalyst in the Ravens' four-game winning streak, his 61-yard game-winning field goal against the Lions on Monday night the latest example of his impressive work. Here's a thought: If Billy Cundiff doesn't miss a late field goal in the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, it's possible Tucker might not be a Raven. Tucker went undrafted out of Texas in 2012 and signed with the Ravens, in part, because he knew the incumbent was on some shaky ground. The Bears and Cowboys were his other options, per the Baltimore Sun.

3. As reported by colleague Field Yates, Bill Belichick altered the Patriots' regular routine on Friday, taking players to the movies at nearby Patriot Place to see a sneak preview of “Lone Survivor.” The movie focuses on a Navy SEAL operation from 2005 in northern Afghanistan, and it turns out the Patriots weren't the only team to view it. On this week's “BS Report” with Bill Simmons, filmmaker Peter Berg said that the Broncos, Browns, Cowboys, Panthers and Redskins received screenings as well. Berg added that Florida State watched the film the night before beating Clemson in October. It's always interesting to hear behind-the-scenes stories about how coaches attempt to motivate players and bring them together.

4. When the NFL schedule came out, and a Patriots-Ravens game on Dec. 22 in Baltimore was circled, it made sense to think that elements would be a factor. But not like this. The high temperature Sunday could reach above 70 degrees, with some significant winds and a chance of rain/thundershowers. That could test the conditioning of players, and along those lines, Belichick said on "Patriots All-Access" that this is the time of year he sometimes trims things back, shortening some practices and meetings with the idea of keeping players fresh. “There are things we've been doing all year; not that we can't continue to work on them, but there comes a point of diminishing returns where I think mental fatigue could override the actual execution and practice reps on the field,” he said. “We try to balance those things out. ... We still want to be fresh at this time of year.” That could also have been a factor in Friday's trips to the movies.

5. At the start of the season, if you would have said that Josh Kline, a rookie who went undrafted out of Kent State, might be starting for the Patriots at left guard in a key Week 16 game against the Ravens, well ... you should go play the lottery. This highlights how the Patriots' offensive line is being pieced together, a result of starting left tackle Nate Solder staying home because of a concussion, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer landing on season-ending injured reserve (leg) and swing tackle Will Svitek being hampered by an ankle injury. That's why left guard Logan Mankins is likely to kick out to left tackle Sunday, with Kline taking over at guard, where he'll be responsible for, among other things, blocking Haloti Ngata. Who is Josh Kline? Here is his “football journey” from a few weeks back.

6a. Did you Know, Part I: Only one of eight division winners and four of 12 playoff teams have been determined. In Week 16 of the past two seasons, seven teams had clinched playoff berths and at least four division winners had been determined (five in 2012, four in 2011).

6b. Did you Know, Part II: The Chiefs have a 6-1 road record, which ranks best among playoff contenders.

6c. Did you Know, Part III: As noted by ESPN's Stats & Information, the Chiefs have outscored opponents by 115 points on points off turnovers this season, easily the best mark in the NFL. That is 35 more points than the next team (49ers), putting Kansas City in range to match the 2010 Patriots, who had the best “points off turnovers” margin of any team over the past 10 years. The Patriots outscored opponents off turnovers by 119 points that year -- 47 more than the next team (Packers).

6d. Did you Know, Part IV: Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel's 382-yard passing performance last week helped him become just the sixth player in NFL history to throw for 380 yards in a game for three different teams (Patriots, Chiefs, Vikings). Boomer Esiason, Trent Green, Warren Moon, Carson Palmer and Vinny Testaverde are the others.

6e. Did you Know, Part V: The Seahawks, who host the Cardinals on Sunday, have won 14 straight home games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL. The Patriots' eight-game streak ranks second.

7. Belichick often says that his experience as a special-teams coach early in his career has been invaluable in his role as a head coach. Ravens coach John Harbaugh, meanwhile, is one of the most recent examples of a former special-teams coach proving to be an excellent head coach. Still, we don't hear much about special-teams coaches when it comes to possible candidates for some of this year's vacancies. Peter King of TheMMQB.com noted some of the recommended candidates this past week.

8. When Patriots punter Ryan Allen was asked his opinion on the hit that ended Bengals punter Kevin Huber's season, and which earned Steeler Terence Garvin a $25,000 fine and had NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino saying that punters are defenseless throughout the down, he first wondered if Garvin even knew he was hitting a punter. Allen also said he doesn't agree with the idea of punters being defenseless, as he views himself more as an “11th defender,” making the point that he's 185 pounds and could be attempting to tackle a returner who is also 185. From this viewpoint, the idea that punters are defenseless throughout the down makes little sense. Much like a quarterback attempting to make a tackle on an interception return, there is a way that they can protect themselves by playing smart. As for the hit on Huber, I think it would have been a fineable offense on any player, not just a punter.

9. The Patriots got a lot out of running back Danny Woodhead last season; his 423 offensive snaps (34.1 percent) were second behind Stevan Ridley (555 snaps, 44.8 percent). But it turns out the Chargers are getting even more out of Woodhead, who has played 435 offensive snaps through 14 games and could hit 500 depending on how things unfold over the final two games. This challenges the perception that Woodhead is more of a change-of-pace back. For a comparison, Ridley leads Patriots running backs with 294 snaps this season, followed by Shane Vereen (267), Brandon Bolden (263) and LeGarrette Blount (220). Injuries obviously add important context, as Vereen's total would be higher if he hadn't been placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list after the season opener.

10. One of the mysteries of the 2013 Patriots season is how kickoff returner Leon Washington never emerged with the team, but after joining the Titans on Nov. 26 he has ripped off a few big returns. The Patriots' struggles in the kick0return game are now two-plus seasons old. No team has had to drive a longer field this season, as the Patriots' average drive start of the 20.4 ranks last in the NFL (the Vikings are first at 26.8). With rookie Josh Boyce out with an ankle injury Sunday, Blount and safety Devin McCourty are top candidates to fill the role.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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