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Sunday, December 29, 2013
Quick-hit thoughts on NFL, Patriots

By Mike Reiss

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
Wilfork
1. The Patriots' four transactions on the 53-man roster this past week -- releasing cornerback Marquice Cole and receiver Austin Collie and promoting defensive backs Kanorris Davis and Justin Green from the practice squad -- upped the team's season total to 45 on the active roster since the season opener. That's a slight increase from last season, when the team had 42 transactions on the active roster from the season opener to the regular-season finale. The difference this year, of course, is that more of the transactions involved what receiver Julian Edelman described as “big dogs” -- core players like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Rob Gronkowski landing on season-ending injured reserve.

2. Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will turn 66 on Feb. 15, and it's easy to see he still has the same passion and love for the job after 44 seasons (30 with the Patriots). In addition to coaching the offensive line, Scarnecchia also plays a lead role in coordinating the team's running game, which was reminded to us last week as the Patriots had arguably their best day on the ground in a 41-7 win over the Ravens (rivaled only by their Sept. 29 win at Atlanta). Scarnecchia essentially has a lifetime pass to coach with the Patriots -- he's highly respected by Bill Belichick and ownership -- but his 66th birthday obviously puts him closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Assistant Brian Daboll has spent considerable time alongside Scarnecchia with the team's offensive linemen this year, and he'd be a natural successor should Scarnecchia decide it's time to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

Josh Kline
Josh Kline is the latest in the Patriots' line of big rookie contributors.
3. I always enjoy watching the behind-the-scenes and sideline footage on the weekly "Patriots All-Access" television show. What stood out to me this past week: Quarterback Tom Brady going up to rookie offensive guard Josh Kline, who made his first career NFL start against the Ravens last Sunday, and giving him an embrace in the locker room after the game while personally saluting him for a job well done. Imagine what had to be going through Kline's head at that moment. Last year at this time, he was playing for Kent State. Then he went undrafted and was a long shot to make the Patriots. He bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster, and then to rise up like he did last Sunday ... any way you look at it, just a neat story.

4. I think former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien would be a terrific choice for the Houston Texans' head-coaching job, which is viewed by many as the top post available (talented roster, strong ownership). O'Brien is reportedly the overwhelming favorite. But from this far-away perch, there is just something that doesn't feel right about him possibly leaving Penn State after just two years. He asked for the players' loyalty in the face of tough times. The feeling here is that, even if it's a dream job for the likeable O'Brien, that loyalty should be a two-way street for a bit longer than two years.

5. Belichick takes some heat for his consistent non-answers when it comes to injuries, but he could point to what unfolded with Bills coach Doug Marrone over the past two weeks as one reason he takes such an approach. In the days leading up to the Bills' 19-0 win over the Dolphins last Sunday, Marrone said that he felt “110 percent confident” injured rookie quarterback EJ Manuel would play against the Patriots in the season finale. Those comments backfired on Marrone when the team announced Friday that Thad Lewis would once again get the start in place of Manuel. Marrone took some heat from at least one local reporter who called him out on the inconsistency.

Gostkowski
Gould
Gould
6. The four-year extension signed by Bears kicker Robbie Gould on Friday, worth a reported $15 million, shouldn't have much of an impact on the Patriots and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. In August 2010, the Patriots and Gostkowski reached an extension through the 2014 season, and that deal has held up well for Gostkowski in an ever-evolving market. Gostkowski is scheduled to earn a $2.9 million base salary next season, which would rank among the highest for kickers in the NFL, but he's proved to be well worth the investment.

7. With momentum building that Rex Ryan will stick as the Jets' head coach, it narrows the list of teams the Patriots will face in 2014 that could potentially have new head coaches to three: Oakland (home), Detroit (home) and Minnesota (away) are the opponents that are most likely to make changes. As for momentum building toward Ryan sticking with the Jets for a sixth season, it's a major upset after the organization hired general John Idzik last year. It's somewhat remarkable to think that two general managers who inherited coaches this year -- Idzik with Ryan, and Carolina's Dave Gettleman with Ron Rivera -- were two of the NFL's most surprising teams, with Rivera a leading candidate for coach of the year. Many first-year GMs want to hire their “own guy,” but those are two examples in which sometimes staying the course can be the right call.

8a. Did you Know, Part I: The Ravens' five-year streak of qualifying for the playoffs, which entering the season was the NFL's longest active streak, is in jeopardy of being snapped. If it is, the Patriots (five straight, including this season) move into the top spot.

8b. Did you Know, Part II: The Patriots have concluded their 2013 regular-season road schedule after travelling 12,024 miles. That ranked 23rd among NFL teams this season (including today).

8c. Did you Know, Part III: If the Chiefs beat the Chargers today on the road, they would tie with the 2008 Dolphins and 1999 Colts for the largest win improvement (plus-10) in NFL history from one season to the next.

Manning
8d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Broncos have scored 572 points this season, and need 18 more to break the record set by the 2007 Patriots for most points in a season (589).

8e. Did you Know, Part V: If the Cardinals beat the visiting 49ers today, they would finish 11-5 and still could miss the playoffs (they would also need a Saints loss at home vs. the Buccaneers to qualify). Of the 59 teams to win exactly 11 games under the current playoff format (since 1990), only the 2008 Patriots missed the playoffs.

9. Good work by ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley to challenge Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh's thought that the team didn't “have enough juice” against the Patriots last weekend after playing a Monday night road game six days prior. As Hensley noted, teams playing Monday night this season are 16-15 the following week. Those playing a Monday night game on the road were 7-9 the following week, which includes the Patriots' dramatic comeback win over the Broncos on Nov. 24. As for the Ravens, they had won four straight and had a chance to win the AFC North with a victory over the Patriots and then today at Cincinnati. If you can't get juiced up for that ...

10. Today marks the Vikings' final game in the Metrodome, as they will play the next two seasons at the University of Minnesota before moving into a new venue. The Patriots played at the Metrodome only three times (1-2), but their last visit (Oct. 30, 2006) was unforgettable. There was a lot of hype leading into that Monday night game, the Patriots at 5-1 and the Vikings at 4-2, but the Patriots dominated by spreading the field and airing it out en route to a 31-7 win. The Vikings entered the game with the NFL's top-rated run defense, so the Patriots essentially decided they wouldn't run (15 rushes vs. 43 pass attempts). That was an unforgettable night, one of many for me covering this team.