New England Patriots: AFC East

Patriots' coaches want balance on offense

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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The big theme on the Patriots’ offense this week is about working toward establishing balance by utilizing the run game and spreading the ball around in the passing game.

“I think, offensively, we could stand to get a lot more balance into our attack overall, period,” coach Bill Belichick said on Tuesday’s conference call. “We didn’t have the run-to-pass ratio in Miami and didn’t really have enough of it in the passing game last week ... so we have to do a better job as a coaching staff.

“I have to do a better job to create a little more balance on our team offensively with our personnel, our play-calling, our plays and so forth. Because we have a lot of good players. We have to be more effective,” he said.

With a large amount of the passing game going through wide receiver Julian Edelman and 17 targets to tight end Rob Gronkowski, the question comes up of whether Brady trusts his other receivers.

“I don’t think it’s a lack of communication or a lack of being on the same page,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Tuesday. “First of all, we only threw the ball 21 times or whatever it was the other day. And many of those were in two-receiver type settings or came out quick in three-step drops, and a lot of times the coverage dictates where the ball goes.

“I don’t think it was a case of Tom [Brady] misreading the coverage or looking even at a specific direction. We have all our guys in the pattern, and Tom is capable of reading the coverage out and throwing it to the right guy, and he does a great job of that. Sometimes that means the ball is going to go certain places more than others, and there is always a place to start with your read. And sometimes, if the guy happens to be open right away, then you don’t need to go any further.

“We always will try to be balanced and distribute the ball to all of our skills players. We feel like we have capable tight ends, capable receivers, capable backs. And it never is our intention to go into the game and say only throw the ball to one or two guys in a particular situation.”

McDaniels added that he expects the skill players to get involved, and there will be many opportunities to do that throughout the season.

One skill player under a microscope is wide receiver Danny Amendola, who is expected to be the No.2 wide receiver on the roster.

When asked if Brady trusts Amendola, McDaniels said he's confident he can get the job done.

“I think Danny has shown that he can be an obvious contributor in our offense,” McDaniels said. “He did it last year -- played through some different things. And came up huge for us in a number of situations in a number of games. So I have a lot of confidence in Danny.

“I have a lot of confidence in all of our receivers, backs, tight ends in the passing game. I would anticipate that, like I said, we will go forward and the ball will get distributed to a lot of those guys -- they can do a lot of good things with it.”

W2W4: Patriots' key areas vs. Vikings

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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The New England Patriots visit the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium, the home of the University of Minnesota football team. The 1 p.m. ET game will be broadcast on CBS, with Ian Eagle (play-by-play), Dan Fouts (analysis) and Jenny Dell (sideline) on the call.

Here are the key areas of focus from a Patriots standpoint:

New alignment on defense. After surrendering 191 rushing yards in the season opener, in part because players were asked to play out of position (e.g. Chandler Jones as a 3-4 defensive end), the Patriots are expected to alter things both from an alignment and personnel perspective, while getting back to fundamental basics. Does that produce a better run defense? UPDATE: On Friday night the Vikings deactivated running back Adrian Peterson for Sunday's game after Peterson was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. While this situation is so much bigger and more important than a football game, it will go on, and backup RB Matt Asiata will start in Peterson's place.

Offensive line rotation and performance. The Patriots used a six-man offensive line rotation in the opener until the sixth lineman, center Ryan Wendell, injured his knee early in the second half. Bill Belichick said last week that until a clear-cut answer presented itself on the offensive line, the team would continue to try different things. Wendell's injury could affect those plans. Regardless of whether the Patriots rotate, they need to play much better on the offensive line, where the spotlight shines a bit brighter on first-year coach Dave DeGuglielmo after the unit had a second-half meltdown last week. Identifying Vikings pressure looks both before and after the snap is a big part of it this week.

Revis vs. Patterson? Cordarrelle Patterson is a dynamic offensive threat at receiver who moves around the formation so this could be the first time we see the Patriots use cornerback Darrelle Revis as a matchup option, similar to how the club employed Aqib Talib at times last year. While the Vikings have a solid No. 2 receiver in Greg Jennings, isn't this why the Patriots have Revis in the first place?

Better special teams play. After surrendering a blocked punt in the season-opener, and having a player line up offside on kickoff coverage, the Patriots now face one of the NFL's best return games with Patterson on kickoffs and Marcus Sherels on punts. They don't get much better than that combination.

Importance of generating a running game. Whether it is with jet sweeps with Julian Edelman or a more traditional running attack with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the Patriots are expected to have a renewed commitment to that area on Sunday. They naturally didn't like the results last week (just 20 carries) and this is Football 101-type stuff. What's the best way to ease the pressure on an offensive line on the ropes and combat the variety of pressure looks the Vikings utilize? Make positive gains in the run game.

Revis prepares for a speedy Wallace

September, 4, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last year, wide receiver Mike Wallace was the big free-agent signing for the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East. This year, it was cornerback Darrelle Revis for the New England Patriots. On Sunday, they collide.

Revis
 And Revis is more than aware of the challenges that Wallace poses for a defense.

“He’s very fast, and he’s very explosive, too,” Revis said in the locker room on Thursday. “He’s probably the fastest receiver in the league.”

Wallace, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2009, still possesses high-end speed, despite not always looking exceptionally fast on film.

“Film can play tricks on your eyes when you watch it,” Revis said. “Until you get out there, field speed and game speed are two totally different things from the film. I’ve played against him in the past and a lot of guys on this team have, and they know how fast he is.”

Miami will be unveiling a quick offense with new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who was the Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly’s offense last season. Wallace’s speed could be highlighted in the new offense, but Miami’s up-tempo play is nothing new in Revis’ eyes.

“Miami always played fast,” Revis said. “They played fast in the past. The weather plays a part as well -- playing down there in that hot weather.

“We are aware of all the situations. I think that’s why we have a week to prepare -- to go through every scenario we can player and coach-wise, and just game plan in the best way we can.”

Revis is ready for the challenges that Miami’s offense poses but is also looking forward to finally getting the season started.

“I’m very excited, it’s the first week,” Revis said. “It’s good to get things going now. I think we are all excited. We have been waiting for this for a while, and now it’s here.”

When asked if this game is more special to him because it is his first regular-season game in a Patriots uniform, Revis was all business.

“I’m just taking it one game at a time,” Revis said. “We have 16 games and a bye [week], so I’m just taking it one week at a time and focus on that week.”

Belichick: O-line performed inconsistently

August, 29, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With guard Logan Mankins now down in Tampa Bay, all eyes are on the Patriots' offensive line.

Head coach Bill Belichick provided some insight on the effectiveness of his offensive line's blocking in Thursday's preseason finale with the New York Giants.

"Overall offensively we had not very many problems in pass protection, a couple, but overall not very many," Belichick said in a conference call on Friday. "We didn't run the ball as well as we would like, or need to.

"That was a combination of things. Sometimes it was multiple people or a combination block or the back and the offensive linemen with the read or whatever it happened to be."

Belichick likes the effort in pass blocking, but still needs to see more consistency from all of his offensive linemen. Second-year guard Josh Kline, who projects to assume the role of Mankins after playing all 70 offensive snaps on Thursday, is one of those players in the spotlight.

"I'd probably say it's about the same thing with all the players that played," Belichick said about Kline. "There were a lot of good things out there and there were some things that at times weren't so good, need to be corrected, need to be improved.

"When you talk about the whole line, you're probably going to have similar comments on all of them: a lack of consistency in the running game, pass blocking [was] not perfect but certainly manageable."

Although Marcus Cannon did not play Thursday, he possesses the versatility that can provide some consistency to the line. Belichick confirmed that Cannon has lined up at every spot except for center.

"He's [Cannon] obviously got great size and strength, and he's very athletic for his size," Belichick said. "He moves well. He has excellent feet, balance. He's a powerful player in the running game ... [with] his length and size."

Most of Cannon's snaps have come at tackle, but Cannon did play guard last year and has seen some action there this year. Belichick is trying to find the right spot for Cannon's skills.

"He [Cannon], I think, physically can play any position on the line," Belichick said. He probably could play center too but definitely could play guard or tackle. It's just a question of refining his skills at one position."

Belichick to referee: Throw lots of flags

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Referee John Parry and members of his crew are in town to work with the Patriots, and he's received a message from coach Bill Belichick.

This is what Belichick told Parry: "Throw flags -- put the flag on the ground, so when we put the film on, we can see exactly what the action was. [Then] when the flag is on the ground, communicate with the player -- what did he do wrong? How does he potentially eliminate that action? Communicate with the coaching staff to make sure they know."

 This is a big part of the next two days for the Patriots, and it involves teaching and becoming familiar with some of the NFL's rule changes and points of emphasis.

"You'll see flags on the ground," Parry promised.

Two soundbites from Parry's briefing with media members:

On a point of emphasis about illegal contact. "It's not an easy call to make. The rule hasn't changed. We've been through this before. Points of emphasis are made annually from the competition committee ... and this is the second time in 14 years that defensive holding and illegal contact have been a point of emphasis. It's an offensive game and we want receivers to be able to run a free route. We do not want receivers to initiate contact with defenders to eliminate their opportunity to defend that route. ... But I think what you'll see, last week in the New England game there was maybe 23 penalties. I think we'll see 23, 24, 20 for Weeks 2, 3, 4 [in the preseason]. And the message will be sent that this is a point of emphasis and the players will adapt, the coaches will adapt and the officials will adapt, get on the same page, and Week 1, I don't think you'll see a big difference in the football game."

Working towards consistency between crews. "New York is getting aggressive with new technology. Now referees, every week, we will get every call that was made or not made by a referee. So at least if I'm calling two or three holds, and I can view other holds that were incorrect or 'am I on the borderline?' so we can gap the human side of this. Every game is different. Every player is different. Every coach is different on any given day. We are trying to bridge that gap. We now have coaches [who] are coming to our clinics and teaching us what the teaching technique is to a player. ... We're trying any and all avenues to bridge the gap on consistency. It's a big point for our game."

First Patriots impressions: Let's talk D

July, 28, 2014
Jul 28
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This will be a process, as it always is. Very little is decided after four days of training camp.

But for those curious of some New England Patriots first impressions, there's only one place to start -- the defense.

We entered training camp with the thought that the team's evolving D was the key to the team's Super Bowl hopes. The first four practices have reinforced that line of thinking. Assuming relatively good health, it's fair to say this defense has the chance to be one of Bill Belichick's best, and it starts at the cornerback position.

[+] EnlargeDarrelle Revis
Barry Chin/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesDarrelle Revis picked off two Tom Brady passes on Saturday.
Darrelle Revis (5-foot-11, 198 pounds) and Brandon Browner (6-4, 221) have been creating havoc for quarterback Tom Brady, who has been frustrated at times, such as Saturday when he had two passes intended for receiver Julian Edelman intercepted by Revis.

Specific to Revis, one of the things that stands out is how he's seldom in bad position. Belichick has already noted his instincts (comparing him to Rodney Harrison in that area), as there have been times when Revis is breaking on a route before the receiver has done so. At the line of scrimmage, his punch has jarred receivers. His footwork is especially fluid with little wasted movement. His ball skills are obviously solid, too.

In the words of Belichick, I'd say Revis "is similar but different" to when we watched receiver Randy Moss in 2007 training camp. It just looks different -- everything is on a much higher level than you're used to seeing.

Meanwhile, Browner has brought a Harrison-type physical presence to the practice field. On Sunday, he de-cleated rookie running back James White in an 11-on-11 running drill, White landing on his backside as the crowd of 13,000-plus roared along with Browner himself. Longtime Patriots followers might recall how Harrison was buzzing around the field in his first training camp with the team in 2003, his hard-hitting style right on the line between the desired edge/intensity and putting valuable teammates in the cross hairs of friendly fire. That's what we've seen from Browner, who if teamed with Revis could help transform a Patriots' D which ranked 26th in the NFL on third down last season.

So these are some first impressions, passed along with a cautious touch.

We want to relay what we see, while at the time, keeping things in the appropriate context. After all, it has been only four practices.

Patriots' top play winner: 'Snow Bowl' kick

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
10:00
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Adam VinatieriAP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Score: Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (OT)
Date: Jan. 19, 2002 Site: Foxboro Stadium

The voting is complete for the top play in Patriots history, and I'm in agreement with the majority. My vote is also for Adam Vinatieri's "Snow Bowl" kick.

Here are a few thoughts from this viewpoint:

I kept coming back to the 2001 season throughout the process of this "top play/memorable moment" project and felt that my choice would come from that year because of what it meant to the franchise.

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Would it be Drew Bledsoe getting knocked out by Mo Lewis, opening the door for Tom Brady? Adam Vinatieri's "Snow Bowl" kick? The tuck rule play in which Patriots followers will always thank referee Walt Coleman for his knowledge of the rule book? Vinatieri's game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXXVI? Ty Law's interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl?

I even considered the Patriots coming out for Super Bowl XXXVI as a team, passing on individual introductions, as a possible "top play/memorable moment" because it was such a powerful statement and captured a big part of the franchise's unexpected run to its first title.

There are many other top plays from other years -- a personal favorite was the record-setting long touchdown pass from Brady to Randy Moss in the 2007 regular-season finale to cap an undefeated regular season -- but '01 trumped them all to me.

Vinatieri's kick just might be the best, most clutch, toughest field goal in the history of this great game.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC East

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.

Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.

Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.

The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?



Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.

Mike Reiss: Is it possible for someone to go from a Coach of the Year candidate last December to the hot seat in late July? It shouldn't be, but that is the situation in which Dolphins coach Joe Philbin finds himself. I thought Philbin deserved a lot of credit for keeping things together last season, and after the Dolphins beat the Patriots in mid-December many were singing his praises. But the team sputtered the final two weeks of the season and now Philbin, entering his third season, could be viewed as having the hottest seat among AFC East coaches. Crazy business, this NFL.

Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.

James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.


Second Down

Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?



Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.

Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.

Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.

Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?



Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.

Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.

Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.

Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.


Fourth Down

How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?



Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.

Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.

Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.

Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.

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Source: Pepper Johnson joining Bills staff

January, 31, 2014
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Former New England Patriots assistant coach Pepper Johnson agreed to join the Buffalo Bills' coaching staff Friday, a source confirmed to ESPN's Mike Reiss.

It's not immediately known what role Johnson will fill on the Bills' staff, but he is expected to work under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who was hired last week.

The Bills are without both of their linebackers coaches from last season. Outside linebackers coach Jim O'Neil became the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, while inside linebackers coach Chuck Driesbach was fired. The Bills have also granted the Browns permission to interview defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.

Johnson, 49, spent the past 14 seasons as an assistant coach for the Patriots, serving as an assistant linebackers coach (2000), inside linebackers coach (2001-2003), defensive line coach (2004-2011), and linebackers coach (2012-2013). He decided to leave the team earlier this month.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement that he was "proud and honored to have spent more years of my career with Pepper Johnson than any other player or coach." Johnson played under Belichick as a linebacker with the New York Giants (1986-92), Cleveland Browns (1993-95) and New York Jets (1997-98).

Schwartz served as a personnel scout for the Browns from 1993-95.

It is believed that Johnson departed the Patriots to seek opportunities for advancement. Schwartz, a veteran coach who was fired after five seasons with the Detroit Lions, could be in line for another head coaching job as soon as the 2015 season. That could potentially open the door for Johnson to become the Bills' defensive coordinator.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Broncos

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
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It was a safe bet that the buildup to this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game was going to include substantial talk about Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, the two quarterbacks involved.

But this week has involved so much more, as the two best teams in the AFC have provided no shortage of storylines this season in distancing themselves from the rest of the conference.

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Talk has ensued about how the previous matchup between the teams will play into Sunday, how the game will impact the legacy of Brady and Manning, and how much of a factor familiarity between the two teams will be.

In the end, however, Sunday will dictate only one thing for sure, and that is which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII.

A win would make Brady the first quarterback in NFL history to start six Super Bowls, and would also tie Bill Belichick for the most postseason victories of all-time.

The Denver Broncos enter the game as a favorite according to the point spread, but the New England Patriots are looking to carry their strong play over the past three games into a triumphant effort on Sunday.

Here’s what we’ll be watching for.

1. Patriots' offensive approach: If the Patriots want to stick with what has worked over the past three games, then hammering the Broncos on the ground seems like a strong bet. LeGarrette Blount and the stable of backs have been dominant behind an overwhelming offensive line. The Patriots are a game plan offense, however, always aiming to attack a defense’s weakness, and with recent injuries factored in, the Broncos are a better defense against the run than the pass. Will the Patriots try to pick apart a secondary playing without its best cornerback? Or, perhaps, will the ground game set the tone?

2. Slowing Denver's passing attack: Back in Week 12, the Patriots' defense was able to limit Manning to a mortal effort, holding him to 150 passing yards on 19-of-36 attempts. Some of that might be attributed to the wind, but the secondary also showed it has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the best offense in football. A key player who was not on the field during that matchup, tight end Julius Thomas, will be available this Sunday, giving the Patriots one more player to account for. He joins the trio of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and, of course, Wes Welker to form a unique set of weapons for Manning.

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesKnowshon Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards this season.
3. Building the run D wall: In the last meeting, Denver rushed for 280 yards, with Knowshon Moreno accounting for 224 of those yards. The Patriots were likely happy with keeping the Broncos' passing offense under wraps in Week 12, but they have repeatedly said this week that they can't afford to let Denver run the ball the same way again. From a personnel standpoint, the insertion of Sealver Siliga as a starter at defensive tackle has appeared to pay off, as the Patriots have held two of their past five opponents under 100 yards rushing.

4. Allen and Dobson’s health and status: They have flown under the radar a bit after Brady missed Wednesday’s practice, but both punter Ryan Allen and wide receive Aaron Dobson have practiced on a limited basis this week. Allen left last Saturday’s game with a shoulder injury, and while that won’t likely impact his punting, it could be a factor in him handling snaps, both as the holder and punter, as we saw what a high snap can do on a given play last week. For Dobson, who hasn’t played since Week 17, a return would give the Patriots their biggest receiver in the lineup and a potential red-zone target. Should the Patriots aim to test a beaten up Denver secondary, Dobson could give them a vertical presence on the perimeter.

5. Altitude, crowd noise, “Omaha!”, etc. It’s hard to gauge just how much the thin air of Denver impacts players’ stamina on the field, but one area where it does often have an impact is in the kicking game. Don’t expect many kickoff returns on Sunday, though it does shorten the field for offenses, who can attempt field goals from greater distances. Denver is a loud venue, and the Patriots' offense will be tested by the crowd noise. As we saw in the Broncos-Chargers game, Manning is a master at drawing opponents offside (he used the cadence “Omaha!” 44 times during the game), and the Patriots must be disciplined in their pre-snap movement. Especially against this offense, giving away free yards (which can potentially extend a drive) is something a defense must avoid.

Rob Ninkovich a step ahead of the Sox

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
1:44
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- "Getting Beard" is all the rage in Boston these days, as the Red Sox culminated their magical 2013 season with a World Series win catalyzed by tremendous starting pitching, an unstoppable David Ortiz, and beards that rival those seen on "Duck Dynasty."

Ninkovich
New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has a full face of hair himself, though he reminded the media on Thursday that his patented "Ninko-beard" predates the Red Sox run.

"I mean, I've been doing this for a couple years now, guys, so this isn't the Boston Red Sox beard right here, this is the Ninko-beard," he joked.

"I've been doing this for like three years," Ninkovich continued before light-heartedly adding. "We'll see how many of those guys shave them off, because they're not -- I'm sure [Red Sox center fielder Jacoby] Ellsbury's taking his off."

Ninkovich was one of a handful of Patriots to take in Game 1 of the World Series at Fenway Park, and there's a mutual admiration between both the organizations and the players on each team.

"Congrats to those guys, it's a great -- when you're a little kid, you're thinking about playing in the Super Bowl, the World Series, and when you get to that point and you win it, it's got to be pretty special," he said. "I'm still trying to get to my win in the Super Bowl."

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 13, Jets 10

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
11:53
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – My thoughts on the New England Patriots' 13-10 victory over the New York Jets on Thursday night:

What it means: In one of the uglier football games we’ve seen the Patriots play in recent memory, they get the victory. But are the Patriots still one of the AFC’s elite teams? It’s hard to answer that with an authoritative “yes” after the past two weeks. While they played without receiver Danny Amendola on Thursday night and will benefit from the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski (possibly as soon as Week 3), there are plenty of questions surrounding the offense right now.

Brady’s struggles: Quarterback Tom Brady’s frustration boiled over at times. It’s rare to see a game in which Brady hovers below the 50 percent completion mark, but he just couldn’t get on the same page with anyone outside of receiver Julian Edelman (New England's best offensive player). Brady previously talked about the need for more patience this year. His patience was put to the test in this game.

Stock watch: Falling -- rookie receivers. It was a tough night for Aaron Dobson (second-round pick) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), as the Patriots’ passing game was stuck in neutral. Dobson caught a 39-yard touchdown pass on his first career play, but otherwise struggled with drops on a night when the conditions got wetter and sloppier as the game progressed. While everyone expected some growing pains for the Patriots’ passing game with young receivers, I’m not sure we expected them at this level.

Defense delivers: The Patriots created four turnovers on defense (two interceptions by Aqib Talib, one pick by Alfonzo Dennard and a fumble return by Devin McCourty created by Talib), as it was a night in which the D had to keep the team in the game because of the anemic offensive performance (some credit goes to the Jets’ defense for owning third down). This is the second week in a row that the Patriots’ defense stood tall late in the game. While the unit deserves credit, it’s also notable that the Jets (1-1), with rookie Geno Smith at quarterback, are one of the NFL’s offensively challenged teams.

What’s next: The Patriots (2-0) host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Sept. 22 (1 p.m. ET). Having played Thursday night, they’ll have extra time to prepare. The Buccaneers host the New Orleans Saints this Sunday.

Live blog: Jets at Patriots

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
7:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts for the divisional showdown between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.

Follow along with our live updates from 7 p.m. ET and then join us for our in-game chat at 8:15 p.m. ET. See you there.

Examining Patriots-Bills connections

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
5:00
AM ET
After preparing for each other throughout the offseason, coupled with the fact that they're division rivals, the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills have grown familiar.

There are also several connections between the two organizations -- including former Patriots players now with the Bills, who are highlighted below.

Tight end Lee Smith. Smith, a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Patriots, was released by the team at the final roster cut-down that year, and the feeling was that the Patriots wanted to sign Smith to the practice squad. The opportunity never presented itself, as he was claimed by the Bills off waivers. He has eight catches in 26 games for Buffalo.

Offensive tackle Thomas Welch. Another former Patriots draft choice, Welch has kicked around among four organizations, eventually landing in Buffalo. He started one game for the Patriots in 2010 and played in three for Buffalo last season.

Other connections of note

Patriots linebacker Chris White. White, recently claimed off of waivers by the Patriots, was traded from Buffalo to Detroit in exchange for quarterback Thad Lewis in August. White, 24, was a sixth-round pick of the Bills in 2011.

Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones/Bills head coach Doug Marrone. The Patriots may rely on Jones for some scouting reports this week, as Jones was a star for Marrone at Syracuse when Marrone was head coach there. Said Marrone of Jones on Wednesday, "Obviously we were very proud of Chandler at Syracuse and I’m very proud of him now. I’ve seen him get better and better. I’ve seen him really step it up and really be a good professional. He’s one heck of a football player and we’re going to have our hands full with him."

Penalty watch: Patriots vs. Bills

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
5:00
AM ET
Every Thursday during the season, we'll lead off the day with a look at the New England Patriots' penalties and how they stack up with the rest of the NFL.

Every team starts with a fresh slate when it comes to penalties in 2013.

Looking back over the past two seasons, the Patriots have had solid results in this area. In 2012, the team was flagged for 98 penalties (an average of 6.13 per game), the ninth-fewest in the league. In 2011, the Patriots had just 80 penalties called against them in the regular season, fifth-fewest.

The Patriots obviously hope to continue that trend into the season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. The early signs are encouraging.

While it's dangerous to read too much into preseason football, the Patriots were penalized 19 times over four games, totaling 120 yards. Six of those flags were thrown against players who are no longer on the club.

Contrast that to the Bills, who were penalized 39 times for 278 yards in the preseason, and it's a noticeable difference.

Penalties can often be a difference-maker and this will be something to watch Sunday to see if preseason trends turn into regular-season reality.

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