New England Patriots: AFC East
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
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.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
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.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
On Saturday, each of the Patriots' AFC East rivals was in action, starting with the Bills, who traveled to Landover, Md., to take on the Redskins.
Below is a look at the noteworthy storylines from the games involving AFC East teams, with some thoughts on how they relate to the Patriots:
Redskins 30, Bills 7 The Bills were without top draft choice EJ Manuel, who had the inside track on the starting quarterback job before recently undergoing a minor knee procedure. The Bills declared Manuel would miss the rest of the preseason, leading some to wonder if he'll be ready for Week 1 against the Patriots. If not, veteran Kevin Kolb would be in line to be under center, although he left Saturday's game with concussion-like symptoms. He's dealt with concussions previously, and the Bills are concerned enough about his status that they're bringing in a pair of veteran quarterbacks, Matt Leinart and John Beck, for tryouts, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. (UPDATE: Schefter later reported the Bills will sign Leinart.)
The Bills are in the early stages of a franchise makeover and can ill afford to be without their top young talent as the season begins. Undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel seems to be atop the quarterback depth chart for now, and the Patriots could face a beaten-up team during Week 1.
Jets 24, Giants 21 (overtime) Speaking of uncertain quarterback situations, things went from bad to worse for the Jets on Saturday night. Rookie Geno Smith earned the start, looking to win the job over incumbent starter Mark Sanchez. But Smith threw three interceptions in extended playing time, finishing with a quarterback rating of 45.6.
Meanwhile, Sanchez was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury after a hit from Giants defensive tackle Marvin Austin.
Without confirmation of the severity of Sanchez's injury, it's unclear whether the Jets will even have a choice of who will start at quarterback when the team comes to Foxborough for a Week 2 matchup. Either way, it's not a particularly inspiring group.
Buccaneers 17, Dolphins 16 On the other end of the spectrum, the Dolphins got a sharp effort from second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who looks ready to improve upon a sufficient rookie season. Protection will be one of the keys for Miami this season, as second-year player Jonathan Martin has been called upon to replace left tackle Jake Long, who is now on the Rams.
The Patriots don't play the Dolphins until Week 8, so we'll have a much better feel for what they offer after a handful of regular-season games. Based off of the preseason, Miami looks like a safe bet to pose the biggest threat to the Patriots in 2013, although our sense is the Patriots remain the prohibitive favorites in the division.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. See you there.
However, inside the red zone is where Gronkowski definitely will be missed.
Gronkowski is almost unstoppable in the red zone. His size, long wingspan and strong hands made him an ideal target for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to spot in the end zone. Gronkowski caught 38 touchdowns in three seasons, and a majority of his scores were inside the 20-yard line. He caught 11 touchdowns in 11 regular-season games in 2012 despite being in and out of the lineup.
The Patriots will be fine between the 20s. Aaron Hernandez can stretch the field at tight end. Wes Welker can get open over the middle and move the chains. And other Patriots like receiver Brandon Lloyd, Deion Branch and tailbacks Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley will pick up the slack.
But the Patriots cannot afford to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns this deep in the playoffs. Outside of Gronkowski, no other Patriot caught more than six touchdown passes this season.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.
Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 8:30 p.m. ET. See you there.