New England Patriots: NFL

NFL Nation: 4 Downs - AFC East

May, 7, 2014
May 7
2:01
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Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?

The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.

Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.

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 offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?



Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?

Mike Reiss: The Patriots get the nod here because they added the best overall player in cornerback Darrelle Revis and re-signed receiver Julian Edelman (the Jets had explored poaching him), but I don't think it's a large gap to the next club. I like what the Dolphins have done to start rebuilding their offensive line (Branden Albert, Shelley Smith) while also bringing in defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes and potentially getting some value with cornerback Cortland Finnegan.

Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.

James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."


Second Down

Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?



Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.

Reiss: Yes. One of the things that has become clear in the build-up to the draft is that this is a good year for clubs looking for a developmental quarterback. ESPN's Mel Kiper said he has spoken with teams who have identified as many as 15-20 draftable quarterbacks this year, which is higher than the norm. NFL Network's Mike Mayock said he has 10 signal-callers with grades within the first three rounds, which is about double the norm. I think Buffalo (insurance for EJ Manuel) and New England (backup Ryan Mallett's contract expires after the 2014 season) are the spots to look within the division.

Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.

Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.


Third Down


What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?



Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.

Reiss: The Patriots have a well-placed bye week and some of their biggest games around it. A Nov. 2 home game against the Broncos precedes the bye, then coming out of it is a Nov. 16 road game against the Colts. Fun, fun. If that's not the iron of the schedule, then back-to-back road games against the Packers (Nov. 30) and Chargers (Dec. 7) probably qualifies. Also, with the season concluding with three straight division games, the AFC East could still be up for grabs late.

Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.

Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.


Fourth Down


Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?



Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.

Reiss: Bills quarterback EJ Manuel would be my choice. He looked like a foundation-type player in the season opener against the Patriots last year, and had a few bright spots in ensuing weeks, but overall had an uneven first year in the NFL that was affected by injuries. The Bills surprised many by using a first-round draft choice to select him last year, and because of that Manuel gets the nod here over Jets quarterback Geno Smith, a second-round pick. It will be intriguing to see how things unfold with Smith now that the Jets have also signed Michael Vick, but I think the discovery process on Manuel in Year 2 -- is he really a franchise quarterback? -- trumps it.

Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.

Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.

Tom Brady and Daniel ThomasGetty ImagesWill Tom Brady lead another comeback or will Daniel Thomas' Dolphins defend their home field?

The biggest game in the AFC East this season takes place Sunday in Miami, where the New England Patriots (10-3) will travel to face the Dolphins (7-6).

The Patriots are trying to secure one of the top two seeds in the conference and a first-round bye. New England also can clinch its fifth consecutive division title.

Miami, on the other hand, is one of four teams fighting for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Dolphins have little margin for error and need another victory.

Who will prevail in this AFC East showdown? ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.

James Walker: Mike, this is our second go-around this year. But a lot has changed since New England's 27-17 victory in Week 8. The Dolphins have gone through an immense bullying and harassment controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the year with a knee injury.

Still, both teams have positioned themselves well down the stretch. The Dolphins are looking at this game to make a potential statement. They know a lot of outsiders nationally will see them as a serious playoff contender with a win over the Patriots. Miami spent the entire offseason trying to close the gap, and this is a good time for the Dolphins to prove they made progress.

Mike, the Patriots played without Gronkowski before. But New England doesn't have the proven weapons of previous years. How will the Patriots adjust?

Mike Reiss: Coaches and players have said the same thing -- there is no one player who can replace Gronkowski. He is too special and too unique of a talent. One thing that stood out since Gronkowski's return Oct. 20 was the diversity of personnel groupings the Patriots were calling on with success. Against the Steelers on Nov. 3, they scored six of their seven touchdowns out of different groupings. That is unlikely to be the case going forward, as they'll have to rely more on their receivers and running backs, while asking backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams to do their part.

I'm thinking big-picture here, James. From afar, it seemed like the Incognito-Martin incident could have brought the Dolphins down. So how have they been able to overcome it?

Walker: The Dolphins showed two key characteristics: character and resilience. Miami could have packed it in, especially after losing to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." But since then, Miami has won three of four, and I think a lot of credit goes to Joe Philbin. The second-year head coach has never wavered through tough times. He remained the same person to his players and never pushed the panic button. That even-keeled mindset permeated the Dolphins' locker room and kept them focused.

Mike, how do you explain New England's penchant for second-half comebacks? Miami got a taste of that in October and is trying to avoid the same result this week.

Reiss: Much like Philbin, whose personal resilience was evident to those who followed his coaching career as he made his way up the ranks in the New England region, this Patriots team has something special about it. It is probably their most admirable quality -- if you're going to beat them, it is going to have to be a knockout. They fight you and keep scrapping for the full 60 minutes. What we saw last Sunday against the Browns was the equivalent of the boxing referee standing over them and giving them a 10 count as they were down on the mat: 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 9.5 ... and at the last moment they spring back up and record the improbable victory. It's a dangerous way to live. It's also maddening at times for the team's fans to watch them play so poorly early in games. But they have good leadership, good depth and, as usual, they're in the playoff hunt.

The Patriots' defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks. What do you see from the Dolphins' offense that might allow them to exploit that defense and record the win?

Walker: Well, the Dolphins are running as well as they have all season. Miami gained a season-high 181 rushing yards in last week's win over the Steelers. The ground game hasn't become an area of strength until recently. Miami should have some success running against New England's 31st-ranked run defense. The Dolphins' passing game also is more efficient. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing solid down the stretch and spreading the ball around. Miami is on pace to have three players -- tight end Charles Clay and receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline -- get 70 or more catches this year. That has made it hard on opponents to key on one player. Clay, in particular, has come on strong as of late. He has developed into not only a good threat in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone. Clay leads Miami with seven total touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing).

Finally, Mike, the Patriots have had their struggles on the road this year. All three losses, to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, have been away from Gillette Stadium. Which Patriots team do you expect to show up in Miami on Sunday?

Reiss: The Patriots were still in all three of those games, with a chance to win each right up until the end, so that's where I would start. We should probably expect a close game. Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots and many wonder when that will finally catch up to them, and I could see Miami being a team that capitalizes on that. These are two of the NFL's least-penalized teams, Miami is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, and the Patriots are depleted and recalibrating after the loss of Gronkowski. Turnovers will be the difference-maker if the Patriots are to win it.

NFLN says: 3-0 Super Bowl contenders?

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
6:55
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Smith, Cutler & BreesGetty ImagesAlex Smith, Jay Cutler and Drew Brees have led their teams to a 3-0 start.
The danger in getting excited about a 3-0 start is that pesky little thing known as "The Other Thirteen Games." Victories in the first three weeks can lead to a 15-1 season, as they did for the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Or they could mean a 2-11 finish and a fired coaching staff, as the Arizona Cardinals found out last year.

So let's keep our wits as we analyze the seven teams that have started this season 3-0. It has been four years since that many teams were still perfect after three weeks. The 2009 season offers another lesson in early conclusions: One of the seven (the New Orleans Saints) won the Super Bowl but two finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs altogether (the New York Giants and Denver Broncos).

So who is this year's version of the 2009 Saints? Are there any candidates to emulate the 2012 Cardinals? NFL Nation has some thoughts.

If there is anything to glean from the first three weeks of this season, it's the emergence of two early powerhouses. The Seattle Seahawks and the Broncos have outscored opponents by a combined 213-98, and their individual point differentials of 59 and 56, respectively, are by far the best in the NFL. (The next best is the Kansas City Chiefs at 37).

The Seahawks' path to Super Bowl XLVIII seems clear: Clinch home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where they have won 10 consecutive games, and book their ticket to New York. The Broncos, meanwhile, have scored the second-most points through three games in NFL history and only figure to improve as defensive stalwarts Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury) return to the lineup.

What about the rest?

Has Andy Reid built an instant Super Bowl contender in Kansas City, or will his Chiefs level off? Has Ryan Tannehill really developed into a championship-caliber quarterback for the Miami Dolphins?

Are the Chicago Bears for real after two fourth-quarterback comebacks followed by two defensive touchdowns in their victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers? The New England Patriots are fortunate to be 3-0, right? And has Sean Payton restored the Saints' magic? Let's take the pulse of NFL Nation.

Which 3-0 teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders?

The Saints should definitely be considered as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, based on their offensive track record under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Not only did they win the Super Bowl in 2009, but their offense was even better in 2011, when they finished 13-3 and set the NFL record for yards gained in a season (7,474). I don't expect an exact repeat this year, but I think that's closer to the norm than last year's 7-9 season.

Especially with tight end Jimmy Graham healthy again and back to being one of the most difficult matchups in the league. Clearly, however, the Saints need to improve a run game that has been practically non-existent to keep defenses honest and keep Brees upright.

Meanwhile, the Saints' young defense has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. I still expect a few growing pains before the season is over. But they don't need to be dominant for the Saints to succeed. And I think they can continue to come up big in some big moments. Players are clearly responding to Ryan's energetic approach and versatile schemes. And they have some bona fide talent to work with in every unit -- including emerging young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season. If the defense can keep playing anywhere near this level, the Saints could run away with the NFC South title.

The undefeated Miami Dolphins are arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.

But can the Dolphins be serious Super Bowl contenders? Let's temper those expectations. The Dolphins absolutely have playoff potential. This is a franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2008. Ending that streak and having a winning season should be Miami's primary goals.

A 3-0 start is terrific, especially after beating the talented Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons in back-to-back weeks. But the Dolphins certainly have holes.

Depth is an issue in several areas and will be tested. Miami could be without several defensive starters -- defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) -- against the New Orleans Saints on "Monday Night Football." The Dolphins also face issues such as pass protection (14 sacks allowed) and having the 28th-ranked rushing attack.

In addition to the undefeated Saints, Miami has tough games against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens (2-1), New England Patriots (3-0) and Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) before the end of October. The Dolphins cannot rest on their early success. They must continue to improve.

The health and production of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the biggest key. However, the Dolphins have a lot to prove over the course of 16 games.

Miami has a perfect record, but it's far from perfect.

Judging strictly from the numbers, the Kansas City Chiefs are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They are No. 1 in the AFC in scoring defense, No. 2 in the conference in scoring differential and, most importantly, tied for first place with a 3-0 record.

But it's another number, one that will be impossible to sustain, that's feeding the Chiefs' success and threatens to reveal them as pretenders once it begins its inevitable correction.

The Chiefs are leading the league in turnover differential at plus-9. They are one of two NFL teams yet to commit a turnover. That's a statistic capable of making a good team look great as long as it lasts. The trouble is, it never does last, at least not at this rate. Once their turnover differential starts to balance out, here is the advantage the Chiefs will lose:

The Chiefs have started 10 possessions on their opponents' end of the field. Their opponents have started one in Kansas City's territory, and even that drive began at the Chiefs' 49.

Such consistently favorable field position can make life easy for a team, and credit to the Chiefs for enjoying the ride while it lasts.

It won't forever. When it ends, the Chiefs will have to make their own way.

Their defense looks capable of doing that, but their offense needs a boost. When it doesn't get one, the Chiefs will suddenly look mortal.

This 3-0 team is better than the Bears squad from 2012, which started 7-1, and is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for a variety of reasons. The Bears have already scored three defensive touchdowns, but the major difference is the club is getting contributions from both sides of the ball and special teams.

Chicago provided evidence of that with quarterback Jay Cutler engineering back-to-back, come-from-behind victories over Cincinnati and Minnesota to start the season, before coming through in the clutch on the road Sunday, bailing out a struggling defense to clinch a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears racked up nine defensive touchdowns last season, which tied for the second most in NFL history. But at this juncture last year, the unit had only one score, yet basically carried the entire team through its impressive first half.

Through the 7-1 start in 2012, skepticism existed because the Bears simply hadn't played good teams. This year, the combined record of the teams first three opponents is 2-7. But don't be fooled, this is a better Bears team.

Cutler is one of the main reasons for that. He's matured. He's accepted the coaching. He's putting in more time to sharpen his craft, while shedding the enigmatic gunslinger persona for a more controlled approach. His protection is better. The front office has surrounded him with more weapons and an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman, who is the architect of a system Cutler believes in.

If there has been one constant of Bill Belichick-coached Patriots teams since 2000, it's that they usually get better as the season progresses. Surely, there have been exceptions (2009 comes to mind), but there are no indications this year's team is headed down that path at this point.

The defense has exceeded expectations through three games, although a lingering question is how much of the unit's success is a result of playing weaker competition. Sunday night's game on the road, against the fast-starting Atlanta Falcons, should tell us more about the unit. And while the offense has struggled to find its groove, the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski should provide a boost and with Danny Amendola saying he envisions being 100 percent shortly, big-time reinforcements are on the way.

So if you're judging on the present picture, it's understandable that one would say this team isn't a Super Bowl contender. In a game against the Denver Broncos, right now, you would have to pick the Broncos. But this is about projecting what the Patriots could be, and at this point, there's no reason to think they won't evolve as past Belichick teams have. Many of those clubs have been Super Bowl contenders. 

Patriots will miss Gronkowski in red zone

January, 14, 2013
1/14/13
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The New England Patriots' top-ranked offense will be fine without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who reinjured his arm Sunday against the Houston Texans and is out for the playoffs. New England got plenty of practice and was 4-1 when Gronkowski broke his arm the first time in the regular season. The Patriots also scored 41 points against Houston in the playoffs without Gronkowski for three quarters.

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.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
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For the 13th time in their illustrious careers, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will square off head-to-head Sunday, but this time there's one notable difference: the logo on Manning's helmet.

But whether it's a bronco or horseshoe gracing the side of Manning's protective headwear, whenever No. 18 travels to town, it means the Patriots have a tough test on hand.

Like the New England Patriots, the Denver Broncos enter their Week 5 matchup with an even 2-2 record, and both have followed an identical win pattern, having sandwiched losses in Weeks 2-3 with wins in Weeks 1 and 4.

But while much of the talk has centered on Brady and Manning, the Patriots know that for the second consecutive week, the offensive line will have its hands full with a pair of elite pass rushers who can affect the dynamic of a game when not contained. Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil can do it all off the edge, beating opposing tackles with a diverse skill set and multitude of techniques.

That means Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, both of whom stood out in Week 4, will have to once again be at their best in Week 5.

With kickoff closing in, here are the five things we'll be watching for:

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiWill Peyton Manning's new schemes with the Broncos pose problems for Bill Belichick?
1. Manning vs. Belichick chess match. The game has been profiled as Manning versus Brady, but the two won't step on the field at the same time aside from pregame warm-ups. More appropriately, it's Manning versus Belichick and the Patriots defense, as they will be charged with the task of slowing down Manning's potent offensive attack. Belichick has experienced success in containing Manning before, and the back-and-forth adjustments made throughout the game by Manning and the Patriots' defense resemble something of a chess match. The coach has said that Denver's offense mirrors Manning's old Indianapolis attack, so expect Belichick to have a unique plan in place to attack and defend it.

2. Protecting Brady. As was previously noted, the Broncos have a strong pass rush that features not just Miller and Dumervil, but a scheme that Belichick says incorporates a number of other rushers from multiple levels. Belichick says Denver brings blitzes from linebackers and secondary members, which means Brady will have to do well to identify pressure pre-snap and pass along necessary adjustments to his line. The Patriots receivers appear to have the edge over Denver's secondary, and keeping Brady protected could afford his passing attack another big day.

3. Defend explosive plays -- and beware of Demaryius. When Manning chose to sign with Denver this offseason, part of the allure appeared to be the supporting cast of young receivers he would be able to throw to, led by third-year pro Demaryius Thomas, the biggest receiver he's ever had at his disposal. Not only is Thomas big, he can fly, and also quickly turn a short pitch-and-catch into a long gain. He's explosive in the open field, but doesn't need much space to accelerate from zero to 60. In his last six games (dating back to 2011), Thomas has six receptions of over 40 yards, including two 70-yard-plus touchdowns. The Patriots can't let Thomas break free with the ball in his hands, and must do a good job of keeping him in front of the secondary.

4. Offensive balance. Plenty went right for the Patriots' offense in its second-half explosion during Week 4, and some of that can be attributed to the balance established between the running and passing game. Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden chewed up yards on the ground, and Brady was surgical in finding a number of receivers for big gains. Achieving the same balance this Sunday would allow the Patriots to control the tempo of the game while wearing down the Denver defense and keeping Manning on the sideline. Belichick dissected the importance of balance for an offense earlier in the week, and it would seem the team would aim to reach it again in Week 5.

5. Sixty-minute effort. A second-half surge in Week 4 doesn't entirely atone for what was a slow start, and now it's time to see if the Patriots can do in Week 5 what they have not in the past three weeks: play a full 60 minutes of complete football. Against two quality opponents this year, a lack of execution during portions of the game has left the Patriots in defeat, and they'll face another solid foe this weekend in the Broncos. The Patriots need to string together a full four-quarter effort in all three phases of the game to notch their first home victory of 2012.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

September, 28, 2012
9/28/12
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For the first time in more than nine years, the Patriots find themselves below .500. It’s unfamiliar territory for the franchise, which heads to Buffalo on Sunday to kick off divisional play against the Bills. That affords the Patriots an opportunity to play catch up to one of two teams they trail in the division, but it won’t come easy.

It was roughly a year ago that Buffalo caught fire in early in the 2011 season and spoiled the Patriots' trip to Western New York, winning 34-31.

Like the Patriots, the Bills have a new look on defense this season, catalyzed by the addition of prized free agent defensive end Mario Williams, a player many surmised the Bills brought in to disrupt Tom Brady and the New England offense.

Williams, along with former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson, bookend a defensive line that projected to be among the best in football, and has its first chance to prove itself against the Patriots’ offensive line in Week 4.

As kickoff draws nearer, here are five things we’ll be watching for:

1. Protecting Brady. Of course, the primary area we’ll be keeping an eye on is the Patriots’ offensive line and its ability to deter not just Williams and Anderson, but defensive end Chris Kelsay and tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, each standout players in their own right. The Patriots’ offensive line has allowed seven sacks through three games, and has performed relatively well on the whole in protecting Brady. But work remains to be done, and star guard Logan Mankins is dealing with a hip ailment that kept him out of practice all week. SATURDAY NIGHT UPDATE:Mankins has been ruled out of the game, and the Patriots signed guard/center Matt Tennant. Can the balance of the Patriots' offensive line keep Buffalo’s vaunted front in check?

[+] EnlargeFred Jackson
AP Photo/Mel EvansRunning back Fred Jackson torched the Patriots last season, and could return from injury Sunday.
2. Who runs for Buffalo? Make no mistake about, Buffalo is no one trick pony from the backfield, as Bill Belichick made clear during his Wednesday afternoon press conference. That being said, top weapon C.J. Spiller, who has averaged a ridiculous 9.3 yards per carry thus far, remains uncertain to play after injuring his shoulder in Week 3. The player he often splits reps with, veteran Fred Jackson, looks more likely to suit up for the first time since suffering a knee injury in the season opener. In Buffalo’s Week 3 win over the Patriots last season, Jackson had 74 yards rushing, 87 yards receiving and a touchdown. No matter the back, the Patriots have to be ready to stop the Bills’ spread-it-out and create running lanes attack.

3. The secondary. Shades of 2011 were evident in the Patriots’ Week 3 defeat, as Joe Flacco put up 381 yards passing Sunday night. It wasn’t the Patriots’ best defensive performance to date, but, in the eyes of this scribe, not indicative of what the unit truly is. The secondary will certainly be closely monitored, but so too should be the Patriots’ front seven and pass rush. Flacco faced minimal pressure, freeing him up to scan his reads and move the ball down the field. If the Patriots can re-establish their rush, that should bolster the secondary. Doing so may not be so easy, as Buffalo operates on a quick-passing game and has allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL thus far (just one so far).

4. The turnover battle. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is a player capable of putting up big passing numbers, but has struggled during his career with costly turnovers. In fact, Fitzpatrick threw three pivotal picks in the Bills’ season opener, in which they were easily handled by the Jets. In Buffalo’s two victories since, he’s combined for zero interceptions and five touchdowns. Finding ways to pressure, disrupt and interfere with Fitzpatrick’s timing is pivotal for the Patriots’ defense, which has registered two interceptions thus far in 2012. If the Patriots can continue to do a solid job of holding onto the football (they’ve turned the football over just once this season), and force Fitzpatrick into errors of his own, they’ll be in good shape.

5. Big plays in the kicking game. The regular season isn’t even a quarter over, but the Patriots have yet to chalk up what most would classify as a big play on special teams -- either a long return, blocked kick, or forced turnover. The Bills, like each of the Patriots’ previous three opponents, are strong on special teams. Special teams can turn the tide of a game, swing momentum, alter field position and provide extensive relief for both an offense and a defense. The Patriots have yet to receive that lift in the kicking game.

Kraft: 'Great long-term setup' with refs

September, 27, 2012
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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was in the middle of sharing details on the NFL's eight-year agreement with regular officials when he shifted course to address the team's fans (link here).

"I want to speak to the fans who are frustrated, as I personally was, and I know a number of the owners were," Kraft said Thursday of the standoff that resulted in replacement officials working the first three weeks of the regular season and ignited into a full-blown firestorm after the Seattle Seahawks' controversial victory over the Green Bay Packers on Monday night.

"We really did think we had this deal done, and it's unfortunate we didn't. In the end, when you want to do something right in the long term, you have to face these hard issues, which we did. I think this is a minor blip and now we move on and we have a great long-term setup here."

To read the full news story on ESPNBoston.com, CLICK HERE.

Three-point stance: Buffalo Bills

September, 27, 2012
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The Patriots will look to get back to .500 with a win in Orchard Park, N.Y., this weekend, a venue that has been friendly to the Patriots under Bill Belichick. The Patriots are 9-2 at Buffalo since 2001 and had won seven straight before last season’s 34-31 Week 3 loss.

BillsAfter the Jets beat Buffalo 48-28 in Week 1, the Bills beat the Chiefs and Browns in back-to-back games behind an improved defense and quality running game. Injuries on the Buffalo offense may alter the Bills’ run-first philosophy on Sunday. The Bills have run the ball on 52.5 percent of plays from scrimmage, third-highest in the league, and in the first three games Ryan Fitzpatrick's performance has been better when Buffalo has established the run.

Here are three areas to watch for on Sunday:

1. The running game that has fueled Buffalo’s offense is a major question mark after injuries to C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller (left shoulder injury) is not expected to play Sunday, and his absence may accelerate Jackson’s timetable to return from a sprained right knee. Jackson on Monday cited his chances of playing at “70-75 percent,” and his status bears monitoring. Third-string running back Tashard Choice had 91 yards on 20 rushes against the Browns last week, but Spiller was the league leader in both yards per rush (9.3) and yards after contact per rush (5.8). Jackson has been a thorn in the Patriots’ side as well, with his big game in Week 3 last year resulting in the highest yards per rush average (6.2) and yards per touch (9.5) of any back with 10 rushes against the Patriots since the start of the 2011 season. If the Bills can’t run the ball, the game falls to Fitzpatrick -- a matchup that favors New England on paper.

2. Fitzpatrick has a 53.6 completion percentage against four or fewer pass rushers, fifth worst among qualified quarterbacks. The only quarterbacks worse than Fitzpatrick are Ryan Tannehill, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Blaine Gabbert. Seeing as the Patriots’ defense has been the most conservative unit in the league, sending four or fewer pass rushers on 86.8 percent of dropbacks, this is relevant information. Fitzpatrick’s 30.4 first-down percentage against four or fewer rushers ranks 29th among 32 qualified quarterbacks. Buffalo hasn’t exactly relied on the big throw to gain chunks of yardage, either. Although the Bills have four pass plays of at least 30 yards, tied for eighth in the league, Fitzpatrick’s average throw distance on those four plays is 10.5 yards downfield, second-lowest among 32 qualified quarterbacks. Two of the four went to the now-injured Spiller, including the only attempt with a throw distance deeper than 12 yards. Fitzpatrick hasn’t been able to move the chains or generate big plays on his own, and if Spiller and Jackson both can’t go it could be a long day for the Buffalo offense.

3. Buffalo’s defensive makeover was a major storyline in the AFC East last offseason, with Mario Williams and Mark Anderson bolstering the Bills’ pass rush. Their additions have helped, with the Bills’ defense registering a sack every 13.4 dropbacks this year as compared with 19.0 dropbacks per sack a year ago. Buffalo’s defensive play-calling has been conservative, using four or fewer rushers on 80.2 percent of opponents’ dropbacks. The Bills’ defense has allowed a 45.0 Total QBR in those situations, sixth best in the league. However, one troubling aspect of Buffalo’s defensive performance this year given the pass-rushing improvement has been on third down. This season, quarterbacks have converted on 37.5 percent of third-down dropbacks against the Bills, up from 34.5 percent a year ago and ranked 22nd in the NFL. Considering the sizable investment the Bills made in their defense last offseason, drafting cornerback Stephon Gilmore with the 10th overall pick plus signing two established pass rushers, any decrease in third-down efficiency from a year ago should be a disappointment.

Edelman, Mankins not seen at practice

September, 26, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Wide receiver Julian Edelman and guard Logan Mankins were among five players not spotted at the beginning of Patriots practice on Wednesday.

Edelman injured his left hand in Sunday night's loss to Baltimore. He left the game near the start of the second half and did not return.

Mankins was added to the injury report last Thursday as limited with a hip injury. He practiced again on Friday, and played in Sunday's game in Baltimore.

Also missing from practice was defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick, who was added to last Thursday's injury report as limited with an ankle injury. He practiced on Friday but did not travel with the team to Baltimore.

Tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and defensive lineman Justin Francis (ankle), who both were out of practice late last week, remained out of action on Wednesday.

Newly-signed defensive tackle Terrell McClain was on the field wearing No. 93.

Deaderick & Dennard downgraded

September, 22, 2012
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BALTIMORE -- Reserve defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick and backup cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will not play in Sunday night's game against the Ravens, the Patriots announced on their injury report. Deaderick is sidelined with an ankle injury, while Dennard has a hamstring injury.

Deaderick, who played 29 of a possible 129 snaps through the first two games, has been utilized in the short-yardage package while sometimes giving starters Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love a breather in the base defense. He has played a few snaps at end as well.

In his absence, four-year veteran Ron Brace (19 of 129 snaps) is likely to be bumped up the depth chart, while rookie Marcus Forston, an undrafted free agent out of Miami who has been inactive for the first two games, could dress for the first time.

Dennard, a seventh-round draft choice out of Nebraska, has been slowed since appearing on the injury report in the days leading up to the season opener. He hasn't dressed for a game this regular season, and also missed time in training camp with a hamstring injury.

The Patriots previously announced that tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and defensive end Justin Francis (ankle) are out for the game.

The team must declare three more players inactive 90 minutes before Sunday's 8:20 p.m. ET kickoff, and there are several players with health questions who could be considerations based on their condition leading up to the game (Friday injury report here).

Big Decision: Run on first down?

September, 22, 2012
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The day before each game this season, this space will feature one big decision facing Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and his staff, in terms of the game plan.

This week's decision: Should the Patriots run on first down?

RavensPatriotsWhen it comes to running the ball against the Baltimore Ravens' defenses of the last decade, the first question that comes to mind is: "Why bother?"

The Ravens, of course, have been traditionally stingy against the run. At first glance, things have changed through two games this season. They're allowing 129 rushing yards per game, the 20th-best mark in the NFL.

However, that statistic doesn't tell the whole story. When the Patriots line up for their first offensive play on Sunday night, it would make sense to try to establish the running game against a Ravens defense that has lapsed in that area, right?

Wrong. On 1st-and-10 plays this season, Ravens opponents -- the Bengals and Eagles -- have actually passed the ball more (29 times) than they have ran it (27 times). And they've had tremendous success at doing so.

The Ravens are allowing an average of 9.28 yards per 1st-and-10 passing play, with teams converting 14 first downs on those 29 plays, a 48.28 percent clip. Only the Buccaneers have allowed more first downs on 1st-and-10 passes this season.

Meanwhile, teams have gained an average of only 3.19 yards per 1st-and-10 rush, for only two first downs (a 7.41 percent conversion rate).

The simple question, then, is: Why run it on first down, if you have a 50-50 shot of gaining a first down by passing the ball?

Avoiding 2nd-and-10 would be one reason to run the ball instead, but teams have faced 2nd-and-10 against the Ravens only six times, passing it four times for a 10-yard average gain.

What do you think? Should the Patriots try to establish the run on first down, or exploit a weakness in the Ravens' pass defense? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

Gronk Flakes hit New England shelves

September, 22, 2012
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[+] EnlargeGronk Flakes
PLB SportsGronk Flakes are made by the same company that produced Flutie Flakes.
ESPN.com's sports business reporter Darren Rovell writes that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has his own cereal (link here):

Gronk Flakes, a frosted corn flakes cereal endorsed by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, is hitting Stop & Shop supermarkets in the New England area this week.

"His dad Gordy came to us about a year and a half ago, wanting to do all three Gronkowski boys on a product," said Ty Ballou, president and CEO of PLB Sports, which has made a business out of selling athlete endorsed food products. "But we really just focus on selling in one area, so we couldn't figure out how to do it. When Rob emerged in the way he did, things changed."

Ballou said the company's first run will be 64,800 boxes at $3.99 each, but he has high hopes for Gronkowski's marketability.

The company recently sold 155,000 boxes of Justin Verlander's Fastball Flakes in the Detroit area. Ballou said Gronkowski's cereal, which benefits the Gronk Nation Youth Foundation, should sell more.

The record for a PLB Sports product? Ballou's company sold 2.5 million boxes of Flutie Flakes from 1998 to 2001.

Video: Reiss' P.A.T. previews Week 3

September, 21, 2012
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In this week's P.A.T., ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss and linebacker Rob Ninkovich break down the Ravens' potent offense and discuss what to expect on Sunday night.

Mayo fined $21k for roughness

September, 21, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Linebacker Jerod Mayo was fined $21,000 for unnecessary roughness in last Sunday's 20-18 loss to the Cardinals.

The fine was for striking a defenseless receiver (Early Doucet) in the head and neck area. Mayo was not penalized on the play, a 9-yard completion over the middle at the end of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, safety Steve Gregory was fined $7,875 for a late hit on tight end Todd Heap. Gregory was penalized on the play, in which linebacker Brandon Spikes was also penalized for roughing the passer (but not fined).

Hernandez, Francis out for Sunday night

September, 21, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (ankle) and defensive lineman Justin Francis (ankle) were both ruled out for Sunday's game on the team's Friday injury report.

Defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick, despite not being spotted by reporters at the start of Friday's workout, was listed as limited on the injury report, and is questionable for Sunday night.

Also questionable is guard Logan Mankins (hip), who was added to the injury report on Thursday and was limited in practice on Friday.

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