Quick-hit thoughts around Pats & NFL

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
5:00
AM ET
MIAMI -- Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. Vince WilforkJerod MayoTommy KellySebastian VollmerRob Gronkowski. The Patriots have been ravaged by season-ending injuries to core players and one question that has consistently come up this week, after Gronkowski’s right knee injury, is how the banged-up Patriots compare to other teams. Since the start of training camp, the club has placed 14 players on season-ending reserve lists, which ties for second most in the NFL. The league average is 9.5. These numbers don’t include players who might have been released with an injury settlement but do include rookies who were long shots to make the team in training camp, which adds important context. There is always going to be some subjective analysis when it comes to injuries because sometimes one season-ender (e.g. to a quarterback) can be more crippling to a team than a run of injuries to second- and third-level players on the roster, or a string of games when banged-up players are sidelined. Still, from this viewpoint, a strong case could be made that the Patriots have been hit as hard as any team injury-wise in the NFL this year because of the quality of players lost, and also losing many of them so early in the season.

2a. The Chiefs, Eagles, Bears and Lions tied for the fewest players placed on reserve lists since the start of training camp, with five apiece. All have winning records and are a combined 32-20. That’s not to say they haven’t had to cope with key injuries -- the Eagles, for example, would love to have receiver Jeremy Maclin back -- but they rank as the “healthiest” NFL teams if judging by players on reserve lists.

2b. All this talk about injuries and the health of a roster highlights a developing theory on what it takes to succeed in today’s NFL. I’d agree with anyone who says the key piece in building a team is the quarterback. But after that, instead of picking a position like left tackle, pass-rusher or shutdown cornerback, I’m starting to think the correct answer might simply be “depth.” And that highlights the importance of scouting and then cultivating talent through top-notch coaching.

[+] EnlargeNew England Patriots celebrate
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaQuarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots have excelled in close contests this season.
3a. If the pull-it-out-at-the-end Patriots win another close game today in Miami, it might be time to label this team with a nickname similar to the 2003 Carolina Panthers (a.k.a. the “Cardiac Cats”). This Patriots season has been defined by close games and thrilling finishes, as the team is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less. Since 2001, the ’03 Panthers are the only team that has more wins (7) in games decided by three points or less. That team, of course, advanced to the Super Bowl and was beaten by the Patriots in a three-point game.

3b. On the comeback theme, the Patriots have won three straight games after trailing by double digits in the second half of each, which according to the Elias Sports Bureau ties an NFL record owned by the 1993 Eagles, 1986 Colts, 1980 Dolphins and 1975 Cardinals. The Patriots, who are playing with fire by starting games slowly, would obviously prefer to not be in position to break that record today. Quarterback Tom Brady has an NFL-high 12 double-digit comeback wins since 2010.

4. With the college football season nearing its end, it made sense that Patriots scouts gathered at Gillette Stadium this past week to keep fine-tuning and tweaking the information they’ve gathered over the year. This makes it a good time to spotlight the role of understated Patriots director of college scouting Jon Robinson, whose primary responsibility is to organize and coordinate all aspects of the team’s scouting staff. The Patriots have the following selections in the 2014 NFL draft: First round, second round, third round, fourth round, sixth round (own), sixth round (Eagles) and seventh round. The fifth-rounder went to the Eagles in exchange for defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and Philadelphia's sixth-rounder.

5. Second-year Dolphins coach Joe Philbin strikes me as one of the most decent men in his profession, and from afar, I think that has shown with the way he guided his team through a potentially disastrous situation with offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. If Philbin wasn’t a relatively new head coach, delivered a few more witty one-liners in news conferences, and was more of a self-promoter, I think we’d be hearing more about his steady hand as one of the better coaching jobs this season. We can look at a situation like the Redskins, which has spiraled downward quickly, as the opposite end of the spectrum.

6. If the Patriots beat the Dolphins today and clinch the AFC East championship, it would solidify another part of their 2014 schedule by ensuring a road game at the Colts. This is a result of the league’s rotating schedule format, as all AFC East teams will travel to face the AFC South team which finished in the same spot in the standings the prior year. The Colts have already clinched the AFC South crown, so Tom Brady vs. Andrew Luck? Prime time could be calling. The Patriots will also host the AFC North team that finishes in the same spot in the standings, which right now would be the Bengals. For those in need of a refresher, here are the Patriots’ 2014 opponents (CLICK HERE).

7a. Did you Know, Part I: As noted by ESPN’s Stats & Information, there were a record number of touchdowns (104) and points (859) scored last week, and on the season teams are averaging a combined 47.06 points per game. If this pace holds, it will eclipse the NFL record of 46.48 points per game scored during the 1948 season.

7b. Did you Know, Part II: If the Patriots capture the AFC East championship, which they would do with a victory over the Dolphins, they will become the first franchise since the NFL merger (1970) to win 10 division titles in an 11-season span. The one year they didn’t win it: The Tom Brady-less 2008 season.

7c. Did you Know, Part III: The Giants’ streak of eight straight seasons with a .500 or better record is at risk of being snapped if they don’t win their final three games (vs. Seattle, at Detroit, vs. Washington). Likewise, the Steelers’ streak of eight straight seasons with a .500 or better record is at risk of being snapped if they don’t win their final three games (vs. Bengals, at Packers, vs. Browns). Entering the year, those were the second- and third-longest streaks in the NFL, behind the Patriots (12).

7d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Ravens, under head coach John Harbaugh, have the longest active streak of qualifying for the playoffs (5 seasons).

7e. Did you Know, Part IV: Browns receiver Josh Gordon, who Patriots followers got a close look at last week, leads the NFL with 1,400 receiving yards and a 19.7 average per reception. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last player to lead the NFL in both categories was Crazy Legs Hirsh in 1951.

8. When the Jaguars released defensive end Jeremy Mincey on Friday, it thinned the list of 2006 Patriots draft picks on an NFL roster to just one (kicker Stephen Gostkowski, with New England). Mincey, a sixth-round pick by New England out of Florida that year, is part of a small “fraternity” as one of the few prospects in Bill Belichick’s 14-year coaching tenure who never emerged as a front-line contributor until moving on to a new team. The Patriots envisioned him as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but it wasn’t until he got into the Jaguars’ 4-3 system as a pure end that he came on (2006-13). Some asked on Twitter if the Patriots might consider signing Mincey; I’d be surprised if they do.

9. After seeing Patriots running back Shane Vereen (2011 second-round pick) break out last week, and then learning more about Patriots nose tackle Sealver Siliga (2011 undrafted free agent) after his surprise start and 53-snap performance against the Browns, it reminded me that we’re still seeing residual effects of the lockout. Vereen essentially lost his rookie season after a training camp injury, and was never really able to catch up without the benefit of an offseason. Siliga is a bit of a different story as it appears he erred by coming out of Utah a year early (and into a lockout situation). So while we often say players make the biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2, for some in the Class of 2011 it makes sense why the most significant leap has been from Year 2 to Year 3.

10. NFL owners and some top executives gathered last week as part of a regularly scheduled league meeting, and one development with a Patriots tie-in is that upgrades for Gillette Stadium were approved. This is pretty common, as I understand it. The way it works is that every team has to share a certain percentage of ticket revenue with all teams, but in this case, part of the percentage the Patriots would normally share can instead be earmarked for stadium improvements. The league also approved the same thing for the Jaguars this year. So naturally the next question is: What improvements might be coming to Gillette, which opened in 2002? We’ll stay tuned.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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