New England Patriots: Devin McCourty

Checking the locks: Patriots safeties

July, 11, 2014
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As part of this slow time on the NFL calendar, when we'll be taking a break to recharge for the 2014 season, we introduce the pre-produced "checking the locks" series in which we analyze the players on the Patriots' roster who are "locks" to stick. Today, it's safeties.

[+] EnlargeHarmon
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyDuron Harmon played in more than one-third of the Patriots' defensive snaps in 2013, and that figures to increase in 2014.
Sure-fire locks: Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon

Near locks: Nate Ebner, Jemea Thomas

Trying to get in the door: Tavon Wilson, Patrick Chung, Kanorris Davis, Shamiel Gary

Analysis: With the Patriots releasing veteran starter Steve Gregory in late February, it opened up a top role on the depth chart next to McCourty, and 2013 third-round pick Harmon is the leading candidate to fill it. Harmon served as the No. 3 safety last year, making three starts and playing on 36.9 percent of the defensive snaps during the course of the season. Special teams figures to play a significant role in which players earn the backup spots, and third-year player Ebner was working as the personal protector on the punt team in spring practices, which is a key role. Depending on how many safeties the Patriots keep, 2012 second-round pick Wilson could be on the outside looking in after his defensive plays dipped from 42.5 percent as a rookie to 1.6 percent in 2013.

Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

June, 22, 2014
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Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

Brady
1. Of the things that quarterback Tom Brady said last week, his comments about the importance of being ready on the first day of training camp were among the most notable from this viewpoint. "When you get behind in training camp, it's hard to make up. I think things are moving so fast at that point, and improvements are so dramatic every day with installation, and correcting all the errors, you just have to go through it," he said. This is particularly the case for younger players and that's why I thought seeing defensive tackle Dominique Easley on the field for the final day of mandatory minicamp, his first appearance in spring camps, was a good sign for the team. The first-round draft choice tore both ACLs over two college seasons (2011 and 2013), but the Patriots are counting on him to provide an interior pass rush and it looks like he has a good chance to be ready to go the first day of training camp.

1b. Being on the field for the first day of training camp will also be crucial for Patriots seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon in his hopes to earn a roster spot at a crowded receiver position. The slot receiver with top traits and production from the University of Michigan was limited for most of spring camps, missing out on potentially valuable time in team drills with quarterback Tom Brady. At this point, Gallon is far behind second-year receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, and that gap would only increase if he's not on the field for the start of training camp.

2. With so much attention focused on Patriots top picks Dominique Easley and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (second round), I think running back James White (fourth round, Wisconsin, 130th overall) has slipped under the radar a bit. Everything I've heard is that the 5-foot-9, 204-pound White has made a strong first impression, both from a skills and approach standpoint, and even though it's early I don't think it's a stretch to say he will contribute in 2014. Bill Belichick has compared his style of play to fourth-year Patriots running back Shane Vereen.

3. First-year Texans coach Bill O'Brien ended the final day of minicamp with something straight out of the Bill Belichick coaching playbook, with offensive guard Ben Jones attempting to catch a punt. Players cheered wildly when Jones did, and that earned them all a start to "summer vacation." Patriots followers have seen this for years in training camp -- from offensive tackle Matt Light to defensive lineman Vince Wilfork catching punts, with Wilfork having to do with a football already in his grasp. Belichick has cited it as a good team-building exercise, bringing everyone together from the punt returners to the offensive linemen.

McCourty
4. I thought Patriots safety Devin McCourty's comments on Bill Belichick during a late-week radio interview with the NBC Sports Network were among the most flattering I've heard for the coach. After talking about how Belichick's sense of humor produces team-wide laughter in closed-door meetings, McCourty added, "When you get him off the media and doing all that stuff, and he gets more into his comfort zone where it's him up there teaching football and teaching guys life lessons, you get to see a different side of him. I think that's the joy of playing for him -- you learn things football-wise and he does a good job for each one of us of just trying to give us some lessons that will help you in life."

4b. We don't get to see that side of Belichick often, if at all. For example, on the final day of mandatory minicamp Thursday, Belichick seemed less than enthused to answer questions from reporters and said he'd take just three. It was a page out of the Randy Moss playbook, as Moss was known for starting his interviews with, "Y'all got three." True to form, an edgy Belichick cut things off when a reporter tried to sneak a fourth question into the mix.

5. The Dolphins are 2-1 at home in September under third-year head coach Joe Philbin, a 23-20 overtime loss to the Jets in 2012 the only blemish. They beat the Raiders handily that year (35-13) and came back to top the Falcons last year, 27-23. Part of the Dolphins' competitive advantage playing at home in early September is being able to practice in the heat and humidity, and along those lines, Philbin passed along last week that the club had 99 percent participation in its voluntary offseason program this year, noting he's never been a part of something like that in his 11 prior years in the NFL. We bring this up because the Patriots visit the Dolphins in the season opener Sept. 7, and unlike the 2011 Patriots-Dolphins opener on Monday Night Football when the late-night start helped cool things down a bit, this year's game kicks off at 1 p.m. I think it's a tougher opener for the Patriots than maybe has been advertised.

6. The Patriots' 13 spring practices (10 organized team activities, three minicamp sessions) weren't just important for players, but for the team's coaches to fine-tune some things as well. "I haven't called a play in five months. I have to rebuild all that myself. We all do," Bill Belichick said last week. That explains why we saw offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia wearing headsets during several practices as they were calling in plays as if it was a game-type situation. So Belichick wasn't just coaching the players, he was also coaching the coaches in a sense.

7. One of the areas I'm most interested to watch in Patriots training camp is the competition along the interior offensive line, where I'd say the only roster lock is at left guard with Logan Mankins. I watched incumbent center Ryan Wendell and right guard Dan Connolly get praised by first-year o-line coach Dave DeGuglielmo for their textbook footwork and teamwork in one drill Thursday, but they face competition from a deep group of young linemen including rookies Bryan Stork (fourth round) and Jon Halapio (sixth round), as well as second-year players Josh Kline, Braxston Cave and Chris Barker. Stork and Halapio are likely locks to make the roster based on their draft status, and one could make a case for Kline to be included in that mix as well. The competition should be intense as the Patriots, unlike last year at this time when they were a bit thinner up front and combed the waiver wire in late August for help, have a nice influx of young talent that could pressure established veterans for roster spots.

8. I'm also interested in learning how the role of "assistant to the coaching staff" Michael Lombardi evolves over the course of the season. Lombardi, the former Browns general manager, watched each Patriots offseason practice and was often seen speaking with Bill Belichick before and after practice as they walked on and off the field. Early in Thursday's minicamp practice, I watched as Lombardi intently kept his eyes on offensive line drills, chatting with Logan Mankins (who wasn't participating) as he did so. Belichick has long had a right-hand man in football research director Ernie Adams. Maybe that makes Lombardi, who was also in the team's smaller-than-the-norm draft room, his left-hand man.

9. While this is the post-minicamp time of year for coaches to take vacation, all 2014 draft picks across the NFL will be busy this week at the NFL's Rookie Symposium, a four-day orientation held in Aurora, Ohio. The symposium begins today and the idea is to introduce them to life in the NFL, with the following four core teaching principles: NFL history, total wellness, professional experience, and workplace conduct. Rookies can expect to hear presentations, videos, workshops on player health and safety, decision-making, mental health, substance abuse, workplace respect and maintaining positive relationships. Former Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli, now serving as an assistant general manager with the Falcons, is one of the presenters. Kudos to the NFL for putting it on.

10. The Pro Football Writers Association handed out its annual awards last week and here were the results:

George Halas Award (NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed): Ravens senior advisor to player development O.J. Brigance.

Wilson
Good Guy Award (NFL player for his qualities and professional style): Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson

Dick McCann Award (reporter who has made a long and distinguished contribution through coverage): Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Jack Horrigan Award (league or club official for qualities and professional style): Seahawks coach Pete Carroll

Pete Rozelle Award (NFL club public relations staff consistently striving for excellence in media dealings): Broncos.

I was thrilled for Bouchette, the longtime Steelers beat reporter who spent his early years in Lynn, Massachusetts, and has covered the Steelers for the Post-Gazette since 1985. As Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said last week, the goal is to be consistently good, not occasionally great. Ed has obviously been just that or he wouldn't have been on the beat for 30 years.

McCourty pulls for Rutgers WR Coleman

April, 24, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have tapped the Rutgers pipeline in recent NFL drafts, starting with safety Devin McCourty (1st round, 2010) and then picking three Scarlet Knights last year in cornerback Logan Ryan (3rd round, 83rd overall), safety Duron Harmon (3rd round, 91st overall) and linebacker Steve Beauharnais (7th round, 235th overall).

Could receiver Brandon Coleman be the next in line?

Coleman was highlighted as part of the "Beyond the first round" series as a third-round consideration, so on Thursday at Gillette Stadium, I asked McCourty his thoughts on him.

"He's probably the most interesting [Rutgers prospect this year]," McCourty responded. "The thing I loved about him is his work ethic. I remember one summer, I went back there and we were just doing 1-on-1s and 7-on-7s with those guys and he was going each time. If one of the NFL guys got up there, he would go just to get the work. I'm happy for him, getting a chance to live out his dream."

McCourty said Coleman and the other Rutgers prospects can all be counted on for one thing.

"They work there," McCourty said. "I know whether it's here or somewhere else, those guys will land somewhere and work their butt off trying to keep a job."

Taking stock of Patriots' salary cap

March, 19, 2014
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Now that we have definitive financial details on contracts signed by receivers Julian Edelman (4 years) and Brandon LaFell (3 years); cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (2 years) and Brandon Browner (3 years); and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (2 years), there is a better feel for where things stand with the New England Patriots' salary cap.

Salary-cap space is often fluid, so we'll focus on the general range of $4-7 million in space for the Patriots at this time.

That's not a lot of breathing room on the $133 million cap, especially when it comes to factoring in space needed to sign draft picks. Also, only the top 51 contracts are accounted for when factoring salary-cap space at this time on the NFL calendar.

As is often stated, a team can quickly alter its salary-cap picture with a few transactions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, created about $16 million in space when they released Revis last week.

With this in mind, here are a few areas where the Patriots might seek cap relief:

Wilfork
Vince Wilfork -- The defensive captain has an $11.6 million salary-cap charge. The Patriots would gain about $7.6 million in space if Wilfork is not on the roster, but that would also create a rather large void at the heart of the defense. The team would seemingly like to have the best of both worlds -- Wilfork on the roster, but at a reduced cap charge.

Dan Connolly -- The starting right guard is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3 million in 2014, and will count $4 million on the cap. If he isn't on the roster, the team would pick up about $2.6 million in space, but it would also create an opening on the line to fill. Similar to Wilfork, the Patriots would seemingly like to have the best of borh worlds -- Connolly on the roster, but at a reduced cap charge.

Adrian Wilson -- The veteran safety who spent last season on injured reserve has a $1.8 million cap charge. He looked to be in jeopardy of not making the roster out of training camp last year, which would seem to put his spot on the team in 2014 in jeopardy. The Patriots would pick up just shy of $1 million in space if he's not on the roster.

McCourty
Devin McCourty -- A foundation player who figures to be approached about a contract extension at some point, he counts $5.1 million against the salary cap in 2014, which is the final year of his initial rookie contract. A big-money extension could create space in the $2-3 million range depending on the way it's structured.

Stephen Gostkowski -- The reliable kicker has a $3.8 million cap charge in the final year of his contract. Similar to McCourty, he's a candidate for an extension that could create some breathing room on the cap.

Logan Mankins -- The perennial Pro Bowl guard is scheduled to earn $6.2 million in base salary this season. The Patriots could turn that into a signing bonus and protate it over the remaining three years of the deal, which would lower the 2014 cap charge but increase the cap charge in 2015 and 2016 to potentially set up a similar situation to what the Patriots have now with Wilfork.

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: In putting this list together, a hat tip is warranted for Miguel Benzan of PatsFans.com, who does meticulous work on the cap. Some of his latest work on the Patriots' cap situation can be read here, and he keeps an updated snapshot of the team's salary-cap status that is often a nice guide. If there is one thought to sum it all up, it's that a big-money signing or acquisition (e.g. Jared Allen/DeSean Jackson) seems highly unlikely at this point. At some point down the line, the Patriots could get some relief from Aaron Hernandez's $7.5 million cap charge, but there is nothing imminent on that front as we understand it. That figures to be a longer process.

Picked-up Patriots pieces

March, 19, 2014
Mar 19
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Some picked-up Patriots pieces that catch the eye ...

LaFell
Take a number, please. Free-agent signee Brandon LaFell had some fun on Twitter, telling his followers that he would be choosing between jersey number 10 and 19. When we think of No. 10, Jabar Gaffney is the most successful receiver of late to come to mind in New England. Austin Collie most recently donned the number. As for No. 19, my first thought was punter Tom Tupa (1996-98). Brandon Tate (2009 third rounder) was the last receiver to wear it consistently. Two hours after his initial tweet, LaFell decided on 19, which all in all, was a neat way to engage his followers on a topic (jersey numbers) that probably interests us more than most.

Snapshots with Vollmer and Edelman. Recovering Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was all smiles at the Ed Block Courage Award dinner, while receiver Julian Edelman took us behind the scenes as he signed his contract (and still represents his alma mater, Kent State).

Revis and cornerback stats. Neil Paine, writing on FiveThirtyEight.com, looks closer at cornerback Darrelle Revis and the challenge of quantifying cornerback stats.

Give this free-agent class a B-plus. Pete Prisco, an NFL columnist for CBSSports.com, is handing out grades to teams for their free-agency moves. He gives the Patriots a B-plus, same mark he gives the Broncos. The Buccaneers get his only straight A.

X's & O's on Revis and Browner. Matt Bowen of Bleacher Report thinks safety Devin McCourty will quickly come to appreciate free-agent signees Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, and gets deep into the X's and O's in explaining why.

Amendola and collateral damage. Gregg Rosenthal, who edited the "Around the League" blog on NFL.com, goes through his list of those affected most by free-agent decisions. Patriots receiver Danny Amendola lands on the list.

Hageman connected to Patriots in another mock. Don Banks of SI.com unveils his mock draft 2.0 and it's a familiar prospect slotted to the Patriots at No. 29 -- Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman. "The secondary got its attention with the Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signings, but the defensive front seven still needs help," Banks writes. The Patriots.com mock draft tracker has many mocks in one place.

Devin McCourty: Pats' D on the cusp

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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BOSTON -- When New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty was asked for his Super Bowl prediction in the days leading up to the game, he went with the Seattle Seahawks. He talked about how defense wins championships, and since he's a defender himself, that was the easy selection.

McCourty
With that, McCourty showed the ability to make the decisive pick on and off the field (he has 15 career interceptions).

After watching how decisively the Seahawks clamped down on the Denver Broncos, McCourty was asked Tuesday during an appearance at Boston Children's Hospital if he envisions the Patriots elevating to a similar defensive level.

"I think we can," said McCourty, a team captain who enters his fifth NFL season. "Those guys had a great game plan and they went out there and executed it on the biggest stage of the year. That's what it really comes down to in games like that."

McCourty relayed his viewpoint that the Patriots' defense did "great things" in 2013, while noting future success comes down to consistency. Asked what gives him the confidence that the Patriots' defense could consistently impact a game like the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl, McCourty pointed to his teammates.

"Just last year, we went through a lot defensively and as a team, and to see guys continue to work hard and try to get better and go out there to win as many games as we did -- to fall a little short, but it gives you the confidence going forward we know we have the right guys to build something," he said.

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
Mike Reiss/ESPNBoston.comPatriots safety Devin McCourty with Kassandra Jean-Baptiste, 10, of Brockton, Mass.
Two key players in that building process are McCourty himself and free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib.

McCourty naturally voiced his support for Talib, saying he hopes he returns in 2014 and beyond. Then there's McCourty's own contract status, as he enters the final year of the rookie deal he signed in 2010 and is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.92 million.

McCourty is a strong candidate for a contract extension at some point.

"I don't even think about it," he said. "I go out, play football, and I truly believe the rest will take care of itself ... There's nothing else I can control. I like to not drive myself crazy and by doing that, it's focusing on what you can control."

McCourty spent part of the morning at Boston Children's Hospital serving pancakes from International House of Pancakes after meeting with doctors about sickle cell disease, as part of his "Tackle Sickle Cell" campaign.

As for the pancakes, McCourty joked about his flavor of choice, "I'm more just buttermilk. Just give me some hot syrup and I'm ready to go."

Carter, McCourty, Gregory react to hit

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
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Patriots coach Bill Belichick was not alone in his thinking that there should have been some sort of action taken against Wes Welker for his hit on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship Game.

"When I saw it, just as a player in general, Wes, was he doing his job? I'm sure he was to a certain degree," Patriots defensive end Andre Carter said in the locker room Monday. "I think the hit could've [been] cleaner. I've been around a lot of football to see that.

"At the end of the day, it was a nasty play. We'll see what the league does."

The play occurred in the second quarter Sunday. With the Broncos in the early portions of a drive that would put them up 10-0, Welker streaked through the middle of the field and smacked into a crossing Talib, who left with a knee injury and did not return.

Carter also labeled the play by Welker as "unacceptable," although he did acknowledge that plays of this variety are part of the game and something for which defenders need to prepare.

Others on the New England side agreed, almost hailing the play as a smart one until the league figures out a way to police the situation or remove some of the grey area between what is and what isn't a penalty.

Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty had yet to view tape of the play, but could see both sides of the argument.

"[Belichick's] seen a lot of football. So I might go with what he says, but I haven't watched it or had a chance to look at it," McCourty said before being asked whether Welker had intent to injure. "I don't know. That's tough to say someone would do that, but I think all of us out there would do anything to try to win the game.

"Each team's different but they're very good at [the rub route]. They run that a lot, they do a good job of it. so it happens a lot. They don't get called if they're done a certain way, or they might get called one time and you run it seven, eight times and it gets called once. So it's a pretty good play to run."

Belichick acknowledged after the game that the Talib injury had a major impact on the outcome, and Talib's teammates said the same Monday.

"Definitely, big time. Aqib's a heck of a football player for us," safety Steve Gregory said. "He matches up against what we consider the top receiver week in and week out. He's a leader, he's a competitive guy, a guy that's going to go out and give you everything he's got, so you never want to lose a guy like that. But at the same time, other guys have to step up like we've done all year.

"By no means is it easy to replace a guy like Aqib so, yeah, it was tough to see him go down."

Gregory, Welker's teammate in 2012, stopped short of saying the Denver receiver had bad intentions.

"I don't think anybody in this league does things deliberately to hurt another player," Gregory said. "I don't think anybody really plays that way, especially at this level of football with two great football teams with the Broncos and ourselves. I don't know."

McCourty taps brother for Colts tips

January, 8, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With larger than normal media crowds on hand at Gillette Stadium this week in advance of the Patriots' first playoff game of the season, the team has had several players address the media from the podium that normally is used just for Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady's press conferences.

On Wednesday, safety Devin McCourty and left tackle Nate Solder were among the talkers, and below are some of the highlights:

McCourty taps into brother for knowledge: McCourty has an X-factor of sorts on his side this week, as his twin brother, Jason, a Titans cornerback, has faced the Colts twice a season since the start of his career. Devin said that he checks in with his brother when the Patriots face an opponent the Titans have seen.

McCourty
"Of course. He really just tells me the notes that they've got," he said. "I think it's big when you play someone twice a year, you understand more about them than I understand just from a personnel standpoint. He sends me everything he has and I texted him before and said, 'Whenever you've got time, send me over the Colts notes.' "

While the Patriots and Titans play different defensive schemes, Devin added that advanced knowledge of the Colts' tendencies can be beneficial.

"Tendencies, what they do as an offense," he said. "And then what we really talk about a lot is the players. How he felt a player was, what he felt he did well when he watched film."

Solder makes unique comparison: All eyes this weekend will be on Solder as he squares off against ferocious Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, who does his work from the right side of the Colts line.

Solder
Solder
Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season, due in part to both his natural talents and his relentless pursuits, according to Solder.

"I think it's rare that you get a guy that has that much talent and then plays so hard every play and that's him," he said. "That's the challenge of him, I think."

Solder also passed along a unique player comparison for Mathis.

"Maybe [New Orleans Saints defensive end] Junior Galette, maybe but I would say he's kind of unique in the things that he can do, really unique, I'd say," he said.

Though they are similar in some ways, Solder didn't want to suggest they are carbon copies of each other.

"I wouldn't have gone too far with that," he said of the Mathis-Galette comparison. "But they have a real sharp quickness, they're quick off the ball, they have a nose for the ball, they play really hard. I think those are the things."

Solder did well to hold Galette without a sack back in a Week 5 meeting with New Orleans, something he hopes to replicate this Saturday against Mathis and the Colts.

Three Patriots earn 2nd-team All-Pro

January, 3, 2014
Jan 3
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No New England Patriots players were selected to the Associated Press All-Pro team, but three earned second-team recognition -- left guard Logan Mankins, safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Aqib Talib.

Quarterback Tom Brady might have seemed like a natural pick, but no second-team quarterback was selected. Denver's Peyton Manning was the first-team quarterback as the lone unanimous All-Pro selection.

The annual All-Pro team is considered by many to be a greater recognition than a Pro Bowl berth, because fewer players are selected. The voting is conducted by 50 writers and broadcasters covering the NFL from across the country.

At guard, Mankins was one of three second-team picks, behind Philadelphia's Evan Mathis and Denver's Louis Vasquez .

At safety, Seattle's Earl Thomas and Kansas City's Eric Berry were first-teamers, while McCourty was one of six second-teamers.

“You can’t beat that, to be recognized [as a second team All-Pro team selection],” McCourty said in the locker room Friday. “More hard work has to be done for this season, and we will try to put that in now.”

At cornerback, Talib was one of three second-team selections, edged out by first-teamers Richard Sherman of Seattle and Patrick Peterson of Arizona.

“It’s an honor, I guess,” Talib said. “I really didn’t even know about it. Just like that Pro Bowl, man, I’ll find a way to celebrate that after we finish our business. Simple as that.”

Recapping top Patriots storylines

January, 1, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Recapping highlights from the Patriots on Wednesday as they held their first of three playoff bye-week practices:

1. McCourty cleared for action: Safety Devin McCourty, who left the team's Dec. 22 win over the Ravens in the third quarter with a concussion, was back on the practice field for the first time. He also held court with reporters as he's been fully cleared for action. "I'm feeling all right, doing pretty good," McCourty said, later adding that he's never had to deal with concussion issues in the past. "I'm just happy to be back on the field." McCourty watched the injury on tape. "It was a weird hit," he said, before turning to one of Bill Belichick's favorite lines. "It is what it is."

2. Cold-weather practices shape mental toughness: Several players noted how Wednesday was one of the team's coldest practices of the season, with wind cutting fiercly through the lower practice field. Players also said they are preparing for possible snow later in the week, and the hope is that working in those elements might help the team in the playoffs. "We may get one of those [days]," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Mental and physical toughness is something that is really important this time of year. You get less-than-ideal conditions out there, and we play in an environment where it's not 70 degrees and no conditions like you may be in a dome, or you may be somewhere else in warm weather. With us, it's not the way it is, so you've got to try to play to your strength, and part of our strength is hopefully going out there and practicing every day, understanding the elements, the conditions we deal with -- wind, snow, rain. We're out there almost every day, so you just get used to playing in it, and hopefully by getting used to it, you develop the mental toughness to deal with it."

3. Closing the door on O'Brien talk: Coach Bill Belichick instructed players to steer clear of any discussion relating to former New England assistant Bill O'Brien (hired as Texans coach) and current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (of interest to the Browns for their head coaching job). He did the same when asked about O'Brien. "I love Billy O'Brien, but right now really we're on the playoffs and our situation," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on another coach or another team. I don't even know what team we're talking about here."

4. Patriots focus mostly on themselves: With members of the scouting staff working ahead on three possible opponents (Bengals, Colts, Chiefs), Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the team is focusing mostly on itself. "We'll try to get some work done on [opponents] preliminary until we know for sure who it is," Belichick said. "Really we're just trying to grind it out here and find ways to improve."

5. Belichick advocates change for P.A.T.: A significant part of Belichick's news conference was focused on the kicking game, with Belichick saying he'd like to see rules altered so more kickoffs are returned and point-after-attempts aren't converted at a 99 percent rate. "It's virtually automatic," he said. "That's just not the way the extra point was put into the game. It was an extra point that you actually had to execute and it was executed by players who were not specialists. They were position players."

6. Talib and Slater also draw a crowd: Cornerback Aqib Talib and special teams captain Matthew Slater were other players drawing larger media crowds. Slater has emerged as a go-to guy for reporters and also an inspirational leader among players.

Projecting the Patriots' inactives

December, 28, 2013
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Before the New England Patriots play a game, we'll attempt to predict the team's inactive players.

Our best guess on the list for Sunday's game against the Bills:

Devin McCourty: Starting safety has missed all week of practice with a concussion. Rookie Duron Harmon is the top candidate to take his place.

Nate Solder: Starting left tackle has been on the injury report the past three weeks with a concussion. He's been limited in practice this week and more visible in the locker room, but we'll play a hunch that the team sits him out for a second straight week.

Dane Fletcher: Linebacker was a game-time decision last Sunday because of a groin injury, and didn't pass the pre-game test. If he is inactive again, it could potentially give him another two weeks to heal if the Patriots earn a first-round bye.

Shane Vereen: Running back was held out of last Sunday's win after leaving with a groin injury, and if this was the playoffs, he'd be ready to go. But the possibility of the team holding him back as a precaution makes some sense from this viewpoint.

D.J. Williams: Tight end adds a third layer of depth, and while it would be helpful to have it on the 46-man game-day roster, needs at other positions trump the luxury of a No. 3 tight end.

Jake Bequette: Second-year defensive end is fifth on the depth chart and has been inactive the past eight games.

Josh Boyce: Rookie receiver and primary kickoff returner has already been ruled for the second straight week with an ankle injury.

(Last week: 4 of 7 projections correct.)

EXTRA POINT: The Patriots have two open spots on their 53-man roster and those will likely be filled today with promotions from the practice squad (our best guesses are safety Kanorris Davis and offensive tackle Jordan Devey). Thus, a full complement of seven inactives is projected.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Bills

December, 27, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Just as the regular season started, it will end with the Patriots taking on the Buffalo Bills, their division foes who are aiming to conclude 2013 on a high note.

The first time these two met, the Patriots eked out a 23-21 win on a last-second field goal from kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

Running back Shane Vereen and wide receiver Julian Edelman were stars that day. Vereen surpassed the 100-yard mark on the ground and added seven catches, while Edelman scored both of the team's touchdowns.

As it would turn out, a theme of the Patriots' 2013 season has been close victories and offensive performances catalyzed by Vereen and Edelman.

This time around, the postseason stakes are clear for the Patriots, who can clinch at least a top-two seed in the AFC with a win. In fact, by the time kickoff rolls around, the Patriots could have a top-two seed wrapped up (if both Indianapolis and Cincinnati lose in the 1 p.m. EST time slot), but they aren't going to leave anything to chance and also can earn the top AFC seed if they win and the Broncos lose.

Here's what we'll be watching for in Sunday's significant finale.

1. Protecting Brady. No hyperbole here: the Bills have been as good as any team in the NFL at generating pressure this season. They lead the league with 56 sacks, but that's not the only evidence of their pass-rushing prowess. Schematically, the Bills are a pressure-oriented group led by coordinator Mike Pettine and have impressive personnel among their edge rushers (Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes) and interior penetrators (Kyle Williams and Marcel Dareus). Beyond that, they generate pressure from all three levels, as rookie cornerback Nickell Robey has three sacks over his past two games. If the Patriots are again without left tackle Nate Solder (concussion), it'll be a tall order to slow down this group.

[+] EnlargeHarmon
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyWith Devin McCourty doubtful for Sunday, the pressure's on rookie Duron Harmon to fill his shoes.
2. Safety net? With Devin McCourty (concussion) doubtful for Sunday, it'll likely be rookie Duron Harmon starting alongside Steve Gregory. In speaking with Harmon and head coach Bill Belichick this week, they echoed that within the Patriots' defense, the two safety positions -- free and strong -- are in many ways interchangeable. The strong safety has to be able to handle free safety responsibilities (deep-field coverage) on some plays, and vice versa. Harmon has played both free and strong safety at points this season, as he did during his college career at Rutgers.

3. Running with purpose. The Patriots set the tempo against the Ravens with their commitment to the ground game early and often last week. The Bills have a disruptive front seven that can be difficult to move around, but will the Patriots try to spin the offensive wheels early by attacking that front seven on the ground? If so, LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley would be the pair responsible for carrying the heavy ground load once again.

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4. Red zone success? The red zone struggles of the Patriots' offense without Rob Gronkowski were well chronicled leading up to Week 16, but they may have climbed over the hump; they finished a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone on the strength of two Blount touchdown runs and a Brady pass to Shane Vereen for a 4-yard score. The test will be to sustain such success, as touchdowns rather than field goals can dictate the difference in close games, as the Patriots have seen throughout the season.

5. Limit explosive plays from Spiller. Bill Belichick talked openly about his defense's improvement in the vertical passing game this season compared to last, stressing the importance of limiting plays that can change the course of a game immediately. While the Bills' passing attack has had to endure through various personnel considerations this year, notably the injuries to EJ Manuel, the running game poses one of the most explosive threats in the NFL. C.J. Spiller has had a quieter year than most forecasted for him, but a Week 13 game against Atlanta that was played in Toronto served as a reminder of just how potent he can be. He ripped off a 77-yard rush and had an 80-yard reception called back because of a holding penalty that was away from the direct action of the play. The Patriots will aim to contain Spiller and the more rugged, powerful Fred Jackson this Sunday.

McCourty (concussion) doubtful for Sunday

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
4:15
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who has missed practice each day this week after suffering a Week 16 concussion, is listed as doubtful to play against the Bills in the regular-season finale. McCourty was spotted in the locker room on Friday, though he politely declined an interview request.

Rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce will miss his second consecutive game due to an ankle injury suffered in Week 15, while 11 other players, including starting defensive end Rob Ninkovich (ankle) are questionable.

Should McCourty sit, the Patriots will turn to rookie Duron Harmon, a third-round choice out of Rutgers who previously filled in for safety Steve Gregory as he rehabbed from a broken thumb injury.

Starting left tackle Nate Solder, who sat out last week's game against Baltimore due to a concussion, is questionable after practicing on a limited basis each day this week.

The Bills declared wide receiver Steve Johnson (non-injury related) out for Sunday's game, while quarterback EJ Manuel is doubtful, with Thad Lewis named the starter.



McCourty, Boyce not spotted at practice

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:48
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots safety Devin McCourty and wide receiver Josh Boyce were absent from practice Friday for the third time this week.

Defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who was added to the team's injury report on Thursday with an ankle injury, was initially not spotted by reporters at practice but said in the locker room later that he was there.

Ninkovich's status for Sunday is unclear, as the severity of the injury is not known. Both McCourty (concussion) and Boyce (ankle) are unlikely to play given that they have not practiced at all this week.

If Ninkovich is unable to play, the Patriots have veteran Andre Carter as a top reserve option, supplemented by rookie Michael Buchanan.

At safety, Duron Harmon is the likely candidate to replace McCourty and play alongside Steve Gregory.

Finally, practice squad running back Cierre Wood was not spotted on the field, though another player wearing No. 39 was.

The Patriots currently have an open spot on the active roster after waiving Marquice Cole on Thursday, but it's unclear if No. 39 has been signed to the active roster or practice squad to replace Wood.

Ninkovich limited at practice by ankle injury

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
4:34
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (concussion) and wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) were the two players absent from Thursday's practice, while defensive end Rob Ninkovich was the only addition to the injury report, with an ankle issue that limited him on Thursday.

It is not known when the injury to Ninkovich occurred or how much it has limited him. He was seen in the locker room Thursday without any noticeable limp or hitch in his step.

If McCourty and Boyce are unable to practice on Friday, it would cast doubt on their availability for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Bills.

A total of 12 players were limited in practice Thursday, a list that included left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), both of whom missed the Week 16 game in Baltimore.


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