NFC East: New England Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Cornerback Darrelle Revis had complimentary things to say Thursday when asked about New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

"When you're on the outside looking in, when you're playing with another organization, you look at things totally different," Revis told reporters after the team's final practice of mandatory minicamp. "Especially coming from New York and New England, being up here, it's a rivalry. You look at things totally different. That's with any player. There are a bunch of guys that crossed over, and once you cross over and when you're inside looking out, it's a totally different perspective.

"Everybody here has accepted me as much as they can to make me feel like home. Even Bill has. I'm fine with it. We're on good terms."

Revis admitted that his perception of Belichick, whom he once called a jerk on SportsCenter, has changed.

"I think it changed the first time through the whole process, when I got released from Tampa, and then talking to teams and actually I got to sit down and talk to Belichick. I think it changed during that conversation, when me and him sat down and had a brief conversation. We moved forward and whatever we had in the past, we put it behind us. I think it changed during that moment," he said.

Asked how he would describe Belichick, Revis said, "He's a great coach. I really respect him for winning three [Super Bowl] championships. Another thing, I feel like he's a player coach. A lot of people might not say that on the outside looking in, but we're with Bill every day. We hang out with him every day. We're in the meetings with him every day so we're around him all the time. I really feel like he's a player coach. ...

"I think the biggest thing that people really don't understand about Bill is that Bill asks questions. He'll ask questions, he'll try to get other people's insight, especially veterans. He'll sit down and have a conversation with you. I think that's why he's so genius at what he does. He's very smart, but at the same time he knows the pulse of the team."

Marrone on Pepper: Brings a lot to Bills

February, 20, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson didn't last long on the open market after departing the organization following 14 years with the team on Bill Belichick's staff.

He was hired by the Bills to serve as Doug Marrone's defensive line coach, a position he previously held for the Patriots.

On Thursday, Marrone dished on the decision to hire Johnson earlier this offseason.

"I always admired Pepper and again, when we used to play -- again it goes back to the same thing, the tape never lies," he said. "When we used to play New England and Pepper was the defensive line coach, I thought those guys did a great job up front."

One of the unique aspects to Johnson's coaching career has been his ability to draw on his playing experience, as he was a standout linebacker that often assumed a position of leadership with his team.

"Obviously we know a lot about him as a player," Marrone added. "I think he brings a lot to our organization, someone that's obviously been a part of five Super Bowls, has a great intensity about himself, was a great pro and I think he'll bring a lot to our football team not only in the classroom but some of the stuff on the field and off the field as this league continues to grow."

Will Belichick win Coach of the Year?

February, 1, 2014
In covering a team on a day-to-day basis, there's a tendency to take notice of aspects of a particular player or coach that may otherwise go unnoticed.

Those details can sway your opinion from one end of the spectrum to the other, or, at the very least, strengthen it.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Gail BurtonBill Belichick's obstacles -- including a slow start by Tom Brady -- didn't deter the Patriots from again being in the mix for the AFC championship.
Admitting that, there is still a convincing argument to be made that Bill Belichick was the coach of the year in the NFL this season, an award that is due to be handed out Saturday evening at the NFL's annual awards banquet.

On the surface, 2013 may not look any different than many other recent Patriots season; yet another 12 regular season wins, yet another division title, yet another first-round playoff bye.

But -- and this is no secret -- the circumstances behind the success are impossible to overlook.

It started before the season even began, as the Patriots cut ties with their most versatile offensive player in tight end Aaron Hernandez. There wasn't enough time for the team to make up for his loss through free agency, so it was forced to adapt.

It did.

And then the injuries happened. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Sebastian Vollmer ... all critical contributors. All placed on injured reserve.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski would eventually return, but only briefly, as he tore his ACL and joined the group on injured reserve.

The theme of the 2013 Patriots was injuries almost as much as it was anything else.

The Patriots also endured through an uncharacteristically slow start by quarterback Tom Brady, and while it's clear that the cast of receivers around him didn't stack up to what he had in 2012 -- and Belichick is ultimately in control of the roster -- Brady still left yards on the field before a scintillating stretch to finish the regular season (particularly from early November to mid-December).

During that time, the defense stepped up. A secondary that was the butt of enough jokes to fill a stand-up show in 2012 became an area of strength. The front seven pieced it together -- at least enough to stay in games -- with undrafted free agents and castoffs who had been cut multiple times before the season even started.

The defense was a hodgepodge of talent and the offense was working through growing pains stemming from personnel turnover.

But the Patriots held steady, playing exceptional situational football and giving credence to the notion that no game is over until the clock officially strikes zero. First it was New Orleans, then Denver, and Cleveland. Each finish more dramatic than the last.

There were injuries, adversity, the adjustment in offensive identity and more.

As Belichick often says, every team deals with injuries and challenges of its own, but the case can be made that the Patriots overcame as many hurdles this season -- yes, even more than playing without Tom Brady for all but 15 minutes during the 2008 season -- than any other during the Bill Belichick era.

Ron Rivera turned the Panthers around, as Andy Reid did with the Chiefs. Pete Carroll (Seahawks) and John Fox (Broncos) each won 13 games and the work of coaches such as Bruce Arians (Cardinals) and Mike McCoy (Chargers) ought not to go unnoticed.

But during a season when circumstances suggested a downward spiral, Belichick was the constant behind yet another near trip to the Super Bowl. In fact, the entire coaching staff was the constant, as no coach can do it alone.

I don't have a ballot for tonight's award, but if I did, Belichick's name -- representing all of the Patriots coaches -- would land on it.

W2W4: Five things for Patriots-Bills

December, 27, 2013
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.


What's your prediction for Patriots-Bills?


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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.

Tedy Bruschi's defensive index

November, 21, 2013
When judging total defense in the NFL, many often point to yards allowed as the primary measure for a unit’s effectiveness. ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi sees that as a flawed analysis.

Bruschi instead has put together his own formula, averaging what he views as the four key statistics: points allowed (only on defense, not including pick-sixes or special-teams scores), red zone defense (measured by percentage of touchdowns allowed versus total trips), third-down percentage and total turnovers (created solely by the defense, not including special teams).

What results, with an assist from Jason Vida of ESPN’s Stats & Information department, is the “Bruschi defensive index.” A few highlights of this week’s index include:
  • The Patriots slipped to the middle of the pack. Third-down defense could be their undoing if they don’t get it fixed in a hurry.
  • Holes show in the Denver defense if an opponent avoids the big play.
  • If not for creating turnovers, the Cowboys would be ranked lower.
  • The Bengals made a big jump this week after a strong performance against the Browns.
  • The Chiefs hold the top spot even after a loss to the Broncos.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- The New York Giants can begin their title defense now after closing the preseason with a 6-3 victory over New England.

PatriotsGiantsWhat it means: The Patriots rested their starters, but the Giants actually played theirs –- what remained of their first team with several starters resting -- into the beginning of the second quarter. The offense looked sluggish. But it really doesn't mean anything for the starters, as the Giants just need to stay healthy entering the season opener next Wednesday.

The biggest thing to take from this game is the performance by backups who are fighting for roster spots. The Giants will trim their roster to 53 on Friday; here's my roster breakdown of the offense and defense.

Hakeem's debut: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks made his preseason debut and had a catch across the middle for six yards in limited action. Nicks has looked good in practice, and the most important thing is that he stayed healthy and is set to play against the Cowboys next week after undergoing toe surgery in late May.

"It felt real good to be out there for the first time this preseason," Nicks said. "Went out there, got my feet wet, got a couple reps. It was exactly what I needed to know that I'll be ready for next week.

"It was pretty much what I expected," Nicks continued. "No problem with the foot. It felt good, and I'll be ready to start the season."

Line issues: The Giants' offensive line struggled in the first half. With Chris Snee (leg), Will Beatty (back) and James Brewer (back) on the sideline, the first and second-team offensive line couldn't get the running game going while allowing three sacks.

Mitch Petrus started in place of Snee at right guard and was beaten badly by Jermaine Cunningham for a sack of Eli Manning. Backup quarterback David Carr was sacked twice in the second quarter.

Though the ground game got going in the third quarter behind Andre Brown's hard running, the offensive line reserves clearly have a lot to work on.

And it still remains to be seen who the Giants will trot out at left tackle. Beatty returned to practice this week but Sean Locklear has started at left tackle and has been solid.

Running back competition: Rookie David Wilson started in place of Ahmad Bradshaw (hand) and gained just 13 yards on eight carries. But the first-round pick made his case to be Bradshaw's backup with a strong game against Chicago last weekend.

Brown was impressive on the first drive of the third quarter as he gained 52 yards rushing and had nine yards on a reception. He also converted on a second-and-1 and third-and-1. But he fumbled the ball near the Giants' goal line midway through the fourth quarter. Bear Pascoe recovered the ball at the Giants' own 1.

D.J. Ware came in as the third-down back when Wilson was in the game with the starters, as the team opted to take a longer look at Brown and Da'Rel Scott.

Giants highlights: Wide receiver Ramses Barden followed up a strong performance against Chicago with another good outing. He had four catches for 31 yards and had another impressive catch nullified by a holding penalty. ... Middle linebacker Mark Herzlich was active and stuffed a run on a third-and-3 at the Giants' 3-yard-line. ... Defensive ends Adewale Ojomo and Matt Broha continued to look good. Ojomo looked good stopping the run with two big run-stuffing tackles and Broha had a half-sack in the first half. Ojomo also had a huge strip sack on Brian Hoyer that Marcus Thomas recovered and advanced to the Patriots' 17 with 2:27 left in the game. ... Linebacker Greg Jones, who could be fighting for a roster spot, had a sack in the third quarter.

What's next: The season finally begins next Wednesday when the Giants start their title defense against Dallas at home.

Eagles' Vick still doesn't get it

August, 20, 2012

The Philadelphia Eagles' season rests on quarterback Michael Vick. All of the talent they've assembled around him will go to waste if he cannot cash it in with a healthy, productive season. Vick enters the 2012 season under more pressure than any player in the league, and much of the pressure he faces is pressure simply to stay on the field.

And yet, for the second time in two preseason games, Vick on Monday night had to leave early after suffering an injury against the Patriots. X-rays on his ribs were negative, which is the good news for the Eagles. And with 20 days left until the Eagles' regular-season opener, it's unlikely they'll subject him to further preseason game action even if he's healthy enough to play.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/Steven SenneMichael Vick ended up with a visit to the X-ray machine for the second time in two games.
But the problem here runs deeper than that, of course. The problem is that Vick is an injury-prone player and the Eagles cannot survive if he gets injured. He banged his thumb on a teammate's helmet in the preseason opener, and that turned out fine. He took a huge hit in the rib cage from Jermaine Cunningham in Monday's game and headed off for the X-ray machine again, and that seems to have turned out as well as the Eagles could have hoped. But this is a bad pace, an X-ray per game, and it's the reason you can't feel very good about picking the Eagles to win the NFC East, even if you've convinced yourself they should.

Making matters worse is that the play on which Vick got injured Monday was symptomatic of past problems that have led to past injuries. He kept the play alive longer than he should have. Evan Mathis got beaten on a block, and the rush was on Vick more quickly than it should have been. He spotted it and spun away, but rather than (A) throw the ball out of bounds when he saw the play was broken, (B) fallen on the ball and taken the sack or (C) run out of bounds, he stepped back up and heaved the ball downfield as hard as he could. It was a stupid throw for two reasons. First, it could easily have been intercepted (not that such things matter in games that don't), and second, it left him open for Cunningham's hit. Had Vick rid himself of the ball at the first sign of trouble, the hit never would have happened.

Vick doesn't give up on plays. He believes himself talented enough to make something out of nothing. And throughout his career, he has encountered a fair bit of evidence to support his belief. But what Vick needs to understand is the level of responsibility he bears, and the proper way to manage that responsibility. The Eagles need him on the field more than they need him to turn one busted play into a miraculous 40-yard gain. The great quarterbacks know when to ditch the ball or take the sack. If Vick wants to be a great quarterback, he's going to have to be reliably healthy. And to do that, he has got to learn these lessons. The distressing part of the first half of the Eagles' second preseason game is that the play on which Vick got injured supports the theory that he'll never learn how to minimize his injury risk.

What to watch for: Eagles-Patriots

August, 20, 2012
The Philadelphia Eagles will play their second 2012 preseason game tonight at 8 ET against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN. Here are the things I'll be watching ...

Most closely: Michael Vick's performance. Eagles coach Andy Reid has said he plans to play his starters longer tonight than he does in next week's preseason game against the Browns, since the Eagles open in Cleveland 16 days later and he doesn't want to give the Browns any more help than he has to. That means this will likely be the longest look we get at the Eagles' starters this preseason. And that means a chance for Vick to show us the fruits of all of the hard offseason work he and the Eagles say he's been doing. The Eagles' party line is that this is the first real offseason Vick has had as the starting quarterback since 2006 in Atlanta, and as a result he's worked harder and better on refining his game. Vick says he's watched more film than ever before in his career, and that he's determined to fix the mistakes that led to all of his turnover problems early in 2011. What Eagles fans should want to see from Vick is improved decision-making -- not just with regard to his personal safety, but also in terms of knowing when to give up on a play for the sake of valuing the ball. I'm interested to see whether the offseason classroom work has made him a more proficient reader of the field and the defense, and how it works with him and center Jason Kelce in terms of changing the protection calls at the line. Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFL to perform this year, and while it doesn't matter what he does until Sept. 9 in Cleveland, it'd be encouraging for Eagles fans if they could come out of tonight's game convinced something about their quarterback looks different.

On the other side of the ball: Tackling, especially at the second level. I'm willing to believe that the defensive line will be the strength of the team once everyone's healthy, and I'm eager to watch Brandon Graham again after last week. But the Eagles' preseason opener featured some communication and tackling issues in the linebacker corps and in the secondary that were reminiscent of last season. And while I fervently believe that on-field preseason performance is a poor predictor of regular-season results, it can make fans (and, I assume, coaches) uneasy when a preseason problem reflects a prior-season problem you believed your team had solved. The same way a sharp Vick performance could help Eagles fans' optimism for the season, a sharp performance by the linebackers and the cornerbacks could help everyone feel better about the defense.

If I think of it: The backup running backs remain interesting. Does Dion Lewis look like he could be an effective fill-in for LeSean McCoy? Is Chris Polk or Bryce Brown the leader for that No. 3 spot? Could that come down to something as pedestrian as special-teams work or blitz pickup? ... Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett could stand to show something, as the organization appears to be souring on him, if it hasn't already. ... The left tackle position is also one to watch in this game. Demetress Bell is the player they signed to replace injured star Jason Peters, but he's struggled badly enough to get demoted to the second team, and perennial backup King Dunlap has been starting in his place in practice. The coaches will have their eyes on both of those players, and I'm interested to see if McCoy is going to run more up the middle and to the right this year with Peters gone. ... The Eagles also have a punting competition going on between Chas Henry and Mat McBriar.

Countdown Live: Super Bowl XLVI

February, 5, 2012
Join our NFL experts for the game we've all been waiting for: Super Bowl XLVI between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

Contribute your thoughts and questions at 4 p.m. ET. See you there.

Countdown Live: Super Bowl media day

January, 31, 2012
Join our NFL experts as they bring you all the color, quotables and craziness from Super Bowl XLVI media day.

We'll start with the New England Patriots' session at 10 a.m. and work our way through the New York Giants' session at noon. Contribute your thoughts and questions and we'll see you there!

One of the greatest Super Bowls in history is coming out for an encore, as the New York Giants and the New England Patriots hook up Feb. 5 in Indianapolis in a rematch of Super Bowl XLII just four years ago. There are 15 Giants and seven Patriots still left from that game, which the Giants won to spoil New England's perfect season. But this year's matchup has plenty of its own storylines without dredging up the old ones. AFC East blogger James Walker and NFC East blogger Dan Graziano will both be on hand in Indy, but in the meantime, they've joined forces to break down Super Bowl XLVI way in advance.

[+] EnlargeGerard Warren
AP Photo/Stew MilneVince Wilfork (right) and Gerard Warren are two key components to the Patriots' defense.
Graziano: Well, James, just as everyone predicted, the Super Bowl features the team that finished 27th in total defense in the regular season against the team that finished 31st. Having watched the Giants' last 10 games, I've seen their defense transform from one of the league's most vulnerable into a tight, cohesive, disciplined bunch that bears almost no resemblance to what they were running out there in the middle of the season. When I've watched the Patriots' defense, it's looked to me like one of the worst I've ever seen. What have they been able to do lately in terms of adjustments to limit their opponents and get this far?

Walker: Hey, Mr. Pineapple ... I mean ... Dan. I don’t know if you’re more shocked the Giants are going to Indy, based on your earlier “I’m a pineapple” statement, or that the Patriots will join them. You were pretty adamant about the Baltimore Ravens exposing New England’s defense last week -- and I can’t blame you. I have been one of their harshest critics. But it’s time to give this group some credit. New England has allowed just 30 points the past two games, and the biggest reason is the front seven. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebackers Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich have simultaneously taken their games to another level. That is what you want this time of year. They are dominating the line of scrimmage and getting pressure on the quarterback. New England has eight sacks in the playoffs. I don’t know where this version of the Patriots’ defense has been all season, but in talking with players the past two weeks, I don’t think they care. The defense is happy to finally make plays to help the Patriots win.

Graziano: So it looks as though both teams have overhauled or tightened up some things since the Giants went up there in Week 9 and beat the Pats in Foxborough. I'm curious to see what role that result will play in this game and the preparation for it. Justin Tuck told me Tuesday that he expects Tom Brady to do completely different stuff this time around, because he's got such great ability to adjust to what the defense is trying to do to him. And unlike the Giants' past two games, which avenged regular-season losses to Green Bay and San Francisco, this is a rematch of a regular-season game the Giants actually won. I can't help but think the success they had against Brady in Week 9 -- not to mention in the Super Bowl four years ago -- has to help the Giants' mental state as they prepare. If you can strip away some of that unbeatable veneer from Brady, that's a big psychological assist.

Walker: I agree, Dan. I don’t see either team lacking confidence. The Giants have it from beating New England in Super Bowl XLII and the regular season. The Patriots have it from reeling off 10 straight victories. The Patriots feel they are a much better team than what the Giants faced in Week 9. I think New England took a lot from those back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and New York in the regular season. The Patriots knew they were good, but it was questionable whether they were mentally and physically tough. That has been the case since those two losses. The Patriots have overcome a couple of big deficits in the regular season, then lambasted Denver and showed grit against Baltimore in the playoffs. But enough about defense, Dan. We can’t do a Double Coverage without talking in-depth about the quarterbacks. How do you size up Brady, who is elite, versus Eli Manning, whom many feel just catapulted into elite status with his second Super Bowl run?

Graziano: You can make the argument that Brady is the best quarterback in the history of the sport. And because of that, any other quarterback is going to have a tough time in this comparison. But I'll say these things about Eli: He's gotten better every year. Last year, the knock on him was interceptions, and he got those down. He's been smart with his decision-making and responsible with the ball. He was winning games by himself this year when the Giants couldn't stop anyone on defense and couldn't run the ball at all. His teammates trust and believe in him totally. His demeanor never changes, regardless of the intensity of the situation, and that's why he's able to excel in spots that cause other players to shrink. Every single one of those things can be said about Brady, and the fact you can also say them about Eli at this point in his career gives the Giants a huge assist in a matchup like this. Because to beat Brady, you need to have a quarterback on your side who's at least capable of outplaying Brady on any given day. Eli has shown he has that capability, and that's another reason the Giants have been able to close the psychological gap the Patriots have held over so many other teams in recent years.

Walker: Manning and the Giants certainly present a challenge that Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco did not. But if I’m choosing which of these two quarterbacks I want leading my team in the Super Bowl, I’m taking Brady every time. He just tied Joe Montana for the most playoff wins in NFL history with 16. Brady can surpass Montana for postseason wins and tie Montana and Terry Bradshaw’s four Super Bowls victories by beating the Giants. Some might point to Brady's struggles against Baltimore’s elite defense in the AFC title game. But I think that makes the ultra-competitive Brady even more focused and more dangerous in the Super Bowl. When was the last time Brady played two duds in a row? New England had some issues passing for a ton of yards against Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and Baltimore’s big, athletic corners. But New York’s secondary doesn’t have nearly the same talent. I expect Brady to bounce back and do some damage passing against the Giants’ defense, especially in a dome and on the fast track at Lucas Oil Stadium. I think the biggest issue is the Patriots’ ability to pass protect against New York’s monster front four.

[+] EnlargeManning
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsEli Manning and the Giants beat the Patriots in Week 9. Can they do it again in the same season?
Graziano: The Giants will come after Brady. They believe that's the best way to rattle him, because they believe that's the best way to rattle any quarterback. And the Giants know that their defense really only works if it gets pressure on the quarterback with the front four. Their coverage in the secondary has improved in recent weeks, but as Vernon Davis proved, it can get exposed when the pressure is insufficient. I'm fascinated to see how they handle the Patriots' tight ends after they were able to neutralize Jermichael Finley two weeks ago and got burned by Davis last week. Do they have to worry about Rob Gronkowski, or is the ankle injury going to give them a break?

Walker: Gronkowski won’t be 100 percent, but who is this time of year? There are two reasons I’m sure he will play. First, he returned to the AFC title game in the fourth quarter. Second, he said he won’t miss the Super Bowl. Of course, there could be setbacks, but Gronkowski seemed confident it won't keep him off the field. Whether we see Gronkowski at 70 percent or 90 percent is up to how well his rehabilitation goes. But he has to be accounted for as long as he’s on the field. This could mean more chances for fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. He’s slightly more athletic and stretches the field more than Gronkowski, which may work better against the Giants’ defense. Should we make our predictions now, Dan, or wait until next week? What say you?

Graziano: As I tell my followers every time they ask, I make my predictions on Fridays. So I’m going to wait until Friday, Feb. 3, to make my pick for this game. That gives me another week-plus to mull over whether the Giants have an answer for the Gronk, and I look forward to talking it over with you in Indy, James. See you there in a few days.

Countdown Live: Giants-Patriots

November, 6, 2011
Join our NFL experts as they break down the match up between the New York Giants and the New England Patriots.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. See you there.

Countdown Live: Cowboys-Patriots

October, 16, 2011
Join our NFL experts as they break down the showdown between the New England Patriots and the Dallas Cowboys.

Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4:15 p.m. ET. See you there.

Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? It's the debate of the moment in today's NFL. Which superstar quarterback is the best? Who, between that pair of excellent, future Hall of Fame signal-callers, would you pick if you had the choice? That's not the question that was asked of our Power Rankings panel this week, but it turned out to be the one we answered.

Yes, after weeks upon weeks of power-ranking everything we could think of in the NFL, we've decided to throw all qualifiers and designations out the window and make it very simple: Who are the best players in the league?

As was the case when our panel was asked to rank the league's top quarterbacks, Brady beat out Manning for the top spot in this week's power rankings. Six of the eight NFL bloggers polled ranked Brady No. 1 overall, and the two who didn't -- Mike Sando and Paul Kuharsky -- ranked him second behind Manning. The top four players in our rankings and seven of the top 10 (of the top 11, technically, since Michael Vick and Andre Johnson tied for the No. 10 spot) all play the same position -- quarterback -- which says a lot about the way we value that position.

"Quarterback is the most significant position on the field and can make the difference between a lopsided losing record and the playoffs," said AFC East blogger Tim Graham, whose ballot had quarterbacks in each of the first seven spots and eight of 10 overall. "It takes a truly special running back or defensive player to outweigh the importance of a quarterback. For example, Adrian Peterson is a sensational player. But without Brett Favre producing at quarterback, Peterson couldn't carry the Vikings to the playoffs."

So the question then became which quarterback was the best. The debate these days seems to be squarely between Manning and Brady, though two of our eight bloggers did rank Manning third on this week's list. We'll get to them in a minute. We'll start with the majority opinion -- that Brady is the best player in the league right now.

I was one of the six who ranked Brady in the top spot, and the main reason was that I think Brady has attained a level of excellence in New England that's beyond what Manning has been able to attain in Indianapolis. Brady's accomplishments in 2007, when he combined with Randy Moss to set all kinds of offensive records and went undefeated until losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, were all-time legendary. But what people may not realize (perhaps because of the ludicrous level at which Brady excelled that year) is that the past two seasons have been the second-best and third-best statistical seasons of Brady's career. If Brady hadn't hurt his knee in the first game of the 2008 season and missed the rest of that year, it's very possible he would be on the kind of run right now that would make a Brady-Manning debate seem silly.

After the Patriots traded Randy Moss in the middle of 2010, the question was whether they were giving up on the season. What they were doing instead was committing to a midseason overhaul of the offense that wouldn't have been possible without the confidence they had in Brady to manage it. All Brady did was muster the second-best completion percentage and second-highest touchdown-pass total of his career while throwing just four interceptions and winning at least 14 games for the fourth time.

Not everybody agreed, however.

"Manning is simply asked to do more than any player in the league is asked to do," Kuharsky said. "He's superb at it. I love Brady. But Manning can do more, is asked to do more, and has to do more. Jim Caldwell is an OK coach so far. Bill Belichick is an all-time great. The guy making up the gap in order to have the Colts stay in range of the Patriots is Manning."

But the Colts really weren't in range of the Patriots this year, and for that reason Manning's star has dimmed in the eyes of a couple of our panelists. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Aaron Rodgers No. 2 and Manning No. 3. And NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas ranked Saints quarterback Drew Brees in that No. 2 spot ahead of Manning.

"I'm not trying to diminish Peyton in any way. He's going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But, if you look at his numbers and Brees' numbers over the last three or four years, they're similar and, in some ways, Brees' numbers are better," Yasinskas said. "Brees and Manning each have won one Super Bowl title. My argument is that, right now, Brees is even more valuable to the Saints than Manning is to the Colts. Times change and circumstances change. But right now I think Brees is the perfect quarterback for the Saints and is in the perfect situation with their offensive system and coaching staff. In fact, I considered voting for Brees No. 1 overall, but couldn't quite bring myself to rank him ahead of Tom Brady."

Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who came in first in the defensive player power rankings, ranked fifth on the overall list. AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Polamalu fourth, and Seifert ranked him fifth. Walker's ballot was the most generous overall to defensive players, as he ranked Polamalu fourth, Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware fifth, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis eighth and 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis ninth.

Walker and Kuharsky (who ranked him 10th) were the only ones who ranked Ware at all, and Kuharsky seemed a little chapped about it.

"If we rate these quarterbacks so highly, how can we not rate the guy we said was tops at disrupting quarterbacks highly too," Paul asked. "Makes no sense. I had him too low at 10. For six of you guys to leave him off entirely dents your collective credibility. Next I imagine you'll say the E Street Band isn't the all-time best backing band."

Paul is grouchy.

"I value pass-rushers, and no player has more sacks the past two seasons than DeMarcus Ware (26.5)," Walker said. "Getting to the quarterback is the best way to combat the league's increasing number of pass-happy offenses, and no one does it better right now than Ware."

The highest-ranked offensive player who wasn't a quarterback was Peterson, who came in sixth after being named on five of eight ballots. Sando, Walker and AFC West blogger Bill Williamson left the Minnesota running back off their ballots -- the third time in three tries that Williamson has ranked Peterson lower than most of the rest of us did.

"This is a quarterback league and that's how I built my top 10," Williamson explained. "There were only three non-quarterbacks on my top 10. After I constructed the quarterback rankings, I went to the best available non-quarterbacks, and the list was quite short. But to reiterate, this is the top 10. The best of the best. I think Peterson is probably a top-15 guy and that’s pretty good in a league of 1,800-plus professionals."

Pretty good indeed. But as Bill said, it's a quarterback league. And for that reason, the debate about the best player in the league came down, once again, to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady.

NFL power rankings: IllustrationOur writers break down NFL team helmets in the latest edition of's Power Rankings.
As we continue our Power Rankings series, it’s time to look beyond the player and examine what’s wrapped around his head.

Let’s blow the lid off this NFL helmet caper, shall we?

The NFL helmet has long been an obsession. Whether it’s the unmistakable star of the Dallas Cowboys, the beyond-the-gridiron meaning in Pittsburgh or the great helmet–change fiasco in San Francisco in the early 1990s, the NFL has been all about the helmet. After all, in football, we don’t look at faces, we look at logos.

Come on, who hasn’t spent a Saturday afternoon feeding countless quarters into a gumball machine full of worthless plastic all in the name of getting a complete set of NFL helmets?

So, we put our artistic eyes together (with the courtesy of professional help) and came up with our top 10 NFL helmets. Consensus? No, not even close. In a 2011 Power Rankings record, 26 lids collected votes. Eye of the beholder, folks.

Interestingly, two of the six teams that got no lid love received kudos from our guest judge. I’d take her word over mine. You should see what I’m wearing right now. Think John Belushi in "Animal House." Then take it down a few notches.

We’ve had our battles this spring when it came to ranking players, coaches and owners, but this task has to be the most subjective of all. It’s vanilla or chocolate. Or, in this case, purple or red.

Still, there were several helmets -- traditional teams seemed to catch the imagination -- that received more votes than others.

Fittingly, the winning helmet is of a team that has been scoring big during this entire series: the Pittsburgh Steelers. The black helmet received 50 voting points, cruising to an easy win. Second-place Indianapolis, and its famous horseshoe, received 41 points.

AFC North blogger James Walker was the only person to vote for the Steelers, who received top-10 votes from six of eight voters, as the No. 1 helmet. Only NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert (he received big-league redemption -- we’ll explain later) and AFC East blogger Tim Graham shunned the Steelers.

Walker explained that it was fitting for the Steelers’ helmet to win because it represents a gritty, historic city.

“Most helmets have a mascot or the team’s name or initials, but Pittsburgh’s helmet actually has in-depth meaning,” Walker said. “The colors of the diamond shapes each represent elements of steel, which was once a major industry in Pittsburgh. Also, Pittsburgh is the only NFL team with its helmet logo on one side. I think the uniqueness and tradition helps separate the Steelers.”

Here’s the rest of the top-10 list after the Steelers and Colts: Oakland Raiders (my first-place vote -- just look cool, baby), Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.

Below are some key aspects of the vote:

Walking the Runway: We are thrilled to have a celebrity presence this week. Former "Project Runway" contestant Peach Carr, a successful Chicago fashion designer and self-professed sports nut, lent her expertise this week.

Predictably, her opinion differed greatly from many of us slouches. Hey, sportswriters are rarely accused of being spiffy, snappy, hip or even presentable, so what do you expect?

The most telling of Carr’s selections was her choice of the San Francisco 49ers at No. 2. They were among the six teams shut out by the rest of us. I’d listen to the Peach, San Francisco.

Carr went with the hometown Bears as her top choice. The Bears finished ninth in our poll. Major fashion buttons to Seifert. He was the only voter to agree with the professional. Reached for comment, Seifert had this to say: “Yesssssss.”

Well said, Mr. Blackwell.

Carr placed the Houston Texans as her No. 6 helmet. It was also one of the six helmets the rest of us neglected.

You made it work, Peach. Auf Wiedersehen to the rest of us.

The Lone Vote State: In an upset, the Cowboys’ helmet finished sixth. Graham was the lone blogger to vote Dallas’ helmet first.

“I was shocked to see nobody else put the Cowboys at the top of their ballots,” Graham said. “That helmet is the most iconic of them all. The lone blue star is known immediately by grandmothers who never watch football. It's a classic look that strikes you whether you're watching from the stands or at home. There's no tiny print to read, no cluttered symbols to decipher. You see it, you know it. And it likely conjures a visceral reaction whether you're a fan or not.”

Going traditional: In addition to the 49ers and Texans, the Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals were the only teams shut out by the eight voters. The 49ers are the only team in the group that has a history-rich franchise. However, the top 10 is dominated by tradition-rich teams.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando saw a trend.

“My thought is that success helps a brand become appealing in a lot of cases,” Sando said. “Would the Steelers' helmet really rank first if the team had tanked every year? I do not think so. Look at the Colts, Raiders, Packers, Cowboys, Browns ... all have storied histories.”

Kicking it old school: If the “throwback” helmets were allowed in the voting, I bet things would be different. My prized possession (probably says more about my collection of stuff than my sentiment) is my complete set of NFL throwback mini helmets. It is proudly displayed in my office.

There are some beauties in that collection. That’s one of the reasons I went with the New York Jets' helmet as my No. 2 choice. I like the old-style look. My favorite helmet of all time is the old-school New England Patriots helmet. I love me some Patriot Pat and couldn’t get enough of watching the Patriots when the league honored the AFL in 2009.

Put your thinking helmet on. What do you think is the most fashionable helmet in the NFL? Fill the comments section below with your thoughts.