NFL Nation: AFC Championship Game
"There is something to be said about being gracious in defeat," Sharpe said. “We’ve seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious [in the AFC title game]. And we’ve seen the opposing coaches that lost come out and talk to our [reporter] Steve Tasker. Coach [Bill] Cowher did it when he lost to them.
"Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not going to win all the time, and he does this every time he loses. It is unacceptable."
Sharpe has a fair point. But for those like myself who regularly cover the Patriots, this is just Belichick being Belichick. He is tough with all media and doesn’t care for interviews whether in victory or defeat.
Belichick usually does the bare-bones minimum with media, although Sunday’s loss probably heightened his want to get out of Gillette Stadium more than usual. Belichick did go through the mandatory post-game news conference Sunday night. But it was clear that was probably the last thing he cared to do after another tough playoff defeat.
Here are several key plays and players that crushed New England’s hopes to advance to Super Bowl XLVII:
- The pass coverage was horrendous once Aqib Talib went out with a thigh injury in the first quarter. Backup cornerback Kyle Arrington and rookie seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard struggled against Baltimore’s tandem of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin had two touchdown receptions and made several big catches in traffic in which he won the one-on-one battles. New England’s linebackers also failed to cover over the middle. Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, in particular, had trouble keeping up with Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, who had five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown.
- Patriots quarterback Tom Brady played one of his worst games of the season. Brady, who has struggled against Baltimore in his career, was 29-of-54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. The Ravens did a masterful job against Brady by not allowing many big plays. His longest completion was for 36 yards, but that was in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Baltimore also didn’t get any sacks but hit Brady seven times, which was enough to rattle him. One interception was off a deflection, and another was in the end zone to Ravens cornerback Cary Williams.
- Speaking of Brady, his rare poor clock management at the end of the first half was inexcusable. New England was leading by a field goal and had a chance to go up by 10 points with a touchdown at the end of the second quarter. Brady connected with Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez for 17 yards to get to Baltimore’s 10-yard line with 26 seconds left. Brady only got one play off in 26 seconds, which was a quarterback sneak, before using New England’s final timeout. The Patriots settled for a field goal to go up 13-7 at halftime. But a touchdown to go up 17-7 at the half could have dramatically changed the momentum of the game for New England.
- Patriots starting tailback Stevan Ridley’s fumbling issues came up again in a big spot. Ridley was knocked out of the game with a concussion during a fourth-quarter fumble that sealed any hopes of the Patriots coming back in the game. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard delivered a crushing blow to Ridley, who walked off the field under his own power.
Baltimore outplayed New England in just about every facet of this game. This is further proof that you always have to be at your best in the playoffs.
Here are some notes at intermission:
- Injuries are becoming a factor for New England. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib strained his hamstring in the first quarter and didn't return. He is New England's best cover corner and his return was announced as questionable. But it wouldn't be shocking if Talib is done for this game. Patriots defensive lineman Kyle Love also left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury and didn't return in the first half. His return was announced as questionable. New England rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (ankle) dressed for the game but hasn't played in the first half.
- New England receiver Brandon Lloyd had one of his best first halves of the season. Lloyd has four receptions for 40 yards. Someone had to step up in the absence of Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is out for the postseason with a broken arm. Brady and Lloyd haven’t been on the same page for much of the season, but that wasn’t the case in the first half. Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez also has six receptions.
- The Patriots used some trickery in the first quarter. New England put quarterback Ryan Mallett on the field in what appeared to be a fake punt on fourth-and-2. It was a play the Patriots haven’t used all season. Baltimore blew a timeout after seeing the unfamiliar alignment.
- Overall, it was an ugly first half by both teams. Neither club really got its offense going and both teams struggled on third-down conversions. The Patriots even botched some clock management before halftime and settle for a field goal. Expect a better played second half by both teams.
Here is the final injury report for both teams:
Probable: DE Chandler Jones (ankle), CB Marquice Cole (finger), OL Nick McDonald (shoulder), DE Trevor Scott (knee), RB Danny Woodhead (thumb)
Out: CB Asa Jackson (thigh)
Questionable: LB Dannell Ellerbe (ankle), FB Vonta Leach (knee), RB Bernard Pierce (knee), WR David Reed (thigh)
Probable: WR Anquan Boldin (shoulder), RB Anthony Allen (head), CB Chykie Brown (shoulder), DT Terrence Cody (ankle), G Gino Gradkowski (head), DT Arthur Jones (thigh), LB Ray Lewis (triceps), LB Albert McClellan (shoulder), DE Pernell McPhee (thigh), DT Haloti Ngata (knee), S Bernard Pollard (chest), S Ed Reed (shoulder), CB Jimmy Smith (abdomen), WR Torrey Smith (back), LB Terrell Suggs (achilles), G Marshal Yanda (shoulder)
Analysis: The Patriots are very healthy, considering it is late in the season. New England lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the playoffs last week, and that is the biggest concern. However, the Patriots are 4-1 this season without Gronkowski and have been down this road before. The Ravens have already played two tough playoff games, and it shows on the injury report. But all the big names will most likely be ready for the AFC Championship Game.
Ridley showed flashes in his first year with the Patriots by rushing for 441 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. But fumbles in consecutive games landed him on the inactive list for the rest of the playoffs. Vereen had an injury-plagued rookie campaign, played in just five games and was never able to get on track.
But perseverance and dedication have changed the fortunes of New England’s second-year running backs. This season Ridley played in all 16 games and led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He carried the load for New England during the regular season. Vereen mostly stayed healthy in his sophomore campaign, playing in 13 games and adding 251 rushing yards off the bench.
But most importantly, the tailbacks have been double trouble in the playoffs. Ridley and Vereen combined for 219 total yards and four touchdowns in New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round. The pair beat Houston on the ground and through the air, which was essential after losing Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski (arm) for the playoffs.
After sitting on the bench last year against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game, both Patriots tailbacks will have significant roles in Sunday's postseason rematch.
“Last year it was kind of devastating and heartbreaking to not be out there with the team in a big game,” Vereen said this week. “This year I am able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way that I can.”
Trust is huge in New England. Ridley learned that lesson the hard way.
Talent was never an issue for the 2011 third-round pick. Ridley impressed coaches with his running style as a rookie and started to consistently earn double-digit carries in December.
But with more opportunities, Ridley had a couple of untimely fumbles. He put the ball on the ground in New England’s regular-season finale, which was recovered, then lost a fumble in the first playoff game against the Denver Broncos.
At that point, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had seen enough. Belichick clipped the already short leash with Ridley and made the rookie inactive in both the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants. Ridley understood the Patriots’ decision.
“This is an organization that is built on a lot of tradition and they have been doing things the right way for a long time,” Ridley said. “If you don’t want to play football the [right] way, you’re not going to be here.”
Last season’s rookie disappointment motivated Ridley and Vereen to become better second-year players. The jump both players have made in Year 2 showed last week against Houston.
Ridley rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. Vereen rushed for 41 yards, had five receptions for 83 yards and scored three touchdowns. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady called Vereen’s impressive, 33-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter to put the game out of reach a coming-of-age moment.
“On the last one, Tom threw a perfect, perfect pass and I was only able to bring it in because of where the ball was at,” Vereen explained. “It was a matchup that we were hoping to get and we were able to execute the play. Everything lined up right and Tom threw a perfect pass.”
Can Ridley and Vereen shine again? Last week was the first time both young tailbacks performed well in a pressure-packed playoff atmosphere.
The Patriots are heavy favorites for the second straight week. But New England knows better than to overlook Baltimore. The Ravens were underdogs last week when they knocked off the top-seeded Broncos in Denver. The last three meetings between Baltimore and New England have been decided by three points or fewer. So expect another close game.
The running games could be huge for both teams, especially in the second half. Ridley and Vereen were sideline spectators last year in the AFC title game. But this pair must produce for the Patriots for a second game in a row to secure a spot in Super Bowl XLVII.
“They’re a great football team. I don’t care what the numbers say,” Ridley said of Baltimore. “History shows what they do in the playoffs. They go on the road and they win. They have great leadership. They have one of the best players to ever play the game. We have ultimate respect for the Ravens.”
New England Patriots quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady continues to set records. He recently became the NFL's all-time winningest playoff quarterback, as well as the third player to throw at least 40 postseason touchdowns.
All of this confirms Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. But Brady says he has no time to reflect on his legacy.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t really think about any of that," Brady said during his Wednesday’s press conference. "I’m just trying to win a football game this week. I think we’re very short-term focused and playing against a great football team that obviously deserves the right to be here. We know how challenging of a team they are, both schematically and personnel-wise. All of our focus is on this week."
Expect some articles over the next few days about Brady's place in NFL history. That will only increase if Brady qualifies for his sixth Super Bowl.
Is Brady the NFL's greatest quarterback? That's subject to debate. But Brady certainly has the résumé to make a case.
However, don't expect Brady to believe his own hype -- he never has. Brady continues to live in the moment, which involves Sunday's AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.
"I try not to buy into what people say or think," Brady said. "I just live my life and certainly enjoy being the quarterback for this team. There’s nothing more fun than running out onto the field in front of 70,000 people cheering for us. That’s what it will be this weekend."
The big brother got the best of the little brother in the first meeting. But this time the stakes are higher when siblings Arthur Jones of the Baltimore Ravens face Chandler Jones and the New England Patriots.
A trip to the Super Bowl is on the line for the Jones brothers in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Baltimore beat New England, 31-30, in Week 3 of the regular season.
Arthur, 26, currently has bragging rights in the family. But the oldest brother knows it's more important to win this weekend.
Whoever advances has a golden opportunity to bring the first Super Bowl ring to the Jones family.
"Absolutely, I rubbed it in his face a little bit," Arthur said Wednesday of beating Chandler in the regular season. "But the bragging rights are not going to matter if I don't win this game. This is a lot bigger game and a lot more at stake than last game."
The good news is one of the Jones brothers will be playing in his first Super Bowl on Feb. 3. The bad news is the other Jones brother will be heartbroken after getting so close in the AFC title game.
However, the first champion among the Jones brothers has already been crowned in a different sport: mixed martial arts. Middle brother Jon Jones, 25, became the UFC light heavyweight champion in 2011 and still holds the title. Jon, when reached on a promotional tour for "The Ultimate Fighter," said this weekend is another great moment for the Jones family.
"I’m so happy for my brothers and I’m excited to see the game this weekend," Jon Jones said. "I know they both want to play in the Super Bowl, so I expect them to play the best games of their lives. I’m proud of Arthur and Chandler.
"I know it’s not easy to make it this far in the NFL, but they’ve both dedicated their lives to becoming the best football players they can be. I can’t wait to see who makes it to the Super Bowl."
There are very few secrets Chandler Jones, 22, keeps from his oldest brother. But this is one of those weeks when he will.
Chandler tweaked his ankle in New England's playoff victory over the Houston Texans, but he did practice on Wednesday. The two close-knit brothers have talked this week. Yet, Chandler is doing his best Bill Belichick impersonation by not informing Arthur of his status.
Still, Arthur knows his younger brother better than anyone and expects Chandler on the field Sunday considering how much is at stake.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s a kid that has heart, and he’s going to be out there no matter what, I think,” Arthur Jones said. “But who knows? I’m not a doctor. I don’t know what’s going on and he’s doing a good job of not telling me.”
Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a great year for the Jones brothers. Chandler and Arthur both made it to the conference title game, while Jon won both of his championship fights in 2012.
It will take Sunday's AFC Championship Game to determine which Jones brother will finish the season at Super Bowl XLVII.
“It’s definitely a blessing for my family, and it’s definitely a unique situation,” Arthur Jones said. “It’s going to be cool. So why not us?”
Here is Brady vs. Lewis by the numbers, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
- Brady is 5-2 in his career against Lewis. Baltimore’s only two victories against the Patriots came in the regular season in Week 3 and the wild-card playoffs following the 2009 season.
- In seven games Lewis has just one career sack against Brady, recorded in the 2009 playoff game.
- Since 2008, Brady is has a 63.1 Total Quarterback Rating against the Ravens, which is his second-lowest total against any team. Brady’s lowest QBR since 2008 is 59.1 against the New York Jets.
- Brady has handled the blitz well. He has an 85.6 Total Quarterback Rating against five or more rushers, which was second in the NFL this season. He was 13-of-17 for 118 yards against Baltimore’s blitz in Week 3.
- The Ravens and Patriots are a combined 6-2 in the playoffs the past two seasons.
Brady's Patriots and Lewis' Ravens have been the two dominant teams in the AFC the past two years. But the road ends Sunday for one of these great players.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the New England Patriots' 41-28 divisional playoff victory over the Houston Texans.
What it means: The Patriots advanced to the AFC Championship Game to face the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium for the second year in a row. New England moves one step closer to their sixth Super Bowl appearance under quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick. Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns. Brady also set a new NFL record with 17 career playoff victories.
Young RBs growing up: New England's young running backs came of age in this playoff game. Second-year players Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley scored New England’s first three touchdowns -- and four touchdowns total -- in the win. Vereen showed his versatility with 41 rushing yards, 83 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. Ridley added 82 rushing yards and one touchdown. Neither player was a factor in New England's playoff run last year. But both made significant contributions in New England’s opening playoff game this year.
Gronkowski may be out for season: The biggest injury concern coming out of this game is the health of Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. He re-injured his previously broken left arm in the first quarter and didn't return. He was in major pain before going to the locker room. Early reports indicate that Gronkowski could be out for the season. (Update: Sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter that Gronkowski is out for the rest of the playoffs.) This is the second straight year Gronkowski is significantly injured for the playoffs.
Welker hard to guard: With Gronkowski out, Welker became the focal part of the passing offense. Welker recorded eight receptions for 131 yards against Houston. He had six catches for 120 yards in the first half. Welker made several key catches to keep the chains moving.
Other injuries: The Patriots had several other key injuries to monitor next week. In addition to Gronkowski, New England starting defensive end Chandler Jones re-injured his ankle in the third quarter and didn’t return. The Patriots’ other defensive end, Rob Ninkovich also injured in the fourth quarter, and New England running back Danny Woodhead injured his thumb in the first quarter and didn’t return. New England needs its key players healthy for next week.
What’s next: The Patriots will host Baltimore in the AFC title game for the second straight year at Gillette Stadium. Both teams have had a good rivalry in recent years. Baltimore beat New England in Week 3 of the regular season and will be emotionally-charged during linebacker Ray Lewis’ final playoff run. The Patriots will try to avoid being swept by the Ravens in two games this season.
The stars have aligned just right to boost New England's chances of another Super Bowl run. The second-seeded Patriots will host the Houston Texans Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET. If the Patriots advance, they also will host the fourth-seeded Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium in next week's AFC Championship Game.
Houston's loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the regular-season finale gave the Patriots a valuable first-round bye. But Baltimore's overtime upset of the top-seeded Broncos Saturday was the biggest surprise. It provided New England an unexpected home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Of course, none of this matters unless New England can take care of business on the field. Nothing in the postseason is easy. But home games against Houston and Baltimore in the playoffs is more appealing for the Patriots than playing a wild-card game and two postseason games at Houston and at Denver.
The Patriots are aware that anything can happen in the playoffs. It's interesting to note that elite quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers were both knocked out in the divisional round Saturday. Tom Brady & Co. must play their best football Sunday against the Texans to avoid joining that list.
The top-seeded Denver Broncos were upset by the fifth-seeded Baltimore Ravens in overtime, 38-35, in the AFC playoffs. That means the second-seeded Patriots now have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. New England will host the Houston Texans on Sunday; the winner will host Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.
New England trounced Houston in the regular season, 42-14, but must guard against being overconfident in the rematch. Another game at Gillette Stadium awaits if the Patriots can beat Houston for a second time in a row at home.
A potential meeting with Baltimore would also be a rematch from the regular season. The Ravens beat the Patriots, 31-30, in Week 3.
Chandler, Jon and Arthur Jones form a tight-knit group that loves to compete. Being the second best was not an option for these three brothers, and often that led to various family scuffles as young children.
"We used to fight all the time," said Jon Jones, now the UFC light heavyweight champion. "But it wasn't because we hated each other. It was because we love each other and we're best friends. That's what best friends do -- we beat each other up over everything. But after we were done beating each other up, still bleeding, we were playing video games 25 minutes later.
"If you look at all of our faces, we got black scars and black lines all over, and that’s from our fingernails. We used to scratch and beat into each other's skin."
That ultra-competitiveness in the Jones household has bred two NFL players and one of the most dominant champions in Mixed Martial Arts history. This trio will take center stage this weekend when rookie Chandler and the New England Patriots (1-1) play against his older brother Arthur and the Baltimore Ravens (1-1) for the first time Sunday night. Jon will defend his title Saturday at UFC 152 against contender Vitor Belfort.
This is a huge showcase for the Jones brothers, who have combined hard work, dedication and freakish athleticism to make a mark in their sports. This is the first time this trio will compete on the same weekend as professional athletes.
Sept. 22-23 is as much a family celebration for the Jones brothers as it is a competition.
"Everything goes to my parents and the way they raised us," Chandler said this week. "They raised us, [protected us], and all of our successes I owe to God and my parents."
Arthur, 26, is the oldest brother and is described as the leader of the group. The defensive tackle was a fifth-round draft pick of the Ravens in 2010.
Jon, 25, is the middle brother and probably the most competitive. He was on the same wrestling team as Arthur in high school, and that path led him to MMA. Jones became the UFC’s youngest world champion last year and is arguably the pound-for-pound best fighter in the sport.
Chandler, 22, is the youngest but also has been described as the most athletic. A first-round pick of the Patriots this year, Chandler is making an immediate impact at linebacker. He has 10 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles in his first two games. Usually, rookies do not get much playing time under Patriots coach Bill Belichick. But Chandler is making a strong impression.
"Chandler is a guy who's kind of like a baby giraffe: He came out wobbly but he's full of potential," Arthur said. "I don't think he's scratched the surface of what he can do yet. I think he can be one of the elite, great players and can play for a long time."
Jon will be the table-setter for the family. Jones will have his 18th professional fight Saturday in Toronto and fourth straight title defense at UFC 152.
In the past two years, Jon has been MMA's fastest-rising star. He is 16-1, and his only loss was a disqualification in 2009.
"I definitely plan on setting the tone and just putting on a great performance, but I’m sure my brothers won’t play differently depending on my outcome," Jon said. "They're planning on me doing well, and they’re going to play hard either way. I’m just interested to see who has the better game [Sunday]."
Arthur trained with Jon last offseason in Albuquerque, N.M. Arthur and Chandler will be anxiously watching their middle brother fight Saturday from their hotels in Baltimore while they put the finishing touches on preparations for their game.
"For me, it's nothing like it," Arthur said of watching Jon in the Octagon. "Even if I wasn't in his training camp, I know how hard and how prepared he is for each fight. It's just you see your brother out there and you can't help him, and you get that feeling. But fighters fight for themselves. It's just a weird feeling. I get butterflies."
After the fight, Jon will catch a flight from Toronto to Baltimore on Sunday morning. Jon and the family will go to M&T Bank Stadium together Sunday night to watch Arthur and Chandler play.
The Patriots-Ravens matchup is a rematch of last January's thrilling AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won after a missed Ravens field goal at the end of regulation and advanced to the Super Bowl. Both teams are title contenders again this season and have a lot on the line after Week 2 losses. The loser will be in a surprising 1-2 hole.
This will be a special weekend the Jones brothers will never forget. But the bad news for the Jones family is that at least one brother has to lose.
MMA is unpredictable, but Jon will go in Saturday night as a huge favorite. He is expected to defend his title in dominant fashion. But either Chandler's Patriots or Arthur's Ravens is guaranteed to come up short Sunday night.
"I feel bad for the loser," Jon said of his brothers. "Because there is going to be some bragging."
But history suggests New England is better off not showing up this season. The Patriots were runners-up in Super Bowl XLVI -- and historically that is an awful position to be in.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, it's been 39 years since a team bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to win a championship. The Miami Dolphins won Super Bowl VII in January 1973 after losing Super Bowl VI the previous year. In fact, it's only happened twice in the Super Bowl's 46-year history.
New England is trying to become just the third team to accomplish the feat -- and the first in nearly four decades. Thirty-eight consecutive teams have tried and failed. That is a ton of history against the Patriots as they chase their fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick-Brady era.
Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.
"The Patriots played more games than any other team but one last year and I think that takes a toll," Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson said of difficulty of getting back to the Super Bowl. "Those playoff games are really intense and you have to do more physical damage to your roster than teams that didn’t make it deep into the playoffs. So I think it’s a little more difficult to be fresh when your season comes around. Your offseasons aren't as long and you're more beat up."
To Williamson's point, the Patriots are still ailing from last year's playoff run.
Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins tore his ACL in the postseason and had surgery in February. He is questionable for Week 1 and could begin the year on the physically unable to perform list. Patriots Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski needed ankle surgery this offseason after getting injured in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens. He continues to rehab and hopes to be back by training camp. Neither star was able to participate in offseason workouts.
The numbers are a little more in New England's favor in terms of getting back to the big game. Seven Super Bowl runners-up have repeated as conference champions in 46 years, which is 15.2 percent. Most recently, the Buffalo Bills bounced back from three Super Bowl losses to return to the title game in the 1990-93 seasons. The Denver Broncos also lost Super Bowl XXI in the 1986 season and made it back to Super Bowl XXII the following year. But 17 consecutive Super Bowl runners-up have not returned to the big game. The Patriots will try to end the drought this season.
History is not on New England's side, but there are reasons to believe the Patriots can shake the runners-up curse.
For starters, New England is stacked this year. There is depth at nearly every position, and the defense should be much improved from the 31st-ranked unit we saw a year ago. Second, New England has the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL. The Patriots play just four teams with winning records in 2011. A 12- or 13-win season appears very attainable for the Patriots.
Finally, New England's offense is a juggernaut. Brady is playing some of the best football of his career and he has a supremely talented supporting cast that includes Gronkowski, Brandon Lloyd, Pro Bowl receiver Wes Welker, dynamic tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran receiver Jabar Gaffney and a young, exciting group of running backs.
"They would be No. 1 on my power rankings. I'm not saying they will win the Super Bowl, but if I had to pick one team, they would be my pick," Williamson said. "The key to me is you can't outscore them. The Patriots were one of the two or three best offenses last year and they had some flaws. They had nothing outside the numbers and no deep-ball capabilities, and they went out and changed that with Brandon Lloyd. That's a big step forward on offense, and now you're going to have to score 40 to beat them."
The AFC appears to be the weaker conference, which also plays into New England's favor. There are only a handful of serious contenders. Besides New England, the list includes the Ravens, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and maybe the Broncos if future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning can return to full strength.
But the first step for the Patriots is conquering the AFC East. New England has won the division nine of the past 11 years under Brady and Belichick. Williamson does not see any reason the Patriots cannot win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years.
"I think the Jets are declining and the Bills are rising, but I don't think either one is close to the Patriots’ level," Williamson said. "I don't think the rest of the division is that good. The Bills have come a long way -- for the Bills. But I still think they're an 8-8 or 9-7 team if everything goes well. No one in the division has a quarterback close to Brady. No one has the big-game experience, and none of them have a coach on Belichick’s level."
Barring significant injuries, the Patriots are a safe bet to make the postseason for the fourth consecutive year. But when it comes to getting to the very top of the NFL mountain, history suggests New England's 2012 journey will fall short.
Ellis was an unrestricted free agent but expected the Jets to make a strong push to bring him back. Instead, New York spent a first-round pick on rookie defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, which signaled the end for Ellis.
The veteran went on to join New York's biggest rival: New England. Now, Ellis has a chance to win his first ring Sunday when the Patriots play the New York Giants in Super XLVI.
Ellis said this week that everything worked out and he no longer holds any grudges against the Jets.
"No, I'm over it," Ellis said. "When things first started happening and they weren't going to bring me back and how that went, it was disappointing. With an organization that you spent so long with and you put all your heart into it to get to this point that I am at now. For them to basically close the door, it was tough, but I forgave them.
"I have put it behind me. I understand that it is a business. I had to go out and find the best situation for me and I found it here as a New England Patriot, and I’m in the Super Bowl."
This will be Ellis' first chance at the Super Bowl. He spent the past two years losing in the AFC Championship Game with the Jets.