NFL Nation: Sammy Morris

Potential landing spots if Jackson leaves

February, 26, 2013

Back in October, New England was looking like a good potential future fit for St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.

Atlanta might be a better one now as we consider the possibilities following news that Jackson plans to void his deal with the Rams, becoming a free agent next month.

The Patriots have traditionally been open to older backs such as Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Sammy Morris, Antowain Smith and LaMont Jordan. But with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as the top three backs and Danny Woodhead also possibly in the mix, New England could be set at the position for the immediate future.

The Falcons, meanwhile, could plausibly stand to upgrade from Michael Turner, who recently turned 31 and is coming off an 800-yard season with a 3.6-yard average. Jackson, who turns 30 in July, is riding a streak of eight seasons with at least 1,000 yards.

Turner is scheduled to earn $6.9 million in salary with an $8.9 million cap number in 2013. Jackson, scheduled to earn $7 million from the Rams if he remains on the team, could save the Falcons against the cap relative to Turner by signing a deal for a few million per season.

Those are some initial thoughts, anyway, on potential landing spots for Jackson if and when he hits the market. Jackson will presumably seek a winning team. New England (.750) is first and Atlanta second (.700) in regular-season winning percentage over the past five seasons. The Rams are last (.244) despite going 7-8-1 last season.
The projected six-week timetable for Danny Amendola's return from injury could allow the St. Louis Rams' receiver to return after missing only four games.

The Rams, having defeated Arizona on Thursday night, do not play this weekend. They have a bye in three weeks.

Games against Miami, Green Bay, New England and San Francisco would likely be out of the question for Amendola. The Rams face the New York Jets on Nov. 18, six weeks and three days after Amendola suffered the injury. They face Arizona on Nov. 25.

The six-week timetable is an approximation, of course. Adam Schefter's report for ESPN says Amendola suffered a sternoclavicular joint separation. The so-called "SC" joint refers to the point where the collarbone meets the sternum.

I was speaking with Stephania Bell, ESPN's injury expert, about Amendola's situation when she recalled a similar sounding injury from 2007. In that case, the New England Patriots' Sammy Morris suffered an injury to the same joint in mid-October of that season. Morris went on injured reserve a couple weeks later.

Amendola's situation could be different in severity, of course. He suffered an injury to his left elbow and triceps last season.

Here's what Bell wrote about the joint in 2007:
"This joint, as is typical of all joints, is reinforced by ligaments. A bony injury to either the sternum or clavicle (anything ranging from a bruise to a break) would make the joint painful. Likewise, ligaments can tear, resulting in a subluxation (slip or partial dislocation) of the sternoclavicular (SC) joint, also quite painful. Injuries to this area are often a result of high-speed motor vehicle accidents where the seatbelt restraint creates stress across the joint, or, if you happen to play football, high-impact collisions to the front of the chest or the shoulder can do the same.

"The injury here is compounded by the fact that it is nearly impossible to immobilize the SC joint directly; the best solution is to limit shoulder motion on the same side (hence a sling is often used) to keep arm movements from affecting the joint."

Steady Romo, Cowboys pick up a freebie

December, 18, 2011
He has surely had more spectacular games in his career, but if you're a fan of the Dallas Cowboys the game Tony Romo played Saturday night was an absolute thing of beauty. Romo was 23-for-30 for 249 yards, three passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown in a nearly uncontested 31-15 victory over a dead Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. He was efficient. He was in control. He was ruthless and reliable and made sure that the Cowboys put one of their easiest wins of the season in their pocket when they needed a win in the worst way.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Kim Klement/US PresswireQuarterback Tony Romo deftly guided the Cowboys to victory over Tampa Bay.
The Cowboys move to 8-6, temporarily a half-game in front of New York pending the Giants' game Sunday afternoon. If the Giants win, Dallas will have done little Saturday night but hold serve. The victory doesn't dramatically help their playoff chances, but a loss would have damaged them severely. Romo deserves credit for making sure it was never a reasonable possibility.

He wasn't perfect, of course. No one is. The fumble on the first possession of the second half was careless. And I didn't think he made the wisest choice on his first touchdown throw to Miles Austin in traffic at the goal line. But Austin caught the ball for a touchdown, which made the throw look great. And Romo responded to the fumble by engineering a 12-play, seven-minute field-goal drive that denied the Bucs any shot at momentum.

Sure, Felix Jones had 108 rushing yards. But the Cowboys played ball-control all game, even when they were throwing it. Romo took no irresponsible shots downfield. He played completely under control. He took sacks when he should have, and he did a great job of extending plays with his feet until receivers got open. He completed passes to seven different targets, with no one making more than five catches and no receiver gaining more than Jason Witten's 77 yards. It was a clinic in levelheaded quarterback play, and while a Tampa Bay team that has now lost eight in a row might not have been much of a challenge, Romo's been playing like this against everyone lately. He has thrown 18 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his past seven games, and the Cowboys are 5-2 in those games.

Talk that coach Jason Garrett and the Cowboys don't trust Romo is ridiculous. Watching Romo on Saturday night, you saw a guy who was in complete control of his offense. A guy who was picking among fantastic targets and had the confidence and competence to find the right one. Heck, all three of his touchdown passes came from inside the 10-yard line. You don't keep throwing the ball from the 8 and 9 if you don't trust your quarterback.

Romo's reputation is a tough one to shake, but he's done nothing wrong in the second half of this season. He is not the reason Dallas lost to Arizona and New York in the two games before this one. And as the Cowboys look ahead to their final two games of the season, knowing they win the division if they can win them both, they do so with a great deal of well-deserved confidence in their starting quarterback.

Some more observations from the Cowboys' Saturday night victory:

  • Jones looks great running the ball, and maybe more importantly Sammy Morris looks like a guy who can reasonably spell Jones and keep the Cowboys from having to overwork him during the next couple of weeks. We'll see how they perform against a defense that doesn't allow 5 yards per carry, but the signs from the run game were encouraging for the Cowboys.
  • I thought the defense was encouraging too, at least while DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff were in there. The unit pressured Josh Freeman and were able to run a lot of those moving, confusing fronts to rattle the Bucs' offense into mistakes. And I had no problem with Garrett holding Ware and Ratliff out in the second half to rest them and decrease the risk of further injury. That game was over at halftime, no matter how scared Cowboys' fans were about their team's second-half issues. And if it had become legitimately close, they could always have put Ware and Ratliff back in, right? I think the Cowboys managed that situation intelligently.
  • The difference between this game and the Detroit game (other than the vast differences between Detroit's offense and Tampa Bay's) was that, when Romo made the costly turnover right after halftime to give the other team points, he didn't make another. Sounds simple, but it's important. The way you recover from your mistakes says much more about you than whether or not you make one.
  • The sight of right tackle Tyron Smith on the ground at the end of the game had to be upsetting for Cowboys fans. He walked off on his own power and seemed fine, but Smith would be a devastating loss for an already-shaky line on which he's been far and away the best player. Smith has played tackle at an elite level this year, and would be irreplaceable.
  • Next up for Dallas is a crucial home game next Saturday against the Eagles, who beat them 34-7 in Philadelphia in Week 8.
Check here for a complete list of the New England Patriots‘ roster moves.

Surprise move: There was plenty of speculation about safety Brandon Meriweather's future after he played into the fourth quarter with the second unit in Thursday’s exhibition finale against the New York Giants, but it was still a surprise when the Patriots outright released the former first-round pick (24th overall in the 2007 draft) on Saturday. After releasing veteran James Sanders as part of the previous cutdowns, the Patriots further turned over that position, waving goodbye to a player who’s been to the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons.

The team also raised some eyebrows by releasing defensive end Eric Moore, a starter at season’s end last year, but the additions of veterans such as Mark Anderson and Shaun Ellis on the defensive line made him expendable. Wide receiver Brandon Tate, who was the team’s primary kick returner and No. 3 receiver last year, got edged by more versatile bodies, and veteran running back Sammy Morris was a victim of an influx of young talent at running back.

No-brainers: First-year players like offensive lineman Thomas Austin, running back Eric Kettani, and defensive back Ross Ventrone, as well as rookies linebacker Markell Carter, defensive lineman Aaron Lavarias, defensive end Alex Silvestro, tight end Lee Smith and tight end Will Yeatman were longer shots to make the roster. The release of two young tight ends (Smith and Yeatman) is a bit surprising given New England’s love of three tight-end sets and no pure fullback. (Could veteran Alge Crumpler be on the radar?)

What’s next: The Patriots are certainly in the market for safety help, and with backup guard Rich Ohrnberger placed on season-ending injured reserve, the team is thin on the interior line. Remember that this team rarely sits idle after cutdowns. Expect the Patriots to tweak their roster further based on what becomes available from cutdowns across the league.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 18, Patriots 17

September, 1, 2011
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' preseason finale against the Giants, with the Patriots falling 18-17:

Tom Brady and starters play into second quarter. In all, Brady was on the field for 18 snaps (including penalties), as coach Bill Belichick wanted to get his first-unit offense some more work. The Giants were playing second-stringers from the start -- they had a quick turnaround after playing Monday night -- which adds context when considering the Patriots led 10-3 after the first quarter and 17-3 at the half. The Giants made a second-half comeback against the Patriots' second and third units, sparked by a fake punt which was taken 65 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. If Belichick's goal was to generate momentum after Saturday's preseason dud in Detroit while keeping top players healthy, this was a case of "mission accomplished."

Albert Haynesworth's debut. The big defensive lineman played for the first time this preseason, totaling 16 snaps -- seven coming in the first quarter and nine in the second quarter. Haynesworth started and made an immediate impact, delivering a strong interior rush on his first play in which the Patriots forced a fumble and returned it 18 yards to the Giants' 1. But after a stretch of five straight plays in the second quarter, he looked winded. After the second quarter, he spent the rest of the night chatting up his fellow defensive linemen on the sidelines. He was credited with two tackles on the night (1 solo, 1 assist) and it looks like he's still working himself into game condition.

Shaun Ellis gets sack in first game. Veteran defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, the former New York Jet who signed a one-year deal with New England, also made his debut as the Patriots opened with a four-man line of Ellis at left end, Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle and Andre Carter at right defensive end. Ellis registered a sack of quarterback David Carr at the end of the second quarter, as the Patriots gave him an extended look in sub packages with nickel rusher Mark Anderson not dressed.

Following up on Chad Ochocinco. There has been a lot of chatter about receiver Chad Ochocinco and how he is integrating into the team's offense. He started, played a total of 11 snaps (including penalties), and was targeted twice while finishing with one reception. On the incompletion, Ochocinco couldn't gain separation deep up the left side. His completion was a 9-yarder to open the Patriots' second drive of the night that looked smooth across the middle. After going without a catch Saturday in Detroit, it was the type of performance that Ochocinco could feel good about entering the regular season.

Brandon Meriweather plays with backups. With the Patriots taking an extended look at safety Josh Barrett in the first half, two-time Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather played throughout the second half with many who won't be on the New England roster come Saturday. Looking ahead, Meriweather's standing on the team bears watching. It was unusual to see him playing so deep into the game, and one might say it was a message being sent by the coaching staff.

Wes Welker dresses but does not play. The receiver injured his neck Saturday in Detroit, but in a sign that it isn't serious, he dressed for the game and went through his regular pre-game warmups. Welker didn't play, but it looks like he should be ready to go in the season opener.

Three injuries of note. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (limping while not putting weight on his right leg), linebacker Niko Koutouvides (looked like a concussion) and running back/fullback Sammy Morris (looked like a concussion) were looked at by members of the medical staff and never reutrned to the game.

Focus now turns to roster cuts and season opener Sept. 12. Expect the page to be turned quickly by Belichick and players, with the focus on trimming the roster from 80 to 53 by Saturday, and then preparations intensifying for the season opener, on "Monday Night Football" against the Dolphins (Sept. 12).

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots' 47-12 win over the Jaguars in the preseason opener:

A night for backups. Bill Belichick sat several key players, quarterback Tom Brady; receivers Chad Ochocinco, Wes Welker and Deion Branch; defensive lineman Vince Wilfork; cornerback Devin McCourty and linebacker Jerod Mayo among them. This gave Belichick a chance to evaluate some younger players, while at the same time not rushing things with key personnel after just seven full-pad practices. You had to be a hard-core fan to sit through all of this one, but in all, it was a productive night for a first preseason game.

Taylor Price one of the big stories. The second-year receiver was excellent, the highlight play coming with a back-of-the-end-zone, fingertip, toe-tapping touchdown grab. Price later showed his speed on a long catch-and-run play. Price is behind Ochocinco, Branch and Welker on the depth chart, but he ensured that he's not in jeopardy of missing the final roster cut. Impressive night.

Quarterback situation looks sharp. Between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, the Patriots appear to have one of the best backup quarterback situations in the NFL. Both were impressive.

Rookie RB Stevan Ridley shines. Third-round pick Stevan Ridley showed up for camp on time and took advantage of extended reps as second-rounder Shane Vereen had yet to sign and veterans BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris could not yet practice. That showed tonight. Ridley's confidence and hard-charging style was evident on two touchdown runs and he showed good hands on a touchdown catch. Agents generally don't get a lot of praise, but Ridley's agent -- Andy Simms -- gets a tip of the cap from here. Simms is also the agent for McCourty and for two years in a row he's made sure his clients were there for the first day of practice, putting them in the best position to succeed.

Tough night for CBs Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite. Both played into the fourth quarter. That's a hard fall for Butler, the 2009 second-round pick was an opening-day starter last season. Butler and Wilhite look to be on the roster bubble.

Nate Solder passes first test. The first-round pick played the entire first half at left tackle. He was hardly noticed, which meant he did his job well.

Dane Fletcher a top performer on defense. The second-year linebacker started and led the defensive huddle. He finished with five tackles while delivering a bit hit in the process. A strong special teams player as a rookie (he made the club as a free agent), he showed he's ready if called upon as a middle linebacker in the event of injury to Brandon Spikes.

Patriots back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
» NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Patriots' organization might have the NFL's most established infrastructure. Players dutifully follow Bill Belichick's scripted, proven routines. Leadership from players such as Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light (if he returns) and Vince Wilfork will help the Patriots galvanize more speedily than most clubs.

Biggest challenge: The Patriots need to manufacture a pass rush. It will be interesting to see whether Belichick pursues assistance through free agency or sticks with the youngsters on his roster. The Patriots tied for 14th in sacks last season with 36. Starting outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain, Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham combined for just 10 sacks and 26 quarterback hits.

Backfield in motion: The Patriots had an entertaining tandem with BenJarvus Green-Ellis pounding out the carries (1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Danny Woodhead electrifying fans as a combo runner-receiver (926 yards from scrimmage and six TDs) last season. But the rest of the backfield depth chart could be erased (see below), and the DanJarvus Green-Woodhead attack probably won't handle as much responsibility. The Patriots drafted running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley back-to-back in the second round.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Mankins' contract has expired, but the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. Light, running backs Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor and safety Brandon McGowan are up in the air.
At 36 and out of football for four years, Tiki Barber decided he needed football and launched a comeback this offseason.

The question is whether the NFL needs him.

What could help Barber is a league that might trust veterans more than rookies because of a lockout that robbed rookies the chance of working with coaches during the offseason. It also helps that most teams use two-back rotations that create openings for role-playing backs.

[+] EnlargeTiki Barber
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesTiki Barber last played in the NFL during the 2006 season.
Barber’s name won’t be at the front of lists of free agents once the lockout ends, but let’s explore a few considerations for future employment.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: There wouldn’t be a chance if coach Mike Tomlin had a chance to work with 2010 sixth-round choice Jonathan Dwyer during the offseason to see if he’s ready to be Rashard Mendenhall’s backup. But Dwyer’s stock is as uncertain as it was at the end of last season. The Steelers would need a third-down back if Mewelde Moore leaves in free agency. An experienced playoff contender such as the Steelers might find Barber an intriguing option.

2. St. Louis Rams: The Rams need a backup running back to lighten the load for workhorse Steven Jackson. Even though coach Steve Spagnuolo didn’t join the New York Giants’ coaching staff until the year Barber retired, he knows Barber’s résumé and what he can do to fill out a backfield. Barber may not head the list of running back candidates for the Rams, but he could be discussed.

3. Miami Dolphins: Coach Tony Sparano has to decide if he can bring Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown back to the roster. Neither back, though, fills the role of pass-catcher. The Dolphins plan to remain a running team, so it wouldn’t hurt to have a veteran back with Barber’s experience in big games.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Once the lockout ends and contact between players and coaches resumes, twin brother Ronde Barber could be pushing the Bucs to add Tiki to the backfield. LeGarrette Blount has established himself as the early-down back. The team has to decide whether to bring back Cadillac Williams. Barber could be a fit behind Blount.

5. New England Patriots: No coach in football appreciates older backs as much as Bill Belichick. Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor are 35. Sammy Morris is 34. If Faulk retires or the Patriots don’t re-sign him, Faulk’s role in the Patriots’ backfield fits Barber’s skills.

Patriots add Shane Vereen to backfield

April, 29, 2011
The New England Patriots used their second of three second-round picks on California running back Shane Vereen.

Why the Patriots took him: The Patriots wanted to diversify their offense with a running back who can do more than one thing. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher, but he's a one-dimensional power runner. Vereen rushed for 1,167 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. He averaged 25 receptions over his three seasons.

How it affects the roster: Green-Ellis and Woodhead aren't going anywhere. But the rest of the backfield needs to be evaluated. Kevin Faulk is coming off reconstructive knee surgery and will turn 35 in June. Fred Taylor is 35. Sammy Morris is 34. All three are free agents.

Scouts Inc. says: Experienced and natural pass catcher. Is accustomed to working out of the slot and splitting out wide. Runs good routes for a college running back and shows upper echelon hands. Can adjust to poorly thrown ball. Shows understanding for pass pro. Is willing to mix it up and has adequate toughness. Can do a better job with leverage and sustaining but is capable of pass blocking in the NFL.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 28, Patriots 21

January, 16, 2011
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New York Jets avenged their Week 13 annihilation at Gillette Stadium by stunning the top-seeded New England Patriots 28-21 in Sunday's playoff showdown.

What it means: For the second straight year under Rex Ryan, the Jets won two road games and advanced to the AFC Championship Game. The Patriots lost their third straight postseason game.

Hero: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez outplayed MVP favorite Tom Brady and won for the first time in Gillette Stadium. Sanchez completed 16 of his 25 throws for 194 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He was cool in a pressure-packed environment.

Unsung hero: Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis had a big game as a pass-rusher and against the run. He sacked Brady twice on the Patriots' second possession.

Goat: Brady, who once posed with goats for a GQ photo spread, didn't perform when it mattered. He threw an interception, had trouble locating open receivers and wasn't on target very often. He completed 29 of 45 throws for 299 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Pivotal play: Two plays after Brady found Alge Crumpler for a touchdown and Sammy Morris ran in the two-point conversion to cut the Jets' lead to three points, Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery made a 58-yard catch and run to the Patriots' 13-yard line, setting up an eventual 7-yard touchdown strike to Santonio Holmes.

Jets received variety of contributions: No Jets player gained over 100 yards. Nobody had more than five catches. Their four touchdowns came from different players: LaDainian Tomlinson, Braylon Edwards, Holmes, and Shonn Greene.

Feeling the pressure: The Jets sacked Brady five times and hit him a lot while he was throwing. Calvin Pace recorded a strip sack in the third quarter.

What's next: The Jets will play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, where they won 22-17 in Week 15. The Patriots will clean out their lockers and go on a longer vacation than they wanted.

Final Word: Jets at Patriots

January, 14, 2011
Divisional Final Word: Ravens-Steelers | Jets-Patriots | Packers-Falcons | Seahawks-Bears

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Jets at Patriots divisional playoff game:

The Jets simply cannot pull off a 43-point swing in six weeks. Essentially, the same Jets are going into the same Gillette Stadium to play the same Patriots that obliterated them 45-3 on Dec. 6. The Jets must do two things: 1) find a way to undercut the Patriots, who have scored at least 31 points eight straight games; 2) escalate production from an offense that has been known to disappear without relying too heavily on erratic quarterback Mark Sanchez. I don't see the Jets holding the Patriots to 16 points like they did the short-handed Colts. The Jets' best shot to close the gap will be with a domineering ground attack from LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. The Jets have been running the ball effectively, and the Patriots appear most vulnerable on the defensive line. But rushing their way to four or five touchdowns doesn't sound plausible.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireDanny Woodhead accounted for 926 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns.
Unlike the Colts, the Patriots can beat the Jets running or throwing. The Jets won last week by making Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hand off. Manning counted seven Jets defensive backs simultaneously on the field at times and marveled at seeing reserve cornerback Marquice Cole line up at defense end. The Jets could get away with that when the Colts' best running back was Dominic Rhodes. He couldn't make the Bills' roster out of training camp in 2009, spent most of the year with the UFL's Florida Tuskers and signed with the Colts last month. The Patriots, on the other hand, have BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield with support from Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. Green-Ellis was the AFC East's lone 1,000-yard rusher this season and ran for 13 touchdowns. Woodhead gained 926 yards from scrimmage and scored six TDs.

The Patriots have more potent defense and special teams, too. The Jets lost their reputation for being opportunistic. Brad Smith returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Dwight Lowery had two defensive touchdown returns, and Cole had one. But the Patriots scored nine touchdowns on defense and special teams. Inside linebacker Gary Guyton, Kyle Arrington and kick returner Brandon Tate scored two touchdowns apiece. The Patriots also led the NFL with 25 interceptions and tied for seventh with 13 fumble recoveries. The Jets finished second with 18 fumble recoveries but collected only 12 interceptions.

Dirty Laundry: A full plate

December, 23, 2010
We've had a season of debatable calls and obscure rulings here in the NFC North, and each Week 15 game provided us new material. In order of occurrence:

The Detroit Lions were the beneficiaries (for once) of a critical decision midway through the fourth quarter of their eventual 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On a third-and-goal from the Lions' 2-yard line, the Bucs appeared to have scored a go-ahead touchdown on Josh Freeman's 2-yard pass to tight end Kellen Winslow.

But referee Terry McAulay's crew called Winslow for offensive pass interference, nullifying the touchdown and ultimately forcing the Bucs to settle for a game-tying field goal. It was Winslow's second such penalty of the game, a fact that suggests McAulay's crew was either aware of a tendency to push off or had been "encouraged" to look for it by the Lions' bench.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Star Tribune, Brian PetersonHad the whistle not blown when it did, Brett Favre's last play Monday night would have likely resulted in a fumble.
Across the league, offensive pass interference has been called 75 times over 15 weeks. That averages out to five per week, or less than one per game. Winslow is the only player to have more than one in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database.

The earlier call, in the first quarter, came after a relatively mild push on middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. The second was an odd-looking play from the start. Winslow did not appear to be the first read, and when Freeman finally lofted him the ball, Winslow literally boxed out Lions safety C.C. Brown, never leaving his feet while making the catch.

Replays showed Winslow put both hands on Brown's chest to achieve a level of separation just before the catch. Although Winslow argued vociferously, I had no beef with McAulay's call.

A few hours later, the Green Bay Packers were hoping to take a 10-point lead over the New England Patriots at halftime when they allowed an epic 71-yard kickoff return to offensive lineman Dan Connolly. Almost immediately, you began filling the mailbag with complaints about a number of purported illegal blocks on the play.

I saw two on the TV replay. One I would consider critical and the second relatively moot.

The first came just as Connolly broke open the return at the Packers' 40-yard line. I immediately noticed Packers fullback Quinn Johnson barreling into linebacker Diyral Briggs, creating a collision that gave Connolly 30 yards of open field.

When you watch the replay a few times, you see Johnson was pushed in the back by Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich. No interpretation is necessary here: It was a bad no-call for Ed Hochuli's crew.

At the end of the return, Patriots running back Sammy Morris shoved place-kicker Mason Crosby to the ground from behind. That could have been ruled a penalty as well. But assuming Hochuli ruled it a spot foul, the Patriots still would have assumed possession inside the Packers' 15-yard line.

Finally, there have been questions from many of you about the final play of Brett Favre's night -- and possibly his career -- in the Minnesota Vikings' 40-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton blew past Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Wootton grabbed Favre and flipped him to the frozen turf at TCF Bank Stadium. At some point, the ball trickled loose. Should it have been a fumble as well as a sack?

I looked for the two obvious signs on the replay: When did referee Carl Cheffers blow the whistle? And was Favre down when he fumbled?

On the first issue, you can hear a whistle blowing almost simultaneous to the moment when Wootton grabbed Favre. Whether it was early or not, the play was officially over when the ball fell to the ground. Had the whistle blown later, however, it almost certainly would have been ruled a fumble. Favre's left knee landed on Wootton's left knee, meaning he was not down when the ball squirted loose.

(Note: No challenges last week means no change to our most recent Challenge Tracker.)

Rapid Reaction: Browns 34, Patriots 14

November, 7, 2010
CLEVELAND -- Rapid reaction from the Patriots’ 34-14 loss to the Browns:

What it means. After a week in which the Patriots could boast having the best record in the NFL at 6-1, they came crashing back to Earth. The Browns (3-5) outplayed them in every facet of the game, with Eric Mangini and his staff also getting the best of Bill Belichick and his staff. The Patriots were outplayed, outcoached, out-everythinged.

Gronkowski mistakes hurt the Patriots. Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski made two mistakes that played a significant part in the final outcome. After the Browns went ahead 3-0, Gronkowski was set up in a wedge position on the kickoff and signaled for a fair catch on a short attempt. But he moved away from the ball, putting running back Sammy Morris in a tough spot. The Browns recovered and quickly went up 10-0. Then, with the Patriots looking to close to 17-14 at the half, Gronkowski fumbled at the 1, with the Browns recovering.

Brady and offense stuck in neutral. Quarterback Tom Brady was off his game as the Patriots’ offense continued its inconsistent ways. Brady looked visibly frustrated at times. There were times when the offensive struggles were simply a result of no one getting open. Other times, it was the Browns mixing their defensive looks and creating pressure. The Patriots didn’t help themselves with some drops.

Kicker situation important to monitor. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski left the game in the second quarter with a thigh injury and did not return. The Patriots will likely be looking at their emergency list this week for kicker options. Wes Welker had a successful point-after attempt and also a kickoff in the fourth quarter in Gostkowski’s absence.

Credit to Hillis, McCoy & Browns. As bad as the Patriots looked in this game, credit should also go to the Browns. They took it to the Patriots physically and Colt McCoy played with veteran-like poise. They deserved the win, with Peyton Hillis and the offensive line powering through what had been a solid New England run defense, and McCoy delivering in critical situations.

What’s next. The Patriots travel to Pittsburgh for a Sunday night game against the Steelers. After the way the Patriots were run over by Hillis (29 carries, 184 yards) and the Browns, they’ll have to prove that they can stand up to the physical Steelers. The Browns, who looked sharp coming off their bye, host the Jets.

Jason Taylor returns to Miami the enemy

September, 24, 2010
Jason TaylorWilliam Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireJason Taylor's sack of Tom Brady last week forced a fumble and effectively ended the game.
Jason Taylor might have come back to South Florida as some amalgam of two personas, the Miami Dolphins icon searching for a new identity in a New York Jets costume.

Dolfans didn't quite know what to make of a traitorous community hero who thrilled them for a dozen years then jumped to the enemy.

Jets supporters weren't sure either. Alpha fan Fireman Ed blasted the decision to sign him. Taylor is the NFL's active sacks leader, but he had mocked the fans, their stadium, their J-E-T-S chant for years.

So what was he?

On his final play before returning to face the Dolphins, there was no more doubt.

After five months of image limbo, it took 2.8 seconds last weekend for Taylor to become a bona-fide Jet.

The Jets led the New England Patriots by two touchdowns with 4:15 to play at the New Meadowlands, but Tom Brady had a first down at the Jets' 16-yard line.

Brady took the shotgun snap. Taylor, at right end, bolted from his three-point stance like he was going to speed rush Patriots left tackle Matt Light. Running back Sammy Morris tried to chip block.

Taylor spun right 360 degrees to avoid Morris and saw "Brady" and "12" dead ahead. In a flash, that white-on-blue stitchwork was about all that separated Taylor from Brady's spine. The ball popped out, a vintage Taylor moment.

[+] EnlargeJason Taylor
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireJason Taylor has recorded 124 of his 128.5 career sacks in a Dolphins uniform.
The Jets recovered the fumble while Taylor writhed on the field with a left elbow injury.

"That could probably be the symbolic play," Taylor said by phone Thursday from the team's facility in Florham Park, N.J. "I didn't hear them chanting my name when I was on the ground. I didn't hear that over the pain.

"But my wife told me later on 'Can you believe they were chanting your name?' "

The metamorphosis occurred just in time to give his old team something extra to think about.

Taylor still can be a game-changer.

"When I know the other guy on the other side and I know what he's capable of and the kind of career that the guy has had," said Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, "those kind of people keep me up at night.

"Jason's a game player. So I know what the guy's going to bring to the table when he gets out there. I know he's going to be excited to play. I would expect nothing but Jason Taylor's absolute best."

Taylor, after a lost 2008 season with the Washington Redskins, recorded seven sacks last year for the Dolphins, tied for second on the team. But his contract was up, and the Dolphins waited to re-sign him. The front office wasn't convinced Taylor could remain productive at 36 and wanted to explore younger options before committing to him for another year.

He felt strung along without any guarantees of a new contract, so he took up the Jets on their offer.

Taylor wanted to finish his career with the Dolphins, "but it didn't work out," he said on a conference call with South Florida reporters Wednesday. "The hardest part was just making that decision, just making that move initially, but all the while knowing in my heart of hearts I wasn't turning my back on anyone, but just I didn't have a home."

He insisted Sunday's game isn't about retribution or settling some kind of score with Miami's front office. But if the Jets were to win only one more game all year and Taylor got to pick, Sunday's game certainly would be his choice.

"I have a lot of friends on that team still, guys that mean a lot to me and I'm very close to," Taylor said. "At the end of the day, they're not going to take it easy on me and I'm going to try and make as many plays as I can. But there's no bitterness."

Taylor is playing more than the Jets intended when they signed him to be a situational pass-rusher. Top outside linebacker Calvin Pace has been out with a broken right foot. Pace had a team-leading eight sacks and 13 tackles for losses along with 16 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles last year despite missing the first four games because of a suspension.

Taylor isn't that kind of dynamic player anymore, but he showed with his game-sealing sack of Brady he still can give quarterbacks plenty to worry about, especially when the game is on the line.

"He's a closer," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He's one of those guys. Great pass-rushers win games for you in the fourth quarter. He's got a history of that throughout his career that he's a guy that closes. Fourth-quarter sacks win games, and that was a huge one right there."

He has 128.5 career sacks, with all but 4.5 coming in a Dolphins uniform. His name will be in the team's Ring of Honor soon after he retires. He has sacked 66 different quarterbacks and would love to make ex-teammate Chad Henne his 67th victim. Of course, he'll need to figure out a way to get past Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long for that to happen.

Taylor claimed he hasn't been obsessed with playing the Dolphins.

The 2010 NFL schedule was released the day before Taylor signed his contract April 21. From the moment he signed his first Jets autograph, he knew he was going back to Sun Life Stadium on Sept. 26 to play the Dolphins.

"We only get 16 of these a year, and they're all so important," Taylor said. "I never got ahead, thinking about one more than the other, and this one's no different.

"I knew it was on the schedule. I knew it was coming up and I'd have to deal with it at some point, but I wasn't sitting around, waiting for it."

Taylor wouldn't let his family and friends talk about the game with him over the past five months. Now they can get excited about the game without hiding it. He doesn't have a luxury box at the stadium anymore, but he joked his wife Katina, the sister of former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, "will be somewhere out there in a safe place."

The reason for that is because everybody who will be in Sun Life Stadium knows darn well who Taylor's playing for now.

Faulk injury will force Patriots to dig deep

September, 22, 2010
AM ET's Mike Reiss provided an in-depth analysis of why the loss of running back Kevin Faulk will be difficult for the New England Patriots' offense to overcome.

Multiple reports state Faulk is out for the season with a torn knee ligament.

Faulk wasn't just a hot target for Tom Brady on third down. Reiss, who tracks every Patriots play, points out no other New England back was on the field more than Faulk in each of the past three seasons.

Faulk also is an effective blocker. With Brady in the shotgun, Faulk often stands sentry and picks up blitzes. A decline in that role certainly increases the likelihood of quarterback hits and hurries. In one of the only two games Faulk has missed since 2006, Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard wrecked Brady's knee with a lunging hit.

Reiss speculates veteran Sammy Morris probably will step into Faulk's role and wonders if Faulk has played his last NFL down.

Faulk, 34, was on a one-year contract. Unless he can recover at Wes Welker warp speed, the Patriots might have a tough time bringing Faulk back.