NFL Nation: Stevan Ridley

Draft & free agency: Running back

February, 21, 2014
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With free agency to begin March 11, and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs. For example, if a team knows it’s a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency.

This was a general point made by several coaches and executives at the NFL combine, such as Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera and Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

With this in mind, our plan is to continue to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.

Today's position: Running back

Draft: The class is deep but not top-heavy, as it's possible there isn't a running back selected in the first round. Part of that is tied to a general de-valuing of the position by teams. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, "The good news in this draft and in the last few is that if you can get in the second, third, fourth round, and find different flavors of running backs; you'll see some teams that will draft two or three running backs in one or two drafts, just so you can have a big back and a third down change of pace guy and I think that's where the league has gone and I think that's where it's going to continue to go." Boston College's Andre Williams is Mayock's fourth-rated rusher.

Free agency: Five-year veteran LeGarrette Blount is part of a deep group that includes Knowshon Moreno (Broncos), Donald Brown (Colts), Darren McFadden (Raiders), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs), Rashard Mendenhall (Cardinals), Willis McGahee (Browns), James Starks (Packers) and Ben Tate (Texans), among others. This has been more of a buyer's market in recent years and 2014 is likely to be the same.

Patriots perspective: Blount came on strong at the end of the 2013 season and bringing back him would seemingly be a priority; a two-year deal in the $3-4 million range is one projection of the market to do so. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen entering the final years of their contracts, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Patriots draft a running back to build depth and with 2015 in mind.

NFL fines Ridley $5,250 for red shoes

January, 17, 2014
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New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was fined $5,250 for a uniform violation during the team's 43-22 divisional round win against the Indianapolis Colts.

The violation stemmed from Ridley wearing dominant red footwear, something that linebacker Brandon Spikes has also been fined for this season.

The third-year running back had a productive night against the Colts, rushing for 52 yards and two touchdowns as part of New England's six rushing touchdown effort.

And then there were two -- two teams that know most of what there is to know about each other, two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks who add to their legacies with every pass, all with a Super Bowl trip on the line.

The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, who have faced each other in each of the past three seasons and in the divisional round of the 2011 season, took it to overtime Nov. 24. The Broncos let a 24-0 halftime lead get away, and the Patriots won 34-31 after a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime on a frigid night in Foxborough, Mass.

ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss Sunday's AFC Championship Game in Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

Legwold: Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick yet again. Do you think, in all your time around Belichick, that he tries to bring something new to the table every time he faces Manning? Or does he assume Manning has done the homework and put his efforts into getting people in the right position?

Reiss: I'd say there's always a new wrinkle or two, Jeff. Belichick has said in the past that Manning is too smart to just do the same thing over and over again -- both within a game and from matchup to matchup. Part of that discussion is also the state of the Patriots' personnel entering the matchup. A player like rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, for example, might give Belichick the flexibility to introduce something unique based on his breakthrough since the Nov. 24 meeting between the teams.

The weather forecast looks promising for Manning. No icy cold forecast. How do you think he approaches this game compared to the Nov. 24 contest? Do you think he will be less reluctant to hand the ball off?

Legwold: It will be a postcard day Sunday with the temperature expected to be 58 degrees with 0 percent chance of rain and light winds. So any decisions the two teams make on offense will have to do with what's in front of them on defense only. Manning will be inclined to hand the ball off if he sees the Patriots in some of those lighter personnel groupings deployed to handle Denver's three-wide-receiver look. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase has a run option built into most things Manning can change into at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos certainly like how Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball are trending in the run game. They have split carries down the stretch, and both run with tackle-shedding power.

Gase, with coaching DNA that includes his time with Mike Martz, is an aggressive sort. With the next-generation numbers the Broncos' offense has put up this season, it's easy to forget they still averaged 28.8 carries per game and topped 30 carries per matchup nine times this season. If they get a look from the New England defense that calls for a run, the Broncos will be inclined to pound away.

Where is Tom Brady's game and the offense right now after some rough moments early in the season? Has Brady benefited from a run-heavy approach down the stretch and into the postseason?

Reiss: The biggest benefit for Brady with the run-heavy approach has been how it opens play-action opportunities. Danny Amendola's 53-yard catch in the divisional round is one of the best examples. Also, part of the reason the Patriots have gone so run-heavy is that it's the area where they have their most assets. They are limited when it comes to pass-catchers who create consistent separation at tight end and receiver. As for Brady's game, there have been no signs of decline in arm strength, accuracy or decision-making. The main reasons for the struggles early in the year, from my view, were more about the changes around him. That's not to say Brady didn't make his mistakes, but it's sort of interesting to look back on some of the media-based discussion around Weeks 6 to 8 about how maybe Father Time had caught up to him.

Now that we're a full season in, how would you sum up the Wes Welker signing? Just as the Broncos hoped for? Better? Worse?

Legwold: Welker finished the regular season with 73 catches for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. His presence in the slot, along with Julius Thomas at tight end, is part of the reason the offense had a historic season. With the Broncos lining up in a three-wide-receiver set the majority of the season -- and every snap of the divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers -- they force defenses into some difficult choices. Thomas is often in the slot on one side of the formation, and Welker is in the slot on the other side. When Thomas missed two games earlier this season with a knee injury, both the Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 1) elected to double-team Welker. He missed three games after suffering his second concussion in a four-week span Dec. 8 against the Tennessee Titans but played last week against the Chargers without issue.

Welker did have some spells this season when he had a cluster of dropped passes -- three against the Patriots on a frigid night to go with drops against Washington and San Diego in the regular season. Overall, though, he was exactly what the Broncos hoped he would be in their offense. He meshed with Manning quickly and was a big part of the plan right from his nine-catch performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener.

The Patriots did not face Thomas in the Nov. 24 meeting. Do you think they will try to match up Collins on Thomas this time around?

Reiss: That seems like the natural matchup, especially after seeing Collins splitting out wide on Colts tight end Coby Fleener on Saturday night and playing very well. Collins is unique in that, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is fast enough to be competitive down the field in coverage (e.g., fourth-quarter interception versus the Colts) but powerful enough to play in the box and deliver a blow in the running game and as a pass-rusher. The Patriots' top draft pick in 2013, selected 52nd overall out of Southern Mississippi, he is an intriguing player whom Patriots fans really got their first extended look at Saturday as he played every snap against the Colts. He had been groomed behind the scenes up to that point, playing just 25 percent of the defensive snaps on the season in more of a reserve role.

Thomas may not have played in the first game between the teams, but Von Miller did. How does Miller's season-ending knee injury affect the Broncos' defense?

Legwold: Of all the players who were signed in the weeks after the initial leaguewide binge in free agency, the Broncos' signing of Shaun Phillips was easily one of the best. Denver signed Phillips to a one-year, $1 million deal during the draft weekend in April, well over a month after free agency had opened, a deal that didn't have a signing bonus but did have some incentives based on sack totals.

Phillips was initially how the Broncos planned to deal with the loss of Elvis Dumervil in free agency. When Miller was suspended for the first six games of the season, Phillips had 5.5 sacks in those games to lead the way. He finished the regular season with 10 sacks to lead the team. In Sunday's win, with Miller on injured reserve, Phillips had two sacks against the Chargers. He is the single-most important player in the Broncos' pass rush in Miller's absence. Denver may have to take more risks without Miller on the field, and that's always a tough choice against someone like Brady, who can easily find the holes in coverage. But if Phillips can consistently create pressure -- with both sacks on three-man rushes against San Diego -- it allows the Broncos to move things around a little more and cover more of the bases.

Did Belichick make a conscious effort to get big backs like LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley in the lineup when he knew he would get smaller defensive personnel against the team's passing attack?

Reiss: That's fair to say, as the Patriots pride themselves on creating those matchups during the game, with coordinator Josh McDaniels finding his groove in recent weeks. They refer to themselves as a "game plan" offense because they tailor their plan weekly based on what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. They'll shuttle in different personnel groupings early -- multiple receivers, two backs, two tight ends, etc. -- to get information on how the opponent is matching up and then focus on the one they like best. This week, what's fascinating to me is that I think they probably see vulnerability in the Broncos' secondary, but I wonder how they feel about their own personnel in being able to exploit it. So that could keep them grounded.

The Patriots have been running the ball very well. How is the Broncos' run defense?

Legwold: In a year when the Broncos have been forced, by injuries and Miller's suspension, to mix and match on defense, their run defense has likely been more consistent in comparison to some of the other issues they've had. When defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went to injured reserve Nov. 27 with a hip injury, they did wobble a bit, surrendering 159 yards rushing to the Chiefs and 177 yards rushing to the Chargers in two of the three games that immediately followed.

They have regained their balance a bit since, moving Paris Lenon into the middle linebacker spot in the base defense, and rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams has played better each week. Overall, the biggest issue for the Broncos will be how they defend the run if the Patriots get them in nickel or dime personnel on defense and then run the ball at the smaller looks. The Broncos' safeties will have to tackle and tackle well to make it work.

Belichick has always tried to make "other" people beat him and take away an offense's front-line players. How do you think he would rank the Broncos' threats in the passing game, and where do you think the one-on-one matchups will be?

Reiss: One insightful point that ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi made in his weekly chat was the idea of defending the Broncos from the inside-out. Manning is still an accurate marksman, one of the greatest of all time, but I'm guessing that even he would agree that some of the downfield and outside-the-numbers throws he used to make don't come as easily to him. So it makes sense that the Patriots would focus more resources on the inside part of the field, where it would seem we would most likely see Welker and Thomas. With this in mind, I could envision the Patriots matching up cornerback Aqib Talib with Demaryius Thomas on the outside and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard with Eric Decker and taking their chances that those one-on-one matchups will be competitive. Trusting those cornerbacks in those one-on-one matchups would allow the defense to focus extra attention/personnel to the inside part of the field.

Any X factors or special-teams contributors we should keep on the radar?

Legwold: The Broncos have usually been lockdown tight on special teams -- opening the season with two touchdown returns and two blocked punts, one of those returned for a score, in the first four weeks of the season. Those normally reliable units, however, have wobbled plenty down the stretch. The Chiefs' Knile Davis had a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the Titans' Leon Washington had a 95-yard kickoff return, and the Texans' Keshawn Martin had a 51-yard punt return. Toss in the first blocked punt of Britton Colquitt's career in Oakland to go with Trindon Holliday's occasional adventures catching the ball, and it's been an unpredictable stretch. But Holliday is always a threat to uncork a return because of his breathtaking speed. The Broncos used wide receiver Decker as the primary punt returner against the Chargers last week, and he had a 47-yarder. So the Broncos have the potential to pop one at any time, especially in Denver, where Holliday returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in last January's playoff loss to the Ravens.

 
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Jack Del Rio looks at the New England Patriots' offense he sees Tom Brady. And who wouldn't?

Brady's going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after all. Brady was behind center when the Patriots went undefeated in the 2007 regular season, the league's only team to ever finish a regular season 16-0, and Brady's won three Super Bowls.

But even as the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator wraps both his head and his game plan around stopping Brady, Del Rio knows he has to live with an old scouting adage. He has to trust his eyes.

And his eyes have seen the Patriots earn some glory by pounding the rock over the past three games, including New England's win over the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday night in the AFC's divisional round.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaLeGarrette Blount and the Patriots' run game has been dominant in the past three games. The Patriots rushed for 116 yards against the Broncos during their Nov. 24 meeting.
"So that's definitely some of the tape that's fresh in our minds," Del Rio said. "They have made a concerted effort to be the more physical team and have done so and so we understand that we can't allow that to happen.”

In a 41-7 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 16 of the regular season the Patriots rushed for 142 yards. In a 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 they rushed for 267 yards. And in the win that earned them a trip to Denver for the AFC Championship Game, they rushed for 234 yards. It appears to be a late-season adjustment from Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. But the Patriots certainly have a history when it comes to pounding away at the Broncos defense.

Especially if the Patriots believe they can find some room against some of the Broncos' specialty packages on defense, including the nickel (five defensive backs). Last season the Patriots pounded out 251 rushing yards against the Broncos on 54 carries in a 31-21 New England win. The Patriots gained 140 of those yards on runs against the Broncos' nickel package out of a warp speed no-huddle offense that kept the Broncos from getting themselves out of the personnel grouping or making any substitutions in it.

In that game the Patriots kept the Broncos in the nickel, even on early downs. New England ran the ball 21 times on first down against the Broncos nickel look -- 14 of those were in the first half.

Earlier this season, the Patriots choose to run the ball, at least some, against the Broncos nickel package. In the first three quarters of the Nov. 24 game -- which New England won 34-31 in overtime -- the Patriots had 65 of their first 87 rushing yards against the Broncos' nickel package.

At the moment Belichick is using the 250-pound LeGarrette Blount and the 220-pound Stevan Ridley to do much of the heavy lifting in the backfield. Blount has eight rushing touchdowns in the past three games, including four last weekend in the win over the Colts. Blount, in particular, has overwhelmed the safeties who have tried to tackle if the Patriots offensive line can get him through the defensive line at the point of attack.

It puts tackling at a premium.

"Now they've got those guys up there and they're trying to run the football," said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "I think they're averaging around 200-some yards within the past two games. So when they get in there, you know what kind of mentality it is. It's a smash-mouth game, and you've got to be ready to come downhill."

However, it will take at least some adjustment for the Patriots if they choose to try to pound away at some of the Broncos' specialty looks on defense. Del Rio hasn't traditionally answered with the Broncos' nickel or dime packages until offenses go to three wide receivers in the formation.

But over the past three games, the core of the run-first look from New England, the Patriots opened in a two-tight end look against the Ravens and opened games against the Bills as well as the Colts with a two-back look. The Broncos have been better defending the run out of their base 4-3 defense.

"I think you've just got to know your personnel," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "When Ridley is in there, he's more of a threat to bounce it outside with his speed. Blount will come in there and hit it downhill. So you've just got to know who's out there and know the formations and know what they like to do and things like that. Then they've got (running back Shane) Vereen, who comes in, who can line up at receiver and line up in the backfield. It's tricky, but ultimately we've just got to do what we do and play gap-sound defense and tackle."

It's also meant that Brady has had 14, 14 and 13 completions over the last three games with just two touchdown passes.

"Oh, of course yeah they can still throw it," said Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips. "... Play(-action) pass shots and some of the quick game they do out of opened-up formations. Tom is one of the top quarterbacks in the league, so when you have a guy directing it like that obviously you're going to be very good at it, but the thing they really are doing is physically they are getting after people, they're winning the battle in the trenches and running the ball right at people with Blount doing a large portion of the running. ... But we know they can come right at you, come right at you and then try to take advantage of you and put the ball down the field, too. We know it's a challenge and we have to be up to the challenge."
Knowshon MorenoMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsKnowshon Moreno and the Broncos rushed for 133 yards on 34 carries against the Chargers.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are the face of a passing league.

They launched 675 passes this season, but it probably seemed like more to the defenses caught in the vapor trail. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished out the regular season with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. If you're thinking about an NFL offense, there is a good chance you're thinking about Manning and the Broncos' fast-break, no-huddle attack first, or you don't get too far down the list before you do.

But in the postseason? The postseason brings the potential of defenses good enough to take away a team's preferred option. It also brings with it weather, with the kind of wind that grounds flights, let alone quarterbacks.

"We always want to have that option," Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said of the team's ground game. "If they start calling our numbers, no question Montee [Ball] and I want to be ready to be those guys."

The highest-scoring offense in league history has already played its wild card in these playoffs. The Broncos ran the ball 34 times for 133 yards in their divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers. There is a feeling around the team that even with Manning and a passing attack that features a staggering five different players with at least 60 catches, the Broncos will need to go by land from time to time.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Montee Ball
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyRookie running back Montee Ball had 10 carries for 52 yards against the Chargers.
Sunday, the Broncos pounded when they needed to pound, they kept the Chargers off-balance enough that Manning was not sacked, and the Broncos threw the ball just two more times than they ran it. In the regular season, the Broncos threw the ball on 58.4 percent of their offensive snaps.

"It was critical; we stressed all week being productive on first and second down," Manning said. "We did not do that last time we played San Diego and got into some third downs and didn't convert those. We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down. That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from the practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains. So it was a good job by the guys up front. I thought Montee and Knowshon both ran really hard.”

The Broncos were certainly not alone this past weekend. The four winning teams in the divisional round ran the ball a combined 149 times. In fact, the average rushing line in the four games was 37.25 carries for 166.75 yards. The Patriots ran for 234 yards, the Seahawks ran for 174 yards, the 49ers ran for 126, all to go with the Broncos' 133 yards.

That's a whole lot of dirt under a whole lot of fingernails for a league that has supposedly left grind-it-out football behind. But there is plenty of logic to go with the necessity. With passing attacks like the Broncos and Patriots have, defenses often answer with smaller personnel groupings in both the defensive line and in the secondary.

Against defenses built for speed, New England coach Bill Belichick has even taken the approach a step further. They not only run against those lighter groupings, they can repeatedly pound away with the mammoth LeGarrette Blount, at 250 pounds, or the 220-pound Stevan Ridley.

The Patriots ran the ball on 62.5 percent of the their offensive snaps in Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

And the last time the Broncos and Patriots faced each other this season -- Nov. 24 on a frigid, blustery night in Foxborough, Mass. -- the Broncos ran for 280 yards, with all but one of their 48 carries coming out of a three-wide receiver formation. They had 38 of those runs with Manning lined up in shotgun.

"When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance." Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us ... And that is on me to make sure we make the adjustments we need to make and then stick with the run."

Because of the constant threat of the passing game all across the league, defenses are built more for situational football, for moving people in and out of the lineup, to defend wide-open formations and uberquarterbacks. Some defenses just aren't built to dig in, down after down, and defend, helmet on a helmet, the point of attack in run defense.

It's not so true in the NFC, where the two remaining teams in the postseason both finished in the league's top 10 in run defense -- San Francisco was fourth and Seattle was tied for seventh. In the AFC, however, only two teams in the playoff field (the Broncos and Cincinnati) finished among the league's top 10 in run defense (Cincinnati No. 5, Denver No. 7).

"We always feel like, as a defense, we need to be ready for when offenses line up and come right at us," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I think in this time of year, teams are always going to look to run the ball. I think it's always been that way."

"I think balance is important, keeping the ability to do both [on offense]," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It keeps defenses guessing a little better. It' s not easy to do, something you stress, something that I believe is important, especially in playoff season."

W2W4: Five things for Colts-Patriots

January, 10, 2014
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After a weekend off, the New England Patriots are set to return to game action on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts (8:15 ET).

The two teams squaring off reminds us of the days of Tom Brady-Peyton Manning in the postseason, as this will mark the fourth time the two franchises have played in the postseason (by the way: the winner of their three previous postseason matchups has gone on to win the Super Bowl).

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The stakes are obvious for the game, with a spot in the AFC Championship Game on the line. During this same weekend last year, the Patriots found themselves playing a Divisional round game at home with a chance to ensure that the AFC Championship Game would be played inside of Gillette Stadium.

The top-seeded Broncos had been upset by the Ravens on Saturday night, leaving the Patriots and Colts as the highest seeds and thus turning their game into the right to play at home the following weekend.

A win this Saturday night for the Patriots or Colts would open up the door to hosting the AFC Championship Game, though it would take an unlikely upset by the Chargers on Sunday for that to be the case.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, as Saturday has the feel of a potentially memorable contest.

With kickoff drawing near, here’s a look at what we’ll be watching for.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRobert Mathis led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season.
1. Solder-Mathis showdown. The Colts’ best defensive player, defensive end Robert Mathis, may just be the top pass-rusher in the NFL. That’s a big job for Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who said earlier this week that Mathis reminded him -- in some ways -- of Saints defensive end Junior Galette. The Patriots are likely to give Solder some help from time-to-time on Mathis with the utilization of backs chipping and tight ends nudging Mathis before releasing into their patterns, but Solder will also need to be up to the task, as he has been for much of this season.

2. Shadow T.Y.? The Colts’ offense has been depleted by injuries this season, leaving T.Y. Hilton as the most fearsome target for quarterback Andrew Luck. Hilton is a terrific athlete with exceptional speed, which the Patriots have tried to simulate this week in practice by adding Reggie Dunn, who once ran a 4.24 forty. The question that lingers is whether the Patriots will turn to Aqib Talib to shadow Hilton, as he has done with many other wide receivers this season. Hilton doesn’t run exclusively out of the slot, but his role on the inside has picked up since Reggie Wayne went down. Might Talib follow him around the formation? Or will the Patriots turn to multiple defenders to slow him down?

3. The role of former Pats. The Colts brought aboard a familiar face this week in former Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch, adding to a group of former Patriots that now play in Indianapolis. That also includes kicker Adam Vinatieri, who will play in his 25th Patriots-Colts showdown. While Vinatieri’s role is defined, how Branch will be utilized will be interesting to monitor. Given that he was signed this week, it seems plausible Branch might not even be active for the game, but if he is, many eyes will be on number 86 (his jersey number with the Colts) to see how he performs on the field.

4. No safe leads. Every game is worth watching in its entirety, but this one in particular. If we learned anything about the Patriots this season and from the Colts last weekend, it’s that no lead is safe and no game is truly finished until the clock strikes zero. So if either team jumps out early, don’t presume the outcome is decided. The Patriots are fully aware of just how capable Luck is playing from behind, while the Colts know the Patriots have been as gritty as any other team in the NFL in close games this season.

5. Airing it out or ground and pound? Earlier this week, Mike Reiss and I debated over whether the Patriots should air things out against a vulnerable Colts secondary or continue what has worked of late -- the ground game approach led by LeGarrette Blount. The Colts' defense is probably better against the run than it is versus the pass, but that’s not to say the front seven is a dominant group (it allowed 5.1 yards per carry this season, second worst in the NFL). With potential rain in the forecast, slick conditions on the field could make throwing the football difficult, and could lead to a physical showdown at the line of scrimmage. If the Patriots do opt for a ground and pound approach, look for Blount and Stevan Ridley to both be relied upon heavily.

Quick Take: Colts at Patriots

January, 5, 2014
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Three things to know about Saturday's Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. This will be the first playoff matchup between the two teams since the epic AFC Championship Game the Colts won 38-34 on Jan. 21, 2007.

1. Battle of receivers. Quick: Can you name a receiver on either team not named T.Y. Hilton? Andrew Luck of the Colts and Tom Brady of the Patriots are the two best quarterbacks in the league when it comes to getting the most out of their receivers. They both lost their primary receiving targets to injury this season. Colts receiver Reggie Wayne's season ended in Week 7 with a torn ACL. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski's season ended with a torn ACL and MCL in Week 14. Receiver Julian Edelman led the Patriots in receiving this season with 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. Hilton, who set a franchise playoff record with 224 yards against Kansas City on Saturday, led the Colts with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns this season.

2. Ugly first game. Luck is making his second appearance against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. New England beat Indianapolis 59-24 during the 2012 season. The Colts led 14-7 at the end of the first quarter and trailed only 24-17 at halftime, but the Patriots outscored them 35-7 in the second half. Luck was 27-of-50 for 334 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Brady was simply better, as expected. He was 24-of-35 for 331 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. But Brady won't have Gronkowski (137 yards) or Wes Welker (80 yards) to throw the ball to this time around. Hilton had six catches for 100 yards. Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman had 12 tackles in that game.

3. Stopping the run. Brady is obviously the focal point for the Patriots, but New England does have a decent running game, too. Running backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount finished within a yard of each other during the regular season, with Ridley gaining 773 yards and Blount rushing for 772 yards. They also combined for 14 touchdowns. The Colts, on the other hand, had Donald Brown rush for 537 yards and Trent Richardson finished with 458 yards.
When news came that Vikings rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had been named to the Pro Bowl, it generated feedback on Twitter. The common refrain was that the Patriots, who had the 29th pick in the draft, would've been well served to select Patterson rather than trade the pick to Minnesota in a deal that netted them four selections.

Patterson
And while Patterson has proven to be a dynamic playmaker for Minnesota, he still has work to do as a receiver, and some wonder if his game was suited to the complex offensive system we've seen some receivers struggle to pick up in New England.

The truth is that we don't know exactly how Patterson would fit in New England, but we can assess what the Patriots made of the four picks they acquired in the deal.

Below is a rundown:

Second round pick, No. 52 overall: Used on linebacker Jamie Collins, an eight-game starter and improved performer down the stretch. The Patriots viewed Collins as an upside pick in the second round, as his natural movement skills are obvious. He projects as a full-time starter as soon as 2014.

Third round pick, No. 83 overall: Used on cornerback Logan Ryan, who led all NFL rookies with five interceptions this season. Though not an every-week starter yet, Ryan has turned out to be one of the better values in the third round and a keeper in the secondary.

Fourth round pick, No. 102 overall: Used on wide receiver Josh Boyce, who finished with nine catches this season, while also providing value as a kickoff return man. Boyce was recently placed on injured reserve, though he will add value as a wideout next season, perhaps as a slot man.

Seventh round pick, No. 229 overall: This may have turned out to be the most important piece of the deal as it relates to 2013, as this pick was sent along with Jeff Demps to Tampa Bay in exchange for running back LeGarrette Blount, nearly the team's leading rusher (he rushed for one yard less than Stevan Ridley).

It's easy to make knee-jerk reactions to deals at the time they are made. It's also easy to look at the contributions of one player and wonder, "what if?" as has become the case with Patterson.

But given what the above players have meant to the Patriots for this season -- and could mean beyond this season -- this deal likely qualifies under the label of "one we'd make again."

Halftime thoughts: Patriots 16, Bills 3

December, 29, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Offering some halftime thoughts as the Buffalo Bills trail the New England Patriots 16-3:

1. This one has unfolded about as expected. The Bills came into the game with the NFL's 20th-ranked run defense and they've looked even worse in that phase Sunday. The Patriots have already gained 173 yards on the ground, including a 36-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount. He is averaging 7.9 yards per carry, while Stevan Ridley is pacing the Patriots with an 8.0-yard average.

2. Also as expected, the Bills' red zone offense -- which entered the game 31st in the league -- hasn't come through. The Bills crossed midfield on their first three drives but stalled out. They are 0-for-1 in the red zone, settling for a field goal on their first possession.

3. Thad Lewis' stat line today: 3-for-8 for 62 yards. Even with the slick conditions today, it's tough to win on the road with a 65.6 passer rating. Whether it's Lewis or EJ Manuel, the Bills have issues at quarterback.

4. Something to monitor: Safety Jairus Byrd left late in the first quarter with an ankle injury. He will not return. Byrd will be the Bills' biggest-name free-agent this offseason. He dealt with foot soreness earlier this season that kept him out of the first five games.

Double Coverage: Bills at Patriots

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
10:00
AM ET
C.J. Spiller and Tom BradyGetty ImagesTom Brady, right, and the Patriots hope to secure a postseason bye with a win vs. C.J. Spiller's Bills.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills will end the regular season the way they started it, by facing each other.

The Patriots needed a late drive to beat the Bills 23-21 in the opener, but the teams went in mostly opposite directions over the next 15 weeks.

Unfortunately for the Bills, the script is a familiar one. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999, the longest active drought, so now the focus turns to next season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots enter another finale with playoff positioning in mind after having clinched the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. The Patriots could actually thank the Bills for that, because Buffalo’s 19-0 victory against Miami last Sunday handed the division crown to New England.

Here to preview the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Mike Reiss (Patriots).

Reiss: Mike, this seems pretty obvious, but coach Doug Marrone is finishing his first season, and a win against the Patriots could go a long way toward the foundation he’s attempting to establish. What signs, if any, have you seen from Marrone that the Bills are on the right track?

Rodak: Mike, I think the past two games have said something about this team. After their 27-6 loss to Tampa on Dec. 8, the season was essentially over for Buffalo. They could have packed it in and waited until next season to make improvement. Instead, they have strung together their first back-to-back wins of the season. Does that matter in the long run? Probably not, but Marrone often talks about establishing a sense of accountability and resiliency in his team, and there have been some signs of that over the past two weeks.

Mike, the Patriots have shown plenty of resiliency this season too. Is this the best coaching job you've seen from Bill Belichick?

Reiss: Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, no doubt about that. I have always rated 2008 at the top of the mountain, because when you lose Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of a season and still manage to go 11-5, that’s pretty remarkable from this viewpoint. I think we’ve seen in recent years what often happens when a superstar quarterback is lost for the season -- the 2011 Colts with Peyton Manning as one example, which cost team president Bill Polian his job. We also see how the Packers are struggling this season without Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries this season too and also have quite a few young players who have been asked to take on significant roles. So it’s been impressive.

As for young players being asked to carry the load for the Bills, the big question from here is if EJ Manuel is a franchise quarterback to build around. What is your opinion on Manuel in that regard?

Rodak: That is a tough call, and it's going to be the biggest question Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley will need to address this offseason. From a leadership standpoint, Manuel has a presence and a poise that any successful quarterback needs. But it hasn't translated to consistency on the field. Since returning from his second knee injury, Manuel has thrown six interceptions and shown wild swings in accuracy as a passer. The Bills seem content with pressing forward with Manuel and allowing him to develop with live action each Sunday. That is the approach most teams take with young quarterbacks; it doesn't always work out. In most cases, deciding when to make a change is difficult. However Manuel's career unfolds, the Bills would be smart to have a Plan B, even as soon as next season. With J.P. Losman, that Plan B was Kelly Holcomb. With Trent Edwards, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ultimately, neither of those veteran backups put the Bills in the right spot to win, which is why I think the organization must aim higher when hedging their bets with Manuel. Drafting another quarterback in the first round isn't an option that should be immediately dismissed.

This week, Marrone mentioned how the Patriots have several rookies playing roles on both sides of the ball. Watching undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano back in spring camps, I never would have thought he would be contributing as much as he has this season. But can the Patriots rely on Vellano and their other younger players in the playoffs? It doesn't seem that long ago when safety Patrick Chung, then in his second season, botched a fake punt that cost the Patriots in a divisional playoff loss to the Jets.

Reiss: Mike, I’d be shocked if the Bills take another quarterback in the first round. If they do in 2014, Buffalo wings on me from Duff’s for the next five years every time the Patriots come to western New York.

As for the Patriots, the rookies playing the largest roles are now [receiver] Aaron Dobson, [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, [cornerback] Logan Ryan and [punter] Ryan Allen. The others are sprinkled in from more of a complementary standpoint or as a short-term fill-in (e.g., Josh Kline at left guard vs. Baltimore). Vellano, for one, has seen his snaps decrease in recent weeks in favor of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Anytime a team has rookies and youngsters playing front-line roles, it comes with some added risk. But I’d say this about the Patriots this season: As young as they are in certain spots, no moment seems too big for most of the players on the roster.

Defensively, the Bills look strong up front. What do you see from them on that side of the ball?

Rodak: They certainly are, Mike. At this point, it's safe to call it the best defensive line in the league. The Bills have benefited from career seasons from both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who are both serious candidates for the Pro Bowl. Same with Mario Williams, who is enjoying his best season since signing his monster deal with Buffalo. But there have also been some under-the-radar contributors. Whaley's offseason swap of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard for defensive end Jerry Hughes has paid dividends. You can add Hughes to the list of players having career seasons under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In the secondary, that theme continues with Leodis McKelvin, who had four shaky years before finding his groove this season. The Bills have also gotten big things from their smallest player -- 5-foot-7 slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who went undrafted in the spring but has played like an early-round pick. There have been bad moments for the defense, but in general, they came mostly earlier in the season. Right now, it looks like a unit on the rise.

Mike, one area where the Bills have been vulnerable at points this season has been their run defense. They rank 20th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per rush. Is the Patriots' running game capable of exploiting that weakness? And perhaps more importantly, will the Patriots need their ground attack to advance in the playoffs?

Reiss: They are certainly capable of doing it, and last Sunday’s win against the Ravens is the evidence. The Patriots entered the game with a mindset of being physical, and they won the battle of the line of scrimmage, churning out 142 yards on the ground against a sturdy Ravens front that struggled against some zone runs. The Patriots ran it 34 times and had 28 dropbacks in the game. I don’t think they necessarily have to have that type of split in the playoffs to win, but like most offenses, this attack is at its best when it's most balanced. Ball security was a big issue the first few months of the season, mostly with running backs Stevan Ridley, and to a lesser degree with LeGarrette Blount (fumble in Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals), but that has subsided. One of the big keys with the running game last Sunday is it helped the Patriots in the red zone, where they are still recalibrating after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 8.

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Stevan Ridley stays strong after benching

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
4:15
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the defining images of Stevan Ridley's 2013 season with the New England Patriots came during a Dec. 1 game against the Houston Texans. The running back who led the team in snaps played the year before watched from the sideline in street clothes, clutching a football throughout.

He was a healthy scratch.

It didn’t seem like a stretch to say that Ridley’s three-year career with the team had officially reached a crossroads at that point, a result of losing a fumble in three straight games.

Ridley mostly kept a low media profile since that time, but that changed on Thursday as he sat at his locker during the time reporters were present in the locker room (1:30-2:15 p.m.), welcoming anyone who approached to discuss “an interesting year” that has been one big “growing pain.”

He started with the Boston Herald. After a short break, it was ESPN.com. When that was over, a horde of reporters circled around him, Ridley’s presence among the group hard to miss because he was wearing a fluorescent yellow athletic top and footwear.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsStevan Ridley has been steady with the football since he was benched in early December due to his issues with fumbling.
Much like he charges ahead on the field, Ridley didn’t back down from the questions, particularly when it came to what it was like watching on the sidelines Dec. 1.

“For me, I don’t let anything break me, man. I really don’t. I knew what I did to get there,” Ridley said in the 1-on-1 interview. “It wasn’t like Coach Bill [Belichick] just up and decided to bench me for the game. There was a reason for him doing what he did. He’s one of the best coaches to coach this sport, and I respect whatever he puts me through.

“Did I agree with it? No, but that wasn’t my call. I’m the player, and I play. He’s the coach, and he coaches. So whatever I got thrown my way, I had to handle it. It wasn’t a pride thing. There wasn’t any sulking.

“It hurt, you know what I mean? But at the same time, that’s somewhere I don’t ever want to be again. If that’s what is going to fuel me, if that’s what I needed, I have to bounce back strong. I refuse to let this bring me down and control my career. I have to keep fighting and keep battling every day. I’m going to work every day and am going to work hard. I know the player I am and I know the player God created me to be, and I just have to keep pushing it.”

Since the benching, Ridley has played in three games, although his snaps have been down (17, 13, 21). LeGarrette Blount is now starting in his place and playing a bit more.

Most importantly for Ridley, he hasn’t fumbled.

“It’s high and tight, man. I made a few calls and talked to a few people, but let’s be real. I’ve been playing this game a long time. There’s no magic word. There’s no magic fix I can go through. It’s something you just have to grind it out and trust in yourself, the people around you, and trust in God. He’s going to put you through some things,” Ridley said.

“You’re going to go through some adversity in life, in your job, in whatever you do, but it’s how you bounce back from that. You just have to keep it moving. For me, it’s holding the ball high and tight. If I keep the ball high and tight, the chances of the ball coming out is way less.”

(Read full post)

Sharing Patriots halftime thoughts

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
2:35
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing some halftime thoughts as the New England Patriots trail the Browns 6-0:

Uninspiring performance from Patriots: Dropped passes. Missed blocking assignments. Substitution issues on the sideline with the coaching staff and players that lead to 12-men-on-the-field penalties and general confusion. Simply put, it’s been uninspiring football from the Patriots. At the same time, credit also goes to the Browns in some areas (e.g. D'Qwell Jackson's range on an interception of a throw that was forced), who certainly haven’t quit after last week’s loss to the Jaguars.

Not as much about adjustments as execution: Unlike last week, when the Patriots altered their offensive plan at halftime, this game doesn’t strike us as much about being adjustment-based. It’s more about execution. There are opportunities there if they can make the plays. The Patriots looked like one of the NFL's worst teams in the first half.

Charting Ridley’s usage: The Patriots have eased running back Stevan Ridley back into the mix after he was a healthy scratch last week because of ball-security issues. He played five snaps in the first half.

Siliga’s presence highlights focus on interior rush defense: One of the areas prioritized defensively during the week of practice was the Browns’ inside running game. Along those lines, the Patriots started nose tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) over Joe Vellano (6-2, 300), electing for more bulk and power (and choosing Siliga over veteran Isaac Sopoaga to provide it). That was a notable personnel shift, and the results have been good. The inside running game, outside of the first few plays of the game, hasn’t been a big factor.

Closer look at cornerback usage: The Patriots started Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan at cornerback in the base defense, with Talib shadowing receiver Josh Gordon all over the field. When the Browns go to a three-receiver package, the Patriots are taking Ryan off the field and adding cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the fourth and fifth defensive backs. Something different, with Talib and Ryan two of the bright spots in a half with few of them.

Patriots open the half with ball: After winning the opening toss and deferring the choice to the second half, the Patriots will receive the opening kickoff of the half.

Stevan Ridley, Alfonzo Dennard active

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
11:46
AM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As expected, running back Stevan Ridley is active for the Patriots and will dress for today's game against the Cleveland Browns. What remains to be seen is just how much he will play after being deactivated last week following three straight games with a fumble.

The team announced its final five inactives -- wide receiver Aaron Dobson and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon had previously been ruled out -- which includes running back Brandon Bolden, who was listed with a non-injury issue but probable to play, and rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), who was limited this week in practice.

Starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who has missed two of three games with a knee injury and was listed as questionable, will play. Veteran wide receiver Austin Collie, re-signed this week, is active and will play. With Dobson and Thompkins sitting, Collie could be in line for reps as the team's third or fourth receiver.

Below is a full list of Patriots inactives:

LB Steve Beauharnais
DE Jake Bequette
RB Brandon Bolden
OT Marcus Cannon
WR Aaron Dobson
TE Michael Hoomanawanui
WR Kenbrell Thompkins

Below is a list of Browns inactives:

WR Josh Cooper
OL Reid Fragel
OL Garrett Gilkey
TE Keavon Milton
QB Alex Tanney
OL Martin Wallace
QB Brandon Weeden

Quick-hit thoughts on Pats & NFL

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
5:00
AM ET
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsRob Gronkowski still remembers a miscue against Cleveland his rookie season.
1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said that seeing the Browns on the opposite sideline today will remind him “this is where it all started.” It’s easy to forget now, but the last time these two teams met (Nov. 7, 2010), Gronkowski was a still-developing rookie involved in a miscue that contributed to a surprising 34-14 blowout loss. Gronkowski was playing as part of the wedge on the kickoff return team when he signaled for a fair catch of a short, high-arcing kickoff early in the first quarter. The only problem was that running back Sammy Morris came up behind him and did the same, the two had a miscommunication, and the ball landed on the ground untouched and the Browns recovered. (Cleveland quickly turned it into a touchdown and the rout was on.) Gronkowski was peppered by the media afterwards, facing the most adversity of his young NFL career at that point, and he relived the memory this week, reminding that his response came the following week in a game against the Steelers, when he finished with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. We saw signs before that Gronkowski could be special, but that was arguably the biggest breakthrough.

2. When it comes to their potential role on game day, Patriots players are often kept on edge by the coaching staff during the week. The idea is that they should all prepare as if they will be front-line contributors, which hopefully leads to a sharpened focus. That’s how this past week has unfolded for running back Stevan Ridley, who after running into issues hanging onto the ball was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston. As the Patriots came off the practice field for the final time Friday, Ridley was still unsure if he’d be on the 46-man active roster today. Our educated guess is that he will be on the 46-man game-day roster as part of an overall plan to ease him back into the mix -- probably not as a lead back but more as part of a pure committee.

3. Since tearing his ACL on Oct. 3, quarterback Brian Hoyer hasn’t traveled with the Browns to road games. That changes today as Hoyer, the former New England backup (2009-2011), will be at Gillette Stadium for the Browns' contest against the Patriots. When the 2013 season began, and Hoyer envisioned the possibility of winning a starting job in Cleveland (he eventually did and provided a winning spark), this was naturally a game he had circled on the schedule. He has fond memories of his time in New England and the trip, in addition to helping his Browns teammates, provides a rare in-season chance to catch up with several former Patriots teammates and coaches.

4. The average time of a Patriots game this season is 3 hours and 14 minutes, which continues a theme we’ve seen in recent years of longer-than-we’re-used-to games. We used to think of NFL contests as fitting in a nice three-hour window, but only four of the Patriots’ 12 games this season have come in under the three-hour mark. The length-of-game thought was sparked because the Patriots are coming off a stretch in which they sandwiched their two shortest games (2:51 vs. Carolina and 2:54 vs. Houston) around their longest game (3:53 vs. Denver). The Patriots’ overall average is skewed, in part, by their two overtime games -- against the Jets and Broncos.

5. In a storyline that might fascinate me more than others, it’s been interesting to watch from afar how Mike Lombardi has transitioned from a visible media role at NFL Network in which he was regularly conducting insightful radio interviews (such as on Boston sports radio station WEEI) to “undercover” Browns general manager. Lombardi has hardly spoken with the Cleveland press this year, only doing so for an introductory news conference, pre-draft news conference, and once in training camp. He’s essentially disappeared from a media perspective after being ever-so-visible. Part of it could be that Lombardi is a lightning-rod of sorts in Cleveland from his previous tenure with the team, and this is part of a go-undercover-to-help-rebuild-the-image approach.

6. “So much of this is timing.” Those were words spoken by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman this week and he is one of the NFL’s shining examples of this in 2013. Edelman entered this week tied for eighth in the NFL with 70 receptions, which few projected this past offseason when he was an unrestricted free agent and drew interest from just two teams -- the Patriots and Giants. The offers were far from overwhelming -- essentially one-year deals at the minimum with modest incentives -- because the biggest knock on Edelman was that he couldn't stay healthy. He’s healthy now and also one of the NFL’s most productive pass-catchers. If he continues this pace, it seems safe to say he’ll have more than two teams interested in him after this season, because so much of this NFL business is about timing.

7a. Did you Know, Part I: The Patriots are one of five teams unbeaten at home this season, joining the Saints, Seahawks, Broncos and Bengals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only season in the last 80 years during which five teams went unbeaten at home was in 1973.

7b. Did you Know, Part II: ESPN’s Stats & Information points out that the Lions, with a one-game lead in the NFC North, haven’t won a division title since 1993. That is the second-longest active streak behind the Browns.

7c. Did you Know, Part III: Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, at 40 the oldest player in the NFL, has 1,968 career points. That puts him two points shy of John Kasay for eighth place on the NFL all-time scoring list and 15 points shy of Jason Elam for seventh place.

7d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Saints, who host the Panthers tonight, are 10-0 in home prime-time games over the last four seasons.

8. The Bills have played one regular-season home game in Toronto each of the last six years, and this year’s produced the lowest attendance (38,969), raising questions on how smart it is to continue with such an arrangement. In theory, the idea of regionalized growth is a good one for the Bills, creating potential new revenue streams for one of the league’s small-market franchises. But the execution might be off, and one consideration could be playing the game earlier in the year. Four of the six Toronto games have been in December, when the Bills are pretty much out of the playoff hunt.

9. When Bill Belichick led off his Wednesday news conference by saying, “I have a lot of respect for the entire Browns organization, starting with Jimmy Haslam at the top,” it was a reminder that the Patriots coach and Browns owner have a connection that goes back some time now. We also remember that Haslam, shortly after being approved as Browns owner in 2012, spent time with Patriots owner Robert Kraft at Gillette Stadium. They’ll all meet up again today.

10. I thought it was neat to see veteran Patriots defensive end Andre Carter bring his kindergarten-aged son, Quincy, into the locker room on Friday and have a few teammates, such as LeGarrette Blount, call Quincy over as if he were a member of the team. “It’s a family-oriented type of team. Guys with kids can bring them here, and it reminds me when I was young and my dad [Rubin] played for 12 years [in the NFL] and I’d be waiting for him outside the locker room,” Carter said, in a reminder that sports can create a unique bond for fathers and sons across multiple generations.

EXTRA POINT: Best wishes to Brian Lowe of Patriots.com, whose final day with the team was Friday after 13 years. Brian, an all-around great guy, is embarking on a career in public relations and will be missed in the press room at Gillette Stadium. It was a neat gesture by Patriots Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James to allow Lowe to ask the first and last questions at Bill Belichick’s Friday news conference as part of a final send-off.

X's & O's thought: Play Ridley?

December, 7, 2013
12/07/13
3:30
PM ET
Stevan RidleyAP Photo/Stephan SavoiaWill Patriots RB Stevan Ridley see the field Sunday versus the Browns?
This week's X' & O's thought is less schematic based than it is personnel and coaching decision related.

Simply: Should the Patriots play running back Stevan Ridley, who was benched last week after three consecutive games with a fumble?

The pros and cons of reactivating Ridley on Sunday are fairly obvious, as he is the team's most talented rusher and aids the play-action passing game. If fellow running back Brandon Bolden (non-injury related) is unable to suit up on Sunday, Ridley also provides depth.

Conversely, his ball security issues are apparent, and Bill Belichick has long preached the importance of reliability among running backs.

SportsNation

If it was up to you, what role would Stevan Ridley play for the Patriots versus the Browns?

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Discuss (Total votes: 4,991)

Ridley has respectfully declined to speak to reporters this week and we don't have any further sense of what his role might be or could be come Sunday.

But the question of Ridley's role isn't just about tomorrow against Cleveland, as the Patriots have three more regular-season games beyond that and are likely to make the playoffs, too.

From a philosophical standpoint, how Bill Belichick decides to proceed with Ridley will be a storyline for as long as he either remains inactive on game days or plays just a minimal role if he does dress.

We've seen players around the NFL bounce back from fumbling woes before -- longtime Giants running back Tiki Barber is among the more common references -- and Ridley has an abundance of talent that cannot be overlooked.

Quarterback Tom Brady has previously said that the team is going to need Ridley, but if LeGarrette Blount and Bolden can continue to fill-in at a respectable level, Ridley's time on the sideline could persist.

For some players, overcoming fumbling issues is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. There's no telling exactly how Ridley is approaching his current situation, or how Belichick is for that matter.

We'll find out more in less than 24 hours.

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