Gone are the questions about the defensive scheme, the lack of coordinators and other issues that had been prevalent when assessing the New England Patriots' 2010 season.
The Patriots are now 4-1 and coming off big wins over the Dolphins and Ravens. E-mailers are starting to believe in this team.
The mailbag was filled this week with questions on safety Brandon Meriweather's helmet-to-helmet hit on tight end Todd Heap, the productive return of Deion Branch, the rise of rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham and some of the defensive adjustments that were made against Baltimore.
Q: Do you think the NFL finally makes a statement about player safety and suspends Brandon Meriweather? After reading his statement today that "I won't change my game," it seems as though he's begging Roger Goodell to suspend him. Also, have you ever seen anyone more effusive in their praise for another player than Deion Branch during the last four minutes of his press conference regarding Brady? To me, it spoke volumes about his happiness in being back as well as his relationship with Brady & the organization. -- Tom (Boston)
A: Tom, I have some strong feelings on Meriweather's hit and his reaction to it. I feel the hit was inexcusable. In listening to Meriweather on the radio, I didn't get the sense that this was a player who was taking accountability for what he did. If anything, he struck me as a player who has quite a bit of growing up to do. All that being said, I don't think Meriweather should be suspended. You can't start suspending players, in my view, when the action wasn't previously considered something worthy of a suspension. If they do it to Meriweather, why didn't they do it to Jets safety Eric Smith for his big hit to Wes Welker early in the season? It looks like the league will start suspending players from this point, so Meriweather is safe for now, but they'll be watching him closely. As for Branch, that was genuine stuff. I agree with your take.
Q: Brandon Meriweather is a dirty player and not worthy of being a Patriot. I saw him go helmet-first twice against the Ravens on defenseless players. I hope BB sends a message and either cuts Meriweather or benches him for next week (and hopefully beyond). -- Watson (Canton, Ohio )
A: Watson, part of the problem with this scenario is that the Patriots might be without two other safeties because of injuries, James Sanders (hamstring) and Jarrad Page (calf). Bill Belichick took Meriweather out of the game immediately after the hit, which spoke volumes about what he thought of it. It was an inexcusable play, and I feel Meriweather deserves all the heat (and expected hefty fine) coming his way.
Q: What is Deion Branch's contract situation? How much longer do the Patriots have him for? Are they paying him now what they wouldn't pay him before? -- Jim O'Donnell (Sptosylvania, Va.)
A: Jim, Branch is signed through the 2011 season. Because the Patriots are assuming his 2010 salary at $5.7 million and a reasonable $2.2 million next season -- a figure that Branch reduced from $5.9 million to facilitate the trade -- it's much less than what the team would have been paying in 2006 as part of a longer-term deal.
Q: Mike, I noticed Branch's comment that he missed one assignment, whereby he misread the check that Brady made (said it was only to the protection and Branch thought it was changing to a run play). Branch said that "If it hadn't been for that, we probably wouldn't have gone to overtime." Can you shed any further light on that play? -- Mark (Dublin, Ireland)
A: Mark, the play that Branch was referring to was in the fourth quarter. It was the third-and-3 pass in the end zone prior to Stephen Gostkowski's 24-yard field goal to tie the game at 20. The pass was incomplete in the back-right corner of the end zone, with Brady looking toward Branch, who was initially blocking, after things broke down.
Q: I understand how you might think that a fourth-round pick was a hefty price to pay for Deion Branch, but ultimately, the Pats traded Laurence Maroney for Branch. I'd have to say they got a pretty good deal there. -- Jeff (Davie, Fla.)
A: Jeff, I think it's interesting to look at trades that way. If we do, my only quibble would be it would actually be Maroney and a sixth-round round pick for Branch. It slightly changes the context. After Branch's first performance with the Patriots, the fourth-round pick already looks like a worthy investment by New England. That was impressive.
Q: Hi Mike, I love the Branch move for the Pats. Not only for his potential production, but because it takes some pressure off Brandon Tate and Taylor Price to have to jump into the offense faster than they may comfortable with right now. Much like a baseball organization protecting a young pitcher by not throwing him to the wolves and letting him get some seasoning. I think Branch lets Tate and especially Price assimilate at a more comfortable pace into the Pats offense. Do you think that was taken into consideration when obtaining Branch? -- Kevin F. (Framingham, Mass.)
A: Absolutely, Kevin. If the Patriots felt Price was ready, I'm not sure they would have made the trade for Branch. As we saw from Branch's debut, they aren't afraid to put him right into the mix. Playing 54 snaps was more than I thought he would. He's going to step right in and make up the biggest chunk of the lost 81 percent playing time that Randy Moss had in the first four games.
Q: Hey Mike, I thought Taylor Price was one of the most intriguing 2010 draft picks by the Patriots. Draft day stories said he had the entire package to be a super star NFL receiver. We have not seen him on the field yet. Is he the next Randy Moss in his prime or he is the next Chad Jackson? -- Ben D (Grass Lake, Mich.)
A: Ben, I think the arrow is pointing up on Price, but he's making the transition from a run-based offense in college to a much more diverse scheme. So this looks like it will probably be a red-shirt-type year for him, unless there is an injury to a receiver ahead of him.
Q: Hi Mike, just a question about how you see the division shaping up. You said in the preseason that you thought the division still ran through New England. But with the Jets seen as being one of the few elite teams in the league right now, what's your current take on how the two teams' prospects compare? -- Dan (Sheffield, U.K.)
A: Dan, I tip the cap to the Jets right now. They beat the Patriots in a head-to-head matchup and have three wins on the road already. I think you have to say the Jets are the team to beat right now, with the Patriots nipping at their heels. I still have some doubts about quarterback Mark Sanchez, though.
Q: Mike, interesting to note the Pats substitution of an ILB for a DL in the nickel package. Also interesting that it was Dane Fletcher, who we haven't seen much of save for his special teams involvement. Given the Pats early-season nickel struggles against the run and on third down, and the fact that they're in the nickel about 50 percent of the time, do you think their success with the tweak vs. the Ravens will lead to more of this in the coming weeks? -- Neil (South Boston)
A: Neil, my first thought is that the Fletcher wrinkle -- which had three rushers and Jerod Mayo, Fletcher and Gary Guyton at linebacker -- was specific to the Ravens and might not apply to the next opponent, the Chargers. It's sort of similar to Gerard Warren being on the nose in the base defense, as that was a matchup-specific decision. At the least, the Patriots have the scheme in their arsenal to tap when they feel it's a good matchup.
Q: I just read the Dane Fletcher story and the last bit was great. It seems that so many guys look at playing for a living is a right and is owed them. It's guys like this you really want to see succeed. -- Donald Norman (Marietta, Ga.)
A: Thanks for reading it, Donald. It was one of those weeks that the player featured ended up playing a surprising role in the game.
Q: Mike, It looks like the Pats improved their defense on third downs against the Ravens. Do you have the data on how Baltimore's conversions were made (run, pass, penalty) by quarter? This young defense is improving weekly. -- Mike C (Manchester, N.H.)
A: Mike, this is how the Ravens' success went on third down, which proves your point:
First: 2 of 4 (pass, pass)
Second: 1 of 4 (pass)
Third: 2 of 2 (pass, penalty)
Fourth: 0 of 3
Overtime: 1 of 4 (run)
Q: Hi Mike, my initial reaction after the Pats OT win over Baltimore was befuddlement at why the Ravens adapted a conservative, check down approach and not stretching the field. Was this win an example of the defense clamping down and taking away Anquan Boldin, Derrick Mason, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh or did the Ravens simply stop taking chances? In a lot of ways, the game reminded me of a 2003-2004 Pats/Colts game, where Manning inexplicably didn't try to throw the ball downfield. I find it hard to believe that Kyle Arrington emerged as a lockdown corner during halftime, so what changed? -- Jake (Boston)
A: Jake, Belichick pointed out that the Patriots played more Cover-2 in the second half, which could have contributed to fewer shots taken down the field by the Ravens. I think another big factor, and one in which the Patriots deserve credit, is that there was sound tackling. Some of the creative scheming on third down helped as well, too.
Q: Mike, it looked like Ravens left tackle Michael Oher was struggling a bit with Patriots rookie outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham on Sunday. Is this a bad game from a pretty good tackle or a positive sign from a rookie it appears the Patriots are beginning to rely on a bit more each week? -- Jeff (Boston)
A: Jeff, I give the credit mostly to Cunningham, who appears to be coming on after missing all four preseason games. There were quite a few e-mails on Cunningham, as several followers felt he was one of the big-time players in the game. He was indeed solid, and the performance caught Belichick's eye.
Q: Hi Mike, in the review of the first quarter on the Patriots blog, it was noted that Patrick Chung was used to cover the third receiver and that led to a mismatch on Todd Heap. Is Darius Butler that deep in the doghouse? What gives? -- Joseph (Andover, Mass.)
A: Joseph, Butler did not play a defensive snap in the game. I'd say that means he's deep in the "doghouse." His performance in Weeks 1 and 2 was inconsistent, and the Patriots have three wins since making the switch to Kyle Arrington. I'm not sure if there is more to it, but from this view Butler is about as deep as it gets on the depth chart at this time. I still think he can turn it around if given the chance.
Q: Mike, late in the preseason and in the first game, it looked like Ron Brace may be the answer at DE that we had needed. Where has he been since then? Seeing Brandon Deaderick start the other day makes me wonder how far Brace had fallen, and what happened to cause it. Is this game performance related or is it like Meriweather earlier in the season where it is practice related? -- Chris (Orlando, Fla.)
A: Chris, this is a sharp observation. Brace has disappeared from the defensive rotation the last two weeks. He played 18, 46 and 25 snaps over the first three games but hasn't seen much time on defense since. I don't know why Brace isn't on the field. My assumption is that it is a combination game and practice performance. As for Deaderick, while he doesn't have the physical size of Brace, he's more advanced from a technique standpoint after having played under Nick Saban at Alabama.
Q: The Raiders are reportedly listening to offers for Nnamdi Asomugha. What are the chances we put together a package of draft picks for him? Maybe we give them their first-round pick back. Your thoughts? -- John R (Knoxville, Tenn.)
A: John, I don't see the Patriots being interested in that type of deal. Part of it is tied to Asomugha's contract status (he's one of the highest paid players in the league and his contract is a shorter-term deal). Also, I wonder how elite the Patriots view him. I say that because I remember back in 2008, they had success against him and actually seemed to be going right at him with Welker.
Q: How interested would the Patriots be in getting a guy like Shawne Merriman and is it a possibility? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)
A: Harry, I don't think Merriman is the type of complete package that the Patriots would be seeking. I thought it was interesting that Belichick said the win over the Ravens was the best performance from the outside linebackers on the team, starting with rookie Cunningham and Rob Ninkovich. So, I don't see the match there right now.
Q: Hey Mike, after watching the game at Gillette on Sunday, it seems like our running game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the lead back was pretty ineffective. Are the Patriots going to institute a time-share between him and Danny Woodhead? Is there another back looming? It seems like Woodhead is too valuable at receiver to make him the lead back. -- Eitan Tye (Newton, Mass.)
A: Eitan, I wouldn't read too much into the specific matchup when judging the running game. Green-Ellis is more of a power runner, and I think it's tough to power through a big defensive front like Baltimore's. Woodhead, who is smaller, quicker and shiftier, was probably the better matchup, as a runner and in the passing game. That was reflected in the playing time stats (Woodhead with 51, Green-Ellis with 24).
Q: Mike, what is happening with Julian Edelman? I thought he would make a jump after last year but it doesn't seem like it happened. -- Tom S (Holliston, Mass.)
A: Tom, Edelman has been the fourth receiver on the depth chart, and with the Patriots using more two- and three-tight end sets he hasn't had as much playing time (45 snaps over four games) as I had anticipated. I think he's a solid player, and his preseason injury set him back a bit. He will still help this team.
Q: Is Devin McCourty the best player on the Patriots' defense? -- Jarrod (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Jarrod, I would say McCourty is the real deal, but I wouldn't put him in the "best" category when you have Vince Wilfork and Mayo on the same defense. I took some flak for putting McCourty in the "down" category in our "three up, three down" blog post for some of his early struggles. There were fair points made by e-mailers on that one. Those "three up, three down" posts are tough because I don't have the luxury of going back over the game before posting them.
Q: Hi Mike, big win Sunday but am I the only one who noticed a lot of Tom Brady's passes were awfully low? It seemed like a majority of his throws were at his receivers shoelaces. It was a peculiar trend considering he's normally so pinpoint accurate and was coming off a bye week. Thoughts? -- Alex R (Dover, Mass.)
A: Alex, I saw the same thing. This wasn't the marquee Brady, and I think part of it is what the Ravens do to you. They are a tough defense. Their scheming and play kept Brady off balance at times, and I thought that contributed to some of his accuracy struggles.
Q: Mike, the Dolphins just cut Bobby Carpenter. I remember when he came out and the Cowboys drafted him; I was disappointed because I thought the Patriots should have. Now he's out of the league. This seems to happen a lot. Sergio Kindle anyone? Could it be the Hoodie knows what he's doing? At least on non-skill positions, his track record is nearly flawless. -- Jason (Santa Monica, Calif.)
A: Jason, I remember that 2006 draft. The Patriots were at 21 and Carpenter went 18. The Patriots thought they had the steal with Maroney, but it didn't unfold as they hoped. My view of Belichick's drafting record is it stacks up favorably when compared to the rest of the NFL. It has its holes, but anyone doing a fair, objective analysis that includes the entire NFL would see that every personnel chief has misses.
Q: Mike, I believe the Pats have the best head coach in the NFL, but I have to question Coach Belichick on three occasions. First, the decision to not attempt the field goal. I think they had a better shot at making a long kick with the wind than they had making a Hail Mary? What was the thinking there? Also, there were a couple of timeouts the Pats took only after a bunch of time ran off the clock. It seemed like they took to long to decide when everyone I watched the game with were screaming at the TV to take the timeout right when the play ended. It may be a moot point now, but they all seemed like mistakes to me. -- Mike (Lancaster, Mass.)
A: Mike, the field-goal attempt would have been 61 yards with the cross-wind. That's awfully long, and a kick from that range has to be driven through. The potential for a block is higher on something like that. You also have bigger personnel on the field, so in the event the kick is short and returnable there is a chance for trouble in that area. I saw Gostkowski's pre-game warmup, and he was barely clearing the bar from 53 yards. As for the timeouts, I think that is fair. Those situations probably could have been managed better.
Q: Mike, can you explain the Logan Mankins reporting issue, if he is not signed how can he just report? Is the Patriots RFA tender still there? -- Patrick (Amherst, Mass.)
A: That is correct, Patrick. If Mankins reports, he would be signing the tender offer.
Q: Who would you say is the fastest player on the Patriots? -- Dave (N.Y.)
A: Dave, the first player who came to mind is Matthew Slater, one of the Pats top special teams players.
Q: At the end of a game, particularly a big win, Bill Belichick always gives his son a hug. Does his son have a role on the team? -- Ashley McNamara (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, sometimes we've seen Belichick's kids helping to chart plays on the sideline. It's nothing in an official capacity, but I'm sure it's nice for father and kids to have that connection.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.