Commentary

They just keep getting back up

So much to like about blowout, but these are still the Any-Given-Sunday Patriots

Updated: December 23, 2013, 6:13 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi | ESPNBoston.com

Join my weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A.

Q. I had a good feeling going into yesterday's game. Obviously, I feel a lot better about this team now. Can you compare this team to any other team, decimated by injuries, barely any headline players and just winning with pure guts and mental toughness? -- John

A. I wish you would have shared your feelings with me, because I thought this was going to be a tough game for them to get. I can't remember any other team doing what they are doing now. The shift in emphasis with injuries -- waiting for Rob Gronkowski, then Gronkowski is back, now he's gone again. In between, losing Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Danny Amendola being in and out of the lineup. If there is one thing this team has, it's mental toughness.

Q. What are the chances that you are giving this Patriots team to win the Super Bowl considering where they stand today? -- Michael (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

[+] EnlargeRob Ninkovich
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesRob Ninkovich had his own cheering section after Sunday's victory in Baltimore.

A. If we're looking that far ahead, there's no reason this team can't win the Super Bowl. There's also no reason this team couldn't be bounced out of the playoffs in the first round. Especially the way the AFC has gone this year, there is nobody the Patriots should be scared of. I know they know that. If you can get through the AFC, and get to the Super Bowl, that's one game with the championship on the line. You'll take that.

Q. Do you think the Patriots' D can come up with the plays it needs for a Super Bowl run? Also, do you think the coaches can come up with a sustainable game plan throughout the playoffs to get them in position to win? I notice that in the games where they run the ball more, they are winning. Is the running back combo of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen enough to cover the loss of Gronkowski like it was Sunday? -- Daniel (Fort Gordon, Ga.)

A. I think, as a team, I know the coaches will come up with a game plan that can beat anyone. It will be about the players executing the details of their assignments with great effort. I liked the way the Patriots ran the ball Sunday. I think that's the way it should be done the rest of the year. No single running back should be counted on. No single running back should get more than 20 carries. Once you get to the 20-carry mark, these RBs get worn down and the ball-security issues come into play. Blount (16 carries), Ridley (15), Brandon Bolden (1), Vereen (2) -- I wouldn't mind taking a few away from the top guys and give them to Bolden and Vereen. Using all four is a good way to go at this time of year.

Q. The defense was impressive against the Ravens. The most impressive thing was great situational football that they played -- fourth-down stops, third-down sacks. Unlike how they played against the Dolphins, where a fourth-down stop would have put the icing on the cake, was this just down to lack of execution by the Ravens or was it great execution by the Patriots? -- Jonny (United Kingdom)

A. Now that the regular season is coming to an end, you get to the point of the year where the majority of teams are playing their best football, especially those qualified for the playoffs. Coaches will have them in position to make plays. What decides the game is which player will make that play -- tackle, catch, block, interception. Which player will fight for the extra yard? At this point of the year, that's the difference. The Patriots made the plays this week. They didn't last week. You'll recognize those situations as they get to the playoffs. We'll see if the Patriots continue to make those plays. The championship teams make those plays 3-to-4 games in a row and end up raising the trophy in the end.

Q. What are we supposed to make of this now? Are the Patriots for real? -- Justin (Kentucky)

A. This week they are. But it's still in them to be the team that lost to Miami last week. The old saying "any given Sunday" applies to this team.

Q. In a perfect world for the Patriots, in your opinion, how would Week 17 and Round 1 of the playoffs play out and what do you see happening in those two weeks? -- Dan (Iowa)

A. I see the Patriots getting the first-round bye. I see them beating Buffalo at home. I still think Baltimore finds a way to get in; I'm going down with Baltimore. I've seen them surge. I know they had a bad Sunday, and I'd be worried about Joe Flacco's MCL. It's very possible the Patriots could play the Chiefs in the second round; that could be a tough matchup right off the bat. That's all I can really give you, because it's a mathematical equation right now ... and I've never been good at math.

Q. How do you feel about the development of Jamie Collins? I would like to see him rush the passer more. -- Tony (Saugus, Mass.)

A. I would like to see him get more comfortable playing linebacker first. For Jamie Collins to rush the passer, it would mean fewer rushes for Rob Ninkovich or Chandler Jones -- their two best rushers. He's had his problems grasping the defensive schemes the last two weeks. This is clearly still a rookie figuring out what to do.

Q. Why do you think that Dont'a Hightower looked so good Sunday after looking so mediocre all year? Was he possibly playing through injury or did he just not fully grasp what the defense was doing? He sure did look lost for a few games there but has played better as of late. Hopefully he can continue to play well, but I sure have my doubts. Hope you and your family have a great holiday. -- George (Providence, R.I.)

A. This is the life of an NFL player, especially a young NFL player. You're going to have your good games and you're going to have some bad games. Hopefully he's strong enough to learn from the bad games, and mature enough to nitpick the good games. Hightower is a good football player. At Alabama, he was asked to do a lot of things. But this is a different level, the NFL, and there will be some transition. The only thing he has to develop is consistency.

Q. Tedy, can you talk about the play Hightower made on the Ryan interception? I remember Belichick talking about the importance of linebackers getting depth in the secondary when prepping for the Cleveland Browns game? Do you think this is an area Hightower is making improvements? His growth seems to be stunted by the Jerod Mayo injury and more responsibility on his plate. -- Robby (South Boston)

A. I'm glad you noticed this Robby, because on the stat sheet it goes as an interception for Ryan, but it was Hightower's drop in coverage that was key. Poor decision by Flacco to try to get it over Hightower, but Hightower's depth -- along with his size and athletic ability -- were the reasons for that interception. The fundamental pass-dropping rule is that you play from deep to short. Hightower did a better job of that Sunday. If all of you out there recognize his struggles, you also have to recognize the plays in which he is improving.

Q. I thought the first goal-line stand, where the Pats baited the Ravens up the middle, was a genius call. I can't remember seeing anything like that before. I wonder what your thoughts on that play are, and if it really was a unique play call. Is that something they can repeat doing with success? -- Gooby

A. I think you're talking about the one where Ray Rice didn't make the first down in the red area. I thought Brandon Spikes did a good job, being off the line of scrimmage and then attacking the line of the scrimmage at the snap. That's what Spikes has done all year in those situations. I liked how the Patriots played situational defense. They had a lot of those situations because they were constantly going for it on fourth down (0-for-3). This Patriots defense has been stressed situationally all year -- red area, fourth down, two-minute situations. They've had to deal with those while being undermanned. The adversity they have gone through this season can only help when playoff pressure comes around. Playoff pressure is going to be nothing to these guys after what they went through this year.

Q. The rookies and second-year players have really stepped up this year for the Pats when needed, which is a testament to Bill Belichick's drafting strategy. What do you think this year's draft focus will be and are there any players on your radar that will help the Pats in the future? -- KJ (Virginia Beach, Va.)

A. It's a combination of getting players who not only have ability to perform on the field but also have the intelligence to accept coaching over the course of the year. Coach Belichick will start simple with his younger players and try to build a foundation. As the year goes on, he will add information and responsibility onto their plates. An example is Logan Ryan. He's starting to play within the defense, but also still playing instinctively. It doesn't look like he's thinking too much; that means he feels comfortable enough within the scheme. He feels like he has a grasp of it, he knows what he's doing, and that's when you can be a football player. That's a great sign for this young kid. I'd say Collins is a step behind him in that aspect from what I have seen. If Collins could make that jump over the next few weeks and into the playoffs, that would be a huge plus for this team.

SportsNation

How did the Patriots' rout of the Ravens affect your opinion of their postseason hopes?

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Discuss (Total votes: 23,620)

Q. In an era of stat-obsessed media and fans, is Rob Ninkovich the most underrated player in the NFL? His versatility, instincts and discipline are a pleasure to watch and Sunday was one of his best games as a professional. He did a bit of everything and was involved on almost every play. -- Chris (Chicago)

A. Yes, I agree, Chris. He is in that category. He made my All-Bruschi Team last year and I created that team to give a little recognition to those who are underrated and don't get enough recognition. I see Ninkovich possibly being on the team again. Also, Julian Edelman. He's done very well for this team but probably won't get national recognition. Do any of you see players that might be in the same category throughout the league? I have a running list. I'd love to compare notes.

Q. What is better for this Pats team looking forward to the playoffs? Having a bye week or playing in the wild-card round? I see the benefit of resting and recovering from minor injuries, but on the other hand, I also see the risk of losing momentum if they stop for a week. -- Nissim (Lima, Peru)

A. The obvious answer is that you want the bye. It would be best for the Patriots to have the bye. I think there are certain coaching staffs out there that handle the bye incorrectly. From my experience, coach Belichick does a great job -- getting players rest, but getting them focused on the things they need to work on to be ready. There have been times we've focused on two teams in the bye week, devoting more attention to the team we thought we'd play. This staff knows how to handle the bye week.

Q. Another great move by Bill for Blount. After all BB has done this season, he's a shoo-in for the best coach of all time. Your thoughts? -- Mark (Miami)

A. Blount was a great move. I remember the summer when I was kayaking in Boston Harbor with a buddy, and the one move we couldn't stop talking about was Blount. I thought he'd eventually be the starting running back for the Patriots. It's taken him a little longer to come along that I thought it would, but this is the time of year when a back like Blount should be the most effective -- late in the year, when the running game is more emphasized and playoff football is upon you. I'm not letting myself get too excited about Blount because consistency isn't a big part of his resume. Consistency and dependability is something he still has to prove that he has. Still a long way to go for him.

Q.This is more a statement than a question. I feel Dante Scarnecchia deserved a game ball for having the injury-plagued offensive line shove it down the Ravens' throats. Logan Mankins owned Terrell Suggs. I like the attitude. -- Joe (South Portland, Maine)

A. Mankins did a great job filling in at left tackle, but I wouldn't say he owned Suggs. There was one play Suggs beat him on the inside, and another where he out-quicked him at the line of scrimmage on a run play. But you're right, you have to give props to Dante Scarnecchia and to Logan Mankins for what he did yesterday. Very few linemen can do what Mankins did -- go from guard to tackle, go up against Suggs, and give Tom Brady good protection on a majority of downs.

Q. As fans we always hear that players play and coaches coach. As a player, what does going to a movie with your teammates and staff do for all involved ? As a Patriots fan, it sure does seem like a genius move from a Hall of Fame coach. -- Joez (Westport, Conn.)

A.  It depends on if it's a good movie or not. I'm just kidding. I'm sure Mark Wahlberg's movie is awesome. What it really does, Joez, is help players push the reset button. You get to get away with your teammates. It's something where you know the coaches feel you're ready to go. You've had a good week, take a little pressure off, take a deep breath, watch the movie, I know you're ready to play. That's basically what Belichick was saying. It also gives you a vote of confidence from your coach. I wouldn't say they are going to see a movie again this Friday, but it's a sign of a good coach knowing the pulse of his team. It might not be Belichick himself as much as his captains or assistants telling him that players are ready to go and it's a good idea to break up the routine.

Q. Great game for the Pats, but terrible game for Ron Winter and the refs. I've never seen the refs huddle, make a call, talk to the coaches, then huddle again and reverse the call twice in a game. As a player, how would you feel about this while the game is going on? -- Mickey (Boston)

A. I wouldn't mind the refs taking their time, as long as they're getting it right. Especially this time of year. When I was a player, something I did wonder: How could these officials expected to do their job in a sport that moves so fast and involves world-class athletes when they can barely backpedal at times? I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Why are all the NFL officials so old? Why do some of them look like they can't move on a football field? I think it's time to rethink things in terms of having a farm system for officials. They have to be able to move -- in a world of player safety, a part of me thinks some of these officials in harm's way should be wearing helmets. Those white and black hats they wear, should they be makeshift baseball helmets? So it's either get some younger officials who can protect themselves better or get in better position or protect these guys before something bad happens to them. That's me on my soapbox about NFL officiating.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

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