Sit back and enjoy the ride
In roller-coaster season, Pats fans greet big win with guarded optimism
The theme of this week's Patriots Mailbag is riding the NFL's emotional roller coaster.
E-mailers are riding high after the Patriots' 37-16 win over the Jets and now many are looking back at the last few down-in-the-dumps weeks and asking the question, "What was I thinking?" This has led to some big-picture thoughts in the mailbag.
Part of what made the Patriots' win so impressive was some of the unheralded players who helped pull it off -- linebackers Jeff Tarpinian, Tracy White and Niko Koutouvides, safety Sterling Moore, and cornerbacks Antwaun Molden, Phillip Adams and Julian Edelman.
Because of that, this had to be one of the most rewarding regular-season victories of Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach, and I thought there was a telling moment during his post-game news conference.
The last question was on receiver Edelman seeing time at cornerback late in the game, and Belichick shared some thoughts on Edelman before he took a slight turn off topic and said: "Who knows who will be playing where, but I know one thing. These guys are tough, mentally and physically. They'll stand up to the challenge and give their best. That counts for a lot. The game's not too big for them."
I thought that was powerful.
Q. Mike, I hope I can get you to comment on two things. First of all, the quickness with which fans and the press can hop off and on the bandwagon is almost comical. Three weeks ago, many felt the Pats were an elite team. Last week, many were writing the Patriots' season off as a loss. Today, it seems like the talk is all about a Pats-Packers Super Bowl. I think things will be sorted out in December, just like every other year. Secondly, one of the top plays of the game seemed to slip everyone's attention. Tom Brady diving after the fumble and fighting defensive linemen prevented a huge momentum shift to the Jets. Brady not only has the skills but he has the attitude and the guts to dive after the ball knowing that fumble scrums are just brutal places. That must have been a motivator to the rest of the team. What do you think? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)
A. Dave, the ups and downs of a season are always volatile. From a fan perspective, it is understandable given the passion and emotional investment that comes with following a team. If you're flat-lining things, and not getting excited about the wins and disappointed about the losses, it's almost not as much fun. The media perspective should be different because it's our job to see beyond that, but in many cases we almost feed into it with things like weekly power rankings or making snap judgments based on one result. As for Brady, that is a great point. I thought Tedy Bruschi had a great line on this Monday in his online chat when he said, "For Brady to go in there and fight for that ball was a great sign of how tough that guy is. I know what goes on in those piles. It's a dark place. A lot of things are done I can't speak of."
Mike and Mike in the Morning
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Q. Hi Mike, from here on out the Pats won't face an elite quarterback the rest of the season. If this is the case, and the pass defense improves, can we really be confident in our defense in the playoffs? -- Nick (Montreal)
A. Nick, I think more than looking at the quarterbacks the Patriots will face the rest of the season and tying it to "confidence," it's smarter to look at specific potential playoff matchups and how they look against the strengths and weaknesses of Bill Belichick's club. When I do that, I come to the following conclusion: Anything is possible. I don't see a sure thing out there and as Matt Schaub's foot injury in Houston reminds us, the health of a roster can change in an instant, which alters the picture significantly. This Patriots team is in as good of a position as any AFC team outside of Pittsburgh.
Q. Hey Mike, Sunday night's win has me reminiscing a little about last year's blowout of the Jets in their second contest, only to see the Patriots blow it in the playoffs. Any reason this year is different? -- T. Russell (Denver)
A. Tim, I could envision this year being different, but a lot of it will depend on the specific playoff matchup. One thing I feel certain about is that the Patriots have a group of hard-working players with what I'd call "football character." Whether they're talented enough in the end, we'll see, but you have to like it when you see 53 players pulling in the same direction. That can take a team far.
Q. Hi Mike, I have to admit I was among those who thought the Patriots would wake up Monday morning looking up at the Jets atop the AFC East. Instead, they're now in the driver's seat for another divisional title and playoff berth. What an inspiring win that was, especially on the defensive side of the ball where they've endured heavy criticism and injuries to key players. How do you see thing unfolding for the rest of the season? -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I envision the Patriots getting better in the coming weeks, as they often do in November and December, and putting themselves in the best position to win in the playoffs. Whether that happens, it will all depend on the matchups and the health of the roster at the time that game is played. These are questions we can't answer now, but from a general sense, one has to be optimistic.
Q. Mike, do you think Belichick is fooling himself when he comes out smiling after a game like this one? The Jets, with an inferior QB, gained more total yards than the Pats. They played them to near equal time of possession, and caught some tough breaks. Brady could have easily had two picks, while the Pats' second interception was a lucky bounce. Similarly, the McKnight fumble could have been a 14-point swing. I just don't think this performance was that far off the past couple weeks, where it was New England running into some bad luck. -- Niko (Boston)
A. Niko, this is definitely the glass-half-empty outlook. I don't think anyone is saying the Patriots' performance was perfect, and certainly there were a few footballs that could have bounced the other way. But to go into the Meadowlands and do what the Patriots did, in a tough spot, let's give them a little credit here. Will they be good enough the rest of the way? It's fair to have some doubts, but when you look at this one game, I don't know how you can come away with anything but respect for what the Patriots did. And when you consider how much work the coaches and players put into it, I would hope they're smiling afterward. Otherwise, they wouldn't be human.
Q. Hi Mike, what is going on with the run game? The O-line appears to be too often making only partial to no holes for the RBs, who are most often unable to then accelerate. Defenses are quite often quick to know and overpower run plays. This weakness will undermine production and ball control in pressure games and winter weather. Meanwhile, how come BenJarvus Green-Ellis keeps disappearing in games and what of Kevin Faulk's quite limited play? -- Jake (Vancouver)
A. Jake, this is certainly an area they can get better after totaling 60 yards on 28 carries on Sunday night. Overall, it's been inconsistent, but we've seen times over the first nine games where they've proven they can pound it. Better play up front will help them to do it more consistently, and there are other times when it's more on the backs and their reads and patience to let something develop. I thought Danny Woodhead had a couple of nice runs late in the game to help close things out. As for Green-Ellis, he is working through a toe injury and you wonder how much that is affecting him. Faulk had played a lot against the Steelers, was inactive against the Giants, and then saw limited time vs. the Jets. I think that's because Woodhead was the more explosive option in the "passing" back role.
Q. Mike, the offense seemed to move the ball much better in the second half once they went to the no-huddle. Any reason why the Pats wouldn't utilize this more? -- Andrew (New York)
A. Andrew, I've always viewed the hurry-up like a change-up in baseball. It's most effective when used to keep your opponent off balance. Use it too much and you could get burned. There have been other times this season where the Patriots have tried to use it and it hasn't been effective, and that has put the defense in a compromising position. So you're always trying to strike that balance.
Q. Mike, when does Tiquan Underwood start returning kicks for the Pats? Seems like an area the team can improve upon. -- Andy (San Diego)
A. Andy, the kick-return game has been a disappointment. No spark. Underwood was released last Saturday but could be back. A change is certainly possible and one point I'd add is that it's not just on the returner, but the 10 other players on the unit. On Sunday night, those 10 players were Sergio Brown, Jeff Tarpinian, Ross Ventrone, Tracy White, Niko Koutouvides, Phillip Adams, James Ihedigbo, Rob Gronkowski, Rob Ninkovich, Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman.
Q. What's up with the Pats being assessed a penalty on the Gronkowski TD review? We always hear that penalties can't be reviewed -- isn't that why the Troy Polamalu play was ruled a safety even though he obviously punched the ball through the end zone? I'm confused. -- Tim (Phoenix, Ariz.)
A. Tim, this was a case where it was a scoring play, and all scoring plays are reviewed by the NFL this year. When a scoring play is reviewed, all aspects of the play are under review, and that could include everything from whether the player caught the ball, stepped out of bounds, crossed the goal-line, etc. From other e-mailers, there was some confusion about the illegal contact penalty on the play, and why that wasn't enforced, but that flag had been "picked up" because it was determined Tom Brady had been out of the pocket. On Polamalu, it is my understanding that the official made a mistake in that the safety should not have counted.
Q. Mike, Sunday night is a perfect example of why I never bet on sports. I thought the Jets would dominate the game. Do you ever throw up your hands and say, my dog knows what's going on as much as I do? I mean, who would have expected Sterling Moore to play every snap? -- Jim from Denver (Centennial, Colo.)
A. Jim, this is why you have to love sports, and as a Patriots follower, I think one thing you can feel good about is that this team is going to give you all it has. That's a good group in that locker room, which made it easier for me to "invest" in them from a prediction standpoint and take the initial "you're-a-homer" heat. As for Sterling Moore, I wasn't expecting him to play every snap, and I think it's a credit to him that he answered the challenge. That's what being a professional is all about.
Q. Hey Mike, the Patriots' D obviously looked a lot better this week. Did letting Albert Haynesworth go have anything to do with that? Was there more going on in the locker room than we knew about? How do you view his five tackles in Tampa Bay? I think it was just the result of more playing time and being surrounded by less talent. -- Michael D. (Sanford, Maine)
A. Michael, I didn't see the Tampa game so it's hard for me to say much about Haynesworth's performance. In the few highlights I did see, it looked like he penetrated a few times and created some disruption, but it's also notable that the team he was playing for got smoked. From a Patriots perspective, Haynesworth wasn't on board. He said so himself. He wanted to play more and was more interested in his own situation than the team's success. Players can sense that and it affects the on- and off-field dynamic. To me, the Haynesworth situation is a case of addition by subtraction because now you have a situation where it seems like all the players are pulling in the same direction.
Q. Hi Mike, Julian Edelman now has as many tackles on the season as Jermaine Cunningham. Are we on the verge of seeing Cunningham go the way of Darius Butler? How does Cunningham get himself on the field? -- Will (Los Angeles)
A, It doesn't look good, Will. Even in the limited snaps at the end of Sunday's game, you're looking for some type of flash from Cunningham. I didn't see much explosion or anything that indicates better things are ahead in the few rushes he had. I think many of us view Cunningham and think "second-round pick and potential," but when you strip that away and look at what the player is putting on the field, it's not notable. With the way Andre Carter is playing, I don't expect to see much of Cunningham at that right end spot for the rest of the year. He's taken a big step back from the player we saw play 50 percent of the snaps last year.
Q. Mike, I thought it was notable that Gary Guyton dressed but did not play a defensive snap. In an all-hands-on-deck type game, it's surprising he wasn't more useful to the defense with his speed. I mean Julian Edelman played five snaps. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I was also interested in the linebacker rotation, with the Patriots moving Jerod Mayo to the middle, and playing Jeff Tarpinian on the weak side. The expectation was that Guyton would be in the middle and Mayo on the weak side. Also, Tracy White played in sub over Guyton. The plan worked and it makes you wonder why coaches didn't tap Guyton. Injuries could have been a part of it, as Guyton was banged up at the end of the Giants game, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn there was more to it than that. In terms of speed, I actually thought the Patriots got faster from sideline to sideline with Tarpinian and White in the game.
Q. Do you think that Chad Ochocinco is turning his season around? He looked pretty good for the Jets game? -- Mangesh (Herndon, Va.)
A. Mangesh, if Ochocinco contributes like he did Sunday night (16 snaps, 2 catches), the Patriots are going to be fine. I still don't think it looks natural, but he's the best option they have right now outside of Wes Welker and Deion Branch at receiver, and they're still investing to make it work. It was definitely a positive step. As for why we didn't see much of Ochocinco in the second half, I think it was tied to the usage of the hurry-up offense.
Q. Mike, how about Julian Edelman on defense? He put a lick on LT and looked like he was excited to be flying around out there on the field. What do you think the chances are that (with the numerous injuries in the Pats' secondary, including McCourty) Julian gets the call for a more expanded, Troy Brown-esque role on defense? -- Austin (Hartford, Conn.)
A. Absolutely, Austin. I expect to see more of Edelman. I thought it was great, a reminder of what the Patriots under Belichick have been about -- depth, next man up, versatility, anything to help the team win.
Q. Hey Mike, this sounds like a crazy question, but what injury would impact the defense more, Jerod Mayo or Rob Ninkovich? Mayo makes some nice tackles, but it just seems like Ninkovich will make more important plays. -- Matt (Boston)
A. Matt, I think injuries to those players would impact the defense in different ways. With Mayo, he keeps it all together and is a steadying presence out there. You don't see as many big plays, but I view him as a "glue" guy and you need that. Ninkovich is a great story. I was speaking with him after the game and he said, "I don't just want to be a guy where you're looking to replace him in a few years. I want to be more than that." I have great respect for that attitude/mindset and think he deserves everything coming to him. He's made some big plays for this defense.
Q. I think the Patriots' secondary was better Sunday night in big part due to the best pass rush of the season. They need to keep that up in order to help this crew of backups in the secondary that have been forced into service. Andre Carter and Mark Anderson both had good games rushing the passer. Another pass rusher is going to have to step up. Who do you think it's going to be? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A. David, I agree that the pass rush was at its best Sunday night. Anderson was very good in his 42 snaps, and when the Patriots are in sub as much as they were, that's when he really makes an impact. It never hurts to have another rusher, but I think Sunday showed the Patriots will be OK with the players they have if they perform like that. If we're zeroing in for an answer here, Rob Ninkovich is someone I think could add some more in the pass-rush area.
Q. Mike, has Rob Gronkowski now become the best tight end in the NFL already? If not, who's better? -- S. Foster (Friendswood, Texas)
A. That's a tough one for me to answer, Steve, because I'm locked in mostly on the Patriots and don't see a lot of the other tight ends around the NFL. But I'd be surprised if there is another tight end who can dominate in both the passing and blocking games like Gronkowski. You hear Jimmy Graham (Saints) and Jermichael Finley (Packers) mentioned as elite tight ends, but from afar, they seem like the type of players who are more pass-catchers than blockers. A true tight end does both.
Q. Mike, with the available salary cap the Patriots have, isn't it time to sign Welker and extend Gronkowski (I know he's only in year 2) and Carter? With their four high picks in the upcoming draft and a few targeted free agents, this team could be well positioned for several years. -- John (Columia, Mdm)
A. John, talks are ongoing with Welker, but the latest word was that unless there is a significant shift there was no expectation of an agreement at this time. That can always change. I think it's safe to assume the Patriots are talking to other players as well, so I think you're on to something when thinking along these lines. We'll just have to wait and see if any of them produce an agreement.
Q. Mike, it seems that there is some tacit agreement between the Pats and some fringe players (see: Ventrone, Ross; Gronkowski, Dan) that keeps them in the fold, beyond the 53-man roster and the practice squad. Wouldn't these guys be valuable regular backups in Cleveland or Kansas City? Is this uniquely Belichick magic? -- Stu (Pawtucket/Boston)
A. Stu, this is the "shadow roster" and in most cases it's up to the player. I can think of several examples in recent years where a Patriots practice squad player had an opportunity to join another team's active roster and declined. The player decided to stay because he felt this was a better fit for him, or he didn't want to relocate. The one difference is when a player is claimed on waivers by another club, and then that becomes a situation where the player is bound, by contract, to go to the new team.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
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