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New year brings good tidings

This week's Patriots mailbag is a surprise "bye" edition, as the team's playoff fortunes took a positive, unexpected turn on Sunday. It's also a "Happy New Year" edition.

Thanks to those who took the time to submit questions -- there are always some great ones from which to choose. Main themes this week are the playoffs, tight end Rob Gronkowski, the possibility of a Romeo Crennel return and the defense's final ranking.

The Patriots are back in action Sunday, Jan. 13, at 4:30 p.m. ET, which gives us some extra time to tackle some prevalent issues surrounding the team. Here we go …

Q. Hi Mike, as we head into wild card weekend, what do you think would be the best outcome for us Pats fans as far as who the Pats can face in the divisional round as well as which team has the best shot to knock off Denver so the AFC championship can be held in Foxboro? I know Baltimore always gives New England fits and Houston reminds me of what happened with the Jets a few years ago where the Pats demolished them in December, also on a Monday night, and then lost to the Jets in the divisional round. -- Nick (Montreal)

A. Nick, I think we're headed for a Patriots/Broncos AFC Championship Game, but in terms of a best-case scenario for the Patriots on wild-card weekend, I'd say it would be the Bengals beating the Texans and then the Colts upsetting the Ravens. That would set up Bengals at Broncos and Colts at Patriots in the divisional round. I'd be surprised if that's the way it unfolded.

Q. Hi Mike, I'm interested in your take on the lack of a clear-cut favorite this year. At times, Atlanta, Denver, Houston, San Francisco, New England, and even Seattle have all been the flavor of the week. Is this a case of glaring weaknesses on each team or real parity the league touts to have? You can make a case for most of the playoff teams winning it all or getting whacked in their first game. I'm curious to hear what you think about the Patriots' chances come playoff time. -- Matthew (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)

A. Matthew, I'm high on the Patriots' chances, especially after they earned the first-round bye. I think they can beat anyone in the playoff field when they play their best game, and now that they have to win only two games to advance to the Super Bowl, not three, I think it's huge. An AFC Championship Game in Denver, if that's the way it unfolds, would be a tough task. But I think this team definitely has the capability to go in there and knock off the Broncos. It will come down to execution that day.

Q. Hi Mike, how did Rob Gronkowski look out there Sunday? Was he moving better than earlier in the season (in other words is that ankle more healed than earlier)? Also, how did his blocking look? -- Jack (Denton, Texas)

A. Jack, to my amateur scouting eye, Gronkowski ran very well in the game. The time off seemed to really help him in that area. The blocking, on the other hand, wasn't at its usual high level from him, as he was clearly getting used to playing with the previously broken left forearm.

Q. Mike, I really didn't like what I saw out of Gronk on those slow-motion replays of him blocking. When you watch the televised version you'll see that he wouldn't engage anyone with that arm. I was hoping that he was playing for confidence that his arm was healed and to eliminate any doubt in his own mind that he was ready. Does that worry you going forward? -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A. Dan, it certainly didn't look natural to me. It probably is more mental than anything and Gronkowski just has to find that comfort level to "let it go." If he doesn't on Jan. 13, that wouldn't be ideal.

Q. Hi Mike, Gronk played with one arm. I don't understand or agree with taking that risk. Derrick Martin, where is the love? Maybe this year's Sterling Moore? It is all coming together. Thoughts? -- JoeFla (Orlando, Fla.)

A. Joe, I truly believe the risk would have been at the same level Jan. 13 in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs. It wasn't as much about risk at this point -- he was medically cleared -- as much as getting him used to playing with it again. In that sense, I liked the idea of using the regular-season finale to get that out of the way so that when Gronkowski hits the field for the playoffs, where the margin for error is often thin, he shouldn't be "feeling things out" when it comes to the forearm. As for Derrick Martin, who played 51 defensive snaps after appearing in 18 through the first 15 games of the season, that was impressive to me. The Patriots went deep into their depth chart and Martin seemed to play well.

Q. Our defense finished second in takeaways in the league, and finished ninth in the league in total points given up. Can we finally admit that the defense is legitimate? -- Jim (Brockton, Mass.)

A. Yes, Jim, I think the bottom-line results speak for themselves when it comes to the defense. The 41 takeaways are second in the NFL, behind only the Bears' 44. And the unit tied for ninth in terms of fewest points allowed (20.6 average). It is a unit that evolved over the course of the year and has a nice mix of veteran, midcareer and young players. I think they can win big with this defense.

Q. Mike, having watched the defense the last couple of weeks, I wonder if the creative blitzes we are seeing (thinking especially of CB Derrick Martin off the edge last game) are more the result of BB having more time to spend every week with the defense because the offense can be left entirely in Josh McDaniels' hands. It just seems like the defensive play calls look more like the Pats of 2003 and 2004. -- Tim (San Francisco)

A. Tim, I think Belichick has always spent time with the defense, not just lately. Throughout the year, it was notable how he would be coaching the defenders on the sideline while the offense was on the field running plays, making it clear how much hands-on involvement he has with the group. More than that, I think the reason we've seen some wrinkles over the last half of the season is that the unit has grown within the system to give the coaching staff comfort to call them. Some better stability in the secondary has helped, too.

Q. Hi Mike, did the NFL ever amend the loophole allowing teams to hire coaches from other teams for the postseason? -- Kevin (Maine)

A. Kevin, that rule remained the same. So if the Patriots were interested in Crennel, they could make the same type of move with him now that they did with Josh McDaniels last year. I think it would be a long shot. They don't really have as much of a need there in my view, whereas last year, Bill O'Brien was getting set to depart his offensive coordinator position so there was an element of transition in play.

Q. Hey Mike, with Romeo Crennel no longer in KC, what do you think the chances of BB bringing him back? -- Russ (California)

A. Russ, I think any team would benefit from having Romeo Crennel on its staff as an assistant. So if it's in the budget, I could see something like that happening next year as Bill Belichick considers filling out his staff. If it ever did happen, I wouldn't expect Crennel to leapfrog Matt Patricia as defensive coordinator. It would still be Patricia with that title, with the aforementioned heavy Belichick involvement.

Q. I think the worst part if the Patriots don't have Rob Ninkovich for the playoffs is that he has improved so much at setting the edge during the course of the season and that is what the Patriots will miss most from him. We know that Trevor Scott, Justin Francis, Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham can all get after the passer, but who can play the run close to the ability of Ninkovich? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, initial reports on Ninkovich are somewhat promising, as they give him a chance to potentially play on Jan. 13 in the divisional round. I do think he's the best edge-setter of that group, and that would be an area in which the team would miss him. On top of that, I think it's his knack to come up with the big play in the critical moment that would be missed most (if it's missed at all).

Q. Mike, couldn't help noticing Darius Butler playing well on Indy. Any insight on why he is working out in Indy as opposed to his time with the Patriots. Is it more scheme-related? I personally think the reason we blew through so many people in the secondary was our lack of a pass rush. -- Neil (Southington, Conn.)

A. Neil, the main thing to me with Butler is that I thought he had lost some confidence in New England. He was playing mostly on the outside and while he has incredible leaping ability, his game played "small" and opposing teams' bigger receivers were feasting on him. It seems like Butler has regained some of that confidence, and is probably best cast as a nickelback, which is how the Colts seem to prefer to use him. Sometimes when a player knows it is probably his last chance, that can be a motivator, as well.

Q. Hey Mike, it's great to see our beloved Patriots back in the playoffs with a bye. My question is with all the coaching vacancies have you heard if Eric Mangini's name has been thrown around. I really think he deserves another chance as a head coach. I think he'd be a good choice for Kansas City (Scott Pioli connection). -- Ed Monroe (San Antonio, Texas)

A. Ed, I haven't heard Mangini's name surface, although I agree with you that he'd be worthy of getting another chance. I think he is a good coach who also understands personnel. However, that's a move Kansas City would have trouble making, especially given the Chiefs just let go of a different former Patriots coach, and of course, there is the Pioli factor there. I don't think Mangini and Pioli are having too many dinners together since Spygate.

Q. Mike, with Tom Brady finishing the season with touchdown passes in every game, he has the chance to break Drew Brees' record for most consecutive games with a TD in 2013. As fate would have it the Saints play at the Patriots in 2013. Do you think the NFL will schedule what 'could' be the record-breaking game vs. the Saints? -- Patrick (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Patrick, that would be ingenious. That's one of my favorite parts about the NFL: how the storylines sometimes just present themselves. But my guess is that with all the scenarios that come into play with putting together the schedule, which is a massive task, the league won't manipulate it to set up this scenario.

Q. What are our chances of signing Bills free safety Jairus Byrd in the offseason. I have admired his work in the limited amount of times I have watched him play. He appears to me to be the best safety in the AFC. Is there a fit for both him and the Pats? -- Paul (Lexington, Mass.)

A. Paul, I like Byrd quite a bit and would think he will draw considerable interest if he ever hits the market. I'd be surprised if the Bills let him get there.

Q. Mike, what do you think is the most pressing need for the team next year? I am thinking they need a stud 6-foot-3/6-foot-5 outside receiver, in the mold of Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant or Andre Johnson. Brandon Lloyd had a nice year, but really isn't a difference-maker. -- Alan (Boston)

A. Alan, I think Lloyd has done what the Patriots hoped he would -- balance out the passing attack by establishing his presence in the outside passing game. Still, I agree about the receiver need. I'm not sure the target has to be 6-3 or 6-5, but they need more weapons out there. I expect them to address it in free agency and/or the draft.