We've reached a most exciting time on the New England Patriots' 2012 schedule. Back-to-back home games against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, both in prime time, will have the NFL's spotlight shining brightly on the team.
The scene and overall mood in the locker room following the Patriots' AFC East-clinching victory over the Miami Dolphins was notable.
There was no champagne. There was no over-the-top celebration. Some players donned their AFC East championship hats and T-shirts, but others simply tucked them away, because the theme was that there are bigger goals to accomplish.
For someone who grew up in the region, I remember when an AFC East title would have been celebrated. Not anymore.
That's because we're living in the golden era of Patriots football.
Q. Hi Mike, the two most anticipated games of the season are coming up. I consider them "measuring stick" games. How the Patriots perform the next two weeks will be a good gauge of what to expect next month in the playoffs. Agree or disagree? -- Paul O. (Kenosha, Wis.)
A. Paul, I think that's fair. We're talking about two of the best teams in the NFL coming into Gillette Stadium in a span of six days. It should be a playoff environment, times two. If you like competition and football played at a high level, I don't know how you can't get excited for this part of the schedule. I was previewing the Patriots-Texans game for a piece on ESPNBoston.com and going through that process already has me excited for what is ahead. I don't think the season is lost if the Patriots come away with two losses, but these are the games that figure to have the greatest impact on playoff positioning. If the Patriots want a No. 1 seed, they need to win both.
Q. Tom Brady always struggles more than expected when up against a good defense, never mind one of the best in the NFL in Houston. Plus he'll likely be without Rob Gronkowski and may be missing Julian Edelman, who has surged recently. I'm thinking the Patriots' O will put up 14, maybe 17, points given home-field bonus, but will be dependent on special teams and the D to put up points as well. Your thoughts? -- Otis (Boston)
A. Otis, I think the Patriots will score more than 17 points in the game. The Texans' defense is good, but if the front holds up, I think there are opportunities to move the ball and score points. The protection is huge, especially when going up against someone like J.J. Watt, one of the most impressive defensive linemen to enter the league in recent years. The Texans have some questions in the secondary, but when they get a good pass rush, it helps mask some of those issues. As for Brady, I think we'd all agree that it wasn't his best game Sunday, but after re-watching it, I think it speaks to how high he's raised the bar over the years. A lot of quarterbacks would take that type of performance -- he played smart, he avoided the critical mistake (that was a terrific interception by Reshad Jones), and he had the majority of the burden placed on his shoulders because they couldn't run it for the first 3½ quarters. He's such a mentally tough player.
Q. Hi Mike, Tom Brady had an inconsistent game with overthrows and underthrows, while the long ball remains challenging. What were your thoughts on his performance Sunday? -- Jake M. (Vancouver)
A. Jake, I think we'd probably all agree that we've seen Brady play better, but I don't read anything into it. That game reminded me of some of the recent years where the Patriots were so one-dimensional (until the final 16-play drive) and relied too much on Brady, who in turn relied too much on Wes Welker. I think you have to give the Dolphins some credit for playing solid defense and forcing Brady and the Patriots into that mode. Not Brady's best, but he still did the things needed to lead the team to a win. In the end, that's what it is all about.
Q. Mike, is the signing of Donte' Stallworth an indication that Julian Edelman's injury is serious and if so, what are your thoughts on Stallworth and what he might have left in the tank? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
A. Gregg, that's how I view the signing of Stallworth. I don't think they do it if Edelman wasn't going to miss time. As for Stallworth, I think the key is that he knows the offense and can come in and get lined up and run a play, so the offense still has the capability to go with a three-wide or four-wide grouping if it so desires. As we saw in training camp, Stallworth can still run, so the physical skills are still there at age 32. I wouldn't set the expectations too high, but I think Stallworth can help them in this "emergency" situation. It could be much worse; they could be signing a player with little background in the system and forced to give him a crash course to get him ready for arguably the biggest game of the regular season to date.
Q. Mike, I am thrilled that we are once again AFC East champs, first goal met! Now onto other goals (securing a top 2 seed for first-round bye), we still really don't have much room for error. I am concerned after the Edelman injury that we are pretty depleted at the WR/TE position. How are the Pats going to face a team like the Texans if we don't have enough passing weapons? Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez ... while they are great, I still feel the need for depth. Are you just as concerned about the passing game? If not, I just don't think we'll have enough firepower to win this crucial AFC battle! -- Prat (Gaithersburg, Md.)
A. Prat, without Edelman and presumably Gronkowski, the weapons are thinned a bit. I see the concern, and it reminds me of the 2009 behind-the-scenes stuff we saw from NFL Films when Bill Belichick was meeting with his coaches and he explained that if teams took away Randy Moss deep and devoted extra attention to Wes Welker inside, they were going to be in some trouble. I think they are better this year than '09, but it's not as diverse and deep as desired with these injuries. One thing I wouldn't overlook -- the running backs as a presence in the passing game. I still think they have enough firepower if the protection holds up.
Q. Mike, I admit that this win wasn't as pretty as seeing the team throw down 40-plus against the Jets, but for me it gave me more confidence. Any team can win when they play well, but not every team can win when they don't. This was not a great game for New England. Miami's defense was very solid, the Pats receivers were dropping them, Brady was off his usual game, the running game was shut down for three quarters and yet they still stepped up when they needed to, especially thanks to some solid defense. Sailing boats look pretty floating in a calm bay but it's when they're in rough ocean waters that you see their true strength. Thoughts? -- Nathan (Melbourne, Australia)
A. I think that's exactly the way to view it, Nathan. The ugly ones count, too. As Tedy Bruschi said in his weekly chat, the good teams find a way on days that the quarterback doesn't put up big numbers. I think we want to be careful about expecting too much. Look around the NFL and no team is posting blowouts each week. Just a few weeks ago, the Peyton Manning-led Broncos barely scraped by the Chiefs, who had one win at the time.
Q. I don't know what Bill Belichick has done to the secondary over the past few games, but he needs to keep it up. Steve Gregory is proving to be a better safety than what New England had in all of 2011. We've been critical of Kyle Arrington this season, but he's still an excellent run defender. The issue may have been covering on the outside receivers as opposed to slot receivers where he's best suited. He kept Davone Bess in check on Sunday. Devin McCourty has improved at cornerback from 2011, but at the moment he should stay at safety. The long plays have been kept at a minimum since the transition. The tandem of Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard allows Belichick to play more physical on outside receivers. Granted everyone stays healthy, this could be a sign of the secondary turning the corner at the right time. At the moment, could you see a better combination in the secondary? Is it likely that this group is capable to allow the Patriots to be more aggressive in the defensive play calling? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, the statistics support the thought that with more stability in the secondary, it has allowed the coaching staff to be more aggressive. Before the Patriots acquired Talib on Nov. 1 from the Buccaneers, they rushed five or more defenders a league-low 15 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking. With Talib, the number of rushes with five or more defenders has spiked to 28.3 percent. They've been better, although there are still some issues to address (e.g. play-action pass from Ryan Tannehill to Brian Hartline that should have been a TD after Steve Gregory appeared to bite on play-action). Specific to Arrington, I think it's an interesting topic because it appears to be a "less is more" type situation. Given the opportunity to focus solely on slot duties, he's playing the best he has all season.
Q. Mike, the returns on Talib appear to be mixed for the most part, but I'd argue that his arrival DID actually mean a whole lot to this defense -- primarily because it allowed McCourty to stabilize the safety position. Maybe it isn't "Talib Island" at the CB position, but him and Dennard have held their own, allowing McCourty to play a position he appears to be better suited for. Mix in a healthy Gregory and this pass defense is starting took look halfway decent. Do you agree? -- Zack (Boston)
A. Yes, Zack, I do agree. We've seen some spotty cornerback play over the years from the Patriots (Duane Starks comes to mind) and Talib is closer to the good side of the ledger than most. Not in Ty Law territory, but better than what they've had in recent years. I think the point of how his presence has had a positive trickle-down effect on others (e.g. McCourty to safety, Kyle Arrington to slot) is a good one.
Q. Mike, not to kick Patrick Chung while he's down, but if he's not a starting safety should he be on the field at all? Coverage is his weakness and it doesn't seem to make sense to have him on the field in obvious passing situations. Do you think he will be phased out as the season progresses? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A. Dean, I was surprised watching the way Sunday's game unfolded to see that Chung wasn't part of the base, nickel or dime defenses. Even rookie Tavon Wilson was ahead of him on the initial depth chart, coming on in the dime. When I saw that, it really made me question Chung's present and future with the team. But the main reason I wouldn't write him off is what happened in the third quarter. When Dolphins fullback Charles Clay caught a 20-yard pass on third-and-8, with Tavon Wilson closest in coverage, the coaching staff made an in-game personnel switch with Chung replacing Wilson. So I think that reflects that he still has some value to the team, even though it's been a hard fall for him from 2009 second-round pick/starter to trying to carve out a role in his fourth season while battling injuries once again. Also, as Tedy Bruschi opined in his Monday chat, if Steve Gregory has another breakdown in "taking the cheese" on play action like he did against the Dolphins, it could accelerate Chung's return to the field.
Q. Hi Mike, big-picture question here for you: What position does Devin McCourty land at long-term? As you've pointed out, he looks more and more like a safety every week. There's a lot of moving parts in the secondary right now with Chung and Talib in contract years, and two young safeties in Wilson and Ebner who are developing but still unknowns. My question is, if the Patriots had their way, will Devin McCourty be at safety or corner when training camp opens next year? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, thankfully for the Patriots, they don't have to make that decision right now. I truly think it could go in either direction, but it certainly appears that McCourty will stay at safety the rest of the season (barring injury). If I had to choose right now, I'd say keep him at safety, which has been a difficult position for the team to fill in recent years.
Q. It's amazing how durable and tough Wes Welker is. Julian Edelman is turning out to be a good option at receiver, but he is too accident prone. I hope the Patriots and Welker can agree on a new contract in the offseason. Could they afford to sign both Edelman and Welker in the offseason? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A. Yes, Ashley, I think they can afford to sign both receivers. That's a tough turn of events for Edelman with his injured foot, as he was really coming on. Sometimes it's just bad luck. As for Welker, I'm not sure his durability gets enough recognition. At his size, and to take the hits he does, it's quite impressive.
Q. Hey Mike, I couldn't agree more with Field Yates' piece that Welker is one of the best offensive weapons in the NFL. Despite his reputation, he seems to always be open in crucial spots and able to make the big play. Based on what I've read in the mailbag throughout the season, a lot of people seem to be thinking that Julian Edelman is being groomed to replace Welker after this season, but given Edelman's seeming penchant for injury, this, to me, only highlights Welker's durability even more, which has to increase his value to the team. Given the trend, I think Edelman for Welker is becoming a less viable argument and we absolutely see Welker back here next year. Thoughts? -- Scott (Indianapolis)
Scott, I also enjoyed Field Yates' piece on Welker. It can be difficult to find "fresh" angles when writing on Welker, because this has been a consistent string of excellence over the last six years and it almost gets to the point of, "What else can be said?" My feeling all along is that the Patriots and Welker will find a way to work it out. Welker is good for the Patriots, and the Patriots are good for Welker. I sense a little bit of a strain there because of how the situation has unfolded -- if you're Welker, there has to be a part of you saying "What else do I have to do?" -- but I truly believe Welker will be back in 2013 (at worst on another franchise tag). Welker leads the NFL with 92 receptions.
Q. Mike, it seems like Brandon Lloyd's invisible game Sunday (he was actually targeted twice if you count Miami's on-side kick) is being blamed solely on Lloyd himself. I was at the game and witnessed a few early plays where Brandon broke free and was ignored. At what point in TB12's leadership role is he responsible for working a guy into the offense? -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)
Dean, I heard Brady on sports radio WEEI say that he needs to do a better job getting Lloyd more involved. There are a few lines of thinking here: 1. The Patriots were intent on attacking the middle of the field and Wes Welker was too much for the Dolphins to handle, so why go elsewhere? 2. Lloyd could have forced his way into the equation by running better routes and getting open more consistently, which is what the great receivers do even when the ball isn't initially coming their way 3. Brady didn't have his best day, a credit to the Dolphins' defense, and sometimes locked into his security blanket Welker because of that. I know it's going to seem like I'm dodging the question, but I think there is an element of all three in play as to why Lloyd's production was down Sunday in South Florida.
Q. Hey Mike, another quiet Sunday for Lloyd on the stat sheet, but other than hurting my fantasy team, it really didn't bother me. Lloyd seems to be playing hard, and defenses obviously respect his pass-catching ability on the sidelines, opening up the middle for our TE's, Welker, and Edelman. Also, on several of the bubble screens I noticed him making some really great blocks helping our guys get some open running room. Despite not putting up huge numbers (I believe those will come in time), I think he is contributing greatly to the offense, oftentimes in thankless roles. Do you see him being a good fit as a team player, or do you get the sense that he is viewed as a disappointment thus far? I know fans are sometimes hard on him, but I think that comes from unrealistic expectations comparing him to Moss, which is unfair. -- Daniel R. (Monterey, Calif.)
A. I think that's all fair, Daniel. I wouldn't read too much into Lloyd's lack of production, although it does interest me the last two weeks that the Patriots were running some more two-receiver packages with a Welker/Edelman combination, which is a little different. That tells me that there is something Lloyd isn't giving them for the game-plan they've put together. But overall, the main thing I think he's added to the attack this year is balancing it out. He's more of a presence on the outside than they've had of late, which has created a situation where opponents have to think twice about clogging the middle of the field like we saw at times in 2011, and if we want to go back even further, in 2006. I don't get the sense that Lloyd is viewed internally as a disappointment.
Q. Given his recent struggles, what do you think Stephen Gostkowski's effective range is? Unfortunately at this point, anything beyond 35 yards seems like a gamble. Do you think this will lead to the Pats gambling more on fourth down when they're between the 40 and 25 yard line? -- Greg (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A. Greg, my sense is that a lot of that would be tied to the game situation and how the flow of the game has unfolded. I don't think Belichick has done anything out of the ordinary at this point to "protect" Gostkowski, but the inconsistency has to be of concern to him and the staff. Gostkowski bounced back nicely after his 49-yard miss early in that game, but I know he'd like to be making more than 80 percent of his field goals.
Q. Hey Mike, can you speculate as to why we haven't seen more of Visanthe Shiancoe in Gronk's absence? -- Kyle (Baltimore)
A. Kyle, I think it mostly comes down to who is the best complement to Aaron Hernandez at tight end, and Daniel Fells offers the best combination of blocking/pass-catching. Shiancoe, from this view, almost duplicates Hernandez in terms of skill-set (more receiver, less blocker).
Q. Hi Mike, I realize that news flows more freely out of North Korea than it does from Gillette Stadium but any word on the condition of Chandler Jones? Limping, wearing a boot, crutches, still in the country? Any update besides "doubtful" would be appreciated. -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)
A. LOL, John. Jones has been walking around and if you laid eyes on him, you wouldn't know he was battling injury. I think if this were the playoffs, he would have played Sunday.
Q. Mike, Trevor Scott had a noticeable impact in the Dolphins game. Once Chandler Jones and Jermaine Cunningham return, would the Patriots consider rotating him in more regularly? Obviously this would keep players fresh while also creating confusion along the line for the opposition. This is something the NY Giants do well, and I think it would serve the Patriots well to explore it. What do you think? -- Neil (South Boston)
A. Neil, I could envision that scenario unfolding. Basically, you have three roles we are talking about -- starting defensive end, backup defensive end and sub rusher. Jones had played more than 90 percent of the snaps prior to his injury and there were times I thought the workload was starting to wear him down. When he comes back, it might be smart to lower those playing time numbers, and that's where Cunningham and Scott come into play.
Q. Hi Mike, where do you see this defense being come postseason time? I have heard all of the news about them being really bad in terms of yards allowed but mediocre in points allowed. Do you think the defense will pull through in the postseason when teams get better and don't turn the ball over as much? Thanks. -- Nate B. (Elizabethtown, Penn.)
A. Nate, I don't think we're looking at one of the NFL's most feared defenses, but it is trending in the right direction. I thought they showed Sunday they can win a game when the turnovers aren't plentiful. They just keep checking things off the list in terms of questions to answer. There is nothing that says teams won't turn the ball over in the playoffs, but it's nice for them to know they can pull through on a day when they don't produce a high volume of turnovers.
Q. Just a thought, Mike. I found myself thinking about all the fans who think Belichick should bring in an outside coach to challenge his ideas. Doesn't seem like that strategy worked out well for Andy Reid. The Eagles are in pure chaos. -- Ray (Mass.)
A. That's true, Ray. Another thought is that Belichick does bring in outside ideas, but just in different ways. For example, meeting with Oregon coach Chip Kelly about the up-tempo offense. As for the Eagles, my biggest takeaway is that when the wheels fall off, they really fall off. Things are so fragile in the NFL. It makes one appreciate the Patriots' run of success with 12 straight winning seasons, a mark matched by only the Cowboys and 49ers in NFL history, who both had 16 straight winning seasons.