Mailbag is full of holiday cheer


After a week of concerns surrounding the New England Patriots following a road loss to the Miami Dolphins, the team gave its fans a nice holiday present Sunday in Baltimore.

Did anyone predict a 41-7 victory over the Ravens?

The outcome has the mood of emailers to the Patriots mailbag upbeat.

Last week, I made the point that my view of the team hadn't changed after the loss to the Dolphins, because the Patriots have proved that they can beat anyone in the NFL ... and also lose to anyone in the NFL. That still holds true.

But what stood out to me more than anything Sunday was how the Patriots won it. They were the more physical team, turning to the running game on offense and hanging tough on defense while making big-time plays on special teams. Thinking back on Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach, I could make a case as this being one of the best regular-season wins for the team, given the circumstances.

To all readers of this space, I hope this has been a nice holiday season for you. Let's see where this wild ride takes us in 2014.

Q. Hey Mike, it felt good to finally see us beat down the Ravens. I think we just saw how the Patriots must play in the postseason if they want to win. Control the line of scrimmage on both sides, and win the turnover battle. I know that is a lot to ask for with the injuries, and other good teams. However I think that is the only way the Patriots win it all this year. Thoughts? -- Joey (New Rochelle, N.Y.)

A. Joey, we spend a lot of time analyzing and discussing games, but it's really simple for any team: Play physical, control the line of scrimmage and win the turnover battle, and you give yourself the best chance to win. The challenge is doing it week in and week out. If it were easy, every team would be doing it. I think what the Patriots confirmed to us is that even with an injury-ravaged roster, they are capable of doing so against top competition at a time of year any team wants to be playing its best. Particularly, the physical approach stood out on Sunday, as did Logan Mankins' postgame comments. "I know no one ever calls our team physical, but I think if you ask the guys that line up across from us, we're never scared to get after it," he said. "We want to run it. We want to hit you in pass protection. That's just the way we play. We're going to cut you, whatever it takes."

Q. Hey Mike, how much do you think the starters will play Sunday? How much do you think is dependent on the score of our game as well as the score of other teams' games (Broncos, Bengals, Colts). I assume as long as the game against the Bills remains relatively close, Brady and Co. will play. -- James (Idaho)

A. James, I'd expect those who dress for the game to play from wire to wire, unless the outcome is decided late. The team might take a cautious approach with some injured players (e.g., Shane Vereen) given the situation and not play them at all, but otherwise I don't think this is a situation where we're going to see anything too different from the norm.

Q. Could the secondary be the catalyst for the upcoming playoff run? Devin McCourty is turning in his best performance to date at safety. Aqib Talib is slowly regaining his form at cornerback. Even rookies Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan are making plays in extensive playing time. The key is to heal all the nagging injuries. Alfonzo Dennard was limited Sunday due to the knee, Talib is still recovering from the hip, and McCourty was knocked out of Sunday's contest after the tackle on Ed Dickson. A win Sunday would allow another these injuries to heal. Do you feel that the secondary will be the difference in the coming weeks? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)

A. Alvin, the main thing I see with the secondary is that it's the only level of the defense that hasn't lost a key contributor to a season-ending injury. While there have been nagging injuries at times during the season, that group has a chance to be at its best come playoff time. Compare that to a defensive line that knows Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly aren't coming back, or a linebacker group that knows Jerod Mayo isn't coming back. If things work out as the Patriots hope, and they are playing Denver at some point, there can never be enough quality and depth in the defensive backfield.

Q. Am I the only one around here who doesn't think having home-field advantage and to a lesser extent a bye is that big of a deal? If you look at a few of the past Super Bowl champs, it seems like it's just a case of a team getting hot at the right time. Looking at the Patriots' history in the playoffs, it seems like they have had more success being the underdog and going into a tough environment in which no one has given them a chance. I think that is just what they need if they do get a matchup in Denver for the AFC Championship Game. -- Evan (Boston)

A. Evan, I think any team would obviously choose the bye and home-field advantage if it could dictate those terms. But, like you, my feeling is that those elements maybe aren't as important as they once were.

Q. Hi Mike, in addition to enjoying a big Patriots win, I also took notice of Dont'a Hightower's play. I think this game gave Pats fans a glimpse of what he can be. He was mostly solid against the run. His coverage drops were much better. What really impressed me was the middle-pocket pressure he could generate when he rushed the passer. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that his best is yet to come. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)

A. Gary, this was one of Hightower's best games of the season. That drop in pass coverage to set up Logan Ryan's first interception is a big-time play for a defender who is 268 pounds. Rare athleticism. And as for the help generating pressure in the pass rush, one play stood out to me in that area: The Patriots' final fourth-down stop with 6:36 remaining when he came on a blitz and running back Bernard Pierce attempted to cut him. Hightower leaped over him and briefly fell to the ground before getting up and forcing Joe Flacco to basically throw the ball away. Impressive work.

Q. Hi Mike, amid all the worthy positives of the game, it was noticeable that some Tom Brady passes were either a little too high and/or receivers had trouble/unable to catch them (e.g. Julian Edelman). In the playoffs this will be magnified, especially in situational play times. What else can be done to correct this situation, one wonders? -- Jake (Vancouver, British Columbia)

A. Jake, I think this is one that you can look at a few different ways. Brady wasn't pinpoint accurate throughout, and there were times his feet seemed to maybe be moving too quickly in the pocket, but I thought overall some of his misses were situational. When you're up 17-0 early in a game, the one thing you don't want to do is get sloppy and give the opponent an easy turnover to get back in the game. So I thought there was a bit of a conservative nature to Brady's approach at times. I'd sum it up this way: If Brady is the biggest concern going into the playoffs, things are going pretty well.

Q. My question is not so much football-related but more team-concept-related. Sunday, Tom Brady got "snubbed" again and no one reciprocated the underrated "high-five" after the Chandler Jones touchdown. After the game, a lot of my friends (non-Pats fans) posted on social media that the reason why Brady got left hanging was because of his attitude at the beginning of the season. I personally do not believe that, but it did get me thinking. If the same situation happened to another quarterback, such as Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler or Tony Romo, media would be all over it, suggesting that the team is not behind the franchise QB. I do not think that is the case, but what would your response be to those barbaric, blasphemous comments? -- Brendan (Canton, Mass.)

A. Brendan, I am interested by this topic on multiple levels. First, from a lighthearted point of view, the "snub" made me laugh when I re-watched the game. I don't truly think Brady was getting "snubbed," but from the camera angle and when they cut away from it, I could see how someone maybe looking at a still picture or a brief clip would think that was the case. I continue to be amazed at how these things can take on a life of their own. Second, if we could ever take anyone behind the scenes into the locker room, it would be clear how much Brady is respected and viewed as the unquestioned leader of the team by players. I'd take this one with a grain of salt, and if anything, laugh at it as a lighthearted type of thing.

Q. Where would you put Tom Brady on your MVP ballot? How about Belichick on your coach of the year ballot? I believe both men have done perhaps their best work this season. I understand Peyton Manning's numbers determine that he should win the MVP award, but I've been more impressed with what Brady has done. And I understand coaches like Andy Reid and Chip Kelly should win for their teams' turnarounds, but look at the roster and injuries that Belichick has had to deal with. Is it possible that the greatness of one (Brady/Belichick) takes away from that of the other in the eyes of the public? -- Greg (Silver Spring, Md.)

A. Greg, I do think there is a little bit of that dynamic in play. Earlier this year, I was texting with a national reporter about Belichick, saying that I wasn't quite sure how the Patriots were keeping thing together. The response was simply: "Brady." Anyone who has watched the games closely knows it's been much more than that but I think that's the perception working against Belichick, who along with his staff has been coaching his tail off. As for Brady, the idea of "he can win with anyone" works against him, more so than anything Belichick-based. We've seen how hard it is this year. As for the awards, I don't think you could go wrong with either candidate, although I don't think either will win. I haven't studied it close enough, but my initial gut reaction was that the first two candidates I'd explore are Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

Q. If Brady leads this team deep into the playoffs, considering the dearth of experienced talent and the plethora of injuries (Wilfork, Mayo, Rob Gronkowski, et al.), might his performance be considered his "finest hour"? Your opinion, please. -- Tim (Marco Island, Fla.)

A. Absolutely, Tim. Just like 2006 when he did more with less. But there is still a lot of this story still has to be written.

Q. Happy holidays, Mike. Every year I feel like New Englanders complain that we didn't sign the big flashy free agent. But I feel like this year is a clear example of how important depth is over having the one or two big names taking all the salary cap space. Do you think this is the issue with teams like the Falcons and Texans? Should these teams maybe follow the "reload, not rebuild" Patriot way? Considering the $25 million on the bench I think we are looking decent going into the playoffs. -- Paul (New London, Conn.)

A. Paul, I think when the discussion comes up about the most important ingredients in building a team, "depth" would be right there behind the coach and quarterback. I think it's been well established that "buying" a team isn't the way to go. It reminds us of the saying that Scott Pioli had in his office at Gillette Stadium about building a team, not just collecting talent.

Q. Mike, I know this question is way too early to be asked, but do you know if there have been any talks about extending Edelman and Talib? Because from what I have seen all season long, those two have been very crucial to the success of this team. -- Bhavik (Framingham, Mass.)

A. At this point, Bhavik, all the focus is on the task at hand. Unless something changed from a week or so ago, there is nothing to report on this front. I don't think there are active discussions. They'll certainly revisit after the season before free agency starts.

Q. Mike, how impressed have you been with the rookies on defense in recent weeks? It took time for them to emerge, but I think it's fair to say that Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon, Chris Jones and Joe Vellano have all performed above expectations in recent games with the veterans injured week to week or on IR. -- Damian (Tullamore, Ireland)

A. Damian, it's hard not to be impressed with Ryan after his two-interception performance that also included a fourth-down pass breakup. I also thought Harmon showed good range in the fourth quarter on a couple of long throws to the sideline. Chris Jones played with a lot of energy as his motor never seems to stop running. Collins is growing on the job. Overall, you see the upside with this group. I'd put Ryan at the top of the pack right now. Knowing what we know now, it's fun to revisit pieces like this one on the Patriots' draft class.

Q. Mike, guess I was 100 percent wrong last week. Good thing you didn't tell the team to just stay home! On another note, the officiating is awful this season and nothing affects a game more than pass interference in the end zone. They need to do something about that. How about first down/half the distance to the goal? You just can't give an NFL team the ball on the 1-yard line. -- Dan (Leominster, Mass.)

A. Dan, I always appreciate someone who holds themselves accountable. As has been discussed for much of the season, the NFL is a moving target, and so much changes week to week. Just as I would say "don't get too low" after a loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 15, I'd say the same thing this week -- "Don't get too high after a win over the Ravens." While I think it was one of the best wins in Bill Belichick's 14 years as coach, it won't mean much if the team doesn't string more good performances together. As we've seen, this team is capable of beating anyone ... and losing to anyone. As for the possible change in the pass interference penalty, I'd endorse it.

Q. How do you explain the awful game -- not by the Ravens, by the referees. They made the game too long and too choppy. -- Rick (New Bedford, Mass.)

A. Rick, whenever the topic is officiating, I start by saying how much I respect the job and understand it's a tough assignment. This game moves fast. At the same time, I think it's fair to expect a certain level of performance, and it wasn't there Sunday. Particularly, the sequence in the fourth quarter when they changed the false start penalty to a neutral zone infraction, and then the same official incorrectly ruled that Dennis Pitta was out of bounds on a sideline catch that was ultimately overturned on replay, gave me a feeling that there was a lot of guessing going on out there. I appreciate a well-officiated game that allows players to get into a flow (such as Dec. 1 versus Houston, Pete Morelli's crew), and this game was the antithesis of that.