This week's Patriots mailbag has a heavy emphasis on defensive strategy, as different options are explored as to how the team might defend Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts' offense.
What has piqued interest more than anything is receiver T.Y. Hilton, after his 13-catch, 224-yard, two-TD performance in the wild-card round.
How do the Patriots match up against Hilton? What resources might they devote to him?
That's where this week's 'bag begins, before touching on some of the other news-related developments surrounding the team, such as linebacker Brandon Spikes landing on injured reserve and former Patriot Deion Branch signing with the Colts.
Q: Hi Mike, what do you think the key is for stopping Indy's T.Y. Hilton? It must be doable because even though he had a good year, there were many games where he was effectively shut out. Do you have a sense of how the Pats can take him out of the game on Monday? Andrew Luck is obviously an awesome quarterback but he doesn't have many consistent receivers to target other than Hilton. -- Tim (Washington State)
A: Tim, when the Patriots-Colts matchup was initially set, I had assumed that it would be a matchup situation with Aqib Talib. That thought was obviously influenced by Hilton's monster game in the wild-card round. But the more I've gotten into watching the Colts, specifically their 42-28 loss at Cincinnati on Dec. 8 and their 23-7 win over the Chiefs on Dec. 22, I am questioning if that will be the approach on an every-play basis. In those games, you saw Andrew Luck distributing the football to receivers LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen and tight end Coby Fleener, and it wasn't as if others weren't making plays. So I think the Patriots need to be careful being too Hilton-centric. I'd expect some physical play at the line of scrimmage and as Tedy Bruschi wrote, there surely will be times when Talib is on Hilton. I'm just not sure it will be that pure matchup type situation like we saw when Talib covered Bengals receiver A.J. Green or Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
Q: Mike, I keep hearing calls to put Talib on Hilton, but Hilton is the wrong kind of WR for Talib -- small and quick, like DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith. Wouldn't it be better to have Talib take the next best receiver (Fleener?) and shade Hilton with a safety over the top? -- Bill (Keene, N.H.)
A: Bill, I think Talib can handle any type of receiver -- small and quick, tall and fast, physical, etc. In that sense, this possibility reminds me of the time that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis matched with then-Patriots receiver Wes Welker, and disrupted him with physical play at the line of scrimmage. I don't think it's a given the Patriots will do it on an every-down basis, but maybe they pick their spots, such as on key third-down situations.
Q: Mike, two things: Can Talib cover T.Y. Hilton? Everyone seems to think this is a slam dunk. But small, shifty, fast receivers are not Talib's forte. If they put him one-on-one with Hilton, I think it could get ugly. Second, can this team honestly beat either Seattle or San Fran? I do not think so. I don't think any AFC team can. Going to a sixth SB would be nice, losing another would be brutal. I think I'd prefer to watch Manning lose his second SB. Thoughts? -- Dan (Boston)
A: Dan, I don't necessarily agree that Talib struggles against small, shifty, fast receivers. The Carolina game against Steve Smith wasn't his best, but he still made plays. It's not like he all of a sudden becomes a fourth-string cornerback in those matchups. In this game, I think jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage is going to be important and I wouldn't hesitate to put Talib on Hilton in certain situations. I figure he'll be watching plenty of old film of Ty Law beating up on Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne with that type of technique. As for the Super Bowl, that's a pretty negative thought, Dan. Have you been listening to too much sports talk radio? Of course they can win it.
Q: Weather forecast for Saturday appears to be not too uncomfortable compared to this past weekend for the Packers-49ers game. How might this affect the game? -- George (Warwick, R.I.)
A: George, I'd say that's a break for the Colts. The Patriots are one of the best cold-weather teams in the NFL and they would have benefited from more of a chilling forecast.
Q: Hey Mike, I know that a lot of folks will be focused on the X's and O's of this matchup with the Colts but I for one love the nostalgic value of another great postseason bid against the Colts. Just want to hear if you feel like now that Andrew Luck has taken over for Peyton Manning, if the Colts still feel like that postseason rival you are scared of but can't wait to play come January. -- Alex W (Des Moines, Iowa)
A: Alex, seeing the classic Colts road white uniforms will be a reminder of some of the great high-stakes games between these franchises over the last decade. I don't get the same feeling, though, in part because the Colts have a new front-office and coaching regime. There just isn't the same history between the key figures involved as there was when it was president Bill Polian, coach Tony Dungy and quarterback Peyton Manning on the other side.
Q: Mike, I know it's presumptive but I can't help with some wishful thinking. If we should win on Saturday, what potential AFC championship matchup is better for us? Hot Chargers coming to us fresh off beating the Broncos? Or going to Denver, into the belly of the beast? Thoughts? -- Charlie (Oklahoma)
A: Charlie, it reminds me a little bit of last year when you could have made a strong case that going to Denver for the AFC Championship would have been a more preferred matchup than a home game against Baltimore. Still, I'd choose the home game in this case.
Q: I'm a big Brandon Spikes fan and I'll be sorry if he's played his last game for the team (he's a free agent). But to be honest, this might be a blessing in disguise. Without Mayo to provide some balance among the LB crew, I think they've become (as a group) too heavy and immobile. And I think with Sealver Siliga playing as well as he has in the middle, Spikes' loss won't be devastating. And, depending on the situation, I could see a Dont'a Hightower/Jamie Collins tandem in sub defense and in standard formation, shift Hightower inside and add Fletcher. Your thoughts? -- GPK (Boca Raton, Fla.)
A: That's how it will likely unfold from a Patriots perspective, so they'll need more from Collins and Fletcher, who move better than Spikes but don't have as much experience and aren't as powerful in the run game. You see flashes with Collins that are impressive, but at the same time, some noticeable breakdowns in filling gaps and coverage. That sort of volatility is what you often get from a rookie. While Spikes was laboring and limited, I think they'll miss his toughness.
Q: Happy New Year, Mike. I'm bummed to see Spikes end the season on IR, especially since I suspect the team won't re-sign him in the offseason. What do you think the chances are of moving Ninkovich back to OLB? I'd think that -- with Carter/Buchanan replacing him at DE -- might give them the best chance on defense. -- Jacob (Bethlehem, Pa.)
A: Jacob, we could see that, but I think their best base unit would look this way:
DE: Chandler Jones
DT: Sealver Siliga
DT: Chris Jones
DE: Rob Ninkovich
LB Don't'a Hightower
LB: Dane Fletcher
LB: Jamie Collins
CB: Aqib Talib
As it turns out, they will probably spend more of the game in sub packages anyway, with one of the linebackers coming off in place of cornerback Kyle Arrington.
Q: Mike, lots of hand-wringing going on over Brandon Spikes being put on IR, but you have to wonder, with Spikes playing seemingly without restriction in Week 16 and the team practicing lightly last week, do you think there is a chance that this move was not made due to a new aggravation of his knee injury but perhaps to free up a roster spot for a player that the coaches feel can contribute more given the high-octane pass attacks that they are about to face? -- Gregg (Scottsdale, Ari.)
A: I don't, Gregg, in part because a player like Spikes would be a big part of the plan against a run-first team like Carolina, Seattle or San Francisco in a possible Super Bowl-type matchup. So it's hard for me to imagine the Patriots pulling the plug on Spikes' season knowing that is a possibility. And it's not like he still wouldn't have played this week and beyond, the snap counts just might have been down a bit from his average (43 snaps per game).
Q: Mike, how much can Deion Branch's knowledge of the Patriots' systems of the past actually help the Colts prepare for and beat the Patriots? Has their system evolved enough, or have they added enough new plays or wrinkles, to mitigate anything that Branch would provide? -- Earl
A: Very little, if anything. I don't think that's what the signing is about for the Colts. The only way it has an impact is if Patriots players allow his presence on the opposing sideline, in Colts colors, to affect them mentally. I just don't see that happening.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm concerned that the Patriots' passing attack is too one-dimensional with Julian Edelman as the only reliable receiver. Which brings me to Danny Amendola. Since the first game he has never really shown the burst and quickness that we were told he possessed. Do you think he is at 100 percent? Or will we be reading after the season is over that he had surgery to repair his hernia or whatever it was that kept him out of action for several games? -- Speros Zakas (Salem, Mass.)
A: Speros, Amendola isn't 100 percent. He's been managing the groin injury all season. I'm not sure if it's the type of situation where surgery is required as much as rest, but he's gutting it out this year.
Q: Mike, with Bill O'Brien taking the Houston position and Josh McDaniels a possibility for Cleveland, do you see either team having interest in Ryan Mallett? Been the understudy for Brady, knows the system and from all accounts has been a good citizen while here, which was the knock on him out of Arkansas. Would either team be willing to part with, say, a second-round pick for him and fill needs with their first-round pick? -- Don (Mansfield, Mass.)
A: Don, it could almost be like Matt Cassel-to-the-Chiefs-in-2009 revisited. That decision obviously didn't work out for the Chiefs. Still, this scenario makes some sense, so I wouldn't dismiss it.
Q: Do I have a right to be furious with Josh McDaniels? I think it is ridiculous that he is taking interviews when he is under contract. – David (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: David, this situation has multiple layers. This is the way the NFL has things set up so coaches in the playoffs don't miss out on the potential for career advancement and the chance to be a head coach. At the same time, for everyone associated with the Patriots, nothing is more important than the playoffs, so it does send a conflicting message when one of the top coaches is interviewing for a job elsewhere. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, for example, informed teams that he wouldn't interview until after Denver's playoff run. Every situation is unique and it's not as if the Patriots haven't dealt with this before. Overall, I don't question McDaniels' commitment to the team.
Q: Mike, you have covered a lot of Bill Belichick press conferences. It seems to me that he has been talking for longer periods of time and many have been in the 20-minute range. Last year I don't think he would have been as open as he was about the restrictions on practices and pre-training camp workouts causing injuries as he was a couple of weeks ago. Have you noticed a change in his press conferences and conference calls? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)
A: David, the biggest change I've noticed this year is after games, particularly on the road. There have been times when Belichick has stood at the interview podium, even though reporters aren't asking questions and he was cut free by the Patriots staffer running the news conference. It's almost as if he's saying, "I'm going to stand here long enough so no one can write that I wasn't willing to answer any and all questions."
Q: Happy New Year, Mike. Instead of the upcoming showdown with the Indianapolis Colts, I would like to ask about the upcoming draft in relation to the defensive tackle position. Over the season it seemed imperative to draft two linemen, but now it doesn't seem as big a priority. The Patriots may have found something in Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, and Chris Jones. In addition, Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork are also under contract in 2014 as well as CFL standout Armond Armstead. Nevertheless, an additional lineman could warrant competition or even to replace Wilfork/Kelly who are both over 30 and recovering from injury. Taking all this into consideration, how do you envision the defensive line heading into 2014? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A: Alvin, I still view the position as one to address in the draft. I think it's important for them to add at least one bigger-bodied tackle because those players are hard to find and develop. It's been impressive to watch Chris Jones and Joe Vellano this year, as they've been thrust into roles earlier than desired. Jones is still more of a 3-technique penetrator than a true two-gap lineman, while Vellano is a bit undersized but plays with good technique (think Mike Wright), so relying on them in front-line roles going forward is still a question mark. A team like the Saints has done a nice job in recent years in this area (2011 first-round pick Cameron Jordan, 2012 third-round pick Akiem Hicks, 2013 third-round pick John Jenkins) and I'd point to them as an example of why it's good business to keep feeding that pipeline.