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NFL Week Five Preview: Patriots @ Bengals

Aqib Talib celebrates his INT last week as the cornerback continues his Pro Bowl campaign

Aqib Talib celebrates his INT last week as the cornerback continues his Pro Bowl campaign in 2013


Losing defensive anchor Vince Wilfork for the rest of the season is a huge blow, there are no qualms about it. Luckily for the Patriots, Brady has officially found his stride with the receiving corps and the defense has managed to cause a turnover in 34 straight games. New England (4-0) pulled out a narrow and impressive 30-23 victory over the talented but underachieving Atlanta Falcons (1-3) in the Georgia Dome last Sunday night. The performance was highlighted by a game ending pass deflection by Aqib Talib intended for Roddy White. Not only is Talib tied for the NFL lead with 4 interceptions, he is shutting down Pro Bowl wide receivers.

New England travels into Cincinnati to take on a (2-2) Bengals team that has taken down the Packers (34-30) and Steelers (20-10), but lost to the Bears in Week 1 (24-21) and the Browns last week (17-6). Young talent in both A.J. Green and Giovanni Bernard provide explosive weapons for third year quarterback Andy Dalton. The Patriots survived a gutsy performance against the Falcons and will be tested again on the road. The release of TE Zach Sudfeld has stirred rumblings of both Gronk and Amendola making returns this week alongside new addition Austin Collie. Since 2001, the Pats are (4-1) against the Bengals. As New England looks to stay undefeated in 2013, check out these 3 keys to victory on Sunday afternoon:

1) Establish the run: LeGarrett Blount looked like a new man under the bright lights during his 47 yard TD scamper to go up 20-10 last week. The Patriots totaled 137 total rushing yards, increasing their season average to 125 YPG – good for 11th in the league. Being able to manage the pace of the game was a huge advantage against Atlanta. New England is dangerous with a consistent running attack. Brady will always “get his”, but the Pats start to dominate when their offense is balanced. It opened up throwing lanes down the field, leading Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edleman to combine for 245 receiving yards. Furthermore, Brady had passes of 49, 44, 24 and 24 yards – an area he was struggling with through the first 3 games. With Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick banged up, a 100 yard plus game on the ground should help secure a victory on Sunday. Expect the Patriots to favor Blount with Ridley missing 3 straight practices this week. Although the return of Amendola and/or Gronk will lead to more of a spread offense, getting it done in the trenches needs to be a priority.

2) Stay stout up front: Balance on the Cincinnati side of the ball comes in the form of the running back duo old friend BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovanni Bernard. The two have combined for 289 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on the season. DT Joe Vellano stepped in nicely for Vince, recording a clutch sack but it unproven besides that series. Veterans Tommy Kelly and Rob Ninkovich need to continue their solid play in the absence of Wilfork. Chandler Jones has kept up his strong play and is an integral piece to the Patriots success this year. The Bengals like to run two tight end sets with Gresham/Effert and with Green over the top, Cincinnati is able to attack defenses from a variety of positions. Expect New England to make stopping the run and underneath passes a priority with more playing time for Brandon Spikes.

3) Convert in the Red Zone: The Patriots threw for 2 touchdowns out of 3 opportunities inside the 20, raising their ratio to 6 out of 16 on the season – putting them at 30th in the league. If there has been one weakness on offense, it’s their lack of production when it matters. New England has survived without Gronk in his sweet spot of the field but need to improve in this area if they want to compete in January. The running backs still have not crossed the goal line in the Red Zone in 2013. Expect Blount to get more opportunities this week with the aforementioned banged up Ridley. Get it done in the Red Zone and the Patriots will remain unbeaten at (5-0).

34-24 New England. Tom Brady is too much and Dalton throws two interceptions.

 

Patriots 2012 Regular Season By The Numbers

On the surface, it is easy for any fan to see just how good or bad of a season their team has had. Whether it be wins and losses or total points put up, some stats tell the story, god or bad, of the year of their favorite team.

What most fans fail to sometimes realize, however, is all the stats that go into making an NFL team successful. Here are a bunch you would never even think to remotely consider about the 2012 season of the New England Patriots.

You name it. If it can be statistically tracked in the NFL, it’s probably in this post.

0 – The number of wins the team had when their leading rusher was under 40 yards for the game (0-2).

0 – The Patriots had no two-point conversions on the year. Just kind of odd.

0.5 – Brandon Bolden averaged half a yard more per carry than Stevan Ridley did.

1 – The number of franchises to score 500 points four different times. New England accomplished that this year after 500-point seasons in 2007, 2010 and 2011 as well.

1 – The New England offense ranked first in the NFL in total yards, yards per game, points and points per game in 2012.

1 – Of the four members of the team who finished the year as the starting secondary, only one (Devin McCourty) was on the team last year. Alfonzo Dennard, Aqib Talib, Steve Gregory were the other three.

1 – Vince Wilfork‘s four forced fumbles were tied for first in the NFL.

1 – The number of full games that tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were both on the field for the whole contest – the season finale against the Dolphins.

1 – The number of NFL quarterbacks to throw at least one touchdown pass in all 16 regular season games for three straight seasons – Tom Brady in 2010-12.

2 – The number of teams to ever win 10-plus games in 10 consecutive seasons – the Patriots became the second to accomplish that this year.

2 – Their two-game losing streak in Weeks 2 and 3 was tied for their longest losing streak since they lost four straight in the 2002 season.

2 – This season was the second time they have gone undefeated against the AFC East, joining the 2007 team.

2 – The number of teams to ever record 400 first downs in a season – the 2012 Pats and the 2011 Saints.

2 – The number of points that Stephen Gostkowski needed to tie the all-time single-season Patriots scoring record set by Gino Cappelletti in 1964.

3 – Pass plays in the NFL this season longer than Shane Vereen‘s 83-yard reception in Week 12.

3 – It had been three years since the Patriots lost four or more games in a season (10-6 in 2009).

3 – The Pats have scored 500-plus points in three consecutive seasons.

The Patriots' offense has been unstoppable in the three years since drafting this duo.

The Patriots’ offense has been nearly unstoppable in the three years since drafting this duo.

4 – New England had four different players lead the team in receiving in their 16 games – Brandon Lloyd (3), Wes Welker (9), Gronkowski (3) and Vereen (1).

4 – It was Brady’s fourth career season of throwing 30 or more touchdown passes, good for a tie for the fourth-most all-time.

4 – Welker finished four receptions behind league-leader Calvin Johnson, who had 122 on the year.

4 – The Patriots have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons.

4 – The team had four different players lead them in rushing in their 16 games – Ridley (13), Bolden (1), Julian Edelman (1) and Danny Woodhead (1).

5 – There have only been five Patriots running backs to rush for 1,200 yards in the team’s history. Ridley became the fifth this year.

5 – Wilfork was elected to the fifth Pro Bowl of his career and will start on the defensive line for the AFC.

5 – The team has held its opponents to 20 points or less in five of six games since Nov. 18 (5-1).

6 – In 16 games, the Patriots only lost six fumbles.

6 – The Pats finished six spots higher in total defense this year compared to last season when they finished 31st in the league.

6 – New England has been a top-10 offense in the NFL for six straight seasons.

7 – The amount of consecutive games that Brady needs to throw a touchdown pass in to break the all-time record of 54.

7 – New England’s longest winning streak of the year from Week 7 through Week 14.

7 – The number of points that Brady’s total QBR trailed Peyton Manning‘s for tops in the league.

7 – McCourty was one of seven NFL players to return a kickoff more than 100 yards on the year.

7 – The team sent seven members to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

New England's seven Pro Bowlers in 2012 are the third-most in the league.

New England’s seven Pro Bowlers in 2012 are the third-most in the league.

7 – Last year’s NFL leader in interceptions, Kyle Arrington, had seven fewer interceptions in 2012 than a year ago. He had seven in 2011.

8 – The number of years it had been since the team had a 1,200-yard rusher before this year. Corey Dillon rushed for 1,635 yards in 2004.

8 – Rob Ninkovich led the team with eight sacks on the year.

8 – The Pats had eight return TD’s on the season.

9 – The number of games in which the starting offensive line of Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Logan Mankins were all on the field together.

9 – Brady now ranks ninth on the NFL’s all-time passing list with 44,806 yards. He needs 1,427 yards to pass Vinny Testaverde.

9 – Ridley finished the season as one of just nine non-kickers in the top-40 in the league in scoring.

9 – The team has a nine-game division win streak heading into next season.

10 – The number of consecutive 10-win seasons for the Patriots – the second longest such streak ever (16).

10 – The team scored 30-plus points 10 times in their 16 games in 2012 (8-2).

10 – The number of players who had a rushing attempt for the Pats in 2012 led by Ridley’s 290 carries.

10 – New England had 10 more sacks than it allowed in 2012.

11 – They also had 11 more interceptions than their opponents did.

11 – The combined number of points New England fell by in its four losses against the Cardinals (2), Ravens (1), Seahawks (1) and 49ers (7).

11 – The number of current and former Pro Bowl running backs that Ridley out-rushed in 2012.

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Patriots 2012 Leaders & Preseason Prediction Results

Back in late July, I sat down, like a lot of sports writers do, and determined who I believed would lead the Patriots in some of the main statistical categories on offense, defense and special teams in 2012. I don’t know if it was not being that familiar with some of the new pieces of the team or the hot summer heat that got to me, but looking back now, some of my picks were quite wrong.

But, hey, I’m not Tom Brady. I’m human.

So, here are the leaders from the 2012 Patriots accompanied by my apparently ill-advised preseason picks.

Devin McCourty led the Patriots in several statistical categories in 2012, including kick returns.

Devin McCourty led the Patriots in several statistical categories in 2012, including kick returns.

Kick return attempts: As this stat declines around the league on what seems like a year-to-year basis, there are still enough return attempts made to have it be a kind of legitimate statistic. Six players attempted at least one kick return for New England in 2012, but, as it was apparent to fans, one player ran away with the job. Devin McCourty finished the season with 27 kick returns, 24 ahead of the next-highest total. My preseason prediction: Danny Woodhead (2).

Kick return yards: Obviously with the amount of returns he had and with the other five players combining for just 11 on the season, McCourty claimed this title too. He finished the year with 654 kick return yards while averaging 24.2 yards per return and returning one kick 104 yards for a touchdown. His 654 return yards were good for 14th in the league in 2012. My preseason prediction: Danny Woodhead (43).

Punt Return Attempts: Before Julian Edelman went down with a broken foot following Week 13, he was poised to run away with this crown. Then came the injury, however, and Wes Welker made it close. The winner for the 2012 Patriot with the most punt return attempts (drum roll, please): Wes Welker, who edged out Edelman, 25-17. Most years, however, the punt returner doesn’t get hurt and then lose the team lead in returns. My preseason prediction: Julian Edelman (17).

Punt return yards: With an 0-3 start to my psychic career, I could really use a win in this next category. As expected when Edelman went down, Welker made this stat end up really close too, but even with more returns than Edelman, Welker had less yards. Edelman led the team with 263 punt return yards to Welker’s 243 (15.5 average). The pair finished the year 21st and 22nd in the league in punt return yardage and I finally picked one right. My preseason prediction: Julian Edelman.

Special teams touchdowns: As I said, McCourty returned a kick for a touchdown, but Edelman also returned one punt for a score. They were the only two to do it for the team on the year and each finished with just the one. McCourty’s was for 104 yards and Edelman’s was for 68 yards. No one in the league had more than two punt return or kick return touchdowns on the year. If I had gotten it right, it would have been complete luck. My preseason prediction: Danny Woodhead and Julian Edelman (1 each). So, I guess I got it half right. Partial credit counts in this class.

Sacks: This was a tough one for me as last year’s leader Andre Carter decided to retire or something (I don’t really know), so I had to spend some time trying to think who might take over the distinction. After some head scratching, I still didn’t know, so I took a guess. The team’s leader ended up being Rob Ninkovich. Let’s just say he wasn’t even on my radar. Ninko finished the year with eight sacks as he had quite a season for someone hardly anyone outside of New England has ever heard of. He finished the year 29th in the league in sacks, but was tied with Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh in that spot. My preseason prediction: Chandler Jones (6).

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Woodhead Has Been At Best Down The Stretch For Patriots

Little big man: Danny Woodhead often leaves some opposing defenders with this look as they try to figure out how a person his size got by them.

Little big man: Danny Woodhead often leaves some opposing defenders with this look as they try to figure out how a person his size got by them.

When the Patriots need a spark on offense, which believe it or not, they sometimes do, the team often finds themselves turning to the little man with the big heart, Danny Woodhead. The 5-foot-8-inch running back from the slightly undersized town of North Platte, Neb., has given the No. 1 offense in the league in 2012 yet another weapon that opposing defenses need to prepare for.

Though there aren’t many backfields around the league that Danny would head, he got his chance with the Patriots in 2010 after being let go by the Jets and hasn’t disappointed in his time in Foxboro. While playing behind starting backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and now Stevan Ridley, Woodhead has been used mostly on 3rd down and in the no-huddle offense. Fortunately for him, the no-huddle is something that the Pats run on almost every series and something that his incredible quickness is perfect for.

Particularly in the last two weeks against the 49ers and Jaguars, the play of Woodhead has been crucial for New England. Though they couldn’t quite get the W against San Francisco, Woodhead helped to get them back into the game for sure. His 12 carries for 61 yards and two touchdowns allowed them to have a fighting chance and climb out of the 28-point hole in the 2nd half. He also added five catches for 23 yards, showcasing his versatility on the national Sunday  Night stage and accumulating his highest rushing output of the year to date.

And last week? With the offense struggling again, Tom Brady found Woodhead on a 17-yard pass just before the half to tie the score at 13. Before that, it had been all Jacksonville and after that, the Patriots gained control for the most part. No. 39 finished with three carries for seven yards to go along with two receptions for 38 yards and the one big touchdown. The little man’s getting bigger as the calendar’s getting thinner.

I don’t think his touchdown catch and presence on the final drive of the 1st half should be overlooked at all. Though it likely won’t, the touchdown has the potential to be a season-changing one. It could end up being the difference between a No. 3 seed and no 1st round bye and a No. 1 seed and home field advantage if the Broncos and Texans both somehow lose this weekend. We shall have to wait and see.

While his contributions in the last two weeks have certainly caught the eye of at least one Patriots fan, he has been an offensive presence for the team all season long. In fact, only once this year has he played in a game and not touched the ball – the Week 10 59-24 blowout win over Indianapolis. To be honest, does it look they really needed him that day?

Woodhead continues to get better now in his fourth year in the league out of Division II Chadron St (Chadron, Neb.). Four of his ten career rushing touchdowns have come this season and so have three out of his four career receiving touchdowns. His only two career multi-touchdown games have come this season in Weeks 10 and 15 against the Bills and 49ers.

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Five Predictions To Kickoff Patriots Season

Will Brandon Lloyd become another 1,000 yard receiver for Tom Brady and the Patriots Offense?

With the 2012 NFL regular season officially underway, rosters are set and new stars are ready to be born.  For every emerging star, however, comes a player who won’t live up to expectations and takes a step back from their previous success.  Each team across the league will experience their share of these booms and busts. Luckily for Patriots fans, Head Coach Bill Belichick has been able to produce more booms than busts throughout his career with the team.

Now before you all start thinking about who will surprise and who may disappoint for the Patriots this season, I’ve made it a lot easier by offering five bold predictions to keep an eye on for the Pats 2012 campaign.

Devin McCourty will return to form in his third season

The drop off we saw from McCourty during his sophomore season was mind boggling.  One year removed from a seven interception season, McCourty got torched by the league’s top receivers week in and week out.  Given the production during his rookie season, McCourty’s play can only improve the third time out.  I expect McCourty to rebound nicely this year and take ownership for his poor performance from a season ago.  McCourty and Kyle Arrington should form a reputable corner back pairing in 2012.

No Patriots Running Back rushes for 1,000 yards

This was the case last year and will be the case again this season.  BenJarvus Green-Ellis barely eclipsed 1,000 yards two seasons ago and now he’s the lead back in Cincinnati.  With the departure of Green-Ellis, a serious time share could occur in the Patriots backfield.  While second year running back, Stevan Ridley, is supposed to get a majority of the early down work, we can expect Danny Woodhead as usual on third down situations.  Then there comes Shane Vereen, also a second year back who will likely be added to the mix should he stay healthy.  With three running backs involved and all rather unproven, I wouldn’t expect any Patriots running back to become a shining star this season.

The Patriots will have four receivers with 900+ yards

For any other team in the league, this would be unfathomable.  Not even the Aaron Rodgers led Packers have enough talent on offense to pull this off.  The Patriots, however, have the personnel to accomplish this amazing feat.  While this may be the boldest of my predictions, 900 yards across four players totals 3,600 yards, a number that should be far passed by quarterback Tom Brady.  Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez each cracked the 900 yard mark last season, with Welker and Gronkowski going well over 1,000.  If those weapons weren’t enough for Brady, the Pats strengthened their offensive attack in the off season by acquiring down field threat, Brandon Lloyd.  With Lloyd and Brady already clicking in practice, the respected Lloyd has a legitimate shot at 1,000 yards this year as well.

Tom Brady throws for 40+ Touchdowns

See prediction above.  With Brandon Lloyd now in the mix, Brady will have even more ammo to rack up touchdown pass after touchdown pass, building on the 39 TDs he threw for last year.  Brady has shown what he’s capable of when given elite talent to throw to.  If anyone remembers the historic season he had with Randy Moss in 2007, they will thoroughly understand the reality of this and almost expect Brady to throw for 40+ touchdowns.  As long as he stays healthy, Brady could challenge his 50 touchdowns from 2007.

No one on the Patriots will record more than 6 sacks this season

Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.  This has consistently been a problem for the Patriots defense in recent memory and it may not be solved this season either.  With the departure of Andre Carter, who recorded 10 sacks a year ago, the Patriots are in desperate need for one of their pass rushers to breakout in 2012.  Aside from Carter, Rob Ninkovich was the only other Patriots player to surpass six sacks last season as he finished with 6.5.  There will be a heavy burden on rookie defensive end, Chandler Jones, to emerge as the team’s leading pass rusher.  While I expect Jones to make an impact and contribute immediately, expectations should not be set too high for a young player with untapped potential.  Aside from Jones and Ninkovich, I cannot see too many other formidable pass rushing options for a team that has struggled mightily in that defensive category.

These are just five things to keep an eye on in what should be another phenomenal season for the Patriots in 2012.  What will you be watching for when the Pats kick off the season this Sunday in Tennessee?

Uncertainty Surrounds The New England Patriots Ground Game

Second year Running Backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are expected to lead the rushing attack for the New England Patriots in 2012

In the current landscape of the National Football League, the concept of having a featured running back who is counted on for 25 to 30 carries a game has become a reality of the past.  Given the implementation of unique offensive formations and the fragile state of an average player in today’s NFL, many teams across the league are installing a two running back system.  For the Patriots, the running back by committee tactic has been in place since the glory days of Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith.

As we are half way through the 2012 Preseason, the Patriots are holding true to this league-wide trend.  Head Coach Bill Belichick made it clear that the team would take the running back by committee approach in 2012 when they opted not to re-sign the rock solid BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  With the departure of Green-Ellis to the Cincinnati Bengals, the fate of the Patriots ground game now lies in the hands of two second year running backs, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen.  While Ridley and Vereen are expected to handle most of the early down work, fan favorite Danny Woodhead is the third head of the team’s unproven rushing attack.  Despite having the most experience of the trio, Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels, will utilize Woodhead mainly on third down due to his pass catching ability and lack of power as a straight ahead rusher.

Despite the lack of experience amongst the Patriots running backs, there is undoubtably some untapped potential in both Ridley and Vereen.  Ridley, who was a starter at college football powerhouse LSU, saw action in 14 games last season, more so towards the end of the regular season.  In weeks 15 through 17, Ridley rushed for a combined 210 yards, averaging more than 5 yards per carry.  Despite the small sample size, Ridley showed some promise during his limited reps at running back.  At 5 yards a carry, Ridley would find playing time in any NFL backfield.  This level of production towards the end of the 2011 season provided Belichick with enough ammo to part ways with Green-Ellis come the offseason.

With Ridley shaping up to be option A for Bill Belichick’s rushing attack, option B (Shane Vereen), is not far behind in the race for carries.  As a second year player out of Cal, Vereen saw limited action during his rookie campaign as he was restricted for a majority of the season by a sore hamstring.  While only appearing in 5 games last season, it’s his colleagiate production that has Patriots coaches salivating.  During his 3 years at Cal, Vereen posted outstanding numbers rushing for 29 touchdowns and almost 3,000 yards.  With Ridley tied to the sidelines due to a banged up knee, Vereen was given the opportunity to receive a majority of the carries this past Monday night against the Eagles.  While rushing for only 20 yards on 10 carries, Vereen flaunted his ability to make plays out of the backfield as he recorded 4 catches on the night.

Expectations going into the regular season are that Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen will take on a large chunk of the ground work.  While Ridley and Vereen will battle for carries on first and second down, it is anticipated that Belichick will involve the more proven Danny Woodhead on passing downs and in special offensive packages, similarly to how he has been used the previous two seasons.  After Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead, the remainder of the Patriots backfield will likely remain irrelevant barring any injuries.  Undrafted rookie, Brandon Bolden, is still fighting for a roster spot and only hurt his chances against the Eagles by muffing a punt in the 2nd quarter.  On a side note, the Patriots also recently signed Olympic silver medalist and former University of Florida star, Jeff Demps.  Despite putting up good rushing numbers at Florida, Demps will primarly be used as a return man on special teams, especially given his time away from football to particpate in the Olympics as a sprinter.

For now, Patriots fans should expect the rotation of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead in the backfield.  While the team will start the season with a running back by committee approach, Patriots coaches and fans alike will be closely monitoring the situation, looking for any signs of a breakout from most specifically Ridley or Vereen.  With Ridley, Vereen, and Woodhead all serving as viable options for the Patriots ground game, the team will still be seen and defended as a pass first offense under the leadership of Tom Brady.  With the bar set low for these young running backs, the opportunity is available for one these guys to surprise the rest of the league and put forth a productive season.

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