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NFL Week 15 Preview : Patriots @ Dolphins

Bill Belichick may have his toughest challenge to date after the loss of Gronkowski

It wasn’t pretty, in fact – it was a gruesome, improbable and miraculous 27-26 victory by Tom Brady and the Patriots last week against the Browns. Toss up, losing against Cleveland in Week 14 or losing Gronk for the postseason run? I think we all know the answer here. Just after New England escaped again in Houston, following a historic comeback versus Denver, the Pats absorbed their biggest blow of the season. It’s difficult to understand how New England is 10-3 after season-ending surgeries to two Pro Bowl defensive leaders in Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork. Losing the best TE in the game is just icing on the cake. If anything, 2013 has been an opportunity to reflect on how great of a mastermind Bill Belichick really is. He has been able to produce more with less for years and faces his steepest uphill climb to date. No one deserves the coach of the year more than BB.

While a death stare from the hooded menace may have taken the Browns safety’s soul, T.J. Ward took Gronk’s ACL/MCL in the 3rd quarter. Rewind to the first six weeks and the Patriots posted a scrappy 5-1 record without Rob, there’s hope.

New England controls their own #1 seed destiny after San Diego upset Peyton Manning and the Broncos last night 27-20. Furthermore, the Patriots have a chance to clinch their 11th AFC East title in 12 years by defeating the (7-6) playoff hungry Dolphins in Miami on Sunday. Incognito v Martin is still brewing but this mini-run is somewhat of a smoke-in-mirrors to their embarrassing MNF loss to a winless Tampa Bay squad at the height of the scandal. 2013 has been a roller-coaster ride full of luck, controversy and struggle for some but Belichick and Brady are exactly where every team in the NFL wants to be – a game away from clinching. The Patriots have the opportunity to make the Superbowl go through Gillette Stadium by winning out and it starts at Sun Life Stadium at 1:00 PM on CBS. Check out these three keys to victory for the New England:

1) Protect the ball: Over their last six games, the Patriots have had seven turnovers in the first half of these contests. That’s one easy way to fall behind early and often. This trend has been the achilles’ heal to an uncharacteristic season. Belichick is known for his second-half adjustments but these halftime deficits are scary and need to vanish, ASAP. Despite ranking 31st in the NFL by allowing opponents a healthy 135.8 rushing YPG, the young New England defensive unit has kept the Patriots in games by forcing 24 takeaways – good for 2nd in the AFC. When the Gronk returned in Week 7 and beyond, Brady smothered him with targets to a point where fans realized there was such a thing as forcing it too much to the beast. Tom was trigger happy and let more than a few get away from him in the first half of the season. Chemistry later developed and the offense was clicking on all cylinders, but now it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

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NFL Week 14 Preview: Browns @ Patriots

December is here and the offense is clicking better than ever. Watch out Cleveland and the whole NFL for that matter.

Not only will the New England Patriots be playing in their second consecutive 1:00 o’clock matchup, but it will be against another team that has come off a loss to the (4-9) Jacksonville Jaguars. Similar to the Texans, the Browns have individual talent on both sides of the ball but lack chemistry as a unit to bring them to the next level. The Patriots barely escaped last week after a 17-7 halftime deficit, defeating Houston 34-31 behind the leg of Stephen Gostkowski. It wasn’t pretty but Brady and Belichick figured out a way to pull out a victory on the road.

Fast forward a week later and the Pats face a below average Cleveland team that has lost three games in-a-row. The Browns traded away one of if not their best player in Trent Richardson to the Colts for future first-round picks earlier his year. Insert veteran Willis McGahee and it seems to be a great move for the future as T-Rich has since been demoted for Donald Brown in Indianapolis. There’s no secret after the past two weeks, WR Josh Gordon is a beast and an elite threat in the NFL. His consecutive 200-yard games is an NFL record and he is averaging just over 120 YPG. Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and crew surrendered 8 receptions and 121 yards to Andre Johnson last week. This should be interesting. Sprinkle in the talented TE Jordan Cameron, CB Joe Haden, S T.J. Ward and the Browns have the ability to make a bunch of impact plays over 60 minutes. The real question is, who will execute for all four quarters? The Patriots. Check out these three keys to victory for Sunday:

1) Re-establish the run: Brandon Bolden was a healthy scratch in today’s practice, leaving reporters and analysts scratching their heads. Could this be the week Ridley returns to the active roster after being disciplined last week for three straight games with a fumble? There is no doubt he is the Patriots’ best all-around back, he already proved this last year. Ball security issues continue to haunt the LSU alum. Shane Vereen is clearly the passing back while LeGarrette Blount and RB James Devlin handle the power duties. Cleveland’s run defense is ranked 5th in the NFL, limiting opponents to 98.9 YPG. ILB D’Qwell Jackson and DT Phil Taylor are the two core leaders in their front seven. Expect to hear their names, as well as former Raven Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard early and often. If Bolden is indeed inactive, the Patriots have no other choice but to bring Ridley back into a starting role. Blount can not handle a full workload on his own and Vereen is too valuable to be pressed into a lead back role. Despite this uncertainty, it is imperative that the Patriots execute a balanced offensive attack to keep the Browns guessing.

2) Contain Josh Gordon: Quite obvious after the aforementioned statistics he posted in the last two games (24/598/3). His 6’2″ frame wins on jump balls and after breaking one tackle he scampered for a 95-yard touchdown last week. This dude is dangerous. He is averaging 19.5 yards per reception and has 7 touchdowns on the season. It’s hard to forget how Belichick managed to limit TE Jimmy Graham to zero receptions earlier in the season. Sure, he was somewhat bothered by an ankle injury but that doesn’t matter – no one is 100% after Week 1. Aqib Talib has recently squared off against Steve Smith and Demaryius Thomas. While half of the game is a mental battle for Talib, he may be up against his toughest opponent in Gordon. McCourty will need to help over the top all afternoon. QB Jason Campbell has been cleared to start after suffering a concussion. His mobility adds an interesting dimension to the defensive schematics.

3) Start strong: The Patriots have created a horrible habit of digging themselves deep holes to start games. 24-0 against the Broncos and then 17-7 in Houston. This trend has got to stop and while they have been able to overcome early turnovers, that won’t fly in the playoffs. New England has historically been a second-half team due to the mastermind adjustments that Belichick draws up. After being accused of “spying” again last week, you can bet on the Patriots getting off to a fast start on Sunday.

In order to earn a number one or two seed in the playoffs, New England needs to conquer the easy road ahead of them and win out. None of their opponents have winning records. Pats roll easily 31-17.

NFL Week 13 Preview: Patriots @ Texans

Coming off the greatast comeback in franchise history, TB12 looks to lead the Patriots into another December run before the playoffs

It’s been over a month since the Patriots have had a 1:00 game. After an emotional and exhausting 34-31 comeback OT thriller against the Broncos, New England is set up for a trap game against the 2-9 Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. Just a year ago, Matt Schaub & Arian Foster traveled into Foxboro dawning letterman jackets and an 11-1 regular season record. After losing that game and their hold on 1st place in the AFC, the Pats sent them home again in the AFC Divisional round with a 41-28 defeat. Neither Foster nor Schaub will be suited up against New England this year however. Schaub injured his foot/ankle in Week 6 and is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw pick-sixes in four straight games. Rookie QB Case Keenum, University of Houston alum, has stepped in nicely for the turnover-prone Schaub. Stud Foster had season-ending microscopic lumbar discectomy surgery (back) in Week 9, leaving the banged up ribs of Ben Tate to carry the rock alongside undrafted rookie free agent Dennis Johnson.

With great preseason hype and hopes of returning to the playoffs in 2013, Houston won their first two games and lost their next nine (1-5 at home). New England’s three losses on the year have come on their last three road games (CAR, NYJ, CIN), putting them at (2-3) away from Gillette. They have not won a game on the road since September and are in jeopardy of recording their first four-game road losing streak since 2000. Despite being 1st in the NFL in opposing pass yards at 171.8 YPG, Houston has had a nightmare of a season and is in serious contention of earning the top pick in the 2014 draft. There has been some chatter about the natural grass at Reliant Stadium the past few weeks. The Houston Cougars played a game in Reliant Stadium yesterday morning and there are currently no plans to replace the grass. Hopefully there is not a repeat of 2009′s injury to Wes Welker. Much has also been discussed about how New England does not face a team with a winning record in the rest of 2013. In order to avoid falling into the trap, here are three keys to victory for the Patriots in Week 13:

1) Turnover Battle: Weird things need to happen in a game in order to achieve the greatest comeback in franchise history. Last week’s start consisted of three consecutive fumbles lost on the first three NE drives. Ridley’s mishap was followed by a Brady strip-sack and a Blount fumble which had Patriots fans holding their heads in dismay. Do not expect to see Ridley in the first half of this contest, he has continued to struggle in protecting the ball and Belichick benched him for the last three/four quarters of the epic SNF comeback. He just does not give the Patriots the best opportunity to win at this time. The combination of Blount, Bolden and Vereen remains a formidable and effective backfield with three different types of backs. Julian Edelman also fumbled twice but recovered his own mistakes.

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Patriots Stun Broncos With Biggest Comeback In Team History

Julian Edelman leaps into the end zone to give the Patriots the lead in the fourth quarter.

It was fitting that the coldest regular-season game played in Foxboro in the last 20 years (22 degrees) was also (one of) the best regular-season games played in Foxboro in the last 20 years. For the 10th time in 14 career meetings with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady got the best of the other best quarterback of our era after Denver dominated the home team in the first half, but just the first half, scoring the first 24 points of the game and forcing three turnovers.

It was the final turnover, however, that was the biggest one. Denver special teams player, Tony Carter, allowed the ball to hit him after Wes Welker, back to return the kick with three minutes remaining in overtime, may have made the “get away” call just a little too late. New England recovered and three plays later, Stephen Gostkowski capped the biggest comeback in Patriots’ history with a 31-yard field goal to beat the Denver Broncos, 34-31.

If you’re going to turn the ball over three times in a game, you might as well get them all out of your system in the first half.

“The weather conditions get a little tough [and] things can turn quickly,” said  Brady, who finished 34-of-50 for 344 yards and three touchdowns, of the second-half turnaround.

Despite only one touchdown pass from Manning in the first half, Denver jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead thanks to Patriots’ fumbles on each of their first three possessions. Von Miller returned the first 60 yards for a touchdown 4:53 into the game and Kowshon Moreno plowed in from two yards out just over a minute later following a Brady fumble that was returned to the New England 10. They were two of his 224 rushing yards on the night, easily a career-high.

Then, LeGarrette Blount put the ball on the ground, leading to a field goal and quick 17-0 lead before Manning threw his first touchdown pass to in the second quarter to make it 24-0 all before the break.

It seemed like it would be a laugher after the first 30 minutes, but Brady drove the Pats down the field after receiving the second-half kickoff and after just eight plays, hit Julian Edelman from five yards out to make it 24-7. Then, after five straight draw plays to begin their first drive of the half, Moreno put the ball on the ground as Dane Fletcher jarred it out and Brandon Spikes got the recovery. Six plays after that, Brandon Bolden ran it in from a yard out and just like that it was 24-14. By the end of the third, it was 24-21 as Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on 3rd-and-6 to bring the Pats within three.

It kept going after that. Manning threw just his sixth interception of the year into the arms of Logan Ryan and three plays later, Brady hit Edelman for their second scoring connection of the night to cap the 30-yard, 78-second drive and somehow give the Patriots the 28-24 lead.

After Wesley Woodyard dropped a tipped interception that he had both his hands on and a would-be 2nd-and-20 was negated by an illegal hands to the face penalty, Gostkowski hit his 20th consecutive kick to give the Pats the seven-point lead with just over seven and a half remaining.

When it looked like it could be over on the next Denver drive, Aqib Talib, who had completely shut down Demaryius Thomas all night, was called for holding and negated his own interception, giving the Broncos some hope. Then Manning started converting third downs and Thomas started catching passes. And the Patriots started committing penalties. With 3:06 left, Manning hit Thomas from 11 yards out to tie the score at 31 after Denver picked up two first downs from penalties on the drive, including a pass interference call on Rob Ninkovich on 3rd-and-7 in the red zone. Brady would then go three and out and Ryan Allen was called to punt the ball to Welker with 1:45 remaining.

Denver took over at the 33-yard line, going into the wind. Then, Manning went three and out with a near sack from Andre Carter, a pass break-up from Kyle Arrington and an incomplete floater to give Brady one more chance from his own 11-yard line with 28 seconds left and two timeouts. Just a screen and a draw would take Brady and Manning to overtime, though.

After winning the coin toss, the Pats elected to forego possession and select the side of the field with the wind at their back, giving Manning and the Broncos the ball first. Both teams would trade possessions with New England’s ending on a long incomplete sideline pass on 3rd-and-4 after everyone thought Kenbrell Thompkins was interfered with on the previous throw, forcing the Pats to burn their first timeout to cool off.

When it seemed the Pats would be playing for a tie at best, the only thing that hadn’t happened in the game happened. Nate Ebner recovered the loose ball at the 18 and with 6’8’’ backup quarterback Brock Osweiler in the game to try to get the block, Gostkowski sent those who stuck it out home happy with a little bit of history to take with them.

Special teams players pile on Nate Ebner after he recovered the botched punt to set up the winning field goal.

Special teams players pile on Nate Ebner after he recovered the botched punt to set up the winning field goal.

“We just calmed down and each played one play at a time,” said Edelman, who finished with nine catches for 110 yards and the two huge touchdowns. “We didn’t turn the ball over in the second half.”

For Brady, it was his 33rd game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime and this was certainly one of the bigger ones as New England now controls its own destiny in its hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Denver turned the ball over four times in the second half while the Patriots played mistake-free and scored on all five of their possessions, including 21 points in the third quarter, 10 in the fourth and, of course, the three in overtime. Manning finished with just 150 passing yards while Brady put up 344. It was the Pats’ ability to score touchdowns and not having to settle for field goals that gave them a chance to get back in the game.

While they did fumble the ball six times, they only losy three. Welker finished his return to Foxboro with just four catches for 41 yards and, of course, it wouldn’t be a Welker outing at Gillette without a big drop.

“We had a lot of guys step up here,” said Bill Belichick after the game. “You could rattle off 35-40 guys.”

After the improbable victory, New England will move on to the disappointing Texans (2-9) while the Broncos will take on the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks.

Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.

NFL Week 11 Preview: MNF – Patriots @ Panthers

Luke Kuechly will be quarterbacking the Carolina Panthers defense in an attempt to stop Brady & Gronk on Monday Night Football



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After meeting in Superbowl XXXVIII a decade ago, the stage is set for a primetime matchup between Cam Newton and Tom Brady on Monday Night Football. Carolina (6-3) has won 5 games in a row fueled by their impressive defense lead by stud LB Luke Kuechly. Ranked 2nd in the NFL, this unit is limiting running backs to 82 YPG and QBs to 201.3 YPG. Over the Panthers’ last 5 games, they have limited opponents to 57 points in comparison to the 55 spot New England dropped on the Steelers in Week 9. It’s been extremely difficult to gauge exactly how “good” the Patriots are this season; however, it’s all about momentum down the stretch. The aforementioned dominating performance illuminated the familiar high-powered offense Brady has been orchestrating for years. Belichick and crew will have had 15 days in total to get healthy and prepare for their trip to Carolina coming off the bye. Superman Cam is always a threat to make something out of nothing and is the most talented quarterback the Pats have faced aside from Drew Brees. Although Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel and Big Ben are mobile, Newton is another breed. This game will not disappoint, check out these three keys to victory for New England on Monday Night Football:

1) Win in the trenches: What stuck out to me in Carolina’s 10-9 victory over San Francisco was how they limited Colin Kaepernick to an 11/22, 91 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT performance. How did the Panthers execute this gameplan? Sacking the elusive QB 6 times certainly helps. DE Charles Johnson leads the team with 8.5 sacks on the year, followed by 5.0 from DE Greg Hardy and LB Thomas Davis with 3.0. Two weeks ago, Brady looked flawless in the pocket against the Steelers despite being sacked 3 times. In my midseason review, the offensive line protection issues were discussed in-depth. Combining that with Brady’s lack of athleticism puts him on pace to be sacked the most times in one season for his career. Getting off to a fast start on offense will be imperative on Monday, through the air and on the ground. We can not play from behind against this impressive defense who is tied for 2nd in the NFC in Give/Take ratio with +8, the Patriots are 2nd in the AFC behind the +15 Chiefs at +9. Considering the Patriots had over 600 total yards in that Pittsburgh game, you can bet the Panthers are drawing up some interesting schemes to confuse Brady’s decision-making. If New England can get it going on the ground with Ridley, keep Tom upright and protect the football the Pats will not lose. It all starts with the offensive line.

2) Contain Newton in the Pocket: If you had the pleasure of listening to Bill Belichick “mic’d up” against the Steelers you may have noticed how much he stressed keeping Big Ben inside the hashmarks. Rush lane integrity often gets overlooked but Belichick will make it an area of focus again this week. Cam is a different animal but the same principal applies. He has only eclipsing 250 yards through the air once this season (308) and his largest rushing total is surprisingly only 50 yards. These statistics emphasize how well Carolina’s defense is playing, their offense is 28th in the NFL in passing at 195.8 YPG but 10th in rushing with 127.8 YPG. Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olsen remain the go-to weapons for Carolina. RB Mike Tolbert has been a nice complimentary power back and WRs Brandon Lafell and Ted Ginn need to be respected for their size and speed, respectively. The Panthers have a lot of weapons to say the least, making Cam beat the Patriots defense with his arm, inside the pocket is the goal.

3) Stay on the field: A vague phrase that is two-fold in meaning. New England got into some serious early-season trouble after being manhandled on the time-of-possession front. The high tempo no-huddle offense breeds this trend but as of late Ridley, Bolden and Blount have been getting it done on the ground, providing a balanced attack. The week has finally arrived in which Shane Vereen is eligible to return off IR after breaking his wrist in Week 1. After releasing WR Laquan Williams, an open roster spot leads the media to believe the Patriots will activate Vereen. CB Aqib Talib was the biggest beneficiary from the bye week, receiving additional time to rest that hip. As the Patriots approach the back end of the season and make their playoff run, health is obviously crucial considering who we’ve lost thus far. Tom Brady needs to execute a few methodical double digit play drives that leave the Panthers defense demoralized and tired. Stay on the field.

The return of Gronk has made the Patriots offense that much more intricate. New England will take care of business on Monday Night but it won’t be easy. 28-24 Pats, Brady has a game-winning drive late in the 4th.

 

 

NFL 2013: BST&N’s Patriots Midseason Report Card

The Gronk could only be held out of the endzone for so long. TB12 is back on track.



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It’s been one crazy roller-coaster ride for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in 2013. Entering the season with a key playmaker departure in Welker and Hernandez gate in full swing, the odds were not in favor of the 3-time Superbowl Champions. Furthermore, after season-ending injuries to defensive captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, the Red Sox playoff chase took a front-seat to what seemed like a rocky road ahead for New England. Sprinkle in Gronk’s lengthy return, Vereen’s IR stint and Amendola’s notoriously fragile nature, the Patriots seemed doomed after multiple sputtering offensive performances. Early season woes aside, Brady and company sit atop the AFC East at (7-2), while the Jets (5-4) and Dolphins (4-5) trail a few games back. There is a new powerhouse in the (9-0) Kansas City Chiefs, just one game ahead of Peyton Manning and the (8-1) Denver Broncos in the AFC West. Division leaders (6-3) Colts and (6-4) Bengals peaked early but looked subpar in Week 10 losses.

Belichick is a November and December mastermind which bodes well for the Patriots who are lucky to even be in this position in 2013. After resting up this week on the bye, New England travels into Carolina for a MNF matchup against a (6-3) Panther team that has won 5 straight – most recently San Francisco on the road. As we enter the second half of the 2013 season, check out this report card grading the Patriot’s performance thus far.

Passing Offense: C+ : Despite dropping 432 yards and 4 touchdowns on a Dick LeBeau Steeler’s defense in Week 9, Tom Brady is averaging exactly 200 yards less in 2013 (232 YPG). There is no doubt the aforementioned injuries above took a toll on TB12′s production in the first half of the year. Historically completing 63.4% of his passes, Brady sits at 57.1%, 13 TDs and 6 INT through 9 games. He passed for less than 250 yards in 5/9 games, something he only did 4 times last year. Tom had a rough October, throwing 2 TD and 4 INT but quickly dismissed skeptics with the dominating performance against Pittsburgh. On passes 11-20 yards through the air, Brady is only completing 45.7%; however he has logged 7 TD and 2 INT. His swollen hand is an afterthought and “the decline” of Brady does not seem imminent. With Gronkowski (19 rec, 284 yds, 1TD) came a renewed chemistry and a versatile offensive attack. TB12 is better than 13 TDs through 9 games, Peyton Manning has 33. The only reason they are not lower on this two weeks ago was a preview of the success that can still be attained.

Rushing Offense: B+ : What started as running back by committee has quickly become Stevan Ridley’s (118 car, 514 yds, 6 td) backfield to lose once again. The Patriots average 129.1 rushing YPG, good for 8th in the NFL. This provides an imperative balance Brady continues to lean upon during his supbar start to 2013. The Patriots came into the season with a healthy lot of 5 halfbacks, adding LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington to go alongside Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Blount is the only player to remain unscathed by the injury bug, logging carries and kick returns, yes kick returns, in every game (70 car, 312 yds, 2 td). Vereen looked sharp, gaining 159 total yards in Week 1 before it was discovered his wrist needed to be surgically repaired – forcing him to IR until Week 11. With Shane out, Bolden stepped up as the passing down back with 107 yards receiving and 205 yards rushing/2 touchdowns. Depth at RB is integral and New England only looks up as do-it-all Vereen is slated to make his much needed return on Monday Night Football.

Offensive Line: C+ : The Patriots allowed 27 sacks all of last year, care to guess how many they have surrendered just over the half way point in 2013? The answer is 26, yikes. Although the Pro Bowl caliber core hogs have not changed much since last year, RT Sebastian Vollmer broke his right leg in Week 8 against the Dolphins and has been spelled by Marcus Cannon. There are many variables that have caused a spike in the number of opponents getting to Brady. First and foremost, Tom is not as mobile and athletic as he used to be. There are countless times this season where TB opts for the “safe play” by taking the sack by being passive in the pocket. He was never nimble by any means but at times turns heads with a juke here or there. Without the Gronk security blanket, Brady does not have enough chemistry to trust his receivers with risky back-shoulder attempts. In turn, plays are taking longer to execute. Furthermore, the lack of experience from the receiving corps creates situations where hot-reads become ever important. So while some of the blame is shifted off the o-line due to the rushing success, they need to give Tom more time in the pocket.

Wide Receivers: B : Amendola is what we thought he was. A talented, young and feisty competitor with a nose for big plays. Unfortunately, he can’t seem to shake the injury woes trailing him from St. Louis and has missed 4/9 games to start the year. There will never be another Welker; however, Edelman has filled the slot nicely, hauling in 49 of 74 targets for 473 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jules started the year hot with 34 receptions in the first 4 games but just 15 in the next 5. He has cooled down recently in favor of rookie Aaron Dobson (31 rec, 454 yds, 4 TD), who mysteriously overtook fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkin’s (23 rec, 334 yds, 2 TD). While Kenbrell never looked sure handed, he did make that game-winning catch against New Orleans. Gronk looks to be back at it and remains on another level. In 3 games he’s been targeted an aggressive 33 times, catching 19 of those passes at an average of 14.9 yards for 284 yards total. If he’s out there at full strength, the Patriots are dangerous contenders. “B” rating for putting up solid numbers despite a ton of drops and inexperience.

Defense Line: A- : Keeping up with the Jones’. Quickly becoming one of the most athletic and distinguished families in all of sports, Chandler Jones is making a strong case for a Honolulu dance. The DE leads the Pats with 8.5 sacks on the year, following the footsteps of Baltimore Ravens DT Art Jones and the current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon “Bones Jones. He has displayed flashes of finesse and bull rushes of strength, attracting double teams as of late. Week in and week out, Chandler continues to disrupt the QB and has been the anchor on the defensive line with Wilfork out. Ninkovich remains solid with 3 sacks on the year. As a unit, New England has limited opponents to 232.8 passing YPG – good for 12th in the NFL. On the ground, teams are pounding the rock at an average of 128.2 YPG which is 30th in the NFL, that is where Wilfork is felt most. Now after losing Tommy Kelly, rookies Chris Jones and Joe Vellano had some serious pressure on them. How have they responded? Keep reading to find out.

Defensive Rookies: A- : The Patriots have a host of rookies receiving ample opportunity in 2013. The aforementioned DT Chris Jones has 5 sacks & 1 huge “penalty” against the Jets. Aside from that “mistake”, he has been brilliant in attempting to fill some pretty heavy shoes. Fellow DT Joe Vellano has also proven to be a solid run-stuffer half way through the year. Next up is LB Jamie Collins. Quiet to date, Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher have been splitting the reserve duties with Mayo out. It seems as though Jamie has a little ways to go in Belichick’s book. Notorious for his premature crotch grab pick six TD celebration against the Jets, CB Logan Ryan still has a lot to work on. Just last week a touchdown flew right by his head as he played the receiver, not the ball. We get it, who doesn’t love big plays? Logan has been successful rushing the QB off the edge with 1.5 sacks but will need to improve on his ball skills to become a well-rounded cornerback. S Duron Harmon only recorded 8 tackles but has a nack for the ball with 3 PD and 2 INT. These plays need to continue in the coming months. DT Michael Buchanan has not seen much time but when he has it’s been effective, getting the QB twice in 2013. That’s six rookies on defense, it’s been a while

Defensive Backs: B+ : You can’t start anywhere else except with the exceptional play from CB Aqib Talib. In the 6 games he’s started, Talib has 9 PD, 4 INT and 1 FF. He prevented the NFC’s Gronk (Jimmy Graham) from recording a single catch in Week 6 but has not seen the field since with that lingering hip injury. Spotted at practice the past couple weeks, Aqib is questionable but is expected to return against the Panthers. S Devin McCourty has carved out a nice space in the Patriots defense as a defensive captain and center fielder, making multiple TD saving deflections, breakups and 1 INT. His leadership play alongside veteran Steve Gregory makes for a solid and consistent group; quite the opposite from old friends Brandon Merriweather and Patrick Chung. Gregory was wearing the communication device in his helmet the past two games but just recently broke his thumb and is expected to miss at least a couple weeks. Kyle Arrington, Alfonso Dennard and Marquice Cole continue to be serviceable NFL cornerbacks, not making outstanding reads/jumps but not giving up homerun balls either. New England can improve on their man-to-man coverage but made enough impact plays to survive.

Special Teams: A- : Another rookie, P Ryan Allen beat out Zoltan Mesko in training camp for the gig. Mesko didn’t even make the trip to Foxboro in Week 9 – getting cut midweek. Allen is averaging 46.9 yards per boot with a 39.9 net. Although a long of 65 yards is impressive, it was a touchback and that area of his kicking needs to take a turn for the better. K Stephen Gostkowski has returned to his accurate ways, converting on 22/23 tries with a long of 54. Furthermore, he’s had his fare share of clutch kicks during a couple nail-biters. What pushes this rating into the “A” bracket is the effectiveness of PR Julian Edelman. He is average 11.5 yards per return and has made the field short for Tom Brady and company in key situations. Belichick preaches executing in “all three phases of the game” and the Patriots would not have a 7-2 record if they weren’t solid all around. If Talib can make a healthy run in November/December, watch out NFL.

Regular Season Prediction: 13-3, 2 seed behind Denver (13-3 with tiebreaker)

Playoff Prediction: Lose 34-31 in AFC Championship @ Denver

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