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Mailbag: Who are these Patriots?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick's comment in his postgame news conference summed it up best.

"That's the NFL. You never know. If you knew what was going to happen in this league, you could make a lot of money," Belichick said.

The Patriots had been clobbered the week before in Cleveland, but seven days later they crushed the Steelers. Who saw that coming?

At 7-2, the Patriots are tied for the NFL's best record with the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons. Let's lead off this week's mailbag by looking at the remaining schedules for the Patriots and Jets:

Patriots

vs. Colts

at Lions

vs. Jets
at Bears

vs. Packers

at Bills

vs. Dolphins

Jets
vs. Texans

vs. Bengals

at Patriots

vs. Dolphins

at Steelers

at Bears

vs. Bills

Q. Mike, I am as impressed as anyone that the Pats pulled out a big win in Pittsburgh on Sunday night. But then I remember the butt-whipping in Cleveland and suddenly I am back to being confused. Who are the New England Patriots? Which blowout represents the anomoly? -- Lana (Boston)

A. Lana, this is the question that reflects the general tone of e-mails this week. Tedy Bruschi touched on this in his weekly "Bruschi on Tap" piece -- noting that with the Patriots' youth there is still plenty of learning going on -- and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle when thinking about who the Patriots truly are. It also is true of the entire NFL this year. When I look around the NFL, I see a Patriots team that should be in the discussion with the NFL's best, but like all the other top teams, they have noticeable flaws as well. So I say that with Tom Brady and a growing defense, anything is possible.

Q. Hey Mike, not to take too much away from the Pats for winning a good game, but let's keep things in perspective: They beat a makeshift offensive line and a Hines Ward-less Steelers. Ultimately, the real test is going to be whether they can beat the Jets. -- J.H. Jazz (Cambridge)

A. The Steelers were beaten up, and that is a fair point to bring up, but I don't think that means you don't give the Patriots credit for executing at a high level. You're right about the Patriots being inconsistent at times -- they had 10 penalties -- but I think overall they deserve the credit for winning in a hostile environment. I also would be careful about overlooking the Colts this Sunday. I can see that game going either way.

Q. I'm thinking big picture today, Mike. Nice win against the Steelers but it doesn't get any easier this week against Indy. If the Pats are going to be in contention for the AFC East, they need to win this game -- which, assuming they can then beat the Lions, would make the Dec. 6 game against the Jets a matchup of two teams with the league's best record. After that, each team has a manageable schedule with the exception of MIA for each, PIT for the Jets and GB for the Pats. In my eyes, it's win this game, beat the Jets and you get a first-round bye (yes, I know I'm looking past a lot of games). -- ECF (D.C.)

A. I look at it a bit differently, ECF. I think I'm getting out of the prediction business. I picked the Patriots to beat the Browns, and the Steelers to beat the Patriots. We know what happened and I think that's reflective that the Patriots can win any week, and they can also lose any week. I don't think we can project ahead like that based on what's unfolded with the team -- and across the league -- at this point. I do think it's fair to say that if the Patriots want to be in the mix for a first-round bye, they need to win one of the next two games against the Colts and Jets.

Q. Mike, Patrick Chung played great on Sunday night but left twice with an injury. Any word on how he is doing and is it still his knee? -- Harry (Bloomington, Ind.)

A. Harry, Chung was on the field for the final three plays of the game -- and he also answered questions from reporters after the game -- so I don't think there is any injury concern there from a long-term perspective. I think we saw what a difference Chung makes to the Patriots' defense, and to a lesser degree what a healthy Deion Branch can mean to the Patriots' offense.

Q. Hi Mike, I have a question on something you wrote recently regarding Logan Mankins, saying you doubt the Patriots would franchise him. Why not? There really isn't another player they would use the tag on, and if Belichick wanted a first or high second for him prior to the deadline, why would he let him walk after the season? -- Laurie (Moncton, Canada)

A. Laurie, I understand the thinking here. There are a lot of layers to a situation like this. My opinion is that if the Patriots franchised Mankins, they'd really be sticking it to him. Both sides seem to be firmly entrenched in their positions, and, with that in mind, to franchise a player in his seventh season when there is no long-term contract resolution in sight is pretty cut-throat in my view. I just think there are certain times when you reach the end of the road with certain players because the sides -- in this case after six years -- don't see eye-to-eye on a long-term contract. As you point out, the Patriots would be well within their rights to franchise Mankins. But on a related note, I also doubt that another team would give up a first- or high second-round pick for Mankins in a trade, which is also a factor.

Q. Mike, Logan Mankins looks like he hasn't missed a beat at playing guard and being a great teammate. Do you think both sides will put the past behind them and work out a deal that both sides will be happy with, or is Logan just showing good value for other teams to see? -- Brian Mac (Baltimore)

A. Brian, I think this situation will ultimately be determined by the marketplace in the offseason. My opinion is that Mankins will test free agency to see what his value is on the open market, and the Patriots will let him know that their long-term offer still stands. If all things are equal, perhaps Mankins is open to a return because he has a lot of strong connections with teammates here. If another team steps up and offers him more financial security, my sense is that he will be off for a fresh start.

Q. What are your thoughts on Shawn Crable's contribution to the team? Given that the Pats found him expendable earlier this season, his contributions seem impressive. -- Mike C. (Regina/SK)

A. A. Mike, I think Crable has benefitted from having less pressure, and fewer expectations, surrounding him. He also seems to have responded to the wake-up call of being released before training camp. As for his role, it's been pretty straightforward, as a pass-rusher off the defensive left side in sub packages. It looks like he's made some plays, and there are others that he's been pushed back on. He's also showing up on a few special-teams units (kickoff coverage and punt return this week). His overall contributions have been a surprise based on how training camp started for him, although the Patriots must have thought differently, as they waived him on Tuesday.

Q. Mike, I noticed Shawn Crable had a lot of snaps against Pittsburgh. Is this a sign for the future, or more of a matchup versus that particular team? -- Pete (San Diego)

A. Pete, part of the reason Crable had more snaps was that the Patriots spent a good part of the game in sub packages. Crable was not in the base 3-4, so he came on to the field as a pass-rushing defensive end, and with the Patriots getting ahead early it put them in more sub packages.

Q. Mike, I thought it was great to see BenJarvus Green-Ellis catching balls out of the backfield. In the past he seemed to be a tip-off to a run, but if they stick with this, I think it's going to open up the play-action, which we saw Sunday night. Those early passes to him set up the play-actions later in the scoring drive. What are your thoughts on BJGE in this spot? -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Great point, Glenn, and I think part of this comes down to self-scouting. Green-Ellis had been targeted just three times in the passing game all season leading into Sunday's game. He ended up being targeted five times against the Steelers, with four catches. This was a nice change-up by the team and credit should go to Green-Ellis for showing that he's more than just a pounder, and can also contribute in the passing game in certain game plans.

Q. Mike, what has happened to Darius Butler? Have you been able to talk to any of the coaches about what, specifically, has caused him to become the invisible man? Arrington is playing well, so that's part of it. But it seems I never see Butler on the field. Is it poor technique? Out of shape? Refusing to be coached? -- NorCalMike (Los Gatos, Calif.)

A. This remains a mystery to me, Mike. We talk a lot about how players often make the big jump from their rookie season to their second year, but it looks like Butler -- who was a healthy scratch Sunday -- has gone backwards. Specific to Sunday's game, Butler wasn't going to be used in sub packages and isn't a core special-teamer, so with the team wanting some extra beef up front to stop the run (defensive lineman Kyle Love was active as a sixth option), he was the odd man out. I don't think it necessarily means he's slipped further down the depth chart, but is more of a reflection of other needs being more important on the 45-man game-day roster on that day.

Q. Hey Mike, I've really been impressed with some of the lesser-acclaimed players who have come in and made big impacts on defense. Any idea how Rob Ninkovich and Kyle Arrington got on the Pats radar? -- Lee Baler (Brooklyn, N.Y.)

A. Lee, both players reflect good scouting -- both in college and once those players became pros. One key is projecting how they would fit in the Patriots' scheme. A fifth-round draft choice out of Purdue, Ninkovich entered the league in 2006 as a defensive end in the Saints' 4-3 defense, played inside linebacker as a member of the Dolphins' practice squad in 2008, before returning to the Saints as a long snapper. When the Patriots signed him Aug. 2, 2009, they projected him as a special teams contributor, possible sub rusher (tapping those 4-3 defensive end skills) and potential long-range option at outside linebacker in the 3-4 -- if he even made the team. Ninkovich's hard work, coupled with the Patriots' coaching and system-fit, has made it work. It's similar with Arrington, who had been with the Eagles in training camp (2008) after signing as a rookie free-agent out of Hofstra. He spent his rookie season on the Buccaneers' practice squad and when he was waived in September of 2009, the Patriots signed him to their practice squad and then activated him in the middle of the season to help on special teams. Arrington's hard work, coupled with the Patriots' coaching and system-fit, has helped his role grow larger.

Q. It might be too early to start talking about draft plans, but what do you predict the Pats will do with their once again hefty amount of draft picks? They already have lots of young talent and probably wouldn't even have room for all of those picks. -- Kyle W. (Raleigh, N.C.)

A. Kyle, it's never too early to talk about the draft, and ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay already has a mock draft for us to digest. He has the Patriots looking at another outside linebacker and defensive end. I know it's not an answer with a lot of "sizzle," but I think the answer is really to pick the best player and not get locked in to a certain position in the first round. That was the team's approach in taking cornerback Devin McCourty and we see how that has turned out, even as the team got knocked by many analysts for the pick. I could see anywhere on defense outside of inside linebacker, and anywhere on offense outside of quarterback and tight end.

Q. Mike, am I the only one who is worried about how this team plays with a lead in the fourth quarter? The Pats gave up a whopping 23 points in the final quarter Sunday night including two effortless two-point conversions. It was almost a re-run of the near-nightmare in San Diego. Do you have any insight as to why does the defense play so soft with a lead? -- Gregg (Scottsdale)

A. Gregg, I think it's fair to be critical of the Patriots' fourth-quarter performance with a lead -- specific to the Chargers and Steelers wins. On Sunday night in Pittsburgh, it looked to me like the Patriots were solely in the dime package and took their foot off the gas pedal by playing more coverage and getting away from the pressure-based approach that helped produce good results. From a general perspective, I think it might be a reflection of a young team still learning how to put teams away.

Q. That was the first game all year where I was surprised (pleasantly) by the play-calling. Jerod Mayo shooting gaps? Alge Crumpler lined up as a fullback on play action? Where has this stuff been all year? With the Jets winning again, and frankly an easier-looking schedule than ours, I see Dec. 6 as a must-win game. We do not want to be on the road in the AFC West for the opening weekend of the playoffs. Can't look past the Colts this weekend, but whatever coaching lightning they broke out of the bottle last night, I hope the team saves some of it for Dec. 6. -- Jason (Santa Monica)

A. Jason, I thought the coaches had a great night Sunday in Pittsburgh. It helped that the Patriots got up early, which opened up more options both on defense and offense. We've seen Crumpler lined up as a fullback at times prior to this game, and there have been other wrinkles too, although this game seemed like one in which there were more of them. As for the Jets, no disagreement here in terms of the importance of that game.

Q. Mike, I know my comment goes against the Pats philosophy but here I go: I feel pretty good about the game vs. Indy (i.e., intense rivalry, focus, etc.). However, the game that has the look of another Cleveland trap-game is the Detroit game: a short week of preparation, coming off two highly emotional games, against a losing but talented team. How do you anticipate the coaching staff preparing for that one? Are they advancing part of the work? -- Mosso, (Caracas, Venezuela)

A. Nissim, the Patriots work ahead on all opponents all season -- even in the offseason/preseason -- and work is being done right now on the Lions by advance scouts/personnel men. So I don't see that as such a big issue as I do the players' ability to bounce back physically and mentally. I think your concerns are fair as the short week -- and being on the road -- will make it a challenge. One aspect that I think helps the Patriots is that the Lions look like they will be without quarterback Matt Stafford.

Q. When I saw news of Donovan MacNabb's extension, my first thought was, "Wow, Brady must just be pissed right now." MacNabb hasn't accomplished half of what Brady has and yet his contract is bigger. After he got benched no less. Any chance this affects TB12? -- Brooklyn (NYC)

A. Brooklyn, I have two thoughts on McNabb's contract extension and how it might affect Brady. First, let's wait to see the actual numbers on the McNabb deal. Often times, what is reported isn't always an accurate reflection of what the financial terms really are, and structure is a key. Second, Brady did the best he could based on the circumstances and I think the "hay is in the barn" on that one. Would he have liked more? I'm sure he would have, and my opinion is that there is a part of him that was frustrated with parts of the process -- and how long it took to consummate. But that's over now, he took the best deal he could get, I think it's a fair deal, and it's all about football.

Q. Hi Mike, I have a question regarding the positional groupings that you post on the blog after the games. Are these groupings determined by formation or by personel? For example, if Welker lines up next to Brady as the only RB in a shotgun formation, would this be considered 3 WR/1 TE/1 RB because Welker is lined up as an RB, or would it be counted as 4 WR/1 TE/0 RB because Welker is technically a WR? How would you chart it if Welker motions out into the flat after lining up as an RB? -- Nate C. (Foxborough, Mass.)

A. Nate, thanks for the interest in the positional groupings. I count the groupings solely based on the player's positional designation, not where they line up. In Welker's case against the Steelers, he was always counted as a receiver, never as a running back, even though he sometimes started out in the offensive backfield.

Q. Are we kidding ourselves? How can we realistically expect a "championship" run from a team 32nd in defense on third down. -- Hub (Mattapoisett, Mass.)

A. Hub, one would think that the Patriots will have to improve on third down if they have a realistic shot at a Super Bowl, I agree. The optimist might look at it and say "Well, the Colts had the 32nd-ranked run defense during their Super Bowl year and they still won, proving that you can rank last in one key category and still be a champion." In this case, I think it probably depends on how excellent the Patriots will be in other areas.

Q. Hello Mike. Living in Wisconsin, I see all the Packers games. Week in and week out I see Clay Matthews make plays that should be made in a Patriot uniform; it's the biggest mistake Bill Belichick has made on draft day the last 10 years. There is no one on the Pats' defense who makes plays like he does. Matthews is a playmaker and the Patriots just don't have one. There are some good young players on the team, but not like Matthews. He is exactly the type of player the defense needs, but I get the feeling BB likes the blue-collar, down-and-dirty guys, but shies away from guys like Matthews. Why is that? -- Paul (Kenosha, Wisc.)

A. Paul, this topic has been raised in the mailbag a few times in the past, going back through the team's 2009 draft and why the Patriots passed on the chance to select Matthews in the first round. I don't think it has anything to do with blue-collar, down-and-dirty guys. Matthews qualifies in that regard, the son of one of Belichick's former Cleveland Browns players. When you go back to the scouting reports on Matthews, there was a question as to whether he could anchor against the run in the Patriots' 3-4 scheme. You knew he was a high-motor pass rusher who could help on third down, but could you rely on him in the running game on first and second down? While Matthews has thrived in the Packers' scheme, that doesn't mean it would necessarily be a perfect fit in New England. I also believe Bill Belichick's philosophy is that a first-round draft choice should be a sure-fire three-down player. I think these were some of the issues the team was considering with Matthews.

Q. Mike, is there a way to quantify how young/inexperienced the Patriots' defense is relative to the rest of the league? Like cumulative games started as a unit. They have to be the youngest defense in the league, maybe by a lot. -- Peter (Exeter, N.H.)

A. Peter, this is a tough one to really nail down unless you have accurate snap counts for every defender in the NFL. Sometimes you can have a player start, then not play much the rest of the way. From a general age perspective, ESPN.com's Mike Sando opened up his database and passed along that the Patriots have the third-youngest defense in the NFL -- with an average age of 25.7. Only the Panthers and Jaguars are younger.

Q. Hey Mike. If the rumors were true, and we were interested in re-signing Randy Moss if he cleared waivers, what are the chances we'll try to sign Moss after this year (assuming he doesn't sign a new contract with the Titans)? -- Bill L. (Fort Collins, Colo.)

A. Bill, I look at this one as similar to Julius Peppers from this past offseason. If Peppers was willing to play for a one-year deal, and all the stars aligned, the Patriots were a possibility. I don't see Moss back with a long-term deal.

Q. When Fred Taylor comes back from his toe injury, do you see Danny Woodhead or BenJarvis GreenEllis losing time? Fred Taylor is a power runner, but I have heard from several broadcasters that he has excelent hands and recieving skills. -- Brian (Maine)

A. Brian, I don't think Taylor will be much of a factor in the passing game. That's not his forte. I do see him being part of a rotation with Green-Ellis, helping them both stay fresh. I don't see Taylor cutting into Woodhead's playing time very much.

Q. Hi Mike, I am curious what you think about this proposition: Bill Belichick needs to quit messing with the team during the season. Last year he traded Richard Seymour right before the season started and as a result the defense had to basically re-make itself on the fly. He did the same thing to the offense this year by trading Randy Moss. I'm not saying that either of those trades were bad trades, but the timing wasn't right with them. If the Pats were going to trade Moss they should've done it before the season so the offense could adjust in training camp and pre-season. --Tim (Alaska)

A. Tim, I think each trade has its own dynamic to it, and one could make a case that the fewer disruptions a team has like that, the better they will be. But sometimes it can also provide an unexpected spark, and you're always weighing that. I personally wouldn't compare the effects of the Seymour trade to the effects of the Moss trade. With Moss, there were some more explosive variables in play. I also think it's important to remember 2003 and the Lawyer Milloy move -- that stunned the team, we saw the impact in the season opener, but then the Patriots went on to win a Super Bowl. So I think each move should be looked at in its own right, which makes it tough to say that no trades should occur during the season.

Q. Mike, I've heard a lot about how players tend to make a big jump between their rookie and second years, being able to translate knowledge of the system into on-field results (see: Chung, Patrick). Seeing how well our rookies are playing this year, could we possibly be looking at a killer team in the near future? -- Elie (New York)

A. Elie, I do think the future is bright for the Patriots and this is part of the reason why that is the case. I do think we have to be careful, however, because that rookie to second-year jump is not a given, as we've seen with Darius Butler this year. But overall, I think when you couple the projected maturation of some players on the roster and another influx of high draft choices, the Patriots are in a solid position to be a contender once again.

Q. Hey Mike, my question is regarding the probable 18-game schedule. Have the owners considered adding an extra bye week to each team's schedule? It seems like a win-win: The players get more time to recuperate, and the owners get more money out of an extended season. -- John (Fairfield)

A. John, that has been part of the discussion when it comes to the 18-game schedule. I think part of the question is whether the league wants to push its premier game, the Super Bowl, into mid-to-late February.

Q. Hey Mike, do you have any details on the rookie salary situation for next year? Everyone says it's likely to be restructured to avoid handing out big contracts to high draft picks, but I haven't seen any hard facts on when and how it's going to be dealt with. How likely is this to happen? Our Raiders first pick has a lot riding on this, whether they end up getting to pick somewhere between 1 and 10 or 10 and 20. -- Sean (New York, N.Y.)

A. Sean, a lot of those details will be hashed out in negotiating sessions between the players and owners, which are not very far along at this point. But one of the reasons we've heard a lot about this is that owners have it as one of their top three priorities in a new collective bargaining agreement. I think a good comparison would be to the NBA and its rookie cap. I believe that is the model the owners will be pushing for, and as long as players have some assurances that the unspent money will go to veterans, I don't see that as a big stumbling block.

Q. Mike, greetings from Finland. I'm traveling to Boston in December for the Packers game. What should I look forward to in coming to Gillette Stadium for the first time? Football-wise, do you see the Pats being able to keep the championship window open as long as Tom Brady is on top of his game? I know we still have a long way to go this season but we really should give Belichick credit for patiently sticking to his long-term plan and giving us a very bright future. -- Olli (Helinki, Finland)

A. Olli, I hope you have a safe trip into town. I would recommend that you visit the Patriots Hall of Fame the day before the game and enjoy a nice lunch at Skipkjacks at Patriot Place (great seafood, if you like it). As for the stadium experience itself, it can get congested on game day so I think it would be smart to leave yourself extra time the day of the game. On the football, as long as Brady stays healthy, I like the Patriots' chances of being a contender.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.