Commentary

Pumped about the possibilities

Fans embrace Pats' surprising success and ponder the postseason scenarios

Updated: January 4, 2011, 11:54 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

This week's Patriots mailbag includes a mix of looking back and looking ahead.

Most e-mailers agree that the 2010 regular season was unexpected and enjoyable to watch. On the flip side, there is disagreement on which teams present the most difficult matchup in the playoffs.

Patriots players are scheduled to be back at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday, with the possibility of a long weekend if they have productive practices this week. The idea is to strike the right mix between rest and preparation leading into the first playoff game on Sunday Jan. 16.

There is plenty of ground to cover, so let's get right to it.

Q. I honestly think the Patriots caught a break when Indianapolis earned the No. 3 seed on Sunday. It guarantees that New England will face anyone but Indy in the divisional round. No disrespect to Kansas City, Baltimore or the New York Jets, but if New England were leading by 14 points with 8 minutes left to play in the game, Peyton Manning is the last person I want to see. He has proven to be capable of mounting a fourth-quarter comeback. I cannot say the same for Matt Cassel, Joe Flacco, or Mark Sanchez. Do you think the Patriots caught a break with the seeding or would you rather see Indianapolis in the divisional round? -- Alvin (Deerfield, Mass.)

A. Alvin, I can understand this line of thinking and a strong case can be made to avoid Indianapolis as long as possible. Tedy Bruschi agrees with you. My thought was that the best scenario, if you could draw it up, was to have a No. 3/No. 6 game between Kansas City/N.Y. Jets and a No. 4/No. 5 game between Indianapolis/Baltimore. I felt like the Jets would beat the Chiefs, setting them up for a visit to New England, while the Colts and Ravens would beat each other up before one of them traveled to Pittsburgh. All that being said, the Patriots are still the team to beat and I like their chances regardless of the draw.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Price
AP Photo/Robert E. KleinRookie Taylor Price made a successful debut on Sunday against Miami. Will Patriots fans see more of him in the playoffs?

Q. You've been on the record as saying the Ravens would be one of the toughest match-ups for the Patriots in the playoffs. But now that we know it will either be the Ravens, Chiefs or Jets, who do you think would be the "easiest" of the three? -- Micah P. (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Micah, I'd say the Chiefs. They haven't entered the playoffs on a high note and while I give them credit for a great season, I don't think their schedule has been very tough.

Q. Hey Mike, I'm curious to understand your analysis that Baltimore poses a bigger threat than any other team in the AFC. I look back at what Rodney Harrison said prior to Green Bay regarding matching up against the Pats. His assessment of man coverage and pressure seems to be the "magic bullet," if you will, when trying to beat the Patriots. Do you really think the CB's of Baltimore have the capability of consistent man coverage? And, do you think the pressure is quick enough to disrupt Brady consistently? Three to four sacks won't do it. -- Keith (Chicago)

A. Keith, I think the Ravens are tough to be balanced against because they are tough against the run. Their corners aren't a strength from what I saw in that Oct. 17 game, but they get help from a very strong front seven. So while they play a different style than the Packers, I think their defensive style also matches up well against New England. Overall, another reason I think Baltimore will be tough is that they are a veteran-laden team that has playoff experience, and they won't be intimidated coming to Gillette Stadium. I still like the Patriots to win, but I could see it as a field-goal type game.

Q. Mike, I am hoping for the Jets and/or Chiefs to win. Which do you think is more likely? I think the Ravens will be a very tough opponent if both the Colts and Ravens win. -- Alex (Rome, N.Y.)

A. Alex, thanks for the submissions to the mailbag over the years. I thought of you as I was driving back from Buffalo on Dec. 27 (snow in Boston had canceled all flights) and we passed the exit for Rome. I don't see the Chiefs or Jets winning on wild-card weekend, but I think the Chiefs would have the better chance to pull it off because they are at home.

Q. What happened to Danny Woodhead? Is he OK? Will he play Jan. 16? -- Steven L. (Pleasant View, Tenn.)

A. Steven, Woodhead left the game in the first quarter with a head injury and it looked like he was being tested for a concussion on the sideline. After listening to Bill Belichick on sports radio WEEI on Monday, my sense is that Woodhead will be ready to go Jan. 16. Belichick said, "The medical staff held him for a while and we didn't see any point in putting him in after that."

Q. Hey Mike, after "The Law Firm" hit the 1,000-yard mark and the support the team gave him, how is he not going to be a feature back with this team? He was on the field for 42 percent of the offensive snaps and reached 1,000 yards. Not to take anything away from Dillon, but he seemed to be on the field much more than BJGE was this season back in 2004. An added bonus, BJGE hasn't fumbled. EVER! I think he should be the Pats' featured power back for years to come and Woodhead used situationally (passing formations and 3rd downs). -- Behn (Kitchener, Ont.)

A. I think Green-Ellis has shown he deserves that consideration, Behn. At the same time, I don't think the Patriots can just stop at Green-Ellis and Woodhead. They need to stock that position with more players and I'm thinking we probably won't see Fred Taylor, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris back next season as their contracts all expire after the 2010 league year. So I think we can still expect some additions there, but they will have an uphill climb to pass Green-Ellis on the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireBackup quarterback Brian Hoyer got some game-situation practice on Sunday, coming in for a few snaps in the second quarter before taking over for Tom Brady in the second half.

Q. Hey Mike,I know we've got a whole lot of (hopefully) great football left in this year, but I can't help getting excited about the mismatch prospects of Woodhead and Faulk in the same backfield for offensive sets. That's two backs who on any set are both capable of running the ball 4+ yards, breaking out wide pre-snap, picking up corner and stunt LB blitzes, or taking the dump screen. Combine them in a 2-RB, 2-TE set with Gronk and Crumpler, that has got to potentially be one of the best mismatch sets in all of football next year. What do you think? -- Miles (Minneapolis)

A. I hadn't really thought about it Miles, because I view Faulk and Woodhead playing the same roles. I'm wondering if that's a luxury the team can afford or if they need different styles of backs to complement each other.

Q. What does it mean that Brandon Deaderick was placed on the reserve/suspended list? Will he be active for the playoffs and why is he on the list in the first place? He looked good before he became inactive and I think he could really help out this defense in the playoffs. -- Dylan S. (Boston)

A. Dylan, basically this means that Deaderick is suspended and does not count against the 53-man roster at this time. He is still with the team and my assumption is that the next time we will see him on the field will be in 2011 training camp. Deaderick had hardly played since the Nov. 21 Colts game, so I'm not sure how much he factored into the team's playoff plans.

Q. Taylor Price had a nice game Sunday after not dressing for a game all year. His catches reminded me of a young David Givens running those slants. Would you sum up his lack of being active to his limited ability to contribute on special teams? -- Walt (Capital City)

A. Walt, I think special teams is part of the reason Price was inactive for the first 15 games of the season, but I don't believe that is the full story. He got behind in Patriots spring camps because Ohio had yet to hold graduation ceremonies, so he couldn't attend. That was a tough break because Price already had a steep learning curve coming from Ohio's option-based offense. He also has some solid players in front of him in Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, although the Patriots probably wouldn't have traded for Branch if they felt Price had been ready to emerge. As for the special teams, I didn't notice Price on any of the first-string units Sunday, so I believe that is a factor as well. I see Price competing for more consistent playing time in 2011.

Q. Mike, I was reading a story regarding how different the playoffs would look if the two conferences were strictly ordered by record. I was wondering what your thoughts on that were. -- Jan (Auburn, N.H.)

A. I like it the way it is, Jan. I think a division winner having a home game is the right reward and it adds importance to division play, which I like. I think we saw with the new overtime rules what happens when the NFL makes knee-jerk decisions; almost all of the overtime games this year had at least one possession for each team, so the main reason the rule was changed wasn't a factor. I hope that the NFL doesn't cave in based on one year in which a division has a winner with a losing record.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireTom Brady's continued intensity and enthusiasm on the sideline after being taken out on Sunday didn't go unnoticed.

Q. Mike, I thought it was odd that Tom Brady came out of the game in the second quarter and Brian Hoyer took a few snaps, only for Brady to come back in. At the press conference, though, Brady said it was planned and that Coach Belichick told him he would do that the night before. My question is was that "game situation practice" for the benefit of Hoyer (coming in cold and having to take over) or for the benefit of Brady (having to miss a couple of snaps for whatever reason and coming back in the middle of a series)? If this is a good way of practicing those scenarios, for either quarterback, why don't we see that more in the regular season since we had a couple of games safely tucked away? -- Tom C. (North Andover, Mass.)

A. Tom, the situation was created mostly for the benefit of Hoyer. Tedy Bruschi touched on it in his weekly "Bruschi on Tap" piece. Probably the main reason we don't see it when games are safely tucked away is that a player like Hoyer might be figuring he will be entering the game at that point anyway. I think it has a different effect in the second quarter than the fourth.

Q. Mike, James Sanders has quietly had a great year. With McGowan going on IR, Chung's knee problems and Meriweather's inconsistencies, he has really stepped his play up. With a fairly expensive contract do you see him staying with the Pats next year? -- Abed (Greendale, Calif.)

A. Sanders is scheduled to earn a base salary of $2.8 million next season. That's rich for a player who might not be on the field every play, but I think Sanders has proven he's worth the investment. I'd keep him.

Q. Mike, would you agree that the prospects for this Pats secondary in 2011 is real good after a whirlwind of a 2010 season, especially when considering we will have a healthy Leigh Bodden back? -- David C. (Phoenix)

A. David, I would agree with that, although that assumes Bodden is not just back but has returned to his previous level of play. That's not always a given with players recovering from injuries. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano had a comment of note about the Patriots' secondary after the finale: "The thing I have been most impressed with when watching their tape has been their corners. I think that's where they have made great improvement, those two guys [Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington] go out there and compete at a pretty high level. I've seen great growth out of them since the last time we played."

Q. Mike, who do you think will start at right cornerback when the Patriots play in the AFC divisional round? Will Kyle Arrington keep his starting spot? Or has Darius Butler done enough to regain the role he had when he began the season? -- Christian (Murrieta, Calif.)

A. Christian, I think it will be Arrington. He's earned it based on his overall body of work.

Q. Hi Mike, I've been following all the younger players, but have really watched the defense and Jermaine Cunningham in particular. He seems to have all the physical tools. I'm surprised he doesn't play in any sub packages. I have been impressed with Rob Ninkovich and Eric Moore, but really, Cunningham isn't better? Do you think it's a matter of maturity (physical or mental) or development? With everyone projecting the Pats to go after another OLB high in the draft, is this an indicment of the player or pick? How would you grade his year, and what do you expect from him in the future? -- Rob in Vermont (Shaftsbury, Vt.)

A. Rob, Cunningham has done a little of everything -- base 3-4 outside linebacker and sub-rushing 4-3 defensive end. Overall, I've been surprised at how much he's contributed as quickly as he has based on the position and the transition he was making from college. Of late, his playing time has been limited a bit, and part of that could be a calf injury that he sustained. I see him as a solid player and the only reason to add another player there would be for some more dynamic pass-rush skills.

Q. Mike, if the Pats are to win the Super Bowl this year, Tully Banta-Cain really has to step up. He has severely regressed from his form of 2009. Is he hampered by an injury because he seems to have lost some explosiveness. Thoughts? -- Pierce (Greendale, Calif.)

A. Pierce, Banta-Cain has been slowed by a groin injury of late, although I'm not sure how that is affecting his performance.

Q. Mike, the Jerod Mayo sack where he fell down and then lunged at the legs of Chad Henne sure reminded me of the play where Tom Brady got badly injured at the start of the 2008 season. I thought the rules were changed to prevent tackles like this? Your thoughts on how come it wasn't called a penalty? -- Desrever (Europe)

A. I thought the same thing you did. I'm curious about that one and would be interested to hear if the officials missed it or if I'm misinterpreting the rule.

Q. Did the Pats set the team record for non-offensive TDs in a year? It seemed as if they got one every week. -- Sean (Shoaiba, Saudi Arabia)

A. Sean, they tied the record of nine, which was set in 1961.

Q. I think Bill O'Brien deserves to be named offensive coordinator next year. More importantly, I don't think he should have Josh McDaniels looking over his shoulder on this staff. Do you think Josh McDaniels will end up in Kansas City as their offensive coordinator? -- David (North Attleboro)

A. David, I agree on O'Brien, and I think we will see him with the title in 2011. As for McDaniels, I'd be surprised if he winds up in Kansas City. I think Carolina would be a great spot for him, working with a highly touted young quarterback as an offensive coordinator/assistant head coach. It would all depend on who Carolina hires for the top job if it's a real fit for McDaniels.

Q. Hey Mike, with Eric Mangini being fired after two 5-11 seasons back to back, would you think any other team would have the courage to hire him? I personally don't believe he will be a head coach again because he has a failing record as a head coach. He only reached the playoffs once and that was with the Jets team that he didn't really build himself, but was a mix from the previous coaching staff. So what are the chances that he may see a coordinator position? -- Ted (Richmond, Va.)

A. Ted, I don't see Mangini as a head coach within the next few years, but I can definitely see him as a coordinator. I think he is a solid coach.

Q. Mike, I thought this was a rebuilding year. Not so much a question as an observation that I would love to hear your reaction to. I found it fascinating and a sign of the strength of this team watching some of the veterans Sunday. After Brian Hoyer replaced Tom Brady for the day, Tom spent the rest of the day standing on the sideline monitoring all the play-calls and watching the game with the same intensity he shows when he is playing. When the offense was off the field, Tom was with Hoyer. When Crumpler scored his TD, I noted that as many defensive players rushed to congratulate him as did offensive players. I also noted that Crumpler was very animated cheering Edelman's return. And ... what more can be said about Vince Wilfork? He continually bulled his way through double-teams and was also animated throughout the game. The game was locked up but these three veteran leaders were still very much into the game. It was beautiful to watch and will help throughout the playoffs. What do you think? -- Dave (Berlin, N.H.)

A. Dave, I think this captures what I've noticed about the 2010 Patriots as well. They are a strong team. One of the things that has stood out to me covering football is how hard it is to get everyone pulling in the same direction, because there are so many different agendas among players and coaches. You never can tell how it will all come together, and when you get it going, it's something to seize because there is no guarantee it will happen again.

Q. Hey Mike, to me this has to be one of the most surprising and satisfying seasons for the Patriots, both from a player's and fan's perspective. From the evolution of the offense to the maturation of the defense, to key contributions from rookies and other unproven players (Green-Ellis, Woodhead, Moore), there was never a shortage of story lines. Just a fun team to watch. Going into the bye week, what will the Pats do to prepare for their divisional-round opponent? Without knowing the specific match-up, what will the team's focus be? -- Neil (South Boston)

A. Neil, I think we'll see the team focus on correcting some in-house issues, while also focusing on some general concepts from the three possible opponents. For example, all three opponents play some variation of the 3-4 defense, so that can be part of the preparation work.

Q. Mike, now that the regular season has played out with a 14-2 record, can you let us know what games you had them winning/losing in the 11-win and 10-win projections you had earlier in the season? -- John (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A. John, here is a link to a game-by-game breakdown.

Q. Mike, can special-teams play aid Devin McCourty's cause toward Defensive Rookie of the Year? That's got to count for something, right? -- Steven (Dayton, Ohio)

A. Steven, when voters make their picks on those awards, it's the complete package they are assessing. So McCourty's special-teams impact -- and it's been considerable -- is part of the decision-making process. I don't think it will be enough to overtake Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, but it only strenghtens McCourty's candidacy.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Cunningham
Icon SMIRookie Jermaine Cunningham has done a little bit of everything on defense for the Pats and continues to contribute.

Q. Mike, I was wondering if you could comment on the Patriots' approach to the Miami game. I saw a comment Sunday night where one columnist bashed Belichick for "running up the score to impress the BCS." Yes, the game got out of hand early (although you could lay that on the 'Fins for, you know, not showing up), but, as the Eagles reminded us, teams can catch up in a hurry in the NFL. Could you argue that Belichick should have pulled Brady sooner? Sure. But let's also acknowledge that he passed on two field goals from the Miami 19 in the fourth quarter. -- Steve (Sudbury, Mass.)

A. Steve, every team is going to have a different approach and while some might view Belichick as running up the score, I think that misses what he was really trying to do -- maximize opportunities to evaluate a number of players who haven't been on the field for a lot of snaps (e.g. Julian Edelman, Taylor Price) while playing with Tom Brady. You only get so many regular-season game snaps, and when I look at it that way, I can't fault the approach.

Q. Mike, who on the Pats roster is eligible for free agency this offseason? -- Brian M. (Baltimore)

A. Brian, here is a link that details that information. Top projected unrestricted free agents include left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and safety Jarrad Page.

Q. Mike, I may be mistaken, but it sure looked like some of Sammy Morris' second-half snaps were at TE. Did you guys see this too? It would be yet another role for him and would show how a team that plays so many 2- and 3-TE formations is prepared to handle one of its tight ends being out with an injury. It also speaks to Sammy Morris' value to the team. -- Stephen (Wilmington, Mass.)

A. That is correct, Stephen, as Morris was lined up at the end of the line in a tight end-type role. Morris' 36 snaps in the game were easily a season high. His previous high was 13, against the Bills in Week 3.

Q. Mike, we debated this a couple of years ago. I argued the Patriots' take from Kansas City for Matt Cassel/Mike Vrabel (2nd rounder) was insufficient, especially in light of what Denver received for Cutler. Now in hindsight we are able to see that, if there was no such person as Tom Brady, that Cassel would receive strong consideration for MVP this year. What are your thoughts now on that trade with the benefit of being able to look back? -- Paul C. (Raleigh, N.C.)

A. Paul, I think the Chiefs got good value, and the Patriots took the best deal they could get given the other factors they were dealing with (e.g. time constraints to pull off the deal). I also think context is important in the sense that Cassel could have walked as a free agent had the Patriots not placed the franchise tag on him, and then they wouldn't have received anything. So while looking specifically at the trade, I'd give the edge on the deal to the Chiefs, but it's never that black and white.

Q. Mike, it was so nice to see Alge Crumpler give the ball to a Patriots fans during the Miami game Sunday. Warmed my heart! I was wondering what the rules might be about players giving the ball away like that and why more players don't do it more often. Can you shed some light on that? -- Jillian (Quincy)

A. Jillian, I believe players get fined by the NFL for doing that. Unless I'm mistaken, I think that's why we don't see more of it.

Q. For the 2011 schedule, won't the Pats play the Chiefs on the road and the Raiders at home? -- Abhinav (Shrewsbury, Mass.)

A. If the regular rotation was adopted, this would be correct. But the NFL re-set the scheduling rotation in 2011 and that's why we see this change, with the Chiefs coming back to Gillette Stadium just three years after they visited.

Q. Mike, Rob Ninkovich really seems to get up in games against Miami (3 sacks and 2 INTS in two games this year). I'm predicting a Pats-Saints Super Bowl, the Saints being another of Ninkovich's old teams. Is it too early to put money on him being Super Bowl MVP? -- Lester (Burbank, Calif.)

A. Good one, Lester. You helped us end on a high note.

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

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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