FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots are closing in on a playoff berth, which has seemed like a forgone conclusion for several weeks anyway, as they eye their fifth consecutive victory Sunday against the Redskins.
With that, let's open up the mailbag with the playoff picture before shifting gears to the wide receiver situation, next year's NFL draft and a surprising disappearance this season.
As always, thank you to everyone who submitted their questions.
What do you think will happen with the playoff picture?
–@jpain23, via Twitter
The Patriots have four very winnable games remaining on their schedule, and if they run the table, they'll finish 13-3, which would at least tie for the best record in the AFC. At this point, the tiebreaking procedures are still a little too wide open to break them down into detail, but the Patriots are also tied with the Steelers (10-3), Ravens (9-3) and Texans (9-3) with three losses on the season.
The Ravens also have an easy schedule to close out the season, but they've already fallen to the Titans, Jaguars and Seahawks, so the Ravens can't afford to take anything for granted. The Steelers have a long week to prepare for their Week 15 trip to San Francisco, which is their toughest remaining test. And the Texans will finish the season with their third-string quarterback, at best, so there's no telling how they'll close it out, but their toughest game is this weekend in Cincinnati.
Let's consider two things right off the bat. First, the Steelers own the tiebreaker over the Patriots, so if those two teams finish alone at 13-3, Pittsburgh would have the No. 1 seed. However, the Ravens have the tiebreaker over the Steelers, which is a huge help for the Patriots. If New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh finished tied for the best record in the AFC, the Steelers would immediately be eliminated from the three-team tiebreaker. Then, if the Patriots and Ravens are each 13-3, the Ravens would win the tiebreaker with a better record against common opponents.
That might be the most likely scenario, assuming the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers all run the table while the Texans' quarterback issue costs them a game in the stretch run. So, again, if those three teams finish 13-3, the Patriots would have the second seed, which would give them a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game (against either the Texans, Steelers, Jets, Bengals, Broncos, Raiders or Titans).
Now, if the tiebreaker involves teams with 12-4 records, things will get much more complicated based on losses and whether they're against AFC or common opponents. Like I said earlier, that's where it gets tricky.
Will Chad Ochocinco make an impact with this team before the season is over?
–@cpodymaitis, via Twitter
Well, let's start from the beginning. When the Patriots acquired Ochocinco, I thought he'd be perfectly productive by catching 60-70 passes, simply because they needed a savvy veteran who could stay in sync with Tom Brady. Obviously, that hasn't exactly panned out, as he's got 12 receptions through 12 games, which puts him on pace for 16 catches this season, and that's eight fewer than Brandon Tate had in 2010.
At some point in early October, when it became apparent Ochocinco wasn't working out, I thought the Patriots' best-case scenario would be for him to get it figured out in December, or at least in time for the playoffs. That's where they're at right now, and there's still not much for Ochocinco to build upon.
It looked like Ochocinco could develop some confidence after catching two passes against the Jets, and then he had one reception and a drop along the sideline Sunday against the Colts. At the very least, it showed Brady's willingness to keep going to Ochocinco.
Now, how much success can that yield as time goes on? There's just so very little reason to believe it will click all of a sudden. They'd love it if he could contribute four receptions per game down the stretch, but I still don't think he can exceed his season high of two receptions on a regular basis.
With a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, do you think it would benefit the team to air it out to Ochocinco repeatedly if we find ourselves with a big lead? I know Chad has been a nonfactor this year, but it seems like it's worth trying to get the guy some chemistry with Brady before the playoffs instead of giving up on him.
–Evan (Folly Beach, S.C.)
I understand the sentiment, but it would only be beneficial if it was within the offensive scheme. If Brady just starts chucking it to Ochocinco, Brady could develop some bad habits — just remember how erratic he got when he did that with Randy Moss in 2009 and 2010 — which would obviously be counterproductive.
Now, I do believe Ochocinco would be a more productive player if he could develop some confidence, which would come from some receptions. Maybe they could involve him in a few screen plays, simply to get the ball in his hands, or try to work in some quick sideline out-routes before the defense starts sitting on them.
If the Patriots are going to actively try to get Ochocinco involved down the stretch, it definitely has to stay within the means of their typical offensive game plan, though, or I don't think it would be worth it.
What has happened to Jermaine Cunningham? Is he in Belichick's doghouse and why? He was counted on to improve in his second year, and there's been no sighting.
–Steve (Miami Lakes, Fla.)
That's a heck of a question, Steve, and to be honest, it's one of the greatest mysteries of the season. I thought he was their best edge-setter in run defense last season when he converted to outside linebacker, and it seemed like it would make sense for him to get a boost this season while getting back to defensive end in a four-man front, which is where he played at Florida. Yet there's been nothing, and Belichick has been quiet when faced with questions about Cunningham, which makes it sound like he's not overly happy with his progression this season.
Let's look at the depth chart, too. Andre Carter has been brilliant, and Rob Ninkovich has really come on this season, both as an outside linebacker and a defensive end in certain packages. Mark Anderson has been a pretty good pass rusher, and Brandon Deaderick showed a really good spark for a stretch midway through the season. Shaun Ellis has been a disappointment and seems to get a comparable amount of reps to Cunningham now.
I didn't expect Cunningham to emerge this season as a great pass rusher or anything, but I'm surprised he hasn't been used a little more on a rotational basis. Maybe it's that he just doesn't give them enough from a pass-rushing standpoint, and he can't separate himself from Deaderick and Ninkovich in those packages. Either way, it's certainly been one of the team's most disappointing storylines of the season.
Hey! What do you think are the chances of Jack Del Rio being a defensive coach next season? Do you think it would even help improve the defense? Also, with Taylor Price cut and Ochocinco not living up to the expectations, do you see us getting a deep threat like DeSean Jackson or Dwayne Bowe this coming offseason? Surely, it could only help to open up even more space for Welker (presuming he is re-signed) and Rob Gronkowski. Thanks!
Hi! I always appreciate some creativity with the mailbag questions, but I think I'm going to have to rain on your parade. First, it hasn't been Belichick's style to target big-name coaches for his staff, aside from Dom Capers at least, so I don't think Del Rio would be a fit. I also did a little background check, and it doesn't look like Del Rio has any strong connections to Belichick, so I'd probably rule that out.
One more thing on the coaching front: The belief is Matt Patricia, who coaches the safeties this year and has coached the linebackers in the past, is being groomed for the defensive coordinator position. Plus, defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is held in high regard, so I'm not sure how someone like Del Rio would fit with that chemistry.
I love Jackson's athleticism, but I don't think he's mature enough to deserve the money he'll get this offseason. I also wrote about him a couple weeks so, check that out for some more of my thoughts on the subject. I'd put Bowe in a similar ballpark. He's a freak of an athlete, but I strongly question his maturity, and he gave up on the final play of the Chiefs' loss to the Steelers a couple weeks ago.
I'm sure the position will be addressed this offseason, and there could be a very good crop of receivers in the draft, led by Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) and Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), among others.
Do you think they will be able to re-sign Wes Welker?
–@RealPatsFans, via Twitter
I went into this subject in great detail about a month and a half ago, but the bottom line is I do believe he'll remain with the Patriots. I believe that's what he wants because he truly values what Brady has done for his career.
If it's about breaking the bank, I'm sure there's a team or three out there that might be interested in giving Welker a huge deal, but I don't think it would get to that point. The growing belief is the Patriots would place the franchise tag on Welker before letting him get his chance at free agency. From there, I wouldn't be surprised if they turned the tag into a longer deal, which is what happened with Vince Wilfork.
Leave questions for Jeff Howe's mailbag in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter at @jeffphowe or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.