It should be an awesome game between two teams with such contrasting styles, and it will be an exercise in old school versus new school.
Let's open up the mailbag and run through some other topics.
Out of all the players currently on the Patriots roster, which one could you see most likely going into coaching? Kevin Faulk? Tom Brady?
Well, I'd rule out Brady because he's got a good thing going on the home front. Plus, you don't really see great quarterbacks try to work their way through the coaching ranks after they retire as players. Could the front office, or maybe an ownership stake be in his future? Maybe. I just don't see him as a guy who would be interested in roaming the sidelines.
I could definitely see Faulk getting into the profession after seeing how he handled his leadership role in the last season and a half. Others I'd put on that list: linebacker Jerod Mayo, wide receiver Deion Branch, wide receiver Matthew Slater, center Dan Koppen and right guard Brian Waters. I mean absolutely no disrespect to anyone I didn't include, but those are the names that immediately jumped out at me. I could be way off, but they strike me as guys who would be successful in that line of work.
If the Pats were to have a losing season, would they be cleaning house like the Colts?
–Garry (Seabrook, N.H.)
It would depend on the circumstances, and it's really difficult to compare the two organizations right now. Jim Caldwell never appeared to be more than a stop-gap head coach who just provided the easiest transition for Peyton Manning after Tony Dungy departed. And Manning's injury is so uncertain that it's hard to tell what direction they'd like to go with him. Lastly, quarterback Andrew Luck is viewed as a once-a-generation type of draft prospect, which creates a perfect storm with the dynamic between him and Manning.
Unless things take a drastic turn for the worse for the Patriots in the next few years, Bill Belichick will be leaving on his terms, and I'd guess those terms will coincide with Brady's. It's an interesting question, but again, it's difficult to compare the two organizations since they're at very different points.
Do you think the Pats' defense is at all improving as we come down the stretch? As long as we get by Baltimore, I think our defense can hold up against 49ers' offense. We also match up pretty well with the Giants. As you said in one of your articles: The Patriots could win the Super Bowl beating Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, and it would actually count!
–The Guy Who Got Gronked
First, I hope you're OK. Second, I don't want to take credit for the article you're referring to because it was actually written by Mike Hurley.
At any rate, I think the defense is improving, but it's hard to say by how much. They did a great job against the Broncos, and they attacked the offensive backfield more with a one-gap approach in the middle, as well as more pressure off both edges as they've had in any other game this season. The game plan will be different Sunday against a more traditional offense.
Plus, the defense started to change in Week 10 against the Jets, and they tried even more looks in Week 11 against the Chiefs, which continued through the remainder of the regular season. Due to their injury situation, with linebacker Brandon Spikes, safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Devin McCourty missing games, Belichick did a lot of mixing and matching. I also think the soft schedule in November and December gave the Patriots more freedom to experiment on the defensive side of the ball, considering how much they struggled to start the year.
So, has the experimentation paid off? Does Belichick finally know what he's got now that everyone is healthy? Well, it clearly worked the second time around against Denver. And the adjustments in Weeks 16 and 17 were great, too, after falling behind by 17 and 21 points, respectively. I think it will be really telling if they start stronger and are able to stick with that game plan throughout.
That's the long way of saying, I think they're improving, but I'm still not totally sure.
Obviously, we can only know so much about our defense based on their performance against an outmatched Denver offense, but you can't take away 14 negative plays from anybody. With that in mind, aside from how well New England played the option, it seemed like we were collapsing the pocket on passing downs more than usual. Was that my imagination? I remember one sequence where there were two sacks in a row (one was the Gerard Warren sack), and practically no one would have had any time before the defense got to them. My question is, was something different/getting better, or was it matchup-based, or was the Denver offensive line banged up? Thanks.
–Gabriel Cruz (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
It's a similar question to the last one, but I want to take it in a different direction. You were right that the Patriots collapsed the pocket much more effectively, but I want to hit on the matchup issue.
This season's Broncos had one of the most unique offenses in the NFL over the last decade, so it's hard to tell how much of the game plan will carry over to this week. I think the most important thing for the Patriots is to attack running back Ray Rice at the line — obviously, that holds true in the run game, but I particularly mean in pass defense. I broke down Rice's impact earlier in the week, so you can read that for more detail.
What I'm getting at is I think the Patriots are much more effective when they're aggressive on defense, particularly over the middle of the field. They'll be able to play that way with Spikes and Jerod Mayo in the fold, and some man coverage over the middle would be a good plan of attack in my opinion.
However, I wonder if Belichick would prefer to lay back and force quarterback Flacco to beat him consistently and just bank on Flacco making a mistake someone along the way. That's how the Patriots played the Steelers — to no avail, obviously — and it was also done with the deep ball in mind, which the Ravens can also hit effectively. How the Patriots choose to attack the Ravens' offense is definitely something that's got my attention this weekend.
Hi Jeff, are you more surprised at the Packers' (15-1) one-and-done this year or the Patriots (14-2) last year?
–Griff (Somerville, Mass.)
Tough question because both were heavy Super Bowl favorites. On one hand, I don't want to say the Patriots because anything can happen in a rivalry game. On the other hand, I don't want to say the Packers because we saw how closely the Giants played them in the regular season.
There probably isn't a wrong answer to this question, but I'll say the Patriots had a more surprising loss. Heading into that game, I thought they'd easily get through the Jets, and the only question was by how much. And even though I picked the Packers to beat the Giants, I said all week I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the Giants pulled off the victory.
Not to be a homer, but "Lewis might of been one of the two or three best players" from the 1996 draft? The man is probably the best to ever play the position, and you act like that is up for debate. Odd way of putting it.
First of all, you misquoted me. In Thursday's story about Ray Lewis and the Patriots, I said, "Lewis should have been one of the top two or three picks in the draft," which has a different meaning.
The draft also had, as Ravens fans should know, left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who should be a Hall of Famer. Depending on a team's preference at the top of the board, it's not exactly unfathomable to see a team take Ogden over Lewis. And for those who value offensive playmakers, wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens were in the draft class. I wouldn't have taken any of them over Lewis or Ogden, but again, stuff like that happens.
To be clear, I'd rank Lewis at the top of that draft class, and if I had the fortune of foresight, I'd have taken him with the top pick, one spot ahead of Ogden.
Do you see the Patriots and Wes Welker having mutual trust in each other that they know a deal will get done without using the franchise tag? Is there anyone else worth using the tag on?
–Wade (Portland, Ore.)
I'd truly be stunned if the two sides didn't reach an agreement, and the Patriots could still use the franchise tag as a tactic to control the power while negotiating with him, just like they did with Vince Wilfork two years ago. Welker wants to remain in New England, and I don't think the Patriots would make themselves vulnerable by letting him hit the open market. Something will get done in one way or another.
The notable free agents this offseason include defensive end Mark Anderson, wide receiver Deion Branch, defensive end Andre Carter, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, defensive end Shaun Ellis, running back Kevin Faulk, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, linebacker Gary Guyton, quarterback Brian Hoyer (restricted), safety James Ihedigbo, center Dan Koppen, defensive tackle Kyle Love (restricted), wide receiver Matthew Slater, defensive lineman Gerard Warren and offensive lineman Ryan Wendell.
There are some key players on that list, but none of them are really worthy of the franchise tag. In a sense of desperation, I can see it happening with Koppen, but that's an extremely long shot.
What's better: "Shake and Quake," or "The Boston T.E. Party" or do you have a suggestion? Also, did you watch the new episode of The Big Bang Theory?
Conan, big fan, but I hate The Big Bang Theory, so I have not seen it. I like "Shake and Quake" a lot better because it's easier to say, though I like the originality of "The Boston T.E. Party" a little more.