With an AFC East championship now in the bag, Bill Belichick and the Patriots are turning their attention toward their next goal: a first-round bye in the playoffs. But standing directly in their way is the AFC front runner Houston Texans.
J.J. Watt and the Texans are headed to Gillette Stadium for a Monday Night party — as Hank Williams Jr. would say — and Tom Brady will be waiting. The AFC showdown should provide some big-time fireworks and could even be a playoff primer. But injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Logan Mankins, who has finally returned to practice, may keep us from seeing a true preview.
Brady really could have used both Gronkowski and Edelman against such a stingy pass defense, but instead he’ll have to make due with Donte Stallworth and Visanthe Shiancoe. At least Aaron Hernandez is back and healthy, or so he looks, gifting Brady one of his favorite weapons just in time for Christmas.
Speaking of gifts, Aqib Talib has been something of a present in the Patriots’ secondary, providing a spark and bringing the aggressive style that’s seen New England force 10 turnovers in the past three weeks. Devin McCourty, now at safety, Alfonzo Dennard, starting alongside Talib, and Kyle Arrington, who’s been dropped into the slot role, have seemed to be the biggest beneficiaries.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Christmas is still a few weeks away and the Patriots have plenty to look forward to ahead of the holidays. So, in the meantime, let’s take a look through the old mailbag and see what Patriots fans might be wishing for the rest of this season.
Why in the world was Julian Edelman playing against Miami with a concussion just 10 days earlier? That was way too soon. And he wouldn’t have broken his foot if he was sitting out the game.
— Walt Whitlock, Los Angeles, Calif.
Walt, while you’re probably right that Edelman wouldn’t have broken his foot if he sat out — although crazy things can happen as Terrell Suggs would tell you — he was healthy enough to play.
The season-ending injury is unfortunate and a big blow to a Patriots offense that just seemed to be gelling. But anything going on in his head shouldn’t have been a factor.
Edelman was cleared to practice and play, going through two different sets of concussion tests — like all players with symptoms — and there were no signs of a lingering issue. If there was any indication of a problem, he wouldn’t have been playing. Belichick is typically more concerned with players being healthy for the playoffs, rather than risking further injury in the regular season.
So while I understand your frustration, you’ve got to just chalk this one up to bad luck. Hopefully, Stallworth can get back on track quickly and we can all start looking ahead again.
Hi, what can you say about Brandon Bolden’s return? Greetings from Mexico.
–@Roco_cuevas, via Twitter
Hey, Rodrigo! Glad to see you’re reading up, even beyond the border.
Bolden returned to the team on Monday, after serving a four-game suspension. He was present at both Wednesday’s walkthrough and Thursday’s practice, and wasn’t listed on the injury report. The Patriots did get a one-week roster exemption for him — to try and reacclimate him into the system — similar to the one they got when Talib was activated.
With Stevan Ridley carrying the ball so well, and both Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead making an impact, I wouldn’t expect Bolden to be too much of a factor. He’s still a threat to weaker defenses, as he showed earlier this season against Buffalo and Denver. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if he went inactive, at least for this week.
Why did the Patriots sign Donte Stallworth and not Deion Branch?
–@Myst3ri0usGamer, via Twitter
When Branch was released a few weeks ago, the thought was that he was battling a hamstring injury. I’m sure the Patriots checked in on Branch, especially seeing that his locker is still intact inside the locker room, but he’s probably just not back to 100 percent yet.
Stallworth, who was brought in for a workout last week, was probably seen as the better fit in the meantime. He knows the offense and with Edelman out, it probably seemed like the most obvious choice right now.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Branch, and/or Jabar Gaffney, who’s recovering from a thigh injury and serving a two-game suspension, were back in the fold at some point, though.
Who do you think is the most improved player in the Patriots’ secondary?
-Kris Kauffman, Westbrook, Maine
Improved is a tricky word here, mainly because of McCourty’s switch to safety. At this point, I’d say he’s been the best player in the secondary on the season. He played well, but not great, at cornerback, but he’s been stellar since moving to safety. But for the sake of argument, I wouldn’t call it an “improvement,” per se.
In light of that, there’s been so much movement going on back there that it’s difficult to differentiate improvement from merely an increased role. Dennard is someone who jumps off the page because of his unexpected surge from seventh-round pick into a starter on the outside. Plus, he’s intercepted three passes, including one he returned for a touchdown, in just eight games
But if I’m talking about pure improvement, and most people will call me crazy, I’d have to give it to Arrington. He had a terrible start to the season, and was even demoted to the sixth defensive back spot at one point during the Seattle game. But since Talib showed up, Arrington dropped into the slot and has actually looked pretty good. He’s had more passes defended (five) in the past four games that he did in the first eight (three). And he shut down Dolphins receiver Davone Bess last week in Miami, holding the dynamic playmaker to just one catch for 13 yards. Now that’s improvement right there.
Several Patriots have recently been signed off the practice squad, including [Greg] Salas. Are practice players essentially free agents or do the Patriots retain some control? I hope you can explain the process and any restrictions … Thanks!
— Peter Burness, Hampton, N.H.
You guessed it, Peter. Practice squad players are essentially free agents. They can negotiate contracts with any NFL team looking to sign them to a 53-man roster. The only exception is that NFL teams are prohibited from “poaching” practice squad players from an upcoming opponent within six days of their game. That is to prevent teams from simply signing players to get gameplan or strategy.
So, the Patriots had no real rights to either Salas or cornerback Sterling Moore. Other teams, in this case the Eagles and Cowboys respectively, offered them more money and an opportunity to play, which was obviously more appealing.