Tom Brady Has Been Different Quarterback With Rob Gronkowski, Panthers Have Unheralded Hero and Other NFL Thoughts

Tom Brady, Rob GronkowskiAll of the headlines surrounded Brady-Manning XIV, and rightfully so as it turned out to be the best game of the weekend in the NFL. But there were plenty of other interesting storylines to follow in Week 12.

The Chargers delivered a knockdown blow to the Chiefs. The Cowboys gave the giants a gut check. The Cardinals proved they were for real, while the Colts only raised more questions. The Jaguars and Buccaneers won again. And the Vikings and Packers decided to tie.

Both the Browns and Falcons excused themselves from the playoff conversation. Meanwhile, the Ravens, Steelers Titans and Chargers only strengthened their claims. There is plenty left to be decided when it comes to the playoff picture, but there were some definite takeaways from the week that was in the NFL. So, let’s see what this week’s “First and 10″ has to offer.

**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.

1. Brady’s been different with Gronk — Speculation was abounding earlier this season that something was missing for Tom Brady. It appears we now know just what it was — Rob Gronkowski.

In the six games prior to Gronkowski’s return, Brady was completing just 56.9 percent of his passes and had thrown eight touchdowns and four interceptions. In the five games since, though, Brady has been completing nearly 64 percent of his throws, including 70 percent over the last three games, and has hit nine touchdowns to just three picks (just one over the last three).

Getting a healthy Danny Amendola and Gronkowski back in the lineup, giving the Patriots the offense they expected to have before the season, would help any quarterback. But the return of Gronkowski especially has been something of a renaissance for Brady, as he seems more poised and comfortable in the pocket and seems to be making better throws on the whole. Whether it be turning him into a screaming meathead or just improving his game, Gronk is clearly having a major impact on Brady.

2. KT needed that week off –Flying under the radar, given Brady’s stellar performance over the past few weeks, has been Kenbrell Thompkins‘ reemergence in the Patriots’ offense. Thompkins’ connection with Brady was among the worst in the NFL to start the season, which saw his targets and snaps dwindle down to almost zero in Week 8. By Week 9, Thompkins had found himself off the bench and instead as one of the team’s inactives ahead of the Steelers’ game. Being disregarded like that mustn’t have sat well with Thompkins, as he’s been a different, and much better, receiver since returning to the lineup.

Thompkins is still using his body to make some catches, which was a big reason behind his drops early in the year, but is using his hands to draw balls in more consistently. In his eight games before the DNP, Thompkins had caught just 39.6 percent of his targets (23 of 58) from Brady. Since, though, he has hauled in 72.7 percent (8-for-11), including one overthrow and one should-be penalty for pass interference. It seems that whatever the problem was, Thompkins recognized it and has made a concerted effort to fix it.

3. Learn the name — Mike Glennon wasn’t the first quarterback taken in this year’s draft, he was the third. He’s been the best of the bunch through the first 12 weeks of his rookie season, though.

Glennon, who was selected in the third round back in April, began the season backing up Josh Freeman in Tampa Bay, but, once given the opportunity, he quickly showed why some believed he was a franchise QB.  Over the last six weeks, Glennon has confirmed that notion. He has completed almost 65 percent of his passes during that stretch and tossed 10 touchdowns to just one interception. That is a significant improvement over his first two games this year as well, where his completion percentage was just 58.1 and he had threw just as many interceptions (three) as touchdowns. He looks like the real deal and has been making throws that a quality starter should make.

Check out the chart below to see more impressive Glennon stats.

Mike Glennon

4. Kendall Wright is a third-down machine – Wes Welker is widely known as the master of third-down conversions. This season, Kendall Wright has claimed that crown, though.

The Titans’ second-year receiver has emerged as a dangerous weapon both on the outside and in the slot and is an emerging star in a somewhat stagnant offense. Wright is tied for seventh in the NFL — with Welker, no less — in receptions with 65, but what’s made him even more impressive is his ability to make plays on third down. He has 25 third-down receptions this season, which leads all receivers in the NFL. That penchant for getting open in key situations is an attribute that team’s desire and that will set him apart from other budding young stars as his career goes on.

5. Can’t ignore Josh Gordon anymore – Knowing what we know now, it’s incredible that no team was willing to give up a second-round pick for Josh Gordon at the trade deadline. Even after missing the first two games of the season, Gordon already ranks fifth in receiving yards (988) and third in 20-plus yards receptions (16). He’s a burned on the outside and has incredibly reliable hands. In fact, he’s been so good that he has even made the Browns’ passing game resemble something worthy of the NFL at times.

Gordon isn’t just a good young receiver or even a good receiver anymore, he’s already made that leap into the upper echelon of wideouts in the league, even earning the far too-oft used “elite” tag. Oh, and as an added caveat, Gordon’s 237-yard performance on Sunday accounted for 76 percent of the Browns’ passing yards on just 32 percent of the quarterbacks’ overall targets. How’s that for efficiency?

6. An unlikely hero in Carolina — The Panthers’ success this season has been greatly attributed to the emergence of Cam Newton and a stingy defense, but one key contributor has been largely overlooked in Carolina.

Kicker Graham Gano has been the unheralded hero for the Panthers this season, making 16 of his 18 field goal attempts on the year. Even more impressive, though, is Gano’s accuracy from distance. After nailing a 52-yarder against the Dolphins on Sunday, Gano is now 6-for-6 on field goals from 50-plus yards out (most in the NFL) and 8-for-9 on kicks from 40-plus this season. His accuracy should be a great asset for the Panthers as they look to make a deep playoff run.

An unheralded key in the Panthers’ success is that @GrahamGano is 6-for-6 on FG tries of 50 or more yards

7. Romo is clutch, no matter what you think – The Cowboys have blown a few prime opportunities at wins this season, most notably against the Broncos in Week 5. Tony Romo gets the majority of the blame for the failures, too, especially that loss in particular, and is painted as a “choke artist” for his late-game deficiencies. But that notion is nothing more than a farce.

Romo has actually engineered 19 fourth-quarter comebacks and 21 game-winning drives during his eight seasons as a starter, including 11 game-winning drives over the last three seasons — the most since the start of 2011. Two such game-winners have come this season, including on Sunday against the Giants. So, while he may be portrayed as a choker, the numbers tend to lean heavily in his favor.

8. Bears might be better off sticking with McCown — Jay Cutler is the Bears’ starting quarterback. If you watched Chicago earlier this season or believe Marc Trestman, then that is abundantly apparent. However, Josh McCown has done just as well leading the Bears’ offense as Cutler in his absence. In fact, he might be better.

In eight games this season, Cutler had completed 63 percent of his passes, thrown 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Meanwhile, in just five games, McCown has completed better than 65 percent of his throws and tossed seven touchdowns and only one pick. The Bears do score more points under Cutler and have a better record in games where he plays the majority of the snaps (4-3) rather than those with McCown (2-3). But McCown has been surprisingly more consistent and productive than Cutler this season, and that could see him hang onto the starting job even when Cutler is healthy.

9. Robert Quinn is the NFL’s best pass rusher — Colts defensive end Robert Mathis and Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston get most of the publicity, but the Rams’ Robert Quinn looks like the best pass rusher in the NFL. Quinn, in just his third NFL season, isn’t on a Super Bowl contender like the other two, but he is second in the NFL in sacks (13) and leads the league in forced fumbles (six) this season and is quickly emerging as one of the game’s best defenders.

Quinn excels both with his speed off the edge and his strength on the interior, using a variety of rushes to beat his man. Even when he’s not sacking the quarterback, Quinn is making an impact. He leads all defensive ends on the season in quarterback pressures, applying pressure on 20.2 percent of his rushes, according to Pro Football Focus. Seattle’s Michael Bennett (18.1 percent) and Carolina’s Charles Johnson (17.2 percent) rank second and third in the category.

10. Parity circle is now complete – I’ve probably beaten the parity horse to death at this point, but this season has been something else. Through 12 weeks, there are currently 15 teams at or above .500 on the season and another seven teams sitting just below that threshold. Six divisions are also very much up for grabs, with the AFC East and NFC West being the lone exceptions. That isn’t all of the parity happening in the league, though.

In an interesting turn of events, every team is connected by a loss this season. That means that all 32 teams are interconnected by losses that they’ve suffered to another team during the season, essentially nixing the A+B=C philosophy often used to decide expected outcomes of games. For example, the Patriots beat the Dolphins in Week 8, but they also lost to the Bengals (Week 5), who were beaten by the Dolphins in Week 9, therefore drawing parity between New England and Miami.

Still unclear? Well, take a look at the parity circle below for further clarification.

parity

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Photo via Twitter/@ESPNStatsInfo

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