FOXBORO, Mass. — At this point, the division seems like a foregone conclusion for the Patriots, who have a two-game lead after back-to-back victories against the Jets and Chiefs. If the Patriots handle business against their final six opponents, who have a combined record of 20-40, they'll likely have a first-round bye in the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Now, they set their sights on the Eagles, who are one of the most interesting teams in the NFL this season. Their speed figures to create some matchup problems, but can the Eagles' collection of individual talent put it all together for a total team victory? That will certainly be one of the biggest storylines of the week, and let's run through a number of others in the Two-Minute Drill.
1. I think I can attribute the Patriots' slow start against the Chiefs to a difficult week of preparation. Players were saying the Chiefs were a tough team to read because they did a lot of different things and had some big changes in personnel. It took a while to figure them out, but once they did, the Patriots rolled in the second half.
2. There was a point last week when the Chiefs thought about taking quarterback Matt Cassel to New England for the game, but they changed their minds Friday, according to team personnel. Too bad, it would have been a cool moment. Instead, they kept him in Kansas City and placed him on injured reserve a few hours prior to Monday's kickoff.
3. It's definitely bizarre that Cassel's career essentially started during a Patriots-Chiefs game at Gillette Stadium, and it's legitimately worth wondering if his Chiefs career ended on the night of a Pats-Chiefs game in New England. Another random parallel: Running back Kevin Faulk didn't play in either game.
4. Bill Belichick was asked lightheartedly Tuesday if he's ever coached anyone who spikes the football as hard as tight end Rob Gronkowski. Belichick responded, "It's like he's drilling for oil."
5. Belichick then brought up Tom Brady's spike in the Snow Bowl, but Belichick noted, "That was a pretty bad spike when he fell down." Yeah, that's a good call, but it can be tough to hold your follow-through in a half-foot of snow.
6. To the greater topic at hand, I noted after the Patriots' victory against the Jets in Week 5 that I thought Gronkowski was eventually going to become the best tight end in the NFL, if he hadn't reached that point already. Aside from his ability catching passes, the Patriots ran behind Gronkowski in all but two plays of their game-sealing drive on the ground. Since then, he's led the team in receiving yards in four of five games, and he has caught 34 passes for 478 yards and five touchdowns.
7. Right this very moment, Gronkowski is the best tight end in the football world. And as of last week's Pro Bowl ballot, Gronkowski leads all NFL tight ends in votes, so his popularity is soaring during his great run on the field.
8. The tight ends have quickly turned into the focal point of the offense, too. Since the Patriots played the Cowboys, Gronkowski leads the Patriots with 34 receptions and 49 targets, and Aaron Hernandez is third with 22 receptions and 35 targets. The tight ends have more receptions (56) and targets (84) in that span than any other positional group. The wide receivers have combined for 47 catches and 78 targets, and the running backs have totaled 17 receptions and 26 targets. Plus, Brady has completed 66.7 percent of his passes to the tight ends, which is the highest percentage to any positional group.
9. Credit the Chiefs for taking away Wes Welker, whose only two receptions came in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Kansas City has a couple of very good cornerbacks in Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, and the Chiefs clogged the middle of the field with their linebackers and safeties through much of the game, too.
10. Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien noted that Welker was a valuable blocker in the running game and played well despite the statistical shortage. Of course, O'Brien talks up all of his players, but the logic behind his message about Welker was sound. If defenses are going to overload Welker, he's still an important part of the offense because he frees up other receivers.
11. I thought it was interesting that safety Patrick Chung never appeared on the field prior to Monday's game, which meant the coaching staff had ruled him out much earlier in the day, or even at the end of the practice week. Chung was a game-time decision against the Jets due to the foot injury, so if you want to read into it that way, it doesn't look like it improved much, if at all, over the course of the last week.
12. It's too early to tell at this point because the Eagles are pretty banged up, too, but the Patriots will be in far greater trouble in Philly if Chung, cornerback Devin McCourty and linebacker Brandon Spikes can't play. If Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin are healthy, that's a tough offense to contain along with wide receiver DeSean Jackson and running back LeSean McCoy, whose nickname ("Shady") might be the best in the NFL.
13. Speaking of Jackson, I'd never take him on the team I don't own. Big-time players can't get suspended for missing team meetings, and they can't follow that up a few days later by saying they're distracted by their contract situation. Jackson is a great video-game player with elite talent, but he's proven to be unreliable.
14. Plus, Jackson told NFL Network that he's not the only player who misses meetings in that Philly locker room, which obviously plays a big role in the team's general attitude and 4-6 record. But Jackson shouldn't use that as an excuse. If he wants a big-money deal, set an example, corral your teammates and drag them to meetings. Be a leader, not a follower.
15. Rookie running back Shane Vereen showed some good burst during the final drive of the fourth quarter against the Chiefs, and I think he displayed why the Patriots drafted him in the second round. But take it with a grain of salt because the Chiefs had nearly quit by that point. Still, the playing time is valuable experience, and it should give Vereen some added confidence this week at practice, which is always a positive.
"I think anybody who's played football this long is itching to get out there when they haven't been out there for a while, so it was good to get out there," Vereen said of his first real playing time. "It was fun. I enjoyed it, and it was a good team victory."
16. Safety James Ihedigbo lost a bet to Ross Ventrone a few weeks ago when Villanova beat UMass in football, and Ihedigbo had to pay up after the Chiefs game, when he wore a T-shirt that was a nod to Ventrone's Twitter account. It had "#MrReally" and "@RustyBenson35" on the front of the shirt. That was definitely one of the most interesting bets I've ever seen in a locker room.
17. Linebacker Jerod Mayo levied a big hit that amped up the crowd Monday night but quickly looked at the yardage marker on the sideline and realized the play went for a first down, and Mayo didn't celebrate for a second. You don't see that very often anymore. A few seasons ago, Junior Seau might have orchestrated a parade if he made that play.
18. Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said Tuesday the team evaluated Vick when he was a low-cost free agent in 2009, which isn't surprising. I'm not sure if there's any more to it, but it sounded like it was standard operating procedure.
19. Every NFL player watches Monday Night Football. That's a pretty well-known almost-fact. So I wonder what former Patriots safeties James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather were thinking when they turned on the television the other night and saw Sterling Moore and Ventrone in the defensive backfield. If you're Sanders and Meriweather, is that a good feeling or a bad feeling?
20. Happy birthday to my father, who celebrates his 60th on Thanksgiving. In the spirit of the holiday, I'd like to say how thankful I am for each and every one of my family members, including my new wife, mother, sister and the rest of the gang on both sides of the tree.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
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