The Patriots are in a great position with a week and a half remaining in the regular season. They'll lock up a first-round bye Saturday with a victory against the Dolphins, and they're closing in on the AFC's No. 1 seed, too.
Yet, there are some topics to address as the calendar shifts to January, so let's start things off with a pair of million-dollar questions.
How do you feel about the Pats' chances of making a Super Bowl run? With the defense, I see another one-and-done in the playoffs. It's one thing to win in January with a great offense and a mediocre defense, but I don't see how you can win with a defense this bad. If so, what does it say about the league in general?
–Jeff D., North Attleboro, Mass.
Jeff, with the tight ends we have, plus Wes Welker and Deion Branch, I would say our offense is as diverse as it's been in quite a long time. Can you see our Patriots overcoming our less-than-stellar defense and going anywhere in the playoffs? Or is this another one-and-done season?
–Ron, Dearborn, Mo.
Well, I'll start by saying there isn't a perfect team in the NFL this year, not even the Packers, who are at least the most well-rounded. But let's concentrate on the AFC for a minute. I think we've all realized the Texans can't sustain their run without quarterback Matt Schaub, and the AFC West champion is going to be a joke. At this point, it looks like the Jets will claim the sixth seed, and their entire team, offensively and defensively, has taken a step back from a year ago. But if they beat the Texans in the first round, they'll head to New England to give the Patriots a chance to prove they're different from a year ago.
The two best teams, other than the Patriots, reside in the AFC North. The Steelers' fate rests on Ben Roethlisberger's health, and the Ravens have been abysmal on offense at times, while their defense has had lapses at times, too. But most importantly, each team had a chance to put a stranglehold on the AFC's top seed last weekend, and each team lost. It was more of an indictment on the Ravens to lose in San Diego than it was on the Steelers in San Francisco, but they each fell in a glorified playoff game, which shows they are far from invincible.
That's a roundabout way of getting to the Patriots, which bleeds yards but is tied for 14th in points allowed (with the Packers) and is tied with the Jets for the AFC lead with 28 takeaways. While the Patriots allow sustained drives, they're obviously making plays to keep the points down. Is that the optimistic way to look at it? Absolutely. The pessimistic view says it can't stay like this forever, which happened against the Jets in the playoffs last year, when the Patriots couldn't get the key second-half stop that they needed to erase a deficit.
I guess we'll see how it will hold up this time around, but despite the loss of Andre Carter, the Patriots are getting healthier elsewhere. Linebacker Jerod Mayo told me his knee is still getting better, and cornerback Devin McCourty has hinted that his shoulder still isn't where it needs to be, but the first-round bye will greatly help both of them. It also looks like safety Patrick Chung could return Saturday against the Dolphins, and he might be their best playmaker. We'll see what happens with linebacker Brandon Spikes.
Let's switch gears to Ron's question about the offense, and I agree that it's as diverse as it's ever been, or at minimum, it's in the same ballpark in terms of weapons as 2007. But comparing it to 2010, Tom Brady has so much more trust in tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and Brady's lack of trust hurt them during the playoff loss to the Jets, when he barked at both of them for not being in the right spot against certain coverages.
Last year, the Jets narrowed Brady's sightline by setting the edge farther outside than normal, and they almost forced him to throw over the middle to a stacked coverage. It played to New York's strength because Gronkowski and Hernandez weren't able to help out Wes Welker. That's not the case anymore. Defenses can't just take away Welker and assume they'll be all right.
Therefore, I don't think the offense can have a sustained drought like it did against the Jets, or even like it did against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants earlier this season. They've proven that they can adapt after a slow start, which was the case against the Chiefs, Eagles, Colts and Broncos. As long as Brady doesn't turn it over like he did against the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs, there's no need to worry about this offense.
While you have plenty of reasons to worry about the defense, don't think that unit can hamper them from a playoff run. The offense is too dominant right now, and the rest of the teams are too flawed.
Why was Tom Brady allowed two or three attempts at quarterback sneaks near the goal line Sunday in the fourth quarter? It looked like he was getting crushed. Wouldn't it have been easier to hand off to a back or run play-action?
–Paul Franco, Worcester, Mass.
It's a great question, and I feel strongly that I know the answer. The Broncos' defensive line was the dominant unit in those short-yardage situations Sunday, as the Patriots' offensive line couldn't sustain a push for long enough to open a hole for a running back. So, by the time Brady handed it off, the holes were almost non-existent. The sneak worked once for Brady's earlier touchdown, though he had to fight through Robert Ayers' vicious hand to the face, but it clearly wasn't very effective in the fourth quarter. Still, I think the logic was to get Brady moving forward in a quicker fashion than a running back — at least, that's how it looked.
When Bill Belichick was in Cleveland, were his postgame news conferences as uninformative and delivered with one-word answers as they are today?
–JaY, Lunenburg, Mass.
Actually, I've heard from former Cleveland writers who have said Belichick has gotten a lot better with the media since his time there. But in all truthfulness, if you ask a well-thought-out question, Belichick will give a good answer. Obviously, there are days when he just doesn't want to do it, but there are much fewer of them than some would lead you to believe.
One example, though: I got a great response from him after the Washington game when I was curious why he didn't call a timeout when the Redskins were goal-to-go in the final two minutes, saying he trusted his defensive package against the Redskins' offensive look. It went into more detail than that, but my point was that you can get some good answers out of him if you properly present the question.
There's something I've been wondering just about every time Ross Ventrone moves on/off the practice squad. Is there anything in the CBA to protect a guy like that from getting paid like a practice squad guy all the time? It seems like he deserves the veteran minimum or whatever because he's on the roster so much but might be getting screwed over.
–Dan, Watertown, Mass.
Good question. Ventrone's salary has been $149,940 when he's on the practice squad ($8,820 per week) and $375,000 when he's on the active roster ($22,058.82 per week), which is the minimum for his tenure. So it's a nice raise when he gets promoted. He would never get paid a practice squad salary if he was on the active roster for a game.
How bad is the security at Gillette Stadium? I'm flying across the country to see my favorite team play the Dolphins this weekend. Only problem is I'm getting surgery to my broken arm, and I'll be getting metal plates and screws put in. I'm a little worried about going through so much pain and effort to come see the Patriots play and then be denied at the front gate because I have metal in my body. Do you think I will have a problem getting in? Thanks!
–Emir, Boise, Idaho
If Drew Bledsoe can get through security with a metal pin in his finger, I think you can get through the gate with a little metal in your arm. Same thing, right?
I know it's a bit early for this type of question, but considering cornerback Cortland Finnegan's comments about how he doubts the Titans will re-sign him, do you see the Pats signing him or maybe Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, Titans safety Michael Griffin or even Redskins safety LaRon Landry to help shore up the secondary? Thanks!
All four of them are very good players, but I think Brandon Carr and LaRon Landry will command some significant contracts, which usually rules out the Patriots. The safety position needs to be addressed this offseason, and I'm not sure if they'll do it in the draft or free agency.
I doubt the Patriots would have much interest in targeting a big-name free agent at cornerback. The position really just needs a turnaround from Devin McCourty, and then I think they like what they've got with Kyle Arrington's growth and Ras-I Dowling's potential. I wouldn't be surprised if they used a first- or second-round pick on another cornerback, but I just don't see it happening in free agency.
Leave your question 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.
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