FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots are about to catch Tebowmania, and the only prescription would be a victory Sunday in Denver, which would also translate into their ninth AFC East title in the last 11 seasons.
You'll hear plenty about Tim Tebow this week — as if that's different than any other week, I guess — so I kept the Broncos quarterback out of this edition of the Two-Minute Drill. Instead, there's plenty on some historical insight from Bill Belichick, a Patriot chasing a rare award, another Patriot building upon his own NFL record and a host of playoff tiebreaking scenarios.
Let's get to it.
1. Belichick opened up Friday during his best news conference of the season, as he opened up about positional flexibility (how slot receivers have characteristics that yield to a transition to defense; how defensive players don't play offense for a reason — they don't have as much playmaking ability, to an extent) and the history of substitution packages.
2. That's the stuff that I found to be the most interesting. Belichick pointed to former Redskins head coach George Allen, who implemented the nickel package in the 1970s when he substituted a defensive back for the middle linebacker and slid the weakside linebacker to the inside.
3. That led to this gem of a quote: "I remember being with the Giants in '81, and we didn't even have a nickel defense. That was a big step. I can't remember what year it was — maybe it was '82 or '83 — we were like 'OK, we're going to put in the nickel this year.' It was like 'Oh, my God, this is going to be a big step, how are we going to do this?' And terminology and all that, we didn't even have that."
4. From there, Belichick got into the trickle-down effect of substitution packages between offense and defense, and the evolution of certain positions was some good stuff. Belichick takes heat for being bland about injuries and the current week's game plan — which makes sense, because that type of information could put his team at a competitive disadvantage — but his history lessons are always fascinating.
5. The NFL has trended in the direction of hiring young head coaches, and there are fewer links to the 1970s and 1980s now than there were just a few years ago. From that standpoint, it's valuable to use Belichick as a tool to learn about the early part of the game. After all, he broke into the NFL in 1975, just five years after the AFL-NFL merger, so he knew the merged league when it was still in its infant stages.
6. Also Friday, Belichick casually mentioned the 3-4 defense was built for the I-formation. Since the I-formation has started to disappear to an extent in recent seasons in favor of the spread offense, I wonder if that had anything to do with the Patriots' shift to a 4-3 this season. Belichick told a radio station earlier in the season that the 3-4 is tougher to install without a full offseason of camps, so that obviously played a significant role. But next season, after a full offseason, I'm very interested to see what type of defense Belichick will employ.
7. I'm starting to think Rob Gronkowski has an outside shot to become the first tight end in history to win the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year Award, but he'll need a strong finish to earn serious consideration. His 16 total touchdowns are the second most this season (behind Eagles running back LeSean McCoy's 17), and his significance to the Patriots' offense has been well-documented on a national level.
8. Most importantly, he really emerged at a time when the Patriots' offense dipped in the middle of the season, which displays his value. Defenses were playing more physical at the line with Wes Welker and the receivers, and Brady had a tough time adjusting. Gronkowski has since commanded more of a presence, and opponents still can't stop him. It's also no coincidence that Welker has picked up his own pace in the last three games, because he doesn't appear to be the singular focal point of the defense.
9. Now, here's the problem. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady are on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record, and Aaron Rodgers is five yards off the pace. That's a pretty big deal, and the quarterback who holds the record after this season (assuming it's broken) will be favored to win the award. Plus, voters might favor someone like Brady because he's the one who actually throws it to Gronkowski. McCoy, who is second in rushing yards, is the other candidate in my opinion, but the Eagles' poor season should remove him from the running.
10. Lastly, as valuable as Gronkowski's blocking is to the offense, I don't think it matters much to the voters, who need to see the stats for the Offensive Player award. Therefore, I think Gronkowski needs four more touchdowns to give him a round number of 20 to really stick out. At this point, I don't think he'll win the award, but it's impressive that he's inserted himself into the mix.
11. Related to that, has anyone led the NFL in receiving any more quietly than Welker? His 1,339 receiving yards lead the league by 122, and his 100 receptions are 20 more than anyone else. That's pretty wild. By the way, nobody else is on pace for 100 catches this season. This could be the first time since 2006 when just one player reaches 100 receptions.
12. At this point, it's become well-known that Welker joined Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison as the only players with four 100-catch seasons. But Welker is the only player in history with three 110-catch seasons, and he'll likely extend that record by doing it a fourth time this season.
13. If the Patriots, Ravens, Steelers and Texans all finish 13-3, the tiebreaking scenario would get pretty complicated. The Steelers would be eliminated because the Ravens would take the AFC North title, and the tiebreaker would be determined by strength of victory between the Patriots, Ravens and Texans, which is the fifth tiebreaker on the totem pole.
14. Let's run through that real quick. The first tiebreaker eliminates the Steelers, which we've already discussed. The second tiebreaker of a head-to-head sweep would get thrown out because the Patriots, Ravens and Texans did not all play one another this season. The third tiebreaker involves the AFC record, and if they each finish 13-3, they'd also have identical 10-2 records against the AFC. The fourth tiebreaker involves record against common opponents, but there has to be a minimum of four common opponents, which isn't the case here. That leads to strength of victory, which is the combined winning percentage of all the teams you've defeated.
15. Through Week 14, the teams the Ravens have defeated have 67 total wins, while the Patriots (54 wins) and Texans (52) follow. If you add their next three opponents, the teams the Ravens have defeated (and will defeat, since we're assuming everyone finishes 13-3) currently have 84 wins, while the Patriots (71 wins) and Texans (63) still follow. The Texans are at a big disadvantage because they play the Colts twice, while the Patriots and Ravens only played the Colts once. If Indy goes 0-16, it would count as 0-32 toward the Texans' strength of victory.
16. Now, keep in mind that strength of victory can change fairly drastically each week. And if you're a Patriots fan, you might want to root for the Jets to keep on winning because the Pats have defeated them twice this season. You'd also want the Raiders, Cowboys, Chiefs, Eagles, Redskins, Broncos and Bills to pile up some wins because the Texans and Ravens haven't played any of those teams.
17. If only the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers finish 13-3, the Steelers would be eliminated for the same reason, leaving it between the Patriots and Ravens. Baltimore would win the tiebreaker with a 5-0 record against common opponents (2-0 against the Steelers, plus wins against the Jets, Colts and Chargers), while the Patriots would be 4-1. There are probably a million tiebreaking scenarios, but the two I listed appear to be the most likely right now. If there's a tiebreaker between teams that finish 12-4, the tiebreaker would depend on who each team lost to, particularly if it's a common opponent or an AFC opponent. I'll continue to go through these each week throughout the end of the season.
18. Patriots legend Troy Brown was in the locker room Monday, and he spent a while hanging out with Brady. Deion Branch and Kevin Faulk also joined in on the conversation for a few minutes. Funny, I tweeted this, and the majority of responses were from Patriots fans hoping Brown could sign with the team and help the secondary.
19. Defensive end Eric Moore was excited to join the Patriots on Saturday in time for the team's trip to Washington. Obviously, plenty of people were surprised when Moore got cut after training camp, but he didn't want to get into that.
"Right now, I'm just happy to be here," Moore said. "I'm taking advantage of this opportunity, and I'm not trying to look back on the past. I'm trying to look in the present and what's going on right now."
20. Belichick was hardly happy with the playing surface at FedEx Field, noting the Patriots have "certainly played on better" fields. The natural turf was torn up badly after Saturday's Army-Navy game, and it was in ugly condition. However, Belichick seemed to be pretty excited that the Army and Navy letters remained on the field Sunday. He thought there would be a new paintjob, so he was surprised to see that when he took an early walk on the field Sunday morning. Belichick also got a chance to attend the Army-Navy game after the team landed Saturday in D.C. Belichick's father, Steve Belichick, was an assistant coach at the Naval Academy for more than 30 years.
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