FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s amazing that the New England Patriots are one win away from their eighth Super Bowl appearance with the players quarterback Tom Brady is forced to target.
The Patriots have two top-tier slot receivers in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola — though typically only one plays inside at a time — and a usually dependable third-down back in Shane Vereen. Brady’s receivers drop off fast after those three players, though.
Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins practiced Wednesday, but that is no guarantee they will play against the Denver Broncos in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Dobson and Thompkins have been injured off and on since Week 12. Since that time, they have combined for just three catches for 43 yards and zero touchdowns in six games.
Brady’s tight ends have four catches for 43 yards in five games since Rob Gronkowski tore his ACL in Week 14. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave a telling quote about his tight ends’ receiving skills during his Tuesday conference call.
“They also do some different things in the passing game where, if people don’t cover them, we’ve thrown them the ball plenty this year,” McDaniels said.
So, it takes the tight ends to go uncovered for Brady to throw them the ball. And somehow this team is fighting for the AFC title. Amazing.
Let’s move on to this week’s mailbag.
What’s happened to Kenbrell Thompkins?
Thompkins showed a lot of promise midway through the season, but it appears injuries derailed his development. He looked lost in Week 17 against the Buffalo Bills and the divisional playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts. Brady hardly looked his way in either matchup.
Thompkins suffered a concussion against the Colts but practiced Wednesday, meaning he must have passed a test to get back on the field. He’s still being slowed by a hamstring injury, though, too.
Since he practiced Wednesday, I will guess he’ll be questionable for Sunday’s game.
With Chris Harris out, who needs to step up for the Patriots in terms of receivers? Who do you expect a big game from?
Though there is no reason to celebrate an injury, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris‘ torn ACL certainly gives the Patriots an advantage in the passing game. If Dobson can return and play at his midseason form, the Patriots will have a mismatch somewhere in the passing game, regardless of who replaces Harris and which receiver that player covers.
I expect Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to cover Edelman, Harris’ fill-in to cover Amendola and Champ Bailey to cover Dobson. Amendola could have a big game in that case. If Dobson cannot play, Harris’ fill-in would likely cover either Thompkins or Patriots wideout Austin Collie. In that case, it’s a wash.
Why did Tavon Wilson get snaps versus the Colts over Duron Harmon?
Patriots second-year safety Tavon Wilson has been used as a goal-line defensive back by the Patriots this year. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick still acknowledges that rookie safety Duron Harmon is New England’s backup behind Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory.
Who do you think will have the biggest role on defense on Sunday?
I think Patriots rookie linebacker Jamie Collins will have another breakout game. Collins and Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount are key players in Sunday’s game. Collins and Blount are hot right now, and if the running back can have another 100-plus-yard game and Collins can disrupt Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, either in coverage or in the pass rush, it would go a long way toward a Patriots win.
It might be asking too much for Collins to play like he did against the Colts. He showed coverage skills the Patriots have not seen at linebacker all season (and that includes when Jerod Mayo was healthy), and he showed the pass-rush skills that produced 10 sacks for Southern Mississippi last season.
Do you see Knowshon Moreno running for over 200 yards again like he did in Week 12 against the Patriots WITH Brandon Spikes?
Absolutely not. The Patriots’ defense looks much different today than it did in Week 12. The unit has since added defensive tackle Sealver Siliga, who has been a force in the middle, and linebacker Dont’a Hightower has been playing much better. I also expect the Broncos to pass much more since the temperature will be in the high 50s with little wind.
I asked my Twitter followers for some fun questions, and, boy, did they deliver. I’ll go through these rapid-fire.
R.B.I. Baseball or Tecmo Bowl
I never had a regular Nintendo, only Super Nintendo. So, I’ll pick “Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball.”
Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Patriots and 49ers went to the Super Bowl, and Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan went at it at the halftime show?
Yes. The highlight of my first season covering the Patriots was when Gillette Stadium showed Hogan’s promo for the Patriots, then played his entrance music, “Real American,” on Sunday.
You’re trapped in a tower. The only way to escape is getting a key thrown to you by Tim Tebow, Blaine Gabbert or Geno Smith. Who do you trust?
Tim Tebow, easy. He would find a way.
If @Nick_Underhill could join the punter brotherhood, would he? Or would he remain the keeper of the statistical flame?
Trick question. He who keeps the statistical flame burning is already part of the punter brotherhood.
Who dresses better, Craig Sager or @MikeGiardi
I feel like the word “better”suggests that one is good. I really don’t want to do this here. So I will pick: C. Neither. Though I do like Mike Giardi‘s royal blue blazer.