Patriots’ “That Guy” 2016 Senior Bowl Edition

Last year, we had our most success yet with Patriots mock drafts. The key came in worrying less about what New England would do with specific picks (their active trading makes that tough), and focusing on the types of players they tend to select in general areas of the draft. You can take a gander at our 2015 draft review that wrapped up the “That Guy” series here.

With last weekend’s Senior Bowl in mind (along with the previous weekend’s East-West Shrine Game and NFLPA Bowl), we looked at some players of note and tried to figure out where they’d fit in the Patriots draft.

The Solid First-Rounder: The Patriots draft as well in the first round as any team, but they lost their top 2016 pick for using footballs that followed the Ideal Gas Law. Damnit. We’ll do better than the NFL here and just move on.

The Small-School Defender: New England drafted Zach Moore (Concordia) in 2014 and Markell Carter (Central Arkansas) in 2011. Javon Hargrave (6-2, 295) of South Carolina State could fit here. Hargrave had a late sack that helped keep the South atop the North. The stout defender was named the Defensive Player of the Year for the Mid-East Athletic Conference for the second year in a row after notching 59 total tackles (22 for loss, 13.5 sacks) and forcing two fumbles.

The defensive star of the East-West Shrine Game was pass-rusher Victor Ochi (6-1, 244) from Stonybrook. Though on the smaller side, Ochi succeeded no matter who lined up against him, with constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and one sack. Last season, Ochi tallied 13 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss.

Offensive Line Double-Dips: Just as they did with Bryan Stork/Cameron Fleming in 2014 and Tré Jackson/Shaq Mason in 2015, the Patriots could use a couple of mid-round picks to strengthen their offensive line. Looking at the tackle position, we’ll take prospects Le’Raven Clark (6-6, 312) from Texas Tech and Kyle Murphy (6-6, 300) from Stanford. Clark showed surprising power on run plays, while Murphy displayed good feet and technique on pass protection.

Clark started 50 games at Texas Tech, which this year ranked tops third down conversion rate (52 percent), and second in scoring offense (46.6 ppg), total offense (595 ypg), and passing offense (390 ypg). Big 12 coaches voted him to the conference’s First Team. At Stanford, Murphy helped the Cardinal average 222 yards per game rushing and allow a mere 18 sacks over the season. He was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team by conference coaches.

Pats could have some size and talent to work with, there.

The Alabama Guy: Even if Bill Belichick and ‘Bama coach Nick Saban didn’t go back to the first Bush administration when they coached in Cleveland together, the current national champs are always worth a look. Last year, New England drafted Xzavier Dickson, currently with the Falcons. In 2012, the Patriots took Dont’a Hightower in the first round.

Lots to choose from here, but – despite a pass interference penalty in the end zone – we liked most of what cornerback Cyrus Jones (5-10, 196) presented, as he knocked down two passes and returned punts for the South team. At Alabama, Jones had 37 tackles (four for loss), two interceptions, and seven pass break-ups. He also averaged 12.6 yards per punt return (42 for 530), and took four (yes, four) back for touchdowns.

The Rutgers Guy(s): Having drafted Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Logan Ryan and taken on Kevin Snyder and Jonathan Freeny as free agents, the Foxboro front office is contemplating renaming the team “The Scarlet Patriots, ” or maybe just “The New England Knights.”

In terms of picking a Senior Bowl favorite, this one should have been easy – receiver Leonte Carroo was the only Scarlet Knight in Mobile last week – but Carroo injured his leg during practice and could not play. Looking back at the Shrine Game, we saw left tackle Keith Lumpkin hold his own. Lumpkin’s got size (6-7, 327) and versatility (38 games at left tackle, 11 at right guard). He was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention last year.

In the NFLPA Bowl, linebacker Quentin Gause (6-0, 243) led all tacklers with 6.5 stops (and frankly, the announcers should have talked about him more). By the banks of the Raritan, Gause served as a team captain and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention, tallying 96 tackles including 12 for loss. A smartypants (4.0 fall GPA), Gause fits perfectly as the Rutgers/Special Teams Guy.

For all news of Rutgers football, please follow NJ Advance Media for NJ.com writer Dan Duggan on Twitter @DDuggan21.

The Ohio State Guy: Ol’ Belichick pal Urban Meyer added ol’ Belichick pal (and former Rutgers coach) Greg Schiano as a defensive coordinator at Ohio State, so maybe some kind of connection here, you think? Some interesting guys to choose from, including receiver Braxton Miller (see below), tight end Nick Vannett (see below), safety Tyvis Powell, and defensive lineman Adolphus Washington. They all looked pretty good to us.

You know what? Of the two defenders, we’ll stick with Powell, who had the good sense to not solicit a prostitute before OSU’s bowl game. Powell (6-3, 208) demonstrated solid run support at the Senior Bowl. The graduate student (he completed his studies in 3.5 years) placed third on the team with 71 tackles, adding three interceptions, three pass break-ups, and a blocked kick.

The Injured Guy: New England tends to take chances with players who missed time due to injury. Defensive lineman Dominique Easley and offensive lineman Tré Jackson had knee problems in college; Rob Gronkowski had back issues at Arizona. Sometimes the gamble pays off, sometimes not. (Ras-I Dowling, for one, never got over the injury bug.)

Penn State defensive lineman Carl Nassib didn’t play in the Senior Bowl (he hurt his shoulder in December and had some injuries during the week leading up to the game). Nassib, a walk-on for the Nittany Lions, had 15.5 sacks in 13 games this past season, with six forced fumbles and one interception. The 6-7, 275-pound pass-rusher was the 2015 Ted Hendricks Award winner, given to the nation’s top defensive end.

East-West Shrine Game running back Danny Lasco of Cal (6-0, 205) caught the eye with a 41-gard draw play on third and eight, and ended up with 62 yards on six carries (10.3 avg). In 2015 Lasco rushed for a 5.1-yard average for the Golden Bears, but only started three games as he battled an ankle injury in the latter part of the season.

The Backup Tight End: Starting with fifth-rounder Dave Stachelski in 2000, the Patriots have drafted plenty of tight ends under Belichick. They got their starters in the first (Daniel Graham, 2002; Benjamin Watson, 2004) and second rounds (Gronk, 2010), but the search for a second TE hasn’t been as productive. (We won’t discuss The Tight End Who Shan’t Be Named.)

While Ohio State’s Vannett (6-6, 260) looked the part of a sub-Gronk, and Greg Gronkowski (6-3, 234) looked the part of a lil’ Gronk, we went with South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams (6-5, 244) as a pass-catching tight end who showed decent on-line blocking skills. Adams looked smooth catching the ball in limited opportunities. We also appreciated his hustle as he prevented a TD by tracking down a South defender trying to return a blocked field goal. Last fall, Adams was second on the Gamecocks with 28 receptions for 421 yards (a noteworthy 15 yards per catch) and three TDs.

The Take-A-Shot-On-This-Receiver Guy: The trick of drafting? Predicting how a player can fit in one’s system. The receiver position has the most pitfalls, because they’re not just learning a system, they’re trying to mesh with a perfectionist QB who also happens to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Too bad Tom Brady can’t got along on scouting trips to play catch.

Yes, the dynamism of former Ohio State QB Miller reminded us of Julian Edelman and would be fun to watch in Foxboro. Still, we’ll go with Jay Lee (6-2, 214) out of Baylor. Lee made some solid catches, running fine routes and showing some elusiveness after the catch. At Baylor, Lee averaged almost 20 yards per reception (38 for 758, 19.9) and scored eight touchdowns.

Two Shrine Game receivers who stood out were Geronimo Allison of Illinois (6-3, 197) and Jared Dangerfied of Western Kentucky (6-1, 214). Allison led the West team with six receptions for 68 yards and two touchdowns. He got invited to the Senior Bowl, where he caught one pass. Last season, Allison had 65 catches for 882 yards, both tops for the Illini, with three touchdowns. In the Shrine Game, Dangerfield tallied five catches for 84 yards, a 16.8 average. At WKU, Dangerfield had 82 grabs for 844 yards and eight TDs.

The Special Teams Guy: It began with Matthew Slater in 2008’s fifth round. It continued with selections of long snapper Jake Ingram in 2009, punter Zoltan Mesko in 2010, Nate Ebner in 2012, and long snapper Joe Cardona in 2015. The Pats like to pick guys with a special teams focus.

Oh, man. So many choices in these bowls. We’ll stick with two undersized linebackers: Tyler Matakevich of Temple (6-0, 233) and the appropriately named Eric Striker of Oklahoma (5-11, 228). Matakevich filled in running gaps well, making many of the opening tackles of the Senior Bowl. Striker made a couple of hard-nosed stops, notable for their speed. At Temple, Matakevich compiled 126 tackles last fall, with 15 tackles for loss (4.5 sacks). He also grabbed five interceptions. At Oklahoma, Striker had 67 tackles, with 19 for loss (7.5 sacks), 11 QB hits, and one interception.

The Navy Guy: Just about everyone following last year’s draft figured Cardona would end up in Foxboro for some length of time; few of us figured he’d get chosen in the fifth and end up starting for the year. Belichick, due in large part to his father’s background as a long-term assistant coach at the Naval Academy, always keeps an eye out for Midshipmen.

Fullbacks Kyle Eckel (scored two TDs in 2007) and Eric Kettani (practice squad, 2009) were signed by the Patriots as free agents, a fact that we believe will pave the way for 2016 Senior Bowler Chris Swain (6-0, 247). At Annapolis, Swain rushed for 847 yards, averaged over five per carry, and notched 10 TDs. Not bad for a guy who sought contact more often than Velcro.

The Seventh-Round Slot Receiver: Thinking about players like Northwestern’s Jeremy Ebert (2012) and Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (2014) for this category, as well as a little-recognized former QB out of Kent State with a name that sounds like Hulian Jedelman (2009).

In limited snaps, we noticed Minnesota receiver K. J. Maye (5-8, 194), whose quickness helped him make yardage on two end-around plays and one bubble screen. Maye was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention last year with a team-leading 65 passes for 706 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed nine times for 46 yards and a TD.

At the Shrine Game, one guy – one small guy – stood out. Washington receiver Jaydon Mickens (5-10, 174) caught three passes for 49 yards and one touchdown. He looked like a tough guy to cover, and continued to show his elusiveness as a kick returner, bringing one back for 35 yards. At UW, Mickens led the team with 58 catches for 692 yards (11.9 avg), scoring two TDs. He also ran the ball seven times, averaging 6.3 per carry and getting in the end zone once.

Next month, keep an eye out for our Patriots That Guy 2.0: Post-Combine Edition.

Chris Warner tweets about the inanity of life @cwarn89 

No Super Bowl For Patriots, But No Quit, Either

America is happy.

The New England Patriots, the very picture of villainy and evil for the sports fans of the country have been vanquished.

I’m not unhappy.

Sure, I’m bitterly disappointed, I’m frustrated, I’m upset.

I’m also proud. This team, what they had to overcome this season, what they had to overcome in this game, and they did not quit. I’m not unhappy with them as a team, despite the final score.

Oh sure, I’m prepared for an offseason of Gostkowski’s miss, Ebner’s pooch kick,  about the game plan going into Miami and several other points which the simple-minded will grasp onto and refuse to let go off.

Shocker: Not all decisions made were correct or worked out. But you know what? I want the guy making the decisions right now to be the guy continuing to make those decisions for as long as he wants to make those decisions.

I want the guy quarterbacking the team to continue to quarterback the team for as long as he wants to.

After the NFL spent the entire offseason trying to derail the quarterback and team, and after 59 minutes, 45 seconds today of getting their quarterback thrashed, beaten and bruised, they still didn’t give up. Brady found Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone on a 4th down play to give the team a chance to tie with a two-point conversion and send the AFC Title game into overtime.

You know how it turned out.

Postgame, Stephen Gostkowski, as reliable a kicker as has ever played the game wanted the blame placed squarely on his shoulder after the game for earlier missing his first extra point in 10 years. His teammates would have none of it.They lauded his praises, calling him the best kicker in the league. The extra point he missed was early enough in the game that they expected to be able to pick him up, just like he has picked them up so many times with long field goals after stalled drives.

They couldn’t do it. Oh, they tried, but in the end, the missed point was the difference in the game.

I can’t say it enough. They never gave up. A makeshift offensive line which was missing starters Nate Solder, Tre’ Jackson and Ryan Wendell, could not hold up against the furious pass rush of the Denver defense, but when they needed to the most, on the final drive, on fourth down plays, they did just enough to allow Brady to find Rob Gronkowski for two miraculous plays to keep their hopes alive.

The Patriots defense after a rough start covering Owen Daniels, was every bit as relentless as Denver’s for the final three quarters of the game.

I’m satisfied that this team showed what the heart of a true champion looks like. That final drive, while not counting officially in Tom Brady’s collection of last minute comebacks, was as good as or better than anything he’s done. With the stakes, the crowd and the Denver defense, they were in position to tie the score.

This is why we watch sports – to see the competition. There will be plenty of small-minded media trolls who will be taking victory laps in the weeks to come, people who will criticize decisions made, armchair second-guessers who have no idea what went into making decisions. While you can attempt to argue over decisions, you cannot argue with the competitiveness of the team, and their lack of quit.

While Bill Belichick isn’t perfect, I have 100% faith that every decision he makes is the one that he feels is best for the team at that moment. He’s not always right, but he’s right more than anyone else.

I am just so incredibly proud of the focus of this team, even as the NFL was making a Federal Court Case over it’s own ignorance of science, the Patriots went about the business of trying to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

Now that their season is over, I hope that Robert Kraft will make noise over the lost draft picks, especially after the NFL releases their data on PSI checks for this season. I doubly hope that the team has done their own study, with enough evidence to expose any further deception the NFL may attempt to perpetrate. (Imagine if this game was in Gillette, and Denver’s sideline tablets went out? Right as the Patriots were going in to score? Mike Klis would be getting a call from an NFL source about now, saying that the league is investigating that the Patriots tampered with 11 of 12 of the Bronco’s tablets.)

If it turns out that Kraft allows the NFL to take a first and fourth round pick for nothing, without a public fight, I will be livid. Kraft is about conciliation as we’re constantly being reminded, but he needs to fight more on this topic.

If you noticed anything on the field today, it was that a first round offensive lineman sure would be welcomed here.

Preferably one with the type of heart we saw on the field today.

With A Little Bit Of Luck (2016 Edition)

(Editor’s Note: We ran this column last year and – given the craziness of the past wild card weekend – think it’s worth an updated review.)

In the NFL, every team needs some good fortune to win the Super Bowl.

Last Saturday and Sunday each provided a startling example. In weather so frigid they could have called in Jack London to write the game story, Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh made three field goals in a row, including a 47-yarder, only to miss the potential game-winner from 27 yards out. Walsh had been on a 10-for-10 hot streak (including two 53-yarders) since his last miss on November 29 vs. Atlanta. Seattle did well to come back from a 9-0 deficit, but they got a big break.

Maybe Pittsburgh got a bigger one. After getting slammed to the turf, QB Ben Roethlisberger left the game for three series. He came back in despite moving with all the easy grace of a rusty lawn chair. After a few short passes, his one long throw sailed harmlessly over Antonio Brown’s head, the same head that Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict crushed with a brutal-looking hit. Unnecessary roughness penalty,15 yards.

But wait, there’s more: while on the field arguing the call and standing off vs. his opponents, Cincinnati cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones confronted Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, getting another 15-yard penalty. So, with 22 seconds left and no timeouts at Cincinnati’s 47-yard line, the Steelers picked up 30 yards on zero offensive plays, taking up zero seconds. Kicker Chris Boswell jogged onto the field and pushed the ball through for a 35-yard game winner.

Pittsburgh deserves some credit for not completely losing their minds (a low bar), and also for putting enough pressure on the Bengals to evoke the possibility of a meltdown. Jones insists that Brown faked getting hurt on the play, and that the receiver actually winked at him. If so, impressive. But, really, the Steelers basically did what children do on Christmas: they showed up and got their gifts.

This Saturday, a New England team with some key starters returning to action hosts a Kansas City team with at least one key starter (receiver Jeremy Maclin) nursing an injury (ankle). Is that the Patriots’ big break this week? We shall see.

For a look at how every team – no matter how deserving or how talented overall – needs the ball to bounce its way, see below, starting with the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run in early 2002.

2002 Super Bowl: New England 20, St. Louis 17

Most Fortunate Moment: Has to be the Tuck Rule, right? An obscure, now-abolished rule – albeit one with which Patriots fans had become familiar in 2001 after their Week Two game against the Jets – was implemented correctly to overturn an apparent Tom Brady fumble, thus allowing Adam Vinatieri to kick the football into the maw of a blizzard for the greatest field goal in playoff history.

Hey, Raiders fans? That was 2002. You want to live in 2002, go listen to Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” and watch “CSI.” We can share content on Friendster. Might be time to let it go.

Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh’s special teams implosion in the AFC Champsionship game, allowing two TDs (punt return and blocked kick return); having Drew Bledsoe as a bench QB after Brady hurt his ankle in the first half of that game; the Super Bowl refs adapting a “let ’em play” attitude, with Pats DBs getting their hands on more Rams than a shepherd in a shearing contest.

2003 Super Bowl: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21

Most Fortunate Moment: Coach Jon Gruden got to play his previous team in the Super Bowl, reaping the benefits of new Oakland head coach Bill Callahan failing to make significant changes to the offense that Gruden had developed. Talk about an in-depth scouting report. Almost makes one feel badly for Raiders fans. (The first word of that sentence is key.)

Honorable Mention: Oakland’s starting center Barret Robbins did not show up to practice Super Bowl week (he was barred from playing and later diagnosed with manic depression).

2004 Super Bowl: New England 32, Carolina 29

Most Fortunate Moment: After Carolina tied it at 29, John Kasay kicked off out-of-bounds, giving New England the ball at their own 40 with 1:08 left. Vinatieri kicked the game-winner with four seconds remaining.

Honorable Mention: Panthers coach John Fox went for two 2-point conversions in the fourth quarter and failed; in the divisional playoffs, normally sure-handed Titans receiver Drew Bennett dropped a pass that would have gotten Tennessee into field goal position to tie it; in the AFC Championship vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts, the refs allowed the Pats’ defensive backs to play with the type of aggression that would get penalized today; plus, snow fell in Foxboro, an anathema to most dome teams.

2005 Super Bowl: New England 24, Philadelphia 21

Most Fortunate Moment: The failure of the Eagles to deal with shaken QB Donovan McNabb. Down by 10, Philly declined to hurry on offense, in part because McNabb was having trouble breathing after getting hit by Tedy Bruschi. (You can read a more in-depth story on that here.)

Honorable Mention: Optimum health. As they had in 2003, many New England starters missed games due to injury, but most came back in time for the playoffs; more snow in Foxboro vs. the Colts.

Overall, it’s tough to associate pure luck with this team: one of the best of the decade and certainly one of the strongest, deepest squads in Patriots history.

2006 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10

Most Fortunate Moment: Not having to play the Patriots in the playoffs. (Well, they had shown Pittsburgh the way home twice in four years.)

Honorable Mention: Some close officiating in the big game. This is not to say that Pittsburgh didn’t deserve to win (they appeared to be the better squad), but had some of those close calls gone the other way, Seattle would have been the lucky ones. In the divisional playoffs at Indianapolis, Jerome Bettis fumbled on the Colts’ two-yard line, paving the way for glory for Nick Harper on the fumble return, but Roethlisberger made a diving, spinning tackle at Indy’s 42; Colts kicker/anti-hero Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal.

2007 Super Bowl: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17

Most Fortunate Moment: Whatever switch went off in Manning’s head in the AFC Championship that had him looking for drive-sustaining first downs instead of long passes. The Patriots defense had to stay on the field forever and couldn’t protect their halftime lead.

Honorable Mention: The Patriots defense was also suffering from the flu, wearing them down further; NE receiver Reche Caldwell dropped an easy pass that would have at least led to a clock-killing first down; cornerback Ellis Hobbs got a questionable pass interference call in the end zone that led to a Colts score; Indy got to play Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl.

2008 Super Bowl: New York 17, New England 14

Most Fortunate Moment: We think we know what most fans would say, but we’ll point to the NFC Championship, specifically Brett Favre and his ill-advised pass-punt in overtime, an easy interception that led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal. Few New England fans doubt that the Pats would have cruised past the Packers.

Honorable Mention: The Helmet Catch, of course; Eli Manning fumbled twice in the Super Bowl but lost neither; Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel failed to secure what could have been the game-sealing interception on New York’s final drive.

2009 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

Most Fortunate Moment: While Steelers defender James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, he got unintentional help from Cardinal Antrel Rolle who – stepping onto the edge of the field for a closer look – bumped into receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preventing Fitzgerald from making the tackle in time. (Keep an eye on number 11 running along the sideline in this clip.)

Honorable Mention: Roethlisberger bounced back from a concussion suffered during the final week of the regular season to beat the Chargers in the divisional round; in the AFC Championship, the QB fumbled twice but lost neither in a 24-19 win over the Jets.

2010 Super Bowl Winner: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17

Most Fortunate Moment: On a potential game-tying drive, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne came up short on his route, allowing Tracy Porter to cut in front of him for a pick-six.

Honorable Mention: During their on-sides kick – a gamble that made putting all your cash into lottery tickets seem like a sound investment – Indy receiver Hank Baskett had the ball bounce off of him, giving the Saints possession to open the second half.

2011 Super Bowl: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25

Most Fortunate Moment: I’m not sure what I was doing at this time, but, honest to God, I remember nothing about these playoffs. Apparently the Chicago Bears were down to their third-string QB (Caleb Hanie) in the NFC Championship game; Hanie threw an interception directly at Packers defensive lineman B. J. Raji, which seems like trying to throw a crumpled-up piece of paper into a wastebasket and not realizing there’s a door in front of it.

Honorable Mention: Um, I dunno … health? Seriously, I got nothing. Did these playoffs happen?

2012 Super Bowl: New York 21, New England 17

Most Fortunate Moment: An injury to regular San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. put Kyle Williams into the spotlight for the NFC Championship. That worked out great for New York, as Williams muffed one return and fumbled the other, respectively leading to a regulation TD and the game-winning field goal in overtime for a 20-17 win.

Honorable Mention: Gronkowski getting hurt during the AFC Championship, making him less than 100 percent for the Super Bowl; New York fumbling three times in the big game and – again – losing nary a one.

2013 Super Bowl: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31

Most Fortunate Moment: In the divisional playoff, Denver safety Rahim Moore got lost on Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass, allowing the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left to play. Baltimore won in OT.

Honorable Mention: Gronkowski’s absence from the AFC Championship game; Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib’s injury during that game opening up the passing lanes for Flacco; in the Super Bowl, terrible play-calling for the 49ers on their potential game-winning drive; on that drive, the refs allowed contact on a potential pass interference penalty in the end zone. (Something that probably would get the call this year.)

2014 Super Bowl: Seattle 43, Denver 8

Most Fortunate Moment: On the first snap of the game, Denver center Manny Ramirez shotgunned the football past Peyton Manning into the end zone for a what-the-heck-just-happened safety. Seattle’s D had a huge game, but didn’t have to lift a finger to get the lead. The Broncos’ lack of preparedness for the Seahawks’ 12th man set the tone for the night.

Honorable Mention: In the NFC title game, on a fourth-and-seven play, Niners defensive end Aldon Smith went offside, giving QB Russell Wilson a free play (as he told in this game story); Jermaine Kearse snatched Wilson’s pass in the end zone, giving Seattle a 20-17 lead on their way to a 23-17 win.

2015 Super Bowl: New England 28, Seattle 24

Most Fortunate Moment: Unlike what seems like the rest of the world, we don’t think the play call was the worst in Super Bowl history; http://seattletimes.com/html/seahawks/2025601887_brewer02xml.html however, the Seahawks’ decision to pass from the one-yard line gave rookie Patriots defensive back (and instant fan favorite for life) Malcolm Butler the chance to intercept the ball and seal the game. Also fortunate? As we saw in the “Do Your Job” program, the Patriots had planned for that exact play in the previous week’s practice.

Honorable Mention: The Patriots finally – finally! – had a mostly healthy roster, with Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Vince Wilfork and a full O-line contributing; Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signed with New England and re-shaped the defense. (For a year, at least. A very good year.)

For most of the past two games, the Seahawks seemed destined to win this thing. From Green Bay’s inexplicable breakdown in the NFC Championship to Tom Brady’s first interception (I mean, really Tom. Where? To whom?) to what would have been deemed the Juggle Catch, Seattle looked like SB repeaters for sure.

The Pats just needed a break. And they got it.

Thoughts regarding lucky moments on the big stage? Let us know in the comment space below.

You can reach Chris Warner at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com or @cwarn89 on Twitter.

Watching The Reporting On Chandler Jones

It will be interesting watching what facts come out in the next few days/weeks regarding what happened to Chandler Jones over the weekend.

This is what we know for sure:

What else do we know? Very little apparently, but that’s not stopping rampant speculation.

This was what started the whole story:

DandCShowTwitter

 

The Tweet was taken down soon after and replaced with this.

DandCShowTwitter2

The bit about Gronk’s house was removed. Then Lou Merloni advanced the story.

So now of the original Chris Curtis (D&C producer, runs the Twitter account) Tweet, the bit about Gronk’s house has been removed, Lou says Jones “walked” into police station which would seem to disprove the “OD” aspect. The Police dispatcher in the case mentioned “class D Delta” which often refers to marijuana. Other unnamed sources suggest sleeping pills and a bad reaction to something.

For someone who spent months railing against Chris Mortensen for blindly tweeting what sources told him, Curtis seems the ultimate hypocrite here. Instead, much of their show today was spent focused on whether the police covered up for the Patriots and Jones, and calling Patriots fans hypocrites. Okay.

There is definitely a story here though. The question is, who is going to get it, and get it right? Gillette Stadium was mobbed with reporters this morning, ensuring that this story will already have more coverage than the Peyton Manning HGH story. But will the stories rely on facts, or speculation?

We’ll be watching, media.

Try and get it right this time, OK?

Pats 2015 Fourth Quarter Review

The Patriots flew into Miami for their regular-season finale with only slightly less energy than a potato battery. Their 20-10 loss made them 2-3 over their past five games, the worst mark for New England in December/January since Pete Carroll’s final season in 1999.

The Pats beat the teams they should have, keeping pace by demolishing the Texans 27-6 and pushing past the Titans, 33-16. They lost one game they could have won, falling to the Jets in overtime, 26-20. Had they taken that game, the Dolphins “contest” (quotes all mine) would not have mattered. As things sit, New England has a 12-4 record and a bye week to try to figure it all out.

Some thoughts as we prepare to watch others play for the privilege of visiting Foxboro…

Price Is Right? Chris Price of WEEI.com wrote a follow-up piece on how, when it comes to the playoffs, health trumps momentum. It’s a compelling debate, especially when you look at a team like Baltimore, who went 1-4 at the end of 2012 on their way to Super Bowl success. Again, this Pats team might get bounced faster than a Super Ball in a paint shaker. But the phrase “anything can happen” can work for optimists, too.

Lost In Logan: Disappointing couple of weeks for cornerback Logan Ryan. After a sharp run through most of December, Ryan got bypassed by Brandon Marshall in New York (eight catches, 115 yards, two touchdowns) and outplayed in part by Devante Parker in Miami (five for 106 and one TD). New England’s defensive backfield is playing like season two of that show you unexpectedly enjoyed last year: you want to keep liking it, but it hasn’t been living up to its potential. A healthier safety crew and front seven might help.

O, O Sea Bass: Yup. You know it’s the end of the regular season when I’ve run out of puns. (Oh, Sheila? Anyone? No? Too bad.) Anyhoo, this season the Patriots O-line has gone through more combos than a busload of returning Outward Bound students at McDonald’s. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down with an ankle injury during the first quarter of the Jets game December 27, providing the final push to this superhuman-sized row of dominoes. Vollmer had stepped over from right tackle to take over for Nate Solder. His injury forced Cameron Fleming to left tackle, which has made things tough for the offense. His expected return could help settle down the entire line.

Jules Of Denial: I mean, yeah, if you want to talk injuries, the Patriots have more personnel on reserve than the Coast Guard. Yet, amidst all the gloom, we seem to look past the fact that Julian Edelman, New England’s best receiver, looks primed to come back for the playoffs. After catching 61 passes in his first nine games, Edelman sat with a broken bone in his foot. That means almost seven completions per contest had to got to other targets. Nice to have that potential back for the big games.

How LaFar He LaFell: I suppose Patriots fans should consider themselves lucky they got the 2014 version of Brandon LaFell when they did. That guy distinguished himself as a solid pass-catcher in big situations, culminating in the game-winning score in the Divisional Round vs. Baltimore and the opening TD in the Super Bowl. Not sure what happened to that guy. Maybe off-season foot surgery took more of a toll than expected. His first game back, vs. the Jets, featured nine drops. He has only 37 receptions in 11 games, half of his 74 in 16 games last year. Zero touchdowns this season vs. seven in 2014. Pretty rough, especially considering the absence of Edelman and the need for different receivers.

I’m Just A Bill: Everything I just said about LaFell works for tight end Scott Chandler, minus the Super Bowl run. Last year Chandler had 47 receptions with Buffalo. This year in Foxboro, 23. Too often these guys react to the football like emotionally stunted bridesmaids watching the bouquet flying toward them, giving an effort that seems perfunctory at best.

No Reason To Get Excited, Or All Along The Hightower: If injuries to a football team are like removing tools out of a toolbox, then linebacker Dont’a Hightower is the hammer. New England’s run defense hasn’t been the same since Hightower’s injury in Denver; it remains to be seen if he has played again at full strength.

Eh, at this point it just feels like we’re making excuses, but when you’re the most injured team in the league, it makes a difference. Getting back to full health, or close to it, will give the Patriots a chance to show what they can do.

Or maybe everyone should just lower their expectations. Speaking of which…

Earthwind And Fired: In past years, New England has been able to find a free agent or practice squad player who can fill in at an acceptable level. No one should ever confuse defensive back Earthwind Moreland with Ty Law, but the former stepped up from the practice squad after Law’s season-ending injury in 2004 and notched 17 total tackles (the only stops recorded in his five seasons in the NFL). Not a long-term solution, but a good enough stop-gap.

In a similar way, Danny Woodhead got to Foxboro in September of 2010 and took over Kevin Faulk’s third-down role less than two weeks later after Faulk went on injured reserve with a knee injury. Woodhead averaged 5.6 yards per carry (97 for 547) and 11.1 yards per catch (34 for 379). Last year, guys like LeGarrette Blount and Alan Branch helped out down the stretch. This season, the rewards have been harder to come by.

Defensive back Leonard Johnson had a sweet Pats debut at Houston, breaking up two passes and dancing like it was Gino time. He did fine vs. Tennessee, then seemed to slip over the past two games. Offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle got hurt before getting to show much. Receiver Chris Harper came with high hopes off the practice squad. I’ve watched him twice in the past six weeks and have yelled at the TV both times.

Just catch the punt! Just get out-of-bounds!

Disappointing. Much like running back Steven Jackson, who has averaged 2.4 yards per carry. Not all his fault – he’s only been a Patriot for two weeks and could deliver more in the post-season – but still tough to watch.

Bye Curious: The past month has felt like a team tetanus shot they just wanted to get out of the way. So, how much can one week off really help? We only know that things can change quickly in the NFL. No AFC team looks unbeatable right now. Kansas City has had a great run, but how will they play at Foxboro? Denver deserves credit for nabbing the number one seed, but how will they transition from a young, promising QB back to their Hall of Famer, the amazing Ashley Manning?

(Oops. Sorry. That was meant for Peyton Manning, but I addressed it to his wife.)

This thing is wide open. No one’s undefeated. No one’s playing perfectly. Let’s see how it all turns out.

Chris Warner like to spend a little too much time on Twitter @cwarn89

Brady vs Manning – Rivals Even In Media Hypocrisy

The narrative of the national sports media never ceases to astound me.

On false reports and leaks to well-placed reporters, Tom Brady and the Patriots were villainized, accused of cheating, and became a national story leading the evening newscasts.

The media was eager to lap it up and proclaim Brady and the Patriots guilty and demand their removal from the Super Bowl and the record books.

Within days, the majority of people believed without reservation that the Patriots had cheated. For many of those, nothing that came afterwards would sway their opinion.

During the Super Bowl broadcast, the topic came up numerous times – even with under two minutes left to play and the game on the line.

Over an alleged few puffs of air –  of which, the veracity of such claims has been proven to extremely questionable.

The case against Tom Brady involved false leaks to reporters, a sham investigation which has been mocked by scientists and a federal judge and lies by the Commissioner of the NFL.

Now we come to Peyton Manning.

A report comes out linking Manning to Human Growth Hormone. The initial report comes from Al Jazeera, which, fair or not, probably plays a part in the perception of the story.

After numerous neck surgeries, including one overseas because no one here in the U.S. would perform it, Manning was treated by a doctor with a checkered past, who had a history of putting his patients on HGH. Manning’s wife was also a patient and shipments were sent in her name to the Manning house.

The difference in coverage between Boston and Indianapolis of two stories which have some similarities is startling. Both involve a star quarterback and someone with a sketchy past who has helped with their recovery from major injury and/or training.

The Indianapolis Star has dug into the past of Dr. Dale Guyer and advanced the story admirably, but have been very careful to not to tarnish the reputation of Peyton Manning, keeping his (and his wife’s) involvement on the periphery of the story.

The Boston Globe (and Boston Magazine) dug into the past of Alex Guerrero with the sole purpose of trying to tarnish the reputation of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. This was reflected in the tone of article and the insinuations that besides legal issues, the situation was violating the NFL salary cap, of all things.

In Indianapolis, Bob Kravitz, who was spoon-fed the deflategate scoop by a malicious NFL source, and proudly proclaimed it the biggest story of his career – had actually been treated by the same Dr Guyer, and had been prescribed HGH – but didn’t deem it worthy of any sensationalism.

Old friend Gregg Doyel who was at the forefront of the pitchfork-wielding mob that was out to lynch Brady, (and to this day – literally, today – still believes it.) has had only one stance on this Manning story.

Can you fathom a writer, any writer tweeting, “I ride with 12.” ?

Nationally though, this Manning report, is not being viewed with the skepticism that we would’ve hoped the whole deflategate case would’ve been, even though there is more evidence here that something happened then there was ever on the deflategate case.

When the original source of the story Charles Sly recanted his story after it became public – his original claims having been filmed by an undercover reporter – out of fear, embarrassment, or whatever, many people took that as enough evidence that the story was bogus. When Manning told reporters how angry he was about the report, for many, well, that was all they needed to dismiss the story, despite several very compelling unanswered questions.

It’s interesting to see the media used in the opposite way from the Brady case in this Manning case. Take, for instance, the fact the when the Broncos were playing a national game on CBS, this story was not mentioned at all.

On purpose.

This is what Jim Nantz said when asked why he didn’t mention it:

Wut.

Al Jazeera says there is a second, “impeccably placed” source to back up the network’s recent assertion that human growth hormone shipments were provided to Peyton Manning’s wife.

Let’s pose a hypothetical:

Instead of deflategate last January, what if it came out that during his recovery from the ACL tear in 2008, that shipments of HGH were sent to Tom Brady’s house, addressed to Giselle.

What would the reaction have been? Would the national media have called it “a story that on all levels is a non-story?

I think we know the answer.

Finally, this week, a large media outlet looked into this story The New York Times set about Finding a Common Thread in the Al Jazeera Doping Report

With the help of my New York Times colleagues Ken Belson and Doris Burke, I scrutinized the list of names, and it soon appeared less random than at first blush. Nearly all of the athletes Sly named are clients of Jason Riley, a fitness trainer based in Sarasota, Fla.

Riley and Sly founded Elementz Nutrition and had an impressive stable of big time athletes using them.

The conclusions are very interesting. On the undercover interview with Sly:

But what to make of Sly? In the end, this story hinges on his credibility. A man who operates in the athletic shadows, he was confronted with his hours of undercover interviews and recanted. He proclaimed himself an idle boaster.

What was he supposed to do, if what he had said was true? Acknowledge it and allow his words to become his manacles?

Mitosomal growth factors, stem cells and pig brain peptide: He talked of all with a chemist’s ease. His network, as he described it, extends from Germany and Switzerland to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Chad Robertson, a pharmacist, said Sly was a savant of doping.

The other obvious question is, if he really was a savant of doping, and knew all these things, why would he just boast about random athletes even if he was just trying to look impressive to the person he was talking to?

So is anyone going to do anything about it?

The Al Jazeera documentary was only the latest report to reveal sports doping as a spider’s web that stretches across continents and oceans. You wonder if the pro league chieftains, Rob Manfred in baseball and the N.F.L. sachem Roger Goodell, have paid attention, and have the stomach to pursue these strands.

Then comes the killshot. A brilliant way to end the story, as it is a true drop-the-mic ending.

They might want to hurry. Last week, Elementz Nutrition voluntarily dissolved and closed its doors.

Remember the NFL leak to Stephen A Smith about how Tom Brady destroyed his phone? A leak that was completely malicious, and designed to again taint public perception because it was scandalous on the surface, yet immaterial to the case. Yet people still bring it up. Just a few days ago Mark Schlereth, while trolling Patriots fans, brought it up.

In this Manning case, the company owned by the source of the story shut its doors. Think about that. The entire company! You can image the paper-shredding and hard-drive erasing that is going on there.

Yet, where is this story? Jim Nantz won’t talk about it on CBS. ESPN hasn’t published a single thing about this story since December 29th.(Too busy breaking federal laws?) NBC put out Manning’s side of the story giving him the chance to tell Peter King how angry he was about it. How he was “probably” going to sue. Which he hasn’t done yet, despite two other athletes doing so already.

Like Chris Price wrote, I don’t care if Peyton Manning took HGH to aid his recovery from injury. Athletes do what they need to do to keep their careers going. I don’t really begrudge them that.

For me, this story isn’t really about Manning. It’s about the coverage of the allegations and the blatant hypocrisy of many in the national media. Once again, they’re showing their true colors, this time by their silence.

Catching Up – Ratings, Red Sox Announcers, et al.

It’s been a busy time for everyone, but especially in the world of sports media, where things are moving fast and furious. A few items:

98.5 The SportsHub once again topped the radio ratings for the Fall book, demonstrating repeatedly that trolling is king when it comes to gaining and retaining listeners. WEEI however, finished a very strong second, with numbers they hadn’t approached since their heyday of the early-to-mid 2000’s.

The Sports Hub led the market with a 13.6 overall while WEEI was second with a 9.1.

The breakdown:

Timeslot Station Show Ratings
Mornings 98.5 Toucher and Rich 14.6
Mornings 93.7 Dennis and Callahan, With Minihane 13.4
Middays 98.5 Zolak and Bertrand 12.3
Middays 93.7 Ordway, Merloni and Fauria 8.5
Afternoon Drive 98.5 Felger and Mazz 16.9
Afternoon Drive 93.7 Dale and Holley, With Thornton 9.6
Evenings 98.5 The Adam Jones Show 11.4
Evenings 93.7 Planet Mikey 7.8

Those are tremendous numbers across the board for both stations. It has to be frustrating for WEEI, especially in morning drive, that they just can’t top Toucher and Rich. It amazes me, as other than the occasional guest – Mike Gorman, Rosevelt Colvin, etc, I rarely listen to 98.5 in the mornings. (or at all, to be honest.)

I’m clearly out of the target audience then, as 98.5’s numbers are just eye-popping across the entire grid above. Amazing. Hats off to them for figuring out what Boston wants to hear.

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WEEI made it official on Monday, hiring Tim Neverett as the new play-by-play host for Boston Red Sox radio broadcasts. He’ll work alongside Joe Castiglione after Dave O’Brien moved over the the TV side, taking the place of Don Orsillo.

The announcement came through on the Pittsburgh side as well:

Also, Chad Finn has a look at Neverett, who hails from Nashua, NH.

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Speaking of Chad, I enjoyed his column last week: Here’s the ‘nice’ list in local sports media

So Bill Belichick told his team they wanted to kick off to start OT.

Arrogant? Wut.

This is pretty much the perfect answer to that:

On Peyton Manning, I personally don’t care if he used HGH while recovering from his plethora of neck surgeries. I don’t think it’s a big deal. I am interested in seeing how the media and NFL react to and cover this story. Will there be the same zeal?

In other developments, Al Jazeera is a more credible news outlet than ESPN when it comes to the NFL.

So, The NFL CAN Correct ESPN Reports?

Hmmm.

otl-tweet

https://twitter.com/OTLonESPN/status/679304105538535424

(Tweet has been deleted.)

Less than 30 minutes later:

I don’t trust either entity, so who knows the actual truth?

I do find it interesting that ESPN would call out the NFL for allegedly pulling out this concussion study, when ESPN pulled out of the Frontline documentary with PBS (reputedly at the NFL’s urging) on concussions a couple of years ago. The documentary was based on work done by the Fainaru brothers.

Also interesting: NFL does have the ability to refute what it says is an inaccurate report from ESPN? Who knew?

 

P.S.A. – Avoiding Toxic Sports Media

No doubt, my absence around this address has been noticed. Part of this has been due to my new job (Though I could count writing this on the new WordPress editor as work-related.), but a bigger part really has to be with my recent total apathy with sports media in general.

Apathy over sports media? After having run a sports media site for over 13 years?

Yeah. Much has changed since 2002 when I began doing this, but a world in which Dan Shaughnessy is honored by a sports hall of fame is not one which has any sort of grip on what people are interested in. When was the last time Shaughnessy actually wrote a baseball column that was of value? How does that translate to hall of fame worthiness?

Sports media in Boston has always been antagonistic to a degree – back to the days of Dave Egan.

But it seems now, almost constantly on the air, and more and more in print, that the focus is on making fans miserable. Whether it be mocking them as “fanboys,” attempting to diminish accomplishments, dreaming up doomsday scenarios for local teams, telling us how arrogant the greatest coach in NFL history is, or just the constant trolling, it is enough to make someone wonder just why they subject themselves to this.

It certainly has made me wonder. Why have something so toxic like that as part of your life?  It’s not healthy. Toxic things come with a warning. They should be avoided. More and more, I’m avoiding toxic sports media altogether.

Sports should be a diversion from the stresses and anxiety of everyday life. It’s an outlet. We live in a country where mass shootings are happening seemingly every day,  and – yes this is hyperbole here – yet if you turn on your radio or read the alleged paper of record in this town, it would seem that Bill Belichick’s rugby on-sides kick attempt was a far more grievous a crime than some of the things happening in the real world.

I hear it already – oooh we can’t be critical, the fanboys get upset… If you’re saying that, you’re an idiot. There’s a difference between being critical of decision-making and of outlet trolling and intentionally being irritating and antagonistic.

It’s a twisted world in which we exist when people are rewarded for attempting to rile others up or just get a reaction – it doesn’t matter if it is negative or positive – from their audience, their consumers. The reason they are able to make a living.

  • Dan Shaughnessy has recycled columns and taken the same cheap shots for 25 years, made a cottage industry out of a hokey “curse”and it now rewarded for it by the Baseball Hall of Fame?
  • Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti have pretty much dedicated their program to taking shots at the most successful sports franchise of this century, telling us at every turn how fraudulant it is, and creating the perception of unending ineptitude. They’re rewarded with top-of-the-hill ratings.
  • Gary Tanguay, having been fired from jobs involving Celtics and Patriots broadcasts has attempted to turn himself into some sort of truth-teller, who actually has no grip on reality. He’s rewarded with every fill-in spot that comes up at WEEI.
  • John Tomase writes bold-faced lies, which are quickly taken as fact to this day by 90% of the population, his employer is forced to apologize and issue a meaningless retraction, and his career suffers not at all. In fact he is rewarded with a move to the Red Sox beat, and then as a columnist.

It’s mind-boggling, and encapsulates the very reason I’m so disgusted with the state of sports media right now.

Once again, I ask – why would anyone want this as part of their life?

I know that many of you have cut out the toxic sports media from your lives. I applaud you. But clearly it’s not nearly enough, so either these tactics actually are very popular, or New Englanders just love their sports so much they’re willing to put up with these constant slaps to the face.

During the last several weeks, I haven’t had the time to keep up as much with the local sports media. My viewing, reading and listening has largely been limited to actual games (and what I might see on Twitter). I’ve watched the Patriots, I’ve watched the Celtics. I’ve peeked in on the Bruins. I have read a few things on the moves the Red Sox are making.

I really don’t feel like I’ve missed much, if anything.

My aggravation levels are much lower (despite the Patriots having lost two in a row) and I’m not annoyed at faux controversies. I did make the mistake of flipping through the latest ESPN Magazine this morning and saw Seth Wickersham has another target on the Patriots, specifically Ernie Adams. But overall, my sports experience has been a whole lot better.

As a Public Service Announcement, I’m putting forward this list of local sports media people who you should absolutely, positively never read, watch or listen to.

Avoid at all costs

Dan Shaughnessy

Tony Massarotti

Gary Tanguay

Ben Volin

Ron Borges

Adam Jones

Marc Bertrand

John Tomase

Michael Felger

Kevin Paul Dupont

If you can cut those people out of your life completely, your existence as a sports fan will be much more satisfying. I highly recommend it.

Do it.

I’m issuing a 30-day challenge.

Do not consume anything from the people on that list above. You come across them on the radio, flip it, same with TV, someone tricks you with a link to a column, close it immediately. Do this for 30 days.

See how you feel.

*************

Addendum

There are still media folks in this area who are worth your time. I’ve often dreamed of being able to put together my ultimate Boston sports site. These are the folks currently working here that I’ll read/watch/listen anytime. If I was putting together that site, this is how I would do it, and the roles each would have:

Alex Speier – Columnist, MLB

Chad Finn – Columnist, General

Tom Curran – NFL

Fluto Shizawa – NHL/Bruins

Mike Reiss – Patriots

Rich Levine – Columnist, General

Jay King – Celtics

Sean McAdam – Red Sox

Jen McCaffrey – Red Sox

Dale Arnold – Sports radio/TV

Mark Daniels – Patriots

Steve Bulpett – NBA

Patriots 2015 Third-Quarter Review

New Englanders take to losing about as well as fish take to land: beyond your occasional mudskipper or lungfish, it does not tend to work out well. After two losses in a row, you’d think the Patriots had fallen out of playoff contention.

In our Second-Quarter Review, we predicted 3-1 at the worst, noting that the Broncos looked like the toughest opponent in that four-game slate. Denver proved it, despite some late-regulation heroics by Hall-of-Fame shoo-in Tom Brady and potential HOF kicker Stephen Gostkowski to bring the game to overtime. Execution by the home team brought the Patriots their first loss of the year. After a humbling loss to the once 4-7 Eagles featuring more screw-ups than a warehouse full of ceiling lights, New England went 2-2 for the quarter and sit at 10-2 on the year.

The Patriots began this four-game slate with a near-nauseating 27-26 triumph over the Giants, a thriller so taut it could have made Dennis Lehane faint. Gostkowski nailed a 54-yarder with one second left. (Highlight here.) Just a tense, frustrating, memorable game to watch.

Dwelling on that frustrating note, New England scored just 20 points vs. Buffalo, their lowest output of the season, but the visitors couldn’t muster enough to overcome a stout defense in the Patriots’ 20-13 win November 23. In their first full game without Julian Edelman, Brady looked to Danny Amendola, who delivered nine catches for 117 yards. But no one else stepped up. Foreboding, one could say.

As far as the loss to the Eagles? I mean, really: if you were going to concoct an upset, you’d go by the book written last Sunday, with special teams snafus, questionable coaching choices, silly penalties, and more ball drops than a slippery Christmas tree. And yet… the Patriots scored 14 in the fourth and made it exciting. Maybe this was their Kansas City game from last year. I mean, they can’t lose another game in quite that way, can they? Right?

According to boston.com columnist Chad Finn and any reasonable interpretation of history, no, they can’t.

Anyway, on to the notes…

Gillette: The Best A Team Can Get. The Eagles came into Foxboro looking lost, having given up 90 points in two weeks. Well, beating the defending champs can cure whatever ails a team. Now they’re a contender in the adorably inept NFC East. There’s the lesson for the Patriots and their fans: opposing coaches and players can save a season with a win vs. New England. Those calling for Chip Kelly’s firing as late as Sunday afternoon probably switched topics to how he out-coached Bill Belichick. We hear the expression, “you have to overlook this team’s record,” and we have to apply it to every club that gets a chance to knock off the defending champs.

Is Pass-Dropping Contagious? Because They’ve Caught That: The Patriots allowed Brady’s final three passes to slip through their hands against Philly, taking away any chance at an improbable comeback. Watching the Pats pass-catchers (maybe not the best name for them) has felt like watching Timmy Lupus in left field: you hope for the best, but expect the worst. Even Amendola succumbed to the trend Sunday, dropping two passes. It’s one thing to miss Edelman and Gronk. It’s another when backups can’t make much of their opportunities.

YACkety-YAC: With injuries to Dion Lewis (out since Nov. 8, yet still ranks fourth on the team in receptions), Edelman (out since Nov. 15, yet still leads the team in receptions), and Amendola (back just this week), the Patriots have missed their coveted Yards After Catch, where a five-yard pass to the flat becomes a first-down pickup. The team looked to add to their yardage with the signings of slot receiver Damaris Johnson and running back Trey Williams. (We actually mentioned Williams as a potential late-round pick on our mid-April Patriots mock draft.) Johnson displayed some nifty speed on an end-around play, and – given the difficulties receiver Keshawn Martin has had taking on a greater workload – we could see more of him in the next few weeks.

Speaking of difficulties…

Ship Chandler. Ship Him Far Away: Now, that’s not fair. Tight end Scott Chandler is a big target who, when paired with Rob Gronkowski, provides a viable red zone threat. Without Gronk? Well, that’s the issue. He’s a gigantic ‘tweener, really, as a tight end who doesn’t block all that well and a receiver who drops a pass or two every game. Despite measuring 6-7, 260 pounds, Chandler doesn’t create space for himself as well as one would think, and he often gets out-fought for footballs vs. smaller defenders. He’s a solid complement; he’s just not the guy.

What’s My Line? These days, Brady seems to get knocked down more than that guy in the Chumbawumba song. The same QB lauded for getting rid of the ball faster than any other in the first half of the season now has to wait an extra half-second for receivers to get open. Call it the Edelman effect, and put some blame at the feet (the heavy, slow-to-react feet) of the offensive line. New England needs to figure out their best O-line combination and make it work. Anyone else thinking of putting undefeated rookie David Andrews back at center and trying Bryan Stork at guard, where rookies Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason have had some trouble? That seems like it would work, but the best blocks I ever threw had brightly colored letters on them, so what the hell do I know?

Okay, okay. So who hasn’t been disappointing?

Going In The White Direction: Notice how running back James White a) catches the ball when it’s thrown to him, and b) runs with said ball for the aforementioned YAC? (Here he is scoring a TD vs. the Bills after doing something called “breaking a tackle,” which hasn’t happened around these parts in a while.) White’s 10 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown this past Sunday show how important he has become to the offense, as he only had 12 receptions for 95 yards and one TD in the previous nine games where he was active. With the way receivers with names that don’t rhyme with “Ham-and-cola” have been playing, look for White to get his hands on plenty more throws.

No Ifs, Ands, Or Butler: The Pats came into the season with a built-in excuse for failing to live up to expectations when they let go of most of their defensive backfield. Iconic Super Bowl photo subject and free drink recipient-for-life Malcolm Butler has had a number of strong performances this year, while Logan Ryan has provided some pleasant surprises along the way. The defensive backfield has fallen short of great, but they’ve made some solid plays. They also could get Justin Coleman back onto the active roster soon, although according to this recent piece on Mike Reiss’ Patriots blog, there’s no timetable yet.

Don’t’a’s Circles Of Hell: Imagine trying to stop the run without your best run-stopping linebacker. Such is the deal with Don’t’a Hightower missing from the lineup. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit called attention to a Kevin Duffy (of MassLive) tweet that said, at Denver, New England gave up less than three yards per carry with Hightower on the field and eight per carry once he got hurt. Math never served as my strong point, but even I can see the significant difference there. With Hightower out and with linebacker Jamie Collins still recovering from a mutant zombie virus (note: possible misdiagnosis there), James Freeney has had to step up.

And when Freeney steps up, he gets blocked.

Point Of No Return: There comes a point when the term “next man up” just runs out of gas, and the Pats may have reached it. One example of how one player’s absence affects a team has shown up in New England’s kick returns, where Keshawn Martin averaged 17 yards in his four runbacks. Taking a knee in the end zone each time meant three more yards for the team. Martin had the job in part because Amendola, who’s averaging 21.5 yards, has to focus more on his receiving duties with Edelman out.

The answer? Maybe newly-signed running back Williams could help out as a kick returner, as he averaged over 24 yards per return at Texas A&M.

You’re Wondering Now, What To Do: Ah, the Specials, for this week’s misnamed special teams. Should we go into detail about this past Sunday’s blocked punt, or punt return, or pooch kick, or the previous Sunday’s muffed punt in Denver? No? Okay, then. Let’s wrap this thing up.

Fourth Quarter Preview

New England travels to Houston to take on the Texans next Sunday night, then host the Titans in their last home game of the season December 20 at 1 p.m. (Oh, how we love 1 p.m. games.) They wrap up with two AFC East trips, at the Jets Dec. 27 and at the Dolphins Jan. 3. Besides the Tennessee game (which, I mean, they have to win, right?), the three remaining tilts fall under the “best effort against the best” category. Games New England should win, but you never know.

No coaching staff understands the Patriots better than Houston’s between their head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator George Godsey, linebacker coach Mike Vrabel. Ridiculous amount of knowledge there. They are also playing at home (where New England has never played all that well) with first-place AFC South standings at stake. The Pats should win this one, but there looks like a lot of potential for ugly to happen.

As far as ending the season within the division at New York and at Miami, we’re looking at two more tough games, with the Jets looking especially spry lately. Again, if the Patriots play well, they’ve got a clear shot at 4-0. Any mishaps like the past couple of weeks, though, and any of games against non-Nashville-based squads could go the wrong way.

In the end, we’re looking at a double-digit win team who should a) make the playoffs, b) win the division, and c) open with a home playoff game. That’s the worst-case scenario. Best case? They win out, get a first-round bye, welcome Edelman and Gronk back (along with Hightower and Coleman) and field the most complete team they’ve seen in months.