Jul 032013
 

GiRIt has been a while since I penned one of these articles, and our summer has not been as active as I would have liked, but we have survived through a full season and off-season, and training camp is now just a couple of weeks away! There is still plenty more to write to get people caught up with their favorite teams and with current NFL news, but I thought I’d take a moment to bring you up to get our readers caught up on our current plans.

32 Previews
Yes, we still have more previews coming. We’ve made it through 13 teams so far and have 19 more to go, but the pace is slowing a bit as time has become an issue. The Rat is working on his dissertation proposal, and some work related projects, as well as getting ready for some time away, so the articles will resume shortly but at a slower pace. Keep checking back for your favorite team!

Time Away
The Rat and Rat’s Widow are heading off on a tropical holiday to celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Let me tell you folks, the Rat is a lucky man, and I am looking forward to a week away where we can relax and re-charge our batteries. We’ll share a picture or two once we are there.

FILE:  Indianapolis Colts Fire Vice Chairman Bill PolianBill Polian is a &%$&%#% hypocritical moron
OK, perhaps this is a topic worthy of its won article, but I want to get this off my chest now. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article about Aaron Hernandez, and interviewed the former Colts general manager for the piece. According to Polian, “There were questions there, which is why a guy of that talent lasted until the fourth round,” he said. The Colts  “never got that far” in their evaluation of the player. “We were not in the Hernandez business.”

Wow… isn’t Polian prescient? If only every general manager could predict that someone who has a history of marijuana use and fighting might escalate to murder… well, then that person would be a genius. Apparently Bill Polian is a genius.

So… Genius… maybe you can explain to the rest of the world why it is that you drafted Rae Carruth with your first round pick in the 1997 draft. That’s right… the same Rae Carruth who went on to hire a friend to murder his girlfriend (Cherica Adams) and their unborn child so that he would not have to pay child support. Adams spent a month in the hospital after being shot five times, and Carruth posted $3 million bond on the condition that he would turn himself in if Adams died. When she did die he then fled, and was found hiding in the trunk of a car in Tennessee.

At the time of the draft, Polian stated that Carruth was simply too good a talent to pass up, and the Panthers grabbed him up. So where was your Spidey Sense then, idiot? It’s not surprising to me that Polian would take a shot at the Patriots, given his former roles with the Bills (division opponent), Panthers, and Colts (conference rival). But maybe next time Polian should consider whether or not his own history drafting a troubled player should temper his comments about the decisions of other teams. Unfortunately, Polian’s desire for the spotlight seems to preclude any consideration of reason.

A note on Aaron Hernandez
Let’s sum up my feelings on Aaron Hernandez and the New England Patriots. First, Hernandez’ talent made him a steal in the fourth round, and none of his earlier behaviors suggested that the guy would become a(n) (alleged) murderer. In his three seasons with the Patriots, Hernandez caught 175 regular season passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns, which compares quite favorably to the three year career stats of Rae Carruth, who caught 62 passes for 804 yards and four touchdowns, but I digress…

The Patriots took a calculated risk to select Hernandez, just as many teams take such risks in every draft and in every free agency period. If the Patriots are to be questioned at all, it is for signing Hernandez to a big money extension based solely on his word that he was a changed man. Patriots’ players are freely describing Hernandez as a loner with an angry streak who chose to hang around high school friends rather than spend time with his teammates. This also didn’t suggest that Hernandez would become a murderer, but raises questions as to why the Patriots felt he was worth a big money extension similar to the one given to Rob Gronkowski.

But to suggest that this situation speaks poorly of the Patriots’ organization is rubbish. When the news first broke that Hernandez was being investigated, Patriots’ brass got together and decided he would be released if he was charged with any crime; that is quite a statement when there is as much money at stake as there is in this case, but the Patriots felt the public relations perception was more important than the money. It took the Patriots only ninety minutes to push the paperwork through for his release on the day of his arrest, and the Patriots immediately offered a jersey exchange program so that parents would not have to explain why their children could not wear the jersey of their favorite player. It’s a small gesture to be sure, but one that the Patriots control, and which is in keeping with a conscientious organization. Hernandez may have made a mockery of the public perception of the Patriot Way, but the organization  proved it was bigger than any of its players. That’s all I can ask for as a fan.

Jun 282013
 

Hernandez JerseyThe New England Patriots have announced a free exchange for any fans who own a #81 Aaron Hernandez jersey.

“We know that children love wearing their Patriots jerseys, but may not understand why parents don’t want them wearing their Hernandez jerseys anymore,” said New England Patriots spokesperson Stacey James. “We hope this opportunity to exchange those jerseys at the Patriots ProShop for another player’s jersey will be well received by parents.” Details of the exchange are provided here.

There is no word on whether or not fans wearing a Hernandez jersey will be permitted to enter Patriots’ games. It’s entirely conceivable that the organization will require fans to remove a Hernandez jersey in order to make Hernandez’ name recede into Patriots’ history, as well as to avoid ugly confrontations among fans.

Either way, it’s a classy move on the part of the organization, and another example of the Patriots trying to do the “right thing” in responding to an ugly situation.

And trading in your Hernandez jersey is a lot better than driving it out to an industrial area a mile from your house and shooting it.

Jun 282013
 

Aaron HernandezAt some point, the Aaron Hernandez saga will move into a quiet mode as the two sides prepare for trial, which some believe could take as long as a year from now to commence. But that isn’t today. So here are the developments from yesterday.

1. In a development that was not a surprise to anyone, Aaron Hernandez cleared waivers yesterday, meaning that he is now an unrestricted free agent. Not that it matters. After he cleared waivers, the NFL issued a statement that it will take no action on Hernandez until a team does try to sign him. “NFL clubs were advised today that if Aaron Hernandez enters into a player contract prior to the resolution of the charges pending against him, the contract will not be approved or take effect until Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a hearing,” the league said in a statement.  “The purpose of the hearing would be to determine whether Hernandez should be suspended or face other action prior to the charges being resolved.”

2. The SUV seized by police in their investigation of the 2012 double homicide has been identified as having been rented by Hernandez at the time of the 2012 murders. The fact that the police have been able to jump start a year old cold investigation suggests that one of Hernandez’ “associates” may well be cooperating with the authorities.

3. If that is the case, it is likely Carlos Ortiz, identified as having also been arrested in connection with the slaying of Odin Lloyd. Ortiz has allegedly admitted possessing a firearm in North Attleborough on June 17 and is believed to be one of the men initially questioned by police at Hernandez’ home. Ortiz was arrested at the Connecticut home of of Hernandez’ uncle, the same home searched by police earlier this week. Ortiz waived extradition to Massachusetts, and has a history of convictions for larceny and criminal mischief.

4. Police are also searching Ernest Wallace, who is being described as an accessory after the fact. Wallace is considered armed and dangerous.

5. Finally, police have returned to search Hernandez’ home yet again, this time in relation to the 2012 double homicide.

UPDATE: Ernest Wallace has been captured by police in Miramar, Florida.

Jun 272013
 

Just when you think the case of Aaron Hernandez can’t get any more bizarre, it does, and then does again. Here are the developments just from today:

Aaron Hernandez1. A photo (left) posted on TMZ began making the rounds last night of Hernandez while still at the University of Florida, holding a .45 caliber Glock, trying his best to look the part of a thug.

2. According to Bristol County Assistant District Attorney William McCauley, that same Glock may in fact be the murder weapon. “There was a photo that was shown on the Internet of the defendant holding a Glock .45,” McCauley said. “That Glock… there’s good reason to believe the firearm that killed Mr. Lloyd was a Glock because the Glock has a rifling system that is different than most firearms.” These comments were made today, the same day that Hernandez’ appeal to be allowed bail was denied by Judge Renee Dupuis.

3. According to CNN, Hernandez is now being investigated by authorities for a possible connection to a double slaying in Boston’s South End in July, 2012. This revelation comes a day after authorities executed a search warrant on one of Hernandez’ relatives in Connecticut. According to reports, the Boston Police Department has located and impounded a silver SUV with Rhode Island registration that police have been trying to find for almost a year, that’s linked to the scene of a double homicide in 2012, and investigators believe that Hernandez was renting the SUV at the time of those killings.

All of a sudden, a case that was simply baffling yesterday makes a bit more sense today. It is not much of a stretch to conclude that Odin Lloyd was aware of Hernandez’ role in the 2012 slayings, and that Hernandez feared that Lloyd would end up  revealing Hernandez’ involvement. Yesterday I found myself thinking that it was a huge leap to kill someone simply because they could not be trusted any longer, which was the impression given in the reports that Lloyd had been seen by Hernandez talking to people that Hernandez did not like in a Boston club. But when we add in the notion that Lloyd might have been able to implicate Hernandez in a double homicide, it is much easier to imagine Hernandez reaching the conclusion that he had to kill Lloyd to protect his secret, and it also helps explain the text messages and conversations described by the prosecution in the arraignment yesterday.

With respect to the 2012 killings, investigators believe a fight broke out at Cure, a club in the South End of Boston, between two men and a group that included Hernandez. The two men, Daniel Abreu and Safiro Furtado, left the club with three other men in a BMW sedan in the early morning hours of July 16, 2012. Abreu, who was driving, stopped at a traffic light on Shawmut Avenue, about to make a left onto Herald Street, when a silver or gray SUV with Rhode Island license plates pulled alongside the sedan. Someone from the SUV opened fire, killing Abreu, 29, and Furtado, 28. It is that SUV that investigators believe they can tie to Hernandez.

All of this, of course, is speculation, and Hernandez is entitled to due process of law and the presumption of innocence. But if it turns out that these dots are connected, and that Hernandez is guilty of three murders, then what we have at hand is probably the single worst criminal professional athlete in the history of the four major sports.

Jun 262013
 

Aaron HernandezAaron Hernandez is not having a good day.

This morning nine officers from the North Attleborough and Massachusetts State Police arrested Aaron Hernandez at his home this morning in connection to the murder of Odin Lloyd, leading him away in handcuffs with Hernandez in red shorts and a white tee shirt. A defiant Hernandez went peacefully into a police cruiser. A video of the arrest can be seen here. Charges have not been released, and are being kept under wraps until his arraignment today.

The New England Patriots wasted no time in responding to the development. Just an hour and a half after his arrest, the Patriots released Hernandez and issued the following statement:

“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation.  We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing.  We support their efforts and respect the process.  At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”

It is believed that Hernandez’ lack of cooperation with the police investigation led to the police conducting an aggressive arrest in daylight in front of cameras, rather than offering him the opportunity to surrender himself to police. While the criminal process affords Hernandez the right of being presumed innocent until guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt, in the court of public opinion it is very clear that Hernandez is guilty of something; the only remaining question is “what”.

The Patriots’ decision to release Hernandez is not without consequence to the team. The team will have no opportunity to realize a salary savings in 2013 for Hernandez. The Patriots paid Hernandez a  $12.5 million signing bonus in his 2012 contract extension worth a total of $39 million.  It is unclear as to whether or not the Patriots will try to void the deal paying $3.25 million in a deferred payment due on March 31, 2014, and whether they’ll try to wipe out base-salary guaranteed of $1.323 million in 2013 and $1.137 million in 2014. But in this case, the Patriots believe that taking the moral high road is more important than the money, and it is hard to argue against that point. It’s possible that the Patriots have a sense of the charges to be announced, which at this point one would think would include at least obstruction of justice, but might include conspiracy to commit murder and/or murder.

This article will be updated today as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: According to Pro Football Talk: “For 2013, the Patriots will carry a $2.5 million charge for the portion of his $12.5 million signing bonus, paid last year.  Hernandez’s base salary of $1.323 million is fully guaranteed, and so the cap number will remain $4.073 million unless and until the Patriots can finagle a way to avoid paying him.”

North Attleborough Courthouse

UPDATE: Here’s a picture of the North Attleborough court room where Hernandez will be arraigned. Courtesy of Wesley Lowery of the Boston Globe.

UPDATE: I’ve been watching the arraignment live, and Aaron Hernandez has been formally charged with six counts, including the (first-degree) murder of Odin Lloyd and five related gun charges (carrying a firearm without a license and possession of a large capacity firearm). The prosecutor offered a highly detailed summary of the events and the investigation. I was a little surprised to hear that when the police first arrived and knocked to question Hernandez, he refused to answer the door, and instead watched the police from inside his home. From what is said by the prosecutor, it sounds like at least one of Hernandez’ “associates” flipped on him and provided detailed information about conversations taking place in Hernandez’ home and in his car. Further, the prosecutor can place the murder weapon in Hernandez’ hands, based on his own surveillance system. It should be noted that Hernandez does not possess the necessary permit to own any weapons.

Hernandez ArraignmentBased on the evidence presented, Hernandez would appear to be a calculated and brutal, cold-blooded murderer. To expect to get away with what he is accused of doing suggests that Hernandez is either stupid or just used to getting away with things. During the arraignment, Hernandez stood there looking on, appearing utterly emotionless. If anything, Hernandez appeared bored by the prosecutor’s accounting of the evidence.His only display of emotion was to blow his girlfriend a kiss as he was escorted out of the court room. Hernandez can have his presumption of innocence in the criminal courts, but I couldn’t help but watch these proceedings and believed I was watching a thoroughly evil human being. I can only hope that justice is found in the criminal trial that will be coming.

The prosecutor asked for remand while the defense of course offered that Hernandez was not a flight risk. The judge ultimately decided that Hernandez should be held without bail, to which I wholeheartedly concur. The judge did agree to the defense’s request for a gag order on the case, which seems a sensible precaution for both sides in such a public case.

 

Jun 202013
 

Aaron HernandezAaron Hernandez is not having a good off-season. To make matters worse, it may be a permanent off-season.

Hernandez visited Gillette Stadium today, amid ongoing reports that he is a suspect in the homicide of 27-year old Odin Lloyd, a friend of the Patriots’ tight end.

Lloyd was one of four men, including Hernandez, who left a Boston bar on the night of the murder. Only three men returned to Hernandez’ house, and Lloyd’s body was found by a jogger early Monday less than a mile from Hernandez’ home. Lloyd was dating the sister of Hernandez’ girlfriend. Police have since noted that Hernandez is directly tied to the homicide, though they have stopped short of labeling him a suspect. Police have searched Hernandez’ residence twice and detained two individuals seeking to leave the property. At least one report places the car driven by Hernandez at the crime scene.

Hernandez, a native of Bristol, Connecticut, played at the University of Florida, where he earned the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end. But Hernandez failed at least one drug test and slipped to the fourth round in the 2010 draft, where the Patriots selected him after having already selected Rob Gronkowski. In three seasons with the Patriots, Hernandez has caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns, but has missed ten games over that span due to injuries. Hernandez underwent shoulder surgery in April.

Hernandez is also currently involved in a lawsuit for allegedly shooting a man in the face during an altercation at a Miami strip club.

Even if Hernandez is cleared in the current investigation, the NFL will review the case to determine if disciplinary action is needed. The Patriots, never desiring unwanted attention, may well release or trade Hernandez even if he is cleared. I will withhold opinion on this subject until the police have completed their investigation, but it seems fair to say that things are not looking for Hernandez.

UPDATE: It gets worse for Hernandez. ABC News is reporting that Hernandez allegedly destroyed his own home security system, including surveillance data, and destroyed his own cell phone, which has now been turned over to police. Additionally, ABC News reports that a “team of cleaners” was hired on Monday to scrub Hernandez’ home. The situation is getting uglier by the moment.

UPDATE (6/21): According to multiple news reports, an arrest warrant has been issued for Hernandez on obstruction of justice charges. It remains to be seen who the police believe is the shooter. Reports also note that Hernandez’ neighbors heard gunshots on the night of the murder, but no one bothered to call the police. I think it’s fair to say that the Commissioner’s office will lower the boom on Hernandez, and at the very least he will be suspended for the entirety of the 2013 season. Whether or not the Patriots choose to keep the troubled tight end is another story.

Mar 142013
 

The sky is fallingYesterday’s signing of Wes Welker by the Denver Broncos has prompted quite an outcry of hysteria from Patriots’ fans, and from the Boston media in particular. I know I will find myself in the minority view on this one, but I am shedding no tears over Welker’s departure.

I hold no malice towards Welker, and think he has been a sensational player while in New England, racking up Hall of Fame caliber numbers while revolutionalizing the slot receiver position. An unproven talent coming out of the dysfunctional Miami Dolphins franchise, Welker caught 672 passes in six seasons with the Patriots for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. In the post-season Welker has been equally deadly, catching 69 balls in nine game for 686 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in Welker’s reliability as a punt returner, and it is clear that the Patriots have had the luxury of having one of the best all-purpose players in the NFL for the last six years. Critics will note that Welker led the league in dropped passes this season and has had some big post-season misses, and this is a fair criticism, but not one that suggests that the Patriots would be better off without Welker on the roster.

So what has changed?

Wes WelkerThere were a number of factors that led to Welker’s departure from Foxboro. From a strictly business perspective, the Patriots were not thrilled with spending over $9 million on a franchise deal last season after the Patriots offered Welker a two year deal worth a reported $16 million. Welker wanted a three year, $22 million deal, but the Patriots seemed concerned with a player on the wrong side of 30 in an offense that was designed to become less reliant on his talents. Welker chose not to take $8 million a year when it was offered, setting the stage for the showdown this off-season.  In the end Welker lost leverage and money, averaging just over $7 million a year for three years when he would have gotten $16 million from the Pats in two years and still had an opportunity for an extension. By contrast, the Patriots landed Danny Amendola for five years at $6.2 million per year, less than what Welker was initially offered, but more than he was offered ($5 million a year for two years) after the Patriots (from their perspective) overpaid in 2012. Like it or not, the Patriots are cold calculators of positions and talent, and felt that Amendola, a more proven but less durable receiver than Welker, was worth the risk.

One can also not know whether or not Welker had worn out his welcome with Bill Belichick. Welker famously got into trouble for his foot comments in the 2010 post-season, and was benched for the first drive of the Patriots’ divisional game against the Jets, a drive that resulted in a Brady interception on a play where Brady normally would have been looking for Welker. The drive helped set the tone for an embarrassing playoff loss. And while many fans were angry with Belichick for the benching, the head coach had been explicit in instructing his players to avoid the topic of Rex Ryan’s personal woes at all costs. Then we had the contract dispute last season, followed by Welker being miffed over the expansion of Aaron Hernandez’ and Julian Edelmans’ roles in the slot early in the season. At the end of the season Welker quipped how good it was to “stick it” to Belichick with his productivity, and I have no doubt that those words still linger in Bill Belichick’s memory.

Danny AmendolaEnter Danny Amendola. The Boston media is in hyperbolic full throttle about how Amendola will never “replace” Welker, and isn’t fit to hold his jock. While I can’t form an opinion on the latter part of that, the former is obvious. Of course Amendola will never replace Welker. No one could. But we need to consider what it means to “replace” Welker in the NFL’s best offense.

In his best season in New England (2009), Welker caught 123 passes in only 14 games. Last season, Welker was destined to see fewer balls thrown his way until injuries to Aaron Hernandez, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski deprived Tom Brady of key targets. He ended the season with 118 receptions. So, just for giggles, let’s assume that the Patriots are looking to replace 120 catches in Welker’s absence. So where is that coming from?

In 2010, when Amendola was healthy for every game, he caught 85 paases (for 689 yards and three touchdowns). Amendola has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in just twelve games over the past two seasons. But in those games has has caught 68 passes. When he is on the field, Amendola is money, and easily worth the financial investment made by the Patriots to secure a younger (27) and taller, slightly quicker talent. Yes, he hasn’t proven to be as durable as Welker, but injuries are a fact of life in the NFL. And Amendola is more proven as a receiver than Welker was when the Patriots acquired him for a second round pick, which at the time was viewed as a wild gamble on the part of Belichick.

Let’s assume that Amendola catches 80 passes in 2013; we can argue higher based on being in the Patriots’ (and Josh McDaniels’) “system” or we can argue lower based on injuries. But 80 catches seems to be a good place to start. That leaves us 40 more to find. Our eyes next fall on Aaron Hernandez, who caught 51 passes in 10 games last season after struggling with an ankle sprain. Assume Hernandez, who is a hybrid tight end and slot receiver, plays 15 games this season. On last year’s pace, that puts Hernandez at 75 catches, netting 24 more from last season and leaving us looking for another 16. Rob Gronkowski caught 55 balls in 11 games, so let’s assume he plays in 14. Gronk should be expected to catch 70 passes next season, and we are suddenly only one reception off of what we had with Welker. The jury is out on Brandon Lloyd, who had a solid season with 77 catches, but was deemed to be a “problem” in the locker room. Still, with Josh McDaniels as the coordinator, I rather suspect the Patriots will pay the $3 million roster bonus to keep Lloyd and his acrobatic catches in town. The only question left is who plays opposite of Lloyd, and the Patriots are likely to look at a number of players, including Donald Jones (scheduled for a visit), David Nelson, and possibly bringing back Julian Edelman. Throw in the fact that the Patriots have a very talented backfield duo of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, and the idea that this offense is any less dangerous without Welker is a big stretch. Vereen’s play-making talent is extraordinary, and may well let the Patriots walk away from Danny Woodhead in the off-season. Leon Washington is being considered to replace Edelman and Welker on special teams, as well as to be a third running back.

All of these numbers are speculation, of course. But the fact remains that the league’s best offense in 2012, as good as it was, did not live up to its potential, particularly in big games.  Meanwhile, this wise expenditure of resources leaves the Patriots with enough cap room to bring in a small draft class (five picks) and still improve on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots’ defense is again on the rise, and there is every reason to believe that the Patriots will again contend for another AFC Championship and Super Bowl bid.

Finally, there is the whole angle about the “sacrifice” made by Tom Brady to clear up cap room to retain Welker. With all due respect to Tom Brady (and a LOT is due), Brady freed up cap money to improve the team, not just take care of his friend. And improving the team means continuing to improve the defense, maintaining a potent offense, and getting younger as a team. And just for the record, Brady did not “sacrifice” money; it just got paid out to him up front. Not dissing on Brady, mind you, but instead suggesting that the anonymous source “close” to Brady who is spouting off against the Patriots  really needs to get a grip. I’m sure Tom will when training camp rolls around.

Wilfork jerseyFew Patriots players (Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk, and hopefully Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork) make it to the end of the road as Patriots. Just ask Adam Vinatieri, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Mike Vrabel, Asante Samuel and many others. The Patriots’ business model says they would rather get rid of players a year too early than a year too late, and that model has served the Patriots well, as they continue to dominate the AFC East and are perennial championship contenders. We cheer for the laundry, folks, and any attachment to the players comes at our own risk as fans.

I greatly value the contributions made by Wes Welker and thank him for his service to the Patriots’ organization, the team that I love. I also wish him well in Denver, though I will hope he drops a key Peyton Manning pass in the closing minutes of the AFC Championship to seal a Patriots’ win. :-) Still, it is time to move his jersey to the back of the closet until he retires, when I can once again wear it with pride. And if Wes Welker does make it to the Hall of Fame (and he should), I fully expect him to be enshrined as a New England Patriot.

And now I finally have my justification to buy a Vince Wilfork jersey. I wonder if my loving wife will fall for that.

Mar 122013
 

Mike WallaceWe will continue updating this article for the next few days until may of the top tier free agents have landed. Some may get their own article, but this spot will keep track of the major comings and goings of players as the free agency period begins.

 

Tuesday, March 12

– Prior to the start of free agency today, the Jets released defensive tackle Sione Po’uha, who had a base salary of $4.9 million for the upcoming season, creating $3.8 million in cap space. No word yet on whether or not he is expected to re-sign at a lower price.

– The Panthers released linebacker James Anderson, whom they had overpaid for last season to the tune of 5 years and $22 million.

– The Chargers released tight end Randy McMichael.

– The Rams released safety Quintin Mikell, and have now parted ways with both starting safeties from last season.

– Word is that Wes Welker is still waiting to hear the Patriots’ first contract offer before free agency begins.  Tom E. Curran suggesting it is hard for the Patriots to know what the market for Welker will look like, but Welker is likely to wait for offers to increase his leverage. The soft market for wide receivers doesn’t help the Patriots. The Colts and Broncos may well rival the Patriots for Welker’s service. The Pats are risking not making the highest offer to Welker, and it might come back to bite them. Perhaps the Patriots are heading in another direction? One thing is for sure… Bill Belichick has ice water in his veins.

Tony Gonzalez looks like he is heading back to the Falcons.

– The Texans have released receiver Kevin Walter.

– The Vikings have re-signed receiver Jerome Simpson for one year. Meanwhile, the Steelers are giving Plaxico Burress another shot (drum roll).

– Safety James Ihedigbo has re-signed with the Ravens, insuring another year of him being able to drop to the ground in pain after every play.

– Linebacker Larry Foote has worked out a deal to stay in Pittsburgh. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has also agreed to restructure his contract.

Santonio Holmes has worked out a deal to restructure his contract and remain with the Jets.

– Cornerback Antoine Winfield has been released by the Vikings.

– Running back Beanie Wells released by the Arizona Cardinals.

– The Rams reach a deal to keep defensive end William Hayes in St. Louis.

– As expected, the Eagles have released cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha from their famous “Dream Team”

– Prediction 14 minutes before free agency begins, though not a stunner. Wes Welker is not returning to New England, and the Patriots don’t appear too concerned about losing him, despite numbers that put him on a path to the Hall of Fame.

– Giants sign cornerback Aaron Ross, who did not have to wait for free agency to begin as a result of being released by the Jaguars and going unclaimed.

– Vikings keep tackle Phil Loadholt just before free agency begins.

And now free agency begins…

Paul Kruger looks like he is headed to Cleveland… major surprise that the Ravens couldn’t get this one done. New word is that he has officially signed.

– The Bengals re-sign defensive end Robert Geathers.

– The Broncos steal away guard Louis Vasquez from the Chargers.

Mike Wallace appears set to make $13 million a year with the Miami Dolphins.

– Tight end Delanie Walker agrees to a deal with the Titans.

– The Bills have cut quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. I guess that prank phone call caused some embarrassment in western New York. Talk about addition by subtraction.

– The Chiefs have agreed to a deal with tight end Anthony Fasano.

– The Alex Smith to Kansas City trade is now official.

– Are the Colts set to steal both Talib and Welker from the Pats? A tweet from the Colts’ bizarre owner seems to go in this direction.

– Former Bills guard Andy Levitre headed to Titans on a six year deal.

– Or is this what Irsay was talking about? The Colts have reached agreement with offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus. Does he really merit that many exclamation points?

– Quarterback Chase Daniel agrees to terms with Chiefs.

– No, this is why Irsay is excited. The Colts have agreed to terms with cornerback Greg Toler. It’s a good move by Grigson.

– The Colts are on a roll. Linebacker Erik Walden has left Green Bay to join the Colts. Good moves by Indy, even if they aren’t sexy.

– Ah, the Colts did steal a Patriot! Guard Donald Thomas is headed to Indy.

– Punter Sav Rocca is staying with the Redskins.

– Elvis Dumervil now appears willing to take pay cut from Broncos; the two sides are apparently negotiating according to Ian Rapoport.

– Another Ravens loss: Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe reaches agreement in principle with Miami Dolphins.

– Colts make it five Day One signings as they pen linebacker Lawrence Sidbury from the Falcons. Busy day for the Colts.

Taking a dinner break now… will be back later.

Back from a long dinner break, and lots more has happened…

– Safety Darius Butler will be remaining with the Colts.

Martellus Bennett has landed with the Bears, with the tight end signing a four year deal.

– The Ravens signed defensive lineman Chris Canty to a three year deal.

– The Vikings re-signed fullback Jerome Felton to a three year deal.

– The Dolphins dumped linebacker Karlos Dansby, who started all 16 games last season playing with a torn biceps muscle and racking up 134 tackles. Ouch. They added linebacker Phillip Wheeler and re-signed safety Chris Clemons.

– The Rams are poised to sign the coveted tight end Jared Cook, formerly of the Titans.

– The Eagles get into action by signing former Patriots’ safety Patrick Chung (good riddance) and former Panthers’ linebacker Jason Phillips, as well as tight end James Casey from Houston.

– The Eagles keep it coming with former 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoga and former Rams’ cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

– The Raiders released receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and safety Michael Huff.

– The Chiefs have stolen away a Jets’ favorite by signing defensive tackle Mike DeVito.

– Apparently Warren Sapp doesn’t think much of covering Bill Belichick on the NFL Network. Or maybe he just doesn’t think.

– The Browns get another one with the signing of defensive tackle Desmond Bryant.

The pace is slowing down a little at 8:30 pm Central, but there may still be a few transactions before the end of the night. In the meantime, the free agents that we are waiting to see what transpires with on this thread include (in no particular order):

Cliff Avril (Det / SEA)
Wes Welker (NE / DEN)
Jake Long (Mia)
Greg Jennings (GB / MIN)
Aqib Talib (NE)
Dashon Goldson (SF / TB)
Osi Umemyiora (NYG)
Steven Jackson (StL / ATL)
Ed Reed (Bal)
Danny Amendola (StL / NE)
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Phi / DEN)
Sebastian Vollmer (NE)
Connor Barwin (Hou / PHI)
Adrian Wilson (ARI / NE)
Andre Smith (Cin)
Cary Williams (Bal / PHI)
Brian Urlacher (Chi)
Dustin Keller (NYJ / MIA)
John Abraham (ATL / NE)

– Last one for tonight – offensive tackle Sam Baker is staying with the Falcons, signing a six year deal. See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, March 13

A few early tidbits before the action begins again in earnest.

Wes Welker and the Patriots are described as very far apart on terms, with the Patriots maintaining an offer on the table. It will be interesting to see how this develops between now and the weekend.

– The Redskins signed defensive tackle Kedric Golston to a new three-year contract on Tuesday.

Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma are taking big pay cuts to stay in New Orleans.

– The Chargers signed former Eagles tackle King Dunlap to a two year deal.

– The Browns signed free agent linebacker Quentin Groves, who played in Arizona last season.

– The Jets housecleaning is in full swing. And even with Revis likely on his way out of town, it didn’t stop the the Jets from restructuring the contract of cornerback Antonio Cromartie. Baby Mamas should beware.

More to come as the day develops!

– The Ravens have just released safety Bernard Pollard. Is he worth a look in Foxboro?

Mike Giardi is tweeting that Wes Welker drew some attention, and those offers have impacted negotiations with the Pats. Expect the Patriots to move on and find a new slot receiver.

– The Lions have re-signed cornerback Chris Houston.

– The Broncos have guaranteed the salary of Peyton Manning for the next two seasons.

– Linebacker Manny Lawson has signed a multi-year deal with the Buffalo Bills.

– Some very interesting chatter about where Wes Welker may be going. Due to the source I won’t share where, but this is going to be a very interesting thing to watch. Plus I am going to lay $5 on my info.  I know, I know… big spender. :-)

– The Steelers have signed quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to a three-year deal.

– The Jaguars have waived wide receiver Laurent Robinson one year after signing the former Cowboy to a huge deal.

Wes Welker’s agent has described the Patriots’ offer to the wide receiver as “laughably low.” Sounds like all sides are ready to move on.

– The Giants have signed kicker Josh Brown.

– Former Colts’ receiver Donnie Avery is joining the Kansas City Chiefs.

– The Ravens have re-signed offensive guard Ramon Harewood.

Reggie Bush is the new lead back for the Detroit Lions.

– Word is that the Patriots offered 4 year, $32 million to Wes Welker and the Welker camp is unhappy. Suitors may be down to the Broncos and Pats, though I am hearing there are two dark horses, at least one of which has made a better offer than New England.

– The Arizona Cardinals agree on a one-year deal with former Steelers’ running back Rashard Mendenhall.

– A big one is off the market; the Rams have signed offensive tackle Jake Long to a contract. Update: Correction; an offer has yet to be made or accepted (as of 1:56 pm Central).

– It looks like the Broncos are working hard to get a deal with Wes Welker done today. I’m going to lose my five bucks.

– The Detroit Lions have added safety Glover Quin, formerly of the Texans; this is a big upgrade in their secondary.

– The Buccaneers have signed former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson to a five year deal.

– The Jaguars signed former Bears free agent linebacker Geno Hayes to a one-year deal.

– The Wes Welker to Denver deal is looking close to done.

– The 49ers have agreed to a contract with former Chiefs defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey.

– The Titans have reached agreement on a three-year, $10 million deal with former Jets’ running back Shonn Greene.

– According to WEEI, Wes Welker’s camp has brought the Broncos’ offer back to the Patriots to give New England a chance to match. My guess is no, but this shows where Wes’ heart really is.

– The Broncos announce one-year deal with linebacker Stewart Bradley.

– Running back Lex Hilliard has signed a one year deal to stay with the Jets.

– Cornerback Drayton Florence has agreed to a one year deal with the Panthers. It looks like the corners are now going to start to go.

– Defensive tackle Samie Lee Hill has reached agreement on a three-year, $11.4 million deal with the Titans.

Wes Welker has agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos. Clearly, the Patriots declined the offer to match. It is only a two year deal, so it must be coming down to guaranteed money. Waiting for the details.

– Details on Wes Welker… it is “only” two years, $12 million. Must be fully guaranteed, and it must be that the Patriots set a value for the position and would not exceed it.  Sounds like the Patriots had already determined that Welker was no longer “Plan A.” Patriots have yet to make major moves, but it’s in the air. The next couple of days should show us the Pats’ off-season approach.

According to Greg Bedard, Patriots initial offer to Wes Welker was two years and $10 million with incentives. Albert Breer accurately notes that the Pats likely see Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker as redundant, and Hernandez is much younger and at least as difficult to cover. This deal underscores how much the Miami Dolphins, who have agreed to shell out $30.55 million over five years for Brian Hartline, overpaid for a number two receiver.

– Quarterback Drew Stanton signed a three year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Here’s hoping they don’t trade for Tim Tebow.

– The Broncos have signed former Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

OK… time for another dinner break… and to make sure I move the Wes Welker to the back of my closet.

– The Oakland Raiders signed linebacker  Kaluka Maiava and defensive tackle and defensive end Pat Sims, as well as defensive end Jason Hunter.

– The Arizona Cardinals signed cornerback Jerraud Powers and safety Yeremiah Bell.

– The Seattle Seahawks have landed defensive lineman Cliff Avril, who provides an instant upgrade to the Seahawks’ pass rush.

– Not waiting long to respond to Wes Welker’s deal with Denver, the Patriots have signed wide receiver Danny Amendola to a five year, $31 million deal,, with $10 million guaranteed.

– The Titans signed linebacker Moise Fokou, formerly with the Colts.

– The Broncos complete a successful day by reeling in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on a one year deal.

– The Colts have signed former Jets free agent safety LaRon Landry

That’s all for tonight…. more to come on Thursday!

Thursday, March 14

I’m expecting today to be a little bit slower as the agents and teams take a breath and assess where they are, and as remaining players line up visits with teams.

– Former Seahawks’ running back and return man Leon Washington will visit the patriots, who just lost their punt returner yesterday (what was his name again?). Washington has also been connected to talks with the Bucs.

– Cornerback Derek Cox has signed a four year, $20 million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

– Running back Chris Ogbonnaya will be staying in Cleveland, agreeing to a two year deal.

Greg Jennings will be visiting the Minnesota Vikings, who seem to be the front runners (along with Green Bay) to land the veteran wide receiver.

– A mystery suitor for Wes Welker has been revealed by Adam Schefter.. the Tennessee Titans. I rather suspect we will learn of one or two more teams in the coming days.

Great article from Mike Reiss details that Wes Welker went back to the Patriots with the Broncos’ offer, only to be later informed that the Patriots had already made a commitment to another player (Danny Amendola).

– The Chiefs have released Matt Cassel. Is a homecoming a possibility in Foxboro?

– The J-E-T-S are trying to build leverage by suggesting that they are not actively trying to trade Darrelle Revis.

– The Panthers are keeping quarterback Derek Anderson for another year.

– Cornerback Sean Smith has found a new home in Kansas City, agreeing to a three year deal.

– It turns out that the Patriots signed Danny Amendola on Tuesday, a full day before the Wes Welker drama took place. Anyone else think the team hadn’t already decided to move on?

– The Redskins and offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood have reached a deal.

Kevin Kolb is about to be released by the Cardinals, and his next destination appears to be the starting quarterback of the J-E-T-S.

Ricky Jean Francois has agreed to a four-year, $22 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts.

– The Vikings have landed quarterback Matt Cassel, who was just released from the Chiefs.

– The Eagles have added cornerback Cary Williams and safety Kenny Phillips .

– Cornerback Keenan Lewis has agreed to terms with the New Orleans Saints on a five year deal.

– The Falcons have landed running back Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner in Atlanta.

– Linebacker Connor Barwin leaves Houston for Philadelphia and a six year deal.

– The Patriots have landed kick returner and running back Leon Washington.

– The Buccaneers have signed wide receiver Kevin Ogletree.

 Friday, March 15

We’ll wrap this thread up with a recap of last night’s signings and some look at today.

– The Jets are close to signing running back Mike Goodson. UPDATE: Goodson has signed.

– Defensive end Michael Bennett has agreed to a one year, $5 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers may be an early favorite for the Super Bowl, but right now they appear to have serious competition to win the NFC West.

– Former Vikings’ linebacker Jasper Brinkley has agreed to a two year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.

– John Elway says that defensive end Elvis Dumervil’s salary is “out of whack.” From a business perspective Elway is right, but does anyone seeing a change of location coming for the pass rushing star?

– The Jaguars re-signed cornerback Antwaun Molden to a one-year veteran minimum deal.

– The Rams have re-signed defensive end William Hayes and defensive tackle Jeremelle Cudjo.

– The Bears re-signed defensive tackle Nate Collins to a one-year contract.

– Former Bears’ linebacker Nick Roach has joined the Oakland Raiders.

– Adam Schefter is expecting cornerback Aqib Talib to return to the Patriots, as the cornerback market is not drawing the same dollars it was just a year ago.

We’ll keep updating the list presented at the end of Day One, but we will only be posting updates for bigger news the rest of the way out.

– OK, this is worth an update. According to PFT, the 49ers are in “serious discussions” with cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Charles Woodson.

– The Patriots have signed former Bills’ wide receiver Donald Jones.

– Tight end Dustin Keller has joined the Miami Dolphins, who appear to be cementing second place in the AFC East.

Kevin Kolb is being released in Arizona. Is New York next?

– Cornerback Kyle Arrington has re-signed with the Patriots and a four year deal.

– Running back Danny Woodhead has signed to two year deal with the San Diego Chargers.

– Offensive Lineman Willie Colon has joined the Jets.

– Safety Louis Delmas has signed back on with the Detroit Lions.

– Defensive end Matt Shaughnessy has a one-year deal in Arizona.

– Huge drama surrounding Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil agreed to a salary reduction but the paperwork did not get filed on time by his agent. The Broncos were seven minutes late filing, and Dumervil has been officially released. The release, along with Welker’s new deal, has just created a cap problem in Denver. The Broncos can likely still work out a deal, but they now have a huge financial mess on their hands. UPDATE: The release creates $4.87M in dead money for this season, meaning Denver will be hard pressed to bring Dumervil back. Question: Why are teams in a multi-billion dollar industry still relying on fax machines?

– While fax machines are being flung out windows in Denver, defensive end John Abraham officially becomes a member of the New England Patriots.

– Eagles announce they acquired wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a former 2nd-rd pick, and 7th-rounder from Tampa Bay for a 2013 6th-rounder and 2014 conditional pick.

– Wide receiver Brandon Gibson is now a member of the Miami Dolphins.

– Running back Justin Forsett has agreed to terms with the Jaguars.

– Big news breaking that the Patriots have signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet, which is undoubtedly front-loaded with case. The cap-strapped Pittsburgh Steelers now have a chance to match the offer. It’s been a big day for the Patriots.

– The Cardinals agree to terms with cornerback Antoine Cason on a one year deal.

– Safety Adrian Wilson has signed a three year deal with the New England Patriots. Right now Bill Belichickk is looking like a salary cap genius.

– Big news in Minnesota… the Vikings have signed wide receiver Greg Jennings away from Green Bay.

– The Jets signed defensive tackle Antonio Garay to a one year deal. That’s two good moves in the same day, Jets’ fans.

– The Ravens signed defensive lineman Marcus Spears to a two year deal.

Saturday, March 16

– Per Adam Schefter, the Patriots have not signed wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to an offer sheet… yet. They are mulling over the possibility. That may be a cap issue, or it may be an issue of whether or not they believe they can fit Sanders in with Lloyd, Amendola, Jones, Gronk, Hernandez, and Balllard. The Pats have also been quiet on the re-negotiations with Lloyd, so that may be part of the calculus.

– Hearing that something is likely forthcoming on cornerback Aqib Talib’s return to the Patriots. All is still quiet on the Sebastian Vollmer front.

Jan 202013
 

Flacco and HarbaughThere were two ways to look at the AFC Championship Game at halftime. With the Patriots up 13-7 and exhibiting control on the defensive side of the ball, either the Patriots were on their way to a hard fought win, or else the Ravens had the Patriots exactly where they wanted them.

The latter point proved to be true.

Joe Flacco took over the game in the second half as the Ravens went to the air, scoring three times while the Patriots’ offense imploded, and the Ravens cruised to a 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium.

The Ravens tried to run the ball in the first half, as the Patriots took away the Ravens passing attack with aggressive coverage, and Baltimore managed only two field goals in the first two quarters. But the Ravens were handed a gift late in the first half when Tom Brady inexplicably mismanaged the game clock in the final :15, forcing the Patriots to settle for a field goal and a 13-7 lead, rather than taking one or two shots at the end zone. The Ravens’ offense came out attacking in the second half as Flacco took the proverbial gloves off and aired it out on his way to 240 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions on a 21/36 night.

Rather than a back and forth battle, the Patriots’ offense seemed to melt in the second half, as everything that could go wrong for the Patriots did. The Patriots lost the ball three times in the second half: once on a vicious head shot from Bernard Pollard on Stevan Ridley which forced a fumble, once when a Brady pass was deflected into the arms of Dannell Ellerbe, and once when Cary Williams undercut a Brady pass intended for Brandon Lloyd in the end zone. The Patriots were also plagued by two Wes Welker drops, one which was on a key third down play, and a poor decision by Brady to not run for a first down in the fourth quarter when he appeared to have ample room to run and extend the drive.

BoldinAnquan Boldin caught five passes, all in the second half, for 60 yards and two touchdowns, while Torrey Smith added four catches for 69 yards. The Patriots’ secondary did a good job of taking away Baltimore’s deep passing game, but tonight Flacco proved adept at taking what the Patriots would give him, as Baltimore methodically executed drives of 87 yards and 63 yards in the second half, as well as executing a quick four play, 47 yard drive to give Baltimore a two score lead with just over eleven minutes to play. The Patriots held Ray Rice to just 48 yards on 19 carries, while Bernard Pierce picked up 52 yards on nine carries. In total the Ravens rushed for 121 yards. Flacco took advantage of a Patriots’ secondary that had to play the entire second half without Aqib Talib, who left the game with a hamstring injury after breaking up a pass play.

Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with 70 rushing yards before he left the game in the second half with what appeared to be a concussion. Wes Welker led Patriots’ receivers with eight catches for 117 yards and a score. Aaron Hernandez added nine grabs for 83 yards and Brandon Lloyd had seven catches for 70 yards. But despite what appeared to be productive numbers, the Patriots’ offense simply never got in rhythm against the Ravens, with third down incompletions a recurring ending to numerous drives. Brady did not look sharp. and by the fourth quarter even the body language of the Patriots’ players was reflecting the score.

BradyRay Lewis led the Ravens with 14 tackles. Although the Ravens failed to record a sack, they were able to hit Brady frequently, and several passes were tipped or batted at the line. Conversely, the Patriots were able to get two sacks of Flacco (both by Rob Ninkovich), but were never able to apply consistent pressure to the Ravens’ quarterback. On one occasion when it looked like the Patriots would get to Flacco, he found Ray Rice in the middle and Rice promptly turned the play into a big 15 yard gain to extend the drive that would eventually give the Ravens a 14-13 lead.

Some Ravens were more gracious than others in the victory. While T Sizzle (Terrell Suggs) couldn’t wait to talk trash and play up the alleged disrespect card, center Matt Birk and safety Ed Reed were nothing but kind. “It’s unbelievable,” said Birk. “When is the last time anyone shut out the Patriots in the second half in Foxborough? It’s unbelievable.” Ed Reed added, “We went up against a great team today. A great organization. They’ve been champions. I was standing out in the hallway looking at Super Bowl pictures and the parades. It was a hard-fought game, and I’m grateful to be on this side of it.”

In the end analysis, the Ravens simply wanted this game more than the Patriots did, and it showed up in their execution throughout the second half.

 

Jan 162013
 

Patriots - RavensYes, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots 31-30 in a Week Three Sunday night contest. Yes, the Patriots lost tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season this past weekend when he broke his forearm for the second time this season. Yes, the Ravens are playing with a lot of emotional energy and momentum as they try to extend the career of future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

None of that will determine the outcome on Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

The Ravens come into the contest fresh off a stunning and thrilling double overtime win over the Denver Broncos. While the Ravens escaped with a win, the Broncos were as guilty of handing the Ravens the game as the Ravens were responsible for making it happen. The heralded Broncos’ defense, which was the second best defense in the NFL this season (3rd against both the pass and the run) was shredded by Joe Flacco and Ray Rice to the tune of 486 combined rushing and passing yards. Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey got burned badly twice for touchdowns, while Rahim Moore was responsible for allowing an inexcusable game-tying touchdown in the final minute. On offense, Peyton Manning made key mistakes and the play-calling was overly conservative, all of which contributed to allowing Baltimore a chance to win the game.

While such mistakes are possible on any given Sunday, they are not crimes the New England Patriots are likely to commit.

For their part, the Patriots handily dismissed of the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. While the Texans didn’t fold early this time around, the Patriots dominated the third quarter and early fourth to build a 38-13 lead and coasted from there, despite not being overly sharp on offense, and while losing Gronkowski, Danny Woodhead, and Chandler Jones to injuries. The Patriots simply took care of business, pretty or not, and they are highly motivated to take on the Ravens and earn their sixth Super Bowl bid in twelve seasons.

That’s not to say that this is going to be an easy victory for the Patriots to earn. But the Patriots got the better of the possible AFC championship game match-ups with the Ravens, and they have the added benefit of playing the game in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium in what is currently forecast to be typical cold, windy January weather in Foxboro.

Here’s how the contest breaks down:

Ridley - RavensWhen the Patriots run
Stevan Ridley’s production has tailed off a bit in terms of yards gained, but he is still running for a solid average per carry and is more than enough to keep the Ravens’ defense honest. Denver ran for 125 yards against the Ravens, with their running game suffering the loss of Knowshon Moreno, but Ronnie Hillman was productive in gaining 83 yards. The Colts were similarly effective in rushing the ball against the Ravens in the wildcard game two weeks ago, gaining 152 yards on the ground.

The Patriots’ rushing attack was seventh in the league this season, averaging 136.5 yards per game. The Ravens still maintain a tough run defense, but slipped to 20th in the league this season, yielding over 122 yards per game on the ground. The versatile backfield group of Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen, running behind a stout offensive line, is likely to match the Patriots’ season average for yards. Ridley will grind yards between the tackles while Vereen has good speed to the edge and is always capable of breaking a big play. I expect that the Patriots will look to serve up a heavy dose of hurry-up offense, seeking to tire out a Ravens’ defense that looked heavily winded against the Broncos last Saturday. If the Patriots can secure a second half lead, look for the Patriots to pound Ridley and Vereen against a tired defense, killing valuable time off the clock.

Terrell Suggs had ten tackles and two sacks in the divisional round win over the Broncos. Ray Lewis is still fierce against the run, and assists Haloti Ngata, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, Pernell McPhee, Terrence Cody and Arthur Jones in trying to limit the Patriots’ rushing attack.

Prediction: 130 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns

Brady - Ravens

When the Patriots pass
Tom Brady was not overly sharp on Sunday and was hampered by dropped passes, yet still piled up 344 yards and three scores. Just as importantly, Brady protected the ball and did not throw any interceptions. The Patriots’ passing attack will be without Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots are used to life without Gronk, and have plenty of players ready to step up. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez are likely to once again be the keys to the Patriots’ short passing attack, while Brandon Lloyd has made his presence felt at key points in the season. Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead are reliable receivers coming out of the backfield who will likely get their opportunity to match up against the Ravens’ linebackers. Part of what will dictate the action is the defense that the Ravens line up with. If the Ravens line up in a base defense, it means mismatches with Vereen and Hernandez on linebackers, while if the Ravens move to a nickle defense, the Patriots will seek to exploit it with the run.

Corey Graham and Carey Williams are capable cornerbacks who will have their hands full on Sunday. Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are fearless and experienced safeties who can play coverage or go for the big hit, though Reed is known as a gambler. However, the linebacking corps is where the Ravens are going to experience problems. While Paul Kruger has emerged as as the Ravens’ best defensive player and is a pass rush threat who is also more than capable in coverage, both Lewis and Suggs will be liabilities in defending the pass. Similarly, the Patriots may be able to exploit match-ups against Dannell Ellerbe, and I would expect Vereen and Woodhead to be running short routes in Ellerbe’s assignment area. This mismatch between receivers and linebackers is complicated by the fact that the Ravens have struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from their defensive line, and have had to bring linebackers to aid the pass rush. Brady excels at identifying the blitzing linebacker and exploiting the open area.

Prediction: 270 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns

Rice - PatriotsWhen the Ravens run

Although Ray Rice’s production tailed off, the return of right guard Marshal Yanda has bolstered the Ravens’ offensive line and Rice was able to run for 131 yards against the Broncos after rushing for 68 yards against the Bengals (Bernard Pierce ran for 103 yards in that game). Pierce is emerging as an offensive threat, but is struggling with an injury suffered against the Broncos. Vonta Leach is a versatile fullback who excels at creating room for Rice to run in. The Patriots’ defensive front is among the best in the game, anchored by Vince Wilfork. Brandon Deaderick, Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes excel in run defense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are effective in setting the edge. Justin Francis is an adequate replacement if Jones is unable to go due to injury. While Arian Foster was able to gain 90 yards last week against the Patriots, much of that came in a short succession of runs. Otherwise, Foster constantly found his running lanes clogged as he averaged 4.1 yards per carry (22 carries) which included a 21 yard run and a 19 yard run in the second quarter. Factoring those two runs out, Foster struggled for 50 yards on 20 carries.

Although Ray Rice is the only running back to have rushed for over 100 yards against the Patriots this season, he did so with 101 yards in Week Three. Rice is likely to average four yards per carry this week, and will likely hit at least one run of over twenty yards, but he is going to have a hard time finding room to run against a disciplined defensive front. Rice is one of two keys that the Patriots are looking to take away from the Ravens this Sunday.

Prediction: 110 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown


FlaccoWhen the Ravens pass

The other key that the Patriots will be looking to take away is the deep ball, particularly from Torrey Smith. While Smith does not make a ton of catches, he simply makes big plays, as Denver found out last week and as the Patriots know all too well from Week Three. Enter Aqib Talib, who plays with a level of swagger and confidence that is rare in Patriots’ cornerbacks. Talib’s skills make this a much tougher match-up for the Ravens than in the first meeting, but I still expect safety help whenever Smith is on the field. One of the keys to Baltimore winning this game is to hit big plays downfield, and that is something the Patriots must take away.

Joe Flacco excels in throwing the deep ball, and has emerged as the top of the “near elite” quarterbacks after Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. And we might be talking about Flacco very differently had it not been for an outstanding play by Sterling Moore (on Lee Evans) in last year’s AFC Championship. Having said that, Flacco is better at throwing the deep ball than he is in the short and intermediate passing games; his post-season passing percentage in two playoff games this season is a mere 52.6. Talib and rookie Alfonzo Dennard (if healthy) are good bets to limit the production of Smith and Anquan Boldin, though both receivers will get their share of catches. Jacoby Jones is also a threat, and Kyle Arrington may have his hands full with the speedy receiver. Devin McCourty excels at safety and will take advantage of any mistakes made by Flacco, though his 22 TD, 10 INT season makes it unlikely that he will commit too many mistakes. Steve Gregory is playing extremely well and also limits yards after the catch.

The Patriots’ linebackers are generally solid in coverage, but they will be challenged by Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Ray Rice has not factored as a huge receiving threat out of the backfield this season, but this is one area that the Ravens could seek to take advantage of, particularly since the Patriots seemed content to allow Arian Foster to go uncovered out of the backfield on numerous occasions last Sunday. Foster caught seven balls for 63 yards and a touchdown, and this has to be an area of concern for the Patriots.

The New England pass rush has not been consistent throughout the season, and the reshuffled Raven’s offense has performed admirably in pass protection, surrendering only two sacks so far in the post-season. The Patriots may need to get creative in blitzes to give Flacco less time to look down the field.

One very interesting development in the Patriots’ defensive evolution took place last Sunday when Rob Ninkovich picked off a Matt Schaub pass to end a Texans’ drive. On the play, the Patriots put only one man on the defensive line in a three point stance, and moved Mayo up to the right side of the defensive front to give the appearance of an all-out blitz. Schaub read this and saw that the middle of the field was wide open, but the Patriots had baited him. When Schaub stepped back to pass, Ninkovich dropped into coverage, exactly where Schaub thought he had a free pass. The result was an acrobatic play by Ninkovich to pick the ball off and steal any momentum the Texans might have. This is significant because we have not seen this type of scheming in the New England defense since the days of Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, and speaks as to how far the defensive unit has come since a miserable early part of the season. Flacco will get his yards, but the Patriots know his tendencies and are likely to create some confusion for him as the game goes on.

Prediction: 280 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, 1 interception

Special Teams

Justin Tucker is an excellent rookie kicker who has missed only three field goals this season and looks to be at the beginning of a spectacular career. Sam Koch is a steady punter who is capable of giving the Patriots poor starting field position. Jacoby Jones is one of the game’s best returners; the Patriots will need to fix the coverage issues that they experienced last week against the Texans.

For the Patriots, Stephen Goskowski has overcome his early season struggles to have another successful campaign. Zoltan Mesko had an inconsistent season as the punter, but had a huge game last week against the Texans. I expect averages for both punters to come down in the colder weather this week, but Mesko is also capable of pinning the Ravens deep. McCourty is an inconsistent kickoff returner, while Welker always represents the potential of a big play in the punt return game.

Intangibles

Unlike the Texans, the Ravens won’t play scared and have a chip on their shoulder. Similarly, New England is playing with a strong sense of purpose after falling just short in last year’s Super Bowl.

One highly important piece is turnovers. The Patriots are the best in the league at +25 (41 takeaways versus 16 giveaways), while the Ravens come in at +9 (25 takeaways versus 16 giveaways). The lesson in these numbers is that both teams are proficient at protecting the ball, but the Patriots excel in forcing mistakes and turnovers. The Patriots were +1 in this department last week against Matt Schaub and the Texans, while Baltimore came out two Peyton Manning interceptions ahead last week. In the previous week however, Ray Rice loss two fumbles against the Colts. Fumbles are a rarity for Rice, but he will have to secure the ball this week against ballhawks like Mayo, Spikes, and Ninkovich. Just as special teams have the potential to shape this game, so too do turnovers.

One extra concern to note for the Patriots is their uncharacteristic trend of giving up points to end the first half, and giving up easy points once a lead has been established. If the Patriots can get in front of the Ravens on Sunday, they need to go for the kill and never let up.

Brady - VereenPrediction

If you simply compare the rosters between the two teams, the Ravens fare well, as their roster is loaded with talented players, even if they lack some of the depth of the Patriots, particularly on defense. Add the factor of the Ravens seeking revenge for last season’s loss in the AFC Championship, and Ravens’ fans have plenty of room to be hopeful. But revenge is only so much of a motivator, and it doesn’t replace execution. This game will come down to match-ups and execution, and that’s what gives Patriots’ fans confidence for a win.

The Ravens came into the playoffs as losers of four of their final five games. While their defense performed admirably on the road in the second half in Denver, shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense, the team will find it harder to execute to the same level in Foxboro this Sunday. The Patriots’ offense enjoys mismatches against the Ravens’ defenders that make it unlikely that the Ravens will hold the Patriots under 30 points. If Baltimore is to win this game, they will have to do so by winning a slugfest, and the Patriots’ defense is far better than it was when the two teams squared off early in the season. While the Ravens were able to win in Week Three, it was only after the Patriots squandered a two score lead late in the game in Baltimore.

Torrey Smith is right when he says the Ravens are a different team than they were a year ago; the trouble for the Ravens is that they are not necessarily a better team than they were a year ago. The offense has made strides in the passing game and has better playmakers than it did a year ago, although it is generally on par with where it was in 2011 statistically. But the Ravens’ defense has taken a significant step backward, in part due to health and in part to age. The Patriots are likely to draw the Ravens into a shootout, and the Ravens don’t currently seem equipped to win such a shootout with a team that won’t self-destruct the way Denver did in their divisional game, particularly on the road in New England. This game will see some early jitters for both sides as it will take time for the Patriots’ offense to find their rhythm, and an early Ravens lead is possible. But the Patriots will pull even or better by halftime, and the Patriots’ offense will physically pound the Ravens’ defense in the second half of the game. Both teams suffered from special teams lapses in the divisional round, so big plays are possible there. In the end, the Patriots’ offense will wear the Ravens down, and move on to the team’s eighth Super Bowl appearance.

New England Patriots 34 Baltimore Ravens 27