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

Jan 142013
 

Atlanta FalconsWe had one more great game on Sunday, as the Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 after surging out to a 20-0 lead, then squandered the lead in the final minute, only to come back with a late field goal and emerge victorious. The later game was not nearly as dramatic, as the New England Patriots overpowered the Houston Texans 41-28 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.

Atlanta Falcons 30 Seattle Seahawks 28
Pete Carroll’s attempts to freeze the kicker backfired as Matt Bryant’s first attempt was wide right, but then he connected on his second try as the Falcons came back in the game’s final seconds to beat the Seahawks.

The Atlanta Falcons wasted no time taking control of the game, racing out to an early 10-0 lead en route to a 20-0 halftime advantage. The Seahawks missed an opportunity to score at the end of the first half when Russell Wilson was sacked and the Seahawks, with no timeouts remaining, failed to get another play off. The teams then traded touchdowns in the third quarter before Seattle scored three straight touchdowns in twelve and a half minutes to take a 28-27 lead.

But starting on their own 28 yard line, the Falcons needed just two plays to cover 41 yards in 18 seconds, setting up Matt Bryant for the game winning 49 yard field goal. The ensuing kickoff was botched and the Seahawks recovered the ball at their own 46 yard line, but were unable to get in field goal range. A desperation pass by Wilson was intercepted in the end zone by Jacoby Jones to end the game.

Matt Ryan had a mixed day at quarterback, but was successful in getting the playoff monkey off of his back. Ryan was 24/35 for 250 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Michael Turner rushed for 98 yards as the Falcons were able to effectively pound the ball on the Seahawks, and Jacquizz Rodgers added 64 yards.

For the Seahawks, Wilson ended his rookie season with a 24/36 performance for 385 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as 60 rushing yards on seven carries, including a touchdown. The Seahawks were never able to get Marshawn Lynch integrated into the game, and Lynch was limited to just 46 yards on 16 carries. Zach Miller had a big receiving day for the Seahawks, catching eight passes for 142 yards and a score, while Golden Tate added six catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

Atlanta will host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

New England Patriots 41 Houston Texans 28
Tom Brady threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns as the Patriots once again overwhelmed the Texans at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead to injuries, but didn’t miss a beat as Shane Vereen ran for once score and caught two more playing out of Woodhead’s spot. Stevan Ridley rushed for 82 yards on 15 carries, while Vereen added 41 yards. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez teamed up for fourteen receptions for a combined 216 yards.

With the victory, Tom Brady became the winningest starting quarterback in NFL playoff history, passing Joe Montana with his 17th post-season win. Brady currently has a 17-6 post-season record.

Arian Foster led the Texans’ offense with 90 yards and a score on 22 carries, but Matt Schaub suffered through an inconsistent and inaccurate day as the Patriots’ secondary was once again up to the task of playing tight man to man coverage on the Texans’ receivers and tight ends. Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels caught eight and nine passes respectively for 95 and 81 yards, but were limited in yards after the catch and were unable to produce big plays. The most effective receiver was Foster himself, as he caught seven passes for 63 yards and a score.

Rob Ninkovich once again came up big for the Patriots on defense. The linebacker had four tackles, two passes defended, one quarterback hit, an interception, an onside kick recovery and a tackle for a loss. Aqib Talib and Steve Gregory both had active days with ten tackles each, and Devin McCourty had another solid day at safety and in special teams, where he prevented the game’s opening kickoff from being returned for a touchdown. Danieal Manning had a fantastic day returning kickoffs, averaging 54 yards on four returns, including the 90 yard return to open the game.

The Patriots, who held a 17-13 halftime advantage, scored the first 21 points of the second half to take a 38-13 lead. The Texans were able to add 15 points in the fourth quarter to close the gap, but the context was never seriously in doubt after Vereen scored his third touchdown with 13:07 remaining.

The Patriots will host the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday in the AFC Championship.

Nov 262012
 

Week 12 brought us one of the more entertaining Thanksgiving Day slate in recent years, as the Texans and Lions played a contest full of controversy and missed opportunities, the Redskins showed they are a time on the rise while the Cowboys proved they have no idea who they are, and the Patriots slaughtered the Jets, likely bringing closure to the Tannenbaum/Ryan era in the Meadowlands.

Not that Sunday wasn’t entertaining as well…

Here are your Week 12 results:

  • The Texans beat the Lions 34-31 with some held from Jim Schwartz and a real stupid rule; Ndamukong Suh again shows us that he has “issues”
  • Robert Griffin III is too much for the Cowboys to handle as the Redskins hold off the Cowboys 38-31; Alfred Morris has another big day for the ‘Skins
  • The Patriots once again get solid efforts from offense, defense and special teams while pasting the Jets 49-19; Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and Steve Gregory complement Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork in a total team effort
  • Jay Cutler returns to lead the Bears past the listless Vikings 28-10; Bears exit the game with some injuries to be concerned with
  • Bengals crush Raiders 34-10 as Carson Palmer loses to former team; Green-Ellis rushes for 129 yards and a score on 19 carries
  • Steelers turn over the ball seven times, enabling the Browns to pull of the 20-14 upset; Weeden sustains head injury
  • TY Hilton is first Colt to score on offense and special teams as the Colts bounce the Bills 20-13; Fitzpatrick loooking less and less like the future starting quarterback in Buffalo as he again struggles
  • Chad Henne seems to be the spark that the Jaguards need as he guides Jacksonville to a 24-19 win over Tennessee; Jags snap seven game losing streak
  • Broncos win sixth straight, edging Kansas City 17-9; Brady Quinn holds on to the ball, but not much else in defeat
  • Davone bess catches 7 passes for 129 yards, helping the Dolphins beat the Seahawks 24-21 and stay in contention in the AFC; Seahawks look like playoff pretenders as they are now 1-5 on the road
  • The Falcons don’t win pretty, but they do win; they edge the Buccaneers 24-23 as Matt Ryan and Julio Jones enjoy big days
  • Chargers squander lead, give up a 4th and 29 en route to a 16-13 Baltimore win in overtime; Joe Flacco, Torrey Smith, and Ray Rice all have big games to lead the Ravens back
  • Janoris Jenkins has two pick sixes to lead the Rams past the Cardinals 31-17; Steven Jackson rushes for 139 yards on 24 carries
  • 49ers beat the Saints 31-21 with five sacks of Drew Brees and Colin Kaepernick wins his second game; only the Saints’ offensive line looked worse than their defense
  • Giants hammer the Packers 38-10 as Eli Manning throws for three scores; Packkers missing multiple starters but Aaron Rodgers looks pedestrian in the loss
  • Still to come: Panthers-Eagles
Nov 232012
 

At the end of the first quarter, the game was scoreless, though the New England Patriots were driving deep in Jets’ territory. Just ten game minutes later, Stephen Gostkowski was kicking an extra point to push the Patriots’ lead to 35-0 while the Jets and their faithful looked on in stunned disbelief.

Thus is the tale of two NFL teams headed in very different directions.

For the Patriots, last night’s 49-19 blowout win was their fifth straight victory, locked up the AFC East except for the technicality of math, and cemented the Patriots as a favorite entering the final five games of the season in preparation for the playoffs. For the Jets, the crushing loss confirmed that big off-season changes can be expected for a franchise that has collapsed under its own weight in each of the last two seasons. Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan, and Mark Sanchez all have their jobs on the line as the Jets come to terms with the fact that they simply not a good team.

The game started as a defensive struggle as the teams exchanged punts before the Patriots drove to the Jets’ 21 yard line, but the Patriots came up empty when Stephen Gostkowski missed a 39 yard field goal. The miss seemed to spark the Jets, who rode Shonn Greene’s running and some short passes to the Patriots’ 23. But then Sanchez was fooled by the New England  secondary on the next play, and Steve Gregory picked off a pass intended for Bilal Powell, ending the threat. The Patriots offense then got into synch, as the Patriots drove 84 yards on 15 plays, with Tom Brady connecting to a wide open Wes Welker for a three yard touchdown and a 7-0 Patriots lead.

The Jets tried to answer back on the next drive, using Bilal Powell’s running  to push into New England territory. But on fourth down at the Patriots’ 31, the Jets called Greene on a very obvious run play up the middle, which was stuffed by Brandon Spikes, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Gregory at the New England 17. On the very next play Brady connected on a short pass with Shane Vereen, who outraced the Jets’ defenders for an 83 yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

After a touchback and a quick pass for 11 yards, Sanchez made a mental error and turned the wrong way to hand the ball off. Finding no running back to hand off to, Sanchez ran to the line, seeking running room. But Vince Wilfork manhandled Brandon Moore, shoving him back into Sanchez and forcing Sanchez to fumble the ball. Gregory continued his banner night by picking up the ball and racing 32 yards to extend the Patriots’ lead to 21-0.

But wait; there’s more…

On the ensuing kickoff, Joe McKnight got lit up by a shot from Devin McCourty and the ball popped into the air, landing in Julian Edelman’s arms as he returned the fumble 22 yards for a touchdown. The score was now 28-0, and the rout was on. Rex Ryan could be seen on the sideline shaking his head and muttering “bleeping unbelievable.”

The Jets tried to calm the game down on the next drive, seemingly more focused on preventing disaster than in striking back. Greene was finding room to run and rushed for 19 yards on the drive, but a Jerod Mayo sack snuffed out the drive and forced a punt. The Patriots then needed only four plays to cover 77 yards, as Brady hit Julian Edelman for a 56 yard touchdown pass and a 35-0 lead. The Jets would end the half with a field goal to get on the board, but the Jets’ fans booed loudly as the teams went in for the half, with some calling for Tim Tebow to replace Sanchez.

The Jets were forced to punt on their opening drive of the second half and the Patriots went back to work. New England drove again into Jets’ territory and seemed well on its way to another score before Eledman got hammered by LaRon Landry, forcing the ball out of his hands and knocking Edelman out of the game. The Jets then drove to the Patriots’ one yard line, but Greene was again stuffed by Spikes on a run, turning the ball back to the Patriots. However, on the next play Stevan Ridley was called for a chop block in the end zone, netting a safety and turning the ball back to the Jets. The Jets, now seemingly playing for pride, then drove 71 yards on 4 plays, ending with a Bilal Powell 4 yard touchdown and cutting the Patriots’ lead to 35-12.

Then, just as Al Michaels and Chris Collingsworth began filling the Jets’ fans heads of visions of a comeback, the Patriots marched methodically down the field, going 17 plays and using seven and a half minutes off the clock with Brady taking the ball the final yard for a score and a 42-12 lead. On the next play from scrimmage, Alfonzo Dennard stripped the ball from Chaz Schillens and Rob Ninkovich recovered at the Jets’ 37 tyard line. Brady then hit Welker on a 28 yard pass play before Ridley scampered the final 8 yards and a 49-12 Patriots’ lead. The Jets would add a late touchdown pass from Sanchez to Keller to close out the scoring, but it did little to mitigate the completeness of the Patriots’ domination of the game.

When the Patriots ran

Stevan Ridley ran for 97 yards on the night, never rushing for more than 9, but getting consistent chunks all night long. The Jets were soft up the middle, and Vereen added 42 yards as the Patriots amassed 152 yards on the night. The Patriots’ balance on offense kept another opponent off balance throughout the evening. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed

Brady threw for 323 yards and three scores, but could have had much more as he missed several open targets during the course of the game. None the less, the Jets had little answer for the Patriots’ passing attack. Welker caught 7 balls and was the primary target on the night, as Lloyd caught 3 passes and Vereen, Edelman, and Hernandez each grabbed two while Brady spread the ball to seven different receivers. Brady’s long connection to Edelman and Vereen’s big run after the catch on the way to his 83 yard touchdown helped pad Brady’s numbers for the night. The make-shift line did a great job protecting Brady, as the Jets rarely pressured Brady and did not register a sack on the night. Advantage: Patriots

When the Jets ran

The Jets found running room in the middle early, but then Vince Wilfork and Brandon Spikes seemed to will themselves to shut down running lanes and intimidate the running backs. Greene was able to gain an impressive 71 yards on the night as the Jets ran for 119 yards. Although productive early, the Patriots’ huge lead took the Jets out of their running game, although they were able to use it for some success in the second half. But the inability to convert on fourth and one on two occasions killed any hope the Jets might have had. We’ll call this one a push. Advantage: Even

When the Jets passed

Sanchez was able to throw for 301 yards, but much of this was in “garbage time” as the game was already out of reach and the Patriots were simply limiting damage.  Kerley caught seven passes on the night, while Keller added five and Jeff Cumberland caught four. The Patriots gave up yards but the secondary also broke up several passes, and Dennard forced a fumble after he had been beaten on one play. Steve Gregory’s interception was a beautiful job of baiting Sanchez into throwing an ill-advised ball. Kyle Arrington had a better performance last night than in the previous outing against the Colts. Slight edge here to the Jets. Advantage: Jets

Special Teams

The Patriots created a touchdown on special teams by forcing a Joe McKnight fumble on a kickoff return. This negated an otherwise decent performance by the Jets’ return unit. Malone was the better of the punters this night and Ghost missed a field goal, but McKnight’s gaffe tips the balance towards the Patriots. Advantage Patriots

 Intangibles

The Jets needed to win the turnover battle to have a fighting chance. Instead, the turnover difference was +4 in favor of the Patriots as they affected big plays on defense and, with the exception of the Edelman fumble, protected the ball on offense. The Patriots did commit eight penalties to the Jets five, but this game was decided by turnovers. Belichick and his staff did the superior coaching job this night as well, as Rex Ryan must now be scrutinized for his refusal to make personnel changes despite  some awful offensive performances. Advantage: Patriots

Key Moment:  Vince Wilfork creating a Mark Sanchez fumble that was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Steve Gregory. Sanchez never really looked confident after that play, it put the Patriots up by three scores and utterly demoralized the home crowd.

Game Ball: Steve Gregory for his interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.

Notes: As noted by Patriots Life, Last night marked Bill Belichick’s 200th NFL coaching win, and marked the first time ion NFL history that a team has scored 100 or more (108) points in a five day span. Finally, the Patriots scored 35 points in the second quarter despite only possessing the ball for 2 minutes and 14 seconds. That is an amazing accomplishment.

Oct 052012
 

Not all 2-2 records are equal.

The Denver Broncos are 2-2 after winning in their opener over the Pittsburgh Steelers before dropping the next two games against the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, both of whom are undefeated. Then in Week Four the Broncos thrashed the Raiders 37-6. In the two games they lost the Broncos were down big but rallied back to make the scores respectable, but they didn’t deserve to win either of those games. The Broncos offensive attack is looking good under the direction of a healthy Peyton Manning, but the defense seems to have picked up where it left off last season, giving up 77 points in three games before hammering the Raiders. The Broncos defense is ranked 8th in yards allowed, but 21st in points allowed. The Broncos made some changes in the secondary after their defense wilted at the end of last season, but those changes don’t seem to have significantly improved their defense.

The New England Patriots are 2-2 after winning their opener against the Titans in dominating fashion and crushing the Bills with a huge second half surge, after losing close contests against the Cardinals and the Ravens. A phantom holding call against Rob Gronkowski and a missed field goal doomed the Patriots in Week Two against Arizona, while awful officiating and a squeaky field goal by the Ravens added to defensive lapses and led to their Week Three loss in Baltimore. But despite being off to a shaky start this season, the Patriots are only two plays away from having gotten off to 4-0 start to the season. The offense is beginning to click despite the temporary absence of Aaron Hernandez, and the defense has shown glimpses of being much improved over 2011. The defensive line can bring heavy pressure at times and the front seven is difficult to run against, but the secondary has been spotty to say the least. The problems in coverage are correctable, but it will take some time and the Patriots are unlikely to be able to stop Peyton Manning from having a productive day. The question is, can they slow him down enough to allow their offense to dictate the conditions of the game?

Although the game is being billed as a renewal of the clash of the titans in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, any football fan knows the game is far more contextual than that, and there are matchups all over the field that will determine the course of the game.  Let’s take a look at some of the key areas that will likely decide this contest.

Three keys for the Patriots:

1. Protect Brady

It’s already an old theme, but it holds true. Sebastian Vollmer made Mario Williams pull a vanishing act last Sunday, and the Patriots offense line will again be called on to stop a solid group of pass-rushers. The Broncos have tallied ten sacks to date, led by Von Miller with three sacks and Elvis Dumervil with two and a half. The Patriots scheme their pass protection well and Nate Solder has steadily improved. Donald Thomas filled in admirably last week for Logan Mankins but did allow several big defensive plays and is a poor substitute for the stud left guard. The Broncos occasionally play with a defensive muddle with no down lineman to seek to confuse the offensive linemen and disguise the “mike” linebacker, but this is unlikely to disrupt the Patriots attack.

2. Continue the balanced offensive attack

Part of the success of the Patriots offensive attack last week centered around keeping the safeties off balance, and using the run up the middle to set up passing plays over the middle later. That trend is likely to continue this week because, while the Broncos’ have outstanding defensive ends, they are weak in the middle of the line. Look for Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden to pound the middle in order to set up Gronk and Welker for big plays. If the Patriots’ backs can even come close to replicating last week’s rushing numbers, the Broncos will be in for a long day.

3. Shut down McGahee and the Broncos running game

While the Patriots have always been able to devise coverages that give Peyton Manning fits, Manning eventually figures them out and does his damage. And you can expect him to do so again this Sunday. What becomes critical for the Patriots is to turn the Broncos offense into a one-dimensional unit by shutting down Willis McGahee and Lance Ball. The Broncos are rushing at a rate of 109 yards per game (14th in the league), but the Patriots run defense is already one of the league’s best, giving up 85 yards per game (7th in NFL). Stuffing the run could well be the difference between a close contest and a comfortable Patriots win.

Three keys for the Broncos:

1. Safety play is key

It is essential that Rahim Moore and Mike Adams make good reads and not fall into the same trap that the Bills’ safeties did last weekend. The Patriots are masters at play action passes, and the safeties and the linebackers must be able to quickly diagnose the plays and know their assignments. The Patriots’ offensive scheme is designed to take advantage of match-ups and confusion, and the Broncos could find themselves giving up big chunks of running room, as well as easy completions to Gronk, Welker, and Fells. Beyond safety play, cornerback Champ Bailey is capable of matching up against any type of receiver and could force Brady to look elsewhere throughout the day.

2. Exploit the Patriots’ secondary

After a strong showing against the Titans, the Patriots have proven vulnerable to the passing attack. The Patriots are currently ranked 25th in the NFL, giving up 281.5 yards a game. As long as Manning has protection, he will have a choice of talented receivers in Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Brandon Stokley. Safety Steve Gregory is likely out, meaning rookie Tavon Wilson is likely to get the start.

3. Hold on to the ball.

The Broncos are currently -4 in the turnover department, a key statistic in winning any football game. Conversely, after four games the Patriots are already a +8 in this category, having a knack for forcing turnovers and for holding on to the ball. The Patriots already have six fumble recoveries and six interceptions in opposition to their own one interception thrown and three lost fumbles. The Broncos have only forced three turnovers in four games, while throwing three interceptions and losing four fumbles. If the Broncos give the Patriots extra possessions and a short field, Peyton can throw for 400 yards and still lose by 21 points.

Prediction

Like many, I am anticipating a fairly high scoring game on Sunday. Having watched all of the Patriots games and a fair amount of the Broncos’ action, I am convinced that the Patriots’ defense has a better chance against Peyton Manning and company than the Broncos’ defense has against Tom Brady and the boys. I expect the teams to trade touchdowns early before the Patriots begin taking control of the ball, conducting long scoring drives and keeping Manning off the field. Manning will be forced to keep up with Brady by the second half, and I expect the Patriots’ pass rush will eventually force key turnovers that will result in a Patriots’ win. Patriots 34 Broncos 24.

Sep 092012
 

Welcome to our live blog of the Patriots-Titans contest. This post will be updated as game events unfold. Feel free to leave your comments below. Be kind. :-)

Three Keys for the Patriots

If you are a Patriots fan, here’s what you are looking for in Week One:

1. 3rd down defense; The Patriots were the worst in the league last season for getting off the field on third down. Will the new look defense with Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower be able to get the ball back into the hands of Tom Brady with more frequency?

2. Offensive line; The line had troubles in the pre-season and looks to be without Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters, but Mankins, Solder, and Vollmer are all back on the field. Will they give Brady the time he needs to pick apart opposing defenses?

3. Better secondary; The front seven has a lot to do with how good any secondary looks, but what about the performance of the Pat’s corners and safeties? Will McCourty rebound from a tough sophomore year? Will Dowling stay healthy? Is Dennard a diamond in the rough? Will Gregory, Wilson and Ebner be a step up from last year’s nightmare rotation at safety? Locker and the Titans should only be effective if Chris Johnson is having a monster game.

Three Keys for the Titans

1. Is Jake Locker ready? Look for the Titans to try and spread things out to give Locker opportunities to make plays with both his arm and his feet. Locker looked adequate in the pre-season but was not close to stellar.

2. Will Chris Johnson return to Pro Bowl form? Is a full training camp and pre-season all that Johnson needs to return to form? The Patriots defense projects to be stout against the run, but Johnson is capable of turning any play into a big gain. This is a good early test for both sides.

3. Is the defensive line as good as the Titans think it is? The Titans greatest weakness of 2011 might well be a strength of 2012, if the Titans can bring pressure to bear on opposing quarterbacks. Expect the strength of this unit to be up the middle as the defensive ends progress more slowly, but injuries may make the middle susceptible this week.

Note – the Titans will be without wide receiver Kenny Britt, who is serving a one game suspension.

PREDICTION: Patriots 28 Titans 17

Players listed as “Out” or “Inactive”  are:

Patriots –
DE Jake Bequette
CB Alfonzo Dennard
TE Daniel Fells
DL Marcus Forston
DL Justin Francis
OL Nick McDonald
RB Shane Vereen <sarcasm>shocker</sarcasm>

Titans –
QB Rusty Smith
RB Javon Ringer
LB Zac Diles
T Mike Otto
T Byron Stingily
DE Pannel Egboh
DT Sen’Derrick Marks

GAME BLOG

Pre-Game: CBS reporting more trouble coming for the beleaguered New Orleans Saints as a result of a DEA investigation. A civil settlement is being negotiated but this will no doubt carry more penalties from the league. Nice ship you’ve been running there, Coach Payton.

Pre-Game. The game hasn’t started yet and I already love NFL Sunday Ticket! Also, wearing the silver “54” Bruschi jersey today. Let’s see how it goes. :-)

FIRST QUARTER
15:00 – It’s officially New England football season!

Titans possession:
Good containment on first two plays. Good pressure on third down but Titans convert for 17 yard game. Same problem as last season on third down. PI against Dowling. So far the Titans are giving Locker short, safe plays. Titans go on fourth down after bad spot for Johnson. Great pass from Locker to Washington for big gain. Pats stiffen up but McCourty gets away with obvious PI. Titans get field goal for early 3-0 lead.

Patriots possession:
Begin at 26 yard line after McCourty return. Hernandez nice catch and run for 9. Ridley looks tentative on short carry, but then tears off a big gain for 17. Lloyd misjudged ball and misses an easy touchdown. Walker drops a sure first down to end drive. Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Tennessee starts on own 19 after short Mesko punt. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson for three yard loss. Run defense looking stout so far. On third and twelve Pats stop Titans for quick three and out.

Patriots possession:
Patriots get nice punt return from Edelman to start at the at their own 32 yard line. Brady hits Gronk for big 28 yard gain. Ridley rips off another big gain for 16. Brady to Hernandez for 23 yard touchdown strike! 7-3 Patriots.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18. Locker starts with three straight passes as Titans convert on third down again. Need to see where the coverage breakdown was. Fourth straight pass for four yard gain as Pats maintain containment.

END OF FIRST QUARTER

SECOND QUARTER

Titans possession:
Titans open with stretch pass for first down. Pats pick off Locker on next play In the end zone. Gift wrapped for Tavon Wilson – welcome to the NFL.

Patriots possession:
Pats start with acrobatic catch by Lloyd for 28, challenged by Titans. Bad challenge as Lloyd definitely caught the ball; play confirmed. Ridley gets 7 on quick pass before getting stuffed on the next play. On third down Brady gets sacked by Wimbley, forcing a Patriots punt, which the Pats down near the 10. Wimbley’s knee hit Brady in the face, drawing blood. Giselle is not going to be happy. ;-p

Titans possession:
Pats snuff run again after Washington drops an easy pass. Hightower looks good so far today. Pats strip Locker of ball, Hightower gets easy touchdown. Pats up 14-3. This defense is definitely looking like an improvement over the 2011 model. Chandler Jones forced the fumble. Good day for Pats rookies so far.

Titans possession:
Titans start at own 18 after blatant hold on return. Chandler Jones stuffs Johnson on first down run. Short pass for two but Mayo shuts it down. Locker scrambles nicely for first down. Locker misses open pass after Pats shut down anoth run, bringing up third down. Johnson catches pass from Locker but comes up a yard short. Titans punt. Edelman muffs punt but the was pretty clear interference by the Titans. First down Patriots.

Patriots possession:
Ridley tears off 15 yard run to open drive. Sideline pass to Lloyd for 9. Brady muscles out first down on the sneak. Brady misses Welker on long pass. Woodhead makes smart play to create manageable third down. Injury timeout for a Titans defender. Hernandez takes direct snap for first down. Brady to Gronk for 7. Edelman for another first down. 5 more yards with connection to Welker. Woodhead runs it to the 10; third down. Titans confused on coverage assignment but Brady calls Pats first time out. Ridley takes it to the 2. First and goal. Brady to Gronk for two yard touchdown. Woot! Pats up 21-3.

Titans possession:
Cook stays in bounds after short completion but Reynaud gets out after first down catch. Locker sacked by Jermaine Cunningham. Williams catch brings up 3rd and 5 aft second Tennessee timeout (first used on challenge). Titans receiver Williams doesn’t use head on third down play, short of first down, forcing punt. Pats take second timeout.

Patriots possession:
Pats start at own 12 after short Edelman return. Pats take knee into halftime.

END OF SECOND QUARTER

Halftime reactions: Rookie defenders are looking great for the Pats. Troubling sign for Jake Bequette that he is inactive today. Locker doesn’t look bad at all, but Chris Johnson can’t find room to run on the defense and the Titans defense can’t keep up with Brady and Co. Ridley is looking like a premiere running back today. Patriots get the ball to start the second half.

THIRD QUARTER

Patriots possession:
Pats open on their own 20. Pass to Hernandez for 4. Ridley muscles out a first down- solid running day so far. Ridley another nice run for 7. Quick stretch play to Hernandez for another 12. Ridley loses one on nice play by Morgan. Brady misfires short on blitz. Edelman angry on called incomplete- looks like he caught the ball off his shoe. No challenge by Belichick and Patriots punt.

Titans possession:
Locker opens with big 35 yard completion to Jared Cook. McCourty breaks up next Locker pass. Chris Johnson gets 15 on short pass. Locker to Washington on pretty play as Locker was on his way to being sacked. Pats 21 Titans 10.

Patriots possession:
Brady opens with a bounce to Lloyd. Ridley gets 4 to set up a long third down. Gronk saves a low pass for a first down. Ridley ridden down for 4 yard loss by Jason McCourty. Hernandez gets five back to set up another third and long. Another first down completion to Gronk. Brady to Lloyd for another 11 yards, then to Welker for just one. Hernandez for 7 more. Brady can’t find a receivers on third down and throws the ball away. Patriots punt and Mesko pins the Titans at the 9 yard line.

Titans possession:
Johnson snuffed on opening pass. McCourty picks off Locker on errant throw, but it is a questionable pick. Play being reviewed. Play overruled – good call by official. Third and ten. Designed quartback for big gain, but Titans held, so the play comes back. Titans stuffed at 2 yard line to bring up punt.

Patriots possession:
Edelman brings punt to the Titans 47 to set up the offense. Brady to Gronk for six yards. Ridley runs throu a big hole to get it to the Titans 26. Lloyd for six more, then Ridley pounds another first down. Ridley to the one yard line. Patriots wearing down the Titans front line. Ridley touchdown. Pats 28 Titans 10.

Titans possession:
Johnson hammered for one yard loss. Fans booing, but the Pats defense is just soffocating the run. Locker incomplete as Wilfork hammers him. Locker to Williams for the first down. Wright for 12 to end quarter.

END OF THIRD QUARTER

FOURTH QUARTER

Titans possession:
Johnson underneath for three. Free play (offsides) covered by Chandler Jones. Second and short. Nate Washington hammered after big gain, loses ball to Patrick Chung. Locker gets Hurts left shoulder during the tackle. Washington not getting up; injury timeout. Clean hit to cause the fumble. Play overturned as incomplete, but Hasselbeck on field. Good call on replay. Hasselbeck to Johnson for big third down conversion. Williams for seven yards, then Hawkins for a first down. Raynaud runs for two. Mayo PI for another first down. Stevens for five on a screen. Wright on a quick pass to the Patriot two. Johnson snuffed by Wilfork for loss off four. Johnson now has 11 carries for 4 yards. Wow. Hasselbeck misfires on second down. Incomplete on third down; good no-call on Chung. Titans nail field goal. Pats 28 Titans 13.

Patriots possession:
Ridley catches a pass out of the backfield for 20 yards. Woodhead for three and then Brady to Lloyd for a first down. Lloyd looks good today – 5 catches. Woodhead runs for two. Welker for 8 after Phil Simms calls the Titans defense cows standing in a pasture. Woodhead for six. Woodhead for two more. Ridley rips through the defense down to the 10 yard line. Ridley for one yard. He has 123 yards today (unofficial). Patriots take first time out with 4:33 left. Connolly in locker room – Brian Waters might be getting a call soon. Ridley for two as Titans take first time out. Brady scrambles out of trouble but misses Hernandez in he end zone. Ghost makes it a 31-13 margin with a field goal. 4:15 left.

Titans possession:
Titans start at the 20. Wright for four. Next an incomplete pass. Hasselbeck misfires on third down, forcing a fourth down attempt. Bad pass by Hasselbeck leads to turnover deep in Titan territory. I question doing that on fourth down. The game is decided and now they are inviting the Patriots to step on their throats.

Patriots possession:
Brandon Bolden for nine, then for two more. First down. Bolden for two more as the Patriots take it to two minutes. Looks like the Patriots are invoking the mercy rule. Bolden stuffed on next run. This is Brady’s 125th, moving his past Fran Tarkenton. Bolden loses ground to the 15. Ghost adds three more for 34-13 advantage. 31 seconds left.

Titans possession:
Titans run out the clock.

END OF FOURTH QUARTER

FINAL SCORE: PATRIOTS 31 TITANS 13

Post-Game Analysis:

The Titans are a good team and appear to be in the verge of being a contender, but they were simply no match for the Patriots today. The Patriots displayed excellent balance on offense, with Stevan Ridley racking up 125 yards on 21 carries and one touchdown, and the Patriots defense looked much improved over last season, stuffing the run and forcing the Titans into a one dimensional offense. This game set a good tone that the Patriots hope to follow up on next week.

When the Patriots ran:

As noted Ridley racked up 125 yards and the Patriots rushed for 162 yards overall as the caught the Titans off guard with their attack. Ridley ripped off several large chunks of yards as the Titans could not contain the Patriots’ attack. Advantage: Patriots

When the Patriots passed:

Tom Brady was his usual efficient self, going 23 for 31 (74%) for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Gronkowski and Hernandez each had six catches and Brandon Lloyd had five in his Patriots debut. The balance among receivers also had the Titans guessing all afternoon. Wes Welker had a quiet three receptions for 14 yards, and was a non-factor in the game. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans ran:

Chris Johnson finished with 4 yards on 11 carries, and the Titans only rushed for 20 yards. The Patriots front seven simply suffocated the Titans run game all day, and Titans had no answer for Vice Wilfork, Chandler Jones, and Dont’a Hightower. Advantage: Patriots

When the Titans passed:

Although the Titans were turned into a one-dimensional offense today, Locker performed admirably. He was 23 of 32 (71%) for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception before leaving with an injured left shoulder. Matt Hasselbeck went 6 of 11 for 43 yards when the game was well out of hand. The 272 yards of passing offense was commendable, but the Patriots limited the Titans to short catches for the most part, with the longest plays being for 35 and 29 yards. Advantage: Tie

Special Teams:

No major plays on either side, and no major blunders. Both kickers posted two field goals. Advantage: Tie

 

Key Moment: Chandler Jones’ strip of Jake Locker that Dont’a Hightower brought in for a touchdown

This week’s game ball goes to Stevan Ridley

May 222012
 

The New England Patriots finished 2011 one incomplete pass away from winning their fourth Super Bowl in eleven years and, judging by their aggressive off-season movements, seem intent to make sure that the next Super Bowl result isn’t nearly as close. Learning from the mistakes of 2011, Head Coach Bill Belichick is fulfilling fan wishes everywhere of improving a defense that simply could not get off the field in too many key situations last season. By getting off the field earlier and more often, the Patriots can provide more opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to roll through opposing defenses, and build leads that an aggressive defense can then help turn into a rout.

This is not to say that the Patriots are going to roll through the 2012 season like they did in 2007, blasting through a 16-0 season before falling in the final minute of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. But it is to say that conditions are favorable for a highly successful 2012 campaign. The offense brings back its major parts and has improved its receiving corps. The defense has improved at all three levels, and the special teams will to continue to excel, while the Patriots will benefit from a softer schedule this season, facing off against the AFC East, NFC West and AFC South in addition to their first place opponents Baltimore and Denver. Throw in the fact that this team is well aware that they were one play away from winning it all last year, and I expect a team bent on attending to unfinished business from last year.

Trying to predict anything that Bill Belichick will do is at best a shot in the dark. But when it comes to things like who Belichick will select in the draft, or who will make the Patriots’ roster, well that’s nearly impossible. Even the best Boston beat reporter gets things right only half the time, so this article is less about predicting who will make the final roster and more to give a semi-educated guess about who I think is the most likely to survive to the regular season.

Unlike the Jets, who look no better on paper than they did at the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant strides to improve the roster. Let’s take a look at the most likely prospects to make the opening day 53-man roster. I am in no way trying to keep up with all signed players, now that rosters have been expanded to ninety players. Almost all of that is roster fodder, though one or two unlikely candidate may emerge as we get towards the regular season. I will keep modifying this article until the first week of the season. Each update will be labeled so that it can be contrasted with my original projections.

Players in bold are projected as starters.

Quarterback (Grade: A)

Tom Brady is the incumbent and remains one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a capable backup who will likely be a future NFL starter for another team, as he is in the last year of his contract. Mallett appears to be the heir apparent in Foxboro.

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

Ryan Mallett

Running Back (Grade: B-)

The loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis meant that the Patriots would add a veteran back, and thus entered Joseph Addai. I have never been an Addai fan and didn’t think much of the signing, but accepted that it was a very practical and low-risk move. None the less, I don’t think Addai has much left in the tank, and will likely be beat out by younger players. Ridley is more explosive than Green-Ellis, but struggled to hold on to the ball last season. The Patriots seem very high on Shane Vereen, who was not able to get on the field much last season.

Danny Woodhead is a great change of back a la Kevin Faulk, and much younger than Faulk. While Faulk is a fan favorite in New England, his declining abilities make it unlikely that he will get signed and/or win a roster spot. Brandon Bolden is a candidate for the practice squad.

The Patriots have also signed several fullbacks coming into the 2012 campaign, including fan favorite Eric Kettani, who was able to get clearance from the U.S. Navy to re-join the Patriots. Still, Spencer Larsen and Tony Flammetta might have inside tracks to make the cut. Larsen’s versatility gives him the edge in this battle.

Stevan Ridley

Danny Woodhead

Shane Vereen

Spencer Larsen

Out: Joseph Addai, Eric Kettani, Tony Flammetta

Practice Squad: Brandon Bolden

UPDATE: Joseph Addai was released, as predicted.

Wide Receiver (Grade: A-)

Remember when Reche Caldwell was considered the #1 receiver? Me neither. The 2012 Patriots suffer from no such lack of depth at receiver. If anything, the camp battle is going to be fierce this summer.

Wes Welker returns as the best slot receiver in the NFL and is playing under a franchise tender. Personally, I think he has handled his contract negotiations all wrong. He was offered a two year, $16 million deal and turned it down last year, and is now surprised that the Patriots are offering him less this season. Yet he is a year older, and the play of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has taken away some of his leverage. Playing out his contract dispute in the media and through Twitter is also not his best move, and in truth I would not be surprised to see the Patriots take a trade offer for him before the 2012 season commences, perhaps nabbing a high round pick in the 2013 draft. Barring a trade however, the Patriots could once again slap Welker with a franchise tag next offseason if they are in the mood to add a few million to his current salary, and they just might.

Brandon Lloyd adds explosiveness to this group and is very comfortable working with Josh McDaniels. Deion Branch is a Brady-favorite, but the return of Jabar Gaffney could bring Branch’s tenure to an end. For the moment, I am projecting that they will both make the roster. Julian Edelman is not a sure bet to make the roster, despite his versatility. While I expect him to make it, Matthew Slater is a solid special teamer that will make the cut, and Jeremy Ebert may have a high upside.

Donte Stallworth seemed to have a chance to make it until the Pats signed Gaffney; I am convinced Gaffney will edge him out. Chad Ochocinco is unlikely to make it through camp. Despite his good work ethic and his ability to keep his mouth closed for the most part, he simply lacks production, and the Pats have brought back players who are proven producers. Gaffney’s signing convinced me that the Ocho experiment will be coming to an end.

Wes Welker

Brandon Lloyd

Jabar Gaffney

Deion Branch

Julian Edelman

Matthew Slater

Out: Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Britt Davis, Anthony Gonzalez

Practice Squad: Jeremy Ebert

UPDATE: Anthony Gonzalez was released on 5/29.

UPDATE: The Pats finally cut Ocho on 6/7.

Tight End (Grade: A+)

Providing they stay healthy, this is the best tight end group in the NFL, bar none. No training camp battles anticipated here.

Rob Gronkowski

Aaron Hernandez

Visanthe Shiancoe

Practice Squad: Brad Herman

Out: Nick Melilli, Bo Scaife, Daniel Fells

UPDATE: The Patriots signed Bo Scaife on 6/7. Not sure if he is insurance for Gronkowski, but unless there is an injury to the top three I doubt he makes the roster. Scaife had a solid 2008 campaign with Tennessee but declined after that before spending last season on injured reserve.

UPDATE: The Patriots released Scaife on 6/18. That was a short stay.

Tackle (Grade: B)

Solder and Vollmer look poised to anchor the ends of the offensive line for years to come as long as both stay healthy. The Patriots have yet to decide if Canon’s future will be as a tackle or as a guard. But we know the team values versatility, so he may well do both in the year ahead.

Nate Solder

Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Canon

Practice Squad: Markus Zusevics

Center/Guard (Grade: A-)

The key here is Brian Waters, whose return means the Patriots have great depth at the interior line positions. Waters had a fantastic 2011 season, and will start at right guard with the report that he plans to play again in 2012. Dan Connolly, projected to start at center prior to Koppen’s re-signing, now works into a rotation. Another major factor is the health of Logan Mankins, who is not expected to be ready for the start of the season and may start out on the PUP list. This necessitated the signing of Robert Gallery to fill in through Mankins’ absence.

Dan Koppen

Logan Mankins

Brian Waters

Dan Connolly

Robert Gallery

Ryan Wendell

Out: Donald Thomas

Defensive Line (Grade: B)

Chandler Jones was a great draft pick by the Patriots, and he will likely be given every opportunity to work his way into starting at the “elephant” position made famous by Willie McGinest. Wilfork is a beast in the middle who eats up blockers, and Deaderick is quickly coming along as a solid interior player. Fanene, Baquette, and Scott, provide a quality of depth that the Patriots have lacked in recent years. Andre Carter may still be signed if he is healthy enough, but my money is on his not returning to Foxboro in 2012.

Vince Wilfork

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Jonathan Fanene

Jake Bequette

Trevor Scott      

Chandler Jones

Out: Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Aaron Lavarias, Marcus Harrison, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Justin Francis

Linebacker (Grade: B-)

Much is still to be decided about who will play inside and outside, but Dont’a Hightower should see significant action as the year progresses, and offers the Pats a great deal of flexibility in the linebacking corps. However the positional battles shake out, look for a steady rotation to include Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich, and Carpenter. Jermaine Cunningham may wash out as a failed second round pick.

Dont’a Hightower

Rob Ninkovich

Bobby Carpenter

Jerod Mayo

Dane Fletcher (injured)

Brandon Spikes

Tracy White

Mike Rivera

Out: Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides

Practice Squad: Markell Carter

UPDATE: Markell Carter cut on 6/7. As much as the Patriots liked him in 2011, the offseason personnel improvements seem to have made Carter expendable.

UPDATE: Fletcher tore ACL is first pre-season game; out for season

Cornerback (Grade: B-)

Arrington and Moore both proved to be good corners in a much maligned secondary, and McCourty’s improvement over last year’s performance would do a great deal to bolster this unit. Will Allen offers great depth, and Alfonso Dennard will prove to be a steal if he can stay out of legal trouble.

Kyle Arrington

Devin McCourty

Ras-I Dowling

Sterling Moore

Will Allen

Alfonso Dennard

Safety (Grade: C+)

Well, at least the unit can’t get any worse after a nearly abysmal performance in 2011. Steve Gregory has been brought in to start, but he may only be keeping a seat warm for Tavon Wilson, who Bill Belichick seems very excited about. Chung is solid, and Ebner to looks have a good upside and will offer better depth than the Pats had last season. It’s still a possibility that the Pats could add veteran depth, such as former Jet Jim Leonhard.

Patrick Chung

Steve Gregory

Tavon Wilson

Nate Ebner

Out: Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Malcolm Williams

Special Teams (Grade: A-)

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and Mesko is not far behind as a punter. Finding return men for kicks and punts seems to be the only question as the Patriots look to 2012.

Stephen Gostkowski (K)

Zoltan Mesko (P)

Danny Aiken (LS)

Out: Chris Koepplin

Overall Offensive Grade: A

Overall defensive Grade: B-

Ultimately, the Patriots only need a “middle of the pack” defense to increase opportunities for a potent offense. If the 31st ranked defense from 2011 can even improve into the high twenties or low teens, the Patriots will rack up plenty of one-sided victories in 2012.

UPDATE: Just for giggles, let’s check back prior to the opening game against Tennessee to see how I did in projecting the roster versus Imala Weligamage over at the Bleacher Report. We have just a few differences, but it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.