By: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
December 25, 2006

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski skip OTA
No Brady or Gronk, but plenty of storylines at Patriots OTAs
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski not at the start of the team's OTA's today
NFL notes: Don't be surprised if Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers rise up for Patriots
New Patriots DL Danny Shelton preps to hit the hill

R.R. Marshall: Steve, the Patriots broke on top early and won going away against the Houston Texans 40-7 on Sunday. I guess the Texans couldn?t have arrived in Foxboro at a better time?

Steve Grogan: A team like Houston is a good way to get well and get back on track, and the Patriots did what they were supposed to do and what they needed to do and came away with an impressive victory. I kind of feel badly for the fans of the Texans because that is not a very good football team. Their quarterback David Carr has been around just about the same length of time as Tom Brady but hasn?t improved at all and he doesn?t show any emotion. That?s what bothered me more than anything. He threw four interceptions and when you do that you should be kicking over a waterbucket, but he was just walking off the field like he was taking a walk in the park.

RRM: Perhaps the best news of all for the Patriots in this game were the zero turnovers and only two penalties. That will have to elicit a smile from Bill Belichick when he glances at the stat sheet?

SG: That was certainly encouraging. They cut the turnovers out and cut the penalties down, and that?s always a good thing. That had to be a reflection of the focus Bill Belichick put on those particular problems during last week?s practice sessions. You have to be concentrating on not committing penalties or someone will get one somewhere along the way. They only had two all game which is certainly a big improvement over the last two weeks, and if anything will make Belichick happy that certainly would.

RRM: Given the level of competition how can we gauge whether the Patriots are truly back on track?

SG: The Patriots did what they were supposed to do and beat the Texans handily. As well as they played in this game and gave everyone a good feeling, I looked at what they did offensively and it wasn?t that impressive. Four times they had the ball inside the 20-yardline and had to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, so the redzone offense wasn?t all the efficient against a team that wasn?t high caliber. The Patriots? defense came up with four turnovers to put the offense in good field position and they weren?t able to take full advantage of it, so in my opinion I don?t think they are quite cured yet from an offensive standpoint. But they are still playing great defense and their special teams seem to be coming around, and that should bode well for them come playoff time.

RRM: The Patriots? average start for their possessions in this game was the Houston 49-yardline. You can?t win the battle of field position any more clear cut than that, can you?

SG: Field position is an overlooked element in the game of football. Just look at last week against Miami where the Patriots had to start most of their drives deep in their own territory. They ended up losing that game and that was a major factor in the loss. New England did the exact same thing to the Texans in this game, so I guess turnabout was fair play.

RRM: The return of the screen pass to the Patriots? arsenal was a welcomed sight and one that produced big dividends with both Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk ripping off huge gains against the Texans. Did they use the screen specifically for the Texans or do you think they were just trying to incorporate it back into the offense?

SG: Screens work well against teams that play zone and the Texans were playing some zone and the Patriots were able to hit some big plays on them. I think we saw it a lot because of the coverage they expected to get from Houston, which was different from what they had been playing against the last three weeks. It is very tough to run that play against man-to-man coverage like they saw at Miami last week so I suspect that is why the screen pass has not been seen the past few weeks. The Patriots? offensive line is very adept at getting downfield to block for the screen, so it was good to see they can still use that play when the situation presents itself.

RRM: Tom Brady challenged his teammates to step up their play this week and they seemed to respond. As a former quarterback how did you feel about him issuing that challenge?

SG: I think when a guy like Tom Brady, who is the leader of the team but doesn?t really say much of a critical nature very often, says something like he did last week that gets the other guys? attention and gets them a little more focused. I think it needed to be said and he said it, and everyone seemed to respond.

RRM: When a quarterback calls out his teammates that way he?d better play well himself. Brady completed 16 of 23 for 109 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, so I guess he put his money where his mouth was?

SG: When you do something like that you have to step up and do it yourself, and I thought Brady played well in this game. His numbers weren?t overly impressive but he got done what he needed to do. The Patriots? yardage numbers weren?t very impressive in this game (only 230 total net yards) but they had such short fields to work with they couldn?t run up a lot of yards.

RRM: Brady?s numbers would have looked a lot better if Jabar Gaffney had held onto that long pass down the sideline. Is our one true healthy deep threat gifted with hands of stone?

SG: Production for the wide receivers continues to be an issue with this team. Reche Caldwell had six catches but the rest of the wide receivers only accounted for two of Brady?s 16 completions. I said it last week and I?ll repeat it again, it?s starting to look like I was wrong about the Patriots? wide receivers. Doug Gabriel is gone, Chad Jackson has been hurt, and as you pointed out Gaffney apparently can?t catch the ball. Even Troy Brown had his problems, and you don?t usually see him drop several passes like he did in this game. I don?t know what was bothering him but let?s hope whatever it was won?t be around for long.

RRM: Tom Brady?s break up with actress Bridget Moynihan became public knowledge last week. Was it a stretch to believe it could have affected his play as some in the media opined?

SG: Everybody has personal things going on in their lives and football players are no exception. I?m sure when something like this happens where a long relationship with somebody ends it certainly remains on your mind. It?s hard to focus totally on football when you have something like that going on in your life but I think that?s what makes these guys professionals, you just have to learn how to do it.

RRM: Do you find it surprising that Brady had this romance with a high-profile Hollywood actress for three years yet it received little coverage by the Boston press? I realize this isn?t New York with Derek Jeter going out with Mariah Carey or his starlett of the month, but isn?t it still big news?

SG: It was kept pretty quiet. When you don?t live your life in the spotlight even though you could like some of the people you mentioned, when they ask for privacy in situations like this people are more likely to give them that.

RRM: Isn?t a high profile romance with someone famous a possible distraction for a team, particularly when it involves one of your team leaders like a Tom Brady?

SG: It could if you allow it to be. There are plenty of athletes like a Terrell Owens that demand attention to themselves so that the media is covering him rather than the game that is coming up. That?s not a good situation to be sure, but Tom Brady is not the type of player that commands undue attention to himself.

RRM: The play of the game had to be Ellis Hobbs? 93-yard kickoff return for the touchdown that elicited the loudest roar of the day from the throng at Gillette Stadium. It was hard to believe he lost his spot on the kickoff return team to start with, and I would assume it would be hard for Belichick to remove him from that spot now?

SG: It would be hard to take him off now, absolutely. With Laurence Maroney being banged up and becoming more of a focus on the offense it gives them a good excuse to get him off of that kickoff team, and I think that will benefit this team more in the long run.

RRM: Someone breaking the long one on a kickoff return remains at least for me the most exciting play in football. Do you agree?

SG: It happens so infrequently and also so quickly (usually a matter of 12 to 14 seconds) but it is just so much fun to watch. Hobbs? run was particularly so because of the way the blocking came together so perfectly that he really didn?t have to make any cuts. He made one little juke as he hit the traffic and then he was just gone.

RRM: He sure was. He left the Texans? kicker Kris Brown grasping at air!

SG: Kickers are good at grasping at air [laughs]!

RRM: This Sunday the Patriots will journey south to Jacksonville to take on a Jaguars club that has been a Jekyll and Hyde team most of the season. How did they possibly lose to this Houston team twice?

SG: Jacksonsville is a very good football team, and although their 8-6 record does not place them among the elite they have some good players. They are a well-coached team that plays everyone hard, but some weeks they play poorly for whatever reason. They are playing with their #2 quarterback in David Garrard and they have some great players on their defense, and this is going to be a big, big challenge for the Patriots. This will be the first of two big tests for them on the road as they end the season against two teams that are both playing pretty good football right now. It may sound clich? but they have to shut down the Jaguars? running attack and make their quarterback Garrard beat them. He?s played well at times but he is coming off a rough game against Tennessee where he had two interceptions returned for touchdowns. If the Patriots can put Jacksonville in a position where their quarterback has to beat them they should be in good shape.

RRM: The Jags are a very physical football team and have a battering ram of a running back in Maurice Jones-Drew that single-handedly took apart the Colts two weeks ago. I assume this will provide a good test to see if the rebuilt interior of the Patriot defense can withstand a powerful running attack?

SG: I think you?re exactly right. This is going to be big challenge for the Patriots? defense which has been playing extremely well. They?ve pretty much been controlling all of their opponents and not yielding a lot of points. Now they?ll be facing a team that likes to run the ball straight at you and makes you try to stop them, so in that sense we?ll find out a lot about this team. Maurice Jones-Drew is a smallish back by NFL standards but I read that someone compared his thighs to Earl Campbell?s, and while he?s not as tall as Earl was if he?s got legs that big you don?t want to hit him down low too often. Indications are Vince Wilfork will be back soon and it would be a plus to get him back for this game because the New England front seven is going to get a workout in this game. Hopefully the Patriots? offense can put some long drives together and keep the Jags from controlling the ball for long periods of time. If they can grab a lead and keep Jacksonville from pounding the ball at them they should be in good shape.

RRM: What are Grogan?s grades for the 40-7 win over the Texans in the regular season home finale?

SG: The Patriots did what they had to do and they posted a solid victory, but I still was a little concerned about the offense. That?s why I?m taking the overall grade down a notch to an A-. I thought Mike Wright played well in place of Vince Wilfork on the inside. Ron Dayne is still a load and he got close to 100 yards rushing, but if you?re giving up 100 yards to one player and nothing to anybody else that?s not bad.

The Patriots? defense is still playing great, but I still do have some concerns about the offense. It looks like if this team is going to do anything in the postseason the defense is going to have to remain solid and provide the offense with good scoring opportunities. If they play that way they?ll have a good chance. If they turn the ball over on offense they?ve got no chance. This team just doesn?t have the weapons on offense to come barreling back from behind against teams like they have in the past. Let?s see if they can stick to that winning formula this week and give everyone in New England a Merry Christmas!

Grogan's Grades for Game #14

Offense: B+
Defense: A
Overall: A-