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Belichick Doesn’t Get the Fuss on a Formation ‘That happens all the time’

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said after his team’s loss to the Patriots that Bill Belichick’s bunch used formations that “nobody’s ever seen”.

According to Belichick, maybe he should start paying better attention.

The Patriots head coach held a conference call on Tuesday and he doesn’t seem to get what all the fuss is about regarding what the team did to catch the Ravens off balance Saturday night and get them back in the game when they had four offensive lineman and split Shane Vereen out as an ineligible receiver.

As a student of the game, Belichick coached a good game Saturday night against the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship game. (USA TODAY Images)

According to MMQB’s Peter King, it’s a formation he’s seen Alabama’s Nick Saban use and he seems to believe that Belichick may have garnered the idea from him considering the two are good friends. ¬†However, Belichick claims it’s a play that he got the idea from after seeing something from another NFL team.

“It’s a situation that I saw another team use, kind of,” said Belichick on Tuesday. ¬†“Then we talked about it and thought about ways maybe to put some pressure on the defense with that concept of having more receivers on the field than were actually eligible. To make them ineligible instead of making an ineligible guys eligible, to go the other way around. We came up with a few ideas. I’d say the origin of that play was from the NFL. What they did wasn’t [what we did], but it sparked some ideas, so we did what we did.”

When asked whether or not he might hear from the league about being prevented from using those formations again, Belichick seemed annoyed and said that this happens frequently enough where it shouldn’t be that big of a deal and that “you’re allowed to do that.”

“Like what? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Belichick. “That happens all the time. You come in on the punt team, ineligible guys report as eligible. They line up as guards and tackles on the punt team, the center up to the center’s numbers aren’t eligible players that report ineligible. Then they cover punts. We’ve seen it on offense. We’ve seen it ‚Äď particularly you see it a lot on special teams in the punting team. Not so much on the field goals because you have your linemen protecting there.

“I would say it happens in every game on the punt team. You’re allowed to do that. We did it. I don’t really understand what the question is. If you have a question about the rules, you just talk to the NFL rules people and let them tell you about it.”

Belichick went on to say that as far as he knows, he can’t remember a week going by where another team hasn’t done it in some form.

“Yeah. I think you see it every week,” said Belichick. “I’d venture to say I couldn’t remember the last time that I haven’t seen that; haven’t seen an eligible receiver report as an ineligible player in the National Football League. I’d say that happens every week.”

So there you have it.¬† Harbaugh said it’s never been done, while Belichick insists it happens each week. Either way it’s a brilliant move that has the Patriots playing in the AFC Championship game next weekend.

Amendola Peaking at the Right Time With the Patriots

Danny Amendola came into New England with the expectations of being the play-maker in the Patriots offense, but it’s safe to say that things didn’t quite work out the way that he may have hoped.

His first season had their share of ups and downs. It started with the toughness he battled with in the Patriots week one win over the Bills where he caught 10 passes for 104 yards, but he also re-aggravated a groin injury that cost him the next three games and allowed more playing time for Julian Edelman. Edelman took advantage of the opportunity and from there Amendola never looked the same despite playing in 11 of the team’s final 12 games.

In the end it was Edelman who emerged as the Patriots top receiver, and it left Amendola in an odd situation where New England suddenly had two players with similar skillsets. ¬†It also didn’t help Amendola that the chemistry between Tom Brady and Edelman became apparent, with the two putting together two straight thousand yard seasons (or close enough, as Edelman finished with 972 yards in 2014 and only missed it because he sat out the final game while recovering from a concussion) for the former Kent State quarterback.

Amendola scored two touchdowns Saturday night against the Ravens. (USA TODAY Images)

That left Amendola as the odd man out in an offense that this season also added Brandon LaFell, who has been a terrific possession receiver and actually accounts for three of the team’s 10 longest pass plays of the regular season.

On Saturday, LaFell had a touchdown against Baltimore, hauling in a critical 23-yard scoring strike from Brady in the fourth quarter that ended up being the game-winner, and was also the 46th postseason touchdown for Brady, which was the most in NFL history.

But before LaFell’s game-clinching catch, Amendola caught two of his own, including one from Edelman in the third quarter on a double-pass play that saw Brady throw a backwards pass to Edelman out wide on the left, who threw a beautiful pass to Amendola as he was streaking up the field and hit him in stride, which saw him easily scamper into the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.

“It’s a play we’ve been working on all year,” Amendola told reporters after their win over the Ravens. ¬†“Testament to Julian [Edelman]; has a great arm and [is] a great athlete. He put it on the money, that’s for sure. It was a good throw.”

One of the most enjoyable moments of the night was seeing Amendola make a play early in the game where he caught a 4-yard pass and then willed his way the remaining 11-yards before diving in for the score. ¬†He’s worked hard since he started taking on added responsibilities returning kicks, and his value has grown over the past few weeks¬†and it was great to finally see him have an opportunity to contribute.

“He played great today,” said Belichick following the win. ¬†“He‚Äôs a guy that‚Äôs been a real good player for us all year; really competitive. Nobody works harder in practice. He‚Äôs made some huge plays for us.

“The touchdowns today, [he] made a great play there on third down to fight for the yardage and get the first down. He‚Äôs given us plays in the return game. Yeah, can‚Äôt say enough about Danny. [He] works hard, really works hard, tough. He‚Äôs had some big plays for us this year. He had some big ones today.”

It’s great to see in an offense that now has a healthy group that includes tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose presence on the field saw seven different receivers catch passes during Saturday’s game. But Amendola is a player with plenty of athleticism and a history of making explosive plays, and the playoffs are as good a time as any to remind fans why the Patriots saw so much in him to give him a five year, $31 million contract in March of 2013.

This is a team that needs everyone clicking offensively and if ever there was a time for guys to step up, this is the time of year you hope to see it. The Patriots are fortunate that Amendola has picked the playoffs to start peaking and hopefully that continues next week.

It’s been a long time since Rob Gronkowski entered the postseason completely healthy, and Saturday night’s win over the Ravens was a big example of just how much the veteran tight end means to the offense.

Gronkowski had a strong performance, finishing with 7 receptions for 108 yards along with a touchdown against Baltimore, and after the Patriots got down by 14 early in the first quarter it was Gronkowski who helped kick things into gear.  After catching a 16 yard reception to get New England out to the 40 yard line on their second possession, Brady hit Gronkowski on a perfectly thrown ball down the seam that went for 46-yards, setting New England up with a first and ten at the Ravens 14-yard line.

Rob Gronkowski had a strong performance against the Ravens on Saturday.
(USA TODAY Images)

Four plays later Tom Brady took the ball in on his own for the touchdown, and just like that, the Patriots were back in the game trailing by seven at 14-7.

Later in the second quarter Gronkowski came up for a second time, hauling in a 23-yard reception that, once again, got the Patriots into Ravens territory.  Five plays later Brady and Danny Amendola connected for a 15-yard touchdown, and suddenly the 14 point advantage was gone for the Ravens with the game knotted at 14-14.

The Ravens went up 14 again in the third quarter after the Patriots failed to get anything going on their opening drive, with Joe Flacco connecting with Justin Forsett for a 16-yard touchdown on the ensuing possession. However, it wouldn’t last long. ¬†Brady immediately lead them on a 9 play, 80 yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown to Gronkowski to pull New England within seven. That touchdown pass also put Gronkowski over 100 yards on the afternoon, the second time he had done that during the postseason in his career. ¬†The last time was back on January 14th, 2012 during the team’s blowout win over the Broncos where Gronkowski caught 10 passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns.

Gronkowski’s been absent during the team’s previous two postseason runs, lasting just minutes into their Divisional match-up against Houston two years ago after re-breaking his forearm, followed by last season’s knee injury against the Browns that cost him his season.

This time around, he’s healthy and playing at what could arguably considered an MVP level, and Saturday’s Divisonal win over the Ravens was a big example of how much he means to this football team. Gronkowski’s presence on the field made a difference, and you could clearly see the Ravens trying to account for where he was. They took advantage of that in the second half, and the Patriots put together an effective plan to help open up opportunities for other players. ¬†Julian Edelman (8 receptions, 74 yards), Danny Amendola (5 receptions, 81 yards, 2 touchdowns), Brandon LaFell (5 catches, 62 yards, 1 touchdown), Michael Hoomanawanui (4 catches, 43 yards) and Shane Vereen (4 catches, 39 yards) all had productive afternoons, largely in part thanks to having Gronkowski out there.

It ended up being a fight to the finish and it’s hard to imagine this game turning out the same way had they not had the veteran tight end on the field. Fortunately he’s back, and after the game Gronkowski told reporters he was just pleased the team stayed together despite being behind for most of the game.

‚ÄúWe just stuck together as a team and took it one play at a time,” said Gronkowski. “We knew we couldn‚Äôt put up two touchdowns in one play so we just stuck together, got first downs, and we came through. [Our] defense played well, stuck together, and executed, as well as on offense.‚ÄĚ

And now they’re moving on.

Ravens Cry Foul in Loss to Patriots

In a game where they were down by two touchdowns on multiple occasions, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels had to get creative to try and stop a Ravens pass rush that got to quarterback Tom Brady quite a bit in the first half, including two sacks during a second quarter drive that knocked them out of field goal range.

The result saw them employ a four man offensive line while adding an additional player up front as an eligible receiver. ¬†To make matters worse, the Patriots didn’t¬†report the eligible receiver until just before the snap, preventing the Ravens from being able to adjust.

Brady and the offense got creative in the second half to slow down the Ravens’ defense. (USA TODAY Images)

The result?  A second half that saw them outscore Baltimore 21-10 and now the Patriots will advance to yet another AFC Championship game next weekend at Gillette Stadium.

The move apparently caught Ravens head coach John Harbaugh by suprise and he wasn’t happy about it, further adding some future fire to a rivalry that already has enough bad blood between the two sides.

“It‚Äôs a substitution type of a trick type of a thing,” explained Harbaugh after the game. ¬†“So they don‚Äôt give you the opportunity, they don‚Äôt give you the chance to make the proper substitutions and things like that. It‚Äôs not something that anybody‚Äôs ever done before. The league will look at that type of thing and I‚Äôm sure that they‚Äôll make some adjustments and things like that.”

Harbaugh said he spoke to the officials to try and understand what was happening because he was trying to get a handle on the players that needed to be covered. However, what really frustrated him was the fact they were snapping the ball so quickly which made it difficult, and the Ravens coach said that there was “deception” in what the Patriots were doing.

“We wanted an opportunity to be able to ID who the eligible players were, because what they were doing was they would announce the eligible player and then time was taken and they would go over and snap the ball before we even had the chance to figure out who was lined up where, and that was the deception part of it,” said Harbaugh. “And that was where it was clearly deception.

“The officials told me after that they‚Äôd give us the opportunity to do that, which they probably should have done during that series but they didn‚Äôt really understand what was happening. That‚Äôs why I had to go and take the penalty, to get their attention so that they would understand what was going on because they didn‚Äôt understand what was going on. And they said that that was the right thing, that they‚Äôd give us the chance to ID the eligible receivers so we could actually get them covered. That‚Äôs why guys were open, because we didn‚Äôt ID where the eligible receivers were at. So, that‚Äôs the nature of that particular thing they were doing, that‚Äôs what made it so difficult.”

Harbaugh said that he hadn’t seen it before, and also went on to say that, “Nobody’s ever seen that before.” ¬†When asked if he considered it cheap or a dirty tactic, he said he wasn’t willing to comment on that.

Brady was pretty blunt during his press conference when asked to react to Harbaugh’s comments, and surprisingly candid.

“Who knows. Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out,” said Brady. “We obviously knew what we were doing and we made some pretty important plays. It was a real good weapon for us. Maybe we‚Äôll have something in store next week.”

After being told that Harbaugh called it clear deception and that the league was going to look at it, Brady reacted saying, well, let them.

“They‚Äôll look at it then,” said Brady. “I don‚Äôt know what‚Äôs deceiving about that. [They] should figure it out.”

For now, the Patriots were able to overcome the game plan the Ravens had put together to stop them, and whether Harbaugh likes it or not, New England has advanced to battle the winner of the Colts and Broncos next Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Ravens Heading To Foxboro For Divisional Match-Up

Bill Belichick now knows who he needs to get his team ready for this week. (USA TODAY Images)

Now we know who the Patriots will be facing.

The Baltimore Ravens went into Pittsburgh and took care of the Steelers Saturday night, winning 30-17 and now will come into Gillette Stadium for yet another showdown against the Patriots in next weekend’s AFC Divisional Game. Kickoff is slated for 4:35pm ET on Saturday.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco finished Saturday night’s game 18-of-29 (62%) for 259 yards and two touchdowns, but it was the Ravens’ defense that eventually ended up being the difference in the game against a Steelers team that just couldn’t get anything going despite being at home.

Baltimore kept Roethlisberger under pressure for most of the game, sacking him five times and it was their play in the fourth quarter that ended up eventually closing the game out. They put a big hit that left the Steelers’ signal caller dazed after his head struck the ground hard, knocking him out of the game for three plays to under go concussion testing before later being cleared to return. The bad news is, the cobwebs were still thick and after he re-entered he threw what was essentially a game-ending interception in the endzone on his first play.

There were a lot of hits like that by the Ravens in the final quarter, with Baltimore’s defenders drilling Steelers receivers, including one play where tight end Heath Evans took a big shot, while Markus Wheaton also got lambasted on another play.

Needless to say this sets up what will likely be quite a physical match-up. Fans likely remember a previous AFC Championship game where the Patriots defeated the Ravens back on January 22, 2012, but it came at a cost as they lost Rob Gronkowski to a significant ankle injury after a tackle by Bernard Pollard that drastically limited his effectiveness against the Giants in a disappointing 21-17 Super Bowl loss. Pollard is long gone, but the Ravens defense was hitting hard in Pittsburgh and got the job done well enough to advance.

The Ravens last visited Foxboro in the postseason during another AFC Championship Game, where they beat the Patriots back on January 20, 2013 to win the Conference before eventually defeating the 49ers to win the Super Bowl.

Brady and the Patriots have their best shot at a title that they’ve had since their championship years. (USA TODAY Images)

This has got to be the year.

It has to be. ¬†There’s just no other way to say it.

Let’s face it, we’ve seen a lot of impressive rosters in years past, but this is one of the most complete teams Bill Belichick has ever put together.

There will be some who will disagree¬†and as much as people would love to have another player or two on either side of the football, you’d be remiss to not appreciate the amount of talent this group is stacked with.

Disagree? ¬†You can try, but when you go right down the line position-by-position, the fact of the matter is, New England is heading into the postseason with the most amount of talent and firepower on both sides of the football than they’ve had since their earlier championship seasons. ¬†There is so much depth and a strong mix of veteran leadership throughout their roster that all signs point to this being their best shot at winning in Arizona a month from now.

Here are some thoughts on each position group:

1) QUARTERBACK:¬†2004 likely feels like a lifetime ago for Tom Brady, who after winning three Super Bowls in four seasons has been close twice, only to be denied by the brother of the guy who he’s continually measured against. ¬†Just getting to Arizona won’t be enough this time around, but for the first time since 2011 Brady heads into a postseason with a fully-healthy Rob Gronkowski. The veteran tight end is playing the best football he’s played since his terrific ’11 season where he caught 17 touchdowns, which was followed up with a postseason where he added three more and had it not been for Bernard Pollard, the Patriots likely could have already won their fourth title. ¬†Now they’ve added Brandon LaFell to go with Julian Edelman, and they still have additional weapons with tight end Tim Wright and an under-utilized Shane Vereen. If used correctly, there’s definitely enough firepower to get the job done.

Brady’s been itching for a chance like this for a long time. Now he’s got all of his best players healthy and he has to know that this is probably his best shot at winning that elusive fourth ring. ¬†Without Gronkowski, he’s finished with a completion percentage of under 60% in playoffs since 2011; with Gronk, nearly 70%. They didn’t finish the season strong offensively, but with two weeks to get ready until their next game, one would have to believe we’ll see a very prepared Brady when they open the Divisional round next Saturday.

For the first time in two seasons, the Patriots have a healthy Gronk heading into the postseason. (USA TODAY Images)

2) RECEIVERS:¬†As mentioned above, Gronk will obviously be a difference maker this time around, but it’s no secret that LaFell has been an impact player for this team in 2014. ¬†In fact,¬†by the time this postseason comes to an end – especially should the Patriots come away with three wins – there’s probably a good chance LaFell’s name will be a big reason why it happened. ¬†That’s another asset Brady didn’t have during the last postseason, as Aaron Dobson was the best player to fill that role but his foot injury had him inactive in the Divisional round, and he was barely able to contribute in the AFC Championship after being limited to just 21 snaps. ¬†This time around he’s on injured reserve.

But after being a player who was just trying to earn a role back in the preseason, LaFell has turned into one of the most valuable assets in this offense. The former Panthers receiver finished his first year in New England with 74 receptions, 50 of which went for a first down. That means that 68% of his receptions moved the chains, and it’s something that has made him such a great addition to this offense.

Then there’s obviously Edelman, who has had two weeks away while he recovered from a concussion and all signs seem to point to the fact he’s also healthy heading into the postseason. ¬†Everyone knows how good he is and what he brings offensively, and having Gronkowski opens things up for both of these guys to be productive. It’s a trio that has been the lifeline for Brady this season and the three led the team in terms of receptions and receiving yards.

We’ve also seen some success between Brady and Tim Wright, who has been able to come through in big moments and the playing time Brian Tyms saw in the final game could open up an opportunity for him to contribute as well. ¬†Danny Amendola is also a player who could be a factor as he’s been a player who sometimes makes the big play when you least expect it, and he’s also healthier than he was in 2013.

It would be great to have a big-name player and a high-impact guy, but this team won three championships with lesser talent. ¬†To take it one step further, it’s even difficult¬†not to argue that the combination of Edelman and Gronk may be¬†an even more talented duo than they had during any of those three championship runs.

What does it all mean?  It means this is a group that has enough talent to complete the job and it should be fun to see how it all plays out.

3) RUNNING BACKS:¬†The absence of Stevan Ridley, as much as people can try and downplay it, may become¬†a factor this postseason if they struggle running¬†the football. ¬†Ridley came into the 2014 season¬†looking¬†better than he did last season, and he was much more sure-handed than in years past. ¬†Prior to the injury he was running the ball well and his speed and quickness are attributes that his replacements just don’t have. ¬†The acquisition of LeGarrette Blount was a stroke of luck for the Patriots, and the emergence of Jonas Gray was fortunate, although it’s obvious that something negative must have happened that’s kept him off the field following his big performance after the Colts game. ¬†Granted oversleeping the following week didn’t help his cause, but he’s had single digit snaps since then and hasn’t been on the field for more than 19 plays (Week 15 vs Miami, just 29% of the offensive snaps).

Blount is a big, bruising back, but he’s had his fair share of problems carrying the football. ¬†He’s been stopped for a loss 10 times in his short stint since returning¬†to New England, more than any other player. ¬†Vereen hasn’t fared much better, with teams stopping him a team-leading 18 times for no gain. ¬†They’ve both had some good moments but their overall success as a regular ball carrier have been questionable and none of the three can be considered explosive by any means.

Are they adequate enough to get the job done? ¬†Absolutely. ¬†And the fact that Gray was held out of the final game might lead you to believe that they’re preparing to give him more opportunities this postseason. ¬†Adding Blount helps their cause, and he’s at least a big enough threat to help make the play-action passing game more effective. ¬†For Gray, it’s an opportunity to prove that what he did against Indianapolis wasn’t a fluke and a strong postseason performance could set him up for bigger things in 2015. ¬†With Ridley and Vereen set to be free agents after the season, it will be interesting to see how this position plays out during the weeks ahead.

4)¬†OFFENSIVE LINE:¬†If there’s an area of concern, this might be the biggest one heading into the postseason. ¬†Obviously protecting Brady is going to be the priority¬†but love them or hate them, it’s a group that’s performed well enough to win 12 games this season and they’re certainly good enough to have postseason success. ¬†There have been plenty of ups and downs this season, including what¬†we saw in Week 16 where Brady was sacked four times, as well as their struggles in the season finale. ¬†However, one big factor was the fact that Dan Connolly was inactive in both of their final games, and¬†all signs seem to point to Nate Solder being O.K. and avoiding a significant injury after missing the second half of last week’s game against the Bills with a knee injury, which is certainly good news. Despite the fact he’s been a punching bag recently in the media, Solder is still a solid player and definitely a better option ahead of Marcus Cannon at this point at left tackle. ¬†From there we’ve also seen a strong performance this year from Bryan Stork, who looks less like a rookie and more like a veteran at this point of the season.

Overall this is a group that allowed nearly half as many sacks on Brady this season with 21, compared to the 40 that were given up in 2013, five of which¬†came¬†in the final two¬†games. ¬†They’ll be relatively healthy when they start their playoff run, and one would have to expect that they won’t look as poor as they did in the last two weeks. ¬†This is the time of year where they’ll start facing better defenses, so hopefully they’ll start playing at a higher level.

The value of the return of Wilfork has gone under the radar and having him back makes the guys up front that much more dangerous. (USA TODAY Images)

5) DEFENSIVE LINE:¬†It’s hard to believe at the end of last season so many people thought this team would be O.K. if Vince Wilfork couldn’t return coming off of his Achilles injury, but seeing him out there this season was a strong reminder of just how valuable he is to this defense. ¬†This is a football team that went from 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game allowed to 13th – in just one season. ¬†One of the biggest factors is Wilfork, while another has been how well Alan Branch and Chris Jones have played up front, as well as the return of Sealver Siliga, who missed 9 games but has been healthy enough to play in over 70% of the teams’s snaps over the final two weeks. ¬†He left the game in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s finale against the Bills, but told Mike Reiss after the game that he was “healthy as a rock”, which is good news.

This is a solid group up front, and one of the deepest ones in recent memory. ¬†They can stop the run, create pressure, get after the quarterback, and they’re playing pretty good football right now. After Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down last year, it seemed to be a wake up call for Belichick, who after seeing Jones and Joe Vellano struggle during the latter half of 2013 seemed to make adding depth a priority over the offseason. Bringing in Branch and having Siliga emerge has been huge, and Wilfork’s return provides the type of leadership that will be big in the playoffs. In the postseason the competition is tougher, which will likely lead to adversity should the Patriots find themselves in a tough battle or behind. His presence is an asset that can’t go overlooked, and it’s been one of the big reasons why they’ve been so successful up front in past seasons. Now that he’s back, it’s been a great reminder of just how much he was really missed last season. Needless to say, they’re fortunate to have him, and he makes this group much more formidable heading into the playoffs.

Collins has been tremendous in his second season with the Patriots.
(USA TODAY Images)

6) LINEBACKERS:¬†Losing Jerod Mayo was a massive blow earlier this season, and he’s a guy who generally doesn’t get a lot of credit for the type of dirty work he did inside. ¬†The only good news for the Patriots is the fact they lost him last season, which ended up providing invaluable experience for Dont’a Hightower, who once again picked up the slack and he’s played even better this season. ¬†Hightower¬†finished second on the team in tackles, and was second on the team in QB hits with 13, including 5 on third down. He also finished with 4 sacks on third down, with that¬†total matching Rob Ninkovich for the most on the team.

The Patriots have also gotten contributions from Akeem Ayers, who has come on as of late. Ayers has been a player that we’ve seen have success getting after the quarterback since being acquired earlier this season, having totaled four sacks and five QB hits in just nine games. ¬†Teammate Jonathan Casillas also has a QB hit as well as a forced fumble, with both players being pleasant surprises in this defense.

But the biggest story this season is obviously Jamie Collins, who while many weren’t enamored with the selection of him when he was taken in the 2nd round last season, hopefully by now they’ve changed their minds. ¬†He’s shown freakish athletic ability and in only his second season has already garnered the respect of his peers in the locker room. ¬†Collins finished the season as the team’s leader in tackles with 115, along with two interceptions, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles (two recoveries), four sacks, and seven QB hits. ¬†He’s become quite the playmaker, with Belichick recently emphasizing the fact he’s a guy who can go from rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field, which is an attribute that not every player is capable of, let alone a linebacker. ¬†He was a guy who already made some key contributions in last year’s postseason, and he’ll be a key player to watch in the weeks ahead.

7) DEFENSIVE ENDS: Two names will likely decide how far the Patriots will go heading into the postseason, with Ninkovich and Chandler Jones as the two players who will be the most important keys to New England’s playoff success. ¬†The Patriots are fortunate to have Jones back considering that many initial reports regarding his hip injury had it as potentially season-ending, which would have left New England severely hamstrung in the playoffs. ¬†Instead, after sitting out six weeks, Jones is back and he looks rested and healthy, which is definitely good news for a team that still managed to win five out of their six games while he was out. ¬†He’s been terrific this season and despite his six-week absence, he still finished the season¬†tied for second on the team with six sacks and he also finished third in QB hits with 11. He also had two passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

As for Ninkovich, he’s also playing well right now and he finished the season with a team leading eight sacks and 16 quarterback hits, as well as one interception, two passes defensed, and a fumble recovery. ¬†Both he and Jones are the bookends to a defense that finished with a +12 turnover differential behind just Green Bay, but one big question will be whether or not the workload Ninkovich had this season factors into his play during the playoffs. ¬†He¬†played in 100% of the team’s snaps in 12 of 16 games this season, including seven of their final eight games and he’ll likely be one of many players who benefits greatly from having time to recover over the bye. ¬†

In the end the more important thing is the Patriots have their two best pass rushers healthy, which is definitely a huge positive for them. Hopefully they’ll have success in the weeks ahead.

Revis has completely changed this secondary and he’s made everyone around him better. (USA TODAY Images)

8) SECONDARY:¬†This is arguably the strongest group you’ll ever see back there, with Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner solidifying a group that already had Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, both of whom have benefited greatly by having them here. ¬†Second year defensive back Logan Ryan was a mess for a portion of this season but he’s improved lately and is playing better football, as is teammate Duron Harmon. ¬†But one of the bigger surprises has been the re-emergence of Patrick Chung, who after rejoining the team looks like the player they had hoped he’d become when they originally drafted him in the second round back in 2009. ¬†Chung finished 2014 third on the team in tackles with 84, and also picked off a pass and had seven passes defensed. He’s flourished in the role they’ve created for him, and he’s become a strong addition to an already talented unit.

It’s hard to believe, but this is arguably the most talented, complete group they’ve had in the secondary during any of their championship runs and certainly much improved from last season. ¬†They finished 2014 ranked 13th in the NFL in pass defense, up from 26th in 2013, which is a tremendous improvement. ¬†Obviously¬†we know how good Revis is, and his presence has helped McCourty emerge even more so as one of the NFL’s best safeties.¬†¬†McCourty¬†picked off two passes this season and had six passes defensed and forced a fumble, and he looks like a much more comfortable player heading into this postseason.¬† Another player who deserves a lot of credit is¬†Arrington, who looks like a different player this season. Arrington didn’t finish with an interception in 2014, but he still had four passes defensed as well as two forced fumbles and one sack. He missed the final two weeks with a hamstring injury, but most reports indicate he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs.

On paper, it doesn’t get much better than this, especially considering this team is 8th in the league in points per game allowed, including holding opponents to 17 or less points during their final four games. ¬†More importantly, they’ve also shown the ability to close games out after outscoring¬†their opponents 106-62 this season in the 4th quarter.

Personnel-wise, it’s tough to imagine them ever assembling a better mix of talent. It was easy to picture how good Revis would be on his own, but he’s been even better than expected. He’s been dominant in this defense and leads the team with a staggering 14 passes defensed, twice as many as the next closest player, which is Chung with 7. More importantly, it’s amazing to see the effect he’s had and how much better he’s made the guys around him. ¬†As a result, this should be a group playing with a lot of confidence and they’ll also be aided by the fact they’ll be in front of the home crowd.

SUMMARY: Overall, while it would be great to have a big play receiver or another massive defensive end, it’s just not realistic to expect them to stock the biggest free-agent names at every position. However, when you go through each positional group, there are more than enough good players¬†on this roster across the board to get the job done. ¬†This is a team that has grown tremendously this season, and after much of the world wrote them off at 2-2, they went on a tear that saw them lose just one meaningful game over the remainder of the season.

But looking at the guys they currently have, barring any further injuries, they may never be more stacked talent-wise heading into a postseason. ¬†In the past it was always easy to look at the roster and see deficiencies, but this season after seeing the development of so many players, they don’t really have any areas that are lacking enough to feel as though a trip to Arizona and a Lombardi Trophy isn’t a realistic goal.

Belichick and Brady probably have to be aware of the potential they have with the talented group they’re taking into this postseason. They also have to know that after having locked up¬†the¬†number one seed, this is the best scenario they could have hoped for considering the state of the roster both from a health and talent standpoint and the advantage they have playing at home this time around.

Now the only thing left is to play the games. ¬†But it’s safe to say that if they can’t win it all this season with the group they have on their roster, it’s hard to imagine what other changes they could make here in the salary cap era to make this team any better.

This is their best shot, plain and simple. ¬†Now hopefully we’ll see them play like champions.

STAT CHECK: Brandon LaFell Exceeded Expectations in 2014

LaFell has had a terrific first year in New England. (USA TODAY Images)

People will forever spend a lot of time pining over bringing a player like Dez Bryant or a Calvin Johnson to team up with Tom Brady, especially after seeing how electric New England’s offense became after adding Randy Moss to the mix. ¬†However, while it wasn’t considered a big signing when it happened, it’s hard not to appreciate just how good Brandon LaFell has been¬†in his first season catching passes from Brady.

LaFell played in all 16 games for the Patriots in 2014, catching 74 passes for 953 yards along with seven touchdowns. ¬†Ironically, his 74 receptions were more than Johnson (71), and just one fewer touchdown than the eight Megatron finished with this season. ¬†Obviously there’s a stark difference between the two players, but it’s still hard not to appreciate what LaFell ultimately accomplished, especially given his previous performances in Carolina. ¬†His 74 catches were a career high, dramatically eclipsing his previous high of 49 from last season and were also more than some other notable names including Vincent Jackson (70), Antonio Gates (69), Michael Crabtree (68) and last offseason’s big name free agent, Mike Wallace (67).

Fans never like seeing the Patriots go for value, but that’s exactly what they got in LaFell, and more importantly they got a guy who has simply been a perfect fit in an offense that needed a big, reliable target. ¬†At 6’3″ he’s been a go-to guy for Brady throughout the season, and his 50 first downs trail only Rob Gronkowski (60) as a player who moved the chains the most for New England in 2014.

Here’s a breakdown of his stats from 2014:

LaFell’s 2014 Season Totals:
74 receptions/119 Targets (62% completion percentage), 953 yards, 50 first downs, 7 TD’s

LaFell’s Numbers By Down:
39 receptions/54 targets (72% completion percentage), 473 yards, 25 first downs, 3 TD’s
2nd: 18 receptions/34 targets (53% completion percentage), 281 yards, 15 first downs, 2 TD’s
3rd: 16 receptions/29 targets (55% completion percentage), 183 yards, 9 first downs, 2 TD’s
4th: 1 reception, 2 targets (50% completion percentage), 16 yards, 1 first down

LaFell has played an important role in the Patriots success in 2014, and has an opportunity now to help them win their first championship since 2004.
(USA TODAY Images)

Looking closer relative to other Patriots receivers, LaFell is the¬†player the Patriots went to quite a bit on first down this season, leading all receivers with 39 receptions on first down, 25 of which went for a first down. ¬†That means 64.1% of those¬†catches moved the chains, which is even slightly ahead of Gronkowski (63.6%), who caught 33 passes on first down, 21 of which gave them a new set of downs. Garoppolo was 2-of-2 targeting him Sunday with two first downs, while Brady didn’t target him.

At second glance last season Brady finished with a completion percentage of 58% on first down, with Julian Edelman leading all receivers with 38 receptions and a team leading 17 first downs (45% conversion). Brady also finished with a 66% completion rate throwing the ball on first down, obviously far ahead of where he finished last season and LaFell played a big part in that.

It’s pretty impressive given where he was back in OTA’s where he admitted he was a little ‘shell-shocked’ and it’s no secret that this offense has been too much for other veterans to adapt to. ¬†Fortunately for LaFell, that hasn’t been the case.

‚ÄúOTAs I was shell-shocked, didn‚Äôt know what to expect,” LaFell told NESN back in August. “Everything was all new to me. I was in Carolina for the last four years, so I got used to that routine, got used to that playbook. Everything‚Äôs new here, and since the beginning of camp, I feel way more comfortable. Just being in the huddle with Brady, hearing him call the plays. I‚Äôm way more comfortable.‚ÄĚ

Fast forward four months and he doesn’t look like a guy who has only been here one season. ¬†Back then he seemed a long shot to earn a role behind second year incumbents Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, as well as veteran Danny Amendola. ¬†Instead he’s taken the reigns and he’s a player who already makes New England much tougher heading into the postseason than they were in 2013. ¬†He’s been banged up, knocked around and he’s a guy who has shown a lot of grit and determination this season. ¬†It’s hard not to root for this guy, and by now most Patriots fans really appreciate just how good he’s been.

With the regular season now in the rear view, this Patriots group of receivers looks far more formidable heading into the postseason compared to a year ago.  Granted having Gronkowski out there is going to be the biggest difference maker, but the combination of Gronk, Edelman, and LaFell is a pretty tough match-up for most defenses.

It’s amazing to think that in the beginning of the season he was just trying to carve out a role for himself. ¬†Now here the Patriots are, in control of their own destiny with their best shot at winning their fourth championship in recent memory. There’s still plenty of football left, but with LaFell now in the mix with Gronkowski and Edelman, there’s certainly enough of a reason to think they’ll have just as good of a shot as anyone to go far in the weeks to come.

Patriots 2015 Opponents Are Now Set

With the 2014 regular season officially in the books, it looks like we now know who and where the Patriots will play during the 2015 regular season, although we’re still a few months away before we find out exactly when they’ll battle each of those respective teams.

However, next season the Patriots will receive visits from the Jaguars, Titans, Redskins, Eagles and Steelers in addition to their normal AFC East Divisional games. On the road, they’ll battle the Texans, Giants, Cowboys and will have to head out to Invesco Field at Mile High the next time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning play their next regular season match-up, although there’s obviously still the possibility of a showdown between the two this year. The good news for New England is that Manning would have to be in Foxboro with bigger things at stake should the two meet again this postseason.

Most of the opponents weren’t a surprise, but they were waiting to find out the AFC North winner (Steelers, who beat Cincinnati last night to win their Division), who will play them at home. The AFC West winner (Denver) is the team they’ll play on the road because of the league‚Äôs rotational format. The Broncos have played in Foxboro during the last two regular seasons, both of which have been wins by the Patriots and New England also beat them at Gillette Stadium in the Divisional round of the postseason back in 2012.

The exact date for the release of the 2015 schedule hasn’t been announced yet, which is usually released sometime in April.

Five Best From Sunday’s Battle With the Bills

Garoppolo played well in his first extended action of the season. (USA TODAY Images)

Sunday’s regular season finale against the Bills ended with a 17-9 loss, but despite the outcome there were some things the Patriots can take away from this game as they get set to begin the postseason in two weeks.

1) Garoppolo shows a lot of poise – Tom Brady got the starting nod on Sunday, but Jimmy Garoppolo played the entire second half and did about as much as could be expected. ¬†The rookie found himself under duress for most of his outing against a tenacious Bills defense that had him under constant pressure and sacked him three times. ¬†Despite that, he still managed to complete 10-of-17 (59%) for 90 yards, and made a couple of gutsy runs, including one that converted a third down and brought Gillette Stadium to their feet after he picked up four yards on a 3rd-and-one. ¬†The bad news is, the drive ultimately stalled at the Bills 13 after he tried another run¬†on a 4th-and-1 and got drilled for a loss. Either way, he had some terrific moments while he was out there and considering some of the poor play that’s been seen around the league from other inexperienced signal callers, Garoppolo looked more like a veteran than a rookie and it showed with some of his decision-making as well as some of the throws he made. After seeing Aaron Rodgers go down in Sunday’s battle with Detroit (although he later returned), Patriots fans can rest a little easier knowing that Garoppolo can come in and at least move the football and not turn it over should Brady ever [gasp] get knocked out of the game. The only knock on the rookie from Sunday’s game is that the team failed to score a touchdown while he was in there, which, to be fair, was an issue for Brady as well as the team finished without reaching the end zone against Buffalo.

Brandon LaFell was among the bright spots for the Patriots offense on Sunday.
(USA TODAY Images)

2) Gostkowski remains solid – The Patriots field goal kicker remained one of the highlights on a day where New England’s offense couldn’t find the end zone, converting all three field goals that he attempted. ¬†Gostkowski connected¬†from 24, 44, and 35 yards on the afternoon, keeping him a perfect 11-of-11 from 20-29 yards on the season, along with 12-of-13 (92%) from 40-49 yards, and 10-of-11 (91%) from 30-39 yards. ¬†Overall Gostkowski missed only two kicks all season, and finished with a league best 35 field goals, with his 12 from 40-49 yards as the most in the NFL. ¬†Brady said after Sunday’s game that he’s not concerned about the Patriots recent offensive struggles, and considering that Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were spectactors, there were obviously reasons why New England wasn’t as effective on the offensive side of the football as they normally are. ¬†The good news is their kicker appears to be the least of their issues heading into the playoffs.

3) Collins peaking at the right time – Another day, another turnover, and linebacker Jamie Collins has continued to play at an extremely high level in recent weeks. ¬†Collins was a big highlight to Sunday’s game, including a play where he forced a fumble after fighting off a block and staying with the play, and he even ended up¬†recovering it. ¬†He’s a player that the Patriots will be counting on quite a bit when the playoffs begin, but Collins has been absolutely outstanding in recent weeks and that continued on Sunday against Buffalo. ¬†He’s a guy his teammates refer to as a “freak of nature”, and he definitely continues to play like one.

4) LaFell remains consistent –¬†With Edelman and Gronkowski sidelined, Brandon LaFell was joined by Brian Tyms and Danny Amendola as the featured players in the Patriots’ passing game, and he was once again terrific, although he was seen hobbling off the field in the second half. ¬†The good news is despite reports after the game of him being spotted in a walking boot, the veteran responded via Twitter and denied the injury, although he later¬†deleted it. With two weeks to recover, one would hope that he’ll be back in the line-up by the time the postseason begins, because he’s proven to be so valuable for Brady and the offense. ¬†LaFell finishes the regular season with 74 receptions for 953 yards along with seven touchdowns, and it’s interesting to note that LaFell actually has the second most receptions for a first down to move the chains with 50 behind Gronkowski (60), and one more than Edelman (49). ¬†He’s also a guy who catches a lot of balls from Brady on first down, with a team leading 39 receptions, more than Gronkowski (33) and Edelman (32). ¬†He’s just a terrific possession receiver in an offense that needed a solid contributor, and it should be interesting to see the difference he makes for the Patriots this time around in the playoffs.

5) Allen continues to shine – It’s hard not to notice the difference that Ryan Allen makes in the kicking game and his big punts continue to be a massive part of the Patriots’ success in changing the battle for field position for the defense. ¬†He hit a couple of of big kicks on Sunday that went for 51 yards, and his big leg continues to be a weapon that flies under the radar in terms of his value. ¬†Like Gostkowski, Allen’s a player who Bill Belichick can count on to come up with a big kick to get the offense out of trouble and give the defense plenty of breathing room at the other end of the field. ¬†While it seems strange to give a punter so much praise, it’s tough not to considering how solid of a player he’s been for this football team and facing better defenses in the weeks ahead, having him on the team will likely make a difference and the Patriots continue to be very fortunate to have him.

New England will next play on January 10th at 4:35pm ET at Gillette Stadium to start the Divisional round of the postseason, although fans will have to wait until after next weekend before we learn who their next opponent will be.

Patriots Divisional Battle Will Be Held on January 10th

Fans will next see Tom Brady and the Patriots on January 10th, 2015. (USA TODAY Images)

The NFL announced the dates and times for the AFC Divisional round on Sunday night, and we now know what time the Patriots will play their next football game.

The team will play on Saturday January 10th to open the Divisional round, with kickoff slated for 4:35pm ET and the game will be broadcast on NBC.

Their opponent is obviously yet to be determined, but since the Patriots are the top seed in the AFC, whoever it is will have to visit Gillette Stadium as New England has home field advantage throughout the postseason.

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