These next few weeks are going to be quite a litmus test for the Patriots to see how they compete against tougher opponents, with their first one set for this Sunday night down in Atlanta against the Falcons. This game will also give their rookies a taste of what it's like to play in a huge Sunday night game on the road, and it will be a terrific opportunity for them to step up in what could potentially be a fight to the finish on a national stage as they try to improve to 4-0 on the year.
While Atlanta is just 1-2, they've lost by a mere total of 10 points, having lost a tough road game down in Miami this past Sunday. They saw a 35-yard field goal sail wide right in the fourth quarter that would have given them a 26-20 edge over the Dolphins and Miami capitalized, marching down to Atlanta's one yard line before delivering the knock out blow thanks to a touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to tight end Dion Sims to give Miami a 27-23 win.
Will this be the week that Gronkowski returns? (USA TODAY Images)
That's almost one of the worst scenarios you can ask for, having to play a team that is coming off a difficult loss that dropped them below .500. Atlanta will likely be fired up for this one, which should be quite a test for a Patriots defense that is off to one of their best starts in franchise history and hasn't allowed a passing touchdown since week one, nor have they allowed any fourth quarter points.
For New England, this is a week that will be an important one for them as they may finally get one of their injured offensive guys back on the field. We saw last week that Danny Amendola was back in practice, which was a surprise given some of the reports surrounding his injury. That would lead you to believe that his availability might be a possibility for Sunday night's game, although given how he looked from the reports from practice last week, it wouldn't necessarily be a surprise if he didn't play this weekend.
Meanwhile, the more likely scenario would be the return of tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been making progress recently in practice after almost 10 months since his last game action. He may finally be ready to go and ideally this would be the week they could use him, as it would also improve an offense that saw improvement from their two rookie receivers during Sunday's 23-3 win over the Buccaneers.
But the biggest area that would help them would be down in the red zone, where Brady so far this season is just 8-of-19 (42% completion rate) with four touchdowns. Even after getting knocked out last November, Gronkowski still finished the season second on the team in red zone receptions with 10 and led the team with eight touchdowns in scoring territory in 2012. He was also second on the team in 3rd down conversions with 11 first downs. He's a game changer, and putting him back into the line-up instantly changes just how dangerous they can really be offensively.
Up to this point they've gotten next to no production from the tight end position, with Michael Hoomanawanui currently as the only tight end this season with a reception, having hauled in three passes on five targets with one first down. Matthew Mulligan hasn't caught a pass but did see some action against the Buccaneers, coming up with a good block during the eight snaps he was in on during Sunday's game. Unfortunately Zach Sudfeld hasn't seen the success he had during the preseason translate into the regular season after Brady has gone 0-for-3 targeting him including two interceptions.
Gronkowski is a key ingredient in an offense that each week keeps growing and becoming more dynamic. Add him back into the mix and he may be the missing piece that could finally kick this offense into gear, and it should be interesting to see whether or not this is finally the week that fans potentially get the opportunity to see the "Gronk Spike" as Brady looks to extend his touchdown pass streak to 52 straight regular season games.
There's certainly no better time than a huge game on a national television to put on a memorable performance, and getting him back would definitely help with that. Most reports seem to indicate that this may finally be his week, and all eyes will likely be watching to see if the time has finally arrived for #87 to officially return to action this weekend.
BELICHICK DOES A NUMBER ON SALK & HOLLEY
After dealing with Albert Breer of the NFL Network, who was relentless in trying to get information out of Bill Belichick regarding the injury situations of Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski on Monday afternoon, Belichick sat down with Mike Salk and Michael Holley of WEEI, and clearly wasn't in a jovial mood before his weekly appearance on the radio station.
The two are normally pretty good, but it ended up being one of those days where they were simply ill-prepared and asked some poorly conceived questions (given Belichick's mood) over the course of what ended up being the most uncomfortable 22 minutes of radio that I've heard in quite some time.
The worst part of the interview came when Holley decided to ask Belichick how he's able to play up their opponent each week, and it went, well...downhill from there.
Here's a transcription of how it went down:
MICHAEL HOLLEY: "I get the sense that if you, name the team, if it's the worst team in the NFL, no matter what the circumstances are, I get the sense that you would find a way to say something good about that team or to think what that team does well. Is it simply you're preparing for that team's best even if they haven't shown it?"
BILL BELICHICK: "Well, of course, you always prepare for your opponent's best. I mean, what else would you prepare for? Do you think they're going to come in here and turn the ball over eight times? I mean, you don't prepare for that. You prepare for a team to come in here and play their best football against you, and how are you going to play your best football against them? That's a competition every week. We can't control how they play, but we expect them to play well and we're going to prepare for them to play well. That's what our game plan is going to be based on is the things that they do well and what we've seen them do well."
MH: "You expect them to play well even...I'm not saying this is the case with the Bucs, but some teams haven't played well. But you still expect it when you play them?"
BB: "Of course. Why would you think they wouldn't?"
MH: "If they haven't done it..."
BB: "So what? That doesn't mean anything. They've done something...I mean, they've done something. Things that they've done well. Doesn't mean that this week they can't do a lot of things well if they've shown that they've done things in spurts or in one phase of the game or another. I mean I think it would be irresponsible to coach a team and tell them, 'Ok fellas, the team that's coming in here is not going to play well, so we should expect them to play a bad game so why don't we play one that's just a little bit better than their bad game? I think that would be totally irresponsible. I can't imagine any coach ever doing that. I mean, I couldn't imagine that, so I wouldn't know how to prepare a team the way you're talking about. I couldn't even fathom that."
MIKE SALK: "Is that a lesson you learned the hard way? Is that something that you learned early in your career, or from a coach, somebody that you worked under or is it just something you've always believed?"
BB: "Yeah, I couldn't see it any other way. I mean, how could you coach a team like that? I mean I don't even know...like, you explain to me, how do you coach a team like that? I mean, I don't know what you're talking about."
(Salk then tries to change the subject, but Belichick doesn't let him off the hook so easily)
MS: What do you think of Tom Brady...
BB: "Maybe you can help me out, I mean really. How do you coach them like that? You tell me."
MH: What? Coach a team to say, 'this team is going to fall apart?'
BB: "I don't know, you tell me what you're going to tell them. I mean..."
MH: If you're playing a bad team, I mean, it's tough to say, 'this team is capable of doing X, Y, Z, when the team is, let's say you're playing...
BB: "Yeah, like when we were 12-1 and went down to Miami and they were 1-12 or whatever it was? And they beat us Monday night in '04? Is that what you're talking about? Like it couldn't ever happen? Like what game are you...I mean, what game are we talking about here? I mean, I just don't understand it. I think it's...to me, that's just the most irresponsible thing I've ever heard of. I can't even fathom it."
Later on, Michael Holley asked him about his contract situation - which also went about as well as the above conversation did.
MH: There was a report out there, and we didn't talk to you about this last week - shame on us, a report that you extended your contract with the Patriots. Is that an accurate report?
BB: "I don't talk about my contract."
MH: Is it safe to say you're going to be here for a little bit?
BB: "I don't talk about my contract."
This was followed by nearly four seconds of complete silence, which you could tell was likely a stare down between Belichick and Holley before Salk jumped in and brought up the recent documentary about Lawrence Taylor that aired over the weekend, who as many people may know is one of Belichick's favorite topics and fortunately ate up five of the final seven minutes before they ended with a question submitted by a listener. However, Salk apparently knows that when things turn horribly wrong during a Belichick interview, bring up Lawrence Taylor. It was a nice save, but one of the more uncomfortable radio segments I've ever listened to. If the transcription didn't come off that way, feel free to listen to itand judge for yourself. Trust me - it was painful.
LOGAN RYAN RECEIVES PRAISE FROM BELICHICK
Rookie defensive back Logan Ryan was in on 20 defensive snaps on Sunday and seems to be making progress as he gets more comfortable in understanding New England's defense. On Monday Belichick said that Ryan played "competitively" and sounded pleased with what he's seen from him so far this season.
"He played competitively," said Belichick. "He played both inside and outside and also played in the kicking game. He’s working hard. A lot of guys had an opportunity to play yesterday, some more snaps than others, but I thought overall as a team that the players were ready to play. Overall they played hard and played at a competitive level. Yeah, definitely put him in that category."
DOWLING STILL POUNDING THE PAVEMENT:
After being released prior to the start of training camp, former defensive back Ras-I Dowling is still out of a job and is out there looking for work. According to Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post and Scout.com, Dowling recently tried out for the Kansas City Chiefs, although it's unclear if he was offered a contract. The former 33rd overall pick out of Virginia in 2011 by New England never could quite stay healthy as a member of the Patriots, and it was disappointing considering that he held so much promise. So far teams appear to be a little gun-shy on pulling the trigger, and as a result he's still unemployed.
ON TO THIS MORNING'S LINKS:
A quiet morning, but here are this morning's stories:
Zach Sudfeld keeps faith - Jeff Howe - Howe files his notebook this morning which leads off with a bit on rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld, who hasn't had much luck so far through three games catching a pass from Brady.
Rob Ninkovich takes deal as good sign - Mark Daniels - Daniels has a good article on Ninkovich, who lived out of a plastic bin out of the back of his car back when he was just a bubble player.
Aqib Talib's got it covered - Jeff Howe - Howe has an article this morning on Aqib Talib, who so far has done a solid job in New England's secondary.
Next Boston Athlete to get a statue? Tom Brady - Christopher Gasper - Gasper has a column this morning after noting several other athletes who have gotten their own statue in Boston and feels Brady is the next one deserving of the honor.
Patriots putting pressure on opposing passers - Rich Garven - Garven has a good article on New England's pass rush, and writes that the team now has, "a bona fide pass rush capable of flushing out, knocking around and bringing down opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis."