September 27, 2016

Lombardi: Patriots Will Franchise Cassel

Seemed almost like a throwaway line in the show, but on ShowTime’s Inside the NFL this week, Mike Lombardi, former GM of the Raiders and Browns (where he worked with Bill Belichick) and currently of the National Football Post, had this to say on the future of Matt Cassel:

(Could Matt Cassel play for the Jets):

LOMBARDI: The Patriots are way too smart, and I’ve talked to people in the organization. They are going to franchise Matt Cassel. He’s an asset and they can control their ability to trade him if they franchise him.

What’s unclear is whether Lombardi was told directly by someone in the Patriots organization that Cassel will be franchise, or if that was his impression after speaking with someone inside the team. Still, he seems very certain that this is going to happen.

Cassel being franchised certainly wouldn’t be a surprise, but hear Lombardi say he talked to people inside the team and that this is what they’re going to do is a bit newsworthy.

Link: Inside the NFL.

Groundhog Day

logoThe Cleveland Browns have sought and obtained permission to interview Scott Pioli, the Patriots’ Vice-President of Personnel, for their newly vacant GM job. Another off-season, another flurry of Pioli rumors.

Here’s something I’m wondering – if Pioli has truly been on the fence about leaving the Pats (which, by the way, would have been in abject contradiction to his public statements on the matter), how was former college scouting director Thomas Dimitroff allowed to bolt to the Falcons last year? He was the obvious successor to Pioli if the Pats’ personnel chief left to finally take his alleged “dream job” with (insert team name here).

I just assume that people – especially long-term colleagues – discuss these sorts of things, and that Dimitroff took the Atlanta job in part because he knew Pioli wasn’t going anywhere.  The Patriots couldn’t stand in his way because they knew they wouldn’t have a worthy job for him anytime soon. Did that change in just twelve months? Or is this just another round of “dream job” conjecture?

Given the recent loss of an obvious successor candidate in Dimitroff, it sure would be a kick in the pants for the Patriots if it wasn’t. I’d have to wonder why Pioli worked so hard to dismiss these rumors in the past.

In early 07, Pioli told WEEI:

“It comes down to quality of life and happiness. No disrespect to any other job opportunities that may have been out there or may come in the future, but you know what my dream job is? My dream job is being with people I care about, people that I want to work with, people that I enjoy coming to work with every day, whether it’s coaches or ownership or the players. We’ve built something here that is pretty special. Quality of life has more to do with being happy, coming to work every day, and winning. The other thing that’s paramount is we’re winning here. It’s a great situation, with a lot of great people, and I enjoy being here.”

At last year’s Super Bowl, reporters again asked Pioli about the challenge of running his own team:

“What’s wrong with this challenge?” Pioli said. “Why can’t the natural progression to be part of a team that is good as long as possible?”

“Sustained success is the most elusive thing in this sport … Why isn’t that a greater challenge?”

Has that resolve changed in just twelve months? Did the Patriots lose a long-term successor for just one more year of Pioli?

Or are reports that that the personnel chief “is very interested” in the Cleveland job just more of the same?

Shuffled Out Of Buffalo

Favre
fah-va-ruh
v. 1: To blow it. <Dude, I Favred my final exam.>
2: To screw someone over. <Somehow both Pats and Jets fans got Favred.>

Like Sunday’s blustery elements in Orchard Park, New York, this season remained out of the Patriots’ control. New England fans got the first half of what they needed, a 13-0 win by their team; the second half of their wish list went unanswered, as both the Jets and the Jaguars failed to beat the Dolphins and the Ravens, respectively. Thus, Miami took the AFC East crown while the Ravens nabbed the remaining wild card spot, leaving no room for the 11-5 Patriots.

Favre. v. 1: To complete fifty percent of your passes and throw three interceptions in your final game of an over-glorified season.

You know what? The Patriots won their last game of the year. Let’s appreciate that, at least for the next several paragraphs.

As they have for much of 2008, the Bills did the one thing they couldn’t, turning the ball over early in the second half. After Mike Vrabel recovered Jarvis Green’s strip sack of quarterback Trent Edwards on Buffalo’s 43, New England began the lone touchdown drive of the day.

Following both teams’ first-half game plans, the Patriots continued running against the wind (hey, unintentional Bob Seger reference). Sammy Morris (24 rushes, 85 yards) picked up a first down with two runs. LaMont Jordan (20 runs, 64 yards, one TD) came in for an eight-yard run. On third and one, Jordan got stopped for a loss by linebackers Kawika “Last-name-first” Mitchell and Paul “Way-too-many-consonants” Posluszny, but a well-executed fourth-down call saw Cassel fake the handoff and run up the middle for the necessary yardage (credit Jordan with a swell cut-block that helped clear a path).

I was going to describe the fourth-down play as “gutsy,” but with the way the previous field goal attempts had kited, going for it was the best choice. That decision looked even better on the ensuing fourth down, when Cassel threw a surprise pass against the wind to Wes Welker. Coming out of the three-receiver “bunch” formation, Welker ran an out toward the left sideline, took the pass and motored 12 yards to the two. From there, Jordan slid through a gap in the right side of the line to give the Pats a 10-0 lead with 4:39 left in the third, wrapping up a six-minute possession.

If 10-0 didn’t ice it, New England’s last scoring drive made this contest cooler than a woolly mammoth.  The Pats drove 80 yards to get Stephen Gostkowski within field goal range (and with the type of wind that sent Dorothy’s house to Munchkinland, that was no mean feat). In 15 plays, the visitors ran ten times (Morris eight, Jordan two) to take eight minutes off the clock bridging the third and fourth quarters. Cassel completed three of four passes, converting two key third downs (one an eight-yarder to Kevin Faulk, the other a 14-yarder to Welker). His last pass of the drive skimmed off Randy Moss’ fingertips in the end zone, leaving Gostkowski to boot the ball through the wind for a 23-yard field goal and the final, 13-0 advantage with 10:18 left.

The Bills’ fourth-quarter effort resembled most of my forays as a single man: fruitless and a little embarrassing. With almost seven minutes left, Buffalo faced a fourth and one at New England’s 39. Yes, Edwards had been passing well against a lessening wind (14 of 25, 128 yards), but the visiting defense had no answer for Fred Jackson (27 rushes, 136 yards). The home team needed one yard to continue the drive and increase the pressure.

They should have run it, right? I mean, wouldn’t you have run that thing? Instead, Coach Dick Jauron watched his QB’s pass veer to the right of Josh Reed. Patriots’ ball.

Compare that bit of futility to the Pats’ follow-up possession: Jordan ran twice for two yards, taking time off the clock. On third and eight from their own 41, Cassel punted. That’s right, he quick-kicked, sending the ball up into the waiting wind. With no returner back for the Bills, the gusts pushed it to the two-yard line. While most onlookers had sat wondering how to convert third down, Coach Bill Belichick and Co. had thought ahead. After all, if Buffalo boasted great special teams units, why not avoid them?

The Bills then went on a dentist’s-office drive, the kind that seemed to take forever and resulted in pain. They took 15 plays to get to New England’s 34, but on fourth and 10 Jerod Mayo sprinted around left end to corral Edwards on the right side after a one-yard gain. Two-and-a-half minutes later, the visitors had kept their post-season hopes breathing. At least until the Jets buried them in the Meadowlands.

 (Oh, Jets. We always knew you stunk, but did you have to prove it to us on this particular weekend?)

Because of the stakes, Pats/Bills had the feeling of a playoff game from the beginning. New England took the wind in the first quarter and stacked the box on defense, getting as many as nine defenders near the line of scrimmage. Despite this lineup, Jackson ran three straight times for four yards each carry, then busted upfield for a six-yarder on rush number four. Green figured prominently on the next two plays, stopping Jackson and then Xavier Omon for no gain (with help from Vince Wilfork and Junior Seau, respectively). The usually-golden foot of Brian Moorman could only muster a 13-yard punt, setting up the Pats at midfield.

New England didn’t make it easy early. Morris gained nine yards on two carries, but on third and one Jordan got swarmed for a loss, due in part to center Dan Koppen getting pushed back like a shopping cart. To make matters worse, the Pats’ decision to go for it on fourth down and two got negated by a Nick Kaczur false start. On the punt, New England had a huge opportunity when the ball touched Leodis McKelvin’s hand, but poorly-described “specialist” Matthew Slater failed to come up with it in the end zone.

When Jackson could only muster eight yards on three carries (credit linebackers Seau, Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin), the Patriots got the ball back on their own 37 to begin the opening scoring drive of the day. Cassel threw his first pass of the game to Heath Evans, who galloped to Buffalo’s 44. After Morris ran twice for 11 yards total, Evans caught another pass for 12 (with two catches for 31 yards, Evans was the team’s leading receiver). Unable to advance beyond the 15, New England called on Gostkowski to get three. He did, giving the visitors a 3-0 lead with three minutes left in the first quarter that felt disappointing at the time.

Any questions about the wind’s effects came to an end during Rian Lindell’s field goal attempt early in the second. Lindell’s 45-yard try started on a compensatory left slant; however, once the wind hit, it careened to the right like a clay pigeon. Gostkowski missed a kick of his own at the other end after a seven-minute possession.

Buffalo failed to take advantage of a drive late in the half when, with no timeouts, they ran the ball and couldn’t get the field goal unit ready in time for an attempt. The Patriots led 3-0 at halftime, with both sides believing they should have had more.

Defensively, New England had trouble getting off the field on third down again (Buffalo converted nine of 17), but the fourth-down stops and strip-sack made the difference. Green had two sacks to go with his five tackles. Old man Seau led with nine tackles, followed by James Sanders with eight and Mayo with seven. Had they determined earlier that it’s better to tackle Jackson low than go on a series of Nantucket Sleigh Rides, defensive backs Brandon Meriweather and Ellis Hobbs would have been more effective stopping the run. But I’m not complaining. It seems silly to complain after a shutout.

The Patriots needed to get younger on defense this year, and they did, at least until injuries forced them to call on Seau and Colvin (and possibly Pepper Johnson if it got any worse). Rookies Mayo, Gary Guyton and Jonathan Wilhite showed promise while youngsters Meriweather and Sanders continued to flourish. Throw in Vince Redd, Terence Wheatley and Pierre Woods (the latter two on IR), and next year’s roster has myriad possibilities. And that’s not even including three potential first-day draft picks.

We don’t know what will happen with Cassel. Wherever he plays, whether it’s Detroit, San Francisco, or even back in Foxboro, we should hope that he’s happy. And rich. Because when he was called to action in September, he delivered. Unlike a certain other quarterback.

Thank you to everyone at Patriots Daily for all their help in putting out a column just about every week. Keep watching this space for playoff and Pats’ off-season commentary. (Off-season. Ugh.)

Decision 2008: Threading the Needle

logoI know it’s been pretty quiet around here lately, but an occasion such as this warrants nothing less than continuous coverage from the PD news desk.

The Patriots, of course, have to beat Buffalo today and then watch helplessly as the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens decide New England’s playoff fate in two four o’clock games.

If the Jets hold off the onrushing Dolphins, the Patriots could end up as AFC East champs for a sixth consecutive season. That would give them the third seed and a home playoff game, likely against Baltimore, next week. On the other hand, the Pats can still get in even if Miami wins, but only if the Ravens cough up a fur ball against the failing Jaguars at home. That would put the Pats in sixth, and in Miami for wild card weekend.

I like that matchup, by the way.

I’m pessimistic it’s going to work out in the end for the Patriots, though. Miami and Baltimore – the two teams the Patriots need to lose – have the advantage of knowing a win puts them in. They’re not beholden to anyone else today, only themselves, and with that clarity comes strength, I think. I’d be surprised if they weren’t both completely confident and focused today. I’d be even more surprised if the Jets and Jaguars were.

As we’ve discussed before, the Patriots have nobody but themselves to blame for this predicament, but doesn’t it figure they’d be playing their best ball of the season just as they’re about to become the first 11-5 team to miss the playoffs since the league went to eight divisions? Even with all the injuries, you’d have to give the Pats a puncher’s chance if they made it to the tournament. The offense is rolling (they’ve hit 40 points in three of the last six games) and the special teams have rallied, creating field position advantages that even the Patriots defense could work with. Things have smoothed out a bit, and for the first time all year, the team has won three straight.

So even though I’m not feeling upbeat about the continuation of this most unusual of seasons, I’m going to hang in here today until the last door has been closed on them. I invite you to join in with your comments, after the jump.

[Read more…]

Playing Their Cards Right

logoPossibly keeping the holidays in mind, Arizona gave New England a 47-7 runaway victory. The Patriots’ gift to the Cardinals? A chance to rest their starters in the fourth quarter.

Arizona had a few conditions working against them, especially a wintry day more fit for reindeer than runners. Considering the Cards had already clinched their playoff spot atop the NFC West, they couldn’t have been too psyched. Add their 10-a.m.-Mountain-Time start, and you’ve got a nice little recipe for a Patriots victory. Served cold, of course.

The Patriots had to win to keep pace in the tight AFC East. Three teams began the day at 9-5. After Miami prevailed at Kansas City, the Jets stumbled through the Seattle snow, putting the Dolphins atop the division at 10-5 (ahead of New England with the tie-breaker). Now Pats fans find themselves in the awkward position of rooting for Brett Favre next week when Miami travels north. Strange league, this NFL.

Fans can debate the exact point when New England took control of this one, but the team’s field-goal drive late in the first half summarized the entire game. With 1:24 until halftime and everyone’s football cleats sliding like hockey pucks, the Patriots could have been content to run out the clock and keep their 28-0 lead intact.

They could have. But they didn’t.

Quarterback Matt Cassel (lest we forget, a former Matt Leinart backup) hit Jabar Gaffney twice on deep outs of 14 and 16 yards. He then found Wes Welker along the right sideline, where the mercurial mite sped ahead for 20. Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski came on to kick the first of his four field goals, the ball shaving the right upright to give the home team a 31-0 lead with two seconds remaining.

Cassel, who hit 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns, has kept his team in contention. Sure, you can argue the recent competition has been bush league (and low-lying bushes at that), but if you consider where he was three months ago, his work this season has been remarkable. My wish for Cassel this coming year: make a ton of money going to a team where you’ll start.

Just remember to have lackluster games vs. your old teammates.

Aided by a snowplow running game and a QB who seemed undisturbed by conditions, the Patriots scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. After Arizona’s opening three-and-out (all rushes, the third snuffed out by Mike Vrabel for a three-yard loss), New England took advantage of great field position. Welker (seven catches, 68 yards, one TD) had a 23-yard punt return to the Cardinal 33. Behind lineman Russ Hochstein at fullback, Sammy Morris (15 runs for 88 yards) ran four times for 26 yards. LaMont Jordan carried it twice for the final two yards and a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game. Jordan finished with two touchdowns on the day, with 20 rushes for 78 yards.

New England’s defense (and, okay, the elements) shut down Tim Hightower (10 rushes, 17 yards) and held Kurt Warner to 30 yards passing (six for 18). Arizona appeared to get a first down on their second possession, but an iffy illegal-hands-to-the-face call forced a third and long. Warner’s attempt fell incomplete, forcing the punt with seven minutes left in the first quarter.

On the ensuing drive, Morris gathered in a screen pass on the left side, eluded two tacklers, found his way to the right and followed Randy Moss along the sideline for 42 yards. From Arizona’s 14, Jordan carried three times and touched the end zone again, giving the home team a 14-0 lead at 3:46 of the first.After the Cardinals sandwiched the Patriots’ three-and-out with two of their own, Cassel needed only two passes to garner his first TD of the day. Out of the shotgun, he connected with Gaffney along the right seam, giving the receiver room to slash upfield for a total of 37 yards. Two plays later, Kevin Faulk scored on a 15-yard screen pass that seemed to develop at stalactitic speed. Escorted by Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen, Faulk high-stepped through a defender and scooted past a block by Gaffney for a 21-0 advantage with 12:04 left in the half.

Much like Juliet waking up to Romeo, Arizona’s signs of life came too late. The Cards got three first downs but failed to convert a fourth-down pass at New England’s 31. Plays of note on the following New England drive (really, it was turning into a highlight reel at this point) included a bruising Hochstein block that cleared Jordan for 11 yards up the middle; a clutch, leaping grab on third and 10 by Gaffney; and a 16-yard Cassel sprint on fourth and 10 to Arizona’s 14. On third and seven, Welker dragged across the field from left to right, snatched the ball at the six and accelerated into the end zone for a 28-0 lead with under two minutes left. No one even cared that Welker got a penalty for making a celebratory snow angel.

At least, no fans cared. The coach might be a different story.

The Cards gave the ball back in under 30 seconds, passing (and dropping) the ball three times in a row. Mike Wright rushed Warner on third down, forcing him to throw a screen to Edgerrin James before James was ready (it was probably just a drop, but we can be generous. It’s the holiday season). New England then took over for their field goal drive to finish up the half.

Patriots fans didn’t have to wait long for the biggest second-half highlight: on the first play from scrimmage, Moss took advantage of a freshly-plowed field (and a Mankins block) to find a clear path along the left sideline, flying past any and all Cardinals for a 76-yard TD. With their team leading 38-0, Gillette fans began polishing their snowman-building and/or scoreboard-watching skills.

Gostkowski’s third field goal late in the third quarter was his 33rd of the year, setting a record for a Patriots season. (The previous record holder? Tony Franklin, the barefoot kicker who always looked like he’d just rolled off his La-Z-Boy five minutes before the game. Not the first record-holding kicker to come to mind, but there you go.)

On defense, Junior Seau and Jerod Mayo led the Pats with seven tackles each (setting what must be a record for co-leading-tackler age difference). Mayo and Meriweather each forced a fumble, Meriweather’s coming on a carbon-copy blitz of the game-deciding play against Seattle two weeks ago. (Also blitzing on that play: rookie utilityman Matthew Slater playing safety. Thought you might want to know that.) During a day when the visitors searched for any sign of intensity, New England had all of it from the start.

That bodes well for the playoffs. Put them on your wish list, and have a Happy Holiday.

Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

College Scout – Bowl Edition

logoIn this final column of the season, we’ll look at the top 5 Bowl-bound senior draft prospects at each position. Then we will also look at a player or two at each position who may be Patriots-type picks next spring. We hope you find it interesting and valuable as the Bowl season descends upon us. Thank you for another year of readership and Patriots Daily will be on the scene as usual with Combine and Draft coverage when those events come around.

Quarterback

1. Graham Harrell, Texas Tech, #6 (Cotton Bowl vs. Ole Miss, 2PM FOX January 2nd)

2. Tom Brandstater, Fresno State, #7 (New Mexico Bowl vs. Colorado St., 2:30PM ESPN December 20th)

3. Cullen Harper, Clemson, #10 (Gator Bowl vs. Nebraska, 1:00 PM CBS January 1st)

4. Drew Willy, Buffalo, #16 (International Bowl vs. Connecticut, Noon ESPN January 3rd)

5. Mike Teel, Rutgers, #14 (Birmingham Bowl vs. North Carolina State, 3:00 PM ESPN December 29th)

Patriots potentialJohn Parker Wilson, Alabama, #14 (Sugar Bowl vs. Utah, 8:00 PM FOX January 2nd). Wilson is a smart leader who makes few mistakes. His arm has improved and he is accurate. Has been a great game manager for Belichick friend Nick Saban. With Matt Cassel moving on, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they look for a mid-round quarterback again and Wilson could be a guy who fits their offense.

Running Back

1. Andre Brown, North Carolina State, #24 (Birmingham Bowl vs. Rutgers, 3:00 PM ESPN December 29th)

2. James Davis, Clemson, #1 (Gator Bowl vs. Nebraska, 1:00 PM CBS January 1st)

3. Jeremiah Johnson, Oregon #24 (Holiday Bowl vs. Oklahoma State 8:00 ESPN December 30th)

4. Ian Johnson, Boise State, #41 (Poinsettia Bowl vs. TCU, 8:00 PM ESPN December 23rd)

5. Javon Ringer, Michigan State, #23 (Capital One Bowl vs. Georgia, 1:00 PM ABC January 1st)

Patriots potential – I like a kid out of South Florida named Ben Williams (#30), who was originally a walk on. He does it all – runs, blocks and catches. Only 5’7″, Williams is most likely a late round pick, but he is a good player and could be a sleeper the Pats find undrafted or in the last round or two. Along those lines, I also like Kestahn Moore (#33) from Florida. Moore is a rugged bruiser of a runner who is somewhat miscast in Florida’s spread offense. I think he could be a solid role player in the NFL and perhaps a better player there than at Florida, where he has been surpassed by speedier, spread type backs. But he has talent, which is how he ended up at Florida to begin with, and could be a great late round sleeper.

Wide Receiver

1. Juaquin Iglesias, Oklahoma, #9 (BCS Championship Game vs. Florida, 8:00 PM FOX January 8th)

2. Mohamed Massaquoi, Georgia, #1 (Capital One Bowl vs. Michigan State, 1:00 PM ABC January 1st)

3. Louis Murphy, Florida, #9 (BCS Championship Game vs. Oklahoma, 8:00 PM FOX January 8th)

4. Derrick Williams, Penn State, #2 (Rose Bowl vs. USC, 4:30 PM ABC January 1st)

5. Jordon Shipley, Texas, #8 (Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State, 8:00 PM FOX January 5th)

Patriots potentialAndy Brodell from Iowa, #80, has great speed, can return kicks, cover kicks and is a great playmaker on offense. He has had some injuries, but he’s a tough, good player who has played for Belichick friend Kirk Ferentz.

Tight End

1. Chase Coffman, Missouri, #45 (Alamo Bowl vs. Northwestern, 8:00 PM ESPN December 29th)

2. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State, #8 (Holiday Bowl vs. Oregon, 8:00 ESPN December 30th)

3. Bear Pascoe, Fresno State, #85 (New Mexico Bowl vs. Colorado St., 2:30PM ESPN December 20th)

4. Nick Walker, Alabama, #88 (Sugar Bowl vs. Utah, 8:00 PM FOX January 2nd)

5. Dan Gronkowski, Maryland, #13 (Humanitarian Bowl vs. Nevada, 4:30 PM ESPN December 30th)

Patriots potentialBrandon Pettigrew. A talented, all-around player. As a receiver, Coffman reminds me somewhat of Jets rookie Dustin Keller. But I would think the Patriots would want a better blocker than Keller, pointing them towards Pettigrew, a massive 260 lb. guy who can run.

Offensive Line

1. C Alex Mack, California, #51 (Emerald Bowl vs. Miami, 8:00 PM ESPN December 27th)

2. G Duke Robinson, Oklahoma, #72 (BCS Championship Game vs. Florida, 8:00 PM FOX January 8th)

3. G Herman Johnson, LSU, #79 (Peach Bowl vs. Georgia Tech, 7:30 ESPN December 31st)

4. T Michael Oher, Mississippi, #74 (Cotton Bowl vs. Texas Tech, 2PM FOX January 2nd)

5. T Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma, #79 (BCS Championship Game vs. Florida, 8:00 PM FOX January 8th)

Patriots potential - Antoine Caldwell from Alabama, #51, who, as mentioned above, plays in the Sugar Bowl this year. A center, he is the anchor of the tough Alabama line and a smart, strong player.

Defensive Line

1. Tyson Jackson, LSU, #93 (Peach Bowl vs. Georgia Tech, 7:30 ESPN December 31st)

2. Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech, #93 (Peach Bowl vs. LSU, 7:30 ESPN December 31st)

3. B.J. Raji, Boston College, #90 (Music City Bowl vs. Vanderbilt 3:30 ESPN December 31st)

4. Fili Moala, USC, #75 (Rose Bowl vs. Penn State, 4:30 PM ABC January 1st)

5. Mitch King, Iowa, #47 (Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina, 11:00 AM ESPN January 1st)

Patriots potential - Mitch King. Undersized and doesn’t really fit the Patriots system, but he’s such a good player they may try to convert him to linebacker, which he played in high school. Plays tackle at Iowa at 260 lbs. Relentless player who plays with a motor unlike anyone I have seen in college since Dan Klecko. But King is a better athlete than Klecko, so he could perhaps convert to linebacker. I think he’ll be a good player for someone in the NFL.

Linebackers

1. Rey Maualuga, USC, #58 (Rose Bowl vs. Penn State, 4:30 PM ABC January 1st)

2. Aaron Curry, Wake Forest, #59 (Congressional Bowl vs. Navy, 11:00 AM ESPN December 20th)

3. James Laurinatis, Ohio State, #33 (Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas, 8:00 PM FOX January 5th)

4. Brian Cushing, USC, #10 (Rose Bowl vs. Penn State, 4:30 PM ABC January 1st)

5. Marcus Freeman, Ohio State, #1, (Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas, 8:00 PM FOX January 5th)

Patriots potentialConnor Barwin from Cincinnati, #5, who plays in the Orange Bowl at 8:00 PM on FOX against Virginia Tech. The athletic Barwin is a converted tight end who just moved to defensive end this year. Reminds me of Mike Vrabel and could be great in the Patriots 3-4.

Defensive Backs

1. Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State, #2 (Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas, 8:00 PM FOX January 5th)

2. Alphonso Smith, Wake Forest, #2 (Congressional Bowl vs. Navy, 11:00 AM ESPN December 20th)

3. William Moore, Missouri, #1 (Alamo Bowl vs. Northwestern, 8:00 PM ESPN December 29th)

4. Patrick Chung, Oregon, #15, (Holiday Bowl vs. Oklahoma State 8:00 ESPN December 30th)

5. Michael Hamlin, Clemson, #25 (Gator Bowl vs. Nebraska, 1:00 PM CBS January 1st)

Patriots potentialBrandon Hughes from Oregon State, #36. A play-making slot corner who is smart and plays hard. He will help the Beavers face off with Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl on December 31st at 2:00 PM on CBS.

Greg Doyle’s ‘College Scout’ appears weekly on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

Patriots Daily Buffet Table – Patriots vs. Cardinals

logoI’m not surprised that this game features a team that has sewn up its division and a team that is still fighting for its playoff life. I am surprised by which one ended up being the Patriots.

Well, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Patriots have shut down a high powered offense lead by Kurt Warner. Of course this Patriots team isn’t quite like the 2001 team, but hopefully on Sunday it will be close enough.

In the spirit of close enough, Arizona isn’t exactly Mexico, but today on the Buffet Table its close enough.

Patriots Daily Buffet Table Mole Chicken Enchiladas

Moles are a family of traditional Mexican sauces. The one most people know is guacamole, avacado mole. For this recipe we’ll use a poblano mole. Poblano mole is made with chocolate, nuts, spices, salt, garlic and any number of other ingredients.

Moles take a long time to simmer and come together. I don’t have the time to do that during Patriots season and I doubt you do either, so we will be using a jarred mole. These are available in the Mexican aisle of any large supermarket.

Serves 6

1 jar Mole Sauce, it will either say Mole or Poblano mole
12 ounces water, beer or other liquid
3 pounds chicken tenderloins
12 tortillas
1.5 tsp garlic powder
1.5 tsp paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp salt
Olive oil
Onion – sliced
Lettuce – chopped
Tomato – sliced
12 ounces shredded mozzarella, queso fresco would be more authentic but it is harder to find
Other: disposable aluminum pan

Combine the garlic powder, paprika, cayenne and salt. Sprinkle the chicken tenderloins with the spice mix.

Heat one side of the grill to hot, 400 degrees. Coat the aluminum pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Empty the jar of mole into the aluminum pan, mix with the water and allow the mole to melt over indirect heat. This can take up to 30 minutes depending on the mole and how well you mix it with the water.

Once the mole has melted, grill the chicken tenderloins, 4 minutes per side. Remove from heat. Add them to the pan with the mole and coat.

Coat the onion slices with olive oil and place them over direct heat. Cook for 4 minutes, flipping the onions halfway through.

Now remove the pan filled with the mole, and turn the heat on for all of your grill. Lay out the tortillas and allow to warm through. They’ll take 3 minutes, 90 seconds per side.

Fill each tortilla with 2 chicken tenderloins and roll them up. Place the rolled tortillas into the pan, place them close enough to the sides and each other so that the tortillas will not unroll.

Once all of the tortillas and chicken have been rolled, sprinkle the pan with the mozzarella cheese (or the queso fresco if you can find some). Allow to heat until the cheese has melted.

Plate with the chopped lettuce, sliced onions, and sliced tomatoes for toppings.

Time for a Drink!

To go with our Mexican enchiladas we’ll be drinking one of the Mexican beer styles, the Vienna Lager. Why is a Mexican beer style named after a city in Austria? That’s because the style originated in Austria, where it has almost died out. German and Austrian brewers who had settled and started breweries in Mexico never stopped brewing Vienna Lagers and they kept the style alive.

Vienna Lager is one of my favorite beer styles. It is incredibly drinkable. It is neither too hoppy and bitter, nor too sweet and malty. It isn’t too light or too heavy in flavor, too strong or too weak in alcohol percentage. Vienna Lager is one of the great balanced beers in the world.

Expect this balance to continue throughout the beer. Carbonation is moderate. Flavors range towards toasted and bready malt flavors rather than heavier roasted or sweet.

Hops are present, but not in an overwhelming way, and those that are there are from the spicy and floral ‘noble’ varieties.

The most widely available Vienna Lager is Sam Adams Boston Lager. Not all sources agree, as some list Boston Lager as a Pilsner. It does split the styles as its color is as dark as a Vienna Lager, but it has the level of bitterness usually found in a Pilsner. It is still close enough to style to get an idea of what a Vienna Lager is about. Sam Adams did make a truer to style version, simply called Vienna Lager, up to a few years ago but it has been phased out.

Smuttynose Portsmouth Lager is closer to style and a great beer. Also from New England is Pennichuck 2-6-0 (PDF). 

Blue Point Brewing from Long Island offers Toasted Lager. They do not list it as a Vienna Lager, but although some of the ingredients aren’t traditional for a Vienna, I believe it belongs in the style.

The two most widely distributed Mexican options are Dos Equis Amber and Negra Modelo They share a few common characteristics, such as tending towards the sweet side of the style and having useless websites. Drinking a Sam Adams Boston Lager and a Negra Modelo will show you the entire breadth of Vienna Lagers.

Chef’s ‘Buffet Table’ appears before every Patriots home game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

Pore JP Is Daid

logo“Falling on a Knife” must have been a real health concern in Oscar Hammerstein’s old neighborhood. Whenever the legendary librettist needed a quick character exit, but without implicating another, falling on a knife was the literary device of choice. Jud Fry? Billy Bigelow? Both dead by self-shiv.

The point being, as an NFL starting quarterback, JP Losman has a great future in musical theater.

The adjective doesn’t exist to truly describe the level of incompetence beheld in that one play Sunday, when Losman mindlessly fumbled the game away against the Jets when most any other option would give the Bills the win.

It was mind-boggling, incomprehensible, unbelievable, and yet so dramatic and so brutally idiotic, it felt predictable.

Right after the play, Pats fans expressed their disgust, collectively thinking we knew we couldn’t count on the Bills. And a Bills fan buddy told his wife moments before the play, “Watch. We’re still going to lose this game.”

There are these times in sports when we forget what we’re watching is live, and more prone to havoc than we realize. We watch football games with an expectation of order, that the game should go in an orderly fashion according to plan. Plays should be executed as drawn up, and any result outside of that plan – fumbles, interceptions, special teams touchdowns – are shocks to the system, even though we see these things in every game we watch. The irony is the unexpected is what keeps us watching every week.

Compound that with the sports movie glory collections in our heads (Jimmy Chitwood making the last-second shot, Roy Hobbs hitting the home run in the ninth – author Bernard Malamud had him striking out, incidentally), and it’s a wonder our synapses know at which points during a game they should fire.

The end product is a muddle where any result is one we saw coming.

So Losman’s fumble, then, was both a surprise and par for the course. Bill Belichick would probably describe it as a “football play.”

What’s more difficult is apportioning blame. Losman gets a lion’s share, of course. You don’t go that many years in the league with as much as experience as he’s had to blank out in execution.

Many want Bills coach Dick Jauron’s head on a platter as well, a sentiment emboldened with the news his contract was extended. But the call really wasn’t that bad. The two-minute warning was going to stop the clock anyway, so all Jauron was doing was trusting that the guy he had throw 32 times in the previous 58 minutes would know what to do in this situation.

The play has drawn comparisons to the notorious Joe Pisarcik fumble, except fans are clamoring that the Bills should have called the same play now that got Pisarcik in trouble in ’78. No play is 100 percent safe. Belichick probably would have described the Pisarcik gaffe as a “football play” as well.

This was nothing more than Jud Losman falling on his own knife. Unfortunately for the Patriots, it increased the chances the fat lady would soon be singing.

Dan Snapp’s ‘Direct Snapp’ appears weekly on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

Ex-Raided

logoFirst, the good news: the Patriots’ 49-26 dismantling of the Raiders on a rainy day in Oakland kept them in the hunt for post-season play. New England scored touchdowns on their first four possessions, racing out to a 28-7 lead early in the second quarter, largely due to quarterback Matt Cassel (18 for 30 passing, 218 yards, four touchdowns, one Benjamin-Watson-tipped interception). The Pats had 487 total yards of offense.

This game was almost the opposite of last week’s tense-off at Seattle. When the Patriots went up 42-14 at the beginning of the third, fans sat back and sighed in relief. New England stayed in contention with a 9-5 record, nominally tied atop the AFC East.

Now let’s get the bad news out of the way. The Pats lost two more players to injury (tackle Matt Light, linebacker Gary Guyton) during this game, which could impact future contests. Meanwhile, the Jets won this week thanks to Buffalo putting the game in quarterback J. P. “Loose Cannon” Losman’s hands, even though running back Marshawn Lynch averaged over six yards a carry. With 2:06 remaining, Losman dropped back, got sacked, and fumbled. Sean Ellis recovered and scored the game-winner. Nice work there, Buff.

Miami, meanwhile, took care of San Francisco, 14-9. Among myriad other scenarios, New Englanders find themselves hoping for a Jets loss to Seattle next week and a Miami loss to New York in Week 17. And maybe a scandal involving Brett Favre, but let’s not get all greedy.

This is hard to say, but someone must: the Patriots as currently constructed would have a hard time beating Boston University’s football team, much less a bunch of professionals. (For those of you who don’t know much about B. U. football, here’s some history. You see my point.)

One play showed fans how steep this uphill climb could be. With 5:45 remaining in the third quarter, Raider Darren McFadden swept to his right. Linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau (they of the formerly retired set) seemed in decent position to make the tackle, but McFadden ran around them like a deer past a couple of tree stumps. Twelve yards, first down. Oakland scored two plays later on what was quite possibly the best pass of quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s career, a fade to Ronald Curry in the right corner of the end zone past (seriously, this is true) Ellis Hobbs.

Now, as a New England fan, you’re saying, “Hold on, there! You can’t count a third-quarter score against them! The game was decided! These guys just need some work!”

First off: stop yelling. I can’t hear you. Second: one team can only take so much. Guyton is a solid cover linebacker (there’s a reason Oakland had success with those short passes to McFadden: three for 68 yards); Light is their starting left tackle (though Mark LeVoir stepped in well). James Sanders is out. Tedy Bruschi is out. When you think about it, it’s actually kind of amazing this team has nine wins.

But enough with the negative stuff. Much praise goes to Cassel, who overcame personal tragedy to have a remarkable game. Any questions on how his father’s death would affect him were answered on the Patriots’ first possession. Starting at Oakland’s 40 after a three-and-out and 14-yard punt return by Kevin Faulk, New England mixed passes with runs by Sammy Morris (14 for 117 yards, one TD) and Kevin Faulk (six rushes for 45 yards, six catches for 66 and the TD I’m about to mention). Cassel converted three third downs, the first two on respective 16- and seven-yarders to Wes Welker (six catches, 69 yards, one TD). On third and goal, Cassel hit Faulk from seven yards out, the running back crossing from right to left. Faulk ditched his man at the five and picked up a block by Welker to find wide-open spaces and a 7-0 Patriots lead less than five minutes into the game.

The visitors benefited from a 26-yard punt to start their next possession at Oakland’s 35. Morris broke for 15 yards up the middle. Two plays later, Cassel stepped up in the pocket to avoid the pass rush and threaded a line drive to Randy Moss near the left pylon, with Moss beating safety Rashad Baker on the play (Moss totalled five grabs for 67 yards and two touchdowns). Up 14-0, New England still had almost eight minutes left in the first quarter.

After their third consecutive three and out, the home team watched their guests embark on a nine-play drive to take a 21-0 lead. Cassel’s passing, Morris’ running and Oakland’s rule-breaking (16 yards on a holding penalty by  – watch spellcheck go nuts – Nnamdi Asomugha) got the Patriots to the Raider 29-yard-line. From there, Morris started up the middle, took a swift right turn and cut upfield past sliding cornerback Chris Johnson for the touchdown. With 3:43 left in the first quarter, the Pats had a 21-0 lead as Oakland fans looked at themselves in their over-the-top costumes and gained a brief, shocking moment of self-awareness.

(I’m just kidding. That never happened. Those crazy S.O.B.’s still wear makeup and plastic skulls, even though their team hasn’t finished .500 in forever. God bless ‘em.)

In the midst of the downpour, both teams’ defenders started acting as if they were playing on a Slip ‘N Slide. Hobbs became victim to the conditions, falling down as Johnny Lee Higgins took a short pass and cut up the sideline for 56 yards and the touchdown. New England blitzed on the play, demonstrating once again why the coaches are hesitant to send extra defenders after the opposing team’s QB. It didn’t help that Hobbs was only slightly closer to Higgins than Pats fans were as they watched from the East Coast.

For all the excitement the first quarter provided, the beginning of the second quarter saw three TDs scored in 33 seconds. Cassel finished off a seven-play, three-minute drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Welker. Up 28-7, the Pats looked like they could cruise to the win, but Oakland’s Justin Miller ran back the ensuing kickoff for 91 yards to cut the lead to 28-14. Hobbs played copycat, returning the following Raiders’ kick for a 95-yard TD and a more comfy 35-14 score.

The QBs traded interceptions before the half. Cassel’s came on the aforementioned tipped ball by Watson that would have given them a first down deep in Oakland territory. Rookie Jonathan Wilhite picked off Russell at the one-yard line three minutes later. New England looked to add a late field goal in the final seconds but an illegal motion penalty and subsequent clock runoff prevented them from doing so.

The Patriots’ ineffective end of the first half got overshadowed by their scoring drive to open the second. After Cassel threw two consecutive passes to Moss, Morris took a handoff left, shuffled to the middle, found some daylight and plowed ahead for a total of 35 yards inside Oakland’s 10. Cassel then found Moss working his way from left to right at the back of the end zone: touchdown, Pats, 42-14 at 11:36 in the third.

Both rain and an appreciation of the inevitable made the rest of this one sloppy. The Raiders sandwiched two touchdowns around the final Patriots score, a LaMont Jordan “Remember Me, Oakland?” 49-yard rumble to the right side behind solid blocking (including a surprisingly effective kickout by tight end David Thomas).

So, where does this win put the Pats? For the next six days, pundits and warblers alike will discuss the probability of New England making the playoffs. Maybe this team won’t get any help from others, and maybe they’ll end up as the only 11-5 squad to miss the postseason. Considering most of us figured this year had swirled around the bowl eight minutes in, it’s nice to think that at least New England has a chance.  

Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

Anything’s Possible

logoI was just thinking that for all the regret recently expressed in the space regarding the Patriots’ playoff chances, they could still end today in control of the AFC East lead with two games left. Upsets by the Bills and 49’ers in the Meadowlands and Miami respectively, combined with a New England victory in Oakland, would place the Patriots’ destiny back in their own hands and leave the Jets and Dolphins with one eye on the scoreboard over the next two weeks.

Anything’s possible.

Thanks to some sound TV programming, those of us in New England will be able to watch that dream slowly die today as the local CBS affiliates offer Bills-Jets at 1:00 while FOX counters with Niners-Dolphins. Better put some fresh AA’s in the remote.

Speaking of three-way ties in the AFCE; the first tiebreaker in that event is the best winning percentage in games played between the clubs (the Jets currently lead that one, 2-1, over the 2-2 Pats and the 1-2 Dolphins). Which brings me to this morning’s strange but true fact – so far, every one of those five wins by the AFCE rivals has come in the other teams’stadium.

The Jets lost to the Patriots at home but vanquished them on the road. The Pats beat the Dolphins in Miami after getting crushed by the Fins in Foxborough. New York began its season with a victory in Dolphin Stadium; it will close it (maybe for good) by hosting Miami at the Meadowlands in Week Seventeen. Will the trend hold, or will the Jets become the only one of the three to win a head-to-head game at home?

Regarding possible trends – the last time the Pats traveled West for a two-game swing, they won a surprisingly close game in the first week before getting absolutely croaked on the back half of the trip. I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little paranoid about that today.

Rich Gannon, once a Patriots draftee (I guess he was right about not playing defensive back), will handle the color on today’s CBS broadcast from Oakland. Did you see the bit he did with Mike Reiss this week? His response to Reiss’s Snow Bowl question (“We had a chance to put that thing away at the end, offensively. If we converted a first down, the game was over.”) is a treat after seven years of Tuck Rule junk. That too-convenient catchphrase never told the whole story of what decided that game.

That must have been one hell of a shot to the jaw of Patriots LB Pierre Woods two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. It ended his season this week when the Pats put him on IR. All due respect to the pain he must still be in, but it would be hard to say that Woods did anything special with the opportunity he got after Adalius Thomas went down. I like Woods; he’s made himself a good special teams player and the experience he got as a defensive starter this year can’t hurt his employment prospects down the line.  I don’t think we ought to hold our breath waiting for him to bust loose though. The Patriots are going to need much better players if they’re going to stop their slide on defense.

The patchwork unit that resulted from the cumulative losses of Thomas, Woods, Ty Warren, Tedy Bruschi, James Sanders and Vince Wilfork ended up outperforming its predecessors in last weekend’s win over Seattle, however. They were one freak play (courtesy of Deion Branch) from shutting out the Seahawks in the second half. Hey, don’t laugh – it may have been this season’s defensive high water mark. They even forced a game-deciding turnover, suggesting once again that anything’s possible, even for this Patriots defense.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see if the possible return of Wilfork and Warren today will continue the forward momentum for a defense that most of us wrote off weeks ago.

Last thought – it would be a shame if CBS used the death of a player’s father to pump up some formulaic storyline today. Just let the guy do his job without exploiting what should be private in the first place.

The good news is that Jim Nantz is in Baltimore to call the Steelers-Ravens. Moment averted.

Scott Benson is the Editor and Co-Founder of Patriots Daily. He can be reached at [email protected].

No One Circles The Wagons Like…

logoWe interrupt your normally scheduled Line ‘Em Up preview of the somewhat resurgent Oakland Raiders to bring you this special presentation of the New England Patriots Playoff Scenario for Week #15.

Two weeks ago, the national pundits (isn’t it interesting that the word pun is included in these so-called knowledgeable authorities’ titles) were ready to crown the Jets as the heir apparent to the AFC Champs (even ahead of the one-loss Titans).  Then, the titanic defensive powerhouse Denver Broncos and the offensive juggernaut San Francisco 49ers came along and destroyed that misconception.  Broadway Brett threw less than 400 yds total with no TDs and two picks.  It’s was nice to see that the Hayseed Dixie finally made his appearance in Gotham.  The Jets are so mired in bad vibes that WR Laveranues Coles is coming off like TO’s little bro.

Two weeks ago, the Miami Dolphins lost to the Pats and were just happy to not be the Detroit Lions.  Plus, they’re responsible for spurring on the latest wrinkle in the NFL a.k.a. the Wildcat offense.   Now, after beating downtrodden teams like St. Louis and Buffalo, the Fish received their Christmas present early – otherwise known as hope.  And hope is a dangerous thing in inexperienced hands like Miami.

And of course, I’m sure that everyone is well aware of the highs (comeback against the hapless Seahawks, Cassel’s bounce back from Pittsburgh) and lows (Pittsburgh game, more injured defensive starters, death of Cassel’s father) in the past two weeks for the New England Patriots.  Their 1-1 record seemed to reflect these up and down emotions.

What is left is a three game race to the end of the season for the AFC East title and quite possibly the only available playoff spot for these three teams. In a NFL season full of questions both on and off the field, the one that matters most to Patriots fans is: 

How the hell are they gonna make the playoffs?

As you’ve read from Scott’s solid analysis in previous weeks here at Patriots Daily, New England no longer controls their own fate and will need more than a little help from its AFC opponents to even find themselves in the conversation of an AFC East title as well as the one word Jim Mora, Sr. probably still hears in his sleep (or at least on those Coors Light commercials). Since the Jets and Miami play each other at the end of the season, there is no way for all three teams to win out the remaining three games.

So, to get everyone a proper dose of reality, here is a proper breakdown of just the AFC East battle for the regular season championship.

[Read more…]

A Long December

logoIt’s a long December, and there’s no reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

To be fair, it would be hard to top last year, with the AFC East clinched right after Thanksgiving, a first round bye secured two weeks later, and home field advantage wrapped up and under the tree with a whole seven shopping days left before Christmas.

Still, there’s a certain hollow feeling to this season’s remaining games, even though the Patriots are in a pennant race as the first perceptible snow flies. This year, the snow blankets ground already frozen by the fearful suspicion that the most pivotal games of the Patriots’ season lie not before them, but behind them.

Their inability to control those games leaves them with precious little control now, starting with a needed four-game winning streak when more than two has proven too much for them since a limping Tom Brady disappeared down the stairs and ill winds first began to blow on their season, even in the warm September sun. 

Lately I’ve been thinking of days when an 8-5 record and a shot at the playoffs would have put an extra buzz in the holiday air, in amongst the Salvation Army bells and ubiquitous Christmas music, and added an extra dash of anticipation to days that are, after all, about little else.

Seems quaint now, with all that’s transpired since, when we learned first-hand that football miracles aren’t gifted as much as they’re earned. That they’re guided by mortal, not divine, forces. That there are no miracles at all; just stone-cold truth.

That truth isn’t kind to these 2008 Patriots, who found a way to lose critical matchups to the Colts and Jets before crumbling to the Steelers on their own field. Now, all three are playoff seeds as we speak. If the Pats had won just one, or even two, which they could have…this will be our lament.

Thing is, even with losing Brady and Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas and God knows who else, the Patriots could be right in the thick of this if they – and you know this – weren’t more prone to plugging themselves than Plaxico Burress.

Seriously, what’s so impenetrable about the rest of the AFC? I admire the Titans’ mastery of the regular season, but they’ve had good teams that have lost in the playoffs before. In other words, show me. The rest of them? The Steelers and Colts have their charms, but their curses as well. The Jets, the Dolphins or Broncos? For the Super Bowl? Come on, now.

I maintain that opportunity knocked this season for the Patriots, even in their deeply debilitated state, and they fumbled with the doorknob, with phantom fumbles and sure-touchdown drops and pass rushes in hardening cement and blown coverages on a whole lot of third and fifteens.

The plays were there. They’re gone now, and only a long December remains.

[Read more…]