October 1, 2016

Patriots Buffet Table – Bills at Patriots

By Patriots Daily Kitchen Staff

New Years has arrived and with it the end of the regular season. For this special event we’re going to change up the normal format and present a review of the new breweries to open in New England during 2011. In some cases we may include breweries founded in 2010. Founding date and date the beer is first available can be many months apart, so there isn’t a reason to be too strict about this. Also outside Mass and Maine we may have to stretch the definition a bit. Final note, these are distributing breweries, not new brewpubs.

Some of these are draft only, or have limited distribution. With time they’ll be available in more and more places. So if you don’t see them around now, just wait.

What to eat?

We’re still going to need to eat right? Lets turn the Buffalo classic buffalo wing into a dip.

Buffalo Chicken Dip
1 bottle chunky blue cheese dressing, 12ish ounces
1 bottle Frank’s Buffalo Wing sauce, 12ish ounces
or your favorite buffalo wing sauce
1 stick cream cheese, 8 ounces
1 pack shredded cheddar cheese, 12 to 16 ounces
2 cans chicken, 10 ounces each

Yes if you want to do needless work, you could grill, steam or fry chicken breasts and shred them.

Combine everything and cook in crockpot on high for an hour, turn down to warm. If heated too long and it separates just stir until it combines.

What to drink … from 2011?

Starting with Massachusetts

Slumbrew opened in Somerville. The first three releases are all in 22 ounce bottles: Flagraiser IPA, it’s a 7.5% ABV IPA hopped to 80 IBU with mainly Galaxy hops. An Australian type that is fairly uncommon in the United States. Tastes of citrus and passionfruit. Happy Sol, is their hefeweizen brewed with a truckload of Blood Oranges. 5.5% ABV and something I’d drink a few times during the summer. Porter Square Porter, is a 6.5% ABV Oatmeal-Milk-Chocolate Porter. (dry hopped with Taza Chocolate Nibs)

Mystic Brewing is a new specialty brewer located in Chelsea. Their beers tend towards Belgian traditions, using harvested microflora and wood barrels. They brew at local breweries and then bring the unfermented beer, called wort, back to their facility for fermentation. Available in 750ml bottles, and on draft. Prices are high, not as high as similar imports, but higher than you’d pay for an everyday beer. Mystic Saison is the flagship. 7% ABV. Saisons are all different as it’s one of the most open ended styles of beer. If you’ve had a Saison Dupont you’ll have a general idea what you’re getting here. Just don’t expect two saisons to be as similar as say IPAs or Stouts from 2 different breweries. There was also a wine barrel aged version available for a short time. Mystic Descendent is the other beer I’ve seen. Truly it’s own creation. They call it a Suffolk Dark Ale, the idea behind it being a Boston-Belgian-Stout- Porter thing. I’d call it a Dark Saison, saison is that widely defined. Also 7%. They also have a beer, or malt cordial called Entropy. I haven’t seen this one, but the brewery considers it their answer for Cognac. With Saison being their white wine, and Descendent their red.

Idle Hands Craft Ales is a new nanobrewery from Everett. A nanobrewery is a craft brewer that produces less than 5 and for most it’s less than 3 barrels at a time. We also have Idle Hands to thank for reversing a ridiculous decision handed down by the state alcohol commission that would have revoked most brewers licenses in the state. Pandora is their Belgian Pale Ale, and flagship beer. 6% and the only set beer in their lineup so far. With nanobreweries different beers tend to come and go at a fast pace. They’ve also made Patriarch, a Patersbier styled after the Abbey Singles usually available only inside monasteries and not sold for outside consumption like Dubbels and Triples. Cognition, a dark beer that could also be called an Abbey Single, but more likely a tafelbier or table beer. And a witbier named Brevity is in the works. As you can see they’re also brewing on the Belgian model. Compared to the farmhouse traditions Mystic is using, Idle Hands is trending more towards the monastic traditions.

Taking a break from those new Belgian styled Breweries. Next is Blatant Brewery. Blatant brews out of the Just Beer facilities in Westport. Tenant, alternating propreitorship, wandering, gypsy whatever name is attached by the TTB and the brewery these arrangements have become more common. All we need to know is Brewery A has more capacity than they need, Brewery B buys up, or coowns or whatever that capacity and uses it. Blatants first two beers have been: Blatant IPA, an American IPA at 6.5% ABV and 65 IBU. Blatant Session, sort of an American version of a British Bitter. 3.9% ABV balanced by 22 IBUs means you can drink a lot of it. 22 IBU may not seem like much compared to the IPA number, but you’ll taste it in a lower ABV beer. Blatant beers are on draft only at this point.

Wandering Star finally became operational in 2011. Located in Pittsfield, this brewery’s beers are only available on draft. Mild at Heart, is listed in the British mild ale style. It’s a bit too big to really fit there at 4.4% and 29IBUs. Raindrop Pale Ale, is a 6.2% ABV pale hopped with UK, New Zealand and American hops. The last year round beer is Bash Bish Bock, named after the waterfall. This is a traditional Bock beer, German in style and 6.6% ABV.

English, Belgian, what about some new beers in the German traditions? Well for that Jack’s Abby in Framingham also opened in 2011 and they were covered in the Indy edition of the Buffet Table I also want to point out Night Shift brewing also out of Everett. They have a brewery now and will start producing sometime in early 2012.

Missing the cutoff:
Lefty’s Brewing from Bernardston, 2009
Cody Brewing, Amesbury, 2009
Wormtown Brewery, Worcester, early 2010
Element Beer, Millers Falls, early 2010

Now heading to Maine where there has been a new brewery explosion.

Starting with Baxter Brewing. They actually started in 2010, but they just started distributing to Mass this year, and New Hampshire gets their beer in 2012. The two you’ll find outside Maine are: Pamola Xtra Pale Ale, a low ABV session pale ale at 4.9% ABV and 27 IBU. Golden in color, it looks like it won’t taste the way it does. Stowaway I.P.A, their IPA at 6.9% ABV and 69 IBUs. Baxter cans all of their beers. An “American Farmhouse” Brewery, Oxbow in Newcastle is draft only. They do sell growlers to go from the brewery. As the name implies they blend American and Belgian styles. Both the Pale ale and Octoberfest, or Oxtoberfest are brewed with a Saison yeast. You may remember Saison from such breweries as Mystic listed above.

Massachusetts isn’t the only state to get a new German styled brewery. In Portland BUll Jagger has started selling their Portland Lager. In the Golden Munich Helles style. The Great Lost Bear sold out of their entire stock at the release party, and had to send people to the brewery for emergency beer.

While we’re in Portland, there is also Rising Tide brewing. They may have opened in 2010, but oh well. Firmly in American craft traditions, they’re making a Black Ale named Atlantis. In the new style of “Black IPA” we covered back here. Daymark is their American Pale Ale, hoppy with a touch of rye. Ishmael is an “American Alt Beer”, brewed with Munich malt, so there is a more malty body than in the Daymark. Ursa Minor, they’re calling a wheat stout. It’s the winter seasonal. Beer available in Maine only, on draft and in 22 ounce bottles.

Finishing up in Portland, we have Maine Beer Company. OK I’m not sure when they opened, it was fairly recent. Lunch IPA is a standout, 7% IPA that stands toe to toe with any of the west coast examples. Zoe is a Hoppy Amber Ale, 7.2% and hopped like an IPA. Mean Old Tom is their stout, brewed even less often than lunch. 6.5% ABV, aged on vanilla beans. Peeper Ale, is their American Pale Ale, hoppy and 5.5% ABV. Their beer is distributed outside Maine, but it can be hard to find. In half liter bottles. They’re all very good, but expensive due to the small size of the operation.

Heading West to New Hampshire

Squam Brewing in Holderness opened in 2010. They are only sold in New Hampshire, and as can be seen from the link they have quite a few different beers available.

Throwback Brewery is a nanobrewery, producing 3 barrels (6 kegs) at a time. Distribution is to New Hampshire only, and the Seacoast region at that. On draft and in 22 ounce bottles. As with a lot of nanobreweries, being small in size seems to lead to an increase in the variety of beers they make.

White Birch in Hooksett opened in 2009, but I’m stretching here because the other newer NH breweries do not distribute out of state. White Birch, distributes to Mass, Philly, New York and I believe other New England states.

They have quite a few beers, the Apprentice series are always good. For those the apprentice brewers are allowed to forumlate their own beer as part of “graduation”. Most common is the Hooksett Ale, a blend of Belgian and American Pale Ale traditions.

Next up: Vermont

First a change, The Alchemist Brewpub in Waterbury has been turning out acclaimed beer for years. The brewpub was destroyed by Hurricane Irene and they are not going to reopen. However just before Irene hit, the Alchemist cannery opened. The cans are only available in Vermont now, but watch for the availability and variety to increase. They’re canning Heady Topper, a world class Double IPA. 8% ABV and 120 IBUS in 16 ounce cans.

Northshire Brewery in Battenkill distributes on draft and in 22 ounce bottles. Battenkill Ale is a 5.7% ABV Brown Ale. Chocolate Stout is a 6% ABV stout brewed with real chocolate. Seasonals are also available.

There are also a pair of newer, and very limited distribution breweries in Vermont. Hill Farmstead in Greensboro Bend. Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren. These are the type of breweries that you really have to be in the right place at the right time to try any beer from.

In Rhode Island there are two new breweries.

In Westerly, Grey Sail has been producing their Grey Sail Ale and Leaning Chimney Smoked Porter only since November. Draft only, and only available in Rhode Island.

In Providence, brewer Sean Larkin has opened Revival Brewing. He’s also the brewer for Trinity, and makes some of the Narragansett seasonals, and likely other things I’m forgetting. Draft and bottles, only available in Rhode Island.

We’re going to have to stretch the rules again to feature anyone from Connecticut.

Cavalry Brewing in Oxford, CT was opened outside our cutoff in 2009. Beers are in the English style with two Bitters a Porter and a Stout available. The Dog Soldier is what would be called a Summer Bitter in England, the Hatch Plug a Bitter. Big Wally Porter and Nomad Stout are exactly what their names say they are.

Around The League – Week 16

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Giants/Cowboys. Cowboys/Giants. Sunday Night Football. For the NFC East and a playoff berth. Winner goes on. Loser goes home.

Can you imagine picking this game? If there were odds on which team would puke on its own shoes less, it would be as hard to get it right as picking winning lottery numbers. There aren’t too many other teams as unreliable in big games than the Cowboys and the Giants.

But since someone has to win this battle of notorious chokers, take the Giants and give the points. For starters, the game is at the New Meadowlands, giving a nice, cozy, homefield advantage to the G-men. And, even though it’s been four years since they won anything of consequence (which they did as an underdog all the way) and have failed to meet expectations with regularity over that stretch as well, the bottom line is that they have won big games – the biggest of big games – before, with this coach, this quarterback and for the most part, this defense.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, have won one playoff game in the past 17 seasons. This isn’t technically a playoff game but it may as well be and that doesn’t bode well for Dallas. The last time these two teams played, it took the Cowboys just under three minutes late in the fourth quarter to piss away a 12-point lead, at home for that matter, which is the reason why this week’s game is for all the marbles. They also have a coach who is completely overmatched in Jason Garrett, a QB who has made a career out of flaming out spectacularly in big moments in Tony Romo and a defensive coordinator who’s last name is Ryan, which means that he talks a lot about winning but has never actually, you know, won.

Oh and how could we forget the Cowboys owner/GM/director of media relations/de facto head coach/stadium elevator operator/head concessionaire? Yep, that would be Jerry Jones, who if he was given the choice of not saying a single word over the length of an entire season and winning a Super Bowl or the exact opposite, would choose the latter every single time.

This couldn’t be a better situation for the Giants, who after they win on Sunday night will get a home game against either Atlanta or Detroit, which should set them up nicely for a Divisional Round sequel to one of the best games of the year against Green Bay. They’ve probably been praying to get the Cowboys under these circumstances for weeks. Eli Manning is 10-5 in his career against the Cowboys (including playoffs) and 6-2 in his last eight meetings with the former “America’s Team.” Given Dallas’s ongoing propensity not to be able to get out of its own way, you can mark it 11-5 and 7-2. Bet on it.

This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: The Packers didn’t really, truly need their Christmas Night win over the Bears, but that didn’t stop Aaron Rodgers from throwing five more TD passes (and zero more INTs) in a 35-21 win. That makes 45 TDs against six picks for a one-loss team. MVP.

2. New Orleans: Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year old record for passing yardage in a single season on Monday night in a 45-16 win over Atlanta. He’s pretty good. And while we’re here, the Saints have won seven straight, five by double digits.

3. San Francisco: No letdown for the Niners on a short week in Seattle even though their ferocious defense allowed a rushing TD for the first time all year. All that stands between this team and a first-round bye is the St. Louis Rams. Make your tee times for next week now, fellas.

4. New England: Despite their flaws, the Pats just keep on winning and they can improbably clinch homefield throughout the AFC playoffs with a win over Buffalo on Sunday. The question is, can they do that without three-fifths of their offensive line and potentially (gulp) Tom Brady?

5. (tie) Pittsburgh/Baltimore: The Ravens are 11-4 and can clinch the AFC North for the first time in five years with a win in Cincinnati on Sunday. So why does it feel like they aren’t that good? Because they played down to their opponent again last week, letting Cleveland hang around despite the game’s being in Baltimore, and getting yet another stinkbomb (11-of-24, 132 yards) out of mediocre QB Joe Flacco. As for the Steelers, despite Ben Roethlisberger’s injury costing them that Monday nighter in San Francisco last week, they can still win the division with a win over the Browns and a Ravens loss.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. St. Louis: The Rams have scored a total of 26 points in their last four games and just 166 all season. By comparison, the Patriots, the last team for whom Josh McDaniels was the offensive coordinator, score 31 points every time they take the field.

2. Tampa Bay: Make it nine straight losses for the Bucs, who have completely and totally quit on soon-to-be fired head coach Raheem Morris. Since beating the Saints (???) in Week 6, Tampa has allowed at least 24 points in every single game its played.

3. Indianapolis: Make it two straight wins for the Colts, who have basically booted away their chance at the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft by beating the Titans and Texans in the last two weeks. They can still get it with a loss to Jacksonville on Sunday and little bit of help and isn’t it funny to discuss ways to get the top draft pick like that, instead of just potential playoff scenarios?

4. Minnesota: The Vikings deserve a lot of credit for beating Washington on the road despite losing Adrian Peterson to a gruesome knee injury. The win represented the most character this team has shown in two years and with a very winnable game against the free-falling Bears on Sunday, Minnesota could well enter the off-season on a high note.

5. Jacksonville: The Jaguars are 4-11, need a new coach and are stuck with a rookie QB for whom they traded up to draft and looks like he doesn’t know how to play. But they do have a new owner coming in so the culture down there could well change for the better.

What’s Trendy
- Matthew Stafford, Lions: Detroit is in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, having won three in a row to complete a remarkable, three-year turnaround from becoming the first team in NFL history to finish 0-16. There are many reasons for the Lions resurgence, but the biggest one has to be Stafford, the third-year QB who has completed 64 percent of his passes for 4,518 yards and 36 TDs against just 14 picks. Over this three-game run, Stafford has thrown 991 yards, nine TDs and zero INTs, his performance in last week’s post-season clinching win over San Diego (29-of-36, 373 yards, three TDs, 137.6 passer rating) the piece de resistance.

- Cam Newton, Panthers: Newton became the NFL’s all-time leading rookie passer last week against Tampa with 3,893 yards on the season. He’s also an amazing runner (674 yards, 5.6 YPA, 14 TDs) but what separates him from other QBs who can run (Michael Vick, Tim Tebow, etc.) is his arm. Vick has never put up a passing season like Newton is putting up this year, and Tebow never will.

- Reggie Bush, Dolphins: Getting out of New Orleans may have taken Bush from an excellent, winning situation to a haphazard, disorganized, losing one. But it’s turned him into an elite back. He’s topped 100 yards in each of his last four games (with over 200 two weeks ago against Buffalo) and broke the 1,000 barrier for the first time in his career last week against the Pats, averaging five yards per attempt while he was at it. It’s hard to tell if Bush’s body will hold up for a full season as a featured back (he has just three games with 20+ carries this season) but he’s certainly proven this year that he’s more than what his role was the Saints.

What’s Not
- Mike Shanahan, Redskins: No one has coached the ‘Skins to consecutive double digit loss seasons since Norv Turner until “elite coach” Shanahan came along. This past week, he said for at least the 300th time since taking over in D.C. that “it will take some time to do it right,” as far as his rebuilding the franchise goes. This will make seven consecutive seasons split between two teams that Shanahan will not coach in the playoffs. Hope those Redskins fans are patient.

- The Chargers: Needing a win at Detroit last week to stay in playoff contention, San Diego instead didn’t show up, getting blown out 38-10, a loss that should mercifully end Turner’s tenure as head coach. That’s not remotely surprising. What is surprising is that Turner, now seven games under .500 in 14 years as a head coach, lasted as long as he did.

- Tim Tebow, Broncos: The bloom is off Tebow’s rose following four picks in a blowout loss last week to the Bills, who hadn’t won in seven games. Now having presided over two straight losses and with the Broncos suddenly not assured a playoff berth, all of Tebow’s naysayers are mobilizing.

And finally…
Let’s have a warm round of applause for Jets coach Rex Ryan, who saw yet another guarantee/round of bullying/chest-thumping session blow up in his face when the Jets lost to the Giants 29-14 last week, a game in which he allowed his limited QB, Mark Sanchez, to throw 59 passes. Ryan spent the whole week ripping the Giants, bragging about how his team was so much better and disparaging Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who has never said a single disrespectful thing about any opponent or opposing coach, with a series of unprovoked attacks. Then, when the game was actually played, his team went out and didn’t back up all of his big words. Afterward, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs hilariously (and accurately) called Ryan “a disrespectful bastard,” and told Ryan on the field after the game, directly, “it’s time to shut the fuck up, fat boy.” It’s a miracle no one has said anything like this to Ryan before; he certainly deserves it.

Now, unless the Jets win on Sunday while at least three other teams lose, another Ryan pre-season Super Bowl prediction will go up in smoke. Don’t expect Ryan to act any differently going forward, though. He was typically defiant the day after the game, saying that he stood by everything he’s said, and “I won’t change.” How comforting for Jets fans. How hysterically awesome for the rest of us.

Pats Pregame Points: Game 16 vs. Bills

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

New England resolutions for the New Year:

Number one: Play 60 minutes of football. All in the same game.

Number two: If no number one, play 30 minutes of really good football.

Number three: Make sure those 30 minutes happen in the second half.

The Patriots overcame a 17-0 deficit to avoid drowning against the Dolphins in a 27-24 win. With a first-round bye in place, New England hosts Buffalo with an eye on the number one seed in the AFC.

Some thoughts heading into the regular season finale…

Line, Please? The Patriots’ offensive line had more switches than a Dickens-era schoolteacher, ending up with rookies Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon at left and right tackles, respectively. Looks like both guard Logan Mankins and tackle Matt Light will be held back until the playoffs.

The rookies and new Patriot Donald Thomas (left guard) deserve praise for gelling in the second half, but Buffalo’s defense may not prove as kind to the newbies.

What’s Blue And White And Runs All Over? Speaking of rookies, nice work by running back Stevan Ridley. He seems to possess a burst that BenJarvus Green-Ellis doesn’t, as well as some serious bulk that running back/pixie Danny Woodhead lacks.

In short, the more carries for Ridley, the better.

Ochocinco Para Uno: When New England signed Chad Ochocinco before this season, they had hopes of developing him into a complementary receiver. Not so much, as Ochocinco caught just one pass, again. He has 15 catches for 276 yards and one TD.

Ochocinco has set our expectations at this mediocre level, so if he has a game with a few catches and a touchdown, we’ll be first in line at the parade.

Don’t Call It A Comeback: Well, we’re not sure what else you could call it. Down 17-0 at the half, New England scored 27 straight in the second half to pull away from the Dolphins. Earlier this season at Buffalo, the opposite occurred, as the Pats failed to hang onto a 21-0 lead before losing on a last-second field goal.

What Pats team shows up in the first quarter this week? Will they need some more comeback magic?

Doing More With Wes: Receiver Wes Welker has 116 receptions for 1,518 yards and nine touchdowns. For a bit of perspective, Ochocinco would need eight seasons in New England to match that output. (And some are wondering whether or not to lock up Welker’s contract?)

Should Welker sit out this game? We wouldn’t mind it, but we wouldn’t expect it, either.

Call Us New Englan – Without the “D”: Sure, the Patriots’ defense held Miami to only seven points in the second half. Yes, they recovered a fumble and notched an interception. But you have to contrast these turnovers with the fumbles they forced at Denver.

The Patriots got into position to make strong plays and strip the football at Mile High stadium two weeks ago. Against Miami, they fell on a botched snap and caught what amounted to a punt by Dolphins QB Matt Moore (Devin McCourty was behind the receiver by two steps and mistimed his jump to the point where he almost missed the ball. Maybe the kid needs glasses).

When they play better teams in January, New England will need better play from their defense. Less luck, more pluck.

Planting The Seed: Win or lose, New England gets to rest their linemen, put in some fancy plays for Ochocinco, and maybe – maybe – settle down their defense. Either way, not too bad.

A serious note from me about the passing of a dear friend. Father Tom Fleming lived and worked in and around Boston for over 50 years, leaving the area only when he was a military chaplain in Vietnam. Father Tom has been a part of our family since the 1960s – among many other connections, he baptized me and married me to my wonderful wife. He will be missed.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Making The Grades – Dolphins at Patriots

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

OK, class, today’s lesson is a very important one so naturally, it starts with a very important question: At what point does it become OK to be worried/anxious/disappointed following a win? Because in the case of the Patriots, now just one game away from the start of the post-season, that time feels very, very near.

It’s hard to come to many other conclusions after Saturday’s 27-24 win over the Miami Dolphins, their seventh consecutive victory, yet another week in which the Pats failed to play a complete game and fell way behind before relying on their own experience and their opponent’s lack thereof to come back and take it. The Pats trailed the Dolphins 17-0 at halftime, had four three-and-outs and punted six times over that stretch while simultaneously allowing still one more journeyman, bottom-of-the-ladder QB carve them to shreds and look like a Hall-of-Famer in the process. Of course, everything changed at halftime. Adjustments were made to the offensive strategy, a couple of looks changed on defense and the Dolphins, who are better than their 5-10 record would indicate, remembered that they are a team chock full of mediocre players coached by mediocre coaches, allowed the Pats to score 27 straight points and escape with the three-point win, clinching a first-round playoff bye. But when those playoff games begin roughly three weeks from now, the competition is going to be far better than the Miami Dolphins and probably the Denver Broncos (who, if certain things fall into place, could well be the Pats Divisional Round opponent in Foxboro the weekend of January 14-15; and while we’re here, let’s hope they are). Can the Pats afford to fall behind by three scores against teams with defenses like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, regardless of where the game is played? Given the events of last year’s Divisional Round loss to the Jets, if the little brother team from New York somehow finds its way back into the tournament and winds up here again on that weekend, will the Pats be able to come back if they fall behind in that one? They couldn’t/didn’t last year.

And therein lies our dilemma. Of course, a win is a win and there’s nothing more important than getting out with that W next to your team’s name in the standings, no matter how it happened. It’s been written in this space pretty much ad nauseum, especially this season. But this team, with its rash of injuries all over the roster and its still abhorrent defense, has really been pushing its luck of late. It’s wonderful to continue to see the Pats overall mental toughness and character demonstrated in multiple ways on a weekly basis. Those intangibles most definitely separate this group from the ones that were dismissed from the playoffs so quickly and resolutely the past two seasons. But at this point, with the games that really count so close and without a win that was ever even remotely in doubt since before Thanksgiving, a good old-fashioned ass-whooping sure would be sweet, seven-game winning streak or not. Sorry to be nitpicky, but it’s true. If the Pats play the way they’ve played in any of their last four games – all against poor to middling competition – in the post-season, it’s going to be yet another long, cold, head-scratching winter in New England. But that’s a column for another day. For now, let’s just get to this week’s report card.

OFFENSE: C+

Quarterbacks: B-

Someone down on the field was wearing a Tom Brady jersey in the first half on Saturday, it’s just hard to be certain whether or not it actually was Brady himself. It certainly didn’t help that not only did his left tackle, Matt Light, aggravate an ankle injury that caused him to be scratched from the active roster during pre-game warmups, his left guard, Logan Mankins, only the best lineman on the team, was felled by a knee injury filling in for Light at LT on the second series of the game forcing him to miss the rest of the afternoon. All of the shake-ups on the line resulted in some serious protection issues and communication problems in the first half and along with all of that, Brady simply wasn’t sharp, skipping throws to open receivers and coming up short or low on one pass after another. Prior to the Pats final drive of the half, which ended in a missed, 51-yard field goal attempt, Brady was 3-of-14 for 37 yards and the Pats ran 27 plays for 56 total yards with just three first downs. But on that final drive of such a miserable half, the Pats discovered that when they shifted to a complete spread formation with five receivers and no running backs on the field, the Dolphins, who’d been throwing one blitz after another at the Pats depleted offensive front all day long up to that point, sacked Brady three times before the half and got to him five other times. But Miami had no answer for the Pats adjustment and wound up surrendering the game’s next 27 points. The Pats scored on five of their six second half drives with Brady going 20-of-27 for 217 yards and a TD over that stretch. He looked to be forcing the ball to Wes Welker in the first half but after halftime, when he spread it around a little bit more, Welker got more room and wound up with one of his patented, double-digit reception days. And again, like in so many other games, he proved to be the master of the QB sneak, twice employing it for TDs while picking up a couple of crucial first downs on other occasions. Brady was a different guy after halftime, pretty much his usual self, and that was lucky for the Pats. What’s also lucky for the Pats is that they have Brady at all. This season, in which there’s been less room for error than any since Brady’s time here began, may well wind up being his best. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has appeared to be the sure-fire MVP all year long. But there have been whispers of late that Brady, given what he has to work with and how near perfect he’s had to have been all season given the shortcomings of his defense, may be a dark horse candidate. Rodgers is fantastic, a superstar in every sense who is having the best year of any QB for the league’s best team, just like Brady in 2007. But Brady’s doing similar stuff with less around him. Maybe there should be some steam to those whispers. Maybe Brady’s the MVP, again.

 Running Backs: B

The Pats don’t want to run the ball very often and when they do, they divvy up the attempts among three, four, sometimes five ball carriers (on Saturday, six players, including Welker and Aaron Hernandez, had at least one rushing attempt). But against the Dolphins, one of the many Pats runners made yet another case that he should be the man going forward. Rookie Stevan Ridley, who has averaged five yards every time he’s run the ball this year, had another big game, acting as the closer (20 of his 28 reps came in the second half) and ripping off 64 yards on 13 attempts, including a couple of back breakers in the final minutes. It’s been noted in this space before both that the Pats need to run the ball more and that Ridley is the man, but so what. Let’s say it again! The Pats are always, always, always at their best on offense when their rushing attempts and passing attempts line up. And Ridley, who has really come on the past two weeks after spending a good chunk of the middle of the season in mothballs, is, with all due respect to Danny Woodhead and the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, their best, strongest, quickest, shiftiest back. Keep giving him the snaps and the ball, please. As for the rest of the bunch, Woodhead made the most of his four touches in gaining 20 yards and Benny continued his slide down the depth chart, carrying just three times for 10 yards while playing the fewest snaps of any of the Pats runners. Going forward, how’s about Ridley getting 20 or so carries, Woody as the change of pace, third down guy and Benny in short yardage or at the goal line. Everybody wins.

Wide Receivers: B

Welker had six passes thrown his way in the first half an only caught one. This wasn’t really his fault; he’s Brady’s ultimate security blanket and Brady was under so much duress that he was forcing the ball mostly in an effort to just get rid of it. And it hardly helped that Welker was blanketed early by the Dolphins best corner, Vontae Davis, who was not only in his back pocket but was bumping and chucking him at the line of scrimmage before he could get into any of his routes. But after halftime, when the Pats spread it out, Welker came alive, catching every pass Brady threw his way but one and finishing with a ho-hum, 12 catches and 138 yards, the best of which saw him and Brady immediately recognize that somehow, a linebacker was singled up on him so he ran a streak down the far side seam, hauled in the pass and wound with a 42-yard gain. It says a lot about Welker that even when he’s silenced for long stretches of games, he still almost always has a major impact on them, whether it’s taking some of the coverage away from the Pats other pass catchers or just being patient enough to withstand a one-catch first half and have an 11-catch second half while becoming the all-time leading receiver in franchise history in the process. Please pay the man. Please? Elsewhere, Deion Branch returned from a one-game absence to catch three passes for 37 yards and a TD on which he broke his man’s ankles in cutting back across the end line to flash open just long enough for Brady to find him in the back of the end zone and cut the Miami lead to 17-10. And Chad Ochocinco provided his weekly catch, giving him 15 on the season, or one per game. Six million bucks very shrewdly spent.

Tight Ends: A-

Would you believe that Rob Gronkowski had another big game? He didn’t find the end zone for the second straight week but when the Pats spread it out and he stood and went wide, he blew up. Seven more catches, 78 more yards, a couple more broken tackles and one hysterical cut away in which he wished the CBS viewing audience a Merry Christmas while wearing both a very loud Santa hat and a very silly looking grin. Again, when playing a glorified wide receiver spot, Gronk was basically uncoverable, as was A-Herb, who had a much quiter game than last week in Denver (four catches, 36 yards) but sparked the offense with a 15-yard catch and run on the first play after the Pats opened up the formation and went spread late in the first half. These two, particularly Gronk, play more snaps on offense along with Welker than anyone. Makes sense considering they’re the three most important cogs in the passing game.

Offensive Line: B-

It took a while to get going thanks to all of the personnel changes. No Light, then no Mankins meant two rookie tackles (Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon) along with Donald Thomas, signed 10 minutes ago, at guard and Dan Connolly, just back from an injury, at center. You could see how difficult it was to get everyone on the same page in the first half. But that simple adjustment to spread everything out made all the difference. Again, it helped that the Dolphins couldn’t adjust back, stopped blitzing and basically sat on their heels waiting to get picked apart by Brady. But these guys are so, so well coached that it’s not surprising they shook off some rust and unfamiliarity and wound up dominating. Solder played three positions on Saturday, both tackles spots and tight end, and played them all pretty damn well. The Pats have a real gem in him. And his fellow rookie Cannon continued to draw praise from the coaching staff following just his sixth game after his non-Hodgkins lymphoma went into remission. The Pats aren’t going anywhere if they can’t keep Brady upright and clean, a prospect that seems like it may be difficult if the injuries to Light and Mankins are at all serious. But at least they showed, after a rough beginning, that they can handle being without those two All-Pros if needs be.

 DEFENSE: C

Defensive Line: C

Another tale of two halves kind of thing for the defense as a whole, with the front four particularly complicit. Dolphins running back Reggie Bush gained 115 yards on 22 attempts, most of it in the first half, when the Pats D-line was getting pushed around. This week, in the absence of Andre Carter, the Pats came out heavy, moving Brandon Deaderick over to Carter’s side and inserting Shaun Ellis in at the other end. While Ellis played his most snaps since October and had by far his best game of the year (three tackles, a sack, a couple of hits on Dolphins QB Matt Moore) his playing didn’t do much for the Pats run defense, which for the second straight week was suspect at best. Among the interior group of Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Gerard Warren, there were only three solo tackles registered. That’s not going to cut it at all in most weeks. And whither Mark Anderson? After exploding in place of Carter against the Broncos, Anderson got in on only about a third of the defensive snaps (likely the result of the team’s decision to go really big up front) and while he got to Moore for a couple of hits, he was otherwise silent. The Pats pass defense is so susceptible to giving up plays, they need the run defense to step up in a major way and it just hasn’t been there the past two weeks. Wilfork did have a fumble recovery after a bad snap on the Dolphins first drive of the second half. And thanks to the Pats offense taking control of the game in the third and fourth quarters, there were fewer opportunities for the Dolphins to push the Pats around. But there’s reason for alarm up front and the best player in that group is out for the year.

 Linebackers: B-

While we all sit here and wonder if Brandon Spikes, out seven weeks now after establishing himself as the team’s best linebacker, will ever return, let’s take some time to give a heaping pile of credit to Dane Fletcher. Fletcher had a very nice game on Saturday, making a couple of solid stops, defending the pass well and making a perfect read of the Dolphins snap count to get into the backfield and disrupt the play. Fletcher is not nearly the player Spikes is from a skill level standpoint. But his work the past couple of weeks is probably making the decision to keep giving Spikes more time to heel for the post-season somewhat easier. Jerod Mayo, the $45 million man, looked more like his old self on Saturday than the playmaker he’s been over the past month. He seemed to be on top of a lot of piles rather than making tackles of his own and he was flailing in pass coverage on more than one occasion. But he did have two sacks and bounced back nicely from being one of the many who was getting bullied in the first half. And Rob Ninkovich continued his strong season with six tackles and another sack while playing both standing up and as a down lineman in pass rushing situations. It was a bit odd to not see Tracy White at all, even on special teams; maybe he’s injured and we don’t know. But this group looked pretty decent on Saturday, certainly the strongest of the three levels of the defense.

Defensive Backs: C-

Is it even worth discussing Devin McCourty anymore? You know what’s going to be said/written. “McCourty looked helpless and overmatched once again, giving up a handful of enormous pass plays for whatever reason, blah blah blah.” That pretty much sums it up. McCourty gave up a 39-yard pass play, a 47-yard pass play and a 41-yard pass play while also getting a pass interference penalty on what was basically a throwaway by Moore that wiped out a third down stop in the first half. He did make a couple of nice tackles against the run and did record his first pick of the season (though it must be noted that he was beaten by two steps on that play and made the pick because Moore’s pass was woefully underthrown and he actually turned back to look for the ball, which he didn’t do on any of those long completions). But it’s gotten so bad for McCourty that these scrub/second stringers who light up the Pats secondary every week are looking to target him from their first dropback of the game and are bascially ignoring Kyle Arrington, himself no great shakes, like he’s Deion Sanders. There’s no rhyme or reason to it I’ve never seen any player in any sport go from being as good as McCourty was last year to being as bad as he’s been this year. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Beyond the misery that is McCourty, it should tell you all you need to know that Patrick Chung’s return, if it ever happens, will be an enormous plus for this secondary and Chung isn’t even that good. That’s how bad the safeties have been. James Ihedigbo, when he’s not getting hurt and helped off at least twice per game, has been exposed over the past few weeks as a special teams player forced to play in the regular defense while Sergio Brown has been just that all year but is still getting regular reps with the regular defense and sucking as badly as anyone who’s ever played the position. The Pats have gotten away with this monstrosity of a secondary for 15 games now. Can they get away with it for as many as four more? Let’s hope so. Because it’s not getting any better.

Special Teams: B-

What a weird day for Stephen Gostkowski. First, he misses a 51-yard field goal that would have put the Pats on the board at the end of the first half by about 20 feet. Then, after he hits from 45 to get the Pats on the board about three minutes into the third quarter, he makes a fingertip tackle on the ensuing kick return that saved a TD and wound up representing a 14-point swing after the Pats turned a Dolphins fumble three plays later into a TD of their own. He would go on to make another kick but it was that tackle on the kick return that highlighted his day. Our man Zoltan was called on six times in the first half alone and of course, he was up to the challenge, averaging 52.3 yards per kick and mixing a 65-yarder in there. Thankfully, he wasn’t needed in the second half (no offense, Zoltan) but on Saturday, he proved once again that he’s worthy of All-Pro honors. Where the Pats struggled on special teams was in the kicking game going both ways. Gostkowski shouldn’t have to make a shoestring tackle after a 38-yard kickoff return. And the team should have more going on in their own return game. Even with Woodhead breaking a 37-yard return at one point, the average kick return was 27.7 yards per. Not good. This is a problem that’s been there all year so it’s likely not going away. But man, wouldn’t it be fun to see someone run back a kickoff? Where’s Ellis Hobbs or Bethel Johnson when you need them?

Coaching: B-

Clearly, the plans drawn up by Bill Belichick and his staff going into the game didn’t work. The lack of continuity on the offensive line can’t have helped but the Dolphins took away everything the Pats wanted to do on offense with their blitz packages in the first half while their offensive line completely dominated the Pats up front, leading to that 17-0 lead. Still, once again, Belichick and his coaches wound up with the last laugh, turning the Dolphins D inside out with their adjustments on offense, which subsequently changed Miami’s approach and play-calling on offense. The biggest props should go to line coach Dante Scarnecchia for having his reserves (Solder, Cannon, Thomas) not only ready to play but, after the early hiccups, capable of looking like the regular starting bunch was out there. And on defense, although Belichick and de facto coordinator Matt Patricia have yet to figure out how to stem the tide constantly overwhelming the secondary, the defense overall has been far more aggressive in recent weeks and it’s paying some dividends, particularly in the turnover department, where the Pats are +14 over their seven-game winning streak. Clearly, given the shortcomings in the talent department on this roster, the players have completely bought into what Belichick is selling, unlike in 2009 when the Adalius Thomas’s and Derrick Burgess’s of the world roamed around the locker room. Look at what has happened to the only two dissenting voices, Leigh Bodden and Albert Haynesworth, this season. Gone post haste, both of them. The Pats togetherness and mental toughness, both qualities that come directly from up top, have played a big role in carrying them to this point. We’ll see how much further that can go. The guess here, especially if the injury situation clears itself up somewhat by Divisional Round weekend, is pretty far.

Around The League – Week 15

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

The playoffs are just over two weeks away so let’s take a quick look at how things are stacking up in both the AFC and NFC.

First, the other conference, where the Packers are one win away from clinching home field throughout the post-season. As things stand right now, the 49ers own a tiebreaker over the Saints for the No. 2 seed, a first-round bye and a home game, and that’s an advantage to which they’d be well served to keep given how much better New Orleans is playing at home vs. playing on the road. The fourth seed will be whatever NFC East team pukes on its own shoes the least; don’t be surprised if whichever team that is, the Cowboys, Giants or Eagles, backs in by default. After that, the Wild Cards are looking a lot like the Falcons and the Lions although the Seahawks and even the Cardinals are lurking on the periphery. If things stay the way they are now, look for the fifth seed Falcons to wipe away whatever undeserving team from the East they get in the first round and the Saints to wipe the floor with the Lions in similar fashion to the way they did it back in Week 13. Then, even with the game being on the grass out in San Fran, the Saints experience should be enough to carry them past the young, not-quite-ready-yet Niners, while the Packers will eliminate Atlanta for the second straight year in the Divisional Round. This scenario will set up a rematch of Opening Night in Green Bay, where the Packers escaped a last second charge by the Saints. The NFC Championship won’t be that close, and Green Bay will be back in the Super Bowl with a chance to repeat.

In the AFC, it’s looking a lot like another No. 1 seed for the Pats. And we all remember what happened under those circumstances last year. Baltimore has the inside track on No. 2 with Houston, despite its sudden major issues, a lock for No. 3 thanks to its early clinching of the AFC South. At No. 4, it will be the Denver Broncos winning the West, but don’t try to tell 98.5 the Sports Hub’s Andy Gresh and Scott Zolak that Tim Tebow had anything to do with it. As far as those guys are concerned, the Broncos have won seven of nine with Tebow calling the shots completely in spite of him, he’s a worthless piece of shit who deserves no credit whatsoever and was probably responsible for the Kennedy assassination despite it happening 24 years before he was born (and if you think this is hyperbole, just listen to them for 10 minutes some day and try to avoid the unadulterated venom that will spew from your radio when Tebow comes up). The Wild Cards in the AFC? The Pittsburgh Steelers, who could have moved into Baltimore’s spot before last week’s loss to the 49ers, and (gulp) the Jets, who are the least lousy of all the lousy teams (Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, San Diego) fighting for that last spot.

Under these circumstances, the Steelers will end the Broncos dream season out in Denver and the Jets will use their experience to overcome their own shortcomings and the happy-to-be-there Texans. These results will set up rematches of both Divisional Round games from last year: Steelers/Ravens (though this year, the game will be in Baltimore) and Jets/Pats. Even with the Ravens getting to finally play at home, it’s hard to see them beating Pittsburgh for a third time this year. And the Pats? No one in Foxboro would even dream of saying this, but there isn’t a single team in the AFC they’d less rather see than the Jets. For the sake of this argument (and because we’re homers – this site is called Patriots Daily, isn’t it?) we’ll take the Pats. But we’ll do it while holding our breath. After that, a Steelers/Pats, AFC Championship game, a rematch of Pittsburgh’s blowout win from Week 8, will be on tap. And the Pats will exact their revenge, not just because the game will be in Foxboro, but because the Steelers never, ever beat the Pats in the playoffs, no matter where the game is played (see AFC Championship Games, circa 2001 and 2004 for more information).

If all this comes to fruition, it’ll be a Green Bay/New England Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI, which was won by the Packers in convincing fashion. What will happen this time around? Stay tuned.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. Green Bay: Sure, the Packers quest for a perfect season ended in Kansas City (of all places!!??) last week. And there were some potentially catastrophic injuries suffered by key offensive linemen in that game. But if anyone thinks any of that means Aaron Rodgers and Co. aren’t still the best in the business, they haven’t been paying attention.

2. New Orleans: The Saints continued to look ridiculous on offense playing indoors, with Drew Brees completing 32-of-40 passes for 412 yards and five TDs in last week’s blowout win over the Vikings. But as great as this offense is, and as otherworldly as Brees has played, wake me when it’s time for the Saints to play the Packers for the NFC Championship on a 12-degree day (with a windchill of 15-below) in Green Bay in January.

3. New England: 41, 34, 31, 38, 34, 37. This week’s Mega Millions number? Nope, although that would be awesome if someone knew that ahead of time, wouldn’t it? It’s a actually a sequence of numbers that represent the Pats scoring output during their six-game winning streak, game by game. The 41-spot came against a Broncos D that was only allowing 17 per game over its previous six. The point is, if the Pats can continue to score like this, their putrid defense will be absolved from its putridness.

4. San Francisco: What a huge win for the Niners on Monday night, snapping out of their recent, mimi-malaise to not only beat the Steelers 20-3, but physically beat the the shit out of them, something that rarely happens to teams from Pittsburgh. They even looked semi-competent in the red zone. San Francisco had better hope it holds on to that No. 2 seed in the NFC; getting to play New Orleans at home in the Divisional round instead of on the road would represent a monumental difference. Based in the results of Monday night, the Niners are looking the part.

5. (tie) Baltimore/Pittsburgh: Man are the Ravens an ugly good team. QB Joe Flacco completes just 57 percent of his passes (those are Mark Sanchez numbers, folks) but still complains that he and his teammates don’t get as much attention as Tim Tebow before deciding to not even show up for a nationally televised game last Sunday night against San Diego. Oh yeah, all four of their losses are against teams with losing records. As for the Steelers, they missed what was probably their best shot at re-taking the AFC North from Baltimore with their dreadful showing in the Bay Area. Still, if any team can win three road playoff games and get to the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh is a safe bet.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. St. Louis: With the Colts in the win column twice, the Rams are now officially the league’s worst team. They deserve credit for playing Cincinnati tough last week with one scrub after another filling in for all their injured players. But the fact remains that despite their nice uptick last year, the Rams are 2-12 not quite two years out from being 1-15.

2. Indianapolis: Big, big ups to the Colts for winning two games in four days, last week against the Titans and last night against the suddenly reeling Texans. But still, it’s hard to imagine many teams for whom it would have been more fun to see go 0-for the season than the self-righteous, sanctimonious outfit from Indy.

3. Tampa Bay: Eight straight defeats, the last three by an average of 21 points. It’s hard to imagine Tampa winning again this year or Raheem Morris, not too long ago one of the most impressive, up-and-coming coaches in the league, keeping his job.

4. Minnesota: Stories broke this week about Vikings defensive players ignoring calls from the coaches on the sideline and in the booth, choosing instead to do their own thing. This, combined with painfully overmatched head coach Leslie Frazier getting an assurance that he’ll be back next year, has to make Minnesota fans feel just great, don’t you think?

5. (tie) Jacksonville/Buffalo: Remember when the Bills beat the Patriots and looked like they had truly turned the corner as a franchise? Not really? Can’t say we blame you; they’ve lost seven straight by an average of 18 points per game and couldn’t even beat Miami at home in the snow last week. Ouch. As for the Jags, they followed up their 41-14 win over Tampa with a 41-14 loss to Atlanta that may as well have been 100-0.

 What’s Trendy

Romeo Crennel, Chiefs: The former Pats defensive wizard and relatively overmatched head coach of the Cleveland Browns took over the Chiefs on an interim basis after last week’s firing of Todd Haley, and slayed the Green Bay dragon. Now, a handful of his players (including tamba Hali, only KC’s best defensive player) and coaches are lobbying the front office to give him the job full-time. Why not?

Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks: One of the easiest NFL QBs to rag on has suddenly led his team to five wins in six games (a run that includes home wins over Baltimore and Philly and a shellacking of the Bears in Chicago last week), a 7-7 record and a reasonable shot at the playoffs. His passer ratings the past three weeks have ranged from the excellent (94.4) to the more excellent (96.4) to the absolutely sublime (137.0) and he’s done it all with a torn pectoral muscle. One more loss and Seattle is done, and that may come this week against the division leading 49ers. But Jackson’s work this season, particularly lately, warrants mentioning.

The Eagles: In yet another act of blind cruelty to their fans, the Eagles have somehow re-entered the NFC playoff picture thanks to two straight victories and with a win over the Cowboys tomorrow combined with a Giants loss to the Jets, they will be one step closer to actually making something of this steaming pile of a season. The odds are long, which seems to suit a team that finds new ways to disappoint, overwhelm and fuck with its fan base more than most any others perfectly. Oh yeah and also, this resurgence, whether it mans the playoffs or not, will probably guarantee the return of Andy Reid. Commence puking, Eagles fans.

 What’s Not

The Titans: Oh my god, is Tennessee not trendy. With a chance to put themselves firmly into the driver’s seat for one of the AFC’s two Wild Card slots, the Titans lost to the Colts. Yep, the Colts. Now at 7-7 and behind both the Jets and Bengals for that post-season berth, this team has no one to blame but itself.

The Bears: It seemed obvious that things would get tough for Chicago when Jay Cutler then subsequently Matt Forte went down. But four straight losses and a full-on tumble from the NFC playoff race? That was a bit unexpected. Now, on the heels of their blowout at home to Seattle, the Bears turn to journeyman Josh McCown at QB for their Christmas night game at Green Bay. McCown was coaching high school four weeks ago. Brutal.

The Raiders: It took Oakland, now losers of three straight, less than five minutes to blow a 13-point lead at home against Detroit last week, and that was with a bonafide, vintage performance from Carson Palmer (32-of-40, 367 yards, one TD). Now the Raiders, who seemed primed to reverse nearly a decade of incompetence less than a month ago, are completely on the outside looking in, in need of not just two wins to close out the season (both against hot, division rivals) but help from elsewhere as well.

And finally…

As was pointed out recently, we are non-denominational here at Patriots Daily. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say happy holidays to all of our loyal readers. This is a strange time of year, one that’s full of love and joy and togetherness, but also a pretty fair amount of aggression, impatience and anxiety (and if you don’t believe me, try taking a spin through the undersized parking lot of the shopping plaza across the street from my apartment some day). So instead of using this space as another opportunity to take more shots at all of the requisite favorite targets (with the exception of Andy Reid, see above), we’ll just say we hope you enjoy kicking back and watching games on Christmas Eve, have the happiest of happy holidays and thanks so much for reading Patriots Daily!

Pats Pregame Points: Game 15 vs. Dolphins

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

The Patriots got on the “nice” list with a win at Denver and found something in their stockings: the AFC East championship. Now if only Santa could step in at defensive back.

Though far from perfect, the Patriots’ 41-23 conquest in Colorado showed flashes of an opportunistic defense, stout special teams, and of course an offense that creates mismatches week by week.

Keeping that victory in mind, let’s look ahead to the Christmas Eve tilt when the Pats host the Dolphins.

On Ridley, On Woodhead, On Brady: The Pats had some success running the ball in Denver (141 yards on 36 rushes, with quarterback Tom Brady notching his annual rushing TD). This kept their time of possession up and kept their defense off the field. Important elements come playoff time.

They had to step up because –

Run, Run Rudolph (and anyone in a Broncos uniform): Want a scary stat? (Sure you do!) After the first quarter, Denver had rushed for 167 yards – that’s rushing only. They were on pace to run for over 650 yards Sunday. Just for perspective, New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 635 yards rushing this season.

The jolly old elf might describe that defense as naughty, or at the very least not nice.

Oh Christmas Bush, Oh Christmas Bush: Miami’s Reggie Bush has been a dynamic all-purpose back in recent games. If New England starts this game the same way they did in Denver, that trend will continue.

Mark, The Herald Angels Sing: Kudos to pass-rusher Mark Anderson for his two sacks and forced fumble. That type of pressure will become even more important Saturday with Andre Carter lost to injury and Miami’s efficient QB Matt Moore coming to Foxboro.

Seven Guys A-Blocking, Six Points A-Getting, Chad Ochocinco! Yes, Chad Ochocinco blew by Broncos coverage to score his first TD in a Patriots uniform. And it only took 14 games. So … hooray. Right?

Anyway, it would be nice to see Ochocinco contribute on a more regular – oh for the love of God haven’t we said this a dozen times already?

Tiquan Under-the-mistletoe: Actually, we were happy for Ochocinco, but we’re more intrigued with Tiquan Underwood as the third receiver. He caught one pass and should have caught another (he hugged the sideline too closely on the route and ended up out of bounds), but more importantly, he seems to understand the playbook and doesn’t appear lost in the hurry-up offense.

In The Aaron, There’s A Feeling Of Christmas: When the Broncos took away receiver Wes Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski, hybrid Aaron Hernandez became the gift that kept on giving, scoring an important touchdown, converting a crucial fourth down, gaining 16 yards on an end-around play and compiling career highs of nine receptions for 129 yards.

Miami’s defense has been playing well, but whom do they cover? How many receivers can they take away?

And that’s all because of…

Three-score Leads, Two Touchdowns, And A QB Named Tom Bra-a-d-y-y: We know this for sure – the Patriots have made the playoffs. We have no idea how far they might get, but, hey, let’s relish the consistency of Brady (320 yards passing to eight different receivers last Sunday). He runs the offense, protects the defense, and even sets up special teams for success.

That, by itself, has been a gift. We wish you a Merry Christmas, New England.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

Maybe Looks ARE Deceiving When It Comes To the Patriots

By George Cain, Patriots Daily Guest Contributor

Maybe looks ARE deceiving. I watch this Patriot defense and I think, there is no way they are going to the Super Bowl. Not enough talent, not enough health, not enough playmakers. You need balance on both sides of the ball right?

But then I look around the league and I start to question my own eyes. If the Patriots make it to Indianapolis they will do it with one of the worst statistical regular season defenses of any representative in Super Bowl history.

But, there have been teams with mediocre to bad defenses in recent years that have appeared in the big game. In just the last 6 years, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Arizona come to mind. New Orleans and Indianapolis walked out of those Super Bowls with the Lombardi Trophy. And Arizona, came pretty darn close. This is the NFL in the Polian rule era. Ironically, Bill Polian was the GM of the Buffalo Bills in
the 90’s, an explosive offensive team better suited for today’s NFL. Polian was just 20 years too late to help the fans of Buffalo, but he was able to change the game enough for Indianapolis to break through in 2006.

As for this season, it’s hard to get your mind around anything. Ron Borges seems to have it all figured out, I wish we were all as smart as Mr. Borges. Myself, I am not so sure. I mean look what’s happened so far this season.

  • The Patriots beat the Chargers, Cowboys and the Jets, not once but twice.
  • The Jets beat the Chargers and Cowboys and got destroyed by the Ravens.
  • The Ravens beat the Steelers twice but lost to the Chargers.
  • The Steelers beat the Patriots but lost to the Texans.
  • The Texans beat the Bengals and lost to the Titans.
  • The Titans beat the Ravens, lost to the Broncos and the pathetic COLTS.
  • The Broncos lost to the Lions and Patriots.
  • The Lions lost to the Saints and 49’ers.
  • 49’ers lost to the Cowboys and Ravens but beat the Steelers.
  • The Saints lost to the Packers on opening night, the Bucs and the Rams; two awful teams who will have new coaches next year.
  • The Packers lost to Kansas City. That’s right Kansas City.
  • And Kansas City lost to the Patriots, Jets, Broncos, Lions, Chargers, Bills, Steelers and Dolphins. And they fired their coach.

Everyone still with me? Good, because I got confused once I started writing about all these matchups. I guess it’s why the NFL is the premier sport in this country and it’s not even close. It’s also why the Patriots, with all their flaws, with all their defensive problems and with all their critics, have as good a shot as anyone in January.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

I recommend the Lagunitas IPA, if your over 21, its relaxing during trying times.

NFL Sports betting on San Diego Chargers

Being a fan of sports we are sure you will be aware of the growth of online bookmakers during the past few years. The gambling industry as a whole has benefited from the rise of the web, with online casinos now being able to offer virtual card games and many sports themed slots which you can Play here, whilst the online bookmakers have now made it possible to place a wager on the game at any point during said match.

Sports betting is obviously a massive industry as it stands and seeing as the NFL has become quite popular in the UK over recent years it looks to grow even further, with several teams establishing strong fan bases.

One of the more popular franchises is the San Diego Chargers, though this has not been their greatest season. They are not completely out of the running for the Superbowl, but it would take a string of miracles if they were to make the playoffs. It is still a mathematical possibility, but with odds of winning the Superbowl of 300/1 (though some bookmakers are pricing them at 150/1) chances are not very high.

So what has gone wrong for them this season? Out of the last seven games they lost five, and it seems that the buck is being passed very firmly to Norv Turner – the head coach. However the team has been unfortunate in the number of injuries sustained particularly in the offensive line. However, there still should be sufficient depth after all they are all professionals.

This weekend they take on the New York jets and even though the Jets have not been on the best form predictions are not good again, with the Jets being 4/6 to win and the Chargers clocking in at 11/10. With only 2 games left one wonders whether the Chargers will be able to pull out all the stops or whether Norv Turner really will be facing the chop.

If you are looking for a good bet on the Chargers then it is looking increasingly likely that this is Norv Turner final season, after all somebody has to carry the can for turning a 24-0 halftime lead against Denver into a 35-24 loss; that takes some doing.

Making The Grades – Patriots at Broncos

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Remember when the Patriots had to travel 2,000 miles to take on a superhuman deity? Nah, neither do we. But, class, we do remember when the Pats traveled 2,000 miles to take on an upstart, first-place team with unexpected playoff aspirations that was on a six-game winning streak led by a quarterback in Tim Tebow who has become the most polarizing figure in the NFL since Michael Vick’s return to the league from a stint in federal prison, or at least since last year when BrettFavre spent three months stumbling around, embarrassing himself and his team while simultaneously tarnishing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.

No, the Pats trip to Denver and subsequent 41-23 win, their sixth straight, wasn’t quite what all the pre-game hype made it out to be (and if you don’t believe that, just ask Tom Brady, who told Yahoo! Sports’ Michael Silver after the win, “I’ve been in a lot of big games, Mikey. Games a lot bigger than this.”), but it was still an intense, at times breathtaking contest that settled, or at least went a long way toward settling a lot of arguments buzzing around the two teams that played it. On the Pats side, the game pointed out that they are able to win a playoff-style game against a quality opponent in a hostile environment while again displaying that as a team, they possess the mental toughness to absorb their opponent’s best shot, get up, dust themselves off and make more than enough plays to win. After one quarter on Sunday, the Pats looked worse on defense than they have all season, giving up a whopping 167 rushing yards and 218 total yards over that stretch. Just take a second to process such a claim. But from the second quarter on, they were a different team on that side of the ball, making the right adjustments to contain and control the Broncos running game while forcing Denver to have to throw to keep up. and getting out of Dodge allowing just 175 totals yards over the final three quarters. While that defensive metamorphosis was occurring, the Pats were putting up their most complete performance on offense since the 37-16 shellacking of the Jets back in Week 10. Without Deion Branch, their already thin wide receiver corps was even thinner but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and company from rolling up a season-high 41 points while piling up another 451 total yards. It wound up being one of the best, most satisfying wins of the season for reasons that had zero to do with that it came at the expense of Tebow. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, completely non-denominational as always.

OFFENSE: A-

Quarterbacks: A

Brady probably would never, ever say it. But he had to have been at least a little bit pissy about the attention showered upon Tebow in the week leading up to Sunday’s game. One guy has won six in a row. The other guy had won five in a row and oh by the way, has three Super Bowl rings, two Super Bowl MVP awards and is as much a lock for the Hall of Fame as anyone is in any sport. Maybe that had something to do with the amount of oomph he put into the spike following his second quarter rushing TD, his first since last November. But regardless of all that, Brady was masterful playing in a city where he’d only won once in six previous tries. Playing without Branch, seeing the Broncos double and sometimes triple teaming Rob Gronkowski for the majority of the afternoon and having to stay alert to a fearsome Broncos pass rush, Brady pretty much shrugged and completed 23-of-34 passes for 320 yards (9.4 YPA) and two TDs to go with that one-yard scoring plunge. He became the second QB in NFL history to throw 35 or more TD passes in three different seasons and if he really lights it up in the final two weeks of the season, he could cross the 40,000 yard mark for his career (not to mention the fact that he’s just 213 yards shy of his career-high in yards for a season and 407 short of 5,000 for this year, both feats he should achieve easily). He bounced right back up after getting absolutely planted on a third quarter sack by Broncos pass rushing demon Elvis Dumervil, and even connected on a 33-yard TD pass to Chad Ochocinco, which may have been his most impressive accomplishment of them all. Brady won’t win his third MVP award this season; Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a mortal lock for that award, as well he should be. But on Sunday, Brady showed that he’s still just as good as anyone, maybe even better.

Running Backs: A-

It’s time to officially declare rookie Stevan Ridley our binky. He’s the most electric runner the Pats have had since Curtis Martin, a big and strong yet shifty, elusive and quick back who can somehow shapeshift when he needs to. Ridley had his most productive game since early October on Sunday, gaining 65 yards on just 11 carries to pace the Pats 141-yard rushing attack. Sometimes, Ridley, who seems to be on the verge of exploding with energy even when there’s nowhere for him to run, looks as though he can’t remember which way the play is supposed to be going. But he does so with the kind of power, vigor and speed that will look even more impressive as he grows into a feature back who gets 20-25 carries per game. Along with Ridley, Danny Woodhead solidified the Pats running game, posting his second straight solid game and adding his first TD of the season, a 10-yard scamper on a perfectly executed draw play late in the third quarter. Even Aaron Hernandez got into the act, lining up in the backfield for a key third down play early in the second quarter and getting sprung for 16 yards and a first down by a massive block by Gronk. About the only disappointing aspect of the running game on Sunday was the lack of production from the Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who managed just 17 yards on 10 carries and, although he scored the Pats final TD after the Broncos had made it a two possession game in the fourth, again seemed to have trouble gaining a yard when that’s all the Pats needed. He did catch a couple of dump-offs from Brady and turn them into good gains, Benny just hasn’t been himself for weeks now. Maybe it’s the toe injury he suffered back in October, who knows? But complaining about such things after getting the kind of output the Pats got from their run game on Sunday is nitpicky. The Pats best offensive games of the year have all been when the running game and the passing game are balanced. Sunday, a day when they ran 36 running plays and 34 pass plays, was no exception.

Wide Receivers: B

Seven of Brady’s 23 completions went to wideouts with Branch out of the lineup, but that was enough. Wes Welker was held to just four catches and 41 yards but he still did his usual great job of either moving the chains or at least getting the ball close to them, while setting a new career-high for receiving yards with 1,380. He also moved into second place on the Pats all-time receptions list with 536. Even when he doesn’t have a huge day, Welker, who made one of the prettiest diving catches you’ll ever see on the Pats second TD drive of the game, has a huge day. Ochocinco played 54 snaps in Branch’s absence and although he had just the one catch, it was obviously huge, his first TD as a Patriot. He ran a great route on the play, making a quick double move before faking the corner inside then cutting outside to catch Brady’s pass perfectly in stride and waltzing into the end zone. Ocho also threw a couple of key blocks on the afternoon, making Sunday his most productive day in a Pats uniform despite just the one catch. And Tiquan Underwood showed that if there are any emotional scars left over from last week’s sideline confrontation between Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien of which he was the focal point, that he’s covering them up well. He had a catch and it went for 12 yards. Good job, Tiquan. way to man up and bounce back.

Tight Ends: A

If this were an episode of some cheesy, life lessons-style melodrama on ABC Family, it woukd be called “A-Herb Finally Gets His.” Hernandez, relegated to second banana status all year in the face of Gronk becoming a folk hero, national celebrity and pop culture icon all rolled into one, had a career day on Sunday, catching nine passes for 129 yards and a TD. Hernandez, as has been mentioned here before, is such an athletic specimen for a tight end, it’s nearly impossible for any safety or linebacker to cover him. The Broncos sent their rookie strong safety Quinton Carter after him early on and to say that it was a mismatch would be an insult to pretty much every mismatch ever perpetrated on a football field. It started with a crossing route that went for a  46-yard catch and run on the Pats first drive of the day and went from there. He burned Carter again on his TD, a one-yarder after a perfect play fake by Brady. And on a huge fourth and short in the second quarter right as the Pats were seizing momentum, Brady stumbled after taking the snap, recovered and flipped it to a wide open A-Herb, who then turned upfield, made a couple moves and turned it into a 25-yard pickup. Again, A-Herb is like a giant wide receiver; there have been few tight ends in my memory who possess the kind of speed and moves that he does at his size. And man, has he grown in the maturity department. The fact that with his skills, he;s still been second in line to Gronk pretty much all year but has done nothing but keep his mouth shut and patiently wait his turn for a day like Sunday speaks volumes. What a massive weapon he is. As for Gronk, he was quiet by his standards, especially given the past few weeks. But, as always, he was crucial blocking in the running game and still managed to pull one huge play out of the thin, mile high air, taking a short throw from Brady and turning it into a thunderous, 38-yard gain. Thin wide receiving group? Who cares? Not the Pats, who have the best tight end tandem in the NFL.

Offensive Line: A-

There was one communication breakdown on the right side that led to Dumervil’s ferocious sack of Brady. But other than that, this group once again shined bright. Denver’s rookie phenom Von Miller didn’t get anywhere near Brady all day save for one play on which the Pats QB fumbled the snap. And Dumervil was almost completely neutralized. There are three All-Pros on this offensive line; Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Brian Waters (who drew some chunks in the gullet when he had to leave the game briefly in the second quarter) and rookie Nate Solder looks like he’s on his way to being one. Denver came in with 37 sacks as a team and got just two, one of which was on a delayed safety blitz. And the fact that the running game produced those 141 yards at just about four yards a pop (Benny’s slow day and Brady’s six attempts for two yards crushed what could have been a much better YPA) spoke volumes about the play of this group as well. It’s a multi-purpose group that’s stayed mostly healthy all year and seems to be getting stronger by the week. That should bode very, very well come playoff time.

DEFENSE: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game : B

Defensive Line: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game B+

There’s no other way to to grade the D than to split the game into the first quarter vs. the last three quarters. 15 rushes for 167 yards in the first, 16 rushes for 85 yards after that. 218 total yards allowed in the first quarter, 175 total yards allowed after that. 16 points allowed in the first quarter (plus 1:13), seven points allowed after that. Whatever wasn’t working in the first quarter was fixed and then some going into the second and those adjustments proved to be the key to the entire game. No defensive group transformed itself from the first quarter to the second more dramatically than the D-line, which was absolutely, completely and thoroughly dominated in the early going. The holes and running lanes created by the Broncos offensive line against Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Pats front were big enough to fit three running backs through, let alone one. The Pats, in a 4-3 alignment, were physically brutalized by the Broncos as Tebow, Willis McGahee (seven carries, 70 yards) and some dude named Lance Ball (11 carries, 64 yards) looked like Fran Tarkenton, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith in rolling to a 16-7 lead. But this group, which sadly lost its best player Andre Carter to a season-ending quad injury late in the first quarter, changed course, switching to a 3-4 base and subsequently making the Denver running game look normal as opposed to otherworldly and forcing Tebow to have to make plays with his not-so-godlike arm. Lots of folks stepped up in the second quarter, starting with Mark Anderson, who took over for Carter and for a stretch, took over the game. He got just three reps before Carter’s injury but played almost the entire rest of the game following it, and responded with two sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, two tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two more pokes at Tebow. If Anderson, who now has nine sacks on the year, is going to get the majority of Carter’s snaps, Sunday was a great way to start showing the coaching staff he can handle the workload. Elsewhere, Kyle Love continued his excellent season, bouncing back from being a chief culprit in the first quarter to being a force afterward. He only registered one tackle but when the look went to a 3-4, he plugged up the middle well enough to allow some of the linebackers and safeties to make plays. Ron Brace made the first play of his Pats career (now almost two full seasons in), forcing one of the Broncos three second quarter fumbles, this one on the first play of the Broncos next possession after the Pats cut the lead to 16-14. And Gerard Warren managed to get a little camera time by saying something Tebow thought was really funny after a third quarter sack. Not having Carter going forward is going to hurt; he’s been the best player on this defense all year. But this defense was last in the league with him so how much worse can it be without him? On Sunday, it was actually a little bit better.

Linebackers: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B

Again, a tale of two games. In the first quarter, the creases were so huge, the linebackers didn’t even have time to react before the Broncos running backs were being chased down by the Pats secondary. But Jerod Mayo (who is now somehow making the same money as 49ers star middle backer Patrick Willis, and yes, you read that correctly) and company still wound up getting theirs. Rob Ninkovich probably could have had five sacks if he’d been able to wrap up Tebow a couple more times; as it stands, he also bounced back from being victimized for not being quick enough to set the edge in the first quarter to finishing the day with a very tidy stat line that included a 28-yard sack of Tebow in the fourth quarter that pretty much iced the game. Both Tracy White and Dane Fletcher have likely had better days but both had his moments, with Fletcher in big on Brace’s forced fumble and coming up with the recovery. And there was even a Gary Guyton sighting, which wasn’t terribly exciting. Once the Pats went to that 3-4 in the second quarter, it opened things up for this group and it responded. Just don’t forget, if you guys get the Broncos again come playoff time (and looking at the current scenarios, that’s a very distinct possibility for the divisional round), try to avoid attempting to tackle Tebow high. Go low on Tebow!

Defensive Backs: First Quarter: F, Rest of Game: B

Tebow completed half of his 22 passes for 194 yards and looked like he’s maybe, possibly coming along as a passer in the process. There were a few throws that a real, pure QB would have easily completed and a couple more on which the Broncos receivers settled as comfortably into the enormous dead spots in the middle of the Pats deeper than deep zone as any receiving corps all year. But there was only one really big, really damaging play against this group after the first quarter, a 39-yard, sideline throw on 3rd and 18 in the fourth quarter that was in part a blown coverage by guess who? Yep, Devin McCourty. It didn’t help that Belichick took Sergio Brown out of mothballs to play safety in this one and Brown, who is not a regular defensive player in any football league anywhere in the world, was about 10 seconds and 35 yards late in coming across to help. But given the Broncos struggles throwing the ball (Tebow seems to give up on every pass play on which his first read isn’t open), this group was able to get out of this one relatively scot-free. Maybe some day, Patrick Chung will play again and there will be some semblance of continuity at the safety position (although, to his credit, Nate Jones had a decent game and Matthew Slater made four tackles in just 10 snaps). And with Miami and Buffalom two teams with (to be kind) middling passing attacks coming up prior to the playoffs, there will be plenty of time for guys to get healthy and more comfortable playing together. This is still the weakest of weak points on the Pats defense. But days like Sunday, even when the opponent is limited, have to breed confidence going forward.

Special Teams: B+Coaching: B

What looked like an absolute disaster early became a clinic for in-game coaching later on. The Pats seemed to be the only people on earth who weren’t ready for the Broncos to come out running and running and running some more in the first quarter. Or maybe they were ready and just didn’t recognize some of the Broncos looks and blocking schemes. Either way, what they came in with wasn’t even slightly working so give a truckload of credit to Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia for making changes that saved the game for the Pats. On offense, O’Brien had his troops playing as crisp and fluid as in any game all year; the game plan was fantastic and was executed to near perfection by Brady and Co. Any time you get a guy like Belichick matching wits with a guy like Fox, you have to like your chances. But beyond that, the head man and his crew once again got the absolute maximum out of what he has at his disposal and now is looking right down the barrel of yet another AFC, No. 1 seed. With this defensive group, that might garner some Coach of the Year attention in other years. This year, Pats fans will just have to settle for it being yet another stellar showing by the best coach in the league.

Patriots Buffet Table – Patriots @ Broncos

by Peter Blisard, special dispatch to the Patriots Daily Kitchen Staff

This week the Patriots take on Denver, and the Buffet Table is looking to Colorado for our savior. No, not Tebow. The Buffet Table Colorado Columnist.

What to eat

Appetizer 

Crab Hushpuppies

A change from the usual crab cake.  I’ve added a bit of frozen corn to the mixture, and even some chopped jalapeno for a kick. 

Ingredients – this makes enough for 4 people at least, so if you only have a couple people you can cut this in half

Oil, for frying

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon minced thyme
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup bacon crumbles
1 pound fresh picked or lump crabmeat

In a Dutch oven or frying-like contraption, heat oil to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, flour, thyme, baking powder, salt, garlic pepper, baking soda and cayenne pepper.

In a small bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, and sour cream. Add to cornmeal mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in onions, bacon, and crabmeat.

Dip spoon into water and then a spoonful of the hushpuppy mixture. Drop by tablespoonfuls into hot oil, and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.

Optional sauce:

This is a good sauce that gives it the Old Bay flavor

1 cup regular or low-fat mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Freshly squeezed juice from 1/2 lemon (1 tablespoon) 

Main Course

Grilled Marinated Flank Steak: 

Everyone has a great flank steak marinade recipe, this one is pretty basic and easy to put together and easily adapts to added ingredients (ginger, jalapeno etc.)

Marinade Ingredients – for 2 pounds of flank steak

1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Score both sides of steak with ¼ inch deep cuts about an inch apart across the grain of the meat.  Combine marinade ingredients and steak in a freezer bag and place in the fridge for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.  Fire up the grill and grill over direct heat for 5-6 minutes per side for mid rare. If the weather is not grill friendly or don’t have a grill, you can fire up the broiler and go about 4 – 5 minutes per side.  Let rest for 10 minutes covered in foil.  Slice and serve – great on salad, sandwiches, or even a less spicy burrito option.  Marinade is also good for chicken for the non red meat eating types, and even tuna steaks for those who only eat fish. For more of a Colorado flare you can use buffalo if you can get your hands on it.  Vegans are schitt out of luck, nothing makes tofu taste good.

Dessert

Dessert?  Seriously?  Why waste the space when you can have another beer? 

What to drink

Good time of year for those seasonal ales.  The Colorado breweries put out some spectacular seasonals, such as New Belgium’s Snow Day, Odell’s Isolation Ale, and Breckenridge Brewery’s Christmas Ale.  The more widely available Colorado beers from New Belgium, Odells or Left Hand Brewery (Sawtooth Ale is a personal favorite) might be easier to find outside of the Rocky Mountains.

 

Around The League – Week 14

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

It’s finally here. The Patriots trip to Denver comes in just two days and that means it’s time for them to get their taste of TEBOWMANIA! The Broncos QB is Tim Tebow, in case you haven’t heard of him, and at last look, he’s 7-1 as a starter, has his team in first place in its division and primed for the post-season and is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound while simultaneously walking on water and healing sick children by merely touching them.

OK, those last three things may not quite be true. But you’d think they were judging by atmosphere around this guy. He’s a miracle worker, not just winning games but pulling them out of thin air when it seemed they were unsalvageable. Last week against the Bears, Denver was down 10-0 with two minutes left and won. The Broncos didn’t score the first 12 times they had the ball, and won. Tebow saves it for when it matters most; he’s completed 61 percent of his passes for 770 yards in the fourth quarters of games this year while completing just 38.7 percent of his passes for just 520 yards in the first three quarters combined.

Sure, it’s hard to explain, and there are some in the media who sit in front of the cameras and wring their hands and chirp about how maybe it’s magical or something. Then, shell-shocked, sore loser opponents like the Bears Brian Urlacher are asked about him and respond with quips like, “He’s a great running back.”

He’s polarizing, whether it’s because of his unorthodox style (some of the local radio types still refuse to give the guy credit despite all of the wins because they don’t like his arm) or his constant religious proclamations. But really, who cares? The object of the game is to win, and if you do it legally, what difference does it make how you do it or what you say about it before and after?

The Pats should beat Denver on Sunday, despite their franchise’s history of problems playing out there. The Broncos have a very good defense, but if the Pats can put up some points early, even with their lousy defense, they should be able to hold off Tebow and hand him his second loss.

But if the game’s close in the fourth quarter, especially late? Watch out.

 

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. Green Bay: The Packers, who are coming up on the one-year anniversary of their last loss (and who haven’t lost a game with Aaron Rodgers under center in going on 13 months), led Oakland 31-0 with over seven minutes remaining in the first half last Sunday and 34-0 in the third quarter before the Raiders scored their first points of the afternoon. They’re pretty good. The Packers, not the Raiders.

2. (tie) Baltimore/Pittsburgh: Even though the Ravens own the tiebreaker, it’s impossible to see these two teams as anything but completely intertwined. The Steelers escaped the Browns last Thursday night at home while Baltimore stomped on the hopeless Colts at home on Sunday. The schedule suggests that both teams will finish 13-3, giving the AFC North to the Ravens. But Sunday night in San Diego, against a Chargers team that always plays its best late when all hope seems lost, looks like a very big game.

3. New Orleans: The Saints should have lost at Tennessee last week, only to survive thanks to Titans rookie QB Jake Locker’s late-game inexperience. But a win is a win, Drew Brees threw for 337 more yards and now, New Orleans doesn’t have to play another game outdoors until a potential NFC Championship showdown at Lambeau Field in late January.

4. New England: One of these weeks, possibly even in the playoffs, the Pats earth-shatteringly awful defense will not be able to bailed out by Tom Brady and their earth-shatteringly outstanding offense. Sunday in Denver will not be that week.

5. Houston: Now T.J. Yates, a rookie, fifth-round pick (121st overall) who didn’t take a single rep in practice for the first 10 weeks of the season, is leading fourth quarter, game-winning drives for the 10-3, current No. 1 seed in the AFC Texans. The kid looks like he’ll be just fine come playoff time. This team and its performance amidst a ton of crappy circumstances all season long (seven straight wins and counting) is one of the stories of the year.

 

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Indianapolis: 0-13. Next stop, 0-16. Adios, Jim Caldwell and your frozen face. And so long, Bill Polian and your tone-deaf, smug, superciliousness. It’s always been the M.O. around here to root against the Colts but it’s hard to remember when it was so much fun to root for them to lose.

2. St. Louis: Those who believe Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should be a serious candidate for the now vacant Kansas City Chiefs head coaching job, should simply watch the tape of the St. Louis O in its Monday night loss to Seattle, particularly in the red zone. Or the tape of any of the games that offense, ranked dead last in the league, has played all year. McDaniels is a favorite here and it would be great to see him get another shot at being a head coach somewhere down the road. But based on his not quite two-year tenure in Denver followed by this year’s disaster in St. Louis, he’s not ready yet.

3. Tampa Bay: Young teams that overachieve always come crashing down to earth in the NFL but it’s difficult to remember a fall as precipitous as the one suffered by the Bucs this season. After coming out of nowhere to go 10-6 last season and featuring one of the league’s brightest young coaches in Raheem Morris, Tampa has followed up a 3-1 start with losses in eight of its last nine, including seven in a row, the most recent of which was a 41-14 shellacking at the hands of the (wait for it…) Jacksonville Jaguars??!!?? There’s some scuttlebutt now that Morris may get the gate if the Bucs lose to Dallas tomorrow night (hint: they will), putting a giant, turd-laced exclamation point on one of the most head-scratching freefalls seen in the NFL in some time.

4. Minnesota: Give the Vikings credit; without Adrian Peterson, with their QB knocked out of the game and on the road, they nearly overcame two 21-point deficits against Detroit last week (they were first-and-goal at the 1 with just over a minute left down by six). That doesn’t mean they’re any good, but it does mean that they aren’t satisfied with sucking and in a season that appears doomed to end absolutely no better than 4-12, such a development is surely welcome by their fans, coaches and front office types alike.

5. Cleveland: There can’t ever, ever seem to be any positive news about the Browns. This week after nearly knocking off the Steelers in Pittsburgh, coaches, players and head honcho Mike Holmgren were forced to answer one question after another about why QB Colt McCoy was sent back into the game one play after getting his blocked knocked off on a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit. McCoy had a concussion, no one administered an exam on the sideline and no less than his father went to the press to talk about what a dangerous organization the Cleveland one is. Oh by the way, the Browns have played in one playoff game in 15 years. Yep, they lost.

 

What’s Trendy

- Eli Manning, Giants: The little Manning has truly made the leap this year. Even though the Giants went in the tank after beating the Pats back in Week 9, it wasn’t because of Manning, who posted passer ratings of 85 or better in three of the Giants four straight losses. Then on Sunday night, with the Giants down 12 with just over three minutes left against Dallas, he saved their season with two picture-perfect TD drives in a 37-34 win. Manning finished the game with 400 yards and a couple of TDs while playing about as well in the fourth quarter as any QB in the league. If the Giants are going anywhere, a tough task given all of their injuries, Manning will have to take them there and man, does he look up to the challenge.

- Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: In a dismal season featuring one disappointment after another, Jacksonville’s best player blew up on Sunday. The Jags fell behind Tampa 14-0 before running off 41 straight points, 28 of which were scored by Jones-Drew. He finished the day with 136 total yards (85 rushing, 51 receiving) and four TDs and now has 1,222 yards on the ground (4.4 YPA), 348 through the air and 10 total TDs. Reason for hope in Northwest Florida.

- John Skelton, Cardinals: Why isn’t anyone talking about this guy like Tebow? Skelton, pressed back into action against the division leading 49ers after starter Kevin Kolb took about seven minutes to get hurt yet again, won his fifth game of the year with a stellar 19-of-28, 282-yard three TD performance in a 21-19 victory. The Cardinals, now unbelievably 6-7, are 5-2 when Skelton plays. With games against Cleveland, Cincinnati and Seattle left, it’s not unfathomable that Arizona could finish 9-7 and challenge for a playoff spot. As long as Skelton keeps playing.

 

What’s Not

- Marion Barber, Bears: Barber could have been the hero in last week’s inexplicable Bears loss to the Broncos. But he ran out of bounds late in the fourth quarter when Chicago was trying to run out the clock, opening the door for a last second field goal that sent the game into OT, then fumbled in the extra session with thr Bears already in range for a game-winning kick. Was it Tebow channeling God? Nah, it was just Barber, a good running back, screwing up twice at the worst possible times.

- The 49ers offense: The Niners have the worst red zone offense in the NFL and it’s not even close. This team, so so impressive the first 12 weeks of the year, has been exposed offensively in losing two of its last three. They’ve already won the NFC West but their stranglehold on the No. 2 seed and a home playoff game is now tenuous at best. Winning on Monday night against Pittsburgh, arguably the Niners biggest game of the year, is of the utmost importance.

- James Harrison, Steelers: So Harrison a noted headhunter, dirty player and king-sized asshole, was responsible for the hit that scrambled Colt McCoy’s eggs in that game against the Browns last week. With two whole seconds to adjust after McCoy released a pass, Harrison crowned the defenseless QB anyway, because he does things like that. It was his fifth offense of the like in the last two years and the NFL wisely suspended him for this week’s game against San Francisco. Naturally, Harrison was defiant in the aftermath, again crying that he can’t change how he plays and it’s so unfair and if he’d really wanted to hurt McCoy he would have. One wonders what his reaction will be when he paralyzes someone since after all, he can’t stop himself from leading with the crown of his helmet and won’t try to change. Probably more of the same. What a coward James Harrison is. He’s a great player, but that’s overshadowed but his endlessly awful behavior.

 

And finally…

When the Chiefs fired Todd Haley this past week, it was slightly surprising. Rumors had been flying for some time that Haley was having trouble getting along with GM Scott Pioli (as well as seemingly everyone else he’s ever spent five minutes with) but the Chiefs accomplishment in winning the AFC West last year along with the rash of injuries that’s infected the team this year suggested that maybe Haley would have some more time. What wasn’t remotely surprsing though, was when the Dolphins fired coach Tony Sparano later that same day. Talk about a foregone conclusion, this move has been in the works since last January; the only unexpected aspect of the story was that it took bumbling Dolphins owner Stephen Ross so long to pull the trigger.

When the Dolphins were 0-7, it should have happened. But since the team was playing hard, mostly in support of Sparano, who they knew was in a no-win situation, making it more difficult a proposition from a P.R. standpoint (not that P.R. is even close to Ross’s strong suit). Then, the Dolphins won three in a row and four out of five (it should have been five out of five; Miami had Dallas beat on Thanksgiving) and the proposition became that much more difficult. It took the Dolphins 26-10 loss to the Eagles last Sunday to finally seal Sparano’s fate. It was the first time in nearly two months that Miami wasn’t competitive, opening the door for Ross and GM Jeff Ireland to do the dirty work.

In the immediate aftermath, the Dolphins proved that they are lost, coach or no coach. As soon as Ross got done telling the media he’d be looking for a “young Don Shula-type” to take the reins, Ireland (who, by the way, should have been fired to if Sparano was indeed getting the gate) spoke of how necessary it would be for Miami to find someone “with experience, who’s been down there in the trenches.” Well? Which one is it, guys? You think maybe you should get on the same page regarding what you’ll be looking for in your next coach?

The Dolphins looked like maybe they’d turned something of a corner at 0-5 when they started just missing, then winning. Now, they look like a mess again. Like there are incompetent people running the show. Ross doesn’t want Ireland so he’s apparently going to hire former Chiefs and Eagles GM Carl Peterson as team president instead of just fire Ireland too. There’s no rhyme or reason to why this franchise does anything, starting with the circus Ross has been presiding over since buying the team a few years ago, and extending to why they haven’t been able procure any QBs who can actually play since Dan Marino retired. The next four or five months will tell us a lot about whether or not the Dolphins know what they’re doing, from who they hire as head coach to who they draft and go after in free agency (hint: A QUARTERBACK). For the sake of their dwindling fan base, which has been disappointed over and over again for years now, let’s hope they figure it out.

Pats Pregame Points: Game 14 At Broncos

By Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

This must be New England: where else would following a 10-3 team get depressing?

Dropped passes, airheaded penalties and a consistent lack of defense led to a 34-27 shootout in Washington – not exactly the late-season salve Patriots fans sought against a 4-9 team.

New England returns to the road this weekend, heading to Denver to face quarterback Tim Tebow and His Tebowites. Somehow, the man who started the season unable to throw a football into a kiddie pool is 7-1 as a starter, with each comeback win jockeying for its own mini-documentary on ESPN. He has shown significant improvement of late.

Some thoughts for the week…

If You Want You Can Look And You Will Find Me, Tom After Tom: So quarterback Tom Brady throws for 357 Yards and three touchdowns, and of course all we’re interested in is his verbal confrontation on the sideline.

Is the pressure of having to be perfect getting to Our Tom? Could be. But maybe he just felt stupid throwing an interception. In any case, it seems like he needs to relax a bit back there – it’s as if he trusts his receivers less and less, which affects him throughout the game.

That pressure won’t subside this week facing Denver’s defense. Tebow’s not the only Bronco working miracles every Sunday.

Tiquan Underthrown: According to his combine stats, receiver Tiquan Underwood can leap over 41 inches high. Seems unfortunate that the Patriots QB lofted a pass to him that the defender could get to in the end zone.

Sorry. Moving on. Don’t get defensive.

Speaking of which…

Vince Wilfork Over Some Money For A Fine: Hey Vince Wilfork, just a thought… if the running back has fallen to the ground, you should probably not hammer him with a forearm and earn a 15-yard penalty. You’re a veteran. Your younger, less-experienced, less-talented teammates look up to you. Keep that in mind.

Devinstatingly Dumb: Speaking of questionable conduct, why on Earth would Devin McCourty commit a pass interference penalty on third and 18? Of all the plays he decides to act aggressively, that’s the one? Next time, let the guy make the catch (for about a 10-yard gain), make the tackle, and force the punt on fourth and long.

Leading 14-3 with 4:30 left in the first quarter, the Pats had a real chance to do some damage if they’d gotten the ball back there. Instead, first down Redskins, an ensuing TD, and a dogfight.

Will this team ever pull it all together for 60 minutes? Hard to say.

On the positive side…

Not To Sound Like A Broken Record, But: Versus Indianapolis, gargantuan playmaker Rob Gronkowski thought he had the record for tight end touchdowns in a single season, but the final TD was deemed a run (Brady’s pass was a lateral). Gronk – or is it The Gronk? – made up for that twice this past week, catching six passes for 160 yards and two TDs.

For the season, Gronkowski has 71 catches for 1,088 yards and 15 touchdown receptions. We’re no defensive coordinators, but we’re pretty sure the Broncos are taking a good, long look at that.

When Wes Is More: Seven pass receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown would be a good game for anyone. For Wes Welker, it’s merely average. The man has 100 receptions for 1,339 yards and nine TDs with three games left. For comparison, number two receiver Deion Branch has 48 for 665 and four. In other words, just under half of each.

The Patriots have some weapons, but they’ll need a near-perfect game to take on the Tebow (He is offense, He is defense, He is special teams). Tough thing for the Pats is, that’s the type of game they haven’t played in weeks.

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]