October 26, 2016

Patriots go for glory in Superbowl XLIX

It’s the culmination of the football calendar and one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The eyes of the planet will be on Arizona on 1 February as the Patriots take on reigning champions Seattle Seahawks. In any Superbowl match-up, the stakes are huge. But this time round, it is a chance for the Patriots and in particular coach Bill Belichick and quarter-back Tom Brady to write their names even more firmly into NFL history.

After 22 games (2 play-offs and 4 pre-season), Belichick’s Patriots will arrive at the University of Phoenix Stadium as the marginal favourites, according to the NFL betting odds on William Hill online. However, there are so many sub-plots and individual match-ups to watch, this is likely to be one of the most evenly contested and intriguing Superbowl games for some time.

Much will be made of the psychological state of the two teams. Seattle are defending their title and displayed their enormous mental strength for all to see during an unbelievable NFC Championship game against Green Bay. Down by 12 points with less than 5 minutes remaining, touchdowns from Russell Wilson and the hugely impressive Marshawn Lynch were the touchstone for an incredible overtime victory. The Seahawks will likely believe that their name is on the Lombardi Trophy. If they do win in Arizona, they will become the first team to retain the trophy since the Patriots in 2004. It would also be a fitting farewell for coach Pete Carroll.

The Patriots by contrast enjoyed the simplest of passages to the Superbowl, crushing Indianapolis 45-7 in the AFC Championship game. In that sense, they are perhaps the more consistent team. They also have plenty to play for. The Belichick era is considered one of the legendary periods of NFL history already. Brady is thought of as one of the sport’s great players. A fourth Superbowl ring for these two Patriots icons will further enhance their legendary status.

So, what is likely to decide the outcome of the big game? In a nutshell, the Patriots can boast a better passing game than their opponents. If Brady can escape the attentions of Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas (both are expected to be fit), then the Patriots will likely assert their authority over the best defence in the game. However, the Seahawks have a Grade A running game, especially considering their outstanding running back Lynch. It’s a close call for the big prize.

Making The Grades – Broncos at Patriots

OK, class. Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you were at all worried about the Patriots Divisional round playoff matchup with the Denver Broncos on Saturday night? How many of you worried that the legend of Tim Tebow would come down off of the mountain top, part the Gillette Stadium turf and ride on to another biblical victory? Who among you was convinced that the combination of Denver’s college style running game, the Patriots season-long problems on defense and Tebow’s mystical ability to metaphorically turn water to wine would spell another first-round, playoff exit, the Pats third in three years? Were you completely convinced that Tebowmania would trump the Pats superiority in talent, skill and experience in pretty much every level of the game?

If any of you have answered yes to any of these questions then I have a bridge to sell you (or at the very least, some holy water). Because what went down in Foxboro on Saturday was a win so thorough, so complete, so exacting, that it almost belied the 45-10 final score. The Broncos were shellacked, lambasted, whipped and swarmed under by a healthy, rested and probably pissed off Pats squad that had to be loving the fact that hardly anyone in either the local or national media breathed a word about them all week long, likely in fear of being struck down by a bolt of lightning for having the temerity to spend one less minute talking about his excellency, Tim Tebow. Instead, the Pats simply came out and played their best, most complete game of the season, perhaps the best game they’ve played as a team since last season’s 45-3, early December, Monday night massacre. The Pats registered 509 yards of total offense while allowing their guests a measly 252 and forcing them into a whopping 14 negative plays. The offense, specifically Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, tied or set multiple records while the defense pushed around its overmatched counterparts with authority and severity. It was a borderline perfect game, a fine way to snap a three-game, post-season losing streak while also building up some momentum for Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card, simple and to the point, just like the Pats blowout win itself.

Overall Grade: A
It seems like a waste of time or at least nitpicky to break the offense and defense down into position groups regarding this game. Everyone out there deserves a big fat A. Yes, Brady threw a bad, first quarter interception, but it was the only lousy throw he made all night out of 34. Sure, Stevan Ridley had a fumble in the third quarter after which he was banished for the rest of the evening. But the score was 42-7 and anyway, the Pats running game at this point is just a means to set up their passing game so Ridley’s miscue can pretty much be written off (although it bears watching, seeing as how he’s fumbled twice in his last two games, whether he gets much run against the Ravens on Sunday). Everything else concerning the offense was pure bliss, from Brady’s vintage, Hall of Fame-esque performance (26-of-34, 363 yards, a record-tying six TDs, five of which came in the first half, good for another record), to Gronk’s 10-catch, 145-yard, three-TD night (tying another record), to Aaron Hernandez’s 116 total yards, 61 of which came on the ground from the running back position, to Deion Branch’s exquisite, 61-yard TD catch and run on which he ran a sideline streak, got one step on his man and hauled in a perfectly thrown, front shoulder pass from Brady before scampering into the end zone (after which CBS’s Phil Simms said, “This may be the best I’ve ever seen Brady throw the football.”). The offensive line, which lost Logan Mankins in the second quarter (another scenario that will warrant close attention headed into Sunday) was pretty much flawless, keeping Brady completely clean save for two hits, shutting out Broncos pass rushing demons Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller and plowing the way for a five yard average on the ground on 30 rushing attempts. Matt Light and Nate Solder in particular were beyond outstanding, taking Denver’s only real threats on defense, the previously mentioned Miller and Dumervil, and rendering them both almost entirely obsolete. Cyborg Gronk must get even more props than he’s already received not just because of yet another other-worldly stat line (his first TD catch, a diving, juggling masterpiece) but because his ability as a blocker is almost as impressive as his ability as a receiver. And, not that we’re complaining, but how can he possibly continue to be so poorly covered in the red zone? On his third TD, he lined up in the slot, ran the same seam route he’s been running 10 times per game all season and was left alone in a dead spot in the Denver zone. Opposing defenses have no answer for him or for A-Herb (tight end/slot receiver/running back). And when you add Wes Welker, who submitted a typical, solid performance (six catches, 55 yards, one TD), it’s hard to imagine even a defense like Baltimore’s, which is not what it once was, making a dent. Of course, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. But it’s difficult not to surmise such possibilities after an offensive explosion like Saturday’s. Everything was so on point, the Pats even scored in the first quarter on their first possession, the first time that’s happened in their last 12 games. Every week is a different one. But this team, its offense in particular, looks pretty unstoppable right now. Can they keep it going for two more games? We’ll see, but all signs point to that being a great, big yes.

Overall Grade: A
Yep, you read that right. The defense gets an A, and the old head nearly exploded when typing out that grade. Once again, so we’re clear – 252 yards allowed, 14 negative plays. Other than a few runs by Willis McGahee on which he powered his way to some extra yardage after initial contact, the Denver offense was nowhere. While part of that is because the Broncos aren’t equipped to play from behind or to rely on the pass (situations in which they found themselves all night), take nothing away from the effort put forth by the Pats, who were completely and totally prepared for Denver’s rushing attack and played with an attitude all night. It started up front where Vince Wilfork, Mark Anderson and the rest of the Pats D-line were at least excellent and sometimes completely dominant all night long. They got plenty of push up there from the get-go, which allowed the linebacking corps of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich to have room to make plays up the middle and to the sidelines. Spikes, in his first full game back since suffering that strained MCL back in early November, was particularly excellent, with six tackles, two for a loss, a sack, a pass breakup, a couple of hits on Tebow and a fumble recovery. More than anything though, Spikes is a tone-setter. He plays with a fire and aggression that seems to filter through himself and onto his teammates. That attitude mentioned earlier came in large part from Spikes and Patrick Chung which makes a lot of sense given how fresh both of them must be after getting a prolonged break due to injuries. Chung had one of the defense’s only boneheaded moments, picking up a late hit penalty in the third quarter for clocking McGahee after he was clearly out of bounds. But his energy was palpable and contributed greatly to setting the tone. Wilfork was the best of the linemen, making life miserable for Tebow with a sack and a half and a couple more hits while looking as active as he has in weeks. And Mark Anderson and Ninkovich both played huge, Anderson because of his play against the run (not even remotely his strong suit) while getting all but one of the defensive reps and Ninkovich for routinely getting pressure on Tebow, rolling up a couple of sacks, forcing a fumble and looking as much like Mike Vrabel as he ever has in doing so. All of this made for a quiet night in the secondary and there’s never anything wrong with that. Even Devin McCourty, who saw time at safety again, needn’t be picked on, not when the opposing QB goes 9-of-26 for 136 yards, posts a 52.7 passer rating and gets sacked five times (one of which even came from Shaun Ellis of all people!). This was the game we’ve been waiting to see if this defense was capable of playing all year. It is. Now, let’s see it repeat its delivery against a team that has a more proficient, professional looking offense. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco is better than Tebow, but he’s not at all great and his receivers good but not stars. The jury is still out. But there has to be so much more confidence engendered from Saturday night’s performance, both on the part of the players and the fans. Suddenly, the idea of this defense needing to play an important role if the Pats are to advance to the Super Bowl is far less daunting.

Overall Grade: A
Not much to report by way of special teams other than Brady giving our man Zoltan a run for his money as the punter. And the crowd, which figured to be somewhat subdued given the brutally cold conditions, was in full throat and very impressive. So let’s devote the majority of this section to the coaching, which was a slam dunk. The Patriots had a major problem handling the Broncos rushing attack back in Week 15 so they fixed what ailed them in that regard and held Denver to just 3.6 yards in 40 attempts. New ways were found to make plays on offense as witnessed by Hernandez’s multiple reps coming out of the backfield. And the focus was impeccable right from the start. Bill Belichick, who tied Chuck Noll for fourth place on the all-time post-season wins list with his 16th, dialed up every single right number in this one and also managed to make his counterpart, Denver’s John Fox, look like a fool in the process. Whether it was letting Gronk go either uncovered or one-on-one with a safety who’s half his size in the red zone or kicking a field goal down by five TDs in the third quarter, Fox had no chance. But lots of folks don’t against Belichick, who couldn’t be touched in this one. Maybe it was Josh McDaniels insider knowledge of the inner workings of the Broncos (which, by the way, will likely no longer be allowed by the league starting next year probably at least somewhat due to all the whining and crying coming out of the Denver media last week). Maybe it was Bill O’Brien wanting to go out on top before he begins his attempt to restore the Penn State football program. Or maybe it was the mere fact that Belichick is one of, if not the, best coaches of all time, even now after all the personnel shortcomings and recent playoff failures. It’s hard to imagine any Pats fan preferring anyone else.

Around The League – Week 17

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

There are a bunch of NFL owners who are stupid, it’s a wonder they made the billions of dollars required to own a franchise. This week, three of those nincompoops – Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie, San Diego’s Dean Spanos and (for the grand prize) Dallas’s Jerry Jones, were in the news for all the wrong, albeit hilarious, reasons. They’re the gifts that keep on giving.

Let’s start in Philly, where Lurie called a press conference to tell the assembled masses that despite his team missing the playoffs and suffering through one of the more humiliating seasons any team has experienced in recent memory even though it spent wads of cash on seemingly every available high-profile free agent during the off-season, he’d be retaining head coach/GM/best friend Andy Reid for a mind-boggling 14th season. Reid, who has never won a title, only advanced to one Super Bowl and lost five NFC Championship games (three of them at home) as well as countless other big games during his tenure, seems to have enough cache in the Eagles organization to set fire to Lincoln Financial Field and still keep his job and all the personnel power that comes with it. Not only has Reid never won anything, he tried to succeed this year by assembling a fantasy team on the fly while simultaneously making his offensive line coach into his defensive coordinator. The Eagles subsequently lost eight of their first 12 games and looked pathetic in doing so, but hey, they won their last four, so why not keep the guy for yet another year. Reid, who would have been fired by most teams at least five years ago, has to have incriminating photos of Lurie or something. It’s hard to imagine being a fan of this team and being sold the same bill of goods (we’re continually OK with being just good enough to never, ever win) year after year. At this point, seeing Lurie actually hold Reid accountable and fire him would be more of a surprise than ever seeing him actually lead his team somewhere special.

Next, we move on to San Diego, where Spanos didn’t fire head coach Norv Turner or GM A.J. Smith despite two straight non-playoff years, declining ticket sales and a steadily aging, rotting core of players on both sides of the ball. Not only that, he actually said, “Bottom line, I believe these two men give us the best chance to win. A.J. Smith is the best man to improve this roster and Norv Turner is the best man to lead that roster onto the field.” No one must have told Spanos that Turner’s career record is below .500 and has made just four trips to the playoffs in 15 seasons as a head coach in San Diego, Oakland and Washington. Or that Smith has presided over four playoff teams that have won a grand total of two playoff games. Even more inexplicably, Spanos told Pro Football Talk, “I’m sure it will be a challenge,” in regard to selling tickets after defending his decision to keep Turner and Smith. In other words, look for the Chargers to continue to not only be nowhere near winning a championship, but keep drifting further from even having a chance to.

And then there’s Dallas, where the court jester Jones, after watching his team lose yet another must-win game and miss the playoffs altogether for the third time in four years, said that the thought of removing himself from the position of his team’s GM has never once crossed his mind. Jones, likely the biggest egomaniac in the NFL, basically came out and said that the main focus of any GM is to procure good coaching and good personnel and that the Cowboys have both of those so therefore, why should he even consider giving up the job? Apparently to Jones, winning one playoff game in 17 years is all the evidence he needs that he’s procured good coaching and personnel. Jones, a glorified carnival barker who cares more about stoking his own ego and selling sponsorships for his $1 billion stadium than winning, is a lost cause. The only coach he’s ever employed who had the sack to stand up to him (and won two Super Bowls doing it) was Jimmy Johnson and he quit rather than continue to work for Jones despite all of his success. Cowboys fans must have been thrilled to see Jones respond to his team missing the playoffs again with his news about staying on as GM. Hey, they’re only about 15 years from their next playoff win. Maybe Jones will have figured out by then that his style doesn’t work. Then again, maybe he won’t.

This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: How good is the Packers offense? With QB/MVP shoo-in Aaron Ridgers sitting out a meaningless game, his backup, former seventh-round pick Matt Flynn, only threw for 480 yards and six, count ‘em, six TDs, setting a couple of new franchise records in a 45-41 win over the Lions.

2. New Orleans: The Saints offensive express kept chugging, rolling up 617 more yards and 45 more points and setting a slew of team and league records in the process while stomping on the Panthers, 45-17. New Orleans should have little trouble with Detroit in this weekend’s Wild Card game; its truest test will be the following weekend at San Francisco, outdoors, against a great defense.

3. New England: Another woeful start, another massive comeback, another win for the Pats who beat Buffalo 49-21 for their eighth straight win. It’s probably safe to say that Pats coaches, players and fans alike are all now huge Cincinnati fans, as the Bengals will be the Divisional Round opponent next Saturday night in Foxboro if they beat Houston tomorrow.

4. San Francisco: The Niners lost their edge a bit late in their 34-27 win over St. Louis, allowing the hideous Rams offense to run off 17 fourth quarter points. But in securing a home game and a bye week, along with their ferocious defense and power run game, there aren’t many other teams who look as traditionally title-ready that San Francisco.

5. Baltimore: The Ravens needed to beat a desperate Cincinnati team on the road to secure the AFC North and a No. 2 seed and they did just that, getting another big game out of Ray Rice (24 carries, 191 yards, two TDs) and ensuring that when they inevitably play the Steelers in the playoffs once again, the game will be in Baltimore.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Tampa Bay: The Bucs, losers of 10 in a row to end the season, quit on their coach, their fans and each other so completely, they trailed the Falcons 42-0 with just under seven minutes to play in the first half on Sunday. Raheem Morris, who was fired the next day (but conceivably could have gotten the gate at halftime of the game against Atlanta) had to have at least partly breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of such a heartless group.

2. Indianapolis: The Colts remembered that winning would cost them the No. 1 overall pick so they packed it in after a two-game win streak and fell to the Jaguars, ensuring themselves the right to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck in a few months. Then on Monday, owner Jim Irsay fired insufferable GM Bill Polian and his son Chris, making it the first smart move Indy has made all year.

3. St. Louis: Give the Rams some credit for not rolling over on now fired coach Steve Spagnuolo, who’s unemployment as of Monday morning was about the surest thing in the league. But at the end of the day, winning 10 of 48 games in three years with seven of those wins coming in year two, was the death knell for Spags.

4. Minnesota: The Vikings showed some decent resilience down the stretch, especially with Adrian Peterson missing so much time. And Jared Allen, who’s 22 sacks would be a record had BrettFavre not literally laid down for Michael Strahan some years ago, is a superstar. But man, has this team fallen far since nearly going to the Super Bowl just two years ago. There’s a long road ahead for Minnesota.

5. Cleveland: Just realized this past week that head coach Pat Shurmer, in his first year at that job, was also the Browns offensive coordinator. Um, that’s a lot of responsibility for anyone, let alone a coach who’s never, you know, coached before. Maybe that’s why the Browns puked up yet another 4-12 season and continue to be one of the league’s darkest outposts.

What’s Trendy
- The Giants: Sure, it was against the Cowboys, who would have found a way to lose to a college team if the game really meant something. But winning on Sunday night to clinch the NFC East and capping off a three-game win streak to take into the playoffs was a real achievement for the Giants. That defensive line looks as fearsome as it did in (gulp) 2007.

- The Bengals: They may have had just a 1-6 record against winning teams and backed into the playoffs. But the fact remains that Cincinnati completely distanced itself for the last days of the putrid Palmer/Ochocinco/ T.O./Jail Bengals era to become relevant once again with a rookie QB and a completely revamped defense. They may not go anywhere (even if they beat Houston tomorrow, it will be all over next week against the Pats) but who cares? Congrats to them on an amazing turnaround.

- The Cardinals: Did you know that Arizona started the year 1-6 but finished it 8-8, just a game out of the post-season? And that they did it with this John Skelton guy taking most of the snaps at QB? There may be something afoot in the desert. Watch out for this team next season.

What’s Not
- The Broncos: Denver didn’t need to win on Sunday at home against the Chiefs to win the awful AFC West. But even though they made it through the back door, losing that game, at home, by a score of 7-3? Pretty disgusting. Tim Tebow is pretty much over, as evidenced by these last three Broncos losses. Next stop, the off-season and a whole new round of questions about Tebow after the Steelers vaporize him and his teammates on Sunday.

- The Raiders: Oakland needed a win to get in so it promptly went out and gave up 38 points at home in a loss to the going nowhere Chargers, setting a new league record for most penalties in a season in the process. What was even better was the enxt day when coach Hue Jackson (who, remember, traded a first and a second round pick for Carson Palmer), ripped his team after the loss while taking zero responsibility for his own complicity in the Raiders 1-4 finish. Jackson seems to be a bit of a power tripper, which likely won’t serve him too well when the team hires a new general manager to oversee his wacky personnel decisions next year. Yep, same ol’ Raiders. Even when they’re better, they’re still a mess.

- The Bears: A day after finishing the season having lost six of seven and missing the playoffs, Chicago fired its general manager but retained head coach Lovie Smith. Not that Smith deserved the gate, but how in the hell is that supposed to work? Even if the new GM doesn’t fire Smith the minute he gets the job and keeps him on as head coach for say, a year (a la Mike Holmgren and Eric Mangini in Cleveland), how does Smith survive long-term? And how will he get through to his players the same way if they know his fate is at the mercy of the new GM who didn’t hire him? If you’re going to clean house, clean house. Don’t half-ass it like the Bears just did.

And finally…
A fond farewell to out favorite bullies/assholes, the Jets, who saw yet another blustery guarantee by coach Rex Ryan go up in smoke with a 19-17 loss to the Dolphins. It was the third straight loss for the Jets, who will miss the playoffs for the first time under Ryan, meaning that it will be at least a couple of hours before he guarantees they win the Super Bowl next year.

In the end, along with an awful performance by GM Mike Tannenbaum in providing depth for the roster headed into this season, the Jets were undone by the culture fostered by Ryan since his arrival in New York three years ago. Players have always been allowed to run amok in the Jets locker room, spouting off whatever comes to mind, respect for anyone else be damned. Ryan has behaved in much the same way over his tenure, routinely shit talking anyone and everyone without stopping for even a second to think about the consequences of his behavior.

Now, the inmates are running the asylum. “Captain” Santonio Holmes basically quit in the middle of the game against Miami, being screamed at to get off the field in the huddle by some of his teammates, then lambasted in the press afterward for being a total selfish piece of shit all season long. It got so bad that even rookie, seventh-round pick Greg McElroy, a QB out of Alabama who didn’t see the field all year, ripped the team’s culture, declaring a “corrupt mindset” had infested the locker room, and discussing instances of players not caring about wins or losses so long as they got theirs. It didn’t help the Jets that they have a terrible quarterback who is worse now than he was as a rookie, have a mediocre running game and play a defense that can’t generate any pressure on opposing QBs even though drawing that up is supposedly Ryan’s strong suit. But the biggest reason why the Jets failed so spectacularly this season is because of Ryan himself and the attitude he encourages from his players every time he opens his big mouth.

The day after his season ended, Ryan was typically defiant. He said, “I’m always going to chase a Super Bowl. I get criticized for it beyond belief. But if you don’t, you’re probably a loser. I’m not a loser.” Oh but you are, Rex. Because what you don’t get is that you get criticized beyond belief not for chasing a Super Bowl, something every coach and player in the league also does. You get criticized beyond belief because you can’t help yourself from constantly talking about it, something very few of those other players and coaches don’t do. If Ryan ever learns to control himself, behave with even an iota of humility and without so much of the unnecessary bombast, maybe he will lead a team to a title one day. From the sounds of it, this disaster of a season did not teach him that, or anything for that matter. So get ready for that guarantee for next year. It’s coming around the bend.

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.

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!

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.

Around The League – Week 13

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Don’t look now, but with four games left to play, guess who’s right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture? It’s the Jets, and boy are they yapping.

Two weeks ago, at 5-5 after excruciating, back-to-back losses to the Patriots and Broncos, the Jets were on the ropes at home against a Buffalo team that had lost its way even more than they had. But the Bills, who were marching down the field for a late fourth quarter comeback, suffered a couple of pass drops and couldn’t recover, allowing the Jets to escape with a 28-24 win. Now, cut to last week, with them down 16-13 to the Redskins in Washington and just under eight minutes left to play. QB Mark Sanchez, who’d been horrid up to that point, took advantage of a long kickoff return and tossed a TD pass to Santonio Holmes for a narrow Jets lead. Four plays later, Redskins QB Rex Grossman, as he always does, turned the ball over, the Jets had their second TD in barely a minute and they sailed right back into everyone’s potential post-season scenarios.

Now, they get Kansas City, which has scored one TD (on a Hail Mary) in its last four games at home followed by a road game against the Eagles, who packed it in against Seattle last week. Suddenly, just a handful of weeks after coach Rex Ryan, who has never met a wildly over reactive statement, positive or negative, he didn’t love, was practically crying at a postgame press conference over his team’s plight (in Week 10, mind you), he’s now telling New York reporters that, “we can beat all those teams,” referring to the AFC squads ahead of the Jets in the standings, and spouting off brags like, “if we get in, watch out.”

As eye-rollingly typical such statements are, especially considering the source, it’s hard to argue. The Jets have been participants in the last two AFC Championship games, both years having to play every post season game on the road. That will likely be the scenario this year too; they aren’t winning the AFC East, but their competition for the final Wild Card (Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, even possibly San Diego) scares few. There are potential roadblocks ahead. Week 16 features a matchup with the Giants that should be a great game and they have to travel to Miami for Week 17 and a game that could decide their playoff fate against a team that has become as tough as any in the AFC over the past several weeks. But given the past, the experience and the bluster, there’s little reason to believe the Jets aren’t at the top of the list to wind up with 10 wins and smash their way in. And as Rex says, after that, watch out.

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. Green Bay: As if we need to laud him any more, Aaron Rodgers nailed down the MVP when he led the Pack on that 80-yard drive in 54 seconds to beat the Giants on Sunday. His pass to Jordy Nelson on that drive which went for 24 yards was likely the single best throw you will see all year.

2. New Orleans: The Saints home game against the Lions nay not have been as daunting as if it’d been played a month ago but it was still a quality win nonetheless, and moved them to 9-3, just a game behind the 49ers for the NFC’s second seed and a first-round bye. Their Week 16 game against the Falcons should ultimately determine their postseason fate.

3. New England: The Pats fall a spot despite winning their fourth straight and topping 30 points again simply because their defense made the 0-12 Colts look like the 2009, 11-0 Colts, and without Peyton Manning to boot. Come on guys, it’s been 12 weeks plus a month and half of preseason. Figure it out!

4. (tie) Baltimore/Pittsburgh: This battle will likely go down to the wire as most between these two division rivals do. The Ravens played down to their competition for the umpteenth time against the Browns (Joe Flacco was outplayed by Colt McCoy for god’s sake) but were rescued by Ray Rice (204 yards on 27 attempts, a robust 7.0 YPA). As for the Steelers, they’ve weathered the storm of Ben Roethlisberger’s litany of injuries (though it was touch and go last night against those same, pesky Browns) and will most likely finish 13-3 provided they get past the Niners on Monday night of Week 15 out in San Francisco. The question is, will the Ravens lose another? Maybe, just maybe that same week at San Diego. But doubtful.

5. San Francisco: The Niners got well on the pathetic Rams, shutting out St. Louis, 26-0. But they have to be alarmed about running back Frank Gore, only their most important player on offense, and Patrick Willis, their most important player on defense. Gore has just 200 yards on 65 attempts in his last four games while Willis strained a hamstring in the Rams game and will likely miss at least one game. The Niners had better hope he’s back for that matchup with the Steelers in a couple weeks.


This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Indianapolis: Give the Colts a lot of credit for hanging in there and nearly stealing last week’s game when the Pats defense tried to give it away. Then remember that they’re 0-12, they haven’t done a single thing to try to improve their team this year (nope, Kerry Collins doesn’t cut it) and that prior to the fourth quarter on Sunday, their linebackers and safeties were running away from Rob Gronkowski, only the league leader in TDs as well as its most prolific red zone target, inside the 20 like he had chicken pox.

2. St. Louis: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tom Brandstater, the Rams likely starter at QB this week, and on Monday Night Football no less. What a disaster.

3. Minnesota: Can’t think of too many other teams that could make Tim Tebow look good as apasser but that’s just what the Vikings did in their 35-32 loss to the Broncos last week. In a related move, the team extended the contract of coach Leslie Frazier for another year this past week. Next, they’ll probably deflate the Metrodome roof again

4. Cleveland: The Browns have scored more than 20 points once all season and reached 20 on one other occasion. Their offense sucks. This is a recording.

5. Jacksonville: The Jags celebrated the post-Jack Del Rio era by getting blown out at home by the Chargers, who came in on a six-game losing streak, on Monday Night. And while we’re here, wouldn’t it be at least slightly humiliating to a Jacksonville fan (presuming there are any) that his or her team is widely referred to as the Jags?


What’s Trendy

- Gary Kubiak, Texans: Kubiak came into this season having not led his team to a single playoff appearance in six years at the helm. It was sort of hard to believe he was still the coach in Houston. But he’s a legit Coach of the Year candidate this year. The Texans are now 9-3 and on the verge of the franchise’s first ever postseason appearance (and perhaps a first round bye) despite burning through two QBs, getting less than six full games out of their star receiver and losing their best defensive player after five games. Owner Bob McNair’s patience has finally paid off.

- The Cardinals: Look who’s won four out of five! Arizona, which at 5-7 now has an outside (and when we say outside, we mean really, really outside) at the playoffs and are healthy for the first time all year. And their doing it with defense; the Cards have only given up five TDs in their last five games.

- The Seahawks: Hard to believe there can be three teams from the NFC West worth mentioning in the same column, but it’s true. After they shellacked the pathetic Eagles last Thursday, Seattle, which has now won three out of four, moved to 5-7 and have that same way, way outside shot at the post-season as the Cardinals. The defense is giving up just over 15 points per game over the last four and running back Marshawn Lynch has gone for over 100 yards (with a high of 148 last week) in four of his last five with five TDs.


What’s Not

- Raheem Morris, Bucs: Tampa hasn’t won in two months and Morris, last year a boy wonder when his team went 10-6 and now potentially out of a job, looks like he’s losing his grip. He kicked his own player, defensive tackle Brian Price, out of last week’s blowout loss at home to the Panthers following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, then dropped a few F-bombs in discussing it with media in the aftermath. Morris is the youngest coach in the league and his team backsliding a bot this year after some early success last year makes a lot of sense. But he’d better get a hold of himself. Even if the Bucs do kick him to the curb after the season, he’s still got plenty of time to get more head coaching jobs. Best not burn too many bridges.

- Jim Schwartz, Lions: Detroit, darlings of the league for the first two months of the season, is now in a semi tailspin and are killing themselves with one stupid penalty after another. It’s not just Ndamukong Suh stomping on guys. It’s receivers getting facemask penalties and piling up offensive pass interference calls. It’s other guys losing their composure and costing the team huge chunks of yardage in unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness penalties. And when Schwartz went berserk on 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after that bizarre postgame handshake back in October, he set the tone for all this hotheadedness. Now, if the Lions want to go anywhere, whether it’s this year or ever, he’s got to get a handle on it.

- Jason Garrett, Cowboys: Someday, Garrett might be a good coach. He has the makings. But someone has to teach him to get out of his own way. Last week, he iced his own kicker in a brutal overtime loss to Arizona, using a timeout about 30 seconds later than he should have. But even more glaring was the fact that he ran so much time off the clock in order to set up a possible game-winning kick from 49 yards away. Garrett was so afraid his offense would screw up if he called time when he actually should have and ran another play, that he cost them a win. It was reminiscent of how badly he mismanaged the clock late in Dallas’s loss to the Pats in October. You have to play to win, you can’t play not to lose. Garrett needs to learn this lesson soon.

And finally…

Since we’re talking about coaches so much, how about Tennessee’s Mike Munchak? Munchak, who made the Hall of Fame after a storied career as an offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers the Tennessee Titans franchise, took over as head coach following the firing of longtime head man Jeff Fisher following last season. No one expected much from the Titans this year; they drafted a quarterback (Jake Locker) in the first round and brought in mostly used up veteran Matt Hasselbeck to keep the seat warm for him. But other than stud running back Chris Johnson, there wasn’t too much there. Yet the Titans are 7-5 and right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. They don’t do anything particularly well; they’re 18th in total defense and 22nd in total offense. But they are sixth in points allowed at 19.1 per game and Johnson, who got off to a brutally slow start following a training camp holdout, is finally running the way he has in the previous couple of seasons, with 343 yards on just 46 attempts in his last two games, both wins.

After hosting New Orleans this week, Tennessee has three straight very winnable games to close out the season, all against division rivals, and could easily finish 10-6. And Munchak, who coached the offensive line for 14 years before taking over for Fisher, has presided over it. He won’t win Coach of the Year; that honor was sewed up by 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh weeks ago. But Munchak deserves votes. The Titans are for real.

Around The League – Week 12

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

This is finally the year for the Houston Texans. Or is it?

Finally, after years of disappointment and zero playoff appearances in franchise history, everything seemed to have come together. The Texans have world class skill players on offense and their defense, long the team’s Achilles heel, has come together under coordinator Wade Phillips. The team even survived injuries to stars Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams. But two weeks ago, QB Matt Schaub went down with a foot injury. And last week, his backup, former college star and NFL draft bust Matt Leinart lasted barely a half before breaking his collarbone. Both are out for the year.

So now, at 8-3, they turn to a rookie, fifth-round pick named T.J. Yates. Nope, I haven’t heard of him either. He nearly gave last week’s win over Jacksonville away; this week he makes his first career start against the surging Atlanta Falcons.

Things are so thin at QB for the Texans, they had to sign Jake Delhomme out of mothballs this past week. And while they’ve showed incredible resiliency to withstand the injuries that have followed them around all year, having to close out the season and potentially make a postseason run with a third string rookie under center may be too much. The Tennessee Titans lurk just a couple games behind and they are set at QB. The two teams will play in Week 17 and Houston’s only challenging game up til that point will likely be at Cincinnati next week (they face the Panthers and Colts between those two games).

Houston is probably far enough along to avoid worrying about pissing away the franchise’s first postseason appearance. But with Schaub (or maybe even Leinart), they looked like a team ready to go fairly far. Now, with Yates, Delhomme and maybe even one of the valets at Reliant Stadium, who knows?

This Week’s Five Best Teams

1. Green Bay: No less of an authority on the topic than Tom Brady said this week that, “it’s impossible to play quarterback better than Aaron Rodgers is playing it right now.” For more evidence to support this claim, look at the numbers – 72 percent completions, 3,475 yards, 33 TDs, four INTs, 127.7 passer rating. Out of this world.
2. New England: With no truly great teams residing outside of Wisconsin, let’s give the Pats this spot, not just because we like them but because they’ve won their last three games by a combined score of 109-39.
3. Baltimore: With a nice, long rest after their dominant performance against the 49ers on Thanksgiving, the Ravens now get to fatten up with a game at Cleveland. Baltimore’s D against a Browns offense that’s scored more than 21 points once all season? Could be ugly.
4. New Orleans: The Saints lambasted the fading Giants on Monday Night Football, rolling up 49 points and nearly 600 yards of offense. This team, experienced and rounding into form, may be as dangerous as any heading into the season’s final month.
5. (tie) Pittsburgh/San Francisco: The Steelers really had to eke one out against the Chiefs and their backup QB and with Ben Roethlisberger’s thumb broken and Troy Polamalu concussed, having won seven of eight may not matter with the Bengals and 49ers coming up in the next three weeks. As for those Niners, they’ll be OK after the loss in Baltimore; they can get well on the Rams this week. But it bears watching going forward how they deal with anyone who matches their physicality and can handle their running game.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams

1. Indianapolis: The Colts fired their defensive coordinator and benched their QB this past week with a game against the Pats looming. Laughable. Heard someone on the radio say today he’s never seen a team so blatantly look like its tanking as this year’s edition in Indy.
2. St. Louis: This season, supposed to be so good, can’t end soon enough for the Rams, who can’t even beat the Cardinals at home and now may have lost QB Sam Bradford again. What a nightmare. Coach Steve Spagnuolo, a Coach of the Year candidate last season, may not survive this, injuries or not.
3. Minnesota: So the Vikings released Donovan McNabb yesterday. And apparently, he wasn’t in shape before they benched him. That’s not a knock on them, it’s a knock on McNabb, who should put himself out to pasture before humiliating himself any further. What is a knock on them is, once again, allowing BrettFavre to hold their franchise hostage for those two years. It’s hard to believe the culture there would have gotten so toxic and lingered on into this year if they’d handled that situation differently..
4. Jacksonville: The Jags, finally, mercifully fired coach Jack Del Rio this week, about three years too late. Classy til the end, Del Rio managed to pass the buck one more time before his ouster, blaming his offensive coordinator (again) for not calling a timeout on a potential game-winning drive last week against Houston. Like calling timeouts isn’t the head coach’s responsibility. Now that Del Rio is gone and the team has been sold to someone apparently bent on keeping it in Jacksonville, maybe the Jags will become at least slightly relevant again.
5. Arizona: The Cardinals are salivating over getting Kevin Kolb (57 percent completions, 77.8 passer rating) back from injury this week. That’s how bad John Skelton, who actually presided over three wins in four games, has been.

What’s Trendy
Chris Johnson, Titans: Tennessee has somehow managed to get to 6-5 without much out of all-world back Johnson. But he finally busted out last week in a win over Tampa, rolling for 190 yards on just 23 carries. It was Johnson’s second 100-plus yard output in three weeks and given the Texans issues at QB, he may be rounding into form just in time for a playoff run.
A.J. Green, Bengals: Cincy’s rookie QB Andy Dalton has gotten more of the publicity, but first-round pick Green has quietly proven to be one of the best receivers in the AFC. He has 745 yards on 44 catches (16.9 YPC) and six TDs. Better yet, coach Marvin Lewis said this week, “He’s the best first-round pick I’ve ever been around. He continues to amaze me every day.”
The Cowboys: In winning four in a row and five out of seven, Dallas has gotten big-time performances out of its defense. In those seven games, the Cowboys have allowed over 20 points just twice, none of them during the four-game winning streak. Two games against the Giants in the last four weeks will decide their season, but right now they look pretty good.

What’s Not
Mike Martz, Bears: The Chicago offensive coordinator, who has a history of saying dumb things at bad times, ripped his players for screwing up a throwback screen pass in a loss to the Raiders last week. “I’ve done that for 20 years and it’s never anything but a good play, really,” Martz said. “We didn’t execute it. Screens aren’t hard.” This is the second time this year Martz has gotten on his players for not handling his calling of a trick play to his satisfaction. That’s two times too many.
DeSean Jackson, Eagles: Two weeks after getting benched for missing a team meeting, Jackson, Philly’s wildly talented, hare-brained receiver/kick returner, dropped two TD passes in the Eagles blowout loss to the Pats and was benched again. These drops came a week after he broke a big play against the Giants, then flipped the ball at their defensive coordinator after getting run out of bounds and incurring a 15-yard penalty as a result and a week before being front and center in the Eagles disgraceful loss to the Seahawks last night. In a league full of knuckleheads, Jackson is near the top of the list.
The Giants: Speaking of the G-Men, they’ve now lost three straight following a win over the Pats after which they acted like they’d just won the Super Bowl. Sure, they’ve had a tough schedule (at San Fran, vs. Philly, at New Orleans) and this week they have to play the Packers. But this kind of swoon in such a wide open division, while at least slightly typical of the Giants, could kill their playoff chances, which in turn could finally spell the end for coach Tom Coughlin.

And finally…
Welcome to the world of unconscionable knuckleheads, Rolando McClain. In his hometown of Decatur, AL, for his grandfather’s funeral, McClain, a second-year linebacker for the Raiders drafted in the first round last year, somehow found himself involved in a bar fight, pulled a gun, fired it into the air among a crowd and, perhaps most shockingly, held to a man’s head while the man begged him not to shoot. He was charged with menacing, assault, reckless endangerment and firing a gun inside city limits.

Forget for a second the charges or the potential outcomes. Instead, think about what the hell McClain was doing carrying that gun and why the hell he felt like he needed to pull it. This guy is a millionaire professional athlete. He has everything he could ever possibly want and then some. And now, not only has he put his team in a horrible position (in a season said team is actually a threat for the first time in eons), he’s risked everything his talent has awarded him. He was released from jail on bond yesterday and will probably play in the Raiders game at Miami this weekend. Which in turn will probably enable the idea that he did nothing wrong and could well do it again. Knucklehead.

Around The League – Week 11

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
The Patriots play the Eagles this week and while some of this space has always been reserved for critiques of the Philadelphia coach, there hasn’t been too much time spent on the actual team. So why not start now?
At 4-6, there are few teams in the league as disappointing as the Eagles. When the lockout ended, Philly went nuts, throwing big money and huge contracts at one name free agent after another. The Eagles brought in the top two corners on the market (Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie), top-flight pass rusher (Jason Babin), one of their arch rivals biggest weapons (Steve Smith) and a couple former top-five picks (Vince Young, Ronnie Brown) while also lavishing QB MIchael Vick with the second $100 million contract of his career.Young, always thinking, referred to them as the “Dream Team.” Breathless experts picked them to win the Super Bowl. And then, the games started. Philly lost four in a row after winning in Week 1 then pissed away a modest, two-game winning streak with a couple more losses. There have been breakdowns in every area; the offense, the defense, the special teams, even the locker room atmosphere have all been compromised in one way or another. Four losses have come in games they led in the fourth quarter. The Eagles feel like a fantasy team trying to play real football. There doesn’t seem to be much common ground on this team. And, their head coach being Andy Reid and all, they are wilting under the pressure of their gigantic expectations.

Philly isn’t quite buried yet. After beating the Giants last week, the Eagles are 4-6 but are 3-1 in the NFC East. Getting to five wins in the division would be huge but first and foremost, they have to win every week to keep pace with the Cowboys, now atop the standings and who they will play in Dallas on Christmas Eve. To put it bluntly, they are desperate and already in playoff mode. Add that to the fact that they are oozing with talent on offense, with the league’s No. 1 rusher LeSean McCoy leading the way, and they are also dangerous. If they beat the Pats, the Eagles have a couple of winnable games (Seattle, Miami) on tap and could be back over .500 just like that. And given both the Cowboys and Giants propensity to puke on their shoes when it matters most, they could sneak into a wild card spot with a few breaks.

Or they may lose again on Sunday, finish 6-10 and finally, finally make a coaching change. That’s the more likely scenario.

This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: Surprise! The Packers blew out the Lions on Turkey Day, are now 11-0 for the first time in franchise history and have won 17 straight games going back to last season. Also, just read that through 11 games, Aaron Rodgers passer rating is 128.0. In 2007, when the Patriots were 11-0, Tom Brady’s passer rating was 127.9. Unreal stuff.
2. New Orleans: This is almost a default pick, as the Saints were on a bye last week. But their experience, super powers on offense and fantastic QB/coach combo give them the edge over a host of excellent, just not Green Bay, NFC contenders.
3. (tie) Baltimore/Pittsburgh: Fitting that these two teams are so so close together this year. What separates them are the Ravens two head-to-head wins but it’s hard to think of two rivals who are as similar in so many ways as these AFC North foes. Baltimore took on the super tough, physical 49ers last night and beat the snot out of them in winning a game that felt a lot like most of their games against the Steelers. Some day, the Ravens will figure out how to avoid playing down to lousy competition. But as constituted, they are a tough, tough team and their defense looks like it’s rounding into form. Oh and by the way, Pittsburgh fans: After the win over San Francisco, Ray Rice called the Niners, “the best team we’ve played all year.” Just so you know.
4. San Francisco: Give the Niners a lot of credit for hanging in with the Ravens as long as they did. Their limited offense was exposed somewhat in the 16-6 loss, which snapped an 8-game winning streak; their line couldn’t protect QB Alex Smith to the tune of nine sacks and they gained just 170 total yards (only 96 passing, an astonishing stat). The circumstances of the game did them no favors either (see below). But this is a powerful team. The Niners defense is awesome; anyone who goes toe-to-toe with their front seven is in deep shit. But if they meet a defense playing anywhere near the caliber of Baltimore’s in the playoffs, it may be a quick exit.
5. Dallas: Can you believe it? The Cowboys have won three in a row and the last two were of the close, late-game drive variety, situations in which they usually fail miserably. At 7-4 following their Thanksgiving win over Miami, the ‘Boys lead the NFC East outright but have another game against the Eagles and two against the Giants in their last five. Let’s see how Tony Romo and Jason Garrett do in December in all those division games when the lights are really bright. And then, let’s see what Coach Jones says.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Indianapolis: The Colts didn’t play last week but that didn’t get them any closer to vacating their spot at the head of the crap class. Food for Thanksgiving thought: Indy is last, second to last or third to last in seven of the eight major stat categories on offense and defense.
2. St. Louis: If the Rams were ever going to get anything going, it was last week at home against division rival Seattle, a team almost as bad as they are. Instead, they were blown out, not managing a single drive of more than 42 yards, gaining just 185 total yards and gaining less than three yards per play.
3. Carolina: Cam Newton is practically a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year and the Panthers have a handful of other very good players on that side of the ball. But their defense, which blew a 24-7 lead against Detroit en route to a 49-35 loss, is atrocious. They play the Colts this week which should be a win. But if Carolina can’t even slow down the woeful Indy offense, that will be the most telling sign of all.
4. Jacksonville: After a bevy brainless play calls in the waning seconds of last week’s 14-10 loss at Cleveland, a game which the Browns were practically trying to give away, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said, “Our offensive coordinator calls the plays. I can’t get to his thinking. You’ll have to get with him.” Del Rio, one of the biggest assholes in the league, did nothing to dispel that notion with such patently absurd comments. So I guess he wasn’t informed of those play calls by his offensive coordinator (whose name is Dirk Koetter, by the way) even though he’s the head coach, was wearing a headset that allows him to hear whatever is being said or called by his coaching staff and has final say on everything. The NFL will be a better place when Del Rio isn’t one of its coaches anymore following this season.
5. (tie) Minnesota/Arizona: The Vikings fought valiantly against the Raiders, nearly making up a 27-7 deficit, but were undone by five turnovers and the loss of Adrian Peterson, only their best player by far, to an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the Cards, who’d shown signs of life under backup John Skelton in winning two in a row, crashed hard back to the surface with a 23-7 loss to the 49ers in which Skelton was 6-of-19 for 99 yards, three picks, a fumble, a less-than-robust 10.5 passer rating and a merciful benching.

What’s Trendy
Carson Palmer, Raiders: Since coming out of “retirement” following his trade from Cincinnati to Oakland, Palmer has led the Raiders to a couple of wins in three starts and thrown six TDs while completing over 70 percent of his passes in the two wins. The Raiders are decent this year for the first time in eons and in the crappy AFC West, they’re likely to make the playoffs unless something crazy happens. Palmer, who is looking as good as he has in years and is the best QB Oakland has had since Rich Gannon, may be just the right guy to lead this franchise even further.
The Broncos Defense: Perhaps lost in the whirlwind of Tebowmania is the Denver D, which has been outstanding during a three-game winning streak. Over that stretch, this group has allowed an average of just 15.7 points per game, picked off four passes and gotten otherworldly efforts from pass rushing demons Elvis Dumervil and rookie, second overall draft pick Von Miller. Miller has 9.5 sacks on the year, 3.5 in the last three games while Dumervil has registered four during the same time frame. Given how spotty the offense has been (even though they’ve been winning with Tebow), the Broncos have to be thrilled their D has come together and kept them in games.
Matt Ryan, Falcons: Finally, after weeks of mediocrity, Matty Ice has seemed to find his groove. Atlanta has won four of five and over the course of that run, Ryan has thrown eight TDs against just two picks, with at least 275 yards passing in each of the last three. With the Vikings on tap this week, look for another strong game out of the former BC star.

What’s Not
Ndamukong Suh, Lions: Already saddled with a reputation as a dirty player, Suh, Detroit’s star defensive tackle, did himself no favors by slamming a Green Bay O-lineman’s head to the turf three times then standing up and kicking the same guy in the arm, earning himself an ejection. Not only that, Suh’s thoughtless actions came after his defense had actually stopped the Packers on third down which gave Green Bay another shot. Predictably, the Pack scored a TD two plays later. Suh is a truly great player, a real difference-maker as a pass rusher and a run stuffer. But he is also a terrible knucklehead and his misbehavior seems to happen with regularity. If Suh wants to be a truly special player, he’ll grow up. Fast.
Mark Sanchez, Jets: Now in the home stretch of his third year in the league, Sanchez doesn’t look too much better than he did as a rookie. He rarely plays like shit, but he never seems to be able to engineer the Jets offense to rally or come from behind and always seems to make at least a couple massive mistakes which usually cost his team dearly, like his inexcusable pick-6 against the Broncos last Thursday night. It wasn’t his fault that the Jets supposedly great defense rolled over for Tebow in the waning minutes of that game. But if the Jets, now 5-5, truly are contenders, as coach Rex Ryan continually guarantees they are, it’s getting very close to referendum time on whether Sanchez is really the man.
The Bills: I hate to include teams multiple weeks in a row on this list but poor Buffalo looks as cooked as my turkey from earlier. After getting run off the field in Miami to the tune of a 35-8 final score, giving them three straight losses by a total margin of 106-26, the Bills discovered that running back Fred Jackson, only their best player by a mile, would miss the rest of the season with a broken fibula. This is the second time in four years the Bills have played like a playoff team through September and October only to completely fall off the map by Thanksgiving. The enxt time it happens, sadly, it won’t be that much of a surprise.

And finally…
What’s with the schedule makers anyway? Why did the 49ers have to travel East to play Baltimore on a short week, their fifth trip to this time zone of the year, and resulted in a 16-6 loss? Sure Baltimore was on their schedule. And the two teams’ head coaches being brothers is a storyline made for primetime. But then why couldn’t the game be played on Sunday or Monday night? Home field advantage is bigger in football than in any other sport. When a team has to travel 3,000 miles to play during a regular week, it’s usually even bigger big. So in a four-day week? Yikes. There are scheduling quirks that make little sense every year. Teams often have to play three road games in a row (like the Jets, who played at Oakland, at Baltimore and at the Pats in consecutive weeks earlier this season and lost all three times) and that in itself doesn’t seem very fair. We all know this is a business and the TV contracts rule. But why put any team at a further competitive disadvantage just for sake of a good story?  Bad NFL, bad.

Patriots Buffet Table – Chiefs at Patriots

by Patriots Daily Kitchen Staff

Chiefs coach Todd Haley is incredibly superstitious. He has the second largest rabbit foot collection in the NFL (behind Rex Ryan duh). He also scored the lowest in “Plays well with others” in each of his four years in kindergarten.

What to eat?

Ol’ friend Miz is preparing Korean BBQ beef this week, or Bulgogi.

Todd Haley also happens to be the Dear Leader’s favorite football coach. After Dear Leader himself that is, he did lead the People’s Korea team to 43 straight Super Bowl wins.

Miz’s Bulgogi

1.5 lbs. thinly sliced ribeye steak purchased from a Korean market. You can slice your own ribeye across the grain in thin slices. Freezing the beef for about an hour helps to cut clean slices.
1/2 cup of soy sauce
3 Tbl white sugar
1 Tbl sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium yellow onion sliced
2 green onions including the white parts, finely sliced into small pieces
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds
1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp grated ginger
black pepper, note no salt because of the soy sauce

Combine all ingredients except beef and onions in a bowl. When the sugar has dissolved, add beef and onion slices and stir to coat. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. As the beef is cut so thinly this does not need multiple hours or overnight to marinade.

Cook directly over high heat, keep an eye on it as it will cook very quickly.

You can also find presliced, already marinaded Bulgogi at Trader Joes. Todd Haley can’t go there though he thinks Hawaiian shirts are unlucky. Silly Todd it’s the tiki idols that have bad juju.

What to drink?

Within the past few months Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City has started to distribute to New England. As you can see on their site they make over a dozen different beers. However they’re only shipping their Smokestack series here.

It’s becoming a common theme, where a brewery will enter new markets only with their bigger more limited beers. I guess the idea is the market already has enough IPAs, Stouts and Wheat beers, but the big versions travel well, can stand sitting on shelves a little longer if necessary.

Boulevard is sending five on a year round basis. These can be found in either 4 packs of 12 ounce bottles for $11-$12. Or 750ml bottles for about $10. The 4 packs are the better value.

Double Wide IPA, a double IPA 8.5% ABV and pretty full in body for a double IPA. This one pushes the line between Double IPA and a light American Barleywine. Hoppy in a floral way, with a lot of caramel flavor.

Long Strange Triple, only available in the 750 ml bottles. 9% ABV and holds it’s own against imported Tripels. Highly carbonated.

Sixth Glass, a 10.5% Belgian style Quadruple. Quads are sort of a hybrid between a Triple and a Belgian Strong Dark, but bigger than most Strong Darks and all Tripels. Like most this one is made with Belgian Candi Syrup which gives distinct plummy dark fruit flavors. Highly carbonated.

Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale a strong Saison at 8%. This one could just as easily be considered a Belgian IPA. The hops are strong enough in flavor if not bitterness. Probably the most drinkable of all the Boulevard beers shipped to New England. This is the one I’d drink more than one of in a sitting.

Dark Truth Stout a 9.7% Imperial Stout. A big, dark beer full of coffee and chocolate flavors. Uses rye, wheat and oats in addition to barley. Not as hoppy as some Imperial Stouts.

They’re also sending seasonals. I’ve seen two so far, and only in the 750ml bottles.

Nommo Double, 8% ABV Dubbel. Contrasted to the Long Strange Triple, Nommo is slightly lower in alcohol, but has a fuller body and spicier taste. It also has some dark fruit flavors but not as much as in the Sixth Glass. It is the Fall seasonal, but you’ll probably see it in stores after most of the Octoberfests and Bartles & James Pumpkin Coolers are gone.

Harvest Dance Wheat Wine, in simple terms a Barleywine made with wheat. This Winter seasonal comes in at 9.1% ABV. The oak contributes vanilla and even a touch of coconut. Wheat can have a tart flavor, I think as of a result of it seeming less sweet than a barley beer. Highly carbonated. Smuttynose brewed the first beer of this style and were the ones to get the Federal regulations changed to allow the “Wheat Wine” name. Others have followed. Technically I believe the name is “Wheat Wine style Ale”, so people can’t be “mislead” into thinking it’s Wine instead of Beer. Yayyy regulation.

Another good way to try a few is through the gift pack. 4 12 ounce bottles one each of Double Wide IPA, Dark Truth , Sixth Glass and Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale as well as a glass. Sells for about $18. These stronger beers aren’t for everyone, so it’s nice to have a way to buy singles. Great thing to buy for presents too, but more on that later.

Around The League – Week 10

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
It’s a total crapshoot in the AFC.The two teams with the best records are Pittsburgh and Houston and both have some big chips stacked against them. The Ravens and Patriots are severely flawed. The Bengals, while a nice story, are probably not there yet. The Titans, after a good start, are swimming in inconsistency and mediocrity. And anyone who truly believes in a single AFC West team might well not be playing with a full deck.

Let’s start with the Texans. They are 7-3 and seemed poised to make their first ever postseason appearance. They still may well, but will have to do it without QB Matt Schaub, who broke his foot in last week’s win over Tampa and is out for the year. Houston has won games without its two best offensive players not named Schaub, running back Arian Foster and receiver Andre Johnson, as well as it’s best defensive player, Mario Williams. But without their QB? And with career disappointment Matt Leinart taking over? We’ll see.

The Pats obviously have major issues on defense, regardless of last week’s monster effort against the Jets. Baltimore beats good teams (Houston, Pittsburgh twice) but follows up wins like that with inexplicable duds against the likes of Jacksonville and Seattle (last week, on the heels of a huge, comeback win over the Steelers, the Ravens chose to give star back Ray Rice five carries while letting massively inconsistent QB Joe Flacco throw 52 passes against the Seahawks. Um, what?). The Jets (5-5) are no more than trick-or-treaters and if their 21-point home loss to the Pats didn’t tell you that, their hideous loss to the Broncos last night should. And the West is a carousel of confusion, with division leading Oakland following up a blowout loss at home to Denver with a blowout win on the road against the perpetually disappointing Chargers just four days later.

At the end of the day, there will be six playoff teams from the AFC (likely Pittsburgh, the Pats, Houston, Oakland, Baltimore and either the Jets or Bengals, in that order), just like in every other year. And naturally, one of those six teams will go to the Super Bowl. But given the way the first 10 weeks of this season have played out, it’s hard to have much faith in any of them.

This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: Granted, the competition was weak (Minnesota), but the Packers made their 45-7 win on Monday night look so easy, it was borderline effortless. The production on offense, which comes from everywhere, continues to amaze. This is the best team in the NFL since the 2007 Patriots.
2. San Francisco: The most impressive aspect of the Niners 27-20 win over the Giants? The fact that stud running back Frank Gore carried six times for zero yards yet QB Alex Smith still managed to lead the offense to over 300 total yards and the victory. San Francisco keeps passing every test it takes and after Thanksgiving night at Baltimore, has just one more game on the schedule against a team with a winning record.
3. Pittsburgh: The Steelers bounced back from their brutal loss to the Ravens with a gutty, division win on the road over the upstart Bengals. Now they can enjoy a much needed bye week, which will give Ben Roethlisberger’s bad thumb a little extra time to heal.
4. New Orleans: The Saints hit the bye on a good note, having beaten the Falcons despite a blown, late lead thanks to Atlanta coach Mike Smith failed gamble on fourth-and-1 from his own 30 in overtime. Their next two games after the week off will be very tough (Giants, Lions) but they get em both at the Superdome.
5. (tie) Giants/Bears: The G-men were nine yards from another rousing, late-game comeback at San Francisco while the Bears annihilated the Lions at home and are looking as good as if not better than they did at any point during their NFC Championship game run from last season. Both of these teams will make the playoffs and both will likely be factors.

This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Indianapolis: 0-10 and more lunatic statements from team president Bill Polian (this week, he said that coach Jim Caldwell is doing a better job this season than at any other point during his tenure, a stretch that includes a Super Bowl trip two years ago) but at least their fans don’t have to watch them play this week. The Colts have been outscored 137-27 in their last four games.
2. Minnesota: There are a host of teams at 2-7 but the Vikings probably have the most talent of any of them. They were vaporized in Green Bay on Monday night in a game that was over eight minutes into the first quarter. At one point, ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico noted that coach Leslie Frazier had the job because of how well he handled various controversies last season after being named interim head man. Because who cares if he can actually, you know, coach.
3. Carolina: The Panthers had the look of a team that was on the cusp but were just too young and inexperienced to make that leap yet for weeks. Then they got absolutely rolled by Tennessee, a team that pretty much defines mediocrity. There’s a bright future for Carolina but it’s nowhere near coming to fruition.
4. Cleveland: Folks have been writing/saying the the Denver Broncos offense is setting pro football back by decades. What about the Browns? They have no chance to score. As a team, they’ve scored one TD in their last four games. Yuck.
5. (tie) St. Louis/Washington: The Rams were the beneficiary of Cleveland’s ineptitude on offense last week, riding out a dull 13-12 win to move to 2-7. As for the Redskins, they put Rex Grossman back in at QB in their most recent loss and surprise! They had two more turnovers, gave up three more sacks and failed to score more than 13 points for the fourth time in five games. Washington has now lost five in a row and looking at its schedule, one more win this year would be a stunner. Which will probably earn “genius,” “elite,” “offensive mastermind” coach Mike Shanahan a contract extension.

What’s Trendy
Tim Tebow, Broncos: Speaking of the Broncos, who cares if Tebow completes just two passes in a game (out of just eight attempts) like last week at Kansas City? Or that they are the only team in 20 years to win a game when its QB completes so few? Tebow’s a winner, for god’s sake. Look what he did against the Jets last night. 12 plays in 95 yards in the last three minutes (five Tebow runs, three complete Tebow passes, a game-winning, 20-yard TD jaunt). The modern game be damned! And if you’re offended that the Broncos have now won four of five and are firmly entrenched in the muddled AFC playoff picture even though it’s been done basically running a college offense? Get over yourself. Wins are what matters, not aesthetics. Tebow for life!
Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks: In Seattle’s last two games, Lynch has run the ball 55 times for 244 yards and two TDs. For a team as limited at quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson?!?!) as the Seahawks, that’s pretty important.
John Skelton, Cardinals: The Cards traded for Kevin Kolb to fix their unsettled QB situation but it looks like the possible answer was right under their noses. Kolb went 1-6 before getting hurt and Skelton is 2-0 since, including a massive, road win over the Eagles last week. Kolb is still not healthy enough to play but if Skelton can engineer another victory this week – on the road against the Niners – he has to keep the job.

What’s Not
The Bucs: This season was supposed to be the next step for Tampa, which won 10 games last year and looked like one of the league’s best up-and-comers. But there’s been a major step back as they’ve now lost four of five, including a 37-9 shellacking at home to the Texans last week. NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi wrote this week that, “there’s nothing the Bucs do well.” Ouch.
The Bills: Another great start looks to going down in flames for the star-crossed, Western New York franchise. Buffalo was 3-0 and 4-1 but is now 5-4 and have road games against the Jets and Patriots still on the docket. Bills fans deserve something better than just a good Septmeber. It looks like they may have to wait another year for it.
The Eagles: Another loss, again at home and again with a fourth quarter lead against a team with nowhere near the talent level they have. It’s the same old song for poor Eagles fans, who must be thrilled that owner Jeff Lurie has once again given them the metaphorical finger but continuing to back woeful head coach Andy Reid. The culture in Philly, as has been mentioned here ad nauseum, is to collect players, have Reid completely mismanage them and do just enough to never, ever win anything of note with zero repercussions. Even if the Eagles bounce back from this most recent mess they find themselves in and go from 3-6 to something like 8-8, Reid has got to go. At what point does underachieving every single year become grounds for some kind of negative consequences? It would seem in Philly that the answer is never.

And finally…
In the interest of giving every team (even the shitty ones) a fair shake here at PD, let’s take a quick look at the upstart Miami Dolphins, who have gone from being a laughingstock on the level of the Colts to a legitimate threat on the in the span of four games. Sure, they’re just 2-7 and they not only have no chance of making the playoffs but their coach, Tony Sparano, will surely be fired after the season even if they run the table (note: they won’t). But during their two-game win streak, they’ve outscored their opponents (Kansas City and Washington) 51-12. And in their previous two games, both losses, they fell by a combined six points and led each game into the fourth quarter. This week, they get the reeling Buffalo Bills at home, where they just won their first game since late in the 2009 season. And after that, they play the Cowboys on Thanksgiving and anyone who’s watched a football game over the past 15 years knows that Dallas is fully capable of losing to anyone at any time. At 0-7, the Dolphins could have packed it in and staggered to the finish line in the hopes of getting the first pick in the 2012 Draft and selecting Stanford star QB Andrew Luck. But they kept working, kept fighting and now, although they are more than likely out of the Luck sweepstakes, at least have a modicum of self-respect. It’s an impressive feat. Miami is the best lousy team in the NFL.

Making The Grades – Patriots at Jets

By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff

Boy was that fun. I mean really, being a follower of the New England Patriots and seeing them not only beat their arch-rival, the New York Jets, on the road, in a game many predicted them to lose and do it in decisive, humiliating fashion? Absolutely outstanding. the 37-16 final score hardly does it justice. And lest we forget, it was a win that hearkened back to the glory days of 2003-2004, when no-names like Earthwind Moreland and Randall Gay and Hank Poteat roamed a secondary that also featured none other than all-time Pats receiver Troy Brown. On Sunday night, people named Jeff Tarpinian and Sterling Moore joined the likes of Antwuan Molden, Phillip Adams, James Ihedigbo and Tracy White to produce the Pats best, wire-to-wire defensive effort of the season. It didn’t hurt that bigger names/old standbys like Andre Carter, Rob Ninkovich and Mark Anderson came up huge. Or that Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is absolutely horrendous (64.7 passer rating against this secondary). Or that after another lethargic first-half, the Pats offense turned to the no-huddle and the decision not only liberated Tom Brady from his near month-long funk but flummoxed the Jets so thoroughly that one has to wonder what exactly was going through the heads of Rex Ryan and his defensive staff when they were game planning last week. That makes two wins in two tries for the Pats against the Jets this season and two times Bill Belichick and company coached circles around Ryan and his minions as well (which may have something to do with Ryan saluting one of his team’s die-hard fans in such a typically classy manner). The Pats needed this win about as badly as they’ve needed any in the regular season in a long time and they got it done in style. So with that, let’s get to this week’s report card.

Quarterbacks: A-
Kind of touch-and-go again for a while with Brady, who looked skittish, off-kilter and flustered for most of the first half. He threw 25 passes before the break and completed just 1 of them and even though the pass protection was mostly good, he still rushed more than a handful of throws and got an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety. Brady was lucky to emerge from the first half relatively unscathed (he should have had at least two picks) but at the end of the half, after Sanchez presented yet another reason why he’s simply not a good QB by calling a timeout with the Jets down near the Pats goal line (which in turn allowed Brady and the Pats offense 30 extra seconds with which to operate on a half-ending drive that ended in a TD), the resurgence began. Brady led a spotless, six-play, 80-yard drive in 1:11 on which he was 5-of-7, the final completion being a feathery, perfectly placed lob to Rob Gronkowski just out the reach of a defender for a score and a lead the Pats would never relinquish. He kept up the pace in the second half, completing 12-of-14 passes for 106 yards and two more scores, doing a majority of his damage with the Pats still firmly ensconced in hurry-up mode. On more than one occasion, he was able to buy enough time (with the help of the O-line) to let his receivers get away from the Jets secondary’s coverage and still make plays. And his accuracy and sharpness seemed to increase exponentially as the game went on. He audibled fairly frequently with nearly every decision being the right one (one choice, which was a super quick rocket to Deion Branch in the flat for 17 yards while the Jets defense was still scurrying around trying to get set was particularly awesome) and just generally resembled the Brady of the previous 10 seasons as opposed to the impostor who’s been showing up since the Dallas game. Overall, 26-of-39, 329 yards, three TDs, no picks, 8.4 yards per pass attempt, a 118.4 passer rating, no sacks taken, hit only once. Welcome back, Tom. We missed you.

Running Backs: C
The night’s only real weak spot, there wasn’t much there for any Pats backs except Danny Woodhead, who ripped off a few nice gainers as Brady’s no-huddle backfield mate and finished with 38 yards on just seven carries (5.4 YPA). The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, perhaps suffering from his nagging toe injury a little more than anyone realizes, put up his second stinker in three weeks, managing just eight yards on eight carries. Benny can’t put up numbers if he’s not in the game getting the ball but in his past four games (since the first Jets game in which he blew up for 136 yards and two TDs on 27 carries), he’s carried the ball 37 times for 127 yards and zero scores. And what’s become of Stevan Ridley? Sure, he’s playing behind a couple people, but his breakout games against Buffalo and Oakland seem like years ago as opposed to a few weeks. On a positive note, even though he didn’t see a lot of action, it was nice to see Kevin Faulk back on the field. The Pats can’t be running the ball 28 times per game and only gaining 60 yards. Clearly, the running game needs to be addressed in some fashion.

Wide Receivers: B
Not too much to report here either given the prevalence of Gronkowski in the passing game, but still a fair amount of positives to mention. Ryan made the decision to take Wes Welker away so he put his superstar corner, Darrelle Revis on the Pats top receiver and basically got what he wanted. Welker had six catches for 46 yards, statistically right there with the loss to Pittsburgh as his quietest game of the season. But, as most of the rest of his offensive teammates did, he made an impact when the tide turned to the no-huddle. Five of his six grabs came in the second half and even though the production wasn’t where it’s been in previous games, Welker has become such a major threat, his mere presence can open things up for everyone else under the right circumstances and Sunday night, that’s what happened. Branch bounced back nicely from his virtual no-show against the Giants last week with five catches for 58 yards and the Pats last offensive TD, on which he was left uncovered at the top of the formation, took a hitch from Brady, made one quick hesitation move as a Jets safety ran right by him and strolled into the end zone, imitating insufferable Jets fan Fireman Ed as a celebration (and while we’re at it, considering what a overenthusiastic, self-aggrandizing, over-hyped buffoon Fireman Ed is even though the Jets haven’t won a single game of consequence in over 40 years, can you imagine how much worse it’d be if they did win something?). And even Chad Ochocinco got in on the festivities, catching two passes for 65 yards in the first half, the second of which, a 53-yarder, was a perfectly executed route that froze multiple Jets DBs and left No. 85 so wide open, if he’d not caught it, there would have been grounds for him being the first player cut in the middle of a game in NFL history. Small steps, Chad. Keep it going.

Tight Ends: A
At this point, a legitimate case could probably be made for Gronk to be an Offensive Player of the Year candidate. He caught eight more passes for 113 more yards and two more TDs and now has 52 receptions, 709 yards and eight scores on the year. Everyone gushed over Gronk during and after the game; NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, Ryan, Brady, etc. And why not? He’s the best tight end in the NFL, able to dominate both as a pass catcher and a blocker. More than one of his catches on Sunday night required a lunge or a dive or at least a long reach but Gronk seems to be able to do all of those things and make them look easy. There were a couple of throws from Brady on which the two looked as if there may have been a slight bit of miscommunication. But for all the good that Gronk does, a couple of missteps (and a ridiculous celebration penalty for having the temerity to spike the ball after a score) here and there are allowable. Gronk was so good in this one, not only did Ryan put Revis on him at times in the second half, but he made his fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, practically invisible despite a respectable, 4-catch, 41-yard performance. Welker may be the most important Patriot on offense not named Brady. But damn is Gronk closing the gap.

Offensive Line: B
There was Logan Mankins’ weekly penalty, the second botched shotgun snap in two weeks by Dan Connolly and nothing whatsoever out of the running game. But Brady had all day to throw all night long and that’s thanks to the O-line. With the exception of the safety, a play on which Sebastian Vollmer was turned around by Jets linebacker Jamaal Westerman, no one got anywhere near Brady at any point in the game. He had so much time to throw, especially in the second half, on a couple of plays it was borderline funny. The Jets aren’t one of the better pass rushing teams in the league anyway; the strength of their defense is further back. But Brady’s uniform may not have even had to go in the laundry after this one. Particular kudos must go to right guard Brian Waters, a veteran free agent who came in well into training camp and has been pretty much flawless ever since (after the game, Brady said of Waters, “Brian’s a great example for all the young players of what it takes to be a true professional.”) and Matt Light, who played arguably his best game of the season. Again, it’s imperative the Pats figure out why they had so much trouble running the ball on Sunday night. But when the line is protecting Brady as well as it did in this game, such issues become slightly less pressing.

Defensive Line: A
Hail Andre Carter. Other than Wilfork, he’s been the most consistent, steady, excellent member of the Pats defense throughout the season and it all became as apparent as ever on Sunday night. Carter set a franchise record with 4.5 sacks and was positively monstrous in doing so. He was all over the Jets offensive line, dominating their star left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson with regularity and with ease. Carter was such a menace, not only did he ring up all those sacks, he hit Sanchez eight other times and registered four tackles for a loss. That’s eight. And four. Just an incredible performance by a free agent signing that’s actually worked out (between Carter and Waters, there may be a pattern of sorts emerging here). And Mark Anderson, finally freed to play more downs and in more situations than mop-up duty, got his due as well. He only had half a sack, but he was instrumental in a couple of Carter’s and managed to get in Sanchez’s face on a couple of other occasions as well, including the pick-6 he threw to Ninkovich that closed out the scoring. Vince Wilfork played nearly the whole game and although it cost some of the other middle guys some time, it was absolutely necessary. It should be noted that the Jets ran the ball well, rolling up 110 yards on 25 attempts. But Carter and Anderson were so tough and at times, so overwhelming, that for the purposes of this discussion, we can let that go. All season long, the cry has been for the defensive line to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks so as to ease the burden on the overmatched secondary and it’s been getting better over the past handful of games (minus the debacle in Pittsburgh). But Sunday night was the best it’s been yet by far. The D-line controlled the line of scrimmage, giving the linebackers chances to make plays and taking a truckload of pressure off the likes of Molden, Moore, Adams et al in the defensive backfield. Just the way it’s supposed to be.

Linebackers: B+
It’s been a while since Ninkovich has made a real impact but boy did he ever snap out of that on Sunday night. Ninkovich added five tackles and two passes defensed to his two picks and first career TD. It was a banner night for the next Mike Vrabel; he even got to share the postgame interview with Brady and if you had that one in the pool, I’d like to bring you with me to buy some Mega Millions tickets. Elsewhere, it was Tarpinian and White filling in for the injured Brandon Spikes and I’ll be damned if they didn’t both acquit themselves very nicely. White had five tackles in playing 50 defensive snaps while Tarpinian, playing in the base defense, had four. White played a big part in Ninkovich’s TD, leveling Jets tight end Dustin Keller at the line, which led Sanchez’s eyes and Ninkovich toward outlet receiver LaDanian Tomlinson and the rest is history. Both White and Tarpinian, no-name special teamers, certainly earned themselves some more reps with their respective performances. And if those reps again come at the expense of Gary Guyton (dressed but did not play a single down), that’s even better. As for Jerod Mayo, minus a few of his patented misreads, whiffs on attempted tackles and chasing guys who went to where he was supposed to be but wasn’t, he didn’t play all that badly. The way it’s been for him throughout this year, let’s call that a moral victory.

Defensive Backs: B
It took Patrick Chung not playing, Devin McCourty missing half the game and Moore (who was responsible for McCourty’s injury) playing not only his first game of the season and not only the first game of his life at safety, but playing every flipping defensive snap, for the Pats secondary to post its best game of the season. Sanchez did throw for over 300 yards but over 100 of those came after the Jets had fallen behind by three TDs and he also threw the two picks while looking thoroughly confused for long stretches. The Jets never fully took advantage of the massive soft spots in the middle of the Pats defense; After their first drive of the game, on which they blew right down the field only to miss a chippy field goal, they only got into a real rhythm throwing the ball once for the rest of the night when they managed an 11-play, 78-yard TD drive from late in the third quarter and into the fourth. Plaxico Burress scored that TD but other than that, he had only two other catches which considering the lack of size, strength and playmaking ability of nearly all of the Pats corners, is flabbergasting. Molden was in coverage on that score but he also broke up another throw to Burress and looked far more competent than two weeks ago in Pittsburgh. Kyle Arrington played every snap and was solid while James Ihedigbo had his best game of the year with seven tackles and excellent support both in covering tight ends and against the run (Ryan went out of his way to praise his former player afterward). And, perhaps most impressively, even Julian Edelman got in late at slot corner and threw a huge, textbook tackle on Tomlinson. Who knows how long the Pats can survive with these guys out there running around? It’s hard to say; there’s no way anyone could have predicted that this crew would achieve what it did on Sunday night. And even though Chung will likely be back for Monday night against the Chiefs, McCourty, who seems to have a dislocated shoulder, will probably miss some time. But at least now we know it’s possible. And we couldn’t say that a week ago.

Special Teams: B+
Still absolutely nothing to say about the kick return game but in every other area of special teams on Sunday night, the Pats shined. They bottled up the league’s leading return man, Joe McKnight, holding him over 12 yards below his season average on kick returns. They forced a turnover (a fumbled punt by McKnight) and recently signed Niko Koutouvides, picked up last week specifically to spark the special teams, recovered the loose ball. They got three field goals out of Stephen Gostkowski, including a 50-yarder. And they got yet another All-Pro-esque outing from our man Zoltan (four punts, 46.8 yards per). It will be great when all of these things happen and someone returns a kickoff or punt more than 12 yards. But for now, the improvements shown on Sunday night will do just fine.

Coaching: A
It could well be an A+. Belichick shut out all the noise from the previous two weeks, got 10 undrafted free agents ready to play, patched up his seriously damaged secondary and went on the road to blow out his arch-rival. There were no turnovers, no penalties and the safety was the only real mistake. And again, look at who was out there. Tarpinian and Moore are so anonymous, NBC just showed still photos of them when introducing the Pats defense instead of having them say their names and where they went to school like with every other player in the NFL. Add to that the fact that he so utterly and completely outcoached Ryan (who, by the way, looks worse and worse every week his supposedly vaunted defense gets nothing out of anyone not named Revis) for the second time this season, and the effort looks even more impressive. Now, suddenly, the Pats are in complete control of the AFC East and given their schedule, they should cruise to at least 11, probably 12 wins. Whether or not they can finally win a playoff game for the first time since 2007, especially if Sunday night’s cast of characters sticks around until then, remains to be seen. But that’s way down the road. Sunday night was just one game out of 16 and there’s seven more to go before the postseason. But man, was it a virtuoso game for Belichick and his staff. Easily their best of the season. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.