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11.14.14 at 12:23 am ET
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10 questions for AFC as stretch drive approaches

11.13.14 at 8:32 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski appears to be back to full strength. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Rob Gronkowski appears to be back to full strength. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With the stretch drive set to begin this week and the AFC playoff picture coming into sharper focus, here are 10 questions for the conference as things start to heat up.

1. Can Rob Gronkowski stay healthy?

This is the biggest question looming not only over the Patriots, but maybe over the entire AFC. Gronkowski is a separator, an offensive alpha male that gives the New England offense the ability to move up and down the field almost at will. At 100 percent for the first time in more than a year, he’s delivered a jolt to the Patriots offense over the last five games, catching 36 passes for 516 yards and five touchdowns. No one can stop him for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it’s almost impossible to get a body on him off the line because of what the Patriots do when it comes to pre-snap motion. If he’s able to finish out the season injury-free and stay on the field over the course of the postseason, the Patriots are on the short list of genuine Super Bowl candidates. If he’s hurt between now and then, even with an improved defense, New England’s title hopes are a lot slimmer.

2. Can the Steelers stay consistent?

No team has run a wider gamut this year than Pittsburgh. There have been impressive wins over the Ravens, Colts and Texans, but also really ugly losses against the Buccaneers and Jets. In the muddied AFC North, it’s been good enough for a 6-4 record and second place behind the Browns. While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has injected himself into the MVP race — at least he did until last week’s loss to New York — there hasn’t been enough consistency on the defensive side of the ball to warrant calling the Steelers a serious playoff threat, at least at this point. There’s something to be said for the Pittsburgh pedigree, as Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin have overseen Super Bowl champions. But right now, they don’t appear to have the sort of defense that might allow them to play deep into January.

3. Will special teams be Denver’s downfall?

The Broncos still have the best roster in the AFC from top to bottom, but the little things are still lacking with Denver, things that could ultimately doom them come the postseason. Their special teams was an area that really stood out as of late, particularly in their recent loss to the Patriots. That’s where rookie kicker Brandon McManus missed a field goal, the Patriots were able to break off an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown and the Broncos committed a major penalty on punt coverage leading to a New England score. None of this is enough to come back to haunt them, in, say, a December game against the Raiders. But in the postseason, when every team is good and the margin for error becomes dangerously slim, those sorts of errors are the sort of thing that could haunt them.

4. Are the Browns capable of staying in it for the long haul?

Cleveland — led by former Patriots backup quarterback Brian Hoyer — has been the feel-good team of the year to this point in the season, going 6-3 so far, a stretch that includes wins in five of its last six games. (The last time the Browns led their division entering Week 11 was 1994, a team led by Bill Belichick that would go on to beat the Patriots in the wild card round of the playoffs.) If they’re able to continue execute at the same level — that is to say, play a sound, fundamental game on both sides of the ball and remain reasonably healthy — there’s no reason to think that Cleveland couldn’t finish with at least 10 wins. Three of their seven remaining games are against teams under .500, and four of their remaining contests are at home, where they’ve only lost one game all year. Ultimately, 10 wins might not be enough to get them into the postseason, but it should be enough to spark considerable optimism by the shores of Lake Erie.

5. Can the Ravens find a little bit of that late-season mojo they discovered two years ago?

Two years ago, after their Super Bowl run, Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked about the Ravens’ late-season struggles and how it allow them to build some calluses for the postseason. Baltimore is certainly part of the mix in the AFC North to this point — and they’ve gotten some nice contributions from running back Justin Forsett (133 carries, 721 yards, five TDs) and wide receiver Steve Smith, Sr. (49 catches, 728 yards, four TDs) but the Ravens don’t really threaten people like they used to on the defensive side of the ball, particularly in the secondary. If Baltimore wants to be considered a true contender, it needs to get better play on defense and rediscover some of that December magic that propelled it into the postseason two years ago.

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Dominique Easley (knee) limited at Patriots practice

11.13.14 at 3:55 pm ET
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Dominique Easley

Dominique Easley

FOXBORO — The Patriots got some good news Thursday when rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee) returned to practice after missing the first two practices of the week.

Easley practicing was the only change from Wednesday’s practice report, as Chandler Jones (hip) was the lone player not to participate in the session held inside the Dana-Farber Fieldhouse to simulate the playing conditions inside Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday night.

For the Colts, defensive tackle Arthur Jones (ankle), Chandler’s brother, and linebacker Erik Walden (quad) were limited participants after not practicing at all on Wednesday.

Here is the complete Patriots practice report:

Did not practice

DE Chandler Jones (hip)

Limited participation

DL Dominique Easley (knee)
S Nate Ebner (finger)
OL Cameron Fleming (finger)
WR Matthew Slater (shoulder)
OL Ryan Wendell (knee)

Full participation

QB Tom Brady (ankle)

Read More: chandler jones, Dominique Easley, Indianapolis Colts,

Darrelle Revis, Patriots looking to limit Colts WR T.Y. Hilton and his big-play ability

11.13.14 at 3:33 pm ET
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Indy's T.Y. Hilton celebrates one of his two touchdowns against the Patriots in a 2012 contest at Gillette. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Indy’s T.Y. Hilton celebrates one of his two touchdowns against the Patriots in a 2012 contest at Gillette. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — It figures to be strength-against-strength on Sunday night when the Patriots secondary squares off against Indy receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Hilton, who has 56 catches on 84 targets for 937 yards and three touchdowns this year, has made his bones as one of the best big play receivers in the league this season. The 5-foot-10, 183-pounder out of Florida International averages 16.7 yards per catch (sixth-best in the league). His 15 catches for 20-plus yards is third in the NFL, and his four catches of 40-plus yards is tied for fifth.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots have been one of the best teams in the NFL at limiting the deep ball this season. New England is the only team left in the league that has allowed only one pass play of 40-yards or more. When it comes to allowing pass plays of 20 or more yards,  the Patriots are 12th-best in the NFL in that department.

“He’s very fast and very explosive — he makes big plays,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said of Hilton on Thursday. “I think he’s the No. 1 receiver at making big plays. He’s very fast.”

While the Patriots have mixed up coverages over the course of the season, Hilton told Indy-area reporters this week he’s looking forward to the challenge of facing Revis on Sunday. But at the same time, he’s come to expect the unexpected when facing New England.

“You know [Bill] Belichick always has that scheme,” Hilton said.

“They’re going to give you chances,” Hilton said, “but when those chances come, you have to take advantage.”

Sunday will mark Hilton’s third career game against the Patriots. In a 2012 regular-season meeting, he had six catches on nine targets for 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In last year’s AFC divisional playoffs, Hilton had four catches on six targets for 103 yards.

“They were trying to not let me wreck the game,” said Hilton of last year’s playoff contest. “They were trying to keep everything in front of me.”

Read More: Darrelle Revis, T.Y. Hilton,

Report: Pete Morelli will work as lead official for Patriots-Colts

11.13.14 at 3:21 pm ET
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Pete Morelli will work his second Patriots game of the year on Sunday. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Pete Morelli will work his second Patriots game of the year on Sunday. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — Pete Morelli has been assigned to work the Sunday night game between the Patriots and Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, according to Sunday will mark the second Patriots game of the season for Morelli, a veteran official who also served as the lead referee for the Raiders-Patriots game at Gillette on Sept, 21.

Here’s a look at who has worked as the lead official for each New England game this year, and the corresponding penalties for each game, not counting the flags that were offset or declined.

Sept. 7 at Miami: Walt Anderson — 9 penalties, 100 yards (Dolphins — 4 penalties, 26 yards)
Sept. 14 at Minnesota: Tony Corrente — 15 penalties, 163 yards (Vikings — 7 penalties, 58 yards)
Sept. 21 vs. Oakland: Pete Morelli — 6 penalties, 59 yards (Raiders — 6 penalties, 49 yards)
Sept. 29 at Kansas City: John Parry — 3 penalties, 30 yards (Chiefs — 4 penalties, 35 yards)
Oct. 5 vs. Cincinnati: Jerome Boger — 12 penalties, 114 yards (Bengals — 4 penalties, 37 yards)
Oct. 12 at Buffalo: Walt Coleman — 9 penalties, 60 yards (Bills — 8 penalties, 107 yards)
Oct. 16 vs. Jets: Bill Leavy — 9 penalties, 64 yards (Jets — 7 penalties, 70 yards)
Oct. 23 vs. Bears: Brad Allen — 7 penalties, 38 yards (Bears — 5 penalties, 41 yards)
Nov. 2 vs. Denver: Walt Anderson — 9 penalties, 71 yards (Broncos — 10 penalties, 72 yards)
Nov. 16 at Indy: Pete Morelli

For more on Morelli’s work as an official, check out his page at Pro Football Reference. And for all of this week’s officiating assignments, check out Football Zebras.

Read More: Pete Morelli,

Colts fans still hate the Patriots, New England ‘public enemy number one’

11.13.14 at 2:04 pm ET
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If you thought a few years without Peyton Manning has changed the Colts’ fan base thoughts of the Patriots, you were wrong. The Colts fans still have a strong dislike for the Patriots after they have won four straight games, including last year’s playoff game over their former division-rival.

“I think people are looking at it and trying to make it into [Andrew] Luck vs. [Tom] Brady, but here guys, the hatred for the Patriots has never gone away,” said Derek Schultz of WNDE on with Middays with MFB on Thursday. “I think in New England it is one of those things where it was more Brady vs. [Peyton] Manning than it was Pats vs. Colts, here it has always been not only anti-Brady, but anti-Patriots. You can’t go around this town and say the word Patriots without people scoundering and hissing at you. They are 10 times what the Knicks were 20 years ago with Reggie Miller vs. Knicks heyday and that is how big the rivalry is here. This still here locally is the biggest game of the year since this has turned into an annual matchup, and since the Colts don’t have a relevant division rival in the AFC South, this is public enemy number one.”

Following seeing those remarks about Colts fans, who do Patriots fans hate the most? Is it the division-rival Jets? The Broncos for their recent dominance? Do fans still have something against the Colts, or do fans still think back to the two Super Bowl losses?

What team do Patriots fans hate the most?

  • Jets (57%, 522 Votes)
  • Giants (20%, 184 Votes)
  • Broncos (17%, 159 Votes)
  • Other (5%, 43 Votes)
  • Colts (2%, 14 Votes)

Total Voters: 922

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Read More: Andrew Luck, Derek Schultz, Indianpolis Colts, New England Patriots

Tom Brady sends good wishes to former backups Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer via Facebook

11.13.14 at 1:48 pm ET
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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady gave a Throwback Thursday shoutout to two of his former backups — Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer — who are slated to meet this weekend when the Texans face the Browns.

Read More: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Tom Brady,
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