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Patriots practice Wednesday: Logan Mankins (ankle) absent, Devin McCourty returns

01.01.14 at 11:51 am ET
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FOXBORO — On a frigid New Year’s morning outside Gillette Stadium, the Patriots returned to practice in their bye week and joining the Patriots for the first time in two weeks was safety Devin McCourty, who missed the season finale with a concussion.

Logan Mankins was one of four Patriots not on the field after injuring his ankle on Sunday in the win over the Bills. Mankins injured his left ankle when he helped spring LeGarrette Blount on the 39-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. He went down into the locker room and missed just one series before coming back to play. He had a walking boot by his clothes at his locker after the game.

Alfonzo Dennard (knee), Josh Boyce (ankle) and Aaron Dobson (left foot) were three other players not spotted Wednesday morning as the team practiced in sweats and shells on the lower grass practice field. Julian Edelman and nose tackle Chris Jones were two of the only players spotted not wearing long sleeves on a morning where the wind chill was near zero.

McCourty’s return is encouraging after injuring his neck in the win over Baltimore on Dec. 22 and suffering a concussion. He missed a full week of practice before sitting out the game against the Bills.

Even with the impending snow storm, the Patriots are still scheduled to practice Thursday and Friday before taking the weekend off to enjoy their bye. After the weekend, the Patriots will return to practice on Tuesday as they prepare for their divisional playoff game at Gillette on Jan. 11.

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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Colts

01.01.14 at 10:15 am ET
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With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the first in a series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We already took a look at the Chargers. Now, it’€™s the Colts.

The skinny: The Colts captured the AFC South crown with an 11-5 mark, good enough for the fourth overall seed in the playoff chase. Like just about everyone else in the conference, Indy is a wildly flawed team that demonstrated it could be terrific one week (the Colts beat the Niners and Chiefs on the road, as well as the Seahawks and Broncos at home) and an absolute hot mess another week (they lost to the Rams at home by 30 and got waxed by the Cardinals in the desert by 29.) They have, however, played well down the stretch, winning four of their last five games by an average of 17 points. (Their final three wins were by a combined score of 78-20.) Players say they were spurred on late in the season after a players-only meeting following the November loss to Arizona — whatever was said, it appeared to work.

Offense: Quarterback Andrew Luck and the passing game is carrying the load here. The second-year signal caller out of Stanford has continued to make impressive gains, finishing the year with a 60 percent completion rate (343-for-570), 3,822 passing yards and 23 touchdowns against just nine picks — half of what he threw last season. The leading target is T.Y. Hilton, who has matured into one of the better young receivers in the game with 82 catches (on 138 targets) for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns, all of which are team-highs. Coby Fleener (52 catches, 608 yards, four TDs) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (29 catches, 309 yards, one TD) have also managed to pick up some of the slack in the wake of Reggie Wayne going down with a season-ending injury. It’€™s a good thing they have, as they have struggled to run the ball with any sort of consistency — Donald Brown (102 carries, 537 yards, six TDs) is the only real threat in the ground game for the Colts. Indy committed the fewest turnovers in the league with 14.

Defense: As we stated previously, the team has played well down the stretch. And while much of that is due to Luck’€™s evolution as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, there’€™s also something to defensive improvements. They allowed 6.7 points per game over their final three games, and old reliable Robert Mathis has been a big reason for their success — he’€™s piled up a whopping 19.5 sacks this season to lead the league. Defensive lineman Cory Redding has done well in run support, while defensive back Vontae Davis and ex-Patriot Darius Butler (a team-high four picks) have led an competitive secondary. Overall, the Colts are ninth in the league when it comes to points allowed (21 points per game), 13th in the league against the pass (231.9 passing yards per game) and 26th in the league against the run (125.1 rushing yards per game). The defense is really good when it comes to takeaways with 27 (15 picks, 12 fumbles), one of the better totals in the AFC.
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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Chargers

01.01.14 at 8:30 am ET
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With the Patriots securely in the postseason, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is the first in a weeklong series of features on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. Today, we open with a look at the Chargers:

The skinny: The Chargers won five of their last six to emerge from the morass to finish 9-7 and capture the sixth seed in the AFC. San Diego was up-and-down over the course of the regular season — it posted some really impressive wins, including road victories over the Broncos, Chiefs and Eagles, all playoff teams. Of course, the Chargers also lost to the Raiders, Jaguars and Redskins, three teams who saw their playoff chances evaporate somewhere around Halloween. You catch them on a good day, they can be dangerous. You get them on a bad day, and they can be beaten.

Offense: The Chargers will rise and fall on the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers, an occasionally erratic signal-caller who had one of the best seasons of his career. He finished in the top 5 in most major passing categories, including completion percentage (69.5, first in the NFL), touchdown passes (32, fourth), passer rating (105.5, fourth) and passing yards (4,478, fifth). The ground game is led by Ryan Mathews (285 carries, 1,255 yards, six touchdowns) and old pal Danny Woodhead (106 carries, 429 yards, two TDs). Woodhead is also part of a group of four pass catchers who have more than 600 receiving yards. Rookie Keenan Allen is the top target (71 catches, 1,046 yards, eight TDs), and he’€™s ably supported by ageless tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs), Eddie Royal (47 catches, 631 yards, eight TDs) and Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs).

Defense: While it does have some impactful players — safety Eric Weddle, defensive end Corey Liuget — San Diego is essentially middle of the road defensively. The Chargers are middle of the pack when it comes to points allowed per game (21.8, 11th), total defense (366.5 yards allowed per game, 23rd) and run defense (107.8, 12th). If they do have anything resembling an Achilles’€™ heel, it’€™s probably their pass defense: the Chargers allow an average of 258.7 passing yards per game, 29th in the NFL. As a defense, San Diego isn’€™t great when it comes to forcing takeaways, as it had just 17 on the year, third-worst in the AFC. Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist lead the team with two picks each.
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Report: Bill O’Brien to become Houston Texans’ head coach

12.31.13 at 11:45 pm ET
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According to, Penn State‘s Bill O’Brien has agreed to become the new head coach of the Houston Texans.

O’Brien, who served as an assistant coach with the Patriots from 2007-12, is expected to officially hired by the Texans no later than Saturday.

The 44-year-old has compiled a 15-9 record in his two seasons with the Nittany Lions, going 10-6 in the Big Ten. O’Brien won conference coach of the year in 2012.

The report states that O’Brien met with the Texans at his Cape Cod home in the days immediately after Christmas. He had already amended his contract with Penn State, lowering the buyout to jump to an NFL team from $19.33 million to $6.48 million.

To read the entire report, click here.

If Josh McDaniels leaves for Cleveland, who could take over as Patriots offensive coordinator?

12.31.13 at 6:53 pm ET
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If offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels does ultimately decide to leave the Patriots for the head coaching job in Cleveland, here are four possible plans for New England going forward when it comes to the OC job.

Chad O’€™Shea: He was hired as New England’€™s receivers coach on Feb. 25, 2009, and while the franchise has struggled at times when it comes to drafting and developing at the position, he’€™s had a good run of success with the players under his tutelage as of late. This year, he was able to oversee the integration of newcomers like Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce into the passing game, while veterans like Julian Edelman and Wes Welker have both publicly expressed their support for O’€™Shea. The 41-year-old has also worked as an offensive assistant with the wide receivers for the Vikings (2006-08). He started his NFL coaching career with the Chiefs, where he served as a volunteer special teams assistant in 2003 and assisted with special teams and linebackers for two seasons from 2004-05.

Brian Daboll: Daboll made his bones with the Patriots from 2001-2006 as a wide receivers coach, helping youngsters like Deion Branch and David Givens become impactful pass catchers. He also spent time as a defensive assistant in New England before working with the Jets, Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs as either a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator. He returned to the franchise this year as a vaguely named ‘€œoffensive coaching assistant,’€ and has held a variety of responsibilities over the course of the 2013 season. (For what it’€™s worth, he appeared to spend a lot of time during training camp with the offensive line, as well as old pal Tim Tebow.) Based on his resume, his background in the New England system, and his working relationship with the rest of the coaching staff, the 38-year-old could likely make the most seamless transition into the OC job. In addition, it would allow other offensive assistants to stay in their current jobs, creating more continuity on the coaching staff going forward.

Bill Belichick: It’€™s always a very real possibility that the Patriots decide not to name a coordinator. They’€™ve done it before — including in 2011, when they decided not to name a defensive coordinator, even though Matt Patricia had essentially taken over as the DC in waiting. If the Patriots can’€™t find someone they feel good about, at least at this point, they could go without for a year or two, assign more overall responsibility to a younger assistant like O’€™Shea or Daboll, and if it looks like they have taken to the job, officially name them OC in a year or two.

Nick Caserio: No one has a more extensive background at just about every level of the organization that Caserio — the 38-year-old has worked as an assistant coach, scout, and is currently the director of player personnel. He joined the franchise in 2001 as a personnel assistant, and became an offensive coaching assistant in 2002 before moving on as a scout in 2003. He served as the team’€™s director of pro personnel from 2004 through 2006 before taking a year to return to the field, this time as the wide receivers coach. He returned to the front office in 2008, and has held his current position with the Patriots since then. (In terms of game-day logistics, he has called offensive plays in the past, and has sat upstairs in the booth on game days.) Caserio could be a temporary fix — if the Patriots wants to promote from within but they don’€™t believe someone like O’€™Shea is quite ready, Caserio could get the call.

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Bill Belichick: I can’t comment on Josh McDaniels interview report

12.31.13 at 5:29 pm ET
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Patriots coach Bill Belichick wouldn’t comment Tuesday on a report that the Cleveland Browns had asked permission to speak with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels about their head coaching job.

“I’€™m not going to get into any of that,” Belichick said in an afternoon conference call with the media. “The procedures are in place with the league and so forth. Any comments on that I don’€™t think are appropriate to come from me so I won’€™t make any.”

The Browns fired Rob Chudzinski after they went 4-12 this season. McDaniels, who previously worked as head coach of the Broncos in 2009-10, has been a part of the Patriots’ coaching staff in various capacities for several years, including as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach since the start of the 2012 season.

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Patriots add wide receiver Greg Orton to practice squad

12.31.13 at 4:45 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Tuesday they have signed wide receiver Greg Orton to the practice squad.

Orton, 27, spent part of 2011 and all of 2012 on the Broncos practice squad. The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder originally entered the NFL as a rookie free agent with the Bengals out of Purdue in 2009. He had stints with the Arena Football League’€™s Spokane Shock and the United Football League’€™s Omaha Knights before joining the Denver practice squad. Orton went to training camp with Denver this past summer.

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