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Patriots remain one of the least-penalized teams in the NFL

12.14.10 at 9:44 pm ET
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One of the contributing factors in the Patriots’ recent success has stemmed from the fact that they’€™ve been playing close to penalty-free football. New England has committed just 11 penalties in the last four games (including just one penalty each in wins over the Colts and Jets), and is now fourth-best in the league when it comes to assessed penalties with 65, behind only the Falcons with 49, the Dolphins with 55 and Colts with 64. (The list does not include declined penalties.) In addition, the Patriots have lost 602 penalty yards, 12th in the NFL.

As a group, the most penalized position is defensive back, where the Patriots have taken 18 penalties for 229 yards ‘€” close to half the total yardage assessed against the team this year. The most frequently penalized defensive back is rookie corner Devin McCourty, who has been flagged five times for a total of 45 yards. However, Brandon Meriweather has lost the most penalty yardage for New England ‘€” the safety has been flagged three times for a total of 77 yards, including a 38-yard defensive pass interference penalty against Pittsburgh, the most penalty yards the Patriots have taken on one play this year.

The second-most penalized position for the Patriots is tight end, where the trio of Alge Crumpler, Rob Gronkowski (five penalties for 40 yards each) and Aaron Hernandez (three penalties for 25 yards) has picked up 13 penalties for 105 yards.

When it comes to impactful penalties (penalties of more than 10 yards), Meriweather has three (a 15-yarder for a personal foul and two for defensive pass interference, one for 24 yards and another for 38 yards), as does cornerback Darius Butler (three defensive pass interference penalties for 23, 16 and 13 yards). In addition, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain has two, both of which were 15-yard flags for unnecessary roughness. McCourty also has two longer than 10 yards, a 16-yarder for defensive pass interference and an 18-yarder for the same reason.

The least penalized position? The defensive line, which has taken just one penalty for zero yards this season ‘€” a defensive offsides penalty on Mike Wright. Other than that, they have been clean. A close second are the running backs, who have picked up just one penalty, a 15-yarder on BenJarvus Green-Ellis because of a chop block against Pittsburgh.

When it comes to notable players who have avoided penalties, two names really stand out ‘€” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, two players who have played just about every snap this season who have yet to pick up a single penalty. In addition, running back Danny Woodhead, who has become an integral part of the offense since his arrival in September, has yet to account for a single penalty this season. Other key position players like wide receiver Wes Welker, safety Pat Chung and offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have picked up only one penalty all season.

While the 65 penalties rank among the fewest by any team in the league, they won’€™t be the most flag-free team of the Bill Belichick Era. Remarkably, the 2008 Patriots finished the season with 57 penalties, the fewest since the strike-shortened season of 1982, when New England had 49 in nine regular-season games.

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Alge Crumpler, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Bill Belichick

The Big Nickel: The Clay Matthews debate, a penalty watch preview and Louis Leonard’s arrival

12.14.10 at 3:08 pm ET
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Here are the five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Tuesday:

1. Expect a lot of Clay Matthews talk this week. The Patriots had a chance to take him in the 2009 draft, and decided to pass on the linebacker out of USC who has gone on to become one of the best pass-rushers in the league with the Packers ‘€” he had 10 sacks as a rookie last season, and has 12.5 sacks this year, good for second in the league. In hindsight, the idea of Matthews in a New England uniform is a tantalizing thought, especially for a team that has struggled to put together a consistent pass rush over the last two seasons.

‘€œClay is fast, quick. He’€™s got real good balance,’€ Patriots coach Bill Belichick said on a conference call with the media on Tuesday afternoon. ‘€œHe’€™s a guy with a high motor, so even at times when it looks like he’€™s blocked, he can still come out and get in on the play. He’€™s a good pursuit player, but I’€™d say his speed and his quickness are big assets.

‘€œHe’€™s a guy that’€™s never really out of the play. You can run away from him but he can run you down or you can run to him and it kind of looks like you might have him blocked, but he spins out of things and uses his quickness and his athleticism to get out of tight situations, stay alive and make plays. So, [he'€™s] a good football player.’€

It was clear the Patriots at least had an interest in Matthews for several reasons, not the least of which was that his father played 19 seasons in the NFL ‘€” three of which were for Belichick in Cleveland in the 1990s ‘€” and Belichick would later say he was ‘€œlucky’€ to have the chance to coach the elder Matthews. Before the 2009 draft, I spoke with the father (as well as the son’€™s high school coach, Charlie Wegher) about the possibility of the son playing for Belichick and the Patriots. (Check out the story here.)

‘€œI was always impressed with the way that Bill took a real thorough approach to the team. Everything was analyzed,’€ Matthews’€™ father told me. ‘€œFor a player, you were always put in position where you had the best chance to succeed. And speaking selfishly as a father, you always want to see your son put in a position where he will be successful. And you know Bill does that.’€

‘€œClay’€™s a good football player,’€ said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said on a conference call with the media on Tuesday afternoon. ‘€œIf you go back and actually look at that USC defense, there are a lot of good football players on that team. They had [Brian] Cushing. They had [Ray] Maualuga. They had Matthews. They had [Kaluka] Maiava who the Browns had taken. I think the Packers are happy that they have Matthews. And we’€™re certainly happy with the players that are on our team.’€

2. Working on the numbers for a story that I’€™ll have later today, but I was looking at the Patriots’€™ penalties this season, and it’€™s clear that one of the reasons they’€™ve had so much success over the last month or so is the fact that they’€™ve come close to playing penalty-free football. New England has committed just 11 penalties in the last four games (including just one penalty each in wins over the Colts and Jets), and is now fourth-best in the league when it comes to assessed penalties with 65, behind only the Falcons (49), Dolphins, (55) and Colts (64).

Three notable names ‘€” Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Danny Woodhead ‘€” have yet to draw a single flag this season, while key positional players like wide receiver Wes Welker, safety Pat Chung and offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly have picked up only one penalty all season.

The most penalized position for the Patriots is defensive back, where they’€™ve picked up 18 flags for 229 yards ‘€” Devin McCourty (five penalties for 45 yards) and Brandon Meriweather (three penalties for 77 yards) have the worst numbers. Meanwhile, the least assessed position is defensive line, where they’€™ve been flagged once (Mike Wright for defensive offsides) for a total of zero yards.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Meriweather, Brian Cushing, Charles Woodson

Report: Patriots have deal to sign Leonard

12.14.10 at 1:59 pm ET
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The Patriots have reached a deal with free agent defensive tackle Louis Leonard, according to Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post. Leonard, 26, is a Fresno State product who is 6-foot-4, 330 pounds. He was an undrafted free agent in 2007 who has also played for San Diego, St. Louis, Cleveland and Carolina. His best season came in 2008 when he played in all 16 games with the Browns and finished with 25 total tackles.

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings: Week 15

12.14.10 at 8:05 am ET
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Tom Brady and the Patriots sit atop the WEEI NFL Power Rankings for the fifth straight week. After another dominating performance against a nine-win team, the Patriots are clearly the best team in football fourteen weeks into the season. The Falcons are at No. 2 for a second straight week and share the best record in the NFL with New England.

Week 15 will bring many key matchups that will have serious playoff implications. The Jaguars (12) will travel to Indianapolis to take on the Colts (13) in a battle for the AFC South. The Giants (7) will get their rematch against the Eagles (5) and will fight for sole possession of first place in the NFC East.

The Packers (11) and Chiefs (14) both dropped after losses and uncertainity at the quarterback position. Both teams are fighting for a playoff spot but are also dealing with injuries to their starting QB.

1. (1) 11-2 The Patriots have wins against almost every team in playoff contention in the AFC. The Ravens, Chargers, Steelers, Colts, and Jets have all tasted defeat at the hands of Tom Brady and the Pats. In the last two weeks, against nine-win teams, the Patriots have outscored their opponent 81-10. Bill Belichick’s team also has not turned the ball over in five straight games. If the above doesn’t sound like a Super Bowl caliber team, I don’t know what does.

2. (2) 11-2 Offensively, the Falcons can beat teams with the run or the pass. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, and Roddy White are consistently putting up big numbers. Ryan has over 3,000 yards passing, Turner has over 1,100 yards rushing, and Roddy White has over 1,200 yards receiving.

3. (3) 10-3 Teams can not run against Pittsburgh. The Steelers are ranked first in the league in run defense; they allow 60 yards per-game on average. One concern for the Steelers should be the health of Ben Roethlisberger. “Big Ben” has been taking a beating back in the pocket. His offensive line needs to protect its quarterback a lot better.

4. (4) 10-3 The Saints offense is clicking. They’ve put up 30 or more points in five straight games.  Perhaps, their biggest test of the season so far will come this Sunday against the Ravens in Baltimore. The Saints will need to win and extend their six-game winning streak if they want to have a realistic chance of winning the NFC South.

5. (8) 9-4 The Vick-McCoy-Jackson combination can take the Eagles all the way to the Super Bowl. That’s of course if they can keep Michael Vick healthy. The 30-year-old quarterback continually gets nailed by opposing defenders.

6. (5) 8-4 The Ravens should be concerned about their defense giving up 21-straight points in the second half and how tired they looked late in the fourth quarter.

7. (10) 9-4 The Giants last loss came against the Eagles in Philadelphia. This Sunday they’ll be looking for revenge at home. The last time these two teams met, the G-Men defended Michael Vick well but beat themselves with five turnovers. If they can protect the ball, the Giants may find themselves sitting atop the NFC East when Week 15 is in the books.

8. (6) 9-4 It just may be time to push the panic button in New York. Rex Ryan’s second-year quarterback, Mark Sanchez, has turned the ball over in nine straight games. Meanwhile, the Jets receivers continue to drop passes in key moments. Looking ahead, the Jets have two very tough matchups in the next two weeks. They travel to Pittsburgh and then to Chicago.

9. (12) 7-6 The Chargers have a “cupcake” regular season schedule remaining. They are playing teams with a combined record of 10-29. The “Super” Chargers have a strong possibility of finishing the year 10-6.

10. (7) 9-4 The Bears were outmatched and embarrassed at home last Sunday against the Patriots. They played horrible on both sides of the football. Luckily for them, they still have two games against divisional opponents and are able to control their own destiny.

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Read More: NFL Power Rankings,

Patriots Report Card: Brady leads the way again

12.13.10 at 8:49 pm ET
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Report Card time, and it’s becoming copy and paste central over here.

What else can you do? The Patriots – save for a shaky first half in Detroit on Thanksgiving – over the last five weeks have played football at a level not seen from an NFL team since the Pats of 2007. The Bears were supposed to be a real test for the Pats, on the road in what appeared to be Eastern Siberia against a nine-win team with an elite defense and a QB who seemed to be putting it together. Put it another way: “Super Bowl Preview” didn’t seem in any way a reach.

But the Patriots toyed with the Bears, just as they did against the Jets, Steelers and Colts (for three quarters). It was nothing short of a humiliation, the football equivalent of having your three-year-old daughter open a jar of peanut butter that you couldn’t (as a totally fictitious example).

So the Patriots look to be on a collision course with 14-2 (unless you believe in the powers of Matt Flynn, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne) and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs. And right now writing a report card for them comes down to figuring out what the difference is between an “A” and “A-,” and how many ways there are to kneel at the altar of Brady and Belichick. One more week like the last five and I think I’m in trouble.

So with that we go to the card ‘€¦

QUARTERBACK – A

OK, 27-for-40, 369 yards passing, two TDs and zero INT’s in a snowstorm with 45-50 MPH winds and facing a top five defense? The best lousy-weather QB of all time, Tom Brady was ruthless on Sunday, picking apart the Bears’ Cover-2 Defense. Brady authored TD drives of 85, 87 and 80 yards in the first half and put the game on ice with a 59-yard TD pass to Deion Branch on the final play of the second quarter. I thought Brady’s best work of the day came on the first TD drive, as he converted a third-and-10 (Welker, 17 yards), a third-and-12 (an absolute bullet through the wind to Branch for 16 yards) and a third-and-goal at the seven-yard line to Gronkowski for the TD.

It’s not supposed to be this easy when it’s 65 degrees and no wind. Look at how poorly Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez played the last two weeks. That’s how most guys play in crappy weather. But Brady – who, to be fair, was nearly intercepted twice in the first half and wasn’t able to take advantage advantage of a short field after the Cutler fumble – played as well as can possibly be expected in those conditions and is now an almost incomprehensible 118-of-164 (72.0 percent) for 1,572 yards, 15 TDs and zero interceptions over the last five weeks.

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Read More: BenJarvus Green Ellis, Bill Belichick, Deion Branch, Devin McCourty

Brett Favre’s streak comes to an end

12.13.10 at 8:47 pm ET
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It was a streak that Bill Belichick compared to those of Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, and with good reason.

Favre’s streak of 297 consecutive games started spanned 19 years, or nearly three more seasons than Ripken’s Iron Man streak. The second-place quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning, has 205 straight starts to his credit. He would need to make all his starts through the middle of the 2016 season (perhaps late-2015 if the NFL expands its regular-season schedule) in order to match Favre, the three-time NFL MVP.

The streak had been in question before Monday. Indeed, there had been multiple games this year — including that between the Vikings and Patriots last month, when broken bones in his ankle made Favre’s ability to play unclear — when Favre’s status was up in the air in the days leading to the game. But every time, Favre answered the bell.

Apprised of his streak of games entering the contest against the Patriots, Favre reflected on his accomplishment.

‘€œAll I can say is, ‘€˜Wow.’€™ I kind of lost count a long time ago,” he said that week. “I’€™m very proud of the streak. But it probably should have ended a long time ago. Numerous injuries, some I touched on. The only reason I want to play ‘€¦ I don’€™t want to go out there for one play. I don’€™t want to go out there for three plays. If I’€™m able to play, I want to play the whole game, and give us a chance to win. You know, I know it makes for good TV, talking about the streak. Will it end? Will this be the injury that stops him? Or whatever. You know, whether it ends this week or whether it ends at the end of the year, it ends. I will always be proud of it. In the game of football every week, its a crapshoot, and I’€™ve been able to overcome a lot of injuries, so I’€™m thankful I’€™ve been able to play however many games in a row. But it’€™s all about helping this team win and getting us back on track. That’€™s the only thing I’€™m concerned about.”

On Monday, Favre was an inactive due to a right shoulder injury suffered against the Bills on the first drive last week. For the first time since 1992, the 41-year-old was not on the field for the start of his team’s game. The Vikings instead turned to Tarvaris Jackson. According to Ed Werder of ESPN (as passed along via twitter by Chris Mortensen), Minnesota could move Favre to injured reserve to end any question about his status for the rest of the year.

Read More: Brett Favre,

The Big Nickel: Bill Belichick gives props to Tom Brady, Devin McCourty’s ribs and wondering about Aaron Rodgers

12.13.10 at 6:58 pm ET
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FOXBORO ‘€” The five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Monday:

1. After Sunday’€™s game, wide receiver Deion Branch hinted that while the sideline was yelling at the offense to take a knee to end the first half against the Bears, it was quarterback Tom Brady who wanted to go for another touchdown. The quarterback acknowledged Monday that he saw something in the Chicago defense that caused him to make the decision to take one more shot down the field.

‘€œWe didn’€™t have much to lose ‘€” the clock was running out. I kind of saw the coverage and I figured, ‘€˜It’€™s tough for the safeties to move in those conditions.’€™’€ Brady told WEEI on Monday. ‘€œI looked at the safety and he was backing straight up, he wasn’€™t wide at all. I kind of looked at him and just gave him a little pump to kind of hold him, and to hold the corner a little bit. And Deion raced by him. I threw it out there. Deion made a hell of a catch and run.

‘€œI was almost laughing. I couldn’€™t believe it. I couldn’€™t believe it. That was a very exciting play. I don’€™t think those happen very often. So, when you get them, you’€™ve just got to be very thankful.’€

It resulted in a touchdown, giving the Patriots a 33-0 lead at the end of the first half. On Monday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn’€™t sound all that upset about the decision his quarterback made.

‘€œI thought it was a real smart play by Tom at the end of the half, knowing that there was time for one more play and I think when the ball was snapped with … whatever it was, three or four seconds left on the clock,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œHe took a shot down the field on a vertical pattern, and the safety ‘€” [Major] Wright ‘€” slid in there and took the seam, and Deion got behind [Charles] Tillman. Tom pumped the safety, looked out there and saw him and hit him. So it was a real good play there by Tom and Deion.

‘€œI think the timing of it was something that Tom knew what he was doing, obviously. Just running the last play to have a shot to thrown down the field, and it was there, great, and if it wasn’€™t, them the half was over and we were there with a 27-point lead.’€

2. Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty suffered an injury midway through the first half of Sunday’€™s win over the Bears ‘€” it looked like it happened during his strip of Chicago wide receiver Johnny Knox ‘€” and did not play at all in the second half. When asked if he could rate the seriousness of McCourty’€™s injury on a scale of one to 10 on Monday, Belichick responded, ‘€œWell we can give the same answer that we usually give on Monday which is, ‘€˜We’€™ll see on Wednesday.’€™’€œ

According to a report in the Boston Herald, McCourty underwent an MRI on his ribs Monday. If it’€™s serious, the Patriots could end up turning to Darius Butler, a corner who has started to gradually return to favorable status with the New England coaching staff.

‘€œDarius has played a lot of football for us over the course of the year, some earlier and some more recently,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œSo, absolutely, he’€™s out there ‘€“ whoever’€™s out there, anybody that’€™s on the field ‘€“ if we don’€™t have confidence in them, then we wouldn’€™t put them out there.

Butler said that whether or not McCourty is available, he’€™d continue to prepare as he has done throughout the rest of the season.

‘€œIt’€™ll be business as usual for me,’€ Butler said.

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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, aaron rodgers, Alge Crumpler, Bill Belichick
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