|12.05.14 at 8:42 am ET|
In what might become an annual ritual, with the regular-season entering the final quarter for the Patriots Sunday in San Diego, here are our top 10 questions for New England, as well as some answers about what faces the Patriots down the road.
1. IS TOM BRADY CAPABLE OF JOINING AN VERY ELITE CLUB?
The 37-year-old Brady is bidding to become just the fifth quarterback 35 or older to win a Super Bowl, joining a group that includes Johnny Unitas (37 when he led the Colts to a win in Super Bowl V), Roger Staubach (35 when the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII), Jim Plunkett (36 when the Raiders won Super Bowl XVIII) and Elway (he was 37 and 38 when he led the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII). He’s going to have to have a full compliment of offensive options around him, including a healthy Rob Gronkowski (more on him in a bit), as history tells us that veteran quarterbacks need someone special to lean on if they want to be the last man standing. In addition, the Patriots will continue to have to grind it out defensively, with no more ill-timed breakdowns like the ones that happened against the Packers last Sunday.
2. CAN ROB GRONKOWSKI’S HEALTH HOLD UP?
This is not only the most important question as it relates to the Patriots, but maybe the biggest question for the AFC. With Gronkowski — and if it can maintain home-field advantage — New England has to be considered the favorite in the AFC. The big tight end is not the overwhelming offensive presence he was during a remarkable five-game stretch earlier in the year when he had 36 catches for 516 yards and five touchdowns, but is still demonstrating every week that he is one of the most unguardable offensive options in the league at this point. If he can stay healthy — and his current 12-game consecutive games played streak is the longest he’s had since he played 46 straight at the start of his professional career — there’s no reason to think the Patriots won’t be able to play deep into January, and possibly beyond.
3. CAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE CONTINUE TO BE RELATIVELY STABLE?
Continuity and consistency have played a big role in helping the Patriots’ offensive line finding some stability over the last two months, and even though things were rough at times last week against the Packers, there’s been signs of improvement up and down the offensive front. Rookie center Bryan Stork’s emergence has played a big role in allowing things to shape up along the interior (more on him in a bit). At the same time, there’s little margin for error here, as depth questions at a variety of spots make the Patriots vulnerable if someone goes down between now and the playoffs. If they can stay healthy, there’s a good chance that the group will be able to maintain a solid front into the playoffs. (That includes rookie Cameron Fleming, who has done an excellent job as the sixth offensive lineman, providing some punch in the ground game. Fleming missed last week’s game against the Packers, and Marcus Cannon was nowhere near effective trying to fill his shoes in limited action.)
4. HOW MUCH OF AN IMPACT CAN CHANDLER JONES MAKE DOWN THE STRETCH?
The defensive end made his first appearance with the media on Thursday since he went down with a hip injury in Week 7, and while he’s still a question mark for Sunday’s game against the Chargers (he was listed as limited on Thursday’s report), history tells us that even his mere appearance in front of the media is a good sign as it relates to his chances of playing sooner rather than later. That’s good for New England, as a consistent performance out of Jones down there stretch and into the playoffs would certainly provide a major boost to the Patriots defensive front, which has occasionally struggled to get consistent pressure on quarterbacks without him in the lineup. He’s not the answer to all their problems, but if he’s healthy, he could play a big role for this team over the course of the rest of the season.
5. WHEN FACED WITH THE CHALLENGE OF DEFENDING A DEEP PASSING GAME, DO THE PATRIOTS HAVE ENOUGH DEPTH AT CORNERBACK?
Darrelle Revis remains a world-class presence at corner. His work, while teamed with veteran newcomer Brandon Browner, have allowed the Patriots to lock down some elite receivers over the course of the season. The questions arise when teams start leaning on their third and fourth receivers, like the Packers did last Sunday with Davante Adams (six catches for a career-high 121 yards in the win over New England). Granted, it’s one thing to say that teams have found a way to defeat the Patriots pass defense. It’s another thing to be able to execute that plan with the necessary personnel. Not every team features that sort of quality depth at the receiver position, depth that has the potential to put real stress on the Patriots cornerbacks. Green Bay and San Diego (only one of four teams that have four pass catchers with at least 500 receiving yards) are two teams who can do that to New England if given the opportunity. That means someone like slot corner Kyle Arrington (who is still banged up) or Alfonzo Dennard (who has slipped precipitously down the depth chart), or youngsters like Logan Ryan or Malcolm Butler will have to play a bigger role down the stretch.
|12.05.14 at 7:30 am ET|
“He’s a guy that I had a lot of respect for. It’s not just the way he plays the game, it’s how many different ways he can make you look silly out there, [of] which, there are plenty,” Light said of the 6-foot-1, 268-pound former All-Pro who moved from Indy to San Diego prior to the start of the 2013 season.
The 34-year-old Freeney, who has 110 sacks in the regular season over the course of his career, is no longer the elite-level pass rusher he was when he and Light knocked heads on a regular basis a few years ago, but he’s still a good situational presence. In his second season with San Diego, Freeney has a pair of sacks while working at right outside linebacker, and has been a steady and consistent presence for a team in need of a pass rushing spark.
“Freeney has been a pain in our butt for a long time,” said quarterback Tom Brady.
The Chargers don’t have one overwhelming pass rushing presence — they have 18 sacks as a team this year, 29th in the league — but instead, have a number of players who are capable of getting pressure on the quarterback through aggression and scheme.
“I think he’s one of the guys that has that aggressive style,” left tackle Nate Solder said of Freeney. “I think every year he’s played, he’s played hard and he’s really put a great effort out there. I think it’s going to be a challenge, certainly, to go against him, as well as all the guys that they put out there.”
And if you underestimate him, well, there’s still the chance he’ll make you look a little silly.
“He’s still a very good player,” said tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. “We’ve got to be ready for him and everything he brings to the table on Sunday. Any of those reports that say he’s lost it, we’re not believing it. We can see it on film already.
“Whatever he wants to do over his long career, he’s pretty much had the liberty to do it,” he added. “It comes in a bunch of different ways, but you’ve got to be ready for everything, speed, power, whatever it is. Whatever he brings — which could be a lot. His toolbox is big.”
|12.05.14 at 6:00 am ET|
As the calendar flips to December it means temperatures are cooling down to below freezing, but it also means Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is heating up.
Brady is a career 45-7 in the month of December, the best record for any NFL quarterback with a minimum of 20 December starts, per Elias. The 45 wins are the most of any month for the quarterback. December is when the games matter the most, so it’s no surprise Brady raises his game with him being one of the most clutch quarterbacks to ever play the game.
“I always say it’s really a game of emotion,” Brady told reporters in San Diego before Thursday’s practice. “You have to be at your best when the game is on the line. I think that our guys have always figured out a way to do that, especially at this time of year. December is when football season is, this is what it’s all about. Regardless of what you’ve done to this point, everybody’s season is decided at this point in the year. This is when you’ve got to be at your best. We got off to a really slow start last weekend, hopefully we can rebound this weekend and play much better.”
The 37-year-old also notes that it isn’t just about him during the month — it’s about the entire team. Over the last 10 seasons, the Patriots have a record of 36-4 in the month of December, the best mark in the entire NFL. Coming in right behind them is this week’s opponent, the Chargers, who come in at 32-9.
It doesn’t matter whether the Patriots at home or on the road, they simply win in the month of December. In road games since 2002, the team is 24-5 in the month of December.
“This is the strength of our team, it’s not my strength,” Brady said. “I think that really speaks to the work ethic, the discipline of our guys, the mental toughness. It’s not easy to get up every day, on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and grind through it like we do. I think that although it may not be really short-term, the positive feelings from some of those things in the end, that’s when it pays off the most.
“I think you just have to grind through it. It’s hard for everybody. It feels a little easier out here on days like this. But ultimately it comes down to your execution and how well you go out and play. Like I said, our team has always done a good job of that this time of year when it matters.”
|12.05.14 at 12:21 am ET|
Join Chris Price of WEEI.com to break down all things Patriots and the NFL, Friday at 11 a.m. Price will help you get ready for the Pats‘ Sunday showdown with the Chargers, while looking at the landscape of the league heading into the regular season’s final stretch.
|12.04.14 at 6:38 pm ET|
There were no changes to the Patriots’ practice report from Wednesday in San Diego besides Aaron Dobson (hamstring) now being listed as on injured reserve, rather than not practicing.
Linebacker Chris White (ankle) missed practice once again. White, a core special teams player, missed last Sunday’s game against the Packers after landing on the injury report in the middle of last week.
Chandler Jones (hip) remains limited, but he seems getting closer and closer to playing for the first time since Week 7, as the defensive end spoke to the media in San Diego before Thursday’s practice. It was the first time he’s spoken since the injury. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (shoulder) was listed as limited for a second straight day as well.
For the Chargers, tackle D.J. Flucker was added to the injury report after suffering a concussion in Wednesday’s practice. He didn’t practice Thursday. Quarterback Philip Rivers was also added with a chest injury, but was a full participant in practice.
Here is the complete practice report:
Did not participate
WR Aaron Dobson (hamstring) — Placed on injured reserve
LB Chris White (ankle)
LS Danny Aiken (concussion)
CB Kyle Arrington (hip)
G Dan Connolly (ankle)
DE Dominique Easley (knee)
WR Julian Edelman (thigh)
T Cameron Fleming (ankle)
LB Dont’a Hightower (shoulder)
DE Chandler Jones (hip)
WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder)
RB Shane Vereen (ankle)
QB Tom Brady (ankle)
T Marcus Cannon (hip)
|12.04.14 at 4:56 pm ET|
It’s been a homecoming week of sorts for Tom Brady.
The 37-year-old quarterback and the rest of the Patriots are spending a week back in the state in which he was born, as the Patriots are holding practices in San Diego in advance of Sunday’s game against the Chargers. The team opted to fly directly out there after Sunday’s game in Green Bay instead of flying home to Foxboro and then back out to the West Coast later in the week.
Brady says the time away from home and being with only the team has been good for everyone.
“It’s been good,” he said to reporters in San Diego before Thursday’s practice. “I think we’ve had a good couple days and got off to a good start yesterday. It’s still kind of early in the preparation. Now it starts to feel like California weather, as opposed to yesterday. Hopefully we’ll have another good day of practice. Guys have a lot of time to kind of be together and spend a lot of time that we don’t typically get to spend so that’s been a real plus.”
The quarterback grew up in the Northern California town of San Mateo, which is about eight hours away from the University of San Diego, where the team is holding its practices this week, but Brady is no stranger to the campus.
“It’s fun. I was born and raised out here,” said Brady. “I didn’t really spend too much time in San Diego, although my best friend went to this school so I had a few visits when I was at Michigan, coming down here. It’s always been a fun place to be.”
Sunday will feature two of the best tight ends of the game in Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates. Gates has been in the league for 12 seasons, and Brady realizes how much of a matchup problem he can be for opposing defenses.
|12.04.14 at 4:04 pm ET|
“My biggest focus right now is just trying to catch up to the pace that the rest of my teammates are on and do what I can to help the team,” the Patriots defensive end told reporters. “Every day, I’m listening to what the coaches and the doctors are saying. However I can help the team, whether it’s in the film room or however it was, that’s what I’ll do.”
Jones, who said “we’re not going to talk about the injury at all,” said he’s doing whatever he can do while he’s sidelined.
“Every day, I’m listening to what the coaches and the doctors are saying,” he said. “However I can help the team, whether it’s in the film room or however it was, that’s what I’ll do.
“Every day is [a] progression, especially for someone that has been out. Every day forward is a good day.”
Jones has 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits this season with the Patriots.
For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.
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