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Final thoughts on Patriots-Ravens

12.22.13 at 6:00 am ET
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1. The league announced the 2014 calendar this week, and here are a few of the highlights for the first six months. Consider this a clip-and-save for football fans who are looking to circle specific dates down the road:

Jan. 11-12: Divisional playoff games
Jan. 19: AFC and NFC Championship Games
Jan. 26: An assistant coach whose team is participating in the Super Bowl and who has previously interviewed for another club’s head coaching job may have a second interview with such club no later than the Sunday preceding the Super Bowl.
Feb. 2: Super Bowl XLVIII, MetLife Stadium, New Jersey
Feb. 17: First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition players.
Feb. 19-25: Combine, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
March 8-11: The open window for teams to contact and start contract talks with players who will become free agents when their 2013 deals expire at 4 p.m. on March 11. A contract cannot be executed with a new club until 4 p.m. ET on March 11.
March 11: New league year, free agency begins. Before 4 p.m. ET, clubs must exercise options for 2014 on all players who have option clauses in their 2013 contracts. In addition, teams must submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents with expiring contracts, and clubs must be under the 2014 salary cap before 4 p.m. ET. According to reports, the cap will be between $126 million and $127 million.
March 23-26: Owners meetings, Orlando, Fla.
April 7: Clubs that hired a new head coach after the end of the 2013 regular season may begin off-season workout programs. (April 21 is the date teams with returning head coaches may begin off-season workout programs)
May 2: Deadline for restricted free agents to sign offer sheets.
May 7: Deadline for prior club to exercise right of first refusal to restricted free agents.
May 8-10: NFL draft, New York, Radio City Music Hall. First round begins at 8 p.m. ET.

2. The biggest change on the calendar is the decision to push the draft back until early May. With the Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine set for the same dates as they have been in the past, it will be interesting to see what sort of impact that will have on the pre-draft process — it will likely cause some of the bigger college programs to tweak their Pro Day schedule in hopes of finding the optimal time to maximize their prospects. In addition, with the extra time, expect teams to take advantage of the process by holding more private workouts with prospects. As for the pre-draft hype, if you’re sick of mock drafts and rumors, you’re going to have to endure two more weeks of speculation and innuendo. Ultimately, the biggest impact might be seen in the smaller window between the draft and camp — it could mean pushing back rookie minicamps and later start dates for organized team activities. Last year, most teams held their OTAs in mid- to late-May after rookie camps. Now, rookies aren’t going to have the same time to get acclimated that rookies have had in year’s past.

3. The decision to take the team to the movies — “Lone Survivor” on Friday came at the end of a relatively relaxed week for the Patriots. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was expansive and open with the media, going in-depth on a number of topics. Quarterback Tom Brady offered some good insight into how the Baltimore defense has adjusted in the wake of losing veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, as well as his relationship with former New England defensive coordinator (now Ravens DC) Dean Pees. And the locker room also offered plenty of good insight this week, both on and off the record. One things worth noting: Belichick has done the “trip to the movies” thing before. He took his team to a documentary on explorer Ernest Shackleton during camp in 2001, and also had a screening of “The Fighter.”

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Nate Solder, Kenbrell Thompkins downgraded to out for Sunday

12.21.13 at 8:16 pm ET
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The Patriots announced Saturday night that left tackle Nate Solder and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins were downgraded to out for Sunday’s game against the Ravens.

Solder, who suffered his second concussion of the season last Sunday against the Dolphins, will likely be replaced at left tackle by Logan Mankins, who relieved Solder when he went down late against Miami. Solder missed practice on Wednesday, and was limited at practice on Thursday and Friday.

As for Thompkins, the rookie receiver has been hobbled by a hip issue as of late, and was limited at practice all week as a result. However, it’s important to note that fellow rookie Aaron Dobson did make the trip — Dobson, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Austin Collie will see plenty of reps in his place.

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Ten things you have to know about Patriots-Ravens

12.21.13 at 7:00 am ET
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Here’€™s everything you need to know about Sunday’€™s Patriots-Ravens game:

Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:

1. Quarterback Tom Brady against defensive coordinator Dean Pees: These two know each other pretty well — Pees was in New England for six seasons, working first as the linebackers coach and then as the defensive coordinator — and that’€™s shown through when Brady has met the Ravens. Baltimore is the only team that has consistently given him trouble over the years, and that’€™s especially true over the last few seasons. In each of the last four seasons (including playoffs), Brady’€™s worst single-game passer rating came against Baltimore. (For a complete breakdown of Brady’€™s stats against the Ravens, check out my story here, and for more on the Brady-Pees relationship, check out my story here.) On the flip side, Brady enters the game on an undeniable roll. According to ESPN Stats & Info, over Brady’€™s first eight games, he was completing 55.7 percent of his passes, averaging 228 passing yards per game and had a 9:6 touchdown:interception ratio. Over his last six games, he’€™s completing passes at a 66.8 percent clip, averaging 370.8 passing yards per game and finishing with a 14:4 touchdown:interception ratio.

2. Tackles Marcus Cannon, Nate Solder and (possibly) Logan Mankins against edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil: The Ravens generate the majority of their pressure off the edge with Suggs and Dumervil — the two have a combined 18.5 sacks, and have a track record when it comes to making life miserable for quarterbacks and offensive linemen. Meanwhile, the Patriots are struggling at tackle, with Cannon (and occasionally Will Svitek) working in place of Sebastian Vollmer on the right side. On the left, Solder suffered his second concussion in as many weeks against the Dolphins, and was replaced against Miami with Mankins. Solder is questionable going into this game, but the thought of the Patriots going with backup tackles against the Dumervil/Suggs combo is troubling, to say the least. Expect lots of help from tight ends like Michael Hoomanwanui, Matthew Mulligan and (potentially) D.J. Williams. In addition, it’€™s worth reiterating that Brady won’€™t be spending too much time in the pocket, using seven-step drops to try and go deep downfield. Instead, expect the quarterback to be getting the ball out as fast as possible to try and negate the pass rush.

3. Cornerback Aqib Talib against wide receiver Torrey Smith: Talib has been slowed a little as of late — it’€™s debatable his much is due to matchup issues and how much is because of the hip issues — but he figures to spend a lot of time going up against Smith, the most complete receiver on the Ravens roster. Smith (a team-leading 59 catches, 1,032 yards, four touchdowns, as well as 17.5 yards per catch) doesn’€™t have the elite straight-line speed of Jacoby Jones, but is capable of beating you on a number of levels. A smart and talented competitor, he will present a challenge for Talib, who leads New England with four picks and 13 passes defensed. (One thing worth considering — while Talib and Smith will spend lots of time locked in a one-on-one matchup Sunday, there also could be situations where the corner finds himself opposite Dennis Pitta. The tight end has returned to the lineup for the Ravens, and while he lacks the offensive oomph he had at the end of last season, he still remains a threat for the Baltimore passing game.)

4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’€™ fans need to know: Darryl Smith has done an excellent job stepping into the middle linebacker role for the Ravens this season, taking over the responsibilities previously held by Ray Lewis. The ex-Jaguar has been impressive in just about every aspect of his game — he has 4.5 sacks this year — but has been excellent when it comes to working in coverage. He has three interceptions and 17 passes defended in 13 games — the passes defensed set a new single-season record for a Ravens linebacker (Lewis held the previous record with 13). The 6-foot-2, 248-pounder could see some time matched up against New England’€™s tight ends like Hoomanawnaui or running backs like Shane Vereen.

5. By the numbers, per STATS: The Pats have played an NFL-high 11 games this season that were decided by 7 points or fewer, winning seven of them. Baltimore is tied for second, with 10 such games (5-5) — in fact, 10 of the Ravens’€™ last 11 games have had a final margin of six points or fewer.

6. Quote of note: ‘€œ[T]here would be no better feeling than us beating them Sunday and . . . we eliminate their season right there. For me and for a lot of my teammates, there’€™d be no better feeling.’€ — Patriots safety Devin McCourty, speaking with CSN New England about this week’€™s game.

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Bill Belichick takes his team to see ‘Lone Survivor’

12.20.13 at 8:04 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots had a significant schedule change on Friday. It wasn’t because Bill Belichick wanted more holiday shopping time for his team.

No, the Patriots had team meetings early and headed out to the practice field at 10 Friday morning so he could take them to the movies Friday afternoon. Not just any movie but the “Lone Survivor,” a movie based on the Navy SEAL “Operation Red Wings” mission of June 28, 2005.

Four members of SEAL Team 10 were tasked with the mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Three were killed and one survived inside Afghanistan.

The movie stars Mark Wahlberg, a friend of Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Belichick took his team to seen another Wahlberg movie – “The Fighter” in 2010.

Read More: Ahmad Shahd, Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, Lone Survivor

Patriots Friday injury report: Josh Boyce (ankle) ruled out Sunday vs. Ravens

12.20.13 at 6:30 pm ET
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FOXBORO — After missing all three practices this week, it comes as no surprise that Josh Boyce has been ruled out for Sunday’s game in Baltimore with an ankle injury. The rookie receiver sustained an ankle injury in the fourth quarter Sunday after a 15-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, Nate Solder was limited for the second straight practice and is one of seven Patriots listed as questionable. Solder sustained his second concussion in as many weeks last Sunday in the loss to the Dolphins.

Also questionable are receivers Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) and Aaron Dobson (left foot). They have both missed the last two games. Both practiced all three days and were limited Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Tom Brady (shoulder) was the only player on the injury report who moved from limited to full participation and is again listed as probable.

Here is Friday’s complete report:

Did Not Practice
WR Josh Boyce (ankle) OUT

Limited Participation
WR Danny Amendola (groin) PROBABLE
LT Nate Solder (concussion) QUESTIONABLE
CB Kyle Arrington (groin) QUESTIONABLE
TE Michael Hoomanawanui (knee) PROBABLE
WR Aaron Dobson (foot) QUESTIONABLE
LB Brandon Spikes (knee) QUESTIONABLE
CB Alfonzo Dennard (knee) QUESTIONABLE
S Steve Gregory (finger) PROBABLE
RT Marcus Cannon (ankle) PROBABLE
CB Aqib Talib (hip) PROBABLE
WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) QUESTIONABLE
OT Will Svitek (ankle) PROBABLE
LB Dane Fletcher (groin) QUESTIONABLE

Full Participation
QB Tom Brady (right shoulder) PROBABLE

Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Josh Boyce, Nate Solder, New England Patriots

Peter King on M&M: ‘I don’t think there’s anybody really to be afraid of in the AFC’

12.20.13 at 1:23 pm ET
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Sports Illustrated’s Peter King made his weekly appearance with Mut & Merloni on Friday to preview Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game and talk about other NFL news.

The Ravens had major personnel changes in the offseason, but King said they’ve started to return to their physical style the last few weeks.

“I think that what has happened over the years is that they have been able to be really physical and be able to run the ball very well, which is why this year is such a strange year for the Ravens,” King said. “It’s almost like they’ve changed this year — not because they wanted to change, but almost because they had to change, because they just simply cannot run the ball as well as they have been able to do so in the past.

“In the past they were obviously going to hand the ball to Ray Rice a lot, and they’re going to basically let him control a lot of these games. And I think a couple of things have made a difference this year. Recently they’ve been running the ball better, without any question. But I do think in general, missing Matt Birk [who retired] has hurt them. Marshal Yanda has not played nearly as well. Last year toward the end of the year they got really good play, solid play at the left tackle from Bryant McKinnie. They ended up having to trade for Eugene Monroe because McKinnie wasn’t playing as well there this year.

“Look, they’re better in the running game now than they were two months ago. But still, that’s not going to be quite the edge that the Ravens have had on the Patriots in the past.”

The Broncos appear headed for the top seed in the AFC playoffs, but King said the injury-riddled Patriots are right in the mix despite some recent struggles.

“One of the things I look at this year, as much as any other year in recent memory, is who’s going to be playing well in Week 15, 16, 17,” King said. “Now, obviously, I look at a team like the Denver Broncos and I say they very well might set all these records that you’re talking about for points scored and everything like that. But the fact is, they’re going to play teams that are really familiar with them in the playoffs. And San Diego was one of those teams — they’re not going to play San Diego in the playoffs — but San Diego is one of those teams that’s really familiar with them, knows how to play them. And basically really shut them down last week.

“I don’t think that there’s a team that you can look at in the month of January right now in the AFC where you say I can rely on them to play a certain way. I think it’s going to be absolutely wide open, which is why I think it’s a good year, if you’re thinking that the Patriots might overachieve in a particular year, this would be a great year for it. Because clearly you’re at the point where they’ve lost so many weapons on both sides of the ball that you say, well, you know, reload for next year. But not this year, because I don’t think there’s anybody really to be afraid of in the AFC.”

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Bill Belichick on Ozzie Newsome: ‘I probably learned more from him than he learned from me’

12.20.13 at 12:14 pm ET
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FOXBORO — When Bill Belichick repeats something, it usually means he has a message he wants everyone to hear.

That message Friday, two days before taking on the Ravens again, was his respect and admiration of Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. Belichick stepped up to the microphone Friday and repeated his praise of Newsome and the Ravens front office.

Belichick admires Newsome because, like the Patriots, Newsome and the Ravens have stuck to their principles in replacing players and building their organization around fundamental football beliefs.

Where did Newsome learn that?

“My first year in Cleveland was Ozzie’€™s first year not playing,” Belichick said of the Hall of Fame tight end. “He had retired after the ‘€™90 season and we sat down, it’€™s one the first things I did when I took the job. We sat down, talked to Ozzie about his future. He wanted to have a future in the organization, he wasn’€™t sure if it was in coaching or scouting or some other aspect of public relations or player development or whatever it was. He did a number of different things for me there. He coached, he was in the scouting department ‘€“ similar kind of maybe to what Nick [Caserio] has done here, kind of going a little bit back and forth. I think in the end probably all those experiences benefitted him because he got an appreciation of the scouting end, the player end of it ‘€“ of course he had been a player so he had great familiarity of what it was like to be a player in the NFL ‘€“ but scouting players, developing players, being a coach, creating game plans, making personnel decisions from a coach, as opposed to as a scout, and all those things.”

But Belichick went further.

“He did a great job for me and I learned an awful lot from him, again because of his experience as a player and how his playing career ‘€“ he was a wide receiver in college and then he became a tight end so there was a lot of development and progression of his career,” Belichick said. “Like every player, had a great career, peaked and at the end was at a different point in his career and how that whole transition worked for him. He taught me an awful lot about that and just the whole passing game, receiving, being a receiver, playing for different quarterbacks, playing in different offensive systems as he did and so forth. He was a great resource for me. He taught me an awful lot and he’€™s been very complimentary about his comments of what he learned from me but I think I probably learned more from him than he learned from me.

“He’€™s a very astute, sometimes quiet kind of guy, but the wheels are always turning, he’€™s taking a lot in. when he speaks, you listen because you respect him and you know that he’€™s just not saying things to hear himself talk. He’€™s saying them because he’€™s given it a lot of thought and he has a very important observation or opinion to share. He’€™s had a great career. I can’€™t think of many people that did what he did as a player and then in his current position and all the other things along the way ‘€“ as a scout, as an assistant coach and so forth. He’€™s a pretty special person, special football person too.”

Belichick knows full well how hard it is to sustain greatness and excellence in the NFL. This year, the Ravens started 4-6 and barely had a heartbeat in the AFC playoff picture. They’ve won four straight, thanks in part to a defense that’s been restocked and reloaded.

“They’€™ve had a lot of people come and go there too, again losing the different assistant coaches and coordinators and players ‘€“ the Ed Reeds and Ray Lewises and [Jonathan] Ogdens ‘€“ just really great players and still continue to produce and perform at a really high level,” Belichick said. “I think those, especially the people there at the top, but obviously all the ones that are part of it deserve a lot of credit for the consistency and the level of performance they’€™ve been able to sustain there.

“We know this is a big challenge for us headed down there Sunday. It’€™s a big game for both teams and I think we’€™re excited to play, excited for the opportunity and the challenge and we’€™ll need our best football from everybody ‘€“ players, coaches, all the starting players, all the role players, all the specialists, all everybody. That’€™s what it will take down there I’€™m sure. That’€™s what we’€™re gearing up for, that’€™s what we’€™ll try to be. The Ravens are a very good football team. They have a real solid organization and they’€™re tough. We’€™ll need to be at our best to beat them.”

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Read More: Baltimore Ravens, Bill Belichick, New England Patriots, nfl
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