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WEEI Week 8 NFL Power Rankings: Patriots move up to second spot

10.25.11 at 6:12 am ET
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Once again, the Packers claim the top spot in the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. The undefeated Packers have enjoyed their reign at No. 1 in the rankings since August and will go into the month of November a perfect 7-0. The Lions (8) were undefeated through five weeks but have since lost two straight and drop again. The biggest surprise of the week came on Monday night when the Ravens were upset by the one-win Jaguars. The loss drops the Ravens three spots and puts them in a two-way tie with Steelers in the AFC North. Meanwhile, the 49ers (4) climb two spots and join the Patriots (2), Saints (3), and Ravens (5) in the top five.

Some of the teams ranked high at the beginning of the season but have since fell are fighting to get back to where they were. The Steelers (6), Falcons (7), Jets (9),  and Bears (12) are inching their way back up the chart after dropping earlier in the season. The Chargers (14) plummet almost ten spots after an epic collapse at the hands of the Jets. The Chargers have yet to beat a team over .500.

All three of the winless teams in the NFL were in action on Sunday but only one actually had a shot of winning. The Dolphins (31) surrendered a late lead to the Broncos (25) as Tim Tebow led his team to a magical comeback victory while the hapless Dolphins saw their hopes of getting in the win column go up in smoke.

Games that will have the biggest impact on next week’s Power Rankings:

The Patriots travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers.

The Cowboys face off against the Eagles in a key divisional match-up.

Byes: Jets, Raiders, Falcons, Bucs, Bears, Packers

1. (1) Packers (7-0) ‘€” Aaron Rodgers will enter the bye week as the best quarterback in the NFL right now. The Super Bowl MVP leads in almost every statistical category a quarterback can be measured in. The array of weapons on the Packers offense is the main reason the defending champs are undefeated and show no sign of slowing down.

2. (3) Patriots (5-1) ‘€” There aren’t many better than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick coming off a bye week. The last time the Patriots lost following the bye was in 2002. That said, the Steelers passing game with Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace will be a tremendous challenge for the Patriots pass defense. The return of Jerod Mayo, a healthy Albert Haynesworth and the continued solid play from Brandon Spikes should help the Patriots improve on defense the rest of the way.

3. (4) Saints (5-2) ‘€” It doesn’t matter who the opponent is, any time an offense can put up 60+ points in a game, it’s impressive.  Brees completed 31 of 35 passes and threw five touchdowns. This offense is so dynamic, don’t be surprised to see a repeat performance  this Sunday when the Saints face another winless opponent, the Rams. The Colts are ranked dead last in the NFL in points allowed per game, right in front of them at No. 31 are the 0-5 Rams. The Saints owe a major “Thank you” to the NFL schedule makers.

4. (6) 49ers (5-1) ‘€” It was business as usual in the NFC West. The Rams, Seahawks, and Cardinals all lost as the 49ers enjoyed their bye week and saw their lead increase in the division. Barring any major setbacks and injuries, the 49ers are practically a lock to win the West. They’ve played great under Jim Harbaugh and the competition is extremely poor within the division.

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Read More: aaron rodgers, joe flacco, NFL Power Rankings, Tim Tebow

Bye-Week Breakdown: Special teams

10.24.11 at 6:14 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this week, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots at the six-week mark. We’€™ve already examined every one of the rest of the positions so far, and so we finish up with the special teamers.

Depth chart: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski, punter Zoltan Mesko, kick returner/punt returner Julian Edelman (Stevan Ridley and Matthew Slater have also seen time as returners), long snapper Danny Aiken.

Overview: Not bad, not great. Just consistent and dependable. After spending most of last season on the shelf with a quad injury, Gostkowski is 21-for-21 on extra-point attempts, 10-for-11 on field-goal attempts — only missing a 48-yarder in the opener against Miami — and is tied for 15th in the league with 15 touchbacks on kickoffs entering Monday’€™s games. As for Mesko, even after dealing with a knee injury, he’€™s 14th in the league with a 39.7 net average. Meanwhile, Edelman is also stepped into the full-time role of kick and punt returner, and has brought the same consistent presence (ninth in the league in punt returns and 17th in the league in kick returns). As a team, the Patriots are also middle of the pack when it comes to punt and kick coverage.

Best moment: In a win over Oakland, Gostkowski hit a 44-yarder, was 3-for-3 on XPAs and put four of his six kickoffs into the end zone, while Mesko averaged 49 yards a punt on his three attempts and the Patriots limited the occasionally dangerous Oakland return team to a starting field position of its own 22-yard line.
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Read More: Bill Belichick, bye week breakdown, Danny Aiken, Joe McKnight

Both Belichick and O’Brien say dealing with Troy Polamalu no easy task

10.24.11 at 2:40 pm ET
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At the start of the season, some believed that the Pittsburgh defense was too old to still be considered among the league’€™s elite units — after a season-opening 35-7 loss to the Ravens, analyst Warren Sapp said the Steelers’€™ defense was ‘€œover. … it’€™s that simple.’€

However, the reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: Since that loss, Pittsburgh has won five of six, and the defense has rebounded to it familiar spot at or near the top of every major defensive category, including total yards (seventh in the league with 1,953), passing yards (fifth in the league with 1,203) and total points allowed (sixth in the league with 122 through seven games).

‘€œI have no idea where anyone would get that impression,’€ Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’€™Brien said if the Pittsburgh defense was too old or past its’€™ prime. ‘€œI really believe this is a tough defense, a smart defense, a really well coached defense.’€

On conference calls with the media on Monday afternoon, both O’€™Brien and Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised the work of veteran safety Troy Polamalu.

‘€œI’€™ll put it to you this way: you’€™ve got to know where this guy is on every single play,’€ O’€™Brien said of the returning Defensive Player of the Year. ‘€œHe’€™s a very instinctive player. He’€™s a guy that can really disrupt the game if you don’€™t have knowledge of where he is on every play. I think he’€™s playing very fast and again, very well with his instincts and his overall experience playing in that system. He’€™s one of many defenders on that defense that is going to be tough to go against. He’€™s at the head of the class.’€

‘€œHe’€™s one of the top defensive players in the league,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œHe’€™s a dynamic player that can affect any player that you run ‘€“ run or pass, inside, outside, short, deep. He’€™s a tremendous football player, great competitor. He’€™s made a ton of plays this year, made them last year; he makes a lot of them. I thought he played well last year, I thought he was really productive last year.’€

Read More: Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien, Troy Polamalu, Warren Sapp

Deion Branch, Andre Carter on M&M: ‘We’ve got our hands full’ with Steelers

10.24.11 at 11:49 am ET
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Patriots receiver Deion Branch and defensive end Andre Carter made their weekly Patriots Monday appearances with Mut & Merloni Monday morning, as the team wraps up its bye weekend.

“The batteries are recharged,” Carter said. “Back to work. Back to reality.”

The Patriots next play the Steelers on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

“We’ve got our hands full,” Branch said. “We’ve got to hit the ground running this week. We’ve got a big game. I know all the guys are excited to get back and get started.”

Added Branch: “This is going to be a great challenge for us this week, coming off this bye week, just to see exactly where we stand.”

Branch said that while Patriots-Steelers is a great rivalry, every opponent the Patriots face treats the game like a rivalry game.

“Every game is big,” Branch said. “We’re going to get every team’s best, and we’re going to give every team our best. We know that going into the game each and every week that we’re going to get this team’s best, period. So, we’ve got to go out there and match that intensity across the board, from player to player and coach to coach.”

Going up against the Steelers means squaring off against Ben Roethlisberger, who Carter calls “the biggest quarterback” he’s ever faced.

“He can be very dangerous for a pass rusher, whether it’s a defensive end or a defensive tackle,” Carter said. “You’ve just kind of got to know and understand, OK, what is he looking at and what is he trying to accomplish? I think in general, we’ve just got to continue to keep our motors running and just try to bring him down or get him flustered. ‘€¦ He’s a tough man, but overall, if you can get him flustered, put a hand in his face, just try to confuse him a little bit so he can make bad passes or force interceptions, that’s definitely the goal.”

Carter said he’s enjoying his first season in New England after a tough year in 2010 with the Redskins, who had shifted him to outside linebacker.

“It’s kind of like night and day,” Carter said of his transition. “I came to the New England Patriots, they needed a defensive end. I played the right side — as you know, sometimes I do flip-flop. But I asked them: Is this a position that I’ll be able to put my hands in the dirt, because that’s how I’m more effective. And talking to coach [Bill] Belichick, talking to most of the coaches, that’s what they knew I could do. They knew my potential.”

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Read More: Andre Carter, Ben Roethlisberger, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski

Bye-Week Breakdown: Defensive backs

10.24.11 at 10:56 am ET
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With the Patriots off this week, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots at the six-week mark. We’€™ve already examined every one of the offensive positions so far, as well as the defensive line and linebackers. Now, we take a look at the defensive backs.

Depth chart: Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington, Antuwan Molden, Ras-I Dowling, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown. (In addition, Phillip Adams and Ross Ventrone have been on and off the roster from the practice squad.)

Overview: The secondary has had lots of movement since the start of camp — notables like Darius Butler, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are gone, and as the new faces have played together there have been plenty of rough patches. However, it appears that the Patriots have played more zone coverage the last couple of weeks, which may be the reason we’€™ve seen more improvement in the secondary.

After a stellar rookie season, McCourty has been targeted a lot through the first six weeks of his second season (check out the stats below) and while he has been physical and competitive on most occasions, he’€™s clearly not ready to take that next step into elite status just yet. While Bodden and Dowling have been hampered by injury and Molden remains a part-time player, the real find this season has been Arrington. The Hofstra product had always been a quality nickel corner with good physical skills, but he’€™s made a big leap forward this year, so much so he was leading the league in picks through six weeks with four.

At safety, Chung remains a stable and reliable presence. However, the Patriots are still seeking consistency opposite him. Barrett and Brown have struggled, but Ihedigbo has played well the last two weeks. Against the Jets and Cowboys, Ihedigbo has been slotted next to Chung (the UMass product has missed only five snaps the last two games) and appeared to mostly hold his own. It remains a question as to whether or not he’€™s a long-term answer at the spot, but he appears to be the safest bet at the position in the coming weeks.

Best moment: Arrington had a pair of picks in the loss to Buffalo, probably the finest moment of the season for an occasionally group of beleaguered defensive backs.
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Read More: Antuwan Molden, Brandon Meriweather, bye week breakdown, Chris Houston

Boomer Esiason on D&C: Tim Tebow ‘not going to be a long-term solution’ for Broncos

10.24.11 at 10:11 am ET
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CBS Sports NFL analyst Boomer Esiason made his weekly appearance on the Dennis & Callahan show Monday morning to discuss the state of various NFL teams following their Week 7 performances.

One of the hottest topics Monday morning was Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, who engineered a late comeback against the Dolphins Sunday. Denver rallied from a 15-0 deficit with just five minutes left to tie the score at 15-15, then won the game on a field goal in overtime.

Despite the miraculous comeback, Esiason still does not believe Tebow has what it takes to be a long-term quarterback in the NFL.

“If you pick apart the game and you really look at it, you’d see that all the things we would have a concern about are there,” Esiason said. “The lack of accuracy, the inability to pick up blitzes the way you’re supposed to pick up blitzes as opposed to running out of everything. And the way that he generally plays the game. It was a stimulating finish. No question about it. He deserves all the credit for it. But at the end of the day, in my estimation, the way he played yesterday is not the way you’re going to win a lot of games in this league.

Esiason said that it has been difficult to criticize Tebow because of his popularity, but fans need to realize that criticism of Tebow is not meant as a slight on his character.

“People are misconstruing the criticism of Tim Tebow as personal attacks and things of this nature, which is absolutely asinine,” Esiason said. “It’s basically a real live criticism of the way he plays football. He has a very slow release. He’s extremely inaccurate.

“He’s a great player. He’s an intangible leader. All of those great things. But people don’t want to hear that. They want to look and see what they want to see. But in reality, if you really break it down, while he’s a great kid and all that other stuff, he’s not going to be a long-term solution for the Denver Broncos as their starting quarterback, or at least I don’t believe that.”

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Read More: boomer esiason, Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow

Bye-Week Breakdown: Linebackers

10.23.11 at 10:00 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend, we’€™ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots at the six-week mark. We’€™ve already broken down every one of the offensive positions so far, as well as the defensive line. Now, we take a look at the linebackers.

Depth chart: Rob Ninkovich, Jermaine Cunningham, Gary Guyton, Jerod Mayo, Dane Fletcher, Brandon Spikes, Tracy White, Jeff Tarpinian.

Overview: While we acknowledged that the defensive line had to deal with scheme changes (from a four-man front to a three-man front) over the start of the season, the same has been true for the linebackers, who are now operating out of a different system from the traditional Patriots 3-4 that the franchise had predominantly used the last several years.

Despite the scheme changes, as a group the linebackers have performed pretty much as well as can be expected over the course of the first six games. Before his knee injury, Mayo was his usual dominant self, and Ninkovich does a serviceable job setting the edge on the outside and occasionally setting up as an outside rusher  (although that’€™s certainly less this year with more four-man fronts). Meanwhile, Guyton remains more of a presence on passing downs, Cunningham struggles to find a niche (he more than anyone was likely hindered by the switch to the four-man front) and White and Tarpinian are more special teamers than anything else.

The biggest surprise — of late, anyway — has been the play of Spikes. He ended last season as a real mess, coming off the four-game suspension for violating the league’€™s policy on PEDs, and started very slowly because of injury. But getting many of the reps in place of an injured Mayo, the second-year linebacker out of Florida has clearly made advancements in the system. He still has a tendency to swing for the fences (he misses on at least one bad tackle attempt per game), but his play as of late makes you wonder if New England might consider utilizing a defensive scheme that includes some combination of Mayo and Spikes in the middle.

Meanwhile, it certainly appears that Spikes has taken many snaps away from Fletcher at the inside spot. Fletcher remains a positive presence, but as Spikes has started to emerge, Fletcher’€™s snap percentage has decreased dramatically since the start of the season — according to Pro Football Focus, he played 45 percent of the snaps in the season-opener but has played just one snap the last two weeks. He has struggled with injury over the course of the season, but you also have to wonder if Spikes has moved ahead of Fletcher for good on the depth chart.

Best moment: Spikes (with help from Vince Wilfork) sniffing out a shovel pass on the goal line late against the Cowboys and blowing the play up in the backfield. The key red zone stop helped hold Dallas at bay and set the stage for a dramatic New England comeback win.
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Read More: Bill Belichick, Brandon Spikes, bye week breakdown, Dane Fletcher
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