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What are realistic expectations for Patriots rookies this postseason?

01.04.14 at 4:18 pm ET
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With the regular season now in the rearview mirror, it’s time to take a look at how this year’s rookie class fared. We already noted the fact that this New England team will rely more on its first-year players than any other AFC squad — here’s a realistic look at what might be expected of them when it comes to the postseason.

Jamie Collins: The second-round pick out of Southern Miss started very slow, but injuries and the overall evolution in his game allowed him to see more time as the season went on, eventually becoming a regular part of the linebacker rotation by the end of the season — from Week 14 on, he played at least half the snaps, and appeared to adjust to the pace of the game very well. Part of his problem at this stage of his career is that his hyperathleticism sometimes works against him, and he ends up overrunning plays and then has to hustle back to get to where he needs to be. However, there’s no reason to think that the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder won’t be a part of the rotation going into the postseason — his work in pass coverage continues to improve, and he shows up as surprisingly stout against the run.

Totals (per coaches film review): 38 tackles (23 solo), 3 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovered (special teams).

Aaron Dobson: The big, rangy receiver out of Marshall — a second-round pick of the Patriots in the spring — had a rough start, but had more than his share of positive moments over the course of the regular season. Those highlights included a 5-catch, 130-yard effort against the Steelers, a game that produced two of his four touchdowns on the season. The 6-foot-3, 204-pounder was dogged by injuries over the course of his rookie year and struggled at times, but like Collins, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a part of the rotation at receiver going into the postseason.

Totals: 37 catches, 519 yards, 4 TDs, 7 dropped passes.

Logan Ryan: The cornerback might have done enough to be considered New England’s own rookie of the year. The third-round pick out of Rutgers led all NFL rookies with five picks on the season, with two of his takeaways coming in a big December win over the Ravens. He has nice versatility (he’s played both left and right corner, as well as the slot this year, and there’s been little dropoff) good ball skills and a willingness to put in the work needed in order to succeed in the NFL. It will be interesting to watch his overall progression — there have been plenty of young corners who have done well as rookies in New England, only to fall clear off the radar screen in their second and third year in the league. But for now, expect Ryan to serve as the fourth corner on the roster heading into the postseason, behind starters Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington.

Totals (per coaches film review): 41 tackles (33 solo), 1.5 sacks (14 yards), 2 quarterback hits, 5 INTs, 1 TD, 10 passes defensed.

Josh Boyce: The fourth-round pick out of TCU looked to be headed for a red-shirt season as a rookie, but a run of injuries, as well as his own emergence, saw him get on the field toward the end of the season and do a nice job with the opportunities he was given. A nightmare of a matchup, his physical tools make him a handful to cover, especially in the open field. (Just ask Cleveland’s Buster Skrine, who looked completely helpless when faced with the challenge of trying to take down Boyce in the open field on this play.) The season came to an end for the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder when he suffered an ankle injury in a December loss to the Dolphins — he was just placed on injured reserve — but should be ready to go for OTAs and minicamps in the spring.

Totals: 9 catches, 121 yards; 9 kick returns, 214 yards.

Duron Harmon: Like many of the defensive rookies on this list, Harmon (a third-round pick out of Rutgers) started slow. But a run of injury — in Harmon’s case, to starting strong safety Steve Gregory — meant he was pressed into service. That meant going wire-to-wire and playing all 90 defensive snaps in the epic win over the Broncos, as well as 69 of a possible 70 defensive snaps in the regular-season finale against the Bills. (Although in the case of the latter contest, that was probably more of a case of the team trying to get him as many snaps as possible going into the playoffs.) The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder played well when called upon, and while he won’t likely be a defensive starter when the postseason begins next Saturday, he will almost certainly be a regular part of the rotation in the secondary in nickel and dime packages.

Totals (per coaches film review): 30 tackles (23 solo), 2 INTs, 44 yards, 4 passes defensed.

Steve Beauharnais: The linebacker out of Rutgers — a seventh-round pick this past spring — flashed elements of old special teasers linebacker Tracy White in his game. However, because of numbers, he was a healthy scratch for most of the season. A sturdy, no-nonsense individual, look for him to have a limited role down the stretch, but he should figure in New England’s plans for 2014.

Totals (per coaches film review): 1 tackle.

Michael Buchanan: A seventh-rounder out of Illinois, Buchanan started strong as a backup defensive end to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich — over the first four weeks, he was a primary backup, and played a sizable portion of snaps. But after the Patriots re-acquired veteran Andre Carter, Buchanan’s playing time dropped dramatically. (Over the second half of the season, he reached double digits in snaps just twice, and took a healthy scratch along the way.) For what it’s worth, he did play well on special teams down the stretch. Going into the playoffs, he’s likely a third option at defensive end behind the starters and Carter, but will figure into the mix in a more prominent role in 2014.

Totals (per coaches film review): 3 tackles (3 solo), 2 sacks, 15 yards, 5 quarterback hits; 7 special teams tackles.

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Bill Belichick goes deep on special teams and explains why he hates the extra point

01.04.14 at 12:53 pm ET
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Bill Belichick is fond of reminding everyone who watches football that the outcome of many games is often determined by much more than the offense and defense.

In 1976, just two seasons into his NFL career, Belichick got one of his first big NFL assignments, serving as an assistant special teams coach for the Detroit Lions. He would serve the same role two seasons later for the Denver Broncos, in addition to becoming a defensive coaching assistant.

In 1979, Belichick began his 12-year stint with the New York Giants alongside head coach Ray Perkins as a defensive assistant and special teams coach.

So, whether it’€™s Jacoby Jones in the Super Bowl last year or the Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown in the 2001 AFC championship game, Belichick knows full well many postseason games between evenly matched teams come down to the kicking game. Does he anticipate seeing more of the same things over the next few weeks?

“Who knows what the difference in a game in a close game is going to be. But certainly the kicking game is always an important part of every game and any close game, especially when you have points involved, which we have with the field goals but potentially in a return game or blocked kick or that type of thing,” Belichick began. “Those are kind of bonus points. I don’€™t think you ever go into the game thinking, ‘€˜We’€™re going to get seven points from our punt return team or we’€™re going to get seven points from our kickoff coverage team to recover a fumble and run back for a touchdown.’€™

“Those are kind of bonus points you don’€™t really count on. You hope you get a couple of them over the course of the year but statistically that’€™s about what it’€™s going to be. So, a big play in that area is a huge play really because it’€™s like bonus points. I mean really I’€™ve always had a great appreciation for the kicking game. I think that I was fortunate when I grew up when Coach [Wayne] Hardin was the coach at Navy, he emphasized the kicking game a lot.

“Plays like the quick kick and some plays in the return game and so forth that kind of caught my eye as a kid and always sort of stayed interested in. I had an opportunity to coach it and I think it’€™s one of the great things about football is it brings that third element to the game besides offense and defense. It adds the kicking game, the specialists, all the different rules and strategical situations that can occur on kickoffs, punts and field goals and fakes and all those kind of things, field position plays. I think that’€™s an integral part of the game.

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Road to North Jersey, Playoff Edition: Ten more questions as postseason gets underway

01.03.14 at 3:43 pm ET
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With the playoffs set to open Saturday night, here are 10 questions about the postseason party that should be answered over the next month, as we continue on the road to North Jersey and Super Bowl XLVIII. (Consider this the companion piece to the initial “Road to North Jersey” story we did a month ago.)

1. IS THERE A WILD CARD WHO COULD GO ON THE ROAD TO REACH THE SUPER BOWL?

The Niners are playoff-tested, playing well at the right time and have demonstrated that they aren’€™t intimidated by just about anything. The fifth seed in the NFC, the defending conference champs have to go on the road if they want to get back to the Super Bowl, but if there’€™s a wild card team out there with the cojones to pull it off, it’€™s San Francisco. Through the first 10 games, the Niners were something of a trick-or-treat team, going 6-4 out of the gate and causing some to believe they were incapable of duplicating last year’€™s success. But they won their last six games to head into the playoffs on a roll (in that stretch, Colin Kaepernick‘€™s average passer rating is 106.5, with 10 touchdowns and one interception) and now head to Green Bay for a wild card matchup with the Packers. Some of the Kaepernick’€™s best games have come against the Packers, including a 34-28 win in the 2013 season opener and a 45-31 win in last year’€™s playoffs.

2. IS ANDY DALTON READY FOR THE BIG STAGE?

There’€™s a lot to like about the Bengals. They have a young and aggressive defense, and have some of the best offensive skill position players in the league. The question is the quarterback: while Andy Dalton made the postseason in his first two years in the NFL, no one is sure he’€™ll be able to take a team deep into January. Surrounded by some terrific young offensive options in the league in A.J. Green and Gio Bernard and an impressive young defense, it appears that the time is now for Dalton. The 26-year-old has proven himself to be very good at times this season, and pretty bad at others — he had five games this year where he had a completion percent of better than 70 percent, and also had five games where he threw for at least 325 yards. Of course, on the flip side, he also had three other games where he threw at least three picks. Dalton will get his chance to come of age this January — if he can come through with some signature postseason moments, the Bengals could be one of the surprise teams in the AFC. If not, it could another offseason of questions in Cincinnati.

3. WHICH STAR HAS THE MOST TO GAIN AND MOST TO LOSE WHEN IT COMES TO HIS LEGACY?

We wrote it before the dawn of the playoffs, and it’€™s still true a month later — Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is directly in the crosshairs this postseason. Much of it depends on how the postseason plays out, but on the surface, it certainly has the most to gain and most to lose over the next month. On the heels of a record-setting regular-season performance, if he’€™s able to break through and win his second ring, it would create some separation from the rest of the field of quarterbacks and allow him some measure of vindication for past playoff failures. (That includes this year’€™s loss to Tom Brady and New England in the freezing cold of Foxboro, as well as the Broncos playoff defeat at the hands of the Ravens last year.) If he and Denver can’€™t seal the deal this time around, it will be viewed — fairly or unfairly — as yet another example of the quarterback coming up short with a title on the line.

4. CAN THE SAINTS FIND SUCCESS ON THE ROAD?

As a wild card team, New Orleans will have to hit the road if it wants to reach North Jersey — that journey would start Saturday night in Philly. That’€™s bad news for the Saints, as their home/road splits are as dramatic as any team in the playoffs: they were 8-0 at home and 3-5 on the road, they average almost twice as many points at home (34) than on the road (17.8), and scored a combined 36 points in their last three road losses. (By contrast, they scored 30 or more six different times at home this season.) Quarterback Drew Brees was the best home QB in the league with a 74 percent completion rate in the Dome, to go along with 27 touchdowns and just three picks. On the road, he completed 64 percent of his passes, with 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Not good for a team heading into a chilly Saturday night game in Philly.

5. ARE THE PLAYOFFS READY FOR CHIP KELLY?

Kelly will coach his first playoff game Saturday night when the Eagles host the Saints in an NFC wild card matchup, and the high-octane Kelly is ready to attack the postseason with an offense that’€™s looked pretty impressive, especially over the second half of the season. Following a 3-5 start, the Eagles turned to quarterback Nick Foles, who has led Philly to the top 5 of almost every major offensive category, including rushing (first at 160.4 yards per game), total offense (second at 417.3 yards per game) and scoring (fourth at 27.6 points per game). Foles had an amazing 27:2 touchdown to interception ratio on the year, and completed at impressive 64 percent of his passes while rolling to an 8-2 mark as a starter. (Of course, LeSean McCoy has a sizable role in the success of the Eagles, as his 1,607 rushing yards and 539 receiving yards make him one of the most impressive multidimensional threats in the game.) It’€™s uncertain as to whether or not the Eagles can keep those numbers rolling into the playoffs, but they’€™re going to be fun to watch as long as they hang around.
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Devin McCourty, Aqib Talib and Logan Mankins recognized as All-Pros

01.03.14 at 2:06 pm ET
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Safety Devin McCourty, cornerback Aqib Talib and offensive lineman Logan Mankins were all named second-team All-Pros on Friday.

McCourty is in the midst of one of the finest seasons of his career — the defensive back has been a tremendously steadying influence along the back line of New England’s defense, and with the losses of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to season-ending injuries early in the year, has stepped up and assumed more of a leadership position. He started 15 games for the Patriots this season, and the 26-year-old has 69 tackles (48 solo), nine passes defensed and an interception.

McCourty said it was an honor as a secondary to have two defensive backs named All-Pros.

‘€œI think when you’€™ve got two guys, not at the same position, but both in the secondary, that speaks volumes to the work that you’€™re putting in as a group,” he said. “For us two to be named to [the All-Pro team] means we’€™ve been playing pretty well. Now it’€™s all about continuing to do it in the postseason.’€

Talib has also enjoyed the finest season of his career, as the corner has played in 13 games, and come away with four interceptions and 13 passes defensed. The 27-year-old, in his first full season with New England (he was dealt to the Patriots from Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 campaign), has spent the bulk of the season shutting down some of the league’s elite pass catchers, including Jimmy Graham of New Orleans and Vincent Jackson of Tampa Bay. For his efforts, he was also named to his first Pro Bowl late last month.

‘€œIt’€™s an honor, I guess. I really didn’€™t even know about it,” Talib said Friday. “Just like that Pro Bowl, man, I’€™ll find a way to celebrate that after we finish our business. Simple as that.’€

Mankins, a 2010 first-team All Pro, has been the centerpiece of New England’s offensive line, working as both the left tackle and left guard over the course of the season. Earlier this month, he was voted to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl and his sixth overall. Since entering the starting lineup in 2005, Mankins has helped New England finish in the top 10 on offense eight times.

For more Patriots news, check out weei.com/patriots.

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Peter King on M&M: ‘Julian Edelman has a chance in the postseason to burst into America’s living rooms’

01.03.14 at 1:40 pm ET
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Sports Illustrated’s Peter King made his weekly appearance with Mut & Merloni on Friday to discuss NFL news and expound on his prediction that the Patriots will win the Super Bowl. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

King predicts the Patriots to beat the Broncos in the AFC championship game and then win the Super Bowl over the Seahawks, with Julian Edelman earning MVP honors.

“The way I look at this postseason for New England, it’s going to be a continuation of Tom Brady making due with guys the way he’s done most of his career,” King said. “This is a redux of Troy Brown, the year that he caught all the balls. That’s the thing about this team.

“You know who kind of reminds me of Brady right now is Andrew Luck. If you look at Andrew Luck‘s last month, remember how he was a total lost sheep when he lost Reggie Wayne? They played poorly for about a month, and he couldn’t find a weapon. What happened is he adjusted. He got used to Griff Whalen and Da’Rick Rogers and a bunch of guys like that. Now he’s even throwing to Trent Richardson.

“I think what happens is you adjust to the personnel you have. Brady’s always done that. I think that Julian Edelman has a chance in the postseason to burst into America’s living rooms.”

Looking at the Patriots’ potential opponent next weekend, King said to keep an eye on the Bengals.

“I’d be afraid of Cincinnati, which is the team the Patriots are probably going to get,” King said. “I must say that I watched an awful lot of that game, too — the game earlier this year obviously when the Patriots went to Cincinnati and lost the game. And a lot of people will say, well, the torrential downpour and all that. And look, I don’t have a crystal clear memory of that. But the one thing I do remember is that for the first at least like 2 1/2 quarters it didn’t rain. It was kind of crummy weather but they were able to play. And I think if you look back at that game — I remember thinking about it — if I’m not mistaken, I think the Patriots punted like eight of their first 10 possessions or something in that game.

“I think that the Bengals, even without Geno Atkins — because remember, they lost Geno Atkins in that game — even the Bengals without Geno Atkins have been a very, very formidable foe for a lot of teams they’ve played. Look at the teams in the playoffs that Cincinnati has beaten. Even though they haven’t played maybe as tough a schedule as a team like San Diego, they’ve beaten New England, they’ve beaten Green Bay, they’ve beaten San Diego, they’ve beaten Indianapolis.

These Bengals, I wouldn’t predict them to go to Foxboro and win a game, but this is going to be one of the tougher divisional tests the Patriots that have faced.”

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Read More: Andy Dalton, Chris Kluwe, Geno Atkins, Josh McDaniels

Hulk Hogan throws his full support behind Patriots

01.03.14 at 10:15 am ET
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We already knew that Hulk Hogan was already a fan of the Patriots, but the former champ threw his full support behind New England on Thursday night via Twitter.

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Patriots’ Potential Playoff Opponents: Broncos

01.03.14 at 6:00 am ET
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With the Patriots securely in the playoffs, it’€™s time to start sizing up their possible postseason opponents. This is a series on the rest of the AFC playoff teams. We’ve already taken a look at the Chargers, Colts, Chiefs and Bengals. We wrap it up with the Broncos.

The skinny: Denver earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC by virtue of a very good regular-season slate that ended at 13-3. With the exception of an occasional misstep — road losses to the Patriots and Colts and a home defeat to the Chargers — the Broncos were able to meet the challenges that were placed in front of them. Their offense, led by quarterback Peyton Manning, had an epic year, with five games of 45 points or more. Meanwhile, for most of the regular season, the defense did just enough to allow the Broncos to win their share of shootouts, getting enough stops at key moments for Denver to come away with 13 wins. It remains to be seen if the Broncos will be able to shake off the ghosts of recent postseason failures (from both Manning and the franchise). For a team with such a proud history, it’€™s telling that Denver has had just two playoff wins since John Elway retired following Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999.

Offense: The Broncos were an offensive machine for the better part of the 2013 season, churning out points at a record pace. (They were the first team to crack the 600-point barrier, breaking the mark of 589 points set by the 2007 Patriots.) Manning had a monster season — a 68 percent completion rate (450-for-659), 5,477 yards, 55 TDs and 10 picks. He was able to connect with six pass catchers for 60 receptions or more, as Demaryius Thomas (92 catches), Eric Decker (87 catches), Wes Welker (73 catches), Julius Thomas (65 catches) and Knowshon Moreno (60 catches) all played sizable roles in the passing game, while Moreno was able to finish with 1,038 yards rushing on 241 rush attempts. The Broncos were first across the board in total offense (457.3 yards per game), passing yards per game (340.3) and points per game (37.9). They were 15th in the league in rushing (117.1 yards per game). When compared to the rest of the playoff field, Denver gives away the ball a little more than the rest of the teams in the postseason, with 10 picks and a league-leading 16 fumbles.

Defense: The defense took a sizable hit when Von Miller went down for the year, but has put up good numbers down the stretch and created some optimism in Denver that the Broncos D could do more than simply serve as a way to get Manning and the rest of the offense an occasional breather. Shaun Phillips leads the team with 10 sacks, while Malik Jackson (six sacks) has also had a good year. Defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Robert Ayers are solid against the run, while defensive backs Danny Trevathan and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have three interceptions each. Denver is 19th in total defense (356 yards allowed per game), 22nd in points per game (24.9) and 27th in passing yards allowed 254.4 yards allowed per game). If there’€™s a strength, it’€™s their run defense, where they were tied for seventh at 101.6 rushing yards allowed per game during the regular season. When it comes to takeaways, the Broncos are above average, with 26 (17 picks, nine fumbles) on the season, good for sixth-best in the AFC.
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