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Target Practice: Tracking opportunities in Patriots passing game

12.16.14 at 6:45 am ET
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Brandon LaFell

Brandon LaFell

Targets have been compiled by the NFL since the start of the 2009 season, and while it remains a vaguely imperfect stat — a badly thrown ball from a quarterback can often go against the record of the receiver as opposed to the quarterback –€” it remains a good indication of the confidence level a passer might have in his pass catcher. Here’€™s a look at the target breakdown after 14 regular-season games this year.

WR Julian Edelman: 92 catches on 134 targets (69 percent)
TE Rob Gronkowski: 76 catches on 119 targets (64 percent)
WR Brandon LaFell: 63 catches on 103 targets (61 percent)
RB Shane Vereen: 48 catches on 71 targets (68 percent)
TE Tim Wright: 24 catches on 29 targets (83 percent)
WR Danny Amendola: 15 catches on 26 targets (58 percent)
WR Kenbrell Thompkins: 6 catches on 10 targets (60 percent)
FB James Develin: 6 catches on 8 targets (75 percent)
RB Stevan Ridley: 4 catches on 5 targets (80 percent)
TE Michael Hoomananwanui: 3 catches on 5 targets (60 percent)
RB James White: 3 catches on 3 targets (100 percent)
WR Aaron Dobson: 3 catches on 5 targets (60 percent)
RB LeGarrette Blount: 4 catches on 4 targets (100 percent)
RB Brandon Bolden: 2 catches on 4 targets (50 percent)
WR Brian Tyms: 1 catch on 5 targets (20 percent)
RB Jonas Gray: 1 catch on 2 targets (50 percent)

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Snapshot of AFC playoff picture: Patriots in control as postseason looms

12.15.14 at 9:27 pm ET
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Can Tom Brady and the Patriots hold on to the top spot in the AFC playoff picture? (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Can Tom Brady and the Patriots hold on to the top spot in the AFC playoff picture? (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

With two weeks to go in the regular season, three of the four divisional races in the AFC have been settled, but there are still three playoff spots up for grabs. Here’s a snapshot of the AFC playoff race, with a look at each team, their record, where they stand currently in the race for the postseason and their remaining schedule. It’s also worth checking out the playoff odds for each team, which are updated every week here at Football Outsiders.

1. Patriots (11-3): Clinched AFC East. Remaining opponents: at Jets (3-11), vs. Bills (8-6)

While it might not be smooth sailing for all 120 minutes that are left in the regular season, as there’s bound to be a little fight left in those Jets, given the state of things in mid-December, it appears New England should close out the regular season with back-to-back wins against division opponents. If the Patriots can do that, it would assure them of their first No. 1 playoff seed since 2011.

2. Broncos (11-3): Clinched AFC West. Remaining opponents: at Bengals (9-4-1), vs. Raiders (2-12)

It’s reasonable to assume that Denver will be able to keep the heat on New England down the stretch, although the occasionally feisty Bengals might have something to say about that next Monday night in Cincinnati. Regardless, the Broncos appear to be a lock to finish 12-4 at the absolute worst, given the fact that they host the Raiders in the regular-season finale.

3. Colts (10-4): Clinched AFC South. Remaining opponents: at Cowboys (10-4), at Titans (2-12)

The Colts are the best bet to stay locked in to the No. 3 seed right now, and look like a good bet to finish 11-5. That game against Dallas could pivot on the health of Cowboys’ running back DeMarco Murray — given Indy’s struggles against the run, he certainly appears to be a difference-maker in that contest. No reason to think they won’t blow out the Titans.

4. Bengals (9-4-1): Remaining opponents: vs. Broncos (11-3), at Steelers (9-5)

Who knows? The whole AFC North is a bit of a cluster-bleep at this point. What we do know is that if there’s one team that has the edge on the rest of the division, it’s the Bengals. They could finish 11-4-1 and possibly push Indy for the No. 3 spot if the Colts stumble and fall at some point. At the same time, no one would be shocked if they lost both of their last two games and end up on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. From this viewpoint, Cincy will likely lose this week against Denver, but manage to sneak into a wild card spot with a win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh to close out the season.

5. Steelers (9-5): Remaining opponents: vs. Chiefs (8-6), vs. Bengals (9-4-1)

Pittsburgh appears to be nicely positioned with two games remaining — the Steelers are at home for both of them, and can ultimately finish as high as No. 4 if they win both contests. But like San Diego, Pittsburgh has been wildly inconsistent this year — it has some really nice wins (Indy), but there are also some truly ugly losses (at home to 2-12 Tampa Bay and on the road against the 3-11 Jets). If you’re a Steelers fan, you’d like to be optimistic, but there has to be some nagging doubt there that they could still lose them both and finish out of the playoff picture entirely.

6. Ravens (9-5): Remaining opponents: at Texans (7-7), at Browns, (7-7)

Baltimore is not as powerful as it used to be, but the Ravens are still one of the more mentally tough teams in the conference. Even though they’re on the road for the last two games of the regular season, given their resume, those are two eminently winnable contests for Baltimore. With three different teams sitting a game back and a crowded division picture ahead of them, there’s a lot of boom-bust potential for these Ravens, who could still win the division or finish out of the playoff picture entirely.

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Tom Brady mocks his own speed with Facebook post

12.15.14 at 3:58 pm ET
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Tom Brady isn’t the fastest guy in the world, so after he rumbled for a 17-yard pickup Sunday against the Dolphins, it wasn’t a surprise this popped up on his Facebook page Monday afternoon:

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Bill Belichick has no problem with Tom Brady not sliding at end of Sunday’s run

12.15.14 at 3:45 pm ET
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After Tom Brady delivered a 17-yard scramble in Sunday’s 41-13 win over the Dolphins, the quarterback joked after the game that he’d likely hear it from the coaches about how he didn’t slide at the end of the run, but instead finished off the run by crashing into Miami safety Walt Aikens.

“No, I could have slid, but I wasn’€™t in the best mood that time,” Brady said after the game. “If he was a bigger guy I would have thought really hard about sliding, but once I was in the secondary, things happen pretty quick for me out there.

“I’m not the fastest guy out there, so things close down pretty quick.”

But it sounds like Bill Belichick had no problem with Brady doing what he did. In a conference call with the media on Monday, the coach praised the quarterback for the move.

“I’€™ve coached for a long time, and I don’€™t question players’€™ decisions on the field when they try to make them to help the team win,” Belichick said. “I think that they do the best that they can. They’€™re trying to win; they’€™re trying to win just as much as everybody else on the team is.

“I’€™m not saying every decision is a great one, and the same thing with a coach, same thing with me,” he added. “I’€™m not saying every decision is a great one. But every one is made with the intention to help our team win and do the best that I can, or an individual player can for the team. So, I don’€™t second-guess those. I think what he does at the time he does it is what he thinks is best and I don’€™t second-guess him.”

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5 things you have to know about Jets

12.15.14 at 2:09 pm ET
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Will Sunday mark the final time Rex Ryan leads the Jets against the Patriots? (Getty Images)

Will Sunday mark the final time Rex Ryan leads the Jets against the Patriots? (Getty Images)

Here are five things you have to know about the Jets, who will host the Patriots Sunday at MetLife Stadium:

They can still run the ball pretty well.

In Chris Ivory (174 carries, 739 yards, 6 TDs) and Chris Johnson (135 carries, 613 yards, 1 TD), the Jets still have some semblance of a ground game. (Johnson also had his long run of 37 yards Sunday against the Titans out of the wildcat.) The Jets actually have three games this season where they’ve rushed for more than 200 yards, including 218 the last time they played the Patriots and 277 this past Sunday in a 16-11 win over the Titans. They’re second in the league in rushing yards per game (147.1) and total rushing yards (2,060), and they’re tied for second with the Saints and Chiefs when it comes to yards per carry (4.7). It’s important to note that much of that rushing yardage has come as the result of good situational football. They’ve run it in the right situations — either in hopes of doing all they could to kill the clock when they’ve had a lead, or when faced with a defense that has occasionally struggled to stop the run. When they do run it, they’re more likely to try and go up the gut — according to NFLSavant, a sizable majority of their running plays this year have gone behind center Nick Mangold, who is accorded as one of the better run blocking centers in the league. (In Week 7 against the Patriots, the majority of the runs came over center.) Given the sturdiness of Mangold, when the Jets do try and run it this week, look for them to try and test the middle of the New England run defense.

They are really bad in the passing game.

Both Geno Smith (58 percent completion rate, 1,957 passing yards, 9 TDs, 12 INTs) and Michael Vick (53 percent completion rate, 604 passing yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) have struggled to get much of anything going in the passing game. The Jets are last in the league in total passing yards (2,365) and passing yards per game (169), and they’re 31st in completion percentage (56.1) and yards per attempt (5.9). Wide receiver Eric Decker (62 catches, 100 targets, 720 yards, 4 TDs) is easily the best and most productive receiver the Jets have. After a semi-decent start, rookie tight end Jace Amaro (35 catches on 47 targets, 311 yards, 2 TDs) has trailed off as of late — he’s had just three catches since the start of November, but is still the second-leading pass catcher on the team. Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (34 catches on 67 targets, 322 yards, 1 TD) and newcomer Percy Harvin (25 catches on 47 targets, 306 yards, 1 TD) have performed well in spurts this season. If you are looking to break down possible assignments when Patriots go man coverage, it’s certainly realistic to think that Kyle Arrington (if healthy) will be on Kerley, who has been the primary slot option for the Jets this year. Meanwhile, Decker and Harvin would draw the Brandon Browner/Darrelle Revis combo, and Amaro would see Pat Chung and/or Jamie Collins.

They have a good front four, but not much else.

The Jets defensive front is still competitive, with Sheldon Richardson (6.5 sacks), Muhammad Wilkerson (4.5 sacks), Calvin Pace (4 sacks) and Quinton Coples (4 sacks) providing the bulk of the New York pass rush that could give the Patriots some issues up front. In the first game between the two teams, the Jets were able to sack Brady once (veteran linebacker David Harris got to him) and hit him seven times, with Wilkerson delivering three of those shots on the quarterback. On the back end, there’s really not much to speak of — per Football Outsiders, entering this past weekend, they were the worst team in the league when it came to defending tight ends and No. 3 receivers. In addition, they’re 16th against No. 1 receivers and 28th against No. 2 receivers. Small wonder that one former AFC scout I spoke with on Monday believes that if he gets just enough time, Brady should be able to have a big afternoon.

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Second-half domination: Patriots defense shutting opponents down over final 2 quarters of late

12.15.14 at 1:54 pm ET
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Devin McCourty and the Patriots defense has been outstanding in the second half of games of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Devin McCourty and the Patriots defense has been outstanding in the second half of games of late. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

It was a tale of two halves Sunday for the Patriots, as they flipped a switch and outscored the Dolphins 27-0 in the second half on their way to a 41-13 win and their sixth straight AFC East title.

While Tom Brady and the offense get all the highlights, what has gone seemingly unnoticed of late has been the outstanding performance by the Patriots defense in second half of games. Brady credited the defense Monday morning when he was on with Dennis & Callahan.

“Our defense is playing as well as I can ever remember,” Brady said. “They really set the tone for us the last bunch of weeks.”

The Patriots have not allowed a second half touchdown since Andrew Luck and the Colts all the way back on Nov. 16. They have outscored their opponents 54-6 in the second half of games over the last four games, allowing field goals to the Packers and Lions.

In the first halves of games over that span the defense has allowed an average of 228.75 yards. In the second half, those yards go down by over 100, as the defense is allowing just 114.25 yards.

“We just made adjustments at halftime and really just started faster,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said after Sunday’s game, where the defense allowed just 113 net yards in the second half. “We felt like coming out, we played a little slow in the first half, so just making some adjustments at halftime and starting faster out there.”

“Awful. It was an awful half, we didn’€™t come out to play,”€ Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace added. ‘€œThey whooped us from the first play to the last play. Bad. They dominated us in the second half, totally.”

Opposing quarterbacks have also struggled in the second half, and they aren’t any slouches either, as Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford have gone a combined 47-for-85 (55.3 percent) with 471 yards (117.75 yards average), zero touchdowns and three interceptions in the second half against the Patriots over the last four weeks.

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Bill Belichick: Misfires at end of first half Sunday were result of ‘bad coaching’

12.15.14 at 1:40 pm ET
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Bill Belichick left no doubt as to who deserved most of the blame for the series of misfires at the end of the first half on Sunday against the Dolphins.

With less than two minutes to go and backed up against their own goal line, the Patriots called three running plays before punting the ball away. Then, there were defensive breakdowns across the board that allowed Miami to post a touchdown with five seconds left to draw to within one point at halftime.

New England posted 27 second-half points on the way to a 41-13 win, but the sequence was still gnawing at Belichick the next day.

“You just want to put the whole thing on me — bad coaching,” he said Monday morning on a conference call with the media. “It was a poor end of the half. Nothing we did is the way we wanted it to go, and so that’€™s my fault. So it’€™s bad coaching, I’€™ll take responsibility for it and try to see to it that it doesn’€™t happen again. It was a poorly coached sequence of plays, period. And poorly played, I might add, to go along with that.”

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