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Setting the scene: Patriots-Colts

12.04.11 at 10:18 am ET
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FOXBORO — Sunny skies and pleasant temperatures in the low 50s are expected for the first 1 p.m. kickoff (CBS, WBZ-TV) of the season at Gillette Stadium as the 8-3 Patriots host the 0-11 Colts. This is the ninth straight season the two longtime AFC rivals have met in the regular season. Despite Indianapolis going through an abysmal season, it’s also a streak that will grow to 10 since the Patriots are scheduled to play all four AFC South teams in 2012.

The field is freshly painted after six Massachusetts high school Super Bowl games were held on the field on Saturday. Crews worked overnight to lay down new lines on the field and the electric fans were in full motion until just before 10 a.m. to dry the paint.

This is the first time the Patriots have faced the Colts without Peyton Manning under center since Nov. 30, 1997 at old Foxboro Stadium, when the Patriots beat current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Colts, 21-16 at the RCA Dome, when the Colts were still AFC East rivals of New England. Appropriately, the Colts fell to 1-12 that day while the Patriots improved to 8-5 on their way to the playoffs.

In the 19 games since then, the Patriots managed a 12-7 record against Manning, including 2-1 in the playoffs.

Manning did make the trip to Foxboro after getting an exam on his surgically repaired neck this week. He will be on the sidelines trying to offer help Dan Orlovsky, who is the third Colts starting quarterback this season. Kerry Collins started and lost the first three games before getting hurt. Curtis Painter went winless in his eight chances as starter.

There is a great deal of symmetry here as Tom Brady made his first career NFL start against the Colts on Sept. 30, 2001 at Foxboro Stadium when he led the Patriots to a 44-13 pounding of the Colts. He is 6-3 in his regular season career against Indy, with 19 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and a career passer rating of 99.0.

As for injuries on the Patriots side of the ball, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is out with a right foot injury. He will be replaced by one of two rookies. Nate Solder could start in that spot or Marcus Cannon, who made his debut against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 21, could get his first NFL start if the Patriots choose to keep Solder in as a tackle eligible on power plays, like third-and-short.

Nick McDonald was signed off the practice squad on Saturday afternoon and will be active this afternoon, providing insurance at center for Dan Connolly (groin) and Ryan Wendell (calf), both of whom are trying to play through nagging injuries.

The Patriots are a remarkable 37-5 in the month of December since 2001. The next-closest team in the NFL, over that span, is Philadelphia, which is 32-12. Three of those five losses have come to the Dolphins and the Patriots are 18-1 in the month of December at Gillette since the stadium opened in 2002.

Read More: Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, EMass Super Bowls, Indianapolis Colts

Analysis of Taylor Price release: Did the wide receiver lose the confidence game?

12.03.11 at 5:38 pm ET
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The release of Taylor Price brings to an end a relatively forgettable year-plus in the Patriots system where the young receiver could never seem to mesh with the offense.

Price, a third-round pick  in 2010 out of Ohio, was inactive for 15 of the 16 games last season, but did catch three passes for 41 yards in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins last season.

However, the 6-foot, 205-pound Price was unable to stay healthy at the start of the 2011 season (he was frequently dogged by a hamstring problem) and when he was healthy, he was unable to mesh with the offense. He was active for three games (18 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus) this season, had zero catches and was targeted just once in the passing game.

A month ago, it seemed like Price was poised for a bigger role in the offense. At least, that’s what offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien seemed to hint at on a conference call with reporters.

‘€He’€™s practiced well. We need to get him in there more,’€ O’€™Brien said of Price. ‘€He’€™s done a good job in practice. He’€™s a guy that we’€™ve got to give him more reps in the game.’€

For what it’€™s worth, Price never appeared to have the confidence or trust of the quarterback. Perhaps the final straw for Price — at least in my eyes — was when I asked Tom Brady last month how Price has evolved and grown as a wide receiver since he first arrived in New England. The quarterback answered with a lukewarm endorsement of the Ohio product, saying Price was ‘€œlike any young player and veteran player.’€

‘€œIt’€™s about gaining the trust of your teammates and coaches so that you’€™re able to go out there and do it with confidence in the game,’€ added Brady.

It’€™s not like Price was an integral part of the New England offense, but with those snaps now available there will be more opportunities for others in the passing game. It’€™s likely that Julian Edelman (if he continues to get snaps on the offensive side of the ball) could get more chances. In addition, Tiquan Underwood, Matthew Slater and — yes, I’€™ll say his name — Chad Ochocinco will get more opportunities at the wide receiver position.

The release of Price made room for offensive lineman Nick McDonald. With New England down to just one healthy center, McDonald provides depth at the position, and will serve as the backup for Ryan Wendell (who was added to the practice report this week with a calf problem, which has slowed by for a good chunk of the season).

McDonald, 6-foot-4 and 316 pounds, originally joined the Patriots practice squad on Sept. 5, 2011 after being released by the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 3. He was signed by Green Bay as a rookie free agent out of Grand Valley State on April 30, 2010. He was inactive for all 16 regular-season games and four postseason games with the Packers last season. (For more on McDonald, check out this piece by our man Mike Petraglia here.)

Read More: Chad Ochocinco, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater, Nick McDonald

Nick McDonald all of a sudden the center of attention

12.03.11 at 3:58 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Nick McDonald has overcome a lot in his life.

His mother died of cancer when he was just 14. He starred at Grand Valley State University and was signed by the Packers as an undrafted free agent following the 2010 NFL Draft. He did spend the season with the eventual Super Bowl XLV champions before getting waived in September and picked up by the Patriots.

He was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 4 and then released 11 days later. He eventually was signed back to the practice squad one day later.

Now, because starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is out with a foot injury and centers Dan Connolly (groin) and Ryan Wendell (calf) are questionable, McDonald will likely be active and on the sidelines Sunday ready to provide insurance. He very well could make his NFL debut against the Colts.

“You have to prepare like that every single week,” McDonald said on Friday, when surrounded by a media crowd that anticipated his promotion. “Every practice squad guy gets reps and we all have to know exactly what the starters are doing, because you never know when your number is going to be called and when you’ll be called up.”

So, if either Connolly or Wendell or both can’t go Sunday, it appears the 24-year-old McDonald will get a chance. To that end, he’s been taking snaps in practice.

But what about getting accustomed to Tom Brady in practice?

“You have to know exactly what Tom wants,” McDonald said. “First and foremost, it’s got to be the snap, you have to be on the same page. You just have to work at it.”

McDonald, at 6-feet-4 and 305 pounds, can play all three interior line spots, both guard positions and center, something that appealed to Bill Belichick.

“You have to know everything. As a younger guy, I have to know all inside positions. I’m comfortable with all of them. It’s really not that big a of a difference. The biggest difference is snapping the ball. You can’t have a play without snapping the ball.”

Read More: Bill Belichick, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots

Nuggetpalooza: Colts at Patriots!

12.03.11 at 12:37 pm ET
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Well, they can’t all be blockbuster games. As the 0-11 Colts stagger into Gillette tomorrow, I’ve got the usual collection of Colts and Patriots nuggets, plus some leftovers from Thanksgiving weekend, and some random NFL notes, including some scheduling stuff that surprised me:

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* – The Patriots have scored points on 17 of their 21 drives that lasted 10 or more plays this season, and while the Colts began the season scoring on 11-of-14, they have not scored on any of their five such drives in their last three games.

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* – Indianapolis’ offense has been forced into four or more three-and-outs in eight of their 11 games this season. Compare that to the Pats, who are the only team in the league that has not had more than three three-and-outs in any game this season.

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* – The Colts’ defense is on their way to possibly setting a dubious NFL record: Highest conversion percentage allowed on 3rd-and-6+:

41.0% – Colts, 2011
40.5% – Ravens, 1996
39.6% – Saints, 1998

NFL Note: After allowing only two conversions on 3rd-and-10 or more over their first six games, the Bengals have allowed a whopping 11 such conversions over their last five (11-of-30, 37%). Six different teams have allowed only one such conversion in that span.

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* – The Colts and Browns are the only NFL teams that have not scored a touchdown on their opening possession of the second half this season.

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* – I’m telling you, they bend but they don’t always break: The Patriots have allowed a whopping 58 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, already the most ever allowed in a season by a Patriots defense, the most in the league so far this season (by a lot), and on pace for 84 by the end of the season, which would shatter the existing record (since 1995) of 72 allowed by the 2004 Chiefs (the only team to allow more than 65 in a season).

However, they’ve allowed only TWO touchdown passes from 20 yards or more, tied for the FEWEST in the league this season and could challenge the fewest ever allowed (again, they began tracking the stat in 1995) by a Patriots defense (they allowed three in 2001 and 2003).

———————————————————————————————————————- Read the rest of this entry »

Patriots will be collecting toys for charity on Sunday

12.03.11 at 12:56 am ET
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The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation Toy Collection will take place at Sunday’s home against the Colts. Part of the season-long “Celebrate Volunteerism” campaign, it aims to honor deserving volunteers and inspire others to follow Myra Kraft‘€™s example of being a life-long volunteer.

According to the Patriots, donations will be accepted beginning four hours prior to kickoff. Blue bins with the Celebrate Volunteerism and NEPCF logo will have ‘€˜Toy Collection’€™ signs on them at each location. Volunteers will accept donations at each location. The bins will be at the following locations.

‘€¢Patriot Place Plaza Gates
‘€¢Ubid.com Ramp
‘€¢P10 Parking Lot near the Bank of America Gates
‘€¢W3 Entrance
‘€¢E3 Entrance

Also, there will be donation locations open the week following the game at the Patriot Place management office and the Pro Shop.

Read More: Myra Kraft,

Peter King on M&M: Colts ‘not throwing in the towel’

12.02.11 at 2:05 pm ET
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Sports Illustrated’s Peter King joined Mut & Merloni for his weekly appearance Friday. King discussed the Colts’ debacle of a season and the future of Peyton Manning.

The Patriots square off against Indianapolis on Sunday in what is normally a marquee matchup. But the Colts are winless without Manning, who is still recovering from spinal fusion surgery. However, with the recent firing of defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and the news that Manning might be back to at least practice before season’s end, the Colts haven’t given up yet, according to King.

“The Colts made it very, very clear that they’re not throwing in the towel,” King said. “You fire the defensive coordinator with a month left in the season, what does that say to you? It says that you’re trying to give an effort. So there’s a chance that you might see the last gasp of this team on Sunday. I still think the Patriots will clobber them, but again, sports are funny.”

King also said that it is important that Manning practices before the season ends. This is because the Colts have to decide by late February whether or not to pay the 35-year-old a $28 million option bonus. If Indy is unsure of Manning’s status heading into the 2012 season, the team may have to cut him.

“All along, Bill Polian said the exact same thing two months ago: ‘We are going to do everything we can to play Manning, at least practice Manning, in December.’ And it only makes sense,” King said. “You have to make a decision, you have to make an educated decision about whether you’re going to pay him $28 million two months after the season ends. You don’t have organized practices two months after the season. You have to make that decision. ‘€¦ I doubt he’d play in a game, but I think it’s very possible and a matter of fact quite likely that he’s going to do some stuff in practice. Otherwise they would have put him on injured reserve right now.”

Following are more highlights from the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

On Manning practicing down the stretch to show teams he can still perform if the Colts want to trade him: “This is a funny story, because I think we all look at this and we all look at Manning and we still think he can play. But no one really knows whether he can. And that’s why I think its incumbent on him, and he wants to also, it’s incumbent on him to do everything he can to practice down the stretch and it’s incumbent on the Colts to try to get him on the field at some point. I don’t think a game is important at all. I think practicing six or eight times before January 1 is far more important than seeing him in a game.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Andy Reid, DeSean Jackson, Peter King, Peyton Manning

Bill Belichick flashes just a little chip on the shoulder for the critics

12.02.11 at 2:02 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Sometimes Bill Belichick offers a glimpse of what he tells his players behind the closed doors at Gillette Stadium.

On Friday, in the midst of a question about how the lockout has impacted his team four months later, he offered just that glimpse.

The trick is you have to look for it.

“We’€™re better now than we were in September, there’€™s no question about that,” Belichick said. “Even though maybe you don’€™t want to believe that, but I know we are.”

There it is. The nugget that gets you through an otherwise quiet, mundane, typically-businesslike Friday.

Belichick has heard all the criticism about his secondary, the 32nd-ranked defense in the NFL, the secondary that gave up two bombs to Vince Young before recovering, the finesse offense that wouldn’t survive in December and the playoffs. The team that has faced a cupcake row of quarterbacks in the last month.

You can bet that’s exactly what he’s telling his team about their naysayers.

That little morsel came in the middle of a 2-minute, 55-second answer, an answer that began:

“I think you go through it every year, I think you go through it every year,” Belichick opened. “You get to the end of the season, you get to December, January and you’€™ve been doing things now for 22, 20, however many weeks it is. The same plays, you continue to build on your situation plays so you get third and goal on the three, you start the year with one play or two plays, now you maybe have four or five plays, maybe a couple that you’€™ve used before but it’€™s been so long ago that it’€™s really not showing up on the breakdown so you can go back to them but in the meantime you have to keep adding to that. So you get to the end of the year and then you start the next year and you think, ‘€˜OK, where are we?’€™ Well we’€™re nowhere close to where we were in December or January ‘€“ we’€™re just not.

“We’€™re starting training camp, we have new people, nobody has run these plays in six months. It takes you a period of time, even if you have some spring practices, still you’€™re just nowhere near the execution level. Now, they’€™re executing better at this time of the year too, I’€™m not saying that we’€™re great in December. We’€™re better in December, well so is everybody else. I think where your team is in September from an execution standpoint, what we can do now and what we can do in September are two different things. A big part of it is just the newness and the getting back to the timing and the execution of your basic plays and then adjustments and situations and all those kind of things”

And he continued, without missing a beat.

“That’€™s the way I see it,” Belichick said. “Now, you can look at the stats, like I’€™m sure everybody does and say ‘€˜Look at how great the Patriots were in September.’€™ That’€™s only relative to where anybody else was in September, it’€™s not relative to where you are. But where is everybody else? And if they’€™ve improved more than we have, then the results are a little different. Or if we have improved more than they have, the results could be a little bit different. It’€™s a constant race for 16 weeks to get your football team better and better and better and better but they’€™re doing that on the other side too. I really think when the season starts, as much as anybody wants to say, ‘€˜Well, we’€™ll start off where we were last year,’€™ there’€™s no way. There’€™s no way. It takes so long to build to that point that you have to be realistic. You just can’€™t do the things that you did a year ago in December, in September. Maybe some of them, you pick out a few but overall as team, there’€™s no way.”

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