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Patriots’ improvement on third down helped pave way to Super Bowl title

02.09.15 at 6:00 am ET
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Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots' third-down defense played a major part in their Super Bowl title run. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots’ third-down defense played a major part in their Super Bowl title run. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“We have to get off the field, that’€™s huge. Some of the third-and-long situations we weren’t able to get off the field. I know third-and-long screens hurt us, too. Specifically that play and third and long as a whole, we need to do a better job. Obviously everything is working together, so coverage-rush, rush-coverage, everything works together. That’€™s just one area we definitely need to work on this year.” Rob Ninkovich, July 23, 2014 — the first day of training camp and media availability of the season

It was evident the Patriots defense needed to improve on third down, as dating back to the 2010 season there hadn’t been a year in which the Patriots finished higher than 20th in the league in third-down defense.

In 2013 the unit got off the field 42.7 percent of the time, 25th in the league, and 2010 was the worst season of all, as New England allowed opponents a success rate of 47.1 percent, dead last among all 32 defenses in the league.

This season was a huge improvement as the Patriots finished 16th in the NFL, getting off the field on third down 40 percent of the time, but it was in the postseason when the group took things to another level and helped lead the way to the fourth Super Bowl title in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.

In the three postseason games, the Patriots defense held opponents to just 7-for-30 (23.3 percent) on third down, including holding the Seahawks to 3-for-10 in Super Bowl XLIX.

One of the keys to getting to the Super Bowl was the Patriots’ come-from-behind win over the Ravens in the divisional round where they came back from two 14-point deficits. It was on the Ravens’ drive before Brandon LaFell’s game-winning touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter where Baltimore got inside the red zone, having first-and-goal from the 9-yard line and the game tied at 28.

The Patriots defense stepped up, including a huge Patrick Chung deflection on third down in the end zone on a pass intended for tight end Owen Daniels, which forced a Justin Tucker field goal giving the Ravens a three-point lead, instead of what could have been seven.

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Read More: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Super Bowl XLIX

Free Agent Snapshot: C.J. Spiller

02.08.15 at 10:31 pm ET
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C.J. Spiller will be a free agent this offseason, and could potentially be a target of the Patriots. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

C.J. Spiller will be a free agent this offseason, and could potentially be a target of the Patriots. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

When free agency begins in early March, there are a handful of players across the league who could appeal to New England. With the understanding that the status of these players could change because of the franchise or transition tag, here are a few possibilities for the Patriots to consider. We have to stress that all of these guys aren’€™€™t necessarily considered the elite of the free agent class — instead, they’€™€™re players we think would be a good fit in New England. This is the first player to be featured in the series, which will continue over the coming days and weeks.

C.J. Spiller
Position: Running back
Age: 27 (will turn 28 on Aug. 5)
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 200 pounds

The skinny: Spiller has spent all five seasons of his NFL career in Buffalo after being selected No. 10 overall in the 2010 draft out of Clemson. The running back had been dependable — playing in at least 14 games in each of his first four seasons in the league — until a broken collarbone injury forced him to miss six games this past year. Missing those games cut back his numbers, as he finished the year with 78 carries for 300 yards and zero touchdowns. On the receiving end, he caught 19 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. Besides running and catching passes out of the backfield, Spiller can return kicks as well, finishing the year with 306 yards on 10 returns and one touchdown.

When healthy, the Clemson product is a versatile back, as he’s demonstrated an ability to work effectively in the ground game as well as a pass catcher. His best season came in 2012 when he was named to the Pro Bowl, rushing for 1,244 yards and adding another 459 yards on 43 catches. Spiller wasn’t the only featured back during his time in Buffalo, as the team also had Fred Jackson, who for the past five seasons has had at least 437 yards rushing, and 215 yards receiving, including 934 yards rushing and 442 yards receiving in 2011. An issue for Spiller has been his ball security, as he has fumbled 14 times in his five-year career — at least two every season, and seven in the last two combined.

By the numbers: Between 2011-2013, Spiller had at least 561 rushing yards and 185 yards receiving in each of those three seasons, including 1,244 and 459 respectively in 2012.

Why it would work: With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen both set to become free agents, if New England doesn’t bring one or both of them back, Spiller could be a guy to replace both players, as he can match Ridley’s running ability and Vereen’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield. Clearly, Bill Belichick values versatility so Spiller’s game seemingly would be appealing to Belichick. In 10 career games against the Patriots, the running back has put up good numbers — 88 carries for 407 yards and 27 receptions for 207 yards — so Belichick has seen firsthand what Spiller can do.

Coming off a broken collarbone injury and playing in only nine games this past season, Spiller’s value isn’t as high as it once was, and Belichick has had a knack for going after players in a position like Spiller’s. His rookie deal was for five years and $25.7 million, and a starting point for his next contract seems in the three-year, $9-12 million range, at best. Also, running backs as a whole aren’t as valued as they once were, so getting a duel-threat running back at a good price, with the openings they could have at the position, could be appealing for New England.

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Read More: 2015 Free Agent Snapshot, C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson,

Bianca Wilfork shows love for Patriots fans, even in the Bahamas

02.08.15 at 5:44 pm ET
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Spotted a person in bahamas with a 75 jersey on in the bahamas had to walk up on them 🙈😂

A video posted by Bianca Wilfork (@mrs75) on

Maybe it was the joyous hangover from the Super Bowl victory or maybe it was just wanting to thank a fan but Bianca Wilfork couldn’t resist making the day of a particular Patriots fan on Sunday while she and her two-time Super Bowl-winning husband were vacationing in the Bahamas.

Bianca spotted a Patriots fan wearing her husband’s No. 75 in a blue home jersey Sunday. She and Vince walked up to the balcony where the man and two others were standing, minding their own business.

Bianca pipes up, “You know whose jersey you’re wearing?” After a smile and polite response, Bianca chimes, “His!” and points to her husband.

The fan shook Vince’s hands and jokes, “Almost your size.”

The whole moment was captured on Bianca’s Instagram account on video and broadcast to the world.

Read More: Bahamas, Bianca Wilfork, New England Patriots, Vince Wilfork

Maybe the best Super Bowl XLIX highlight video you’ll see

02.08.15 at 11:24 am ET
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This popped up on YouTube on Thursday, and it’s too good not to share. A unique look back at the craziness of Super Bowl XLIX. Enjoy. And yeah, football is awesome.

Read More: Super Bowl XLIX,

Sunday NFL Notes: Past misdeeds of some Patriots critics leave charges sounding hollow

02.08.15 at 5:30 am ET
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Jerry Rice made some critical statements about the Patriots this week. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Jerry Rice made some critical statements about the Patriots this week. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

1. This past week, Hall of Famer Jerry Rice added his voice to the chorus of ex-players who are trying to discredit the Patriots and their recent run of achievement. Rice quickly backpedaled on his statements (after video of him surfaced talking about how he used to try and gain a competitive edge with Stickum — which had been previously banned). That led him to fire off a Tweet where he fundamentally explained away his indiscretions by saying that everybody was doing it. It’s another sign that when it comes to firing off allegations of cheating in the NFL, you have to clean up your own backyard before you go knocking on your neighbors’ door. As for comments from Charles Haley this week saying he “lost all respect” for Brady because of the chargers, well, let’s take a good look at Haley’s track record before considering the charges. The same was true of former Carolina GM Marty Hurney, who speculated about a “culture of cheating” with the Patriots. Of course, a quick Google search of Hurney’s background reveals that while he was running the Panthers, alleged steroid use on the team was so rampant it alarmed a member of Congress. (In the context of this conversation, it was shocking that so little play was given over to the fact that an NFL owner copped to pumping artificial noise into their dome in an attempt to gain an advantage.) Ultimately, it serves as a reminder that not everyone is as clean as you might think, not even a player like Rice who was so consistently above reproach over the course of his career.

2. With the 2014 season in the books, attention now turns to the 2015 slate. With the understanding that the NFL prefers to have the defending champ open at home on a Thursday night with what should be a marquee game, it caused us to go back and look at the 2015 home schedule and ponder who might be the best possible candidate to open at home against the Pats. Truthfully, it’s not a wildly dynamic home slate for New England in 2015. In addition to the three divisional foes, the Patriots will host the Steelers, as well as AFC South matchups against the Jags and Titans and games against the Eagles and Redskins of the NFC East. Of that group, the three likeliest candidates for a prime-time opener against New England in Foxboro are probably Pittsburgh (while the Patriots-Steelers rivalry isn’t what it once was, it still can offer some occasional spice), Philly (Chip Kelly vs. old pal Bill Belichick would certainly be interesting) and Buffalo (Rex Ryan with his new team might attract some viewers). From this viewpoint, it likely depends on what sort of offseason buzz might start to build around Rex and the Bills, but that might be the most intriguing matchup, at least when it comes to TV. One more thing, as it relates to the 2015 schedule — the league mandates that the last couple of weeks are divisional games, and Gillette will host the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2016, which might necessitate the Patriots going on the road for the final week of the regular season. Something to remember when the league schedule is announced in April.

3. We touched on what the market might be for potential free agent running back Shane Vereen here, but one Tweeter provided a possible framework for a new contract for the Cal product with the deal that was recently done for Darren Sproles when the third-down back signed with the Eagles prior to the start of the 2014 season. Sproles signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal with Philly last March, one that included a $3 million signing bonus and $5.5 million guaranteed. (For comparisons sake, old friend Danny Woodhead signed a three-year, $7.25 million contract with a $3 million signing bonus last July with San Diego.) While Vereen doesn’t have the past resume of Sproles, the 25-year-old (he’ll turn 26 in March) is considerably younger than Sproles (31), and so the difference might be relatively negligible when you’re talking about total dollars. Regardless, the market for Vereen should be an interesting one — the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder could be hitting free agency at the right tine, as he was only one of five backs to finish the 2014 season with at least 50 catches and 50 carries last year, and ended up as a Super Bowl champion.

4. Given the level of talk around here about how the Patriots had to sign veteran offensive lineman Richie Incognito after the struggles of the first few weeks of the 2014 season, it was interesting to see the Bills made the occasionally mercurial offensive lineman their first big addition of the offseason, as the two sides agreed to a deal Saturday. The 31-year-old Incognito, made famous via the bullying scandal in Miami in 2013, sat out the duration of the 2014 season, occasionally making headlines for various off-field scrapes like beating up his own car. From a practical perspective, the Bills have had issues at the guard position the last few seasons — both Kraig Urbik and Erik Pears struggled last year, and Chris Williams (who many consider to be their best option at guard) had a lower-back issue for most of 2014. But the move reeks of pure Rex. He promised to “build a bully” in Buffalo, and he certainly put his money where his mouth is, as he welcomes the former outcast back into the league with a flourish. If Ryan can harness Incognito, it’ll be hailed as a masterstroke for an struggling offensive line. If he can’t play anymore — or even worse, engages in another episode — it’ll leave Ryan and the new Buffalo ownership with some egg on their faces.

5. The annual scouting combine will take place from Feb. 17-23 in Indianapolis, and while most of the eyes will be on the elite-level talents, there are always a few New England connections to consider. This year, there are a few of players with local ties who are set to perform for scouts and personnel men in Indy later this month. Here’s a list — running back: Tyler Varga, Yale; wide receiver: Geremy Davis, Connecticut; tight end: Jean Sifrin, Massachusetts; offensive linemen: Andy Gallik (C), Boston College; defensive linemen: Zach Hodges (DE), Harvard; defensive backs: Byron Jones (CB), Connecticut. (View the complete list here.)

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Read More: sunday nfl notes,

Malcolm Butler details crazy week in wake of Super Bowl heroics

02.07.15 at 12:32 am ET
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Malcolm Butler became a National superstar with this interception Sunday night. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Malcolm Butler became a star with this interception Sunday night. (Harry How/Getty Images)

A lot has changed for Malcolm Butler over the last week.

After the cornerback made a game-saving play in the Super Bowl last Sunday against the Seahawks, he was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. He’€™s done most of the major network morning shows, and made a trip to Disneyland with teammate Julian Edelman. For the relatively shy West Alabama product, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind.

“You know, [life] changed real fast,” Butler said in a conference call with the media. “I’ve been busy a lot. Been having to do a lot of things. I probably can’t go grocery shopping or whatever. That’s what this game comes with at times. I’m just enjoying the moment. Life changes dramatically, in good ways. It just changed.”

It’s been a remarkable ride for the undrafted free agent this past season, who was signed shortly after the draft and fought his way onto the 53-man roster. As the only rookie cornerback, playing time was occasionally scarce over the course of the season, but he said Friday that didn’t deter him.

“I came in trying to make the best of my opportunity — I came to practice and I played like my hair’s on fire,” he said. “I did everything the coaches asked of me to make the team. Once I made the team, I wanted to keep striving. It’s kind of hard sitting back and not playing and just playing special teams, but I’ll do whatever the team needs me to do.

“When I get my opportunity to get in the game, everyone has good ones, everyone has bad ones. No matter what, I’m going to do my best to play the best I can and just took advantage of my opportunities.”

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Read More: Malcolm Butler,

Robert Kraft on keeping Tom Brady, Bill Belichick together with Patriots: ‘As long as the good lord lets me breathe, that’s my objective’

02.06.15 at 3:23 pm ET
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Robert Kraft

Robert Kraft

Appearing on CBS This Morning, Robert Kraft answered a number of questions on a number of different topics, including Deflategate, the Super Bowl, Malcolm Butler, and keeping Bill Belichick and Tom Brady together with the Patriots.

The quarterback and coach duo have been to six Super Bowls, and have won four of them, solidifying their spot as the best coach, quarterback tandem of all-time. Kraft said he does not want there to be a time where one of them is on the Patriots without the other.

“As long as the good lord lets me breathe, that’€™s my objective,” said Kraft on CBS This Morning. “We’€™ve been able to keep it together for 15 years, and I don’€™t think there is any other head coach-owner relationship like that. Tommy is just so special the way he takes care of himself, the way he trains and the kind of leader he is.”

Belichick and Brady were attacked in the media in the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl with all things Deflategate related, and Kraft backed his coach and quarterback the Monday prior to the big game with a statement demanding the NFL apologize if there was no wrongdoing on the Patriots’ part.

Kraft backed his guys again on Friday.

“Whenever you’€™re privileged to get to this big game there’€™s always a lot of distractions that come about. The bottom line is we won our championship game 45-7 and we won the Super Bowl 28-24, and the league pretty much had full charge of the footballs,” said Kraft. “They’€™re looking into it and I’€™m really comfortable with the people we have in this organization.”

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Malcolm Butler, Robert Kraft, Super Bowl XLIX

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