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Target Practice: Who was Tom Brady’s favorite (and most dependable) target this season?

01.03.12 at 8:09 pm ET
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Targets have been compiled by the NFL since the start of the 2009 season, and while it remains an 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 for the New England passing game for the 2011 season:

Kevin Faulk: 7 catches on 9 targets (78 percent)
Rob Gronkowski: 90 catches on 124 targets (73 percent)
Wes Welker: 122 catches on 172 targets (71 percent)
Aaron Hernandez: 79 catches on 113 targets (70 percent)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 9 catches on 13 targets (69 percent)
Stevan Ridley: 3 catches on 5 targets (60 percent)
Danny Woodhead: 18 catches on 31 targets (58 percent)
Deion Branch: 51 catches on 90 targets (57 percent)
Tiquan Underwood: 3 catches on 6 targets (50 percent)
Julian Edelman: 4 catches on 8 targets (50 percent)
Chad Ochocinco: 15 catches on 32 targets (47 percent)
Matthew Slater: 1 catch on 3 targets (33 percent)
Taylor Price: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)
Dane Fletcher: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)

By position:
Tight end: 169 catches on 237 targets (71 percent)
Running back: 37 catches on 58 targets (64 percent)
Wide receiver: 196 catches on 309 targets (63 percent)
Other: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)

When you compare this year’€™s numbers to the last two seasons, it’€™s clear the New England passing game has evolved from one that relied heavily on the work of wide receivers like Wes Welker and Randy Moss and one that has started to turn more toward tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. It’€™s also interesting to see the decreased numbers of the running backs in the passing game — all three years, their production has dropped off. Here’€™s a look at the target numbers from 2010 and 2009.

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Brian Waters: Gillette Stadium ‘can be loud – at times’

01.03.12 at 5:39 pm ET
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FOXBORO — It’s a criticism as old as the building itself – Gillette Stadium is not an intimidating place to play.

Certainly, the Patriots enjoy the home field advantage, having gone 7-1 this season. They have five perfect home seasons since the building opened in 2002. Their worst record at home is 5-3, four times. Overall, they are 67-13 in 10 regular seasons in their home that opened after their first Super Bowl win.

They won their first eight playoff games in the stadium as well. Then Ray Rice ripped off an 83-yard run on the first play from scrimmage in wild card round two seasons ago and the karma has been off ever since.

The Patriots have lost their last two playoff games in the facility, dropping a 33-14 decision to the Ravens in Jan. 2010 and the 28-21 shocker to the Jets last January.

Patriots Pro Bowl left guard Brian Waters is returning to the playoffs this season in his first season with the Patriots. He was on a 13-3 Chiefs team in 2003 that lost in the AFC Divisional round to the Colts, 38-31. So he knows the heartbreak of one-and-done at home.

He also knows what an intimidating factor noise can be as he played 11 seasons in Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

“Good question,” Waters responded before a very long pause and some laughter, presumably to himself. “It’s a tough question. You’re right, I have played in some loud places, and this place can be loud – at times.”

Could the Patriots’ home venue be louder and more intimidating?

“You said that. I didn’t say that,” Waters smiled, quick to cover his rear.

Is part of the problem that Patriots fans have been spoiled and expect a win every single home game?

“I have no idea,” Waters said. “This is my first year here. You have to ask someone who’s been here a long period of time,” Waters responded. “I’m not going to get into that one. That’s not a good situation to really comment on.”

Tom Brady has been critical of the Gillette Stadium crowd in the past, including this year when he encouraged fans to arrive early for the 4:15 p.m. home opener on Sept. 18 against the Chargers and get “lubed up.” He later clarified himself through the team by asking fans to be sure they “hydrate” properly.

Read More: Gillette Stadium, lubed up, New England Patriots, nfl

Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Quarterback

01.03.12 at 4:50 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’€™ve already broken down the running backs. Now, it’€™s quarterback:

Depth chart: Tom Brady (401-for-611, 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), Brian Hoyer (1-for-1, 22 yards), Ryan Mallett.

Overview: Brady had plenty of bumps and bruises along the way — there were several stretches throughout the season where his usual trademark accuracy betrayed him — but ultimately, the quarterback would go on to have one of the finest seasons of his career, throwing for 5,235 yards. (If it weren’€™t for the out-of-this-world effort from Drew Brees, he would have stood alone atop the all-time passing yardage record, breaking the 27-year-old mark of 5,084 by Dan Marino that stood from 1984 until Brees surpassed the mark, one week before Brady did so.) He broke the 300-yard mark 11 times, and threw just two interceptions over the second half of the season.

Really, Brady was a statistical marvel this year: His 39 touchdown passes were the second-most of his career (only trailing the 50 he threw in 2007), he extended his streak of 32 consecutive games in which he threw at least one touchdown pass (fourth all-time behind Johnny Unitas, Brees and Brett Favre) and reached the 300-touchdown plateau, becoming the sixth player in history to reach that mark.

There were times where he appeared to struggle, and the New England offense has gotten off to some slow starts over the second half of the season, some of which can be tied indirectly to the work of the quarterback. But in the end, no quarterback in the NFL has a better grasp of his system and what his coach ultimately wants him to accomplish on a weekly basis than Brady. (He and Bill Belichick have the longest active quarterback-coach relationship in the league.)
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Read More: Bill Belichick, Brett Favre, Brian Hoyer, Dan Marino

Pressure Points: Which New England defenders did the best job of getting after the quarterback this season?

01.03.12 at 4:05 pm ET
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According to official NFL gamebooks, opposing quarterbacks had 620 dropbacks against the Patriots this season, and were hit by New England defenders a total of 88 times, to go along with 40 sacks (14th in the league) for 274 yards. Here’€™s a breakdown of who did the best job of getting after the quarterback this year:

Quarterback hits:
Defensive end Andre Carter: 22
Defensive end/linebacker Mark Anderson: 14
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich: 9
Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork: 8
Linebacker Dane Fletcher: 6
Linebacker Jerod Mayo: 6
Defensive lineman Kyle Love: 5
Defensive lineman Shaun Ellis: 3
Defensive lineman Myron Pryor: 3
Defensive lineman Gerard Warren: 3
Defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth: 2
Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick: 2
Safety Pat Chung: 2
Linebacker Brandon Spikes: 1
Cornerback Phillip Adams: 1
Defensive lineman Mike Wright: 1

Sacks:
Anderson: 10 (75 yards)
Carter: 10 (70 yards)
Ninkovich: 6.5 (54 yards)
Wilfork: 3.5 (17.5 yards)
Love: 3 (14 yards)
Deaderick: 2 (13 yards)
Mayo 1 (5.0 yards)
Warren: 1 (7 yards)
Ellis 1 (7 yards)
Chung: 1 (3 yards)
Pryor: 0.5 (4.5 yards)
Wright: 0.5 (4 yards)

Read More: Albert Haynesworth, Andre Carter, Brandon Deaderick, Brandon Spikes

Transcript of Tom Brady on D&C: Most proud of starting all 16 weeks

01.03.12 at 10:31 am ET
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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady joined Dennis & Callahan Tuesday morning, following his 338-yard, three-touchdown passing performance in Sunday’s 49-21 comeback victory over the Bills.

Brady finished the season with 5,235 passing yards, second most in NFL history to Drew Brees‘ 5,486. But he said the individual statistic he’s most proud of this season is his durability.

“I’m happy I was out there to start 16 weeks,” he said. “I think that’s what I’m probably most proud of, that I was able to be there for my teammates and come out every week and start the game. To be durable and to try to be a consistent player on our team, that’s probably what I’m most proud of.”

While the Patriots are headed to the playoffs, the Jets are heading on vacation following Sunday’s season-ending loss to the Dolphins. Brady was asked if he is enjoying the demise of his nemesis from New York.

“Yeah, there’s a few websites I like where they have all the New York papers. I read a few of those articles. I would be remiss not to,” he said. “They had a tough year. I’m glad we beat them twice. That was a huge key to our season, that win against the Jets in the Meadowlands. We’ll see them next year. They’re not going anywhere. I’m sure they’ll come back with just as much confidence next year.”

Following is a transcript of the conversation. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Are you and your teammates concerned that slow starts could be a fatal flaw in the playoffs?

We’re always trying to play better. I think we come out of every game saying there’s things we didn’t do so well and there’s things we have to do better. I don’t think what’s in our mind is, “We’re going to lose, we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose.” You don’t think about that. You think you’re going to win. You think you’re going to pull the game out. You have confidence that if you play for four quarters and you play hard and you make more plays than the other team, then at the end of the 60 minutes you’re going to win the game. Believe me, we all wish we were up 21-0 instead of down 21-0. But if we’re down 21-0 we still have confidence that we can come back and win the game.

You said in the postgame that the reason you fell behind was because we as a team weren’t executing. Why not executing? Why did the team not appear to be ready to play at kickoff?

I don’t know. I don’t know. We just didn’t make the plays. We’ll go in there today, we’ll watch the film and we’ll try and make corrections. We’ll try to go out there and do a better job next week.
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Read More: Aaron Hernandez, Andrew Luck, Bill O'Brien, Brian Hoyer

The departure of Bill Polian and the possible end of the Patriots-Colts rivalry

01.03.12 at 1:16 am ET
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While new characters in the long-running rivalry will surely pop up sooner rather than later, the news that Bill Polian has been fired closes a momentous chapter in the decade-long rivalry between the Patriots and Colts.

After working as the GM of the Bills and Panthers, Polian came to Indianapolis prior to the start of the 1998 season. The Colts, who had the first pick in the 1998 draft, went with Peyton Manning, which started a turnaround that saw Indy go from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in 1999. And under Polian, Manning and coach Tony Dungy, they would become a perennial playoff entrant soon after that.

In many ways, their rise to power mirrored that of the Patriots. The two organizations were AFC royalty — in the nine seasons between 2001 and 2009, either the Patriots or Colts represented the AFC in the Super Bowl six times. They always provided great drama, a terrific study in contrasts. Indy was an offensive juggernaut playing indoors on the turf, while the Patriots were a defensive powerhouse that thrived in the cold and snow. That extended to the quarterback spot: Manning and Tom Brady became contemporaries, football’€™s version of Bird-Magic or Russell-Chamberlain.

The rivalry peaked between 2003 and 2007. Watching those games, it put you in the mind of great theatre: In 2003 and 2004, the two teams met in a pair of postseason classics, with New England getting the better of the Colts on each occasion. The Patriots also won two memorable regular season games those two years, with New England taking a narrow victory in Indy in 2003 and an equally dramatic win in the 2004 season opener.

For whatever reason, Polian enjoyed sitting in the press box during games, where his passion was on full display for the media. During the 2003 AFC Championship Game in Foxboro, Polian raged from the press box at perceived pass interference penalties that weren’€™t called against the New England secondary, at one point yelling, ‘€œThrow the (expletive) flag!’€ He was a member of the NFL’€™s competition committee, and that offseason, in a move that was widely perceived as a swipe at the Patriots, lobbied for stronger rules when it came to pass defense, cracking down on illegal contact and defensive holding, rules that have had a colossal impact on the game the last few years.
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Read More: B.B. King, Bill Polian, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady

Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Running backs

01.02.12 at 10:36 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason ready to begin, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a weeklong, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. First up, the running backs.

Depth chart: BenJarvus Green-Ellis (181 carries, 667 yards, 3.7 yards per carry, 11 touchdowns), Stevan Ridley (87 carries, 441 yards, 5.1 yards per carry, one touchdown), Danny Woodhead (77 carries, 351 yards, 4.6 yards per carry, one touchdown), Kevin Faulk (17 carries, 57 yards, 3.4 yards per carry), Shane Vereen (15 carries, 57 yards, 3.8 yards per carry, one touchdown), Lousaka Polite.

Overview: The Patriots’€™ running game has evolved over the course of the 2011 season, going from a system that featured Green-Ellis almost exclusively for the first half of the season to one that’€™s been more rotation based over the second half of the season. Whether that was because of injury (Green-Ellis was slowed by a toe problem roughly two-thirds of the way through the season) or the fact that they’€™ve seen something in Ridley that allowed them to feature him more frequently, but with the playoffs looming, it’€™s clear that New England will go to multiple backs on a regular basis.

While it’€™s going to be Green-Ellis and Ridley doing most of the traditional, between-the-tackles work for the Patriots, expect Woodhead to continue to get the majority of reps as the third-down, changeup back, while Faulk will fill in as needed. In addition, look for Polite’€™s role to grow a bit, as he looked solid working as a fullback. (Based on his injury history and the fact that he’s a rookie, look for Vereen to be the odd man out this postseason.)
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Read More: BenJarvus Green Ellis, Corey Dillon, Danny Woodhead, Kevin Faulk
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