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The Big Nickel: Focus on the New York running game, Wes Welker is back in the playoffs and wondering about Brandon Spikes

01.13.11 at 2:12 pm ET
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The five most important things you need to know about the Patriots on Thursday:

1. The New England run defense took its fair share of criticism over the first half of the season ‘€” five of the first eight games, they allowed at least 99 yards per game, culminating with an alarming 230 rushing yards allowed in an ugly loss to Cleveland on Nov. 7.

Since the midway point, those numbers have improved. In four of the final eight games, opponents haven’€™t topped 80 rushing yards a game, as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Chicago and Miami all struggled to formulate a sustained running attack against New England. The Patriots finished the regular season 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (108) and total rushing yards allowed with 1,728.

The drop in the rushing numbers has been due to many things, including good complementary football ‘€” the fact that the Patriots’€™ offense has put up big numbers early in the game has forced opponents to try and throw the ball to get back into the contest. But according to Vince Wilfork, a good portion of it is also due to the fact that things have started to come together when it comes to stopping the run.

‘€œI think everybody’€™s just been doing their job ‘€” focusing [on it], preparing a little bit more, watching more film,’€ Wilfork said on Thursday. ‘€œThe more you play, the better you get. I’€™m a believer in the more reps you get in practice or in the game, the better you’€™ll be. And I think some of it came with that.

‘€œEarly on in the year, our run phase was kind of crazy. [I was] just seeing guys not understand the defense the way it needed to be played. So, as time went on, we got better and better and better. I think now, we’€™re sitting back and can say, ‘€˜OK, we’€™ve gotten better, we have to continue to get better.’€™ We just can’€™t sit back and say, ‘€˜Oh, we’€™re good.’€™ I think it’€™s just everyone knowing their role, knowing exactly where they need to be and when they need to be there and preparation.’€

It’€™ll be another challenge for the Patriots’€™ run defense this week, as the Jets’€™ running attack was able to pile up big numbers throughout the regular season (sparked by the tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, New York was third in the league in the regular season with 2,374 rushing yards and 148.4 yards per game), and added 169 rushing yards in their wild card win over Indianapolis.

‘€œOne of the best,’€ said Wilfork when asked about the New York running game. ‘€œYou’€™ve got two great backs. They’€™re known for powering the rock. The offensive line is known for being physical. The New York Jets are known for having a great running attack.

‘€œThey are built for playoff games. They are pretty tough when it comes down to LT and Shonn Greene on top of that.’€

2. A year ago, Wes Welker sat and watched as his teammates endured one of the most humiliating playoff defeats in franchise history. The receiver, who suffered a devastating knee injury in the regular-season finale against the Texans, was in a luxury box watching the loss to the Ravens.

Now, Welker is preparing for his first playoff action in three seasons.

‘€œIt was tough. It was definitely hard to watch, especially the way the game went last year,’€ said Welker. ‘€œI’€™m definitely excited to be out there. These are the type of games you play for, and this is what you spend all year getting ready for. You just want to go out there and put your best foot forward.’€

Welker, who has 27 catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns in three postseason games (all of them with the 2007 Patriots), says that very little needs to be said when it comes to telling rookies how much the game changes in the postseason.

‘€œYou’€™re just definitely excited about the opportunity to get out there and have some fun and get in a playoff atmosphere,’€ he said. ‘€œThis is what it’€™s all about. This is where you want to get to.’€

The Patriots appear to present a lot of matchup challenges for the Jets in the passing game, with questions about how New York is going to deploy Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. Welker said Thursday he saw ‘€œquite a bit’€ of Revis when the Patriots and Jets faced each other last month, especially when New York went to man coverage, and it sounds like he wouldn’€™t be surprised to see him again on Sunday afternoon.

‘€œYou have to bring it every play, because he’€™s a great player. He’€™s got great feet. He moves around real well and does some good things out there,’€ Welker said of Revis. ‘€œHe gets his hands on you pretty well and understands what you’€™re trying to do to him. He’€™s definitely a tough guy to set up and get open against. You have to be on top of your game and make sure that you’€™re doing everything possible to get open against him.’€
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Vince Wilfork and the Patriots will be ready for ‘anything’ Jets throw at them

01.13.11 at 1:02 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Vince Wilfork is expecting the Jets to try everything in their arsenal to keep the Patriots off-balance on Sunday in their AFC divisional playoff at Gillette Stadium.

“We’ve got to expect their best and we have to be prepared for everything,” Wilfork said Thursday. “With it being a one-game season, we’re liable to see anything, things we haven’t seen, things we’ve seen. We kind of know what they like to do but on top of that, with it being a one-game season, you never know.

“We’re trying just to make sure we have everything covered that we think may happen, that may occur. If it happens, it happens. If it don’t happen, oh well. But we have to do a good job of preparing for these guys.”

Wilfork also said he hasn’t given much thought to last year’s playoff game when Ray Rice gashed the Patriots for an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. The Patriots never recovered and lost 33-14 at Gillette.

“The emphasis has been all this time just remember what we’re here for,” Wilfork added. “We lose this game we can’t go back and say next week we have to get ready for this because next week it’ll be over. So, I think everybody understands that and I think everybody is trying and they understand what we’re here for.

“We can’t do anything but take it one day at a time, get better each day and each day we step on that practice field, we want to walk away knowing we’ve gotten better. And when Sunday comes, we’ve got to be ready to play.”

Read More: New England Patriots, New York Jets, nfl, playoffs

Trent Dilfer on Tom Brady: ‘I think he’s going to unleash hell’ on Jets

01.13.11 at 12:59 pm ET
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ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer spoke to the media on a conference call Thursday and offered his thoughts on how Tom Brady will handle criticism from the Jets this week.

‘€I think he’€™s going to unleash hell on them,’€ Dilfer responded. ‘€I do. Early in the week, I felt like the Jets had a chance in this game. I looked for every reason why this thing could be an epic battle. That the Jets could redeem themselves from the 45-3 [game last month]. Then I started to look at more film, and realized the Patriots are just smarter than everyone else.

‘€And then I look at how they’€™re handling [the trash talk], and yeah, I do think it festers in a good way. They have the ability to use all this stuff, and hold it inside, and use it to their advantage come game time. I don’€™t see how this strategy works against the Patriots that the Jets are using. I can see it working against somebody else. I just can’€™t see it working against the Patriots. I think Tom, already with a razor-sharp focus, finds even another level to his focus and his preparation. I can just see him playing one of those flawless football games.’€

Dilfer said Brady might put together a performance like the one in the 2006 playoffs against the Jaguars, when he completed 26-of-28 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

Said Dilfer: “I can see him nearly perfect in this game.”

Read More: playoffs, Tom Brady, Trent Dilfer,

Pats practice: Only Myron Pryor absent at the start

01.13.11 at 12:17 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The Patriots nearly had perfect attendance at practice on Thursday as the team continued on-field preparations for the Jets Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

Only defensive lineman Myron Pryor (back injury) was missing from the workout in sweats and shells on the lower practice field. The field had been cleared following Wednesday’s blizzard that hit New England.

Rookie linebacker Jermaine Cunningham has returned after dealing with a calf injury. With the return of Cunningham from injury and fellow rookie Brandon Spikes from an NFL-mandated suspension for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, the Patriots have their full compliment of linebackers in place.

Read More: Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Myron Pryor, New England Patriots

Troy Brown on D&H: Jets ‘searching for reasons to believe they can win’

01.13.11 at 12:00 pm ET
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Former Patriot Troy Brown checked in with the Dale & Holley show Thursday morning and weighed in on the controversy regarding the Jets’ trash-talking leading up to Sunday’s AFC semifinal game in Foxboro. To hear the interview, go to the Dale & Holley audio on demand page.

Brown said comments from players such as Antonio Cromartie criticizing Tom Brady are likely to come back to haunt the Jets. “I guess the whole thing now is about how un-classy and unprofessional Tom Brady is,” Brown said. “I feed off of that. I’m sure the guys around [Brady] feed off of it, especially this young football team. So, I don’t know what the whole big deal is. Like I said a couple of minutes ago, it’s football. You knock people’s head off for a living. It’s not golf. I know you make us tuck our shirts in and keep our socks pulled up. But it’s still football at the end of the day. So, this whole thing about being un-classy and unprofessional is just ridiculous.”

Brown, who predicts a Patriots-Ravens AFC championship game, speculated that the Jets are desperately trying to build up their confidence after last month’s embarrassing loss. Said Brown: “I think deep down inside they don’t believe that they have what it takes to beat this football team, and they’re coming up with every reason they can come up with right now to make themselves believe they can come in here and win this football game. Really? After you take a loss to this team, 45-3? At a part of the season when you’re supposed to be peaking, and you go out there and you lay an egg. You talked all week about how you wanted to come in here and beat this football team and this was your thing. We’re hearing the same thing from the coach, Rex Ryan, that we heard the last time they played the Patriots. And the same thing from the players. I believe they’re all trying to psyche themselves up.

“And don’t get me wrong. I may seem pro-Patriot here and all this stuff. But I’m giving my honest opinion about what I feel on either side of this thing, Patriots or Jets. I just feel like the Jets are searching for reasons to believe they can win this football game.”

Brown acknowledged that Brady is an emotional player who likes to get in his teammates faces and celebrate with them, “but that’s what you have to do as a leader. If you want to stop those kinds of things from happening during the course of a game, if you’re the opposing team, play better. Then you won’t have to worry about the finger-pointing and the swagger and the hip jiggles and all that stuff and the looking at your bench. Just play better. That’s the bottom line.”

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Read More: antonio cromartie, playoffs, Tom Brady, Troy Brown

Nuggetpalooza: Pats-Jets breakdown by pass length

01.13.11 at 10:35 am ET
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As Pats-Jets III gets closer, here’s a prelude to my big game preview that’s coming tomorrow. Today, let’s look at the two teams by how they’ve fared throwing and defending passes of different lengths.

First, though, some mumbo jumbo: The passing ratings used here I stumbled across years ago in the New York Times.  I’d credit the author if I knew who it was.  But to me, it’s an improvement over the ridiculously complex passing rating used by the league because it’s so simple.

To calculate the rating, simply take the net yards per pass play (use net so the rating will include yards lost on sacks, where applicable) and compare it to the league average for that stat split. As an example, on passes to receivers behind the line of scrimmage, the Patriots averaged 5.70 net yards per pass play. The NFL as a whole averaged 4.56 net yards per pass play on those passes, so the Patriots start off at +1.14. Next, increase the rating by 30 times the Patriots’ TD percentage on those passes, which is .025 times 30, or 0.75. Finally, decrease the rating by 50 times the Patriots’ interception percentage on those passes, which was zero in 2010. So, the Pats‘ final rating on those throws in 2010 was +1.90 (rounded).

So, for offenses, positive ratings are good, but for defenses, negative ratings are good.  Got it?

All right, let’s get started by looking at backfield passes:

* – The Jets threw just 85 such passes all season (5th fewest) and the Patriots just 79 (2nd fewest). I can see why the Jets avoided them, but the Patriots offense was really quite effective on these throws, especially over the last six weeks, as the Pats picked up over 50 percent of their season-long yardage on just one-third of their attempts in that span, including all three of their 25+ yard gains and one of their two touchdowns.

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Merril Hoge on D&C: Antonio Cromartie ‘fundamentally struggles as a player’

01.13.11 at 8:17 am ET
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ESPN NFL analyst Merril Hoge joined the Dennis & Callahan show Thursday morning to talk about the Patriots-Jets playoff matchup. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Discussing the trash talk emanating from Jets camp and whether it will serve as motivation for the Patriots, Hoge said: “I do believe it matters. ‘€¦ From a personal experience, and having that being done on the other side of the field, you bet. You bet your backside it motivated me, even to a higher level. And it does make a difference, and it does factor in the game, without a question.”

Hoge implied Antonio Cromartie might want to spend more time focusing on improving his own game rather than worrying about opposing players. “The thing about Cromartie is, as athletically gifted as he is, he fundamentally struggles as a player. You watch him,” Hoge said. “I think one of the keys in this game is they’ve got to play a lot of press man coverage. They’ve got to line up against these guys and press the wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. You’ve got to use your hands. You watch Cromartie. Every time he does that, his hands are on his side, he drops them down at the snap, his feet go flat. And that’s why he gets beat so much. That’s why people attack him. Yeah, he’s a gifted athlete, but he’s not a great cover guy because he’s not fundamentally sound. He doesn’t have great habits, and people attack him. And the Patriots are going to attack him.”

Hoge said he expects that Jets will do a better job of getting Darrelle Revis more involved in the defensive scheme. In the Patriots’ 45-3 rout last month, Revis was a non-factor, sometimes line up against a tight end as the Patriots appeared to confuse New York. “I think he becomes a chess player in the box,” Hoge said. “I think most of the time he will be in the slot area on somebody, whether it’s [Wes] Welker ‘€” they jumped on him a lot, they put him on Welker a lot. But I think he becomes a movable chess piece.

“Let’s say that exact same scenario plays out where they’re on the field, the down and distance, and they line up in a five-wide look, with two tight ends on the field and one back, and they put two wide receivers to the left. You check out of that if you’re the Jets. You’re like: We’re not going to play this coverage. We’re going to go to something else. Then we’ll get Revis on the other side against a wide receiver. We’ll take a linebacker and move him out there if we’ve got to. But I think they counter better from that perspective to help him. They have to. If they don’t, they’re going to get hammered again.”

Turning his attention to Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, Hoge said: “He’s inconsistent, and that’s never a good sign. I think he’s better than what people give him credit for, but he’s inconsistent.”

Read More: antonio cromartie, Darrelle Revis, Mark Sanchez, Merril Hoge
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