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After an up-and-down season, these 5 Patriots could be critical to postseason success

01.08.14 at 12:24 am ET
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Heading into the postseason, the Patriots have their acknowledged core on both sides of the ball. At the same time, there are a handful of players who have had an up-and-down year but remain vital to the success of the team going into the postseason. For myriad reasons — personnel, scheme, lack of depth, or all of the above — they will get extensive playing time in the playoffs, and if they step up their games the Patriots could end up going deep into the postseason.

Linebacker Dont’€™a Hightower

The second-year linebacker out of Alabama has had an up-and-down season. There have been times this year where he’€™s looked very impressive, a singular member of an above-average corps of linebackers. But in the weeks after Jerod Mayo went down with a season-ending injury, Hightower appeared to have more responsibility placed on his shoulders, and it looked like he struggled while making the transition from complementary part of the defense to leader and key figure. He admitted Tuesday that there were times this year where he tried to do too much, and had problems finding the balance between “doing your job” and trying to do too much when it came to replacing Mayo. He said Tuesday he’€™s now been able to dial back to a point where he needs to be. (The numbers certainly bear that out — the analytical web site Pro Football Focus graded him positively over the final four games of the season, and he has a combined 27 tackles in the last three contests.) Going into the postseason, he’€™ll have to take more of a leadership role — particularly when it comes to working with rookie linebacker Jamie Collins — and he’€™ll be asked to do more from a practical perspective as well, working with Collins and Dane Fletcher as the Patriots try and replicate the production of Brandon Spikes, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve earlier this month. How he handles those increased responsibilities this time around will likely play a large role in how successful the New England defense is in the postseason.

Wide receiver Danny Amendola

Amendola has had plenty of good moments over the course of his first season in New England — in 12 games, he finished with 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns. That included two games where he had 10 catches, one against the Bills in the season opener and the second in a December loss to the Dolphins in Miami. (He was particularly impressive in both, but he just missed coming down with what would have been the game-winner late in the defeat against the Dolphins.) Nice numbers, but at the same time, there were plenty of occasions where he seemed to fall off the radar screen. That included five games where he had three or fewer catches. The Patriots passing game has become reliant on the work of Julian Edelman — if Amendola can gain some separation in the postseason, he could serve as a complementary element to Edelman and open up a whole new option in the passing game for Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Running back Stevan Ridley

At this point, Ridley’€™s ball security issues are well documented. Coming off a season where he rushed for 1,263 yards, he had problems hanging on to the ball right out of the gate, and things reached a low point for the LSU product in December when he was a healthy scratch for a Patriots’€™ win over the Texans. Since that point, Ridley has slowly been re-integrated into the game plan to the point where he had 21 snaps a game in the final two regular season contests, and averaged 64 yards per game in that stretch. While he may have lost his job as the lead back — it’€™s hard to argue with the production displayed by LeGarrette Blount over the last half of the season — he still figures to be a key part of the running game heading into the postseason as New England aims for an NFL trick that hasn’€™t been pulled off since the Reagan Administration.

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Read More: Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Dont'a Hightower, Stevan Ridley

Tom Brady goes to practice with a cold: ‘I’ll live [and] be there’ for playoff game

01.07.14 at 6:14 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Tom Brady took to the podium Tuesday with a cough drop in his mouth and a little redness in his right eye.

It was pretty obvious that the Patriots superstar quarterback went through practice on Tuesday indoors at Dana Farber Field House a little bit under the weather.

Brady was asked point blank toward the end of the 13-minute session with the media if he had a cold.

“A little bit, but I’€™ll live,” Brady said. “I’€™ll be there [Saturday]. Hopefully [I’m] not on the injury report. I’€™ll try to talk my way out of that one.”

Whether it was for Brady or the general well-being of the entire team, Bill Belichick moved practice from the sub-zero temperatures and frozen turf outdoors to the climate-controlled environment of the field house.

“I feel good and I’€™m ready to go and that was very surprising for all us players,” Brady said of Belichick’s humane move.

While he gets his rest, he will have to find ways of dealing with a Colts team that came back from the dead, erasing a 28-point deficit against the Chiefs. Brady certainly has experienced that feeling this season in comebacks against the Broncos, Saints and Browns.

“It was a great game, a great team win and they got into a hole there and just had to dig their way out,” Brady said of Indy’s miraculous 45-44 escape. “Once you get some momentum going on your side, it’€™s pretty remarkable to be able to do that. Down 28 points there in the third quarter ‘€“ they just made a bunch of good plays and it took them until the very end to win and the defense made a great stop there in the fourth quarter with two minutes to go. There’€™s going to be a lot of close games ‘€“ we’€™ve been in a lot of close games, they’€™ve been in a lot of close games, probably more than anybody in the league. They find a way to win them. That’€™s how they got to this point. Hopefully we can go out and be the team that goes out on top.”

There’s something else Brady will be concerned about – the pressure from outside linebacker Robert Mathis.

“He’€™s a good place to start,” Brady said. “He’€™s a great player and been a great player for a long time. We’€™ve played these guys a bunch over the years. We kind of know what we’€™re up against. He’€™s having one of the best years of his career. They have a good defense. They are top-10 in a bunch of categories. They really have some good safeties that cover a lot of ground, really fast corners. They’€™re physical. They have a good team. We just have to outscore them I think. We have to go out there and put points on the board. That’€™s what our job is going to be.

“I can’€™t really run away from him, so that option’€™s out the door. You have to understand where he’€™s at. He really has a sense of urgency. It’€™s one thing to sack the quarterback. It’€™s another thing to strip-sack him and the ball’€™s flying all over the place. You have eliminate those types of plays. They’€™ve had a lot of those types of plays this year which have been a big benefit to their team where he runs the edge, the quarterback’€™s standing back there, here he comes and strip-sacks him. We just really can’€™t let that happen.

“That’€™s why he’€™s one of the best players in the league ‘€“ because he makes those types of plays happen. He makes them on a regular basis, it’€™s not a fluke when he does it. That’€™s a trademark of their team and we have to try to stop one of their strengths, probably one of their best strengths and still go out there and be aggressive enough to move the football and get the ball in the end zone.”

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Read More: 2013 NFL playoffs, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, robert mathis

Mike Petraglia, Chris Price preview Patriots’ playoff showdown with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts

01.07.14 at 6:06 pm ET
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Read More: Andrew Luck, Chris Price, Indianapolis Colts, Mike Petraglia

Patriots officially promote LB Ja’Gared Davis, sign Reggie Dunn to simulate T.Y. Hilton in practice

01.07.14 at 5:31 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Looking for every advantage possible heading into the their playoff game with the Colts Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots signed a speedy wide receiver to their practice squad to mirror the skill set of Colts speed merchant T.Y. Hilton.

Reggie Dunn, 25, was originally signed by Pittsburgh as a rookie free agent on April 7, 2013 out of Utah. The 5-foot9, 178-pounder was released by the Steelers after training camp and spent time on the practice squads of Green Bay, Cleveland and Miami this season. Dunn was a decorated kick returner during his collegiate career, returning five 100-yard kick returns for touchdowns, more than any other player in NCAA history.

Dunn takes the spot of linebacker Ja’€™Gared Davis on the practice squad as Davis was promoted Tuesday to the 53-man roster to take the spot of Brandon Spikes who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Monday.

Davis, 23, was claimed off waivers by the Patriots on Aug. 28. The 6-foot, 238-pounder, was originally signed by the Houston Texans as a rookie free agent from Southern Methodist on May 10 and was released on Aug. 27. Davis was released by the Patriots on Aug. 31 and signed to the practice squad on Sept. 1. He was signed to the 53-man roster the day before the Patriots game at Cincinnati and played on special teams against the Bengals. He was released Oct. 7 and re-signed to the practice squad on Oct. 9.

Read More: Indianapolis Colts, Ja'Gared Davis, New England Patriots, nfl

Colts coach Chuck Pagano: Just made sense to sign ex-Patriots WR Deion Branch

01.07.14 at 3:55 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Colts coach Chuck Pagano said Tuesday that there was no ulterior motive when it came to signing former Patriots receiver Deion Branch.

In a conference call with the New England media, Pagano said that there were several factors in play when it came to adding Branch, including the fact that they had brought him in for a workout last month, he was local, and he has a track record of success.

“We had worked out Deion three or four weeks ago,” Pagano said of the 34-year-old Branch. “[General Manager] Ryan [Grigson] and his staff bring in guys every week to work out and have guys that you know about and give physicals to in case you have an injury here or there, and we were a little bit short at the wide receiver position, and we had worked out Deion.

“He came in and had a great workout for us, he was in shape, he’€™s local, he’€™s right in our backyard, so we knew about him and knew who he was from a physical standpoint. Again, every decision we make is based on two things: what’€™s best for the team and what helps us win, and we feel like we got a guy that’€™s a former Super Bowl MVP that’€™s played a lot of good football at a high level, so he can help us.”

It’s debatable how much impact Branch will have on Saturday night — he only has a handful of days to try and get up to speed in a new system. But Indy quarterback Andrew Luck said he was looking forward to connecting with Branch.

“€œI definitely will pick his brain,’€ Luck said in a conference call with the media. ‘”œHe’€™s going to be a great addition to our team. I haven’€™t had a chance to sit down yet. We’€™ve been rolling in and out of meetings.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise of Branch Tuesday.

“Deion had a great career here — I think he was here for seven years or north thereof,” Belichick said. “Very smart, professional player. Great leader. One of the top guys we’€™ve had here in terms of off the field work ethic, leadership, intelligence, preparation, all those things. He had some very productive seasons here. He’€™s a tremendous person. He’€™s had a great career.”

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Read More: Andrew Luck, Bill Belichick, Chuck Pagano, Deion Branch

For Dont’a Hightower, ‘everything is finally coming back into play’

01.07.14 at 3:32 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Dont’a Hightower acknowledged Tuesday that he may have lost his focus earlier in the season, but the second-year linebacker is back to where he needs to be.

After the Patriots lost Jerod Mayo earlier in the year to a season-ending injury, Hightower’s role expanded, and he admitted he tried to do too much to try and make up for the losses in personnel.

“I’ve been there, done that — tried to do too much. It didn’t work for me,” he said Tuesday after practice. “[But I] fell back, and everything is finally coming back into play.”

The key is finding a balance between the Bill Belichick mantra of “Do your job,” and a natural inclination to try and overextend yourself in an attempt to become a playmaker.

Hightower said Tuesday that the solution is simple.

“Do your job. The big plays will come to you if you do your job,” he said. “I don’t need to make a tremendous catch — I just need to do my job. Everybody is lined up and everybody has the right communication, after that, the playmakers will make plays.”

As the Patriots continue their prep work for Saturday’s divisional playoff contest with the Colts, Hightower figures to play a sizable role for New England for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that he’ll be asked to pick up a lot of the slack in the wake of the recent decision to place Brandon Spikes on season-ending injured reserve.

He says he’s ready.
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Read More: Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo,

Report: Pete Morelli will work as referee for Patriots-Colts playoff tilt

01.07.14 at 3:13 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Pete Morelli will work as lead official for Saturday’s divisional playoff contest between the Patriots and Colts at Gillette Stadium, according to

This will mark Morelli’s second New England game of the year — he worked as the referee for the Patriots-Texans game back in November. Prior to that, his last New England games came in 2011, when he served as the lead official for a pair of games involving the Patriots ‘€” a Nov. 6 loss to the Giants in Foxboro, and a win over the Dolphins in the season opener in Miami.

Here’€™s a look at each lead official assigned to work Patriots games to this point in the 2013 season:

Sept. 9 vs. Buffalo: Walt Anderson
Sept. 12 vs. NY Jets: Carl Cheffers
Sept. 22 vs. Tampa Bay: Jeff Triplette
Sept. 29 vs. Atlanta: Walt Coleman
Oct. 6 vs. Cincinnati: Gene Steratore
Oct. 13 vs. New Orleans: Tony Corrente
Oct. 20 vs. NY Jets: Jerome Boger
Oct. 27 vs. Miami: Walt Anderson
Nov. 3 vs. Pittsburgh: Walt Coleman
Nov. 18 vs. Carolina: Clete Blakeman
Nov. 24 vs. Denver: Gene Steratore
Dec. 1 vs. Houston: Pete Morelli
Dec. 8 vs. Cleveland: Jerome Boger
Dec. 15 vs. Miami: Tony Corrente
Dec. 22 vs. Ravens: Ron Winter
Dec. 29 vs. Bills: Ed Hochuli

For more on Morelli’s work as a referee, check out his page at Pro Football Reference. For more information on this week’€™s assignments, click through to the always reliable Football Zebras.

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