NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi joined Dennis & Callahan on Friday morning to preview Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins game and discuss news from around the league. To hear the interview, go to the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page .
Heading into Sunday’s game with the Dolphins, Lombardi said that the Patriots have to figure out a way to run the ball against a Dolphins team that a lot of people credit as having a better defense than they actually do.
‘People say that all the time,’ Lombardi said. ‘But when you study the team, and you’re in a nickel formation, they allow five yards per carry. So, the reality of the situation is if you want to be in two backs and you want to show how tough you are, and you want to try to prove a point and you want to prove that they can stop the run, line up in two backs and run the ball at them. You won’t have any success. So, you have to solve the problem, you have to be divergent in your thinking. So, what teams have done is spread them out, get in nickel and see if they can force the run in nickel, which fits the Patriots perfectly.’
‘I think what Brady is able to do is make the right decisions almost all the time,’ Lombardi said. ‘Since the Seattle game when he threw the ball to Deion Branch  and he should’ve probably thrown it to [Rob] Gronkowski or [Aaron] Hernandez on a crossing route, you rarely see Tom take a chance that’s not there. Sometimes you get upset that he doesn’t try to at least throw it up the field, but Tom always is doing what’s best for the offense. ‘¦ I think Tom plays a patient game and that really helps when you play a team like San Francisco or when you’re going to play Miami. Patience is a virtue. You’ve got to be able to continue on up the field and not always kind of try to be desperate, and I think he does a great job of that.’
Added Lombardi: ‘I think he’s having a great season. It’s swept under the carpet because of the running game of the Patriots. ‘¦ But I think now he’s throwing the deep ball better than he has pretty much in the last three or four years.’
On the other side of the field, Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill looks like a promising quarterback, but Lombardi said he’d be hard-pressed to carry the team.
‘I think he’s a talented player,’ Lombardi said. ‘I think what the Patriots’ challenge is, it’s a little like the St. Louis Rams  game, they have to get ahead. ‘¦ When teams extend the game on [Miami], and make Tannehill have to throw it more than 30 times, they’re not built that way. They’re not conducive to be successful in a full-out spread game. ‘¦ I think you have to force Tannehill to throw the football more than he wants to and get some tipped balls. Tipped balls on Sunday are going to be the key component.’
As we get closer to the playoffs, Lombardi said the Broncos  and Patriots, not the Texans, are the teams to beat in the AFC.
‘I think it’s going to be New England and Denver,’ Lombardi said. ‘I think Houston’s problems defensively will creep up on them. I think Denver and New England are the two better teams because of the quarterback. And the team that I would be worried about, and I know this is going to sound completely ridiculous ‘¦ the team is Pittsburgh. When [Ben] Roethlisberger comes back and if he’s healthy, and if he can come back, and they can get in ‘¦ their defense is playing well enough that they’re going to cause some trouble for some people.’
‘I think San Francisco is the best team in the NFC,’ Lombardi said. ‘I think Colin Kaepernick, putting him at quarterback, is clearly about, ‘How are we going to beat the New York Giants ?’ The 49ers have lost to the Giants twice in the last 12 months. So, they know that’s the competition. To get to the Super Bowl , it goes through New York. They can beat Green Bay, they went back to Lambeau Field  and beat Green Bay. I feel like Alex Smith  can beat Green Bay. But I think Jim Harbaugh is way too smart to just come out there and say, ‘I’m doing this on a week-to-week basis.’ He’s doing this for the long-term planning. He’s thinking about what he needs to beat the New York Giants and I think he believes he needs Colin Kaepernick’s arm, he needs his legs, and he needs his ability to strike quickly.’
Following are more highlights from the interview.
On the Saints after Thursday night’s 23-13 loss to the Falcons: “I think what we’ve learned from the Saints this year is a couple of things. You can’t operate your football team with coaches in charge [being] the assistants. There’s a huge difference between being a manager, managers do things right, leaders do the right thing. Without Sean Payton , they have a leadership void, they just have managers. What we’re seeing ‘¦ fear does the work of reason. When you lose the head coach, you lose fear to the players.”
On whether the Falcons are the real deal: ‘I don’t think so, but all the evidence tells me I should think so. They’ve won 11 games. They’ve won on the road, I was critical of them not being able to win on the road. They’ve won close games. They’ve shown mental toughness. For whatever reason, every time I watch them play I’m thinking if they play San Francisco or if they’re playing Green Bay or if they’re playing the Giants, I don’t know if they’re good enough. I don’t know if their defense is good enough. ‘¦ I just think they’re a team that when they go against the better competition ‘¦ I think they’ll struggle.’
On the recent rash of positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs: ‘I think we’re a product of society. A lot of kids on college campuses are using Adderall. I don’t know the reasons for using Adderall, in terms of players. Maybe it’s to help them focus in meetings. … Everybody now as soon as you get tested positive, everybody says it is Adderall because that kind of makes it seem accepted. ‘¦ I do think that we need to examine all this medication that’s available to people and make sure that it isn’t in the same classification as something else and is it really, in fact, impacting the game.’