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Rookie Cyrus Jones struggling with confidence game 12.07.16 at 1:28 pm ET
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Cyrus Jones has struggled as a returner. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

Cyrus Jones has struggled as a returner. (Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports)

FOXBORO — Before practice on Wednesday, Patriots rookie Cyrus Jones stood before a group of reporters and admitted that when it comes to working as a return man, he’s struggled when it comes to the confidence part of the job.

“It’s definitely a confidence thing [and], I didn’t really do a very good job helping myself out this year in that category,” Jones admitted when asked about his confidence when it comes to working as a returner this season. “But I still feel confident in what I can do. I’m just trying to focus on becoming more consistent, and like I said, just eliminate bad football.

“You know, it’s tough to gain the trust of the coaches when you keep going out there and keep muffing punts and doing things like that. So it’s on me. The coaches keep giving me opportunities because they know what I can do. And once I get the bad football eliminated. that’s what I’m focusing on, just trying to be more secure with the ball. … From then on, once I get the ball in my hands, that’s the easy part.”

Jones has eight kick returns for 180 yards (22.5 average) and nine punt returns for 42 yards (4.7 average). But it’s been ball security that has really given him a hard time this year, as he’s had four fumbles this season, according to the NFL’s official gamebooks. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder, who had four punt returns for touchdowns last year at Alabama, said that right now, it’s about building consistency.

“Definitely,” he said. “I mean, the more success you have, the more confident you are in your ability to go out there and make plays. Having good weeks of practice. Haven’t muffed any in practice, but to get back out there and do the same thing again, it’s pretty frustrating. But you build character through tough situations.

“I’m just taking it in stride. I know it’s not the end of the world. Just next time I get the opportunity, [I have to] try to make a play.”

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Bill Belichick talks toughness in his own team and toughness of Ravens’ roster 12.07.16 at 12:42 pm ET
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How does Bill Belichick define toughness? Before practice on Wednesday, the Patriots coach went deep on the idea of what makes a mentally and physically tough player.

“There are a lot of different types of toughness,” he explained. “Going over the middle and catching a ball when somebody is getting ready to hit you hard — that’s one kind of toughness. Lining up against a guy that’s big and strong a few inches away is a different kind of toughness. Taking on guys that are bigger than you in the run-force and linemen and things like that, that’s another kind of toughness. Receivers cracking on ends and linebackers and safeties; there are different kinds of toughness.

“Then, there’s mental toughness — kickers, it’s a non-contact position but there is a lot of mental toughness in those specialist positions; snappers, holders, kickers. There is an element of physical toughness but there is definitely an element of mental toughness that is different than a guard’s toughness. They’re different.”

Askd how he measures intangibles like toughness when it comes to evaluating a player, Belichick checked off a number of boxes.

“Toughness, intelligence, work ethic, I mean, those things aren’t … you don’t get that out of vertical jump,” he said. “Whatever characteristics you want, you put whichever ones in there. Dependability. Whatever adjectives you want.”

One thing he’s aware of is the fact that this week’s opponent is one of the most mentally and physically tough teams in the league.

“I imagine you probably wouldn’t last very long there if you weren’t [tough],” Belichick said of the Ravens. “Yeah, probably it’s a combination of all of those things from the owner to the general manager to the head coach to their team leaders right on down the line. A tough, competitive group every week.”

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Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount set to join exclusive company as 1,000-yard back under Bill Belichick 12.07.16 at 10:30 am ET
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LeGarrette Blount is nearing the second 1,000 yard season of his career. (Getty Images)

LeGarrette Blount is nearing the second 1,000 yard season of his career. (Getty Images)

FOXBORO — Since 2000, the Patriots have had four running backs top 1,000 yards.

Corey Dillon — 1,635 (2004)
Stevan Ridley — 1,263 (2012)
Antowain Smith — 1,157 (2001)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis — 1,008 (2010)

LeGarrette Blount should be the fifth one sooner sooner rather than later. While he and the rest of the New England running game face a sizable challenge this week against the best run defense in the league in Baltimore, the fact that Blount is at 957 after 12 games means that if he stays healthy, he’s a lock to hit 1,000 for the second time in his career. (He had 1,007 as a rookie with the Bucs in 2010.)

Blount, who celebrated his birthday earlier this week, would be just the second back in franchise history age 29 or older to hit the 1,000-yard mark. (Smith did it first in 2001.) In this pass-first era, the 1,000-yard mark is still an important milestone for any back, let alone one that just turned 30 this week.

“It means a lot, because there aren’t a lot of running backs who can rush for 1,000 yards in this league,” Blount said of the opportunity to reach 1,000 yards. “That goes out to all my offensive linemen and all of my tight ends and my receivers blocking on the perimeter. Tom [Brady] lead blocking when I reverse field. It goes out to all those guys. They work their tails off. They work their butt off every day. They work their butt off all week to continue to perform. I get all the notoriety for it, but it starts with those guys, for sure.”

“He’s run well for us. He’s made a lot of tough yards. He’s also made some big plays for us, has ripped off some big, explosive plays. He’s been out there every week,” Bill Belichick said of Blount. “He’s had a solid year for us, no doubt about it.”

On Tuesday, Belichick was asked if there was any historical comparison he can think of when it came to Blount’s hammer strength and surprising speed. While he alluded to the skill set presented by Dillon and Ottis Anderson, in the end, he said Blount is a fairly unique back.

“I don’t know if there’s a lot of guys really that I would compare him to right off the bat,” Belichick said of Blount. “You see him making some tough runs and running guys over and then you see him hurdling guys like in the Miami game and you see an open-field run like he had last week against the Rams where he kind of, you know, spun the safety around and ran by him. So he’s got a good combination of moves and style.

“It’s not all one thing. He’s effective. He’s got an effective stiff-arm. He can be elusive, he can be powerful. And he’s got good run vision. It’s hard to find another guy like him.”

Read More: Antowain Smith, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Corey Dillon, LeGarrette Blount
Ed Hochuli will work as referee for Ravens-Patriots 12.07.16 at 9:52 am ET
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Ed Hochuli will serve as the lead official for Sunday's Patriots-Ravens game. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ed Hochuli will serve as the lead official for Sunday’s Patriots-Ravens game. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ed Hochuli will work as the referee for Monday’s Ravens-Patriots game.

Maybe the most famous official in the league, the pumped-up Hochuli is given to over-explanations and increased on-air time. The 65-year-old has been an NFL referee since 1999 — this will be his first New England game of the season. He worked three Patriots games last year, including the AFC title game against the Broncos in Denver.

Here’s a look at who has worked as the referee for each New England regular-season game this year and the corresponding penalties for each game, not counting the flags that were offset or declined:

Sept. 11 at Arizona: Tony Corrente — 8 penalties, 69 yards (Cardinals — 6 penalties, 58 yards)
Sept. 18 vs. Miami: Craig Wrolstad — 7 penalties, 65 yards (Dolphins — 5 penalties, 49 yards)
Sept. 22 vs. Houston: Walt Coleman — 3 penalties, 15 yards (Texans — 6 penalties, 43 yards)
Oct. 2 vs. Buffalo: Pete Morelli — 9 penalties, 74 yards (Bills — 6 penalties, 60 yards)
Oct. 9 at Cleveland: Bill Vinovich — 5 penalties, 61 yards (Browns — 5 penalties, 35 yards)
Oct. 16 vs. Cincinnati: Ronald Torbert — 6 penalties, 55 yards (Bengals — 7 penalties, 46 yards)
Oct. 23 at Pittsburgh: Craig Wrolstad — 4 penalties, 40 yards (Steelers — 10 penalties, 85 yards)
Oct. 30 at Buffalo: John Parry — 10 penalties, 116 yards (Bills — 12 penalties, 84 yards)
Nov. 13 vs. Seattle: Gene Steratore — 7 penalties, 61 yards (Seahawks — 8 penalties, 60 yards)
Nov. 20 at San Francisco: Jeff Triplette — 5 penalties, 40 yards (Niners — 10 penalties, 68 yards)
Nov. 27 at New York Jets: Brad Allen — 2 penalties, 15 yards (Jets — 6 penalties, 66 yards)
Dec. 4 vs. Los Angeles: Jerome Boger — 8 penalties, 46 yards (Rams — 4 penalties, 30 yards)

For more on Hochuli work as a referee, check out his page at Pro Football Reference. For more Patriots news, check out

Read More: Ed Hochuli, penalties,
5 things to know about Ravens: Stout run defense helping carry Baltimore down stretch drive 12.06.16 at 7:50 pm ET
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Terrell Suggs leads the Baltimore defense into Foxboro for another date with the Patriots. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Terrell Suggs leads the Baltimore defense into Foxboro for another date with the Patriots. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Five things you have to know about Ravens (7-5), who will travel to meet the Patriots (10-2) in a key AFC clash Monday night in Foxboro.

They’re OK at throwing the ball. Veteran quarterback Joe Flacco (321-for-497, 65 percent, 3,258 yards, 15 TDs, 11 INTs) leads a better-than-average passing attack that is currently 12th in the league (258 yards per game). Flacco does a nice job spreading things around in the passing game — six different offensive skill position players have 20 catches or more on the season, led by tight end Dennis Pitta (61 catches, 87 targets, 529 yards, 2 TDs), wide receiver Mike Wallace (57 catches, 92 targets, 851 yards, 4 TDs) and the ageless Steve Smith (54 catches, 76 targets, 589 yards, 3 TDs). The depth of the Baltimore passing game will be a good test for a New England secondary that has been tweaked a bit over the last few months.

They will occasionally have issues when it comes to pass defense. The Ravens are seventh in the league in passing yards allowed, having yielded an average of 222.3 yards per game. (Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning, Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton all had 250 or more passing yards against Baltimore.) The defense is pretty good when it comes to takeaways, as the Ravens have 14 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. (The 22 takeaways are tied for fourth in the league.) Safety Eric Weddle and linebacker C.J. Mosley are tied for the team lead with three interceptions each, while Terrell Suggs is tops on the team with eight sacks. One more note: former New England defensive coordinator Dean Pees has been Baltimore’s DC since 2012. In four career games vs. Pees’ Baltimore defenses, quarterback Tom Brady is 2-2, and has gone 104-for-171 (61 percent) for 1,194 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Not bad, but not great either. With Baltimore’s run defense so stout and Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, Monday will be a sizable challenge for Brady and the Patriots’ passing game.

They’re really good at stopping the run. From a statistical standpoint, this is the best run defense the Patriots will face all season. The Ravens allow a paltry 73.8 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, both of which are the best total in the league. In nine of the 12 games they’ve played, they’ve held opponents to 65 yards or less on the ground. Only two backs (Matt Forte and Isaiah Crowell) have hit the 100-yard mark all year against them. Bottom line? Don’t look for the Patriots to run the ball a lot on Monday.

As good as they are at stopping the run, they struggle to run the ball as a team. If there’s a weakness to the Ravens, it’s probably their lack of a ground game. Baltimore averages 89.7 rushing yards per game, 28th in the league, while the 3.7 yards per carry is good for 26th overall. Terrance West (163 carries, 650 yards, 5 TDs) is the closest thing they have to a lead back, while Kenneth Dixon (46 carries, 206 yards, 18 catches, 100 yards) is their answer as a third-down/change-up guy. While the Ravens occasionally been able to get the running game cranked up — they had 130 yards in an October loss to the Raiders — they’re pretty much a one-dimensional offense.

Kicker Justin Tucker is one of the best in the league.
Tucker is the only regular kicker in the league who has been perfect when it comes to field goal attempts this season; the Texas product is 28-for-28 from the field (including 8-for-8 from 50-plus) and 20-for-20 on extra points. Punter Sam Koch is pretty good as well, as his 46 yards per punt average is 12th in the league and his 39.4 net is 21st. The Ravens have used a few different returners, but right now, veteran Devin Hester appears to be getting the majority of reps at both spots. Hester gas 24 punt returns for an average of 7 yards per chance and 17 kick returns for an average of 25.1 yards per opportunity. Good numbers, but nowhere near as impactful as he was earlier in his career. They do not have a return for touchdown, but yielded a punt return for a touchdown earlier in the season.

Read More: C.J. Mosley, Dennis Pitta, Devin Hester, Eric Weddle
Following the flags: How do Patriots stack up when it comes to penalties? 12.06.16 at 2:18 pm ET
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On Sunday against the Rams, the Patriots were hit with eight penalties for 46 yards, not including the calls that were declined or offset. Through 12 games this year, the Patriots have been whistled for 74 penalties (fifth fewest in the league) and 657 penalty yards (11th fewest in the league). Here’s a breakdown of the flags that have gone against New England after 12 regular-season games:

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AFC Playoff Picture: Raiders, Patriots lead pack as final month of season begins 12.06.16 at 11:48 am ET
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Tom Brady and the Patriots are trying to find a way around the Raiders. (Scott Galvin/USA Today Sports)

Tom Brady and the Patriots are trying to find a way around the Raiders. (Scott Galvin/USA Today Sports)

With the stretch drive looming, the AFC playoff picture is starting to come into sharper focus. Here’s a snapshot of the current conference playoff chase, with a look at the top eight teams in the conference, their record, where they stand currently in the race for the postseason and their remaining schedule. It’s also worth checking out the playoff odds for each team, which are updated every week at Football Outsiders.

1. Raiders (10-2): Remaining opponents: at Chiefs (9-3), at Chargers (5-7), vs. Colts (6-6), at Broncos (8-4) — Opponents record — 28-20 (.583 winning percentage)
And so, here we all are in early December, looking at Oakland as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Just like we all thought, right? The Raiders, who moved ahead of the Patriots Sunday because of the fact they have the best record in common games, deserve plenty of credit for their body of work to this point. If they can survive the remaining divisional gauntlet, you can’t say Oakland didn’t earn home field advantage.

2. Patriots (10-2): Remaining opponents: vs. Ravens (7-5), at Broncos (8-4), vs. Jets (3-9), at Dolphins (7-5) — Opponents record — 25-23 (.521)
New England’s next two weeks are huge. If the Patriots can beat Baltimore at home and Denver on the road, they’ll be in fine shape heading into the final two weeks. If both New England and Oakland each hold serve over the next three games, the Patriots could be in the rare situation of rooting for the Broncos to beat the Raiders in the regular season finale if they want to get home field. Strange days, indeed.

3. Ravens (7-5): Remaining opponents: at Patriots (10-2), vs. Eagles (5-7), at Steelers (7-5), at Bengals (4-7-1) — Opponents record —26-21-1 (.541)
Baltimore is still in the driver’s seat in the AFC North, but needs to keep winning to stay ahead of the Steelers, who have such a pillowy-soft schedule the rest of the way the guys at Sleep Number should look into using it as a template.

4. Texans (6-6): Remaining opponents: at Colts (6-6), vs. Jags (2-10), vs. Bengals (4-7-1), vs. Titans (6-6) — Opponents record — 18-29-1 (.375)
One of two things is going to happen in the AFC South: Either the Texans will lose a wild-card game, or the Titans will overcome Houston and give pretty much every football fan outside of the greater Houston area the story we all want.

5. Chiefs (9-3): Remaining opponents: vs. Raiders (10-2), vs. Titans (6-6), vs. Broncos (8-4), at Chargers (5-7) — Opponents record —29-19 (.604)
Let’s end the formalities and throw all three AFC West playoff contenders into the octagon now. The two teams that come out warm the right to advance to the playoffs. Thursday’s game between Kansas City and Oakland should be a lot of fun.

6. Broncos (8-4): Remaining opponents: at Titans (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2), at Chiefs (9-3), vs. Raiders (10-2) — Opponents record — 35-13 (.729)
Denver has the toughest road the rest of the way, but a pair of divisional games over the last two weeks of the season will go a long way toward determining what happens to them.

7. Dolphins (7-5): Remaining opponents: vs. Cardinals (5-6-1), at Jets (3-9), at Bills (6-6), vs. Patriots (10-2) — Opponents record — 24-23-1 (.502)
A big loss this past weekend to the Ravens snapped Miami’s six-game winning streak. If they can take care of business the next two weeks against lesser opponents, the Dolphins could still be in position for that last wild-card spot heading into the regular-season finale against New England.

8. Steelers (7-5): Remaining opponents: at Bills (6-6), at Bengals (4-7-1), vs. Ravens (7-5), vs. Browns (0-12) — Opponents record — 17-30-1 (.354)
Three winnable games over the last month of the season for Pittsburgh means the AFC North chase isn’t over quite yet.

Read More: AFC playoff picture,
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