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Five takeaways from the Tuesday afternoon conference calls with Bill Belichick, Bill O’Brien and Nick Caserio 12.06.11 at 4:15 pm ET
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Five takeaways from the Tuesday conference calls with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Bill O’€™Brien and director of player personnel Nick Caserio:

1. Belichick spoke at length about his longtime relationship with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan. The two go back a long ways as assistants, and have faced each other eight times as head coaches, with Shanahan holding a 5-3 edge on Belichick (when Shanahan was in Denver) in their head-to-head matches.

‘€œI think Mike liked me because he used to like to beat up on us all the time,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œMike was out in San Francisco when I was with the Giants, so we’€™ve always competed against each other; we’€™ve never been on the same staff. I’€™ve gotten to know Mike a little bit off the field, league meetings and stuff like that. He’€™s a great competitor, I have great respect for what he’€™s done, all the championships and all the outstanding teams he has had and coached. I’€™d say most of our stuff has been off the field.’€

Belichick hosted Shanahan at training camp a couple of years ago, and clearly has a deep and abiding respect for the former Broncos coach.

‘€œIt’€™s great to be able to talk to somebody that has that perspective,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œThe Jimmy Johnsons or the Mike Shanahans or people like that that have been through NFL seasons and have a lot of experiences and can relate to all the different points in time, whether it be the draft, training camp, regular season, Xs and Os, personnel and so forth. It’€™s great to be able to exchange ideas with somebody like that. Mike is a really smart guy and he’€™s had a tremendous career. I think he has a lot to offer in a conversation.’€

2. We touched on this in our story today on the Redskins’€™ defense, but the strength of the Washington defense appears to be in their two young pass rushers, Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan.

‘€œThey don’€™t move them around a whole lot. They have a couple looks, but for the most part, it’€™s not hard to find them. The problem is blocking them,’€ Belichick said. ‘€œIt’€™s kind of like [Robert] Mathis and [Dwight] Freeney. They move those two guys around a little bit, a couple of snaps here and there, but the problem isn’€™t finding them; the problem is blocking them. They’€™re very good. They each other well. They’€™re both strong guys, really powerful and can collapse the pocket and also are fast enough to run around, work the edges.

‘€œThey both do a pretty good job in coverage, better than a lot of linebackers that I’€™ve seen that are outstanding pass rushers. They use them in some coverage responsibilities and they’€™re pretty competitive there. They do a good job in the running game. They’€™re both strong tacklers ‘€“ they wrap up well, they finish well. It will be a big challenge for us. These guys are two good bookends.’€
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Read More: Bill Belichick, Bill O'Brien, Brian Orakpo, dwight freeney
Target Practice: Who has been Tom Brady’s favorite receiver through 12 games? 12.06.11 at 2:32 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. After 12 games, here’€™s a look at the target breakdown in the New England passing game for the 2011 season:

Kevin Faulk: 6 catches on 6 targets (100 percent)
Stevan Ridley: 3 catches on 4 targets (75 percent)
Wes Welker: 93 catches on 126 targets (74 percent)
Rob Gronkowski: 65 catches on 90 targets (72 percent)
Aaron Hernandez: 54 catches on 78 targets (69 percent)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis: 6 catches on 9 targets (67 percent)
Deion Branch: 48 catches on 79 targets (61 percent)
Danny Woodhead: 14 catches on 25 targets (56 percent)
Tiquan Underwood: 1 catche on 2 target (50 percent)
Chad Ochocinco: 12 catches on 25 targets (48 percent)
Julian Edelman: 3 catches on 7 targets (43 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: 119 catches on 168 targets (71 percent)
Running back: 29 catches on 44 targets (66 percent)
Wide receiver: 158 catches on 244 targets (65 percent)
Other: 0 catches on 1 target (0 percent)

Read More: Aaron Hernandez, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Chad Ochocinco, Dane Fletcher
Patriots can clinch the AFC East on Sunday 12.06.11 at 1:56 pm ET
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The Patriots could secure a spot in the postseason this weekend. According to the NFL, New England (9-3) can clinch the AFC East with a win against the Redskins combined with a Jets’ (7-5) loss to the Chiefs.

Following the flags: Breaking down the Patriots penalties through 12 games 12.06.11 at 12:53 pm ET
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Through 12 games this season, the Patriots have been flagged for 70 penalties (24th in the league) and 611 yards (17th). New England had three penalties this week for 20 yards. Here’€™s a breakdown of the calls that have gone against the Patriots this year, not including penalties that were declined or offset:

Most penalized players, listed by total flags and with total yardage lost:
Team: eight penalties (12 men on the field, offensive holding, illegal block above the waist, two illegal substitutions, illegal shift, delay of game), 44 yards
OL Logan Mankins: seven penalties (two offensive holding and five false starts), 41 yards
TE Rob Gronkowski: five penalties (holding, false start, facemask, unsportsmanlike conduct, illegal touch pass), 49 yards
OL Nate Solder: four penalties (three holding and illegal use of hands), 40 yards
S Sergio Brown: four penalties (three defensive pass interference and one unnecessary roughness), 86 yards
OL Matt Light: four penalties (three holding and one false start), 30 yards
OL Brian Waters: three penalties (one holding, two offensive holding), 25 yards
LB Dane Fletcher: two penalties (offensive holding, illegal block above the waist), 17 yards
LB Brandon Spikes: two penalties (holding, encroachment), 11 yards
TE Dan Gronkowski: two penalties (both false starts), 10 yards
CB Leigh Bodden: two penalties (both defensive holding), 10 yards
WR Wes Welker: two penalties (illegal motion, false start), 10 yards
S Pat Chung: two penalties (unnecessary roughness and facemask), 15 yards
WR Deion Branch: two penalties (both false starts), 10 yards
WR Chad Ochocinco: two penalties (illegal formation, false start), 9 yards
QB Tom Brady: three penalties (one delay of game and two intentional grounding), 20 yards
DL Vince Wilfork: two penalties (unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness), 17 yards
CB Kyle Arrington: one penalty (defensive pass interference), 35 yards
DL Andre Carter: one penalty (roughing the passer), 15 yards
LB Rob Ninkovich: one penalty (roughing the passer), 15 yards
DL Kyle Love: one penalty (roughing the passer), 15 yards
OL Dan Connolly: one penalty (offensive holding), 10 yards
S James Ihedigbo: one penalty (illegal block above the waist), 10 yards
CB Devin McCourty: one penalty (illegal block above the waist), 10 yards
TE Aaron Hernandez: one penalty (false start), 5 yards
OL Sebastian Vollmer: one penalty (false start), 5 yards
K Stephen Gostkowski: one penalty (illegal onsides kick), 5 yards
DE Mark Anderson: one penalty (defensive offsides), 5 yards
RB BenJarvus Green Ellis: one penalty (illegal substitution), 5 yards
OL Donald Thomas: one penalty (false start) 5 yards
CB Phillip Adams: one penalty (illegal contact), 5 yards
LB Gary Guyton: one penalty (encroachment), 5 yards

Most penalized by position:
Offensive line: 21 penalties for 161 yards
Tight end: eight penalties for 64 yards
Team: eight penalties for 44 yards
Safety: seven penalties for 123 yards
Wide receiver: six penalties for 29 yards
Cornerback: five penalties for 60 yards
Defensive line: five penalties for 52 yards
Linebacker: five penalties for 48 yards
Quarterback: three penalties for 20 yards
Running back: one penalty for five yards
Kicker: one penalty for five yards

Most frequently called penalties on the Patriots:
False start: 16
Offensive holding: 16
Defensive pass interference: four
Illegal block above the waist: four
Unnecessary roughness: three
Roughing the passer: three
Illegal substitution: three
Intentional grounding: two
Unsportsmanlike conduct: two
Defensive holding: two
Facemask: two
Encroachment: two
Delay of game: two
Illegal formation: one
Illegal use of hands: one
Illegal motion: one
Twelve men in the huddle: one
Illegal onside kick: one
Defensive offsides: one
Illegal touch pass: one
Illegal shift: one
Illegal contact: one

Read More: Patriots, penalties,
Nick McDonald happy to get his first NFL start under his belt 12.05.11 at 4:35 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Nick McDonald was sore when he woke up Monday morning, but that was a good thing.

‘€œIt feels great though — I haven’€™t felt like this in a while,’€ he said Monday afternoon during a break in the Patriots’€™ locker room. ‘€œIt feels good.’€

In his first NFL start, the center went wire-to-wire in New England‘€™s 31-24 win over Indianapolis. The fourth center the Patriots rolled out there this season, McDonald was signed off the practice squad on Friday to replace Ryan Wendell (calf) and Dan Connolly (groin), both of whom were too hobbled to play on Sunday. (Starter Dan Koppen was placed on injured reserve shortly after the regular-season opener against the Dolphins.)

‘€œNick did really well. He really did. He stepped up big time this week,’€ said fellow offensive lineman Brian Waters. ‘€œHe didn’€™t fully know what would happen, but he stepped up big time.

‘€œHe’€™s done a great job all season of making sure he knows what’€™s going on, and today was just to show that you never know when your time is coming and you have to be prepared. All of young guys … I feel confident in all our young guys being ready to go when their number is called.’€

The 6-foot-4, 316-pounder had been on the practice squad for the bulk of the 2011 season, but was signed to the active roster on Saturday when the Patriots released wide receiver Taylor Price. A 24-year-old undrafted free agent out of Saginaw Valley State, McDonald was signed by the Packers after the 2010 draft, and picked up a ring because he was on the Green Bay roster last season.

Sunday marked his first start with the Patriots.

‘€œIt was nice to see myself out there and see what I have to do to get better,’€ McDonald said after getting a chance to watch film with his teammates. ‘€œI need a lot of improvement, obviously, but I think I stepped up and played well. Obviously, I have two awesome players next to me in (Logan) Mankins and Waters, so that helps.

‘€œIf there’€™s a check, they’€™ll help make some calls. But as a center, you have to know everything. You have to be right on it. If it’€™s not the right call, those guys will definitely tell you,’€ McDonald added. ‘€œThat was key with me. I had to communicate. We worked on that all week to make sure I made the right calls.’€

Quarterback Tom Brady had nothing but positive things to say about the work that McDonald did in the week leading up to the game, and what he was able to accomplish on Sunday against the Colts.

‘€œIt’€™s really a credit to Nick and the work that he put in last week,’€ Brady told WEEI on Monday morning. ‘€œTaking care of the football starts with the center-quarterback exchange. You’€™ve got to execute the most basic play in football, getting the ball from the center to the quarterback. We spent a lot of time last week trying to be able to do that. To be forced into that situation, where basically Nick’€™s been on the practice squad and then to elevate him the roster and have him step in was really a great job by him.’€

Going forward, McDonald faces an uncertain future, as the injury status of both Wendell and Connolly could have a sizable impact on his playing time. For his part, he said Monday he’€™s going to control what he can control.

‘€œI just have to keep working. (Do) what I’€™ve been doing since I got here. I just have to keep working hard in the weight room and film study and know what I’€™m doing and just be prepared,’€ he said. ‘€œIt’€™s great. I’€™m glad that I’€™ve gotten the opportunity. Now, I just have to keep doing it every single week and keep improving.’€

Read More: Brian Waters, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins
Key Moment: Rob Gronkowski gives Patriots a commanding lead 12.04.11 at 5:33 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The key moment in Sunday’s win for the Patriots came on New England’s first series of the second half. With the Patriots holding a 17-3 lead, New England quarterback Tom Brady steered the Patriots to the Indy 21-yard line (thanks in large part to a no-huddle offense that chewed up an average of roughly nine yards a play on the drive).

With a second and 5, Brady dropped back and found tight end Rob Gronkowski down the seam, hitting the big tight end just as he hit the goal line. (He eschewed the usual thunderous spike in favor of whipping the ball at the wall and slapping five with the fans in the first row.)

“He’s a great player and he does a great job for us, just like everybody else out there,” said wide receiver Wes Welker. “He understands where he needs to be and makes plays in key situations, so he’s been a big help for us, especially in the red area with his touchdowns. He’s such a big target.”

“He is definitely one of the best young tight ends in the NFL,” said Indianapolis linebacker Kavell Connor when asked about Gronkowski, who finished with five catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns.

Read More: Kavell Connor, Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady, Wes Welker
Halftime analysis: Patriots 17, Colts 3 12.04.11 at 2:25 pm ET
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FOXBORO — There are two quarters in the books here at Gillette Stadium, and the Patriots hold a 17-3 lead on the Colts. Here are a few quick notes.

Defensively, the Patriots utilized a 3-3-5 set for much of the first half, with Vince Wilfork, Kyle Love and Andre Carter up front, Niko Koutouvides, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich at linebacker and a secondary with Matthew Slater, Nate Jones and James Ihedigbo at safety and Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty at corners. (Love was relieved at times by veteran Gerard “Big Money” Warren, while Mark Anderson spelled Carter). Up front, the Patriots were able to get good penetration into the Indianapolis backfield (Wilfork looked extremely active in the early going).

The Colts got nothing on their first drive, but Indianapolis was ale to cash in on their second drive when Dan Orlovsky put together a 19-play 67-yard drive. Indy had a first and goal from the New England one, but the Patriots were able to hold them to a 31-yard field goal from Adam Vinatieri tied the game at three early in the second quarter. Offensively, that was pretty much it for Indy. Orlovsky finished the first half 7-for-10 for 73 yards, while Jacob Tamme had one catch for 20 yards for Indy.

Meanwhile, the Patriots were uneven on offense through the first two quarters. New England’s offense stalled out on its first drive and had to settle for a 39-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski midway through the first quarter. The Patriots didn’t get anything on their second series, but on their third series, New England was able to put together its most impressive first half sequence of the last month, as Brady assembled a 16-play, 86-yard drive (that included a 12-yard catch from Chad Ochocinco) that ended with an 11-yard pass from Brady to Rob Gronkowski.

The Patriots followed that up at the end of the half as Brady led another solid drive. Taking over at their own 36-yard line with 1:34 left, the quarterback marched New England down the field on a six-play, 64-yard drive (that was heavy on the no-huddle) that ended with a one-yard touchdown run from BenJarvus Green-Ellis that made it 17-3 with 13 seconds left in the half. Brady ended the first half 16-for-21 for 158 yards and one touchdown. Wes Welker had five catches for 67 yards for New England.

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