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What we learned Sunday: J.J. Watt is a beast, Steve Smith is awesome and Adam Vinatieri is ageless 09.28.14 at 8:55 pm ET
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With the Patriots set to play Monday night, here’s a quick look at what we learned around the league Sunday, mostly from a New England perspective.

1. J.J. Watt could be an MVP.

Remarkably, the last defensive player to win MVP was Lawrence Taylor in 1986, but if he continues on his current path, Houston’s J.J. Watt could certainly make a case to be the next defensive player to take home the honor. The defensive lineman had six quarterback hurries and a pass defense before picking off an EJ Manuel pass and rumbling 80 yards for the pick-six to help lift the Texans past the Bills.

Through the first three games, the Patriots offense has five touchdowns. Watt has two of his own this year, and is just the second player since the merger with a receive touchdown and interception in the same season. (Ex-Pats linebacker and current Houston assistant Mike Vrabel was the first to turn the trick back in 2005.)

2. EJ Manuel is apparently suffering from a crisis of confidence. The second-year Buffalo quarterback was apparently pretty shaken in the wake of Sunday’s loss to the Texans. Manuel ended the day 21-for-44 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Texans as the Bills lost their second straight to fall to 2-2 on the young season. To be fair, things were a little shaky around Manuel, given the fact that his offensive line was struggling, there were a couple of key drops and the fire-breathing monster known as Watt was on the other side of the ball. Coach Doug Marrone said after the game there were no plans to hand the reins to backup Kyle Orton, but the idea of jumpstarting the offense with a switch at quarterback has to be entering the minds of the Buffalo coaching staff.

3. Maybe the Dolphins weren’t as dysfunctional as we thought. The week of back-and-forth between Miami coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill ended Sunday in London, where the Dolphins absolutely crushed the Raiders, 38-14, at Wembley Stadium. Tannehill, who engaged in a weird public exchange with his coach after Philbin refused to name him the starter in the media, was an impressive 23-for-31 for 278 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Meanwhile, the Raiders, who looked good last week when they came to Foxboro and put a scare in the Patriots, were a mess. Their issues were compounded by the fact that rookie quarterback Derek Carr left the game in the third quarter, and told the media after the game that he has a high ankle sprain and sprained MCL. Yikes.

4. The Jets are in trouble. New York struggled at home against the Lions, and it was another bad outing for quarterback Geno Smith, who was 17-for-33 for 209 yards, one touchdown and one pick in a 24-17 loss to Detroit. After the game, Rex Ryan said he was standing by Smith. “I’m confident in Geno. If Geno’s healthy, then Geno Smith will start,” Ryan told reporters after the game. “I’m not gonna replace him. I feel good about Geno, and again, I think he’s gonna get it turned. He’s a tough, resilient young man, and I think we’re gonna win.” Meanwhile, it doesn’t sound like Jets fans are going to stand by Geno.

Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson told reporters after the game that fans who were booing Smith should “shut up.” Yikes.

5. Not everyone needs a punter.

Sunday’s game between the Packers and Bears was either the second or third game in NFL history without a punt. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-17 win over Chicago. The Packers, who had been suffering from offensive inconsistency over the course of the first three games of the year, scored on their first six possessions and finished with 358 total yards on the way to their fifth consecutive victory at Soldier Field. It was a bit of a redemption for Rodgers, who told Green Bay fans to “R-E-L-A-X” this week when they started worrying about the Packers‘ 1-2 start.

6. No one knows what to make of the Steelers.

There are weeks where the Steelers look ready to crush all those who come before them. Then, there are occasions like Sunday, where they melt down in the fourth quarter and end up losing a game to a Tampa Bay team ‘€¦ that lost to the Falcons by six touchdowns a week ago. Mike Glennon hit Vincent Jackson with the game-winner with six seconds left on the way to a shocking 27-24 win over host Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who were poised to move to 3-1 with the win, fell back to .500 with the surprising last-second loss. (Pittsburgh committed a whopping 13 penalties for 125 yards.)

7. Steve Smith is never not awesome.

As promised, the gritty receiver one-upped his old team. The former Panther lit up Carolina for seven catches — including an awesome reception on a tipped ball he ended up taking for a touchdown — for 139 yards and a pair of scores on the way to a 38-10 win over the Panthers. There wasn’t “blood and guts” like he promised, but Smith, who played 13 seasons in Carolina before he was cut in the offseason, clearly enjoyed making his old team eat a little crow after the contest. “I’m 35 years old and I ran by those guys like they were schoolyard kids,” the veteran said after the game. Meanwhile, while we were all upset about the state of the Panthers’ offense, it’s worth noting that Carolina has yielded 75 points in two games.

I want to know what this kid is thinking.

8. Adam Vinatieri is some sort of superhuman.

It’s remarkable to think that the former Patriots kicker is now in his ninth season in Indy, and while the 41-year-old isn’t the kicker he once was, he’s still money when it comes to working extra points and field goals. Through four games, he’s 8-for-8 on field goal attempts and 16-for-16 on extra-point attempts, including a pair of field goals and five extra points Sunday in the 41-17 win over the Titans.

Oh, and this happened 18 years ago.

9. Chip Kelly can feel Bill Belichick‘s pain.

Philly went West on Sunday and nearly knocked off the Niners, despite the fact that the Eagles continue to have serious offensive line issues. Pro Bowl left guard Evan Mathis went down in Week 1, and with starting right tackle Lane Johnson already serving a four-game suspension, things got even worse when starting center Jason Kelce went down last week with a sports hernia. Despite those woes, Philly nearly pulled off the upset, despite the fact that the Eagles’ offense didn’t pass midfield until the fourth quarter and it had just two more first downs (five) than turnovers (three) late in the third quarter. Things should get better next week when Johnson is eligible to return from his ban, but the fact that Kelce and Mathis won’t be back until the second half of the season should provide some interesting phone conversation between BFF’s Kelly and Belichick when it comes to commiserating about their woes.

10. The Patriots are in first place.

The Bills’ loss to the Texans in Houston allowed the 2-1 Patriots to sneak into first place in the AFC East.

Read More: aaron rodgers, Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Chip Kelly
History of Patriots and franchise tag 02.17.14 at 10:56 am ET
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We’ve written about this a couple of times to this point in the offseason, but with the franchise tag window open Monday, it’s worth taking another look at how the Patriots have used the tag in the past and what happened as a result:

2002: Adam Vinatieri, contract extension
2003: Tebucky Jones, traded
2005: Adam Vinatieri, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2007: Asante Samuel, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2009: Matt Cassel, traded
2010: Vince Wilfork, contract extension
2011: Logan Mankins, contract extension
2012: Wes Welker, played it out and later departed as a free agent

To be clear, there are two types of franchise tags:

The non-exclusive franchise tag: The most common designation. Under this agreement, the player must be offered a one-year deal based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five seasons and their percentage of that year’€™€™s salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year’€™€™s base salary, whichever is greater. If a player does get a non-exclusive franchise tag, they can talk with other teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

The exclusive franchise tag: With this designation, the player receivers a one-year offer from his own team that’€™€™s the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended or 120 percent of his prior year’€™€™s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

Teams have a two-week window, starting Monday, to tag their players.

Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Asante Samuel, Logan Mankins, Matt Cassel
Thoughts on Julian Edelman, Aqib Talib and franchise tag 02.05.14 at 5:20 pm ET
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We’€™re now less than two weeks away from the start of the franchise tag window — it begins on Feb. 17 and lasts for two weeks — and while New England has a dozen free agents, it’€™s believed the Patriots have two seriously taggable possibilities this year in wide receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Aqib Talib.

Both were essential elements to the success of the 2013 team, but both were playing on one-year contracts. While the deal Talib signed this past offseason was more of a “show-me” contract (one signed in the wake of a depressed market for free-agent cornerbacks), Edelman was more or less forced to take New England’€™s one-year offer, as it was one of the only ones that was extended to him.

However, as a result of their work in 2013, the pair could enter the market poised to make a sizable piece of change. But would the Patriots be inclined to let them walk without a new deal to keep them in place? The franchise tag is a hammer the teams have over potential players when it comes to retaining their services, and history tells us that the Patriots have never been shy about using it, whether it’€™s a way to keep the player around Foxboro for one more season, a way to keep a player under their umbrella while still negotiating a deal, or as a sign-and-trade maneuver. And it could certainly come into play when talking about Talib and Edelman.

To be clear, there are two types of franchise tags:

The non-exclusive franchise tag: The most common designation. Under this agreement, the player must be offered a one-year deal based on the average of the non-exclusive franchise numbers at his position over the last five seasons and their percentage of that year’€™s salary cap or 120 percent of his prior year’€™s base salary, whichever is greater. If a player does get a non-exclusive franchise tag, they can talk with other teams, but if he signs an offer sheet with another club, his team has five days to match the offer. If the offer is not matched, his team will receive two first-round picks as compensation from the signing team.

The exclusive franchise tag: With this designation, the player receivers a one-year offer from his own team that’€™s the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position once the restricted free-agent signing period has ended or 120 percent of his prior year’€™s salary. A player cannot negotiate with other teams with the exclusive franchise tag.

Here’€™s a look at how New England has utilized the franchise tag, and what has happened as a result:

2002: Adam Vinatieri, contract extension
2003: Tebucky Jones, traded
2005: Adam Vinatieri, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2007: Asante Samuel, played it out and later departed as a free agent
2009: Matt Cassel, traded
2010: Vince Wilfork, contract extension
2011: Logan Mankins, contract extension
2012: Wes Welker, played it out and later departed as a free agent

As we said, the tag can be a relatively easy way for a team to retain the services of a player, even for a year, but in the case of both Talib and Edelman, it would come at a serious price. While the franchise tag numbers are not expected to be announced until after the 2014 cap number is officially set (usually in late February or early March), according to former agent Joel Corry — who is an excellent follow on Twitter for all things cap related — the projected franchise tag value for cornerbacks in 2014 will be $11,256,000 million. At wide receiver, the price is even steeper — $11,539,000. (For a complete look at Corry’€™s projections click here.)

With all this in mind, we want to get your take: If you could only use the franchise tag on one — Talib or Edelman — who would you tag and why?

If you had to choose between franchising Julian Edelman or Aqib Talib, who would it be?

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Aqib Talib, Julian Edelman, Logan Mankins
Stephen Gostkowski is still waiting for that special Adam Vinatieri playoff ‘moment’ 01.09.14 at 6:30 pm ET
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FOXBORO — It’s no secret that kickers live in their own little world and usually only show themselves when the pressure is on.

Stephen Gostkowski gave a little insight to his world and what he might be thinking should Saturday night’s playoff game against the Colts come down to his right foot.

“I just go into a game trying to make a kick,” Gostkowski said. “The times that I’€™ve gotten into situations where it’€™s in the fourth quarter, it’€™s a kick that you know if you don’€™t make it, you’€™re not going to necessarily get another opportunity, I try to just treat it like any other kick. I’€™ve made kicks, I’€™ve missed kicks and I’€™m still here. I just try to take each kick one kick at a time.

“There could be a kick that I make in the first quarter and we could end up winning by three. So me just sitting there and worrying about a kick at the end of the game I feel like would do a disservice to the other kicks. Each game is different and each mentality is different. I remember my first couple years, you’€™re just waiting and waiting and waiting for that moment. But you have no control over it. All you can do I prepare yourself to be ready for that moment. We’€™ve had a lot of them this year and hopefully we can take the same approach and have the same success we’€™ve had if we get into that situation.

TV crews love to show kickers on the sidelines late in close games. What is thinking when the camera is on him and does he visualize the mental aspect of every kick while getting ready?

“Yeah, you do little things like I’€™ll watch a five minute cut-up of some big kicks that I’€™ve made to a song that I like,” he said. “Just like little visual things and then when I’€™m on the sideline I’€™ll sing that song and then in my head I see the ball going through the uprights.

“Sometimes there are days you don’€™t feel good or things haven’€™t been going well and you might have in your mind, ‘€˜Don’€™t miss this kick.’€™ But then when it’€™s going good, you go out there, ‘€˜I’€™m going to make it.’€™ It’€™s just that difference between confidence and cockiness, just going out there to make the kick instead of to not miss. Mentally to me that’€™s a big difference. I always just try to visualize myself doing well and not getting overexcited or too hyped up in the moment.

“Most of those guys are banging heads. I’€™m trying to like listen to Enya before the game to calm myself down. All I do is just try to ‘€“ the worst thing you can do in situations where, for me personally, where the situation gets bigger is get too excited. You have to try to slow your heart rate down, turn that nervousness and tightness into focus and if you just try to do that and do what you do on every other kick then most of the time you’€™ll be successful. That’€™s just the approach that I take.”

Gostkowski, who later clarified that he does not listen to nor sing Enya songs on the sideline – is yet to have that definitive moment that Adam Vinatieri enjoyed three times in the 2001 playoffs, including the game-winner in Super Bowl XXXVI. Vinatieri also won Super Bowl XXXVIII with a last-second field goal.

He will, of course, be going against Vinatieri on Saturday night in a matter of speaking as the Colts come calling to Gillette Stadium.

“Most kickers and punters and snappers are pretty cordial with each other throughout the year,” Gostkowski said Thursday when asked about his predecessor. “You kind of pull for each other when you’€™re not playing [against] each other kind of thing. Most guys have respect for each other because some guy who is knocking heads every play is not going to have as much respect for what we do as other guys that go through what we do on a day-to-day basis.

“You always have a fond respect for a guy that there’€™s only 31 other in the league. He’€™s the best of the best. As far as does it matter that he’€™s playing? It doesn’€™t matter. Unless he’€™s trying to come block the kick or he’€™s going to be back there returning it, it’€™s just another game.”

Does Gostkowski see himself lasting till he’s 41, like Vinatieri?

“I don’€™t know, man. I’€™m just trying to make it to the next game,” Gostkowski said. “Whatever I do is bonus. I had no idea I would even be in the NFL, let alone play eight years. A short-term goal is 10 [years]. This is all bonus. Here we focus on a day-to-day kind of thing. If I were to get the chance to do that, that would be great.

“The guys that have been good, like Gary Anderson, Morten Andersen, a lot of guys that kicked well into their later careers, John Carney. You hear stories about, I remember Junior Seau told me John Carney was the most in-shape guy he’€™s ever been around. I was like, ‘€˜No, get out of here.’€™ This is Junior Seau, one of the best linebackers of all-time, he said he’€™s a good buddy. You hear stories about Adam working out and being in shape,” Gostkowski said. “As long as he’€™s out there producing, there’€™s no reason. Age is just a number. If he feels good and it looks like he’€™s doing good then more power to him.”

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Read More: 2014 playoffs, Adam Vinatieri, Enya, Indianapolis Colts
Bill Belichick on Adam Vinatieri: ‘A Hall of Fame kicker if there ever was one’ 01.07.14 at 12:55 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The debate goes on every Saturday before the Super Bowl. Should kickers be considered for the Hall of Fame? Jan Stenerud is the only pure placekicker enshrined in Canton while Lou Groza and George Blanda made it with the help of their other positions. Groza was a dominating offensive tackle while Blanda was a quarterback.

Well, if the writers ask Bill Belichick, he has a gold standard for the position – Adam Vinatieri.

The Patriots coach was asked on a conference call with Indianapolis writers Tuesday if he is surprised the 41-year-old Vinatieri is performing so well so late in his career.

‘€œNot really. I think Adam, when he was here, trained very hard in the offseason, was one of our hardest workers,” Belichick said. “He worked out with all the other position players and he was never really looked at as a kicker in terms of his offseason program and what he did as far as training, that kind of thing. He was a very well-conditioned athlete. Mentally, he’€™s as tough and as consistent as they come. I can’€™t think of anybody, certainly no other kicker, that I’€™ve coached that I would put ahead of him in terms of mental toughness, concentration, focus, professionalism, all of those things.

“He just did his job as well as he could possibly do it every day that I was here. I was here in ‘€™96 when he came in as a rookie and then as the head coach when I came back. I have the utmost respect for Adam and the way he approaches his job, the way he does his job. It really seems like every year, you turn on the film and he’€™s making 50-yard field goals and kicking them right down the middle and doing the same things that he did 17, 18 years ago, however long it’€™s been since ‘€™96. He’€™s a great player and a Hall of Fame kicker if there ever was one.’€

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots
Which Patriots should expect a call from the Hall? 08.03.13 at 11:10 pm ET
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The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted the class of 2013 on Saturday night, with Bill Parcells, Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Jonathan Ogden, Dave Robinson, Warren Sapp and Curley Culp honored in Canton. The most recent round of inductions got us wondering: What members of the Patriots over the last decade-plus could eventually end up being fitted for a yellow jacket? Here are 13 possibilities, with their Patriots careers in parentheses.

Bill Belichick (head coach, 2000-present): Regardless of how his career ends, whenever Belichick decides to retire the hoodie, five rings (three as head coach, two as a coordinator) are certainly enough to land a spot.

Tom Brady (2000-present): At the age of 36, with three Super Bowl titles and two MVPs, Brady is already a no-brainer. Can’€™t imagine that there would be much debate over his candidacy.

Wes Welker (2007-2012): We wrote this column at the end of the 2012 season, and stand by it: Welker needs another 100 catches and another 1,000 receiving yards, and if he gets it, he’€™ll be at the center of a great debate when he does decide to hang them up. That would give him almost 900 career receptions and close to 10,000 career receiving yards, which would put him in the heart of a discussion that once included Carter (1,101 catches, 13,899 receiving yards and 130 touchdowns, inducted this year) and now will focus on Andre Reed (951 catches and 13,198 receiving yards and 87 touchdowns, not in) and Tim Brown (1,094 catches, 14,934 yards and 100 touchdowns, not in). One thing that would help his candidacy would be at least one ring.

Randy Moss (2007-2010): Moss drew some flak this past January when he said he was the ‘€œgreatest receiver ever to play,” But he’€™s not too far off. Moss’€™s 156 receiving touchdowns are second only to Rice’€™s 197, and his 15,292 yards are third behind Rice’€™s 22,895 and Terrell Owens‘€™ 15,934. (For what it’€™s worth, if Moss could have hitched his wagon to Brady for more than three-plus seasons, he might have been able to catch Rice.) Like many of the guys on this list, his candidacy would be considered truly ironclad if he came away with a ring, and I’€™m not sure if that’€™s possible at this stage of his career. But his stats should be more than enough to get him to the Hall. That induction speech will be an all timer.

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Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Corey Dillon
Adam Vinatieri on getting booed: ‘I appreciate it’ 11.18.12 at 9:35 pm ET
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FOXBORO — This wasn’€™t Adam Vinatieri‘€™s first trip back to Gillette Stadium as a member of the visiting team. But the boos in this visit were louder than ever for the former Patriots kicker, famous for sending two Super Bowl-winning kicks through the uprights for New England.

Less than five minutes into the game, Vinatieri made his way onto the field for an extra-point try after a Delone Carter touchdown — the first score of the game. And fans at Gillette Stadium made their displeasure for the Colts kicker heard.

Vinatieri, who departed from New England after the 2005 season, is in his seventh year with the Colts, and he has made the trip back to Foxboro four times as a member of the opposition. So he’€™s used to the hostility. But he said after the Colts’€™ 59-24 loss on Sunday that some of the fans who were booing him during the game also said that they still appreciate the most storied kicker in Patriots franchise history.

‘€œSome ones that were booing at the very end were saying, ‘€˜Yeah, we still love you man,’€™ ‘€ said Vinatieri, who spent 10 years in New England. ‘€œSo it’€™s all good. It’€™s gamesmanship, or whatever you want to call it, so I respect that. Most of the people, if I acknowledge them, they go, ‘€˜Hey, it’€™s all good.’€™ So it’€™s all good, though, and I understand the deal. That’€™s home-field advantage. That’€™s what you’€™re supposed to do — get loud and get rowdy and try to make it hard on the other team. You just put your blinders on and just keep going forward.’€ Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots
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