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AFC playoff field set with Bengals and Colts punching their tickets 12.23.12 at 5:36 pm ET
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Reggie Nelson (20) picks off Ben Roethlisberger to set up the game-winning field goal and clinch a playoff spot for Cincinnati. (AP)

Reggie Nelson (20) picks off Ben Roethlisberger to set up the game-winning field goal and clinch a playoff spot for Cincinnati. (AP)

The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are headed to the playoffs.

Both teams won games on the road Sunday to clinch their postseason berths, meaning all six spots in the AFC playoffs are spoken for. The only thing to be decided is the seeding.

Josh Brown, filling in for the injured Mike Nugent, kicked a 43-yard field goal with four seconds remaining to lift the Bengals over the Steelers 13-10 at Heinz Field on Sunday, sending the Bengals into the playoffs for a second straight season for the first time in 30 years.

Brown missed a 56-yarder earlier in the quarter but earned a second chance when Reggie Nelson picked off Ben Roethlisberger and returned it to the Pittsburgh 46 with 14 seconds remaining. Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for 21 yards on the next play, setting up Brown’s game-winner.

Moments earlier in Kansas City, the Colts punched their ticket to the postseason with a late 20-13 win over the Chiefs. Andrew Luck threw for 205 yards to break the single-season rookie record, and his touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne late in the fourth quarter provided the margin of victory.

Luck surpassed Cam Newton‘s year-old record of 4,051 yards passing by a rookie in the second quarter, and then came through in the closing minutes. He marched Indy to the Chiefs 7, and then found Wayne in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal for the go-ahead score.

Darius Butler returned an interception 32 yards against the Chiefs (2-13) for a TD, helping the Colts (10-5) join the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL teams to win at least 10 games after losing 14 or more the previous season.

Read More: Cincinnati Bengals, Darius Butler, Indianapolis Colts, nfl
Steve Gregory: Turnovers blitz ‘really set the momentum for the game’ 11.23.12 at 2:39 am ET
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Steve Gregory had a night to remember for the Patriots. (Mike Petraglia/WEEI.com)

EAST RUTHERFORD — Mark it down, Steve Gregory AFC defensive player of the week.

If Darius Butler earned his for two picks and a fumble recovery, then Gregory is almost certainly going to get the nod for what he turned in Thursday night during a 49-19 win over the Jets.

When the game was actually still in doubt, he intercepted Mark Sanchez over the middle as he was spying the Jets’ quarterback. That pick ended New York’s second drive of the game deep in Patriots territory and set the tone for five turnovers forced by the Patriots defense.

“It’s growing every week,” Gregory said of the secondary’s confidence level. “We go to work every day in practice to get better and we study up on film. We’re really trying to dial in and focus on getting better as a unit and we saw some of those results tonight.”

Then, he recovered a fumble on a Shonn Greene failed attempt to pick up a yard on fourth-and-1. The next play resulted in Tom Brady finding Shane Vereen for 83 yards and a touchdown, giving New England a 14-0 lead.

Moments later, Sanchez ran into the backside of his offensive lineman and fumbled. Guess who was there to pick it up and scamper 32 yards for the score?

“It was a good one for me today,” Gregory said in a tone that could describe a morsel off the Thanksgiving dinner table. “Some of that stuff is just the ball popping out and being in the right place at the right time, so you know it was a team effort. The guys did a great job up front getting pressure on the quarterback and we were just really crisp tonight.”

The 21-point barrage ended when Devin McCourty popped Joe McKnight, with Julian Edelman catching the ball out of midair and going 22 yards for the score. Three touchdowns in 52 seconds. Game over.

“That was a lot of points in a short period of time. I thought that really set the momentum for the game,” Gregory said. “It really turned things into a lopsided feel there. They’re a good football team, but I think we’re a little better this year. We’re excited about what we did today.”

Read More: Darius Butler, New England Patriots, New York Jets, nfl
Bruce Arians on AFC defensive player of the week Darius Butler: ‘I’m really pleased we have him’ 11.14.12 at 2:33 pm ET
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Darius Butler (20) was honored Wednesday as the AFC defensive player of the week (AP)

FOXBORO — Tom Brady and the Patriots hit the practice field Wednesday with the knowledge that one of their former players will be lining up at one of the most important positions on the field on Sunday.

Colts interim coach Bruce Arians announced Wednesday that cornerback Darius Butler will again be making the switch from right to left corner, filling the spot vacated by the injured Vontae Davis, who is missing his third game with a knee injury.

Butler will certainly be coming in with some momentum as he intercepted Blaine Gabbert twice, returning one for a touchdown, while recovering a fumble. Those achievements earned him AFC defensive player of the week honors on Wednesday in the wake of the Colts’ 27-10 win over the Jaguars.

“I’m really pleased that we have him,” Arians said. “He’s a playmaker and had a great game. He’s obviously AFC defensive player of the week and builds great confidence for him going against the challenge he has this week in going up there.”

Butler, of course, is a name well known in New England, coming to the Patriots as a second-round pick in 2009. He played here two seasons before being cut in training camp before the 2011 season. He played last season with the Panthers before being waived this August. He was picked up by the Colts on Sept. 25 and has played four games so far.

The Patriots believed so much in him that not only did they spend a second-round pick on him, they gave him a four-year, $4.325 million deal, including roughly $2 million in guaranteed money. Butler is still technically on the Patriots’ books this season to the tune of $542,500 of dead money toward the cap.

All of which sets up quite the storyline this Sunday as he figures to draw Pats receiver Brandon Lloyd.

Read More: Darius Butler, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, nfl
Devin McCourty talks about all the change in the Patriots secondary 11.03.11 at 8:34 pm ET
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Devin McCourty (AP)

FOXBORO — Almost overnight, the 24-year-old Devin McCourty — with just 23 NFL starts under his belt — has become the senior cornerback in the Patriots’ system. No current member of the Patriots secondary has more starts under his belt in New England than the Rutgers product.

The Patriots have had several shifting parts at corner over the last year, with the departures of Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler and the additions of Antuwan Molden and Phillip Adams. And while Kyle Arrington and Pat Chung have played more games as a pro, it’s McCourty who has the most experience as a starter of any defensive back in the New England system.

But it’s not like McCourty sits around pining for the days when he was part of a group that included Bodden and Butler, as well as safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, both of whom were released before the start of the season.

“I mean, I still talk to those guys so I know where they are,” he said Thursday when asked about his former teammates. “I think our focus right now is just getting better and at times we’re making strides in that and at times we’re falling a little short. I think our goal is to keep getting better and be more consistent.”

After all the moves, McCourty said the defensive backs that remain have learned to manage all the change that’s taken place.

“You just keep playing,” he said. “You have to really value those reps when you’re out there on the practice field. When we’re in the meeting rooms, we’re communicating with guys and that’s where you build that trust and communication on the field — you build it in meeting rooms and walkthroughs. We really just emphasize communicating in the walkthroughs and meetings.”

The Patriots’ appeared to struggle in pass defense Sunday against the Steelers, yielding 365 yards to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. New England is last in the league against the pass, allowing an average of 323.1 yards per game. But for his part, McCourty remains optimistic about the rest of the season.

“I think our outlook is really that we’re going to get better,” he said. “We really don’t worry about what everybody else says. We’re just trying to get better and we’re trying to do it as soon as possible. When we go out there today we’re going to have that urgency at practice to get better. [We’re] trying to make sure it keeps coming over on Sundays, not just for a week, not for two weeks but that we can be consistent stringing each game together.”

Read More: Antuwan Molden, Ben Roethlisberger, Brandon Meriweather, Darius Butler
In Focus: Closer look at Patriots’ decision to cut Leigh Bodden 10.28.11 at 11:52 am ET
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After a strong 2009, Leigh Bodden did not live up to his four-year, $22 million contract extension with the Patriots. (AP)

The Leigh Bodden era in New England started strong but ultimately fizzled as the cornerback struggled to reclaim the form that made him one of the league’s most sought-after defensive backs in free agency 20 months ago.

Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duquesne by the Browns in 2003, Bodden bounced around the league before signing a one-year deal with New England prior to the 2009 season. That year, he was a pleasant surprise, starting 14 of 15 games, leading the team with 19 passes defensed and tying for the team lead with five interceptions. On the strength of that performance, he entered free agency as one of the most desirable corners on the market. After a brief look at some other options (including the Texans), he re-signed with the Patriots, inking a four-year, $22.03 million extension.

However, he injured his shoulder the following summer and spent all of 2010 on injured reserve. This season, even after the Patriots decided to move on from Darius Butler, the 30-year-old Bodden spent a lot of time in the slot and struggled to stay on the field because of injury — officially, he was limited in practice on Thursday because of a recurring thumb injury. According to Pro Football Focus, in five games as the team’s primary nickel corner, Bodden had been thrown at 22 times this year and allowed 12 receptions and one touchdown. He has four passes defensed and has played 222 snaps for the Patriots.

Overall, the 6-foot-1, 193-pound cornerback has 362 tackles and 18 interceptions during his 95-game career with the Browns (2003-07), Lions (2008) and Patriots.

The Patriots now have five corners on their roster: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Antuwan Molden and Phillip Adams. While the move won’t affect McCourty and Arrington (the two likely will continue to serve as the primary starters at corner), at first glance the move means an increased workload for Dowling, a youngster who has struggled to see the field over the course of his first season in the league. Through six weeks he’s played just 93 snaps, none of them since a Week 2 win over the Chargers. Molden also is expected to benefit from the move and get more opportunities.

In addition, New England has three players eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list in Kevin Faulk, Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick. The release of Bodden could free up a roster spot for one of them.

As for Bodden (who is making a base salary of $3.9 million each of the next two seasons), he will be exposed to waivers. Any team that claims his contract will be on the hook for just over $2 million in base salary that remains for this season.

Read More: Antuwan Molden, Brandon Deaderick, Darius Butler, Devin McCourty
Bye-Week Breakdown: Defensive backs 10.24.11 at 10:56 am ET
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Devin McCourty is not yet ready to be ranked among the NFL's elite defensive backs. (AP)

With the Patriots off this week, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the Patriots at the six-week mark. We’ve already examined every one of the offensive positions so far, as well as the defensive line and linebackers. Now, we take a look at the defensive backs.

Depth chart: Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, Kyle Arrington, Antuwan Molden, Ras-I Dowling, Patrick Chung, James Ihedigbo, Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown. (In addition, Phillip Adams and Ross Ventrone have been on and off the roster from the practice squad.)

Overview: The secondary has had lots of movement since the start of camp — notables like Darius Butler, James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are gone, and as the new faces have played together there have been plenty of rough patches. However, it appears that the Patriots have played more zone coverage the last couple of weeks, which may be the reason we’ve seen more improvement in the secondary.

After a stellar rookie season, McCourty has been targeted a lot through the first six weeks of his second season (check out the stats below) and while he has been physical and competitive on most occasions, he’s clearly not ready to take that next step into elite status just yet. While Bodden and Dowling have been hampered by injury and Molden remains a part-time player, the real find this season has been Arrington. The Hofstra product had always been a quality nickel corner with good physical skills, but he’s made a big leap forward this year, so much so he was leading the league in picks through six weeks with four.

At safety, Chung remains a stable and reliable presence. However, the Patriots are still seeking consistency opposite him. Barrett and Brown have struggled, but Ihedigbo has played well the last two weeks. Against the Jets and Cowboys, Ihedigbo has been slotted next to Chung (the UMass product has missed only five snaps the last two games) and appeared to mostly hold his own. It remains a question as to whether or not he’s a long-term answer at the spot, but he appears to be the safest bet at the position in the coming weeks.

Best moment: Arrington had a pair of picks in the loss to Buffalo, probably the finest moment of the season for an occasionally group of beleaguered defensive backs.
Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: Antuwan Molden, Brandon Meriweather, bye week breakdown, Chris Houston
Bill Belichick on Darius Butler: ‘Nobody is on a scholarship’ 09.07.11 at 3:35 pm ET
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Darius Butler has his sights set on Carolina after his Patriots release.

FOXBORO — The release on Wednesday morning of 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler came as a surprise to some.

But if you thought Bill Belichick and the Patriots would hold on to a player simply because of where they were drafted in a particular year, think again.

With Butler in mind, Belichick was asked if it stings more when you have to part with a player you drafted highly as opposed to parting with an undrafted free agent?

“We have a saying around here – ‘it doesn’t matter how you get here, it’s what you do here.’ I think that’s the way I think we should coach the team and I think that’s what the players expect,” Belichick said. “That goes for everybody.”

Butler looked a lot like Devin McCourty in 2009 when – as a rookie out of Connecticut – he had three interceptions, including returning one for touchdown. He also had 33 solo tackles in 14 games. But last year, his numbers dropped sharply as he had just 22 tackles and no interceptions in 15 games. And while showing glimpses in camp and four preseason games, his stock had clearly dropped.

“We made the decision we felt was best for the football team,” Belichick said. “[We] try to put together the most competitive team we can. Obviously there are players that aren’t on this team that are good players and they were good players for us and I’m sure they’ll play for somebody else. But we have to make the decisions we feel are best for our football team so that’s what we do.

“Nobody is on a scholarship – everybody has to earn their keep,” Belichick said of the corner who was picked up off waivers by Carolina. “It’s a competitive situation – I think that brings out the best in everybody. [It] brings out the best in guys that are established that they’re being pushed, it brings out the best from guys who aren’t established who know they have an opportunity. Competition is competition. That’s just basing on what the performance is – all that is decided on the field.”

Speaking of another player not currently on the Patriots roster, Belichick was asked about the rumors floating out there that Randy Moss would “un-retire” and return to the Patriots if Belichick wanted him. Has he had any contact with Moss or entertained the thought of bringing him back at any point?

“I wouldn’t talk about any player that’s not on our football team,” Belichick said.

With Moss, the question might not be so much how he gets to Foxboro but if there’s a place for him at all. The answer is still “no” – for now.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Carolina Panthers, Connecticut Huskies, Darius Butler
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