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Which QB does best job spreading ball around in passing game? 02.18.14 at 6:00 am ET
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Piggybacking on a column we did last year about Tom Brady‘€™s ability to work in new receivers and spread the ball around — and with another full season in the books — we figured we should take another look at some of the league wide numbers when it comes to ball distribution in the passing game.

Using the 250-catch barometer as the mark for involvement, three over-30 veterans continue to set the standard when it comes to getting everyone involved in the passing game, as Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have managed to make stars out a variety of pass catchers on the way to record-setting seasons.

Using numbers culled from Pro Football Reference — which utilizes stats dating back to 1999 — the three are head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterbacking field when it comes to finding equilibrium in the passing game:

- Since 2001, Brady has completed at least 250 passes in the regular season to four different pass catchers over the course of his 13-year career as a starter: Wes Welker (563), Deion Branch (328), Troy Brown (323) and Kevin Faulk (310). Providing they stay healthy — and, in the case of Julian Edelman, return for 2013 — two more receivers could be added to the mix: Rob Gronkowski had 39 catches in an injury-shortened 2013 season, bringing his total of receptions via Brady to 223. And his 105 catches in 2013 boosted Edelman to 166 career receptions from Brady.

For those of you asking about guys who just missed out on the 250-catch mark with Brady, two jump off the page: one, Randy Moss caught 192 passes from Brady while the two were together in New England, including 98 catches in 2007 and 83 in 2009. And two, Aaron Hernandez finished with 166.

- In that same span, Manning has completed at least 250 passes to three different receivers: Reggie Wayne (779), Marvin Harrison (677) and Dallas Clark (387). Depending on how long he plays, Denver’€™s Demaryius Thomas could also be part of that group as well — he has 185 catches from Manning over the last two seasons, and could reach 250 in 2014 if he and the quarterback can both stay healthy.

To be fair to Manning, that time frame of 2001-2013 does cut off the first three seasons — from 1998 through 2000 — of his career. As a result, some of his early numbers aren’€™t included, particularly the formative years with Harrison, who had 276 regular-season catches with the Colts in that span. Our cutoff also means the work of an excellent pass-catching back like Edgerrin James goes unrewarded. He caught 230 passes from Manning from 2001-2005 before he departed Indy for the Cardinals. In all, James ended up catching a total of 355 passes from Manning while the two were together from 1999-2005.

- While Brady and Manning have impressive totals, when it comes to finding a variety of targets, they’€™re nowhere near Brees. When you combine his work in San Diego and New Orleans, the 35-year-old has complied at least 250 passes to six different receivers: Marques Colston (605), Lance Moore (346), Jimmy Graham (298 over the last four seasons), Reggie Bush (294), Pierre Thomas (284) and LaDainian Tomlinson (254). And a seventh — Darren Sproles — can hit 250 receptions from Brees in 2014. He’€™s already at 235 catches and counting.

When it comes to the next generation, it appears unlikely that anyone will be able to connect with six different pass catchers for at least 250 receptions. Among the quarterbacks who have been in the league for 7-10 seasons, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has Greg Jennings (324) and Jordy Nelson (252), but just missed out when Donald Driver (241) called it a career. However, his two wild cards are free agents James Jones (216) and Jermichael Finley (214) — if they both return and are healthy, Rodgers is seemingly a lock to get four pass-catchers to 250-plus receptions.

Ben Roethlisberger also has a good chance of getting to four — he’€™s completed at least 250 passes to three different receivers: Hines Ward (513), Heath Miller (420) and Antonio Brown (250), and could make it four if free agent Emmanuel Sanders (146) ends up sticking around Pittsburgh. Meanwhile Atlanta’€™s Matt Ryan has three, having connected for 250-plus with Roddy White (520), Tony Gonzalez (383) and Harry Douglas (205). And New York‘€™s Eli Manning has Hakeem Nicks (306) and Victor Cruz (241) — he appears to have just missed with Plaxico Burress (244) and Steve Smith (213).

As for the quarterbacks who have between two and five full years in the league, Detroit’€™s Matthew Stafford has found tremendous success with Calvin Johnson (353 catches from Stafford), but Brandon Pettigrew (215) and Nate Burleson (154) are also within hailing distance of the 250-catch mark, providing Burleson somehow makes it back to Detroit. In addition, Indy’€™s Andrew Luck has Wayne (145), T.Y. Hilton (133) and Coby Fleener (78), while Cincinnati’€™s Andy Dalton has benefitted from working with AJ Green (256), Jermaine Gresham (165) and Andrew Hawkins (85).

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Peter King on M&M: Colts QB Andrew Luck ‘not been averse to making some huge mistakes’ 01.10.14 at 1:31 pm ET
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Peter King

Peter King

Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports made his weekly appearance on Mut & Merloni on Friday to talk about the NFL playoffs and other league news. To hear the interview, go to the Mut & Merloni audio on demand page.

Andrew Luck is drawing high praise as he leads the Colts into Foxboro for a divisional-round game Saturday night.

“I think most people look at him right now and think that he’s on his way to having a top-10, 20 quarterback career,” King said. “There’s a couple of reasons. He’s so precocious about the game, he knows so much about the game. His dad raised him in the game, because obviously his dad was a pro quarterback. I think he also learned the other side of the game also. He learned the team side, he learned you’re nothing without your teammates, and the media part of it doesn’t matter. ‘€¦ It’s just not in his pedigree right now to set himself apart from the crowd. So I think more than anything, Andrew Luck gets it.”

However, King said he isn’t convinced Luck will add to his growing legend Saturday.

“When you look back at his career, why I’m skeptical he’ll play one of his great games is, first of all, he’s gotten hit quite a bit this season, so I think the Patriots are probably going to be able to pressure him,” King said. “And secondly, I think if you take away T.Y. Hilton you’ll be able to do some good things against their passing game.

“He’s not been averse to making some huge mistakes. Look at the first half last week, where he was vastly outplayed by Alex Smith, then early in the third quarter. So, to me, I kind of look at him right now and just say I think he can be great any week. But I also think he’s going to still make mistakes ’cause he’s still learning the game.”

King said that this matchup could turn into a battle of the ground games.

“Everybody has sort of said, ‘If Andrew Luck can’t do it then they’re in huge trouble.’ But just look at Donald Brown — to me, anyway — in the last few weeks. He hasn’t run it a lot, but he’s run it very productively — high yards per rush; he’s averaged over five [5.3] for the year,” King said. “If I’m [offensive coordinator] Pep Hamilton and the Colts, I’m saying, look, I want Donald Brown and Trent Richardson to have very prominent roles in this game plan. In part because we’d like to keep it away from Tom Brady. And also in part because this team this year, the Patriots are vulnerable against the run. They’ve shown it week after week. They’re surrendering 4 1/2 a carry.

“And you understand because of the marquee value of quarterbacks, they’re making it out as an Andrew Luck-Tom Brady game. And it well could be. But I think it could also be a Donald Brown-Shane Vereen game as well. Or LaGarrette Blount.”

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, playoff edition: Patriots enter at No. 5 01.02.14 at 10:55 am ET
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Fittingly, the Seahawks end the regular season where they spent most of it, at the top of the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. The Pete Carroll-led Hawks have ensured that they’ll be playing any and all NFC playoff games in Seattle, a place where they’ve lost just once over the last two years.

The Niners cling to the No. 2 seed as they prepare to take on a Packers team they’ve been successful against in their prior two meetings. The Panthers (3), Broncos (4) and Patriots (5) round out the top five playoff teams.

As wild card weekend approaches, keep in mind that the last three Super Bowl champions played in the first round of the playoffs. If history has taught us anything, any team that has reached the postseason has a shot at the title. We’re in for another exciting year of postseason football. Let the games begin.

Seattle Seahawks1. (1) Seahawks (13-3) — If defense wins championships, the Seahawks have the best shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. The Seahawks finished the regular season at the top of many defensive categories, including points allowed, passing yards and takeaways.

San Francisco 49ers 2. (2) 49ers (12-4) — A tough road lies ahead for the Niners, who look to return to the Super Bowl. They’ll most likely have to travel to Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle to get to where they want to go.

Carolina Panthers3. (3) Panthers (12-4) — Carolina brings one of the league’s best defenses into the playoffs. The Panthers’ ferocious D sacked opposing QBs a league-high 60 times.

Denver Broncos 4. (4) Broncos (13-3) — The precision and methodical offensive attack Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense deliver makes them the favorite in the AFC. Denver set an NFL record with 606 points scored, averaging almost 40 points per game.

New England Patriots 5. (5) Patriots (12-4) — The Patriots are the experienced veteran team in the AFC that no one wants to play. With the number of key injuries this team has suffered, Bill Belichick deserves to be named Coach of the Year.

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, Week 12: Pats drop out of top 5 11.20.13 at 11:58 am ET
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The Seahawks are showing no signs of wanting to fly south as winter nears. Seattle continues its reign at No. 1 as it heads into its bye week and prepares for a tough stretch against the Saints (3) and 49ers (8).

The Panthers (4) claw their way into the top five after a statement win in the Monday night game. The Patriots drop three spots to No. 7 and have no time to focus on a controversial call in Week 11 because the Broncos (2) are set to roll into Foxboro. Tom Brady will prepare for his 14th showdown vs. Peyton Manning. Brady has had the upper hand in nine of the 13 meetings between the two stars.

The bottom five welcomes its latest playoff team of 2012. The Falcons plummet to No. 30 and join the Vikings (28) and Texans (31) as teams to have hit rock bottom after reaching the postseason last year.

Many teams still are in the thick of the playoff race as the final quarter of the season approaches. Check back next week to see who’s on the way up and who’s on the way down.

Seattle Seahawks1. (1) Seahawks (10-1) — The Seahawks look to be getting stronger and stronger as they inch closer to capturing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They go into their bye week with six straight wins.

Denver Broncos 2. (2) Broncos (9-1) — Manning has been the story all year, but the Broncos offensive line deserves the credit after Sunday night’s performance. The O-line came up huge on the biggest stage by not allowing a sack to the team that led the league in that category going into the game.

New Orleans Saints3. (5) Saints (8-2) — The Saints are a scary team when the offense is firing on all cylinders. Drew Brees is quietly putting up monster numbers once again as Peyton Manning gets all the attention.

Carolina Panthers4. (7) Panthers (7-3) — Cam Newton and the Panthers finally got the league’s attention.  Newton needed to prove he could lead his team late in the fourth quarter against a playoff-caliber team, and he accomplished just that.

Kansas City Chiefs5. (3) Chiefs (9-1) —  That ferocious Chiefs defense was non-existent Sunday night. Kansas City had a tremendous opportunity to rough up Peyton Manning but was unable to even knock him down. Despite the loss, many of the mistakes are fixable and the Chiefs should be able to rush Manning better when they face him again at Arrowhead.

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WEEI NFL Power Rankings, Week 11: Patriots climb into top 5 11.12.13 at 11:28 am ET
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The Seahawks continue to soar high above the rest in the WEEI NFL Power Rankings. As fellow NFC teams suffer injuries and decline, Seattle seems to be getting stronger, and its big offseason acquisition, Percy Harvin, is set to debut in Seahawk green. The Broncos stand pat at No. 2 as they survived a health scare to their franchise QB. The Chiefs are proud owners of a perfect record and jump the their highest spot all year at No. 3. They sat back and enjoyed their bye week as the Colts (6) and Niners (8) suffered losses and fell in the rankings.

The difference a year makes continues to be the story across the league. Playoff teams in 2012 like the Texans (28), Vikings (27), Redskins (26) and Falcons (25) continue to plummet in 2013. It seems highly unlikely any of those teams will make a return to the postseason. On the other hand, the Chiefs, Panthers (7) and Jets (11) all have exceeded expectations and are in the thick of the playoff race after being completely out of it at this time last year.

Week 11 will deliver one of the most anticipated matchups of the year as the league’s best offense clashes against one of the league’s best defenses in an AFC West battle. The Broncos and Chiefs will duke it out to maintain their position in the NFL’s elite. It should be an exciting week of football.

Seattle Seahawks1. (1) Seahawks (8-1) — Last year Seattle owned a 3-5 record on the road; this year the Seahawks boast a 5-1 record away from CenturyLink Field. As Harvin nears a return to the field following hip surgery, the Seahawks’ lead in the NFC continues to grow.

Denver Broncos 2. (2) Broncos (8-1) — Peyton Manning re-aggravated an ankle injury, but that won’t sideline him when the Broncos take on the first-place Chiefs. Denver needs to be extra cautious with Manning. It may be even worth considering shutting him down for a week or two. Their chance for a Super Bowl title could be on the line.

Kansas City Chiefs3. (5) Chiefs (9-0) — The time finally has arrived for the Chiefs to prove to the rest of the league they are as good as their record indicates. It’s quite simple why Kansas City is at the top of the standings. The defense has been ferocious. The Chiefs have forced a league-high 23 turnovers.

New England Patriots 4. (6) Patriots (7-2) — The Patriots are an astonishing 87-24 coming off their bye week since 2001. They’re 26-4 over the last three years alone. There’s no reason to believe Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won’t lead the Patriots to another impressive post-bye week performance when they take on the Panthers on Monday night.

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Sebastian Vollmer, Kyle Arrington on M&M: ‘We had a good feeling it wasn’t going to be over’ 10.14.13 at 12:02 pm ET
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Sebastian Vollmer

Sebastian Vollmer

Patriots offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer and defensive back Kyle Arrington joined Mut & Merloni on Monday morning to talk about Sunday’s thrilling 30-27 victory over the Saints.

Vollmer, a five-year veteran, has seen Tom Brady engineer comebacks before, but this one was something special.

“It definitely doesn’t get old,” Vollmer said. “While you’re in it, while the drive is going on, you can’t think about anything else but doing your job, but just looking back, you don’t want to have anybody else behind you, orchestrating that drive. We have all the trust in the world, he’s done it so many times in his career, and once again yesterday. There’s no doubt, I don’t want anybody else in there.”

Vollmer said the players did not lose hope after squandering a couple of opportunities late.

“We had a pretty good feeling we would get the ball back,” Vollmer said. “Our defense was playing good; they gave us the ball back three times. So, we had confidence and we knew we had to deliver. I think that’s what it was, everybody concentrating on their job and going through what you had practiced before, knowing what’s probably going to come and what you have to do. I think we were all quite confident, and we knew we had a chance.”

The Saints celebrated after stopping the Patriots twice inside the final three minutes, but Vollmer said he thought his team would get another opportunity to pull out the win.

“I saw [the Saints celebrating] a little bit while I was walking off the field, but I think we all knew — at least we had strong feelings about it — that we were going to get the ball back. Luckily, we did,” Vollmer said. “We had a good feeling it wasn’t going to be over then.”

That chance came because the Patriots defense continued to play stellar football, even with the loss of some more key players (Aqib Talib, Jerod Mayo) to injury.

“Hopefully we can continue to ride this momentum,” Arrington said. “Definitely a great win. That was a heck of a football team that we played yesterday. The goal from this point is to improve every week, and we’ll take it from there.”

Added Arrington: “We play for each other. We have such a great group of guys. It’s not about yourself. Everyone understands, it’s all about the team and what’s best for the team. Everybody understands just what their job is, and then they’re working as hard as they can to get that done.”

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Snap Judgments: Tom Brady engineers another comeback in 30-27 win over Saints 10.13.13 at 7:43 pm ET
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Kenbrell Thompkins hauls in the game-winning, 17-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady with five seconds remaining in Sunday's 30-27 victory over the Saints. (AP)

Kenbrell Thompkins hauls in the game-winning, 17-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady with five seconds remaining in Sunday’s 30-27 victory over the Saints. (AP)

FOXBORO — The Patriots pulled off a remarkable comeback Sunday, as quarterback Tom Brady engineered a fourth-quarter scoring drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins with five seconds left to lift New England to a shocking 30-27 win over the Saints.

After a 34-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Kenny Stills with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter, it appeared the Patriots were on their way to a second straight defeat. But Brady led an eight-play, 70-yard drive with no timeouts left, a series that culminated with the game-winner to Thompkins.

Brady went 25-for-43 for 269 yards with one touchdown and one pick, while Brees was 17-for-36 for 236 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.

Here are a few quick notes on the game.

WHAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE PATRIOTS

• While Brady struggled throughout the third and into the fourth quarter, it was more late-game magic from the veteran quarterback, who put together his first comeback win of the year.

• Hard not to mention the work of Stevan Ridley, who consistently picked up tough yards between the tackles and kept the chains moving at several key moments on the afternoon. The LSU product, who was out last week because of a knee injury, finished with a season-high 96 yards (on 20 carries) and two touchdowns. A good, consistent effort.

• The New England defense again came up big several times on the afternoon, holding the Saints high-powered offense to 24 points. All around, there was a lot to like about the work of the defense, whether it was the fact that they held all-world tight end Jimmy Graham without a catch for the first time since midway through his rookie season. Then, there was the fact that they came away with another pick, this one in the fourth quarter on a Brees pass for Graham that was forced in there by the quarterback. Kyle Arrington came away with the takeaway, which led to a fourth-quarter field goal.

• The New England special teamers played well, whether it was the season-long 54-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, another sold performance from punter Ryan Allen, or the work of punt returner Jullian Edelman.

WHAT WENT WRONG FOR THE PATRIOTS

• This was a bad game injury-wise for the Patriots. Offensive lineman Dan Connolly went out in the first half with a head injury, and the team announced early in the third quarter than he would not return. Meanwhile, cornerback Aqib Talib came to the sidelines early in the third quarter after a defensive stop with what appeared to be a hammy issue. He was back in the game on the next series, but left shortly after that — the team announced that it was a hip injury, and he didn’t return. Linebacker Jerod Mayo suffered a fourth-quarter shoulder injury. But the worst shot was a second-half head injury for Danny Amendola on a play where it appeared the receiver was knocked out for a brief moment in the wake of a collision on the sideline. He did not return to the game.

• A look at the scoresheet seems to indicate that rookie receiver Aaron Dobson had a good afternoon (five catches on nine targets for 57 yards), but there were several key drops, including one late in the fourth quarter.

• Brady was hit by a hard-charging Saints defense throughout the afternoon, taking a season-high five sacks on the day.

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