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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Special teams 01.09.13 at 3:11 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We’€™ve broken things down on both sides of the ball. Now, it’€™s a chance to take a look at special teams:

Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Kicker Stephen Gostkowski (29-for-35 on field goals, 66-for-66 on extra points, 52 touchbacks on 112 kickoffs), punter Zoltan Mesko (60 punts, 43.1 average, 28 inside the 20), punt returner Wes Welker (25 returns, 243 yards, 9.7 average), kick returner Devin McCourty (27 returns, 654 yards, 24.2 average, 1 TD), long snapper Danny Aiken, special teamers Matthew Slater (20 special teams tackles), Nate Ebner (17 special teams tackles), linebacker Mike Rivera (12 special teams tackles).

Overview: It’€™s been an up-and-down year for the Patriots special teamers. After a long draught, New England got a punt return (from Julian Edelman against the Colts) and kick return (by McCourty against the Jets). There’€™s also the continued excellence of Slater, who is a tremendously disruptive force for opposing teams to have to deal with on a weekly basis. (Seriously, invest the $70 in NFL Game Rewind and watch the coaches’€™ film of his work. No surprise he was named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.)

There were also some struggles, particularly early in the season by Gostkowski, who missed what would have been a likely game-winner against the Cards, and missed a pair against the Bills. He seemed to right the ship late in the season — he’€™s made eight of his last nine field goals over the last five weeks of the regular season, including three from 40-plus yards.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots use their returners in the postseason. Since Edelman went down with a season-ending injury, they have utilized a handful of different players, but have appeared to settle on Welker as a punt returner and McCourty as a kick returner.

Best Moment: Three immediately stick out: the fumble which was returned for a touchdown by Edelman in the Thanksgiving Night massacre of the Jets, Edelman’€™s 68-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Colts, and McCourty’€™s 104-yard kick return for a touchdown in the home with over the Jets.

Worst Moment: Gostkowski’€™s 42-yard field-goal attempt late in the fourth quarter against the Cardinals ended up being the difference in a shocking September loss to Arizona. In the same game, Mesko had a blocked punt, which the Cardinals quickly turned into a touchdown.

By the numbers: Gostkowski’€™s 153 points is a career-high.

Money quote: ‘€œIt’€™s been a blast; I’€™ve had a lot of fun with these guys this year. It’€™s a group that takes a lot of pride in what we do and we have a lot of fun doing it. I think there’€™s a good combination of veteran guys with experience and young guys that are willing and eager and understand this is how they’€™re going to make their bones in this league and they’€™ve embraced their role. Overall, it’€™s been one of the most fun seasons I’€™ve had as a part of this team. Hopefully we can keep it going.’€ — Slater on working with this year’€™s special teamers.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Defensive Line 01.08.13 at 8:27 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the offense a few days ago, and then went over to the defensive side of the ball, hitting on the secondary and the linebackers. Now, it’€™s the defensive line.

Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Vince Wilfork (59 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, 6 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries), Brandon Deaderick (14 tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed, 2 forced fumbles), Rob Ninkovich (61 tackles, 8 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, 5 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries), Chandler Jones (48 tackles, 6 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 5 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles), Jermaine Cunningham (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits), Kyle Love (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 quarterback hits), Trevor Scott (12 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hits), Justin Francis (10 tackles, 3 sacks, 7 quarterback hits).

Overview: While the Patriots were able to build up some pretty good depth at the position over the course of the season, the New England defensive line was able to get superlative efforts from Wilfork and Ninkovich this year, while Jones gave an impressive jolt as an edge rusher over the first three-quarters of the season at the defensive end spot.

There is a good supporting cast around Wilfork — particularly Ninkovich and Jones on the outside, as well as occasional flashes this season as Cunningham (who served a four-game ban for a violation of league policy on performance enhancers), Francis (who had three sacks in the regular-season finale), as well as Scott and Love.

But ultimately, it is impossible to overstate how important Wilfork was to this group in 2012. He remains a game-changer, the sort of player who can provide a foundation not only for your positional grouping, but your defense as a whole. There’€™s a lot you can say about him, but maybe the ultimate tribute to what he’€™s been able to do over these last two seasons is that when you consider the current NFL contract market, he’€™s probably outperformed the five-year, $40 million deal he signed in March 2010.

Best Moment: Two come to mind — Wilfork was dominant against the Bills in the first game in Buffalo, and it was this crushing hit on Bills wide receiver Donald Jones that was probably the best of the year for the New England defense. And Ninkovich, who continues to rise to the occasion in big moments, came away with a strip sack of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez in overtime to knock off New York.

Worst Moment: Not sure there was a singular bad moment for this group, but the team surrendered a season-high 180 rushing yards in the December loss to the Niners. It was a humbling moment for a physical front that was a big reason the Patriots spent most of the season in the Top 10 when it came to rush defense.

By the numbers: Wilfork has more passes defensed (6) than quarterback hits (3).

Money quote: ‘€œIt’€™s always an honor to get recognition like that, but to me, I’€™ve always believed I was put on this earth to play football. At the end of the day that’€™s what I know: football, I know football. I know I can play football. I know what it takes to play football. I know what it takes to win. I know how it feels to lose. I’€™ve been in a lot of battles in my life in football. So all the recognition and accolades that come with it, that’€™s great. But at the end of the day I want to win, plain and simple. I try to do whatever I can to help this ball club win, because at the end of the day that’€™s what you get judged by ‘€“ wins and losses.’€ –Wilfork on receiving several honors for his work this season.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Linebackers at 1:08 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We covered the offense a few days ago, and now, it’€™s the defense. We started with the secondary — now, it’€™s the linebackers.

Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Jerod Mayo (184 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 1 INT, 4 forced fumbles), Brandon Spikes (128 tackles, 1 sack, 5 quarterback hits, 7 passes defensed, 5 forced fumbles), Dont’€™a Hightower (75 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 quarterback hits, 3 passes defensed), Tracy White (10 tackles), Mike Rivera (12 special teams tackles), Niko Koutouvides (8 special teams tackles).

Overview: The combination of Mayo, Spikes and Hightower combined to form the nucleus of one of the best young linebacking corps in the league this season. Mayo continues to serve as the captain of the defense, and with the addition of Hightower and the continued maturation of Spikes, was freed up to do more things this season than he did in year’€™s past. Spikes still has occasional issues in coverage, but has certainly improved to the point this year where he’€™s become an every down linebacker. (While he occasionally swings and misses when it comes to shooting the gaps, he remains one of the most feared linebackers in the league when it comes to stopping the run.) And Hightower had some growing pains — there were some distressing dips late in the season — but he’€™s given every indication that he should be a force in the league for year’€™s to come.

Going into the playoffs, the group will be counted on heavily as part of a rapidly improving defensive unit. One of the areas worth monitoring very close will be the health of Spikes, who has been dogged by knee and ankle issues for a sizable portion of the season. Spikes, who is one of New England’€™s two most important defenders when it comes to stopping the run (the other being Vince Wilfork), played just eight snaps over the last two weeks of the regular season, presumably to allow him to be at full strength once the playoffs roll around. It will be interesting to keep an eye on him right out of the gate as he jumps headfirst into the postseason — against a team that’€™s one of the better running teams in the league.

Best Moment: In the fourth quarter of a Dec. 2 game against the Dolphins, Miami was sitting on the Patriots’€™ 7-yard line, looking to cut into a 10-point New England lead. After the ball was snapped, Mayo took off on what appeared to be a delayed blitz, blasting up the middle on third down and drilling Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill for an eight-yard loss. The most important of the Patriots’€™ three sacks on the afternoon, the well timed tackle-for-loss kept the Dolphins out of the end zone and forced them to kick a field goal. Mayo’€™s sack helped preserve a lead of at least a touchdown, keeping Miami at bay and allowing New England to escape South Florida with a narrow win.

Worst Moment: Spikes had some issues in coverage in the first half of the first game against the Bills, where he was clearly targeted by Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. However, he was able to right the ship nicely in the second half and come away with a second-half pass defense, as well as a pair of forced fumbles.

By the numbers: For the season, Spikes had seven passes defensed — more than any non-defensive back on the team.

Money quote: ‘€œWe’€™ve really had three linebackers, with Jerod [Mayo], Dont’€™a and Brandon [Spikes] and two of these three are on the field in a lot of the nickel passing situations. Usually it’€™s Jerod, and the other has kind of been split between Dont’€™a and Brandon [Spikes], but with Brandon out [against the Jaguars], Dont’€™a got more of those reps. But I really think his overall production on a per-play basis has been pretty consistent, as far as doing the right thing and handling his responsibility and all that. The big plays, obviously there are fewer of them than there are regular plays, so they’€™re kind of spotted here and there, but Dont’€™a has been pretty solid for us all the year.’€ — Bill Belichick on Hightower and the rest of the linebackers.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Defensive backs 01.07.13 at 6:11 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the offense. Now, we’€™ll flip it around and break down the defense. First up, the secondary.

Depth chart (stats based on coaches film review): Devin McCourty (89 tackles, 5 INTs, 13 passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (67 tackles, 11 passes defensed), Steve Gregory (55 tackles, 3 INTs, 5 passes defensed), Patrick Chung (53 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 passes defensed), Alfonzo Dennard (35 tackles, 3 INTs, 7 passes defensed), Tavon Wilson (48 tackles, 4 INTs, 6 passes defensed), Aqib Talib (19 tackles, 1 INT, 2 passes defensed), Marquice Cole (12 tackles, 1 INT, 3 passes defensed), Nate Ebner (17 special teams tackles), Malcolm Williams (2 special teams tackles).

Overview: It’€™s been fascinating to watch the New England secondary evolve over the course of the 2012 season. Much like the offensive line, there were struggles early on as they tried to find the right mix, but once they were able to find a good combo (namely, Talib and Dennard at corner and McCourty and Gregory at safety), the continuity and consistency helped improve the New England pass defense.

The addition of Talib has really been a boon. He hasn’€™t been a Pro Bowler by any means, but the trickle-down effect has been tremendous for the rest of the defensive backs, and, by extension, the defense as a whole. It’€™s allowed the New England defense to shuffle some players — particularly the move of McCourty from corner to safety, as well as kicking Arrington from outside back into the slot — and take some pressure off younger defensive backs. As a result, the Patriots have managed to maximize the strengths of the defensive backs they do have, and the numbers have reflected the change. Since late November, the following numbers have all decreased for the New England defense: points per game, average passing yards, average rushing yards and total average yards allowed per game. In addition, in that stretch, the Patriots have increased their takeaway ratio.

Going forward, health is probably the biggest issue for this group, particularly Talib. He was slowed by a nagging hip problem (which first appeared in the initial Patriots-Texans game in early December), and was held out of the bulk of the last two regular-season games. The hope is that with almost a month on the shelf, he’€™s over whatever health issues plagued him, and he can slide back into a regular role for the postseason. If Talib is there, look for the same group of defensive backs (Talib, Dennard, McCourty and Gregory) to get the bulk of the reps in the playoffs, with support from Arrington, Cole and Chung.

(For what it’€™s worth, one of the great offseason questions will be what happens with Talib. A free agent at the end of the season, provided he remains a key part of a secondary that plays deep into January, how much would the Patriots pony up to keep the cornerback? The 26-year-old would likely be in for a handsome payday if he does steer clear of any off-field issues and stay healthy, but would he likely take less than market value for the chance to stick in New England?)

Best Moment: Moved back to safety on a consistent basis over most of the second half of the season, McCourty made two very similar plays working as the deep safety against both the Niners and Texans, coming away with big picks in both games on the goal line. Against Houston, McCourty picked off quarterback Matt Schaub in the first half, a game-changing turnover that denied the Texans an early score. And against San Francisco he did the same thing, coming away with a nifty pick of Colin Kaepernick.

Worst Moment: It was more of a problem with team defense, but the lasting image of the New England secondary over the first half of the season was Wilson and Ebner failing to keep Sidney Rice in front of them in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks in Seattle — as a result, Russell Wilson found Rice for a 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 left.

By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, McCourty led the Patriots in defensive snaps in 2012 with 1,098, beating out linebacker Jerod Mayo (1,073.)

Money quote: ‘€œIt’€™s a different team. You just feel it walking around here ‘€” the atmosphere. A winning organization. You can feel it in the air. I’€™ve never been a part of an organization like that. It’€™s good to feel it in the air, the confidence that’€™s in this building.’€ — Talib on joining the Patriots.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Offensive line 01.06.13 at 5:57 pm ET
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With the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers. Now, it’€™s the offensive line.

Depth chart: Marcus Cannon, Dan Connolly, Logan Mankins, Nick McDonald, Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell, Markus Zusevics.

Overview: It’€™s been a season of three parts for the New England offensive line. First, there was a trail-and-error period throughout the preseason, as it worked through several changes (including the retirement of Matt Light, loss of Brian Waters and eventual release of Dan Koppen, as well as trying to determine whether or not Robert Gallery had anything left in the tank) in hopes of finding a positive combination. Second, when they did find a good mix, it was as successful a run as any offensive line in recent New England history. And third, a series of injuries — and the fact that the group has gone up against some excellent pass rushers — have left the line struggling a bit as the regular season has come to a close.

When the line has played well, it’€™s been very good: Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia remains without peer, and that shows with this group. Vollmer has been one of the best right tackles in the league when healthy, and in his first full year at left tackle, Solder certainly looks like the sort of plug-and-play tackle that can stand up on the left side for the next 10 years. Mankins has few peers, Wendell was the NFL iron man this season (more on that in a minute) and Connolly has been competitive. (And the backups — Thomas and McDonald in particular — could probably start on most teams.)

Going into the playoffs, health remains a long-term concern with this group. Mankins has been banged up for the better part of the last two seasons, and Vollmer has also struggled with injury. More than any other position (save tight end), this group really needed the week off, which could allow them to regain the form they flashed through the middle part of the season. For what it’€™s worth, they ended the year on a positive note, allowing only one sack in a win over the Dolphins. And they were a colossal part of the reason the Patriots were able to run the ball consistently for most of the 2012 season. While it’€™s Brady that runs the show, it’€™s the offensive line that powers the New England offense.

(It’€™s also worth mentioning here that the blocking will likely get a boost from the return of Rob Gronkowski, who was having a terrific year as a run blocker before he got hurt in November. While it remains to be seen how healthy he is, even if Gronkowski is 75 percent, he’€™s better than most blocking tight ends, and should fundamentally give the Patriots another tackle in running situations.)

Best Moment: Brady was sacked just three times in a six-game stretch from Oct. 14 through Nov. 22. (Once each against the Seahawks, Jets and Bills.) In that stretch, the Patriots went over 100 yards on the ground in five of the six games.

Worst Moment: Brady was sacked 12 times over a five-game stretch that closed out the regular season, including four times against the Dolphins and three times each against the Niners and the Jaguars.

By the numbers: Per Football Outsiders, Wendell and Solder were the top two players in the league when it came to total snaps played. Wendell played 1,231 offensive snaps and 148 special teams snaps for a total of 1,379, while Solder was on the field for 1,234 offensive snaps and 105 special teams snaps — that adds up to 1,339.

Money quote: ‘€œI know the team we play next week, it’€™s not the biggest game in their franchise’€™s history.’€ — Mankins after beating the Texans in December. Houston came into the game calling it the most important game in franchise history.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Wide receiver at 2:23 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends. Now, it’€™s the wide receivers.

Depth chart: Wes Welker (118 catches on 174 targets, 1,354 yards, six touchdowns), Brandon Lloyd (74 catches on 130 targets, 911 yards, four touchdowns), Julian Edelman (21 catches on 32 targets, 235 yards, three touchdowns), Deion Branch (16 catches on 29 targets, 145 yards), Donte’€™ Stallworth (one catch on two targets, 63 yards, one touchdown).

Overview: It was another amazing year for Welker — after a kerfuffle at the start of the regular season about how he was used (which only occurred after Welker himself said he wasn’€™t ready to start the season), he had another ridiculous year, and added another page to what should be a Hall of Fame resume. This season, he became the first receiver in NFL history with at least five seasons of 100 or more receptions. And against the Jaguars on Dec. 23, Welker passed Jerry Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more catches. For the season, he ended up with 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns — his 118 receptions marked the third-highest total of his career. (He caught 123 balls in 2009 and 122 in 2011.)

As for the rest of the receivers, Lloyd could be underwhelming at times, but he brought a new dynamic to the New England passing game with his sideline work. (There were also moments of sheer brilliance — go back and flip on the tape of him absolutely depantsing Baltimore cornerback Cary Williams in a September game against the Ravens.) In the end, his numbers — 74 catches — were about right for someone who was a third or fourth option in the passing game.

(Ultimately, in my opinion, I’€™d be willing to grant some more slack to Lloyd, especially thinking back to an interview with Brady at the start of the summer where the quarterback confessed that he’€™s never been gifted with a receiver that has talents unique as the ones offered by Lloyd. ‘€œWe haven’€™t had anyone quite like him,’€ Brady said shortly after getting a chance to work with Lloyd. ‘€œHe’€™s got great ball skills and great body control. If you get it near him, he’€™s going to catch it. It’€™s just a matter of sometimes it doesn’€™t look like he’€™s really open and then boom, he springs open on you. So sometimes you think, ‘€˜Oh he’€™s covered,’€™ and then you get off him and then you watch the film and you’€™re like, ‘€˜How did he get open?’€™’€ Even after a full year, some of how Lloyd is being used might come down to a matter of trust for the quarterback, and that might still be a work in progress.)

Edelman showed flashes at the start of the season (usually in Welker’€™s stead), but struggled with injury over the course of the season before landing on injured reserve with a broken foot last month. Meanwhile, both Branch and Stallworth did a nice job provide depth and the occasional catch here and there, with both of them waking up the echoes from time to time.

Going forward into the postseason, it’€™ll be the Welker and (to a lesser extent, depending on the health of the tight ends) Lloyd show. It’€™ll be the first chance at the postseason for the 31-year-old Lloyd, and while we’€™re pretty sure of what Welker is going to bring to the field in the playoffs, the addition of Lloyd will make for an interesting mix for the New England offense.

Best Moment: It was in a loss, but Welker was just tremendous in defeat against the Seahawks in Seattle. With the offense out of sync, Welker was fundamentally the only option when it came to moving the chains, and he was almost enough to lift the Patriots over the uberphysical Seahawks. Welker had 10 catches on 14 targets for 138 yards and a touchdown against Seattle. He also absorbed the hit of the year when he had his clock cleaned by Seahawks defensive back Brandon Browner. Welker went to the sidelines, collected himself, and was back in the game a few plays later.

Worst Moment: Probably nitpicking here, but at least from a statistical perspective, the two that stand out are Lloyd’€™s one-catch, eight-target performance in an overtime win over the Jets on Oct. 21 and Welker’€™s three-catch outing in the regular-season opener against the Titans.

By the numbers: For all the talk at the start of the season about him being phased out of the offense, Welker was actually targeted three more times in 2012 than he was in 2011.

Money quote: ‘€œHe’€™s had a good season. He’€™s been running very good routes; I’€™ve just got to do a good job of finding him and giving him chances to catch the ball. I think that’€™s my responsibility. I have a lot of confidence in Brandon and Deion [Branch] and Wes [Welker] to do their job and do what they need to get open, catch the ball, make the right decision on the routes.’€ — Tom Brady on Brandon Lloyd.

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Patriots Positional Playoff Preview: Tight end 01.05.13 at 9:40 pm ET
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With the Patriots off this weekend and the postseason underway, we’€™ve got the Patriots Positional Playoff Preview, a week-long, position-by-position look at the Patriots and how they look heading into the postseason. We started with the quarterbacks and running backs. Now, it’€™s on to the tight ends.

Depth chart: Rob Gronkowski (55 catches on 79 targets, 790 yards, 11 touchdowns), Aaron Hernandez (51 catches on 84 targets, 483 yards, five touchdowns), Daniel Fells (4 catches on 10 targets, 85 yards), Michael Hoomanawanui (5 catches on 7 targets, 109 yards).

Overview: The Patriots’€™ passing game went from one that relied heavily on the tight ends in 2011 to one that used them as part of a larger group — mostly because of injury — for a sizable portion of the 2012 season. Both Gronkowski and Hernandez were banged up pretty much from start to finish this past year, with Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cards. (He would ultimately miss six-plus games.) Meanwhile, Gronkowski suffered a broken arm on Nov. 18 against the Colts. (He would miss five weeks and launch a thousand conversations about Bill Belichick‘s decision to use him as a blocker on an extra point.)

While the Patriots would get important — if under-the-radar — contributions from Fells and Hoomanawanui, the loss of Hernandez and Gronkowski removed a significant portion of the New England offense. (Lost in all the statistical hubbub over Gronkowski was removing from the equation as a run blocker. Through the first 10 games, Gronkowski was a veritable road-grader, an extra tackle who was a big part of the success of the run game.) While the Patriots still managed to set several offensive marks with the two of them playing just over a half-season, there’€™s small sense of ‘€œwhat might have been?’€ if the two were good to go for all 16 regular-season games. Does Gronkowski have an impact in the loss to the Niners? Do the Patriots lose to the Cardinals if Hernandez doesn’€™t go down with an ankle injury in the first half? Do the Patriots rely on Wes Welker as much as they did down the stretch? And could this team have threatened the 2007 squad when it comes to total offensive numbers?

In the end, while you can debate about the singular abilities of one or the other and where they might rank when stacked against other great young tight ends, there’€™s no argument that, when they are healthy, there’€™s no more dynamic combination in the league. There’€™s no way of really knowing where Gronkowski’€™s health is at this point, but if the two are anywhere near 100 percent — combined with the work of running back Stevan Ridley and Welker — the Patriots offense will be incredibly difficult to stop.

Best Moment: When it comes to Gronkowski, his best performance came against the Rams, when he had eight catches on 13 targets for a season-high 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns. (Plus his most memorable Gronk spike of the season.) And while Hernandez had better statistical performances (including a 10-reception effort in the December loss to the Niners), his best game likely came against the Texans on Dec. 10, when he had eight catches on 11 targets for 58 yards and two touchdowns. In that one, he didn’€™t break many long gainers (his longest of the night was a 13-yarder), but was tough in small spaces.

Worst Moment: Hernandez going down with an ankle injury in Week 2 against the Cardinals. The young tight end, who is New England most dynamic offensive presence when healthy (no one puts more stress on an opposing defense when he’€™s at 100 percent), went down early, and the Patriots’€™ offense was wildly out of sync the rest of the afternoon. Maybe the biggest reason behind the loss. (New England can adjust from week-to-week when they lose an option like Hernandez, but the challenge of having someone like that taken away from you in the middle of the game is an awful big hurdle to overcome.)

By the numbers: According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez played just 573 offensive snaps in 2012 — barely more than the 514 snaps he played as a rookie in 2010. As for Gronkowski, he played 743 offensive snaps in 2012, the lowest total in his three seasons in the league. The decreased snaps led to a dramatic change in targets from 2011 to 2012: the Patriots tight ends had a combined 169 catches on 237 targets in 2011. In 2012, that dipped to 116 catches on 182 targets.

Money quote: ‘€œIt’€™s always important. I got limited reps, obviously, not that many. But you always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs. It’€™s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. If it’€™s practice, you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it and be out there with your teammates and connect with some chemistry with your teammates.’€ — Gronkowski on the importance of getting back on the field before the start of the postseason.

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