Taking a weekend trip around the NFL with a focus on the Patriots…
1. I spoke this week with an NFC scout who has broken down film on the 2017 Patriots, and asked him what stands out about this team midway through the regular season. He likes what he sees, regardless of the two losses — and season-ending injuries to Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower — over the first half. Basically, they're pretty much following the same blueprint that most New England teams have followed over the last dozen-plus years.
“With Bill Belichick, the Super Bowl is the goal, and he rarely misses,” he said. “Winning the first quarter of the season isn’t the goal. You watch Belichick’s teams in the third and fourth quarter of the season, and that’s when you know what kind of team he has. That’s how he’s set things up, and that’s what he’s doing now.”
Potential weaknesses? “It isn’t coaching, that’s for sure. That’s one of the smartest staffs I think I’ve ever seen. For them — and this was before they got Martellus Bennett back — I wonder about their firepower. I don’t think defense will be that be a problem. They can keep most teams under 24, and that keeps them in the game. It always gives them a shot to win.
“Ultimately, if you want to beat them, you have to win the kicking game, the battle for field position. You cannot give up big returns and have them tilt the field. You can’t make it any easier for Tom Brady than it already is. You can’t give him a 30- or 40-yard field, or Brady and Josh McDaniels will kill you. Brady will always take advantage of that. Number two, win the turnover game. They are so good at not giving the ball away, but you have to find a way to take it from them. And when they get it from you, they turn it into points.”
2. There was a lot of talk about Bennett and health this week, and some of that conversation sparked memories of what the big tight end did last year when it came to staying on the field. While us in the media made a big deal about how fun and quotable he was in 2016, he was also one of the tougher guys on the team when it came to fighting through injury. There were multiple teammates at that time who spoke with me and made sure I was aware of the fact that Bennett was dealing with some pretty serious physical issues down the stretch and into the postseason. That included a cracked bone in his ankle, as well as knee and shoulder injuries. Despite all of that, he still played in all 16 regular season and all three playoff games last year. The bottom line? He was one of the physically toughest players on the 2016 roster, and his ability to play with pain (especially after Rob Gronkowski was lost for the season) certainly can’t be overlooked. None of this is an attempt to excuse the way things went down with him in Green Bay over the last month-plus. The Instagram post rubbed many Packers players the wrong way, and from this perspective, wasn’t the best way to handle it. It’s just a reminder that when it comes to dealing with injury, playing through pain and understanding health issues that arise, Bennett’s track record is still pretty impressive.
3. We put the question out on Twitter this week: At the midway point, who is your pick for Patriots’ Rookie of the Year? To be honest, there really wasn’t much of a debate, as defensive lineman Deatrich Wise has pretty much checked all the boxes when it comes to the level of expectations placed on his shoulders in his first year in the league. The Arkansas product, who is starting to get more and more snaps, has distinguished himself as one of New England’s best pass rushers in his first year in the NFL. And while it’s not always perfect, his length and strength has been a welcome addition to a defensive front that could use as many healthy bodies as possible. Our own Greg A. Bedard had him with 22 quarterback pressures and 11 hurries, both best on the team. In addition, his 8.5 quarterback hits are second only to Trey Flowers. (He’s done all of that, despite the fact that he’s played just 51 percent of the snaps through the first eight games, 10th on the team.) Basically, he’s the guy we thought he could be back in August and September. Earlier this month, I asked Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly about Wise’s length and how he can use it to his advantage. “I think it’s an ongoing process,” Daly said. “It’s unique in that there are certain things it lends itself well to, and there are certain things that are a little bit more of a struggle at times. We’re still kind of in the process of sorting through all of that. But it is unique, and he does have some unique leverage and length and ability to find counters and pass rush and things of that nature … he’s figuring out how to use all of that at this point.”
4. As far as we could tell, it was a relatively quiet week in Foxborough when it came to free-agent workouts. Whether it was the bye week or what, New England just didn’t have a lot of bodies pass through. The two names we could confirm were linebacker Zach Virgil, a Utah State product who has played for the Bills, Redskins and Dolphins over the course of his career. In addition, they hosted former 49ers defensive back Lorenzo Jerome (St. Francis). Both were initially reported by ESPN, and both appear to be emergency-list types in case the Patriots need a depth signing between now and the end of the season.
5. Belichick and the Patriots stand on the cusp of two impressive marks going into Sunday’s game. One, if New England wins, it would give Belichick his 270th career win (including the postseason), a mark that would tie him with former Dallas coach Tom Landry for third place on the NFL’s all-time wins list for head coaches. Asked about the milestone and what it represents for Belichick, Brady said it was a tribute to his consistency. “He’s just so consistent,” Brady said. “Everything is important – the walkthroughs, the OTAs, minicamp, training camp. I don’t think you’d notice many times between an OTA day and a Super Bowl week in the way that he approaches the preparations. He gets us all ready to go.” And two, if New England wins, it would also tie the AFC record for most consecutive road victories. Dating back to last season, the Patriots have won 11 straight away from home, one shy of the AFC mark of 12 set by the 2006-2008 New England team. The NFL record is 18 in a row, set by the 1988-1990 Niners. (If you want to peek ahead, if the Patriots run the table on the road the rest of the season and secure home-field in the playoffs, they would have a shot to tie the record in their second road game of the 2018 season.)
6. We updated the total number of picks coming to the Patriots after the flurry of deals on cutdown weekend, but following the trade deadline, it seemed to be as good a time as any to revisit where New England stands when it comes to the 2018 draft. The Patriots still have their assigned picks in the first, second, third and sixth round. They added another second with the trade that sent Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco, and will get a fourth-rounder compensatory pick for the loss of Jabaal Sheard in free agency. On the minus side of the ledger, they dealt their fourth-round pick to the Eagles in the Eric Rowe trade last year, a pick that becomes a third-rounder if Rowe ends up playing at least 50 percent of the snaps this season. (For what it’s worth, with his groin injury, that appears to be unlikely.) They also lost a fifth-round pick in the trade for Cassius Marsh, and dealt away seventh-round picks in deals involving Marquis Flowers and Justin Coleman. Ultimately, as it stands right now, they have one first-rounder, two second-round picks, as well as a third-, fourth- and sixth-rounder.
7. The Patriots haven’t had a whole lot of New Englanders in the locker room, at least in recent years. But they got a little more local flavor this week when Wakefield’s Anthony Fabiano, an offensive lineman out of Harvard, was added to the practice squad for a couple of days. The 6-foot-4, 303-pounder is a 24-year-old who has spent time with the Ravens, Browns, Redskins and Giants. Before he was let go on Saturday -- the Patriots added Geneo Grissom Saturday night -- was the latest native New Englander to be a part of the franchise: Maine native and former Black Bear linebacker Trevor Bates was part of last year’s team. Donald Thomas was a native of Connecticut who played at UConn, while the late Ron Brace was a Springfield native who went to BC. Massachusetts native James Ihedigbo went to UMass. And veteran Terrance Knighton — who was born and raised in Hartford — had a cup of coffee with the franchise last summer. (For the record, the only other current player on the roster with any sort of connection to New England might be fullback James Develin, a Pennsylvania native who went to Brown.)
8. Something that struck me when it was revealed this week that Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones is planning to sue the NFL and generally act like a pain-in-the-backside to commissioner Roger Goodell. When Deflategate was roaring at full volume and the Patriots were still thinking about fighting the league in court, I called someone who used to work for the Raiders, back when Al Davis used to run the franchise. I asked them what it’s like to be involved in a daily legal skirmish with the league. They answered that it’s a tough fight, because it’s a battle on two fronts: you’re at war with the league, and you’re also fighting the 31 other teams. The truth is that most franchises simply don’t have the stomach or the financial stones to try and do that. It can take a lot out of the team, and take away the focus on winning football games. Ultimately, Robert Kraft decided against it. I winder if Jones will try and go the extra mile. If he does, what sort of strain that might put on the Dallas franchise? And how much might Jones ask Kraft (or anyone who worked with Davis) about the potential toll it could ultimately take on his franchise?
9. Last week, I was 7-6. Not great, but I’m still a respectable 81-49 on the year. This week, my winners are the Seahawks, Jets, Lions, Bears, Vikings, Rams, Falcons, Saints, Titans, Jaguars, Steelers, Niners, Patriots and Panthers.
10. This coming week will be unlike any the Patriots have faced this season: Following the Broncos’ game Sunday night, the team will stay in Colorado Springs for the week (they might come across this old picture of a former head coach, taken when he spent some time as an assistant at Air Force), and then fly to Mexico for a game against the Raiders in Mexico City the following weekend. The last time the team spent a week away from home, it was 2014, when they went straight from a game in Green Bay to California to prep for a game in San Diego. The time on the road can be a benefit for a number of reasons, but according to Devin McCourty, one of the best aspects is proximity to the rest of your teammates. “When you’re in the hotel together, it’s easy to shoot a text to a group of DBs or the offensive line or defensive line, linebackers. It’s easy to shoot a text: ‘Hey, you guys want to watch film at seven o’clock?’ And, ‘Yeah.’ So, that always helps,” he said. “On the road, we’re right there. We’re three doors down from each other.”