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Ask PFW: AFC Championship Week edition

Fans' questions answered in this week's PFW mailbag.

! Am I wrong thinking at this point the bigger loss [against Houston], injury-wise, was Danny Woodhead? Don't get me wrong, Gronk is a great player, but we got through most of the season without him. Woodhead however has been so good in his role. Vereen had a career day last night and Ridley a fantastic season too, but my opinion is that losing Woody could prove troublesome. Offensive game planning will be very important coming up. Go Patriots! Gary Abrams

Once I stopped laughing, picked myself up off the floor, sat back down in my chair, and reread this question, I realized, in horror, that you were being serious, Gary. Yes, you're wrong… you couldn't be more wrong if you tried to be on purpose.

"Offensive game planning will be very important coming up," you said. Indeed, it will, and there isn't a single defensive coordinator out there who loses sleep trying to figure out ways to stop Danny Woodhead. He's a good player, for sure, and makes big plays now and then, but please, Rob Gronkowski is one of the best players in all of football. He's a match-up nightmare for defenses. No one – repeat, no one – can cover this guy, and his value as a blocker is beyond measure. The Patriots offense must adapt and do different things without Gronk in the lineup.

Gronk's loss is potentially devastating to this team's Super Bowl hopes. Without Woodhead? Just insert Shane Vereen. Done. Erik Scalavino

Great win for the Pats despite the loss of Gronkowski and Woodhead. The offense had it going in the passing and running game, and the defense has greatly improved, particularly in the secondary where passes are now being contested, tackles being made immediately after the catch and no longer are there wide open receivers. The problem now seems to be on special teams and the kick coverage. The Pats were torched by the Niners and had a horrendous game [against Houston]. What do you think the problem is, and how do they solve it in one week? Anyway that you would consider squibbing your kickoffs to prevent the long return? Gary Goldstein

Looked like very poor lane discipline on the part of the Patriots coverage teams. When the coverage team doesn't stay true to the areas they're meant to patrol, because they're reacting to where the ball is kicked and fielded, this opens up gaping holes that a good returner can exploit, as Danieal Manning of the Texans did Sunday. Yes, this is a problem that can be corrected in a week, if the players respond to their coaching.

No, though,I would not recommend squib kicking on a regular basis. I'd much prefer that Stephen Gostkowski try to kick the ball out of the end zone more frequently to avoid any return at all. Squib kicks can be effective deterrents against long returns, but they also usually set up the other team with decent field position. Erik Scalavino

Hello and greetings from Alaska. Always love reading every column. My wife says my obsession is unhealthy... meh, oh well. I have two questions 1. If the Pats retained Aqib Talib next year, do you see Devin McCourty making the permanent move to safety as a starter? He seems more comfortable back there. 2. Do you see us keeping on Patrick Chung next year? He seems to have major issues staying healthy. Thanks. Jeremy Power

Whether or not Talib is re-signed, I think McCourty's move to safety is permanent. It does seem like a better fit for him at this level than corner, although it is safe to assume that, in a pinch, he'll still be asked to fill in there. My guess is the Patriots won't break the bank to keep Chung. He'll be allowed to shop himself around with the team's blessing. If they can somehow keep him on the cheap as a backup, fine, but I don't think they'll fret too much if he moves on.

Oh, and your wife is probably right. Erik Scalavino

!Hi, greetings from good old Germany. I have a question, as weird as it may sound. Since probably no team will trade for Tebow (Jags now out as well), the Jets are probably going to cut him to at least get rid of one drama. Since Belichick likes him, could there be any scenario in which the Patriots could sign him? Obviously not as a QB, but maybe as a TE/HB kinda guy? Tebow at one point should consider going down that road, since he's probably never going to end up being a starter in this league. He has too many flaws as a true QB. Thanks for answering. Jochen Masching

Would you guys see any chance of Tebow becoming a Patriot? Not as a quarterback, but more of a running back or H-back type player. There was talk when Tebow was in the draft that BB had some interest and with McDaniels as OC and the man who did draft him in Denver that they might be able to use him in that way. I personally hope they wouldn't, but what do you fellas think? Mike Purdy

If Tebow is released from the Jets, could the Pats use him as a fullback/tailback/TE? Does he have any natural blocking ability, or pass catching skills? Jack Mooney

I could easily see the Patriots signing Tim Tebow as a free agent, if he winds up on the market, for all the reasons you gents suggested. And I certainly think Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels could find much more creative uses for Tebow than the New York Jets did this past season. It's a perfect match, Tebow and the Patriots. Erik Scalavino

What kind of role/impact do you see Jeff Demps having next year? He came in pretty late but he showed a flash of potential in his very limited action. If he makes the roster who would he replace? Surely having him, Ridley, Woodhead, Bolden, and Vereen would be one too many RBs? Logan Mullins

Nothing's changed since he was signed in August, Logan. Demps is a kickoff return specialist, with some abilities as a running back. That's how he'll attempt to fit in when he's able to practice with the team again. It's far too soon to start speculating about whom he'll replace, but it wouldn't be unheard of for Belichick to carry five running backs on his active roster. Erik Scalavino

Given Hernandez' sometimes awkward and chronically disappointing involvement in the offense over the past two years, what do you think about the possibility of the Pats trading Hernandez to another team that needs a fast tight end? He would still be a worthy pickup for a team like the Buccaneers or Panthers. What could we get in return? Josiah Augustine

They would get absolutely nothing in return for Hernandez, because he's not going anywhere. There isn't even a thought being given to trading him. He's one of the vital young cogs in this offensive juggernaut, as evidenced by the mega-contract extension he inked just before the season started. Hernandez hasn't had the greatest season, I'll admit, but he is a mismatch problem for opposing defenses and is still one of the best players in the game today at his position. Erik Scalavino

!With Gronk out and maybe Woody too, any chance we will see Deion Branch involved with the offense more? I was kind of surprised he didn't get any balls thrown to him [against Houston]. He looked open to me on a few plays at least. I still think he's a solid receiver and is good as a third option behind Welker and Lloyd. Erik L.

Maybe a bit, but not much. The offense revolves around the tight ends and Welker, with the running backs and Lloyd the next best options in the passing game. Branch provides valuable depth at the position, but little else at this point. Oh, and I wouldn't expect Woodhead to be out long. Belichick said Monday that he could have played against Houston, so, I'm guessing we'll see him back out at practice this week. Erik Scalavino

I know that Aqib Talib had a couple interceptions with the Buccaneers, yet I noticed when they showed his stats on Sunday, he was only credited with one. Why is this? Kevin Messinger

Talib had just one interception with Tampa Bay this season (Week 3 vs. Dallas). He also has just one since becoming a Patriot. Perhaps the statistics you saw were reflecting only his time in New England. Erik Scalavino

Are any of the Pats practices open to the public this week (1/15/13-1/18/13)? If so, when? Thanks! Jim Matthews

Patriots practices are never open to the public, except during training camp. *Erik Scalavino

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