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Ask PFW: Patriots Run the East

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The rest of the season is shaping up to be very tough for the Pats. The next two games won't be easy, and more importantly, Steelers, Broncos and Seahawks likely await the Pats on the way to SB. Winning games and staying healthy would be the key, but I wonder if Pats have what it takes to go this uber-hard distance?**
Adam K.

First, I don't think the next two games are "uber-hard." I don't see any way the Patriots lose in New York on Sunday. And I'd only leave sliver of a chance for the Bills to come to Foxborough in the finale looking to pull off the upset. I don't have as much respect/fear of the potential playoff opponents that you do, especially with the likelihood that they'll be heading to Gillette Stadium to take on the No. 1 Patriots. We've seen Bill Belichick's team take care of business with the likes of the Broncos, Colts and Chargers already. The Patriots are a better team now than the one that lost in Kansas City. I don't feel like Cincy could get the job done in New England. Pittsburgh and Baltimore both have veteran leadership and likely wouldn't wilt in the face of Foxborough, I just don't think they're overly good teams. I think the Patriots should and will be favored in every game they play from here on out, at least until February. At that point, I do think the Seahawks would be a fearsome opponent. But I'll worry about that when the time comes.
Andy Hart

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The New England Patriots take on the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 14, 2014.

How about the performance Bryan Stork since assuming the starting role? Also do you think Jonas [Gray] has been removed from "double secret probation" after playing a bit more in the Miami game? Happy Holidays!**
Brett Larson

Happy Holidays to you, Brett! I do think that Stork has been an impressive, reliable, steady force in the middle of the Patriots offensive line. He may be a rookie, but his coaches and players rave about his work ethic and intelligence. I get the feeling he was drafted with an eye on him playing as a rookie and he's taken advantage of that chance. I think that has helped pull things together in the middle, while also allowing veteran former centers Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell to slide to guard. As for Gray, I really don't know what the situation was with him over the last month. Clearly he was punished when he dressed but did not play against the Lions on the heels of his reportedly oversleeping and showing up late for work that Friday. After that, it's really only speculation to know whether his limited carries were due to punishment, matchups, depth chart or some other answer. Regardless, he ran quite well in the second half on Sunday. That came after LeGarrette Blount struggled mightily with his chances. I have to think we'll see more than one or two carries from Gray the next couple weeks. But with Belichick, we never really can be sure.
Andy Hart

Hey Guys! I'm a big Patriots fan from Hungary and a long-time follower of Ask PFW. I noticed that Tavon Wilson plays more snaps on defense the last few weeks. He played pretty well against San Diego late in the game. Has he earned more playing time because of defensive formations (more defensive backs on the field at the same time) or is he showing progress during practices? Keep up the great work. Best wishes!
Aron M.

Wilson has been in the mix in the back end a bit more in recent weeks. While we don't get to watch practice action during the regular season – other than a short window of stretching and drills limited to one reporter from each media outlet – we have to assume that Wilson has been taking advantage of his opportunities in order to see more reps on game day. Wilson's role has been up and down all season. He had 30-percent play time in the heat on opening day and 25-percent two weeks later against the Raiders. By midseason he had a total of four snaps in two games against the Colts and Broncos. He was back to 19 and 23 percent play time the last two weeks. The Patriots have been in primarily sub packages for the last couple months. That's included plenty of action with five and six defensive backs on the field. In terms of play time, Wilson is the fourth safety behind Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon. But he clearly brings something to the table – size, speed, athleticism or something else – that the coaches have liked a little bit more in matchups the last couple weeks.
Andy Hart

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I was looking at some mock draft for 2015 and what I've seen the most is New England acquiring RB Todd Gurley from The University of Georgia. Gurley was set to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming draft, but due to his knee injury he has fallen down the chart. Since New England picked Dominique Easley in the first round during the 2014 draft as he was also coming from a knee injury, and if New England doesn't re-sign Stevan Ridley, do you think New England will draft RB Todd Gurley.**
Marcos Bautista

I do think the Patriots would consider drafting Gurley. Belichick has never been scared away from a player based on an injury, even an ACL. He's taken the likes of Easley in the first round or Brandon Tate in the second, with an eye on value. The real question is how high Gurley is going to go. The Patriots will return the likes of Blount, Gray and James White on the depth chart next spring with Tyler Gaffney has a wild card coming off his own injury, even if they don't re-sign Ridley or fellow free agent Shane Vereen. Gurley is an impressive talent. But he's an injured running back. That position hasn't been a first-round priority for any team, including the Patriots in recent years. So I'd be surprised if Gurley, like Willis McGahee years ago, were to be drafted in the first round coming off an ACL. But as he slips into the rounds after that, I do think the Patriots will kick his tires.
Andy Hart

Congrats to the Pats on the East. Customary, and yet still a significant accomplishment. My concerns are these going forward -- Browner getting flagged for pass interference or personal foul at the most inopportune time -- I fear it's coming, and it will cost dearly. And while I have no stats to support this, have Patriots not felt like we have lost the time of possession battle a lot in the first half this year, and of late? Specifically the first quarter? I know they have been kicking off first lately, but what do the numbers show? Remember the slow start vs GB? That could be all it takes to lose a playoff game. Slow starts?
Michael Monk

I think a lot of fans are worried about Browner potentially getting a penalty at a bad time. It's warranted concern. The only thing I can say is that the officials generally let more go in the postseason and I expect that to happen this winter. It's a fine line, but I think the physicality that Browner has brought to the defense has outweighed his consistent penalties – both those he's deserved and those that might be a bit more questionable in nature. The Patriots have lost the time of possession in the first quarter in five of the last six games and the time of possession in the first half in five of the last six as well, although that number was less glaring, near even, in a couple of those. The discrepancy has been most dramatic of late early on against the Dolphins and Packers, with both those teams holding the ball for more than 11 of the first 15 minutes and nearly 20 of the first 30 minutes. Slow starts have been a problem for the Patriots at times this year, early in the season and of late. It's a concern heading toward the postseason where fast starts are a great way to swing the early momentum on the way to victory. But also remember that time of possession can be overrated. The Dolphins held the ball for 20 minutes in the first half Sunday and trailed 14-13. Conversely the Patriots drove down the field in San Diego and settled for a field goal. It's about scoring and taking advantage of chances more than time of possession, just ask the Eagles. Although clearly, in general, staying on the field is good on offense and bad on defense.
Andy Hart

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I've liked Jonas Gray ever since watching him in preseason. I think he's a better running back than Blount and Gray ran better than Blount on Sunday. Gray seems to run harder and breaks a lot of arm tackles. Why isn't he getting more reps?**
Wano Yee

Gray was indeed better than Blount on Sunday. You can certainly argue that he hits the hole quicker, too. But it's unfair and just not accurate to say he's a better running back than Blount. Gray has played in seven games in his career, totaling 83 rushes for 407 yards with four touchdowns. He's been pretty impressive with his chances. But Blount is a former 1,000-yard rusher. He has big-play ability. His career average is 4.6 yards per carry. He's done a lot in this league and for the Patriots. Remember last season when Blount had two touchdowns in each of the last two games of the regular season, including 189 yards against the Bills? Or his 166 yards and four scores against the Colts, the same team Gray gashed for his big day a month ago? Seems like fans forget pretty quickly what Blount has done in this league and for the Patriots because of the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Gray. Both guys have size and an ability to run. Both could be benefits to the offense. So let's not kick Blount to the curb just yet, OK?
Andy Hart

Great win, but this team reminds me in some ways a 2007 squad. Pats have a defense good enough to win a SB, Brady and two stars on offense, but we yet again have an offensive line which cannot move strong and motivated-to-play defensive fronts or protect Brady sufficiently. I feel that Solder, Connolly and especially Wendell are the weakest link on the Patriots in getting the rings, and I wonder if there is anyone on Patriots O-line roster who may step up, Fleming perhaps?
Ben J.

I, too, have concerns about the offensive line's protection and pressure on Brady being the downfall of the 2014 Patriots, if that potential eventuality indeed comes to fruition. But the big difference between now and the last two trips to the Super Bowl is the New England defense. This team has a far better defense than back in 2007 or 2011. Darrelle Revis has transformed the unit. The physical and athletic edge that guys like Brandon Browner, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower bring is intriguing. And reliable veterans like Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork and Devin McCourty are more than getting the job done. I also don't see a pass rush in the AFC that would strike fear in the Patriots. So the issue might not present itself, once again, until the Super Bowl. As for Fleming, I don't think he's really an option to break into the starting lineup unless it's injury related. More intriguing, in a short sample of work, is his role as an extra tight end blocker in jumbo packages for the running game. While I guess there is always a chance things could change, I think the starting five guys we've seen for the last couple months when healthy will remain the unit heading into the postseason. They just need to get the job done more consistently, especially Nate Solder. He should be the franchise left tackle and leader of the line – based on his draft status and future paycheck – but he hasn't played like that often enough of late.
Andy Hart

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Might Gronkowski be emerging as a dark-horse candidate for league MVP?**
Shawn M.

Gronkowski's name as an MVP candidate has been bandied about since he and the Patriots offense exploded in the middle of the season. I wholeheartedly support that idea, as I think he's the most irreplaceable, unique weapon in the NFL today. It should be an interesting year for the MVP voting, with just two weeks to go. There is no sure-fire obvious choice. Aaron Rodgers' candidacy took a hit with this week's turnover-filled loss in Buffalo. J.J. Watt is an intriguing candidate looking to be the first defender to win the award in 30 years. Gronkowski is a somewhat rare tight end option. Brady is certainly still in the mix. So the votes could be divided among a bunch of interesting options. It certainly isn't going to be anywhere near unanimous. I would vote for Gronkowski, but my guess is that he won't win unless he has a crazy two-game burst to close out the season. Brady probably actually has a better chance right now, from a New England perspective given the bias toward quarterbacks for the award.
Andy Hart

Greatest QB ever - a Brit Perspective. Hello guys - really enjoy reading your segment every week. I am a lifelong Pats fan and, although a native Brit, have been fortunate enough to live in the USA for the past 7 yrs. I would welcome your take on my question, but bear with me as I tee it up. I am always irritated by the criteria that the popular media tend to apply when framing the debate as to the best QB of all time. Yards passed and total TDs dominate the debate, as do Super Bowl wins (and I get why these stats are in the discussion), but the one obvious stat that is often neglected is win/loss ratio. This is the most important stat &..period!!!!! Why? Because it is the most balanced stat. It recognizes/reflects that an elite QB needs to utilize other means beyond passing Yds and TDs (i.e. running game) to get wins, and helps to eliminate 'artificial' stats that QBs may put up which may seem great, but don't necessarily mean that their team has won. You know where I'm going with this, but TB has the best win/loss ratio. Why isn't this stat used more in the discussion concerning the best QB of all time? I'd appreciate your take.
Mark Godsland

I love the debate over the greatest QB ever because it is without answer. It's the perfect argument with various stats and credentials bandied about for the various candidates. It's almost like an argument between religion and science when you bring fans of different quarterbacks together. Numbers should matter. Wins should matter. Championships, on some level, should matter. But just taking overall winning, in the regular season, is a bit misleading in my mind. It allows for issues with competition as well as the talent surrounding a quarterback. But it's obviously a part of the equation. Is Brady one of the greatest QBs ever? Of course. Is he the best, no questions asked? Nope. And that's what makes sports debates great.
Andy Hart

I have been rather annoyed at the horrendous calls made by several officiating crews this season. Their lack of consistency is terrible. How is this addressed? Do the owners complain to the league and the commish pulls the V.P. of officiating aside? Or is this type of thing usually handled by the competition committee in the offseason? What recourse do offended teams and fans have to make the crews better at their assignment? Thank you very much. I hope this gets fixed.
Jay Wilson

Fans have no recourse other than to complain. So you are indeed doing your part. Teams send materials questioning officiating and calls to the league each week as part of the normal follow-up for a game. And each official is graded on his performance for every game he works. A lot goes on behind the scenes in an attempt to get the calls right and have the best officials on the field, even if it doesn't always feel like that is the case. There are a lot of bad calls. But I also think the officials have a very difficult job in trying to call a game at full-speed that we all get to critique in slow motion. It's not fair. But that's the way it is.
Andy Hart

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