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Ask PFW: Playing off the possibilities

I was wondering what would happen if there is a 3-way tie for first place. Just say the 'Phins, Jets, and Pats win out who would get first place?
Britt McPhee

With the Patriots tied for 1st place with the Dolphins and Jets, what exactly are the tiebreakers? Where would they leave us right now? Also, what would we need to happen to move up in the tiebreakers?
Eric Son

If the season were to end today, who would win the AFC EAST and what needs to happen for the Pats to get into the playoffs?Josh Strzeszkowski

First things first, the Patriots need to win each of their three remaining games to maintain realistic hopes of playing in January. Although, even winning out doesn't guarantee the team a spot in the postseason as New England could still be the first-ever 11-5 team to miss the playoff party since the current six-team format began in 1990.
Second, the Jets and Dolphins can't both win out as they meet in the final week of the season at Giants Stadium. So one of them is assured of having at least six losses.
Both New York and Miami would win the division over the Patriots with a final 11-5 record. The Jets (games left hosting the Bills, at the Seahawks and hosting the Dolphins) due to a potential 5-1 division record compared to a potential 4-2 mark for New England. The Dolphins (games left hosting the 49ers and traveling to the Chiefs and Jets) would take a two-way division tie with the Patriots thanks to a potential 8-4 conference mark that would beat a possible 7-5 New England record in the AFC.
If the Patriots do end up losing the division via the tiebreaker they'd then turn to Wild Card hopes. The Colts and Ravens currently fill those slots with 9-4 records. New England would need Indy to lose two of its final three (Detroit, at Jacksonville and Tennessee) because the Colts hold the tiebreaker in any two-way, Wild Card tie with the Patriots thanks to their Nov. 2 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium in the head-to-head matchup.
Baltimore (Steelers, at Cowboys, Jaguars) also holds the potential Wild Card tiebreaker over the Patriots thanks to a two-game lead over New England (7-3 as opposed to 5-5) in conference record at this point.
If the Patriots win out they could still get in by winning either the AFC East, assuming both the Jets and Dolphins lose at least once, or winning the Wild Card if either Baltimore or Indy loses two of its last three to finish with six loses. A lot could happen over the next three weeks. The Patriots don't have the luxury of unilaterally controlling their own fate at this point. But they are still alive and that's more than a lot of teams can say right now.
Andy Hart

Going into this year, we knew our defensive backfield was going to be bad. Ellis Hobbs and Brandon Meriweather definitely look to have improved, but we still can't cover anybody. But that's no surprise. The biggest surprise is our pass rush. We have a defensive line of Pro Bowlers and a solid, veteran linebacking core that just got the addition of two outstanding rookies in Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. For a team that was one of the NFL's top sack leaders last year, we can't put any pressure on anybody? What's wrong with our front seven? What did we do last year that we're not doing this year? And as a side question: do you think Jerod Mayo has a legitimate chance at winning rookie of the year?Sam Frankel

One of the biggest issues up front at this point is the injury bug. Adalius Thomas is gone. Mike Vrabel has reportedly been dealing with a shoulder issue all season. Ty Warren has missed three of the last four games with a groin injury. Now Vince Wilfork missed time with a shoulder issue and Tedy Bruschi is apparently out of action. That's a lot to handle.
But I'm not going to make excuses. Even when healthy the pass rush has never been good enough this season. When Tom Brady went down some of those guys up front talked about carrying a bigger share of the load and, in terms of pass rush, they've never really done it. Now the injuries seemingly make it an impossible thing to ask for. You are right, we knew coming into the season that this defense would only be so good and it depended on the front seven covering up a suspect secondary. That group hasn't done that and therefore the defense has been suspect as a whole. Vrabel's drop in production has been the biggest key, going from a career-high 12.5 sacks last season to a career-low as a starter with three sacks this fall.
I do think Jerod Mayo will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He's one of the league's top tacklers and has been as consistent a player on this defense as any. He may not have a bunch of other flashy numbers beyond sacks, but he's been as impressive as any rookie.
Andy Hart

Hey Guys, Love the work you do and, with little coverage of the Pats up here in Montreal, I'm always looking forward to PFW on Tuesday! My question is about Ben Watson. There was a time he seemed to be a star TE in the making. He was our best receiving threat in 2006 (which isn't really saying that much) and I can still remember the play where he chased down Champ Bailey in 2005 -- that was simply awesome. Yet it seems like, over the past two years, Watson really hasn't been doing that much. He dropped a few gimmes a couple of weeks back, he took an unnecessary penalty yesterday and he just can't seem to stay healthy and productive. So what kind of future do you foresee for Watson? Is it time for the Pats to start looking for a new TE or can Ben recapture that form that made him seem like a really exciting playmaker? Thanks!
Jonah Wexler

I don't think Watson has ever really lived up to his NFL potential. Many people, including Tom Brady, thought at one point that he had the potential to be a Pro Bowl tight end. I think those thoughts have ceased. Watson doesn't have consistent hands and can't stay healthy with any consistency. That's kept his development over the years to a minimum. He is what he is at this point. He makes occasional contributions to the passing games, has become a better than average blocker and still wows us every once in a while with his pure physical skills and hustle. Other than that, hopes of him becoming a game-changing type player have fizzled out. I think the team is always on the lookout for a tight end who could become a consistent weapon on offense. Anyone who saw what rookie John Carlson did for the Seattle offense on Sunday can only imagine what that type of consistent outlet could produce for an offense like New England's.
Andy Hart

Hi there. Just a quick question about the purpose of the IR list. Apart from freeing up roster spots to sign back-ups off the street, does IR affect a player's salary (apart from performance and appearance clauses)? Also, why not release fringe players (such as Jason Webster, clearly not a long-term Patriot) instead of keeping them in IR? Would the salary cap be affected? Thanks.Shawn Woo

Players placed on IR are paid a full salary and count as such against the salary cap. You are right, the real purpose is to free up spots on the active roster to sign healthy bodies. You cannot release an injured player unless that player reaches an injury settlement with the team. That actually reportedly happened with the guy you mentioned, Webster. He was initially placed on injured reserve but subsequently reached a reported injury settlement with the team.
Andy Hart

Our hopes were that Matt [Cassel] would take us to the playoffs. This will probably not happen after his game with the Steelers. My earlier questions to you questioned the use of Matt since he most likely will not be part of the team after this season. Don't you think it would have been better to give Kevin O'Connell all this experience? I don't think he could have done any worse than Matt. What do you really think? Dale Kutz- (a die-in-the-wool Patriots fan now living in Arizona.)Dale Kutz

First, the Patriots playoff hopes remain alive thanks to the comeback win in Seattle. That comeback, by the way, included another pretty good game for Cassel. He was the best option for the job when Brady went down and that's why he got it. It's also why he's going to make a lot of money somewhere next year. Throwing an unproven, inexperienced rookie to the wolves in the first game of the season would have been a signal to the rest of the team that the season was over. Why would you do that? You play to win the games (cue Herm Edwards here), not develop a backup quarterback for the future. In Week 1 Bill Belichick made his decision, as always, with the best interests of the team in mind. That meant playing Cassel. Not sure what you were watching this fall, Dale, but Cassel is not the reason the Patriots are in a fight for their playoff lives with three weeks to go. Have you watched New England's defense play this year? Doesn't sound like it, because you certainly haven't watched what Cassel has done to develop over the course of the season. I understand, you probably don't get most of the games on TV in Arizona. Plus, you're probably out enjoying the weather just as you should be. Thanks for the email and keep reading. We'll do our best to keep you well informed moving forward.
Andy Hart

In a college game recently, a team went for a 2-point conversion, and fumbled the ball. The defense picked it up and returned it for a TD and got 2 points. Is this the same rule in the NFL?Tim Hart

What up my brother from another mother? Good to hear from you. The NFL rule is different. No points can be gained by the defense on a two-point try. It's one of the many rules that are different in the NFL as opposed to high school and college.
Andy Hart

Hi Guy's; Great job covering the Pats. My question is pretty obvious I think, why won't Belichick or Dan Pees put on a blitz once in awhile? Thing's defensively aren't so great as they are right now. It seems to me their putting a lot more pressure on the secondary without the blitz, the benefit being less time to pick apart a weak secondary. Appreciate a comment if you could.Bob Eaton

This is one of those philosophical questions. Blitz to cover up a bad secondary, in doing so putting those players at more of a risk for a big play? Or, try to flood the zones, play Cover 2 and put as many bodies in coverage as possible. More often it seems the Patriots have gone for the latter this season. They have blitzed this year, in every game. But it hasn't been a huge onslaught of pressure. Another factor beyond philosophy could be the loss of some of the key guys who would blitz, including Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison. Injuries have changed a lot of things on defense and blitzing is probably one of them. But the blitz made a huge play on Sunday with Brandon Meriweather's strip sack to close the door on the Seahawks. Maybe that will be a sign of more to come in the final three weeks.
Andy Hart

Dear PFW- I noticed Matt Cassel had the ear-holes in his helmet blocked during the game Sunday. Did he do this to affect the crowd noise or for some other reason? Also, is there anything in the NFL rulebook, which prevents players from doing this? I can't help but wonder, since I can't ever remember seeing a player block their ear-holes before. Thanks!Kris Johnson

Players often cover their ear holes with tape, many times to deal with wind and cold. But since it wasn't all that cold or windy Sunday in Seattle my guess is that Cassel did indeed cover his (although I'll be honest I didn't notice it) to block out some crowd noise and allow him to better hear the play calls on his in-helmet communication device. I don't believe there is a rule in the NFL preventing players from taping their ear holes, either to deal with the weather or noise.
Andy Hart

Now that my disgust and disappointment have subsided I have had to face the cold hard reality that the Patriots are simply physically inferior to many of the teams in the league. This is a harsh reality because I don't know that it is a quick fix. The Patriots have been repeatedly manhandled and physically beaten up on both sides of the ball, particularly against San Diego, Pittsburgh and now Seattle. How many times do we have to see the opponent start inside their own 20 yard line and the Patriots defense fail to get a quick three-and-out, instead letting the opponent run the ball down their throats? On offense how many times have we seen the offensive line get pushed back? Over the past couple of years the defense, and especially secondary seem to have gotten very small. In 2001 the Rams said that the Patriots were the most physical team they had ever played. The same cannot be said today. Do you think that the lack of physical play has to do with a lack of aggression, emotion or lack of physical strength? Also, Brandon Meriweather is small, can't tackle and is below average in coverage. I know that the Patriots wasted a 1st round pick on him, what do you think his future with the team is?Gary Goldstein

My guess is Gary sent this email out of frustration before the conclusion of the Seattle game. While New England is smaller in the secondary than in the past, I don't think size is an overwhelming issue on defense right now. The front seven remains as large or larger than most when healthy. The bigger problem is the defense is banged up and not playing all that well with any consistency this season. I don't attribute those shortcomings to size.
The offensive line, on the other hand, isn't as big as some. Maybe that is a factor when it is beaten up by opposing defenses. I think Matt Light, Dan Koppen and Nick Kaczur do struggle with size and playing strength at times in one-on-one matchups. But those are the guys, and the types of guys, that the Patriots have decided on for their line. Many times they win their battles, other times they don't.
In the end I think physical play is as much about emotion, confidence and a mentality as it is about size. Bob Sanders is as physical a player as there is in the game. He's not big. He just brings it every time he takes the field. (As an aside, that's also probably why he's gets banged up so often. But that's a separate topic.) I do think the Patriots could stand to be more physical at times. But I think the guys they have, for the most part, have the size to be more physical.
As for Meriweather, I don't think he's had a great season. He's made a few more plays in terms of interceptions, but has struggled both in coverage and in tackling. He's only in his second season. He didn't play a lot early on as a rookie. Give him time to develop before we call him a "wasted pick" even if you feel his future is trending in that direction.
Andy Hart

Pats have to change their tactics on draft day. Draft athletes, I don't care about their intelligence anymore. If they can run fast and TACKLE, draft them, on defense. I see more and more teams drafting athletes. I'll tell you Giants, and Dolphins, now with Parcells their will draft good. [BenJarvus Green-] Ellis is better than Maroney, he runs forward, is that not the simple goal. Draft all defense this year, the best athlete at our spot. Team is getting old quickly. Terrible evaluations on draft days.Bob Sulik

The Patriots, in my mind, have drafted more athletes than not over recent years. I think guys like Meriweather and Benjamin Watson would be early-round examples of that. Jerod Mayo is an athlete who is also intelligent. Each player is a different case. I don't think going for only athletes is better than going only for guys who are proven, productive football players. You have to assess each prospect on an individual basis. By the way, the team drafted pretty much all defense last April with four of the first five picks coming on that side of the ball. Mayo, Terrence Wheatley (IR), Shawn Crable (IR) and Jonathan Wilhite could all be contributors to the Patriots defense for the foreseeable future. Adding to that this spring isn't out of the question, but some focus might need to be spent on offense as well. As far as getting old quickly, who are you referring to aside from maybe Tedy Bruschi? Because I look around the locker room and see, for the most part, a pretty young nucleus, or at the very least guys who've been playing at a still very high level of late.
Andy Hart

I realize you really never know, but it's tough to see D. Williams running all over defenses and the guy we drafted ahead of him has been (let's be honest) a disappointment. I thought the Pats didn't draft Williams because of durability issues. Maroney has been less than durable.
Sarah M.

I am not aware as to exactly why the Patriots took Maroney over Williams other than they thought he was a better player. At the time some people wondered if Williams (5-9, 217) could be an every-down back in the NFL. By the way, he is in fact splitting time with rookie Jonathan Stewart this season. Maroney had better size and seemed to be a better choice as a "franchise back." It hasn't worked out yet. But many people probably agreed at the time. Remember Broncos coach Mike Shanahan called Maroney the best back in that draft or when Peyton Manning told Tom Brady that the he "stole" his running back. Many people liked Maroney, not just Belichick. It just hasn't worked out yet. By the way, this has been a breakout season for Williams who was actually less productive than Maroney over the previous two years. Just the facts. I liked Williams more coming into the league. I was wrong for two years. Now I'm right. See how that works.
Andy Hart

Have you heard how Mike Pereira, the head of officiating protected his crew to justify the replay that confirmed that Branch did not step out of bounds? Has he explained this comical ruling? By the way, what is the point of having replay if you get it wrong? I just saw an eye doctor last week who said my prescription needed adjusting. Is my sight that bad or did you also think Branch's heel was on the white line. Or, is football like soccer, the whole foot has to be over the line to be considered out of bounds?!?!?! ThanksDan Isenbarger

Hey Homer, I mean Dan. I don't agree with what you saw. I didn't think any of the replays showed enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. And if you watch the replay carefully the official is on the sideline right where Branch catches the ball and is looking down at his feet. He had a better view than any of the camera angles I saw and clearly believed the former Patriot to be inbounds. Of course Belichick was in the same area and had a different view of the play. I saw nothing conclusive via replay to overturn the call. If the call had been than he was out of bounds I think that would have held up, too, because replay would still have been inconclusive.
And no, the whole foot doesn't have to be out of bounds. If any part of a player's body is out of bounds then he's considered out of bounds. Just the heal, if seen as on the white, would have been enough to overturn the catch.
Andy Hart

What do you think about bringing David Givens back next year for a try out? I know he was injured in 06 and 07 and subsequently cut by the Titans but he's still relatively young and was a good player for us. He could probably be had for next to nothing as well. Thanks.Jeremy Bell

Givens has dealt with injuries and endless surgeries since he left New England. He is currently out of football, trying to get healthy and living in New England while working on other business opportunities. I don't think he's ever going to be physically ready to play in the league again. It's sad, because he was one of my favorite players while he was here.
Andy Hart

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