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Ask PFW: Rolling along

I don't want to get too far ahead of myself but with the Pats a lock for the postseason, which teams seem to be the biggest threat to another ring? Though we accepted the gift the Chargers gave us, they are able to put up many points on the board as well as slow Tom Brady and Co. down – of course we are playing better now as are they. The Falcons don't impress me too much but the Eagles, Colts, Saints and Giants are potential spoilers. Anyone else?
James Siegel

The way the Patriots are playing right now I wouldn't be too concerned with any opponent. Obviously that won't matter once we get to the postseason and anything can happen in a one-game setting, but analyzing which teams would cause the most concern I'd have to agree with your pick of the Chargers and I'd add in the Ravens. Neither team is without its flaws but both are capable of playing defense at a level where they can cause some problems and keep the game within reason. That was the case in the first meetings with both even though the Patriots eventually won. In the NFC, I really don't have any concerns for anyone, perhaps with the exception of New Orleans since the Saints can get pressure and force turnovers while possessing an offense that can put points up just as regularly as the Patriots. But right now I'd say, bring it on regardless of opponent.
Paul Perillo

As it stands right now, the Patriots occupy the No. 1 seed in the AFC, thus giving them a first-round bye. This means that in the divisional round we play the lowest seeded winning team from the wild card round. Let's say, for instance that the division winning, 8-5 Chiefs beat the Jets and the wild card, 9-4 Ravens beat the Jags. Whom do we play, the team with the worst record or the wild card team?
Andy Nesbitt

As the No. 1 seed the Patriots would play against the lowest seeded team remaining and if a wild card team were to win its first-round game then that team would come to Gillette Stadium. In your scenario, even though the Ravens have a better record than Kansas City, they would be seeded lower and thus have to play against the top team.
Paul Perillo

Kevin Faulk is a class act, a great player and a solid leader. He's been my favorite player on the Patriots for a long time, and I was sad to see him injured early in the season. I figured that there was no way to replace his unique mix of skills but with Danny Woodhead's success, it looks like the Patriots have a player who can still be the MacGyver of the backfield. Do you figure Faulk will be back next year?
Philip Antin

Given his immense contributions to the team over the years, I wouldn't rule out a return for Faulk. He will be 35 by the time the 2011 season starts and that's pretty old for a running back but he's in tremendous shape and continues to express his intention to return after his rehab. Faulk has been a part-time player for the balance of his career and that should help him at this stage. I could see him returning for the veteran minimum and if that happens he would definitely help the team with his leadership and playmaking ability next season.
Paul Perillo

I have some what happened to these guys questions. What happened to Adalius Thomas? Did anyone pick him up? What happened to Laurence Maroney? I know he went to Denver, but never see his name (yards gained) in the newspaper's box score. What happened to Tyrone McKenzie?Dana Sullenbury

Adalius Thomas went through a couple of workouts for teams but did not sign with anyone and has been out of football for the entire 2010 season. Maroney has been a bit player in Denver with 36 carries for just 74 yards and four catches for 50 yards for the season. He hasn't played in the last seven games for the Broncos. McKenzie was released off the Patriots practice and signed to the Bucs practice squad. McKenzie requested his release from New England to seek more playing opportunities, and he may finally be getting one after being promoted to the Bucs active roster this week.
Paul Perillo

What's your assessment on Brandon Meriweather thus far in the season? He seems to be around the ball a lot and he's making a lot of plays since returning from the bench. I also haven't really noticed him missing too many tackles. What do you guys think?
Sam Frankel

I haven't really noticed Meriweather much at all, especially lately. In Chicago he barely played while James Sanders and Patrick Chung got most of the work. Since Jarrad Page has returned from a calf injury, Meriweather seems to be the last option at safety. When he has played he continues to take poor angles both in pass coverage and while in pursuit to make a tackle (this is likely why you haven't noticed him missing many tackles … he's not in position to make many). Meriweather's performance has been one of the few negatives in an otherwise fantastic season.
Paul Perillo

Earlier this season I was calling for Bill O'Brien to get fired and for new offensive schemes etc. Woops, I apologize. Bill O'Brien's play calling and schemes have been fantastic as of late and the players' execution is almost perfect. My questions are: Has the team peaked too soon? I just remember the 2007 season when the team lost its momentum and couldn't score many points in the playoffs/Super Bowl.Jeff Cabral

The play calling hasn't changed much; it's the execution of those plays that has improved. It took Brady a few weeks to get re-acclimated with Deion Branch and to the changes made on offense, but once he did there's been no stopping this team. It wasn't O'Brien's fault before and he certainly doesn't deserve all the credit now, either. I was often somewhat defensive of the criticism O'Brien received because I felt the plays weren't the problem. We too often judge the quality of the coaching on the result of the play. So when O'Brien called for a draw or screen that didn't work we complained that the offense became predictable when, as we've seen over the past several weeks, those same plays have been quite productive. It hasn't been any more imaginative; just better executed.

I don't worry about peaking too soon, especially considering the Patriots appear to be doing so at just the right time. Despite playing quite well and finding ways to win, the last two games have been by far the best of the season for the Patriots. We're already midway through December so the playoffs are right around the corner. There are no guarantees when it comes to the postseason but I'm pretty happy with the way the team is playing.
Paul Perillo

Big Pats fan down in Cowboys country, here. And yes, I do admit to people down here that I am a PATS fan even when we got smacked by the Jets the first time and then got pummeled by Cleveland. On to my question, what happened to Fred Taylor? I see his name on the roster, so I know he's not on IR.
Danny Woo

Taylor is starting to see some action as BenJarvus Green-Ellis' backup as we works his way back slowly from a toe injury. He returned to active status on Thanksgiving against Detroit and saw his first action the following week against the Jets. Taylor has been getting some late carries as the Patriots have been running out the clock of some lopsided wins. He should remain in a backup role behind Green-Ellis since Benny has done such a good job handling the lead back role all season, but having Taylor as a fall back is a pretty good situation for Belichick to be in. He's a veteran who understands what it takes to win at this time of year and he's a very talented insurance policy should something happen to Green-Ellis.
Paul Perillo

"Play them man-to-man" proclaimed Rodney Harrison with conviction, echoing other analysts who are amazed that the teams keep defending the Patriots with the zone coverages. Which teams do you know (besides Gang Green) who have the structure and the personnel to do it?
Ted Allston

San Diego has some corners who are capable of playing that way with Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, and Green Bay has Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. Whether those teams, or any others, feel confident enough to try a different approach remains to be seen. The problem is few teams have enough depth to handle all of the Patriots options in the passing, adding in the tight ends and Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. And matching up man-to-man is dangerous since one missed jam at the line or tackle in the secondary can lead to a big play. But as a rule I would agree with Harrison and not just because it's a well-known PFW fact that I love Rodney. Playing cover-2 zone against Tom Brady has proven to be akin to suicide. Unless you get a ton of pressure on him, Brady will pick your zone apart. I believe teams must force Brady to do something different if they are to have a chance of slowing him down. Maybe the Patriots will hit a big play or two, but opponents might also force Brady to pull the ball down once or twice and wind up getting off the field as a result. When an offense is clicking like New England's right now, there are no easy answers in how to stop it.
Paul Perillo

Two questions for you: 1) Can you please explain the rule of illegal formation? I always see numerous receivers lined up at different spots and would like to understand the rule. 2) In the Pats-Bears game they showed how Brady (Old worn ball) and Cutler (New slick ball) liked different footballs. So do the Patriots get to choose what football they use when they play offense?Graham Smith

The illegal formation rule is pretty simple: the offense must have seven men on the line of scrimmage with only the two outside guys on either side being eligible receivers. Usually teams have five offensive linemen with a wideout or tight end at the end of each side. Any other receivers would have to be set back off the line in order for the formation to be ruled legal. So if the tight end or wideout is on the line and another receiver is on the same side of the formation, that player would need to be off the line. This is why you often see players who go in motion and others either moving up to or back off the line depending on the situation. Bottom line is you need seven players on the line at the snap. Sometimes tackles get called for not being on the line when they line up with their outside leg set back in an effort to help get in position to pass block. If the player's helmet is not up on the line, it can result in a penalty.

As for the footballs, both teams provide 36 balls for each game (24 for indoor games) and the quarterbacks can work to prepare them in the manner they want them. The league inspects the footballs before the game. Brady likes to use a worn, scuffed ball and Cutler evidently does not. But each team can decide how they want the football when they're on offense.
Paul Perillo

If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl and win, do you think they would give Randy Moss a ring? Did he contribute enough this year to earn one? Would it be a slap in the face to a future Hall of Famer?Kris Grymonpre

I believe that Moss would indeed get a ring for a couple of reasons. First, he was part of the team for a quarter of the season and contributed to the team's 3-1 start. In the past, even players who spent a small amount of time on the practice squad have received rings so it would be surprising for a player who was part of the active roster for that long not to. Second, the love fest between Moss and the team has been evident since he left. No one has a bad word to say about either party, so again, I'd be surprised if he weren't included in any Super Bowl recognition.
Paul Perillo

Just curious, on the statistics page what do the LG/TM after Woodhead and Branch stand for/refer too? Before the trade, after the trade?
Dave Church

The designations stand for "League" and "Team" for players who've spent time with more than one team in the same season. Both Woodhead (Jets) and Branch (Seattle) spent time with other teams so the league distinguishes between the stats they compiled with the Patriots and their previous teams.
Paul Perillo

Despite the obvious exception of the Cleveland game, it seems as if the Patriots offense, particularly the running game, has been playing with a different attitude since the return of Logan Mankins. Perhaps it only seems this way because of his reputation as a brash, tough competitor, but it's hard to tell just by watching the game on television. Have you guys noticed any obvious changes in the play of the offensive line since his return? I suspect that he will be let go in the offseason, as Dan Connolly has proven he can play the position effectively, and Stephen Neal will be healthy again. Personally, I think Mankins brings a hard-nose style of play to the team that they lack in some areas, but I doubt the Patriots would pay what he demands solely for his style. That said, do you think they will address the guard position early on in the draft, or will they stick with Connolly and focus on shoring up the OLB/DE spot?
Miguel Jose-Cool

I haven't noticed much of a tangible difference in the line's style of play but Mankins' return has certainly not gone unnoticed. He does indeed bring a hard-nosed style play, an edge, to the entire offense. He's often seen getting into it with opposing defenders during and after the play. That kind of toughness is hard to coach and Mankins just brings it every single week. I wouldn't rule out his return, however. It won't be easy but I was struck with how easy his return was made this year so clearly there's a lot of respect for him in the Patriots locker room and among the coaching staff. The Patriots certainly would like to have him back and I believe there's a better than average chance that will happen. But either way I wouldn't expect guard to be a major area of attention early in the draft next spring. Neal and Connolly would be capable to starting while some of the many young interior linemen drafted recently would be candidates to fill larger roles. Ryan Wendell has received some playing time this season and Rich Ohrnberger has been on the roster as well. That group would be enough to get by.
Paul Perillo

We all know the defensive numbers, but looking at how the playoff picture could/might/possibly look like at this point; what do you think is more important the stats or the results?
Nolan Michalski

If by results you mean wins and losses than obviously that's the answer. Who wants to have the best statistics in the league if you don't win? But if by results you mean how a team plays and whether or not the Patriots can win playing the way they did prior to the Jets and Bears games then that's a different story. The offense has been on a tremendous role but at some point it would stand to reason that the team will be forced to win a tight, low-scoring game. If that's the case then I wouldn't have a lot of confidence if the defense allowed close to 50 percent of third downs to be converted and the opposing quarterback to complete passes at will. But in terms of stats or results, the only thing that matters is the win or loss and Patriots fans will take the win every time.
Paul Perillo

What do you attest Patrick Chung's reduced role in the D as of late? I love what he brings to the game and was really encouraged at the beginning of the year, but it seems of late his PT has been decreased.
Kyle Wikowski

Chung has been dealing with a knee injury and that slowed him down a bit during the season but overall he's enjoying a very solid season. He started the Bears game alongside James Sanders and played quite a bit. When the game calls for more run defense, then Chung figures to have a larger role. If there's a lot of sub defense in passing situations, then Chung's role may be diminished a bit as coverage isn't his best attribute. But overall I'd say Chung has been a major part of the team's defense and figures to be going forward.
Paul Perillo

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