Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe writes that NFL teams appear to be rolling the dice, going with younger, less experienced coaches to see if they can find their Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, or Mike Shanahan. No move was gutsier than Jets owner Woody Johnson approving Eric Mangini (who turns 35 today) as his team's head coach. The Packers appointed Mike McCarthy, the offensive coordinator of the hapless 49ers, as their head man. The Vikings dumped Tice and went with Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress, a man whose ascension to the head job was long overdue after successful years with the Eagles. The Lions appear to be on the verge of naming Rod Marinelli, 56, a member of the Tampa Bay staff since 1996.
Jerome Solomon of the *Boston Globe * takes a look at this Sunday's AFC Championship game which matches the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Denver Broncos. The Steelers are trying to become the second team to win three road games to advance to the Super Bowl. The 1985 Patriots were the first to do so, beating the Jets, Raiders, and Dolphins before losing to Chicago in Super Bowl XX. The Steelers have taken to reveling in the role of underdog, which they are at Denver for Sunday's AFC Championship game.
Michael Felger of the Boston Herald offers his final Patriots report card and grades the Patriots 2005 season with a B grade. The 2005 season was a disappointment to fans, but the vast majority of NFL teams would take it just about every year. And if it winds up constituting a "down" year within the Bill Belichick era, then the Pats are truly in excellent shape.
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald offers an article on Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork. The second-year nose tackle knows he and the Pats defense didn't get off to the best start in terms of stuffing the run. Opponents gained rushing yards easier than the Steelers were getting to Peyton Manning Sunday. Wilfork was getting pushed around, unable to maintain the nose, which is crucial in stopping the run. And critics weren't shy about pointing out one of the flaws in the defense. But something clicked in, and the former Miami Hurricane turned into a force in the middle. He finished the season second on the team behind Mike Vrabel (114) in tackles with 90.
Jerome Solomon of the Boston Globe writes that Patriots chairman and CEO would not discuss specifics concerning Bill Belichick's contract situation, but for the first time he indicated that a contract extension or a new contract is in place. Belichick, who signed a five-year deal when he joined the team in 2000, got a two-year extension (announced in July 2003) through the 2006 season. Kraft said yesterday, however, that any representation of next season as the final year of Belichick's contract would be untrue. ''It's our intention that Bill will be the coach for some time," Kraft said. ''Bill Belichick and his staff have done a great job. In many ways, the coaching job this year was his most outstanding.
Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe *and Tom Curran of the Providence Journal * report that the Patriots stayed in-house and promoted Pees from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. The 56-year-old Pees replaces Eric Mangini, who was hired as head coach of the New York Jets. Pees will be the Patriots' third defensive coordinator in three years, following Mangini and Romeo Crennel. The decision to stay within the organization and hire a coach with knowledge of the team's defensive system and personnel is a good one, according to one Patriots player. ''Dean Pees will fit the mold, the Team Belichick style," said linebacker Don Davis. "Guys have been around Dean, and I think that's good. Guys will respond well to him."
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald writes that you can count nose tackle Vince Wilfork among those who strongly endorse Bill Belichick's choice of Dean Pees as the Patriots' new defensive coordinator. "It's great that we kept it in the family," Wilfork said yesterday. "I have a lot of respect for Dean. He's been around awhile. He knows our system, which is important. There'll be no dropoff. With Dean, we're not missing a step."
Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant writes that the Patriots have won four of the last five AFC East titles and as long as Tom Brady can raise his right arm, they will be favored to win another next season. The question is, how fast can Mangini's Jets and Saban's Dolphins catch up?
USA Today's "Inside Slant" offers a 2005 season in review. Before kicking off the defense of their back-to-back Super Bowl titles, the Patriots (or more accurately coach Bill Belichick) decided that for team-motto purposes, 2005 would be the "season of truth." By the time the clock ran out on them in Denver, the Patriots' slogan seemed to have morphed into "rarely on the same page." They were nearly ruined by bad defense at the start of the season. They finally corrected that problem, only to be undone by a malfunctioning offense and mistake-prone special teams in the playoffs.
Tom Curran of the Providence Journal offers his daily sports blog with Patriots notes and commentary.