The Patriots don’t necessarily need to revamp. After a 12-4 season, and only one win away from a Super Bowl berth, they have the players in place to make another title run. And considering that seven players, five of whom were starters, were placed on injured reserve over the course of the 2013 season, relief is expected to come in the form of health.
That’s right. Reinforcements are on the way.
But that doesn’t mean the Patriots don’t have an opportunity to upgrade at key positions, including but not limited to the team’s tight ends group, its inside linebackers, interior defensive linemen, wide receiver, and cornerback. Production was abysmal without Rob Gronkowski. The run defense was hobbled without Vince Wilfork. The secondary was one Aqib Talib injury away from being rebarbative. And outside of Julian Edelman, a free agent himself, the Patriots were less than threatening in the passing game.
Here’s who the Patriots can target in free agency that will change that. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be playing in Super Bowl XLIX.
If the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl, they have to upgrade a select number of positions and bring in some capable competition.
A cursory look at New England’s roster will show that two positions immediately need revamping: defensive tackle and wide receiver.
That’s where the 2013 Patriots underachieved the most.
But that doesn’t mean all of the players in those positions should fear for their jobs. Just some of them.
And there are others, too, who should be concerned about their standing going into 2014. The Patriots tinker quite a bit with the bottom half of their roster in the offseason with hopes of creating a competitive environment come training camp. There are a select number of players on the team, either because of their performance or because of their contract, who have to face the fact that they are sitting on the bubble.
Kenbrell Thompkins — Given a 3-year, $1.493 million contract with $5,000 guaranteed after winning a job out of training camp, he was less than stellar in an injury-riddled season. He caught 32 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns. But he also had a number of drops (5), plays that kept him off the field while coaches favored fellow rookie Aaron Dobson. He had two fantastic games, catching the final touchdown against the New Orleans Saints and tearing up the Atlanta Falcons for 127 yards and a score. There’s also the issue of the number of bodies for Thompkins. He still has to compete with Dobson, Josh Boyce, and Julian Edelman for snaps, all of whom were outside wide receivers. Edelman is the only free agent of the bunch while Dobson and Joyce are Patriots draft picks, making the other rookies much more valued commodities.
Outside of stealing Seattle’s talent, there’s quite a bit to learn from former Patriots coach Pete Carroll’s Super Bowl-winning Seahawks in terms of the value he has placed on position players.
Culturally the Seahawks are as sound as they come, benefitting from a young and hungry group of players that average only 4.1 seasons of NFL experience on their 53-man roster. None had ever participated in a Super Bowl prior to Sunday’s massacre of the Denver Broncos. With such a large infusion of youth, the Seahawks were able to establish a loose and fun atmosphere where competition was routine and no job was ever safe. It bred camaraderie.
That’s eerily close to how the Patriots operate, with less emphasis publicly placed on how those competitions fare. You won’t hear about “Competition Wednesday” here.
What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?
Well, now we know.
The Seattle Seahawks flattened the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8, proving that the top defense in the NFL could manhandle the league’s No. 1 offense — historically the league’s most prolific offense — with ease time and time again. The Seahawks then took the beatdown to historic heights, causing us to question whether the Broncos would be the first team to be shut out in Super Bowl history.
That’s the anticlimactic end to a year that coach John Fox, quarterback Peyton Manning, and the rest of the Broncos were not expecting. Fox is now 0 for 2 in the Super Bowl. Manning is 1-2. Their legacies are shaken.
So how did it happen? How did the Seahawks win so convincingly and the Broncos play so poorly when everything that matters was on the line? Let’s recap with one final “5 takeaways.”
1. All-around awesome — The Seahawks got contributions from all three phases of the game. That’s one we hear in New England quite a bit, given Bill Belichick’s penchant for peppering the press with those very same remarks. On Sunday it was clear what that talk means when put to action. The Seahawks scored by safety, two field goals, a rushing touchdown, a defensive touchdown on an interception, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and two passing touchdowns. No other Super Bowl team in history had scored in every phase of the game — and in every possible way. Describing it as a team effort doesn’t really catch the enormity of what was accomplished. The Seahawks were opportunistic, aggressive, and successful in everything they attempted to do. That kind of dominance is rare and most certainly unforgettable.
2. The pass rush was key — The Broncos accounted for four fumbles (two lost) and two interceptions. It was a bad day at the office for Manning (one lost fumble, two interceptions), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (one lost fumble) and center Manny Ramirez (fumbled into the end zone, causing the safety) when looking at the turnovers alone. But a number of the game’s turnovers, particularly Manning’s interceptions, were the cause of pressure up front by Seattle’s Cliff Avril and others. Manning didn’t really see a clean pocket in the first half. When the Broncos quarterback got his first sustained drive going in the second quarter, he got hit by Avril while looking to throw the ball downfield to Knowshon Moreno. That pass was intercepted by Malcolm Smith, who promptly brought the interception back for a 69-yard touchdown. Avril was a nuisance all game. The Seahawks’ defensive line had tremendous penetration with three tackles for a loss. Given the pedigree of the Broncos’ offensive line, which had allowed the fewest hurries and sacks all season, the Seahawks’ front seven proved it could do what so many other teams had failed to do: get to Manning. Avril and Chris Clemons (1 sack), were the jewels of the bunch.
3. Ball control was on point — Russell Wilson’s first pass to Zach Miller was high and uncatchable, a sign of the second-year quarterback’s nervousness on the NFL’s grandest stage. But it didn’t take long for Danger-Russ Wilson to settle down and show exactly why Pete Carroll fell in love with him. He showed escapability, he made the easy throws, he ran it well, and he never put the Seahawks in a bad position. Between Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin, and Seattle’s receivers, there were no boneheaded mistakes with the football. It is, and always will be, the No. 1 key to winning football games: taking care of the ball. The Seahawks had zero turnovers while forcing four. And Wilson, despite his wayward pass, did not offer any lame duck passes for his opponents to snatch away. It was symphonic effort.
4. Playmakers seized the moment — Percy Harvin played in only one regular season game for the Seahawks. On Super Bowl Sunday, he showed up big time. Harvin had two carries for 45 yards, caught a pass for 5 yards, and returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown. He took advantage of his opportunities and he wasn’t the only one. Wide receivers Jermaine Kearse (4 receptions, 65 yards, 1 TD) and Doug Baldwin (5 receptions, 66 yards, 1 TD) both made a little something out of nothing. Kearse bounced off three tacklers before running in a 23-yard touchdown. Baldwin avoided two tacklers to get in the end zone on a 10-yard reception. Running back Marshawn Lynch plowed his way into the end zone for a tough 1-yard score. There was a quality of grit and determination by each of Seattle’s playmakers to gain that extra yard and to make that extra move in order to seize the moment.
5. Perspective on history — Everything went downhill for the Broncos when they fumbled their first offensive snap of the game, which ended up becoming a safety. The Broncos were trailing 36-0 before they scored their first touchdown, a 14-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas to end the third quarter. That’ll help explain why Manning ended the game with an NFL-record 34 completed passes (34 of 49 for 280 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 1 fumble). The Broncos were forced to throw going into the second half down 22-0 and then down 29-0 on the Seahawks’ opening kickoff return in the third. So add an asterisk there because they abandoned the running game. They ran the ball five times in the second — twice to run the clock out in the waning moments. Demaryius Thomas’ 13 receptions are also a Super Bowl record. But it seems to all come back to the dire situation in which the Broncos found themselves. No playoff team wants to throw the ball 49 times. And similarly, no Super Bowl winner is going to only have 27 yards rushing.
Extras — One thing we’re not going to be talking about is Richard Sherman, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the fourth quarter. He had been a source of hefty chatter ahead of XLVIII with the hopes that he’d do something or say something that could live up to his outsized personality. Sadly that moment didn’t come. But he certainly forced Manning to look the other way for three quarters, so it wasn’t like his presence wasn’t felt. … Seattle linebacker Malcolm Smith truly played a fantastic game. He recorded 9 tackles (five solo), an interception returned for a touchdown, and a fumble recovery. He joined Ray Lewis and Chuck Howley as the only linebackers to ever win Super Bowl MVP honors. And he’s also the youngest defender to ever do it at 24 years old and 212 days. … Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is now 0 for 3 in Super Bowls. … Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who coached the Patriots from 1997-1999, became the third coach in NFL history to win a Super Bowl and a national college championship. He joins Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer to hold that distinction.
Lo and behold, the Seattle Seahawks are right where I thought they would be at the beginning of the season.
Let the chest beating begin.
Back in September, the Boston.com staff tried to forecast the New England Patriots record while offering their proposed Super Bowl matchup. Yours truly correctly called a 12-4 season for the Patriots and proffered a Seahawks-Bengals title matchup.
Obviously I must’ve been moved by Cincinnati’s appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
But the Seahawks have lived up to everything I have expected, minus the turbulence Russell Wilson has provided. The defense has been monstrous, holding opposing offenses to a league-low 4,378 yards in the regular season, a league-low 2,752 yards passing, and a league-low 14.4 points per game. Stars like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Michael Bennett have made this a formidable group that doesn’t back down from the competition. Just look at how they handled the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship.
But they face one of the top offenses in NFL history with the Denver Broncos. It all starts with Peyton Manning and a quartet of fantastic wide receivers. Manning threw for an NFL record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Demaryius Thomas (14 TDs), Eric Decker (11 TDs), Julius Thomas (12 TDs), and Wes Welker (10 TDs) are his four horsemen. The Broncos running game is nothing to smirk at either, with Knowshon Moreno (1,038 yards, 10 TDs) and Montee Ball (559 yards, 4 TDs).
In my view, this is an opportune game for the Seahawks to match up their star defenders with the Broncos’ playmakers. Sherman on Demaryius Thomas for starts, forcing Decker and Welker to have extraordinary games. I presume both the NFL’s top defense and top offenses to be rather average Sunday.
Instead, the Broncos defense, led by the likes of Terrance Knighton, Danny Trevathan, and Shaun Phillips will have to prove they can stop the fourth-ranked rushing attack in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch, who has broken more tackles than any other running back in the league (75), is bound for at least one game-changing run.
I also expect Wilson to make a few plays with his feet, a possible weakness for the Broncos. So I think you get the drift where I’m headed. And yes, there’s still quite a bit of chest beating to be done.
DENVER — With an offensive explosion by the Broncos — and a key defensive injury — the Patriots’ hopes of a Super Bowl title were dashed Sunday against a team with superior offensive weaponry.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. The 2013 Patriots were depleted on defense and offense, they lacked a pass rush against the league’s top quarterback, they were down two of their top linebackers, and played without their top cornerback for the final two and a half quarters of their AFC title bout.
It marks the ninth year in a row in which coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady either couldn’t reach, or couldn’t complete, their ultimate goal.
But that shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments this team has had. With a season worth of memories to go on, here are our five takeaways from the 2013 Patriots.
1. Bloodied but unbowed — Go back to the second cut day, Aug. 31, 2013. That’s when the bleeding started. The Patriots placed safety Adrian Wilson — long forgotten — on injured reserve. The veteran safety was supposed to be a boost for the secondary. Things only got worse when Vince Wilfork, the team’s monster nose tackle, went down with an ACL injury against the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 29. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who had already been nursing a knee injury, was placed on IR Nov. 2. He was supposed to be the team’s other run stopper. Top linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 16) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 29) were both shelved with season-ending injuries. In another blow to the offense, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a devastating hit to the knee against the Cleveland Browns Dec. 8 after only playing seven games. It didn’t stop there. Wide receiver Josh Boyce (ankle) was placed on IR Jan. 2 and linebacker Brandon Spikes was put on IR, reluctantly, four days later. Despite all of this, Belichick was able to lead the Patriots to the AFC Championship without five of his projected defensive starters and two of his top offensive starters. That’s miracle work. It shouldn’t be surprising that the best offense in the history of the NFL was able to get a jump on the Patriots, let alone pile up 507 yards total yards. What the Patriots were able to accomplish, often hobbled every week with the players that remained active, is an astounding feat to be proud of.
2. The Patriots found different leaders each week, never quitting — The injuries created an adverse situation for New England, but calls for the “next man up” rang loudly in Foxborough, with each player passing the torch on a week to week basis. Against the Falcons, the Patriots could’ve wilted in the Georgia Dome. But Tom Brady and Aqib Talib were not having it. Shane Vereen, who missed eight games with a broken hand, played through the very same injury in Week 1 to help the Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills. It was seismic effort, much like the team’s come-from-behind win against the Broncos in Week 12. Or their come-from-behind wins against New Orleans, Cleveland and Houston. Kenbrell Thompkins caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints. Danny Amendola caught one against the Browns. Stephen Gostkowski made three game-winning kicks. Logan Ryan had a key interception and sack against Baltimore. LeGarrette Blount came on as a force to be reckoned with in Week 17. And Julian Edelman proved to be a workhorse throughout. The Patriots never allowed themselves to be taken out of a game, with their greatest margin of defeat at six points. Nine of the Patriots’ 16 regular season games were decided by four points or less. There was a feeling, all the way up until Sunday’s loss to the Broncos, that each game would go down to the final possession. There was no such thing as quit for this team.
3. Youth in action — It wasn’t anticipated, certainly because of injuries, but the Patriots featured one of the youngest teams in the postseason. Seventeen players had never played in the playoffs before hitting the field against the Indianapolis Colts. A number of them were expected to just provide depth and develop this year, but were thrust into regular action. Rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were expected to be integral parts of the team’s passing attack despite frequent injuries. Between them, they totaled 69 receptions for 985 yards and eight touchdowns. Defensive backs Logan Ryan (35 tackles, 5 interceptions, 1.5 sacks) and Duron Harmon (31 tackles, 2 interceptions), both out of Rutgers, helped shore up the team’s secondary as injuries took out defensive leaders Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory in spurts. And with Wilfork and Kelly out, Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, and Sealver Siliga worked extensively as the team’s interior pass rush. Jones had six sacks, Siliga had three, and Vellano finished with two. Linebacker Jamie Collins, who was kept to special teams duty for most of the regular season, exploded onto the scene in the playoffs as one of the team’s top linebackers. He had an interception and a sack against the Colts along with six tackles. He had seven tackles against the Broncos. They were all pivotal players in a season when none of them were expected to be.
DENVER — The AFC Championship won’t be like the Patriots’ last matchup with the Denver Broncos.
The weather in Denver, expected to hit a high of 60 degrees, won’t resemble the wintry conditions felt on Nov. 24, 2013 when the temperature at kickoff was 22. The Patriots won 34-31 in overtime with the weather feeling closer to 6 degrees thanks to the wind chill. Winds were gusting up to 22 miles per hour.
That heavy wind led to some interesting decision-making by the Patriots, who elected to kick off in overtime after winning the coin toss. But it also likely led to some keen decisions by the Broncos as well, who ended up running the ball 48 times.
That likely won’t be the case Sunday, making for one-on-one matchups to carry greater importance for the AFC Championship tilt.
Here’s what we’ll be watching:
1. Jamie Collins against Julius Thomas — The Patriots rookie linebacker will be tested against one of the NFL’s top tight ends in Julius Thomas. Thomas did not play in the first bout between the Patriots and Broncos. But after he caught 65 passes for 778 yards and 12 touchdowns in 14 regular season games, he is a well-known threat. With Thomas at 6-5 and 250 pounds, Collins (6-3, 250) may be the only Patriots player with the size to cover and compete with him.
2. Aqib Talib vs. Demaryius Thomas — Demaryius Thomas caught four passes for 41 yards and a touchdown last time around against the Patriots. He got the best of Aqib Talib in that matchup, catching three of those passes with Talib in coverage, including the touchdown. But he made sure to make things difficult for Thomas in overtime, denying him a pass on 3rd and 14. How Talib handles one of the league’s top boundary receivers in Round 2 will have huge implications on the game.
3. Containment of Shaun Phillips — Denver’s outside linebacker has replaced Von Miller as the team’s top pass rushing specialist. He tallied two sacks against his former team, the San Diego Chargers, in the AFC Divisional round and 10 sacks this season. Containing him should be a point of emphasis for the Patriots’ offensive line.
4. Peyton Manning’s foibles — The league’s top quarterback has had well-known meltdowns in the postseason. His 10-11 record in the playoffs is littered with games in which he has thrown an untimely interception, was unable to convert on a key play, or failed in the red zone when his team needed a touchdown most. For as much as this game is about how the Patriots can somehow limit the league’s top offense, led by the league’s top quarterback, it’s just as much about whether Manning can maintain his high level of play at a time when the best is expected of him.
5. Bill Belichick’s gamesmanship — Whether the goal is to shut down the Broncos’ passing attack or somehow rein in their running game, which was prolific in Week 12, the Patriots coach’s game plan has to somehow confuse and confound Broncos coach John Fox and Manning enough to render the best offense an average counterweight. In the Patriots and Broncos’ first meeting, there was an open-door sign for the Broncos to run on every down, with the Patriots benefiting greatly from the wind and Manning taking a backseat to Knowshon Moreno (224 yards). By the time the Broncos really started attacking the Patriots through the air, New England had already scored 28 straight points. That sort of gamesmanship, while successful against the Broncos with Jack Del Rio at the helm, likely won’t work twice. But that doesn’t mean Belichick won’t have something else up his sleeve.
There’s a sharp contrast between the AFC and NFC Championship games, with the former featuring the league’s hallmark quarterbacks and the latter featuring the game’s up-and-coming stars.
It’s hard not to notice when considering the juxtaposition that will arise in the Super Bowl, whoever the contestants are. It’s also hard to ignore that given the talent of each team, and the rivalries between each opponent, Sunday’s conference championships are much harder to pick than usual. One could, with a simple coin flip, make an argument for either and have some pretty good numbers to back them up.
But when you look at the line, there’s a clear divide between the AFC Championship and the NFC Championship. And that helps guide my conference championship picks.
49ers (-3) at the Seahawks (+3) — The Seattle Seahawks have won four of their last five games against the San Francisco 49ers at home, including this season’s matchup. In those five games, they’ve outscored the 49ers 139-58. Seattle is 16-1 at home in the past two seasons. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick not only has troubles at Seattle’s noisy CenturyLink Field, but every time he’s faced Seattle’s sterling No. 1 defense. He’s 2-2 against the Seahawks, completing 50.54 percent of his passes while throwing two touchdowns and five interceptions. Every time he sees these guys, he just doesn’t do well. The 49ers need him to play at his best, which I just don’t think is possible given the opponent and the location. My pick: Seahawks
Patriots (+4) at the Broncos (-4) — After the Patriots stormed back to beat the Broncos 34-31 in overtime in Week 12, helped in part by conservative play-calling in 22-degree weather and Rob Gronkowski (7 receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown), they’re facing a different climate and mindset in Denver going into Sunday’s game. Peyton Manning, who is 4-10 against Tom Brady, aggressively attacked the San Diego Chargers last week, throwing the ball down the stretch despite having the lead. That’s a huge change from what the Patriots previously saw and could affect the dynamics of the game should the Broncos procure another lead. But Denver has been notorious for allowing opponents an opportunity to steal the game away, much like they did for the Chargers, who had the Broncos stuck at 3rd and 17. The Patriots can certainly steal a win against the AFC’s No. 1 seed if Brady and the passing game gets going against a diminished Broncos secondary. The injury to Denver cornerback Chris Harris certainly opens things up. I expect it to go down to the final possession. Maybe even a field goal. My pick: Patriots
Without the chilling cold to consider in cities like Seattle and Carolina this weekend, as well more frosty climates like New England and Denver, the weather will be much less of a factor in this weekend’s NFL divisional playoff games than it was last week in the wild card round.
The San Francisco 49ers marched into the tundra of Green Bay, with Colin Kaepernick sleeveless and gloveless, and took down the Packers. New Orleans, on the road and outside of a dome, whipped the Philadelphia Eagles. And San Diego, far from their hometown climate, beat the favored Cincinnati Bengals.
The results led us to believe that each team, particular those that advanced, are impervious to the conditions.
What hasn’t changed is the predominantly strong favor home teams have this weekend and how that has affected the point spreads. It makes for a tough week in which those teams that we expect to win, we do not necessarily expect to cover.
Here are this week’s picks with that in mind:
Saints (+8) at Seahawks (-8) — The Seahawks simply dominated the Saints the last time they played, a 34-7 win on “Monday Night Football” in Week 13. The Seahawks are 15-1 at home the past two seasons and have won their past five playoff games at home. That doesn’t bode well for a Saints team that won its first postseason road game under Sean Payton last week. The oppressive noise of CenturyLink field will be more than advantageous for Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, and the league’s No. 1 ranked defense. My pick: Seahawks Continue reading →
For the NFL’s wild card weekend, home field advantage and blistering cold will make a huge mark as the playoffs begin.
In Green Bay, record cold could be on tap for the visiting San Francisco 49ers. In Indianapolis, the Chiefs will have to find a way to shake Andrew Luck’s confidence at Lucas Oil Stadium. And in Philadelphia, the New Orleans Saints will have to deal with the cold as well against an Eagles team that has dominated down the stretch.
Here are this week’s NFL picks against the spread.
Chiefs (+1) at Colts (-1) — Looking back at the Colts’ 23-7 win over the Chiefs in Week 16, there was little that went right for Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium. Alex Smith was abnormally dull, getting intercepted once and sacked five times. He also had six passes broken up. It was a game worth forgetting. Take note that Andrew Luck is 2-0 against the Chiefs (1-0 against the Andy Reid coached Chiefs) and has won 13 of 16 games at home in his first two seasons. Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali (11.0 sacks) is questionable for Saturday’s game while first-round draft pick and starting tackle Eric Fisher has been ruled out. My pick: Colts Continue reading →