Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. With the Patriots and Broncos both clinching division titles last weekend, it ensures another chapter of the Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry next season, as the Broncos will visit Gillette Stadium. The only other piece to be filled out for the Patriots' 2013 schedule is a road trip to face the AFC South first-place finisher, which is likely to be the Texans.
2. Patriots' 2013 opponents at home: Browns, Steelers, Saints, Buccaneers, Broncos, Bills, Dolphins, Jets.
3. Patriots' 2013 opponents on the road: Ravens, Bengals, Falcons, Panthers, AFC South champ, Bills, Dolphins, Jets.
4. Former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour has missed the past five games with a hamstring injury, which eliminated one of the main reasons I was interested to tune in to Thursday night's otherwise dreadful Raiders-Broncos game. It's been four years since Seymour was traded to the Raiders, and while he's still a disruptive, have-to-account-for-him-on-every-snap player, it's almost as if he's flying under the radar these days. I think part of it is because of where he plays -- it truly can be a "Black Hole."
5. If the Giants' Tom Coughlin is the prime example of a team being rewarded for staying the course with a head coach supposedly on the hot seat, the Texans' Gary Kubiak probably isn't far behind. It's easy to forget now, but just two seasons ago some were wondering if Kubiak would keep his job. This is a good reminder to owners considering a change that sometimes staying the course -- and making what may be an unpopular decision at the time -- can be the right decision.
6. Wasn't surprised by the San Diego Union-Tribune report that the Chargers will be bringing in a new regime in 2013, and general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner are on their way out. As much as I like Smith, that's one place where staying the course doesn't seem like the right call.
7. When I first heard about the possibility of the NFL eliminating kickoffs, one of the first things that came to mind was that Bill Belichick was correct in 2011 when he said that was the league's intention after moving the kickoff from the 30-yard line to up to the 35-yard line (link here). That disappointed Belichick, who at the time called the kickoff one of the most exciting plays in football. Then I was interested to learn that one of Belichick's closest friends in the coaching fraternity, Tampa's Greg Schiano, had suggested an alternative (link here). My initial reaction was to be against any change, the feeling being that major collisions are happening on all plays. I'd be curious to see more data on the rate of injuries, and severity of injuries, on kickoffs.
8. My sense on the Patriots' punt return job is that we'll most likely see Wes Welker assume those duties in place of the injured Julian Edelman. Tight end Aaron Hernandez could also be an option. Two other off-the-radar options to consider: safety Patrick Chung and cornerback Aqib Talib. We remember Chung getting some work at the role in the offseason (link here).
9. Random thought: Seems like a few years ago, "parity" was the buzz word in the NFL. No longer. The difference between the "haves" and "have-nots" is as noticeable as ever, particularly in the AFC.
10. In a span of three weeks, the Patriots will have faced Miami's Cameron Wake (10.5 sacks), Houston's J.J. Watt (16.5 sacks) and San Francisco's Aldon Smith (17.5 sacks), three of the NFL's top four defenders in total sacks. Denver's Von Miller (15 sacks), whom the Patriots faced Oct. 7, fills out the top four. These are the types of stretches when offensive tackles such as Nate Solder (second season) and Sebastian Vollmer (fourth season) can firmly establish/re-establish themselves as being among the best at their position.
11. Let's see if "hidden yardage" plays a factor in the Texans-Patriots game on Monday night. The Texans are a well-rounded team, but they rank last in the NFL in average drive start, with opponents starting, on average, at the 25.5-yard line. Patriots opponents average the 20.5-yard line. Those "hidden yards" can sometimes add up.
12. A brief behind-the-scenes story from the Patriots locker room: I approached cornerback Aqib Talib last week about the possibility of being featured in our weekly "football journey" series, and he respectfully declined. He said the reason was that he wanted anything he said to be about the team, and not himself.
13. Did You Know, Part I: If the Patriots win Monday night, they will become just the second team in NFL history to win 10 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons. The 49ers, from 1983 to 1998, hold the NFL record in that category (16). Bill Belichick preaches consistency, and I think that's the type of statistic of which he's particularly proud.
14. Did You Know, Part II: With eight catches on Monday night, Welker can become the first player in NFL history with five 100-plus-catch seasons.
15. How far does Belichick go to protect competitive advantage? I got a chuckle Tuesday when Belichick was asked about receiver Donte' Stallworth, as there had been reports he had agreed to a contract with the team. Belichick said there had been no announcement (presumably a paperwork issue and perhaps pending final results from a physical), so he had nothing to say. Later in the week, Stallworth acknowledged that he'd been in town since Monday and was already deep into the playbook.
16. There seems to be a lot of respect in the Patriots' locker room for Texans left tackle Duane Brown, who has given up just one sack this year (it came when he unsuccessfully tried to cut a defender). We don't hear Brown's name often in the discussion of elite left tackles, but perhaps we should. Meanwhile, while the Texans recently locked up Brown (No. 26 overall, 2008 draft) with a contract extension, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft -- Dolphins left tackle Jake Long -- is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency. That is going to be costly either way for the Dolphins -- re-signing Long, or losing him.
17. One trickle-down effect of the Patriots' six-game winning streak is that it has quieted some of the baseless chatter about cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer and his qualifications for the job. That had been spiraling out of control. It always starts with the talent.
18. Rookie safety Nate Ebner might be remembered more for playing the left wing on the punt team in the team's Sept. 16 loss to the Cardinals, when a blocked punt over his side contributed to a disappointing 20-18 loss. But Ebner, the team's off-the-radar sixth-round draft choice from Ohio State, has responded nicely since that time. I didn't realize he had 14 special teams tackles this season, second on the team, until reviewing the coaches' tabulations. Of those 14, all but one were deemed solo stops.
19. Best of luck to Terence Malangone as he departs the NFL's media relations office for a new professional challenge. When you're in London writing on a football game while figuring out how long it might be until you might return home to see your family because of a hurricane, it's tough to get through it without people like Terence, Michael Signora, Corry Rush, Randall Liu, Joanna Hunter, Darlene Capiro, Jon Zimmer, Rob McBurnett, Clare Graff and others. They are all a credit to the NFL.