DENVER --– Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots:
1. In the aftermath of the Patriots' 27-20 victory over the Chiefs on Jan. 16, receiver Julian Edelman and some close friends and family members exited together with a mix of elation and relief. Watching it unfold in the bowels of Gillette Stadium, the human side of the game -- and how fragile things are with his left foot -- struck me. Edelman is assuming plenty of risk, knowing that one bad cut on the field could result in a follow-up surgery this offseason for the broken bone that occurred Nov. 15. That’s why he went to the X-ray room after his first game back since the injury, more as a matter of standard operating procedure to ensure there was no damage done. Everything checked out OK. A source close to Edelman described what he’s doing this way: “Extreme desire and will, combined with pain tolerance and competitiveness.”
2. Patriots receiver Danny Amendola's hit on Chiefs cornerback Jamell Fleming, which resulted in a $23,152 fine from the NFL, has drawn extreme reactions. Fleming, for one, essentially called for Amendola to be suspended. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on the other hand, pointed out that it was a legal play because a fair catch wasn't called for, while also noting it is difficult to see where the hit occurred on the coaching film (if it’s to the head/neck area, a player is subject to a fine). I was hard on Amendola after the game, and incorrectly assumed that Fleming is granted the same protection as a defenseless receiver in that situation. I was wrong, as Fleming bears responsibility as well for putting himself in a compromising position. As for the hit itself, Amendola appears to make some contact with the head/neck, but it’s far from a clear-cut hit where a suspension should even be part of the discussion.
3. With eight-year Patriots veteran Jerod Mayo placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, the odds are high that the longtime captain has played his final game with the team; backup linebackers who don’t play on special teams usually have been on the outside looking in during Belichick’s 16-year tenure. Things dropped off considerably for Mayo in 2015 as he came back from two serious injuries that cut his prior two seasons short -- torn pectoral muscle (2013) and torn patellar tendon (2014). His best fit with the team in 2016 would be as a coach, if he’s interested in making that career transition. Even when Mayo was playing at a high level, teammates have long referred to him as a coach with his impressive mental aptitude for the game.
4a. When the Patriots promoted rookie linebacker Kevin Snyder from their practice squad Saturday, it made him the 77th player to occupy a spot on the team’s 53-man roster at some point this season. That is another reminder of the importance of building quality depth -- which starts in the offseason with the 90-man roster -- and how the practice squad is a big part of that. For a comparison, the Broncos have had 65 different players occupy a spot on their active roster this season.
4b. Snyder becomes the fifth Rutgers player on the Patriots' current 53-man roster, joining defensive backs Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and linebacker Jonathan FreenyJonathan Freeny. That’s easily a league high of Scarlet Knights on a single NFL roster. The Bengals rank second, with three.
5. Did You Know: The Patriots are 6-1 when dropping back to pass on at least 80 percent of plays in a game since 2001 (including playoffs). Over that same span, the rest of the NFL is 6-137, according to ESPN's Stats & Information.
6. If the Patriots and Panthers advance to Super Bowl 50, which they’re favored to do, that the game will have Clete Blakeman as referee would be a storyline that is hard to miss. When the teams last met in the regular season, on ESPN’s Monday Night Football on Nov. 18, 2013, it was Blakeman who picked up a penalty flag with no time left in regulation that negated a defensive pass-interference penalty by linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, helping Carolina hold on for a 24-20 win. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady followed Blakeman off the field, breathing fire. Surely we'll be revisiting that night if the Patriots and Panthers advance, with Blakeman's presence part of the story.
7. Spending much of Saturday in Denver on a beautiful afternoon, there was great spirit and anticipation for the AFC Championship Game. In one part of town, there was a reminder that this is “Broncos Country,” as the jerseys of various players hung high above. But I was also struck by how many Patriots fans lined the streets. The team’s fans travel well, first crowding the sidewalk at the club’s live broadcast of its weekly television show, and then many of those fans continuing to an evening party hosted by the Pikes Peak Pats Club at Katie Mullen’s, where the crowd of several hundred was surprised by a guest appearance from owners Robert Kraft and Jonathan Kraft. There's something special about the excitement that spreads throughout a city as a big game approaches.
Downtown Denver, where chants of "Let's go Broncos" have been heard today, a reminder we're in "Broncos Country." pic.twitter.com/Nr0QIIRMu4— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 23, 2016
Might be "Broncos Country" but boisterous Patriots fans heard as team's TV show set to go live from downtown Denver. pic.twitter.com/a0cz1ItqXi— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 23, 2016
8. When former Patriots director of college scouting and new Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson was interviewed by ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky on WGFX-FM 104.5 last week, he relayed the story of how analytics played a role in the Patriots drafting cornerback Logan Ryan in 2013 (third round). Robinson called it a complementary piece to pure film work and on-site scouting and said, “I liked him as a player, skill-set wise, I thought he would be a contributor/part-time starter. I did a breakdown of him and four-five of the other defensive backs that were in that second-third-fourth-round projected area and he was the top 'disruptor' on the ball -- caused fumbles, pass breakups, interceptions. I did an Excel document and a heat [map], with numbers and kind of did a ranking, with weighted values. It really just kind of crystallized my opinion of the player.” So as much as Belichick recently said analytics aren’t really his thing, Ryan, who is now a starter and who has created as many disruptive plays as anyone in his draft class, is an example of how the team did indeed use analytics as a complementary piece.
9. Looking for Roger Goodell at Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Broncos in Denver? You won’t find him. I’m told the commissioner will be attending the NFC Championship Game in Charlotte, North Carolina. Goodell was in Denver last weekend for the Steelers-Broncos game.
10. Since the Patriots had success with future signings in recent years -- most notably with running backs Jonas Gray and Dion Lewis by signing them at this time on the calendar with the following season in mind -- news that the club signed linebacker James Vaughters to a deal for 2016 warrants a closer look. Vaughters was an undrafted rookie out of Stanford last season who spent the offseason and training camp with the Packers, and then a month on their practice squad in September before being placed on the injured list. At 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, he initially worked at outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 alignment before being moved to the inside. He played 16 defensive snaps in the preseason opener against the Patriots, which is tape New England personnel staffers naturally looked at before making the move. Vaughters' assets appear to be position flexibility, smarts and strength, while some draft analysts noted he lacked athleticism.