FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Patriots running back Mike Gillislee, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since playing 15 snaps in the team’s Dec. 24 win over the Bills, returned to practice on Thursday for the first time since the injury. Gillislee has been diagnosed with a sprained ligament in the knee, according to a source, which might have happened on his first play of that game – a 6-yard run off right tackle in which he powered through Matt Milano’s tackle attempt before being brought down by Lorenzo Alexander. Gillislee played through the injury, logging 14 more snaps. From a big-picture standpoint, at this point, Gillislee mostly represents an insurance policy if anything happens to Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead and James White.
2. The Patriots have held their last six outdoor practices on the Gillette Stadium field, which dates to Dec. 28 and is a result, in part, of the extremely cold temperatures and wintry conditions of late December affecting their regular practice field. Bill Belichick said “not much” when asked how much the change affects what the team needs to get done at practice, but it also hasn’t been insignificant from a player standpoint. I talked to a handful of players over the last week, and the common theme is that practicing on the game field, which is synthetic grass, is less desirable than the natural grass playing field. One player said his shins, in particular, are sore more than they would be otherwise after practicing on the game field.
3a. Did You Know, Part I (via ESPN’s Stats & Information): The Jaguars visit the Steelers on Sunday afternoon in an AFC divisional-round game, and they are one of only two teams that Pittsburgh has a losing record (1-4) at home against since 2004 (including playoffs). The other team is the Patriots (2-5).
3b. Did You Know, Part II (via ESPN’s Stats & Information): While it has been widely noted that no team has ever advanced to the Super Bowl that has been played in its home stadium, it goes beyond that because no team has even reached the conference championship in the year they hosted the Super Bowl. The Vikings can make history Sunday by doing that with a win over the Saints.
4. If Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is the top choice of the Giants and he is leaning in that direction, as some New York-based reports suggest, there are two things that stand out to me as to the possible fit:
Giants general manager Dave Gettleman is an old-school football junkie who takes pride in grinding through tape in his evaluations, and he might see a lot of himself in Patricia from a coaching perspective. Patricia is a sleep-at-the-stadium type of guy who is old-school in terms of his focus on fundamentals.
Patricia is extremely loyal to Belichick, and Belichick has an affinity for the Giants' organization. If Patricia had a legitimate chance to be Giants head coach, it’s hard to imagine Belichick not endorsing that as the best choice for him, and Patricia not taking those words to heart.
5. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ best fit for a head-coaching job currently looks like Indianapolis, and it helps that he has a prior connection with general manager Chris Ballard. The thought of a Patriots assistant leaving to take over the Colts might have been hard to imagine as recently as two years ago, when relations between the franchises were frosty, but things have thawed once Ballard was hired to replace Ryan Grigson on Jan. 29, 2017. Ballard and Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio have a solid working relationship, and that contributed to the teams making two trades earlier this year (TE Dwayne Allen to the Patriots, and QB Jacoby Brissett for WR Phillip Dorsett). So the Patriots-Colts dynamic is in a much different place now, which to me, keeps the door open for McDaniels. The only better situation for him at this point, based on uncertainty with Andrew Luck’s shoulder, would be if the Tennessee job opens. He could work wonders with Marcus Mariota.
6. Patriots linebacker coach Brian Flores interviewed for the Cardinals’ head-coaching job on Saturday Jan. 6, and it's my understanding that he made a positive impression from an organization and intelligence standpoint (which is no surprise to those who know him well). It is the first head coaching job that Flores has interviewed for, and he has one notable connection with the Cardinals: Director of football administration Mike Disner. The two got their start together with the Patriots, and because Disner is so highly thought of in the Cardinals’ organization, his word carries meaning with owner Michael Bidwell and general manager Steve Keim. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter tweeted early Saturday that Flores is viewed as a strong candidate in Arizona.
7. Patriots fans who might be watching the Saints on Sunday for the first time since New England sliced through their defense in a Week 2 blowout might be surprised at what they see. It’s a good reminder of taking caution in making big-picture judgments that early in the season, which was something I filed away after writing this in Week 3: “Watching the Saints once again struggle on defense, which has been a problem for them going back a few years now, head coach Sean Payton's inability to solidify that side of the ball is glaring. Payton is widely regarded as a brilliant offensive mastermind, but considering that he is one of the NFL's longest-tenured head coaches with the same team (since 2006), I'm surprised he hasn’t been able to take that expertise and put it to good use on the other side of the ball.” That’s bad analysis. One thing that has sparked the Saints’ turnaround from Week 2 is defending longer pass plays. Opponents had converted 88 percent of passes 15 yards or more in the first two weeks of the season (3 TDs, 0 INTs), and it has been 33 percent since that point (5 TDs, 6 INTs).
8. With the Texans moving quickly in their general manager search and hiring Brian Gaine late last week, it ruled out Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort from having a chance to pursue that opportunity. As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, the Patriots denied a request from the Texans to speak with Caserio and Ossenfort, similar to how the Eagles denied a request for VP of Player Personnel Joe Douglas. As for why, I believe it is because the Patriots didn’t view it as a GM job that came with complete control of the 53-man roster – although Texans owner Bob McNair had said publicly it was – and so to them it fell into a different category of other jobs that they had granted permission for in the past.
9a. Belichick is concluding his 43rd NFL season, so when he takes time to discuss players’ Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials, it’s a viewpoint that comes with more chops than most. During his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI last week, Belichick was asked which players he believes should warrant consideration who aren’t currently in. “A lot of the guys that I’ve coached that are up this year I think are very worthy,” Belichick answered. “Starting with Mark Bavaro, Everson Walls, Ty Law, Randy [Moss]. That’s an impressive group. I’ve always said that what Gil Brandt did for scouting, and the development of the National Football League – both as a scout and a team-builder and developer; not just what he did for Dallas, but how other teams and organizations took his blueprint, and either copied it or modified it in their own way. That would be another person I would throw in there.”
9b. One other Belichick leftover from the week: Like others, he’s still adjusting to the Chargers’ relocation to Los Angeles. He dropped a San Diego reference when discussing last week how the playing the Titans was similar to facing the Chargers earlier this year, as the teams hadn’t seen each other in a few years.
10a. On this date, Part I, in 2007: Troy Brown’s strip of Chargers safety Marlon McCree on an interception improbably kept the Patriots’ chances alive as they recorded a 24-21 victory in a road divisional-round playoff upset in San Diego.
10b. On this date, Part II, in 2012: Tom Brady ties a postseason record by throwing six touchdown passes in a 45-10 divisional-round playoff win over Tim Tebow and the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.