Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:
1. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said that seeing the Browns on the opposite sideline today will remind him “this is where it all started.” It’s easy to forget now, but the last time these two teams met (Nov. 7, 2010), Gronkowski was a still-developing rookie involved in a miscue that contributed to a surprising 34-14 blowout loss. Gronkowski was playing as part of the wedge on the kickoff return team when he signaled for a fair catch of a short, high-arcing kickoff early in the first quarter. The only problem was that running back Sammy Morris came up behind him and did the same, the two had a miscommunication, and the ball landed on the ground untouched and the Browns recovered. (Cleveland quickly turned it into a touchdown and the rout was on.) Gronkowski was peppered by the media afterwards, facing the most adversity of his young NFL career at that point, and he relived the memory this week, reminding that his response came the following week in a game against the Steelers, when he finished with five catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. We saw signs before that Gronkowski could be special, but that was arguably the biggest breakthrough.
2. When it comes to their potential role on game day, Patriots players are often kept on edge by the coaching staff during the week. The idea is that they should all prepare as if they will be front-line contributors, which hopefully leads to a sharpened focus. That’s how this past week has unfolded for running back Stevan Ridley, who after running into issues hanging onto the ball was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston. As the Patriots came off the practice field for the final time Friday, Ridley was still unsure if he’d be on the 46-man active roster today. Our educated guess is that he will be on the 46-man game-day roster as part of an overall plan to ease him back into the mix -- probably not as a lead back but more as part of a pure committee.
3. Since tearing his ACL on Oct. 3, quarterback Brian Hoyer hasn’t traveled with the Browns to road games. That changes today as Hoyer, the former New England backup (2009-2011), will be at Gillette Stadium for the Browns' contest against the Patriots. When the 2013 season began, and Hoyer envisioned the possibility of winning a starting job in Cleveland (he eventually did and provided a winning spark), this was naturally a game he had circled on the schedule. He has fond memories of his time in New England and the trip, in addition to helping his Browns teammates, provides a rare in-season chance to catch up with several former Patriots teammates and coaches.
4. The average time of a Patriots game this season is 3 hours and 14 minutes, which continues a theme we’ve seen in recent years of longer-than-we’re-used-to games. We used to think of NFL contests as fitting in a nice three-hour window, but only four of the Patriots’ 12 games this season have come in under the three-hour mark. The length-of-game thought was sparked because the Patriots are coming off a stretch in which they sandwiched their two shortest games (2:51 vs. Carolina and 2:54 vs. Houston) around their longest game (3:53 vs. Denver). The Patriots’ overall average is skewed, in part, by their two overtime games -- against the Jets and Broncos.
5. In a storyline that might fascinate me more than others, it’s been interesting to watch from afar how Mike Lombardi has transitioned from a visible media role at NFL Network in which he was regularly conducting insightful radio interviews (such as on Boston sports radio station WEEI) to “undercover” Browns general manager. Lombardi has hardly spoken with the Cleveland press this year, only doing so for an introductory news conference, pre-draft news conference, and once in training camp. He’s essentially disappeared from a media perspective after being ever-so-visible. Part of it could be that Lombardi is a lightning-rod of sorts in Cleveland from his previous tenure with the team, and this is part of a go-undercover-to-help-rebuild-the-image approach.
6. “So much of this is timing.” Those were words spoken by Patriots receiver Julian Edelman this week and he is one of the NFL’s shining examples of this in 2013. Edelman entered this week tied for eighth in the NFL with 70 receptions, which few projected this past offseason when he was an unrestricted free agent and drew interest from just two teams -- the Patriots and Giants. The offers were far from overwhelming -- essentially one-year deals at the minimum with modest incentives -- because the biggest knock on Edelman was that he couldn't stay healthy. He’s healthy now and also one of the NFL’s most productive pass-catchers. If he continues this pace, it seems safe to say he’ll have more than two teams interested in him after this season, because so much of this NFL business is about timing.
7a. Did you Know, Part I: The Patriots are one of five teams unbeaten at home this season, joining the Saints, Seahawks, Broncos and Bengals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only season in the last 80 years during which five teams went unbeaten at home was in 1973.
7b. Did you Know, Part II: ESPN’s Stats & Information points out that the Lions, with a one-game lead in the NFC North, haven’t won a division title since 1993. That is the second-longest active streak behind the Browns.
7c. Did you Know, Part III: Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, at 40 the oldest player in the NFL, has 1,968 career points. That puts him two points shy of John Kasay for eighth place on the NFL all-time scoring list and 15 points shy of Jason Elam for seventh place.
7d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Saints, who host the Panthers tonight, are 10-0 in home prime-time games over the last four seasons.
8. The Bills have played one regular-season home game in Toronto each of the last six years, and this year’s produced the lowest attendance (38,969), raising questions on how smart it is to continue with such an arrangement. In theory, the idea of regionalized growth is a good one for the Bills, creating potential new revenue streams for one of the league’s small-market franchises. But the execution might be off, and one consideration could be playing the game earlier in the year. Four of the six Toronto games have been in December, when the Bills are pretty much out of the playoff hunt.
9. When Bill Belichick led off his Wednesday news conference by saying, “I have a lot of respect for the entire Browns organization, starting with Jimmy Haslam at the top,” it was a reminder that the Patriots coach and Browns owner have a connection that goes back some time now. We also remember that Haslam, shortly after being approved as Browns owner in 2012, spent time with Patriots owner Robert Kraft at Gillette Stadium. They’ll all meet up again today.
10. I thought it was neat to see veteran Patriots defensive end Andre Carter bring his kindergarten-aged son, Quincy, into the locker room on Friday and have a few teammates, such as LeGarrette Blount, call Quincy over as if he were a member of the team. “It’s a family-oriented type of team. Guys with kids can bring them here, and it reminds me when I was young and my dad [Rubin] played for 12 years [in the NFL] and I’d be waiting for him outside the locker room,” Carter said, in a reminder that sports can create a unique bond for fathers and sons across multiple generations.
EXTRA POINT: Best wishes to Brian Lowe of Patriots.com, whose final day with the team was Friday after 13 years. Brian, an all-around great guy, is embarking on a career in public relations and will be missed in the press room at Gillette Stadium. It was a neat gesture by Patriots Vice President of Media Relations Stacey James to allow Lowe to ask the first and last questions at Bill Belichick’s Friday news conference as part of a final send-off.