Five observations from the Patriots' 38-7 victory over the Dolphins in the season finale and thoughts on the playoff road ahead:
1. Preparing for an unknown opponent. At this point, the Patriots know they will play Kansas City, Baltimore or the New York Jets in their first playoff game Jan. 16. When we had situations like this in the past, what usually happened was that we'd get two solid days of work during the bye week. Bill Belichick would leave open the possibility of a third day, keeping that threat out there if we had two poor days of practice. With the bye week, I think you'll see them pick out two of the opponents and focus on getting comfortable with some of the offensive, defensive and special-teams concepts they run. I don't think they need to work on the Jets at this point. Not only do they play them twice a year, but in scouting other teams in the division you're still watching the Jets. So I think they are very comfortable with who the Jets are as a football team. On the flip side, a lot of work needs to be done on the Chiefs, a team they are not as familiar with. Sure, they know the coaching staff, but it's the players who execute those concepts. Then you have the Ravens, who were in town for a Week 6 game on Oct. 17, which was a 23-20 overtime win for the Patriots. Coach Belichick often talks about how teams change over the course of the year, and so the Patriots will have to get re-acclimated with who the Ravens are.
2. Top health issue is running back Danny Woodhead. If there is a concern coming into the bye week, it's the health of running back Danny Woodhead, who left Sunday's game in the first quarter with a head injury and did not return. The fact he watched the game on the sideline, and was in the locker room after the game and available for the media to see, is positive. The more serious it is, the less the media sees of the player. I know all the back ways to get around in Gillette Stadium, where you can never see the media for weeks at a time. That Woodhead was walking through the locker room is a good sign. And for crying out loud, the kid's last name is Woodhead! Those signs make me think he'll be OK.
3. Integrating Brandon Spikes back into the mix is a key. One of the big questions this week is what condition Spikes is in as he returns from his four-game suspension. Is he in shape? Was he studying constantly? How much does he weigh? After Thanksgiving, it becomes easier for a player to put on weight because you don't condition as much in practice, it isn't as hot anymore and not to mention it's the holiday season. In Spikes' case, he also didn't have the chance to work with a bunch of guys at the stadium, which can help. So you have to look at his physical condition and his ability to jump into playing competitive football at a playoff-type level. Early in the season, we saw him have some issues recognizing play-action. Toward the end of the season, he was getting better, as we saw with his interception against the Jets on play-action near the goal line. Does he jump back into that level of play recognition? Will he be able to maintain his scheme-run diagnosis? That will be something to watch, especially if he gets a significant amount of playing time in the playoffs.
4. With quarterback switch, it's all about situational football. One of the interesting aspects of Sunday's game was seeing backup quarterback Brian Hoyer come into the game in the second quarter during a series. You saw the Patriots get a first down and then Tom Brady sprinted to the sideline and Hoyer came into the game. To me, that's Coach Belichick practicing situational football right there. Think about when Hoyer is most likely to get his playing time -- within a series. It might be if Brady has an equipment problem, gets the wind knocked out of him or has some type of minor issue to deal with on the sideline. The Patriots would be looking for Hoyer to maintain offensive consistency within a drive, handling it on a moment's notice. That's what a backup has to do and that's what they were practicing. As a backup, you don't always have time to throw 20 to 30 balls to get warmed up. That's great game experience for Hoyer to get.
5. Dolphins handcuffed by QB situation. I like Tony Sparano as a head coach. I think he makes good decisions and has the respect of his players. He deserves to keep his job as Dolphins head coach. But still, there is a lot of talk in Miami as to whether he is in or out. The main problem I have with the Dolphins is the quarterback position. The Chad Henne project this year was a disappointment to say the least. He's had a year and a half to show his potential and what I see is a quarterback who is not sure of himself, is not decisive and is a step behind in many of his reads. You could see the frustration on receiver Brandon Marshall's face, how he wants the ball but it's coming late, which gives defenders time to recover and force incompletions. Whenever you have an all-star receiver with a strong personality who feels like he doesn't get the ball the way he wants it, that could be an explosive situation. It looks even worse for Henne and backup Tyler Thigpen when you have Tom Brady on the other side of the field; he's a quarterback who makes very good decisions very quickly. So you saw that stark contrast. If the Dolphins don't get their quarterback problems fixed by next year, from a Patriots perspective you can almost chalk up another two wins.