There are a few distinct themes to this week's Patriots mailbag:
1. Forward-thinking to Sunday's game in Denver. We're going to hear a lot about Tim Tebow this week, but emailers are looking deeper at the Broncos.
2. Quarterback Tom Brady and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien getting into it on the sidelines in the win over the Redskins.
3. Frustration over the defense and personnel decisions, which lead some to ask why this year will be anything different when it comes to the playoffs.
Bill Belichick has been opening his news conferences by saying, "It's good to be 8-3 ... it's good to be 9-3 ... it's good to be 10-3." After reading the mailbag, I'd be curious what you would think the record is based on the tone of the questioning.
It doesn't paint a rosy picture.
Q: Mike, I think this weekend's game in Denver could be good playoff prep for the Patriots offense. Denver appears to be the first team with a playoff-caliber defense we have gone up against in the last few weeks. Thoughts on the Denver D? They aren't winning games just because of Tebow. -- Erik (Upstate New York)
A: Erik, I think you nailed it. It would be easy this week to start and end the discussion with Tebow, but that would be overlooking a key aspect of the game -- Denver's D is playing well. Furthermore, not only will going up against the defense be a good test for the Patriots offense, the environment should be playoff-like as Denver is abuzz with the Broncos' revival. When it comes to the defense, I'd start with the pressure they bring with rookie Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. They're tough.
Q: You have to give Tim Tebow credit for helping his team play winning football. The thing that I see most responsible for the Broncos' turnaround is a solid defense. Your thoughts? Is Von Miller the NFL rookie of the year? -- David (North Attleboro, Mass.)
A: David, I think we could announce the award tomorrow and be safe with it. Miller is having a terrific rookie season (11.5 sacks), and he should win the defensive rookie of the year in a landslide. I remember wondering if the Broncos made a mistake when they selected him No. 2 overall because they passed on defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, but they thought Miller had that special pass-rushing characteristic that is rare. They were right, and they deserve credit for that.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm not really worried about Tom Brady and Bill O'Brien going at it. It's an argument and that's all, but I think it does provide some foreshadowing into an early exit from the playoffs. Clearly, Brady was frustrated about the interception in the end zone. But could his frustration be more than that, that he was feeling as if only Brady can win the game? That he has to pile on points because the defense isn't holding? Last few games, he has been making simple throwing errors, even to his trusted receivers -- Hernandez, Gronkowski & Welker. And I'm thinking this pressure he has placed on himself is getting to him in terms of throwing -- and maybe even developing relationships with young receivers -- and will ultimately come crashing during the playoffs if the defense doesn't come together. Thoughts? -- Emmanuel (Bridgeport, Conn.)
A: Emmanuel, I think that is reading too much into it. When a player is in the moment like that, I don't think he has the big picture in mind. So I don't think Brady was thinking about the team's inconsistent defense or the struggles to develop a No. 3 receiver. I think he was simply upset about the play because it could have cost the team the game, and he is the ultimate competitor. As for what this means for the playoffs, the two questions I have are "Where is the game?" and "What is the health of each team's roster going into the game?" I don't think the sideline spat foreshadows a playoff result as much as it highlights frustration from that moment and the team not putting together a complete effort.
Q: Hey Mike, I love Tom Brady, like all Pats fans do. And Tiquan Underwood may not have run a great route, but it was also just a bad pass by Brady. I know this whole Brady-O'Brien-Underwood thing won't be a big deal moving forward, but I just wanted to ask if you feel like there are times when Brady thinks he can do no wrong. It's not like it was right in his hands and Underwood dropped it. It really wasn't a good pass. -- Ben (Framingham, Mass.)
A: Ben, that was a bad pass by Brady, which is uncharacteristic of him in that situation. I understand the thought on Brady, although in the end, I personally find he holds himself accountable as much as any player. Maybe he's a little hard on some of the skill-position guys around him, but to me, that's just him trying to push them to a higher level. This is a tough game and the Patriots, as Bill Belichick noted, can be a tough team to play for.
Q: Mike, to me it felt like Bill O'Brien's verbal tirade on Brady had more behind it. It appears to me that Brady is pretty hard on his receivers, and while he may be right most of the time, it feels like he may intimidate many of them because of his stature. Could O'Brien going at Brady hard (perhaps even excessively) really being him sticking up for some of the players who maybe couldn't do that to Brady themselves? Do you ever get a sense that some of the younger players secretly feel this way sometimes and actually appreciated what O'Brien did, or am I way off? -- Ian (Tampa, Fla.)
A: Ian, you could be right on this. At the same time, I think the same thing would have happened if the receiver involved was Wes Welker or Deion Branch because it was a heat-of-the-moment type deal. Things get hot down there. The more I thought about it Monday, the more I appreciated the passion. Part of what makes the NFL what it is, and part of what fuels these coaches and players on a daily basis, is the competitive arena. There aren't too many places like it and I think we just saw an unfiltered moment that captured that intensity at the highest level of competition.
Q: Mike, far be it for anyone to complain about one snap of Patriots offense as long as this high school defense is in town, but I do have to ask if Tom Brady has lost sight of what has made him great: getting the ball to the open man instead of locking in on any one guy AND prioritizing game management instead of just following his talents -- in other words, take the FG to go up two scores instead of even trying to jam a ball into the end zone and risking the INT? Physical mistakes are going to happen, but mental ones like this make me wonder if TB12 needs to remember from whence he came. Thoughts? -- DeansDesk (Rumford, R.I.)
A: I think it's a fair point, Dean. There were times in that game where it seemed like Brady was locking in on certain players. It sounds crazy to say it when he finishes with 357 passing yards, but I thought it was a struggle for him. At the same time, when I step back and consider what this team has going for it, I start the list with Brady. His presence puts a lot of pressure on the opposition. Listening to Redskins coach Mike Shanahan after the game reinforced that point to me.
Q: Hi Mike, why is Tiquan Underwood being targeted in the red zone and not Chad Ochocinco? Ocho has been catching the ball when it is thrown to him, so why not give him a chance in the red zone as opposed to Underwood? -- Mitch (Boston)
A: Mitch, I think the biggest thing with Ochocinco is knowing what to do. He struggles at times, and the Patriots were moving fast in that game, keeping the same personnel grouping on the field (2 receivers, 2 tight ends and 1 running back). They can't afford to wait around to get Ochocinco lined up correctly and there needs to be confidence that he'll be in the right place. I'd also leave open the possibility of an injury that is also limiting him.
Q: Can you give us your thoughts on Belichick's clock management at the end of the Redskins game? Specifically, I thought he should have used the timeouts when the Redskins were at first-and-goal with a little under 2 minutes to give the Patriots offense enough time for a game-winning field goal. Especially in a shootout, you want to have a chance with that last possession. If your defense makes the stop, you just kneel out the clock. I saw the part where Belichick was asked about the timeouts and his response about having the flexibility to use the timeouts in case of a bad matchup, but don't you think a whole possession for your Tom Brady-led offense is more valuable, especially when they'd have four downs to just try to get in field goal range for the win? -- PatsFanBrian (San Mateo, Calif.)
A: I asked Belichick about it on Monday and his response was, "After what plays would you have called timeout?" He felt like he would have done the same thing again, adding on sports radio WEEI that he also didn't want to give the Redskins a break in the action to get things together. I think there were two plays that a timeout might have been smart, after the 4-yard run by Roy Helu to advance the ball to the 5 just after the two-minute warning (clock goes from 2:00 to 1:15), and after the 6-yard completion from Rex Grossman to David Anderson (1:09 to :29) to set up third-and-goal from the 9. Belichick's point was that the offensive pass interference on second-and-goal changed things a bit. It's interesting strategy discussion.
Q: Mike, is it me or was this one of the worst-officiated games of the year? The Carter unnecessary roughness penalty was bad. Also, the penalty on the Brady slide was overkill (although I'll take it). Is the NFL going to hold officials accountable for some of these overly protective calls or will this league truly turn into the NFFL (National Flag Football League)? -- Rob (Morristown, N.J.)
A: Rob, I thought the officiating by Jeff Triplette's crew made this a frustrating game to watch at times. I'd add Vince Wilfork's unnecessary roughness penalty to your list, too. It was clear to me that both teams weren't pleased. Officials are graded on every call, but I think what would make a lot of team-based personnel and fans particularly happy is to have the officials held to the same level of public accountability as everyone else. The league announces player fines each week, so why not acknowledge some officiating errors that are obvious to everyone?
Q: Hi Mike. I know a win is a win, but this secondary is leaving mediocre receivers wide open. We all know about Devin McCourty's struggles (no interceptions). He is simply nowhere near the opposing wide receivers, except for a few plays here and there in the fourth quarter. This was the case with McCourty as well as other DBs. They should not be giving up 96 yards to a mediocre No. 3 WR in Donte' Stallworth who hasn't gotten 700 yards in a season since 2006. How concerned are you with this secondary, and if they can barely stop the likes of Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman, how could they stop a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees if they get that far? -- Perry (Newton, Mass.)
A: Perry, this issue can't simply be swept under the locker-room rug. It's real. I can understand why some look at it and say "This team is headed for another early playoff exit." I look at it a little differently. What I think the Patriots need, and history shows it can be done, is a 2006 Colts-type performance. The Colts defense was the worst in the NFL against the run that year but turned out to be tough to run against in the playoffs, and it led them to the Super Bowl championship. Can the Patriots, perhaps with the return of injured safety Patrick Chung, make a similar U-turn? At this point, I think that's what Patriots followers have to hope for, because there haven't been consistent results to fall back on.
Q: Hi Mike, I'm tired of hearing they are 10-3. This is not Cleveland or Detroit. Just getting into the playoffs is meaningless. Have you noticed despite the fact they have been playing bad teams, [the defense's] points per game has been slowly rising? In addition, their ability to stop the run has also been diminishing. For a team that is probably going to go down as the worst pass defense in history, these are not good trends. -- Devin (Lowell, Mass.)
A: They aren't good trends, Devin, and I can't put a bow on it. It hasn't looked good. The bar has been raised high here in New England and even Bill Belichick essentially said himself after the 2010 season that the team is ultimately judged by how the season ends. The only thing I'd say is that I am going to wait to see how it turns out before passing judgment. So much changes weekly (e.g., an injury can dramatically alter the picture) and I think this team has mental toughness and a fight to it that will make it a tough "out" in the playoffs. I'm not predicting they'll win it all, I'm just saying, "Let's let it play out before we pass judgment."
Q: Hey Mike, well, I was actually able to be in attendance at the Skins/Pats game yesterday and I must say ... watching the Patriots and Tom Brady work in person is simply amazing. On the other hand, did we see a forecast for the upcoming playoffs with the win on Sunday? The Skins came in with a specific game plan (establish the run and manage the game with Rex Grossman) and executed it to perfection, minus the bobbled interception in the final seconds. Looking forward to the playoffs, with teams like the Ravens, Steelers, Texans and even the Broncos with the Tebow magic, it isn't looking too good again. Thoughts? -- Peter (Virginia Beach, Va.)
A: Peter, this seems to be what many emailers are thinking. One of the main things that was talked about at the beginning of the season was that this team would be defined by what happens in the playoffs. The question has always been, "Is this team built to win in January and February?" I see the same concerns you do defensively from a personnel standpoint, but one thing I wouldn't overlook is the pressure the Patriots offense puts on the opposition. In the end, my feeling is that I wouldn't count the Patriots out just yet. There are concerning signs, but as we saw in last year's playoff loss to the Jets, what happens in the 60 minutes on the field during the playoffs is often unpredictable.
Q: Care to rethink your stance on the Pats defense? They're terrible, and I'm not sure why anyone would need to wait any longer to realize that. I agree with you that the Pats are in good position recordwise, but it has NOTHING to do with their defense. Rex Grossmann looked like Joe Montana yesterday. -- Marc (Lowell, Mass.)
A: Marc, I understand the frustration, but I don't fully agree with it. I think this defense is too inconsistent right now and it makes you wonder if the personnel is good enough for when it counts. But to say the defense has nothing to do with the team's 10-3 record isn't fair in my book. It looked awful at times Sunday, but at the same time, the unit produced a strip-sack for a touchdown, came up with a big goal-line stop and sealed the game with an interception. If that's not something, I don't know what something is. Bottom line is, the defensive concerns are real and no one is sugarcoating it. I'd say this unit has one important thing going for it -- it gets better inside the 20. Whether that's enough to deliver in the playoffs, we'll find out.
Q: It's almost painful to watch our pass coverage and run defense. McCourty seems to always be 8-10 yards off of the receiver and frequently behind the player in the end zone. I have two questions: Is New England going to use the draft to pick up much needed DBs? And who is the DB coach and why does he still have a job? -- Dave (Albany, N.Y.)
A: Dave, Bill Belichick has used a lot of draft picks from 2007-2011 on the secondary, so a lack of investment isn't the problem. It's the high picks they're making at the position (e.g., Brandon Meriweather, Terrence Wheatley, Darius Butler) not working out. On the second part of the question, the Patriots have two coaches working with the secondary -- Josh Boyer with the cornerbacks and Matt Patricia with the safeties. Boyer focuses on the cornerbacks while Patricia essentially doubles as the defensive coordinator. Boyer was a coaching assistant from 2006-2008 before being promoted to defensive backs coach in 2009.
Q: Mike, after watching this defense collapse against Indy and then get pounded by an underachieving Redskins squad, I can't help but be reminded of the dichotomy between Bill Belichick the coach and Bill Belichick the GM. I suppose BB the coach has done well enough with what's on hand, but I keep thinking of what this team could look like if BB the GM had made more personnel moves that panned out. Imagine if a few more players selected from '07-09 developed into starters? I get that given the power BB currently holds, the insertion of a GM is unlikely, as it'd make too many waves (even if it might be a healthy shift in power), but something needs to be addressed in terms of how talent is evaluated and acquired. For example, I don't understand the purpose of accumulating upwards of a dozen draft picks a year if nearly all of those players will be cut at some point in their first two years. Then of course there's the inability to develop homegrown receivers. Something just isn't working on the back end. Any idea what it may be and how the organization can fix it? -- Jon (Grafton, Mass.)
A: Jon, I don't think there is one answer. In some cases, it's picking the wrong players. In other cases, I think the Patriots can look closer at how they're bringing young players along and ask the question, "Are we doing everything we can to help these guys succeed?" Part of developing young players is committing to them, living with some of the early growing pains, and I think New England is a tough place for a young player to break through because it's a club driven by veterans. This was reflected on sports radio WEEI last week when quarterback Tom Brady talked about not letting a first- or second-year player get in the way of the team's goals. I have been hoping to compare the Patriots' drafts to some of their competition for added context but haven't been able to carve out the necessary time to do it. I think your email reflects the thoughts of some who feel the team's best opportunity to add another Super Bowl championship isn't being maximized.
Q: Because of the Colts' poor record this year, is the Colts-Pats in-season rivalry put on hold for the 2012 season? -- Steve R (Brookline, Mass.)
A: Steve, as part of the rotating schedule format, the Patriots are scheduled to face the Colts in 2012 regardless of record. That game will be in Foxborough. Here is the breakdown of opponents for 2012:
Home: 49ers, Bills, Cardinals, Colts, Dolphins, Jets, Texans, 1 AFC West team (based on 2011 final standings)
Away: Bills, Dolphins, Jaguars, Jets, Rams, Seahawks, Titans, 1 AFC North team (based on final standings)
Q: Hey Mike, could you possibly do a piece on who you think should win the Ed Block Courage Award for this squad? This award deserves to be highlighted because it exemplifies players who play the game with class. I understand that Marcus Cannon would be a great choice, but in my opinion I think Kevin Faulk deserves it. To decide not to retire after a severe knee injury and assume the role of mentor says a lot about his character. At games, you can see him sending signals into Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, almost as if he's a coach. -- Bill
A: Bill, I like your thoughts on Faulk. I think he'd be a great choice. And like you said, one could make a strong case for Cannon as well. To me, this is one of those situations where you can't go wrong either way. I would probably lean toward Faulk because his impact on the team is probably a bit greater. At the same time, I know how impressed everyone in the Patriots organization has been with Cannon.
Q: Hi Mike, what happened to Deion Branch? It seemed he and Brady were having some communication issues on a couple routes. Branch and Brady usually have some of the best chemistry, so was this week just a fluke or nowadays is Brady just more comfortable with Gronk, Welker and Hernandez? -- Nick (Denver)
A: Nick, the duo obviously had an off day. Branch played a lot of snaps (46 of 59, including penalties) and to finish without a catch, that shouldn't happen. He didn't finish the game because of a groin injury, but said he should be fine. We've seen Branch and Brady connect with big results this season, but it's been on and off. I think he's the best they have as a No. 2 option, so they have to ride it out with him.
Q: With McCourty's struggles this season, has anyone checked to see if he and his twin have swapped for the year? Hope the real Devin makes it back in time for the playoffs. -- Darren Bishop (Scotsman in Melbourne, AU)
A: Darren, it's been a tough year for McCourty. While he was struggling before his recent shoulder injury, I think part of his issue now is health-related. It looks to me like he is really hurting. That said, his third-and-18 pass interference penalty was more of a mental mistake than anything. That wasn't smart football.
Q: It seemed like there were a lot of Pats fans at the game in Washington on Sunday. I always thought that Redskins fans were die-hards. What was your impression at the game? -- Mike Smith (Medway, Mass.)
A: I had the same thought, Mike. Speaking with some fans who were on the same plane coming home, their feeling was that it was about 50-50. Also, tight end Rob Gronkowski said, "Yeah, that was crazy, the fans were great. We had like, I would say at least half were New England fans. The fans were definitely out there supporting us. Our fans, they travel well, and it was great that they were all there. ... I would say like half the front row were New England fans behind our bench, throughout the whole arena, so that was cool to see that."
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.