How much do bans stain Patriots?

The New England Patriots have had two players suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances in a span of three games -- first Brandon Bolden, now Jermaine Cunningham -- and the concern among emailers to this week's mailbag is that there could be other players headed for a similar fate.

That was the primary theme among those sharing thoughts this week, as the Patriots are on a roll and the off-the-field news is viewed as one thing that could potentially stunt the impressive momentum the team has built.

Elsewhere, others are looking ahead to the playoffs and possible matchups, while the thinned receiver corps is a concern.

Here we go ...

Q. Hi Mike, do you know if Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft are looking into PED use on the team? Two guys now get caught makes me worried this is some (hopefully) rogue coach and/or trainer hooking these guys up. Any indication if the leadership are concerned this is something organized or at least semi sanctioned by the staff? -- Charles (South Bend, Ind.)

A. Charles, suspensions for Brandon Bolden and Jermaine Cunningham put a black mark on the Patriots "brand," and because of that, I'd be shocked if Kraft in particular wasn't asking some hard questions. That brand means a lot to him. I also think Belichick cares about that and wants his players to do the right thing. According to transactions data examined by ESPN Stats & Information, there have been 26 players suspended for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs this year. It's all over the league, not just the Patriots, but I understand your concern. If there is another Patriots player that is suspended, I'd start to wonder if there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed (not necessarily a coach or staff member providing an illegal substance, but players not understanding or following the guidelines).

Q. Hey Mike, just curious about the Patriots and players using PEDs. We often hear about the success Belichick and Co. have getting players to buy in to the Patriot Way, but we still have people getting snagged for PED use. It may be unrealistic to think that it wouldn't happen at all, but how does the staff react? Getting caught means valuable pieces are missing for weeks at a time and we're in the home stretch. -- Kevin (Los Angeles)

A. Bill Belichick said on Boston sports radio station WEEI on Monday that it's "unfortunate" with Cunningham, and I think there is a feeling that, in most cases, the players have let the team down. It doesn't matter what the substance is; there is a group of players counting on everyone in the locker room to do their part and there was a breakdown in the process. That's a major disappointment and it starts with the actions of the individual who has been suspended.

Q. Hi Mike, it is discouraging to hear that Jermaine Cunningham is being suspended especially after his recent good performance and given the team's injuries during this critical stretch of games. Understanding the NFL's challenges to keep on top of all drugs why does it not, by now, inform teams of such a list? It would minimize transgressions inadvertently or otherwise made by players. Your thoughts? -- Jake (Vancouver)

A. Jake, the teams and players know all the substances and drugs that are banned. The league isn't going to announce it, but the team almost always knows what the player is suspended for. In this case, I don't pin any blame on the NFL. This is mostly on the player, and in some cases, his representatives for making sure all the proper paperwork is filled out if the substance is legal with the proper permission.

Q. I wanted to hit on two topics, one on each side of the ball. In light of the Jermaine Cunningham suspension, you noted the likelihood of an increased role for Trevor Scott as well as the rookies Justin Francis and Jake Bequette (especially if Chandler Jones is limited). I wonder if Ron Brace might be a fit as well. I know Cunningham had lined up some on the interior of the line (obviously a big difference in speed with him and Brace which may make that less of a matchup advantage) and I didn't know if it's a good opportunity for the team to see how much they have in Brace. On the offensive side of things, we've all grown accustomed to Tom Brady's accuracy over the years and I think he still has that intact for the most part, with one exception. It seems to me just from the eyeball test watching the games, he tends to sail his throws a bit to Brandon Lloyd. That's understandable on the sidelines but I've seen a few instances of it downfield as well. I'm wondering if you've noticed that and if it might be tied to the tendency we've seen of Lloyd to hesitate a bit in the face of contact? -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, I feel like we've seen Brace as a pocket-pusher on third down. It sort of reminds me of the one-game stint in which the team had Terdell Sands (6-foot-7, 335 pounds) in here in 2009 -- they used him as a sub-rusher and it was basically like a bulldozer moving forward. Not much wiggle there. Maybe Brace (6-3, 330) can give them a little of that, but I wouldn't project it being a huge part of the plan. I think they have a good idea of what Brace can bring them, and as you mentioned, Cunningham (6-3, 260) is a completely different type of player -- more initial quickness, less bulk. On Brady-Lloyd, sometimes it seems like it's grinding gears. Not always so smooth and I'm not sure if it's because of Lloyd's style of play. I don't think it's been all bad, so like others, I'd put Lloyd in the middle of the spectrum, much better than Joey Galloway/Chad Ochocinco but several notches below Randy Moss.

Q. Hi Mike, the Patriots get Brandon Bolden back from his suspension next week. Bolden was a major contributor on the ground in the first half of the season. Shane Vereen has also looked like a great complement to Stevan Ridley in the running game the last couple of weeks. Will there be a place for Bolden in the game plans going forward? How do you think the Patriots will deal with their embarrassment of riches in the backfield the rest of the season? -- Keith (Singapore)

A. Keith, it starts on special teams, where Bolden was a regular contributor before his injury. So that should put him back on the 46-man game-day roster, which in turn, should get him some carries. So much changes on a week-to-week basis -- via injury and even suspension -- that who really knows what the picture will look like next week? If it's similar to this week's, I still think they'll find a way to fit Bolden into the mix.

Q. How do the number of turnovers this year compare to last year for the Pats? -- Kris (Providence, R.I.)

A. Kris, the Patriots have a plus-24 turnover differential entering Week 13 action (32 takeaways, 8 giveaways). Last year, entering Week 13, it was plus-6 (21 takeaways, 15 giveaways). That's a pretty remarkable difference.

Q. The Patriots are playing their best football right now. With the high takeaway differential that they are sporting, and with the secondary starting to look like it can complement the strong front seven of the defense, do you see any reason why the Patriots can't finish out the season 13-3? Sure, Houston and San Francisco are still on the schedule, but those two teams seem to be slowing down ever so slightly. -- Jason (Pretzfeld, Germany)

A. I picked them to run the table, so I see the same possibility I did at the halfway mark. That said, I think the next three games are very tough. I don't think they will be as easy as the Patriots made it look in the previous two games.

Q. Mike, do you think the Patriots need to have a first-round bye to win the AFC? Under Belichick, the Patriots have won 5 AFC championships, and all of those teams had a first-round playoff bye. I would actually favor the Patriots right now if they had to face the Texans or Ravens in the playoffs. I'd be concerned about a matchup with the Broncos. As for my sleeper pick for the playoffs, I think the Bengals will be a tough out for teams down the stretch. Are you as confident as I am about having to go through Baltimore or Houston to get to the Super Bowl? What sleeper team do you think will pose problems come playoff time? -- Justin (Phoenix, Ariz.)

A. Justin, it's the Broncos for me as well, because of Peyton Manning. Still, I think the Patriots have as good of a chance as any team. As for the first-round bye, I'd sum up my thoughts this way: Is it necessary? No. Is it desired? Yes. I think there is something to be said for continuing to play each week, and not having that break, like we've seen the Giants do in recent years in the playoffs. So while the bye is a nice thing to have, I don't think it's as big of a deal as maybe it once was.

Q. Hey Mike. Please be careful on your weekly P.A.T. segment. We would hate to lose someone so valuable on a P.A.T.! My question is, at this point, does the relative weakness of the AFC East hurt the Pats big picture? Seems like they would be better served with some stiffer competition when it comes to playoff time. -- Martini (Cranston, R.I.)

A. LOL, Martini. I don't think it's a big factor in terms of the level of competition within the division. We could say the same thing about Houston in the AFC South and Denver in the AFC West. The Patriots also still face a tough San Francisco team, not to mention the AFC's best in Houston. The Patriots will be tested.

Q. Mike, a good number of sports writers seemed to believe that Brandon Lloyd signed a "team-friendly deal" that express his willingness to take a pay cut to play for the Pats. However, looking at his stats and his season so far, it seems his deal was all the market would bear for him. He's had one very good season and a number of average years. Looking back now, do you think his deal was favorable to him, the Patriots, or just right? -- Andrew (Washington, D.C.)

A. Andrew, I still view it as a solid deal for the Patriots. I know Lloyd's stats don't jump off the page (49 catches, 551 yards, 3 TDs), but he's been their No. 1 receiver in terms of playing time (86.8 percent) and helped balance out the field because he can make some plays on the outside. There have been some rocky moments (e.g. first Jets game), but overall, I think the price was a good one for the Patriots. I know some view him as a disappointment, but I think that was tied to maybe unrealistic expectations. This offense spreads the ball around and Lloyd has done his part in my view.

Q. Hi Mike, please tell me that Bill Belichick has a plan for the WR position with Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm) out and Julian Edelman having sustained a concussion. Deion Branch seems like a no brainer, but Greg Salas being picked up by Philly must really disappoint Belichick. I realize Matthew Slater is technically a WR, but that doesn't count in my book. What do you think the plan is? -- Snott (Englewood, N.J.)

A. Snott, I think the key is going four-deep at tight end (Gronkowski out), with Aaron Hernandez essentially serving as a receiver. It's not ideal, but if they had to get through a game with just Lloyd and Wes Welker taking most of the snaps at receiver, I think they could manage for one week. The backs can catch the ball well too (e.g. Shane Vereen versus the Jets). But long-term, it would have to be addressed. Branch is the natural choice, but there's also Donte' Stallworth or someone like Britt Davis, who was doing some nice things in training camp before he was injured.

Q. Mike, I am a firm believer that 3 seasons later is the soonest you can grade all but the very best or worst drafts. Eleven games in I am very hopeful that we will be happy with this one a few years from now. I'm not ready to send any of them to Canton, but a very solid start. -- Joe (Waimea, Hawaii)

A. Joe, the Patriots are getting significant contributions from players throughout the last three draft classes. And here I was thinking this Belichick guy couldn't draft (tongue in cheek).

Q. Mike, it's been a great few weeks to be a Patriots fan, good results, especially against the Jets, improvement in the secondary, more turnovers and a weakened O-line holding up well. The only thing that appears to have regressed at all is the run defense. Any idea why this has slipped a little? Against the Bills it was understandable, but the Jets and Colts have not been that good running this year. Is it just blown assignments and poor tackling, or are we just being a little more cautious to defend the (big) pass at the moment at the cost of the run? -- Adrian (London)

A. Adrian, I was wondering the same thing in the first quarter of Thursday's game against the Jets, and when I go back and watch the games the main thing that stands out to me is that they aren't sound in their run fits on a consistent basis. What that means, from this view, is that players aren't filling their gaps as solidly as needed. Sometimes they are getting blocked out of the play. Other times, they aren't shedding blocks. Sometimes, it's a lighter box and they are getting gashed, while other times they seem to be playing the pass and get run by. I'd expect improvement, but I agree, this isn't the same stout run D we saw earlier in the year.

Q. Hi Mike, right now my defensive backfield would be: LCB -- Aqib Talib, RCB -- Alfonzo Dennard, SS -- Tavon Wilson, FS -- Devin McCourty ... with Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington joining in sub. This is a young and talented group, that could grow together and turn one of our weaknesses into a strength for many years to come. Thoughts? -- Jost (Düsseldorf, Germany)

A. Jost, I think you have three of the four, with the one change coming at safety, where Steve Gregory/Patrick Chung are going to get the nod over Wilson. I think Wilson could develop into a solid player, but this team needs a little more experience there right now in my view. Wilson's playing time has dipped the last two weeks now that Gregory is back from injury, and I'd expect that to continue.

Q. Hi Mike, I didn't hear anything about Talib (despite playing 71 of 72 snaps) during or after the game on Thursday, which I take as a good sign. I am getting optimistic about the secondary with the young guys stepping in. How did Talib do from your perspective? We never saw him from the broadcast. Do you think he is a long term fit for the Patriots? -- Henry (Boston)

A. Henry, I didn't think he was really tested in the game, which was more a result of the Jets' anemic passing game. To me, the significance of the 71 of 72 snaps was conditioning. He's getting his legs under him. As for the long-term fit, I just think it's too early to be viewing it along those lines. This is about the short-term and we're only two games in.

Q. Mike, how does Belichick win 200 games and I have to Google where he is all time because it's not posted here? -- Franny (Carlsbad, Calif.)

A. Franny, apologies that you couldn't find it. Here is the main story written from the Jets game on the milestone.

Q. Hey Mike, with Tim Tebow looking like he's on his way out of New York and Tom Brady with most likely a couple seasons left, I feel he is a better heir apparent. The NFL is changing and I don't feel Ryan Mallett has what it takes. Josh McDaniels saw something he liked and they have the football brains to make it happen. What do you think? -- Darren (Boston)

A. Darren, I don't see Tebow as a Brady heir apparent. Could he possibly land here as a niche player? I guess I could see that, even though I have my doubts it would really come to fruition. Regardless, the way Brady is playing, I think we're looking at more than "a couple seasons left."

Q. Hi Mike, given the 2 tough games after the Dolphins game -- against the Texans and then the 49ers -- I was curious if the Patriots have advanced game-planning for games that are 2-3 weeks ahead given the opponents record. -- Steve (Dallas)

A. Steve, this is standard operating procedure for all teams/opponents, regardless of record. The Patriots have scouts devoted to the pro side who keep track/scout all teams. So this week, there will be a Patriots scout at the Texans' game in Tennessee keeping a close eye on the proceedings who will write up a report on the game.

Q. Hey Mike, what differences do you see between Edelman and Welker? Personally, I think that Edelman is more athletic and more skilled, but Welker is more agile and a better route runner. Do you think that the skill set difference between them and Welker's production is enough to keep him around for another year or should Edelman take over in 2013? -- Tom (Acton, Mass.)

A. Tom, I'd agree with that assessment, but would add that Welker has proven to be more durable and a clutch performer. As we know, a big part of the decision-making process is tied to economics. I think Welker and the Patriots are a perfect match and it would be a shame if their pairing doesn't continue, but at what cost? That's the key. And let's not forget, Edelman will be an unrestricted free agent as well after the season.

Q. Hey Mike, there have been a lot of good takeaways from the past two games, but I have one bad one: the recent misses by Stephen Gostkowski. Eventually the Pats are going to be in a close game and are going to need a clutch kick. Gostkowski has been way too inconsistent for me to trust him in that situation. Your thoughts? – Spencer

A. Spencer, I thought that missed kick Thursday was as much on the entire snap-hold-kick operation as anything. But I see the viewpoint on Gostkowski being a bit shaky. He's made some big kicks for them this year, but he's missed some too. Not as consistent as desired. The question I'd ask is, "If not Gostkowski, then who?" It's not like there will be a better option that could come in tomorrow and produce better results in my view. That's one reason why I think it's smart to stick with him.

Q. McCourty has done a good job as a kickoff returner but due to concerns about his health, don't you think it would be good to sprinkle in Vereen and Edelman on kickoff returns? -- David (North Attleborough, Mass.)

A. David, given the importance of McCourty keeping the back end of the defense settled down, it would be a tough blow if he was hurt returning a kickoff. I'd endorse the idea of limiting his reps in that role. Not that the endorsement means anything.

Q. How about some serious props for Marcus Cannon? Aside from his health scare, here's his first full-game start, on the road, short week, big match -- and he ACES it! Smooth as the other side of Stuart Scott's pillow. Didn't give up a sack, didn't take a penalty. C'mon, Mike, give Cannon a fusillade of praise! : ) -- Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer (Foxborough, Mass.)

A. Well deserved. Solid performance on Thursday from Cannon.

Q. Mike, I read somewhere recently that Kellen Winslow was released from the Pats in part because of attitude issues -- tying the Pats to Winslow's other troubled tenures. This was news to me. I thought Winslow's release was entirely due to his physical health/inability to perform. Do you have any scuttlebutt on this? -- Paul (Boston)

A. Paul, ESPN's Ed Werder reported at the time that Winslow wasn't sure he wanted to go through the pain with his knee not knowing how involved he'd be in the game-plan on a week-to-week basis, and that's what led to the release. I assume it was along those lines.

Q. How can the Patriots let Greg Salas get away with all they invested in him already? Would it not have been wise to waive somebody else? -- Tommy (Nashville, Tenn.)

A. Tommy, Salas had been promoted to the 53-man active roster, so they would have had to waive another player. There aren't many areas where they could have trimmed from -- maybe offensive lineman Mitch Petrus, but what if one of the guards got hurt Thursday? Maybe Derrick Martin? It's always a push and pull on building to the future while winning games right now. While I was high on Salas' potential, chances are they will find another young receiver to work with, most likely in the draft.

Q. Mike, well, the only disappointment I had this weekend was the Patriots missing out on Greg Salas. Not a big deal, but I would have liked to watch him develop. What exactly are the rules re: a player's ability to pick where he goes? I assume a practice squad player doesn't have to go to another team's roster (hence Salas' extra pay while in Foxborough); however, could Salas have refused to go to Philly off the waiver wire? -- Chris (Connecticut)

A. You nailed it, Chris. As a member of the practice squad, Salas could dictate whether he stayed or pursued another opportunity. When claimed on waivers, after being waived off the active roster, the player has no choice -- he has to report or he doesn't play.

Q. Mike, will be traveling to Miami to catch the Pats play the Dolphins. Will you be posting a location where Pats fans will be celebrating/gathering on Saturday night? -- Tom (Boston)

A. Tom, a few others have reached out. I'm thinking about a possible informal gathering in the afternoon. Let me see what I might be able to put together and if it comes together, the plan will be to post details on our Patriots blog on ESPNBoston.com.