The Patriots' impressive Monday night win over the Texans was filled with superlatives, and that's why this week's mailbag has plenty of positive vibes. There's not much to complain about if you're a Patriots follower.
The Patriots are in prime position for a first-round playoff bye, and possibly home-field advantage (depending on what happens with the Texans).
It's a short week of preparation, and with that, we'll keep it short and get right to the questions:
Q: I am worried about the secondary's injuries late in the game. Aqib Talib looks to be fine, Alfonzo Dennard could be more compromised with the hamstring, and Kyle Arrington took a "friendly" shot by teammate Justin Francis (totally unnecessary as it happened at the very end of a play in the fourth quarter after the whistle had already been blown). How do you see the Patriots managing the potential of these three players being out vs. the San Francisco 49ers? Who'd play at cornerback? McCourty and Cole? Who else? -- Nissim (Caracas, Venezuela)
A: Nissim, this is the biggest personnel question to come out of the game as the injuries seemed to hit at one position (cornerback). I think Arrington is OK. He actually came on to the field for one play after the injury, before being replaced for good. He spoke with reporters after the game and called it friendly fire. With Talib, I think we'll have to wait and see but it didn't seem like anything catastrophic based on him remaining in uniform and watching the remainder of the game. Dennard is a little more of an unknown. If two of the three players are out, I think they'd move Devin McCourty back to cornerback, which we saw at times in the second half on Monday.
Q: Mike, I feel that every year the Pats defense improves over the course of the year. I suspect that this is a result of the coaching they receive. Are there any stats that track improvements in defense over the course of the year? I feel that the Pats must consistently be at the top of this category every year, but I'd love to see some numbers. -- Bryan (Nashville, Tenn.)
A: Bryan, some telling statistics were included in Jackie MacMullan's column on ESPNBoston.com. It starts with this: The Patriots are 21-0 in the second half of the season since 2010. Opponents average points per game over that stretch went from 22.6 in the first half of the season to 18.7 in the second half. Opposing total QBR -- which is a rating that summarizes all of the quarterback's contributions (passing, rushing, fumbles, sacks and penalties) into a 0-100 scale where 50 is average -- went from 68.6 in the first half of those seasons to 37.4.
Q: The Patriots' defense seems to thrive on turnovers. Do you think they will be able to win in the playoffs if they are not able to force any, or as many turnovers? -- Mike McCarthy (Bridgewater, Mass.)
A: Mike, I think the defense is starting to grow to the point that they could win in a game without a turnover. It's not like there has been a major difference in turnovers the last two weeks in wins over the Dolphins and Texans. That has forced the defense to get off the field in other ways -- such as third-down and fourth-down stops -- and the unit has answered. It's been impressive to watch.
Q: Mike, do you think the secondary is getting better and/or Super Bowl worthy, or is the 'improvement' due to our opposition? -- Jamal Sheikh (Hoover, Ala.)
A: Jamal, I think you have to give credit to the Patriots. While there are times that the opposition could play better, part of it is that the Patriots are forcing them into bad plays.
Q: Mike, Vince Wilfork has taken his game to another level this year. He's been the constant on a defense that has been shaky at times. The fact that he's not been mentioned for defensive player of the year is laughable. -- John (Stoneham, Mass.)
A: John, a player like Wilfork is always going to have a tough time in that discussion because he doesn't produce big stats. You have to look closer to see how he truly impacts a game. But I do think we saw something pretty decisively on Monday night. After all the talk about Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt leading up to the game, I thought Wilfork was the best defensive lineman on the field.
Q: Hey Mike, it seemed like all week through Sunday all the media was talking about was how Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson should be MVP or Comeback player of the year. While both of them are having MVP seasons, the only other player I've heard mentioned in the MVP race is RG3. Why aren't they showing TB12 any love? Every season it seems like the media defaults to Peyton Manning as the MVP even when Tom has the better numbers. -- Riley (Miami)
A: Riley, a game like Brady had Monday night is going to strengthen his candidacy for the MVP. That was the topic of the main story I wrote after the game, and ESPN devoted a segment to the topic after the game with host Suzy Kolber and analysts Trent Dilfer, Steve Young and Rick Reilly. I thought that was one of the notable moments in the stadium on Monday night and I went right to my recording when I got home to see if it was captured on TV (it wasn't). After Brady's end-of-third-quarter scramble in which he picked up a first down, he popped up, pumped his arms, and the crowd starting chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" I thought it was pretty neat that everyone picked up on it. It was well deserved.
Q: Who says that Brandon Lloyd has been a disappointment? I don't believe that Lloyd not being targeted as highly as Welker or Gronk is a complete reflection of trust or ability. I think you mention it a lot that Lloyd is being used to help on the perimeter and stretch the defense. But I do think Monday's game with the Texan's proves why Lloyd's yardage after catches are so low, it's because the catches he makes are ridiculously placed in a tight window outside the numbers where Lloyd ends up out of bounds, or the ball is placed in a very low position that Brady knows only Lloyd can catch leading him to be tackled early. How do you see it? -- Emmanuel C. (Bridgeport, Conn.)
A: Emmanuel, I think Lloyd has helped balance out the passing attack a bit, giving it an outside-the-numbers presence. It hasn't always come easily, but one thing you have to respect is that he's played every game and logged a lot of snaps, most recently through a knee injury that is limiting him in practice and making it harder for him and Tom Brady to lay the all-important groundwork during the week. The yards-after-catch are limited partially because of where he catches the ball, but also how he'll give himself up after the catch. Lloyd explained that he patterns his game after Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and they often played the same way. I think Lloyd has been a good addition to the team this year, and Monday night was one of his finest performances.
Q: I have seen a few WRs who get compared to Wes Welker who don't have his skill set. Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are two of them, yet both are injured and have a tough time staying on the field. Welker gets hit more than any WR in the league on a yearly basis due to how many catches he has and most are underneath and over the middle of the field. There are many parts of Welker's game that get overlooked and perhaps his durability is at the top of that list. Thoughts? -- Anthony Miller (Taylors, S.C.)
A: I agree, Anthony. Of the many impressive statistics that Welker has put together since joining the team in 2007 is this one: 89 of 92 regular-season games played. Of course, he also missed that one playoff game in 2009 after the torn ACL, but his speedy recovery was notable as he was available to the team early in 2010 training camp. Just another reason to appreciate Welker.
Q: Hi Mike. Does Sebastian Vollmer have a long-term issue with his back? When Marcus Cannon was drafted in the fifth round in 2011, the thought was he'd become a good guard but since then he's labeled a right tackle. Yet with Brian Waters not reporting, is Cannon not considered a guard candidate? It seems if Vollmer was healthy, and Cannon was next to him, they would have a terrific pair of large guys on the right side in terms of running the ball. -- Jim Kelleher (Northford, Conn.)
A: Jim, I think part of the reason we've seen Cannon more at tackle than guard up to this point is that the Patriots' depth was a bit thinner at tackle. Long-term, I wouldn't be surprised if Cannon figures more into the guard mix. I remember asking Bill Belichick about this in training camp and he talked about how Cannon mostly played tackle in college and that's where the team thought he fit best at this time. I think that could change in the future.
Q: Hey Mike, Just wondering whether we would see more of Solder lining up as a TE with Cannon as LT as we saw against the Dolphins in the red zone. Solder was a TE in high school (not sure about college) but does he have the chops to cut it in the pros? -- Julian (Pasadena, Calif.)
A: I think he does, Anthony. One of these games, he's going to get a pass thrown in his direction. We've seen him line up as an eligible receiver in different games over the last two seasons and he runs well.He also has solid hands. I wouldn't rule it out, especially in that short-yardage package.
Q: Hey Mike, are there any other teams in the NFL that have consistently churned out second and third-string players that are so willing to be slotted for a support role while also being some of the most dependable hands in the game? You know the names: Faulk, Woodhead, Edelman, the list goes on. I watch a lot of football, and I don't see those dependable third-down support role players on other teams, especially ones that stick around for multiple years. -- Mike Dabrieo (Anchorage, Alaska)
A: Mike, I think the best teams in the league have those types of players, and it highlights the importance of depth on a roster. This is part of the Bill Belichick coaching philosophy -- if everything goes according to plans, the roster has a strong middle class, and part of that is based on developing talent.. The Giants are a team that comes to mind as having a similar make-up. I think it's a good concept and philosophy, but it's harder to execute than it looks. It leads to some tough decisions that aren't always popular.
Q: Hey Mike, how about Larry Fitzgerald to the Patriots this offseason? He's getting upset with Arizona's QB situation, and I remember hearing some rumors about it after the Moss trade. I'm sure Tom Brady wouldn't mind, and dealing with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Stevan Ridley and Larry Fitzgerald would be impossible for opposing defenses. I know it would come at a cost -- Welker wouldn't be able to come back, and Fitzgerald's huge contract would be a big hit on the cap -- but I think that Brady-to-Fitzgerald just sounds too good. Your thoughts? -- Dylan (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
A: Dylan, I think Fitzgerald is a once-in-a-decade type talent. If there was any chance he was on the trade block, I'd think 31 other teams would inquire. It seems like a pipe dream to me, but one can always dream, right?
Q: Mike, does Julian Edelman's IR status mean he's out for the season or now that others have come back from IR can they use the IR tag where he has the option to return if he is somehow healthy? -- Alex Simon (Stamford, Conn.)
A: Alex, Edelman is out for the season with a broken foot. Also, every team gets one injured reserve player who is designated to return and the Patriots used that on tight end Visanthe Shiancoe earlier in the season.
Q: Hi Mike, I have written numerous times about Visanthe Shiancoe and my opinion that he was a wasted roster spot based upon the Pats team and other options. He is a poor blocker at best and is not a threat any more downfield ... now he is a healthy scratch. Why is he on the team? -- Ken (Long Island)
A: Ken, the Patriots have obviously loaded up on tight ends this season, in part because they like the idea of having a two-TE attack. But they haven't received much bang for the buck with Shiancoe. I can't argue with that thought. There are still a few games to play and perhaps that changes. Otherwise, it looks like it was depth that didn't exactly pan out the way it was intended.
Q: Julian Edelman is now done for the season with an ankle injury. He has struggled with injuries for his whole career, and over the last few years. Do you think it's time the Pats cut him loose after missing time with another significant injury? -- Benny (Newton, Mass.)
A: Benny, I think we'll see Edelman back with the Patriots in 2013. I think it's a good fit for both sides. The injuries are obviously frustrating, but I think there is interest on both sides to continue to working relationship. Edelman's injury also affects his value on the open market, which would be another factor in the sides pairing up again in 2013.
Q: Mike, every week I look at injury reports for the upcoming game. This week is typical; Houston has 2 players questionable, we have 18. This is typical of what I see week after week. What would you attribute this to? Do the Pats play harder in practice, are the poorly conditioned or is it just bad luck? -- Wells (Costa Mesa, Calif.)
A: Wells, I wouldn't read too much into those injury reports. Every team fills them out differently and the Patriots take the volume approach -- a lot of names. But if we look closer at how many injured players suited up for a game/didn't suit up for a game, my sense is that the Patriots' numbers will look similar to other teams. The main thing I would look at with the injury reports is what the team is listing as an injury for a player, without getting into handicapping the odds of playing (e.g. doubtful, questionable, probable).
Q: Hi Mike. I was curious if there were NFL guidelines or whether it was a team decision to allow injured players on the sideline during games. Ray Lewis is an example of someone who has been there, with the camera often catching his reactions to the game. However, I rarely see injured Patriots on the sideline. Can you shed any light on this? -- Derek Smith (Dallas)
A: Derek, I think the main thing when it comes to injured players and the Patriots is Bill Belichick's feeling is that an injured player's No. 1 job is to take care of himself and get himself ready to play as soon as possible. That's the goal, and if the player is attending a game, it doesn't really connect with that goal. In the case of Tom Brady in 2008, I think a big part of that was avoiding a distraction that could result with him on the sideline.
Q: I was a bit surprised they re-signed Donte Stallworth instead of Deion Branch. Does Branch still have a lingering injury? -- David (NEK, Vermont)
A: David, Branch still has a locker set up at Gillette Stadium. When he was released, he had a hamstring injury. The assumption is that he's still dealing with that injury.