This week's Patriots mailbag is filled with mixed emotions.
The silver-lining crowd has been well accounted for. As disappointing as the Patriots' loss to the 49ers was on Sunday night, the spirited second-half charge had many citing the team's resolve as a reason to believe there are better things ahead.
But as is the case with any loss, it has sparked some concern from others. Big plays given up by the defense, another fumble by running back Stevan Ridley and cornerback Kyle Arrington's play have come under some fire.
The Patriots have two regular-season games remaining -- at Jacksonville (Dec. 23) and home against Miami (Dec. 30) -- but the events of the past weekend have many looking ahead. That's where we start this week.
Q. Hi Mike, it is quite conceivable the Texans could lose to the charged-up playoff-hunting Vikings and then visiting a tough-spirited divisional rival Colts team and losing there. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)
A. Sure, Jake, that is possible. But one thing I'd say is that whenever you are relying on something else to happen to help your cause, it's probably best to brace for the worst-case scenario. One additional thought on that Vikings-Texans game: We've seen the NFC flex its muscle this season (e.g. Patriots were 1-3 against the NFC West), so I'm interested to see how the game plays out from that perspective. How does an 8-6 team from the NFC stack up, on the road, against a 12-2 team from the AFC?
Q. While I think the gang could win in Denver and then Houston, it just seems like you'd be asking for too much. And any time Michael Crabtree looks like a star, it means your defense failed. Thoughts? -- Sean M. (Faribault, Minn.)
A. Sean, why is it asking for too much? It's obviously not ideal -- you'd prefer to be home and play two games instead of three -- but this is a similar path to the one the Giants took in 2007 and 2011. When the Patriots play their best, I think they can beat anyone, anywhere. As for Crabtree, that winning touchdown was obviously not how you draw it up defensively. But I don't think Crabtree is a bad player; he's a former first-round pick with some playmaking ability.
Q. Mike, so as it stands, the Patriots will most likely have to play at Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs, that is unless Houston loses its final two games and/or Denver loses one of its final two. I believe with a healthy Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots will at least win the AFC. Without this dynamic duo, the Patriots will lose in Denver. How do you feel this will all shape out? Do you think the Patriots have pigeonholed themselves into that No. 3 spot? -- Justin (Goodyear, Ariz.)
A. Justin, that's how it looks in my crystal ball this week in terms of playoff seeding. I would pick the Patriots in a wild-card-round playoff game at home, although I'd caution anyone from overlooking a team like the Steelers or Bengals in that scenario. Then it comes down to beating Denver on the road. That's a tough assignment but something the Patriots are capable of doing.
Q. Any positives to take from this loss to the 49ers? We seemed to take a major step back. -- Marko M. (Indiana)
A. Marko, I think the main positive was how the Patriots clawed back to give themselves a chance to win when down 31-3. That speaks to the team's resilience. As for the "major step back," that's a little too strong for me. I think they just made life harder for themselves, but they're still in the hunt and a prime contender. The last thing for me is that it shouldn't be overlooked that the 49ers are a real good team and they deserve a tip of the cap for their performance; those were two of the NFL's best teams competing their tails off against each other. Perhaps the teams will meet up again and it will be similar to the 2001 season. In 2001, the Patriots and Rams met in the regular season in Foxborough (Rams win) and then in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 at the Louisiana Superdome (Patriots win). For what it's worth, this year's Super Bowl is scheduled for Feb. 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Q. Hi Mike, do you sense that the Patriots have the motivation to turn this loss into a stepping stone to their success in the post season? -- Jay N. (Mercer Island, Seattle)
A. Jay, I didn't sense this as a "stepping stone" or "wake-up call" type of situation. I think the players know how good they are and that they didn't play up to their capabilities with four costly turnovers. I sensed disappointment but belief that even on their worst day they still had a chance. Maybe it's a good reminder for some of the younger players, but I wasn't sensing too much of that after the game.
Q. Mike, brutal game, great comeback, yet my confidence remains high. I think this team can win it all, should have last year, but I can't help but think they're a year away from being unstoppable. The rookies and second-year guys will get better and gel, we may get a deep threat and some safety help. They still seem like they're "seasoning" as a team. Thoughts? Second, I know we demand perfection, but when you think about what has happened over the past three-four years it is beyond remarkable. Do people realize that with only Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, Belichick has completely turned over a defensive roster and not just skipped the "rebuilding" losing season pattern but has gone 10-6, 14-2, 13-3 and likely 12-4 and made it to a Super Bowl? I mean, I'm as demanding as the next Pats fan, but how spoiled are we? -- grandjordanian (San Diego, Calif.)
A. No disagreement from here; it's been incomparable success over the past decade. Just look around the rest of the NFL, and see how teams fall off on a year-to-year basis, and the consistency of the always-in-the-hunt Patriots is to be lauded. At some point in time, I am sure we will all be looking back on this Belichick/Brady era and wondering if it was appreciated enough as it was unfolding.
Q. Hey Mike, I just wanted to pass on an observation as a non-Boston resident. I know that it was a tough Pats loss and it relegated them to a likely trip to Denver. However, I think as Pats fans we are too conditioned to think Super Bowl or bust. Down 31-3, I didn't expect the Pats to win but I remember thinking if "Brady only needs four touchdown drives." I don't know how many other QB's this year or in NFL history would have the talent, belief, and mental toughness to make any lead seem insurmountable. So many franchises (the Chicago one I am located near ) would have absolutely no chance. I know Brady is not perfect, but Patriots fans are so lucky to be in every game and have a chance every season because of him. -- Aakash B. (Hoffman Estates, Il.)
A. Aakash, usually after a loss, it brings out some spirited emails to the mailbag, but this week has been different. It strikes me as the mildest reaction to a disappointing loss in recent memory. I think a big part of that is appreciation for the fight the Patriots showed. We all have bad days and that first half was as bad as we've seen the Patriots' offense this year (credit to the 49ers, too). It's how you respond to them, and this team, led by Brady, will give you everything it has; can't ask for much more than that. As for Super Bowl or bust, the bar has been raised high here, and in one respect I think it's unfortunate because it's easier to lose sight of the journey that it takes to reach that goal. Then again, as Belichick and Brady have pointed out, the reason they're playing is for the championship and only one team ends the year happy.
Q. Mike, with Alfonzo Dennard hurt (right knee) and Kyle Arrington not playing well on the outside, we have some secondary issues to address before Jacksonville, which has deep threats in its receiving corps. Assuming Dennard doesn't play, do we move Devin McCourty back to corner and let Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory man the safety positions, or keep McCourty at safety and have Arrington or, say, Marquice Cole take the outside spot? -- Matt (Bristol, Conn.)
A. Matt, this is a tough call, but I'd stay the course. Arrington made the costly mistake with the poor tackling technique on Michael Crabtree's 38-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and I could see the coaching staff holding him accountable and making a change there. Cole is more of an inside corner in sub packages, so my feeling is that if a change is made, it would be with McCourty. Then the question becomes if you want to tinker with two spots to fill one hole. I know Bill Belichick likes the idea of continuity back there and that's why I'm thinking he'll stick with Arrington at corner.
Q. Hey Mike, I have to say that Kyle Arrington missing that tackle in the fourth quarter was not an isolated incident. If there was a stat for blown coverages, I am convinced that he would rank at the top in the NFL. He covers poorly, he tackles poorly. He has given up too many big plays, week in and week out. Am I the only one who sees his jersey number next to 75 percent of these blown plays? And if not, when will he end up on the bench? -- Ryan (Watertown, Mass.)
A. Ryan, it's not all bad for Arrington, who had settled into a nice role as a slot option in recent weeks. I think the issue becomes when he's asked to play outside on a consistent basis; is that the best fit for him? It seemed like he was thriving in the reduced role, but when Alfonzo Dennard left the game late in the second quarter, Arrington was thrust into the top role.
Q. Hi Mike, I hope Patrick Chung has worked his way out of Bill Belichick's doghouse because Steve Gregory is not the answer at safety. Why continue to blitz a guy who is allergic to contact? He has to be the least physical safety in the league. At least Chung brings a physical presence to the game and can blitz and stop the run. While Chung's pass defense left a lot to be desired, Gregory is not bathing himself in glory either. Time to change it up. -- John F. (Walpole, Mass.)
A. You might be on to something, John, because Chung played extensively in the base defense in the second half (replacing Gregory) and it was the first time we've seen that since Chung returned to action Nov. 22 from his shoulder injury. The initial thought was that there might be an injury to Gregory, but when an injury update on Gregory was requested at the game, the team informed reporters that there was no injury. Chung has been the odd man out since Devin McCourty moved to safety, but it looks like he could be working his way back into the mix.
Q. Hey Mike, teams will continue to go after Stevan Ridley and try to cause the fumble after Sunday night. Do you think there will be any ramifications when it comes to playing time (beyond Jacksonville) for Ridley? He's does a lot of things well, but they can not turn it over like that in the playoffs. -- Glenn (Boston)
A. Glenn, I don't think there will be ramifications because he's the best option the Patriots have. He made a mistake and some credit goes to the defense for delivering the solid hit, helmet on ball. You're right in that teams will be coming after Ridley, who's lost the football in each of the past two games, and that's a challenge he'll have to answer. That's how it works; when an opponent sees a ball-security liability on film, the idea is to attack it with force.
Q. Hi Mike, it looks like Chandler Jones has hit the proverbial "rookie wall." What can be done from the coaches' point of view to help him surpass it with just two regular-season games left? -- Memo (Mexico)
A. Memo, Jones' ankle injury Nov. 18 stunted the momentum he had built to that point of the season. I'm not so sure it's the rookie wall with Jones; perhaps it's regaining confidence with the ankle. Jones was replaced for a long stretch in the second half of Sunday's game (Frank Gore's 9-yard TD run sparked the change as he was easily handled up front) and my sense is that it comes down to better play against the run/defeating blocks. Let's see how the coaching staff manages Jones' playing time, as that is one way to counter the so-called "rookie wall."
Q. What are your thoughts on the officiating? It took 10 minutes to figure out what to do about the punt that wasn't touched by SF. I was disappointed in general with the overall calls, especially considering that the NFL's star ref was in the spotlight. -- Adam S. (Cranston)
A. That wasn't Ed Hochuli's shining moment, Adam. I didn't think the officiating was the reason for the final result, but when a game takes 3 hours and 40 minutes to complete (longest of the Patriots' season), officiating is usually the first place I look as to the reason.
Q. Mike, in short, what makes for good special teams? We have been saying that the Patriots' return game has been less than mediocre. In the game against 49ers, we discovered their covering game may not be good enough. Things might change when Tracy White is back, but I am worried that fate of their playoff games depends on plays of special teams. -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. MarkJ, I think a good place to start is with discipline and penalties. The Patriots had three penalties on their punt return unit on Sunday night. There is a higher likelihood of penalties on special teams based on the way those plays unfold, and that's the first area to tighten up from this view. Then it just comes down to being able to defeat blocks on the kickoff coverage unit. To put some names to the general term "special teams," here is how the Patriots' units were comprised on Sunday night.
Q. First of all, big props to Danny Woodhead, Brandon Lloyd and Tom Brady for trying their best to make up for the rest of the offense's uncharacteristic mistakes. Injuries are not an excuse, but I am imagining this game would have been a lot different if Gronk had been playing. When is he coming back? -- Benjamin W. (Grand Rapids, Mich.)
A. Benjamin, Gronkowski should be ready for the playoffs. I think the idea of getting him a few snaps before then is a good one, just to get his conditioning level up a bit.
Q. It really bugs me how everyone wants to just hand over the MVP award to Peyton Manning every year. As I understand the MVP rating, you are asking how much has this guy done for his team. The Broncos made the playoffs last year and probably will this year. Comeback player of the year? OK. But MVP? Based on what? -- Steve (Wilmington, Del.)
A. Steve, Manning supporters would probably counter your point by saying that while the Broncos made the playoffs last year, they weren't a true title contender. They are this year and Manning is obviously the catalyst. Is he the MVP? I think Tom Brady has just as strong of a candidacy, but it's a good debate. In the end, my guess is that Manning will win it, in part because it's a fresh storyline (Manning's first year with the Broncos) while it's the "same old" winning story with Brady.
Q. Hey Mike, seems like everyone's trying to find silver linings from Sunday night's loss. One thing that I think has been missed by some was the stellar game Brandon Lloyd played. The Niners took out the middle of the field and Wes Welker effectively, and Lloyd's outside presence got the Pats out of a lot of jams. Thoughts? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A. Tron, that was Lloyd's best game as a Patriot, I don't think there is any question about that. That deep ball down the right sideline in the second half was one of the top Patriots offensive plays of the year. Terrific execution, and a reminder that Tom Brady can still throw the deep ball effectively. Lloyd has put together solid back-to-back games.
Q. Mike, given thin depth at the WR position, looking forward who could be on the radar for signing? Are there any receivers on other teams' practice squads that the Pats could pick up, hopefully one that could return punts so we can protect Welker? -- Matthew W. (Medway, Mass.)
A. Matthew, the one receiver who stands out as a possibility is veteran Jabar Gaffney, mainly because he's been with the team and has some background in the system. He was just on suspension, so that's something that would have to be looked into, but if everything checks out I think they could use another receiver. One final thought: They have three receivers on the practice squad -- Kamar Aiken, Tony Logan and Jeremy Ebert.
Q. Mike, why is the Patriots' wide receiver core so unstable? They came out in the offseason and were loaded at the position and now we really only have three WRs (with the Branch addition). Is there any chance that BB could trade up in the draft to get a No. 1 receiver, or free agency? It just seems like there is no stability with this group. -- Nate (Pennsylvania)
A. Nate, I think the instability is in the third and fourth spots, which is important context. The Patriots have had solid stability when it comes to the top guys -- Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. They've played every game this season and Lloyd is coming off his best game as a Patriot. I do think they'll look to draft/add a receiver next season as the depth is a little thin and adding some youth/numbers to the group is necessary.
Q. Mike, does the empty 53rd spot mean Gronk is coming back next week? Why fill the spot with a practice squad player when they wouldn't dress anyway -- and risk losing them (e.g. Salas) if Gronk is back soon? -- Mike (W. Roxbury, Mass.)
A. Mike, the open 53rd spot has less to do with Gronkowski, who is already on the 53-man roster even though he's been injured. The main thing about the 53rd spot is that the Patriots weren't going to promote someone if they didn't feel that player was going to be on the 46-man game-day roster. Depending on the injury situation after Sunday night's 49ers game, the Patriots might wait another week until Jermaine Cunningham's suspension is over on Dec. 24 and have him fill the final spot.
Q. Hi Mike, have the Patriots injury reports consistently reported many more players on its list than the competition this year? Have you compiled this data going back several years and is it a pattern? -- Brendan (Nashua, N.H.)
A. Hi Brendan, I haven't compared the volume of the Patriots' injury reports with other teams. I feel like all 53 players could be on there in some form or another, especially at this point of the year, and the Patriots take a volume approach in terms of how many they list. I don't read too much into the volume, as much as focus on a few individual players depending on their situation.
Q. With so few draft picks this year (odd for the Pats, but definitely enjoying the benefits this season!), where do you see us drafting position wise next year? -- Mike R. (Saint Clair, Penn.)
A. Mike, one thing I'd say is that while the Patriots currently don't have a full cupboard of draft picks, they often move around the board and create more picks for themselves. I expect that to happen. As for areas they could focus on, some that come to mind: defensive tackle, defensive back, offensive tackle, receiver, quarterback.