Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats

Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Patriots:

1. More of the media attention has been focused on when tight end Aaron Hernandez might return to the Patriots, but I wouldn't be surprised if Bill Belichick and his staff were actually more concerned about Rob Gronkowski from a health perspective. It's my understanding that Gronkowski has been dealing with significant pain these past two weeks. He's listed on the injury report with a hip ailment, and we know of the back problems from his college days at Arizona. He had his snaps scaled back last week in the win over Buffalo (he had an uncharacteristic lost fumble in that game) and was limited throughout this past week in practice. Gronkowski is as tough as they come, but this is something I'll be watching closely.

2. It's hard to currently argue with those who say the Texans are the AFC's best team. But we'll find out more about them after this three-game stretch -- Monday night at the reeling Jets (how do they handle the spotlight?), after a short week of preparation at home against the Packers (one of the NFC's best), and then at home against the Ravens (measuring-stick game they should win if they are who we think they are).

3. That Oct. 28 Patriots-Rams game in London, which might have initially been viewed as a layup for New England, suddenly looks a little tougher. The Rams' attacking defense, which a national TV audience got to see firsthand Thursday as St. Louis knocked Arizona from the unbeaten ranks, can create some problems. But it will naturally hurt the Rams to be without leading receiver Danny Amendola, who suffered a sprained SC joint on Thursday. Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Amendola is expected to miss four to eight weeks (link here).

4. Couldn't get over what a nonfactor Mario Williams was in the Patriots' 52-28 victory over the Bills on Sunday. Give some credit to Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and the Patriots did pay some extra attention at times by having tight ends chip Williams, but you'd still expect to see more. It's understandable, given the significant investment ($50 million guaranteed) the Bills made, why the heat is being turned up on Williams a bit. He was outplayed by Patriots rookie Chandler Jones, who from an economic standpoint is making much, much, much, much less.

5. A couple of nuggets from the weekly Patriots All-Access program that caught the eye this week: In his postgame speech to players after the 52-28 win over the Bills, Bill Belichick singled out cornerback Devin McCourty and told him that while he might not have much support from those outside of the locker room (a reference to the media, it would seem), he'd go with him any day. The other outside-the-box nugget that interested me was Belichick's explanation on why he keeps his red challenge flag in his sock. The long answer short: He feels it's the most secure place and doesn't want to mistakenly have it fall out of his pocket and be assessed a challenge when he doesn't want one.

6. Former Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was known for his ball security during his time here, so how do you explain this? He has three fumbles in his last 30 touches with the Bengals. One theory is that Green-Ellis is getting more carries in Cincinnati, and it's one the coaching staff seems to think has some validity. As Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com wrote this past week (link here), Green-Ellis might see a reduction in workload with Bernard Scott returning to health.

7. With the Patriots hosting the Broncos today, it's timely to highlight Denver director of player personnel Matt Russell, a former Patriots scout. He's a riser in the Broncos organization, and he was the scout who helped lead the Patriots in the direction of quarterback Matt Cassel in 2005 (Peter King SI story here). Russell comes across as a pure football guy who steers clear of some of the back-slapping and self-promotion from other circles.

8. Through four games, 49ers receiver Randy Moss has totaled 8 receptions for 88 yards and 1 touchdown. Not a big impact for the 3-1 Niners, as Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are seeing more time at receiver than Moss, who has played 80 of a possible 258 snaps (31 percent). On a related note, it's a big stretch for the 49ers, who play three straight home games in a span of 12 days (Bills, Giants, Seahawks).

9. Linebacker Brandon Spikes admits that he didn't have his best game Sept. 23 against the Ravens. He offers no excuses. He also wishes that he had his normal cleats for that game, but they got left behind in Foxborough; having to break in new cleats that night didn't help his cause.

10. Bill Belichick confirmed Friday what seemed to be the case through the first quarter of the season -- the Patriots are using the shotgun less than they did last season. We've been tracking the numbers on ESPNBoston.com (link here), but they've lacked the needed context until now. This would seemingly be tied to the early-season focus of getting the running game going and perhaps the idea of prolonging Tom Brady's career by playing him more under center where, in theory, he'd be exposed to fewer hits.