Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. With cornerback Darrelle Revis as the centerpiece, the Patriots are deeper, more talented and healthier in the secondary this late in the season than at any point I can remember in Bill Belichick’s prior 14 seasons as head coach. That’s been a key because of 420 defensive snaps played over the last six games, the Patriots have been in sub packages (which call for at least one extra player in the secondary) a staggering 377 times. That means they were only in their base or goal-line defense on just 43 snaps over the last six games. Think about that for a moment. We often refer to a defense as a base 3-4 or base 4-3, but teams like the Patriots are in those packages less frequently than ever. Sub is the new base.
Patriots 2014 defensive packages
Sub: 661 of 898 (73.6 percent)
Base: 227 of 898 (25.2 percent)
Heavy: 10 of 898 (1.1 percent)
2. Here’s something to file away today: If the Patriots beat the Dolphins at home to win the AFC East championship, and the Broncos beat the Chargers on the road to win the AFC West championship, it will ensure that the Patriots visit the Broncos in the 2015 regular season. Then the only remaining hole to fill with 2015 opponents would be the AFC North winner, which will visit Gillette Stadium.
3. The role that agents play, and also the sometimes-strained business relationships between agents and teams, can be a factor that is easy to overlook when analyzing a team’s decision-making process with contracts. I think that was part of what led the Patriots to sign reserve offensive tackle Marcus Cannon to a two-year extension worth up to $9 million on Thursday, as it provides a layer of protection in an upcoming negotiation with an agent, David Dunn, with whom the team’s business relationship might best be described as frosty right now. Dunn is one of the game’s more successful agents, but it seems fair to say there is still a thawing process taking place in the aftermath of the 2011-2013 Wes Welker negotiation that ended with hard feelings (at least on one side). How does this relate to Cannon? Consider that Dunn represents Patriots starting left tackle Nate Solder, who is due a fifth-year option of $7.4 million in 2015 before becoming a free agent. Dunn also represents running back Shane Vereen, who is a free agent after this season. My sense is that initial dialogue on the future of both players -- the first time the Patriots have had notable dialogue with Dunn’s agency since the Welker fallout -- has produced a similar dynamic to where the sides first were with Welker: a pretty sizable gap when it comes to assessing market value. So in extending Cannon, and using a 2014 fourth-round pick on running back James White (who like Vereen is known for his good hands), I see it as the club's move to position itself with “David Dunn Insurance” after its experience with him with Welker.
4. Specific to Cannon, I think it’s fair to say he’s had a shaky 2014 season. But the Patriots are obviously taking into account his complete body of work, and it’s easy to forget that he was very good starting at right tackle for the last half of the 2013 season. I also think Bill Belichick might acknowledge that he didn’t do Cannon any favors by not playing him at guard in the preseason -- not a single snap -- and then starting him there for the first three weeks of the regular season (Cannon struggled considerably). For a coaching staff that is generally excellent in putting its players in position to succeed by accentuating their strengths and masking their deficiencies, they seemed to err with Cannon. I think the club took that into account at the negotiating table.
5a. Did you Know, Part I: The Colts have won 11 straight AFC South games entering today’s home date with division foe Houston.
5b. Did you Know, Part II: The Packers, who visit the Bills today, are averaging 40 points per game at home this season and 22.5 points per game on the road. No team has a greater discrepancy.
5c. Did you Know, Part III: The Lions, who host the Vikings today before finishing the year with road games at Chicago and Green Bay, have allowed a league-low 17.2 points per game this season. The last time Detroit led the NFL in scoring defense was 1952.
5d. Did you Know, Part IV: The Jets, who host the Patriots next Sunday after a road game today against the Titans, are tied for last with a league-low 10 takeaways.
5e. Did you Know, Part V: Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, the 2011 high second-round pick of the Patriots who didn’t pan out, was promoted to the Raiders’ 53-man roster from the practice squad on Saturday. Dowling had been on the Raiders’ practice squad since Sept. 1.
6. The Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune reported that the Patriots were making a push to sign rookie quarterback David Fales off the Bears practice squad, which led Chicago to promote Fales to their 53-man roster Saturday. Why would the Patriots be so aggressive with a third-string quarterback like Fales? As they showed by drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in the late second round this year, quarterback trumps all when it comes to positional value, and this is also the time of year when teams poach from practice squads with future planning in mind.
7. While Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots are considering season-ending injured reserve for rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), who has already been ruled out for today’s game against Miami, perhaps one reason they haven’t done so is that they don't currently need the spot for someone else on the 46-man game-day roster. Thus, the smart play for now might be to simply hold Easley’s roster spot and use it for maneuverability if someone attempts to poach a practice squad player the Patriots desire to keep, or if the Patriots, in turn, attempt to poach a player from another practice squad (as they reportedly did with Fales).
8. After a trip to San Diego last week, I came away with a little better understanding of the stadium issue facing the Chargers. Qualcomm Stadium is not a viable long-term venue, and of all the possibilities I heard, the idea of a multi-use retractable roof facility downtown that could host a variety of events sounded most appealing. But there simply hasn’t been much momentum built to get it done, with finances and who foots the bill obviously a big part of the equation. I left town wondering if the Chargers could ultimately wind up in Los Angeles, where a good chunk of their business comes from anyway. If the Chargers don’t get a new stadium in San Diego, and another team winds up in L.A., that could hurt them.
9. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen players fined for much less, but I give the NFL credit for not fining cornerback Brandon Browner for his big hit on Chargers tight end Ladarius Green last Sunday. I figured that would be the inevitable result, even though I didn’t think it was a penalty. That’s a real tough call for officials to make as it’s unfolding live, and I do believe referee Bill Leavy’s crew did what they’re instructed to do; if there’s any doubt, throw the flag in the name of player safety. Ultimately, I think this hit will now become the main example cited in the push to make those plays subject to review.
10. In Bill Belichick's tenure as Patriots head coach, the team is 121-12 when it has a positive turnover differential, which is one of the reasons Belichick often says that no statistic correlates as closely to wins and losses as turnovers. Of note is that the Patriots haven't won the turnover differential in each of their last four games. In fact, they were minus-1 in road wins over the Colts and Chargers. That fact wasn't lost on cornerback Darrelle Revis, who spoke this week about how the Patriots' defense wanted to get back to forcing more turnovers.