Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. With the Broncos sputtering at home against the Colts last Sunday, Peyton Manning looking like a shell of himself, and then the club parting ways with head coach John Fox, it’s timely to revisit one dominant storyline from the New England-based offseason: Should the Patriots, who host the AFC Championship Game tonight, be taking the same approach as Denver and loading up around their star quarterback? Hey, at least it was a good discussion at the time.
2. Bill Belichick said the idea to run the unique four-offensive line package in last Saturday’s AFC divisional-round playoff win against the Ravens was sparked by something he saw in the NFL. ESPN.com NFL Insider Field Yates already highlighted one possible play that caught Belichick’s eye -- from a Lions-Vikings game -- and I also thought it was interesting that multiple players told me they watched tape last week of a few college teams using something similar this season. Specifically, the play in which Alabama beat LSU in overtime was one viewed by offensive players. "Football’s a copycat sport," one Patriot said.
3. Receiver Julian Edelman got the raw end of the deal when the Patriots approached their regular-season finale like a preseason game, because he had an incentive in his contract that would have paid him $500,000 if the club won 13 regular-season games (they finished 12-4) and he also had 80 or more receptions. But the good news for Edelman is that he can still earn that $500,000 if the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl, because the contract included that as an incentive as well. I know it doesn’t work this way, but here’s a thought: The Patriots should pay Edelman the $500,000 regardless, because the 13 wins was based on an 81.25 winning percentage. Throw out the last game of the season, which the Patriots essentially did with the way they approached it, and it’s basically hitting the same mark. I know, it’s always easier to spend someone else’s money, but it still seems like the right thing to do.
4. I’ll be surprised if running back Jonas Gray, who has his coming-out party (and going-away party, too) against the Colts on Nov. 16, doesn’t dress for the Patriots tonight. Gray was inactive in the divisional round because a power running game wasn’t a big part of the plan against the Ravens, and he’s still behind LeGarrette Blount in the "big back" role. But the plan will be different tonight, and though some have speculated that perhaps the coaching staff is down on Gray in some form, I don’t get that sense. If Gray is inactive tonight, then maybe I’ll shift to that line of thinking.
5. If the Seahawks beat the Packers today, they will become the first defending champion to reach the Super Bowl since the 2004 Patriots. Another link between the teams: Both were vying to sign veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams as a free-agent this past offseason, with the longtime Viking saying he turned down more money from New England to sign in Seattle. Williams’ work at nose tackle, stepping in for injured Brandon Mebane, has been critical for the Seahawks.
6. The NFL’s head coaching carousel has slowed, with Atlanta and Denver the last posts to be filled. After a dizzying week, the biggest takeaway from a Patriots' perspective is that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels appears to be staying put (perhaps he’ll receive the assistant head coach title and a raise for doing so). Furthermore, in 2015, the Patriots will face three teams with a new head coach (Bills, Jets and Broncos), one additional team with a new offensive coordinator (Jaguars) and three additional teams with new defensive coordinators (Steelers, Washington, Giants). The amount of change in the NFL coaching ranks is dizzying, and the Patriots represent more of a model of stability along those lines.
7., With longtime Patriots assistant Pepper Johnson hitching his wagon to Doug Marrone in Buffalo last season in hopes of raising his profile to advance toward a defensive coordinator job, he ultimately was burned when Marrone acted on an opt-out clause in his contract that allowed him to walk away with $4 million. One trickle-down effect of Marrone’s opt-out is that it puts almost all his assistants and their families in limbo. This reminded me of something Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said about Bill Belichick on 98.5 The Sports Hub in his weekly pregame interview from Dec. 28. Kraft was talking about how Belichick values stability, knowing that any move he makes affects so many others who are assistants on his staff. "You’re moving your family around all the time and I think he remembers what that’s like," Kraft said, seemingly referring to how being part of Bill Parcells’ staffs shaped Belichick’s viewpoint.
8. When watching Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri tonight, here’s something to consider: At 42 and the oldest active player in the NFL, he has another season remaining on his contract, through the 2015 season. What is a realistic end point for Vinatieri? Consider that Morten Andersen was 47 when he last kicked in a game, and John Carney (46) and Gary Anderson (45) were right behind.
9. Did you Know: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is only the second time in NFL history that at least three of the four starting quarterbacks in conference championship games have previously won a Super Bowl (Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady). The only other time was 1983 with Joe Montana, Joe Theismann and Jim Plunkett.
10. The Patriots used to have a 12th player award that was given out to someone who exceeded expectations, and safety Patrick Chung (77 percent of the defensive snaps, 89 tackles ranking third on team) would have been the likely choice in 2014. I asked Chung what he felt changed from his first stint with the team (2009-2012) that has allowed him to have arguably the best season of his six-year career. His answer: He never wanted to leave, and he feels he’s more calm and mature at this stage, with the game slowing down for him so he can play faster.