Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the New England Patriots:
1. Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer was so impressive with his decisiveness, decision-making and accuracy in Thursday night’s win over the Bengals, it reminded me of Matt Cassel during New England’s 2008 season and how you don’t really know about a backup at that position -- with all it entails -- until he has the opportunity to grow into the job. I reached out to Hoyer to tell him it was remarkable to see such growth from the player who was with the Patriots from 2009-11 as Tom Brady’s backup. His response: “I learned from the best.”
1b. One other thing that stood out from the Browns-Bengals game is the importance of a defense’s ability to match a quick-tempo offense. It almost looked like the Browns took a page right out of the Patriots’ playbook from their Oct. 5 win over the Bengals -- using a quick tempo at times coupled with the decisive usage of play-action. Not surprisingly, Hoyer said he watched the Patriots-Bengals game twice as part of his preparations.
2. With the Texans naming Ryan Mallett their starting quarterback this week (they’re on a bye), it sets up a “Patriots Backup Bowl” matchup next Sunday when Mallett’s Texans visit Hoyer’s Browns. If you're the Texans, might as well see what you have with Mallett because it's fairly clear at this point that Ryan Fitzpatrick falls more into the category of a solid backup who can serve as a "bridge" to a longer-term option at the position.
3. Broncos receiver Wes Welker looks like he’s slowed down, perhaps the cumulative effect of all those hits taking their toll. Welker’s two games back at Gillette Stadium since leaving for Denver have been nightmares -- he had the miscommunication on the punt return last year that set up the Patriots’ winning points in overtime, and then two dropped passes this year, one of which was deflected and intercepted as he absorbed a hit that knocked him out of the game with a back injury. File under: Not a Happy Homecoming.
4. The Patriots are dressing four pure receivers on the 46-man game-day roster, with Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola locked into the first three spots, and then Brian Tyms and Aaron Dobson competing for the final opening. Tyms’ long-bomb touchdown catch against the Bills on Oct. 12, which reflects his ability to be a difference-maker in the deep third of the field, is one reason he's had the edge over Dobson of late. I do wonder, however, if there might now be an opening for Dobson to emerge in the team’s next game (Nov. 16 at Indianapolis) after Tyms and quarterback Tom Brady appeared to have a miscommunication in the first quarter against the Broncos (1:19 remaining). On the play, Brady threw to the sideline but Tyms ran his route up the seam. Those are the types of things I believe lead the coaching staff to take a closer look at personnel usage, so I’ll be interested to see if it means Dobson gets his shot in the next game.
5. Not sure if what has unfolded with the Patriots and linebacker/designated pass-rusher Akeem Ayers has received its proper due. To acquire a player who had been on the field for a total of 10 defensive snaps this season with his prior team, and then two weeks later have him as a vital cog (77 of 82) in a brilliant game plan against Peyton Manning and the Broncos, is basically unheard of. Those types of things reflect well on Patriots director of pro scouting Bob Quinn, and the overall synergy between the team’s personnel and coaching staff.
6. Given how important veteran center/guard Ryan Wendell has proved to be for the Patriots -- his insertion into the starting lineup in Week 5 coincided with the offense’s turnaround as he’s had a calming presence -- I was thinking how the club caught a little bit of a break with him in the offseason. As I understand it, Wendell, then a free agent, was the No. 2 choice for a few other teams, but those clubs ultimately landed their top targets. The Patriots weren’t too aggressive when it came to re-signing him but the lack of a market elsewhere led the sides to a modest agreement. And as the Patriots’ early-season personnel decisions showed (starting Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming over him), the team was initially more committed to other options. But things have come full circle. Sometimes plans don’t go as they were drawn up and it can be the best thing to happen to a team. Such is the case with Wendell.
7. Did you know, Part I: The Patriots, who are off this weekend, are 10-4 under Bill Belichick in games played following their bye. The losses came in 2013 (at Carolina), 2011 (at Pittsburgh), 2002 (vs. Denver) and 2000 (vs. Buffalo). As part of standard preparations, the Patriots had pro scout Steve Cargile in New York on Monday night to get a closer look at the Colts in their victory over the Giants.
8. Did you know, Part II: The Patriots, who pride themselves on situational football, have scored points in the final two minutes of the first half in eight of their nine games (Sept. 29 at Kansas City the exception). In all, they have scored 12 times after the two-minute warning, totaling 56 points.
9. Did you Know, Part III: As pointed out by ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky, there have been 600 sacks in this season’s first 134 games. That’s a dramatic drop from last year, when there were 704 sacks in the first 133 games. Where have all the sacks gone? Bill Belichick always said they were overrated anyway.
10. Things that stand out about the Patriots’ next opponent, the Indianapolis Colts: No. 1 in scoring, No. 1 in passing yards per game, No. 2 in first downs per game, No. 1 in third-down defense and No. 1 in field goal percentage. Oh yeah, that Adam Vinatieri guy is still pretty good (20-for-20 on field goals this season). Vinatieri, who turns 42 on Dec. 28, is the NFL’s oldest active player.