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Bill O'Brien: Unique Patriots' RB model puts defenses in a bind

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Patriots should get a stiff test from Steelers (1:15)

Tedy Bruschi and Mark Schlereth both like New England in Sunday's AFC Championship, but think it could be close. (1:15)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:

1. Le’Veon Bell is the marquee running back in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the Steelers and Patriots, which is a point few would argue. But catching up with Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien last week, his thoughts on the Patriots’ offensive backfield were a reminder that the unit also shouldn't be overlooked.

I had reached out to O’Brien to specifically discuss the impact of running back Dion Lewis (three touchdowns) in the Patriots’ 34-16 divisional-round victory over the Texans, but what resulted was a more broad discussion on the uniqueness of the Patriots’ running back position based on its varied personnel.

“One of the keys to the game for us was being aware of which type of back they had in the game, because there are huge differences between LeGarrette Blount (6-foot, 250 pounds), James White (5-foot-10, 205) and Dion Lewis (5-foot-8, 195),” O’Brien said. “With Blount, you’re more likely to see run/play-action. When White and Lewis are in there, it's different.”

That showed up on the Patriots’ first touchdown – a 13-yard catch-and-run by Lewis – when the Patriots had Lewis on the field in a run-based package with two receivers, one tight end and a lead-blocking fullback in the game.

The Texans matched in their base defense (strongest against the run) and Lewis beat linebacker Benardrick McKinney in the left flat. That matchup was something Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears had pointed out on the sideline to players after the touchdown (via Patriots All-Access), saying, “We got away with it, because they were still thinking first- and second-down run.”

Said O’Brien: “Because of their personnel, with their combination of coaching, you have to pick your poison. We could have kept nickel out there, but that one, where the ball was, we felt like base was the way to go. Hindsight being 20-20, if we played that again, or Pittsburgh plays it Sunday night, you’d probably be in 'big nickel.'”

"Big nickel," which has three safeties on the field, is the type of middle-ground package that can be sturdy enough against the run but also not leave a defense compromised against the pass.

“It’s all tied together, how you put your roster together,” O’Brien said. “A lot of teams would like to play 'big nickel,' but do you have a guy to do it? You look at the Patriots and that’s why a player like Patrick Chung is so valuable to them. It’s all about alignment of personnel and coaching philosophy, and it trickles down to what you see on the field.”

Specific to the Patriots’ running backs, O’Brien said the way the Texans viewed the group extended beyond just Lewis, Blount and White. Reserve Brandon Bolden showed up with his toughness and as an “excellent special-teams player.” Rookie D.J. Foster is being groomed for the future and is a prospect they also viewed highly, and lead blocker James Develin “is way more than just a fullback.”

“When you study the Patriots, the thing about their backs is that it’s very challenging for a defense,” he said, adding that the Texans feel like they’re moving closer to that type of setup as well. “And one of the most important parts of it, the quarterback knows and understands how to use them all.”

2. Tom Brady’s ultra-serious Wednesday news conference had some asking if he was sick, or even angry, but when I caught up with him the next day in the locker room, he explained that his mind was locked in on some football specific things the Patriots had just been working on in meetings. His mind was racing. He then relayed how excited he was for the AFC Championship Game and how he always looks forward to games when he will have a sizable family contingent on hand.

3. As noted on ESPN.com on Thursday, former Eagles and 49ers coach Chip Kelly was headed to New England to meet with coach Bill Belichick after the Jaguars decided to go in a different direction with their offensive coordinator job (they had interviewed Kelly). One Patriots player said Kelly's presence at Thursday's practice caught his eye. The connection between Bill Belichick and Kelly is well-documented, and here's some additional context on Kelly's visit: Because he has a home in New Hampshire, he was in the region regardless, so it's an easy trip to make to check in with a confidant.

4. Patriots owner Robert Kraft hosted an AFC Championship Game party at his Brookline residence on Saturday night, and I'm told that two notable people on the sizable guest list were Rob Gronkowski and Jon Bon Jovi. Former players on hand included Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Jerod Mayo. One guest said that Gronkowski, as one would expect, brought life to the party while also telling those on hand how well things are going in his rehab from back surgery.

5. This doesn't seem fair: Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe (and every other player) earned a $27,000 share for playing in the divisional round of the playoffs (players are paid by share, not their per-game salary from the season), but Rowe was fined $12,154 for his penalty of pulling a player off the pile so he gets the difference of $14,846. From the suggestion box: Player fines should be reduced in the postseason based on a percentage of the share that each player earns.

6. While no one likes to see people lose their jobs, it’s safe to say the sympathy meter was closer to the low end at One Patriot Place with news that the Colts fired general manager Ryan Grigson on Saturday. Grigson started Deflategate, and thus there’s no love lost there. Some in the Patriots organization had also taken note of Grigson’s comments about struggling to build a defense because of the high salary of quarterback Andrew Luck and chuckled. In October, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft openly jabbed him when asked a question on absorbing rich contracts at one position, saying on 98.5 The Sports Hub, “You’re asking me a Ryan Grigson question there.”

7. The Browns are close to a record-breaking contract extension with former Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins, as Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports first reported, as they are placing a high value on his versatility and athleticism. A key for them in making the big investment was getting to know him after acquiring him in an October trade from New England and showcasing their program to him. So the Browns had the negotiating edge over other teams, and while they’ll be paying big, it’s an important signing for them as they work to upgrade their overall talent base. A signing like that can speak volumes to other players around the NFL, too. Closer to home in New England, it also could have a trickle-down effect on the Patriots and their upcoming talks with linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

8. Belichick can bust players' chops with the best of them. That's what came to mind after hearing cornerback Logan Ryan (on Patriots All-Access) tell the story of how Belichick was riding him and fellow Rutgers alums Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon a few years ago for having hand warmers at a cold practice, telling them they were going soft. Ryan said when the players arrived at their seats in the team meeting room the next day, they had 50 pounds of marshmallows waiting for them. Call it a gift from Belichick.

9. Veteran tight end Martellus Bennett has earned the respect of many around the Patriots this year for his toughness and not missing a game despite being slowed by ankle, shoulder and knee injuries. The injury to his ankle, which originally occurred Oct. 9, was more significant than many realized, and it wouldn't be a surprise if it requires attention in the offseason. Say this about Bennett: He's given the Patriots everything he has this year.

10. One nice part about social media is when it teaches you something you didn’t already know. For example, Jaguars senior vice president of football technology and analytics Tony Khan “liked” this tweet about Patriots safety McCourty being praised by Bill Belichick for his excellent in transitioning from his backpedal to driving on the ball. He then shared with his followers that the Patriots’ D led the NFL in lowest yards after catch per completion. The Patriots’ tackling is some of the best in the NFL, which led to that impressive ranking and will be critical in the AFC title game.