This week's Patriots mailbag featured a 50-50 split from e-mailers on the team's 31-27 victory over the Packers on Sunday night.
On one side, there was the mindset of "Any victory is a good one, no matter how you get it, and this will only serve as motivation to remind the team of the importance of treating each opponent with respect."
On the other side are concerns about the defense, which have resurfaced after a few weeks in which the defense looked sharp against the Jets and Bears. The main questions with the D are whether it is Super Bowl-caliber and if any injured players will be returning soon.
Let's get right to it.
Q: Mike, Bill Belichick likes to say something like "you are only as good as your last game." Is this Packers game a cause for concern or does it show that the Pats can win even when they don't bring their "A" game? -- Steve (New Bedford, Mass.)
A: Steve, I don't think this Packers game is a cause for concern in the big picture. More than anything, I think it reinforces that the NFL is a week-to-week league, and if we want to take it further and look at Sunday's Giants-Eagles game we could even say a quarter-to-quarter league. It takes a deep, talented, mentally tough team to survive that, and I believe that's what the Patriots have. They will be in the playoffs and I think they will deliver their best shot to whatever worthy foe they face -- and regardles of which team that is, the AFC playoffs are going to be extremely competitive. It will come down to the team that plays better in that 60 minutes, and I think it could be any of the AFC teams because they are all capable. I still like the Patriots' chances of rising up in those games.
Q: Mike, after watching the Pats destroy the Jets and Bears and how well their defense played in those games, I am once again feeling weary about this young defense, even they made the key stops when it mattered most against the Packers. I am not taking anything away from Matt Flynn as I think he played pretty well considering the circumstances, but do you think it was their lack of willingness to treat the situation as if [Aaron] Rodgers was playing or that the Packers just executed well? -- Matt (Lynn, Mass.)
A: Matt, I think this is all about positioning right now and managing the personnel on defense to be ready to play their best in mid-January. You look at some of the players on the field during the game -- especially at the end when Eric Moore and Dane Fletcher were on the field -- and it's impressive to me to see them rise up. I thought it was a challenging spot for the defense because of injury issues and the expectation that a good Packers team would bounce back strong from its loss to the Lions. I also think there was a bit of that mental hurdle for the Patriots to overcome without facing Rodgers, which contributed to a bit of a letdown. Overall, I don't think this Patriots defense is as dominating as it showed in wins over the Jets and Bears, but I think it's a solid, still-growing defense that nicely complements the offense. It won't control many games and will give up yards, but it will play smart and be a tough unit to beat in the critical situations.
Q: Mike, it's approaching the end of the season. We know what this defense is and they've shaped their identity thus far as a bend-don't-break squad. So, in your humble opinion, can the Patriots win the Super Bowl with this defense? Can you give some examples of past Super Bowl winners who've had similar defenses? -- Clay Clayman (Salt Lake City)
A: Clay, I'd say absolutely the Patriots can win the Super Bowl with this defense, as long as it's complemented by the rest of the team -- strong offense, potentially explosive special-teams units and top-notch coaching. It's not the same style of play, but the 2009 Saints are one comparable defense -- a unit that gave up yards but thrived on turnovers.
Q: Hey Mike, this win over the Packers is nothing but positive in my mind. It will have the same effect the Browns game had on the team, bringing them back to earth and forcing them to realize there are no guarantees in the NFL, while still earning the W. This is extraordinarily vital heading into the playoffs. Your thoughts? -- Ethan (North Reading, Mass.)
A: I buy it, Ethan. While there are some things that should cause concern -- such as run defense against spread-offensive alignments -- I think it's good they had a game like that heading down the homestretch.
Q: Does the concussion procedure work the same for all players or is it on a positional basis? Any word on what is taking Mike Wright so long to come back, and should we be worried about Dan Connolly going down with a head injury? -- Nick (Hull, Mass.)
A: Nick, the concussion policy is the same for all players, regardless of position. I think the timetable for a return will vary from player to player based on the severity of the concussion. Wright has been out since Nov. 21, and I haven't even seen him around the locker room. My expectation is that Connolly, who was knocked out of Sunday night's win with a head injury, won't play Sunday in Buffalo.
Q: How close are Mike Wright and Myron Pryor to returning to the game day roster? The Pack's 24th ranked run offense exposed our extremely thin D-Line for over 140 yds and allowed them to control the clock the entire game. The Pats need one more win to secure the division and home-field and they'll need a stout run defense to do it this weekend vs the Bills. -- MikeW (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
A: Mike, I don't have any sense on Wright, but I wouldn't be surprised if Pryor is in the 1-2 week range at this point. It seems like he's been getting closer, and we've been seeing him more in the locker room as of late. If I had to guess on Pryor, I'd say this week or next.
Q: Hate to say this, but do you think the Packers just gave everyone else a gameplan to beat the Pats? Essentially, just run it, because the Pats can't defend against the run. Yes, we had some injuries on our D line on Sunday, but we know the Jets and the Browns also had success running against us. In the hands of a better quarterback, Sunday's game would have been an outright loss. Thoughts? -- J. Lennon (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: If I'm an opponent preparing for the Patriots, one thing I would take from the Packers game is how the Packers got the Patriots into their sub defense and tried to run on them. That's where the Packers seemed to have the most success. Otherwise, I don't think we'll see most other teams be able to play a similar defensive style as the Packers did, as each matchup will have its own dynamic and each scheme is a bit different. So I don't think this was any big situation in which the Patriots were somehow exposed.
Q: Hi Mike. I've always been a big fan of Brandon Meriweather, but I feel like Sunday night we got a glimpse of the, "freelancing" that even Meriweather himself admits he needs to curb. You could argue that his instincts led to his interception (overturned by a penalty) and that he's a true asset, but there's no way to overlook that he blew it and gave up that huge second quarter TD by being too aggressive. Where does this game leave him on the current depth chart? -- Craig Zumsteg (Berlin, Germany)
A: Craig, I thought Meriweather obviously didn't play the 66-yard touchdown catch well, but he was still in the game at the end. Even though he has had an up-and-down year from my perspective, I don't see him in any type of Belichick doghouse. I still see him as a player who will either start or be the first defensive back coming into the game in a nickel package, and when he's at his best he can be an effective playmaker.
Q: Mike, I have a question about Brandon Meriweather. I noticed that his playing time dropped significantly in Chicago. I'm a big fan of his and was happy to see him weather the storm of his early-season troubles. Do you think this reduction in time was more a factor of the packages used against the Bears (and possibly the weather) or a reflection of his slipping status at safety? -- Tom (New Hampshire)
A: Tom, my sense of that situation is that it was a form of internal discipline in which the coaching staff was stressing to Meriweather the importance of being on time for meetings. Meriweather has been playing better as of late, and that reduction in playing time came out of nowhere to me. He was back in his familiar spot -- playing a lot -- Sunday night against the Packers.
Q: Hi Mike, as I was watching the Patriots' "almost-collapse" against a Rodgers-less Packers, one thing that stood out to me on D was how terrible the Patriots tackled. I counted at least 10 plays in which the Packers got at least 3 extra yards because a Patriots player missed a tackle, and four of those plays, including the touchdown pass to James Jones, resulted in long gains. Your thoughts? -- Micah B. (Madison, Wisc.)
A: I think you are right on, Micah. Defenders have talked about it throughout the year. This is still a young defense that sometimes gets a little jittery at times. They got into a situation in which players were trying to do too much and fundamentals broke down. They weren't always in position, and they needed something to settle them down. I think it's the exception more than the rule with this defense. I don't expect it to continue.
Q: Dan Connolly had a big game with the runback. But every time I see Connolly used as fullback I'm afraid the guy is going to get injured. Why don't the Patriots use a non-starting lineman as the fullback? Is Connolly more athletic than the other lineman? -- Ashley (Worcester, Mass.)
A: Ashley, the Patriots have run into this before with Richard Seymour, who played goal-line fullback and hurt himself in that role. It's a balance. Part of the reason the Patriots want Connolly in there is that he is athletic and the best fit for that goal-line/short-yardage-type role. It's not as easy as it looks. To go with a backup lineman, there is no guarantee that the job will get done with the desired result.
Q: Mike, obviously a close game, and a great play by Dan Connolly. Speaking of Connolly, he has kind of gone under the radar filling in for Logan Mankins at left guard and Stephen Neal at right guard. What are the chances he's a starting guard next year for us? Would [Nick] Kazcur or Neal (assuming he doesn't retire) be better options? How long does Connolly's contract run for? I think it would be beneficial to keep him considering all the change that could happen along the line ([Matt] Light and Mankins departing in free agency). -- Arjuna (Derry, N.H.)
A: Arjuna, I think Connolly will certainly be in the mix for a starting spot next year. His contract runs through the 2011 season. Neal is also under contract, but at a $3 million base salary that might be too rich for the team's thinking. I also think Kaczur will probably find his way back to tackle, and I'm anticipating Light to re-sign with the team, as he is still playing at a high level. So that opens up some potential big opportunities at guard.
Q: Mike, how much does the potential of Devin McCourty playing a longer season than Ndamukong Suh influence the defensive rookie of year voting? Meaning, the Patriots could make it far into the playoffs, opening McCourty's chances of making big plays on a bigger stage than Suh can. -- Steve Reed (Boston)
A: Steve, this shouldn't be a factor because the voting accounts for the regular season only. These awards start being presented shortly after the conclusion of the regular season. Along those lines, I thought NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth gave McCourty a big boost by saying that if Lions defensive lineman Suh wasn't the choice, it would be McCourty.
Q: Mike, I know we've repeatedly said that Julian Edelman is not getting offensive reps with the talent ahead of him and change in offensive approach with multiple tight ends, but he had another drop Sunday night going over the middle. He had a similar one against the Colts on the goal line. Is it his lack of experience or a concentration issue? Is he getting "alligator arms" and afraid to go over the middle? -- Tom (Boston)
A: Tom, I don't think Edelman is afraid to go over the middle. I attribute it mostly to reps. He's still learning as a receiver and he's not getting many game reps, so the limited ones he does get stand out a bit more. Those were two tough plays on hard throws by Tom Brady, although they are plays one would expect an NFL receiver to make. I wouldn't be surprised to see Edelman make the next two that come his way because I know how hard he works at it.
Q: Mike, you often comment in your pre-game tweets/posts about kickers' warmups, FG distance, etc. Do the kickers also practice onside kicks, both the regular and "surprise" variety, to see how the ball is bouncing off the turf? Packers coach Mike McCarthy must have been planning to start the game like that, so I wondered if Mason Crosby practiced it pre-game and if the Patriots could have seen that. -- ASB (Northampton, Mass.)
A: I have never really looked for that and can't remember ever seeing it in pre-game warmups.
Q: Not really a question, but an observation. Anyone who accuses Belichick of running up the score needs to remember the Eagles/Giants game Sunday -- 28 points in 8 minutes, 17 seconds. -- Stever (Mashpee, Mass.)
A: I hadn't thought of it in that sense, Steve. Thanks for passing along the thought.
Q: Is there a bad history between Belichick and referee Ed Hochuli? -- Richard Splaine (Marshfield, Mass.)
A: Richard, I remember Belichick actually saying that he liked Hochuli, because he would always explain to him what was happening with any calls on the field. If I recall correctly, Belichick once said the biggest frustration for a coach is when you are trying to manage the game and you can't get an explanation for a referee's decision.
Q: Mike, you have noted that Tom Brady has not been practicing recently on Wednesdays, presumably because of nagging injuries. I assume that in his absence, Brian Hoyer gets all the reps with the first team. Do you think this is partly by design or is it just an added bonus? I've been a bit surprised in some of the recent lopsided wins that they haven't given Hoyer more chances in live-game situations. Do you think he will get some opportunities once the Patriots clinch the No. 1 seed for the playoffs? -- Joseph King (Andover, Mass.)
A: Joseph, I don't think it's by design. In the perfect Patriots world, Brady is at every practice and leading the offense. But my sense of the situation is that the medical and athletic training staff feels like it's more of a benefit to keep Brady off his injured foot. So the trickle-down effect of that is that Hoyer gets more work leading the offense in practice. As for later this year and having Hoyer get more playing time if the Patriots clinch, maybe in the second half of the finale. But Belichick's modus operandi has been to play the starters with that "60-minute" approach (e.g. Wes Welker and Co. in last year's season finale) and I don't expect that to change.
Q: Other players in the NFL after having a concussion are out for about 2-3 weeks. Mike Wright is closing in on 5-6. Is it really serious or is Bill Belichick being cautious and saving him for the playoffs? -- The Last Patriot (San Francisco)
A: Wright was knocked out of the third quarter of the team's Nov. 21 win over the Colts, so that's a four-week stretch at this point. These decisions are out of the Patriots' hands based on the NFL's new concussion policy that requires an independent doctor to clear players. We saw something similar this past week with the Packers and Rodgers, who was ruled out by the team because an independent evaluation did not clear him.
Q: Mike, would love to hear your thoughts on the ongoing issue of no "substantial" pass rush for the Pats D as it appears that a solid line and an improving secondary is working for now. We've had some success over the years rushing but it seems that Belichick has never been interested in building a team around two great edge rushers like they have in Indy. Is this some fundamental difference in approach he has vs. the rest of the league? -- Alex K. (San Francisco)
A: Alex, I think the rush has been better in recent weeks and now the issue might be clouded a bit. The Pats might not have a stud rusher, but they have had a productive rush, in part because they had jumped out early in games or forced teams into passing situations late, and that has created more pass-rush opportunities. As for Belichick and building his team around two great edge-rushers, I don't think it's based on any specific philosophy as much as it is the personnel available to him in the draft or what it would cost to acquire that talent in free agency/trade. Stud edge-rushers are hard to find, and that is also factoring in the transition those edge-rushers have to make from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Still, it's my belief that if the Patriots were in position to select someone like DeMarcus Ware in the draft, they would have done so.
Q: Ross Ventrone continues to earn the practice player of the week honor. Is this more of an indication of the fact he was on the scout team then the fact he had the best week of practice? -- Andy M (Connecticut)
A: Andy, I view it as a combination of the two. The practice player of the week award is given to the players who are deemed to have best prepared the club in the days leading up to a victory, so that will usually account for those on the scout team. We've seen some starter-level players earn the honor (e.g. Aaron Hernandez), but most of them are scout-teamers and backups.
Q: Mike, could you clarify the NFL substance policy with regard to ADHD medication? I assume Brandon Spikes was taking this by prescription. There must be a lot of players in the NFL who are being treated for ADHD. -- Tom Regan (Granby, Conn.)
A: Tom, if Spikes was taking some type of medicine by prescription, one factor that might have contributed to his suspension is that he missed a deadline to file paperwork/extend paperwork with the league for it. That is a hypothetical in the situation, because we don't know for sure if Spikes' suspension is for medicine to treat ADHD, as that has only been attributed to anonymous sources who might have an agenda to make Spikes' suspension look better in the public's eyes.
Q: Hi Mike, with the recent change in kickers, and the corresponding decline in touchbacks, has the possibility of using Zoltan Mesko (with a presumably younger, stronger leg) on kickoffs been considered? Has he ever kicked off in college? -- Brian James (Douglas, Mass.)
A: Brian, Mesko had kicked off in high school, but it doesn't look like he did in college. This possibility was run by Belichick shortly after Stephen Gostkowski was injured, and Belichick said the team wouldn't go that route.
Q: What do players on injured reserve do for the rest of the season, particularly the ones who were injured in the preseason or training camp? Do they practice if they heal later in the season? Team meetings? Stay home? Watch film? -- David (San Francisco)
A: David, players placed on season-ending injured reserve cannot practice with the team at any point of the year. As for their involvement with meetings and film study, it would vary from player to player. Running back Kevin Faulk is a good example. In recent weeks we've seen him on the sidelines and contributing to the team's game day operation. Belichick often makes the point that the top priority for those players is to rehab and get better, but if it gets to the point in which they can contribute in other ways and it works, it happens.
Q: Hey Mike, the Patriots' ascension over the last nine weeks has been startlingly impressive. With the exception of one hiccup (the Browns), they've defeated several playoff-worthy teams, including the Chargers, the Ravens, the Steelers, the Jets, the Bears and the Colts. Everything seems to be going well. And yet ... I feel like we've seen this all before. And I'm not even looking at our 16-0 season -- how about the Chargers' postseason meltdown last year? The Chargers went in all cylinders firing and got trampled. Like them at that point, we have momentum on our side right now. But I fear that same turnaround could happen with us if we're not careful. How do you think the Patriots can prepare for this, especially with a first-round bye putting the brakes on the team continuously gaining ground? Do you think the constant media attention and the almost assured status of the Patriots as the "favorite" to win the playoffs/Super Bowl will hamper things at all? -- Sean (Richmond, Va.)
A: Sean, I think this Patriots team is humble, and I don't think it will be getting full of itself. The Pats can just look back to the Cleveland loss as an example of what happens when they don't come to play, and perhaps even this latest Packers win serves as a motivator. The bottom line, as I see it, is that the AFC playoffs are going to be brutal for every team, and I think Patriots players realize that. There are a lot of good teams, and regardless of how well the Patriots are playing going in they will get beat if they don't bring it in the postseason. The competition is too good. I don't buy into this line of thinking that the Patriots have a clear path to the Super Bowl, as some opined over the last two weeks. I don't think any team does. You have to bring it that day, for those 60 minutes, or you're going home.
Q: Looking at your "targeted" post in the blog, and it is interesting that Randy Moss is the only player listed who has a lower than 50 percent targeted/caught rate. Think this may have played into his being traded or is it a function of the deep routes he runs? -- Mark (Astoria, N.Y.)
A: Mark, I think it is a little bit of both. In fairness to Moss, those statistics only reflect a four-game sample. At the same time, given the routes he runs, his percentage would be expected to be lower than someone like Welker.
Q: Mike, I know this has been discussed too much, but do you think the trading of Randy Moss enabled the Patriots to have this phenomenal run? I know they've really changed up the offense from that deep threat to shorter tight end passes and improving their running game, but do you think they would have done that without Randy Moss? -- Cheryl (Naperville, Ill.)
A: Cheryl, I do think there is an element to that because I believe Brady felt a mental strain to keep Moss involved/engaged. Without Moss, it almost liberated Brady. At the same time, had Moss been more willing to buy in like he did in 2007 -- when he was more concerned about reviving his career than worrying about his next contract -- I do think this offense could still be just as explosive. It was all on Moss in my view.
Q: Hi Mike, would you say a Mankins deal will get done? It could be a win/win situation -- since Logan came back, it's been a great season. -- Fred Ranahan (Knoxville, Tenn.)
A: Fred, I think we're headed toward a situation in which Mankins would be getting the franchise tag, and it will all depend on if his demands are in the same neighborhood as they were this year. I don't see the Patriots going there, but I do see their original offer -- or something closer to it -- still being there if Mankins is willing to accept it.
Q: Mike, Eric Moore on the Pats, is it true that he had to pay for his own release from the UFL in order to sign with the Pats? -- Mike Steinberg (Salem, Mass.)
A: Mike, the United Football League has a transfer fee of $25,000 that is negotiable, and the Patriots weren't going to pay it. So the assumption is that Moore or his representative paid it. Moore's contract extends through 2011, so we should see him back with the team in 2011 training camp, possibly with the chance to expand his role.
Q: In light of the injuries to Mike Wright and Myron Pryor, are you surprised that the Patriots have not taken a look at Jarvis Green, who has been a free agent since Denver cut him in September? -- Matt (Cambridge, Mass.)
A: Matt, I was slightly surprised at that, although it seemed like the Patriots were looking for a bigger player in signing Louis Leonard (6-foot-4, 325 pounds) than someone with Green's physical makeup (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) and also viewed Moore's physical conditioning from playing in the UFL as a benefit compared to signing Green, who wasn't with an NFL team this year prior to signing with Houston. One pro personnel director said Green's tape from the preseason was not very good, so I had somewhat viewed him as a player who probably wasn't going to be a big help wherever he landed.
Q: Mike, kind of a behind-the-scenes question. When the weather in Chicago was so bad last Sunday, and flights were pretty much grounded, how does that affect the Pats? Do they wait until Monday to fly home and then go right to the film session? Or, do they just wait until the weather clears, fly home late and come back to the stadium for film work later on Monday? -- Jason (Raleigh, N.C.)
A: Jason, the Patriots ended up flying home that night as much of the nasty weather had cleared at that point. But if the weather had grounded the team, Director of Football Operations Matt Caracciolo likely would have sprung to action and ensured the team had lodging and whatever it needed to work as efficiently as possible in Chicago before flying home the next morning.
Q: I was hoping you could shed some light on why this franchise picks up players and cuts them a few days later when it doesn't seem fair that they have not had a chance to adjust or prove themselves. In the case of Pierre Woods or Chevis Jackson, this appears cold-hearted from an outsider perspective, although maybe I don't know how these things work behind the scenes. I'm a long time Patriots fan, but these things make it difficult to appreciate the team from a moral perspective. Thanks. -- James (Pa.)
A: James, each situation has its own dynamics -- often times tied to injuries -- but I don't think any of them are related to the Patriots (or any team, for that matter) being cold-hearted. Other teams have similar situations. I thought Tedy Bruschi explained it well in last week's Bruschi's Breakdown. Here is what he said: "The Patriots have to be very creative in how they use their roster spots because they are a week-to-week game-plan team. Offensively, if the plan were to utilize the run game it's possible that they would activate an extra lineman, running back, etc. Defensively, if you're going up against a pass-heavy team, then you bring more coverage players to the game. Having this complexity in your offensive and defensive systems you always have moving parts on your roster. As players, you came to understand that late-season roster changes were the norm. Other teams have their 'guys' and ride them out to the end. In that locker room you know if you're not getting it done they will find someone who will."
Q: Mike, in the mailbag posted Dec. 14, you answered questions from Adam Oates, and Craig Janney, both in Boston. Why did you ignore Ray Bourque's question about special teams, or maybe Reggie Lemelin's intriguing insight into the defensive secondary communication? -- Mike (Millbury, Mass.)
A: Mike from Millbury. Coincidence? You are very sharp. I had a couple of good ones in there from Nevin Markwart, Jay Miller and Randy Burridge, as well, but they were cut out because of space.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.