FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are rolling along after another impressive victory, and there was a neat contrast to point out from the overflowing submissions to this week's mailbag.
John F. from Boston served himself some humble pie: "In the immortal words of Arthur Fonzarelli, I was wrrrrrrrrrrr. Seven weeks ago, I was at Defcon 1 fearing an 8-8 season. Gronk was not Gronk, Brady wasn't Brady, the O-line looked as effective as the Maginot Line. I had the Broncos already crowned Super Bowl champs. You preached calmness and patience, and things are looking very good right now. I admit it, I was wrrrrrrrrr."
At the same time, Tom from Boston preached cautiousness about getting too far ahead of ourselves: "Very impressive road win, but can we put the brakes on and realize that eight wins won't get you anywhere in the NFL [except the NFC South]?"
Tom also noted that pressure from the Colts produced some uncharacteristic mistakes from quarterback Tom Brady.
NFL seasons are marathons, and the picture is ever-evolving. Things are looking good for the Patriots right now, and they'll try to keep it going Sunday against the Lions at Gillette Stadium.
Q. Hi Mike, Jonas Gray looks pretty good. As in, maybe Stevan Ridley doesn't get re-signed. Shane Vereen seems like the more important piece to retain as their rookie deals play out this season. Or does Ridley come back on a one-year deal to re-establish his market presence after the injury? What are your thoughts there? -- Brian (Oxford, Connecticut)
A. Brian, let's start by wishing Ridley well as he undergoes surgery today on his right knee. My feeling is that the injury to Ridley might make it more attractive to come back to New England in 2015 on a one-year deal, assuming both sides have interest. It would be similar to the deal that Julian Edelman signed in 2013, giving the player a chance to re-establish market value and hit the market again the following offseason when he's hopefully not coming off an injury. It's always a two-way street in those situations -- do the team's goals and player's goals align? As for Vereen, I expect a challenging negotiation. Vereen's representatives are the same folks who represented Wes Welker, and this is the first significant negotiation since that time. My instinct is that an initial foray into talks revealed that the sides had a different view of things.
Q. Mike, after the departure of LeGarrette Blount, I am impressed with the power running game of the Patriots. That was an amazing job by both runners and blockers. In retrospect, was the Patriots not pursuing Blount related to high evaluation of Jonas Gray? -- MarkJ (Japan)
A. MarkJ, they would have been happy to have Blount back at a price that worked for them, but the numbers got too high for their liking. So I think the evaluation of Gray was mostly independent of that. But one thing I will say is that the Patriots would have been comfortable entering the season with Gray as their lead back. They have been high on him since training camp and preseason and felt they had very good running depth from top to bottom.
Q. Mike, does Jonas Gray have it in him to become the 2014 version of Blount? -- Tom (Miami)
A. Yes, Tom. There is little doubt in my mind that he can be their workhorse lead back when the game plan calls for that. I'd expect a different offensive approach this week, though, as the Lions rank No. 1 in the NFL against the run. The other thing I'd point out is this video from the team's official website, which has locker room footage from immediately after the game. The excitement teammates and coaches showed for Gray was notable to me.
Q. The offensive line play is night and day. Outside of settling the rotation and becoming more familiar with his charges, can you point to anything tangible that Coach DeGuglielmo has done to produce such a dramatic turnaround? I think he deserves a ton of credit. -- Shawn (Foxborough, Massachusetts)
A. Shawn, one of the game balls should go to Dave DeGuglielmo after what we saw Sunday night in Indianapolis. As for what's changed, I'm not really sure other than the obvious of settling on the top five players. But as someone who was keeping a close eye on the transition from Dante Scarnecchia to DeGuglielmo and wondering if it was holding the team back, I think that situation has resolved itself decisively and I'm glad you brought it up.
Q. Mike, with the team on such a roll, my question is about two guys who are not playing (yet). First, is there any update on Chandler Jones and when he might be back (still no pass rush Sunday night)? And what of Aaron Dobson? Is he done for the year? -- Dave (Woodland Hills, California)
A. Dave, my sense is that we won't see Chandler Jones until December at the earliest, and some believe that may even be optimistic. So that's more of a holding pattern right now. On Dobson, the opening is there if he can seize it, as Tom Brady and Brian Tyms have struggled to connect the last two games. Now the onus is on Dobson, for the most part, to show the necessary urgency in practice and rise up and grab that roster spot. This would be a good week for him to do so, as we saw the Lions' smaller cornerbacks struggle with some of the Cardinals' bigger receivers in box-out situations and Dobson's 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame could be helpful.
Q. Dobson I get, though I'm with you that he may get some opportunities soon if Tyms doesn't show a little more. But the other odd player being healthy-scratched still has me scratching my head: Alfonzo Dennard. It's not like we're benching Deion Sanders here, but I thought he's been competitive in the games he's played. Last year he routinely made good plays on the ball, didn't seem to succumb to the "never turn around to look for it" disease that plagued the team for years there, and was a good soldier. Can Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan really have passed him? Is there something else going on? And if not, why didn't we trade him four weeks ago to a CB-needy NFC team? -- Jason (Santa Monica, California)
A. Jason, my first thought is that cornerback depth is sort of like pitching depth in baseball. A team can never have enough of it in today's NFL, with nearly 70 percent of the defensive snaps played in sub. My view on Dennard: He just must not be getting it done in practice and there is good competition there with rookie Butler. He also doesn't play special teams, which is another factor to consider when forming the 46-man game-day roster.
Q. Hi Mike. Certainly seemed like there was something going on between Gronk and former Patriot Sergio Brown. Impression I got from watching Gronk on the sideline was that he felt Brown may have been doing a little too much trash-talking. Was there something lingering from their Patriots days? -- John D. (Sebastopol, California)
A. John, your impression was spot-on, as there was a lot of talking on the field between Gronkowski and Brown. In the third quarter, you could foreshadow the fireworks between them when Gronkowski almost put him in a headlock after his 16-yard catch on third-and-3 with 5:38 remaining in the quarter. For context, Brown was the player who rushed to the inside shoulder of Gronkowski on the extra point in which he broke his forearm in 2012. What interested me about the fourth-quarter penalties by Gronkowski was the aftermath, and how Bill Belichick said on sports radio WEEI that he was pretty much OK with the infractions. Asked by co-host Dale Arnold if he could live with Gronkowski's penalties on the play, Belichick said, "Yeah. That was a tough call there. You're blocking the guy, and you have to understand when you cross the line. But it's a tough one. It was certainly a lot easier to take than the ones on the punt returns."
Q. Mike, you described the rule about the possible safety on the kickoff. I didn't know this rule, but reading it now, I think the Colts muffed the play and the refs muffed the call. I'll be interested to see if we hear more from the league. -- David R. (Newton, Massachusetts)
A. David, I checked with the league about the ruling and detailed it here. I got a little confused initially and cleaned it up about an hour after it posted. There is nothing else to really detail at this point, because it is a judgment call. Here is what Bill Belichick said about it during his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI's "Dale and Holley" program: "Even though the true impetus of the kick wouldn't have taken it into the end zone, if it's part of the process of handling a muffed ball, and the muffed ball goes back into the end zone, then that still is a touchback. The question on the rule is if the ball is stopped. Then the momentum or impetus gets re-started. It's a little bit of a fuzzy phrase in there with the rule. But the ball never did actually stop. It slowed down but I don't think it ever came to a complete stop. When they tried to pick it up and it squirted in the end zone, I think based on the rule it was the correct call. I thought the ball stopped. But it didn't."
Q. The Pats were successful in shutting down both Denver and Indy's running games, making them completely one-dimensional. Before, with Mayo out, run defense appeared to be our weakness. Was this merely the product of facing mediocre running backs, or what have the Pats done to improve so much in this area so quickly? -- Frederick (Boston)
A. A few things stand out to me, Frederick. Start at the linebacker level, where the downhill presence of Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is showing up more in recent weeks than it did earlier in the season. They are playing very well. Specific to this most recent game, I saw the Patriots' size and power on the defensive line show up several times, which highlights players like Vince Wilfork (6-foot-2, 325) and Alan Branch (6-foot-6, 325). They are mostly in their sub defense, so they're doing it with a lighter box than the norm, and the contributions are coming from across the board. But those are a few areas that would be a good place to start.
Q. Good day, Mike. The overall defensive performance was good, but I couldn't help but notice Brandon Browner getting burned repeatedly particularly by Coby Fleener. Was this a consequence of focusing the majority of our attention on T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne or some dodgy play by Browner? I believe he is a key member of the Pats, but his performance was the one I noticed the most. Sorry to be a bit of a downer! -- Mark W. (Perth, Australia)
A. Mark, sometimes I think it's a case of just giving the opposition some credit, too. Fleener made some nice plays, and also got away with an obvious offensive pass interference in the third quarter. Can Browner play better? Yes, I think that's fair. At the same time, I'd put this in the category of "credit the opposition" more than "be concerned about Browner."
Q. With Kyle Arrington's second straight excellent performance, can we now say that the decision to lock him up was a shrewd one? In this era where the nickel is becoming the primary base defense, I feel like the third cornerback position is as important as ever. He does have his issues and he did have safety help while covering Hilton, but he is still an integral part of this offence and has emerged in the past couple weeks very nicely. -- John K. (Richmond, Virginia)
A. John, I feel like I've been consistent on Arrington over the years. He is a very good slot cornerback. The issues come when he's asked to play outside, which has sometimes happened because of injuries in past years. That hasn't been the case in 2014 and I believe that has helped maximize his assets, sort of similar to how the Patriots are using safety Patrick Chung. In the last two games, Arrington has played well against good competition in Wes Welker and T.Y. Hilton.
Q. In the pursuit of home-field advantage in the playoffs, the Patriots hold a one-game lead on the Denver Broncos and a two-game lead on both the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals. The Kansas City Chiefs are currently tied with the Broncos in their division and they hold the tiebreaker against the Patriots. We've been discussing the AFC Championship rematch, Denver and New England, since January. However, talks about a Denver/New England divisional contest and the Super Bowl running through Arrowhead may happen by the end of December. Given the remainder of the Patriots' schedule, could you envision this as a possible scenario? -- Alvin (Amherst, Massachusetts)
A. Sure thing, Alvin. I still like the Patriots' chances to have home-field advantage, but I don't think we should overlook the Chiefs, either. That was a quality win for them Sunday at home against Seattle, and they are very tough at home.
Q. Mike, I feel the Patriots have found their "mojo" after the Chiefs loss much like the 2003 Patriots may have come together after their Buffalo loss. Have you seen anything in the locker room to reflect the players are bonded to support each other and, hence, playing harder regardless of the challenge? -- Jeff M. (Milot, Haiti)
A. Jeff, every year has its own dynamic, but this does have a little bit of a 2003 type feel to it from a locker room perspective. I think it's a fair comparison. At the same time, let's also not forget that things are fragile in the NFL and the picture can change in an instant. That's why the best teams just ride it out week to week and don't ride the talk-radio wave of trading the franchise quarterback one week and then debating his candidacy for MVP five weeks later. I thought veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch shared some interesting insight on the locker room when I asked him last week about his impressions of the Patriots. He called it a close-knit group that didn't have noticeable cliques like he's seen in the past. He called it very welcoming.
Q. Mike, any word on if the team will wear throwbacks? -- Mike (Cape Cod)
A. Don't believe we'll be seeing the throwbacks. My understanding is that the reason is the helmets. Unlike some teams that don't have to change their helmets when they wear throwbacks, the Patriots would have to have new helmets to account for both the color and logo change. Given all the safety concerns with head injuries, I believe the feeling is that while it's nice to wear the throwbacks, it shouldn't be done at the expense of player safety.
Q. Hey Mike, I give the coaches and scout teams a lot of credit for preparing the team, especially on the defensive side. For the past two games, the defense has been well disciplined. Against Manning, the defense was able to time their rush perfectly. Against Luck, the line didn't even flinch on hard counts and kept him in the pocket. It seems like Jimmy Garappolo is doing a great job preparing the defense for the opposing team's QB. Thoughts? -- Tommy (Seattle, Washington)
A. Tommy, one thing that stood out to me the last few weeks in reviewing the games afterwards is that they seem to be using more disguise -- showing pressure looks and backing different defenders out. That may have been game-specific against top quarterbacks Manning and Luck, but the aggressiveness and flexibility of it all has been notable. I'm curious what they do this week because the Lions' offensive line looks shaky.
Q. Mike, already thinking about the matchups on Sunday. Do they stick with the idea of Darrelle Revis shutting down one receiver? I am thinking that they would put him on Golden Tate, then let Browner play physical with Megatron with safety help. I would also think that with the weak offensive line and Stafford's propensity to make bad throws under pressure that we would see more blitzes than usual in this game. -- Rick B. (Chesapeake, Virginia)
A. Rick, I wonder if we might see something similar to the Colts' game: Revis on Megatron, Browner on a tight end like Eric Ebron, and Kyle Arrington on Golden Tate. Just thinking out loud; I haven't gotten that deep into the matchup at this point. But one thing I did notice about Tate is that he is a catch-and-run guy -- a lot of short throws and makes things happen after the catch. Arrington's skill set might match up well against that, similar to what we saw against Welker and Hilton.