Happy holidays to all our readers and visitors on ESPNBoston.com.
The main theme of this week's Patriots mailbag, which arrives a day early, is how the final week of the regular season might unfold as it relates to playoff seeding. The Colts have been a rival over the last decade, but there is now reason for Patriots followers to be pulling for an Indianapolis win in Week 17 -- if that happens, and the Patriots beat the visiting Dolphins, New England gets a first-round playoff bye.
That's where this week's mailbag begins, before tackling everything from a "lackluster" win over the Jaguars, to safety Patrick Chung's future, to the 2013 draft, and more.
Q. Hey Mike, even with all six AFC playoff spots locked up, Week 17 should be fun to watch. While the Chiefs played the Broncos tough earlier this season, it seems unlikely they'll pull off the upset since the Broncos, at home, have a bye to play for. This leaves a Colts upset over the Texans as the best bet for a Patriots bye. But given that the Colts are locked into the 5 seed, can you envision them playing to win for division pride or resting some key guys? Of course, these hypotheticals are moot if the Pats don't take care of their own business, which has looked a bit precarious recently. -- Eliott (New Zealand)
A. Eliott, this sets up as one of those rare weeks where our focus will be in a couple of different places and Patriots followers become Colts followers for a short stretch. There are no indications at this point as to how the Colts plan to proceed in their 1 p.m. ET game, as that storyline has been overshadowed by head coach Chuck Pagano returning to the team Monday after his season-long battle with leukemia. Pagano's presence figures to fire up the Colts on Sunday, which is another layer to consider. One other important aspect to this scenario is that the Patriots should, for all intents and purposes, know what's at stake before their kickoff with the Dolphins at 4:25 p.m. ET. When the NFL announced the Patriots-Dolphins game was being switched to 4:25 p.m. ET, that was a bonus for New England and could potentially affect how Bill Belichick manages the roster for the finale.
Q. Mike, it seems unlikely that the Pats will get help this week with a bye. KC won't knock off Denver on the road and Indy (locked into a No. 5 seed) is playing for nothing against Houston. So if you assume they will be either the third or fourth seed, is there any logic to resting players this week and perhaps being OK with a loss and a fourth seed? I like the matchup with Indy, which has been proven already this year. Further down the road, I much prefer going to Houston over Denver. I am sure that BB will simply play to win as is typical (and I have no argument with that), but strategically I am not sure the fourth seed is not the clearer path to the AFC championship game. We did beat Denver, but they are the hottest team in football and look to be a tougher matchup. -- Glenn (Seattle)
A. Glenn, this is similar to 2005 and the finale against the Dolphins, with the Patriots losing 28-26 to set up a wild-card round playoff matchup against the Jaguars. That was the preferred matchup for them that year and Matt Cassel fired a two-point conversion attempt well out of bounds at the end of the game that made one wonder if there were instructions given to him not to convert the play. If Belichick thinks there is a chance to manipulate a more favorable matchup, I think he does it while at the same time managing the health of players with the playoffs in mind.
Q. Mike, this mailbag needs to heap a bit more praise on the play of Danny Woodhead. When he makes a big play, I go nuts in the living room. I love how he covers so much space so quickly for such a little guy, and rarely, if ever, drops a catchable ball. To think he was a Division II player from such a small school to boot. What a story he still is. Losing him has to really sting the Jets. -- Tom A. (New York, N.Y.)
A. Consider it heaped, Tom. Woodhead, from this view, has been one of the Patriots' most consistent players this season. I wondered entering the season if the Patriots had gotten the best out of Woodhead and if maybe he had reached his ceiling, but he's decisively rebutted any type of thought like that. He's a perfect fit for this offense and I think he's increased his value (which comes at a nice time for him, because he's a free agent after the season). Kevin Faulk was excellent in his role as a third-down back, and I think Woodhead is laying the foundation for a possible similar career. What has interested me is the fluctuation in his playing time and how he's made the most of his opportunities, even when they have been limited.
Q. Mike, I think Stevan Ridley's fumbling issues are way overblown by fans and the media. Looking at stats from some halfway decent RBs over the years, he compares pretty well. For instance, in their first three seasons Adrian Peterson fumbled once every 46 carries; Walter Payton once every 28 carries; and Emmitt Smith once every 51 carries. Jim Brown fumbled once every 41 carries for his career. Entering Sunday's game in Jacksonville, Ridley had fumbled once every 68 carries so far in his brief career. Thoughts? -- RD (Tampa, Fla.)
A. RD, thanks for pointing out the statistics. My main thought is that since Bill Belichick had essentially benched Ridley last year after his late-season ball-security issues, I was curious to see if he'd do it again this year. He didn't. Ridley played 35 snaps against the Jaguars, which led all running backs. That's a sign of confidence from the coaching staff. Ridley ran well and secured the ball, and that's what counts most.
Q. Mike, A LOT of bad football in these last two games. I don't see the Pats advancing too far in the playoffs with play like that. The play-calling has been too pass-heavy. They haven't been as balanced as they were throughout most of the year. It seems like the confidence in the running backs, except Danny Woodhead, is waning. Think this is a trend, or just because of how the last two games have unfolded? -- John (Stoneham)
A. John, I agree that the Patriots won't go far playing like they have over six of the last eight quarters. But I think this is one of those things where you can look beyond it because they've also shown flashes of what they are capable of, and it's just a matter of putting it together. I believe they will put it together. If there was another team consistently dismantling opponents on a week-to-week basis, I might look at it differently. But all we need to do is look around the NFL and see the roller-coaster -- and how a team like the 49ers can look so good one week and so bad the next -- and it's important context. As for the running game, I think it's a fair thought. The 49ers game was one in which they were taken out of the run because of how they fell behind on the scoreboard. I thought they ran well against the Jaguars, but they could have done even more to help settle things down a bit.
Q. Mike, has Patrick Chung finally worn out his welcome? The personal foul penalty he got Sunday was one of the dumbest I have seen. It was completely unnecessary. He wasn't even playing the ball. He acted like he knew he was going to get flagged and he did it anyway. -- Alan (Boston)
A. Alan, Chung is in the last year of his contract and I'd be surprised if he's back with the team in 2013. I also thought that penalty was a reflection of poor judgment, and in the first quarter, he also took a bad angle on Jordan Shipley's 36-yard catch-and-run. Chung arrived as a high 2009 second-round draft choice, picked with the selection acquired from the Chiefs for quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel, and I think it's fair to say his development hasn't unfolded the way the Pats projected.
Q. Hi Mike, you wrote about Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey discussing the Patriots' D-line using shifts and cadences to draw the opposing offense offsides. Can you explain this? I'm not familiar with the technique. -- Andy (Franklin, Mass.)
A. Sure, Andy. On the play in which tight end Zach Potter jumped for a false-start penalty, the defensive line shifted in unison as Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne was under center. It was almost like synchronized swimming. Before making that shift, which in and of itself is legal, a lineman or linemen might have barked out a signal or call that indicated it was time for everyone to shift. The Jaguars' complaint, which comes across as sour grapes from this perspective, is that whatever the defense barked out simulated a snap count in an attempt to create a false-start penalty (which is illegal). Maybe the Patriots were doing that. Maybe they weren't. But they are entitled to make their calls; they don't have to be silent. It's up to the officials to determine if they are simulating the snap count, and Jeff Triplette's crew determined they were not.
Q. The Patriots' Way is to effusively praise all opponents, even subpar teams like the Jaguars. By all accounts, the Patriots should've rolled over the Jags. I'm no psychiatrist, but do you think it's possible that the Patriots hype bad opponents so much that they actually start to believe it? Sure seems that way, given how they often play "down" to the level of teams they should have beaten handily. -- Matt (Canton, Conn.)
A. Matt, I think this particular game was less about that and more about the emotional letdown following two ultra-hyped games against the division-leading Texans and 49ers. It's hard to be at that same intensity level every week and the atmosphere before the game was very quiet in that stadium. They just weren't ready to play.
Q. Hi Mike, curious about the fall of Ron Brace. I thought he was a guy that played well when they kept his workload limited earlier in the year, but he's been inactive in favor of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, who have been solid against the run but pretty ordinary overall. Brace seems like he has more of an ability to disrupt plays with brute strength than those two, and with the three linebackers this team has now, it seems like he would be a good fit. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, I feel like Deaderick might be undersold a bit here. He was pretty disruptive against the Jaguars with a pass breakup and one pressure, and he has been pretty stout inside next to Vince Wilfork. I think both Deaderick and Love have earned their time there. Similar to Patrick Chung, Brace is a 2009 second-round pick who seems like he's winding down his final days as a Patriot. He's been on the field for 92 defensive snaps this season, which is fewer than 10 percent. A change of scenery might give him a boost.
Q. Mike, do you think Dan Koppen could be viewed by the Patriots as 'one that got away'? He's looked like the best center in football this season playing for the Broncos. I would say that after Manning he is the second most important piece on that offense. While I don't think Ryan Wendell has struggled, he's simply not as good as Koppen for me. -- Rob (Liverpool, England)
A. Rob, that's a little strong for me on Koppen. He's done a nice job for the Broncos and shown that he can still play, but I don't think there has been a major drop-off, if any, from him to Wendell. So in the end, it looks like the Patriots had two capable options and they chose the younger one with more upside. Can't fault the thinking there. Maybe the one thing we can question is if they could have kept both because a team can never have enough solid players. The Patriots often like their linemen to have position flexibility and Koppen is a center only, but in retrospect, a case could have been made to keep him around as well (Wendell could have moved to guard at times).
Q. Mike, still confident that this team can go all the way, but how are they positioned for the future? Predictions on who will be back out of Wes Welker, Sebastian Vollmer and Julian Edelman? -- John (Fort Lauderdale)
A. John, I think all three players will be back. Specific to Welker, which is a hot topic, I see no reason why the Patriots wouldn't assign him the franchise tag again if they can't come to terms on a multi-year deal. He's just too valuable, even at a cost of $11 million for the 2013 season. Vollmer's situation is a bit trickier because of his past back injury, and perhaps another team blows him away with an offer that the Patriots, based on health, aren't comfortable matching. And Edelman, I feel like he'll be back.
Q. Mike, if Welker continues this type of production the next several years, does he have a solid case for the Hall of Fame? -- Bob (Palm Springs, Calif.)
A. Bob, I usually defer on Hall of Fame or "best-of-all-time" questions because I just don't feel like it's my strong suit. My initial thought is that I think he'd be a lock for the Patriots Hall of Fame, but that the Pro Football Hall of Fame would be a long shot.
Q. Seeing as the Patriots are built across the board to be very good for the rest of Tom Brady's career, it's easy to see Brady leading the Patriots back to the Super Bowl (perhaps even this year). Let's say he wins a fourth ring in no more than six appearances, and continues to put up his usual numbers. When he retires, wouldn't his combination of statistics and accomplishments give him the best case for the acclaimed "Best Quarterback of All Time" label? -- Clinton O. (Cape Girardeau, Mo.)
A. Clinton, I'm not the best person to ask when it comes to Hall of Fame or "best of all-time" stuff. I just haven't been around long enough, or studied enough of the past players, to say anything with authority. But I don't think many would argue that Brady is in the discussion. I think one could make a compelling case that he is indeed the best quarterback of all time.
Q. Hey Mike, can you give us a rundown of what draft picks the Pats have for next year? -- Jim (Austin, Texas)
A. Jim, the Patriots currently have a big gap in their 2013 draft board, which looks like this:
First round: Own
Second round: Own
Third round: Own
Fourth round: None (traded to Buccaneers for CB Aqib Talib)
Fifth round: None (traded to Redskins for Albert Haynesworth)
Sixth round: None (traded to Bengals for Chad Johnson)
Seventh round: Own & Buccaneers (acquired in Aqib Talib trade)
Q. Mike, I was wondering about a couple of players that aren't making an impact this year but could next year. What is the status/news/updates on the "Jakes" -- rookie defensive end Jake Bequette and tight end Jake Ballard? -- Alexander (Chicago)
A. Alexander, Bequette has had 29 snaps this season as this has essentially turned into a "redshirt" type of year for him. We see him every day in the locker room and he's shown up at times in earning a "practice player of the week" honor, which goes to the player(s) that the coaching staff feels best prepared the team in the days leading up to a victory. Barring an injury in front of him, I think Bequette is a player we won't hear a lot more about until next year. As for Ballard, he's also been around and will be in the mix for next year, assuming good health. He's excited to show what he can do.
Q. Mike, with Scott Pioli on the hot seat in Kansas City, what do you think are the chances of a return to the front office in Foxborough? Pioli did a great job here before, and he seemed to have a great relationship with the Kraft family and with Bill Belichick. Your thoughts? -- Keith F. (Singapore)
A. Keith, I think that possibility could happen, although I don't see the Patriots moving Nick Caserio out of his role as director of player personnel to do so. The only way they do that is if it's decided that Caserio's long-term future is on the coaching side. However it unfolds with Pioli, I'm sure there will also be family considerations as well for him.
Q. If the Patriots' defense were to improve, what position would they need to fill with a new high-level player? Maybe the secondary? But that has improved too. -- Zach (Massachusetts)
A. Zach, Bill Belichick once said cornerbacks are a lot like pitchers in baseball in the sense that you can never have enough of them. We might amend that to say defensive backs in general. That would be the area I'd target. This also ties in to Devin McCourty's future position and if he ultimately stays at safety. As we saw Sunday in Jacksonville, McCourty was back at corner.
Q. Hi Mike, when we talk of defensive linemen we hear about things such as good against the run, good against the pass, or both. But why is it that when we discuss the OL we never hear whether they have been good for passing or running or both? We only hear about QB sacks, hits, pressure. As good as the Pats' OL has been, I don't think they are doing a great job of establishing the run. Am I way off in my line of thinking? -- Neeraj (Ohio)
A. Neeraj, I think the reason we hear more about the defensive players is because when they do their job well, it usually shows up on the stat sheet next to their name, and thus, there is a tangible result to point to. When the offensive lineman does his job, it might show up on the stat sheet, but you have to look harder to find it and determine how much of those statistics were a result of the O-line (e.g. a running back's yardage; a quarterback's passing yards). As for the Patriots' O-line and establishing the run, I think there have been games where it's excellent. Other games, not so much. So I don't think it's at the top of the list in terms of things to be concerned about. One thing Sunday that no one can feel good about is that Brady took nine hits in the game. That's an extremely high total.
Q. Is there a better way to judge quarterback performances comparatively in your opinion? Just last week I heard, "Remember, Joe Flacco outplayed Tom Brady in that AFC Championship last year." Yes, Joe Flacco may have had better stats than Brady in the AFC Championship game of 2012 but Flacco was also playing against one of the worst statistical defenses in the league while Brady was up against one of the best. I would dare say if Brady played against the Patriots' defense of last year, he would have put up career numbers week in and week out. -- Bunn (East Lansing, Mich.)
A. Bunn, I think comparisons like that are always tough and there is never going to be a clear-cut answer. Sometimes even comparing standard statistical lines can be misleading. In that particular example -- Flacco vs. Brady -- one could make a case that while Flacco played well, his fourth-quarter interception was the worst mistake either quarterback made over the course of the game -- given the timing of it -- and thus affects any comparison. We never really can accurately tell how a quarterback impacts a game by the way he switches plays at the line of scrimmage, which is one of Brady's great assets. I think we have to live with the idea that it will never be black and white on these types of things.
Q. Now that we are lean in the WR corps and have a roster spot available, what do you think the chances BB looks at unemployed Terrell Owens? Given BB's history with picking up "issue" players, it could be a Randy Moss-type situation. -- LAPatsFan (Los Angeles)
A. Don't see this one happening, LAPatsFan. First, I think it would be too hard to bring in a player like that, who has no knowledge of the system, and expect results. Second, T.O. isn't a top player at this stage of his career I don't see him coming in and making an instant impact on any team. Third, it's all the other stuff. My thought is that if T.O. couldn't make it in Seattle this year, it's going to be hard for him to make it anywhere.
Q. Hey Mike, what system or program do you use to track player snaps? -- Will (Ithaca, N.Y.)
A. Will, I track the playing-time stats at the game as it is happening. That is often the easier part of things. The harder part is tabulating them/confirming them after the game. Sometimes that requires a review of the play.
Q. Wanted to check in on Dane Fletcher. How has he been recovering from his injury? Does he still have a future with the Patriots? I know this defense would be even stronger having Fletcher in there instead of Tracy White, Mike Rivera, or Niko Koutouvides. -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)
A. Matt, Fletcher definitely still has a future with the Patriots. In the locker room, he still has his regular spot. Now that you mention him, I realize I left him off the list of players who joined the Patriots as rookie free agents who have broken through.