FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- If there was one word to sum up the majority of submissions to this week's Patriots mailbag, it would be "concern."
With the Baltimore Ravens coming to town for Saturday's AFC divisional round playoff game, many are looking back to the two past playoff games when they stormed into Gillette Stadium and posted victories. While those teams had many different players than the current Ravens club, the games reflect an overall mental toughness that generally defines coach John Harbaugh's teams.
With this as the springboard, let's get to the questions:
Q. Hi Mike, I'm really nervous. Maybe you can talk me down. I see the Ravens as the kind of matchup the Patriots struggle with. They are physical, disciplined and resilient. They looked pretty good against the Steelers. In the last few years, the Patriots have lost their last game because the O-line could not sufficiently control the line of scrimmage. This year's group doesn't look any better. What do you think? Am I overreacting, or should I prepare myself for the end of the season? -- Will (Sonoma, California)
A. Will, one thing that stands out to me when following our New England teams is that we tend to drill down and highlight all the possible things that could go wrong. But when we look at opponents, especially if they are coming off a solid performance like the Ravens are, we tend to highlight their strengths and maybe overlook some of the deficiencies because we don't see them as much. To me, that's the dynamic in play here. I'm not saying the Patriots don't have their flaws, and they haven't played particularly well of late, but when they have put it together they are very tough to beat. They deserve the same respect that some are giving the Ravens around these parts. One doesn't have to go back too far to see some ugly Ravens football, either (e.g. Week 16 loss at Houston).
Q. Mike, seems like the Patriots pulled the card of the one team that will give them the most fits in the divisional round, and you know what? I love it. Bring on those Ravens. There is nothing I'd love to see more than ending the season of a hated rival. After all, what are the playoffs without a little animosity, right? I wanted to get your take on going heavy on play-action to hold off the rush that Baltimore will no-doubt bring and to eventually exploit its weak secondary. I don't feel like this is a game it can win by lining our boy Tom Brady up in shotgun and having him chuck it 50 times. It seems like with their aggressive defensive front, this is a game LeGarrette Blount was made for and the reason he is back on the team. -- Chris (Philadelphia)
A. Chris, I do think this is the toughest matchup of the three based on how some of the Ravens' strengths could hit at some Patriots weakness, but I am not budging off the thought I had entering the playoffs: If the Patriots play their game, they should win. I think this is more about them than any opponents. As for play-action, it can be such an effective weapon, and they should absolutely have it in the plan, but here is where I'm coming from: When a team is as tough to run on as the Ravens are, it sort of reminds me of the Lions game from earlier this year. You don't just want to run yourself into a brick wall for the sake of saying you ran the ball, so I think the smart play might be spreading it out and attacking with an up-tempo approach, hopefully tiring them out a bit, and then hitting them with the run in certain spots.
Q. Hi Mike, it seems like a lot of fans, analysts and reporters are going crazy with the whole "Patriots don't want to see the Ravens" headline. I think that's a joke -- the players don't care who it is. When you get this far, you only play good teams. Having said that, I don't believe this Ravens team is as good as advertised, and '09 was somewhat of a down year for New England. -- Zach (Providence)
A. Zach, I view it more from the bottom-line perspective. Of the three possible teams who could have played here, the Ravens' strengths match up best to the Patriots' potential vulnerabilities. But you're right -- players aren't saying, "This isn't what we wanted." That's not the mindset that they have. I think they are confident in what they can do against any opponent. They are a darned good team themselves.
Q. Hey Mike, I've been with you and many other fans, thinking that Baltimore would be the toughest matchup for the Pats in the playoffs, and now here it is. And I'm very glad that's the case. If they lose, so be it, they just aren't Super Bowl-worthy this year. But if they beat a tough opponent, and more times than not, the likes of Harbaugh, Suggs and Flacco have been a handful, then maybe they do have that mental toughness to go all the way. -- Michael (Las Vegas)
A. Makes sense to me, Michael. As defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said on sports radio WEEI on Monday, it's going to be an old-fashioned type of game -- quite physical.
Q. Incredibly tough break in the matchup after a season in which everything had seemed poised to fall into place. I'm sure Denver is now delighted they got the No. 2 seed. Since the first Super Bowl against the Giants, the Patriots have had trouble with interior pressure, and yet have all but avoided the interior line in recent drafts, except for the Bryan Stork choice, and traded away their best interior lineman with the Logan Mankins deal. Was the strategy here simply based on a hope they wouldn't have to play a team like Baltimore in the playoffs? After seeing what happened to Ben Roethlisberger on Saturday, we can only hope Brady is able to stay on two feet. -- Scott (Fitchburg, Massachusetts)
A. Scott, I understand the point, but the Patriots (or any club in the NFL) don't make decisions and say, "As long as we don't face this team, we'll be OK." That's just not the way it works. It's hard to fill all the holes on a roster, and for some league-wide context, let's also point out that the Ravens started an undrafted rookie free agent at left tackle (James Hurst) and a rookie fifth-round pick at right guard (John Urschel) against the Steelers. That would be like the Patriots going into this game and saying, "We have Jordan Devey at left tackle, let's go!" I do agree with the thought that the offensive line is the key, and if it can duplicate the way it played against the Lions on Nov. 23 (I see similarities between the two games), the Patriots should be fine on Saturday.
Q. Hi Mike, I'm looking forward to what should be an intense matchup with the Ravens. The Patriots' O-line is surely the key to the game, so I wonder about your opinion of the following thoughts: The talent level (taking into account the departure of Logan Mankins, injuries and the strange decline of Nate Solder) has not been that high all season. The great stretch in the middle of the season, especially the Jonas Gray game against the Colts with the extra lineman, was more scheme than talent-based. Opposing coaches have now caught on, and the line has regressed to its natural level. Are you buying this? If so, then I think the Patriots could be in for a tough afternoon against Baltimore. -- Danny (Waltham, Massachusetts)
A. Danny, I've seen the line play at a high level at times this season, and the best games have been when it had the combination of left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Dan Connolly, center Bryan Stork, right guard Ryan Wendell and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. That's the group they should have for this game, and while it's been an up-and-down season, I have a sense that unit is going to answer the challenge this week.
Q. Hello Mike, most of the hype for this game will be focused on the Ravens' D against the Patriots' O because that matches the storyline of previous years, so it will keep being repeated. However, I expect the Patriots' D to come out with a big chip on their shoulder in this game and I am expecting a great performance from them. How do you think this Patriots D matches up against Joe Flacco and the Ravens? -- Sam (Houston)
A. I think they match up competitively, Sam, and it starts at the line of scrimmage. This looks like it has the potential to be a "heavy" game, similar to what we saw against the Jets on Dec. 21 when the Patriots played with three "bigs" inside for extended stretches with Vince Wilfork (6-foot-2, 325 pounds), Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) and Alan Branch (6-6, 325). That size and power should serve the Patriots well against a tough running game and that's where it starts. The Ravens' passing game is up and down. It looked good against the Steelers on Saturday night, but there is some not-so-flattering tape from the weeks prior to that.
Q. Mike, how do you see the Patriots covering the Ravens' receivers? I would like to see them put Darrelle Revis on Torrey Smith. Put Kyle Arrington on the speedier Steve Smith with Devin McCourty helping over the top, and then put Brandon Browner on Owen Daniels. What do you think? -- Mo (Concord, Massachusetts)
A. Mo, one concern I'd have in this setup is Arrington being asked to play on the outside against Smith. Arrington is really more of a pure slot guy from this perspective, so I'm not crazy about that matchup. If Arrington does play more as part of a three-cornerback type package, I wonder if it could be more in a safety-type role like we saw in training camp, and maybe it allows you to move Devin McCourty down at times. I could see Browner on Daniels at times, but I'm not sure it's the right call to put him on him exclusively.
Q. Hi Mike, any chance the Pats go with six linemen against the Ravens? I am hoping for ways to help Nate Solder keep Suggs off Brady and to boost the running game. Thanks. -- Rick M. (San Diego)
A. Rick, I think we will see it, and here's the main thing with that: There's a trade-off because you're basically taking one player who is eligible to go out for a pass and telling the opposition that you're not doing that with that sixth blocker. So it limits some of the flexibility you have, telegraphing intentions a bit more, if you will. As we saw in the Jets game Dec. 21, simply adding a sixth offensive lineman didn't necessarily make them better.
Q. Mike, can you share any insight into why things didn't work out between Dean Pees and the Patriots? I know that his contract expired, but do you gather that there were philosophical differences at play as well? -- Jeremy (Dorchester, Massachusetts)
A. Jeremy, this question had me going back to our archives to refresh my memory on the dynamics in play. I remember calling Pees when this news initially came out and, while I can't remember all the details because it was five years ago, I do remember him being adamant that this wasn't a firing as much as a mutual parting of ways. My sense at the time was that Pees, who had a health scare in the season finale that year, was interested in a change of scenery that included maybe a different way of doing things and possibly more autonomy over things if he ever elevated into the coordinator role elsewhere.
Q. Mike, do you think the Pats will pay the $4 million roster bonus due to Vince Wilfork in March? -- Laurie (Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada)
A. Laurie, I have some doubts on that. It makes me wonder if the sides might be back at the negotiating table again this offseason.
Q. Mike, I am not a Doug Marrone fan, but new Bills ownership paid over $1B for the team and appeared not to be willing to give him an extension. That coaching change was a mutual decision. Since buying the Patriots in 1994, Bob Kraft kept the coach in place and then hired two coaches. What would Bob Kraft have done if he bought the Bills? Heck, he didn't even commit to Bill Parcells beyond his existing contract never mind Doug Marrone. And you know Parcells would have bolted if he had a $4M buyout clause back then. If you were Marrone, would you have stayed without an extension and without a quarterback? Staying was a potential career-killing move. A poor 2015 performance and this guy would have no chance at getting another NFL head coaching job. -- Paul (Lexington, Massachusetts)
A. Paul, I'm guessing this question was in regards in the quick-hits blog entry on Sunday. I can understand why Marrone would make that decision, as he put his own interests first in doing so. What doesn't seem right to me about the turn of events is that it flies in the face of his prior declarations about core values and having a connection to the region. Like I said, maybe I'm naïve. And I certainly don't know all the issues behind the scenes. But that just doesn't sit well from this viewpoint.
Q. Something makes me wonder if Belichick's end in New England is not sooner that we might think. I have a feeling that the organization is preparing Nick Caserio to act as GM and Josh McDaniels as head coach when he leaves. With both of them refusing higher-profile jobs with other teams recently, I think that BB may have only one to two years left and that Mr. Kraft is preparing for a smooth transition after he leaves. Your thoughts? -- Jonathan (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada)
A. I agree with the second part in terms of ensuring a smooth transition whenever that happens; that was one of the thoughts I had with director of player personnel Nick Caserio signing a contract extension through 2020. But my guess on Belichick is that he has at least another six years. He's going to be 63 in April and I don't see any end in sight right now. As for McDaniels, I didn't get the sense that he's refusing anything at this point. He interviewed Friday and Saturday and now shifted his focus where it belongs -- to the Ravens.
Q. Mike, Jets owner Woody Johnson made a statement regarding Darrelle Revis to the New York media that was blatant tampering. Is Roger Goodell looking the other way? -- Jim K. (Kennebunk, Maine)
A. Jim, the league is not commenting at this time. My sense is that would be something we'll learn more about after the season, maybe even after we learn where Revis will ultimately play in 2015.