<
>

Deflate-gate a disappointing detour

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This is a fun time to revisit preseason predictions while pointing out that the New England Patriots came through in 2014.

At the start of the season, a 12-4 record was predicted by "Advanced Football Analytics," with the final line of our preview reading this way: "This team has Super Bowl potential."

As part of our "bold predictions," we took it one step further, noting that the Lombardi Trophy would be coming back to New England this year.

So here we go. Can the Patriots close the deal?

Hang on for the ride as we work our way through talk of the Seattle Seahawks, deflated footballs and more.

Q. Hi Mike, you can't even enjoy the victory for one day without another controversy (deflated footballs) for the media to exploit for the next two weeks. Assuming that this allegation is unfounded, do you think Bill Belichick could use this to galvanize the team with an "us against the world" attitude? I am tired of hearing that the team's accomplishments are the results of cheating. This would motivate me! -- Gary (East Hanover, New Jersey)

A. Gary, I'll be really disappointed from a general sense if the next two weeks are dominated by deflated football talk, because it discredits the effort and performance of coaches and players involved. I can tell you this: In the Patriots' Monday team meeting, Bill Belichick mentioned the deflated footballs to players so they could be prepared for questions from reporters. That's standard operating procedure for Belichick. So do I think by the end of the two-week build-up he could use it as a piece to galvanize the team? I wouldn't rule it out, but it's probably a lot further down the list than the bottom-line execution and what it will take Xs and Os wise to win the game.

Q. When can we expect closure on this deflated ball report? Will an announcement from the NFL come before Super Bowl? -- John (D.C.)

A. John, an NFL spokesman said the league can't put a timetable on it at this point, but the review is underway. When I asked Bill Belichick on Tuesday morning if he's heard from the NFL, he said, "Any questions on that, you should talk to them about." I don't think it should take too long and I'd be disappointed if it lingers into the week before the Super Bowl. To me, the onus is on the NFL to move this along so the game itself can be the focus, assuming that's what the league wants.

Q. Mike, "DeflateGate" is only an issue if it is easier to throw, catch or carry a football at lower psi numbers. Is there some science behind the assertion that it is a competitive advantage to have lower psi inflated balls in a game? -- Dave (Elmira, New York)

A. Dave, I understand the point, but there is something else to consider: There are specific rules that prohibit altering the ball after they have been checked by the officials 2 hours, 15 minutes before game time. If the Patriots (or any team, for that matter) are knowingly breaking those rules outside of the normal scope of what is accepted (e.g. New York Times story on Eli Manning; Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers acknowledging how he likes his footballs to feel), there is a price to pay.

Q. Mike, allegations of deflating footballs for the AFC Championship Game have come up, but a few weeks ago in a piece about Aaron Rodgers, he talked about asking team officials to over-inflate footballs for home games (saying he likes the ball to feel like a rock in his hand when he throws it). It seems like anything the Patriots do is immediately considered cheating and their success is questioned, yet if other organizations do similar or worse things it's quickly overlooked. Do you think fans will ever just accept Bill Belichick's/Tom Brady's greatness for what it is or will we always have to deal with people trying to put asterisks on our franchise? -- Clayton (Louisville, Kentucky)

A. Clayton, there is a lot to digest in this question. I'd start with today's media culture, where anyone can pretty much say anything and it can catch on fire. We can't turn back now, so as a fan, I think the easier thing to do is accept that and then make a choice: Whose opinion matters to me? Just because someone necessarily has a bigger name, or a larger platform, doesn't necessarily mean that person has an informed opinion. In the end, while acceptance from others would be nice, the only opinion that really matters is your own. So my advice: Enjoy the ride. Someday we'll look back at all this stuff, probably laugh, and wish we had it as good as we did then. If you're curious for my own opinion on the deflated footballs, I think it is an overblown story.

Q. Hi Mike, thrilled and proud of the Pats' amazing AFC title but worried that we are about to see a reincarnation of the last two Super Bowls: superior, physical D that dominates the game and forces TB12 into an afternoon of frustration, sacks, hurried throws, batted balls, etc. (Where are the '06 Bears when you need them?) Tell me what's different this time. -- DeansDesk (Rumford, Rhode Island)

A. Dean, you're right to respect the Seahawks' defense. What stands out to me is that they don't need to do too many exotic things to get the job done. But I'd also give similar respect to the Patriots' defense and maybe that's the big difference that stands out from the team's past two Super Bowls. Football is a complementary game, as we know, and it's about viewing the game through all three parts -- offense, defense, special teams. While respecting Seattle, I don't see why any Patriots follower wouldn't have confidence in the 2014 team based on what it's showed in all three areas to this point.

Q. Hey Mike, I was wondering what your thoughts were on how the Patriots were going to attack "Beast Mode" Marshawn Lynch? I'm wondering if we'll see the same kind of approach as we did in the 2001 Super Bowl with Marshall Faulk, when the Pats would lay him out even on plays where he wasn't getting the ball to get in his head? -- Brendan C. (South Shore, Massachusetts)

A. Brendan, the first thing that comes to mind is "11 hats to the ball." When you're a defense playing a powerful running back like Lynch, it's often going to take more than one player to make the tackle. I thought the Packers, for most of the NFC Championship Game, did a nice job of that. Also, without having gone through a complete film study of the Seahawks, I'd think this will be a "heavy" defensive plan relying more on the front seven in a base defense.

Q. Mike, everyone is going to want to talk about Seattle's defense against our offense -- strength against strength. I think the key to this game is when our defense is on the field. Seattle does not have many dominant offensive players, and if we can keep Lynch in control, our defensive backs are simply better than the Seattle wide receivers. That said, does the power game of Seattle dictate us moving out of the sub package to our 4-3 base defense and therefore a bigger dose of Jonathan Casillas? If so, what can Patriots fans expect from this personnel group? -- Ozan (Tucson, Arizona)

A. Ozan, they played a little of that 4-3 package in the AFC Championship Game, but my hunch would be that we instead see more of the 5-2/3-4 look that has the three big defensive tackles on the field in Vince Wilfork (6-foot-2, 325 pounds), Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) and Alan Branch (6-6, 325), flanked by ends/outside linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, with Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins as off-the-line linebackers. That's their strongest, biggest, most powerful front seven.

Q. With LeGarrette Blount having his way with the Colts' D, how much of that running game is going to show itself in the Super Bowl? Do you think Blount and crew can carry this over in Arizona? We haven't seen a great running game since we had Corey Dillon during those Super Bowl wins. -- Caleb P. (Provo, Utah)

A. Caleb, so much of this is game specific. The week before, we saw how Blount was hardly a factor against the Ravens and their stout defense. Seattle ranked No. 3 in the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (81.5) and No. 2 in fewest average yards allowed per carry (3.4). So they appear to be tough to run on, a lot tougher than the Colts. That doesn't mean the Patriots won't try, but on paper it tells us that a similar performance from Blount might be hard to bank on. Maybe that opinion changes after more film study, but I'm not there at this point.

Q. The chameleon game plans that the Patriots utilize have made for some interesting speculation amongst us fans. We have two weeks to put our best guesses to what the ultimate chess master will put forward, but let's not waste time coming up with our ideas for the plan. My take is that even though the Seahawks have a reputation of being a tough team to run against, they are not as stout as we may believe; Green Bay rushed for 135 on Sunday. Between a commitment to the run, play action, the intermediate routes that we excel in and maybe one or two bombs to keep the defense honest, I think we can control the clock and score more points than this Seattle offense can score on us. What are your thoughts for an offensive strategy? -- Morgan (Vail, Colorado)

A. Morgan, I haven't gotten very far in film study, so you're a bit ahead of me here. I'd start with this: The Patriots ran only 13 times (six by Tom Brady) in the AFC divisional round win over the Ravens, but it's going to be very hard to win if the Patriots try that again. They'll need to have more balance against this defense. Hoping to expound upon those thoughts as we get deeper into the week.

Q. Mike, with the Pats Super Bowl bound, there are a number of players in their first SB. How are the Pats approaching this to ensure these players, along with the vets, ignore the noise and do their jobs? -- Harry (Canada)

A. Harry, I know Bill Belichick said last week that experience meant "zero" in the AFC Championship Game; his point being that once the game begins, it's all about execution. I think this is the one game where experience counts because of the longer halftime, the long build-up to kickoff, etc. So this is where the leadership of the players who have been there becomes more important and helps set that tone. The message to players on Monday was to take care of all the logistics early in the week (e.g. tickets, family arrangements, etc.) so the focus could turn to football.

Q. Hey Mike, I know you've been back and forth on whether the Pats are planning on picking up Darrelle Revis' second year, or trying to work out a longer term deal, and ultimately it may strictly come down to dollars. I'm curious whether you think a SB win would influence his decision one way or another? I could see a win checking off a box for him and allowing him to follow the dollar signs, but do you think being part of the Pats' winning formula appeals to Revis' legacy, and maybe he'd stay for a (slight) discount? -- Craig (Weehawken, New Jersey)

A. Craig, I feel like I've been pretty consistent on this one: If the total dollars, guaranteed money and up-front cash are close, the Patriots have the edge to retain Revis. Not sure if you've seen it, but the end of this mic'd-up piece with Julian Edelman on Patriots All-Access last week -- in which Edelman and Revis are on the sideline fired up -- was a revealing piece to me as it relates to Revis.

Q. My question is on Rob Ninkovich. In the first half of the Ravens game I found myself thinking, he has to play better for the Pats to win. On Sunday, I was just waiting for a sack or interception from him. Other people will key on the CBs or the D-line, but I think the Pats' success will be at least partially based on Nink. I think if he can keep Russell Wilson contained, that the Pats will have a better chance to win. Do you see his performance as important as I do? -- Cynthia (Ames, Iowa)

A. I do, Cynthia, and I'll relay something I said on Sunday night: When I see No. 50 out there making big plays, it is hard not to draw a parallel to Mike Vrabel. Just as Vrabel was such a vital cog to those championship teams, I see Ninkovich in a similar light. He generally sets a good edge, gives everything he has in the pass rush, and is versatile and as smart as they come. No defensive lineman in the NFL has played more snaps this season.

Q. I have no way of knowing but it seems to me that this Patriots team has great chemistry and is a team in every sense of the word. Is it my imagination or all of the players and coaches really tight with each other and much more so than previous years? -- John H. (Boca Raton, Florida)

A. John, I sense that togetherness, for sure. Let's put it this way: It's a lot different from 2009 when you could feel things splitting apart at the seams in the locker room and personal agendas trumped the greater good. I'll give you an example that stood out from Sunday's game: After Nate Solder scored his touchdown, he dropped the ball as he was mobbed by teammates as quarterback Tom Brady quietly went over to pick it up and bring it back to the bench for him. It's little things like that, John, that sort of add up and show us that these guys are looking out for one another.