Happy Thanksgiving to loyal readers of the Patriots mailbag and to those who may be stopping by for the first time. This is my favorite week of the year because it includes three of the best things going: family, food and football.
It is often a time for reflection as well, and when I think back to what we experienced in a span of six days -- a 24-20 loss to the Panthers on "Monday Night Football," then a 34-31 overtime victory over the Broncos on "Sunday Night Football" -- it sparks a question:
Could anyone really ask for anything more?
I know what you're probably thinking. Sure we could. How about an officiating crew that had the gumption to stick with what would have been a correct call in the end zone in Carolina?
I get that, for sure. But I'm talking more about the big picture and following the New England Patriots football team, which has consistently been in the championship hunt for 13 seasons now. They just played two big-time games and, in different ways, they were thoroughly entertaining.
It takes just a look at this week's opponent, the 2-9 Houston Texans, to see how fast things can change in this league. Only 11 months ago, the Texans were coming to town for an AFC divisional playoff game. Now they're in the mix for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The big takeaway: Be thankful for this era of Patriots football and consistent excellence. It won't always be like this.
Q. Hi Mike, Stevan Ridley's fumble problems have been well-documented, but I've yet to hear any analysis on exactly why this is a recurring issue for him. Is it an issue of ball-carrying technique, poor concentration or something else? -- Chris (Birch Hills, Saskatchewan)
A. Chris, not all fumbles are created equal, but I'd say the majority of Ridley's are technique-based. On Sunday night, he was spinning in the hole, upright, and exposed himself and the ball to contact. Part of what made BenJarvus Green-Ellis such a reliable running back when he was here was that he stayed low and ran through contact. Ridley often absorbs contact more than he runs through it. He's obviously well-coached, because assistant Ivan Fears is one of the best in the business, so from this viewpoint it comes to going out and executing the techniques consistently.
Q. Heart-stopping game on Sunday night/Monday morning. What do you think the Patriots will do with Stevan Ridley? If they can't trust him to carry the ball, does he serve any purpose at all? Does he play on any of the special teams? What are the financial implications (salary cap wise) if he is released? Any RBs on the practice squad? -- Arliss W. (Saint John, New Brunswick)
A. Arliss, I think there are a few layers to consider when it comes to Ridley. First, I'd be shocked if they released him. He is a good runner working through a ball-security issue, which is similar to what Kevin Faulk faced early in his Patriots career. We saw him overcome it, so I don't think we're at an end-of-the-road-type situation with Ridley. That said, in the short term, I think it's fair to assume that the days of Ridley playing a running-back-high 45 percent of the offensive snaps, as he did last year, are over. Too risky. I'd expect to see more of a rotation with Ridley, LeGarrette Blount (also a ball-security risk) and Brandon Bolden in that big-back role. The Patriots are deep at the position with those three, plus Shane Vereen, so I don't see any personnel additions. It could, however, affect the team's plans at the position in upcoming seasons; Ridley enters the final year of his contract in 2014 and it will be hard to invest in him if this doesn't change.
Q. Mike, why does Bill Belichick make a decision on Ridley for fumbling, but not Tom Brady? I think there is a double standard that is unfair. -- Walter (New York)
A. Walter, I think there is a significant difference between a blindside hit that leads to a fumble and a running back who runs upright, spins in the hole and leaves himself open and vulnerable to contact and fumbles.
Q. Mike, Julian Edelman's stock is rising, especially after Sunday night. Do you know if the Pats have had any contract discussions with Edelman during the season? I doubt he'll take a hometown discount, as he tested the market last season and I suppose he'll want to test it again. I hope we don't have another Danny Woodhead situation. Thoughts? -- Mike (Arlington, Va.)
A. Mike, my main thought is that Edelman is putting himself in position to cash in. Well deserved. I'm not aware of any contract discussions at this point, and if you're Edelman, I'm not sure there would be enough incentive at this point to forgo the chance to test the market. If it gets to that point, I think the Patriots will have the inside track, if they're competitive with the market, to retain Edelman because of his fit in the system.
Q. Hi Mike! I feel like I don't have a handle on the Pats' LB depth chart anymore. How do you see Dane Fletcher's role moving forward -- will he have any more 50-snap games this season? -- Michael (Cologne, Germany)
A. Michael, things are a bit fluid at linebacker because of the uncertainty surrounding the health of Dont'a Hightower, who didn't play the final 45 minutes of action on Sunday night. Also, it depends if we're talking about a base defense or a sub defense. Part of the reason we saw so much of Fletcher and Jamie Collins on Sunday night was that the Patriots spent the entire game in their 4-2-5 nickel defense and made the decision to get more speed on the field with Collins over Brandon Spikes (and Fletcher replaced the injured Hightower). If Hightower remains out, it's quite possible that Fletcher will have another 50-plus-snap game.
Q. Do you agree that Donta Hightower doesn't have a clue as to what to do when he is on the field? There was a marked difference when Dane Fletcher came onto the field. -- Kris (Coventry, R.I.)
A. Kris, I think we've seen Hightower have some very good games (Steelers) and some games at the opposite end of the spectrum (Broncos). I think injury/health might have had something to do with it on Sunday night. With a versatile player who can do as many things as he can, sometimes a sacrifice is made for the team, even though it doesn't always put the player in position to do what he does best. I think there is also some of that dynamic in play with Hightower, who reminds me a bit of Mike Vrabel in that regard.
Q. Perception is everything and nothing changes perception like a big-time game played on prime-time television. Tom Brady dismantled the Broncos in the second half for a 107.4 QBR (even with the offensive line struggling) while Peyton Manning couldn't step up in the clutch, finishing with a 70.4 QBR -- his lowest of the season. Clearly everyone knows Manning is having a career year even though he's cooled with the weather, but what are Brady's chances to make the Pro Bowl with that big-time performance? I know you said it was very unlikely only a few weeks ago, but to look that much better than the man who may grab yet another MVP trophy while having such an obvious disparity of Pro Bowl level talent around him surely must have even the more casual of fans thinking about how deserving Brady is. -- Dave (Sonora, Calif.)
A. Dave, Brady should make the Pro Bowl (whether he plays is another story altogether), but I still don't see it happening for him in the overall MVP discussion, even though we could make a strong Patriots-based case for him keeping things together during this offensive transition. Maybe if the offense keeps exploding down the stretch and the Patriots finish 13-3, there is a better chance, but I still see it as a long shot. As for Manning, I'll respectfully disagree about him stepping up in the clutch. That fourth-quarter drive he led, into the wind, was masterful and clutch. I thought Brady outplayed him overall, but I'd also give credit to Manning for that drive. Some real tough throws into tight windows in adverse conditions.
Q. Jerod Mayo down. Steve Gregory down. Dont'a Hightower down during the Broncos game. If they can't play this coming Sunday, who wears the green dot on his helmet and who is the backup? Also, who wore it during the second half of that awesome game Sunday night? -- Jim C. (Centennial, Colo.)
A. Jim, Devin McCourty was the player I spotted wearing the green dot on Sunday night. I'd think he will wear it again this week.
Q. Hi Mike, what happens with the safety rotation when Steve Gregory comes back? Duron Harmon has done nothing to show he can't be a starter in this league, but Gregory was playing pretty well before his injury. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)
A. Tim, I think Gregory returns to the starting lineup and Harmon is back to the No. 3 spot. Sometimes Harmon replaces Gregory in a specific package and that would still be in play. Call it a high-class problem -- three quality safeties are better than two.
Q. Almost a week after the NFL denied the world a fantastic finish on Monday night, the Patriots make national headlines again. This time, the Patriots put the NFL on notice that they are the team to beat in the AFC in a stunning come-from-behind victory over the Denver Broncos. With a favorable schedule coming up, the Patriots now have a three-game lead in the division and more importantly a one-game lead for the second seed in the playoffs. We can no longer think that New England will be unable to win the Super Bowl due to injuries, not after Sunday night. This team has proven to play, if not fight, for 60 minutes, which has been a missing quality for quite some time. With this current roster, I say why can't they win the Super Bowl this year? -- Alvin (Amherst, Mass.)
A. Alvin, this thing is wide open and as we've seen over the years, the NFL is a week-to-week league. The picture is ever-evolving. I'd just say enjoy the journey and appreciate that this team gives you everything it has and never stops fighting. It's not perfect, and there are flaws, but every team has flaws. They'll be in the mix, as they have been for the last 13 years, which in and of itself is pretty remarkable. Sometimes I think that is taken for granted around these parts.
Q. Hi Mike. What a football game Sunday night. Most of us thought it was going to be a very long night during the early going. Boy, were we wrong. Going forward, the Pats can't continue to give up that much yardage (280) on the ground. I'm not sure there is a fix without Vince Wilfolk, Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo but they can't continue with that type of effort. Shouldn't we expect better linebacker play to fill the gaps? -- Jim C. (Seminole, Fla.)
A. You're right, Jim, but like everything else, I think we need to look closer at this to fully understand its context. On Nov. 18, the Patriots played very solid run defense against the Carolina Panthers, one of the best running teams in the NFL. They did so mostly out of their base 3-4 alignment and the primary running plays that beat them were quarterback scrambles. Against the Broncos, the Patriots were in their 4-2-5 nickel defense because they were most concerned with the Broncos' passing game. So to limit the passing game (which they did well with), they gave up something in the box and it hurt them in the running game. You'd like to be able to be strong in both areas, but when you lose players like Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly, it makes it harder and there are trade-offs. So looking to the future, I think it's fair to say that run defense out of the 4-2-5 nickel is a concern to monitor based on a specific matchup.
Q. Mike, any reason we didn't see Aaron Dobson show up in the passing game vs. the Broncos or was it just a case of the routes he runs were mainly downfield and not suited for the wind conditions? -- Rob (Fairfax, Va.)
A. Rob, Dobson played only two snaps in the second half, so I wonder if there was an injury situation there. We'll have to wait until Wednesday, when the first injury report is released, to find out on that one for sure. It could have been related to the elements and the idea that Kenbrell Thompkins offered a bit more in the short to intermediate areas on a windy night. I wouldn't read too much into it; I think Dobson has been pretty solid in recent weeks when the ball has come in his direction.
Q. How about a little love for Nate Ebner for recovering the punt in OT to set up the winning FG? All the coverage talked about the mistake, but Ebner was first to the ball. -- Jon (Monclair, N.J.)
A. Jon, I thought the Patriots special teams were real solid in the game and do deserve a mention, and that includes Ebner. My favorite recent story on Ebner was listening to Bill Belichick miked up before the Steelers game (shown on Patriots All-Access) and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin talking to Belichick before the game, pointing to Ebner in warm-ups and saying, "Hey, is that the rugby kid?" Love that.