Feeling at home on the road

WISCONSIN TO SAN DIEGO TO FOXBOROUGH -- The two-game stretch that the Patriots just completed was particularly memorable, and I want to lead off this week's mailbag with a few personal thoughts.

What unfolded Sunday night at Qualcomm Stadium was truly special, the number of Patriots fans in attendance creating a sensational environment for football. At times the road game seemed like a home game, which Bill Belichick acknowledged in his own way. You could feel the energy well before kickoff, and I made sure, after a visit to the tailgate lots to mingle with Patriots fans, to take a moment to step back and appreciate it.

There are so many great parts about following a sports team and that, to me, was one of them.

Then there was the day we were at practice at the University of San Diego, and the group of about 30 fans who were there greeting players sang "Happy Birthday" to running back LeGarrette Blount as Blount walked to practice. I joked at the time that it showed Belichick-type "situational awareness." Many Patriots fans are on the ball.

I saw Players Sports Bar in Clairemont jam-packed with Patriots followers the night before the game for an impressive fan party that included an appearance from owner Robert Kraft. What a scene.

The week before, the Patriots' contingent in Green Bay was impressive in its own right, and it was a pleasure to have such a high-level discussion on the team and share various Patriots-based stories in a casual meet-up outside Lambeau Field in front of the Vince Lombardi statue.

When I flew home from San Diego on Monday afternoon, I'd say the flight was probably 75 percent filled with Patriots fans. It was the perfect capper to a terrific nine-day stretch on the road.

No one knows where the 2014 Patriots season will ultimately lead, but regardless, there is something to be said for enjoying the process as it's unfolding. With that in mind, this was one of my favorite two-game stretches since first starting to cover the team in 1997.

Thanks to all of you for making it such.

Q. Mike, in my eyes, I saw this win as one of the most rewarding wins for the Patriots this year. They clearly didn't play their best all-around football, but they showed against the Chargers that they are able to win in multiple ways. This is what the Patriots have lacked at times in prior years: The ability to win close games without a stellar offensive performance. People forget that although they were great from '01 to '04, they weren't always blowing teams out of the water. Heck, two of their three Super Bowls were decided by a last-second field goal. These Pats have shown that they can win in a shootout, a defensive battle, in the cold, in the heat, and now on the road. This is Bill Belichick football at its finest. Thoughts? -- Ritz (Newton, Massachusetts)

A. I agree with everything you said, Ritz. That was an impressive defensive performance, which I wrote about after the game. As cornerback Darrelle Revis said, sometimes the defense has to pick up the offense. Other times, the offense has to pick up the defense. Sometimes special teams has to pick up both of them. That's what a team sport is all about, and to me, football is the ultimate team sport. One defensive stat that stands above the rest for me was that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was 2-for-10 on passes traveling more than 5 yards downfield, with the two completions on such throws the fewest he's had in a game since he became a full-time starter in 2006. I'm just glad the Patriots could overcome the performance of cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer to produce such a dominant performance (sarcasm intended). Sorry, couldn't resist.

Q. Mike, in Nate Solder we thought we had a really solid left tackle. Has it now become an area of need? What has happened to Nate, he has declined massively last two seasons? -- Neil (North Branch, Michigan)

A. Neil, Solder obviously needs to play better than he did Sunday night. Two plays stood out, both in the red zone, as he got knocked out of his stance leading to a sack and then he was turned around and forced to try to block a pass-rusher with his backside. Those are correctable technique errors with good coaching, and Solder himself is diligent and cares about his craft. The Chargers also deserve some credit for those plays. There were quite a few questions on Solder in this week's mailbag after that performance and I understand why; there were some notable breakdowns. Still, while there is no guarantee for future results, I feel confident investing in the player going forward while also having a pretty good feel, from an overall context, for the subpar offensive play around the NFL this season. (For example, this week's opponent, Miami, is in a much more compromising position, in my opinion.)

Q. Why isn't Jonas Gray playing after that great game he had against the Colts? He should have played against Green Bay to keep the Packers' defense honest. -- Lloyd (Tyne Valley, Price Edward Island, Canada)

A. Lloyd, if Nate Solder's play was the hottest topic in this week's mailbag, the status of Jonas Gray was tied for second with receiver Aaron Dobson's future with the team. My take on Gray is that he is learning a hard lesson about life in the Bill Belichick School of Accountability. By not showing up to the facility on time the Friday after the Colts game, Gray left the door open for someone else to step in, and Blount has done a nice job. I know people might not see it the same way, but I don't feel like Blount has done anything to warrant taking him off the field. He's been solid. This is the way Belichick operates. Some might say it's a bit harsh and I don't disagree. But I can't say I feel like it's costing the team victories.

Q. Do you think it is entirely possible that Bill Belichick is saving Jonas Gray for the playoffs so he will have a fresh set of legs to do some big-time rushing of the football come January? Seems odd that he has given Jonas so few carries since his big night in Indy. -- Winning (Farmville, Virginia)

A. No, I don't think Belichick's decision-making with Gray has anything to do with the idea of saving him for the playoffs. I think Gray would have been used more had two things not happened: 1) He wasn't on time the Friday after his big game; 2) Blount wasn't signed and produced well in his place.

Q. Hey Mike, I agree with Tedy Bruschi that the penalty on Brandon Browner was correct. In this age of player safety concerns, it will be called every time. Browner had time to line up the receiver, maybe next time he'll remember to lower his pads so as not to penalize the team and possibly injure an opponent. And how about kudos to Ladarius Green, he saw the hit coming but didn't try to duck away, that's a tough player. -- Michael (Las Vegas)

A. Michael, the main parts I disagree with is that Browner had time to line up the receiver and that Green saw it coming. My view of the play was that it was bang-bang, Browner was in coverage on a different player, and he made an instant reaction to the ball as he saw it arrive, while Green didn't catch it cleanly and thus found himself in the position where Browner was bearing down on him. Officials are coached to flag that every time, even if they're not sure, and that's what I think happened there. They reacted to Green on the ground. They will do that every time, as you said. I think it's a tough call against Browner, but I also feel like I know how the NFL operates, and would expect them to make a point on Browner by fining him and backing the call. I didn't think it was a penalty.

Q. Mike, my question is in regards to Browner's penalties. Do you think his reputation as a physical player is contributing to the high number of flags he is receiving? I feel like Rodney Harrison received similar treatment from the officials when he was playing. Is that a fair comparison? -- Ryan (St. Petersburg, Florida)

A. Ryan, I think it's part reputation, part performance. If he had a No. 24 on the back of his jersey, I think his penalty total might be closer to eight than 14.

Q. Mike, a lot was made of the Pats spending the week in San Diego. Seemed to be a lot of benefits and most importantly, the team produced a W. I'm curious to know if you think one of the benefits could be preparing the team for another weeklong trip to Arizona in early February? Obviously there will be a lot more hype and events going on Super Bowl week, but was the players' practice schedule, media commitments, etc., this week comparable at all to a Super Bowl week or more like a normal week in the regular season? Thanks. -- R.J. (Pennsylvania)

A. Absolutely, R.J. Bill Belichick might never admit it, but that is a residual benefit of the experience the team just had.

Q. Mike, does Atlanta lighting up Green Bay for 37 points Monday night temper everyone's enthusiasm of the Pats' "great" loss to the Packers? -- Scott (New Hampshire)

A. Scott, I didn't see much of the game, but noted it was 31-7 at the half and then 34-17 at the end of three. Would have to review it, but on the surface, it looks like the Packers were in firm control and maybe let down late.

Q Mike, do you think that both sides -- Darrelle Revis and the Patriots -- want to come up with a longer-term agreement to keep Revis in a Pats uniform? -- Dave (Berlin, New Hampshire)

A. Dave, my feeling is that both sides would be open to that but there are a lot of layers in play. First, Revis isn't going to sell himself short financially. Second, the Patriots aren't going to sacrifice their overall philosophy to cater to one player. So a lot is probably going to depend on what the market dictates. If another team just blows it up with an over-the-top offer, that probably ends it right there. But my stance is that if the Patriots are competitive with top bidders, they have the edge based on the positive experience Revis has had in 2014.

Q. What is the contract situation with Alan Branch, Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas? All three seem to be playing well and would be key members for next season. -- Ashley (Worcester, Massachusetts)

A. Ashley, all three are free agents after this season. In looking at their contract information, one point I'd also pass along is that the Patriots left themselves some flexibility on the salary cap to bring them aboard midseason, and that shouldn't be overlooked. I didn't realize, initially, that Ayers and Casillas are making a shade over $1 million each this season, so they aren't veteran-minimum players. We talk a lot about why the Patriots have a certain amount of cap space, and this is one reason why. Team president Jonathan Kraft, in a pregame radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub, touched more on the cap this week for those interested in that aspect of the team.

Q. I loved the way Aaron Dobson played in 2013. I think he is a smart player who understands the offense as well as being a gifted athlete. People are comparing him to Chad Jackson and Taylor Price, but I strongly disagree with those comparisons. I have a two-part question. First, was Dobson's redshirt sophomore season totally health related? I truly hope so and it would make a lot of sense if that were the case. My second question would be, is his roster spot in jeopardy next summer? It seems foolish to have a short leash on a player who is inexpensive and has room for growth. They shouldn't be quick to throw homegrown talent to the curb when he's the only drafted receiver in a decade to have success here. He should be a part of New England's plans in 2015. -- Mike (Lowell, Massachusetts)

A. Mike, health was certainly a part of Dobson's 2014 season. When you undergo surgery on a stress fracture in your foot in March and miss the chance to be in the offseason program, that's significant. But to say it's only about health, from this viewpoint, is off the mark. The other part of this, as I understand it, is competitiveness and rising up to the challenge in a hard-driving environment. The Patriots' environment isn't for everyone, and if you look at the receivers who have succeeded here -- Julian Edelman, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Brandon LaFell -- the common thread is that they rose up to that challenge. If Dobson doesn't show the ability to do so in 2015, I wouldn't call his roster spot a lock. It's a make-or-break year for him, I believe.

Q. Mike, in last week's mailbag there was some discussion around Bryan Tyms and Dobson and depth at the receiver spot. I'm into fantasy football and am amazed at how many awesome rookie receivers there are. Sure, Odell Beckham/Sammy Watkins/Kevin Benjamin would have cost first-round picks, but what about Jordan Mathews, Martavis Bryant, Jarvis Landy, Marqise Lee, Davante Adams, etc. How did Belichick fail to land any of those guys? He just overrated Dobson? That's compounding a bad draft pick by failing to acknowledge that he didn't work out. No excuse to not give Tom Brady another receiver out of last year's draft. -- Dave (Carlsbad, California)

A. It's probably an easy answer, Dave. They thought first-round pick Dominique Easley was more valuable, at a greater position of need, than the receivers in the first round. Then by the time they got to the second round, they might have taken Landry if quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't there. But there's a saying in personnel -- positional value trumps all, and if you think have a quarterback at that hard-to-fill position as either a No. 1 or future No. 1, that's the best investment. After that point, we can always cherry-pick a few players out of any draft and say, "Why didn't they pick him?" That's why it's an inexact science.

Q. Hard to criticize anything about Belichick's management with this record, but even before the injury to Dobson, it seemed like the team was very thin at receiver. Multiple receiver sets are not a big part of their game plan, but isn't that partly a result of the limited personnel? Imagine this team with Steve Smith lining up every snap. Also, in the result of an injury, the drop-off from LaFell to Tyms is terrifying. -- Nick (Shenzhen, China)

A. Yes, Nick, I would agree with that. After Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman, there is a pretty steep drop-off at receiver. My view of it comes back to development at the position. If we hit the rewind button and think back to March and April, one of the big things we discussed was the "second-year jump" that was anticipated for Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. I don't think many, outside of those who generally trend negative for the sake of being negative, foresaw that the team would basically be getting nothing out of that group.

Q. Hi Mike, I was listening to Bob Ryan reminiscing about his days of going on road trips with the Celtics and the personal bonds that created. I'm sure that the modern-day sports scene doesn't allow for that kind of closeness these days. But does a 2-week road trip like the Green Bay/San Diego break down any of the barriers between you and the players? -- Danny (On Amtrak in Connecticut)

A. Not so much, Danny. It's not like we're hanging out at the team hotel. If anything, things are a little more structured from a media standpoint in a week like that, whereas during a regular week, there's a little more time in the locker room to build some of those connections.

Q. Hi Mike. Still not convinced on the throwback issue. Why can't the Pats just use the current helmet in white? I would appreciate it if you would throw on your reporter hat, think critically, and come up with the real answer or a detailed explanation of the equipment issue. Thanks. -- Greg (Massachusetts)

A. Sure thing, Greg. They could paint their current helmets white, covering up the silver. And then they could put the old Pat Patriot logo on the painted helmet. That is indeed an option, as I understand it, but obviously quite labor intensive. Another option is to wear the old jerseys with the current helmet, but they probably don't see that as ideal. Thus, the decision is made to not go with the throwbacks.

Q. Mike, I noticed the Pats practiced with no numbers on their uniforms on Wednesday in San Diego. Why? Was it because they were practicing outside of their normal element and they don't want outside folks who might catch some of their practice to know who is who? -- Jon (East Bridgewater, Massachusetts)

A. You nailed it, Jon.

Q. Hi Mike. When the team spends a whole week on the road where they're playing a game at San Diego, what facilities do they use? Game day equipment is the stuff they travel with in trunks, but how can they have adequate space otherwise? Locker room, weight room, film room, food? I thought they might end up at a college somewhere but even still it would be next to impossible to re-create what they have at home. -- B (Atlanta)

A. They used two colleges on this recent trip -- UC San Diego and the University of San Diego. The team's weekly television show, Patriots All-Access, had a nice segment with associate director of operations Michelle Martini that detailed some more on this.

Q. Mike, we saw Gray rush for over 200 yards, and since then -- and especially against Green Bay -- we didn't see the same power game. We also didn't see the same sixth lineman in the game. Is this because of the injury to Cameron Fleming? How important is his recovery to allowing Belichick to put in a similar power rushing attack? Can you imagine James Develin and Fleming clearing the road for Blount? -- Chris (Hagerstown, Maryland)

A. Chris, in that Packers game, they had offensive tackle Marcus Cannon on for eight snaps in that role. The results weren't very good. I think it's fair to say Fleming is a more effective player in the role, and when he returns to health, perhaps we see more of it.