FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots clinched the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs as a result of the Denver Broncos' loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night, and that had several emails delivered rapid-fire into the mailbag as it unfolded.
The main question: How will the Patriots approach things personnel-wise in the season finale against the Bills?
So let's get right into this week's mailbag, which looks back on Sunday's win over the Jets, to share some thoughts.
Q. Mike, with the Pats guaranteed home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs, would it not be beyond Bill Belichick to use the Buffalo game as a teaching and tune-up game to get the team back to proficient basics as well as give first-stringers a rest and reserves more valuable game experience? What say you? -- Harry (Canada)
A. Harry, the season finale against Buffalo obviously takes on a bit of a different feel now that the Patriots have locked in the No. 1 spot. You want to be smart about it. At the same time, it isn't like this team is firing on all cylinders. They have a lot of work to do, especially on offense. Because of that, I'd be a bit surprised if Bill Belichick shut all key players down completely. I would expect most of them (not all) to start the game, and then you assess as the game unfolds. Sort of like a final preseason game when the third preseason game didn't go as well as you might have hoped.
Q. Mike, with home-field advantage locked up, do we sit Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and even give Julian Edelman another game to get right? The Bills' defense is pretty scary, so why risk it, and it also gives the chance for some of the guys on the pine to shine? Pros/cons? -- Corky (Destin, Florida)
A. Corky, this is one of the weeks where I don't think you alter your preparation-based approach at all. If you're Bill Belichick, the message you stress is that everyone should prepare to play, and the focus is on maintaining your edge. There is also an aspect of trying to get a little bit of the desired rhythm back on offense, which has hit some rough patches. I don't think you want to go into the playoffs with a three-week break and have the last offensive performance be the one we saw against the Jets. At the same time, you pick your spots with some key players to manage their playing time.
Q. Hi Mike, I was just wondering your thoughts on the Pats' offensive line troubles? Though they have improved since the first four weeks they still can't seem to gain any traction. Do you see this as a problem going forward, especially with the week at hand with a dominant Bills defensive front? -- Al (Worcester, Massachusetts)
A. Al, that won't be good enough going forward. The return of starting left guard Dan Connolly when he's healthy enough to play (knee injury) should help. I also think the Jets have one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL, they know the Patriots well, it's a challenging scheme that has some disguise aspects to it, and so there were some unique factors in play on Sunday. Is it a concern? Of course. But I'd be surprised if the Patriots' offensive line is as bad as we saw Sunday.
Q. Hi Mike, I was just wondering your thoughts on the Pats' offensive line troubles? Though they have improved since the first four weeks they still can't seem to gain any traction. Do you see this as a problem going forward, especially with the week at hand with a dominant Bills defensive front? - Albert
A. Albert, I don't view the Bills as much as a disguise team as the Jets, so while they have talented players, they do it a bit differently. A big part of the Patriots' problems against the Jets were simply pre-snap identification and communication, and the Jets deserve some credit for their scheming. There were also simply plenty of Patriots physical errors that were a result of the player on the other team just winning the one-on-one matchup, and that's what I think Sunday will be more about for the Patriots. It's not just the offensive line, either; the tight ends and running backs weren't great in pass protection, either.
Q. Mike, it seems like the Pats are getting too cute with the offensive line, and it makes me worry. I didn't mind the Marcus Cannon contract, but I do mind his rotating in and forcing Nate Solder to the sideline. Cannon was just awful, and it seems like the last thing Solder needs is to keep switching roles. He seems like he needs as many quality left tackle snaps as he can get, because he has to play well in the playoffs. Cameron Fleming played great as a sixth offensive lineman, and yet in the first half Solder and Cannon were still messing around. It almost seemed like Josh McDaniels and BB decided to use this game to tweak some things, and try out some ideas, but that's a dangerous game in the NFL with any team capable of winning every week. So, did they just get too cute, or were they using this game as a chance to try out some ideas? I'm not sure which is more concerning. -- George (Natick, Massachusetts)
A. George, that's a fair second-guess, and I would imagine there is probably some agreement internally from the coaching staff after the fact. When a unit is struggling like the offensive line was, moving players around when the sixth offensive lineman is a big part of the plan seems like it's making life harder on yourself without having to. Why not just put Fleming into the game in those situations? They ended up needing Fleming at right guard when Josh Kline was benched at halftime, so perhaps they would have been forced into that situation regardless, but I endorse the line of thinking that maybe they got a little too cute with the initial plan. Like the players and writers who cover the team, the coaches aren't perfect, either.
Q. Hi Mike, the offensive performance, and play-calling by McDainels, reminded me of the first Super Bowl against the Giants -- an ineffective offensive line and Tom Brady unable to go through his progressions. Why does it take McDaniels almost three quarters to go with a quicker tempo and a short, quick passing game? These slow offensive starts and slow adjustments aren't going to cut it in the playoffs. -- Gary (East Hanover, New Jersey)
A. Gary, it's fair to say that was an adjustment they could have gotten to sooner. Part of it was simply the low number of snaps. When you only have 24 in the first half, there isn't a lot of opportunity to get into a play-calling rhythm, or get to some of the different things in your arsenal. The Patriots would like to have around 70-80 offensive snaps per game, but they aren't hitting the mark lately: 57 against Green Bay, 76 against San Diego, 64 against Miami and 61 against the Jets. When I rewatched the Jets game, I didn't think it was as much about play-calling as it was execution and solid play from the Jets. A lot of on-field mistakes from the Patriots, too.
Q. Hi Mike, at times this offense looks predictable, and with just Gronk as the big weapon Sunday, very predictable. Then when the game gets critical, they seem to snap out of it, and get more people involved. My question is, have you noticed this in past weeks, and do think it contributes to the slow starts? -- Jared (Granville, Massachusetts)
A. Jared, the one thing that stands out to me in recent weeks is the importance of the running game. When the Patriots get it going early in the game, it gives the offensive linemen a chance to settle in a bit more. On Sunday, they had seven carries for eight yards until they went to the up-tempo offense midway through the third quarter, and they finally broke through on the ground with that approach (Shane Vereen had six carries for 39 yards on the drive). When they don't get the running game going, that's when things become a bit more predictable. To me, this is a key going forward, and it's not just on play calling. For example, on second-and-6 with six offensive linemen on the field, don't get caught lunging up front, which leads to a run of minus-2 yards.
Q. With teams now defending Gronk with double teams, and him staying in to block a depleted O-line, I'm looking for Tim Wright up the seam. Why aren't they featuring him more? -- Paul (New Brunswick, Canada)
A. Paul, I view Wright as a key player for the offense in the playoffs. The options outside of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Rob Gronkowski aren't plentiful, and we saw Sunday against the Jets how that can make life harder on the offense. Wright was used much more in the second half of that game (25 of his 32 snaps), so it seems they might be thinking along the same lines. Now it's just a matter of getting him going a bit more.
Q. Mike, I completely disagree with your view on Danny Amendola. Yes, the punt return was huge and he played a lot of snaps but he missed two or three (routine) catches that would've helped the offense, catches that an NFL wide receiver should be able to make in key situations. Have you reviewed any of the game film or think any differently a couple days after the game? I feel like him simply playing more offensive snaps isn't a testament to him, but the position he plays. The Pats didn't have Edelman, Brian Tyms doesn't play that position, and that's it. The Patriots could have picked someone up to do what Amendola did (minus the punt return) and they probably would've had the same WR production. His day was nothing to rave about, in my opinion. -- Kaleb (Newton, Massachusetts)
A. Kaleb, I didn't feel any differently about Amendola after my film review; I thought his performance was critical to the victory. They needed him, and he stepped up, especially in the four-minute offense. It wasn't perfect, and there is a drop-off there from Edelman to him, but he gave them just enough. And "just enough" was the theme of the day.
Q. Hey Mike, definitely a lot of negatives to take away from the Jets game, but I thought one positive was the rapport that Brady developed with Amendola. Earlier in the season, it seemed like even if DA was open Brady rarely was looking his way and preferred to throw to Gronk or Edelman. Now, Brady should have more trust in Amendola and be more likely to target him when he's open. -- Alex (Raleigh, North Carolina)
A. Alex, when Edelman comes back, I would think Amendola goes back to that No. 3 role in which his snaps are limited. But on a day when the Patriots didn't have Edelman, I thought Amendola came through with the plays they needed, specifically at the end of the game.
Q. Hi Mike. I had repeated thoughts about the Patriots and Seahawks in a SB matchup given the impressive scheming and performance of the Jets' defense. The Seahawks are more proficient on all defensive units, while the Patriots' defense struggles against improvising QBs like Rogers and Wilson, and play-action with RBs like Lynch. Your thoughts? -- Jake M. (Vancouver, BC)
A. Jake, you still have to win two games to get there, and we've seen how difficult that can be at times. But I'd agree that the Seahawks would present some issues that have hurt the Patriots this season. One additional thought: The fact the game would be at a neutral site can't be overlooked. Seattle is one of the best teams in the NFL, but like the Patriots and most others, they look a bit different when you take them away from home.
Q. I don't know what it is about these New York defenses and their ability to get Tom off his spot, but I do know neither NY team will make the playoffs. Do you see any other potential playoff opponents that might be able to duplicate what the Jets did to us on Sunday and get to Brady? -- Ritzman (Barnstable, Massachusetts)
A. I don't in the AFC, Ritzman. What the Jets do is unique, and there is also something to be said for the familiarity they have with Brady and the Patriots. Expanding it to the NFC, the Seahawks' ability to pressure with four rushers could duplicate some of the same issues we saw the Patriots have this past Sunday. It's not as much about disguise, but just execution.
Q. Mike, I'm curious why folks are getting so down on Malcolm Butler for the punt return slip-up. In the replay it looks like the Jets punt returner basically did a half-second wave; that hardly would qualify as a fair catch in my book. One second of blocking from someone on the receiving team and there is no way Butler sees that quick wave. However, everyone condemned the play. What gives? -- Will (Vienna, Austria)
A. Will, this reminds me of the Jamie Collins penalty from Week 5 against the Bengals. I agree with everything you said, and it's a similar point I had made about Collins -- the hand of the punt returner is really supposed to come up over his head. The NFL is a little liberal on its interpretation on those plays, and one thing working against Butler is that no one else on the coverage team seemed to have the same issue. It was clear, in the CBS replays that showed Butler after the play, that he didn't see the fair catch signal.
Q. I still think it would be wise to keep Akeem Ayers involved. Just sayin. -- Sean M. (Faribault, Minnesota)
A. Sean, Ayers was limited to just five snaps as the Patriots were in more of a base defense while focusing on the Jets' running game. I think Ayers can help them, and it's worth a look of getting him involved in more of a defensive end rotation in those situations to see how he holds up setting the edge.
Q. Mike, heading into this last game, I'd love to see the Patriots connect on a deep pass. Brian Tyms hauled in a bomb the last time these two teams played, and I think we need to send our playoff opponents the message that we can do it again. Teams don't really respect our ability to challenge them deep, and, honestly, why should they? Let's put out 12 personnel, run play action, and connect on a bomb. -- Jerry (New York, New York)
A. Jerry, one thing that stood out Sunday was that Brady's average throw distance was 5.2 yards downfield, his lowest of the season according to ESPN's Stats & Information. Brady didn't attempt a single pass at least 15 yards downfield for the first time since Week 4 of the 2010 season. Obviously, a big part of that was that he didn't have time, but for a team that self-scouts as well as the Patriots, it makes sense to think we'll see a bit more of a vertical presence early in Sunday's game.