Much like the New England Patriots will do over their bye week, emailers to this week's mailbag are focusing on the team's three possible opponents in the playoffs.
This is a common occurrence this time of year, with many asking the question, Which team should the Patriots hope to avoid? I don't think there is a team that fits in that category this year.
Whichever team comes into Gillette Stadium on Jan. 11, I think the Patriots are capable of beating them if they play their best game.
As we've seen over the course of the 16-game regular season, they're also capable of losing to anyone. At this point, the team is in solid position, needing three wins to win the Super Bowl. At least one of those games will be at home, where the Patriots haven't lost this season. Nothing else matters if they don't get that one, so let's start this week's mailbag there.
Q: Mike, what are your thoughts on wild-card weekend? Who do you think presents the toughest matchup for the Patriots of their potential opponents -- Bengals, Colts or Chiefs? And who do you think will be the matchup? -- George (Warwick, R.I.)
A: George, that's on my list of things to do -- watch games with all three of those possible opponents (a recent Colts-Chiefs game should help study both teams at once). My answer, up to this point, has been the Colts because I view quarterback Andrew Luck as the one player who, if he plays his best, could single-handedly control a game against the Patriots. That idea was also sparked after thinking that maybe the Chiefs had peaked a bit and that the Patriots already faced the Bengals (13-6 loss on Oct. 6), which I think helps them. In the end, no team "scares" me from an AFC perspective. If the Patriots play their best, I think they should win. I'd predict we see the Bengals.
Q: Mike, do you think the playoff seedings broke the right way for the Patriots? Looking at the wild cards, I think the biggest threat is San Diego with Philip Rivers while the Chiefs, Bengals and Indy are too inconsistent. I think Rivers is the best QB out of the bunch. With that said, if SD does win at Cincinnati, it will give the Broncos the biggest challenge. I really like our chances. -- Alex (Woodbridge, Conn.)
A: Alex, Rivers has had a great season, and the Chargers have already shown they can win in Denver. But first they have to get by a Bengals team that hasn't lost at home this season. Anything is possible in this year's AFC. I absolutely wouldn't be surprised if any of the six seeds are representing the conference in the Super Bowl. From a Patriots perspective, I think the biggest thing I've seen the last two weeks is how they've won. The running game can be so critical in the playoffs, and the Patriots have it going right now.
Q: I don't think there is any question as to who we should want to play in the divisional round and that team is the Cincinnati Bengals. I'm not even going to cite their road record as the reason why. This is not about that. This is about the Bengals just not being a very good football team. Andy Dalton does not scare anyone. He might be the worst starting quarterback of all the playoff teams. I will be rooting for Indianapolis to head to Denver and for us to get Cincinnati. -- Ramin (San Marcos, Texas)
A: Ramin, I don't see a big difference between the Bengals, Colts and Chiefs. As for the Bengals, it is easy to think back to last year's playoff struggle in Houston and how offensively inept they looked, but they've been better this year. Their defense is tough and warrants respect. Still, I think that's a game the Patriots should win at home if that's the way it unfolds.
Q: Hi Mike, if you were Josh McDaniels, would you take the Cleveland job or stay with the Patriots and hope you are the heir apparent to Belichick? Another failed head coaching experience would label McDaniels as a solid coordinator but ineffective head coach. -- Gary (East Hanover, N.J.)
A: Gary, everyone is motivated by different things. But if McDaniels asked my advice, I'd tell him to stay where he is. He has a chance to have his family settled in one spot with some consistency, work with a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback, be an integral part of what is widely viewed as a first-class organization with some of his closest friends in the business and potentially position himself to be Bill Belichick's successor in time. He has a full coaching career ahead of him and these jobs open every year. Yes, I know there's no guarantee a coach will be the "hot" candidate in future years and that the Browns have a hometown tug for him. But I'm not sure that's the best place for him to have success, and if he doesn't, he could find himself in a position like Eric Mangini, who is still a young coach but not even in the discussion for vacancies after being fired from head coaching jobs with the Jets (2006-08) and Browns (2009-10).
Q: Happy New Year Mike! With the rumors that Josh McDaniels is going to be interviewed by the Cleveland Browns, how is this going to affect the Patriots playoff preparations? And if McDaniels does leave for Cleveland, who would be the candidates to take over the offensive coordinator duties? -- Alex (New Jersey)
A: Alex, Happy New Year to you and all emailers to the mailbag. The Patriots have been through this multiple times in the past, with one of the most recent examples coming with Bill O'Brien and Penn State. So I don't think it will affect playoff preparations. If McDaniels does depart, Brian Daboll is a strong in-house candidate from this viewpoint.
Q: Hi Mike. Is it time to finally forget about the rookie WRs helping the cause going forward in the playoffs? It seems that their collective year can be characterized by frustrating inconsistency, injury, and apart from perhaps two games, a failure to meaningfully contribute. Given that Brady will find the open receiver, clearly, even when they manage to make it onto the field, they are not always where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be. If they were, Brady would find them and get them the football. To me this lack of help from those expected to contribute further demonstrates Brady's greatness. Essentially, Brady has had only Edelman upon which to rely for the entire season, with Amendola to a lesser extent and Gronk for only a short period of time. -- Tman (Belmont, Mass.)
A: I don't think anyone would be surprised if Aaron Dobson lands on season-ending injured reserve after hobbling off with his foot injury against the Bills. So his contributions are obviously in question. I do think Josh Boyce (ankle) is closer to a return. In the end, the best way to view the rookie contributions is probably through a complementary lens. They won't be go-to guys, but who knows? They could face a got-to-have-it situation in a critical moment, and we've seen rookies deliver at times (e.g. Kenbrell Thompkins to beat the Saints with 5 seconds left on Oct. 13). So I wouldn't rule it out.
Q: Mike, I know the defense has seen better days and has had its struggles, but are you optimistic about this group's future? Rookies and previous non-starters have been playing better than expected lately it seems. Logan Ryan has stood out, as has Chris Jones. Assuming Aqib Talib can be kept around, and Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo return to health, do you think this looks like a potentially dangerous defense for next year? -- Bill (Connecticut)
A: Bill, I think there is a good foundation with the group, and it's also easy to see the potential of youngsters like top 2013 draft pick Jamie Collins. One of my biggest takeaways this year has been what a difference-maker Talib is for the unit. Bringing him back is critical, I believe, to keeping things heading in the right direction.
Q: Mike, it appears Talib has found a level of health that he can play with and be effective. What is the injury status of the rest of the secondary as they head into the playoffs? It seems to me that if they can get some rest for the banged up players like Devin McCourty and Alfonzo Dennard, they could be at their fullest force all season given the emergence of the Rutgers rookies. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)
A: Dean, I think they will be at full strength on Jan. 11 in the divisional round. That assumes things progress as hoped with McCourty's recovery from a concussion. I do believe Dennard would have played this past Sunday if it was a true playoff game.
Q: Mike, the answer to this is going to boil down to "BB thinks he gives us the best chance to win," but is there an evaluation of Steve Gregory you could give that explains what he brings to the table? He has to be doing something right that I'm missing because all I can picture is a series of missed tackles and him struggling against Dennis Pitta last year. -- A (Portland, Maine)
A: Gregory doesn't have the same physical gifts as other topflight safeties, but he's one of the smartest players in the game, as evidenced by the Patriots' putting the green dot on his helmet in the season finale when Devin McCourty was out with a concussion. A big part of secondary play is communication and everyone being on the same page, and Gregory is a big part of that. Does he miss tackles? Yes. Does he sometimes struggle in coverage? Yes. But if you watched Buffalo's Jim Leonhard on Sunday, you would have seen the same thing. Or even the Patriots' own Duron Harmon, who was maybe a step late in coverage a few times. Gregory still contributes and makes some plays. In the perfect Patriots world, maybe he is more of a situational third safety, but that's not the way it shook out this year.
Q: Hi Mike, what was the condition of Logan Mankins after the game? Was he seen in the locker room? -- Jim (Seminole, Fla.)
A: Jim, Mankins wasn't around in the time that reporters were present in the locker room after the game. On Monday, reporters noticed a walking boot in front of his locker. As I reviewed the game, it was clear that Mankins was laboring. I wouldn't say the Patriots are out of the woods on this one, but Mankins has a high pain threshold and my sense is that he'd have to lose a limb or something along those lines to be kept off the field.
Q: Sealver Siliga has put in a strong performance for two straight weeks now. Do you see him earning the starting spot next to Vince Wilfork next year? Does Siliga have the potential to take over for Vince completely in the future? -- Jack (Wilmington, Del.)
A: Jack, I've been impressed by Siliga the last few weeks as he has seized the opportunity for more playing time. At 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, he has good size and he seems to be marrying that size and strength with good technique on a more consistent basis. He's still a young player, and as we saw with someone like tight end Zach Sudfeld in preseason and training camp, things can be more volatile with someone at that stage in their career. There is always a question of, can they sustain? So I think it's a bit early to be looking at big-picture thoughts with Siliga, but the arrow is clearly pointing in that direction at this point.
Q: Mike, I know it's a little too early to start thinking about the 2014 NFL draft, but why does everyone seem to think that the Patriots will use their first-round pick on a defensive tackle? To me, it would make most sense to go with a TE, especially with the talent this year, including guys like Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro and Eric Ebron. -- Steve (San Antonio)
A: Steve, it's never too early to start thinking about the draft. I understand why many would target a big defensive tackle for the Patriots in first-round projections. Those players generally have physical traits that are rare, and if a team is in position to pick a good one, it often represents a good value at a hard-to-fill need. At the same time, no team goes into the draft, at this time, thinking "we're definitely going to pick this position." It could go in a number of directions, including tight end. So let's not lock in totally on one spot.
Q: Mike, it couldn't have been as easy as it looked. Did the Pats O-line rework some blocking schemes to spring LeGarrette Blount for those big chunks of yardage on Sunday or did the Bills' defense just not show up? -- Brad (Washington, D.C.)
A: Brad, I didn't necessarily see any new schemes from the Patriots. What I did see was solid execution up front, a fullback in James Develin who has morphed into an old-school Sam Gash-type presence the last few weeks, and a big running back who showed a relentlessness that made him a bear to tackle on a day in which the elements added an additional challenge. Tedy Bruschi also made the point that the Bills had their U-Hauls packed -- they didn't exactly look as if they wanted to tackle.
Q: After Blount's dominating performance this week, do you think we're witnessing the end of the Stevan Ridley feature-back era? How long does Ridley have on his contract? What about Blount? Will they both stay for an extended period of time? -- Jack (Wilmington, Del.)
A: Jack, there are two ways to look at this from this viewpoint: 1) The three-game snapshot that the Patriots hope will result in a Super Bowl championship this year; 2) 2014 and beyond. On the first part, I don't think there is any question that they're going to ride with Blount as the "lead" power back as part of an overall rotation. It doesn't mean Ridley won't play, but he's just not playing as much as he did in 2012. As for the future, Ridley's contract extends through the 2014 season while Blount is a free agent after this 2013 season. I would think there is a good chance of Blount returning to the Patriots in 2014.
Q: Hi Mike, watching Matthew Slater over the years, and with a focus on this season's performance, he has definitely established himself as an elite special teams player in the NFL. His decisive and impacting play coupled with his leadership and smarts have made him more invaluable to the Patriots with each passing season; a coaching future in the making? Your thoughts? -- Jake M (Vancouver, British Columbia)
A: No doubt, Jake. When we think back to 2008, and the Patriots trading up to select him in the fifth round, many were skeptical because it wasn't as if Slater had a star-studded college career. Then when Slater had some rocky moments in his 2008 rookie season, a kickoff clanging off his face mask in a loss to the Steelers, there was some adversity that could have sent his career in the wrong direction. Slater is one of the neat personnel success stories in recent years.