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Team needs: New England Patriots

Divisional Playoffs - Houston Texans v New England Patriots Getty Images

With just five picks currently in hand, the Patriots don’t enter this year’s draft with a lot of ammunition. It’s a good thing, then, that the defending AFC East champions don’t have a whole lot of holes that need filling. As in most other years over the last decade, those holes are more than balanced out by the presence of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick but we’ve come up with a take on the spots where the Patriots could use some help all the same. 

Wide Receiver: It’s been a busy offseason at wide receiver in New England. Danny Amendola has arrived while Wes Welker shuffled off to join Peyton Manning in Denver and Brandon Lloyd was cut after one middling season with the team. They have re-signed Julian Edelman and added Donald Jones and Jenkins as well, but the Patriots still have space for a receiver who can threaten teams on the outside.

Not only would such a receiver make a nice target for Brady, they’d also ideally open up space for tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to operate. That assumes that pair is healthy and the need for another target only increases if either or both the tight ends are limited in the coming season. Robert Woods of USC, Justin Hunter of Tennessee and Keenan Allen of California could all be possibilities in the first two rounds and all fit the profile of what the Patriots would seem to be looking for at the position.

Defensive Line: They picked Chandler Jones in the first round last year and it was a promising debut for the Syracuse product. The team could use more punch in the pass rush, however. There are free agents like John Abraham and Dwight Freeney still on the market that could help or the Patriots may look to the early rounds of the draft as a way to add it to the roster. If they were to opt for the draft, Estonian native Margus Hunt of SMU is an intriguing prospect at defensive end.

Vince Wilfork remains an effective plug in the middle of the line, but he won’t play forever so the Patriots could also look for a defensive tackle to help now and take over for Wilfork later. The right guy would be able to provide interior push against quarterbacks, which might be difficult to find from their draft spot. If a player like Sylvester Williams of North Carolina were to fall down the board, he should be a possibility at the end of the first round.

Cornerback: Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington are sticking around while Alfonzo Dennard won’t miss any time after receiving a sentence that will keep him out of jail until next March, so this isn’t the acute need it would be if any of those three were going to be unavailable. There’s room for improvement, though, and the Patriots will likely be adding at least one corner to the mix during the draft. If they want to do it early, they could stay in New England and pluck Blidi Wreh-Wilson from Connecticut. We also wouldn’t be too shocked if the Patriots were the team that rolls the dice on the erstwhile Honey Badger and places a bet that Tyrann Mathieu’s talent beats out his red flags.

Safety: Another need that’s not particularly acute thanks to the signing of Adrian Wilson, but it’s a spot where the Patriots might look to stop the revolving door that’s been in place in recent seasons. They tried to do that with Patrick Chung, but he couldn’t stay healthy and now plays in Philadelphia. Wilson should be fine in 2013, but he’s turning 34 in October and the team could find D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina a tempting prospect for the long term in the second round.

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Belichick didn’t know Falcons had won

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Robert Kraft, owner and CEO of the New England Patriots (L), and head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots look on after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to win the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

When the Patriots began their game against the Steelers, the NFC representative in the Super Bowl already was known. As a practical matter, it was known a couple of hours before kickoff.

One of the few figures in the football-following world who didn’t know was Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“No, I mean I didn’t even know they won,” Belichick told reporters when asked for his early impressions regarding facing the Falcons in the Super Bowl. “We didn’t see the first game. Obviously they’re a great team or they wouldn’t be playing in this game. They’ve had a great year.”

Asked later whether the team deliberately avoided the Packers-Falcons game, Belichick gave a pragmatic answer: “Yeah, we were focused on this game. I mean that game, if we didn’t win this game then that game didn’t make any difference.”

While it’s entirely possible that Belichick sufficiently walled himself off from the results of the early game, surely he asked and/or someone told him between the time his game ended and his press conference started. So maybe something like “I just found out they won” would have been more accurate and less arguably dismissive of the Falcons.

The Falcons are used to being dismissed, and they’ll surely be scouring all quotes and comments over the next 13 days for evidence that people are continuing to overlook them in order to push the buttons on players and coaches who have accomplished many great things while most have shrugged.

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Tom Brady, Bill Belichick head to seventh Super Bowl

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  (L-R) Robert Kraft, owner and CEO of the New England Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady #12 celebrate with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17 to win the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) Getty Images

No player has played in seven Super Bowls. No head coach has coached in seven Super Bowls. Until now.

Super Bowl LI will be Super Bowl No. 7 for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, setting a new NFL record.

Brady is currently tied with former Bills and Broncos defensive lineman Mike Lodish for the most Super Bowls played, with six. Brady owns that record for himself with the first snap he takes on Super Bowl Sunday.

Belichick is currently tied with former Colts and Dolphins coach Don Shula for the most Super Bowls coached, with six. Belichick owns that record for himself when Super Bowl LI kicks off.

If the Patriots win, Belichick also becomes the first head coach ever to win five Super Bowls. Belichick is currently tied with former Steelers coach Chuck Noll, with four Super Bowls won. And Brady, with a win, would join former 49ers and Cowboys outside linebacker Charles Haley as the only players to earn five Super Bowl rings.

Belichick and Brady are a pairing like no other.

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Ben Roethlisberger: Was the game too big for Steelers’ young players?

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts against the New England Patriots during the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-17.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has plenty of playoff experience, but a lot of his teammates don’t. And Roethlisberger thinks that may have been the Steelers’ problem in their loss to the Patriots on Sunday.

Asked what the biggest difference in the game was, Roethlisberger answered, “It just at times almost felt like it was almost too big for some of the young guys.”

When Roethlisberger was asked specifically about Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton, who each caught just two of the five passes thrown their way, he returned to that topic.

“It’s a little frustrating because we talk about sometimes it’s just one play here, one play there and tonight we didn’t make those plays,” Roethlisberger said. “Was it too big? Was it just a, I don’t know. We need to make every single play in a game like this against an opponent like this.”

Roethlisberger also made a point of saying he likes the players the Steelers have and doesn’t think they need to acquire anyone else, so he wasn’t exactly calling out his teammates. But he was saying that inexperience showed for some of the younger players on the Steelers, and that’s why their season ended.

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Mike Tomlin: We didn’t adapt to changed circumstances

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on against the New England Patriots during the second quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Many believed that the Patriots would design a game plan aimed at taking away Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. The Patriots didn’t have to.

A groin injury limited Bell to 11 snaps on Sunday night, carrying the ball six times for 20 yards.

After the game, coach Mike Tomlin was asked whether the injury changed the offensive strategy.

“No question,” Tomlin said, “but like I said, injuries are part of the game. We didn’t do a good enough job or a quick enough job adapting to the circumstance.”

The Steelers got away from running the ball, in part because they fell behind. DeAngelo Williams carried 14 times for 34 yards with a long of 15. Which means that his 13 other carries generated 19 yards.

Of course, a defense that performed like it usually does against Tom Brady didn’t help, forcing the Steelers to throw in order to close a gap that kept getting bigger and bigger.

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Who wins Super Bowl LI?

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Super Bowl participants have been locked and loaded. In 14 days, the Patriots and Falcons will square off.

So let’s start the prognostication process now: Who wins the game?

Answer below, battle it out in the comments, and then tune in for Monday’s PFT Live, which will feature visits from Hall of Fame head coach Tony Dungy and Patriots fanboy (not really, but I like to accuse him of it) Tom Curran of CSN New England.

PFT Live begins at 6:00 a.m. on NBC Sports Radio, and the simulcast starts at 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

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Patriots advance to Super Bowl LI to face Falcons

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

Roger Goodell kept Tom Brady off the field for the first four games of the season.

Nothing was keeping Brady from finishing it, and giving himself a chance to accept another trophy from the NFL commissioner in two weeks.

The Patriots quarterback was clinical as his team crushed the Steelers 36-17, setting up a Super Bowl LI showdown with the Falcons in Houston two weeks from today.

Brady was 34-of-42 passing for 384 yards and three scores. It was his ninth career three-touchdown performance in the postseason, tying Joe Montana for the most in that category. And that underscores the kind of historic company he’s keeping, as he leads the Patriots to their ninth Super Bowl appearance.

It also sets the stage for plenty of talk about the four-game Deflategate suspension that delayed the start of his season, but the Patriots went 3-1 during that stretch with the kind of all-hands effort as they displayed Sunday night.

Offensively, wide receiver Chris Hogan was brilliant, with nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

But the league’s best scoring defense also kept the Steelers from doing much of anything, making plays at critical junctures and forcing a pair of turnovers.

The Steelers were fairly helpless once running back Le’Veon Bell left with a groin injury early. He tried coming back for a play, but it wasn’t working, and without him, neither did their offense. With Bell offering just 20 yards on six carries, the rest of the Patriots’ attention went to slowing Antonio Brown, who will not be live-streaming any celebrations in the locker room tonight.

Brown finished with seven catches for 77 yards (cosmetic yards late padded that number), and the rest of the Steelers couldn’t overcome the attention.

Which means Brady and the Patriots will get plenty for the next two weeks, as they chase a fifth title.

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Source: Saints never spoke to Colts about Sean Payton

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have denied it on the record, and the Saints eventually may do the same.

For now, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that no one from the Saints at any time has ever spoken to the Colts, directly or indirectly, about a deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has denied talking to the Saints, but Ward has said that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in the possibility of obtaining Payton by compensating the Saints.

Payton remains under contract with the Saints and there’s no indication that either side plans to change that reality, or that any team plans to try to secure the rights to Payton.

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Aaron Rodgers: We need to reload, can take “big step” this offseason

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers walks off the field after being defeated by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Packers’ hot streak came to an end in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon and that means quarterback Aaron Rodgers is already thinking about the future.

Rodgers was asked if he felt like he was running short on chances to win another Super Bowl, which the quarterback said wasn’t the case while adding that they have to “make sure we’re going all-in every year to win” a title. Rodgers said he thinks the team “can take a big step this offseason,” but that the changes didn’t need to be major ones in order for that to happen.

“We need to reload,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload. We’ve got a lot of players who are young who are big contributors for us. We just need to reload a little bit this offseason. I think we had a lot of great contributions this season from guys we didn’t really expect. Geronimo Allison had a very big year for us. Aaron Ripkowski was fantastic. Jared Cook, I think, needs to be near the top of the priority list, the way he played this year. And the offensive line, keeping those guys together was a big part of our success.”

Cook was signed last offseason and provided a good target for Rodgers when healthy. The quarterback’s plug probably won’t hurt the tight end’s chances of sticking around for a second year in Green Bay.

Guard T.J. Lang and center J.C. Tretter are also free agents, which may account for Rodgers’ interest in keeping the offensive line together. There might be more desire for new faces at running back and in the secondary, although Cook represented the rare foray into veteran free agency for General Manager Ted Thompson so we’ll have to see if they’ll go that route as part of the reloading plan.

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Patriots pulling away from Steelers in third quarter

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a 1-yard rushing touchdown by LeGarrette Blount #29 (not pictured) during the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Steelers may not have had much margin for error anyway.

But when they made mistakes, the Patriots quickly made them pay.

New England sandwiched touchdowns around a Steelers fumble, and have a 33-9 lead over the Steelers in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers were already in trouble following LeGarrette Blount’s touchdown run, but when linebacker Rob Ninkovich collected Steelers wideout Eli Rogers‘ fumble, it didn’t take long to cost them.

Four plays later, Tom Brady found Julian Edelman for a touchdown, and only a missed extra point has marred this one.

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Julio Jones wasn’t slowed by toe injury on Sunday

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons celebrates after defeating the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Falcons defeated the Packers 44-21.  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Getty Images

Before Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported that Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones has been dealing with three injuries to his foot — two to a toe and one in the middle of the foot — in recent weeks.

Those injuries kept Jones from practicing twice in the week leading up to the matchup with the Packers, but they weren’t any trouble at all during the game. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the win, including a 73-yarder that pretty much ended any remaining suspense a minute into the second half. The big day moved him into some rarified postseason air.

Jones joined Jerry Rice and Fred Biletnikoff as one of only three players in history to reach at least 180 receiving yards in more than one playoff game. Jones had 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to the 49ers in the NFC title game four years ago.

“He never ceases to surprise us because he makes the extraordinary plays seem ordinary,” coach Dan Quinn said after the game. “That’s not a very typical thing to do. He’s a heckuva competitor.”

Jones said his foot felt OK after the game. He’ll get two weeks to keep it rested in hopes of adding to the rich playoff history he’s already assembled.

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Colts deny Sean Payton report

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Sean Payton is seen prior to playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 24, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Colts have moved quickly to throw water on the report that they had back-channel talks with the Saints about a possible deal for coach Sean Payton.

Colts COO Pete Ward has gone on the record with multiple outlets to dispute the report. Via Mike Chappell of FOX 59/CBS 4 in Indianapolis, Ward called the report from Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports “totally fictitious.”

Ward added that he received a call from a Payton associate a couple of weeks ago inquiring as to whether the team had interest in a deal. Ward said, “No.” And that was that.

Ward, who was identified La Canfora as the person who spoke to the Saints on behalf of the Colts, called La Canfora after the report was published. It’s unclear whether La Canfora called Ward before publishing the report; nevertheless, La Canfora has revised his report to include Ward’s position. However, the report has not been revised to remove the claim that Ward actually negotiated with the Saints.

The end result is that the report (and La Canfora’s Twitter feed) characterizes the call from Ward as confirmation that something happened regarding the Colts and the Saints while glossing over the fact that Ward, who presumably called La Canfora because Ward was upset with the report, disputed that the Colts ever spoke to the Saints. (Indeed, the headline still declares that the two teams talked, even though Ward has denied it.)

Lost in the sauce (trademarked) is the perception/reality that a “Payton associate” called the Colts to gauge interest in doing a deal with the Saints. That would have been a pretty compelling “Sunday splash” item from La Canfora, if he hadn’t already locked in to the report that the Colts have gone on the record to debunk.

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Patriots catch a break on review, extend lead

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches from the sideline during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) AP

The Patriots have extended their lead over the Steelers, and they appear to have been fortunate to be able to kick a field goal.

A Tom Brady sneak attempt for a first down appeared to include him losing the ball, and Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave came out of the pile with the ball.

But the officials on the field ruled Brady down by contact, and the league backed them, or at least said there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the call. NFL vice president of officiating was quick to tweet out support for his guys.

As a result, the Patriots were able to extend the drive and get a 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, giving them a 20-9 lead in the third quarter. And the Steelers lost a timeout they might need later by losing the challenge.

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Jonathan Kraft: AFC title game loss might have been Ryan Grigson’s pinnacle

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 16: General manager Ryan Grigson of the Indianapolis Colts looks on during a rookie minicamp at the team complex on May 16, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson was fired on Saturday and he was on the receiving end of a shot from Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on Sunday.

During a pregame appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Kraft was asked about Grigson’s dismissal and he mentioned the AFC title game two years ago as being the moment when everything started going downhill for the former G.M. in Indianapolis.

“I don’t, you’d have to ask Jim Irsay about it,” Kraft said, via the Boston Herald. “He’d be the one to ask. That game might have been Ryan’s pinnacle, I don’t know. Jimmy can talk about what’s going on with the Colts. We’re fortunately playing football today.”

In addition to being the last time the Colts played a postseason game, that 45-7 Patriots win was also the game that introduced Deflategate to the national lexicon. Grigson sent an email to the league about suspicions regarding the intentional deflation of balls before the game and complained to league officials during the game as well.

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Patriots up 17-9 at halftime, thanks to Chris Hogan

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with wide receiver Chris Hogan (15) after a touchdown pass during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) AP

The Steelers have the name-brand talent on offense, but the star of the AFC Championship Game so far is a guy the Bills didn’t want to keep this offseason.

Patriots wide receiver Chris Hogan has two touchdowns so far, and the Patriots have a 17-9 halftime lead.

It seems like a good time to point out that the Bills could have kept Hogan this offseason, but didn’t want to match the three-year, $12 million deal the Patriots offered the restricted free agent.

All he’s done so far is catch seven passes for 117 yards and two scores, the second on a wide-open flea flicker in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Steelers appear to be without Le’Veon Bell, after he was declared questionable with a left groin injury. He came back in for one play, but immediately limped back to the sideline. He has 20 yards on six carries so far, as the Patriots have kept the Steelers’ big-play threats from hurting them.

Antonio Brown has just three catches for 26 yards so far, as the Patriots have forced Ben Roethlisberger to spread the ball around.

They also closed with a disappointing stretch to end the half, with an apparent touchdown overturned on review, followed by a pair of negative-yardage runs by DeAngelo Williams and an incomplete pass, forcing them to settle for a field goal.

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Dan Quinn: Shift took place after loss to Kansas City

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 22:  Head coach Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons has gatorade dumped on him by his team late in the game against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on January 22, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Falcons played a wild game against the Chiefs in Week 13 of the regular season that saw them score 12 straight points in the fourth quarter to grab a one-point lead with over four minutes to play.

They would wind up losing by one after Chiefs safety Eric Berry intercepted Matt Ryan on the two-point try and returned it for two Kansas City points. It was a painful loss at the time, but coach Dan Quinn credited it with kicking his team to a higher level of play that helped catapult them into Super Bowl LI. They would win 42-14 in Los Angeles the next week and they have scored at least 33 points every week while winning their last six games by an average of over 19 points.

“We had a difficult loss against Kansas City and that was probably the first shift for us before we went out to L.A. as a team. We knew we could play better,” Quinn said during his postgame press conference. “The unconditional support for one another, our intent took it up a notch. I thought another shift took place our first playoff bye week. We didn’t just kinda hang around. We had real intent on getting better and finding an edge. I thought that carried over into this week.”

Quinn said his experience as a defensive coordinator hasn’t given him any empathy for coaches who have to try to slow down the Falcons offense and the defense has proven increasingly adept at making sure the Falcons stay up once they get up each week. If they kick things up another level before kickoff on February 5, it’s going to be tough on both sides of the ball for the Patriots or Steelers.

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