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Preseason Power Rankings No. 4: New England Patriots

Julian Edelman, Ryan Allen, Danny Aiken AP

The Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game last year, but their bid for another Super Bowl title were dashed by the Broncos.

Making it there was a credit to coach Bill Belichick’s adaptability as he had to fill holes created by injuries while finding a way to keep the offense moving in spite of an underwhelming season by Tom Brady’s wide receivers. That stopped against Denver, but the Patriots made it clear they have designs on staying on top in the AFC East.

They signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in hopes of stopping the revolving door at that position, with the Revis acquisition and a growing group of talent in the front seven leading to thoughts of the best Patriots defense in several years.

There were no such additions to the offense, but the hope is that the return to health of tight end Rob Gronkowski serves the same purpose.


When Gronkowski was healthy last season, the Patriots had one of the most potent offenses in the league. When he was out, they weren’t close to the same level as a team and Brady wasn’t as effective as a quarterback. Whether Gronk can stay healthy for an entire year is a matter of some debate, but his impact on the team is certain.

The Patriots had a pretty good defense last season without Revis. Adding one of the best cornerbacks in the game as he looks to restore some luster after a forgettable year in Tampa has the potential to move the defense from pretty good to great in a shift that the Pats would love to see.

Revis won’t be doing it alone, though. Linebacker Jerod Mayo was lost after the sixth week of the season because of a torn pectoral muscle and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork’s torn Achilles made him a bystander as well. Getting both back to go with Jamie Collins, Donta’ Hightower, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich would make for one of the best front sevens in the conference.

The permanent move to safety was a good one for Devin McCourty, who turned in an excellent year in 2013. With better cornerback play expected, McCourty could be deployed in a more aggressive manner this time around.


Julian Edelman caught a lot of passes, but the rest of the wide receivers left something to be desired last season. The Patriots need Danny Amendola to remain on the field and they’d like to see the potential of Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins or Josh Boyce translated into actual production. Without those developments, the Patriots will be relying heavily on Gronkowski remaining healthy once again this year.

Brady was sacked 40 times last year, the second-most of his career, and that number will need to come down this season. Center and right guard are the spots most in need of improvement as Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly were weak links last year.

LeGarrette Blount wasn’t re-signed as a free agent, leaving the Patriots without their battering ram in the backfield from last year. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are on hand, so there’s no reason to panic although the team’s versatility took a little bit of a hit with Blount’s departure.

If everyone is healthy, the defensive line should be pretty good. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Will Smith and first-round pick Dominique Easley are all returning from serious injuries, though, and the depth isn’t strong enough to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks if they aren’t in the game.


We’ll get to the changes that have been made in a second, right after we discuss the changes that the Patriots hope will take place. After losing Gronkowski, Mayo, Wilfork, Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer to season-ending injuries last year, the Patriots will be hoping that simply being healthier will allow them to push their way back to the top of the conference.

The Pats added three offensive linemen in the draft — center Bryan Stork, tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Jon Halapio — to restock with some young depth up front.

Browner will serve a suspension to start the year, so it will be some time before he and Revis can be deployed as a tandem. Logan Ryan, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard will be on hand to fill in and then fill out the sub packages.

Brandon LaFell was signed as a free agent after playing out his contract with the Panthers. There’s probably more upside with the younger receivers, but the Pats will take any help they can get at the position after last season.

Camp Battles.

Steve Gregory is gone, leaving an opening at safety next to McCourty. Patrick Chung is back after a spell with the Eagles and he’ll join Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, Kanorris Davis and rookie Jemea Thomas at the position. Harmon looks like the first choice heading into camp.

The Patriots drafted running back James White in the fourth round and he’ll likely vie with Brandon Bolden for backfield snaps left up for graps after Blount’s departure. Given the fluid nature of running back situations, he could wind up with even more than that if things break right.

New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round, setting up a competition with Ryan Mallett for backup duties and the role as unofficial heir to Brady.


The Patriots have advanced at least as far as the conference title game in each of the last three seasons. When you survey the AFC at this point, another trip to that round feels like the expectation once again in New England.

We can’t know which Patriots might be injured this season or which teams might come together to form a whole better than anyone is predicting in July, but, outside of Denver, there aren’t any teams in the conference that are safe bets to be better than the Patriots. And there certainly aren’t any in the AFC East, where the question again appears to be how many weeks it will take for the Pats to sew up the crown.

Getting beyond the conference title game and earning another Lombardi Trophy is a different matter, however. They’ll need better health than last season, development from a young receiver or two and no noticeable slippage from key veterans to add a fourth ring for the Belichick era.

There’s a lot that needs to break right, but the Patriots are in position to capitalize if things do go that way.

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Giants can take an overwhelming lead in the NFC East on Sunday

Tom Coughlin AP

We don’t often say this about a 5-5 team, but if the Giants can win on Sunday, they’ve all but locked up their division.

Two of the Giants’ NFC East division rivals had disasters on Thanksgiving, and it’s now hard to imagine either the Eagles or the Cowboys making a run at the division title. That leaves Sunday’s opponent, Washington, as the only team left to challenge the Giants.

At the moment, the Giants are a game ahead of 4-6 Washington, and the Giants already beat Washington once this season. A win for the Giants would result in a two-game lead, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker, with just five games to play. The Giants would have to totally collapse to lose the division at that point.

So it’s easy to see why Washington coach Jay Gruden is calling tomorrow a one-game season. He knows that if his team loses, the NFC East race is effectively over.

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Dolphins add Rishard Matthews to injury report

Rishard Matthews, Corey Graham AP

As the Dolphins prepare to face the Jets in New Jersey, receiver Rishard Matthews is dealing with a situation that could keep him from playing in the game.

The Dolphins have announced that Matthews has an illness. He has been added to the injury report as questionable for the game.

Matthews has started all 10 games this year, despite an offseason effort to bring in a bunch of new receivers who could have supplanted him. So far, the 2012 seventh-round pick has 43 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns.

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Bears change long snappers

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The Bears have made a change at the most interchangeable position in football.

Long snapper Thomas Gafford is out, and long snapper Patrick Scales is in.

Gafford had served in that role for all 11 games this season, after spending six years in that role with the Chiefs. He signed a one-year deal with an $870,000 base salary and an $80,000 signing bonus. He can take the balance of his pay for 2015 with the Bears as termination pay.

Scales, who entered the NFL with the Ravens in 2011, has played for the Dolphins, Jets, and Buccaneers, too.

Gafford will be subject to waivers. If/when (when) he clears waivers, Gafford will be available to be signed out of nowhere when a team decides to make a change at the most interchangeable position in football.

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Erving says critics “can’t touch my fingernails”

Cameron Erving AP

In his first career start nearly two weeks ago at Pittsburgh, Browns rookie first-rounder Cameron Erving got thrown into the feet of running back Isaiah Crowell by Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. It made Erving the butt of many online jokes, and Erving fired back at the critics on Friday.

“The play where I got bull-rushed. What about it? It’s football. . . . Man, listen, half the people that make those Vines and those judgments can’t touch my fingernails, they can’t do what I can do,” Erving said, via Scott Petrak of the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. “And I make money doing what I love to do, so I don’t care. Those opinions are irrelevant to me.”

Of course, he won’t be making money doing what he loves to do for long if he keeps getting manhandled by opposing defenders.

“You don’t want it to happen to you,” Erving said. “But if you never got hit, you never played football.”

In all, Erving gave up a sack and a tackle for a loss in his debut as a starter. He also was called for holding, negating a touchdown run. But the coaching staff was happy with his effort, and with his willingness to fight back after getting pushed around.

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McCarthy calls out officials for OPI call

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Packers coach Mike McCarthy has plenty of reasons to be upset after Thursday night’s loss to the Bears. He’s specifically upset about a penalty that turned a potential touchdown drive in the first half into a field goal.

Receiver James Jones, who otherwise did nothing for the entire game, was called for offensive interference for picking Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller on a throw inside the five to receiver Randall Cobb. After the game, McCarthy disputed the call.

“The one play on Randall’s [catch]  is just a flat poor call,” McCarthy said, via Weston Hodkiewicz of “He missed the call. You can shake that any way you want. They’re looking for it.”

They’re also looking for coaches who call out officials, which could get McCarthy fined. And fine or no fine, McCarthy’s complaint misses the mark. While not a full-blown pick, Jones jammed his left forearm into the chest of Fuller, in an apparent effort to shove Fuller into Bears cornerback Bryce Callahan, who was covering Cobb. The move also kept Fuller from peeling away from Jones and getting to Cobb.

“We had some tough breaks from the officials, but that’s all part of the game  the officials, the weather, you can’t control that,” McCarthy added.

Whether McCarthy gets a toughly-worded letter from the league office along with an invitation to make an involuntary contribution to the league’s charitable causes remains to be seen.

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Saturday one-liners

Brandon LaFell AP

WR Brandon LaFell is ready to “step up” for the Patriots (which is always better than stepping off).

With Dolphins DE Cam Wake out for the year, Olivier Vernon has stepped up.

With CB Darrelle Revis out for the Jets, one-time undrafted free agent Marcus Williams probably will start at right corner.

Bills CB Nickell Robey periodically lobbies for a chance to play offense.

Ravens LB Ray Lewis is the latest ESPN employee to make The List of all New England fans (which overlooks the fact that he already was on it).

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says CB Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) will be ready to go next season.

The Browns will don their orange pants in prime time.

Steelers WR Markus Wheaton is content to wait his turn.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien has a simple nickname for New Orleans WR Brandin Cooks:  “V.G. maybe,” O’Brien said, “Very good.”

Get to know Colts QB Matthew Hasselbeck in a way he’s never really been known.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has come a long way since his first career start last season, against the same team he’ll face on Sunday.

Titans LB Brian Orakpo knows that, when his sack-happy defense faces Oakland’s sack-stingy offensive line, “Something has to give.”

Broncos CB Omar Bolden has launched what he calls the Positive Living Award.

Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields will receive his Ring of Excellence on Sunday.

Raiders WR Rod Streater, fifth on the depth chart and inactive most of the year, won’t be playing absent injuries at the position.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy’s inability to handle the local media could hasten his exit from the franchise.

Cowboys LB Sean Lee has a simple message for his teammates: “If you’re not motivated to find a way to win, you need to get off the team.”

WR Hakeem Nicks could be active for his first game back with the Giants.

The Eagles are bad because the players aren’t good.

Washington CB Chris Culliver’s bad week included being fined for unsportmanslike conduct due to a throat-slash gesture.

“The sky’s the limit for us, based on where we’ve come from Day One,” Bears LB Willie Young say. “[Beating the Packers] just reassures us that we can win big games. We can beat a playoff contender and a winning team.”

The Packers’ defense did a good job on Thursday night, which only makes the performance of the offense more glaring.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is thankful for RB Adrian Peterson; “I told him today how much I appreciated him,” Zimmer said. “Just everything he does for us. His leadership, the way he comes out to practice the way he prepares. Really, everything.”

The last time the Falcons played Minnesota, TE Levine Toilolo finished the game at right tackle.

Panthers G Trai Turner will spend his team’s mini-bye in the enemy territory of New Orleans; “I enjoy the support. I encourage the hate, also,” Turner said.

TE Cameron Brate, a Harvard graduate, is making the Buccaneers look even smarter than him for having him around.

Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson and his wife had their first child on Thursday.

Rams WR Kenny Britt and WR Tavon Austin wore Stedman Bailey’s No. 12 at practice on Friday.

40-year-old 49ers K Phil Dawson says he has at least one year left in his leg.

Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger says he love Seattle; he may not feel that way after facing the Seahawks there for the first time in his career on Sunday.

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Amendola to miss Sunday’s game

Danny Amendola AP

Another week, another key offensive weapon is out for the Patriots.

Tom Curran of CSN New England, confirming a report from Steve Burton of WBZ, says that receiver Danny Amendola won’t play on Sunday night in Denver.

If, as expected, Amendola doesn’t travel to Colorado, the Patriots will be (or at least should be) issuing an updated injury report downgrading Amendola from questionable to out.

Amendola injured his knee on Monday night against the Bills. He had become the primary replacement for Julian Edelman, who had broken a bone in his foot the prior Sunday against the Giants. A week before that, the Patriots lost running back Dion Lewis for the year with a torn ACL.

The Patriots also recently put receiver Aaron Dobson on injured reserve, leaving them very thin at the position. Which means that maybe coach Bill Belichick, who once had an affinity for moving receivers to defensive back, may have to see whether any of his defensive backs can catch passes.

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Sanders, Osweiler working on chemistry

Emmanuel Sanders AP

With Peyton Manning out for at least two more games, Brock Osweiler will serve as the Broncos quarterback for at least the next two games. Which means that it will be important for Osweiler and his receivers to have good chemistry on the field.

One of those receivers has checked the box.

“The chemistry is good,” Emmanuel Sanders told reporters on Friday, in comments distributed by the team. “Peyton hasn’t been going on Wednesdays, so I’ve had an opportunity to go with Brock and it’s definitely paid off. Today we connected on a couple of deep balls that we were working on. I texted him last night about what I’m seeing and what he’s seeing, so it’s going to pay off.”

A bad ankle kept Sanders out of Sunday’s game at Chicago, so Sunday night will be his first chance at catching passes from Osweiler during a game. Which could help the Broncos become the first team this year to hand the Patriots a loss.

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Bucannon gets big fine for hit on defenseless receiver

Kyle Juszczyk, Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon AP

Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals has been fined $23,152 for a hit on a defenseless receiver in last week’s win over the Bengals.

Bucannon hit A.J. Green on a pass over the middle was not flagged.

Bucannon is questionable for this week’s game vs. the 49ers due to concussion-like symptoms that didn’t show up until a day or two after the game, so it’s unknown if he suffered a concussion on the hit that brought the fine.

A first-round pick in 2014, Bucannon is listed as a safety and wears No. 20 but generally plays linebacker for the Cardinals.

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Doug Martin doesn’t like talking about his contract year

Doug Martin AP

Buccaneers running back Doug Martin didn’t like his old nickname. He also doesn’t like inquiries about his current circumstances.

Martin, in final year of his rookie deal after the team opted not to pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, despises talking about his contract.

“You know, people say, ‘Oh, it’s a contract year, that’s why he’s playing like this,'” Martin told the team’s official website, via “I hate that. I hate contract questions. I’m healthy. Last year, I had the injury bug, it was either a knee, ankle, hamstring. This year, I made sure that I stayed healthy, doing a lot of preventive things, stretches, eating right.”

Last year wasn’t his only bad season, however. Before generating 494 rushing yards through 11 games in 2014, Martin had 456 yards in six games in 2013. As a rookie, Martin finished with 1,454 rushing yards.

There’s an obvious connection between having a big year and being on the brink of getting paid. This season, Martin has 941 yards rushing in 10 games, which puts him on pace for more than 1,500.

Martin’s distaste for questions linking his performance to his contract posture may arise from the presumption that: (1) he’s only having a good year because he’s on the brink of getting paid; and (2) after he gets paid, he won’t play well. Unofficially known as (because I just thought of the name) the DeMarco Murray Disorder, it’s a real phenomenon about which the Buccaneers and other teams could be concerned.

Murray isn’t the first running back to regress after getting his payday; he’s just the most recent. For Martin, the real question is whether his current team believes he’ll continue to get it done even after getting a new contract. If they don’t make a competitive offer to Martin (or apply the franchise tag), the warning to everyone else will be implied.

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Panthers worked out three cornerbacks in all

Seantavius Jones, Bradley Fletcher AP

Cortland Finnegan wasn’t the only cornerback who worked out for the Panthers on Friday. Per multiple reports, which PFT has confirmed, the Panthers also gave tryouts to Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain.

Fletcher spent two games with the Patriots this season, after two years with the Eagles and four before that with the Rams. He has eight career interceptions and four forced fumbles.

McClain broke in with the Panthers in 2010, appearing in 16 games with two starts. He spent 2011 with the Jaguars and then 2012 through 2014 with the Falcons. Like Fletcher, McClain spent time with the Patriots this year; he was cut five days before the regular-season opener.

The Panthers signed none of the three players. Carolina currently has only four cornerbacks on the roster: Josh Norman, Charles Tillman, Teddy Williams, and Bene’ Benwikere. Tillman has missed the last two games — and is expected to miss a few more — with a knee injury.

The Panthers have five other defensive backs on the roster (all safeties) and three on the practice squad: Marcus Ball, Ras-I Dowling, and Lou Young.

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Titans give Chance Warmack $50 for losing a pound on Thanksgiving

Warmack Getty Images

An NFL offensive lineman can put away a lot of food at the Thanksgiving table, but Titans guard Chance Warmack chose not to. And he’s got a $50 bonus to show for it.

Warmack got the bonus for weighing in at 326 pounds on Friday morning, after he had weighed 327 pounds on Thursday morning. Titans coach Mike Mularkey asked players not to go crazy at the Thanksgiving table, and Warmack followed instructions.

John Glennon of the Tennessean reports that Warmack disrobed for the weigh-in in front of the team, not wanting the weight of his clothing to throw off the results.

Of course, Warmack is in the third year of a four-year, $12.2 million guaranteed contract with the Titans, so a $50 bonus doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. But he did get publicly lauded by Mularkey.

Warmack also admitted that he has some Thanksgiving leftovers at home. He may weigh more than 327 before the weekend is over.

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Jerry Jones: Putting Romo back on the field was worth the risk

Tony Romo AP

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo missed seven games with a broken clavicle, then returned and re-broke the clavicle in his second game back. So does that mean the team pushed Romo back on the field too soon?

Not according to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who says Romo wasn’t pushed to play and the potential reward of Romo getting the Cowboys to the playoffs was worth the risk.

“I don’t think push is the word for it,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “We felt the risk was worth the potential for having him be the impact he can be and really having a fairytale turnaround and doing something that was special. And to me, that’s what we’re about, that’s what sports is about. You shouldn’t ever quit trying to do something extraordinary. The dream was if Tony could have come in and been the catalyst and had the results we had the week before in Miami against a great team, a really great team – Carolina is so impressive – if we could have done that, it could have been the beginning of something special. Now you’ve got to try for that and that’s what we’re here for, to try and do and be a part of a story like that.”

Instead, Jones admits that the season has become a nightmare.

“I had a nightmare last night and I was hoping when I woke up this morning it was just that,” Jones said.

Instead, it’s very real: Romo has been injured twice, and without him the Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the NFL.

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Romanowski: Gabbert was studying film more than Kaepernick

Blaine Gabbert AP

The 49ers haven’t been good at winning games the past two years. They’ve become very adept at leaking unflattering information about employees with whom they’re planning to part ways.

Last year, coach Jim Harbaugh was the target of the leak machine. This year, it’s been quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The latest leak came to light via former NFL (and 49ers) linebacker Bill Romanowski, via In an appearance on 95.7 The Game, Romanowski had this to say: “Let’s talk Colin preparing for games. And you know how they get iPads now. And they regulate, and they can watch how much film you watch. [Blaine] Gabbert, when he was a backup, was watching four to five times as much film as Colin was.”

Apart from the question of whether it’s true is the question of whether it’s part of a deliberate effort by the team to ensure that no tears will be shed when Kaepernick inevitably exits the roster. If it’s true, it explains Kaepernick’s struggles to develop as a quarterback, complementing his reliance on raw physical abilities with an understanding of where the opportunities will arise to carve up defenses.

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Chip Kelly says Bill Davis is safe

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Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis has said coach Chip Kelly won’t be running from Philly. Kelly has now said he won’t be running Davis away.

Asked if Davis will remain with the team after his unit gave up 90 points two games, Kelly gave a one-word reply: “Yes.”

With the Bucs scoring 45 against the Eagles and the Lions scoring 45 against the Eagles, Philadelphia next goes to New England, where another 45 or more could be coming. So what can the Eagles do?

“The answer is there is no other option,” Kelly said. “We have five games left. We have to go and play. We have to get better.”

The good news is that the bar for getting better has never been lower during Kelly’s time with the team.

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