Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

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Francis mentored by childhood idol Wilfork

FOXBORO -- All he has to do is stand at his locker and look his left to realize just how far he's come. When Justin Francis does that and sees the nameplate of his childhood idol Vince Wilfork a few feet away, he shakes his head in disbelief.

"I was a big University of Miami fan back in the day," said Francis, who grew up in Opa-locka, Fla. "I watched Vince coming up as a kid, and I didn't play football but I just looked at him saying, 'I want to be like him.' I actually got goosebumps just thinking about it because I'm here sharing this with him. I feel like it's my duty to just stay on top of my job and get it done so that he can enjoy his job as well."

As this season has progressed, Francis, an undrafted rookie defensive lineman out of Rutgers University, has had more opportunities to do his job for the Patriots during meaningful moments of important games.

In New England's 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, Francis played nearly one third of the team's defensive snaps. He registered four tackles, and he was around the ball during a 49ers fumbled center-to-quarterback exchange in the first quarter.

Francis credits his teammates on the defensive line, and Wilfork especially, for preparing him to make an impact.

"Our main guy is Vince," Francis said. "He's definitely the guy that we look up to and the guy that we go to when things aren't looking too good, or when we need a question answered. I try to pick his brain as much as I can. He's a great player. It's a blessing that I'm in the same room as him."

Wilfork has been seen walking around the Patriots facilities lately wearing a t-shirt that reads: "Do your job. Mine is taken care of."

Francis knows that as a rookie reserve, a big part of his job, essentially, is to learn -- learn his position, learn his role in the Patriots defense, learn how to be a professional. According to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, he has that taken care of.

"Hes a competitive player, he works hard," Belichick said on Wednesday. "Hes got some good ability and hes -- like any young player -- hes learning through sometimes trial and error. Sometimes experience. Sometimes the hard way. But he works hard to get better and I have a lot of respect for that. There arent many people that work harder than he does. He competes every day in practice, both in the classroom and out on the field to learn and improve and hes definitely improved a lot, no question."

That's the story of his young football career. Francis started at a disadvantage compared to many of his peers when he didn't play consistently until his senior year of high school. Then with little more than a year of organized football under his belt, he was offered a scholarship by Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano.

Though Schiano -- a friend of Belichick's -- called Francis "one of the toughest kids he's ever been around," Francis went undrafted. Signed and brought to Patriots training camp this summer, Francis stood out almost immediately with his quickness and the way the motor inside his 6-foot-2, 268-pound frame hummed relentlessly.

Francis has had to transition from a three-technique defensive lineman (meaning he lined up between the offensive guard and tackle) in college to more of an end in New England's 4-3 scheme, and he's done it relatively quickly, gaining the trust of the Patriots coaching staff along the way.

It took some time, though, before he finally saw the field. His first action didn't come until Week 6 as a member of the punt coverage unit.

While he waited, Wilfork's advice helped him get by.

"Of course, for a person that works hard, you want to see yourself out there," Francis said. "But in due time . . . guys like Vince explained that to me. 'You're time's coming. You're time's coming. It's gonna come.' "

Now that it's here, Francis hopes his voracious appetite for football will help keep him in the rotation.

"Watching film, coming in, spending extra time in the building," he said, ticking off some of the good habits he's developed in his first season. "Even off the field, just constantly thinking about what my job is, thinking about football, watching games that I recorded at home that we played just to run through those clips, just to keep stuff fresh in my mind."

Francis has been solid enough that Belichick was asked if he may have an edge on teammate Jermaine Cunningham for playing time when Cunningham returns from his four-game suspension after Sunday's matchup with the Jaguars.

Belichick didn't say what would happen when Cunningham returns, but Francis knows he's made an impression. He's seen his playing time rise, and he heard the nice things Belichick said about him in the coach's mid-week press conference.

"I thank him for it, and I appreciate it, but I just take that and use it kind of as fuel," Francis said. "I take that and keep it in my back pocket and just keep on working."

And if he ever needs a little extra motivation -- to be reminded how far he's come, and realize how much room there is for him to improve -- he can find it when he glances from his locker over to his idol's just a few feet away.

Thomas excited for reunion with Green

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Thomas excited for reunion with Green

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When the phone rang this summer, Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas had to do a double-take when he saw the name on the caller ID.

It was Gerald Green, his ex-teammate in Phoenix.

Although they only shared a locker room for 45 games in Phoenix, the two became quick friends.

On the court they developed instant chemistry while coming off the Suns bench. And that bond spilled off the court as Green would later spend time with Thomas in the Seattle-Tacoma, Wash. area in the summer months.

They were cool with each other, cool enough to where Thomas knew it wasn’t in Green’s nature to pick up the phone and call just to say hi.

“Gerald doesn’t call anybody,” Thomas said. “When he called I knew something was up.”

Green said Boston, the team that drafted him in 2006 straight out of high school, was interested in bringing him back for a second stint with the club.

“I tried to put my two cents in and he got here,” Thomas said.

There were several factors that led Green back to Boston, with a chance to reunite with Thomas being high on that list.

Green, already in Phoenix at the time the Suns signed Thomas in 2014, was impressed with the way the 5-9 guard carried himself.

“He was a genuine guy, came in really humble,” Green said. “I saw the talent was there. I knew he had the potential to be one of the best point guards in this league.”

Thomas certainly made a case for such lofty praise with how he performed last season, good enough to earn his first all-star selection.

What really stuck out to Green was that Thomas’ mentality and approach to the game was almost a carbon copy of his own.

“When we stepped on the court we had the same mentality,” Green said. “By any means necessary, get a bucket and play harder than the next team; just try and push the first team, make the first team better every day.”

Thomas was coming off the bench, showing lots of potential and promise that he could carry a heavier load if given an opportunity to do so.

He averaged 15.2 points, 3.7 assists and 2.4 rebounds in 25.7 minutes off the Suns bench in 46 games. Even more significant was that when Thomas did play for the Suns, they were 26-20.

In the games without him, they were just 13-23.

Green was admittedly disappointed they traded away Thomas, believing that season would have had a very different outcome had they not sent him to Boston.

And just like Green recognized Thomas’ skills and how much his team could have benefited from keeping him around, Thomas speaks in glowing terms about Green and what his return to Boston means for the team.

“We needed someone like him; a guy that could shoot the ball, a guy that could space the floor; instant scorer whether he starts or comes off the bench,” Thomas said. “Where the he starts or come off the bench. He’s going to really help us.”

Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

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Green has big game as Bengals dominate Dolphins 22-7

CINCINNATI -- For most of the game, A.J. Green piled up more yards than the entire Miami Dolphins offense in a virtuoso performance. As an encore, he thrilled the crowd by juggling some Florida citrus.

The Bengals receiver followed his disappointing game with a dominating one - 173 yards and a touchdown - and a Cincinnati defense that was inspired by Vontaze Burfict's return clamped down on the Dolphins for a 22-7 victory Thursday night.

The Bengals (2-2) rebounded from a 29-17 home loss to Denver on Sunday with a solid all-around game against a depleted team.

Green led the way, beating the Dolphins (1-3) on every type of route . He was upset with himself after he dropped a pivotal third-down pass and failed to make an impact against the Broncos.

"I hold myself to a very high standard," said Green, who had 10 catches. "I know what I'm capable of. Last week I didn't perform to that level. I had to refocus on a short week."

During the first three quarters, Green had 166 yards on catches while Miami had 152 total yards. The Bengals' season-long problem of stalling out near the goal line forced them to settle for Mike Nugent's season-high five field goals.

Afterward, Green and Andy Dalton appeared on the postgame show, and the receiver entertained the dozens of Bengals fans who stayed around by smoothly juggling three oranges at the interview desk.

"Any time he was one-on-one, he was able to make the play," Dalton said.

The Dolphins were missing four starting offensive linemen, two linebackers, running back Arian Foster and tight end Jordan Cameron. They had one big play - Ryan Tannehill threw a 74-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Stills - but couldn't do anything else on offense.

"We've got to get it fixed and quick, and by that I mean Monday," Tannehill said. "We're kind of in a dark spot right now. It's squarely on our shoulders."

The Bengals' defense expected to get a lift from Burfict's return. The volatile linebacker was suspended by the NFL for the first three games because of his illegal hits. He got a loud ovation when he ran onto the field during introductions wearing a baseball cap. Burfict knocked down a pass and had three tackles.

"He's amazing," end Carlos Dunlap said. "Did you see the plays he made? Those aren't plays you can coach. He came off his couch and played great. It's good to have him back."

Mostly, it was Green's show. He caught a 51-yard pass off Dalton's scramble in the first half, and had a 43-yard catch that set up another field goal in the third quarter for a 19-7 lead.

REMEMBERING FERNANDEZ

A large fan banner in the upper deck at Paul Brown Stadium honored Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, who died with two friends in a boat crash early Sunday near Miami Beach. The banner read: "Jose 16 Heaven's Bright."

STILL CAN'T RUN

The Bengals rushed for 77 yards and only a 2.1-yard average against the second-worst run defense in the league, one missing two starting linebackers.

SLOPPY DOLPHINS

Miami had seven penalties for 68 yards. The most egregious was by Terrence Fede, who pushed Kevin Huber to the ground after he punted in the third quarter. The penalty gave Cincinnati the ball, and the Bengals got a field goal out of it.

INJURIES

Dolphins: LT Branden Albert and C Anthony Steen were inactive with sprained ankles. Also missing were LBs Koa Misi (neck) and Jelani Jenkins (groin). C Mike Pouncey has missed all four games with a hip injury.

Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert was inactive again, contributing to the Bengals' trouble close to the goal line. He's recovering from offseason ankle surgery and returned to practice on a limited basis last week. CB Dre Kirkpatrick was inactive with a hamstring injury suffered Sunday. G Clint Boling sat out most of the fourth quarter with an injured left shoulder.

ANTHEM STATEMENTS

Stills and Dolphins safety Michael Thomas knelt with their hands over their hearts during the anthem.

FANTASY IMPACT

Tannehill was 15 of 25 for 189 yards with a touchdown, an interception, a fumble and five sacks. Dalton was 22 of 31 for 296 yards with a touchdown and a sack.

UP NEXT

The Dolphins begin a stretch of four straight home games against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the New York Jets.

The Bengals have a tough two-game stretch, playing Dallas and New England on the road. They're 1-5 in Dallas, dropping their last three. They've dropped their last six at New England, last winning in 1986.