Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans

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Patriots approach remains the same vs. Texans

FOXBORO -- It sounded as though the Patriots had nothing to lose. Vince Wilfork stepped in front of his locker, shared a belly laugh with the reporters huddled around him, and wasted no time when asked about the importance of Monday night's game against the Texans.

"They're the best team in the NFL," Wilfork said, "so it's not a big deal for us."

It sounded as though the pressure was on Houston to maintain its standing as the top team in the AFC, that it was just another game for the Patriots.

But when the 11-1 Texans visit Gillette Stadium, it won't be simply the latest game on the schedule for New England. It will be a chance to gauge.

The Patriots have played just one team (Indianapolis) in the last six weeks with a realistic shot to make the playoffs. In that time, their defense has appeared to make marked improvements, especially in its ability to create turnovers, while the offense has proven to be capable of withstanding injuries to key players, like Rob Gronkowski and Logan Mankins.
 
But how good are they, really? Monday could provide an answer as the Texans will be New England's best test in almost two months. They may be the best team that Bill Belichick's bunch faces all season.

Still, the Patriots say, they'll handle it like any old week.

"Our biggest thing is to treat it like another game," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "We understand what's at stake, but we have to go out there and prepare each week just like we do in the past weeks that we've done. This week is like any other. We have to go out there and execute."

It's a tact that will keep the Patriots from becoming at all psyched out or distracted by the time ESPN's Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico enter the broadcast booth. But the reality is that this game may well reveal more about their team than any of their previous 12 regular-season matchups. Will Houston's talent -- the Texans rank fourth in total offense and sixth in total defense -- provide a clear picture of New England's warts? Or will the Patriots defense prove that it's up to the task against elite teams? That their banged-up offense can survive an upper-echelon 'D'?

The Texans, on the other hand, appear to be the ones without much to lose. They've established themselves as one of the best in the AFC -- if not the best, as Wilfork knighted them. A loss to another one of the AFC's best, on the road, shouldn't crush their confidence. They would remain the top seed in the conference, and depending on how the rest of the regular season shakes out, they could have a chance for a rematch with New England, in the playoffs, at home.

Texans coach Gary Kubiak was asked on Thursday if he sees Monday night's game as a measuring stick for his team. 

"I really dont," he said. "First off, every game is big here coming down the stretch. Were in position, just like the Patriots are, to kind of control our own destiny moving forward . . . Were going to play in a lot of big games, and coming into New England, obviously thats a big, big game. Were really trying just to stay focused on our football, trying to improve. The key once you get there is how youre playing. It doesnt matter who you play or where you play, you have to be playing good football when you get to the playoffs. Ive learned that through my years. Were really just trying to stay focused on us, trying to get some guys back healthy. We know well have to play extremely well this weekend. We see every week as a big game, and obviously in December theyre all huge."

For Houston, this game is important, but it may not be much more important than any other at this time of year. For New England, Monday night will serve as a legitimate litmus test.

Though not all Patriots were willing to admit it, one did.

"I think for us as a team, theres not really much more you could ask for than that," quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "To play Monday Night Football in December against one of the best teams in the NFL and see what were capable of."

Mookie Betts' injury likely just a short-term issue

Mookie Betts' injury likely just a short-term issue

BOSTON -- After leaving Friday night’s game with right knee soreness, structural damage has been ruled out regarding Mookie Betts, but he could still be out for a bit.

Testing was done on Betts’ knee, removing any doubt of a deeper issue, revealing it was just build-up of fluid, causing swelling in his knee.

“Day-to-day is the status. It may take a couple for him before he’s back to us.” John Farrell said. “Everything points to this being a short-term situation.”

Betts explained that his condition had improved from Friday night, but -- much like Farrell -- doesn’t know how quickly he can bounce back. He wouldn’t make a definitive statement on whether or not he’d be available Sunday.

“It feels pretty good now,” Betts said. “We’re going to do some treatment on it, make sure everything is good and hopefully get back out there.”

Betts joins the list of pivotal players unavailable in Saturday’s game, including Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara who are both on the DL.

Farrell couldn’t commit to a timetable for when he expects Uehara should be back, but hopes he’ll be available during the regular season.

“We’re hopeful of that,” Farrell said when asked if he thought Uehara would be back before the postseason. “There’s no number of day’s that says Koji’s going to put a ball back in his hand . . . To give you a time frame, it’s too early to tell.”

Kimbrel, on the other hand, has bounced back well, and is expected to throw his first bullpen Sunday or Monday. The hope is that he’ll throw twice off the mound before the trip to the West, which would set him up for a simulated game.

“We need to get some PFP involved -- just some change in direction, fielding the position,” Farrell said on Kimbrel. “But in terms of amount of time missed, and that fact that he’s able to as get aggressive right now in long toss. I would think it would be on the shorter end of appearances if it’s even more than one. He feels very good. If he wasn’t making the ultimate decision medically [he’d] probably say ‘Give me the ball tonight.’ That’s how good he feels -- that’s encouraging.”

 

Heinen looking to be dark-horse candidate for Bruins' roster

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Heinen looking to be dark-horse candidate for Bruins' roster

While much of the focus is going to be on the young D-men headed into Bruins training camp, it would be foolhardy to overlook a forward prospect Danton Heinen, who is in position for a real dark horse run at an NHL roster spot. 

The strong odds are that the former University of Denver star is going to be begin the season in the AHL for the Providence Bruins after putting up a couple of points in four games there at the end of last season.

Still, that certainly hasn’t stopped Heinen from setting his sights on an NHL spot out of this fall’s camp, most likely in a third- or fourth-line capacity to start things off, or perhaps at the top-six right wing spots that have given the Bruins some problems filling permanently over the past couple of seasons.

Either way, the 2014 fourth-round pick knows that his clock to fulfilling his dreams as an NHL player has started and that it’s up to him when he can start making that a reality.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to work toward my whole life, so I’m just going to try to keep getting better, have a good rest of the summer and then put my best foot forward to see what happens,” said Heinen, who had an assist and a sweet goal in the Friday scrimmage at development camp when he twisted D-man Cam Clarke around like a pretzel on a nifty rush to the net. “I just need to continue to get stronger this summer, and working on my skating to get a bit quicker.

“[The AHL] was a lot of fun to get in there and see what it was all about. It was a lot different than college hockey, and it was definitely good to get a taste of it. [Bruins officials] told me to have a really big summer getting faster and getting stronger, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Heinen, 21, continued to show in development camp last week, however, that he has the playmaking skills and hockey IQ to flourish while surrounded by more accomplished players and in tighter situations. It’s exactly what he showed while posting 36 goals and 93 points in his freshman and sophomore seasons for the Pioneers and it was what he showed while finishing last week as one of the best forwards in camp.

“He’s looked really good at [development] camp. He’s a smart player, he’s committed and I think you’ll notice him in training camp. It will be up to him, but I think he’ll definitely be pushing some guys [for an NHL job],” said Bruins assistant coach Jay Pandolfo, who was running the Bruins development camp. “He looked good [in Providence]. He fit in well. He’s the type of player that can play with good players because he’s got high hockey IQ, and he’s got really good skill.

“Anywhere you put him he’s smart enough to figure it out. You could tell in his first game there was a little bit of an adjustment for him, but the second time game it really looked like he’d been playing [at that level] for a long time. He’s a quick study, and he looked really good last year.”

The Black and Gold management hope he continues to look good at main NHL training camp in a couple of months, where he’ll undoubtedly be featured, and could be a lot closer than many people think as a polished skill forward coming out of a big-time college hockey program. 

Saturday's Red Sox-Twins lineups: Betts out with knee soreness

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Saturday's Red Sox-Twins lineups: Betts out with knee soreness

Mookie Betts is out of the lineup Saturday after leaving the game Friday night with knee soreness and Brock Holt moves into the leadoff spot for the Red Sox in Game 3 of their four-game series with the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park.

Manager John Farrell said Betts is day-to-day after the right fielder left the Red Sox' 2-1 loss in the fifth inning with pain in his right knee. There is swelling, but an MRI showed no structural damage.Michael Martinez will start in right on Saturday night. Betts had started in 93 of Boston's 94 games this season. 

Aaron Hill gets the start at third base for the Red Sox in place of Travis Shaw.  

Left-hander David Price (9-7, 4.36 ERA) makes his second start of the second half for the Red Sox. Price took the loss in a 3-1 defeat against the Yankees on Sunday night, allowing 11 hits and three runs in 5 2/3 innnigs. 

Right-hander Ricky Nolasco (4-8, 5.02) is on the mound for the Twins.

The lineups:

TWINS
Eduardo Nunez SS
Robbie Grossman DH
Miguel Sano 3B
Brian Dozier 2B
Max Kepler RF
Kennys Vargas 1B
Eddie Rosario LF
Kurt Suzuki C
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Ricky Nolasco RHP

RED SOX
Brock Holt LF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Xander Bogaerts SS
David Ortiz DH
Hanley Ramirez 1B
Jackie Bradley Jr. CF
Aaron Hill 3B
Sandy Leon C
Michael Martinez RF
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David Price LHP