Game Day: The replacement stench lingers

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Game Day: The replacement stench lingers

BUFFALO - The Patriots are 1-2. Playing Sunday in Buffalo without Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman and with a less-than-perfect Gronk, the chance that the team ends this day 1-3 is probably 50-50.

Their margin for error over the final 12 games will shrink even smaller.

The truth is, they have themselves to blame for their losses. They could have won the Arizona game by converting a makeable field goal. They could have closed out the Ravens game on offense. They could have made a play to keep Baltimore out of game-winning field goal range on defense.

Still, damage was done to New England by the replacement officials. The hold on Gronk wiping out Danny Woodheads fourth-quarter touchdown run against the Cardinals was a game-changer. Repeated defensive holding and pass interference calls that extended Ravens scoring drives allowed points to be scored against New England.

If the real officials were on the field and those calls were made, it would be easier for the players and coaches to swallow. Not easy. But easier.

However, the fact that fake refs made repeated bad calls that directly impacted the score leaves a scar. The losses can impact everything from home-field advantage to future employment for players and coaches. Theres no way to measure the ripple effect.

So when Robert Kraft told ESPN after the settlement that I think this is a minor blip and now we move on, you have to wonder how that comment flies with the coaches and players. Because the blip, Im sure, doesnt feel too minor to them.

If youre like me (you have my pity), you like to consider yourself an armchair expert on fineable hits. Somebody gets lit up, you get your impression in real time and then wait for the replay to see how defenseless the target was and where he was contacted. You understand that the geometry and physics of the game lead to unavoidable head and neck shots. That some shots are actually CAUSED by the offensive player. But you know the rules.

And then you have Ray Lewis, who this week tried to claim Ed Reed driving a shoulder into Deion Branch was legal.

Reed turned his head to the side and clearly hit Branch with his shoulder pad. Those things cannot affect the way this game is played. And then the saddest part about it is when you hear other people say, Oh, those are the rules. For real? Thats not the rules. The rules of this game is, Do whatever you gotta do, by any means necessary.

So were how many years deep into the policing of hits on defenseless players and the NFLs most lionized linebacker has no clue what the rule is? Tell you what, if James Harrison said that, the NFL would be sitting him down for three games. Ray Lewis? Somehow he gets carte blanche.

I went hard on Devin McCourty last Sunday. Watching the game live, there were four glaring plays on which he failed. First, he didnt give proper support to teammate Steve Gregory on Dennis Pittas 20-yard touchdown, showing up ill-prepared to finish off Pitta if Gregory got beaten physically by a player who was 50 pounds heavier. Second, he dropped a simple interception early in the fourth quarter. Third, he got turned inside-out on the first play of the Ravens' last drive for a 24-yard gain. And fourth, he tackled Jacoby Jones on a third-and-9 play that turned a prospective 51-yard field goal attempt into a chip shot.

Somehow, there was great debate as to whether or not McCourty played well. There were plays on which he did his job well 14 times he was the primary cover man on balls thrown by Joe Flacco. He had four plus plays. He had six minus plays. He had four that were a mixed bag (good coverage on the dropped pick, an offensive holding that wiped out a play on which he had good coverage, a BS defensive holding on him and a touchdown allowed that was aided by an uncalled push off).

That there was debate about how well McCourty played shows how low the bar has been set for him. Meanwhile, Kyle Arrington was thrown at just five times. He had four minus plays.

Quick hits:

The game in Buffalo is going to require Tom Brady to play at an extremely high level because of the shakiness of the offensive line in front of him. If hes less than an A, the Patriots probably wont win.

The Ravens already have a league-leading 15 big catch plays of 25 yards or more. The second-place team? Cincinnati, with nine. (The Ravens do have a game up on everyone, having played Thursday). The Patriots have six.

Hey. Peyton Mannings in Foxboro next week.

Brandon Lloyd is tied for 6th in the NFL with 33 targeted passes. Reggie Wayne is first with 40.

So far this season, Tony Romo is 12-for-12 when the game is late and close according to Stats LLC. Tom Brady isnt in the top 20. And the 20th is at 47.1 (Josh Freeman, 8 for 17).

Jamaal Charles leads the NFL with 11 stuffed runs. Stevan Ridley is tied for second with nine.

Patriots sign TE Rob Housler to future contract

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Patriots sign TE Rob Housler to future contract

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have signed free-agent tight end Rob Housler to a future contract. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound target last played for the Bears but was released at the end of training camp.

Housler won't be eligible to participate with the Patriots during the postseason, but he will be available for the offseason program and training camp leading up to the 2017 campaign. 

Housler taken in the third round by the Cardinals with the 69th overall selection in 2011. In 65 career games, he has 109 catches for 1,166 yards and one touchdown. 

The Patriots may have been intrigued by Housler's skill set last summer when he caught one pass for 52 yards -- making two Patriots defenders miss in the process -- during a preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots and Bears held joint training camp practices in August that would have given Patriots coaches and scouts a closer look at everything Housler has to offer as a player. 

Housler was one of the better athletes at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011, running a 4.55-second 40-yard dash (fastest among tight ends), posting a 6.9-second three-cone drill, and recording a 37-inch vertical leap.

Bill Belichick and his staff hit big on a future-contract signing two years ago when a running back with a significant injury history was available to scoop up at the behest of then-assistant to the coaching staff Michael Lombardi. Since then, the Patriots still have never lost with Dion Lewis in uniform. 

Edelman, Bennett marvel at Harrison's longevity

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Edelman, Bennett marvel at Harrison's longevity

FOXBORO -- On a daily basis, Patriots players are in the presence of perhaps the best late-30s player to ever lace up cleats. That's why it's noteworthy when those who inhabit the same locker room as Tom Brady marvel at another player playing at a high level despite being one of the oldest in the league. 

That's exactly the case with Steelers linebacker James Harrison, 38, who is the oldest non-quarterback, non-kicker in the NFL. 

Since the Patriots last saw Harrison, he's become an every-down player for Pittsburgh's improving defense, missing just nine total defensive snaps for the Steelers since Week 14. He's saved his best football for the postseason -- three sacks, two quarterback hits and seven quarterback pressures in the last two weeks, per Pro Football Focus -- and the Patriots have noticed.

Julian Edelman, who wears the same Kent State t-shirt to every Patriots practice, raved about his "fellow Flash."

"He’s an unbelievable stud," Edelman said of Harrison, who went undrafted seven years before Edelman was taken in the seventh round. "The guy has been doing it consistently for a long time.

"I’ve been a huge fan of him before I got in the league, and just to see and kind of have an idea where he came from, it’s unbelievable to show how hard he’s worked to get to where he’s got. He’s a large man that is fast, explosive, and if he’s coming my way, it’s going to be a 'get down.' "

While Edelman will do his best to avoid the 6-foot, 242-pounder, Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett will likely be asked to block Harrison at some point. The Steelers defense will move Harrison to different spots at times, but he does much of his work on the outside where Bennett will be situated. 

"Harrison is playing well," Bennett said. "He’s almost as old as my pops, and he’s still playing like a beast out there."