Patriots deliver gut punch with first loss

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Patriots deliver gut punch with first loss

Imagine its a typical workday.

Maybe one a lot like today.

Youre sitting at your desk, catching up on e-mails, trying to be productive on a lazy Monday morning when all of sudden, an unfamiliar face appears in the hallway. Think George Clooney from Up in the Air (or one of the Bobs from Office Space). A quiet, confident man with a nice suit and a fancy briefcase.

He walks through without saying a word, sets up shop in an empty back office and closes the door behind him. At first, no one's quite sure what to think, but deep down, everyone knows the deal.

And then it begins. One by one, he starts calling co-workers into the room. A few minutes later, each one exits looking like their dog was just hit by a truck. They walk over to their desk, pack up their stuff and leave the building immediately. After five or six rounds, you get the call.

You take a deep breathe and make your way to the back already knowing whats about to happen; already in a panic over what youre going to do next.

You walk in, grab a seat and this Clooney character starts to speak:

OK, Dennis (Lets pretend your name is Dennis). Listen, first of all, I just want you to know that Im not here to fire you today.

Huh?

Your mind is blown.

Hes not here to fire you?

All right . . . hes not here to fire you!

A massive smile takes over your face. You unleash an emphatic fist pump an uncomfortable combination of young Tiger Woods and 2004 Howard Dean. You can't help it. Finally, you regain your composure and sit back down, already with a new lease on life.

Clooney continues: Were not firing you . . . but we do have to let you go.

HUH?

We dont want you to think of this as of firing, Dennis. Thats not what this is. Instead, were setting you out into the world to find what truly makes you happy . . . and were doing it immediately. I'm sorry. I know this is tough, but I promise it's for the best."

You walk out of the office in a daze, caught somewhere between anger, embarrassment, panic and confusion. What. The. Hell.

Did that really just happen? Did it have to happen like that?

If we've learned anything here in New England during this era of Patriots football, it's to never assume too much about what happens in the first month of the season.

After all, over the last 11 years, weve seen the Pats start 0-2 and go on to win the Super Bowl. Weve seen them start 3-0 and not even make the playoffs. Weve seen them get blown out by the Bills in Week 1, get outplayed by Steve Spurriers Redskins in Week 4, and then not lose another game for 13 months.

We've experienced all kinds of early-season drama drama on par with the aftermath of yesterday's loss to Arizona and the consequences are never as devastating as they feel in the moment. That doesn't mean that we should simply ignore the issues that presented themselves yesterday at Gillette. It's just that we know better than to get too carried away. We know that as easy as we can sit here today and question Bill Belichicks stubbornness, Josh McDaniels play calling, Tom Bradys arm and Gostkowskis nerve, the Pats can just as easily take care of business next week in Baltimore and flip the script entirely. We know that the script will flip another three or four times after that, at which point this team will hopefully head into the playoffs stronger and more prepared to succeed for having fought through the countless ups and downs of a 17-week season.

Bottom line: For now, we know that nothing about this team is real, and it probably won't be for some time. All we can do is go with the flow and always keep at least one foot on the ground.

But even with one foot on the ground, Sunday left us with plenty to digest.

The Wes Welker story will obviously dominate a lot of the conversation. At this point, it's clear that there's something going on. It's not so much that he's played fewer snaps, but that he's losing his snaps to Julian Edelman. That means either a) Belichick and McDaniels actually believe that Edelman a converted college quarterback with 60 career receptions over three-plus seasons gives them a better chance to win than the most prolific and generally reliable receiver in franchise history. Or b) It's something more sinister.

Being that these are the Patriots, we'll never get a clear cut answer and that will only lead to more conspiracy theories and greater speculation. But at the same time, thanks to the events of Week 2, the Welker conversation is about to enter into Sleep Mode.

With Aaron Hernandez on the shelf for the foreseeable future, there's no way the Pats can afford to bury Welker. He's going to have to play, and because he's Wes Welker, he's going to put up numbers. At this point, I don't think anyone will be surprised if No. 83 morphs back into the Slot Machine and helps carry the Pats through this Hernandez-less stretch. But we'll always wonder what's really going on, and how it will play out once they're back at full strength.

Here's a conspiracy theory that's not nearly as fun: Most of the commotion surrounding Welker's role is in direct comparison to last year's numbers. When he was on the field for only 64 percent of the team's snaps in Week 1, we looked to 2011, when he played 89 percent of New England's snaps and immediately assumed the worst. It's a phase out! This is personal! Belichick's lost his mind! But then there's this: Last year, Welker's playing time was up 19 percentage points from 2010, when he was only out there 70.7 percent of the time. In 2010, Welker's playing time was up eight percentage points from 2009, when he was out there only 62.1 percent of the time.

When you look at that big picture, is it possible that 2011 is actually the aberration, and not 2012?

After all, in terms of last season, you know the Pats expected to lean on Chad Ochocinco far more often than they did (or could). On top of that, Gronk was still maturing into the beast he is today and Aaron Hernandez missed three games with an MCL injury (and was out of sorts for a few more). Last season, they had no choice but to run Welker into the ground. Meanwhile, in 2012, the role theyd envisioned for Ochocinco was realized in Brandon Lloyd. Gronk and Hernandez had developed into the best tight end combo in football, and for the first time in forever, there was some semblance of a dynamic running game. So, isn't it only natural and logical that Welker's playing time would decrease? I'd say so, but still, the concept of losing that playing time to Edelman makes you wonder about the motives behind the shift.

On top of Welker, we're left with questions about the offensive line, which is down two Pro Bowlers from last season and looked the part against Arizona's attack. We're left with questions about the offense in general: How will they respond to the loss of Hernandez, a guy we've spent the last few months lauding as the most essential cog in Josh McDaniels' game plan? And what's up with that game plan? There were a ton a real frustrating and questionable decisions made in that huddle on Sunday (Tom E. Curran expands on that here).

We're left with questions about Gostkowski, who didn't just miss that last field goal, but straight up shanked it. Does this effect him moving forward? Does it effect Belichick's confidence in his kicker? And how about the symbolism over in Indy, where Adam Vinatieri nailed a 53-yard game-winner with eight seconds left?

There's been a lot made over the last 24 hours about the very unPatriot-like approach that New England took in their last possession on Sunday. The fact that, despite being at home with one of the best quarterbacks of all-time under center, the Pats elected to play for a field goal instead of flexing their muscles and going for the kill. After the game, Belichick was asked about the strategy, and naturally deflected the question: We scored a touchdown; got it called back," he said. "We had a touchdown called back."

Right, but it was a touchdown scored on a draw play that was run with no timeouts and less than a minute on the clock. All signs point to the New England playing for a field goal there, and it just doesn't make sense. Maybe for Norv Turner, but not a stone cold killer like Belichick.

Unless of course, it does.

Are you familiar with situational football?

Of course. And if you're familiar with Bill Belichick, then you know how much he loves the concept of situational football. Of putting his players in a position where, at some point down the stretch, they may find themselves again, only with much more on the line. He does this for a few reasons: 1) For the experience. So they're familiar with the weight of that kind of pressure situation. 2) To see what they're made of. To get a glimpse into how certain players react under certain conditions.

Belichick loves situational football. And you wonder if, especially after Woodhead's touchdown was called back, Belichick saw that last possession as an opportunity to throw his field goal unit into the fire. To give them the experience of having one snap, one hold and one very make-able kick be the difference between a win or a loss.

Worst case scenario: It's a Week 2 loss to a non-conference opponent. But more importantly, a wake up call, a fair punishment for four quarters of sad football (and a few days of less than inspired practice) and a season long reminder of the dangers of taking any NFL team for granted.

Best case: You win a game that you had no business winning, and your field goal unit will be that much better prepared the next time their backs are against the wall.

I don't know. That's obviously just a guess. Guessing is all we can do when it comes to understanding what goes on behind the Belichick curtain. We can only guess at what's going on with Welker. We can only guess on Brian Waters. We can only guess on Branch and Gaffney and the current state of the Patriots offense.

And we can only hope they'll take the field on Sunday night in Baltimore and prove that there's no need to second guess anything. Hard to believe that it's that easy, but at this stage in the NFL season, it doesn't take much to change the entire identity and all the expectations for a particular team.

Don't believe me. Go back and read every word that was written about New England last Monday.

With everything else that's going on with the Pats right now, not to mention the fact that, like we said, nothing has ever been decided in Week 2 of an NFL season, it's difficult to focus too much on the truly ridiculous final minute that we witnessed yesterday at Gillette.

Honestly, is there another game that even compares to what happened down the stretch there? When Ryan Williams ran for that last first down, the game was over. When Williams fumbled two plays later, and Woodhead rambled into the end zone, the game was over. When Gostkowski shanked the skin off of that last second field goal, the game was over.

In that one minute, we experienced the depression and emptiness of an upset loss.

The happiness and instantaneous celebration of a most fortunate and inexplicable turn of events.

And then, just as quickly, a crushing blow. One that took you out right at the knees and made you feel worse embarrassed, almost stupid for ever getting your hopes up in the first place.

It was just a brutal loss.

But thankfully, one that the Pats can go about quickly making up for.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine

Report: NFL paid Goodell over $31 million in 2015

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Report: NFL paid Goodell over $31 million in 2015

Roger Goodell's salary has reportedly fallen in recent years, but he's still paid handsomely for his work as NFL commissioner.

According to the Associated Press, Goodell earned just over $31 million for 2015. That's a seven percent decrease from the $34 million he received for 2014. 

The NFL's last tax return served as an indicator of Goodell's 2015 salary. The league's tax returns no longer have to be made public since it has changed its status from exempt to taxable, per the AP.

The next-highest paid executive at the NFL offices on Park Avenue? General counsel Jeff Pash, one of the most prominent players in the Deflategate sage, who earned $6.5 million in 2015, down from $7.5 million in 2014. 

Richardson suspended one game for violating personal conduct policy

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Richardson suspended one game for violating personal conduct policy

The NFL announced this week that Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson has been suspended without pay for Week 1 of the 2016 regular season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. 

Richardson will miss his team's season-opener against the Bengals and will be eligible to return to the Jets active roster on Sep. 12. The Jets and the Patriots meet for the first of their two division games on Nov. 27. 

Richardson responded to the news of suspension on Thursday. 

In July of 2015, Richardson led police on a high-speed chase -- hitting speeds as high as 143 miles per hour -- in suburban St. Louis. Police reported a strong odor of marijuana in the car and inside found a loaded, semiautomatic handgun that was possessed legally. Richardson had a 12-year-old relative riding with him in his Bentley at the time of the incident.

In January, Richardson pleaded guilty to resisting arrest. Though he avoided jail time, he was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service. 

Richardson has been one of the league's best defensive linemen since entering the league as a first-rounder in 2013. He served a four-game suspension to start last season after violating the league's substance abuse policy.

PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

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PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

He may have been left off of the NFL Network's Top 100 list, but Jamie Collins isn't flying under the radar at Pro Football Focus.

On PFF's list of the top 10 defensive players in the AFC, the Patriots linebacker came in at No. 8 and was given the description as the top linebacker in the conference.

Collins' versatility within the confines of the Patriots defense is what makes him so valuable, PFF's John Kosko explains: 

"He doesn’t dominate in any one role like Luke Kuechly does in pass coverage and run defense, but he is very good at all facets of the game. Collins has the athleticism to cover TEs and HBs effectively, the explosiveness to rush the passer, and the size and strength to defend the run. 

"The former Southern Mississippi linebacker is arguably the most versatile player in the NFL, and allows Bill Belichick to employ a defense that confuses opposing quarterbacks. With the only knock against Collins being his 34 missed tackles the past two seasons, the Patriot is the best linebacker in the AFC."

Collins graded out as the No. 5 linebacker in football last year, per PFF's numbers. He ranked behind only Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Minnesota's Anthony Barr, Indianapolis' Jerrell Freeman and Seattle's KJ Wright. 

Fellow Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower earned the 10th-highest grade for linebackers last season, according to PFF -- a grade that likely would have been higher had his snap-count (602 in 2015) approached that of Collins (792).

While Collins is a rare physical talent, the argument could be made that it's Hightower who is the more important player to the Patriots defense given his prowess as a pass-rusher and run-defender. He also has myriad responsibilities as the extension of the team's coaching staff in the defensive huddle. 

In order to slow down opposing passing games, many Patriots defensive packages employ either five or six defensive backs and just two linebackers. Lucky for them, they have two of the best in the conference.

Both Collins and Hightower are entering contract years this year, and finding a way to keep them in-house figures to be near the top of the list of priorities for the Patriots front office.