Rice on the menu for Patriots defense

643680.jpg

Rice on the menu for Patriots defense

FOXBORO - Ray Rice led the NFL in 2011 in yards from scrimmage with 2,068 (1,364 on the ground). He carried the ball 291 times and caught it 76. So of the 5,419 yards Baltimore gained, he was responsible for 38 percent of them.

So, yeah, the Patriots want to keep tabs on Rice Sunday in the AFC Championship, New England's sixth appearance in that game in Bill Belichick's 12 seasons in New England.

On the first play from scrimmage in the 2009 playoffs against the Patriots, Rice ran virtually untouched for 83 yards and touchdown through the heart of the Patriots defense.

That play is still on their minds.

"2009, yeah it was unfortunate," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Monday. "We didnt start that game off the way we wanted to on defense. A team that potent and tough, you cant give up a big run for a touchdown to start the game off like that. Obviously, thats something that we really need to focus on, is not letting up any big plays like that, especially to start the game off. The momentum they gained from that obviously just snowballed for the rest of the game and they were able to go out there and play well."

The next 59:45 of that game wasn't much fun for the Patriots, either, as they lost 33-14. So overpowering was the Ravens rushing attack that quarterback Joe Flacco only threw 10 times.

Finding Rice is sometimes half the battle. At 5-foot-8, he can duck behind linemen and runs like a field mouse. Except he's a strong field mouse and he runs through arm tackles.

"Hes a little bit different because hes a smaller, compact guy real strong," Ninkovich explained. "Kind of like a Maurice Jones-Drew guy: real strong at hitting the hole and is real fast, but also can catch the ball out of the backfield and make some plays in the passing game. Hes a target for them that really makes a lot of plays for them so you have to make sure that you account for him on the field at all times."

Rice was kept in check this past Sunday by the formidable Houston Texans defense. He ran for 60 yards on 21 carries.

The Patriots defense is not as stout as Houston's. And even if it were, it wouldn't lessen their concerns about him. "Hes different because hes just very explosive," said Ninkovich. "If you give him just a little bit, he can turn that into a real big play. You have to make sure you keep all the holes tight so he doesnt have something just to hit and go. Hes a challenge for us."

A challenge that, if the Patriots are able to limit, will go a long way toward putting them in the Super Bowl.

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

New photo surfaces of noticeably thinner Pablo Sandoval

When it comes to Pablo Sandoval and his weight, a picture is worth a thousand words.

During spring training it wasn’t a good thing. Sandoval made headlines when a number of photos revealed significant weight gain for the Red Sox third baseman.

But the last two images have been more positive for Sandoval.

In October, a noticeably thinner Sandoval was photographed at an FC Barcelona game.

On Monday, Dan Roche of WBZ tweeted a more recent picture of the new-look Sandoval.

Sandoval, 30, is entering the third season of a five-year, $95 million contract. In his lone full season in Boston, 2015, Sandoval hit .245/.292/.366 with 10 homers and 47 RBI.

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

Red Sox taking stricter luxury tax penalties into consideration this offseason

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The newly agreed upon Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement features higher taxes and additional penalties for exceeding the competitive balance threshold -- and don't think the Red Sox haven't noticed.

The Red Sox went over the threshold in both 2015 and 2016, and should they do so again in 2017, they would face their highest tax rate yet at 50 percent. Additionally, there are provisions that could cost a team in such a situation to forfeit draft picks as well as a reduced pool of money to sign its picks.

None of which means that the Red Sox won't definitively stay under the $195 million threshold for the upcoming season. At the same time, however, it remains a consideration, acknowledged Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.

"You would always like to be under the CBT (competitive balance tax) if you could,'' offered Dombrowski. "And the reason why is that are penalties attached for going over, so nobody likes to (pay) penalties.

"However, the Red Sox, if you follow history, have been up-and-down, right around that number. We were over it last year and the year before that. So I would prefer (to be under in 2017). However, a little bit more driving force in that regard is that there are stricter penalties now attached to going over. And some of them involve, for the first time, differences in draft choices and sacrificing money to sign players and that type of thing. So there's a little bit more drive (to stay under).

"But I can't tell you where we're going to end up. Eventually, does it factor (in)? Yeah. But until we really get into the winter time and see where we are, will I make an unequivocal (statement about staying under the CBT)? Maybe we won't. But there are penalties that I would rather not be in position to incur.''

Dombrowski stressed that he's not under a "mandate'' from ownership to stay under the CBT.

"But I am under an awareness of the penalties,'' he said. "Last year, I would have preferred to be under, too, but it just worked for us to be above it, because we thought that would be the best way to win a championship at the time.''

He added: "I think we're going to have a good club either way.''

But it's clear that the CBT is part of the reason the Red Sox aren't being more aggressive toward some premium free agents such as first baseman/DH Edwin Encarnacion, who is said to be looking for at least a four-year deal at an annual average value of more than $20 million.

Currently, the Red Sox have nearly $150 million in guaranteed contracts for 2017, plus a handful of arbitration-eligible players, some of whom (Drew Pomeranz, Jackie Bradley Jr.) will see significant raises.

Together, with insurance premiums and others costs tallied, the Sox stand at nearly $180 million, just $15 million under the 2017 tax.

"I've said all along I've wanted to stay away from long-term contracts for hitters at this point,'' Dombrowski said of the current free agent class, "(especially) with some of the guys we have in our organization coming. I just haven't felt that that's a wise thing to do.''

The Sox saw two potential DHs come off the board over the weekend, with Carlos Beltran signing a one-year $16 million deal with Houston and Matt Holliday getting $13 million from the Yankees. Either could have filled the vacancy left by David Ortiz's retirement, but Dombrowski would also be taking on another another eight-figure salary, pushing the Sox well past the CBT.

"I figured we would wait to see what ends up taking place later on,'' said Dombrowski, "and see who's out there.''