Patriots aren't Super Bowl bound yet

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Patriots aren't Super Bowl bound yet

Theres no point in making any crazy proclamations after a game like last night, because at this point we all know better.

We all know that theres a good chance that the Patriots will see the Texans again, and that theyll most likely do so on the road down in Houston. And in that (or any) case, we know that any number of crucial elements from Mondays blowout may not necessarily exist.

We know that Arian Fosters tone-setting 12-yard-run on the first play from scrimmage may not get called back on a penalty. We know that Stevan Ridleys goal-line fumble on the opening drive might not find its way into Aaron Hernandezs gut. We know that the 5050 pass interference calls may not fall in the Patriots favor and that Matt Schaub will probably look a little less like Matt Leinart in the pocket.

We know that regardless of what happened last night, that the Patriots and Texans are much closer than the 28-point spread would indicate. We know that for all the talk about how the Pats taught Houston what its like to be a champion, that in reality there are only two guys in the New England locker room Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork who have any idea what that feels like, and that the rest of the roster (and this team on the whole) still has room to grow.

Did you know that before last year, the Patriots were eliminated in three straight playoffs by a team whom theyd defeated in the regular season?

Yes. Of course you did. We all know. Weve all been here before. So anyone using last nights game as definitive proof that the Pats are headed to New Orleans is either crazy or just trolling. In any event, lets ignore them. Lets remember that this isnt the end of the line for these Patriots, but just the beginning.

And now . . . lets get back to obsessing over that ridiculous game.

First of all, just a quick reminder that the Pats are doing all of this without Rob Gronkowski. How crazy is that? Was he even mentioned on the telecast last night? Was there any point when you found yourself pining for Gronk or even making note of the fact that the Patriots offense was without its No. 1 weapon? Or maybe, does this just prove that Gronk isnt the No. 1 weapon? And that its not Welker, Hernandez or Ridley, but the man under center 'ol No. 12. Honestly, at this point Im convinced that the Pats could pick up Terrell Owens, re-sign Ochocinco, coax Rod Rutledge out of retirement and still put up 30 points a night.

Hell, they might even be able to pick Donte Stallworth up off the scrap heap and turn him into a legitimate deep threat oh wait.

One more thing on Brady: Through 13 games, he's now thrown a total of four interceptions on the season, and short of a total meltdown will likely post the third single-digit INT season of his career. For a little perspective of how ridiculous this is, consider that Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, John Elway and Dan Marino have only two single digit interception seasons COMBINED.

Enough about the offense for now. After all, 42 points just comes with the territory for this unit. Plain and simple, they're the best offense in the NFL, and maybe, just maybe, the best offense of all time. But like I said, enough about the offense. Let's get to the real core of this latest Patriots resurgence: The defense.

Have we all learned our lesson now? Next year, when the Pats are 4-2 after six weeks and are giving up 600 passing yards a game, are we still going to lose our minds? Claim that this team doesn't have a chance? That the game has passed Belichick by? That the organization is wasting the prime of Brady's career?

Or will remember this year . . . and last year . . . and the year before . . . and realize that the first month of the season doesn't define any team, never mind a squad even more, a defense coached by Bob Belichick?

Eh, probably not. But it won't change the end result.

As for the specifics:

At this point, the folks over in Canton might as well start setting aside some extra mold for Vince Wilfork's Hall of Fame bust. At 31 years old, Vince may very well be having of the best season of his life. He's already doubled his previous career highs for passes deflected (6) and fumble recoveries (4) in a season. He's tripled his previous career high in fumbles forced (3). He's also a sack and a half short of tying his previous best in that category.

But with Wilfork, it's never really about the raw numbers. He effectsdominates games in a way that doesn't necessarily show up in the box score. And this year, he's doing that more than ever.

I don't ask for much, but here's hoping the "Devin McCourty: Corner back or Safety?" discussion is dead and buried for the rest of McCourty's Patriots career.

Is he capable of playing CB? Yeah, sure. But you can find plenty of guys who can play that position with McCourty's efficiency. However, good luck finding a safety with DM's athleticism, hands and overall nose for the ball. As the season goes on, it's looking more and more like Patrick Chung's days in New England are over, and if that's the case, you can do a lot worse than having Devin McCourty patrolling the field at safety.

Speaking of cornerbacks, how's that Aqib Talib for a fourth rounder trade looking these days? Now obviously, this might change depending on the extent of the injury he suffered last night (I'm sure Belichick will clear that up this week), but since joining the team, Talib's presence has played a major role in the development of the Pats D.

Last night, Jon Gruden commented that much of the Pats success in stopping Arian Foster (they held him under 50 yards for only the third time this year) stemmed from their ability to go with one-on-one coverage against Andre Johnson and stack the box vs. the run. Hard to imagine there's anyone else in that secondary that Belichick would have felt confident leaving on an island with AJ.

Staying with the rhetorical secondary-related questions: How's that seventh round pick the Pats used to snag Alfonzo Dennard looking these days? The kid may not be an angel off the field (or, I should say, "may not have been") but he's a second-to-third-round talent who's playing like it so far, and continues to get better every snap that he's out there. Could he be this year's Sterling Moore?

Nope. He can be better.

And really, so can the Pats. They'll need to be better in order for Monday's big win to ever amount to more than just one regular season win. But for now, things are certainly looking up. With another huge test on tap for Sunday.

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

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

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Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test. 
 

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

FOXBORO -- Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett admitted last week that he has been dealing with a variety of physical ailments throughout the course of his first season with the Patriots. "I've been fighting through [expletive] the whole year," he said, "and I'm not gonna stop now."

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

Bennett suffered a knee injury against the Texans last week that limited him in practices leading up to the AFC title game, but he's also had to cope with ankle and shoulder issues for much of the season.

On Sunday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted: "Patriots love Martellus Bennett's toughness. Example: He plays with a cracked bone [and] bone chips in his ankle. Surgery likely this spring."

Bennett initially showed up on the Patriots injury report with an ankle issue after having his leg twisted awkwardly during a win over the Browns in Week 5. It hampered him for much of the regular season, and he seemed to aggravate it further while being tackled during a Week 12 victory at Met Life Stadium over the Jets. The following week, a win against the Rams, Bennett admitted he had what was probably his worst game of the season.

Bennett has continually played as the top tight end on the Patriots roster since Rob Gronkowski landed on injured reserve. He played in 64 of a possible 69 offensive snaps against the Texans in the Divisional Round, and he has played at least 43 snaps each week since the Patriots' bye in Week 9. For the season, he has played in 78 percent of New England's offensive snaps.

Bennett is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He'll turn 30 years old in March.