Curran: Patriots battle with 'Fins good preparation for Texans

955157.jpg

Curran: Patriots battle with 'Fins good preparation for Texans

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. Next up, Houston.

And the way things went down on a warm, windy Sunday in South Florida was excellent preparation for the battle that awaits the Patriots against the AFCs best team.

After winning their past four games by an average of 27 points, the Patriots had to grind on Sunday to emerge with their 23-16 win. Grind hard.

There wasnt an easy throw out there, said Tom Brady after soldiering through a game in which the Dolphins front-seven cuffed him around for the final three quarters.

The weekly worry about whether Brady might get dented while playing at the end of a blowout was put on the back burner this time as the Patriots needed Brady and the rest of the offense to twist the screws on Miami in the final eight minutes.

A 16-play drive that ended with a field goal to make it 23-13 with 70 seconds left did the trick. That possession, even though it didnt end with seven points, can serve as a confidence-builder for what awaits when the Texans come to town. Even though Houstons been a little more permissive on defense over the past month, they are still one of the NFLs most disruptive groups. And if the Patriots are going to hand the Texans their second loss of the year, they will probably find themselves in a closeout situation similar to the one they faced Sunday.

That was a grind right there, said Donald Thomas who was again holding down the left guard spot as Logan Mankins calf continues to heal. Youre sore during the game and youre feeling it and youre into it and its not gonna come easy. It wasnt like the past few weeks where we were scoring at a rapid rate. It was more of a dogfight. We knew before the game started. We knew it wasnt gonna be (easy). Theyre a good team. This team, I know theyre not gonna lay down and just give it to us . . . That drive was exactly what we needed. I think we had eight minutes when we went out there, we gave it up with less than two minutes. It was a seven-point game, then once we got into field goal range the focus was on getting a touchdown but the main thing was eating up clock and getting a score and giving our defense time to breathe.

The Patriots offensive line needs its best guys back out there. Mankins at left guard, Dan Connolly at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Sunday was a little messy up front and the way the Patriots offense stagnated through the second and third quarters cant be repeated against a Houston team which will put up points a lot faster than the Dolphins could.

Mankins participation in practice will be a story to watch this week. He needs to get his wind and his mobility back before going up against that Houston front. The Patriots will have to sweat the availability of Connolly as well. He left Sunday with a back injury and, after Nick McDonald struggled to replace Connolly, Marcus Cannon stepped in for McDonald. Vollmer, who said after the game that he was feeling good, is playing with a back injury as well. He was a game-time decision on Sunday and while he mostly kept Cameron Wake in check, hes not at full strength, it seems.

But the Patriots were still able to summon enough to impose their will on the ground with Stevan Ridley and a dash of Shane Vereen on the Patriots last drive.

When you run the ball like that its somewhat on the O-line, the running backs and receivers, Vollmer explained. It feels good. Sometimes you gotta do that and we were able to do that today and it was big. We ran seven minutes off the clock and that was necessary. Hopefully we continue to do that.

Even though New England has two more losses than the Texans, the Patriots are still the conference gold standard. And Houston wont just be playing to solidify their hold on the No. 1 seed but also to get an appraisal of where they are.

We know were gonna get the best shot from every team we play and thats what Miami did, said Jerod Mayo.

Asked when the Patriots will turn their attention fully to the Texans, Mayo thought for a moment, smiled and said, Tomorrow.

Tomorrow is now today. And the Patriots are facing their toughest opponent of the season in a week. Its good that they got their nose bloodied a little bit on Sunday.

Because the grind is on.

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder: Bucks came out and "hit us in the mouth" early, good test

Jae Crowder and Brad Stevens react to the Celtics loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night, followed by Kyle Draper and Brian Scalabrine talking about where this loss leaves Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

Haggerty: Bruins plan to take it slow with McAvoy, unless . . .

BRIGHTON -- Nobody doubts that 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy is going to be a game-changer down the road for the Boston Bruins.

The Boston University sophomore, expected to be in the NHL next season, is the crown jewel of a draft-and-development movement led by general manager Don Sweeney over the last three years. And if McAvoy hits the ground running with the Providence Bruins over the weekend, he may even make his NHL debut with the Bruins sometime in the next 10 days, even though playing in as much as a single game with Boston this season would burn a year off his entry-level contract.

"[The NHL] is still to be determined. It will be contract first and [the AHL] as a good first step for us," said Sweeney after signing McAvoy to an ATO (Amateur Tryout Agreement). "He's made the decision to leave [college] and we're excited about that process. It leaves some options open [for McAvoy], but first and foremost gets him playing and acclimated to pro hockey."

But there's also the reality that a 19-year-old like McAvoy is going to face challenges in pro hockey. Mastering the defenseman position at the NHL level is an extremely complicated process. It's the reason we see a lot more teenage forwards take the league by storm than teenage D-men, who typically need more development time in the AHL to hone their skills at both ends of the rink.

"[The challenge] would be getting him to figure out what works at this level and what doesn't, just like if he were in Providence," said interim coach Bruce Cassidy about the theoretical possibility of McAvoy playing in Boston soon. "We've used seven defensemen here over the last eight weeks and they've done a good job for us, so we'd have to see where he fit in and go from there . . . I've seen him here and there, but I don't know enough about his individual game at this point to know what he would specifically need to do . . .

"[Defense] is a tougher position in the NHL because mistakes are magnified. If you're a forward you've got another layer of defense to support you, so you can get away with some of that stuff. I think that's why you see generally that most of the rookies that age in the NHL are forwards."

Torey Krug signed with the Bruins out of college five years ago and had a one-game cameo with them before spending the entire next season in Providence. Krug says now that, looking back, he knows he wasn't ready to play in the NHL coming out of school and needed a season to sort things out defensively against bigger, stronger, smarter and faster opponents.

"The speed itself wasn't much of an issue, but if you fall asleep even for a second it's going to turn into a scoring chance for the other team," Krug said of the adjustment from college hockey to the NHL. "These games are not easy to play in, even for veterans in the league . . .

"I thought offensively I was ready [right away], but defensively I had a lot to learn. It's a tough league to play in. Offensively it was fun, but defensively I had my share of hiccups realizing I had to go down to Providence to work on some things."

McAvoy isn't expected to follow Krug's path. He'll get development opportunities at the AHL level at the end of this season just like fellow young D-man Brandon Carlo, who used last spring's AHL experience to vault directly into the NHL this season as a 19-year-old playing top-four minutes right from opening night.

It's also the track taken by Zach Werenski last year with the Columbus Blue Jackets. An AHL playoff run fully prepped him for his breakout season as the league's best rookie defenseman.

"It's a long time ago, but I used that [ATO] myself as a benefit and I've always been an advocate of it, and I think Robbie O'Gara, Danton Heinen and Carlo all [did it]," said Sweeney. "All the players that have been able to come on and play at a very high level against men, generally in a playoff stretch drive or the playoffs themselves, it's a unique [experience].

"When you first turn pro, you're introduced to it at a really high level and you have to adjust to it on the fly. It's about structure and understanding the voices you're hearing. And reading and reacting at the pro level are all very important [skills]. [I think] it's a great on-the-job training exercise and right now Brandon is the best example of it. He's been able to jump into our lineup this year, and that's a testament to him and also the work he did last year."

So the Bruins should take their time with McAvoy, though also allow that he could be a dominant exception to the rule and become a force right out of the chute. It certainly appears Sweeney is going to leave that door ajar,  to make sure the Bruins don't miss out on anything with a young defenseman who's already drawn comparisons to Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty.