Are they really better without Randy?

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Are they really better without Randy?

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Are the Patriots a better team without Randy Moss?

Its a question weve asked ourselves over and over since the moment Moss left town. And with the Vikings officially waiving No. 8184 on Tuesday, its a question thats now more prevalent in Patriots circles than jokes about Tom Bradys hair.

Of course, the chances of Moss ending up back in Boston are slimmer than the man himself. Check out any experts list of potential suitors, and the Pats dont even merit a mention. It looks likes it will be Washington, Tennessee, St. Louis, Miami or Seattle. Personally, Id love to see Moss leave football all together and start reviewing local restaurants for the Star Tribune (Catch Phrase: I wouldn't feed this crap to my dog!!), but either way, regardless of the likelihood of Randys return, public reaction to the mere possibility has been interesting.

Some revel in the idea of Moss re-joining the troops.

They believe, due largely to Sundays heartfelt press conference, that Moss has learned his lesson. That he finally appreciates how great he had it in New England. That hes ready to walk the company line and that, if given a second chance, theres no way he let the team down. Basically, wed be looking at 2007 all over again.

For others, the prospect of Moss coming back is about as enticing as a bubble bath with Rex Ryan.

They think that Randys a cancer, and that hell never ever change. That he sets a bad tone off the field, and doesnt always give full effort on it. That his presence plays mind games with Tom Brady and pigeon holes the offense. Basically, they believe that the Pats are better off without him.

Which brings us back to the original question: Are they?

On one hand, theyre 3-0 sans Randy, and those three wins came against three quality teamsdespite what their respective records may say (Bill Parcells just choked on his cigar at whichever horse track hes currently betting at). And at the same time, you cant disregard the positive vibes that have taken over the organization in the post-Moss Era. The Pats are a more upbeat, optimistic and fun-loving team now than they were on October 6. No one can deny that.

But heres where it gets a little tricky. Yeah, the Pats have been solid over the last three weeks. And on the surfaceconsidering they were 3-1 with Randy, and 3-0 without himyou can say that the Pats have been better since he left.

But at this moment, can you really say that theyve been better BECAUSE he left.

Was it Moss absence that facilitated victories over Baltimore, San Diego and Minnesota? Or have other factors come into play?

First of all, call me crazy, but I havent been in love with the Patriots offense over the last three weeks. I realize that the Ravens, Chargers and Vikings boast three of the more daunting defenses in the league (although Ryan Fitzpatrick might disagree on the Ravens part), but has this been the fair, balanced and uber-efficient offensive attack that the anti-Moss camp imagined after he left?

Ill admit that, at the time, I was all googily-eyed over the idea of Brady morphing back into the my favorite receiver is the open receiver quarterback that led the Pats to three titles. But I, or anyone else, would be nuts to suggest that thats how everything has played out.

The first category you look at is points, and you notice that three of New Englands four lowest scoring outputs have come since the trade.

Of course, thats not completely surprising. First, there's the defenses they were playing. Plus, we already knew that without Moss, the Pats offensive wouldnt be as explosive. But what we thought wed see was an offense that was far more efficientan offense that was less predictable, more creative and could sustain longer, more methodical drives to help keep the defense off the field. But so far, that hasnt been the case.

Three of Tom Bradys four worst completion percentages have come since Randy left. Three of his four worst QB ratings have come since Randy left. Bradys thrown as many interceptions in last three games as he did in the previous four.

Thereve also been numerous drives over the last three weeksspecifically, the first two in overtime against the Ravens and the possession that should have sealed the deal in San Diegowhere the Pats needed to move the ball, and just plain couldnt.

Thereve been possessions like in the second quarter in San Diegowhen Rob Nincovichs fumble return gave New England the ball on the eight yard line with a chance to go up 14-3where the Pats have been handed huge opportunities, and instead of capitalizing, have actually gone backwards.

You can cite the 13-play, 84-yard, five and a half-minute drive that put them over the top against Minnesota, but that was about the Law Firm; Brady completed two passes for 23 yards. Was Green-Ellis running the ball on Vikings because Randy Moss wasnt lined up wide right?

And in terms of keeping the defense off the field, the Patriots time of possession in the last two games have been their two worst all season. They held the ball for 25:35 against San Diego, and 24:52 against Minnesota. There has been more pressure placed on the defense these last two weeks than at any time all year. Sure, there are other factors that come into play on time of possession (like all the short-field situations in San Diego), but either way, by no means can we say that the Patriots offense has been rejuvenated by the absence of Randy Moss.

In fact, the offense would be considered a huge problem right now if it werent for another tiny, little difference between Randy Moss Patriots and the team you see today: They have a defense!

A defense that gave them three chances in overtime against Baltimore, that kept giving them possession after possession in San Diego and was just tough enough at the end to save us from another week of Fourth and 2 drama. They have a defense capable of containing Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, Philip Rivers and Adrian Peterson (and, I guess, Randy Moss); a defense that hasnt allowed more than 20 points since September.

They have an honest-to-goodness NFL defense. The only thing that would have been more surprising than that back in August is the fact that Randy Moss was just cut by the Vikings.

Has Randy's absence really played into the instant maturation of Devin McCourty, the emergence of the Nincoviches, Deadricks, Cunninghams and Arringtons of this no-name unit, the fact the fact that Jerod Mayo has finally realized his ridiculous potential? Of course not.

Ultimately, what these last three weeks have shown is that the Patriots can win without Moss. At least in October. And for the Moss haters, those three wins are already enough to write off the move as a smashing success. But in reality, it's far too early.

Were victories over Baltimore, San Diego and Minnesota a direct byproduct of his departure? Do we think the Pats would have lost these games with him? Are they actually a better team for not having Randy? Right now, I dont think you can say.

Maybe the offense just needs time to adjust. Maybe it will take a few weeks for Brady to re-discover his old style. Or maybe Deion Branch's hamstring never heals, Wes Welker needs another year to regain that legendary quickness and the Pats offense never completely finds its way. And with the way the defense is playing, maybe that won't even be a huge deal. We don't know.

All we know for sure is that the Patriots are a better team today than they were four weeks ago, and for now, thats reason enough to just sit back and enjoy it.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

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Foster playing catch-up, could help his cause vs. Panthers

FOXBORO -- When DJ Foster took the field for Patriots OTAs, he looked as advertised: quick, a crisp route-runner, and the owner of a pair of dependable hands. But that was back when players wore shorts to every practice. Since then, the undrafted rookie running back out of Arizona State hasn't had the opportunity to do much other than work on his conditioning while the majority of his teammates practiced. 

That could soon change. Though Foster has dealt with what he calls a "nagging" injury throughout much of training camp, he felt well enough this week to return to practice, and on Friday night he is likely to see preseason game action for the first time this summer.

The reason Foster's preseason debut could carry some importance is that he happens to play a position that may qualify as the thinnest on the Patriots roster right now. Because sub back extraordinaire Dion Lewis will not be healthy enough to start the season, and because coach Bill Belichick opted to part ways with veteran Donald Brown recently, the team is low on numbers in their running back room.

If Foster can capitalize on the opportunities he's given, he may make a case for a roster spot. James White, who is expected to be Lewis' primary replacement, is the other lone true sub back on the roster. Brandon Bolden can fill in at that role on an emergency basis, and Tyler Gaffney has shown he can catch the football when asked, but neither has the kind of pass-catching upside of Foster, who played receiver for the Sun Devils as a senior and racked up 222 receptions during his four-year college career. 

Foster has only so much time to prove he's worthy of a job. The Patriots have to reduce their numbers to 75 by Aug. 30. They need to be down to 53 by Sep. 3. Foster could be a tantalizing prospect to stash on the practice squad, but surely he'd like to make a push for a greater role. 

He explained this week that, despite his recent physical limitations, he won't be holding back whenever he does get a chance to prove himelf. 

"The coaches do a great job at just kind of making sure I'm OK and stuff," he said. "For me, when I'm in there, do what I can, give everything I got -- every rep, every chance I get with the reps. Stay in the playbook, stay involved in the meetings, and just try to learn as much as I can. Whenever I do get an opportunity, go out there and make the most of it."

Against the Panthers, the Patriots coaching staff will have to balance the need to evaluate players like Foster against good competition versus getting the entire team ready for Week 1. For example, they'd like to get a good look at Foster, whose practice reps were next to nil before this week. They'd also probably like to get White as many reps as possible so that he's prepared for the Cardinals. 

Who should play when? And how many snaps do they need? 

"You can’t see D.J. Foster play in this league. You have Arizona State film but that’s all you have, and some of the spring work that he did which is obviously encouraging," Belichick said earlier this week. "We still have him, but there’s just no body of work. Donald Brown, you can see Donald Brown . . . Players like D.J., it’s hard. You don’t have much to go on. But maybe he’ll be able to do more. We’ll get an evaluation of him soon, hopefully."

Friday night could be the night. 

Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

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Patriots vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

Click here for the gallery.

HOW LONG FOR TOM?

Somehow, Tom Brady’s stated desire to play this preseason devolved into discussion of whether he’s selfish, whiny and power-mad. Eh, it’s a living. How much will practice-game reps in August help him in October? I don’t know. You don’t know. But he apparently thinks they’ll help so let the guy prepare to do what you pay him a lot of money to do – play quarterback for a little while. “How little?” is the question. In my opinion, letting Jimmy Garoppolo take the first two drives then turning it over to Brady for 20 plays would give Garoppolo the chance to see the Panthers early, make adjustments after the first drive and then yield to Brady. My impression is that there’s nothing etched in stone as to who will play how long, rather, it’s something Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will let develop as they see fit.

CAN MINGO MAKE A GO

Will the Patriots unveil their brand-new Barkevious? Barkevious Mingo did reportedly make the trip to Charlotte so he’ll be on the sidelines at least soaking up some of what the Patriots do defensively. What will Mingo do defensively is a bigger question. He’s 6-4, 250 and built more like an NBA small forward than a standard edge defender. His strength lies in his burst and moving upfield, though, so giving Mingo some of Geneo Grissom’s late-game reps on the edge would give the team some early impressions on which to work.

WHICH SHIFTS DO KNIGHTON/BRANCH GET

Seeing Terrance Knighton on the field late in the fourth quarter last week against the Bears was a bit of an eye-opener. Did it signal that he is a down-the-roster player like most of the other players on the field at that juncture in the preseason? Or was he out there because the Patriots needed someone at DT and Knighton was the guy. Phil Perry contemplates Knighton’s role on the roster here. Meanwhile, Branch is just back from a week-long team suspension for undisclosed agitations. He may not be ready to go, having missed a few days of practice, but if he is I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Patriots playing him right up until the final gun as a test of his willingness to play in 2016.

SECONDARY CHALLENGES

Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn all bring something to the table which will test the Patriots secondary. Benjamin is a huge and athletic wideout that brings the size component into play; Olsen is one of the league’s faster, more surehanded tight ends and Ginn is a jet. The Patriots have let up some plays on the perimeter in each of the first two preseason games. The Bears’ first two drives last week were 10 plays and 11 plays long. Getting off the field on third down early against Carolina’s potent offense would be an encouraging sign. 

BETTER TEST FOR RUNING GAME

Last week, the Patriots ground attack showed some life against the Bears. It had been a long time coming. Tonight, the test will be much more stiff. The Panthers have the league’s best linebacker in Luke Kuechly, another outstanding one in Thomas Davis and a front that features Star Lotuleilei, Kawann Short, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy. While the progress made against Chicago was nice, make some headway against this group and then you can really get optimistic.