In the midst of all the bad, don't forget the good

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In the midst of all the bad, don't forget the good

By Michael Felger

Some pearls of wisdom for Patriots fans as they lick their wounds this morning.

Are you folks going to acknowledge the opponent here -- or just fixate on the Patriots? I raise the point because I think fans around here have woefully underestimated the strides made by the Jets the last few years. They've narrowed the gap in the AFC East, whether you want to acknowledge it or not.

Here are the unfortunate facts: The Jets have beaten the Pats in two of the three meetings under Rex Ryan. They've won three of five meetings since 2008. They finished 2009 (that includes the playoffs, people) as the better team and now have a leg up in the 2010 race. They have a much better defense, a more dependable running game and a quarterback who, for all his struggles, has had some of his best moments in big games.

I know you hate the Jets. I don't blame you. But the scoreboard is getting more and more unpleasant to look at.

Former Patriot Troy Brown was adamant on TV on Sunday night about how Bill Belichick and his staff lost the adjustment battle to Rex Ryan in the second half.

That analysis wouldn't be so concerning if it hadn't become such a recurring theme.

Did you know that five the Pats' six losses last year came after they had led or were tied at the half? Hard to believe, isn't it? But it's true. With the exception of the New Orleans blowout, the Pats were in control coming out of the tunnel for the second half of every other one of their losses. It seemed so aberrational that we all assumed it would correct itself in 2010.

But it didn't on Sunday. In fact, it turned into a carbon copy of a typical Pats' collapse from 2009.

What happened to the days when the Pats routinely got better as the game progressed? What happened to Belichick coming up with answers in the locker room and putting his players in the best position to succeed when the game was on the line? It's remarkable how such a strong facet of the Pats' repertoire has vanished.

Normally, this is the place where we would get on the coordinators for their bad play-calling. But there's only one problem: the Patriots don't have any.

I don't know. Could that be part of the problem?

Another thing you'd never see back in the Super Bowl-winning days: a delay-of-game penalty on a field-goal attempt because the coaches couldn't make up their minds or get the kicking unit on the field quickly enough. Yet that's what happened on Sunday on the Pats' first drive, as a 32-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski was wiped off the board because they couldn't get the snap off in time.

Gostkowski deserves blame for not bearing down and nailing the ensuing 37-yarder, but the penalty was purely a function of sideline operation. Again, this is on the staff (such as it is).

We all spent a lot of time last week talking about how much younger and faster the Pats defense looks to be this year. Unfortunately, lost in all that conversation was a more pertinent question: Is it any better?

Not yet. Giving up 18-second half points is one thing. But giving up that total to an offense that many thought to be one of the league's worst is another. Do you remember the things you were saying about Mark Sanchez and the Jets' passing game last week? Actually, you're better off not remembering.

This is all I know: When Sanchez said last week that the Jets offense was poised to breakout and that a 300-yard passing day was just around the corner, there was laughter across New England. We wanted a hit off of what Sanchez was smoking.

It's not so funny now. Sanchez didn't come close to 300 yards, but when you consider he didn't complete a pass in the first quarter while the Jets offense managed only three snaps that stanza, his 220 passing yards look scary. And his QB rating (124.3) and TD-interception ratio (3-0) are downright terrifying.

Darius Butler is obviously a major problem for the Pats. But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that they apparently have no one better.

In an effort to make sure Randy Moss remains happy and that he feels appreciated, I'm only going to mention his one-handed touchdown catch at the end of the first half.

Great catch, Randy.

I won't mention how he alligator-armed two catchable balls over the middle in the first half. I won't mention how he could only come up with two receptions on the day despite being thrown to 10 times. I won't mention how he was shut down not by Darrelle Revis, but by Antonio Cromartie. I won't mention how Tom Brady's two interceptions were the result of forcing balls in his direction. I won't mention that when the going got tough, he didn't exactly get going.

I won't get into any of that.

The report card comes your way Tuesday. Email Felger HERE and read the mailbag on Thursday. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 The Sports Hub.

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

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Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots haven't had all of their receivers simultaneously healthy and in uniform since they acquired Michael Floyd on waivers last month. That appears as though it could change Sunday. 

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, wideouts Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Chris Hogan (thigh) are expected to play in the AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett (knee) is also expected to play, per Schefter. All three were listed as questionable on the team's injury report. 

Mitchell has not seen game action since injuring his knee mid-way through the third quarter against the Jets in Week 16. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week, left the game in the third quarter and did not return. 

Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was also listed on this week's injury report with an ankle issue. Last week, he played in his first game since Week 13.

If Mitchell, Hogan and Amendola are all healthy enough to play, the Patriots will have their choice of five wideouts against the Steelers since Julian Edelman and Floyd are also physically able to suit up. 

Will they all be in uniform? That remains to be seen. The Patriots haven't taken five receivers on their 46-man game-day roster yet this season. However, because all five bring something different to the Patriots offense, perhaps Bill Belichick and his staff will find it valuable enough to activate all five.

If the Patriots opt to take the receiver-heavy route, they'll have to go lighter elsewhere -- perhaps de-activating a core special teamer -- in order to make room.

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.