Pats come back down to Earth

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Pats come back down to Earth

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last week was a crazy one for Pats fans, and I'm not even talking about the speculation over a potential Randy Moss reunion, the overhyping of BelichickMangini: Round Whatever, or the absurdity of Logan Mankins' mustache.

No, what made last week so especially strange was that for probably the first time since Bernard Pollard wrecked Tom Brady's knee, the New England Patriots were the consensus best team in football.

They were the only one-loss team in the league. They'd played one of the most challenging schedules in the league. They were building chemistry on offense, discovering themselves on defense and undergoing an attitude overhaul behind the scenes.

They'd won five straight games. They had momentum.

Leading into Sunday's game against the Browns, New England sat atop nearly every "expert's" power rankings. They were once again the darlings of the national media. Even Tom Jackson was forced to say a few nice things about them, and that happens about as often as you hear Rex Ryan say, "Nah, that's OK. The small order of onion rings is fine."

The Pats were back. Or at least that's what it felt like.

And it was kind of shocking.

Why? Because we never saw it coming.

Not even the most optimistic, silver-and-blue-colored-glasses-wearing, "In Belichick We Trust"-pledging, "Man, why is Fred Smerlas so negative?"-asking super fan could have realistically believed that the Pats would start this season 6-1.

Part of that was a result of New England's schedule over the first eight weeks, which included trips to New York, Miami and San Diego, as well as home games against the Ravens and Vikings. And even though the Bengals don't look like much now, let's not forget they came into this season as the defending AFC North champs. That should have been a major challenge, too.

Even a great team, we thought, would hit a few potholes on such a treacherous early season road, and this is the other reason why 6-1 seemed so distant we knew that the Pats weren't great.

Yeah, there was reason for positivity, but we'd all seen enough great teams around here to understand that this current one had some serious issues. Our expectations were high, but they weren't unrealistic. We expected the season to be successful, yet at the same time exceedingly difficult.

And we just werent ready for what happened.

Which is that through a bizarre stretch of on-and-off the field mayhem, the Patriots won five straight games.

This isn't to say any of the wins were undeserved. A win's a win in this league. But individually, there was something about each victory that left us wanting more, or at least, left us not entirely convinced that this team was for real.

After the Buffalo game we said, "Yeah, but it was Buffalo."

After the Miami game we said, "Yeah, but when are they ever going to get three defensivespecial teams touchdowns again?"

After the Ravens game we said, "Yeah, but they only really played one good quarter."

After the San Diego game we said, "Yeah, but the Chargers gave it to them!"

And after the Minnesota game we said, "Yeah, but didn't they still look kind of sloppy?"

Each week there was something different, but the result was always the same. Meanwhile, the Colts, Saints, Packers and Steelers began to lose, and the national media needed another "team of the moment." They saw the 6-1 record, the five-game win streak and the "They dropped Moss and never looked back!" storyline and just ran with it.

We'd spent most of the first few months of the season wondering if the Patriots were even the best team in their division. We thought we knew who they were that is, a good but not great team with loads of potential and a lot of room to grow but now everyone in the football world was telling us differently.

And despite the irrelevancy of power rankings in general, and the insignificance of guys like Tom Jackson, it was hard not to join the fun. Life's a lot better when the Pats are atop the NFL. It's been a while since we could really say that.

So we rolled with it. We talked about the Pats like they were the team of old; like the team that marched into Cleveland six years ago and blew them off the field before halftime. We played along.

But deep down, this didn't feel like a 6-1 team. The offense still wasn't clicking. The defense was playing at an unrealistic level. They looked like a good team, but just not the best team in the NFL. No matter what anyone said.

And after watching the way the Pats played in Cleveland, its now obvious that theyre not.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm not saying we should overreact to Sunday's loss, call it a season, hope the Raiders lose a bunch more games and start looking to next year. I'm just saying that maybe the overreaction had taken place before Sunday's game even started.

That for now, maybe it's healthier and more realistic to consider the plight and potential of the 6-2 Patriots a team with legitimate, but not necessarily fatal flaws (experience, depth, offensive fire, big-game pedigree) than to go along ignoring the issues of the 7-1 team under the assumption that they'll just always find a way to win.

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

Collins' new contract may influence Patriots' negotiations with Hightower

Collins' new contract may influence Patriots' negotiations with Hightower

FOXBORO -- Jamie Collins and the Cleveland Browns are reportedly closing in on a contract that will turn the ex-Pat's place of exile into his long-term place of work. 

That's interesting in itself. The Browns must have made it clear to Collins he was getting franchised, otherwise you'd think Collins would want to get out there and test the market for at least a couple of days when free agency rolled around. 

It will also be interesting for Collins' former teammate in New England, Dont'a Hightower. While the Patriots aren't going to let the Browns dictate their market and offers when it comes to negotiating with Hightower, Collins' contract will be a useful comp for Hightower. 

Whatever Collins gets, Hightower can make the case for a fair amount more. Hightower is the centerpiece of the Patriots defense, a run-stopper, blitzer, leader and tone-setter. From the jersey number (Tedy Bruschi's old number 54) they encouraged him to wear, to selecting him captain, the team and Hightower's teammates have stated how important he is to the club. 

Hightower on the open market would be in line for a contract in the $10 million-per-year range, with a total value of around $50 million (using Luke Kuechly, Navarro Bowman, Bobby Wagner and Lawrence Timmons as comparable players). The Patriots can franchise Hightower just as easily as the Browns could have franchised Collins. The sticking point for the player is that he doesn't realize the windfall of guaranteed money that comes with a long-term deal. The injury Sword of Damocles dangles every day. 

In other words, Collins' influence on the Patriots isn't done yet. 

Report: Chip Kelly was scheduled to meet with Bill Belichick recently

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Report: Chip Kelly was scheduled to meet with Bill Belichick recently

FOXBORO -- Might Chip Kelly be working for the Patriots at some point in the near future? One report calls New England a "logical" landing spot for the former Eagles and 49ers head coach. 

According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Kelly "was headed to New England to meet with [Bill] Belichick" once he found out that he was no longer in the running for the offensive coordinator job in Jacksonville. 

Kelly was fired by the 49ers after one season as head coach and has been interested in continuing his career as an NFL coach, per Mortensen. Kelly coached the Eagles for three seasons, going 26-21.

Belichick openly threw his support behind Kelly after he was let go by Philadelphia on New Year's Eve in 2015.

"I would say it's actually disappointing," Belichick said at the time. "Chip Kelly to me is a really good football coach. He does a great job. I think he's done a good job with that team. It's disappointing to see . . . Pretty much everybody's on a one-year contract in this league. I don't know how you build a program in one year. 

"Chip's a great coach. He'll end up somehwere and he'll do a great job there. I'd say a lot of the players that were on the Eagles that are no longer on the Eagles aren't really doing too much for anybody else, either."

Mortensen opines that the Belichick-Kelly connection would make sense because of their tight bond. 

"The friendship between Kelly and [Belichick] is no secret," Mortensen wrote. "They have exchanged football concepts since Kelly's fast-tempo offense became the rage at Oregon."

Per Mortensen, Kelly was considered an asset by executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, and he was in the running for a job there, yet new coach Doug Marrone saw Kelly as a bad "philosophical fit." 

Apparently that led to Kelly's planned visit here. 

There is history of the Patriots hiring friendly faces during the postseason. In 2012, Belichick re-hired Josh McDaniels to work with then offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, who was set to take over Penn State's program after the season. McDaniels -- who had been the offensive coordinator for the Rams earlier that year -- re-claimed his role as offensive coordinator in New England the following season and has been in-house ever since. 

Kelly has no experience as one of Belichick's employees -- McDaniels, of course, rose through the coaching ranks in New England before being hired as head coach in Denver in 2009 -- but perhaps he is a candidate to fulfill a role similar to the one McDaniels was given before Super Bowl XLVI.