1. Football Outsiders has the Patriots as the second best team in the league. I thought this was supposed to be the "end of the era", with the Patriots offensive and defensive lines starting to get into the "old" category. How are they pulling it off?
It seems like we go through this motion every year, but it really is amazing the level of consistency that this team is able to produce year in and year out. This team really exemplifies the "do your job" and "next man up" mentality. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick preaches a no-nonsense philosophy, and the players really buy in. He doesn't overspend on veteran players and is constantly working to improve the back-end of the roster. However, if I had one answer as to how the pull it off, everyone would do it. I'm not a fan of sayings like "in Belichick we trust" - he is human and makes coaching and personnel mistakes. At the same time, his ability to build a team and lead that team are unmatched. His total body of work speaks for itself, even if we can never peg a singular reason for how he's been able to keep his teams so consistent.
2. Has any defensive coordinator ever come up with a good gameplan for stopping Rob Gronkowski? How did they do it?
It's very difficult, to say the least. The term "beast" probably gets thrown around too much, but that's what Gronk is. He can do it all. He has unrivaled size, can go make contested catches, has the speed to stretch the field, and is close to his pre-ACL quickness in his cuts. There's no real way to play him one-on-one, but the best solution is to double him. Don't give him free releases - have a linebacker chip him at the line to throw off the timing of his routes, and keep an athletic safety or taller cornerback in man coverage on him. Of course, the problem with having a cornerback in man coverage is that the corner probably won't be able to bring him down easily after the catch. So you really have to pick your poison when it comes to covering Gronk. He's back to being a match-up nightmare.
3. Is Chandler Jones going to play on Sunday? Better yet, do the Patriots need him to play? The Patriots' notoriously poor defense of the last few years seems to be a thing of the past. Was Revis the move that turned it all around?
Jones is probably going to be a legitimate game-time decision. He returned to practice last week, but still might need one more week before returning to game action. The Patriots do need Jones, as he is far and away the team's best pass rusher. Had they had him against the Packers on Sunday, that game might have had a different outcome. Seriously, the Patriots couldn't produce anything. Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers are decent rushers, but far from game-changing. There has definitely been a turnaround on that side of the ball, and Revis (as well as Brandon Browner) deserve a big part of the credit. The Patriots have moved from being an off-ball and zone coverage defense, to being a press-man defense. Their secondary, in terms of man-cover skill, might be the best in the league. That makes everyone else look better. The unit has also been boosted by young stars like linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins, and safety Devin McCourty.
4. Is 2014 Tom Brady better, worse, or equally as good as he was five years ago?
It's tough to say, but I'd say he's at about an equal level. He's done a really good job at moving around in the pocket in 2014, something he wasn't doing as well the two prior seasons. He's not at a 2007 level, that's for sure. But the things he's been able to do with a relatively pedestrian supporting cast have been nothing short of awesome. He's at the top of his game right now. We'll see if this is a mini-resurgence, or something that he can keep going for the next few years.
5. Do the Patriots' playoff hopes rest on whether or not they can get the #1 seed?
I wouldn't necessarily say that it is "all or nothing." But the ability to host the AFC Championship is a big one. The Patriots went into Pittsburgh twice for AFC Championships, and came out with victories both times. They also lost on the road to Peyton Manning twice. I do believe that, with the Broncos likely the biggest opposition for the #1 seed, that it is crucial for the Patriots to have home field advantage. It's not back-breaking if they don't get it, but it's pretty close. Of course, the Chargers aren't out of this thing yet either. If they beat the Patriots on Sunday, it could change the AFC's entire landscape.
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