Every season winning the AFC East is always theÂ first step in setting themselves up for success in the postseason, but the last couple of seasons that task has certainly gotten a little more difficult within the Division for the Patriots.
Last season what has traditionally been anÂ easy win againstÂ the Bills was more difficult than expected. In fact, things actually came down to the wire in the opening week, requiring a last second 35-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to allow New England to escape with a 23-21 victory.
Just four days later it didn't get any easier, as the offense struggled against a tough Jets defense but managed to do enough to win that game 13-10. Â That night the weather and the fact the Patriots offense struggled themselves kept New York in the game, but New England made just enough plays to ultimately come away with the win.
However, when the two teams met again in week 7, it ended up being a different story. Quarterback Geno Smith played better in front of the home crowd and the Patriots found themselves on the wrong side of a 30-27 loss at the Meadowlands.
Against Miami the next week, the Patriots beat the Dolphins 27-17, but Miami got even in the rematch in week 15 after beating them 24-20 in a game that squandered the chance at the number one seed in the postseason for New England. Brady was beyond frustrated after the game, finishing off his brief press conference with an expletive before walking away.
Two weeks later to finish out the season, they beat the Bills by 14 points with a 34-20 win at home, ending the season with aÂ 4-2 record overall in the division on the year.
That 4-2 record obviously looks good on paper, but we're seeing a gradual improvement at the quarterback position across the division. With training camp just over a month away, here's a closer look at how each of the quarterbacks from each team within the division stacked up last season as we start pondering what we may expect to see this year from each of them:
Game 1: 22-of-42 (52%) for 192 yards 2 TD's 2 INT's
Game 2: 25-of-37 (68%) for 312yds 3TD's 0 INT's
Overall: 47-of-79 (59%) 504 yards, 5 TD's, 2 INT's
Tannehill's best performance during the two meetingsÂ came in their second one on December 15th where he finished 25-of-37 for 312 yards and three touchdowns. Â Their first match-up didn't go quite as smoothly, as the Patriots defense made him miserable after sacking him six times along with 10 recorded quarterback hits.
Overall Tannehill struggled throwing the football on first down, finishing 12-of-26 (46%) for 116 yards along with an interception. Â However, he was much better on second down where he completed 20-of-29 (69%) for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Â The more disturbing number was his success on third down, where he finished 14-of-22 (64%) passing for 176 yards and three touchdowns. With the Patriots improvement in the secondary, that should be an area that we'll hopefully see some improvement the next time these two teams meet.
Game 1:Â 18-of-27 150 yards, 2 TD's
Manuel played reasonably well against the Patriots in week one, finishing 18-of-27 (67%) for 150 yards and two touchdowns, including 2-of-2 passing down in the red zone. Â Looking closer,Â a lot of his successÂ in that gameÂ came on early downs, withÂ the quarterbackÂ finishing 6-of-8 (75%) for 63 yards and a touchdown on first down, and 6-of-8 (75%) for 37 yards and a touchdown onÂ secondÂ down. On third down he was just 6-of-11 (55%), including 1-of-4 down in the red zone.
A lot has changed since they last faced him considering that match-up took place all the way back in Week 1. Now the question for the Bills will be whether or not he can build on what he did the first time against them. It's been a long time since Buffalo has reached the postseason, and having success against the Patriots is something they'll need to be able to do in order to get there.
Game 2:Â 16-of-29 for 247 yards, 1 TD
Lewis' overall numbers weren't terrible, butÂ one of the stats that sticks out is the fact New England held him to just 5-of-11 (45%) on first down last season, but from there he was 7-of-8 (88%) on second down including a touchdown, but like Manuel dropped off again on third down while completing 4-of-8 (50%) for 99 yards.
Looking closer, his quarter-by-quarter numbers are interesting:
1st QTR:Â 2-of-5 (40%) 49 yards
2nd QTR: 1-of-3 (33%) 13 yards
3rd QTR: 4-of-7 (57%) 81 yards 1 TD
4th QTR: 9-of-14 (64%) 104 yards
One would have to believe the Patriots won't face Lewis again should Manuel stayÂ healthy.
Game 1: 15-of-35 (43%) 214 yards, 0 TD's, 3 INT's
Game 2: 17-of-33 (52%) 233 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Overall: 32-of-68 (47%) 447 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT's
NOTES:Â Game one against the Patriots didn't exactly go well for Smith, and had it not been for a sub par performance in the rain that night by the Patriots' offense, it may have been worse for him. Â He struggled to complete passes that night, especially on third down where he completed just 4-of-12 (33%) attempts for 71 yards and two interceptions.
Game two was a different story, and Smith performed better. Â New England did a reasonably good job on early downs after holding him to 3-of-12 (25%) passing on second down for just 34-yards, whichÂ left the JetsÂ facingÂ 3rd-and-7 or more 11 times with four conversions.
But on third down overall in that game, Smith had a decent success throwing the football after finishing 10-of-15 (67%) passing with eight first downs including a touchdown. Â Overall he completed 14-of-27 (52%) on third down in 2013, and that will likely be an area they'll want to focus on should Smith be on the field when the two teams meet again this season.
While the performances weren't necessarily stellar for any of these players, they were good enough to at least be a concern in 2014 as competition in the AFC East appears to rising. Hopefully with some of the moves we've seen this offseason the Patriots will be ready for it.
FIRST ROUND PICK EASLEY FINALLY HITS THE FIELD:
Some good news on Thursday as Patriots first round pick Dominique Easley was on the field for the first time in spring camps.
According to reports, the rookie took part in stretching and individual drills and he was also a limited participant, although he reportedly was sporting a full-leg sleeve but took part in most of the drills. Â NESN's Doug Kyed posted a video of him in one of them.
From the sound of things Easley was moving well and appears to at least off to a good start in his recovery. Â Obviously it's a little too early to read too much into the fact he's taking part in drills during the month of June, but it's at least a sign that he'll potentially be on the field next month when training camp starts.
DENNARD RECOVERING FROM SHOULDER SURGERY:
According to the Boston Globe's Ben Volin, Dennard's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, stemming from an injury he suffered against the Browns back on December 8th.
That was a rough afternoon overall, as that was also the game in which Rob Gronkowski suffered his season-ending knee injury.
Dennard also suffered a knee injury last season that reportedly forced him to undergo arthroscopic meniscus surgery during the team's bye week. Â He didn't play at all during the team's loss in Carolina after being inactive, but did play in a limited role in the their win the following week against Denver after playing 21 of the team's 90 defensive snaps (23%). Â He played 25 of 73 (34%) the following week against Cleveland, but played in 57 of 64 (89%) one week later in Miami.
However, it was clear he wasn't himself, as he only took part in 6-of-76 snaps in Baltimore after that before ending up inactive during the final regular season game against Buffalo.
The veteran defensive back also had to serve 35-days in prison in Nebraska stemming from his conviction on charges of assaulting a police officer in 2012 after being arrested last summer on suspicion of drunken driving, which violated his probation.
CLEVELAND'S MIKE PETTINEÂ CAUSES A STIR:
Greg Bedard of MMQB has a good article on Browns head coach Mike Pettine, which was written to highlight the building of a competitive team as theÂ head coach in Cleveland.Â Â During the interview with Bedard, the former Jets defensive coach made some comments that he's likely now kicking himself for.
During a segment where he discussed the simplification of the playbook, Pettine insinuated that the Patriots may have been doing some questionable tactics as he talked about how he and the coaching staff simplified the playbook while trying to install the new system.
â€œThey were able to refine it even more and make it more player-friendly from the beginning,â€ Pettine told Bedard. â€œI think anytime you can install anew, if you can step back instead of just blowing the dust off, here it is, to look at it again and see if it still continues to make senseâ€"they did a good job.â€
Pettine also told Bedard a story of how, at Wes Welkerâ€™s wedding, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady bragged a little bit to Jets outside linebackers coach Mike SmithÂ (Welkerâ€™s college roommate) that the Patriots may or may not have had possession of a couple Jets defensive playbooks.
The initial playbook itself is actually quite thin, and thatâ€™s by design. â€œI donâ€™t put a lot of graduate-level information in it,â€ Pettine says. â€œWe know in places like New England, itâ€™s only a matter of time that they somehow mysteriously end up with our playbook.â€
That set up a firestorm of reaction, specifically from Rex Ryan, who fired off some shots at his former coach.
"One thing I know for a fact, No. 1, I think it's disrespectful to New England to say, 'Oh, they did this,'" Ryan told reporters when asked about them. "I can tell you every single game we've ever had with New England has been decided on the field. Nobody's had a competitive advantage. Nobody's had anything else. And that's a fact."
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick didn't sound happyÂ when asked after practice Thursday if the Patriots have ever possessed a Jets playbook.
"Go talk to Mike Pettine,'' Belichick told reporters. "I don't know."
Former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis was asked on Thursday if he knows anything about Pettine's accusations, and he downplayed it, saying it was still up to his team to go out and beat them.
"I donâ€™t know anything about that. I donâ€™t know," said Revis via the Boston Herald. Â "I donâ€™t even know how to answer that. If they did, they did. If they didnâ€™t, they didnâ€™t. At that point, it really donâ€™t matter. You still got to go out and game-plan and compete and try to win the game.â€
As a result, an article that should have been a highlightÂ about the rejuvenation of the Browns has created a mess for a team whichÂ already has a myriad of issues as they try and start becoming a contender in that Division. Â This likely didn't make things any better.
AGENT FOR PATRIOTS QB TOM BRADY SPEAKS OUT ON THE DEATH OF TONY GWYNN:
Tom Brady's agent, Don Yee, published an article in the Washington Post discussing the loss of San Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, writing that the loss of Gwynn came simply because he couldn't resist the urge to continue chewing tobacco.
"If ballplayers know smokeless tobacco is addictive and dangerous, why do they keep using it? But the unsatisfying answer continues to be: Because itâ€™s baseball, and the peer pressure is impossible to resist."
Yee talks about the environment in baseball from experience, having been a batboy for a Triple A minor league team in his hometown of Sacramento when he was just 13 years old. Â Using "snuff" between hisÂ lower lip and gum, or having a wad of tobacco leaves stuffed into hisÂ cheek, even at that age, was his badge of honor and made him feel more a part of the team. Â However, Bob Lemon, who was the manager at the time, pulled him into his office after noticing Yee chewing and that meeting caused him to quit. Â Yee writes that he thanks Lemon to this day for that talk.
"I thank Lemon to this day. Itâ€™s a gross habit; itâ€™s addictive; and it makes you high. Most of all, it could have killed me. But ballplayers continue to do it for the same reasons I didâ€" it helps you assimilate into baseball culture. Itâ€™s part of fitting in. You want to be one of the guys. If everyone is spitting at a target in the bullpen, you donâ€™t want to be left out."
In the end Yee points out the oral fixation ballplayers have isn't reason enough to expose them to what Gwynn went through. Â Unfortunately the Hall of Famer paid the price for the habit, and YeeÂ believes it's a problem that baseball needs to address.
WILFORK READY TO PROVE THE DOUBTER'S WRONG:
From the moment he went down last season and the injury was revealed to be a ruptured Achilles, there were some who wondered if he'd ever come back from it and even went so far as to say the Patriots should move on from him.
After an offseason that was contentious due to the fact the team asked him to take a pay cut, cooler heads ultimately prevailed and the veteran accepted a cap-friendly extension that now has him poised with an opportunity to prove Â everyone wrong.
Wilfork, who came back late in the year on the sideline and supported the team off the field, told the media on Thursday that he never had any doubt that he'd work his way back.
"I'm not surprised," Wilfork said Thursday. "I know there are a bunch of stats and everything going against a person my size with the injury. Right now, I can't ask for it to be any better."
"It was never in my mind that I thought I could never come back from this. From the time they told me I did, from the time I had the surgery, I knew that I was going to be back ready to rock and roll. I knew it was going to be tough. I know how tough the injury is, but I tell myself over and over again, I'm not the average person. I just do things a little differently than most people that had this injury, or the size of people that had this injury.
As far as the contract dispute was concerned, Wilfork calls it a "dead issue" and said he's not holding any type of grudge toward the team.
"I'm here for a reason," said Wilfork. "If I didn't believe the things that were brought to me, I wouldn't have signed it. I'm not upset. I'm not holding any type of grudge. Business is business and everybody handles business in different types of ways."
ADDITIONAL NOTABLE QUOTES:
â€œThe skyâ€™s the limit. Â But at the same time, weâ€™ve got to continue to keep working. I felt that we improved every day, but at the same time we are taking time off, and when we get back to training camp, weâ€™ve got to be ready to go.â€
- Patriots Cornerback Darrelle RevisÂ - via Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal
â€œThere are so many things that you can do to bring a team together and I think Bill does a great job of that â€" finding whatever it may be that he can do to bring this team together."
-Â Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork -Â via the SportsXchangeÂ after Bill Belichick brought out soccer balls at the end of practice to lighten the mood Thursday.
â€œAs long as I have the drive and ambition and still want to go out and compete each day and win, as long as I want to win, Iâ€™m going to be out there playing.â€
- Defensive End Will Smith - via Steve Balestrieri of PatsFans.com
â€œI mean at the end of the day it is a competition. Â Browner is a lengthy guy with really long arms and it helps (wide receivers) us out. We just have to come out with the ball.â€
- Wide Receiver Kenbrell Thompkins - via Steve Balestrieri of PatsFans.com