FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. If the Patriots-New York Jets game at MetLife Stadium in Week 12 is going to be flexed out of prime time, the announcement would come in the next 2-3 days. A Jets home loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday could have some influence, but it still seems like a long shot that the Patriots would get bumped out of prime time. A few other games that week caught my eye as possibilities, but here’s why I think it’s unlikely they’d trump Patriots-Jets:
- Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos. NBC has the same game on Christmas night.
- Carolina Panthers at Oakland Raiders. The Raiders, led by MVP candidate David Carr, have a Monday night game in Week 11 and the slow-starting Panthers (3-5) play Sunday night in Week 13.
- Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens. Often a competitive AFC North matchup, it’s on a similar level as Jets-Patriots but there are more compelling story lines in Jets-Patriots.
- Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are a feel-good story with MVP candidate Matt Ryan, and the Cardinals have been a disappointment at 3-4-1, which is the same win total as the Jets.
2. When the Patriots acquired tight end Martellus Bennett from the Chicago Bears in a March trade, the sides explored a scenario that would have added a year on to Bennett’s existing contract. But they never came to an agreement, so Bennett remains part of the team’s significant upcoming unrestricted free-agent class after the season (e.g. Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, etc.). That history is something to file away for the future on a situation that, to this point, has been a win-win for both Bennett and the Patriots.
3. With the Seattle Seahawks visiting the Patriots on Sunday night, it marks Pete Carroll’s first game in Foxborough since he was fired as Patriots coach following the 1999 season. That chapter in Carroll’s career, and how he never truly felt he had control of the overall program, was well covered in the build up to the Patriots-Seahawks matchup in Super Bowl XLIX, with Carroll reiterating this week he has no hard feelings toward owner Robert Kraft. As for any emotions he might have in returning for the first time in 16 years, Carroll said, “That was a long time ago. There’s been a lot of games. It’ll be fun to see the place and area and all that, but as far as being emotionally connected to it, that’s not going to be part of the experience.”
4. The Patriots won’t rush things with running back Dion Lewis’ return from a torn ACL after activating him to their 53-man roster Saturday. The most likely scenario is that he plays a few series upon his return and gradually builds his workload. Thus, don’t expect the type of game from Week 2 last season against the Buffalo Bills when Lewis played 73 of 86 offensive snaps in a pass-first game plan. That type of off-the-charts snap count probably has longer odds of happening even when Lewis finds his groove, as the Patriots have to consider how that type of workload could affect his health in the big picture. The 5-foot-8, 185-pound Lewis had played 66 percent of the offensive snaps through the first five games of last season before an abdominal injury altered course, and my sense is that the team will target a lower percentage this year in more of a time share with James White.
5. If the Patriots beat the Seahawks, they will improve to 8-1 and it will mark the first time in defensive end Chris Long’s NFL career that he has been part of a team that won eight games in a season. This is precisely why he signed a one-year contract with the Patriots this offseason — he wanted to experience what it was like to be part of a winning team. Along those lines, a Patriots win will also ensure a .500 or better record for the 16th consecutive year, which is unmatched by any other franchise over that span.
6a. Did You Know: The Patriots, who are coming off their bye, are 12-4 in games played after the bye under Bill Belichick. The last loss came in 2013, a 24-20 decision at Carolina. This season across the NFL, teams coming off the bye are 11-5, as there has been only one game (Baltimore-Pittsburgh in Week 9) that featured two teams coming off a bye.
6b. Did You Know, Part II: The Broncos have failed to gain a first down on 42 percent of drives this season, the highest rate in the NFL.
7. Durability and availability have been calling cards for Patriots receiver Chris Hogan, who hasn’t missed a game since breaking through on the Bills’ 53-man roster in 2013. But that streak could be threatened Sunday against Seattle if the back injury that kept him out of practice Friday lingers (he is officially questionable). Hogan has been a workhorse this year, playing 79 percent of the offensive snaps, which is far and away more than he has ever played.
2013: 16 percent (47 percent on special teams)
2014: 43.4 percent (49 percent on special teams)
2015: 56.9 percent (39 percent on special teams)
8. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was on the campaign trail this week for one of his go-to targets, tight end Jimmy Graham, by touting him this week as the NFL’s comeback player of the year in advance of Sunday night’s game against the Patriots. Graham’s comeback from a ruptured patellar tendon is impressive and warrants consideration, but San Diego Chargers running back Melvin Gordon would be the leading candidate on my ballot based on his off-the-charts production after undergoing microfracture knee surgery in January. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Tennessee Titans running back DeMarco Murray are among the others in the conversation.
9. Flashback: The only time Graham faced the Patriots in his career was a 2013 game when he was with the New Orleans Saints. The Patriots mostly had cornerback Aqib Talib cover him that day, and Graham finished without a catch on six targets. “It was a great battle, a great matchup,” Belichick said after the game, a 30-27 Patriots win. “I thought Talib battled him.” How the Patriots match Graham this time (safety Patrick Chung is a top candidate) will be closely watched.
10. With starting Patriots safeties Devin McCourty (98 percent) and Chung (95 percent) being available health-wise, No. 3 safety Duron Harmon has still played 54 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, which reflects how often the team has utilized its “Big Nickel” package, and how Harmon is almost like the 12th man on the defense. He’s also in the final year of his contract but has flown a bit under the radar when compared to higher-profile defenders in the same situation such as Hightower and Malcolm Butler. When I asked him about his future, he said, “The main thing for me is just embracing the moment, because I really care about this team. I don’t want to look far down, because then your mind can wander. I want to be all-in and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I was focusing on the future. It’s human nature for it to creep into your mind, but I just try to knock it out as soon as I can.”