Transition Game  

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Credit Patriots for targeting Gronkowski in draft; more notes

Charles Krupa/AP
With his next touchdown, Rob Gronkowski will break the record for most TD receptions by a tight end in a season.

Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer will share his thoughts on topics around the league as teams transition from the previous Sunday's game to the next encounter on the schedule. Today, he begins with a look at a Patriots' draft gamble that paid off.

The Patriots have come under some criticism for a draft philosophy that often guides them to trade down, accumulate picks, and build margin for error in what's a very inexact science. They traded out of the spot where Clay Matthews went in 2009. They dealt out of Dez Bryant's slot in 2010.

And so it's worth noting, and crediting the club, for the time it went the other way and traded up, to be assured of getting a single player it coveted. That player, Rob Gronkowski, just tied the NFL single-season record for touchdown catches by a tight end (13) and looks like a 22-year-old Jason Witten who will be a matchup nightmare for defense for the next decade. An examination shows how being all-in on a player can pay off:

» The background: The Patriots had the 44th pick in the 2010 draft, having already taken Devin McCourty at the bottom of the first round, and were targeting Gronkowski. Afraid Baltimore might take him with the 43rd pick, the Patriots called the Raiders, and gave them a sixth-round pick to move up two spots, leapfrog the Ravens, and grab Gronkowski.

» The twist: The Ravens weren't going to take Gronkowski. The Patriots were right that the Ravens were looking for tight ends (they took Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta later in the draft), but because of his back injury, Baltimore had taken Gronkowski off its board, like many other teams did.

» The lesson: The Patriots did the right thing by being aggressive to get Gronkowski, without question. That sixth-round pick sent to Oakland wound up being Arizona State linebacker Travis Goethel, a spot special teamer as a rookie in 2010 who's spent this season on injured reserve.

Worth it? Yeah, you could say that.

Sometimes, we get wrapped up in coaches or general managers accumulating picks and moving all over the board. The Redskins, for example, should reap the benefits of this year's draft class, because they needed numbers on their roster and were able to deal their way into a raft of selections.

But there's also something to be said for looking at five or six players at a position, and saying, "Those five or six guys aren't the same," finding the one who's different, and moving aggressively to getting that player. It's that philosophy that landed Darrelle Revis with the Jets in 2007, when they discussed settling for a perfectly good player in Leon Hall. It also applies to Gronkowski, who might already be the NFL's best at his position.

Jets not 'there' yet

The Jets went through a horrific five-day stretch recently, losing to the Patriots and Broncos in Weeks 10 and 11. They bounced back nicely with two straight wins to climb back into the AFC wild-card race. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

New York trailed the past two weeks in the fourth quarter to fading also-rans Buffalo and Washington, so it's not as if they can stand here at the three-quarters pole and tell you that all that went wrong against the Patriots and Broncos has been fixed.

But what you saw this Sunday against the Redskins, and the previous Sunday against the Bills, is a start.

In each instance, quarterback Mark Sanchez cleaned up a messy performance by coming through when it mattered most with the kind of clutch play that's helped the Jets win four road playoff games under his watch. And against the Redskins, New York got the kind of dam-breaking runs at the end that would lead you to believe it has regained its physical edge.

So are the Jets getting there?

"I don't think we were ever 'there' until we got there," said captain Brandon Moore, walking to the bus in the bowels of FexEx Field. "But we've won a lot of games like we won (Sunday). We'd like to score more points in the first half, and not make it as tight. But we pride ourselves on being a team that finishes games, that plays together as a team -- special teams, defense and offense. And that's what we did."

That last comment, about togetherness, is significant because of its source.

Remember, it was Moore who called out Santonio Holmes, another captain, earlier in the season after the receiver publicly provided a harsh assessment of the line's performance. Holmes came up with the big touchdown Sunday, scoring the go-ahead points for the second straight week for a previously stagnant Jets offense.

"We understand the goal is bigger than the little spats we have amongst each other," said Moore. "We're only here to do one thing, and that's to win games so we can play for championships. Once that was understood, for everybody involved, it was easy to move on. They're your teammates. Santonio scored that touchdown, and I'm the happiest guy in the world. And he's the biggest team player you could have."

Moore also credited coach Rex Ryan, who's more often known for his sunny feelings about his roster, for recognizing a potentially serious problem and addressing it quickly. "We don't sweep anything under the rug," Moore said. "He met it head on, and we moved on. Really haven't thought about it since."

The first thing the Jets have to worry about now is merely making the playoffs. They're lodged in a four-way tie for the last spot with Oakland, Tennessee and Cincinnati. If they do get there, they hardly will be the favorite. But it's not like that's anything new, despite Ryan's chest-pounding.

The Jets were 6-6 at this juncture in 2009, and though they were 9-3 at this point last year, they were coming off a 45-3 beatdown in Foxboro. So yes, they've taken hits in 2011 and been left for dead by some. And based on the past, maybe that's what's best. In any case, Sunday felt familiar for Moore, and familiarity at this time of year gives the Jets all they really want -- a shot.

"It was kinda like how we've been winning ballgames around here," Moore said. "We've been in those spots this year and haven't been able to close it out. So it was good to see that form of how we've won games come through."

Rodgers leaves coaches in awe

The Packers' charter landed in Green Bay late Sunday to the news that the Packers were NFC North champions for just the second time in the Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy era, and the first time in four seasons. The news, of course, was met with a collective yawn by a team with much bigger fish to fry.

But don't think for a minute that folks inside the organization aren't taking at least a little time to process and appreciate just what they're accomplishing.

For Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, part of that is realizing what he's witnessing with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. No. 12 is, of course, on pace to break league records for passer rating, completion percentage, and passing yards, and the touchdown pass record is within his grasp, as well. But it's the individual moments where Philbin really shakes his head.

"On Mondays, you have a little bit of time, especially after you watch the film, to say, 'That's pretty special, some of those throws,'" Philbin said on Monday. "And they really were. They're fun to watch."

There were two that stuck out to Philbin from Sunday's win over the Giants, both in the fourth quarter.

The first came with 4:22 left. Rodgers plastered a back-shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson 21 yards downfield, with Nelson playing ballerina to get his feet in. It set up a 7-yard touchdown throw to Donald Driver two plays later. The second came in the final minute, with Rodgers dropping the ball in over Nelson's outside shoulder, again in tight coverage, for 27 yards to get Green Bay in field-goal range to win the game.

"They're jaw-droppers," Philbin said. "You sit there and watch Monday morning, and think, 'Man, that's pretty good stuff.'"

In the end, after the Packers had piled up 38 points, and Rodgers had 369 yards and four touchdown passes, against a single interception, the quarterback actually had his worst statistical day of the season, with a 106.2 passer rating. Philbin joked, "I rubbed it in to (quarterbacks coach Tom Clements). I'm blaming Tom for his poor performance."

Rest assured, everyone in Green Bay is aware of what they're witnessing. Philbin says, "Tom and I were talking about it after the game, when we threw the interception, we've gotten to stage where if he throws an interception, it's like, 'My God, what's going on here!?'"

What's going on is a quarterback, and his offense, playing the game about as well as it's been played.

Dilemma for Barkley

Andrew Luck is widely considered to be the best quarterback in college football, but there's debate about No. 2. Lately, it looks like USC's Matt Barkley might be in the lead.

The caveat is the fact that Barkley might not declare for the draft. A 21-year-old true junior, there's some belief out there among NFL people that Barkley's looking for a reason to stay at USC, with the Trojans returning a loaded roster in 2012, the current postseason ban set to be lifted, and a possible preseason No. 1 ranking in the offing. To take that another step, left tackle Matt Kalil, the top linemen in college football according to colleague Bucky Brooks, is said to be weighing his decision with Barkley's in mind, and vice versa.

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Some execs now think that Barkley, from a mental standpoint, is in Luck's class, which is to say he possesses rare smarts and instincts. The trouble is Barkley's not as big as Luck, not as fast as Luck, and his ball flutters and doesn't get there as fast as Luck's. Some folks think he's Jimmy Clausen, with a more developed football mind. Others think they're looking at a Drew Brees-type prospect.

"He stepped in at Mater Dei (High School) as a freshman and started, and guys don't do that. And he started for Pete Carroll as a freshman at USC, which hadn't happened," said one NFC exec. "He has the understanding of how to play football, but he doesn't have the same physical skills that Luck does. ... He's smarter than some offensive coordinators, but physically, how tall is he? How will he handle bad weather? How big is his hand?"

The other question concerns, of course, the talent around him. Sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marqise Lee are both blue-chip prospects at receiver, and Kalil leads a dominating line. Luck, of course, was forced to make all kinds of difficult throws into tight spots the last few years, while Barkley has been throwing to overwhelmingly talented skill players this fall.

NFC East full of holes

The NFC East is stocked with iconic, big-market teams, with proud traditions and high standards. And right now, it's also the worst division in its conference.

I got a tweet about that this week, looked it up and it's true. The cumulative record of the East (21-27) is actually worse than that of the sadsack West (22-28). Last season was the first time in five years that the East didn't get a wild card, and that's a good bet to happen again, with the two playoff contenders in the division, the Cowboys and Giants, carrying mediocre records and having to play each other twice in the next four weeks.

So are things that bad? Here are the issues for each team ...

» Cowboys (7-5): They still need to improve along the offensive line, but talent is there. The culture change Jason Garrett has instituted needs to keep moving forward. Two weeks ago against Washington, the Cowboys proved they could win on a day when they didn't have their "A" game. It was fine that it happened again on a short week against Miami. But having a third straight uneven performance is enough for concern, considering this club had massive consistency issues in the past.

» Giants (6-6): Injuries haven't helped. But getting Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks healthy provided a glimpse into how good the Giants can be last Sunday. The lingering issues are that over the past three years, the Giants have gone 4-8 in the last quarter of the season. They enter that stretch drive with a tough slate ahead -- two against the Cowboys, a Christmas Eve showdown with the Jets and a tougher-than-it-looks game against Washington.

» Eagles (4-8): Yes, the Eagles have talent. But they also have big-time holes that they came into this season with, and will need to address. The offensive line should get better with young players ascending, but could still use help, and there's been a revolving door at linebacker for most of the year. And then, there's the issue with the defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo. If Andy hangs on to his job, he will have to make changes in those areas, and his future could depend on how those work out.

» Redskins (4-8): Mike Shanahan and Co. deserve credit for taking the slow, measured approach to building last offseason, and the 2011 draft class could give the team the foundation it's needed for a long, long time. Finding the right quarterback is next, and the 2012 draft looks stocked at the position. Taking that into account, things have actually gone great for Washington lately -- with the team playing very competitively, but not jeopardizing its draft position.

Five one-liners

1. The Dolphins' surge has worked to vindicate Tony Sparano as a coach and Jeff Ireland as a GM, but most in the organization believe owner Stephen Ross has long since made up his mind on their future, and that means a lot of lingering regret over losses to Denver and Cleveland.

2. Cam Newton's still on pace to destroy Peyton Manning's rookie passing yardage record, but here's a more interesting one -- if he scores five more times on the ground, he'll break Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old record for rushing touchdowns by a rookie.

3. Whomever the Chiefs' coach is next year (my vote would still be for Todd Haley) will have a rock-solid defensive foundation, with Eric Berry, Brandon Flowers, Derrick Johnson, Glenn Dorsey and Tamba Hali forming a mighty impressive core.

4. Elimination game this week between the Bills and Chargers, and old friends A.J. Smith and Buddy Nix.

5. And finally, Thursday night kicks off an interesting stretch for the Steelers, who play at home vs. Cleveland, then get 11 days to prepare for a marquee Monday nighter at 10-2 San Francisco.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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