Transition Game  

 

Brady's Patriots have been better, but maybe not tougher

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Each Tuesday, NFL Network reporter Albert Breer shares 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 reflective Tom Brady.

Tom Brady huddled at an empty stall a screen pass away from his normal spot, getting dressed there as teammate and locker-room neighbor Deion Branch entertained a large media scrum, blocking where the quarterback would usually get fixed up to take off from the stadium.

And the symbolism there wasn't lost.

A quarterback who'd taken it on the chin all afternoon for his teammates, and come out the other side with a furious second-half comeback, wasn't going to get in the way now. Brady isn't exactly the type to pull rank anyway -- despite a pretty public sideline blowup with offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien two weeks prior -- and he sure as you-know-what wasn't going to do that after what his team had just fought through.

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"You know, I've never been part of a game like that," Brady told me, as his 4-year-old son Jack rode on the shoulders of his father's friend nearby. "To lose Matt (Light) an hour-and-a-half before the game? And then lose Logan (Mankins) on the first series?"

Brady then paused. And he really didn't have to say anything else, but I offered, "Says a lot about the guys, huh?"

"Yeah," he responded. "It really does."

When that confrontation with O'Brien happened in Landover, Md., with the Patriots chafing to get by a Redskins team that had fewer than half the wins they did, it was theorized in New England that Brady was getting frustrated with the team becoming overly reliant on his ability to carry it. And there's very little question here that this isn't close to the most talented team he has played on. You could certainly argue last year's team was better, as were most of the 2003-07 Patriots clubs.

But one place where there's no gray area: The quarterback believes in the fight of this team.

Take the past three weeks as an example. Brady was 1-5 in his career against Mike Shanahan, whom he faced in Washington. He was 1-6 against Denver, who the Patriots had last week. And NFL media's crack research man, Matt Pomeroy, unearthed this gem Saturday: New England has lost just three December games since 2003, and all of them were to Miami, the team he faced Saturday.

The game against Washington wasn't exactly a Picasso. Had Santana Moss been a little more subtle with his fourth-quarter hand-fighting, that one would likely have been tied in the waning moments. The Denver game started out similarly ugly, before the Patriots kicked things into high gear.

Then, there was Saturday. No Matt Light. No Logan Mankins for all but one series. No Sebastian Vollmer. Yet, somehow, after getting its teeth punched down its throats for two quarters, New England adjusted.

Part of that is No. 12. Brady caught fire in the second half, particularly after the Patriots started spreading out the Dolphins, neutralizing their rush, and Vontae Davis went down. Indirectly, Brady also put pressure on the Miami offense, which fell apart in the third quarter and gathered itself too late in the fourth. And don't forget, either, how Brady smartly scrambled for five invaluable yards on the first play of the game's last possession, then found Wes Welker for another five to put it away.

All of that, in fact, remains the flaw that has bitten the Patriots the past two Januarys: If Brady is anything short of heroic, this team stands a better than good chance of being exposed. But the flip side of it is just what Brady was referencing in that quiet moment in front of someone else's locker, with the celebrity quarterback making way for another veteran to handle interviews as if he was some guy clinging to a spot on the practice squad.

That is to say, for what the Patriots are lacking in a championship formula, the quarterback really has faith in his team's toughness and resilience. And those just happen to be two qualities that have gone a long way in the past for title-winning teams Brady has been a part of.

Rams at No. 1 could be 'ridiculous'

What a fascinating finish we'll have Sunday to the end of the race for the No. 1 draft pick.

As it stands, the Colts and Rams are in the running for the first pick. St. Louis gets the Niners, who can lock up the second seed -- vital when you consider it would give them a bye, a home game, and allow them to sidestep having to face Drew Brees at the Superdome -- with a win. The Colts, winners of two straight, get the Jags, who have won once in six games since beating Indy on Nov. 13.

Colts lose or Rams win, and Indy's picking first, with all indications that Peyton Manning's successor will be chosen in the form of Andrew Luck, if the Stanford QB follows through on his intention to declare for the draft.

Things get considerably more interesting if the Rams wind up with the first pick, having franchise cornerstone Sam Bradford in their back pocket. The question then becomes whether they deal the pick or Bradford, and there's really no answer to that until we know whether or not Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo survive next week.

Whoever's running the show would have a tough decision to make, but one with enviable benefits either way. Deal Bradford, you get a more highly-thought-of quarterback at a far lesser price, plus the draft picks that would come in that trade. Keep Bradford, and you have a vet going into his third year with a team that could turn it around quickly, and a huge haul of picks.

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How high would the price rise for that first pick?

I had one executive tell me the freight would be a "Herschel Walker-type" haul, referencing what the Cowboys got for the running back in 1989, which was enough picks to lay the foundation for a dynasty. Another exec simply said, "It'd be ridiculous."

One thing's for sure -- there would be no lack of suitors. If St. Louis were to get the first pick and put it on the block, Miami, Cleveland and Washington would certainly be in the mix, as teams with top-10 picks, to use as ammo to front a package for the Rams.

Again, if the Colts win, all of this might just become elementary. But if the Rams somehow get their hands on that selection, you'll have a 24-year-old Bradford and possibly a 22-year-old Luck in play, a circumstance that simply doesn't come around much with such talented young quarterbacks.

Patience pays in Detroit

The Lions aren't exactly the NFL's gold standard franchise, even if their impressive three-year turnaround from 0-16 to the playoffs was just completed. But if there's one thing that should be studied in their methods, it's the patience of owner William Clay Ford and his crew.

It's something team president Tom Lewand pointed out to me back in October, and with the firing season upon us, it's worth circling back on now.

Without question, Ford was too patient with Matt Millen. He probably was with Wayne Fontes in the 1990s, too.

But it's hard to question that it's working now, the Lions having methodically built a roster through the draft without making knee-jerk, panic moves. That goes back to what the owner told Lewand, GM Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz as they went about implementing their plan to overhaul the club.

"He told us to put together a plan, stick with it, and be disciplined with it," Lewand told me back then. "A hallmark of Mr. Ford's approach is consistency, and it's subjected him to criticism. But it was truly important here in our ability to be successful."

Here's why: Just 11 players remain from the 2008 team. Six of them start, eight if you count kicker Jason Hanson and long snapper Don Muhlbach. Some, like Calvin Johnson, Jeff Backus, Dominic Raiola and Cliff Avril, play pivotal roles.

But outside of those guys, who proved to be adaptable, this was more than a culture change. It was like Schwartz, Mayhew and Lewand were gentrifying a run-down neighborhood -- gutting buildings, cleaning streets and trying to project a new atmosphere in a place struggling to shake an old reputation.

As any urban planner can tell you, those things take time. In football parlance, the lumps came in the form of losses, 24 of them, to be exact, in Schwartz's first 28 games on the Detroit sidelines. But as Ford directed them, the new regime stayed the course, used losses of the old regime and their own to get guys like Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh in the draft, and trusted it would eventually pay off.

One of the survivors, Avril, texted on Monday with three words that encapsulate the whole thing -- "Crazy, crazy ride."

The calculated growth felt through that 4-24 start for Schwartz has led to a 14-5 flourish since last Dec. 14. Safe to say that the idea, at least with this Lions group, certainly has paid dividends.

This game's meaningful for many

The AFC North's best rivalry is Steelers-Ravens. It's most historic rivalry is Steelers-Browns.

And the division's weirdest rivalry is Ravens-Bengals.

Since Marvin Lewis took over in Cincinnati, the Ravens are 86-57 and the Bengals are 69-73-1. Baltimore has made the playoffs five times, and Cincinnati has made it twice. Yet, when these two butt heads, it doesn't go as expected -- the Ravens' home win on Nov. 20 was just the seventh for Baltimore in 17 games against Lewis' Bengals.

Lewis' 18th game against the Ravens -- the team with which he made his coaching name, having been the coordinator of Baltimore's all-time great defense of 2000 -- will be meaningful enough to dictate playoff positioning through the conference.

If the Ravens win, they'll be locked in as the second seed in the AFC. If they lose, they risk dropping to five, and open the door for the Steelers to snatch the top seed from New England if the Patriots slip up against Buffalo, since Pittsburgh holds that head-to-head tiebreaker.

Meanwhile, if the Bengals win, they grab the sixth seed in the conference. If they lose, the door cracks open for the Titans, Jets and Raiders.

Giants-Cowboys is the headliner for this week. But Bengals-Ravens isn't far behind.

The backup plan

It'll be interesting to monitor how teams stock their depth charts at quarterback, in the wake of the 2011 bloodbath at the position. No fewer than nine clubs lost their starters for significant swaths of the season.

This isn't to say that, suddenly, you're going to see Montana/Young or Favre/Rodgers combinations all over the league at the position. It's unrealistic for any team to think it wouldn't have to recalibrate its expectations if QB1 is lost for the season.

What's not unrealistic? For a team to have a passable solution at the position beyond its starter, enough so that, if an offense has to go 4-6 weeks without its first option, it can tread water in the meantime.

The prime example, of course, is the Bears. They lose Jay Cutler, drop four straight with Caleb Hanie, and their season ends with long-shot street free agent Josh McCown trying to keep up with Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night in Green Bay.

Similarly, the Chiefs lost three crucial games, in part because Tyler Palko was starting, before the club finally got Kyle Orton acclimated and ready to take the reins. And then there's the Eagles, who looked inept in losses to the Patriots and Seahawks under Vince Young, and the Rams, who've had problems managing Bradford's health all year long.

Three of the four teams I mentioned there were in the playoffs a year ago. All sit under .500 now, and eliminated from the playoff picture. Two of those teams (Chicago, Philadelphia) could've had their starters back and healthy for playoff runs, had they treaded water more adeptly when those guys went down.

We'll see if there's a lesson clubs learn on that one.

Five one-liners

1) Here's why Aaron Rodgers is unequivocally my MVP: His astounding 45-6 TD-INT ratio, which paints a good picture of just how few and far between the hiccups were in his 2011 season.

2) For some of the reasons I shared above on their quarterback situation and positioning in the draft, there's a ton of interest in St. Louis right now from prospective GM and head coach types.

3) Speaking of the Rams, the clock is now ticking and, with the Vikings presumably off the board (per SI's Peter King), the possibility of a return to Los Angeles will grow closer as we get to 2015, when the team has an out in its lease if the stadium situation in Missouri isn't improved.

4) Just imagine if the Panthers are able to build a championship-caliber defense to complement Cam Newton and his growing group on the other side of the ball.

5) Said it before and I'll say it again in the wake of Adrian Peterson's devastating injury -- I'll almost never have a problem with a tailback holding out for a big payday.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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