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New England Patriots' defensive improvement central to success

As we do every week, let's take a swing around the NFL and look at a bunch of stories that have caught my attention...

So, what's been up?

The Patriots' defensive transformation

On Sunday night, the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers will take the field in an epic showdown that features the game's best defense against the game's most electric and versatile offense. That, we knew.

Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and company will have the unenviable task of disrupting quarterback Tom Brady's offense, which functions like a Swiss Army knife. For the Patriots, hoping to hone in on a No. 1 seed after dismantling the Houston Texans last week, that's always the way it is. They are an offensive team, which is fine. But in surprisingly undercover fashion, they also have a stout defense now. No, not like the 49ers. But led by Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and a slew of young'ns like Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones, they are 12th in the NFL in scoring, but a whopping seventh in total defense. That's a real number.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay will re-air the San Francisco 49ers' 41-34 win over the New England  Patriots in Week 15 on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

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I mention this because when I was covering them last year, they were a jigsaw puzzle defensively right up until the playoffs. Guys like Julian Edelman were playing in the secondary, and he joined guys off their couch like Nate Jones. This year? Not so much. It's all changed, which should make them much tougher to face in the playoffs. When I was talking with Mayo this week following his appearance for a Subway charity event that included random acts of kindness, he explained the defensive changes. He also noted that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will present a tough challenge for the Patriots.

"This is a physical team we're playing against, and I feel like we're a physical team as well," Mayo told me. "But at the same time, they have a lot of weapons on both sides of the ball and the quarterback is doing a lot of different things that you don't normally see each and every week. He's running the ball, passing the ball, running the option, things like that. We have to prepare for a lot of different looks. I think the biggest thing (on defense, why it feels different) is just having the continuity of the group of guys out there ... If you ask any great defensive team or any great offensive team, it's always about having guys healthy and having the same group of guys going out there each and every week, getting used to their playing style, knowing where they're going to be and how they're going to play. That's huge for us."

Trent Richardson focused on winning

It was pretty stunning, as our buddy Gregg Rosenthal mentioned, to see a headline in any newspaper stating that Cleveland Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson wouldn't be benched. How did we get here so fast? The No. 3 overall pick is averaging 3.5 yards per rush, and he has just three 100-yard games. Yet backup Montario Hardesty is having a more productive year.

People have begun to question Richardson, which is a topic that came up this past week when I spoke to the former Alabama star while he was doing publicity work for the Pepsi Max Rookie of the Week Award. Before the benching revelation came out, I asked Richardson about who the team is playing for -- coach Pat Shurmur, the staff, quarterback Brandon Weeden -- and he took it in an interesting direction.

"We're playing to win," Richardson told me. "We're playing because we want to win. Our coach, he's doing everything he can to back us up. And he's fighting for us every chance we get. And our quarterback, we believe in our quarterback. People try to stay stuff about our quarterback, that he's not doing enough and things like that, Brandon's doing all he can. It gets hard out there. People don't see with the same eyes that we got. We're out there in an actual game and we're out there playing. So, people don't know what's going on out there until you really take a snap. People question me and stuff. I just laugh and say that, I'm just trying to put Cleveland in the right place so they can score touchdowns."

OK then. Interestingly, I asked Richardson what he's learned most as a rookie, and he said, "For real, man, time management. One thing rookies don't know how to do is turn the switch off when they leave the complex. A lot of guys are just don't know how to get out of football mode. I got a family and my kids keep me down to earth, man, keep me grounded."

Jonathan Dwyer says Steelers inspired by past

It's safe to say it's been a breakout year for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jonathan Dwyer. The third-year back from Georgia Tech is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, he's in shape, and he has two 100-plus yard games. As far as a guy I just like to watch run, the 5-foot-11, 229(ish)-pounder is definitely one of them. What I thought was cool while talking to him on the phone this week was his sense of history.

I asked about his team's mentality to try to be more physical than the opponent and he said, "That explains our whole team." Asked why the franchise has traditionally run the ball like they've done, he detailed his views fitting in with that. "It's just, that's just Pittsburgh Steeler football, I guess," Dwyer said. "That just comes with it, the history of it, what guys before us have set. Guys like Willie Parker and Jerome (Bettis) and Franco Harris and other players who have set a standard here as the running back position. We try to do the best we can to live up to they hype and more."

Love to hear that. He's just trying to carry the mantle.

On another topic, Dwyer thrived in an option attack in college, and I asked if he's surprised the option is now working in the NFL. His take was a more pragmatic one: "With the athletic quarterbacks there are in the league now, with guys like Cam (Newton) and RG3 and others like (Michael) Vick that can do a lot of things with their legs and then with the guys who are athletic, you can't just not utilize their talents or what they're capable of doing."

Geno Atkins developing into a sack monster

Last week, I covered the Cincinnati Bengals-Dallas Cowboys game, and I spent a lot of time talking with people about stellar Cincy defensive tackle Geno Atkins. He's a beast. As you know, with the tragedy from Dallas the day before the game, it was no time to talk football on Sunday.

A week later seems like a more appropriate time to explain why the 6-foot-1, 300-pound interior tackle is a menacing, sack monster. He has 10.5 sacks despite never really being a sack guy until last year. As Atkins told me, he only had three as a senior at Georgia.

So, what happened? He leaned on veterans like Domata Peko and Tank Johnson for advice. And Atkins told me, "Each year, I think I've gotten a better understanding of the game how to rush and how to use my speed to my advantage against offensive linemen. That's what I try to do."

When I asked defensive line coach Jay Hayes about him, he took a slightly different view. See, numbers or not, they knew Atkins could rush the passer. It's his work in the run game that stands out to Hayes, which makes Atkins different from most DTs.

"He's a total player," Hayes told me. "He plays first through third down as well as anybody is playing right now. He can stop the run and go make impact plays. TFLs, caused fumbles in the run game and then in the pass game. He's short, but he's not small. He's a strong, thick, quick-handed, quick-twitch person that normally has his hands in front of his eyes and always has his pad level lower than other people. And he uses his strength and quickness to his advantage and that's like... the thing. This year, he's really good at the run and he's always been able to rush the passer."

No wonder the Bengals, at 8-6, are ninth in the NFL against the run.

Cowboys still coping with tragedy

The Cowboys will take the field this week against the Steelers with a heavy heart once again, just a week after a tragedy that changed the lives of two teammates. They'll remember the passing of Jerry Brown with helmet decals bearing his number "53," and the focus from the outside will shift away from the death that landed defensive tackle Josh Brent in jail.

Yet internally, little has changed. There is football, of course, but there is also healing. As Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones mentioned this week, the process is only beginning.

"You want closure, but there's not," Jones said. "It'll be there. It's taken a lot of energy, emotional energy to work through this. But I'm sure, knowing our team as they've done all year, they'll persevere and they'll keep battling."

Jones praised coach Jason Garrett's handling of the situation, and it is amazing how Garrett got the team to play, while also being a shoulder they could lean on.

"He certainly did well in the face of adversity in terms of how he reacted, responded and led men," Jones said.

It's impressive how far the Cowboys have gone in trying to come to terms with the tragedy in the past week. So, I just wanted to take a moment to say that. It's also commendable, I think, that the Cowboys haven't cast out Brent. They've allowed him into their facility and have helped him find doctors and people to talk to.

Just like the mother of Jerry Brown, the Cowboys have held Brent tight, not the other way around. Cornerback Brandon Carr responded when asked why.

"If you go through a situation like that, you're alone in this whole process, it's a miserable feeling," Carr said about Brent. "But we all express how much we still love him and forgive him for what happened and everybody makes mistakes. Hopefully, he can learn from it and there's another person out there. That's what we do, we stick together, when one of our brothers is down, it's up to us to let them know we got his back."

Which franchise player made out the best?

The NFL's owners had a meeting this week where, among other things, the salary cap was discussed. The expectation is that it will remain mostly the same as this year, likely under $121 million per team. And there were also preliminary franchise numbers discussed. That had me thinking ... I wondered who did the best salary-wise of all the franchise players in 2012 who received new contracts.

Statement Sunday

Christmas comes early for NFL fans. There are six Week 15 games with major postseason implications. Take a closer look at these pivotal matchups:

» Giants at Falcons
» Broncos at Ravens
» Packers at Bears
» Colts at Texans
» Steelers at Cowboys
» 49ers at Patriots

On Twitter: #StatementSunday

So, I did some asking around -- found a calculator -- and went to work.

My view, looking back, pound-for-pound? I think it's Oakland Raiders safety Tyvon Branch. The former fourth-rounder from UConn (represented by Exclusive Sports Group's Buddy Baker) was one of seven franchise guys who got new contracts. Why Branch? Well, he got a four-year, $26.6-million contract, which could turn into $28 million with incentives. He got more guaranteed money than Drew Brees on a percentage-basis (66 percent to 60 percent).

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte was third with 56 percent guaranteed. He'll be 29 when his four-year deal expires, so he can get paid again. Oh, and he has a portion of his 2014 salary guaranteed ($1.5 million), so cutting him in two years is unlikely. So, he'll earn $20.1 million over three years at safety.

By comparison, Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin will earn $22.2 million through 2014 if he stays in Tennessee, but he has no protection in the last three years of his five-year deal. Actually, both deals are good for their own reasons, with Griffin's having the bigger upside but Branch's being more secure. Branch has played well this year, especially against the Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. But he'll get paid either way. Anyway, for the contract nerds out there, that's my answer.

What's so bad about more playoff games?

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke after the December Special League Meeting in Dallas on Wednesday, all eyes were on his remarks about the bounties. For good reason. But he also dropped a little bombshell with the possibility that the playoffs could be expanded. Then we learned (via our friend Albert Breer) that talk of an expanded postseason isn't really that new, and that it could come as part of an altered regular season.

"We will look at probably 14 or 16 (teams)," Goodell said. "The committee will be looking at that."

Cue major freakout on Twitter and elsewhere. So much so, that I felt like I should freak out, too. But I find myself having no real feelings toward it. I mean, will it water down the playoffs? I don't know. How different is 14 teams in the playoffs from 12 teams? One is just as arbitrary a number as the other.

I don't think the playoffs are so sacred they can't be changed. Change always happens, everyone panics, then we get used it. Were purists upset at the original move to 12? Probably. Now, we're all fine with it. And every year, there are a few teams good enough to make the playoffs who find themselves on the outside looking in.

Every year, some teams who aren't that good get in. It's just the way it is. Also, I expect most coaches to be for it. Why? Because they look better. Instead of a middling 9-7 team, they'll have a playoff team. Looks better for job security. Here's the other thing: I like football. More football games equals more for me to watch. What's so bad about that?

Jaguars owner wants to develop a winning culture

It's been a brutal season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, which are among the teams fighting for the No. 1 pick. They've had to shelve their top pick from a year ago, quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew has barely played. And it's unclear if they are making any progress under coach Mike Mularkey.

Lombardi: Don't expand playoffs
Roger Goodell says the NFL is pondering postseason expansion. Michael Lombardi explains why this is a bad idea. More ...

There were some bright spots, including Chad Henne's ability to come in at quarterback and make the offense look explosive. But even that has waned. In fact, Henne's passer rating the last two games has been 57.8 and 41.3. Yikes.

When I spoke with Jags owner Shad Khan this week, I asked how he'll look at the end of the season with decisions to be made. Khan told me the top goal is to instill a winning culture, and he said the claiming of defensive end Jason Babin helps. He also said there is long-term and short-term focus. I asked, can you separate the evaluation of the quarterback with the evaluation of the coach?

"The result is the result," Khan told me. "That's very clear. What the components are, a lot of this has been like a scrambled egg, and it's very, very hard to unscramble it. I think just the total rationality, I have to look at it and see what we have to do moving forward." He said he'll sit down at the end of the year and make some calls. "You have to look at this with total transparency and clarity, like looking at yourself in the mirror where we are, what we can do to move forward," Khan continued. "I think what's been fabulous for the year, we've had great support from the fans. The London initiative was fabulous for us and I think for the league. Things are going. We have to do better on the field. We have to do better."

Trouble in the desert

The Arizona Cardinals are also in trouble. After that red-hot start, they have lost nine in a row. And they've had just as many quarterbacks, or that's what it feels like. Suddenly, it feels like coach Ken Whisenhunt is on the hot seat.

To me, it doesn't feel like he should be. Who could win with those terrible quarterbacks? And if he's the one choosing them, that really speaks to his personnel evaluation, not coaching. He should just coach. Now, losing by 58 looks pretty awful, and even the Seattle Seahawks felt bad about that one.

Anyway, even as frustration built, kudos to Cardinals president Michael Bidwill for resisting the urge to make a move just to do it. Whisenhunt is a classy guy. The organization has done things the right way. And, a coach may not be the only reason for losing. The team is going to decide after extensive discussion after the season… as are so many.

With a coach who you know can take the team to high places, this is a must.

"I think not making a rushed decision is the right way to go," Bidwill told a small group of reporters, in quotes passed along by the Cardinals. "Having a chance to evaluate away from the week in, week out preparation, what went right, what went wrong."

Asked if the end of the season will factor in, Bidwill said, "Yes. I think when you look at it, and that's part of the reason why you step away so you can look at a complete set of the facts, what went right and what went wrong."

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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