Tom Brady and the Patriots are back in the Super Bowl

In what is seemingly Groundhog’s Day for NFL fans, the New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl once again. Tom Brady somehow managed to throw for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns with an injured hand in a 24-20 victory on Sunday over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The defense wasn’t at its best, but it did what it had to and made the stops in the end.

Standing in the Patriots’ way of back-to-back world championships are the Philadelphia Eagles, who come into Super Bowl LII after a thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX back in 2005, which was won 24-21 by Brady and the Patriots. Don’t forget to reserve your spot for this Sunday FanPicks Super Bowl contest.

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5 Reasons Why the New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LII

1. Been there, done that

There is so much involved with the Super Bowl and it’s all old hat for New England. This squad has 10 appearances in the Big Game and while a lot of the players weren’t around for all of them, they know what it takes to win. The Eagles have just a few veterans who have been in this situation, but they are so young that it could be an issue. Halftime is longer and the pregame is run differently. Players in the NFL are creatures of habit and the Patriots have been through it all before.

2. Tom Brady

A stitched-up hand is not going to stop New England’s quarterback. Outside of a few poor throws, Brady looked stellar against the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense, completing 26 of 38 attempts for 290 yards in AFC Championship Game win over Jacksonville. Brady is 27-9 in the postseason, throwing for 68 touchdowns to just 31 interceptions in those games. For the most part, good quarterbacks win Super Bowls and while Nick Foles has been good in his last two starts, he’s no match for the quarterback that already has five Super Bowl rings. If Brady gets time in the pocket, then the Eagles are in trouble.

3. Last hurrahs and haters

It’s no secret that coordinators Josh McDaniels (Indianapolis) and Matt Patricia (Detroit) are leaving for head coaching gigs elsewhere once the season is over. Not that this team needs any more motivation, but I’m sure they’d love to send these guys out with another ring. McDaniels’ offense averages nearly 400 yards per game while Patricia’s defense has some soft spots, but also does what is needed in order to win. The squad also has had to deal with residue from the ESPN article on the dynamic between owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and Brady. America is sick of the Patriots and their winning and you know that also fuels them in what they do. Motivation of this sort is always good especially for a team that enjoys being the heel.

4. No deficit big enough

The Patriots were down 10 points in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game against the Jaguars, but there was no panic and eventually there was a victory. This one came without Rob Gronkowski, who was out due to a concussion and he’s a huge part of the offense. New England’s comeback win over Atlanta in the Super Bowl last year is the biggest in the game’s 51-year history, but not the only such rally this team has pulled off. Teams get mighty conservative against New England in hopes of trying to drain the clock, but it seems like you leave even the slightest crack or time on the clock, Brady and the boys will make you pay. It’s funny because you could almost say they enjoy coming from behind then being front-runners. Every decision you make has to be right in order to slay the Pats.

5. Bill Belichick

The head coach is the best in the sport and is great at taking away what you do well. He’s got two weeks to look over an Eagles squad with a backup quarterback and a secondary that is very vulnerable at times. Belichick (above, right) also has to have the edge over his counterpart, Doug Pederson, who, like his team, is doing this all for the first time. Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette averaged only 3.2 yards per carry on Sunday because Belichick’s preference was to have to Blake Bortles try and beat the Patriots with his arm. Even though Belichick’s personality is dry, his knowledge is endless. He’ll find your weaknesses and exploit them.

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The “underdog” Eagles are one more victory away from claiming the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy

One month ago, critics felt the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes snapped right with Carson Wentz’s ACL. But after an up-and-down finish with replacement Nick Foles, the quarterback caught fire during the playoffs.

Impressive performances against the Falcons and Vikings had the Eagles fighting back as an overlooked top seed. Labeled an underdog for two straight weeks, they proved doubters wrong and will need to do so a third time against the defending Super Bowl champs, the New England Patriots.

After seeing Sunday night’s performance, I wouldn’t bet against them. Here are five reasons why these Eagles can topple the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Don’t forget to reserve your spot for this Sunday FanPicks Super Bowl contest.

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5 Reasons Why the Philadelphia Eagles Will Win Super Bowl LII

1. Nick Foles just had the game of his life

Foles has played in three career playoff games. He’s now racked up QB ratings of 100-plus in all of them, throwing for five touchdowns and no interceptions. Guess who else has accomplished such a feat? Waiting… waiting… The answer is no one. Not Joe Montana. Not Troy Aikman. Not even the man named Tom Brady, who has five Super Bowl rings and four MVPs on his resume will be on the opposite sideline on Feb. 4.

Peaking when it matters, Sunday night was easily Foles’ best postseason performance. He had four completions of 35 yards or more, making the Eagles forget about Wentz in Sunday night’s rout of Minnesota. He threw for more than 300 yards for the first time in over three years, ending the night turnover free. Suddenly, a scheme that once looked too daunting for a backup has been reconstructed perfectly around his strengths.

Could Foles be running on borrowed time? Sure. But look at what the Patriots’ defense allowed to much-maligned Jaguars starter Blake Bortles Sunday — 293 passing yards, a touchdown, no turnovers and a QB rating hovering around 100.

Outside of that game, Bortles has a career QB rating of around 80.8. Foles? He’s at 87.4 and even made the Pro Bowl (2013). So don’t count out another monster game against a Patriots defense whose “bend but not break” scheme nearly broke them.

2. The Eagles’ defense causes turnovers

The pick-six of Case Keenum was the game-changer that ultimately tilted momentum in Philadelphia’s direction for good. The Eagles’ 31 takeaways during the regular season ranked fourth in the NFL, and their five defensive TDs trailed only Jacksonville for the league lead.

There’s talent up and down the Eagles’ 11-man front, from Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox to Sunday’s hero Patrick Robinson in the secondary. There’s experience, too, from former Patriots Super Bowl defensive end Chris Long and eight-year veteran Brandon Graham. Other than the first drive against the Vikings Sunday, no one flinched. Minneapolis miracle worker Keenum looked like a chump just seven days later.

Certainly, the high-powered Patriots offense could prove a tougher challenge. But the Eagles have the talent on this side of the ball to go punch for punch.

3. It’s a true team effort on offense: no one person can bring them down

With the exception of maybe Foles, whose backup Nate Sudfeld hardly inspires confidence, the Eagles are a combination of quality offensive pieces. They’re not built like the Patriots, who have struggled through short stretches without star tight end Rob Gronkowski.

This team had zero players with 1,000 rushing yards or receiving during the regular season. But their running game was feared through teamwork: LeGarrette Blount, midseason pickup Jay Ajayi, and young Corey Clement all shared the load. Any one of them is capable of a breakout performance in Super Bowl LII.

There also is a trio of 700-yard receivers, with Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor all making an impact. Sure, there may not be a legendary name in there, but there’s such a variety of strong targets it’s nearly impossible to stop them all.

It’s strength in numbers that means someone will likely be positioned to have their moment to shine.

4. Rob Gronkowski might not even play

The Patriots’ star tight end and easily the second-best player on the team got knocked out of the AFC Championship Game with a concussion. There’s no telling how the protocol will go over the next two weeks but you have to think Gronk will do anything to get cleared.

However, the injury history of one of the NFL’s most fragile stars is well-documented. Would anyone be surprised if Gronk suffered the poor luck of post-concussion syndrome? Or if the injury hampered his ability to be 100 percent? While the Pats made a gutsy comeback, surging back in the second half against the Jags they’ve also wilted in late-season losses without him.

5. The Eagles have nothing to lose — and they’re playing like it

“We’ve been kicked to the curb since Carson got hurt,” head coach Doug Pederson said in comments that were aired on FOX during the NFC Championship Game. Pederson has played up the underdog role with his team and they’ve bought it hook, line, and sinker.

No one expected this team to be here after Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury. Even better yet, they’re positioned to be in the big game for years to come with their franchise quarterback on the mend. Reaching the Super Bowl this year with a young, growing team feels like an extra credit bonus.

That means the Eagles will be playing Super Bowl Sunday as a hungry team with little to lose. It sounds a lot like the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game and we know how close they came.

At some point, David will hit Goliath with a slingshot that knocks Brady and Belichick off the top of the mountain. Why can’t that moment come with these Eagles?

Posted in NFL

There is no one the New England Patriots would rather have with the ball in his hands when a game is on the line than Tom Brady, even when his hands are battered and bruised.

Although questionable for the Sunday game against the Jacksonville Jaguars due to a right hand injury, the ageless 40-year-old quarterback proved his mettle again while orchestrating yet another game-winning drive to send New England back to the Super Bowl.

Brady’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola with 2:48 remaining put the Patriots ahead for good in a 24-20 victory against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium.

New England will meet the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.

All week long, Brady ducked questions from the media about his hand, which required stitches after he was hurt on the practice field Wednesday when he accidentally struck teammate Rex Burkhead’s helmet.

“Well, I said, ‘We’ll see (if I play),'” Brady said while accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy, awarded to the AFC champion, at midfield after the game. “So how’d it go?”

Following the Patriots’ go-ahead score, Jacksonville faced a fourth-and-15 after driving to the New England 43-yard-line. However, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles’ deep toss down the sideline to Dede Westbrook was broken up by Stephon Gilmore.

“We had a two-minute drive at the end of the game to win the AFC championship, so there’s not a whole lot more you can ask for than that,” a reflective Bortles said.

Amendola finished with seven catches for 84 yards and two scores for the Patriots, who extended their own NFL record with an unprecedented 10th trip to the Super Bowl.

“You cherish these moments and opportunities, and I know we’ve had quite a few of them, which we’ve been very blessed to do,” said Brady, who completed 26 of 38 passes for 290 yards and two TDs. “It’s just been an unbelievable run, and I think everyone should be really proud of what we accomplished.”

Last year, New England erased a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime and claim their fifth championship.

“This is what I dreamt about as a fan in the stands just like all of you, and now we have to go to Minnesota and finish the job,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who purchased the Patriots 24 years ago to the day Sunday, told the crowd during the trophy ceremony.

“It’s just been a great year,” Brady added. “It’d be really great if we take care of business in a couple weeks, so we’ll see.”

Bortles threw for 293 yards (23 of 36) and a touchdown, and Leonard Fournette rushed for 76 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries to lead the Jaguars.

Jacksonville was playing in its third-ever AFC title game and its first since 1999.

“(Our locker) room fully expected to win this game, and I think everybody is shocked, disappointed and upset,” Bortles said.

Josh Lambo’s 54-yard field goal with 10:23 left in the third quarter and another from 43 yards seconds into the fourth bumped Jacksonville’s lead to 20-10.

Brady led New England down the field quickly and hit Amendola for a 9-yard touchdown with 8:44 to go to bring the Pats within three.

Bortles marched the Jaguars down the field 76 yards and found a wide-open Marcedes Lewis for a 4-yard touchdown pass at 14:15 of the second quarter, making it 7-3.

With 7:06 to play in the quarter, Fournette’s 4-yard rushing score capped a 77-yard drive to extend Jacksonville’s lead to 14-3.

“We were able to get the lead. Then we did not make enough plays to keep the lead. We had an opportunity at the end of the game to win it, and we did not do that,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said.

Rob Gronkowski’s 21-yard catch on the second play of ensuing drive moved him past Dallas Clark into first place on the NFL’s all-time postseason receiving yardage list for a tight end.

Minutes later, Gronkowski left the game with a head injury after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church at the Jacksonville 40-yard line with 1:23 remaining before halftime.

Although Gronkowski was deemed questionable to return, he never did.

“It’s hard when you lose such a critical part of your team and offense, and hopefully he’s OK,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “It was a tough shot he took, and he’s as tough as they come.”

Church was flagged for unnecessary roughness, helping to set up a 1-yard TD run by James White three plays later to bring the Patriots within four at the break.

New England led 3-0 after one quarter.

Posted in NFL

Carolina Panthers vs New England Patriots Preview

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick built his reputation as a defensive guru so his team’s inability to slow the opposition has been among the more stunning developments in the first month of the season. Despite ranking last in the NFL in defense, the reigning Super Bowl champions go for their third straight win over the visiting Carolina Panthers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on CBS). Enter this Game of the Week contest right here.

The Patriots are giving up 31.7 points and a staggering 461.0 yards per game and only the sensational play of quarterback Tom Brady has allowed them to overcome the glaring defensive deficiencies. On the other side, the Panthers are 2-1 but are having issues that belie their record — they have scored one touchdown in two weeks and are coming off a 34-13 beating at home to a New Orleans team that was shredded for 36 points and 555 yards by the Patriots one week earlier.

ABOUT THE PANTHERS (2-1)

Carolina’s defense allowed three points in each of its first two wins — against San Francisco and Buffalo — but had no answers for Drew Brees and the Saints. Former NFL MVP Cam Newton, who underwent surgery on his rotator cuff in the offseason, has twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns but received positive news when top wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who hurt his knee in last week’s setback, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, the No. 8 pick in this year’s NFL draft, has done little in the ground game but had nine receptions for 101 yards against New Orleans. The Panthers’ defense ranks third in the league against the pass, allowing 162.0 yards per game.

ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (2-1)

New England’s defense was carved up by Kansas City in a 42-27 season-opening loss and allowed Houston rookie Deshaun Watson to throw for 301 yards in his second career start in last week’s 36-33 victory over the Texans. Brady was the league’s lowest-rated passer after Week 1 but has rebounded to win consecutive NFL Player of the Week awards, throwing for 378 yards and five touchdowns to rally the Patriots to a last-second victory a week ago. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks finally showed why New England used two draft picks to trade for him, hauling in five catches for 131 yards and two TDs against the Texans. The Patriots also have struggled against the run, yielding an average of 130.3 yards.

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NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC East Division Preview

NFL training camps just opened, which signals the official countdown to the start of the 2017 season. As usual, there is no lack of storylines to keep an eye on as we get closer to Week 1, with the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots at the forefront.

The Pats are among the Super Bowl favorites nearly every year, but this season it appears they are more likely than usual to add another Lombardi Trophy to the collection. There is veteran leadership, young talent and the elite coaching that most teams aspire to. That said, the roadblocks along the way can’t be easily dismissed. The Dolphins appear to be on the precipice of becoming a worthy divisional foil. Let’s take a look at what can deliver the AFC East teams this season. And don’t forget that it all begins September 7th. Join Fanpicks now to enter all of NFL’s Week 1 contests.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills will look to improve on a unit that is lacking stars but ranked first in rushing offense and tied for 10th in scoring last season.

With few appealing options on the free-agent market, the Bills had little choice but to bring back quarterback Tyrod Taylor for a third year under a more cap-friendly contract. It was a prudent move as Buffalo’s new coaching staff under coordinator Rick Dennison will not have to waste valuable months staging a competition, and young prospects Cardale Jones and rookie Nathan Peterman can develop without any pressure. The Bills signed veteran T.J. Yates in case neither Jones nor Peterman can secure the backup job.

Taylor will need a full season out of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who had two foot surgeries last year and was limited to 28 catches. Second-round pick Zay Jones, who caught an FBS record 399 passes for East Carolina, should be a nice complement to Watkins, along with veteran free agent Philly Brown. Tight end Charles Clay, who led Buffalo with 57 catches for 552 yards, is also begging to be used more. Watkins’ health is everything, though. The No. 4 pick in 2014 is at a crossroads of his career if he can’t stay on the field.

Taking some of the pressure off Taylor is a rushing attack that has led the NFL two years running. LeSean McCoy is still an elite cut-back runner who topped the 1,200-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He had 50 catches and earned his fifth Pro Bowl nod. Losing top backup Mike Gillislee (5.7 yards per carry) to New England as a restricted free agent has opened a spot for second-year man Jonathan Williams.

Miami Dolphins

When quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s season ended in Week 14, Miami’s hopes for a deep playoff run were dashed as well. After a rough start partially caused by growing pains in coach Adam Gase’s system, Tannehill rebounded to enjoy the best season of his career. Tannehill’s biggest improvement came on the deep ball. He tied for the NFL lead with seven completions of 50-plus yards, and his 7.7 yards-per-completion average was a personal best.

Behind the scenes, Gase pushed heavily for Dolphins management to re-sign wide receiver Kenny Stills. Those words carried heavy weight. Stills caught a career-high nine touchdown passes and averaged 17.3 yards per reception, which ranked third in the league. Jarvis Landry should be the next Dolphins wideout to cash in. Heading into a contract year, Landry remains Tannehill’s most trusted target. He was among the league leaders in third-down grabs while becoming the sixth receiver in Dolphins history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Miami is counting on DeVante Parker to make more of an impact entering his third NFL season. If he doesn’t, the Dolphins may pass on exercising the fifth-year option in his rookie contract.

At tight end, Julius Thomas should provide Tannehill with a boost in the passing game provided he avoids the injury problems that made him a high-priced free-agent bust in Jacksonville. Anthony Fasano, who played in Miami from 2008-12, returns primarily as a blocker with Dion Sims having left for Chicago.

The running game progressed from a concern in the preseason to a strength by the end of the year. Jay Ajayi, who was left at home for the Week 1 opener because of a bad attitude, changed his tune and quickly surpassed Arian Foster as Miami’s lead back. Ajayi finished with 1,272 yards. The next step for Ajayi is consistency. He finished with 79 or fewer yards in 12 games, including Miami’s first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh.

New England Patriots

The stirring MVP performance that Tom Brady gave in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons tells you everything you need to know about his lasting ability to play the position even as he begins the 2017 season at 40 years old. He won’t go on forever, but that’s why the team retained backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo despite reportedly receiving repeated overtures from the Browns to trade him away. In so doing, the Patriots will be starting an all-time great at the most important position on the field while having an insurance policy who they believe can carry them to the promised land if Brady gets hurt.

On top of that, the Pats significantly upgraded Brady’s wide receiving corps when they dealt the No. 32 pick in the draft for ex-Saint Brandin Cooks. With the speedy Cooks in the fold, the Pats add the valuable element of a deep threat to an already potent unit. Cooks can also line up in the slot and be effective in traffic, something he will do more in New England than he did in New Orleans.

There is some uncertainty around the tight end position. Rob Gronkowski will be coming off back surgery, and the increasingly injury-prone star is becoming less and less reliable in terms of his availability. The Pats acquired Dwayne Allen to fill the void left by Martellus Bennett, who left for the Packers in free agency, but Allen has his own injury history.

The questions surrounding the running back position are of a different nature. The team swiped restricted free agent Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, and he could be the lead back in a deep rotation. But Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis also can be effective in multiple facets, and third-down back James White seems like he will hold down that spot after receiving a contract extension in April. Rather than settle on a consistent rotation, the Patriots could use the backs based on game-plan need and leave opponents guessing as to which one they’ll have to worry about from week to week. That kind of personnel flexibility is something head coach Bill Belichick likes.

New York Jets

The main focus for the Jets in 2017 will be on the quarterback position. The Jets didn’t draft a QB, so they’re rolling with journeyman Josh McCown and youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. This is a prove-it year for Hackenberg, whom the Jets drafted in Round 2 last year.

The Jets are also trying to incorporate younger wide receivers, now that Brandon Marshall is playing for the Giants and Eric Decker is with the Titans. Can Quincy Enunwa prove himself as a potential No. 1 threat, rather than just a hybrid receiver/tight end? What do the Jets have in Robby Anderson, who flashed last year as an undrafted rookie?

While the Jets drafted two receivers (ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen), they also selected tight end Jordan Leggett to bolster a position that was nonexistent under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. Gailey retired, and the Jets replaced him with John Morton.

The running game was respectable — the Jets ranked 12th in the league — but Matt Forté averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, his lowest number since 2009.

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AFC East biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have work to do if they want to close the gap on the Super Bowl champions

The New England Patriots won the AFC East by a wider margin than any other division champion in the NFL in 2016. That’s pretty much how things went over the last decade and a half, as Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and Co. continue their unfathomable success as the other three teams in the division seemingly rotate finishing second, third or fourth.

New England has dominated in free agency, but they still have holes to fill and depth to build. Unlike its divisional counterparts, the Patriots will be without a first-round pick in the draft on April 27th 2017 (barring another shrewd move or two) to help them fill those gap and build that depth. The Bills and Jets, meanwhile, will have very early picks at their disposal to help with their biggest needs.

Buffalo Bills

The Bills finished the 2016 campaign with a 7-9 record, losing four of their last five games. The only win during that stretch came against the lowly Cleveland Browns. The Bills were doomed by a laughable passing attack, thanks in large part to another season of a hobbled Sammy Watkins and a limited stable of weapons at the receiver position. Obviously, the Bills need a more dependable playmaker at receiver. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin were the top two producers at the position a season ago, but both have found new homes on the West Coast during free agency. Buffalo also could use more stability on the offensive line — especially at right tackle.

First-round pick: No. 10 overall

Potential Picks: Buffalo will be in position to take one of the top two wide receivers on the board: Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. Either one is an instant starter and No. 1 option in the passing attack, relegating even a healthy Watkins to the second option at this point — if not making him expendable altogether. The Bills can pick up adequate offensive line depth later in the draft, but they won’t find elite talent at the receiver position beyond Williams and Davis.

 Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had a relatively successful 2016 season. They’ve had 10 victories, qualified for the playoffs and appear to have found a star in running back Jay Ajayi. The problem is, they share a division with the Patriots — regularly one of the league’s most prolific offensive teams. Young stars can be found throughout the offensive depth chart, but the defense — specifically the front seven — is just not built to stop New England right now. Miami needs linebackers — plain and simple. The Dolphins need versatile outside linebackers who can rush off the edge or drop off and cover tight ends and running backs at a moment’s notice. That’s their best hope of matching up and attempting to slow down what today’s NFL offenses are doing.

First-round pick: No. 22 overall

Potential Picks: The Dolphins will be in position to address outside linebacker by taking either Zach Cunningham from Vanderbilt or Alabama’s Tim Williams. Both are superior athletes and guys you’d expect to be long-term starters. There also is a chance that the Dolphin brass is wooed by the versatility of Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, who spent time at both safety and linebacker during his collegiate stay.

New England Patriots

They won the Super Bowl despite the greatest quarterback in NFL history missing a quarter of the regular season. It was a stark reminder to the rest of the league just how solid the Patriot organization is and how far in front the franchise is of everyone else right now. And the Rocky Balboa-fashion in which they came back to win Super Bowl LI had the football world questioning everything we thought we knew about the game and perhaps even life itself.

Bill Belichick likes to have a good collection of versatile edge rushers, and right now his stockpile is bordering on what he would consider low. Additionally, it’s starting to feel like Rob Gronkowski’s best days are behind him. When healthy, he’s probably still the best player at his position, but the reality is that he has only played in 70 percent of New England’s games over the past five seasons and hasn’t played a complete season since 2011 — his second year in the league.

First-round pick: none.

First pick: No. 72 overall

Potential picks: It all boils down to what’s out there and what Belichick values more at this point. If he’s leaning toward grabbing an impact defender who can get after the quarterback, there’s a good chance that Ohio’s Tarell Basham — the MAC Defensive Player of the Year — is available. If he’s looking to add a pass-catching tight end to groom as Gronkowski’s eventual replacement, Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges is someone who might hear his name called when New England makes its first pick.

New York Jets

The Jets slogged their way to five wins over the Browns, Bills (twice), 49ers and Ravens. They did so with an aging roster and disarray at the quarterback position. Head coach Todd Bowles constantly looked like he couldn’t wait for the season to be done, and a quick glance into the stands during home games reflected the same.

Take your pick. Of course the Jets need a quarterback, but truthfully, you don’t want to plug a fresh signal-caller into a mess like this without some house cleaning and upgrades. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why they gave journeyman Josh McCown $6 million. Remember, New York’s top returning receiving option is Eric Decker. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell leads the running back depth chart, which would be great if we were headed into the 2012 season. If you take a step back, it’s clear to see that this is a total rebuild. That’s going to require the Jets spending their early pick on the best player available, regardless of need.

First-round pick: No. 6 overall

Potential picks: Again, it’s a crapshoot. If they want to draft the most mature, prepared and accomplished quarterback available to be the face of the team going forward, the Jets are selecting Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. If they want to build the line, they either reach for or trade down to draft Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. They could go defense and take Ohio State corner Marshon Lattimore or Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett. Best guess is that New York’s draft board resembles more like a dart board at this point.

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Five Reasons the New England Patriots Will Win Super Bowl LI

Why the New England Patriots will win Super Bowl LI(Enter contest)

Perhaps you’ve noticed, but the New England Patriots have been to the Super Bowl before, as they will soon be making their NFL-record ninth appearance in franchise history, and their seventh since 2001. They have arguably the best head coach, quarterback and owner combination that we’ve ever seen in professional football.

As the curtains begin to draw on a vanilla NFL season as a whole, it’s only appropriate that the Patriots are here, yet again. It’s been two years since Deflategate became an actual name for an investigation into alleged deflated footballs. It’s been seven months since Brady announced he would stop the legal process related to his role in the investigation, accepting his four-game suspension initially handed out by commissioner Roger Goodell.

So here we stand, four quarters away from Goodell possibly handing off the Lombardi Trophy to the Patriots for the fifth time in the last 16 seasons. How poetic would that be?

1. Bill Belichick

Belichick has a one-track mind in that he’s focused solely on his team, at that current moment. When asked about facing Atlanta in Super Bowl LI immediately after the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night, Belichick said he didn’t even know the Falcons had won earlier that day. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter, it’s just how Belichick operates; his only responsibility is to his team and nothing else, no social media, no other teams, no distractions.

It’s perhaps the blinders from the outside world that allow Belichick to be one of the all time best coach of this modern generation. Certainly no one has the resume that Belichick does: 16 seasons with one franchise that feature seven Super Bowl appearances and a shot at a fifth Lombardi Trophy.

2. Next Man Up: The Patriots’ Way

It’s an exhausted cliché used by football coaches everywhere, but never has it been applied so aptly than Bill Belichick’s New England teams. Since the day Belichick took over, the key to success has never been about superstar production (besides Tom Brady) as much as every player knowing his role and simply doing his job on every snap.

Chris Hogan, the former Penn State lacrosse player, is the perfect example of “The Patriots’ Way,” New England’s version of “next man up.” Hogan wasn’t even drafted upon entering the NFL three years ago, but that didn’t matter in the AFC final. He had the biggest game of his career on the biggest stage of his life. Hogan had nine catches, setting a franchise record with 180 receiving yards, and two touchdowns.

It’s not just Hogan that makes the Patriots’ machine run so efficiently. Running back LeGarrette Blount has also something to do with it. He was undrafted and couldn’t last with Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh before finding home in Foxborough. Fellow back Dion Lewis enters the fold as well. A former fifth-round pick, he came to the Patriots by way of the Eagles and Browns and overcame a serious knee injury to score a touchdown three different ways in the divisional round win over Houston. And that’s just two examples. While many teams make large contract splashes in free agency to impact their roster, the Pats build through the draft and find the right puzzle pieces for their next masterpiece.

3. Tom Brady

He’s the best to ever do it, no question. His seven Super Bowl appearances are more than any other quarterback. With a potential fifth victory looming, Tom Brady is knocking on the door of yet another record. He’s really close of laying claim as one of the most decorated American athletes of all time.

At 39 years old, Brady hasn’t lost his edge, if anything, he’s still at the top of his game. After being suspended the first four games of the season, Brady thrust himself into the MVP discussion by completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,554 yards, 28 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Brady typically takes the same approach of his head coach. He limits distractions and focuses on the task at hand. Deep down one would have to believe that he wants nothing more than a fifth championship ring. A fourth Super Bowl MVP would be the icing on the cake. Especially when commissioner Roger Goodell would have to present the honor to Brady in front of an audience of more than 100 million people. It would give the quarterback the last word in an overinflated, two-year public he-said-he-said saga.

Standing in the way of Brady’s fifth Lombardi Trophy is an Atlanta defense that allowed 25 points and 371 yards per contest, and a pass rush that was tied for 16th in sacks.

4. Defense Wins Championships

Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense are used to the headlines, but coordinator Matt Patricia’s defense has been stealing the show in New England all season long. A throwback to the units that helped the franchise win three Super Bowl titles in four seasons during the early 2000s.

The Patriots’ defense was No. 1 in scoring this season, surrendering only 250 points all season long and 15.6 per game. Much like New England’s offense, the defense isn’t led by a multitude of superstars, but by the group as a whole.

The defensive success comes with a caveat, the Patriots have really only faced one “elite” quarterback this entire season, and that was Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday night. Outside of Big Ben, the biggest names the Pats have faced are Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill and Carson Palmer. With that being said, New England kept Pittsburgh’s big three of Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell (who left early due to a groin injury) in check on Sunday night, allowing just 17 points, but facing the NFL’s No. 1 offense in the Matt Ryan-led Falcons is a whole other can of worms.

5. Too Many Weapons

Vegas is predicting that this could be the highest-scoring Super Bowl that we’ve ever seen. With Matt Ryan and Tom Brady leading the NFL’s two most efficient offenses this season, Super Bowl LI is destined to have some fireworks. Ryan of course has the explosive Julio Jones at receiver and Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the backfield for the NFL’s top offense, but don’t sleep on Brady’s options.

The Patriots will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski, but still have plenty of talent to go around. Stopping Julian Edelman, Brady’s favorite target this season, will be the first task for the Atlanta defense, followed by finding someone to cover tight end Martellus Bennett, especially in the red zone. Running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis can hurt opposing defenses as well, especially Lewis out of the backfield as a receiver. The Patriots’ ability to spread the ball around among all their assets could prove to be the difference. This may be too much for the Falcons defense, who has shown signs of vulnerability all season long.

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NFL Super Bowl 51 Preview

Atlanta Falcons vs New England Patriots

With the Falcons’ 44–21 beating of the Packers, and the Patriots’ 36–17 destruction of the Steelers in Sunday’s conference championship games, the country has seen just two competitive playoff games out of the 10 played to this point. Will the Houston Super Bowl on February 5th be any different? For that answer, let’s get an early look at the factors that will determine the winner of Super Bowl 51 (Play at FanPicks).

It’s all about the quarterbacks

Just about any way you slice it, this is a matchup between the top two passers in the league. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New England’s Tom Brady ended up No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in pretty much every efficient stats rankings. They are masters of their craft, have plenty of weapons around them, and have two of the best playcallers (Kyle Shanahan and Josh McDaniels) at their disposal. To beat Brady, you have to disguise and change up both the pressure and coverage looks on just about every snap. The Falcons, to this point, have not shown the ability to do that. That will be an important factor in the game. Ryan has trouble with tight, disciplined coverage. With Malcolm Butler locking up either Julio Jones or Mohamed Sanu, and Logan Ryan on the other with safety help, Ryan may have to make a living throwing to the running backs and tight end’s Levine Toilolo and Austin Hooper. The Patriots have had more issues with supporting actors than those in starring roles. The Falcons have the ability to exploit that.

Running backs will be a huge factor

Sure, the quarterbacks may get all the attention, but the running backs from each team are used to taking advantage of the shortcomings on opposing defenses. The Falcons have one of the most talented duos in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Freeman is the better runner, but Shanahan loves to use both to exploit mismatches in the pass game. McDaniels likes to use Dion Lewis and James White in a similar fashion via the pass, and Lewis has taken over as the every-down running back. LeGarrette Blount is the short yardage and finish-the-game bruiser.

What’s in common?

The Falcons and Patriots each had five common opponents (Denver, Seattle, Arizona, Los Angeles and San Francisco) and went 4–1 (each team lost to the Seahawks, with Atlanta losing on the road and the Patriots at home). The cumulative scores were 168–88 for Atlanta; 119–82 for New England. The Falcons had an average margin of victory of 20.5 points, and the Patriots were at 11.0. The Patriots didn’t have Tom Brady in their two-point victory over the Cardinals, a team the Falcons beat by 19.

Atlanta’s offense is exceptional

Under the spotlight of the Super Bowl, this Falcons offense may finally get its due. We’re talking about a unit that can rival the Greatest Show on Turf Rams for explosiveness. They scored 540 points this season, which is tied for eighth all time with those 2000 Rams. Sure, the team is uber-talented with wideout’s Jones, Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, and running backs’s Freeman and Coleman, but don’t underestimate the job coordinator Shanahan has done. At this point, everyone thinks it’s all about the talent. But remember, Sanu was an underachieving No. 2 with the Bengals and Gabriel was a Browns castoff before this season. Freeman and Coleman were thought to be nice players, but not game changers. That all changed this season because of the way Shanahan designs plays and attacks defenses. There are few better at taking an opponent’s tendencies and using them against them.

The Patriots defense will have a say

New England’s defense certainly proved its “best scoring defense” was no fluke in the win over the Steelers. And remember who put an end to those 2000s Rams teams (Spoiler Alert: It was the 2001 Patriots). New England may not have many big names on defense (Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler are about it), but the sum is better than the parts. Certainly the Falcons will be a huge challenge, but everyone knows Bill Belichick and his staff can defend anything with two weeks to prepare.

The Patriots’ offensive line should have an advantage

After a shaky outing against the Texans, the Patriots’ offensive line completely dominated the Steelers. The Falcons’ unit is certainly solid but it’s not quite as good as the Patriots. The Patriots have the edge at left tackle (Nate Solder), right guard (Shaq Mason) and right tackle (Marcus Cannon), while the Falcons have an advantage at center (Alex Mack) and left guard (Andy Levitre).

Experience doesn’t matter

Expect a lot to be made this week about how this is Matt Ryan’s first Super Bowl appearance versus Tom Brady’s seventh (with four victories). Certainly the disparity is notable, but it ignores the fact that several passers have beaten those with more experience in recent years. Some of those on the list: Russell Wilson over Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers over Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning over Brady and Brady over Kurt Warner.

You have to stop more than one guy

Each quarterback has a security blanket. For the Patriots, it’s Julian Edelman (158 targets in the regular season). Atlanta has Jones (129). Certainly a lot of attention needs to paid to each of those players, but both quarterbacks are deft at distributing the ball. The Patriots had seven players catch at least three touchdowns (tight end Martellus Bennett led with seven), and so did the Falcons (Jones and Gabriel tied with six). In the postseason, both Sanu (Falcons) and Chris Hogan (Patriots) had two touchdowns receiving.

Where’s the pressure?

It looks like the opening over/under line for the Super Bowl is an astounding 59 points. No shock there, considering these two offenses. But it also says something about the defenses, which were both great on Sunday but don’t exactly get a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks. The Patriots didn’t affect Roethlisberger that much and don’t have a dominating rusher, although Trey Flowers is solid. And the Falcons’ only true pass rushing threat is Vic Beasley. The game may very well be determined by which team is able to dial up the most pressure and make that top quarterback move off his spot in the pocket.

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NFL Playoffs AFC Championship Game Preview

Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots

The Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are in familiar territory as they prepare to clash in Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The winner of the matchup will establish an NFL record by becoming the first team to advance to the Super Bowl for the ninth time (Enter Contest).

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a pair of Super Bowl rings but knows the challenge presented by the Patriots. They’ve beaten Pittsburgh in the AFC title game after both the 2001 and 2004 regular seasons on their way to championships. New England, the first team since the 1970 merger to advance to six consecutive conference championship games, won at Pittsburgh 27-16 in Week 7. It was a game Roethlisberger missed due to injury. But things look to be much different this time around. The Steelers’ are on a roll.  They are on a nine-game winning streak.

ABOUT THE STEELERS (13-5)

Roethlisberger owns a 13-6 postseason record heading into his fifth AFC title game. He has one of the league’s top receivers at his disposal. Pittsburgh is also centering its offense around running back Le’Veon Bell, who has set franchise playoff records in back-to-back games by rushing for 167 yards against Miami and 170 at Kansas City. Bell has rushed for at least 118 yards in seven of his last eight contests but was limited to 81 on 21 carries by New England while making 10 catches for 68 yards. Antonio Brown has racked up 481 receptions over the last four seasons, including seven for 106 yards in Week 7, while going over 100 yards in both postseason wins. The defense has shown the most improvement for the Steelers. They have permitted an average of 16.6 points and registered 31 sacks during their winning streak.

ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (15-2)

After throwing for 28 touchdowns against only two interceptions, Tom Brady matched the latter total by getting picked off twice during a pedestrian performance in last week’s 34-16 victory over Houston. Brady, though, routinely has carved up Pittsburgh’s defense, throwing for 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the last six matchups, and for his career has 26 scoring passes versus three picks while posting a 9-2 record against the Steelers. Running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Week 7 meeting, but Dion Lewis did the bulk of the damage against Houston with three TDs. It includes one on a 98-yard kickoff return. The Patriots’ defense led the league by surrendering 15.6 points during the regular season. New England is 16-3 at home in the playoffs since 2001.

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NFL Playoffs Conference Championships

A road team was finally victorious in the post-season, but that doesn’t mean the results of last week’s divisional round have taken away any of the appeal to either of the NFL playoffs conference championships matchups (Enter contest). In fact, the outcomes have left us with a pair of regular-season rematches featuring the league’s two hottest teams taking on its two most dominant teams in the regular season for the right to play in Super Bowl LI.

NFC Championship

The NFC Championship Game features Green Bay, winners of eight in a row, against Atlanta. The Packers are coming off of a thrilling, last-second 34-31 win in Dallas over the top-seeded Cowboys, while the Falcons are fresh off of a 36-20 dismantling of the Seahawks. Aaron Rodgers (21 TDs, 1 INT over last eight games) has been playing at an MVP level the past two months, but the award could end up going to Matt Ryan. The first-team All-Pro threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win over Seattle, and he hasn’t been intercepted since early December.

AFC Championship

New England had little trouble dispatching of Houston 34-16 last week and Sunday will be Tom Brady’s 11th conference championship game, the most of any player in NFL history. To make it to a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl, Brady and the Patriots will need to beat a red-hot Pittsburgh team that has already won in a hostile environment. The Steelers made it nine wins in a row after outlasting Kansas City 18-16 in Arrowhead Stadium last week. Le’Veon Bell has been a beast (NFL-record 337 rushing yards in first two career playoff games) thus far, but Pittsburgh will need Ben Roethlisberger (8:9 TD-to-INT ratio since Week 13) to play better than he has lately.

Overview

These teams already have some familiarity with each other, as Atlanta beat Green Bay 33-32 in Week 8 at home on a late touchdown pass from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu. Ryan and Rodgers combined for 534 passing yards and seven scores in the high-scoring affair. New England defeated Pittsburgh 27-16 at Heinz Field in Week 7, behind a 127 rushing yards and two touchdowns from LeGarrette Blount. However, Roethlisberger didn’t play because of a knee injury and the Patriots’ leading receiver that day was Rob Gronkowski, who went on injured reserve (back) in December.

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NFL Playoffs Divisional Round Recap

There was no shortage of surprising wins and dramatic wins during the 2017 NFL Playoffs Divisional Round. Before moving forward to next week Conference Finals (Enter contest), here’s what happen this weekend.

Seattle Seahawks vs Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan may be 0-4 in the playoffs against all other teams, but he is 2-0 versus the Seattle Seahawks. Ryan, building off a spectacular regular season, threw for 334 yards and three touchdowns and the Falcons lived up to their billing as the highest-scoring team in the NFL with a 36-20 victory Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Houston Texans vs New England Patriots

It wasn’t an artistic success, but it was enough for the New England Patriots to return to the AFC title game for a record sixth straight time. Bill Belichick’s team moved on with a 34-16 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional playoff game on Saturday night.

Green Bay Packers vs Dallas Cowboys

The score was tied with 35 seconds remaining to this game and the ball at the hands of Aaron Rodgers. The rest, as they say, was history. The NFL’s hottest quarterback put the Green Bay Packers in position to advance to the NFC Championship and kicker Mason Crosby did the rest, booting a 51-yard field goal at the final gun to beat the Dallas Cowboys 34-31 Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Kansas City Chiefs

It’s not the type of performance that wins many games in the NFL playoffs. Going for 60 minutes without a touchdown generally leads to a sorrowful end to postseason hopes. At least it did until Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. The Pittsburgh Steelers did not score a touchdown, yet won the AFC divisional round game against the Kansas City Chiefs 18-16.

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NFL Divisional Playoff Preview

The NFL Divisional Playoff match-ups are set and every game will be a rematch from the regular season.

NFC Matchups

In the NFC, it’s the Packers visiting the Cowboys, and the Seahawks on the road to face the Falcons. The often overlooked Falcons have quietly gone about their business this season and clinched the No. 2 seed in the NFC.  They differ from previous years in that it seems they may finally have a reliable defence to go along with their potent offence.  If the Falcons want to make others take note and earn respect they will have to get past the Seahawks. Seattle coming off a less than stellar regular season did manage to win the NFC West with relatively easily by beating the Lions 26-6 in the NFC Wild Card Game.  The big question here is whether Russell Wilson can find consistency in his game, and can the Seahawks defence get past its injury issues and stop the high flying Falcons offense?

The Green Bay Packers are the hottest team in the NFL right now after winning their seventh consecutive game Sunday, defeating the New York Giants 38-13 in the Wild Card.  After a slow start, the Packers offence got going in the second half after ending the first half on a hail mary touchdown from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb.  The Packers hope to continue their hot play and upset the top-seeded Cowboys next Sunday.  The Cowboys are favorites, but they are going to have to depend on rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to beat the Packers and advance to the NFC Championship game.

AFC Matchups

In the AFC, it’s the Texans looking to play the roll of spoiler as they travel to Gillette Stadium to face the favored Patriots. The Patriots begin their run toward a fifth Super Bowl title with a home game Saturday night.  Not many seems to think the Texans can even keep this game close, let alone come up with the upset. After all, lets not forget that the Patriots blasted the Texans 27-0 earlier this year with their third string QB.  Now with a healthy, rested and focused Brady back under center it is hard to fathom anything but a lop sided Patriots win.

Many believe the Steelers may be the most dangerous team in the postseason, and they will get a chance to prove it Sunday at Arrowhead when they face the Chiefs.  Earlier this year the Steelers punished the Chiefs 43-14.  Will the Steelers defenseThe  continue to shine, and will big Ben’s ankle be ready for the Chiefs pass rush?

Which teams will prevail to play in the Conference Championships on January 22nd?  Make sure to jump in on all the NFL Divisional Playoff action at Fanpicks.com where we always offer you multiple ways to win.

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Monday Night Football Preview

New England Patriots vs Baltimore Ravens

The New England Patriots did not even have to take the field to seize control of their postseason destiny and they can solidify the front-running status when they host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night (Enter Contest). Oakland’s loss to Kansas City on Thursday night put the Patriots one-half game up for the No. 1 seed in the AFC entering the final quarter of the season.

New England has won three in a row and are inching closer to an NFL record eight consecutive division title in the AFC East. The Patriots own a deceptive 7-1 regular-season record in the series against the Ravens, who have been a major nemesis for New England and quarterback Tom Brady. Four of the last six meetings (playoffs included) have been decided by four points or fewer and Baltimore owns a pair of postseason victories over the Patriots in Foxborough. The stakes are equally high for the Ravens, who are in a battle with Pittsburgh for the top AFC North spot. Steelers won their game on monday to take the temporary lead. Pressure is now on the Ravens to tie-it back up, especially with the fact that they hold the tiebreaker over the Black-and-Yellows.

ABOUT THE RAVENS (7-5)

Baltimore improved to 4-1 in its last five games following its most impressive victory of the season, a 38-6 demolition of Miami last week that snapped the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak. Muddling through a season of mediocrity to that point, quarterback Joe Flacco established season highs with 381 yards passing and four touchdowns while setting a franchise record with 36 completions. Tight end Dennis Pitta had nine catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns, part of a unit that features veteran Steve Smith, speedster Mike Wallace and promising Breshad Perriman at wide receiver. The Ravens have the league’s top-ranked defense (296.1 yards per game) and rank No. 1 against the run (73.8 yards).

ABOUT THE PATRIOTS (10-2)

New England has won three in a row, although the combined record of those opponents entering Week 13 is 8-28. Brady has 19 touchdown passes versus only one interception since returning from his four-game suspension, but he is without his No. 1 receiving target in tight end Rob Gronkowski and has 12 scoring passes versus 11 picks in 10 career games (playoffs included) versus Baltimore. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell continues to emerge as a bigger threat in the passing game with a season-high eight receptions in last week’s 26-10 win over Los Angeles while LeGarrette Blount is 43 yards shy of his second 1,000-yard season. The Patriots’ defense is tied with Baltimore with 17.3 points allowed, which is ranked second in the NFL. With Danny Amendola (ankle) out, the Patriots signed fellow WR/PR Griff Whalen.

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