FIRST QUARTER: Likes/dislikes of yet another improbable come-from-behind win by the Pats

Todd: Two things that we continue to learn week after week from the 2013 New England Patriots are that decisive and dominating victories are not possible, even against a seemingly inferior opponent; and that losses that appear imminent are not necessarily so, even when all seems hopeless.

So much for Mike and I dismissing the Cleveland Browns as irrelevant and that they would roll over and give the Pats a much needed stress-free win.  I’ll admit I made alternate plans last Sunday without any concern of missing an interesting contest, then arrived home and wound up rewinding my DVR to catch the last five minutes when all of Hades broke loose.  First off, despite the pattern of slow starts established by the Pats the last few weeks, I was still shocked that they dug themselves a 19-3 hole to the Browns late in the third quarter.  Then after Jordan Cameron pulled in a touchdown pass from Jason Campbell (who did not play like he had recently sustained a concussion) to give Cleveland a 12-point lead with just 2:39 left, things looked pretty bleak for the home team.

But then Tom Brady marched the Pats 82 yards in 98 seconds, finding Julian Edelman for a touchdown and a critical (if not dubious) late hit penalty on the Browns that allowed Stephen Gostkowski to onside kick from midfield and create another Alcoa Fantastic Finish (showing my age yet again with this reference).  Kudos to the CBS production team for reminding us just before attempting that kick that the Pats had not successfully recovered an onside kick since New Year’s Day 1995 against these (not quite the) same Browns when Bill Belichick was their coach (I even remember Mike and I watching that game together), and then kudos on an incredible kick from Gostkowski (who is having one heckuva season) which Fozzy Whittaker mishandled and Kyle Arrington opportunistically recovered to keep the Pats’ hopes alive.

I’ll also concur that the Pats received the benefit of another call from the officials when they threw that pass interference flag on a penalty call that could have easily gone either way.  But after that call going against the Pats in the loss to the Panthers, I guess the karma gods evened themselves out as Danny Amendola scored the game-winning TD and the Pats then withstood a long kick from former Raven shanker Billy Cundiff that thankfully fell about five yards short of the crossbar.

Read an interesting stat after the game that not only had it been nearly 19 years since the Pats recovered an onside kick, but it’s been nearly 50 years (1964, when the franchise was playing in the American Football League) since they recovered a kick that actually helped them to win the game.

For all the entertaining dramatics, the win did come at a price as Cleveland safety T.J. Ward’s helmet collided with Rob Gronkowski’s right knee, tearing both the ACL and MCL of the 24-year old tight end.  Gronk now faces his sixth surgical procedure in just over a year’s time and a lengthy rehab which doesn’t even guarantee he’ll be the same Gronk when he finally does get back on the field.

But forget about the future for now.  In the present, Gronk’s loss is a huge blow to an offense that was forced to pick up the slack for a defense that has been dealing with considerable attrition all season.  All Pats fans need to know is that in the first six games this season when Gronkowski was rehabbing from his arm and back surgeries, Brady and the offense averaged around 21 points per game (22nd in the league) and a mere 41 percent red zone touchdown efficiency (30th).  In the last seven games with Gronk on the field, those numbers improved to 32 points per game (2nd) and 68 percent (4th), while Brady’s completion percentage returned to well over 60 percent.

Whether or not Gronkowski was Brady’s target (and he typically was), his presence not only forced opponents to game plan for the big guy but also created more space for the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and the return of Shane Vereen to make plays.  While the argument has been made that Amendola and Vereen were themselves out with injuries earlier this season when Gronk was out and the offense struggled, I still feel that the new-look Patriots offense is going to resemble more of what we saw the first weeks and less of the dynamic ability we’ve seen the last two months.  I suppose if any coach can transform his team on the fly it’s Bill Belichick, and I realize that every team has its share of injuries, but I’m at the point where I see all these personnel losses as significant factors in why the margin of error the remainder of the season is razor thin and why I feel the Pats' chances of hoisting another Lombardi trophy are somewhere between slim and none.

Mike: I'm still not sure what to make of that game. Sure it was a great ending, but in my opinion, the Patriots never should have been in that position to start with.

I'm not going to go into a recap of what happened, Todd has already done a good job of that already. But it continued a disturbing, albeit an exciting trend of the Pats digging themselves a huge hole and then coming flying back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But, the elephant in the room is the injury to Gronk. I think that's going to be a huge, almost insurmountable loss. The offense picked up when he came back this season, and the injury (which could keep him out a year) leaves a massive hole in the lineup, one that I'm not so sure the Pats can fill.

I still think the Pats can go deep in the playoffs, especially since Denver lost to San Diego and opened up the possibility of the top seed for New England, but like Todd said, they have no more margin for error.

SECOND QUARTER: opinions on an assortment of sports topics

Todd: Kudos to Ben Cherington on bringing back Mike Napoli back on both a team and player-friendly two-year, $32M deal while also adding some bullpen depth with the acquisitions of Burke Badenhop and Edward Mujica, the latter serving as St. Louis’ closer through the first two-thirds of the 2013 season…solid gets all the way around.

The Red Sox could still use a solid veteran infielder that can play 2B/SS/3B, but IMO it does not need to be Stephen Drew.  I almost prefer it’s not because I think it could have an adverse effect on the progress of both Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts.

Speaking of Bogaerts, remember last week when I said you could laugh at my idea of him batting leadoff next season?  Go ahead, but direct some of that mocking towards the great Bob Ryan, who suggested the same in his Boston Globe column last Sunday.  Maybe great minds really do think alike.

Last thought on the just concluded winter meetings down in Orlando (bet Mike wishes he could have covered that event and then slipped out for a Disney World visit).  It was great seeing so many players signed, traded or simply rumored to be signed or traded.  Kind of reminded me of the good ol’ days when this particular week in December would produce a bundle of baseball activity.

Still haven’t mentioned anything in this space about the winter teams, but both are worthy of props.  The Bruins seem to be losing players left and right to injuries yet are absolutely kicking butt on their long road trip through Canada (not to mention leading the league in fewest goals allowed, less than two per game).  Shawn Thornton faces a suspension from the league for what he did to Brooks Orpik and despite his contrition after the fact, deserves punishment for his actions.

As for the Celtics, I am frankly sick of hearing all the talk of tanking because a large majority of it is pablum for lazy journalists and sports media types.  The true facts are these—with the exceptions of the Heat and Pacers the rest of the NBA’s eastern conference are some of the worst dregs of humanity, and the C’s have a decent collection of young, talented hard-working players who are more than capable of pummeling these putrid palookas (btw I won’t need a thesaurus for Christmas this year).

I’ll wrap up by giving some love to Boston College running back Andre Williams.  He not only just won the Doak Walker award as college football’s top running back but was also chosen as a Heisman Trophy finalist.  In just twelve games Williams has scored 17 touchdowns, set a new single season school rushing record with 2,102 yards, had five games with over 200 rushing yards and ran for astounding 897 yards (8.6 yards a carry) over a three-game stretch late in the season that vaulted him into the Heisman conversation.  He likely won’t win college football’s biggest prize, but good for him getting to visit NYC and for helping his Eagles reach the AdvoCare V100 Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana on New Year’s Eve.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love some of the college football bowl names?  We’ll revisit that topic next week.

Mike: LOL-I do wish I could have been at Disney for the Winter Meetings! Alas, maybe next year.

I'm kind of glad the Red Sox didn't make much noise at the Winter Meetings, they seem to have a plan in place and it doesn't include knee-jerk reactions to grabbing all of the high-priced players out there. They've been down that road before, and it got them into trouble.

Looking at the Celtics, it's nice to see them playing well, but isn't it a bit counterproductive? A playoff berth does them no good, but it keeps them in mediocrity. Sure, as Tood said, they can compete in the putrid Eastern Conference, but where does that get them? They aren't going to challenge for a title. Better to hit bottom quick and bounce right back up than linger in the middle.

As for Todd's thought on college bowl names, I couldn't agree more. I wish we could go back to the days when they made sense and weren't just some long string of corporate names, and while we're at it, play just the 4 big bowls on New Year's Day. But that ship has sailed, and we're in a world where the AdvoCare V100 Bowl exists.

THIRD QUARTER: Patriots-Dolphins preview

Todd: I thought the Dolphins were supposed to fall apart after the whole Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito fiasco, but to their credit they’ve won four of their last six games, and at 7-6 could sneak into the AFC playoffs.  Speaking of 7-6, that also happens to be the Pats’ record in Miami during the Belichick era, although they have won five of the last six games down there.

Like many of the games both teams have played this year, expect this one to be close—in games decided by less than seven points the Pats are 6-2 while Miami is 5-4 (ironically their previous meeting in Foxboro was a 10-point come-from-behind win for the Pats).  There is also the question of how the new-look Gronkless offense will perform, especially in the red zone where I think there will be some struggles. Hope I’m wrong, but I don’t have a great feeling about this game, despite the recent turn of events in Denver that suddenly have the Pats clinching the AFC’s top seed if they win out.  Dolphins 17, Patriots 16.

Mike: Just for fun, I'll reverse the score. I say Pats win 17-16.

FOURTH QUARTER: Other games we like this week

Todd (3-0 last week, 25-14 season): How about the Eagles over the Vikings, the Jaguars over the Bills (just because I can’t recall the last time I actually picked the Jags with confidence to win a game) and in a mild upset, the Steelers over the Bengals.

Mike (0-3 last week, 21-17-1 season): Give me Chicago over Cleveland, Kansas City over Oakland and Dallas over Green Bay.

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