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    Sunday Football Notes

    Patriots offense in for a challenge vs. 49ers

    Patriots QB Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will have their hands full against the 49ers.
    Patriots QB Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will have their hands full against the 49ers.

    Since the 49ers are such an infrequent opponent of the Patriots, and aren’t seen very often on the East Coast, we decided to get scouting reports from an offensive assistant coach and a personnel executive whose teams recently played San Francisco to get an objective look.

    They were certainly impressed.

    “That whole football team is loaded. I mean, it’s loaded,” the assistant said. “You can see the talent.”


    Some of their comments:

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    Defensive line: “[Justin] Smith might be the best defensive tackle that we’ve seen all year. Vince Wilfork for the Patriots is a really good player, but there’s just something about this guy. Smith is 20 times better [than the Texans’ J.J. Watt]. Maybe Watt has a better motor and plays harder, but talent-wise, Smith is Sugar Ray Leonard. He has this freakish body. He’s tall and lean and he’s got this long reach, so he can get his hands on the tackle before the tackle can get his hands on him. And he combines that with speed and power. He’s got all the tools . . . Inside, they were good. [Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga] has some talent. He’s solid. [Tackle Ray McDonald], he’s solid.”

    Outside linebackers: “Aldon Smith is unbelievable. He’s a great football player. He has incredible reach, great pass rusher, incredible power. He might be the best pass rusher, the best defensive end, in the game. He’s wiry, 6-4, 258, the longest arms you’ve ever seen. He’s like Freddy Krueger. [ Ahmad Brooks] is a good player, well above average. Good pass rusher. He’s better against the run than [Aldon Smith] is, but they can run. They do some creative things with their twist, as well. They’ll try to free up Justin Smith and will twist him with Aldon Smith. They’ll overload the defense.”

    Inside linebackers: “They’re good run-stoppers, downhill players. They can both run. Patrick Willis, he’s faster than [NaVorro Bowman]. He was clocked at 4.4, something ridiculous at that size. He could play fullback. Strong, powerful, and physical. That defense is loaded. The linebackers are downhill players. They’re going to try to stop that run. If you carry the football, I guarantee you you’re going to get hit within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.”

    Secondary: “I think the best way to beat this team is by screening them and drawing them, showing them a reverse early and keeping them honest. Those safeties are really good players. They play the run, and if you’re a receiver going over the middle, you’re going to get whacked. [Dashon] Goldson and [Donte] Whitner are good football players . . . I think you can get after the cornerbacks. If you can get protection, I think you can get after the cornerbacks, especially Tarell Brown. He’s probably the weaker link in the secondary.”


    Running game: “It’s the ability to keep Frank Gore in check. He’s going to get his touches and yards, but it’s also a mind-set. You have to know this team is going to run downhill at you and it’s going to be a physical game . . . LaMichael James is an explosive, space-playing guy that they’ve added. He’s a slasher, cutter with quickness and speed.”

    Passing game: “Try to force Colin Kaepernick to win from the pocket and not allow him to extend the play or break the pocket. Still developing the nuances and the techniques of the position. They play to his strengths. I don’t think his reads are expansive or there’s a lot of volume in them. I don’t think they’re doing much in terms of reading the whole field, but what I do see is a guy that’s athletic, can extend the play, can run, strong enough arm . . . [Receiver] Michael Crabtree is really well-rounded now. Good player. Randy Moss can still get vertical. Rookie A.J. Jenkins is getting a few snaps. I don’t know why [tight end] Vernon Davis has vanished from the offense. I think they have two pass-game weapons there in him and Delanie Walker. They’re not easy matchups and when they’re both on the field they can give linebackers some problems.”

    Probably the top task for the Patriots is to, like they did to the Texans, get the 49ers’ offense out of its comfort zone by tilting the scoreboard early.

    “The Niners have yet, really, to be put in a position where they are forced to play catch-up or stay paced with a high-powered offense,” the executive said. “If that happens and the Patriots have the ability to create distance on the scoreboard, you’re going to see the Niners get put into a foreign territory on offense where they have to hurry up and get back into the game. I don’t know how they’d react.

    “I can see the Patriots trying to make that gangbuster effort right out of the gate. Score quickly, score fast, create a deficit on the scoreboard, help our defense to get Frank Gore taken out of the game, put the onus and pressure on the arm of Colin Kaepernick for him to have to make plays in the pass game. That’s the beauty of the Patriots. What they do on offense directly helps their defense, and I can see them doing it again like they did to the Texans.”


    Expansion of playoffs raises a few questions


    The NFL held a special league meeting in Dallas last week and, as you’ve probably heard, the big news was that commissioner Roger Goodell revealed that playoff expansion from 12 to 14 or 16 teams was brought up again.

    That sent most people screaming from the rooftops about how the NFL would be ruining the product, endangering player safety, degrading the regular season, making the NFL more like the NBA, etc.

    Let’s settle down for a second.

    First of all, this isn’t the first time this has been brought up. The Chiefs wanted it looked at after the 2005 season. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue pulled it off the docket.

    “When you go beyond [12 teams], you get into dilution and other issues we shouldn’t be getting into,” Tagliabue said at the time. “I’ve never thought the idea of expanding the playoffs was compelling.”

    That was then. Now, the NFL actually seems serious about eliminating two preseason games. There are three ways to offset the revenue to accomplish that: Both the players and owners can slice two games off the revenue (yeah, right), go to 18 regular-season games (probably not), or add to the postseason. So the view here is that expanding the playoffs should be studied closely.

    Going to 16 teams — two more in each conference — seems like too much. Then you’re talking about either no byes in either league, which would deemphasize the end of the season for conference leaders, or adding another weekend to the playoffs, which could only happen with the elimination of two preseason games.

    Going to 14 teams is much more viable. It would have gotten a deserving team like the 2008 Patriots (11-5) in the playoffs, you wouldn’t have to extend the season (a tripleheader each day of wild-card weekend sounds good to us), and adding one more team to the bottom would have a competitive trickle-up effect since the top seed would be so valuable.

    And the other thing is much has changed in the NFL in relation to the top two seeds since the NFL last looked at this issue. From 1990-2004, teams with byes won 87 percent of the Super Bowl titles (13 of 15). Since then, it’s 29 percent (2 of 7).

    Maybe making the top seed a little more precious would bring back the reward. Maybe not. But it’s at least worth a serious look.


    Bounty ruling ends up serving both sides well

    There was a wide spectrum of opinions on the winners and losers in Paul Tagliabue’s decision on the bounty case.

    Basically, both sides got something and what we were left with was a deftly crafted settlement, even though NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith and Saints quarterback Drew Brees took the decision as total vindication for the players.

    “Having seen nearly 50,000 pages of evidence and nearly 20 hours of testimony, I know that there was no bounty put on players by Saints players,” Smith said on CBS. Brees said Goodell had “very little to no credibility” with the players.

    Both Smith and Brees must have missed the part where Tagliabue said that he upheld the factual findings of Goodell and that Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith, and Jonathan Vilma (not Scott Fujita, who was vindicated) engaged in “conduct detrimental” to the game.

    Don’t know why anyone should be celebrating that. Tagliabue did vacate all player suspensions, though fines were certainly a possibility.

    This is the point where Goodell comes under fire. His critics, including Tagliabue, said he came down too hard. Tagliabue went into the NFL’s past to look at how bounty programs and obstruction (Brett Favre sexual harassment case) were handled.

    Here’s the question I have: If everyone, including Tagliabue, acknowledges that bounty programs have gone on for years — and have even been punished by the league — shouldn’t that validate Goodell coming down harder in this instance?

    Tagliabue basically said that if Goodell wanted to change the culture, he needed to do it nicer and slower. He used Pete Rozelle and steroids as an example. Tagliabue said Rozelle used “a discipline-free transition year in the new policy,” to be nice to the players.

    It’s a ridiculous comparison. We’re talking about player safety here, not bulking up. Maybe Tagliabue and the late Rozelle should be on the spot for letting it get to this point. Those previous penalties were obviously a joke and didn’t go far enough to ensure the safety of players.

    The bottom line is this: Before Goodell came down hard, bounty programs of various degrees were carried out in the NFL by players and coaches. Regardless of Tagliabue’s decision, players and coaches are going to think twice about approaching anything that looks like a bounty.

    Doesn’t sound like Goodell was wrong to me.


    2007 Patriots part of Tagliabue’s decision

    The Patriots found a place in Paul Tagliabue’s bounty decision, and surprisingly it didn’t have anything to do with “Spygate.” Tagliabue revealed that the Packers and Patriots were fined “$25,000 or less” for bounty programs. The reference lacked specifics, but Tagliabue did insert a portion of the discipline letter the Patriots received in 2007: “You have confirmed that a number of Patriots players were in violation of this rule [prohibiting bonuses paid by players to their teammates as a reward for game performance]. Fine money assessed and collected by the players was distributed as rewards to players for achieving an on-field incentive during a game . . . While the Patriots players emphatically denied that rewards were offered for targeting specific players or for taking them out of the game, this issue underscores the importance of prohibiting these types of bonuses; if an injury does occur, the mere existence of a specific bonus for on-field performance against a particular team invites unnecessary speculation that a player or players may have been a target for overzealous defenders. As you have acknowledged, it is the club’s responsibility to inform its players of the parameters of the rule and monitor their compliance.” . . . One of the big topics of conversation at the recent special league meeting in Dallas, according to two sources who were in the room, was the salary cap. The message delivered in March was the same: The 2013 cap is expected to be at the same $120.6 million level as this year, and the next modest rise isn’t to occur until 2015. The final numbers for ’13 won’t be in until the March meetings. The lesson being taught in Dallas: You’d better assess your roster and be prepared to have more younger (cheaper) players to offset your high-priced veterans.

    Nickel package

    1. Everybody involved knew the HGH hearings on Capitol Hill last week were a waste of time. It’s all going to come down to a negotiation where the players hold the HGH card against the issue of commissioner discipline. Good luck trying to figure out how that gets resolved.

    2. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco downplayed any problems he may have had with fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, but this much is certain: Cameron’s ouster puts more pressure on Flacco, who is in a contract year. It’s Flacco’s offense now.

    3. Bills general manager Buddy Nix said on his WGR radio show that “I think the time’s now for us,” to trade up for a quarterback. Doesn’t seem to be a great year for that with Geno Smith (West Virginia), Matt Barkley (Southern Cal), and Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) rated middle-to-low first-round selections.

    4. Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer said punter Chris Kluwe’s antics — which include getting fined for taping “Vote Ray Guy” over the Hall of Fame emblem on his jersey last week — were “getting old.” Loved Kluwe’s response to the Associated Press: “We all get cut eventually.” Score one for a player who doesn’t give in to the NFL’s fear culture.

    5. Most valuable player award rankings right now: 1. Tom Brady (who can seal it with a victory on Sunday night against the 49ers); 2. Aaron Rodgers; 3. Peyton Manning; 4. J.J. Watt; 5. Andrew Luck.

    Short yardage

    Browns general manager Tom Heckert acknowledged what the league already knew: He wants to keep personnel control and he might leave if that’s taken away from him. New team president Joe Banner told the Cleveland Plain Dealer last month he prefers the coach to have final authority. “I’m not going to lie, it’s important,” Heckert said. “It’s why I came here. I’ve said it before, everywhere I’ve been I’ve kind of been the personnel guy, even though I didn’t have final say. I’m not saying it’s an end-all, but it’s very important to me.” . . . Former Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer had a short stay with the Steelers, but was claimed by the Cardinals. Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing . . . Former UMass tight end/fullback Emil Igwenagu (Boylston/Holy Name) was signed to the Eagles’ active roster last week . . . Patriots fans who prefer to reside in a Red Sox-ian mentality of waiting for the other shoe to drop would like what Bill Barnwell wrote on last week. He pointed out some of the recent times that a team, like Houston, was trounced in the regular season but avenged that loss in the postseason: 2007 Giants lost, 35-13, to the Packers in the regular season, but won the NFC Championship game matchup; 2008 Cardinals were beaten, 48-20, by the Eagles, then won, 32-25, in the NFC Championship game; and, of course, the 2010 Jets losing, 45-3, to the Patriots, and then winning, 28-21, in the playoffs.

    Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.