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    Sunday Football Notes

    No doubt about it, Patriots the top AFC team

    The byes are more important to the Patriots than other teams because of the Bill Belichick culture.
    The byes are more important to the Patriots than other teams because of the Bill Belichick culture.

    The loss to the 49ers has caused a bit of consternation in Patriots Nation.

    A playoff bye is probably lost. And therefore, all hope.

    Apparently, I missed the part where the Patriots are a bunch of 30-somethings just hoping to get through the season.


    Yeah, I know, the Patriots have never gone to a Super Bowl without having a first-round bye. A lot of good that week off did the Patriots in 2010, when they were dominated at home by Mark Sanchez and the Jets (man, that sounds worse with each passing season). So let’s not pretend that it’s the end of the Patriots’ postseason hopes. The Patriots are better than any other team in the AFC. From the coach, to the quarterback and the 1-to-53 talent, the Patriots are the class of the AFC no matter what Peyton Manning and the Broncos are doing (go look at their schedule).

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    These Patriots, just like we said at 1-2 and 3-3, are darn good. They just needed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to get acclimated and use his weapons properly, scheme up some more pressure concepts, and patch the secondary again like last season (at least Julian Edelman won’t be playing nickel corner in the AFC Championship game. Yes, that happened, as well).

    The Patriots should be able to beat all comers in the AFC. There should be no excuses if the Patriots fail to make the Super Bowl.

    But if they do fall, it may be because the lack of a bye kept the Patriots from using one of their biggest weapons: the turbo no-huddle attack.

    We saw it extensively in the Week 5 victory over the Broncos, and then the Patriots kept it tucked away until they got down big and unleashed it against the 49ers last Sunday night.


    “That was impressive,” said an NFC general manager. “You saw the Broncos game, heard about the Chip Kelly stuff and you knew they had it in their arsenal, but you weren’t really sure if it was fluky or not.

    “It’s definitely not a fluke. Did you see what it did to the 49ers? They were completely gassed on defense. They had to take [Aldon] Smith, [Ahmad] Brooks, and [Ray] McDonald off the field for rest more than they normally do in a close game. And the 49ers got zero pressure on [Tom] Brady during the comeback. Same thing happened to the Broncos, when they were able to keep Von Miller on the sidelines at times. How are you going to beat Brady without making him feel pressure?”

    There was a 35-play span in the middle of last Sunday night’s game when the 49ers did not generate one pressure against Brady. The Broncos registered just one pressure in the first 35 snaps of their matchup. That leads us back to the bye discussion, and why the lack of one may be slightly more important this season. Basically, how often will they be able to go no-huddle and will having to play at Denver in altitude prevent them from using it against the Broncos again?

    Even though the Patriots have always been sluggish after byes under [Bill] Belichick (go ahead, look it up in non-Tim Tebow games), I have felt that the byes are more important to the Patriots than other teams because of the Belichick culture.

    While other teams rise and fall during the regular season, the greatness of Belichick is the consistency he produces out of his team. They might have one off game, but most good teams have two, three, or four in a season. The Patriots don’t, and the result is a mental and physical grind on the players.


    The carrot for the players is, lay it all on the line during the regular season, get the bye and rest, play two games, and then get another week off before the Super Bowl.

    This season, you could almost see the bye week as part of the postseason plan because just as the no-huddle gasses the opponent, it also takes a toll on the Patriots, especially the offensive line.

    The Broncos produced three of their four sacks after the 78th play, when the NFL average for plays is in the low 60s for an entire game. Against the 49ers, the Patriots allowed eight of their 17 quarterback pressures (including two sacks) on a 13-play stretch between plays 74 to 86.

    A bye would have given the Patriots a better opportunity to run the no-huddle, which could be helpful in potential matchups with stronger defensive teams such as the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals. It’s not vital against the Ravens (injury issues) or Bengals (quarterback), but if the Steelers get in and regain their health in the secondary, the no-huddle could be crucial. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s unit, starting with the defeat of the Patriots last season, has played much more man coverage, which is an important game-plan component against Brady and the Patriots.

    The worst-case scenario for the Patriots is having to face the Steelers, travel to Denver, and then Houston. How much could the Patriots run the no-huddle? How much better would it have been if they could have rested for a week, ran it against the Broncos at home, and then against the Texans with some downtime before the Super Bowl?

    It will be interesting to see the approach the Patriots take, but make no mistake, they are the best team in the AFC. They may not be able to use their no-huddle as much as is optimal, but there are still no excuses if they don’t make the Super Bowl. Bye or no bye.


    Kuechly submitting fine rookie season

    From the time he was drafted ninth overall by the Panthers in April, there was a lot of debate about where former Boston College star linebacker Luke Kuechly would line up.

    He was an All-America middle linebacker for the Eagles, but the Panthers had a three-time Pro Bowler in Jon Beason at the spot and gave him a five-year, $51.5 million ($25 million guaranteed) contract before the 2011 season.

    Even though Beason had injury woes, he was still a good player and coach Ron Rivera decided to start Beason in the middle and Kuechly at weak-side linebacker. Kuechly struggled some at the beginning of the season, but once Beason was placed on injured reserve in Week 5, Kuechly was moved inside and he has taken off. He’s second in the league in tackles with 138, including three games in which he has recorded 15 or more. No other player has more than one.

    ‘‘The kid is having a great season,’’ Beason said. ‘‘He’s flying to the ball and making plays. If he doesn’t make the Pro Bowl it would be a shame.’’

    The question is, what are the Panthers going to do next season when Beason returns? If Rivera is back, it sure sounded like Kuechly has found his home as the “Mike.”

    “When you look at the different skill sets, I think Jon’s got the skill sets to play inside and outside a little bit more than Luke does. Luke’s skill set lends more toward being an inside guy. So, we’ll see,” Rivera said. “It’s still a ways away. But I think we may have found something here. I think it’s one of those things that you do what’s going to be best for us.”

    So, if Kuechly is in the middle, what will the Panthers do with Beason? Part of the problem is Beason and current weak-side linebacker Thomas Davis can’t play on the strong side. Will the Panthers have room for everybody next season? Beason hopes so. ‘‘I like what is happening here,’’ Beason said. “There’s a big part of me that wants to return and justify that contract.”


    Jets face major issues heading into offseason

    So the Jets, according to various reports, hope to move on from both Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow at quarterback this offseason.

    The contract extension the Jets gave Sanchez after their failed flirtation with then-free agent Peyton Manning makes the situation a mess. Here are the Jets’ options:

     If the Jets keep Sanchez, he has a guaranteed base salary of $8.25 million and a workout bonus of $500,000. His cap number is $12.85 million. That’s a lot of coin for a marginal starting quarterback, let alone a backup.

     If the Jets cut Sanchez, he would almost certainly be designated as a post-June 1 release. He would still count $12.4 million against the Jets’ cap next season and push an additional $4.8 million onto the team’s cap in 2014. The alternative is to just release Sanchez without the June 1 designation, which would keep the cap hit confined to ’13, but it would be at $17.1 million.

     The best option for the Jets is for a team to be willing to trade for Sanchez. That would result in an $8.9 million cap charge, plus any of the base salary that the other team would want the Jets to pay — probably most of it. So, you’re still taking a cap hit north of $14 million.

    The other factor is, since there’s no offset language (no relief for the Jets if Sanchez signs and is paid any amount by someone else) in Sanchez’s contract, he could refuse a restructure of his deal that would make it easier to trade him.

    So, what are the Jets going to do? Coach Rex Ryan wasn’t offering any hints as he named Greg McElroy the starter Sunday against the Chargers.

    ‘‘Anything dealing with the future past Buffalo [the regular-season finale] will be handled after that,’’ Ryan said. “Everybody knows I’ve been supportive of Mark Sanchez. I think he still has the skill set to be a good quarterback in this league, we’ve won a lot of games with him.”

    The fact is, no one knows what will happen until the futures of Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum are decided.


    Whalen a trend-setter for modern tight ends

    In tracing the rich lineage that has been the tight end position for the Patriots, most start with Russ Francis and then go throughLin Dawson, Marv Cook, and Ben Coates before getting to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. People shouldn’t forget that it really started with Cambridge native and ex-Boston College star Jim Whalen, who died last week in his Gloucester home at the age of 69. In many ways, he was the original “move” or “flex” tight end for the Patriots, a position Hernandez excels at now. “I would say that,” said Patriots all-time great Gino Cappelletti, who was Whalen’s teammate from 1965-69. “Hernandez was bigger than Jim, but that’s the way things go as each decade goes by. But basically, that kind of a player. He was the kind of guy who was a hybrid in a way. He could play tight end, which he did, but he was also capable of being a wideout. I think he had that kind of versatility. A good ball-catcher, had good hands. I thought he was pretty smooth. He was a good route runner and wasn’t afraid to block anybody.” Whalen ranks 30th on the Patriots’ all-time receptions list (153), 19th in TDs (17) and eighth in yards per reception (16.3) among those with at least 100 receptions. Those who knew him best said he was an immensely better person, and will be dearly missed. Rest in peace, Jimmy.

    Nickel package

    1. I know I loosely connected Alabama coach Nick Saban to the Browns job but just to be clear: I don’t know if he wants to return to the NFL, all I know is that if he did, two solid league sources said it would be with Mike Lombardi as the personnel director, and that Lombardi was in line for the Browns job. What that means for Saban now that Lombardi is reportedly almost a done deal to go to the Browns, I have no idea. I covered the man, I know the man a little, broke some news on his departure from the Dolphins to Alabama, but I also know him well enough to know predicting what Saban will do is a losing proposition. And, especially, reading into any of his comments.

    2. A perfect example was Saban’s appearance on Dan LeBatard’s radio show in Miami last week. It sure sounded like Saban wasn’t leaving Alabama — though he never said that outright — but then he completely lied about the Drew Brees negotiations while with the Dolphins. Saban said they made the first offer to Brees but then he flunked the physical. Wrong. Brees took the physical on his free agent visit, and no offer ever came, several league sources have said over the years, and again last week. The Dolphins instead traded for Daunte Culpepper, who was rehabbing his injured knee in an Orlando parking lot.

    3. Colleague Shalise Manza Young reported that Gronkowski won’t play Sunday against the Jaguars. I would have thought getting him some time this week and then off with key starters in Week 17 would be the best approach. It’s not vital he plays before the playoffs, but he last played on Nov. 18. That’s a long time away from the speed and physicality of an NFL game. Maybe this week will be the rest week for some Patriots.

    4. I’m certainly not one to stand in the way of somebody’s happiness, but it’s sure odd that Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder decided to wed ESPN college football reporter Samantha Steele on Monday. He’s in the middle of a postseason chase. It couldn’t have waited a couple of weeks?

    5. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is extremely talented, but somebody needs to get a handle on his mechanics. It’s extremely difficult to play the position at a sustained level of excellence if your release position changes on every snap. Think of all the top passers in league history. How many of them varied their release much over the course of their careers, let alone series to series in games?

    Short yardage

    Former Patriots defensive end Andre Carter had his second sack — first since Nov. 4 — for the Raiders in Sunday’s 15-0 victory over the Chiefs. also had him with three quarterback hits and three hurries to give Carter, who tore his quadriceps in Week 15 last year, his best game as a Raider. “He’s much better. He gets better every week,” said defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. “You can’t say enough about Andre. His body is coming back. We’re real excited to have Andre around our guys.” Said coach Dennis Allen: “He’s been a great addition for us, not only on the field but really in the locker room, in the classroom, and those type of things. So, he’s been good to have and I expect him to continue to get better.” . . . If the Steelers are going to make the playoffs and go on a run, they’re going to have to find a way to make some big plays on defense. Pittsburgh ranks near the bottom in the league in turnovers forced (13) and sacks (27). At their current pace, the Steelers would have their fewest turnovers and sacks since Dick LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in 2004 . . . Shameless self-promotion: I’ll be co-hosting the Wednesday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift with the indomitable Bob Neumeier on WEEI, so please tune in and give us a call. Neumie will deftly guide me as always, but I know I’ll need all the help I can get.

    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.