Patriots

Ten most important Pats heading into 2015: The cornerbacks

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Ten most important Pats heading into 2015: The cornerbacks

Leading up to the first day of training camp, we’re going to look at the most important Patriots, counting down from 10 to 1. We’ve advanced to number four today and yes, because it’s my list, it’s a little offbeat. But when you read, I think you’ll understand why.

4. MALCOLM BUTLER. OR LOGAN RYAN. OR BRADLEY FLETCHER. OR TARELL BROWN. OR SOMEONE CURRENTLY NOT ON THE ROSTER.

Why? The Patriots won a Super Bowl last year. They won it, in part, because they finally had an elite secondary. Having Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington slotted at 1, 2 and 3 gave Matt Patricia more flexibility to call whatever he wanted and trust it would be executed on the back end. Now those guys are gone, and to say the corner position is a massive question mark would be a colossal understatement. I have no idea who will start in Week One. I have no idea who will be starting when the playoffs roll around. It could be an entirely different crew from early September to January. You know. I know it. The American public knows it.

Previous Performance: Throw it all out. The top four corners are no longer on the roster. Now I could give a damn about Alfonzo Dennard, but the other three?? I cry my big fat head to sleep on my pillow every night. Watching Revis play was football porn. You never had to sweat the technique (shoutout to Eric B & Rakim) and it was clear -- despite the idiots yammering on sports radio -- that he played at an elite level from start to finish. Browner’s insertion into the lineup brought swagger and physicality and smarts that he still doesn’t get enough credit for. Butler’s Super Bowl interception doesn’t happen without Browner alerting him to the play and then making that wicked jam. So what’s left? Butler is the “it” corner but he played a limited role overall. Ryan regressed. Brown just signed and is coming off the broken foot and Fletcher had one of the worst years a corner has ever. But don’t worry. It’ll be fine . . . 

Questions surrounding the player: How quickly can these youngsters and retreads come together? Can any emerge as a legit number one option (and I’m not talking in the Leigh Bodden mold, either)? Can Fletcher rediscover the form that in 2013 had him close to getting a lucrative contract extension from the Eagles? Will Butler and Ryan avoid the all-too-common step back or flatline trajectory that most of the Pats young corners have fallen into? I need a drink . . . 

Overall Outlook: Until they show me they can do it, I won’t believe they can. There is potentially good football in this group, but there’s also the potential that one or two of these guys will be forgotten by the end of camp, let alone the end of the season.

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

Curran: Pats and Steelers a study in contrasts . . . and we should be grateful

PITTSBURGH --- Mike Tomlin started embracing the "elephant" s on November 27.

Foreplay with the pachyderm can finally cease. The Patriots and Steelers get after it this afternoon. This is the Game of the Year in the AFC. Maybe the NFL.

While Tomlin started hyping the Patriots game 21 days ago, the Patriots didn’t breathe a word about it until this week. And that only came after a Monday night loss in Miami that raised the stakes for this game into a do-or-die for the Patriots in terms of getting the No. 1 seed.

PATRIOTS VS. STEELERS

That whiff of vulnerability that descends after every Patriots loss was in the air this week. Segments of the fanbase react like the worst kinds of hypochondriacs -- perfectly fit but thinking every day that every twinge means an aneurysm is near.

But on Saturday, the 40-year-old quarterback did for New England what he’s been doing since 2001. Put his hand on its shoulder and said, “LFG.” 

Thank God for Tomlin. As much as we lampooned his giddy embrace of this matchup, he got the hype train out of the station and the tub-thumping since has made this the most anticipated Patriots game since February.

While we’re at it, thank God for the Steelers. For Big Sloppy Ben, for Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and the detestable James Harrison. Without them, the Patriots would be completely without a foil in this league.

Think about it. The NFL is Rex-less. Peyton’s long gone, the Colts are dead, the Broncos are also dead, the Ravens are washed, Eli’s on his last legs for a two-win team.

The Steelers are the only ones out there, picking up a rock and fitting it in a slingshot for the rest of the conference, the rest of the league.

Take it a little further: Thank God for the Steelers as an organization. They serve as an AFC measuring stick for the Patriots. They won back-to-back Super Bowls twice in the 1970s and have won six Lombardis overall. While there’s no arguing which franchise has been better since the 1990s, you can have a spirited talk about whether the Patriots have yet supplanted the Steelers in overall historical resume. You want 45 years of really good with spikes of being the best, as Pittsburgh’s had? Or 40 years of not-so-good with spikes of real good and then a 17-year stretch like no team’s ever had?

These Steelers and Patriots have nothing in common when it comes to the way they do things. The coaches are polar opposites. The quarterbacks are nothing alike. The Steelers defense flies around with the same danger and disorganization of a wasp attack. Playing the Patriots defense is like punching a snowbank for three hours. Everything about the Patriots offense is based on timing and precision. The Steelers have an air of winging it when they have the ball, whether it’s Bell hanging out in the backfield after the snap until a crease opens or Roethlisberger waiting to restart a play while Brown skips through the opposing secondary.

The Steelers always talk a big game. The Patriots say next to nothing.

As consumers, we all love the talking and the hype because it ratchets up the drama. But as football observers based in New England, we’ve come to believe that talking beforehand is like giving your own eulogy.

But a lot of what Mike Tomlin said you can agree with even if you’re only on your couch today. You will remember this game, as opposed to the succession of beatdowns over the procession of also-rans the Patriots seasons sometimes become.

"It's good to be in the kitchen,” said Tomlin this week. “The kitchen's in Pittsburgh, PA, this week in the National Football League, and at Heinz Field. That's where you want to be in the middle of December. We don't take it for granted."

And neither should we.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

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Patriots will be without Kyle Van Noy for showdown against Steelers

The Patriots' defense won't be at full strength Sunday as linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who's been battling a calf injury for weeks, is ruled out against the Steelers:

And NBC Sports Boston's Mike Giardi wonders if it could have been avoided:

And what will it mean this afternoon? Giardi has an idea:

There is some good injury news for the Patriots, however:

As for the Steelers, they're getting nothing but good news: