Sunday’s Patriots-free slate loaded with intrigue

Sunday’s Patriots-free slate loaded with intrigue

This wait seems interrrrrmmmminable. Need a game, need a game, need a game the Patriots are playing in. One more sleep before that happens.

Fortunately, there’s a stack of good games going on Sunday. Even the seemingly crappy ones are interesting. So, with that in mind, I felt motivated to start spewing half-baked intel on what’s going to happen. Not gonna hurt anybody, right?

The best game, though, is the one that has the most relevance to the upper tier of the AFC. Texans at Colts at 1 p.m. Houston is 4-2. Indy is 3-2 and coming off its bye. The Texans beat KC last Sunday in KC. The Colts beat KC in KC two weeks ago.

Deshaun Watson’s completed 58 of his past 75 throws and has six TD passes and a pick. Most importantly, he hasn’t been sacked in two games after going down 18 times in the first four.

Houston’s only losses this year were the opener at New Orleans (30-28) and a 16-10 loss at Carolina when Watson got sacked six times. I am not nearly as high on Indy as most people. The win over KC was impressive as hell but they got it done by exploiting the Chiefs horrific run defense. The week before they lost to Oakland, they barely beat the weak-ass Falcons, they edged the Titans and lost at the Chargers. The winner here locks itself in as looking eyeball-to-eyeball with the Chiefs as the second-best team in the conference.

Texans 24, Colts 23

Then there’s the sneaky-resilient Raiders. They smacked up the Bears the last time they played, now they are at Green Bay. At 3-2, Oakland’s overlooked in the AFC West. They feel like a playoff team, though.

Raiders 30, Packers 23

The 4-2 Ravens are in a command position in the AFC North at 4-2. They are on the road at Seattle, though, and the week-to-week, boom-or-bust performances of Lamar Jackson will be in focus. He’s averaging 76.7 YPG on the ground and 6.7 per carry. He’s also taken 16 sacks already (although last week he took just one against Cincy). The Ravens haven’t beaten a “quality” team yet (they took out the Dolphins, Cards, Steelers and Bengals while losing to Cleveland). If Baltimore can perform well in a tough stadium, it would go a long way toward taking their challenge seriously.

Seahawks 30, Ravens 20

My Bills intrigue continues. The Dolphins came dangerously close to waltzing into a win last week against the Redskins. Didn’t get it. Now they are in Western New York and if the Bills are who we think they are, they win this game about 23-6. No muss, no fuss, all threats put down by 2:30 p.m.

Bills 23, Dolphins 6

The Lions come off the game they had stolen from them against the Packers and host Minnesota, which is coming off its most impressive win. Since Kirk Cousins is not to be trusted, I’m looking for the Vikings offense to regress. Can the Lions on a short week get over the sting of Monday’s loss and deliver in a pivotal divisional game? If they lose, they fall three games behind in the win column in the NFC North and will be in fourth place.

Lions 23, Vikings 20

The Niners are at the Redskins and – like Buffalo – if San Fran is what we think they are, they should be able to come cross-country, play in crap conditions and take care of business. I think they will.

49ers 35, Redskins 16

The Eagles and Cowboys, both coming off bad losses, get together with a whiff of desperation for SNF. This is going to be a fascinating game because that whole conference has a pile of teams that could get to the Super Bowl or miss the playoffs altogether and its these games in the middle of the season that will dictate in large part their destinies.

Eagles 30, Cowboys 24

The Bears need this one more than New Orleans. They got shamed by Oakland. Trouble is, they get Mitch Trubisky back. And that’s not a positive since he’s not that great. They still have enough on defense to hold down the Saints outdoors.

Bears 20, Saints 17

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Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

Jake Bailey's emergence as Patriots' punting 'weapon' key as team's identity shifts

FOXBORO — Johnny Hekker stood among a throng of reporters and others wielding microphones during the Super Bowl's annual media night, probably unsure of what to expect.

Players can be lobbed everything from Xs and Os questions to marriage proposals at the league's annual Super Bowl circus event. At one point, Hekker fielded a question that seemed to fall somewhere in the middle. He was asked what he thought of Bill Belichick's glowing description of him as a player.

Belichick called Hekker "a huge weapon" back in 2016. He followed up that week, more than two years later, saying Hekker is, "a tremendous player. Great athlete. He’s a weapon."

Hekker joked he might get "WEAPON" tattooed across his abs to commemorate Belichick's particularly complimentary scouting report.

People latched onto Belichick's Hekker comments when they dropped because they seemed to capture the coach's affinity for special teams perfectly. Here was a punter — someone who's not going to end up in highlight shows or as any fan's favorite player in the Madden video game series — who was drawing fawning praise from arguably the greatest football mind of all time.

The emphasis Belichick has placed on the kicking game has been well-documented, as has his appreciation for good special teams players around the league. But this year it's been fascinating to hear him discuss one of his own: rookie punter Jake Bailey.

It looks like Belichick finally has a punting "weapon" all his own. In fact, Bailey is one of only two Patriots (Matthew Slater is the other) who leads Pro Bowl voting at his position.

After Bailey dropped six of his eight punts inside the Philadelphia 20-yard line on Sunday — a 17-10 win that hinged largely on field position — Belichick lauded this year's fifth-round pick out of Stanford for being able to handle windy conditions on the road and execute.

"He’s a great kid," Belichick said. "He works hard. He’s really played well for us this entire season and he’s been so valuable to this team and he proved it out there today."

For his efforts, Bailey earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. Before the award was announced, when given the opportunity to discuss Bailey's importance to the outcome of Sunday's game during a conference call, Belichick obliged again.

"Yeah, Jake did an excellent job for us punting, holding," Belichick said. "Kickoffs were – we had one there that he missed, but overall, he’s hit the ball well. He’s hit the ball well for us all year since Steve [Gostkowski] was out. But, Jake’s had a great year for us and he continues to come in with some really big plays there both ... flipping the field position and also on the plus-50 of getting the ball up there and making it tough for [Eagles returner Boston] Scott to handle."

Bailey is now tied for first in the league when it comes to punts downed inside the 20-yard line with Titans punter Brett Kern (32). He's only had 18 of his 56 punts (third in the NFL) returned, giving him a 32.1 return percentage (sixth). His 5.4 yards allowed per return — thanks in part to a talented and experienced coverage unit, as well as his impressive hang time — also put him in the top-10 at his position (ninth).

"I think we're doing a pretty good job," special teams captain Matthew Slater said after the game Sunday. "We're never satisfied. There's always room for improvement. But we have a young fella that's doing a heckuva job kicking the ball for us and he's giving our coverage a chance."

Slater added: "As much as we want to say about Jake and the way he's playing, he's a fantastic young man. I really think his play is a result of who he is. I can't say enough about his character, the way he's bought in, the way he supports his teammates, the way he's a professional. He's just a great kid. You really appreciate a young player like that. I'm thankful to have a relationship with guys like that on this team. Can't say enough good things about him."

Slater's not alone. On Tom Brady's weekly WEEI appearance with The Greg Hill Show, he called what the rookie has done "exceptional." And in describing the strengths of the Patriots team at the moment —defense and special teams — Brady noted that Bailey's been a key piece. He's not only punting well, but he's taken to kickoff duties with Gostkowski out, using his powerful right leg to drive 21 touchbacks on 35 opportunities. The average opponent starting field position after one of Bailey's kicks is the 24.2-yard line, which is 11th among kickers with at least 35 kickoffs.

For Belichick, Bailey's start to his career has been rare ... and not only because he's right-footed when the coach has long preferred lefty punters.

In his two decades as head coach, as much as he reveres top punters around the league, Belichick has never had a punter make a Pro Bowl or finish among the best in the league in All-Pro voting. As a franchise, the Patriots have had one punter make the Pro Bowl: Rich Camarillo in 1983.

Ryan Allen had what likely amounted to the most memorable punting performance in team history during last season's Super Bowl. He had three of his five punts downed inside the Rams 20-yard line and only had two returned for 12 total yards, decidedly out-punting Hekker — his former college teammate — on the sport's biggest stage. The Rams couldn't sustain long drives and managed only three points.

But what Bailey is doing over the course of the season is something the Patriots haven't seen in some time, according to Pro Football Focus. He's currently graded as the fourth-best punter in the league, whereas Allen — signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013 — never finished a season graded higher than 19th. In Allen's last three seasons with the team, he graded out as the No. 26, 36 and 24 punter in football.

Bailey hasn't been dubbed a "weapon" by his head coach just yet. But on one of the best special teams units in the league — the Patriots rank third this season, per PFF — that's what he is.

It's no wonder Belichick is happy to have him. And according to the coach, Bailey's only getting better.

“Yeah. I’d say at Stanford, not a lot of tough conditions out there – out there playing Arizona State and Arizona and UCLA and all," Belichick said. "But he’s had a lot of, I would say, challenging conditions out here — both in the spring, and then as we’ve gone through the regular season. This year there have been days out there where it’s been cold, rainy, windy, and I think he learned something every day.

"There’s cross winds and there’s winds in your face and it’s kicking with the wind and all that. There’s challenges in every one of them. If you’re kicking with the wind, that’s an advantage to the punter, but handling the snap, which is coming back into the wind, wobbles and things like that. It’s a little tougher snap for the snapper. So anyway, he’s done a good job of, I would say, adapting to the conditions. He’s still got a long way to go. I’m sure he’ll learn a lot more as the season goes along."

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Patriots QB Tom Brady jokes about his dislike for Cowboys growing up as 49ers fan

Patriots QB Tom Brady jokes about his dislike for Cowboys growing up as 49ers fan

One of the requirements to being a San Francisco 49ers is not liking the Dallas Cowboys.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who grew up as a 49ers fan living in northern California, will play against the Cowboys on Sunday at Gillette Stadium in a much-anticipated Week 12 matchup.

The 42-year-old veteran, during his Wednesday press conference, joked about the dislike he had for Dallas while watching the great Cowboys-49ers matchups during his childhood.

"I've really not liked the Cowboys since coming out of the womb, as a Niners fan," a smiling Brady told reporters. "But, no, I've got a lot of respect for those guys. They've actually had a great winning organization. They've got a lot of great players in their history, guys that I've just -- as a Niners fan -- you know, you play the Cowboys and every time they hand it off to Emmitt Smith it's a 5-yard gain, and you'd pull your hair out. And throw it up to Michael Irvin, and Troy Aikman was such a great player. The defenses, Ken Norton and Primetime (Deion Sanders). I think the history of great players, the tradition -- getting to meet Roger Staubach over the years, he's been such a cool guy, someone to really look up to. And then what they're currently doing with the team they have, one of the most talented teams in the NFL. They're playing great on offense, on defense, and it's going to be a huge challenge for us."

The 49ers and Cowboys have a long, storied rivalry that includes many classic matchups in the NFL playoffs, including six NFC Championship Game meetings from 1970 through 1994. In fact, the Cowboys or 49ers won every Super Bowl over a four-year span from 1992 through 1995.

Brady has enjoyed plenty of success versus the Cowboys. He's 4-0 with 1,164 passing yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his career against Dallas. Sunday's game shouldn't lack drama, especially with both teams hungry to improve their standing in the playoff races.

"I love it. I love the opportunity to compete against great teams this time of the year as Thanksgiving approaches," Brady said. "It means a lot for both teams. Every time we play at home it's important to us. Late in the year, we only have so many more chances to go out there and put on a great performance. We'll try to do that."

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