Bill Belichick often talks about the importance of complementary football, so his choices for the team's plays of the week as part of his breakdown on the team's official website weren't a big surprise.

While focusing on the sequence at the end of the second quarter when the New England Patriots turned a 17-7 lead over the Bears into a 38-7 edge in short time, Belichick singled out:

1. Gray's running. With 4:02 remaining, running back Jonas Gray powered right for 17 yards while picking up blocks from tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui (YY wing), as well as right tackle Marcus Cannon. "I thought he ran really hard for us here,” Belichick said, noting it was a big part of a scoring drive to move the ball to midfield.

2. Play-action creates space. Belichick pointed out all the space in the middle of the field on Brandon LaFell's 17-yard catch, which was set up by play-action. "There's no way you could drop back without having the defenders drop into some kind of zones here and have this much space. The play-action really creates a good window for Tom [Brady]," he said.

3. Isolating Gronkowski's matchup. On Gronkowski's 2-yard touchdown catch, Belichick highlighted how Hoomanawanui split out wide to the right side and drew safety Ryan Mundy, which led Gronkowski to then split out wide to the opposite side, where linebacker Shea McClellin aligned over him. "That's another good matchup," Belichick said. "Tom found that."

4. Slater's recognition on ensuing kickoff. Belichick then showed the end-zone angle of the ensuing kickoff, which captured part of what makes special teams captain Matthew Slater a top player. His recognition of the blocking scheme helped thwart the return, pinning the Bears deep in their own territory.

5. Ayers' sack draws notice. After pinning the Bears deep, a sack by Akeem Ayers on second-and-6 came as a result of a strong inside rush by Jamie Collins and an initial corner blitz by Logan Ryan. Then Ayers cleaned it up. "We turned that field position into a negative play," Belichick said. "Nice job by Akeem coming in last week. First game, he picked it up pretty quickly. Worked hard."

6. Hustle plays by Gray and Slater on punt return. After the Patriots forced a three-and-out on defense, Julian Edelman's 42-yard punt return was reviewed, with Belichick noting Gray drawing a holding penalty and then hustling back to deliver a key block along with Slater. The punt return unit set up a wall and Edelman took it wide to the left side.

7. Two tight ends draw attention to open up outside. On LaFell's 9-yard touchdown catch, Belichick pointed out how the Bears show a blitz, and then the safeties cheated down on the tight ends over the middle. That left the outside open. "It's really one-on-one outside to LaFell -- great throw, catch," Belichick said.

8. Strip sack and scoop and score adds to lead. A strong inside rush by Dont'a Hightower helped break the pocket as Hightower wrapped up Jay Cutler, who then brought the ball up in an area where security was compromised. "[Zach] Moore kind of hits him from the back, [Dominique] Easley hits him from the front, gets his hand, pulls the ball out," Belichick said, noting the quick reactions of multiple defenders, led by Rob Ninkovich who raced 15 yards for a touchdown.

"It was a great sequence of big plays in all three phases of the game," Belichick said. "Being able to score 21 points in a minute that really changed the complexion of the game."

Cousin Sal makes his picks for week 9 in the NFL.

Bruschi's Breakdown: Pats-Broncos

October, 31, 2014
Oct 31
[+] EnlargeManning
AP Photo/Jack DempseyWith Terrance Knighton (left) anchoring the D and a record-setting Peyton Manning directing the O, the Broncos look like the best team in the NFL.

Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's the highly anticipated AFC showdown between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET).

Mike: Football fans in New England have been treated to a lot of big games over the years. From a regular-season standpoint, this one ranks right up there. These teams know each other well, almost like they've been in the same division these last few years.

Tedy: Yes, and I'm sure both teams went back and watched last season's AFC title game, to become familiar with it again. And the regular-season game last year too, and then you compare the two and ask questions like 'What changes did they make? What changes did we make? What worked the best?' That's a big part of the preparations this week.

Mike: Patriots players echoed that in the locker room over the last couple of days. Before we get into some of the X's and O's, and what some of those things are, what stands out to you from a general sense with the Broncos?

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ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discusses the importance of the Broncos' young backfield being able to hold on to the ball against the Patriots.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- As a fifth-year defensive back, Devin McCourty knows better than to try to outsmart Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

The fact of the matter is you simply can't.

"I would say the chess game is pretty one-sided," McCourty said. "It's like being a kid going against a father in chess. He's a very smart quarterback. He knows what he wants to do.

"Most the time he knows what the defense is in, so if what he had planned isn't going to work, he's going to get the offense in something else. I think that's what you see out there on the field and I think a lot of times people talk about trying to know what's in his head and know what he's trying to do, but he's really just going off us. We end up in something at the last minute, he knows and then he goes to something else."

That will be the challenge Sunday when the New England Patriots host Manning and the Broncos. McCourty is familiar with the challenge the Broncos present. He was on the field against them twice last season, when Denver set several NFL records for offense.

[+] EnlargeDevin McCourty
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsDevin McCourty, right, knows the Patriots will have the hands full in trying to contain Julius Thomas and the Broncos' receivers.
"It's probably the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL last year, and then you bring most of those weapons back this year and then add [wide receiver] Emmanuel Sanders," McCourty said. "I guess you can go back and forth and debate, but the offense is probably a little better than it was last year, and it was easily the best offense in the NFL last year."

Things don't figure to be easy. Manning looks like he has only gotten better with age. Tied for the league-lead in touchdown passes with 22, he'll surely present McCourty and the rest of the secondary with their toughest challenge of the season in terms of matching up against a quarterback.

"I feel like it's another year, same story going against Peyton," McCourty said. "He's getting the ball where it needs to be, either vertical or short. Whatever the defense gives him, he takes full advantage of it. There's not much you can do that he doesn't know."

And then there are Manning's receivers. Along with Sanders, enjoying a career season after four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos have another premier option in Demaryius Thomas at receiver. Add in a top touchdown target in tight end Julius Thomas and old friend Wes Welker, and the Patriots find themselves in similar territory as last week, when they faced the Chicago Bears' triumvirate of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.

"It's kind of like we talked about a little bit last week, where there's going to be times where we're just going to have to go cover the guys," McCourty said. "Same as last week, you can't double everybody. They have a lot of weapons [that] on other teams they'd be the star guy where you just double him and defend everybody else. You can go down the line with all those guys that are out there. You can't do that, even if you do choose to double one, [Manning is] going to find it and throw to somebody else.

"It's going to come down to a lot of matchups one-on-one where you've just got to try and make a play. Obviously you go by their numbers and their games -- they've made a fair share of those plays and the defense really hasn't. We're going to have to just go out there and compete. That' s the thing when you play in these type of games. It's just going to come down to competing. You go against great players, they're going to make some plays. But we've got to try to make ours, too."

Competing served the Patriots secondary well against the Bears, as they were able to hold their top three options to two touchdowns and less than 200 yards receiving combined. However, Manning isn't Jay Cutler, making this Sunday's test all the more difficult.

Like the kid going against the father in chess, the Patriots defense can only do their best to keep pace. From there, they can look for their best chance to check Manning.

After all, it's the checkmate that matters in the end.

"You've just got to go out there and play," McCourty said. "I don't think we can overthink and try to outsmart ourselves by trying to go move for move with him and check for check, because he does a lot of checking at the line of scrimmage.

"You don't really want to be out there guessing. We just want to go out there and try to play competitive throughout the down."

Injury report: Four Patriots remain limited

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Recently signed veteran defensive lineman Alan Branch did not participate in practice on Thursday, though the team said it was not injury related.

The rest of the New England Patriots' injury report remained unchanged from Wednesday.

Defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) is still not participating in practices.

The limited participants are rookie defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming (finger) and core special teamers Nate Ebner (finger) and Matthew Slater (shoulder).

Quarterback Tom Brady (ankle), cornerback Brandon Browner (ankle) and linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee) remain full participants in practice.


ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discusses how a windy forecast could favor the Patriots on Sunday.

The NFL Live crew make their picks for Denver at New England.

Matthew Berry discusses the running back he loves and hates for Week 9.

Vince Wilfork on Broncos: 'The best of the best'

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — You don’t have to tell New England Patriots defensive captain Vince Wilfork how challenging Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos is going to be. He’s fully aware of the task at hand.

"They’re the best of the best,” Wilfork said. “Do everything well. One of the best quarterbacks in history we’ve got to face. He doesn’t make it easy. He wants to make sure that they’re in the perfect play every snap. They’re so tough to defend. We have to play our A-plus game to be successful. Anything other than that, we’re going to have problems.”

[+] EnlargeWilfork
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky"We have to play our A-plus game to be successful," Vince Wilfork said of facing the Broncos. "Anything other than that, we're going to have problems."
The problems for the Patriots' defense only start with Peyton Manning. In addition to the future Hall of Famer at quarterback, the Broncos have explosive receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, a dangerous red zone threat at tight end in Julius Thomas, and a speedy running back on a recent tear in Ronnie Hillman. Combine that with an aggressive defense and solid special-teams play and you’ve got what Wilfork described as the most complete team in the NFL.

“When you draw up a perfect football team, you draw up the Denver Broncos all-around -- special-teams, offense and defense,” Wilfork said. “They do a real good job of getting the ball back to their offense and they do a real good job putting the ball in the end zone. We have to play well everywhere, not just in certain areas. It’s going to be the run game, it’s going to be the pass game, it’s going to be everything. We have to do a real good job because they’re great at everything.”

Such has been the prevailing sentiment among players this week as the Broncos figure to give the Patriots their toughest matchup of the season. With the defense still trying to find a consistent identity after the loss of both Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones, Wilfork talked about the importance of new linebacker additions Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas fitting in to help fill the void.

“Every week it’s just one of those things you just have to get more comfortable in playing,” Wilfork said. “Just continue to get better. Know the game plan, know the situation, know what we’re trying to do and just execute to the highest level.”

Set up on the defensive line, Wilfork figures to have his hands full both putting pressure on Manning and containing Hillman from getting into open space. To do that, Wilfork, as he does each week, discussed the importance of the defense making the tackles they need to make when the opportunity arises.

“They know where they want to run the ball, they know how they want to move the ball. So it’s going to be a challenge for us to defend everywhere -- passing game, running game, outside, inside, you name it,” Wilfork said. “Everybody is going to have to put in their tackles. There’s really nothing you can do about it but just practice and prepare for it and try to execute your game plan. Hopefully you can slow them down just enough to where we can be successful."

Although the defense will be put to the test against the Broncos' top-scoring offense, Wilfork and the rest of the team understand that Denver is beatable.

“We’re going to have to be a real good football team this week. It starts on the practice field with us and just make sure that we take care of what we need to take care of. And hopefully it’s good enough,” Wilfork said.

Patriots shuffle practice squad roster

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots announced Thursday that they re-signed offensive lineman Chris Barker to the practice squad. The team released defensive lineman Ben Bass to make room for Barker.

Barker was on the Patriots’ practice squad until the team promoted him to the 53-man roster on Oct. 1 to provide depth on an offensive line that was dealing with injuries to Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming. Barker did not play in the game against the Jets and was inactive against the Bears.

The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Barker is in his second NFL season and was released on Oct. 28 to make room for new linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who was acquired in a trade deadline deal with Tampa Bay.

Barker participated in the team’s practice on Thursday.

While the Patriots have all 10 practice-squad spots currently filled, it is possible the team will bring back linebacker Deontae Skinner, which means they will need to release one player.

The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Skinner was released on Wednesday to open up a 53-man roster spot for veteran defensive lineman Alan Branch.

Skinner, a rookie free agent out of Mississippi State who started on the practice squad, was signed to the Patriots’ 53-man roster on Sept. 13. He played in seven games, including one start, and notched 10 total tackles and three special-teams tackles.

Patriots practice squad:
OL Chris Barker
DE Jake Bequette
WR Josh Boyce
LB Ja'Gared Davis
LB Darius Fleming
OL Caylin Hauptmann
WR Jonathan Krause
DL Kona Schwenke
DB Daxton Swanson
DL Joe Vellano

ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson discusses the rejection of Aaron Hernandez's bid to have his trial moved to a different county.

ESPN NFL Insider Mike Sando delivers stats to help you make a pick for Denver at New England.

Boston teams/athletes remember Menino

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
Thomas Menino;Mike Lowell;Pedro Martinez;Jason Varitek;Leon Powe;Tedy Bruschi;Troy Brown;Ty Law;Mark RecchiWinslow Townson/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesFormer Boston mayor Thomas Menino (left) will be missed by Boston's athletes and teams.
Boston’s athletes, team owners and executives joined the rest of the community Thursday in mourning the death of Thomas Menino, the longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history.

Menino understood sports’ place in the fabric of Boston and was appreciated by all of the city’s franchises.

What follows is a sampling of their remembrances and condolences:

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Jonathan Casillas 'cramming' to be ready for Sunday

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New Patriots linebacker Jonathan Casillas was used to winning when he spent four seasons with the New Orleans Saints and won a Super Bowl. When Casillas went to Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers struggled, as the team is sitting at 1-6 this season.

Now with the New England Patriots, Casillas is humbled to be a part of a franchise that has sustained success for so many years and is doing it yet again in 2014.

"Everybody knows what the Patriots are doing, that’s for sure," Casillas said. "They may not want to mimic exactly, but they know what Belichick is doing, that they set the standard -- we set the standard. I say 'they' because my first six years I’ve been looking at the Patriots. Now to be a part of it is pretty amazing."

Casillas was asked how it feels to go from the 1-6 Bucs to the 6-2 Patriots.

"Do I really have to answer that question?" Casillas said.

The Patriots traded a 2015 fifth-round pick to the Bucs for Casillas and a sixth-round pick on Tuesday at the trade deadline. He’s working hard to make a quick transition to an entirely new defensive system, which is something he has had to do countless times throughout his NFL career.

"I feel like I’m cramming for a final in college," Casillas said. "I’m happy to be here and blessed to have this opportunity to play for a great organization.

"This is my fourth [defensive] coordinator in four years since Gregg [Williams], so five [defensive] coordinators in five years, and that’s the tough part -- learning all of these different defensive schemes -- not really transitioning city to city because a city is a city. I can get acclimated to my surrounding place. My job learning the Xs and Os about what I’m going to do every day and the verbiage and the communication, that’s the difficult part."

With the season-ending injury to linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Patriots have signed Casillas and Akeem Ayers to provide some depth and an impact at the position. Casillas acknowledges that he admires Mayo’s play.

"I’m a big fan of Jerod [Mayo]," Casillas said. "I played against him when he was a junior and I was a senior at Wisconsin. He had like 15 tackles. I’ve always watched these guys. I’m a fan of the game. Definitely a fan of these guys. With [Devin] McCourty back deep, it’s a great scheme for me to be in."

Casillas has been a part of many different defensive schemes, but he said none is as unique as the Patriots’ scheme.

"I’ve never seen anything like this defense before, and that’s just me being a 4-3 guy, 225 [pounds]," Casillas said. "I’ve always played outside linebacker, and now they have me doing some stuff inside.

"Basically saying I’m going to be playing on some sub packages, pass situations, nickel and dollar personnel and stuff like that, just adding some depth. I think our linebackers are good, watching Jamie [Collins] and Dont'a [Hightower] perform. [They are] big guys that can run and are very physical. I’m just hoping to add a little different element to that -- a little speed, a little quickness."

Casillas also expects to be a factor on special teams, even as soon as Sunday’s game against the Broncos.

"All four [special-teams units]," Casillas said. "I’m a core guy. Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do.

"[Scott] O’Brien, as soon as I got here he was meeting with me and I’m doing extra work with him just to get caught up to speed. Because they want me to go this weekend, and I want to go this weekend."