Rob Ninkovich is eligible to return to the Patriots after Sunday’s game. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
1. Tom Brady isn’t the only notable name set to return to the Patriots after Sunday’s game. Edge defender Rob Ninkovich is also scheduled to come back to Gillette following a four-game ban for a PED violation. While it’s debatable how long it might take Ninkovich to round back into form, it will certainly mean some personnel changes when it comes to New England’s front seven. When’s ready to roll — and when Dont’a Hightower is also back to 100 percent — there are a variety of spots where he could play. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long doing very well over the course of the first three games at defensive end, the Patriots could start by working Ninkovich in as an extra rusher on third downs and other passing situations. (New England could fundamentally move Ninkovich into the role currently occupied by Trey Flowers, and then move Flowers to the backup interior rush role that was held by Anthony Johnson before he was moved to the practice squad.) Despite the fact that he still holds up well against the run, Ninkovich could also be part of a modified “NASCAR” package that features a four-man front of Long, Flowers, Ninkovich and Sheard used solely on passing downs. If Hightower remains on the shelf, Ninkovich also has the sort of versatility that could lend itself to some inside linebacker work in place of Shea McClellin or Jonathan Freeny. Ultimately, while he starred on the edge the last few years, Ninkovich’s versatile skill set will be put to good use as the Patriots look to get him back up to speed as soon as possible.
2. One question we’ve gotten here multiple times over the course of the last week-plus is who is released to make room for Brady and Ninkovich when they do return. From this viewpoint, the Patriots would love to retain some roster flexibility, which would mean waiving a young player at a position where they have good depth that could be snuck through to the practice squad. From this perspective, the likeliest candidates — in no particular order — are linebacker Elandon Roberts, tight end A.J. Derby and running back D.J. Foster, all of whom have practice squad eligibility. None of this is to suggest that the three young players haven’t done everything that was asked of them. It’s just that they appear to be part of a numbers crunch with the return of Brady and Ninkovich.
3. With so many other storylines over the first three weeks of the season, it’s been easy to overlook the contributions of someone like Long, but the veteran has clearly surpassed expectations in his short span in New England, stepping in to provide depth at a needed position following Ninkovich’s suspension while playing 71 percent of all defensive snaps through the first three games. He has a sack and a pair of passes defensed, and has helped author a nice redemption story after battling injuries the last two years with the Rams. (That’s in addition to offering some wisdom and context to the Colin Kapernick debate.) He’s been hailed by Pro Football Focus as one of 10 free-agent additions who have already made an impact, and has certainly impressed Bill Belichick. “With Chris, all the positive things I knew and heard about Chris are certainly true. I think it’s just more evident when you see it on a day after day basis. Every day [he’s the] first one in, ready to go, pencil sharpened, taking notes, alert to just trying to get things right, questions about how he can do it better or how exactly we want it done, goes out there and really tries to do it the way that we’ve coached it,” Belichick said. “I think he has earned everybody’s respect; the players, assistant coaches, like I said, trainers, all of the people in the organization. He has just done everything right.”
4. We made plenty of LeGarrette Blount/Corey Dillon comparisons over the course of the last week (check both of them here and here), but Blount stands on the verge of being able to accomplish something that no Patriots back has done since Dillon did in 2004: rush for 100 yards in at least three straight games. Blount, who heads into Week 4 as the leading rusher in the NFL, rushed for 123 yards against Miami on Sept. 18, and followed that up with a 105-yard outing against Houston on Sept. 22. If he tops the century mark Sunday against Buffalo, he’d be the first to go back-to-back-to-back since Dillon did it four games in a row in 2004. (In that stretch, Dillon actually hit 100-plus yards six times in a seven-game series that ran from Oct. 17 to Dec. 5. And in that seventh game? He finished with “only” 98 yards. Not a bad two-month stretch.) For what it’s worth, Buffalo is tied for 14th in the NFL in rushing defense, having allowed an average of 98 yards per game over the first three games of the year. And in five career games against the Bills, Blount has averaged 12 carries and 65 yards a game for a whopping 5.53 yards per carry. Maybe more carries that usual this time around?
5. Michael Irvin made some headlines last week when he proclaimed that if Belichick could find a way to beat the Texans with a third-string quarterback in Jacoby Brissett, the Lombardi Trophy should be renamed in honor of Belichick. The former Cowboys receiver expanded on his feelings for the Patriots coach this week on “Inside The NFL,” saying that Belichick has a unique way of being able to “partner” with his players. “We’ve had some great coaches in this league, but what this guy is doing is off the charts,” Irvin said. “We don’t have the control of money controlling the players anymore. You’re giving guys 30, 40, 50 million dollars guaranteed. So no more, ‘I got dominion over you.’ I have to now make sure I partner with you. And this dude knows how to partner with those players and bring the best out of each of those guys that he gets.”
6. A quick check of CFL rosters reveals that eight former Patriots (of recent vintage, anyway) are currently playing up north, a group that includes cornerback V’Angelo Bentley. Bentley saw extensive time in camp with the Patriots this summer, working as a defensive back and kick returner. He returned three kickoffs for 61 yards and one punt for 12 yards against the Saints, then returned one kickoff for 20 yards against the Bears before being released as part of the initial round of cuts on Aug. 22. Bentley is currently on Hamilton’s practice roster. Other recent members of the Patriots who up north include running back Roy Finch (Calgary), defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis (three sacks and 20 tackles, also with Calgary) and wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, who was released by Hamilton but managed to catch on with Montreal’s practice squad earlier this week. Underwood played played 20 games with the Tiger-Cats, catching 56 passes for 865 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
7. For many years, one of the arguments from critics of the Patriots was the fact that they had a Hall of Fame quarterback and a coach with a Super Bowl title on his resume working together for several years. With that kind of continuity at those positions, of course they’re going to succeed. But what’s playing out right now in New Orleans is a prime example of the fact that team-building goes beyond that. The Saints have lost several key players to injury, but at 0-3 and with almost no financial flexibility, there are plenty of big-picture problems that can’t be erased, even if they were at full strength. The Drew Brees/Sean Payton combo always gives them a fighting chance, but the current state of the Saints goes to show you that even if you have rock-solid continuity at two of the most important spots in the franchise, nothing is guaranteed, especially if you don’t pay attention to the bottom line.
8. One of our favorite out-of-left-field stats is the worst-to-first phenomenon that’s taken place in the NFL in 12 of the last 13 years, where at least one team has gone from last to first place in one season. Last year, the Redskins turned the trick, as Kirk Cousins helped take them from the basement to a division title. However, of the eight teams that finished last in 2015 — Miami, Cleveland, Tennessee, San Diego, Dallas, Chicago, Tampa Bay and San Francisco — none are among the division leaders three weeks into the 2016 season. However, as we approach the quarter-pole, the Cowboys appear to be best-positioned among that group to make a run at first place. Dallas is 2-1, tied with the Giants for second place and a game off the blistering pace set by the Eagles. Philly appears built for the long haul, but if the Cowboys and Dak Prescott continues on his current pace, the Cowboys could have the best shot.
9. The Colts and Jags will play the first game of the year in London on Sunday, and if his holds, the chances are pretty good that the losing coach won’t be flying home with his players. Immediately following the first London game in 2014 — a 38-14 win for the Dolphins over the Raiders — Oakland fired coach Dennis Allen. Last year, the Jets beat Miami 27-14, and the Dolphins canned Joe Philbin. This time, it’s Gus Bradley and the Jaguars (one of four 0-3 teams) against Chuck Pagano and the 1-2 Colts. Could one of them get the gate if their team loses? It’s unclear at this point, but the idea of falling into last place in the woeful AFC just four games into the season probably doesn’t mean good things for any coach down the road.
10. Through three weeks, I’m 34-14. (Follow my stats over at the WEEI.com Pick ‘Em Challenge.) My picks this weekend: Miami, Indy, Houston, Washington. Seattle, New England, Carolina, Baltimore, Detroit, Denver, Arizona, San Diego, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
11. “NFL Sunday” is back in your ears this weekend from 9-noon, with me, Pete Sheppard, Tom E. Curran, Field Yates, Christian Fauria and Pete “Rotobahn” Davidson. On a personal note, the move from Gary Tanguay to Pete will make it seven different “NFL Sunday” co-hosts I’ve worked with over the last year. Anyway, listen live at 93.7 or WEEI.com/listen.