Stevan Ridley will likely fall short of the 1,000-yard mark this year, which means a unique pattern will continue in New England. (AP)
1. With Stevan Ridley’s ball security issues landing him on the sidelines, it appears that he won’t get an opportunity to break one of the oddest streaks in Bill Belichick’s coaching career. In his year’s as a head coach — dating all the way back to his days in Cleveland — he’s never had a running back go for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons. He’s had plenty of 1,000-yard rushers, including Antowain Smith (1,157 yards in 2001), Corey Dillon (1,635 yards in 2004), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1,008 yards in 2010) and Ridley (1,263 yards last year). Ridley enters Sunday’s game against the Browns with 576 yards — 424 yards shy of the mark — and would have to average 106 yards per game over the last four to hit the plateau. While it’s not completely impossible, it would be a bit of a reach. Of the backs Belichick has had, Smith and Dillon have come the closest. Smith followed up his 2001 performance with 982 yards in 2002, falling just short of the back-to-back mark. And Dillon had 733 yards in 2005.
2. Meanwhile, there’s another running back who appears likely to hit another interesting mark. Shane Vereen enters this weekend with 35 carries and 28 receptions, impressive numbers considering the fact that he’s only played in four of the 12 games to this point in the season because of a wrist injury he suffered in the Week 1 opener against the Bills. However, Vereen figures to be close to hitting the 40-carry/40-catch mark, a plateau that only two other New England running backs have hit since Bill Belichick took over the Patriots prior to the 2000 season. Danny Woodhead did it last year when he had 76 carries and 40 catches — prior to that, Kevin Faulk was the last back to turn the trick while with the Patriots, finishing the 2008 season with 83 carries and 58 catches. (Faulk actually did it four times with New England, with his most impressive multidimensional season coming in 2000 when he finished with 164 carries and 51 catches.) Going back 20 years, Curtis Martin (who had a remarkable 316 carries and 46 catches in 1996, followed up by a 274 carries and 41 catches in 1997), Dave Meggett (1995) and Leroy Thompson (1994) also turned the trick while with New England.
3. Another running back tale — file this one under one who got away. Detroit’s Joique Bell recounted an interesting story this week, speaking with MLive about how he almost became a member of the Patriots on two separate occasions. The 27-year-old Bell, who has 435 rushing yards and 378 receiving yards with the Lions this year, said that after he went undrafted in 2010, he got a call from Belichick about possibly coming to New England. Bell was interested, but asked for a few minutes to confer with his agent. After checking with his agent, he called Belichick back, but was told by that point, the Patriots had already signed another running back. (Bell didn’t saw who the back was, but a look back at the free agent transactions following the 2010 draft reveals that the Patriots signed running back Pat Paschall, a North Dakota State product who was waived two months later.) He ended up with the Eagles, but Bell also said that after he was let go later in his career, he had everything lined up to sign with New England again, only to return to the Eagles again.
4. Here’s a quick look at some of the more important AFC games this weekend, as viewed through a Patriots prism:
a. Indy (8-4) at Cincy (8-4), 1 p.m. One of the two biggest games for Patriots fans to keep an eye on. If the Colts are able to knock off the Bengals, it’ll give New England some breathing room when it comes to the chase for that No. 2 spot. Currently, the Patriots are a game up on both teams, and while it’s not exactly palatable to be tied with the Colts, New England currently holds the tiebreaker between the two teams if it came to that. The Patriots aren’t as lucky when it comes to the Bengals, as New England lost to Cincy on the road earlier this season. A Patriots win and Bengals loss would give the Patriots a little separation.
b. Miami (6-6) at Pittsburgh (5-7), 1 p.m. This is the other key one for New England fans. If the Patriots win and Dolphins lose, that would clinch the AFC East for New England and give the Patriots a playoff spot. If both New England and Miami win, the Patriots would have to wait until next week in South Florida for another chance to clinch the division.
c. Kansas City (9-3) at Washington (3-9), 1 p.m. Given the Broncos slate the rest of the way — they have the easiest schedule among the AFC elite — it would be a bit much to think that the Chiefs have a shot at coming back in the AFC West, even though they’re only a game back of Denver. But stranger things have happened. No. 5 Kansas City gets its chance to snap its three-game losing skid against the Redskins, an embarrassing team that’s circling the drain as the 2013 season comes to a close.
d. Minnesota (3-8) at Baltimore (6-6), 1 p.m. The Ravens are on the march, having nudged their way back into the AFC playoff picture, and they have another chance to make even more noise this weekend at home against the lowly Vikings. Baltimore, who currently sits at No. 6 in the playoff race, needs to take advantage this week against Minnesota, because it’s their only tomato can the rest of the way — the Ravens have the toughest final quarter of the season from a strength of schedule standpoint. Over the last three games, they face teams with a combined mark of 24-12.
e. Tennessee (5-7) at Denver (10-2), 4 p.m. As we previously stated, it would be a surprise if the Broncos weren’t able to run the table the rest of the way and finish 14-2 and with the AFC West title, particularly when you consider the fact that the combined record of their remaining opponents is 16-32, with none of them at or above .500. Regardless of what the Chiefs do, a win Sunday against the Titans — who are still mathematically in the postseason chase — would effectively end the divisional race.
f. New York Giants (5-7) at San Diego (5-7), 4:25 p.m. A must-win game for both teams if they want to stay in the postseason picture. The Chargers are one of four teams in the AFC sitting at 5-7 — it would be hard enough just getting separation from that group, but whoever might emerge from that swampy morass then has to climb over the Dolphins (6-6) and battle with the Ravens (6-6) for that final wild card spot. Not an easy task.
5. We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks — and I feel like I’ve written on it a few times already — but it’s worth mentioning again that the 2013 Patriots will almost certainly go down as one of the most disciplined teams of Belichick’s time in New England. Through 12 games, the Patriots have the second-fewest penalties and penalty yardage in the league (51 and 493 yards), and are on pace to be flagged for 68 penalties and 657 penalty yards over the regular season. That would represent a dramatic dip in regular season penalties against over the course of the last few years: last season, it was 97 penalties and 840 yards, and in 2011, it was 87 penalties and 815 yards. One of the reasons for the improvement is simple — they’ve run fewer plays on both sides of the ball this year than in year’s past. But as we’ve pointed out before, they also deserve credit for not getting flagged down as often in 2013. For complete penalty information, check out our weekly updates here.
6. Some of the potential for drama was taken from this week’s game when Brian Hoyer went down earlier in the year because of a season-ending knee injury. If he had stayed healthy, the former Brady backup would have had the chance to come back and face his old team. (It would have been the first time a backup to Brady would have returned to Foxboro to meet his old team since Drew Bledsoe came back to town with the Bills in 2003.) The Michigan State product — who spent 2009-2011 with the Patriots and distinguished himself as one of the nicest guys in the locker room over that stretch — was 57-for-96 (59 percent) for 615 yards, with five touchdowns and three interceptions through three games with the Browns this season. “He’s one of those guys who wants to go out there and prove himself every time he steps out on the field,” Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon said of Hoyer this week. “So he definitely has that underdog mentality — he never wants to quit, he’s always fired up about the game. He really loves it. He’s a great guy, but you know it was just cut short for him and that’s unfortunate.”
7. It’s been a pretty eventful year for Brady’s former backups. In addition to Hoyer’s 3-0 mark, Matt Cassel, who will start this weekend for the Vikings, is 1-1 as a starter with Minnesota this year, alternating with Christian Ponder and (occasionally) Josh Freeman. Kliff Kingsbury — who spent the 2003 season on injured reserve after being selected in the sixth round by the Patriots that spring — is 7-5 in his first season as head coach with Texas Tech. And Andrew Walter, who had a cup of coffee with New England in the summer of 2009 before being released prior to the start of the season, is running for Congress in Arizona.
8. Overall, the Patriots have been in shotgun for 359 of their 853 offensive snaps this season, a rate of 42 percent. (That compares pretty favorably to last season — in 2012, through 12 games, the Patriots were in the shotgun for 428 for 918 of their plays, a rate of 47 percent.) Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of how much they’ve used shotgun to this point in the season:
vs. Buffalo: 44 of 89 snaps
vs. New York Jets: 25 of 62 snaps
vs. Tampa Bay: 35 of 72 snaps
vs. Atlanta: 15 of 62 snaps
vs. Cincinnati: 33 of 60 snaps
vs. New Orleans: 39 of 83 snaps
vs. New York Jets: 44 of 70 snaps
vs. Miami: 11 of 62 snaps
vs. Pittsburgh: 17 of 71 snaps
vs. Carolina: 29 of 67 snaps
vs. Denver: 39 of 84 snaps
vs. Houston: 28 of 69 snaps
9. One statistical nugget to keep an eye on Sunday afternoon: through the first 12 games of the season, the Browns have gone for it on fourth down more than any other team in the league. Cleveland has attempted 26 fourth-down conversions this season, and the Browns have converted 13 of those opportunities. (Both totals are tops in the league — the only other team that’s close is Jacksonville, which is 9-for-21.) “It’s just something we’ve talked about from Day One,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said after a recent win when asked about the aggressive approach. “We’ve really worked to build that (philosophy). You can say it. But you have to do it on the field. Our (offense) wants to play that way. Our defensive guys want us to play that way.” Conversely, the Patriots are the best fourth-down defense in the league — New England is holding opponents to 3-for-13 on fourth-down chances. The 23 percent success rate is the best for any defense that has faced 10 or more attempts. Something to watch for come Sunday.
10. And finally, a fond farewell to Brian Lowe, one of the really nice guys on the Patriots beat. Lowe has been a part of the Patriots.com crew and host of “Patriots Today” for the past several years, but will be leaving for a new job this week. His great attitude, steady approach and good humor will be missed around Gillette Stadium. Best of luck, buddy.