SMY: What's surprising is that Jones has been this good this quickly. The big knock on him coming out of Syracuse was that he might not be strong enough initially to deal with the mammoth left tackles he'd be facing, and many saw him following a Jason Pierre-Paul type path; he'd be used situationally for his first year or two until he really got his strength up, and then he'd become more of an every-down player. But from Day One in training camp Jones has been on the field for all three downs, his strength hasn't been an issue, and he still has great speed, which is what he is most successful with right now. He has good moves and a variety of them to get himself away from tackles.
JH: Jones has been great. I was surprised that he was able to contribute so quickly in training camp, as it took him less than a week to be on the field with the first-team defense. Then he just kept making plays. He's been labeled as a pass rusher due to his position on the end of the line -- and he does that well, for sure -- but Jones stays on the field because he's a three-down player. He is very good against the run, too. He keeps containment and works off his block with ease, which is scary for a rookie. Jones is a good one right now, and he's got a chance to be great.
MV: If, as expected, Aaron Hernandez doesn't play, how will that affect the offense? Specifically, will that affect Gronkowski's role in any way? The Ravens had no answer for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek last weekend, and there is a lot of concern about Gronkowski doing damage against them, too.
JH: Hernandez won't play Sunday, and he probably won't be on the field for about a month. The loss will certainly impact the Patriots' offense, but they do have enough weapons to offset the injury, providing Brady has enough time to throw. I put together a thorough breakdown in Friday's paper of the way they've used Hernandez, the significance of his loss and the way the Patriots must counter it. Here is a link to that story.
SMY: The Patriots seemingly put a lot of eggs into the Hernandez basket coming into the season, which was a potentially high-reward move that came with some risk since he had missed time in each of his first two seasons. Hernandez really could play a starring role in this offense because he lines up everywhere, so replacing him is not as simple as swapping one guy in when he goes out. They do have Daniel Fells, signed as a free agent in March, but who hasn't played yet to do an offseason shin issue. If Fells is ready to go, he may be able to help, and Deion Branch, re-signed this week, can also help. Gronkowski could be asked to block a bit more than usual if there are still O-line concerns, but he should be used because he's still a matchup problem who can help New England move the ball. Before his ankle injury against Baltimore in the AFC championship game, Gronkowski had five catches for 87 yards.
MV: The loss to the Eagles gave them more immediate things to worry about, but obviously the Ravens will have revenge on their minds after the AFC championship game. There is a lot of bad blood between these two teams after some hard-fought games over the past few seasons. How do the Patriots view this rivalry, and is this the kind of game that they also circled on their calendars when the schedule was released?
SMY: No one here would admit it if they did have this game circled. But Tom Brady has a great deal of respect for Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, as does Bill Belichick, and the players know that this will be a very physical game. This is such a young team that there were only four current Patriots on the roster for that memorable 2007 Monday night game (Brady, Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork and Stephen Gostkowski), and over a dozen members of the current 53-man roster weren't with the team for the AFC title game just eight months ago.
JH: The Patriots definitely view this as a rivalry. Rob Gronkowski was among the handful of players who specifically referred to the Ravens as rivals this week. It's obviously not Pats-Jets or Ravens-Steelers, but this is one of the game's best young rivalries, and the Patriots know it. They're looking forward to a physical game, and it's going to serve as a measuring stick early in the season. Despite the Patriots having the majority of the success between the two teams, the players who lost that 2009 playoff game were ticked with the Ravens' trash talking in the tunnel after the game, so it's always going to be personal for those guys.