FOXBORO — If it were any other team, there’d be reason to really worry this week.
The Patriots have played well enough to earn the No. 1 AFC seed at 13-3 but there are signs of concern, namely the sharpness of their quarterback heading into the playoffs. He figures to have James White, Rex Burkhead and possibly Chris Hogan back on Saturday night. This, in concert with Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks and Dion Lewis should be more than enough firepower to handle the wild-card winning Titans.
The Patriots played sluggishly at times coming down the stretch. They looked beaten in Pittsburgh before lady luck, instant replay and a big play from Eric Rowe bailed them out at the end. They were getting handled by the Bills in the first half at Gillette Stadium on Christmas Eve before another instant replay moment turned the tide en route to a 37-16 walkover in the second half. Even against the Jets in the first half, they didn’t look altogether that crisp, allowing Bryce Petty to hang around. We’re not going to even mention the Miami game in South Florida without Gronk in which they went 0-for-11 on third down.
And, oh yeah, the Patriots are coming off their playoff bye week and a weekend of national media frenzy in the wake of an ESPN The Magazine the-sky-is-falling-in-Foxboro article authored by Seth Wickersham. Following the now infamous story about dissension in the ranks inside Gillette, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady all came out and labeled the story as unsubstantiated and full of errors.
Essentially, their basic point is that no amount of tension, real or imagined, is going to keep them from being prepared to take on the Tennessee Titans this weekend.
The three came out with their joint statement on Friday. Brady told buddy Jim Gray that the article was completely wrong in its characterization of his demand of a trade of Jimmy Garoppolo, something Brady would repeat in his Tuesday morning interview with Kirk & Callahan on WEEI.
“I think that’s just such a poor characterization of anything. In 18 years, I’ve never celebrated when someone has been traded, been cut,” Brady said. “I would say that’s disappointing to hear that someone would express that, or a writer would express that, because it’s so far from what my beliefs are about my teammates.
“I think I’m very empathetic toward other people’s experiences. I know those situations aren’t easy. I’ve never been traded or released, but I can imagine how that might feel. I would never, ever feel that way about when Jimmy got traded, when Jacoby [Brissett] got traded. I’ve kept in touch with all those guys. When Matt Cassel was gone. All these guys I’ve worked with, I felt like I had such a great relationship with all the quarterbacks I’ve worked with. I kept in touch with basically everybody. So to characterize that as a certain way is just completely, completely wrong.”
Robert Kraft told MMQB’s Peter King the story is not credible because of so many fundamental errors within.
And then there’s Bill Belichick.
“We’ve dealt with some non-Tennessee subjects here over the last few days,” Belichick said at the conclusion of his opening monologue Tuesday at Gillette. “At this point I’m all in on Tennessee. I’ll answer any questions about the Titans but that’s it.”
That’s what the Patriots have always been masters at. Address the story on your own terms when it breaks, put it in its place and move on. No one in sports handles PR crises the way the Patriots do. Whether its Mona Lisa Vito at the start of Deflategate, handling coaching vacancy interviews for his defensive coordinators or Tom Brady’s multitude of bumps and bruises.
There’s a reason the Patriots are 17-3 at home in the playoffs under Brady and Belichick. They’ve won seven straight playoff games at Gillette since last losing in Jan. 2013 to the Ravens in the AFC championship. It’s all about focus. It’s why Brady was in at Gillette Stadium in the wee hours Tuesday morning. It’s why the coaches are of singular purpose following interviews with other organizations over the weekend.
Simply put, it’s time to stick to football and Belichick was onto Tennessee on Tuesday.
“We’ve really been able to dig into Tennessee here the last few days since Sunday night,” Belichick said. “Obviously, we did work on them last week but once things cleared up Sunday night it’s all in on Tennessee. It’s an impressive football team. They do a lot of things well. They’re a very well-balanced team. They’re strong in all three phases of the game, really good in the kicking game. They have outstanding specialists. [Brett] Kern’s as good as any. He’s had an unbelievable, fabulous year punting. They have good coverage players, good returners. [Adoree’] Jackson’s done a good job for them in the return game. He’s given them some explosive plays. [Ryan] Succop’s had another great year kicking the ball, so they’re really strong in that phase of the game. Offensively, a well-balanced team, good running game, good runners. The quarterback is athletic, a lot of big play receivers. [Delanie] Walker’s outstanding.”
“They’re tough, they’re resilient. They’ve made a lot of key plays at critical times.”
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) January 9, 2018
“They have a lot of explosive players at the receiver position – [Rishard] Matthews, [Eric] Decker, [Taywan] Taylor – that whole group. A good offensive line, experienced guys. They play very well. They do a good job of attacking the defense in a lot of different ways. They give you a lot to defend, a lot of scheme, good players. Defensively, Coach [Dick] LeBeau is as good as there is, as good a defensive coach as there is. He has an outstanding scheme, does a good job of in-game adjustments. They’re very aggressive. They turn the ball over.
“They have very good edge players. They have good inside players. Their linebackers run well, turn the ball over. [Kevin] Byard’s had a tremendous year for them, but they have a lot of strip fumbles, strip sacks, interceptions. They have a variety of ways to turn the ball over and they’ve done a good job of that all the way across the board. This is a team that’s been in a lot of close games. They’re tough, they’re resilient, won on the road, won tough games the last two weeks that they needed to win to be here. I have a lot of respect for their program, the way they play, the way they coach, the way they compete and [they’re] a tough, hard-nosed team.”
As long as the Patriots don’t allow Marcus Mariota to complete touchdown passes to himself, erase leads of 18 points or channel another Hawaiian quarterback (Alabama’s Tuo Tagovailoa) in Monday night’s national championship, they should be clear favorites to make it to their seventh straight AFC title game on Jan. 21 at Gillette.
“They’re tough. They’re resilient. They make a lot of key plays at critical times,” Belichick said. “That includes a lot of people. Their running game; they’ve had some big runs to ice games at the end – the Houston game, the Indianapolis game, run the clock out, run for long touchdowns. Mariota’s done a great job for them running the ball, throwing the ball, managing the team. They’ve made big stops on defense, made big kicks, so they’ve played well in critical situations. That’s why they’re here.
“Look, we expect to get everybody’s best every week and we’re certainly going to get everybody’s best in the playoffs,” Belichick said. “There’s nothing to save it for. It’s a one-game season. Whatever you’ve got at this point in any capacity you have it – player, coach, scheme – there’s nothing to save it for. So, everybody’s going to do their best and put their best out there. I think you’ve got to be ready for everything and anything at this time of year, but you better be ready to play and coach and execute your best football. We know we need to have our best game Saturday night. That’s what we’re pointing for. That’s what we’re working towards. That’s what we’re preparing for. Hopefully, we can do that.