Belichick on playoffs: We can't be oblivious to the possibilities


Belichick on playoffs: We can't be oblivious to the possibilities

Patriots coach Bill Belichick's response when asked to look ahead is usually predictable: We're just trying to get ready for the next opponent.
Not so, in Week 17.
"I think there's a certain amount of planning and looking ahead that, as a head coach, you need to do, or organizationally, you need to do," Belichick said on his Monday conference call. "We could be traveling in the playoffs, we have to look at where we could stay, things like that. We can't be totally oblivious to the possibilities that exist out there."
You've probably heard most of them.
If the Patriots beat Miami and Houston loses to Indianapolis, New England gets a bye. If the Patriots beat Miami and Denver loses to Kansas City, New England gets a bye.
The Patriots would clinch home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs if they beat Miami and both Denver and Houston lose next weekend.
The Broncos would clinch home-field advantage for the AFC playoffs if they beat Kansas City and the Texans lose.

"Because you don't know on something like that -- we don't even know when we're going to be playing next, or who we're going to be playing next -- there's quite a few possibilities. So it's really hard to be specific on something like that when there's so many possibilities. Whatever you're working on, there's probably a 75-percent chance you're wrong. I think when it's 90-10, maybe you can get a jump on it.
"There's certain things that you kind of have to prepare for. I think the higher probability it is that you know what you're going to do, then the more you can commit a resource to it. If we were to play next week, then we'd be playing one of two teams, so we'll certainly start working on both those teams this week so that when we find out, if that's the way it goes, who we play Sunday night, we already have the information and we can jump on either Indianapolis or Cincinnati -- if that's the scenario."
Belichick noted how different it is from the regular season. For 17 weeks, teams know who their next opponent is and how long they have to prepare.
With so much still in the air heading into the regular season finale, Belichick and his coaching staff focus only on the most immediate playoff scenario. This year, that means wild-card weekend. It also means a possible Saturday game and a short week of prep. But no matter what, the Patriots will be ready to go Sunday night or Monday morning.
Does this mean New England is straying from its 'We're only worried about this week' mantra? No.
There are members of Belichick's scouting and coaching staffs who are responsible for advance work. While the players were getting ready for Jacksonville, those people were looking to Miami. That's how, as soon as that Dolphins game ends, Patriots coaches will be able to dive right into the first playoff opponent.
Much of this toil goes on behind the scenes.
"From the players standpoint, they're kind of week-to-week," Belichick explained. "If they play next week in the wild-card weekend, the team that we don't play the players will never even really know that we worked on them because we would have never presented the material to them, gone over it or anything like that.
"The challenge for the coaches, and the scouting staff, and the organization, is to stay ahead of the curve so that when we have the players in here we give them the most immediate and pertinent information for our next opponent. We do that every single week; we always focus on what we're doing.
"It's really hard to work on two or three teams. You might do that in training camp where you work on a day and then on the 13th you open the season. Even then it's kind of tough because you're trying to juggle two or three balls in the air and that's hard for any player, rookie, veteran, or coach for that matter."
Speaking of rookies, the Patriots have 13, including the practice squad. Seven of the nine on New England's 53-man roster get snaps in almost every contest. Belichick said one thing to consider is how many games the rookies have played to this point. It might seem like 20 tilts, four preseason and almost 16 regular season, are a good thing as far as experience goes.
But the coach sees it differently.
"In college football you play 12 games and a lot of those teams there's a couple of them that might be against a lower-level school or a team that's an out of conference team that's maybe not that hard to get ready for. So this is kind of like two college seasons. They get the physical wear-and-tear, but it's more than that. I think it's the mental wear on them where every week there's a new game plan, adjustments, match ups, techniques it's all a little bit different because of the way your team does them.
"That's kind of the challenging part mentally, to prepare all week, take the test on Sunday, and then come back in on Monday and start the full preparation process all over again. Physically, it's a drain, and I think mentally, it adds up, too. We try to keep them bouncing back from it each week and get into a routine so that it isn't a real high effort one week then it drops way down the next because they can't sustain it at that high professional level, that 98, 95-percent level of consistency."
Just one more variable to consider.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line


Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.