Pro Bowl bids are a team honor for Patriots

959589.jpg

Pro Bowl bids are a team honor for Patriots

FOXBORO -- Vince Wilfork was voted into his fifth Pro Bowl, the NFL announced last night, and it's an honor that never gets old.

"Just appreciate everybody who voted," Wilfork said. "It's always an honor to get acknowledged for being in the Pro Bowl. That's always ver exciting for the wife and the kids. A lot of hard work so I'm very appreciative for everything, being a Pro Bowler and everything."

The defensive lineman was voted to the Pro Bowl in part because of his impressive numbers this season. He already has a career-high in passes defensed with six. He also has a career-high three forced fumbles and a career-high four fumble recoveries to go with 27 tackles and two sacks.

He insisted that the honor said more about the team than his own play, and he hinted at the fact that there were even more Patriots who deserved the honor than the seven named on Wednesday.

"All these guys, these guys work very, very hard," Wilfork explained. "There's probably some guys who got snubbed around the league. I know there's a couple guys out here who feel like they were snubbed. But you know what, just keep working hard, it'll pay off. We got a lot of guys in this locker room that was well deserving of being an All Pro and Pro Bowler so I was just lucky to get picked by my peers and everything, people I play against. It just shows a lot of guys respect what we do so I'm very happy with it."

Wes Welker, who set a record last week by recording the fifth 100-catch season of his career and was named to his fifth straight Pro Bowl, felt similarly. It's a nod that is a testament to the team, not just the honored player.

"It's definitely an honor," Welker said. "I think it's a reflection of how well the team has done this year. Hopefully we can just keep it going.

"I think it's a good reflection of our whole team and everybody coming out and trying to execute their job to the best of their ability. It's more of a team thing really than an individual thing I think around here."

And as nice as it is to be named to the Pro Bowl, none of the Patriots are really hoping to see Hawaii for the game. It would mean they didn't reach the Super Bowl, which will be played in New Orleans the following week.

"Team success is more important than any of this," said special teamer Matthew Slater, who was named to the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year. "I'd rather be eating gumbo in New Orleans than pineapple in Hawaii. I think that the team has had a good year, and that shows by us getting individual awards. But really they're not individual awards. They're team awards and team honors and I feel like my honor goes to the rest of the core guys are out there with me."

Tom Brady (eight Pro Bowls), Logan Mankins (five), Rob Gronkowski (two) and Jerod Mayo (two) were also named to the Pro Bowl for their play this season.

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

Mitchell, Hogan reportedly good to go for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots haven't had all of their receivers simultaneously healthy and in uniform since they acquired Michael Floyd on waivers last month. That appears as though it could change Sunday. 

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, wideouts Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Chris Hogan (thigh) are expected to play in the AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett (knee) is also expected to play, per Schefter. All three were listed as questionable on the team's injury report. 

Mitchell has not seen game action since injuring his knee mid-way through the third quarter against the Jets in Week 16. Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week, left the game in the third quarter and did not return. 

Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was also listed on this week's injury report with an ankle issue. Last week, he played in his first game since Week 13.

If Mitchell, Hogan and Amendola are all healthy enough to play, the Patriots will have their choice of five wideouts against the Steelers since Julian Edelman and Floyd are also physically able to suit up. 

Will they all be in uniform? That remains to be seen. The Patriots haven't taken five receivers on their 46-man game-day roster yet this season. However, because all five bring something different to the Patriots offense, perhaps Bill Belichick and his staff will find it valuable enough to activate all five.

If the Patriots opt to take the receiver-heavy route, they'll have to go lighter elsewhere -- perhaps de-activating a core special teamer -- in order to make room.

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

steelers-patriots-leveon-bell-011817x.jpg

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test.