FOXBORO - Conversation about the Patriots' playoff prospects centers on two things. Whether the defense is championship caliber and whether the offense can avoid seizing up under heavy pressure. Virtually ignored? The special teams component. There's a credible reason for some of it. On kickoffs, the Patriots are a middling group statistically. On kickoff returns, they average a starting field position of 21.9. On coverage, their opponents' offenses take over at the 21.3. In the punting game, though, Zoltan Mesko is quietly having an outstanding season with a net average on punts of 40.8 yards (second in the AFC) and only two touchbacks on 42 punts. And on returns? Julian Edelman seems close to getting the knack for a job he is still a relative novice at. Edelman is averaging a respectable 12 yards on his 21 returns and he's only fair caught six punts. He's a bit of a panic back there, which may be part of the reason Wes Welker comes in to catch plus-50 punts. But he is also explosive and elusive. I caught up with Edelman in an otherwise deserted Patriots' locker room Monday to talk about his return progress. "Well, considering I dropped one this week, (not so good)," Edelman deadpanned. Aside from that? "You build the confidence in a week's practice," he explained. "You see that the (return) guys are holding their guys up and doing their job. You always like to think you can make someone miss. I guess there's a little confidence there but we didn't get to do it this week. Hopefully we can do it against the Redskins."Even though Edelman took back 21 punts last season and averaged a very impressive 15.3 yards per return, he is still a neophyte at the job. He didn't return until his final college game and only then because his coach was trying to showcase his versatility for NFL scouts. When I said the job takes guts, Edelman answered, "It's educated guts.There's a lot of study.Film study and taking punts to get the feel for the trajectory of the punt and what you have protected and if they're rushing and stuff. You usually know if you'll be able to return it or not (pretty early). Sometimes you take a risk and try to make someone miss and hope they overrun you."I mentioned to Edelman that I've seen him grab bouncing punts with coverage in close proximity. "I don't necessarily know if that's smart," he admitted. "Situationally, I have a lot to learn. I know when I do something wrong that I'm going to get yelled at when I get back to the sideline but sometimes you're competitiveness of wanting to make something happen wins out. But I have to get better at controlling that."Knowing how much Bill Belichick values special teams and how much he culls history for pertinent instruction, I asked Edelman if he's studied the great Cleveland Browns returner Eric Metcalf. "I've watched Metcalf. I've watched Steve Smith (from Carolina)," said Edelman. "I've watched a lot of the guys that Scotty O (special teams coach Scott O'Brien) has coached. Those guys not only were special athletically, they were situationally smart. They looked like professionals and as a punt returner you can tell if a guy knows what he's doing out there or not. That's something I have to get better at and hopefully we can put that together in this Redskins game."
Tom Brady wouldn't take the bait following the AFC title game. He was told that he must've heard the "Where's Roger?" chants, and so then he must've had a reaction.
"I didn't hear that chant," Brady replied.
WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show took another run at the Patriots quarterback's relatonship with commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday morning. Had Brady thought about what he might say should he come face-to-face with Goodell at Super Bowl LI?
"Hopefully we’ll finish the deal," Brady said. "Hopefully we can finish it off, and we’ll see. Maybe I’ll tell you after. But I don’t want to get into winning something before we’ve won it, because it’s going to be hard to win this thing."
Should the Patriots win their fifth Super Bowl title, Brady probably won't be accepting the Lombardi Trophy from Goodell. That exchange usually takes place with the owner at center stage. Perhaps there's a scenario in which Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft allows Brady to take the stage first, but it would go against what has been Super Bowl protocol.
Brady and Goodell could be forced to share the spotlight on the morning after the Super Bowl, however, when the MVP trophy is handed out. It's a ritual they carried out together on the morning following Super Bowl XLIX, when Deflategate was in its nascent stages.
One would think that the embrace they shared that day -- long before the Wells Report was published and long before Brady and the league were pitted against one another in federal court -- will be the last thing that either man wants to recreate two weeks from now.
During his weekly interview with WEEI's Kirk and Callahan Show, Tom Brady highlighted the thought process that has helped make the Patriots such a successful team under Bill Belichick, and in the process of complimenting his boss, Brady also may have taken a little inadvertent shot at the Steelers. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin noted immediately after the Divisional Round that the Patriots had an advantage in preparing for the AFC title game because they had more time to rest.
"I would say in general on our team we have a sign on our wall that says, ‘Doing the right thing for the team when it might not be the right thing for you.’ That’s just putting everything aside," Brady said. "Ignoring the noise, the positive things people may be saying about you, or the negative things people may say about you. Just believing in yourself and not making excuses.
"There’s always an excuse you can build into why you lose a game. 'We’re only playing on six days rest, we have this person hurt, or we didn’t get that call.' There are a million of them, and they’re all built in and you can pick them all off before the game. I think our coach does a great job of never buying into the B.S. He never makes it about one player. He never makes it about one play. He never makes it about one call, or one situation. It’s all about all of us collectively trying to do the best thing we can for the team to try and help us win. He never lets his foot off the gas pedal so when it comes to our team, you’re brainwashed. That’s just the way it goes."
The numbers support Belichick's approach: He'll be coaching in a 10th Super Bowl, and seven of those have come as the head coach of the Patriots. Both are NFL records.