Pats' triumph Sunday defines 'winning ugly'

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Pats' triumph Sunday defines 'winning ugly'

FOXBORO Tom Brady engineered yet another late-game rally as New England squeaked out a 20-16 win over the Dallas Cowboys. The much-maligned Patriots defense continues to trend in the right direction, as they did their part to get the ball back in Brady's hands as he went about engineering comeback win No. 32 if you're keeping track at home.

But for anyone who saw Sunday's game, there was one word that probably best described the Patriots' fifth win of the season - ug-gah-lee.

"I would second that, without a shadow of a doubt," said Patriots guard Brian Waters. "I know that around here that's not anything new, to be honest with you. I know there have been a lot of close games around here and as well for Dallas. It was expected to come down to the end."

Maybe so, but certainly not like this in a game that featured more mental blunders on the Patriots part than usual.

"We did a lot of things very poorly," said New England tackle Matt Light. "And look, whether it was those guys just making great plays and having the kind of guys that can make plays like that or us just totally being asleep in certain situations. We've got to play better than that; we understand that."

Missed assignments is one thing. Penalties can kind of be explained away as well.

But more than anything else, it was New England's woeful job of tackling the Cowboys that was most disturbing.

In the first quarter with a first-and10 at their own 23-yard line, New England's defense stuffed Felix Jones for a one-yard gain - but only after he broke four tackles.

And the biggest play of the game for the Cowboys - a 33-yard catch by Dez Bryant - involved New England players missing tackles.

"We had some problems with tackling," acknowledged Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes, who came up with arguably the biggest tackle of the game when he disrupted a shovel pass near the end zone in the fourth quarter which resulted in a three-yard loss and even more important, forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal. "But getting all those hats to the ball, we took care of it."

Said coach Bill Belichick: "We missed a lot of tackles today. That was the biggest problem. We've got to do a better job of tackling, but we were able to play well in the red (zone) area and hold them to some field goals. Ultimately, the touchdowns beat the field goals, so we were fortunate there."

In addition to the missed tackles and penalties (5-for-35 yards), the Pats turned the ball over four times which included a pair of interceptions by Brady.

"We really squandered away some opportunities throughout the game but came up big when we needed it," Brady said.

To a large degree, it has been like that all season for the Patriots.

With every victory, there has usually been one aspect of their play that was noticeably bad relative to others.

On Sunday, it seemed as though the Patriots were unable to get into a nice flow in a number of phases of play.

And that, more than anything else, makes Sunday's victory so impressive.

"Everyone battled back and played hard," Light said. "These are the kind of wins you want, but you don't necessarily want to be in those situations."

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots will go with four receivers against the Steelers as Michael Floyd has been listed as a healthy scratch for the AFC title game. 

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

The Patriots had all five of their wideouts -- Floyd, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola -- available to them for Sunday's matchup, but they're opted to use the four who are most experienced in the team's offense. 

Hogan (thigh), Mitchell (knee) and Amendola (ankle) were all listed as questionable going into the weekend, but all have been deemed physically ready to play as their team vies for a Super Bowl berth. 

Floyd had his worst game as a member of the Patriots last week in the Divisional Round against the Texans. On two routes, both slants, Floyd ran the pattern in such a way that there appeared to be some miscommunication between him and quarterback Tom Brady. One was picked off and the other was almost picked. 

Floyd admitted as much last week, saying that there are still intricacies to the Patriots offense that he needs to pick up -- including exactly how Brady wants certain routes run.

Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week but felt optimistic soon thereafter that he'd be good to go for the conference championship. Mitchell hasn't played since suffering a knee injury against the Jets in Week 16. 

Other Patriots inactives for Sunday include quarterback Jacoby Brissett, running back DJ Foster, offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, safety Jordan Richards and corners Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones.

Curran: Pats already winning the mind game

Curran: Pats already winning the mind game

FOXBORO -- There’s this book called “The Obstacle is the Way,” written by an author named Ryan Holiday.

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

Therein, the 29-year-old author explains how many highly successful people use adversity as a springboard. Holiday explains that dwelling on impediments to success -- whether they be personal shortcomings, daily challenges that confront us or just bad luck -- hinders our ability to accept them and move on undeterred . . . which is critical to success.  

It’s a book I first became aware of when reading a feature on John Schneider, the Seahawks GM. Schneider said he was told about the book by Bill Belichick confidante and former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi in 2015.

“[Lombardi] said, 'That's really where you would get a great vibe for what [Belichick] is like and what his philosophy is and how he approaches life and his football culture and all. I went out and purchased it right away, and it was awesome.”

The book came to mind last week when Mike Tomlin, in his postgame address to his team, lamented that the Patriots were “a day-and-a-half” ahead of Pittsburgh in prep time and that the Steelers wouldn’t be back in Pennsylvania until 4 a.m.

Already there was that “I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’ . . . ” woe-is-me approach that gave not just Tomlin an issue to fixate upon, but his players as well. Kind of like the idle intimation Tomlin made after the 2015 opener that the Steelers headsets gave them issues.

Of course, by Monday morning, the Steelers had more to deal with, as Antonio Brown broadcast live 17 minutes of locker-room footage. The Steelers fixated on that through Wednesday. Then the flu descended on their locker room and reportedly affected 15 players. Early Sunday morning, the Steelers had the fire alarm pulled at their hotel and -- even though they didn’t evacuate -- it’s shaping up as something the Steelers will be muttering about for weeks.

Or even years. They still think they got jobbed out of a Super Bowl by “Spygate” even though the 2001 Patriots beat them because of two special-teams touchdowns more than anything having to do with alleged taped signals.

Contrast that with the Patriots. After they sat on the tarmac in Providence for three hours on New Year’s Eve waiting to take off for the finale in Miami, Tom Brady talked about the opportunity the delay afforded the team to catch up on rest or preparation.

It’s just the way the Patriots have been hard-wired since Belichick took over. Screw the mottos, like “Do Your Job” or the hokey “One More”. (Can someone tell me that if “One More” occurs, what's next year’s saying? “One More One More?”) If there’s been a mantra for success that underpins everything the Patriots have been about it would be: “It is what it is.”

Quarterbacks coach passes away? (Dick Rehbein in 2001.) Very sad. But it is what it is. Starting quarterback has artery sheared? (Drew Bledsoe in 2001.) Is what it is. A league-sponsored witch hunt is carried out prior to the Super Bowl with the starting quarterback in the crosshairs? (Deflategate/Tom Brady in 2015.) It is what it is. That quarterback’s ultimately yanked off the field for four games? (Brady's suspension, 2016.) Is what it is.

Bill Parcells once said, “If you give a team an excuse they will take it every time.”

So it was with that in mind when the Patriots in 2003 boarded a plane for Miami and Belichick told them they were going down there to win and that he “didn’t want to hear about the heat or the plane ride or the f****** orange juice.” The Patriots got the point and extracted a 19-13 overtime win -- the first time they’d won there under Belichick.

The Patriots have had plenty of fire alarms pulled on them over the years -- three times during their week in Indy prior to Super Bowl 46, at least once in Arizona prior to SB49 -- and never did those cause the outcry that this minor disturbance caused.

That has to do with the mythology around the Patriots and Belichick that’s grown and festered for a decade-and-a-half.  The rest of the paranoid NFL imagines a KGB-style intelligence agency and wound up more concerned with the Patriots than readying a great team tto unseat them. Which is handy when explaining to your owner why the Patriots routinely win at the rate that they do. They cheat. What better way to cover your ass?

It can work for a while, right Ryan Grigson?

Another pro sports dynasty that enjoyed the kind of long-term dominance New England's in the midst of also won a lot of games because opponents got spooked by dead spots in the floor, hot locker rooms and cold showers in the original Boston Garden.

In other words, this mental tenderness exhibited by teams that choose to rage at the unfairness of it all rather than laugh and soldier on is nothing new.

Today, the ill-feeling, sleep-deprived, Steelers -- who had to cram their preparation around the distraction caused by a great player -- will play their most important game in six years.

God willing, the headsets work.