Curran: Patriots were the only ones that believed

Curran: Patriots were the only ones that believed

By Tom E. Curran

BUFFALO - The script says to talk about Sunday being a step.

The clinching and the No. 1 seed, all well and good. But nothing's been won, nothing's been done, the accomplishment, well . . . it's kind of minor. No disrespect and all.

"I don't know if the hat and t-shirt (given out for winning the division) really mean anything, but we like to yell that we got a hat and t-shirt so we know we've accomplished something when we get that," said left guard Logan Mankins.

There'd be a parade in some cities over that. Here, though, it's the expectation.

Tom Brady said something revealing Sunday evening. It helps explain why - despite this team doing something arguably more remarkable than what the 2003, 2004 and 2007 editions did - it receives little more than a shrug.

Asked how, with all these new pieces, the Patriots can be this good - 13-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC - Brady answered, "The expectation is for the position, not the player. If you're an outside linebacker on this team, you're expected to play like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. If you're a running back, you're expected to play like Corey Dillon, Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. It's just the way it is. I think coach Bill Belichick rides us all day and all night to get the job done in that sense. Like I said, the guys need to be able to respond to those things and we've shown enough mental toughness throughout the year to respond."

So while we (or I) may say, "Holy crap, that's Dane Fletcher making plays of significant magnitude!" Belichick sees a silver helmet and a Patriots uniform and thinks, "That's what it's supposed to look like."

And 13-2 is - when things are performed correctly most of the time - a very real possibility.

So taking stock of what his team accomplished Sunday in Buffalo?

"Not right now," said Belichick. "We're happy about it. It's great. But we'll just again, see what comes and take whatever the next step is."

So it's left to us to try and quantify what we're seeing. And it's been amazing.

The Patriots have no more business being 13-2 and the top seed in the AFC than I would have walking down a runway in Paris next to Giselle.

Yet here they are, with all their spare parts and new parts fitting together with an assured little click every time Belichick snaps them into place.

It's funny. Some of what they say doesn't make any sense.

For instance, Vince Wilfork was saying after the game that he knew what the Patriots had in the offseason during training. And it was special.

Really? So he knew Dane Fletcher and Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Jermaine Cunningham, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, Ron Brace and Gerard Warren, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes would all work out just fine? He knew that, even if the defense lost Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden and Brandon McGowan it wouldn't be a big deal. And that the Patriots could pluck Eric Moore from the Florida Tuskers of the UFL sometime in December if they needed him?


What Wilfork could have sensed, though, was the caliber of the people he was surrounded with, if not quality of player.

That seems plausible.

"We knew what we had in this locker room," said Wilfork. "The guys did a really good job all year of just staying focused and not even paying attention to the stuff that was in the papers or media, whatever it may be. The guys just did a really good job of staying focused. We have a sign coming out of our stadium saying, 'Dont believe the hype.' I think that speaks for itself. From being the greatest team and then being one of the worst teams, we heard it all.

"I think guys really buckled down and just trusted one another that we can be a really good football team if we just stay focused and outwork our opponents," Wilfork continued. "Half the time that just comes with practice. If you prepare well in practice, normally you play well. The times we didn't, it cost us. We've got a lot of work to do, but at the same time with this team, you've got to keep getting better. There's no doubt in my mind that we won't keep getting better. That's where we're at right now."

And if they're going to keep getting better, why would there be champagne popping over a division title and the No. 1 seed?

Deion Branch spent three long seasons in Seattle. They'd pop some corks there. So he was a little bemused by the lack of giddiness.

"I think its so mellow in here, you would think that we were in a weird situation, guys should be happy," he said. "The game wasn't as good as the score looked. It was 34-3? There were a bunch of plays that we messed up on that we're not proud of. Third quarter was terrible by the offense. The defense did a good job of keeping us in the game."

Too much work still to be done. Why be happy about an accomplishment that - no matter how much of a pipe dream it should have been - is just a step on the ladder toward something the Patriots, and only the Patriots, really expected to happen?

Tom E. Curran can be reached at Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran

Belichick: Patriots have caught up after starting offseason 'five weeks behind'


Belichick: Patriots have caught up after starting offseason 'five weeks behind'

FOXBORO -- After starting the offseason "five weeks behind," as Bill Belichick put it, the Patriots have caught up. 

"I think we’re probably caught up to where we are now," he said before Thursday's OTA practice at Gillette Stadium. "I think it’s being behind in draft, free agency and that type of thing.

"I think at this point, we’re ready for OTAs. We’ll be ready for training camp. I think that part of it we’ll be on schedule on. It’s the catching up on all the spring projects, draft and free agency. It’s the initial part of it."

Belichick made headlines on the morning after winning his fifth Lombardi Trophy with the Patriots when he said, "As of today, and as great as today feels and as great as today is, in all honesty we're five weeks behind in the 2017 season to most teams in the league. Fortunately we have a great personnel staff

"Look, in a couple weeks we're going to be looking at the combine, obviously the draft, all-star games have already occurred, and in a month we're into free agency, not to mention all the internal Patriots players (whose) contracts are up and we're going to have to work with in some form or fashion like every team in the league does."

Leaning on evaluations of players that began in the build-up to previous drafts, Belichick and his staff opted to trade away some of this year's draft capital for veterans like Brandin Cooks, Kony Ealy and Dwayne Allen. They also gave up their fifth-rounder to sign restricted free agent Mike Gillislee.

Before heading out to the team's third practice of the week -- the first week the Patriots were allowed to introduce helmets and run offense versus defense periods -- Belichick said that part of his focus will be spent on finding out how those players he picked up this offseason are progressing.

"Yeah, that’s definitely part of it," he said. "Seeing the new players, how they’re doing and also how they’re doing relevant to the rest of the other players that I’m a little more familiar with. Again, each year is a new year, so even though we’ve seen some of these guys multiple years, it’s still starting all over again, seeing where they are, how they’re progressing in their training and preparation for the season."

Brandin Cooks knows he'll still probably have to stash the arrows in 2017

Brandin Cooks knows he'll still probably have to stash the arrows in 2017

FOXBORO -- Toward the end of Thursday's OTA practice at Gillette Stadium, Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks caught a touchdown from Tom Brady in the back corner of the end zone despite close coverage from corner Malcolm Butler. Cooks reached behind him, as if he was pulling an invisible arrow from an invisible quiver on his back, starting what was once his signature touchdown celebration. 

But he stopped there. 

"I didn't want to shoot it," he said with a smile after the workout. "Just having fun out there with the guys, competing every day. That's what it's all about."

Cooks may have to continue showing restraint during the regular season when it comes to his post-touchdown choices. Even though the NFL has eased off of the penalties for certain celebrations, Cooks still probably won't be shooting any arrows in 2017.

"No, I'm gonna be respectful," he said. "If it's a penalty, it's a penalty. I'm not going to do anything to hurt the team . . . I think it still will be [a penalty]."

Cooks was not able to execute his preferred celebration after it was made clear last season that imitating archery was off-limits. Josh Norman was fined $10,000 last season for his bow-and-arrow act. 

There is a biblical origin story to Cooks' celebration, he told the New Orleans Advocate last year. 

"Send forth lightning and scatter your enemy, and shoot your arrows and rout them," Cooks said, referring to Psalms 144:6. "I just remember it sticking with me for such a long time, I remember thinking, maybe I can do something with this."

He added: ”I’ve been doing it for three years now, and there was never a complaint about it. Now, all of a sudden, there is. It just reminds me that, it's almost as if they try to take so much away from us, but for something like this, that means so much to someone that has nothing to do with violence, it's frustrating. I'll definitely continue to speak my opinion about it, and if they have a problem with it, so be it."

After the NFL announced that it was relaxing its policy on penalizing celebrations, Cooks tweeted "#shootyourarrows" four times with several bow-and-arrow emojis. But just a few days later, he appeared resigned to keeping his celebration in moth balls so that his team wouldn't be penalized for an act that the league might deem "threatening." He wasn't thrilled.

"It's for God," he said, "so if that's threatening, then I think we've got a problem."