Patriots treating Sunday as 'big game, not playoff game'

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Patriots treating Sunday as 'big game, not playoff game'

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick said on Friday that Sunday's game in Jacksonville isn't a "playoff" game. Not even he -- the man who says all the right things and praises every single team he faces -- can lie about this one.

Because quite frankly, it's not a playoff game. It's a Week 16 regular-season game. And that wasn't Belichick's attempt to give the Jaguars any type of bulletin-board material. That was just him being honest.

"If you have to win a game to get into the playoffs, then you're really playing a playoff game," said Belichick before Friday's practice. "I think it would be a stretch to call this a playoff game. I mean, it's a big game for us, but I couldn't call it . . . it's not a playoff game."

It's been reported that tight end Rob Gronkowski -- who returned to practice late last week after recovering from a broken forearm -- will not play against the Jaguars.

Given Belichick's track record of playing guys in questionable spots, with regards to the score of a game and records in the standings, it would seem that the team still has some concerns about Gronkowski's forearm.

Once those concerns are gone though, expect Gronkowski to play. Not because the next two games will be "playoff" games, but because that's just the way the Patriots do business. If you're healthy, you'll play. In any situation, at any time, in any game. Just ask Gronkowski, who was injured on a seemingly meaningless point-after-attempt in a blowout.

Sure the Patriots are still in the mix for a potential first-round bye. But they'll need help from the teams playing against Houston and Denver.

With the topic of "playoff" games on the table for discussion on Friday, Belichick didn't really want to go there. But he did want to point out that it doesn't mean his Patriots will lie down to the Jaguars and Miami Dolphins the next two weekends.

"I think the most important thing for a team is to be playing well for the most important games of the season," said Belichick. "I think each game, from the first game of the year to the 16th game of the year, those are our opportunities as a team and individually to get better, to improve, to build our chemistry, our timing, our situational awareness, our execution, all those things."

When asked if he'd manage his roster differently in the case of a potential blowout on Sunday in Jacksonville, Belichick re-iterated his belief of doing "what's best for the team."

"I would do the same thing that I always do in every game," said Belichick. "And that's to try do what's best for the football team. And there's a lot of things that go into that. So, whatever I feel like is best for the football team, that's what I'm going to try to do.

"Every game, every week, in every situation, I'm going to try to do what I think is best for the team. And there's a lot of things to take into consideration. Whatever it is, and I'm not saying it's all right. I've made more mistakes than anybody around here. But, the intent is to do what's best for the team."

Some call Gronkowski's injury -- or at least, the situation he was injured in -- one of those mistakes. But what it really shows, is that, while Belichick isn't looking at Sunday's game as a "playoff" game, he is looking at it as an important spot for his team to improve in a real-time NFL environment.

So not much will change around Foxboro the next couple of weeks. Not even the way they handle injuries.

"The emphasis is to get everybody as healthy as possible every week," said Belichick. "I mean, I don't know what we do differently now. Our treatment schedule is the same. Guys are getting rest. Guys are getting treatment. Guys are doing what they can do on a progressive basis, a little bit more than the day before, a little bit more, a little bit more, until they get all the way back up there, with whatever injury they're dealing with."

And as Belichick pointed out, at this time of the year, it's more than injuries that they're worried about, which may be the only thing that's different with the team's "injury" awareness strategy at this point of the season. That also includes getting some extra rest.

"We're trying to stay healthy from the colds and the flu, those kind of setbacks which come sometimes at this time of year too," said Belichick. "And they can run through your team. It could be a dozen guys getting that, or it could be one. But if it's one, you hope you can just keep it at one, and not lose one-third of your roster to a bug or something like that. All those things are important. We try to stay on top of them, in terms of disinfecting everything. We're just constantly staying on top of it.

"I know players, now, really think about getting more rest. Sometimes our schedule shortens a little bit to try and lengthen the rest time. So, all those things are part of it, but I wouldn't say that we sit there in October and don't care about it. We try to get them back then too. But I think as the season goes on, there is a little bit of a different dynamic that comes into play, just because of the length of the season. I think the urgency to get people healthy and to get them back into play is there like it is all year long."

5 reasons the Celtics will get the No. 1 seed

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5 reasons the Celtics will get the No. 1 seed

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Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

BOSTON -- For the third straight season, the Bruins are showing all the ugly, telltale signs of a hockey club poised to take a nosedive out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The short-attention span Bruins returned in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden, and proceeded to blow three one-goal leads in the second period before totally collapsing in the final 20 minutes of the game. Three unanswered third goals later, the Bruins were understandably downtrodden and accountable for a performance that kicked up so many bad memories from the last couple of seasons.

“We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and we can’t point fingers. Everyone has to step up and if every guy is going to do their job, including myself, then the rest will follow, you know?” said David Krejci. “But we hadn’t done that [against Tampa Bay] at all. The last two games against Toronto and Ottawa, I thought we worked hard. But for whatever reason [against Tampa] – maybe we thought it was going to come easy – we just shot ourselves in the foot.

“Like I said, each player has to be better, including myself, and if we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll be losing and we need to win games. We have a team, we all believe, we know we can play well. We know we can win hockey games. We have a great game plan, but [against Tampa] I guess we just thought it was going to come easy.”

Even worse there were clear signs of panic in Boston’s game as things unfolded in an unsightly manner on the Garden ice.

Clearly it wasn’t about talent on Thursday night, and instead it was about focus, concentration and paying attention to the fine details that can come back to haunt you late in the season. The Bruins scored three goals in the second period with David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Riley Nash each lighting the lamp, but it took 44 seconds, 24 seconds and 1 minute, 35 seconds respectively in the second period for the Bolts to things up.

That’s the kind of instant buckling and crumbling under pressure we’ve seen in the past from the Bruins late in seasons, and we’re seeing it again despite a different coach and some new, hard-nosed players like David Backes. That lack of composure combined with a pinch of panic is a potentially disastrous mix for the Black and Gold, just as it has been for the last three years.

“Those follow up shifts need to be our best shifts of the game. They’re when you can either bury a team, or when you get scored on to have a great response, and to show that you’re not going away [if you’re the team trailing]. I don’t think they were our best shifts. They were probably some of our least [effective] in the form of execution, least form of desperation and fortitude to just impose what we’re going to do on the other team.

[Tampa] certainly made good on their chances, there’s no question about that. But I think we led into them way too much and the result is the result that we don’t get points again. We’re four [losses] in a row here, but this needs to stop Saturday [against the Islanders] or the bleeding starts to get profuse after that. The guys are in this room. We know it. We’ve seen it. We need to look in the mirror.”

It goes beyond a thoroughly gross second period, however.

The Bruins last line of defense, No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask, crumbled in the second and third period as things were falling apart around him. Anton Stralman beat him high to the short-side, glove side for the game-tying goal on a transition play, and Jonathan Drouin snapped one past him from the face-off circle that dipped under his glove hand for the game-winner.

It was a soft, inexcusable goal allowed in a hugely important game, and was part of five goals allowed on 28 shots for the former Vezina Trophy winner. After the game Rask seemed frazzled, his voice getting soft and trailing off when it was his turn to accept responsibility for a giant stink bomb tossed down on the Garden ice.

“You have to [pick up the team]. A lot of the time that’s the case, the goalie has to make a couple extra stops there and today I didn’t,” said Tuukka Rask. “That’s part of my job to accept the fact that sometimes it’s your fault. There were a couple of times I should’ve made the save, but it happens sometimes…”

The high pressure situation with things spiraling out of control even seemed to be getting to their best, most established players with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand forcing things down a goal in the third period. Bergeron and Marchand were put back together with David Pastrnak in the second and third periods with Bruce Cassidy looking for answers, and they attempted to execute a D-zone face-off play that’s worked a few times for them in the last few years.

It involves Bergeron winning the draw, and then either Marchand or Pastrnak immediately releasing for a home run pass that can turn into a breakaway opportunity if the opponent is caught napping. Tampa Bay wasn’t caught unaware when the B’s tried it in the middle of the third period, but then Bergeron and Co. kept trying to make it happen.

They ended up icing the puck multiple times trying to make the goal happen in one quick play rather than working for the tying goal, and it killed any momentum they could have possibly started building up for a third period comeback. It also showed a fundamental lack of confidence that they could scratch and claw their way back in on Thursday night, and that’s a definite cause for concern at this time of year.

“At the end of the day, it is a focus, and it’s urgency, and it’s understanding time and score. We did not have a good comprehension of that tonight, I don’t think, and of late,” said Cassidy. “We’ve let games get away, and you can look back, even this year, we’ve had some goals scored against us late throughout the course of the year. It’s been built in this year, and we’re still fighting through it, to be perfectly honest.

“It’s a mindset that we’ve just got to get harder and understand the stakes, and what’s required after you score a goal. I think winning teams get through that, and we’re fighting through it this year. Some nights, we’ve been good at it. We’ve had resiliency, I think. It’s just, lately, it’s creeping in, and we’ve got to nip it in the bud now.”

It hasn’t been just the young players at the heart of this four-game losing streak, and the Tampa loss should have been a wakeup call that the Bruins veterans need to find a way to step up their focus, their effort level and their composure at this time of year. After their fourth loss in a row, the Bruins have frittered away whatever margin for error they once had with just eight games remaining in the regular season.

Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.