McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

McCourty the defensive rookie of this game

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

DETROIT -- Thanksgiving football has been tradition for Devin McCourty for as long as he can remember.

"I think as a kid everybody watches these games. You see guys eatin' turkey legs and all that,'' he said, all smiles, on Thursday.

McCourty had every reason to be especially cheerful this year. It's the cornerback's first NFL season and he's already making his mark in the league.

"Just to be a part of it,'' he explained, "when there's a bunch of people at home watching, including my family, and all the young kids that are watching this game. Hopefully they'll remember when they watched the Patriots and Lions play on Thanksgiving. ''

The memories he'll have of this Turkey Day -- of his Patriots' 45-25 win over Detroit -- will be unique.

Many watching were probably eager to catch the stylings of Detroit's potential defensive rookie of the year, Ndamukong Suh. Despite how far McCourty has come in 12 weeks, how reliable he's been for the now 9-2 Patriots, the young corner hasn't gotten nearly the volume of attention as Suh.

Teammate Brandon Meriweather expected as much.

"Suh's a great player,'' Meriweather said in the postgame. "He's done a lot in this league as a young player and I think Devin came in playing in his shadow. Suh was a higher pick, so you expect more from that higher pick and he gets more of the spotlight.''

Nothing too surprising there. McCourty was a first-round pick but Suh was drafted second overall. And it's Suh's eight sacks -- best among rookies and tied for sixth in the NFL -- that cause a bigger headache for opposing teams. He's a planning nightmare during the week.

But it was McCourty who caused more problems on game day.

He feasted on Detroit's passing game, recording two tackles, two helpers and two interceptions. The Thanksgiving effort only heaped onto his already impressive tallies. McCourty is now tied in the rookie top spot for pickoffs (five) and is second in combined tackles and assists (61).

Talk to him once and you'll be impressed with his competitiveness. It's earnest. McCourty knows he wasn't drafted as a franchise cornerstone like Ndamukong Suh. He also knows that a roster spot with a team like the Patriots had to be earned and that the battle doesn't end when you make it.

"Coming in, one of the biggest things I was nervous was just living up to the expectations of the older guys,'' McCourty said. "You come on the team and you've got Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork and those guys come out and play at a certain level.

"So coming out and playing as a rookie, that was probably the biggest thing I looked at, was to kind of match how they prepared and how they came out. And make sure I was ready to go and not be that weak link on the defense."

The rookie corner should exhale a little bit. Not only is he one of the most important players in New England's defense, but Wilfork is one of his biggest fans.

"We all have high expectations for everybody. But for a rookie, that's special,'' the defensive captain said. "McCourty's been doing a hell of a job. He's been doing everything we've asked him to do and more. He's been making the plays, he's been studying. He's every bit of what you want. He's every bit a New England Patriot. He's so young. To have it that young, that's a gift.

"Suh is a helluva player. Coming out, I thought he was the best defensive linemen and I made a comment that I wished he could play with me,'' Wilfork laughed. "But I'm definitely pulling for my guy.''

McCourty's making a good case to enter the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. He seemed to alter Detroit QB Shaun Hill's targeting on Thursday. Hill's prize receiver, Calvin Johnson, was expected to do damage in this game. He's a monster match up, a 6-foot-5, 236 pound receiver unapologetically dubbed ''Megatron.'' Even on a 2-9 team, Johnson has elevated the Lions to sixth in the NFL in passing.

Entering Week 12, Megatron had 725 yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught just 4 balls for 81 yards on New England's watch. If Hill did throw his way, Patriots corner Kyle Arrington was likely on coverage. When he wasn't? Well, check out McCourty's first interception.

Spectacular.

"You gotta beat that guy to the ball. His size . . . he's the biggest and most athletic human I've ever seen,'' McCourty said of Johnson. "As soon as I saw it released and that ball was in the air, I thought, 'I have to jump before he jumps because if we just at the same time I'll just be another clip on his highlight reel.' "

The reel instead is all McCourty: Shaun Hill takes the snap, drops back and looks down Johnson deep right. McCourty sees the pass coming in instead of outside and snatches the ball out of the air.

He ran 23 yards before being pulled out of bounds. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said at his postgame press conference that "Devin's interception was a huge play" and coach Bill Belichick agreed that it "swung the game around.'' No kidding. That pickoff didn't just lead to the touchdown that tied the game at 17-17, it created a major momentum shift in New England's favor.

The final post-interception push? Seven more points for Detroit and 28 for the Patriots.

Ndamukong Suh's notched four combined tackles and a huge sack of Brady on third-and-6. His play wasn't game-changing, though. No, despite the hype, this Thanksgiving Day rookie showdown belonged to Devin McCourty. Not one he's likely to forget.

Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

Curran: Relentless Patriots proving that living well is the best revenge

FOXBORO -- There's a clock on the wall in the weight room at Tom Brady's house.

When the Patriots lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game last January, Brady's father told me his son set the clock to count away the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Super Bowl 51. That clock has just 13 days left on it now. It won't require a sad resetting this week.

Brady won't be around to see it hit zeroes. He'll be in Texas playing in his record seventh Super Bowl. As planned.

PATRIOTS 33, STEELERS 9

HERE THEY COME, ROGER

The Patriots are the last team the NFL apparatus wanted to see in Houston and now the boogeyman's at their door, proving that living well is the best revenge.

Nowhere to run to, Roger. Nowhere to hide. The rules apply to everyone and there's a rule that we all learn sooner or later is very true. What goes around comes around. We all have it coming, kid.

We imagine Brady is clearing his throat for the delicious last laugh, but he's said it a hundred different ways in the past four months: Vengeance and vindication aren't driving him. That's wasted energy. Poison.

He's focused on what's immediately in front of him while reminding himself time's fleeting. The best way for him to help his team during his four-game exile in September was to work out relentlessly, which he did so that when he returned he was as good as he's ever been.

And in his absence, his team understood the best way to honor him while he was gone was to take care of business. Which they did beginning September 12 in Arizona when, instead of playing rudderless football without their on-field leader, they began a 3-1 run with a combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.

"Yeah, well we never dwell on that," Bill Belichick began when I asked him Sunday night about the obstacles the team's had in front of it beginning in September and through the rest of the season. "We take the hand that we're dealt and play the cards . . .

"You referenced the beginning of the year, but it's been true in every game, really," Belichick added. "It's a credit to those guys. It's a credit to the depth on our team and the way that those guys prepare. They work hard. They don't know if they're going to get an opportunity or not and then when it finally comes and they do get it, they're usually ready to take advantage of it and help the team win. That's why we're where we are. We have a special team, a special group of guys that really work hard. They deserve the success that they've had. I mean, it's hard to win 16 games in this league. You've got to give a lot of credit to the players and the job they've done all year week after week. It's tough, but they come in and grind it out. They sit in these seats for hours, and hours, and hours, and prepare, and prepare, and go out there and lay it on the line every week. Again, it's a good group of men."

Beginning in the offseason with the trade of Chandler Jones to the start of the season with the Brady suspension to the stunning trade of Jamie Collins, the loss of Rob Gronkowski and a defense that was scoffed at on a weekly basis, the Patriots have weathered all of it to get to this point.

"One More" is the marketing slogan this team's had affixed to it.

"Bend Don't Break" is much more apt. Because they never did.

It's a phrase that's been framed as a slight by when used to describe the New England defense this season but safety Duron Harmon had a different interpretation.

"I don't know. I kind of like it," he said. "It just shows the type of toughness and mental toughness we have. Even when the situation might seem terrible or might seem bad, we have enough mental toughness to come out and make a positive out of it."

Harmon and Patrick Chung hauled down Steelers tight end Jesse James inches short of a touchdown just before halftime. The Patriots defense held after that, forcing Pittsburgh to settle for a deflating field goal. Instead of a 17-13 lead at halftime, the Pats led 17-9.

"Right then and there, a lot of people are thinking that's seven points, but that's a four-point turnover basically," said Harmon. "Just hold them to three and that really helped us with the momentum going into [halftime]."

When one considers all the collateral damage of Deflategate and the fortunes of the antagonists and protagonists since, it's . . . well, it's telling.

The Colts canned tattletale GM Ryan Grigson on Saturday and are in disarray. The Ravens missed the playoffs again. Owners who fingerwagged and wanted to see the Patriots brought to heel like John Mara, Bob McNair, Jerry Jones and Jerry Richardson have teams that were either bounced from the playoffs or didn't even make them.

And the Patriots are headed to Houston anyway. Despite all their best efforts.

"I think it's a great story, but I think right now our focus is got to go out to Houston in a couple of weeks and try to win it," said Devin McCourty when asked about the revenge angle. "I think that makes the story even better."