By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- Don't show up late to Gillette on this Tuesday. This Tuesday is different.
It's Jets week -- again -- for the Patriots, so the amount of reporters in the locker room is increased by default. But this one, the rubber match, is also a divisional playoff game. So the media mob, as you might expect, has grown exponentially. Latecomers are stuck in SRO (standing room only), peppered in along the wall of videographers and photographers recording and clicking away.
NFL road warriors like Rachel Nichols arrive early to grab a front-row seat. There's a lot going on today. The dry-erase board in the workroom that outlines the week's schedule is crammed with names, dates, times and locations.
Up first to the podium is Jerod Mayo.
This is something special.
See, there's a certain routine that happens at Gillette during the work room, certain things that can be expected.
1) Tom Brady will meet the media. Always. The location of the scrum can change -- podium (rare), Bret Lockett's locker (pre-Moss) or his own locker (post-Moss) -- but you can depend on it happening.
2) Bill Belichick will speak at the podium. Whether in grunts, cryptic riddles, or half-sentences.
But the NFL's leading tackler and Patriots defensive captain standing in front of a room full of reporters? No; this is different.
Mayo discusses the surprising strength of the 'D' cautiously: "That Cleveland game is still in my head." He laughs off engaging in Jets mind games: "Im hoping no one asks me those types of questions." And he describes the tone: "This feels like the playoffs." Mayo's answers are like his hits: quick, efficient.
Two other teammates will take the stage: Deion Branch, then Alge Crumpler. Their styles are night and day. Branch, the undersized wideout, grins a wide smile and puts reporters in stitches with his velvety voice. Few other Patriots could so smoothly call MVP-caliber quarterback Tom Brady a "dork."
Crumpler exudes calm.
He's not interested in the peripheral drama of Rex Ryan calling out Brady for not being a studious dork, the psychology of Brady and Branch's on-field chemistry, or any opportunities to pat himself on the back. For Crumpler, it's about focus, preparation and accountability. The rest? "I don't care."
Now enter the locker room.
If it's playoff buzz you want, you're in the wrong place. The only change this week is the steady din emanating from the media milling around the room. But Patriots players are scarce, per usual.
Practice squaders Ross Ventrone and Carson Butler, and the little-used Tony Carter, catch some 'Z''s by their lockers. The three lay on their backs, feet propped up on folding chairs, earbuds in, hats or hoods pulled down over their eyes.
The few others who dare the area littered by reporters try to get ready for practice as discretely as possible. They tote red (Jarrad Page) or blue (Danny Woodhead) binders as they flit from locker to weight room and back to their lockers again. Don't even try the rookies because they're on lock-down. "Not talking today," Aaron Hernandez shrugs.
The guys who take too long to get dressed get pounced on by the press. Today, Page turns to find himself surrounded by a half-circle of cameras, bright lights, and microphones. He insists that preparation for the playoffs is business as usual. A sympathetic Kevin Faulk walks by the trapped Page, but keeps moving.
"You guys don't want to hear this," Faulk quips to the herd over his shoulder, "but it's just another game. If you treat it like anything else, that's when things get out of hand."
It appears Faulk is right. If the energy of this team is amped up this week -- and it is -- the Patriots are saving the show for themselves. For Sunday. For the Jets.