Patriots, Ninkovich must beware of the 'trap'

Patriots, Ninkovich must beware of the 'trap'
November 18, 2011, 2:59 pm
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FOXBORO -- Most Patriots who spoke after the Jets game told a version of the same story: Everything leading up to that day was "extra." Cold off a two-game slide, New England went into preparations for its AFC East rival desperately trying to stoke some flame. The players said they watched more film, conditioned harder, put in longer days and pushed themselves to the limit to win.

They did, 37-16, and it was the team's best game in weeks. 329 yards and three touchdowns for Tom Brady. Mark Sanchez was hounded by the defense all day. It wasn't just a win; it was their first triumph over truly stacked odds this season.

"The feeling that you have after that game, how great everyone felt, that's what keeps you going because you want to have more of those great feelings," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "Going into the Jets home territory and their backyard, it's a great feeling to get a win out there, so you want to continue with that success. Obviously, we put in extra work so we've got to continue to do that."

The question is how.

How do the Patriots maintain an elevated level of play? How to they keep everything "extra" going from the Jets . . . to the Chiefs? Even beyond divisional storylines, the matchups couldn't be more different. If the Patriots limped into enemy territory on three legs last week, the Chiefs are dragging themselves to Gillette on two.

Ninkovich claims the Patriots will keep their guard up.

"The thing about the NFL is, every week there's so much talent on every team, that week-to-week you never know what's going to happen. You've got to prepare with each team the best that you can because every Sunday there's great teams, great players that can make plays on you. So you've got to do your best and not let that happen."

It's not a crazy idea. There's been plenty of bi-polarity in the NFL this season: the Eagles, Chargers, Ravens, Falcons, and Bills are some that have experienced the spectrum. How does it affect the Patriots? Inconsistency leads to unpredictability, which could spell trouble for a high-flying opponent coming off a huge rivalry game.

A trap.

This could be a week that Bill Belichick hangs little red mouse traps all over the building -- a trick learned from Bill Parcells. If so, defensive captain Vince Wilfork says they won't be surprised. The key is not simmering in old success.

"We turned the page real quick," said Wilfork. "We can't really sit back and think about the win. There's just so much stuff that goes into it each week. We approach this game with the same motto, that we want to win, but the whole game plan is different, so you have to be able to turn the pages quick.

"When you beat a divisional rival you want to be able to sit and enjoy it. But the only enjoyment you have is that plane ride home. Once we touch down, it's back to work."

One has to wonder about the new kids.

A veteran and defensive captain like Wilfork talk about staying grounded makes sense, but the Patriots are working with a mixed bag these days. Two practice-squad players, safety Sterling Moore and linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, started against the Jets. Cornerback Antwuan Molden and linebackerspecial teamer Tracy White -- two more guys who don't have jerseys in the team store -- also got significant time. While none of the four had a breakout performance, nobody turned out to be a major defensive liability, either.

These "scrubs" no doubt understood the gravity of the situation. Even with limited experience, once a player dons a Patriots jersey he understands what it is to hate the Jets. Turning it on against the Chiefs won't be so instinctual. That's where it comes back to guys like Ninkovich, Wilfork and Brady.

"I think the reserves are hungry," said Jerod Mayo. "They'll follow the lead of our veteran players."

An example must be set in practice. According to Wilfork, the newcomers will have to battle through preparation first before getting the reward of game day, "the fun part." His job is to put them, as well as the rest of the team, through hell on the field. There won't be a whole lot of chit-chat. It's November; there shouldn't have to be.

"For the most part these guys understand," Wilfork said. "It's not hard to get 'em to play. It's not hard. They know what we want to do and in order to do that we have to continue to keep preparing well."

We're back to that fundamental issue again: keeping the prep elevated. New England hasn't often been an underdog in recent years. The team's now dispatched of the Jets twice in 2011 and is returned to the top of the AFC East. Difficult to have your back against the wall from that perch, no?

The combined win total for the rest of New England's opponents -- Kansas City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington, Denver and Miami -- is 21.

21 wins out of 64 games.

But the Patriots said all the right things Wednesday. When asked about finding motivation to fight statistically neutered opponents, cornerback Kyle Arrington took a moment. Then he laughed; the answer seemed so simple once he landed on it.

"It's our job. It's all about attitude and 'want to'. We're going to watch the same amount of film week in and week out. It's on the players when we're at home, when it's not asked of you -- when no one's looking -- to put that time in yourself and prepare week-in and week-out like that."

It's about attitude.

The season doesn't end when you beat the Jets, especially not for this Patriots team. One win, even a great win, doesn't prove the offense won't struggle without a downfield option. It doesn't mean the secondary won't get gashed again. Winning the games they're supposed to might be just as important because this stretch, largely devoid of drama, will test of New England's 'want to' in a different way.

"We always say, whoever can play the best football from November on will have the best chance at winning it," said Mayo. "So that's our mindset."

Easier said than executed? We'll find out in the coming weeks.