Pro Bowl's nice, but Wilfork keeping eye on prize

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Pro Bowl's nice, but Wilfork keeping eye on prize

By Mary Paoletti
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- When Vince Wilfork met the media on Wednesday, he did so as a member of the 2011 Pro Bowl team. He immediately addressed the significance of his third career selection.

"To be nominated as one of the best in the National Football League, I'm very honored,'' Wilfork said. "I'm excited about it. I'm excited about my teammates who made it."

Five of Wilfork's teammates were also named to the roster. But the nose tackle didn't feel like the commendations for hard work should be limited to those invited to Hawaii.

"I'm proud of everyone,'' he said. "There're a bunch of guys in here that easily could have been a Pro Bowler, but there're only so many you can pick. But I'm definitely proud of the guys who made it: Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather, and Tom Brady and Logan Mankins on offense.

"I think I speak for everyone when I say that we're very proud of this team, not just those individuals who have been named Pro Bowlers. As a team, we're very, very honored to be in the position to do some good things."

Since the selections were just made Tuesday night, Wilfork's opening comments were predictable. His emphasis, however, was elsewhere.

The Patriots' focus-only-on-what's-in-front-of-you mantra was never more evident than in Wilfork's comments Wednesday. New England has a matchup with Miami to get through this week and, in Wilfork's mind, the importance of an AFC East showdown -- even one as meaningless as Sunday's between the Patriots, who've clinched everything there is to clinch heading into the playoffs, and the Dolphins, who've been eliminated from the postseason picture -- supersedes all awards and playoff talk.

"We take it one game at a time," Wilfork said. "From personal goals to individual to team goals, I think that's the best way to do it. Our goal is to just keep getting better as a team and put together a good football effort against the Miami Dolphins this week and leave this one with a 'W.'

"I know they want to end their season with a win and we want to win, so it doesnt get any better than this. We don't look at any records. It's all about one team and the Miami Dolphins playing the New England Patriots. Thats what it is going to boil down to."

Fans and analysts alike are wondering how much starters, like Wilfork, will play on Sunday. The Patriots already know they're going to the playoffs. Is this going to be a garbage game?

The defensive captain scoffed at the idea.

"I want to play football,'' he stated. "Especially this time of year, I think the more games you play . . . the more consistent you can be. That's where I stand. I want to play every game I can, crunch time. I think anybody who loves the game would want to be playing right now and I'm one of those guys. There are a bunch of guys in this locker room that want to play and want to win. "

He was unwavering in his stance. What about 2009's season-ending injury to Wes Welker in New England's Week 17 game? It's ancient history and Wilfork isn't even subscribing to the text.

"I don't think twice about going in the last game of preseason or the middle-of-the-season game. I couldn't care less when I play. When I play, I play. If it's meant for somebody to get injured, you get injured. You could easily get injured off the field. So that's something I don't worry about."

So for now, the Pro Bowl and the playoffs are merely distractions from the game plan. Is Vince Wilfork honored and excited? Absolutely. But the only thing on the big man's mind this week is beating Miami.

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

Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

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Bell's style, and unique talents, present challenges to Patriots defense

FOXBORO -- There are plenty of damn good running backs in the NFL but there is only one Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers star shuffles, darts and then dashes, often with bodies crashing all around him, many of them intent on doing serious bodily harm . . . but often failing.

“He’s very unique,” said linebacker Shea McClellin. “I don’t think anyone else runs quite like he does, but it’s efficient and it works.”

Defensive end Chris Long concurred: “His style is so unique, his patience, what he’s able to do with his vision. And as far as breaking tackles, being a complete player, catching the ball, he can do all that stuff.”

Now don’t get it twisted. The Pats respect the hell out of Bell, but they’d prefer they weren’t in charge of corralling him Sunday because everyone has failed during Pittsburgh’s nine-game winning streak. Bell, who played in eight of those games, has piled up over 1,500 yards from the line of scrimmage during that stretch -- 1,172 yards rushing, 336 yards receiving -- while scoring 9 touchdowns. 

“He’s really fun to watch unless you’re getting ready to play him,” said Long.

The respect Bell commands in Foxboro is evident when talking to the Pats running backs, who spoke glowingly about the former first-rounder and in LeGarrette Blount’s case, former teammate.

“No one can do what he does,” Blount told me. “They can try, but it won’t work.”

“That’s his style,” added Dion Lewis, himself a shifty fella. “You can’t try to do that. I’m pretty sure he’s the only guy that can do that.”

So how do the Pats accomplish something no one has been able to do over the last two-plus months? How do they slow Bell down, as they did back in Week 7, limiting him to 81 yards rushing (only 3.9 yards per carry)? 

“I think defensively he really forces you to be disciplined,” said Pats coach Bill Belichick. “You jump out of there too quickly then you open up gaps and open up space. Le’Veon has a great burst through the hole. He doesn’t really need long to get through there, runs with good pad level. He’s hard to tackle so if you don’t get a full body on him then he’ll run right through those arm tackles. [He] really forces everybody to be sound in their gaps.”

“If there’s space or if there’s a gap in the defense or if there’s an edge in the defense, he’s quick to take advantage of that,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia told us during a conference call earlier this week. “He’s going to be able to get into that open space pretty quickly so you can’t really -- I don’t think you want to sit there and guess.”

If the Pats defenders, especially at the linebacker level, do that -- guess and attack a gap aggressively in attempt to make a splash play -- they may fill one gap but open two others. And that’s where a four-yard gain can turn into 40.

“Everyone on the field, it’s their job to get to him, gang tackle and be aggressive,” said Rob Ninkovich. “It can’t be just one time but every time you’re on the field.”

“There’s no one guy that can stop him,” added Belichick. “You’re going to have to have everybody doing a good job in a number of different areas all the way across the front and then do a good job of tackling.”

The Pats are a terrific tackling team, and haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher this season (actually, not since November of 2015), but the red-hot Bell will put recent history to the test. 
 

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

Report: Bennett playing with cracked bone, bone chips in ankle

FOXBORO -- Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett admitted last week that he has been dealing with a variety of physical ailments throughout the course of his first season with the Patriots. "I've been fighting through [expletive] the whole year," he said, "and I'm not gonna stop now."

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

Bennett suffered a knee injury against the Texans last week that limited him in practices leading up to the AFC title game, but he's also had to cope with ankle and shoulder issues for much of the season.

On Sunday, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport tweeted: "Patriots love Martellus Bennett's toughness. Example: He plays with a cracked bone [and] bone chips in his ankle. Surgery likely this spring."

Bennett initially showed up on the Patriots injury report with an ankle issue after having his leg twisted awkwardly during a win over the Browns in Week 5. It hampered him for much of the regular season, and he seemed to aggravate it further while being tackled during a Week 12 victory at Met Life Stadium over the Jets. The following week, a win against the Rams, Bennett admitted he had what was probably his worst game of the season.

Bennett has continually played as the top tight end on the Patriots roster since Rob Gronkowski landed on injured reserve. He played in 64 of a possible 69 offensive snaps against the Texans in the Divisional Round, and he has played at least 43 snaps each week since the Patriots' bye in Week 9. For the season, he has played in 78 percent of New England's offensive snaps.

Bennett is due to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. He'll turn 30 years old in March.