What a difference a week makes for the Patriots


What a difference a week makes for the Patriots

By Mary Paoletti

PITTSBURGH -- What's in a bounceback?

What does it take for a team to turn its game around 180 degrees in a week?

"It's the NFL,'' Bill Belichick said. "You never know. If you knew what was going to happen in this league you'd make a lot of money.''

Belichick wasn't being cryptic after his team's 39-26 win Sunday over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was just being honest.

"I thought we just had a good, consistent offensive performance,'' he said. "We ran the ball competitively, made them worry about it. Did a good job in the passing game, got good yards after the catch. Of course the red area is huge like it always is.

"Give the players credit. They played well, they played hard; they blocked, they got open, they threw it, they caught it. They did a good job."

It wasn't a flawless game for the Patriots. But that wasn't the point. It was just so markedly better, so resolutely executed from the kickoff, that it was surprising. And it really was as simple as Belichick said.

And they tackled, and they sacked. The fact that Jerod Mayo leads the NFL in tackles by more than 10 isn't necessarily a good thing. The Patriots linebacker has been capitalizing on all the opportunities presented to him and then some, garbage-collecting on the guys his teammates miss. Mayo had nine tackles against the Steelers on Sunday, a tie with cornerback Devin McCourty for second-highest on the team.

He couldn't have been happier.

"It's a great feeling knowing the guys are out there trying to make all the plays,'' he said of sharing the effort.

Patrick Chung's 10 tackles held the top spot.

After missing two games with a knee injury, Chung reentered the lineup with authority. His field awareness was on point when he set up a deflection of a fourth-quarter Ben Roethlisberger pass. The tipped ball was snared by teammate James Sanders, who returned the interception for a touchdown.

Again, their play wasn't perfect.

In the second quarter, McCourty got shoved inside on the run blitz, allowing Steelers' leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall to break containment. Mendenhall then faked Chung out of his cleats for a 34-yard gain and a momentum shift in Pittsburgh's favor.

But the defense didn't have to be perfect to be better.

Limiting Mendenhall to 50 yards after letting Cleveland's Peyton Hillis abuse them was huge. Posting five sacks on large-target Roethlisberger was astounding. It was the Steeler defense -- the best in the NFL, a Dick LeBeau-led blitzing machine -- that was supposed to be suffocating.

Instead, the Patriots 'D' held Pittsburgh to three points through three quarters (Cleveland, remember, scored 24 in the first three quarters.) By the time the choke hold loosened in the fourth, New England had an insurmountable lead.

"We just wanted this game to hurry up and get here," said Vince Wilfork. "We got off to a good start this week in practice, and it showed today. I think we prepared well this week."

Wes Welker finally found some space on Sunday.

The wideout, and favorite option of Tom Brady's, has been quiet since the trade of Randy Moss. In Cleveland he had a pedestrian four catches for 36 yards -- not the kind of productivity expected from the guy who led the league last year in receptions. Eight receptions and 89 yards against the Steelers defense was a move in the right direction, even if Welker said it "should have been more" in the postgame.

The point of such progress isn't restoring receivers back to career-high heights. It's enough right now to simply pull fading wideouts back into service. Like Brandon Tate, the guy expected to pick up Moss' mantle as The Downfield Threat. The Browns limited Tate to 1 catch and 12 yards a week ago. Sunday night on second-and-10 at the New England 20, Brady reintroduced Tate to the offense with a 45-yard frozen rope on the post.

Deion Branch discussed how huge it was for the receiving corps to be a better bet for Brady.

"It's been frustrating,'' he said of the struggles. "There've been some things we haven't hit. You know we'll get to it. We never panic, that's the most important thing.''

Branch was the owner of just three catches between Cleveland and Minnesota. He more than doubled that total Sunday (7, for 71 yards).

"It was important, period, to the whole team. Important to all of us,'' Branch said. "This week in practice was totally different. This week was totally different."

Tom is never terrible, he just hasn't been very Brady lately.

Last week's first drive? New England's QB went 1-for-6 with a sack. Pittsburgh was not so lucky. Until TB came to town, the Steelers had not allowed a single first-quarter touchdown, and only eight TDs through the air, all year. Brady opened with a 4-for-5, 52-yard touchdown drive. It was the first time New England scored on its first drive since Week 3 against Buffalo.

That tenacity that set the tone for the day. Brady notched his first 300-plus yard game of the season and he did it through force of will. Every minute, the field general was screaming orders or encouragement at his troops.

"I was exhausted," Brady said. "There's only one way to play. It's an emotional game. Part of playing quarterback is trying to make sure everyone is always into it. There's a certain level of concentration and focus that you need on the road. The crowd gets noisy."

For the majority, anyway. There were definitely some painful moments.

"It was all self-inflicted,'' Welker said. "We had drops, I had one and we just cant have that."

What was noteworthy wasn't who was dropping the ball, but who wasn't. Rookie Rob Gronkowski had made a mess of his Week 9 chances. His "productivity" amounted to a fumble on the Browns' goal line, a special teams blunder-to-turnover and a complete lack of chemistry with his quarterback.So the Steelers had the misfortune of facing the oversized tight end when he had something to prove.
"He's a great player," Welker said. "It's great to see a guy really bounce back from something like that and do such a great job. He plays hard and he works hard. I'm glad it really paid off for him. He had a better week."
Better? Just slightly. Gronkowski reeled in a career-high three touchdown catches and 72 receiving yards. Just one more piece in the puzzle that amounted to a solid game -- a beautiful bounceback -- for Belichick.

"This week was definitely better," the coach said before pausing a beat. He continued with a tight little smirk, "That wouldn't take much."

You wonder if another change of the wind could bring the Pats back to Cleveland-status. Was the Steelers win a special effort? Did everything come together on the right night at the right time, never to be replicated? Or did it just take time for things to click and potential be made reality?

Whatever the case, nobody in New England's locker room was oozing overconfidence. Maybe therein is the difference between 6-1 and 6-2, where learning you aren't invincible is inevitable but feeling you might be actually flawed is frightening.

No time to dwell, though. The wins have to be filed away just like the losses.

"It feels good, but you gotta move on,'' Chung shrugged. "You gotta move on quick, too. We got a big game next week" -- the Colts come to Foxboro -- "so this one's over now."
Mary Paoletti can be reached at mpaoletti@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Mary on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti

Belichick asked if playing at home helps: 'Go ask Dallas and Kansas City'

Belichick asked if playing at home helps: 'Go ask Dallas and Kansas City'

FOXBORO -- Bill Belichick knows that how you play, not where, is what matters most. 

That's why when he was asked on Wednesday about the advantage the Patriots will have by playing at Gillette Stadium in the AFC title game, he wasn't willing to go all-in on how a comfortable environment will positively impact his team.

"I don’t know," he said. "Go ask Dallas and Kansas City."

The Patriots apparently thought enough of home-field advantage that they played their starters throughout their regular-season finale win in Miami, exposing their best players to potential injury in order to maintain their positive momentum while simultaneously ensuring a better road to the Super Bowl. 

The Patriots fans in attendance on Sunday will help when the Patriots take on the Steelers, Belichick acknowledged. But there's much more to it than that. 

"Yeah, of course," he said, "but the game is won by the players on the field. That’s who wins football games – the players. And they’ll decide it Sunday night."

And if you needed any further proof, just ask the Cowboys and Chiefs how helpful their home crowds were in the Divisional Round. 

Tomlin not letting up on Brown after ill-advised Facebook Live video

Tomlin not letting up on Brown after ill-advised Facebook Live video

FOXBORO – Mike Tomlin didn’t sidestep questions related to Antonio Brown’s ill-advised locker room broadcast.

Instead, Tomlin actually seemed to up the ante during a conference call with New England media. Asked whether Brown seemed to get the message that Tomlin delivered and take it seriously, Tomlin said, “I think time always tells those stories.”

Tomlin easily could have used a “we’re moving on” message or talked about how Brown simply made a youthful mistake but he opted not to. Which isn’t surprising.

The number one criticism of Tomlin is that the Steelers head coach runs a loose ship and that the lack of discipline and accountability is a big issue.

Seeing Brown run a live broadcast from the locker room while Tomlin’s trying to make a point doesn’t just keep that perception afloat, it advances it to a place it’s never been.

It’s not a stretch to say that Brown’s actions imperiled Tomlin’s reputation. There’s no wonder he isn’t willing to let Brown off the hook.

Brown addressed the controversy on Wednesday saying, “I absolutely regret the Facebook Live situation. It’s a total distraction to the organization. A total distraction to my teammates. Obviously disrespect to my coach. I’ve got utmost respect to my coach so I totally regret that.”

Tomlin on Tuesday went as far as to suggest other players doing team-distracting things like Brown wind up getting passed around the league despite their great talent. “That's often why you see great players move from team to team,” said Tomlin. “Don't want that to happen to Antonio Brown.

Tomlin expressed embarrassment that the language he used in the postgame in the privacy of his locker room was served up for public consumption.

“As a parent, I’m not into public displays of that type of language so I was more embarrassed about that aspect of it not necessarily the content or the message of the video,” said Tomlin.

As to referring to the Patriots as “those a*******,” Tomlin said, “Man, you could have applied that sentiment to any opponent. You could have made that tape two weeks earlier and applied it to that opponent. It’s not about the nameless great faces that we play, it’s about our overall preparation and that was the sentiment of the message that I was sending to the guys not necessarily about the New England Patriots, they just happened to be who we’re playing this week.”

Tomlin also addressed the time element he referenced in his postgame speech when he said the Patriots had a day-and-a-half head start on his team. 

“I was just trying to instill a sense of urgency in our group regarding preparation and I wanted them to understand that we didn’t have a lot of time to pat ourselves on the back based on the performance of the last game,” he explained. “That we needed to transition and transition quickly and start the preparation, whether it was actual preparation or just from a mentality standpoint.”

Because of Brown’s decision, it’s probably been a lot harder to make that transition than Tomlin ever hoped.