Patriots

Belichick, Brady: Playoffs no time for timid

972939.jpg

Belichick, Brady: Playoffs no time for timid

FOXBORO -- Between the time the ball is snapped and the whistle blows to signal a play dead, hundreds of decisions get made by the 22 players on a football field.

The overwhelming majority are instinctive. The eyes see something and muscle memory kicks in -- open receiver, throw ball; cut block, jump over it; defender inside, go outside.

But every game also includes plays when players are forced to make conscious decisions that could decide the game. Suddenly, they may be in a situation they didn't expect -- a broken play, a missed assignment by a teammate, a decision to jump a route or lay back -- and they have to process how to react while also considering situations like down-and-distance, score and time remaining.

In the playoffs, those decisions decide games. And it's not always the future Hall of Fame quarterback who's in the spot to make them. Sometimes it's the rookie corner taken in the seventh round.

The Patriots are open about the enormity of every decision they may make Sunday against Houston. But Bill Belichick said they can't be paralyzed by that.

"You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it," said Belichick. "You gotta go out there and attack. You gotta go out there and make the plays you need to make to win. It's a one-game season."

Yet, while bearing those brave words in mind, there's also the reality Brady spoke to in his press conference.

"You make one mistake, you're gonna be watching next weekend . . . we spend extra time talking about every little play and not that last week wasn't important but the ramifications are different and we have to be at our best," he said.

"It's always about risk-reward in football," Brady added. "There are calculated risks and judgments you make as a player on every single play whether it's my position or whether you're a defensive tackle. That's what you train yourself to do over a long season. That comes through experience, that comes through playing a lot of games and certainly against better competition you don't have as long to make the decision. The better players you face, the less margin you have to make those split-second decisions."

Brady sets a high bar. Given the number of big games in which he's played and the position he's at, he's made more big decisions than perhaps any quarterback. And his TD-INT ratio dwarfs the other quarterbacks regarded as the all-time greats.

"I don't think you can play so conservative that you're not able to go out and make plays," Brady stated. "Part of that is the mental toughness. In '06 against the Chargers (in the AFC Divisional Playoff), I threw three picks in that game (and the Patriots won 24-21). You've gotta be able to overcome mistakes. If you make 'em, you still gotta do whatever you gotta do to win and give yourself a chance to move on. The important thing is, if you do make a mistake, you gotta hope you don't make another one. Because if they capitalize on it, you're gonna have to dig yourself out of that hole and make a lot of good plays. The more mistakes you make, the harder it is to win. You can make mistakes and still win, but they gotta make mistakes too.

Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo explained it more succinctly.

"Those are calculated risks that you have to take," he explained. "Especially, I think the biggest thing for us is third down, getting off the field and getting that ball back in our offenses hands."

Third down plays. Red zone plays. Special teams plays. The team that makes them often wins the game, regardless of which team is superior. The team that missteps more often will lose.

"Every player, every coach, everybody that is involved in the game understands that's exactly what that is," said Belichick.

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

'Man, why do we continue to do this?' Patriots FG block work finally pays off

FOXBORO -- Stay low. Drive off the tight end's inside shoulder. And whatever you do, keep your feet. You don't want to be falling into kicker and picking up a penalty. 

Those were the kinds of things that were bouncing around somewhere in Cassius Marsh's subconscious as he lined up to try to block Falcons kicker Matt Bryant's field-goal attempt from 37 yards away at the end of the first quarter. Swimming past his blocker off the snap, Marsh got both arms extended and into the path of Bryant's kick, knocking it down and giving his team a boost. 

MORE: 

"Guys work hard on that every week," Bill Belichick said after his team's 23-7 win. "Cassius has gotten some opportunities in practice. It’s hard to block Steve [Gostkowski]. Steve gets good height on the ball, gets the ball off quickly. I think this one with not quite as much height maybe as Steve's ball, or at least what Steve's balls were in practice, Cassius got a hand on it. 

"It was a big play for us because, again, we worked so hard on that and that’s everybody across the board. That’s all 11 guys, not just the guy that blocks it. The other guys have to do their job and if they block Cassius and take him away then that gives somebody else an opportunity so we never know how that’s going to go. We just want everybody to come hard and do their job right and wherever the opening is it is. That was a big play for us . . . 

"You can see the whole team – we were all excited. Sideline, players, guys on the field. That was a big moment for us. Our special teams units work very hard. They take a lot of pride in their job. The return teams, the coverage teams, the field goal and the field goal block team. It’s good to see that hard work pay off in a big play like that."

It was a big enough play that it earned Marsh a high-five from his coach. Marsh laughed about his reception on the sideline, remembering that the last time he got that kind of recognition from Belichick it came after a Week 4 sack.

"That's pretty much it that I can remember," Marsh said, beaming. "He only really smiles in situations like that so you've gotta cherish those moments."

The Patriots recovered at their own 26-yard line and embarked on an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to get them on the scoreboard.

"With the defense playing as well as they were, to be able to preserve the shutout at the time was big," said special teams captain Matthew Slater. "Those are huge momentum plays when you're able to block a kick. It's not a traditional play that happens every game. Huge play. A UCLA guy stepping up, who would've thought? 

"You gotta tip your hat to those guys because they coach that, they work that and sometimes it seems like, 'Man, why do we continue to do this?' But it paid off for us tonight. You tip your cap to not only Cash but the rest of the guys on that unit." 

While Marsh's block was the highlight, it was a strong night overall for New England's special teams units. Every Falcons drive started inside their own 30-yard line, and Gostkowski had kicks returned to the 12, 19 and 18 before they were stopped.

Slater called it the most complementary game the Patriots played all season. Offense, defense, special teams. They all worked together to make Sunday perhaps their most dominating performance of the year. 

"That's the effort that we've been looking for and striving for all year," Slater said. "I think that's a good starting point for us. Lot of football left. Nine games left so we're going to have to continue to do it and be consistent week in and week out."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

Butler credits improved Patriots defense for 'playing smarter'

As safety Duron Harmon emerged from the showers following the Patriots 23-7 win over the Falcons, he noticed a crowd gathered by his locker. As one of the captains of the team - and a man nicknamed by teammates as “The Voice” because of his ability to articulate the right words at the right time, the affable safety is a must listen postgame. But for a change, Harmon knew the mass gathering of media wasn’t there for him - at least not yet. We were there for Malcolm Butler, who had just played his best game of the season.

“You all want to talk to Malcolm?” Harmon sang. “I’d want to talk to Malcolm too.”

Devin McCourty got in on the act as well with some good-natured chirping in Butler’s direction. Both safeties were energized by the victory but also, it seemed, by the performance of a player they’ve come to rely on in games just like this. 

MORE: 

“Awww man, Malcolm. . . Malcolm was great for us,” said Harmon later. “We need that.”

It's hard not to draw the parallel between Butler having his best performance of the season a week after making two of the biggest plays in the game against the Jets. He did all this while the man who indirectly caused so much of the 28-year old’s troubles - Stephon Gilmore - hasn’t been able to play because of a concussion. Meanwhile, an undrafted player in his 6th year, Johnson Bademosi, has emerged opposite Butler to play very sound football.

“Communication,” said Butler of the team’s defensive improvements. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

Butler himself didn’t want to spend much time analyzing his own performance. That’s usually not his thing. And it wasn’t as if that performance was perfect. Far from it. But Butler’s energy was evident right from the jump. He stuck his nose in there on running plays to his side, including a terrific submarine tackle of Tevin Coleman in the opening quarter. Butler also got his fair share of Julio Jones over the course of the night. Even though he surrendered that late touchdown to the Falcons wideout, he showed not only a willingness to play the big dog, but to go right at him. That is - after all - a Butler trademark. 

“Just competing,” said Butler. “Great player; you just got to compete.”

It’s not just competing, but it’s playing with confidence, something Butler said was an issue for him in the aftermath of his snap reduction in New Orleans. But now? That seems long gone and hard to find.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE