Patriots

Curran: Belichick uses Colts to further experiment

604194.jpg

Curran: Belichick uses Colts to further experiment

FOXBORO Lets get this out of the way right now: The Patriots didnt take the Indianapolis Colts seriously.

In fact, they were so amused by the 0-11 Colts ineptitude that they stuck a wide receiverkick coverage guy at safety for the day, started two other players they just signed, started a linebacker who had barely played linebacker and had him play corner on the games first third down play.

It was such a walkover that even Shaun Ellis and Jermaine Cunningham got in and Chad Ochocinco had a catch (and an offsetting drop).

In short, the Patriots were able to treat a regular-season game like a preseason game and still win. Good for them? Great for them!

To be able to get players real-time reps at spots theyd never played in the month of December and still win? Any coach would leap at that opportunity.

The irony it all is that Bill Belichick spent the week acting like the media was high for disrespecting the Colts' 0-11 record. He then went out and shamed the Colts worse than the media ever could have with his personnel moves.

On Wednesday, Belichick did everything but take off his shoe and pound the table to make everyone understand what a difficult challenge his team faced.

Meanwhile, he was tapping Matthew Slater on the shoulder and saying, Wanna play defense this week?

He was sticking newly signed Nate Jones out at corner and just-activated Nick McDonald in at center and putting Niko Koutovides in at linebacker and splitting him out to cover a wide receiver.

And still they won. They scored 31 points in six drives and rolled up a 31-3 lead by the end of the third.

That Indy scored three touchdowns during garbage time to make the score less humiliating will cause hands to wring.

But consider this: If the Patriots thought the game was in doubt and that theyd actually lose, would Tom Brady have been taken out of the game in favor of backup Brian Hoyer and run the ball three straight times with three minutes left?

How badly can you eviscerate the players for letting up in garbage time when the coaches were experimenting and putting in the backup quarterback in garbage time?

Putting all that aside, how did it all work out for the Patriots, this depth-building exercise?

Pretty well. Three of the top five tacklers against Indy were new (Nate Jones, 9 tackles), new to the team (Koutouvides, 6 tackles) or new to the position (Slater, 7 tackles).

I just thank God for the opportunity to be able to get out there and help the team win a football game today, said Slater.. Im just so thankful for the opportunity.

Slater said he learned hed be playing defense just this week. But, he added, Ive known since Ive been here to just be ready to do whatever they ask me to do. They approached me with it this week and I know Im a role player on this team and whatever role they give me, thats what Im going to do.

My career has been about me doing whatever theyve asked of me, he said.

With Slater getting safety reps, the Patriots now have Patrick Chung (who missed his fourth game Sunday), James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Sterling Moore to stick back there. Jones, meanwhile, showed to be an extremely sound tackler and a guy who plays fast. Hes now in the corner mix with Devin McCourty (shaky in his first game back from a shoulder separation), Kyle Arrington, Antwaun Molden, Moore, and another offensedefense convert Julian Edelman.

Bill always is saying that, anytime you can do more it helps the team, said Molden. If you can play different positions, it gives you a profound understanding of the game overall. I know that will definitely help us out in the long run.

Ihedigbo echoed that, saying, Versatility is a part of the game. The more you can do, the more you can help the defense . . . Whatever it is they want me to do, they do stuff in the best interest of us as players and us as a team.

When Belichick was asked why he had Slater at safety to start the game, he said, We tried to put the best people out there we could to be competitive. Its the same thing we do every week.

Asked if that meant that Slater is now better than other safety options, Belichick answered, We felt like that was the best thing we could do to win.

If putting a guy whos never played the spot before when regulars at the position was the quickest way to victory on Sunday, this teams in a bad way.

It took Ihedigbo to say what all the new faces in new places was really about.

Bill knows best, he said. Thats kind of the motto here and he knows what he wants to do in terms of getting guys reps and getting us as a secondary to have more depth and giving guys an opportunity to play. Its all in the best interests for our team and the best interest of our defense.

Brady: 'I thought . . . my season can't end on a handoff in practice'

Brady: 'I thought . . . my season can't end on a handoff in practice'

FOXBORO -- There was a point in time during the week that Tom Brady wasn't sure he'd be able to play in the AFC title game. Because of a hand-off. In practice. 

Imagine that? Imagine if Brady had to check out of the biggest game of his 40-year-old season because of a botched exchange with a running back? Doesn't exactly scream "warrior spirit!"

PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20

"I wasn’t sure on Wednesday," Brady said. "I certainly didn’t think -- I thought out of all the plays, my season can’t end on a hand-off in practice. We didn’t come this far to end on a hand-off. It’s just one of those things.

"I came in the training room and just was looking at my hand and wasn’t quite sure what happened, and everyone did a great job kind of getting me ready and the training staff and the doctors and Alex [Guerrero]. It was a great team effort. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t be playing."

One of the logical concerns, when it came to Brady's hand, was how it might hold up. Would he be able to take snaps under center? Would he be able to drive the football down the field for four quarters? Might a flukey hand-off rip him open again? 

But he played his best in the fourth quarter, going 9-for-14 for 138 yards and two touchdowns to Danny Amendola. For the game, Brady went 26-of-38 for 290 yards.  

Brady indicated that he should be able to have his stitches out mid-week, "and then I can just get out there and get normal treatment like I always do and be ready to go." Though Brady played well enough to orchestrate his 54th career fourth-quarter go-ahead victory, he did hint at some discomfort created by his cut, the stitches, and the wrap on his hand to protect it. 

"I’d rather not do anything with my hand . . . that’s kind of what I had to deal with," he said. "So, I just wrapped it up and tried to cover it up and see if [I could] go out there and play and be effective.

"I’d rather not wear it. But, I think it sounds kind of arrogant to say, ‘Oh yeah, it bothered me,’ when we had a pretty good game. So, I wouldn’t say that. Doesn’t that sound arrogant if I said that? It’s like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game,’ and he won the tournament."

But that's essentially what happened. The Patriots couldn't get anything going in the first half until the Jaguars gave away two huge chunks of yardage just before the end of the second quarter to put the Patriots in scoring position. Brady was accurate at times, but at others he sailed easy throws high, and even when he completed the short ones, the Jaguars speedy defense was swarming. 

Through three quarters Brady had an 87 rating and his team had rushed for a mere 25 yards -- including a 1-yard Brady run and a three-yarder from Amendola. They were one-for-eight on third down. It wasn't pretty. 

Then came the fourth quarter, when Brady did what Brady has done so often in his career. It was 11th postseason win when facing a fourth-quarter deficit or tie.

On his first fourth-quarter scoring drive, he drilled a deep comeback to Brandin Cooks, he hit Amendola for 21 yards on a third-and-18, he got Phillip Dorsett for 31 on a flea-flicker, and he hit "Steady Eddie" Amendola (as Matthew Slater calls him) on a shallow cross for the touchdown.

On Brady's second fourth-quarter scoring drive, he flipped a screen to James White that went for 15, he fit a squint-your-eyes-to-see-if-it-was-complete laser to Amendola over the middle, and he found Amendola for a toe-tapping touchdown to take the lead. 

"We played a lot better in the second half," Brady said. "We just couldn’t get the drives going, and obviously it wasn’t very good on third down and just got into a little tempo stuff in the second half and played a little bit better. So, it was a great win. Happy for our team and just a great, great game. So proud of all the guys, coaches, everyone. Amazing."

Brady's teammates were posed a relatively simple question about their quarterback after the fact: How? 

"Tommy’s the best," Amendola said. "He’s the toughest guy I’ve ever met physically, mentally. If there is anything that happens to Tom, I know he can handle it. It was unfortunate to see him get injured mid-week. I know mentally it probably stressed him out a bit and physically I know it’s hard to throw a football with stitches in your thumb.

"Everybody knows how tough he is. Everybody knows that he’s our leader. It’s a testament to his career, his personality, the man he is. Not only is he the best player in our locker room, but he gets everybody else to play well and step their game up and that’s why he’s the best.

"Tom Brady," Slater said simply. One of the most thoughtful and eloquent players in the Patriots locker room, a captain, Slater had little else. "Tom Brady."

Pushed a little further, Slater was still briefly at a loss. He paused before coming up with more. 

"The guy is one of a kind," he said. "We've seen a lot of clutch players in this league, over the history of this league, me being a historian of this league, I was raised to appreciate the history and the great players of this league. It's really hard to find a guy who's been able to help his team the way that he has consistently. And to play at the level he's been playing at 40 years of age . . . Tom Brady."

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Amendola the definition of a good football player for Belichick, Patriots

Amendola the definition of a good football player for Belichick, Patriots

FOXBORO -- When it was over and an army of reporters and photographers in vests flooded the Gillette Stadium turf, Tom Brady was engulfed. Danny Amendola, meanwhile, was on the periphery, about 30 yards away from the 6-foot-4 eye of the storm, talking to one man with one microphone. 

Amendola slowly worked his way toward the middle of the field, and after a few minutes he eventually met up with Brady at the bottom of the steps of a makeshift stage. Before they both stepped up to address the more than 70,000 people in attendance, they laughed. It was their longest-developing connection of the night. 

"It means a lot, man," he told CBS' Jim Nantz moments later. "We put a lot of hard work into each week of the season and coming out here and getting a win each week. And we love playing at home, we love being in Foxboro, and we love you."

In that instant, Patriots fans of all types were probably returning the sentiment en masse. Amendola had just reeled in seven grabs for 84 yards and two scores, both of which came in the fourth quarter. The second put the Patriots ahead for the first time all night and gave them a 24-20 victory over the Jaguars to advance to Super Bowl LII. 

"I’m going to enjoy it tonight, I know that," Amendola said. "We know what to expect. A lot of guys in this room have been in a situation like that before. We know what’s it’s going to take to get the work done the week of. We know what the expectations are, we know what the media are going to be like and we’re going to be ready."

With Rob Gronkowski out due to a head injury suffered in the second quarter, and with Julian Edelman long gone for the season, Amendola came into focus as Brady's top target, especially in critical situations. 

There was the fourth-down conversion in the first quarter that led to a field goal. There was the third-and-18 completion with 10:49 left that kept New England's first fourth-quarter scoring drive alive. And there were the two touchdowns, a nine-yarder with just under nine minutes remaining and a toe-tapping four-yarder along the back end zone to take the lead with 2:48 to go. 

"Yeah, it was great," Brady said of Amendola's game-winner. "He’s made so many big catches, and I saw he got the one foot in and I just saw it up on the big screen one time. He’s got great hands and just a great sense about where he’s at on the field. So, I mean, he’s made so many big plays for us, and this was huge, and without that, we don’t win. It was an incredible play."

The Patriots work on those specific types of plays going all the way back to the spring, according to players. And in training camp, during practice sessions that are open to the public, some of the most engaging periods involve watching Patriots receivers catch touchdowns along the back end line from Brady. 

"These are situations that we practice," said receiver and special teams ace Matthew Slater. "Red-area scramble. Red-area situations. Back of the end zone, ball high. Front of the end zone, ball low. We work this. We practice this. To be able to come out and execute it at the most critical times of the season, it started in OTAs and now presents itself when we need it the most. I think preparation and execution really came together at the right time for us today."

Amendola had just three touches -- including a three-yard run -- in the first half. Jacksonville's defense was swarming, and the shallow middle portion of the field seemed to be a no-go for the Patriots offense. His first touch of the second half was a throw that he completed to Dion Lewis on a double-pass. Then, when he caught the third-and-18 sinking fastball from Brady, the seal was broken. Amendola was targeted six more times the rest of the way and caught four. 

One was a wild throw from Brady, high and a touch wide, to Amendola to pick up 14 yards and a first down. It was one of multiple athletic grabs from the 32-year-old in the game. 

"“The guy’s got maybe the best hand-eye coordination of any player I’ve ever played with," Slater said. "And I played with Randy Moss. His hand-eye coordination is elite. How do you measure that? You can't. It's just an in-game thing. I don't know. He's just so reliable, so consistent. And I think it just says so much about his character."

Bill Belichick raved about Amendola's game, which he did just over a week ago after Amendola had 11 catches for 112 yards against the Titans in the Divisional Round. Not only did Amendola catch it well, Belichick explained, but he had a key punt return as well. 

With 4:58 remaining in the game and the Patriots down 20-17, Amendola brought a punt back 20 yards to put the Patriots in field goal range. Three plays later, Amendola was in the end zone and they didn't need a kick. 

"Danny's a tremendous competitor, made some big plays for us," Belichick said. "I thought, as usual, he handled the punts great, and he had the last punt return that really set us up for the final touchdown. 

"Danny's such a good football player. When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery -- whatever we need him to do. He’s just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today."

He seems to have a knack for that this time of year.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE