FOXBORO – The cautionary tale of 2015 is being hammered into the Patriots minds this week. A 12-2 team that started 10-0, last year’s edition lost to the Jets and Dolphins in the final two weeks, blowing the No. 1 seed in the AFC and setting the stage for a visit to Denver in the AFC Championship. Things went poorly there.
Devin McCourty said the Patriots carry “a huge sense of urgency” into Saturday’s Christmas Eve matchup with the 4-10 Jets.
“I mean it’s kind of like we were in the same position last year – same opponents the last two weeks of the season, obviously same goals,” said the Patriots' Pro Bowl safety. “Last year whatever we thought of how good of a position we were in and, ‘blah blah blah.’ The season didn’t end the way we wanted it to. I think the biggest thing we always talk about is past games, last year, the biggest thing is learning from those experiences. Obviously those games have no bearing on this year’s games but just learning of, ‘What did you do that week?’, ‘Did you go the extra step to try to prepare?’, ‘Did you go the extra mile at the toughest part of the season – two games left, Christmas, New Years, holidays – just trying to put in a little extra?’ So I think obviously Coach [Bill] Belichick reminded us of that and I think as guys that were here last year and veterans, we’ve got to try to urge the team to have that sense of urgency by obviously first leading by example out there today. [It’s a] short week, try to get ahead of yesterday and then now just trying to put it on the practice field and get ready to go for Saturday.”
There’s a mindset necessary when your job requirement includes holiday work. You can rage against the machine that makes it mandatory. Or you can understand that it’s a necessary evil and that perhaps the only thing worse than working is working poorly and having to deal with the fallout of having done so.
That’s a mindset that needs developing.
“I think it’s definitely something you learn,” said McCourty. “I definitely feel I’m better at it now in year seven than I was in year one, two, three. I think you realize what’s important. I think it’s easier when you’re younger to say, ‘It’s Christmas. That’s important to spend time with my family.’ I think you go through the process, you get in the postseason and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’ve got one shot to do this.’ We’re going to have time to spend with our family on the off day or on Monday or later that night. You start to realize how short the window is.”
As a captain, McCourty realizes it’s his job to make sure that message filters down. Everybody’s time here is temporary.
“I just try to echo that to all the guys to just try to take advantage of this opportunity with this team, playing with these guys,” he said. “You’re not going to get that opportunity next year, or it’s going to be different. To me, that sense of urgency comes from a little bit of fear that, ‘This is it.’ You’ve got one ride, one opportunity to take advantage of everything you’ve really put in since April. So when you think of it along those lines, going at it since April, working hard all offseason, training camp, all the way until this, are you really willing to give that all away just for maybe a couple hours? I think that’s what pushes me and motivates me to make sure I’m on top of it and try to lead these guys.”
The message is, when distilled, that younger players are best off if they embrace the belief that their ass belongs football all year from July through February.
“For a younger guy when you get to a team or you’re on a team … you look to the guys that have been here,” McCourty said. “First, it starts with listening to the head coach who comes in and echoes how important this time of year is and trying to put everything in the drawer for the offseason of stuff that’s not going to help you on the football field. Then it goes to the players, the guys you’re watching in the locker room, seeing what they’re doing, seeing them put in time, seeing them spend extra time at the facility. Even guys that have full families at home I think guys, younger guys, see that and they’re like, ‘OK this is what being a true pro is, this is what it takes to win.’ So I think you just do those things, follow the lead and you’ll be alright.”
Aside from the holidays over the next week, there are other factors that impact season-ending games in unusual ways. Last year, for instance, the Dolphins were under an interim coach and dealing with locker room strife when the Patriots headed there for their season finale.
The team was committed that day to trying to establish a running game it could lean on in the playoffs. They decided to run the ball on every down until they made a first down entirely on the ground. Trouble was, they enlivened a dead Dolphins team and wound up losing.
You can’t expect the other team to mail it in. The Jets, for instance, lost embarrassingly on national TV last week and are likely starting a raw and injured quarterback in Bryce Petty. Some of their biggest names have packed it in. On the road on Christmas Eve Day? How much fight will they have? Presuming the answer is none is dangerous. Miami is the cautionary tale.
“We have to prepare ourselves regardless of the circumstances,” said Matt Slater. “It just so happens to be Christmas week. We have to prepare ourselves to do our job and we can’t cut any corners. But then at the same time when we do have that down time, Christmas is an important holiday for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, myself included. Then you have the Hanukkah season starting and things of that nature, so I think it’s important to be mindful of family, to be mindful of how blessed we’ve been over the last year, professionally, personally. It’s definitely a great time to pause and be thankful for that but at the same time, take care of your business.”
It’s the season of giving. The Patriots don’t want to take it too far.