Patriots

'You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them'

'You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them'

Opponents tend to freak out against Tom Brady and Bill Belichick just when they're about to conquer the New England Patriots' dynastic duo. 

The pair have built such a reputation of coming through in the clutch that foes often outthink themselves with conservative, uncommon or unconventional calls against the five-time champs.

Think Seattle in Super Bowl 49 and Atlanta in Super Bowl 51.

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The Patriots have built an extreme confidence through five Super Bowl-winning seasons under Brady and Belichick and are disciplined when other teams get discombobulated, like last month when they sniffed out Ben Roethlisberger's fake spike and intercepted him in the end zone, reshaping the AFC playoff picture.

"You're basically talking about experience and knowing that no matter what the score is, it's not insurmountable," said ex-NFL quarterback Joe Theismann.

He pointed to Brady's habit of making a few plays every game that swing momentum and Belichick's knack for coaxing his counterparts into beating themselves - like the Indianapolis Colts did with their fake punt fiasco in 2015.

"The New England Patriots find a way to make a play when no one else seems to be able to do that," Theismann said. "Teams that haven't been in that situation don't really understand the ability of New England teams to be able to overcome darn near anything."

Like the 25-point second-half deficit Brady rallied the Patriots from in last year's Super Bowl or the 10-point fourth-quarter hole he dug them out of against Jacksonville in the AFC championship last week.

"You've got to play a damn near perfect game against them," lamented Jaguars safety Jarrod Wilson.

Therein lies the trap.

The Jaguars were on the verge of knocking off New England when a flurry of follies in Foxboro aided Brady's two-TD rally that sent the seemingly impervious Patriots back to another Super Bowl.

"You can never have a safe lead with (No.) 12 at the helm," Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson said. " . . . That's Tom Brady, the greatest to ever lace up the cleats at the quarterback position."

And Belichick, arguably the best to ever roam the sideline.

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The Patriots may need no assistance but that hasn't stopped teams from helping them out like Jacksonville did last week with a delay penalty coming out of a timeout and a rushed punt that essentially gave Brady an extra timeout before halftime.

"I think why the Patriots are so good is because they capitalize off people making those mistakes," said Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson. "They don't make mistakes, hardly. They're well-coached. You don't necessarily have to be the most talented team. You saw last year they weren't the most talented team. Yet, they're the best team because they function together well and they're coached well."

New England safety Duron Harmon said the Patriots never panic like so many other teams because they rehearse adversity so well and so often in practice.

"We go over every type of situation that you can think of," Harmon said.

Theismann said Belichick is simply the best at teaching "if somebody's going to beat us, they're going to have to beat us; we're not going to beat ourselves."

"What New England does is New England preaches discipline and understanding your job," Theismann said, singling out lieutenants Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia in addition to Belichick, who, along with his personnel assistants, identifies coachable players who fit in.

"Think about it: You never see Bill Belichick run up the sideline and call a timeout because the time clock's running out," Theismann said. "You don't see Bill's players making those kids of errors. I mean, I was very fortunate to play for Joe Gibbs and Joe was the same type of game manager, where he was aware and he made me aware of all the possible circumstances and situations that you deal with.

"For example, when you're coming out of your own end zone, if you're backed up inside your own 3-yard line, it's a great time to run a hard count because you're only going to get a yard-and a-half penalty. Instead of first-and-10, it's going to be first-and-11. But you do have the possibility (of drawing the defense offsides and) making it first-and-5."

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Which is exactly what the Pats did to clinch Super Bowl 49. They were pinned at the 1-yard line after Malcolm Butler's interception and had to get out of the shadown of their own goal posts. Brady drew Seattle's Michael Bennett offside with a hard count, moving the ball out to the 6 and allowing the Pats to take two knees on the final snaps, ending the game.

"There is a game within the game that the Patriots play better than anybody," said Theismann.

They have a fistful of rings as a result.

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McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

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AP Photo

McCourty reiterates Patriots players knew Butler wouldn't start in Super Bowl

Devin McCourty said immediately after Super Bowl LII that players knew Malcolm Butler's role had changed. Two weeks later, that story hasn't changed.

After falling to the Eagles, 41-33, and while making his way from his media availability period to the Patriots buses, McCourty said he and his teammates weren't surprised that Butler's workload had been scaled back for the final game of the season. 

His explanation made it difficult to understand, though, why other players were so surprised to see that Butler wasn't a part of the defensive game plan. The corner who started in Butler's place, Eric Rowe, said he didn't know until right before kickoff that he'd be on the field instead of Butler. 

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McCourty reiterated his point when asked about the situation during a recent event to benefit Tackle Sickle Cell, founded by McCourty and his twin brother Jason to help families dealing with sickle cell disease.

"As far as I know, all of that is the furthest thing from the truth," McCourty told NJ Advance Media when asked if Butler's benching was disciplinary in nature. "We all knew he wasn't starting all week. That wasn't a secret to the guys on the team.

"I get why people are fishing. The guy played 98 percent of the plays. I just hate that for him character-wise going into free agency. It's just not true. As far as I know -- and I was there all week -- not one time did anything come up."

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Butler took to social media in the days following the loss to dispel any rumors that he was being punished by Belichick and the rest of the coaching staff. He pointed out that he had not attended any concerts during the week, as had been theorized online, and that he spent his free time with family. 

"It sucked for him," McCourty said. "He put a lot of time and effort in. However it falls, the last thing you want to do is not play a snap. To me, the worst part was to see all that (anonymous) stuff come out after."

McCourty called Butler a "great teammte" and appreciated the way Butler grew as a player during his four years in New England. 

"It's been great to watch him develop," McCourty said of Butler. "To watch him, maybe, be late one day his rookie year, and say, 'Hey Malc, you can't do that.' And then becoming a guy you can count on who is very dependable.

"If he decides it's hard to come back after that, anywhere he goes, the guy is a great football player and probably one of the most competitive people I've been around. With all my guys, we're teammates and friends for life."

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With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

With Butler's departure inevitable, Patriots' corner search is on

Before free agency kicks off, and before we dissect the top college prospects entering this year's draft, we're taking a look at the Patriots on a position-by-position basis to provide you with an offseason primer of sorts. We'll be analyzing how the Patriots performed in 2017 at the position in question, who's under contract, how badly the team needs to add talent at that spot, and how exactly Bill Belichick might go about adding that talent. Today, we're looking at the position group that received more attention than any other during Super Bowl 52: Cornerback. 

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HOW THEY PERFORMED


No single position group experienced as many dips, climbs and dives as Patriots corners did during their rollercoaster season. In September alone, the communication was a mess, Malcolm Butler got benched, Stephon Gilmore got benched, and Eric Rowe suffered a serious groin injury that allowed Gilmore to quickly get his job back. Second-year special teams standout Jonathan Jones might've been the team's best cover man at that juncture. Then, as soon as Gilmore started to find his footing, he was diagnosed with a concussion. The group started to put it together in the second half with solid performances against the Raiders in Mexico City and the Bills in Buffalo. Gilmore was particularly strong as the season wore on, showing the man-to-man cover skills and the knack for getting his hands on footballs that made him one of the highest-paid players at his position last offseason. But in the end, in the Super Bowl, with Butler benched again, the group (outside of Gilmore, who played well against Philly) had too many letdowns in what was arguably the team's worst defensive performance of the season.

WHO IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR 2018?
Gilmore, Rowe, Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Jomal Wiltz

WHO ISN'T?
Butler, Johnson Bademosi

HOW DIRE IS THE NEED?

The Patriots played Rowe in prominent roles in each of the past two Super Bowls and he seems to be first in line to take over No. 2 duties with Butler certainly headed on to a new chapter in his career. Jonathan Jones showed in spurts that he could be an effective slot corner, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Divisional Round and it's unclear what the Patriots will be expecting from him in 2018. Cyrus Jones is coming off of a torn ACL, and even before his injury, it looked like he may have a hard time cracking the regular rotation. This is one position -  like tackle  - that the Patriots don't want to be left thin. If we had to rank it, the need for another capable body would probably come in at about a 7 out of 10. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN FREE AGENCY?


There are a handful of relatively big names who will be on the market come March, including Butler. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams figures to be at the top of the class. Vontae Davis of the Colts is 29 and often injured, but in a corner-needy league, he shouldn't have much trouble finding a team. EJ Gains of the Bills could leverage his inside-out versatility to come away with a deal worth almost $10 million per year. Aaron Colvin of the Jaguars, Patrick Robinson of the Eagles, Nickell Robey-Coleman of the Rams and Leonard Johnson of the Bills give teams in need of slot help some options. Kyle Fuller of the Bears and Morris Claiborne of the Jets are two former first-rounders who've had up-and-down careers but showed last season they have still value on the outside. 

WHAT'S AVAILABLE IN THE DRAFT?

It feels like the best athletes at the high school and college levels are getting smarter. Or their coaches are. Once again, there's a deep group of athletes peppering the incoming draft class at corner, which is, of course, one of the highest-paying positions in football. (Why so many top-tier athletes are still playing running back, on the other hand, is beyond me.) Alabama's hybrid star in the secondary Minkah Fitzpatrick will be long gone by the time the Patriots pick. Same goes for Ohio State's undersized burner Denzel Ward and Iowa's ball-hawking 6-foot-1 cover man Josh Jackson, in all likelihood. At the bottom of the first round, though, players like Auburn's Carlton Davis (who has drawn comparisons to Richard Sherman because of his length and ball skills) and Colorado's Isaiah Oliver (a one-time Pac-12 decathlete with a 6-foot-1 frame) could be available. Would the Patriots want to invest a first-round pick at that spot? If they feel like they have good depth at the position already on the roster but want to take a flier on a mid-round selection, they could hope Louisville's Jaire Alexander (who dealt with injuries in 2017 that will probably hurt his draft stock) lasts into the third round. 

HOW CAN THE PATRIOTS ADDRESS IT?


One name that's sort of intriguing on the free-agency market is Davis'. You've heard tales similar players ending up in New England before. He's spent the majority of his career without much of a shot at a title - though his Colts made the AFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. He should be low-cost. He had season-ending groin surgery last year, was released in November and went unclaimed. He'll be 30 before the start of next season, but he may be worth a roll of the dice to help a relatively young Patriots secondary. If he doesn't pan out, no harm done. Hard to envision Belichick and Nick Caserio investing big money into this position with Gilmore on the roster, but maybe they'll deem one of the free-agent slot options worth a shot if he's cost-effective. Otherwise, the Patriots may try to take advantage of a draft that seems - at least right now - as if it's deeper at corner than it is at some other spots on the defensive side of the ball, like on the edge.

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