ATLANTA -- It was the day after the Patriots lost in Pittsburgh, a defeat that dropped them to 9-5 and made them the third seed in the AFC.
The 14 penalties the Patriots amassed against the Steelers -- a week after a blundering into a 34-33 defeat in Miami in which they butchered a halftime possession, allowed the Dolphins to run all over them and gave mediocre effort on a game-ending touchdown at the buzzer -- hinted at a team that just flat didn’t have it.
I buttonholed Tom Brady in the locker room. I asked him about the Patriots' final possession in Pittsburgh when he threw futilely to the end zone on the final three plays from the Steelers' 15, after the day's final penalty walked them out of decent striking range.
Brady fell to his left on his final throw as pressure approached. I asked him about that. He didn’t love the line of questioning. But he allowed there was a lot that had to change in the final two games if the Patriots wanted to even think about approaching their usual level of success.
Before he walked away, he said, “I know this, we’re not afraid of anyone. There’s nobody we can’t compete with.”
Those days after the loss to Pittsburgh were important days, said Matthew Slater.
“After Pittsburgh there were a lot of tough conversations that we had as a team, a lot of tough conversations that we had as individuals,” Slater recalled on Wednesday. “I remember saying, ‘Hey, we got a chance here to get up and fight or lay down and feel sorry for ourselves.’ Everybody felt the same way. Collectively, we made a decision that we’re gonna fight.
“It’s not just what’s said after the game,” said Slater. “Over the course of the week there were conversations that were vital to kinda bringing life back into the season.”
🏈ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LIII
Making it to the NFL is hard. Sticking is even harder. Playing for an organization that is expected to play 23 games between the start of preseason and the end of the playoffs and end it with a trophy presentation is a physical and mental grind that’s hard to quantify.
By the end of the 2017 season, the atmosphere within the team was not healthy, especially when it came to Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Bill Belichick. The stunning Super Bowl loss to the Eagles trebled the damages.
By the time a weird offseason ended, grudges -- if not necessarily forgotten -- had been pocketed. Belichick spent more time in the offseason, it seemed, trying to infuse a little more fun and down time during minicamp and training camp.
But the team, especially on offense, was different. Julian Edelman was suspended at the start of the season. Danny Amendola was in Miami. The running game lagged. Gronk was hurt physically and not there mentally, the sting of being dangled in trade talks and not receiving a new deal both making him question the value of putting himself through the physical punishment on a weekly basis.
A miserable loss to the Titans before the bye was followed with two optimism-inducing wins over the Jets and Vikings to put them at 9-3. Then came the losses to the Dolphins and Steelers. Then Josh Gordon was again suspended, throwing another bucket of adversity on them.
At that point, the funk would either envelop them or they’d beat it back.
That’s when the conversations happened, said Slater.
“There comes times over the course of your career or over the course of a season where you get caught up in producing and the pressures of this game, the expectations on you,” Slater explained. “You kind of get away a little bit from understanding, ‘Hey, we played this game at recess as kids and we played it for free and we loved to do this.’
“I think this year, with everything that’s transpired, all the ups and downs on and off the football field, after that Pittsburgh game we said, ‘Hey, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We still have a great opportunity. We’re playing football for a living. Let’s enjoy this thing.’ I think a lot of guys said that after that game. And we went out there and played for each other. We’ve done that all year but we stopped caring about other narratives, success and failure. It was just about going out and having fun and making the most of our opportunity.”
🏈 ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LIII
In the two games that followed the loss to Pittsburgh, the Patriots dismantled the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season. Those victories were generally dismissed as hollow, beatdowns of teams just marking time before the offseason. But they were actually springboards.
Defensively, the Patriots threw a blanket over both teams’ running games. Offensively, the Patriots ran the hell out of it and Brady was forced to distribute more with Gordon out of the lineup. When other teams in the playoff race floundered, the Patriots wound up with the No. 2 seed and carried over their end-of-season play with an even more dominating performance against the Chargers.
Then they went into Kansas City and, keeping the reports of their demise after the Steelers loss in the forefront of their mind, knocked off the Chiefs at Arrowhead.
Ticket punched for Atlanta, the Patriots -- Brady especially -- reacted like a team that had done something that only they expected to do. Because, despite the legion of media snorting at the idea the Patriots were ever “counted out” they really had been. Especially after the loss in Pittsburgh.
So has it felt different?
“I would say (we are finding more enjoyment) because what we’ve been through has brought us closer together and it’s made us change our mode of thinking from, ‘Hey, we’re not the team that’s gonna go 16-0, we’re not the perfect football team. And that’s ok. But we can still be good'," Slater said. "We’ve embraced who we are. We’ve found our identity late in the year and our bond is closer than it’s ever been."
“When you got your leader with that mentality of having faith and not being scared, then you go out there and fight,” Slater added. “And if he’s not scared, we’re not gonna be scared either.”
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