Tom Brady isn't only Patriot grappling with possibility this is last bite at the apple for championship core

Tom Brady isn't only Patriot grappling with possibility this is last bite at the apple for championship core

FOXBORO -- It goes beyond Tom Brady.

When the Patriots take the field Saturday for the Wild Card playoff game against the Titans, it could end up being the last time several members of New England's core play in front of a Gillette Stadium crowd. There are a dozen players on the roster -- all in possession of Super Bowl rings, some with multiple rings -- scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.

Brady, of course, is the headliner. But the list of potential departures also includes captains Devin McCourty and Matthew Slater, key contributors Kyle Van Noy, Joe Thuney, Nate Ebner, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton, as well as role players like Phillip Dorsett, Elandon Roberts, Ted Karras and James Ferentz. Between them, 27 rings.

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Brady was asked several questions on Thursday about the possibility that this would be the final time he'd play in front of a stadium full of fans who've cheered him for two decades. The idea didn't seem to phase him much.

"I'm not much for nostalgia," he said with a smile. 

But he was also asked if he'd be provided any added motivation by the understanding that this playoff run might be the last bite at the apple for a group that's helped to usher in the second iteration of the Patriots dynasty.

"I just think it’s important for all of us not to take anything for granted," Brady said. "I think that’s what you think about because if you think about it, every year that we’re in the playoffs, it’s really that same thing – the team will not be together if we lose, whether that was 2010, ‘11, ‘12, all the way to now. Even if you’re going to the Super Bowl, it’s the same feeling. It’s, 'This is our last one and let’s try to go end it the right way.' "

Brady has known since the summer, when he signed a one-year pact with the Patriots, this could be his last go-round with the team. It would be only natural for him to consider that possibility -- somewhere between studying up on Titans single-high safety coverages and Mike Vrabel's pressure packages -- for a moment or two.

His teammates in contract years certainly have.

"I think it always comes up into your mind at some point during the season. It's human nature," McCourty said. "I think when it does, you just need to bring yourself back and stick to being in the moment. And I think especially right now, there's no bigger moment. Next year will be whatever next year will be. But now you have an opportunity to do something that a lot of us in this locker room have done. We've won that last game of the year, and we know how special that is. To give time elsewhere to anything else, you kinda know what you do to yourself. You just lessen the chance you have to play in that last game."

"I think everybody has that in their minds sometimes," Shelton acknowledged. "But at the same time, it becomes one of those things, you put the team before yourself. We have a lot of players like that. They put the team before themselves. It's more of a situation where we don't want it to be the last time we play with each other. We want it to be a situation where we're coming to work next week, you know?"

Whenever the 2019 season comes to a close for the Patriots -- whether it's Saturday or with another Lombardi Trophy next month -- the locker room could have a very different feel. 

It could be absent the playful jawing between Slater and McCourty, teammates for the past decade. The seat right by the room's entrance, occupied by Van Noy, could go to someone else. Special teams brethren Ebner and Slater could be separated for the first time since Ebner entered the league in 2012. The pack of offensive linemen shuffling in from meetings could have a different shape without rookie classmates and friends Thuney and Karras.

Asked about the potential for finality associated with the postseason and that this could be the last hurrah for this group, Thuney explained that even if his mind goes there it can't stay long. 

"It's wild," Thuney said. "I mean, you don't really think about it. The season is just so long, and you get so locked into it. Like you said, the finality -- there's 12 teams left. Twenty teams are just hanging out. It is a weird thought. 

"Just gotta try to channel those emotions and that energy into preparing for this game because feeling sentimental or emotional isn't gonna help anything. Just gonna focus on what we can do to prepare the best we can for the game."

The changes to the 2020 Patriots could extend beyond the locker room, too. 

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is scheduled to take head coaching interviews next week. Special teams coordinator and receivers coach Joe Judge is getting head-coaching interest as well. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio, pro scouting director Dave Ziegler and college scouting director Monti Ossenfort could be on the move. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be 72 in February. Running backs coach Ivan Fears is 65. 

"It's a one-and-done type of situation," Shelton said. "That's just what adds into the seriousness and just intensifies your mindset every day going to work. It's just something you gotta have in the back of your mind when you work. It pushes you to do extra, to try and be perfect and just execute your job."

If they're going to extend the run and give themselves a chance to savor these moments a little longer, they're going to have to do something they haven't done in ages. The last time this team played in the Wild Card round was 2009. Brady, Slater and Julian Edelman are the only players on the active roster who were around for that loss to the Ravens.

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"For me, that's all I've been thinking about," McCourty said. "Just trying to get to that last game. It's a new road for all of us -- for a lot of us. Tom has been [to the Wild Card round]. But for a lot of us, 10 or 11 years, we've done it the same way. And now, to me, the new journey is exciting. You have an opportunity to do something that's different. That's new. 

"As a competitor are you gonna rise to the challenge or not? That's why I love this team because I think everyone has that mindset...There's no tomorrow. I'm gonna do everything I can to get healthy. I'm gonna do whatever I can to feel 25 instead of 32. You're going to do all of those things because you do realize, 'Hey, I'm in the playoffs in my 10th year in the NFL.' 

"No one says you're going to make the playoffs for 15 or 20 years straight while you're playing anywhere else. I think that's what has to burn you to continue to try to do your best and being here late. My family understands that I'll be late each day that we still have work. Because the reality is, 'Don't worry -- if I'm late today and we lose, I'll be home early every day.' I think it's that mentality more than where I'll be next year."

Their minds may occasionally wander. This group of free-agents-to-be may wonder what's next. But their collective ability to fend off that which could take away their focus from the task at hand is part of the reason they have more than two dozen rings between them. 

There's time for nostalgia, but they know this ain't it.

"I know this game, we haven’t played in this particular round of the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter," Brady said. "If we win, then what’s the difference? We’ve just got to go win. You’ve got to go win. You’ve got to do everything you can when that ball is kicked off to do the best you can to help the team win, and put yourself and put the team in a great situation to go win."


NFL exec 'wouldn't be surprised' if Patriots won AFC East without Tom Brady

NFL exec 'wouldn't be surprised' if Patriots won AFC East without Tom Brady

The New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East for the last 20 years, but will that historic run end in 2020 now that Tom Brady is no longer the team's starting quarterback?

The Patriots won the AFC East title nearly every season of Brady's career in New England. Since 2001, the only seasons in which they failed to claim the division crown were 2002 and 2008 (when Brady suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1). Brady owns an amazing 86-22 regular season record versus AFC East opponents, including a 32-3 mark against the Buffalo Bills.

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Despite losing Brady and other key free agents this offseason, the Patriots should still be among the playoff contenders in the AFC. But will they be good enough to win the division for the 12th consecutive season?

The Athletic's Mike Sando talked to anonymous executives around the league for reaction to all 32 teams' moves in free agency. One exec pointed to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's impressive ability to know when to move on from a player as a reason for why New England might be more competitive in 2020 than people think.

“When they let guys leave, a lot of times those guys don’t do much,” another exec said. “I tend to believe in the coach who won six Super Bowls. The guy is pretty sharp. I just think he’d rather get rid of a player a year early than a year late, rather than lock in for two years. I wouldn’t be surprised if they won the division, even though it looks on paper like they have no chance.”

Oddsmakers actually expect the Patriots to win the AFC East. New England is the betting favorite to take the division with +100 odds on the DraftKings Sportsbook. The Bills are right behind at +160 odds, with the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins at +750 and +900, respectively.

The Patriots have the toughest schedule in the league for 2020, based on their opponents' 2019 win percentage. So, winning the division won't be easy for the Patriots, but their toughest competition likely will be the Bills, and they haven't won more than 10 games since 1999. The 1999 season also was the last in which Buffalo finished first in the AFC East.

There's no question the Patriots have lost several key players through free agency and trades over the last few weeks. However, the presence of Belichick as head coach and a roster that features plenty of talent on both sides of the ball should give New England a fighting chance to keep its firm grip on the AFC East for another year.

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Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Wes Welker pushes back on merits of Bill Belichick's Patriots system

Just because Wes Welker played his best football in New England doesn't mean he enjoyed his Patriots experience more than any other.

The former Patriots wide receiver, now the San Francisco 49ers' wide receivers coach, admitted Wednesday he felt a weight was lifted off his shoulders when he left New England in 2012.

"Maybe a little bit," Welker told WEEI's "The Greg Hill Show." "I was still upset about it. I did want to be there, but there was part of me — I just like enjoying the game. I like having fun, all those things."

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Head coach Bill Belichick has established an unparalleled system of success in New England, but the "Patriot Way" can be demanding on players and isn't for everyone.

Now that Welker is in the coaching world -- he began as an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans in 2017 and joined the 49ers in 2019 -- he believes there's room for players to enjoy themselves while staying committed to winning.

"Coaching now, you learn a lot from the tactics and different things like that, but at the same time putting your own twist on it and understanding — I tell my guys all the time: ‘As long as we’re giving great effort and we’re on top of our assignments we’re going to be good. Once it’s not where we need to be, that is when we have problems,' " Welker said.

"I feel like you’re playing your best ball when you’re having fun and enjoying (yourself)."

Welker put up historic numbers with the Patriots, racking up 672 receptions over six seasons. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with Belichick, though -- remember the fallout from that "foot" press conference? -- and said Wednesday his New England tenure had some bumps along the way.

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“I think there were some times where I didn’t really feel that at times for different reasons — the guys that we had in the locker room, the camaraderie that we had was better some years than others," Welker said. 

" ... When you’re one of the highest-paid players on the team, you’re expected to deliver like a highly-paid player. There’s definitely pressure on that and all these different things is tough and it’s hard. Coach Belichick is hard on guys and tries to get the most out of him that he can."

Welker said in the same interview he wasn't surprised Tom Brady left the Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.

Welker believes Brady was motivated by a desire to prove he can succeed outside New England, but it's not a stretch to think Welker sympathized with Brady for wanting a fresh start after 20 years with Belichick.

"The way he goes about it is there are no superstars," Welker added of Belichick. "Everybody has their role on that team. Everybody is going to get called out. There’s no preferential treatment, and a lot of times he calls out the star players just to set the tone with the whole team."

Belichick's system obviously has reaped enormous benefits, but Welker apparently leans more Lane Johnson than Matthew Slater in his opinion of it.