Patriots

Tomlin's biggest transgression? Believing Steelers are even with Patriots

Tomlin's biggest transgression? Believing Steelers are even with Patriots

Sunday night around 8 p.m. I was in the Gillette Stadium press box mining my brain for an angle that would make the Patriots’ 18-point, never-in-doubt win over Miami seem a little bit interesting.

I then heard Phil Perry from down the row mention something about “embracing elephants.”

To each his own, right? But I’m nothing if not polite so I said, “Say, Phil. . . come again?”

Phil then related that his Twitter feed was ablaze. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was running through the lion’s cage with a meat suit. During NBC’s Sunday Night Football pregame, Tomlin was speaking freely about playing the Patriots on December 16 and the Super Bowl and who would have home-field advantage and such.

I chortled. We all chortled. We do that here. After 18 seasons bearing witness to the Patriots' operating procedures under Bill Belichick, chortling at the rest of the NFL is by now as much a part of our fabric as Dunkin’ Donuts and sarcasm.

TOMLIN SPEAKS

This run of success has gone on longer than anyone could have expected. The karma that awaits all us chortlers, we’ll deal with next decade. Until then, the Book of Belichick is gospel and the idea of a veteran head coach looking weeks ahead is a direct violation of Day One teachings.

So I clicked and searched to find what the hell Tomlin said.

He said this: “Man, I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. It’s going to be fireworks.”

Then he said this: “[The Dec. 16 meeting between the Patriots and Steelers in Pittsburgh] is probably going to be part one, and that’s going to be a big game. But probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one" -- the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 21 -- "is really going to be big. And what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, and it’s going to determine the location of the second one.”

Then he also said this: “Oh, we can win it all. We should win it all. I sense that about the group. In terms of talent, in terms of having enough competition, depth, I think we check all those boxes. But, checking the boxes doesn’t run the race.”

Wow. Trifecta.

Anyone -- whether they be fan or media -- is right now thankful for the early hype, because the Patriots' 2017 season has turned into what it often does: A succession of floggings administered to teams with overmatched quarterbacks and beleaguered head coaches trying to keep undisciplined teams within two touchdowns of New England. It’s sizzle-free weeks leading up to drama-free football on Sundays. The Patriots can give away a touchdown -- as they did on Sunday to Miami -- and still win by 18.

There’s not much to analyze and handwring about, though God knows people still try.

But Tomlin’s comments are an Olympic-sized pool plopped in the middle of this desert of boring excellence.

What’s interesting to me isn’t that Tomlin believes the Steelers and Patriots are the two best teams in the AFC. Everybody already knew that. It’s that he and his Steelers can maintain such impressive self-esteem despite the fact the Patriots routinely bludgeon Pittsburgh.

The Steelers have lost their last four games to the Patriots and five of their past six. Pittsburgh is 3-10 against New England since Belichick took over and the most recent meeting -- last year’s AFC Championship Game -- found the Patriots ahead 33-9 after three quarters on their way to a 36-17 win.

The Steelers have won six straight, but two of their last three wins were life-and-death struggles with a Colts team quarterbacked by Jacoby Brissett and a Packers team with Brett Hundley. The Steelers still have games against Baltimore and Cincinnati before they play New England.

If the Steelers have their hands full with those teams, it seems a little whacked to realize they are wishing away the days between now and when they get to see Tom Brady.

But Pittsburgh’s been talking about and planning for the Patriots practically since they left Foxboro last January.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler -- who’s seen Brady throw for almost 900 yards and nine touchdowns (with no picks) against the Steelers since 2015 -- told anyone who’d listen back in August that the Steelers were going to play more man-to-man in 2017 to get ready for Brady.

“We’re emphasizing [man coverage] more this year in training camp,” Butler said in August. “We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots. You look at the people that beat the Patriots in the past, a lot of them have played man-to-man, I think the last time we beat them . . . we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”

Also from August: “With Tom Brady, you can’t let him see the same defense too much during the game. Because if he does, then he’s not pulling the ball down, and he’s letting the ball go, the timing is all perfect, and he’ll eat you up. You’ve got to make him pull the ball down a little bit -- make him freeze where he’s not real decisive of where he’s going to go with the ball.”

Butler’s been with the Steelers since 2003. The last time Pittsburgh beat New England was 2011. The last time they beat a Brady-led offense before that was in 2004.

If you’re Pittsburgh, making the Patriots your white whale makes perfect sense. You know they will be where they’ve always been as long as Brady is their quarterback and Belichick is their coach -- at the top of the AFC heap.

But to lust openly for the beating that’s annually handed to your team? To slam through the barroom doors looking for a fight that always leaves you bloodied and on your back? That takes a special kind of something.

Whatever it is, I’m just glad that Tomlin and the Steelers have it.

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Matt Cassel: How Bill Belichick, Patriots process 'bulletin board material'

Matt Cassel: How Bill Belichick, Patriots process 'bulletin board material'

There's a sign every player sees when they leave the New England Patriots' facility.

It says, "Ignore the noise."

Starting in OTAs and minicamp, Bill Belichick's message to the team is always consistent. It’s, "Look, the media is out there to do a job. They have their stories they’re going to write. But our job is not to give them what they want. Our job is to stay consistent."

It’s a business-like environment: You go in and you get your work done, and when he says we’re turning the page to the next opponent, he truly means that.

But in terms of bulletin board material, if somebody is vocal about attacking a certain aspect of the Patriots -- a weakness or where they think they can expose us -- he’ll absolutely read those quotes to the team.

It’s not overboard and it’s not blown out of proportion. But it's his way of letting the team know, "This is what the opponent thinks of you."

We've already seen it this season. 

Before the Jets' game against the Patriots, Sam Darnold said something like, “We’ve got to go out there and find their weakness." 

That's just a common term most people use, but then you hear the Patriots' defense after the game say things like, ”I’m glad our weaknesses didn’t show up today.”

So, they obviously used that as a motivational tool to get themselves in the right frame of mind for the game.

He’ll absolutely read those quotes to the team. It's his way of letting the team know, "This is what the opponent thinks of you."

People are going to say things all the time. When I took over for Tom Brady in 2008, Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said something like, “Cassel’s not worth his s---.”

But it is what it is. The thing that New England does a great job of is focusing your attention on the opponent. Their strengths and weaknesses and how you're going to attack them this week: that’s the focal point.

It’s not about all the extracurriculars and all the extra stuff that’s said in the media. You’ve got your occasional bulletin board material, but as long as you know the approach and you’re consistent with it, then you're able to do a better job of ignoring the noise.

It's not like that in other organizations. I played for Rex Ryan in Buffalo, and on the first day of offseason workouts, he came in and said, "Our goal -- you can say it from Day 1 when they ask you -- is to win the Super Bowl."

He didn't restrict players when they talked to the media. He was like, "This is our goal, and if you want to say it, you can say it."

In New England, you feel a bit restricted at times in what you say. 

But you come to appreciate it, because it’s a consistent message throughout the organization. You’re not dealing with the outside distractions of, “This guy just said some outlandish comment," and now multiple players get asked about something one of your teammates said.

There are limitations to the distractions the Patriots have when dealing with the media because of their approach and consistency. 

Everybody in that organization understands it, so you don’t get the same bulletin board material coming out of New England that you see elsewhere.

That's because it starts at the top with Bill’s approach and consistency, and literally permeates throughout the entire organization.

Editor's note: Matt Cassel had a 14-year NFL career that included four seasons with the New England Patriots (2005-2008). He's joining the NBC Sports Boston team for this season. You can find him on game days as part of our Pregame Live and Postgame Live coverage, as well as every week on Tom E. Curran’s Patriots Talk podcast and NBCSportsBoston.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Tom Brady explains why he's become 'much more guarded' with media

Tom Brady explains why he's become 'much more guarded' with media

Tom Brady isn't just frustrated with the New England Patriots' offense. He's frustrated with the people who talk about his frustration with the Patriots' offense.

E! News aired a 30-minute profile of the Patriots quarterback Wednesday night on its "In the Room" show, which featured host Jason Kennedy's exclusive interview with Brady.

And ironically, the first item Brady discussed was how much he dislikes interviews.

"I'd rather run out in front of 80,000 people and throw a football," Brady told Kennedy.

Brady then explained why he's become more careful with what he says on record.

"I've become much more guarded with the media, just because everyone is looking to (say), 'I gotcha, man! You said that!' " Brady said. "I definitely respect my private life, because it's very important to me, and it's very sacred."

"Especially in today's age it's very tricky, is what is too much exposure for people? Now everyone can show everything, and that's not my personality, which is why I won't do that.

"But I am a public person at this point based on my career, but there's still things that I want to just keep for myself so I can enjoy them without sharing them with anyone else."

Brady's wariness is understandable in a sense: He's one of the most heavily-scrutinized athletes in the world whose comments are always being dissected. (How does Brady REALLY feel about his rookie wide receivers?)

It's also why the 42-year-old has adopted an apparent solution: Say less to reporters and more on Facebook and Twitter, where he can control his own narrative.

This isn't the first time this season Brady has expressed his disregard for the media, and if New England hits any more bumps in the road down the stretch, that relationship likely won't improve.

Check out Brady's full interview with Kennedy here.

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