FOXBORO -- When Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler celebrated a sack back in Week 16, their celebration gave away their age. They went back to back, pressed their hands together, and locked out their arms in unison as if engaging in some aggressive tai chi.
They explained later that they were acting as Goku and Vegeta, two characters from the cartoon "Dragon Ball Z," which aired on Cartoon Network from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
Both rookie defensive linemen are 23, two of the youngest players on the roster, and they're in the middle of the longest football season of their lives. They've played in all 17 Patriots games this season, and both seem to have blown their way through the rookie wall.
Wise has four sacks in his last four games, including two against the Titans, while Butler contributed one of his team's eight sacks -- a franchise postseason record -- in the Divisional Round. The two found each other after Butler's for a flying chest bump.
After Wise and Butler played 12 and 13 games respectively as collegians last season, Bill Belichick has been pleased with how they've handled the workload foisted upon them in their first year as pros.
"I think that's, honestly, that's been pretty impressive to me," Belichick said. "Those guys have done a good job. A lot of times you see the rookies [have] the length of the season affect them a little bit. I'd say with those guys, in particular, they've done a good job of every day coming through, coming here with a lot of consistency, work ethic.
"They get here early. They do extra. They don't act like it's too much for them or the season is too long. They have a good energy level every week and that's been impressive and they've continued to improve. I would say they haven't leveled off."
After Saturday's win, Butler explained that part of avoiding the rookie wall is simply ignoring it. When you're too busy with your responsibilities at work, that can help sustain you.
"We're just gonna come back and grind like we always do," he said. "We're not gonna get too high, we're not gonna get too low. We're gonna stay in the work zone."
For Wise, having veterans around who set an example for what it means to be a professional has been crucial as well.
"Kyle Van Noy, Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, Trey [Flowers], they always tell us how we should take this process," Wise said. "That's why I never really believed in the rookie wall because of that. I knew if you keep doing your job, and keeping your body healthy, everything will work out . . .
"Hot tub, cold tub, roll out massages, stuff like that. Keeping the body loose, keeping the body fresh, practicing well, taking care of your body afterwards. Eating good. Nutrition. That's keeping our bodies [fresh]."
For some first-year players, that off-the-field approach can be one of the most difficult transitions from the college game. Maybe it's because of how Wise and Butler have taken to the advice of their coaches and their more experienced teammates. Maybe it's because they both have come from the SEC, which is about as close as it gets to the NFL in the college ranks. Whatever the reason, the work away from the field has come relatively naturally for Wise and Butler.
"The work in the film room, the class room and kind of the concepts of what we do defensively are a little bit more familiar now than they were maybe at the beginning part of the year when it was all kind of new," said Matt Patricia. "I think the best thing that we kind of get into as the season goes on is once you kind of get into that rhythm of what your weekly schedule is -- Monday is this, Tuesday is this, Wednesday is this and as you go through the week -- I think kind of being on that schedule helps all those young guys get into a rhythm of how they prepare for the games week in week out."
"They've gotten better, both individually, and in their preparation and understanding what our opponent does and so forth," Belichick added. "That's really not an easy thing to do because as the season goes on there is a lot more information to digest. There's more games, there's more situations, they've run more plays, we run more plays, we have more things that we have to match up against that.
"It's really the preparation part of the game increases as the year goes, on and that's sometimes hard to really keep piling it on week after week because each week really gets a little bit harder to prepare for the next team because the volume has increased a lot more from what it is in the early part of the season."
The Patriots have been able to manage the volume for both players by providing them with more defined roles of late. Both have been staples of the team's third-down defense, allowing them to expend their energy when they're in pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. And if they have a little extra in the tank that can go toward their next celebration.
"You have to have fun out there," Wise said after beating the Titans. "You can't play stiff. That's one thing that we kind of learned throughout this whole process. Have fun out there, relax, and good things will happen."