December 30, 2013

NFL: Belichick, Patriots have plenty of work to do

New England has 3 potential opponents

By Howard Ulman
Ap Sports Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick doesn’t have much time to rest during the New England Patriots’ bye. He’ll study ways to improve his own team and beat three potential playoff opponents.

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws to a receiver in the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Just as he’s done so many times before.

New England’s coach won’t know until late Sunday afternoon who his team will host the following Saturday night in the divisional round, Cincinnati, Indianapolis or Kansas City.

“We can maybe do some preliminary work, but there’s a good chance that if we work on all those teams,” Belichick said, “then two-thirds of it is going to be, I don’t want to say a waste of time, but a waste of time for the moment.”

So he’ll also review recent games of the Patriots (12-4), who have a first-round bye for the eighth time in his 14 seasons as coach.

“It starts with just the Patriots,” Belichick said.

They’ll face Cincinnati if the Bengals beat the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Otherwise, they’ll play the winner of Saturday’s game between Indianapolis and Kansas City. The Patriots lost to the Bengals 13-6 after winning their first four games this season. They haven’t played the Colts or the Chiefs this year.

Whoever they face, defensive end Chandler Jones knows the Patriots will have to be even more disciplined than usual.

During the postseason, “mistakes can’t be just limited, but they have to be eliminated,” he said.

The Patriots clinched the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a 34-20 win over the Buffalo Bills on a rainy Sunday. LeGarrette Blount set a franchise record with 334 all-purpose yards by rushing for 189 and returning two kickoffs for 145. He also ran for two touchdowns for the second straight game.

The four-year veteran is one of several key players who are in the playoffs for the first time.

Three rookie draft picks started against the Bills – cornerback Logan Ryan, safety Duron Harmon and linebacker Jamie Collins. And two 23-year-olds who had joined the Patriots as free agents, Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga, started the game at defensive tackle.

“I almost think it’s a good thing that we’re a young team because sometimes these guys don’t know any better,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “Who knows? Maybe if we were an older team, it would be like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been in this situation before and it hasn’t gone well.’ With these young guys, they just keep their nose down, they keep grinding, they bring a lot of energy, they’re dedicated to what they’ve been asked to do.”

They’ve gotten their chances because of season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. Two starters in the secondary, safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, were sidelined against the Bills.

Perhaps the biggest unexpected contribution for the Patriots came from Julian Edelman. Getting a chance to play more after wide receiver Wes Welker left as a free agent for Denver, Edelman caught 105 passes. In his other four seasons, he totaled just 69.

“It’s cool and everything, but you really go out and you play for other things,” he said, “like playing in the last game of the year and winning that game. We put ourselves in an opportunity to go one step closer to that.”

The Patriots had a bye last season, beat Houston 41-28 in the divisional round then lost the AFC championship game to Baltimore 28-13 in Foxborough.

In the offseason, they traded with Tampa Bay for Blount. Like many of his teammates, he provided a surprising boost.

“It’s so hard to know how it’s all going to turn out,” Belichick said. “Of course, it’s good to see that guys that you’ve brought in have been able to fit in, not all of them obviously, but some of them have been able to fit in and contribute. It’s a long process and one that takes a lot of different twists and turns.”

But the Patriots ended up where they usually do, in the playoffs.

“It’s a good spot to be in, but we’ve got to go out there and take advantage of it,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “Anything can happen if you don’t go out there and give it your best. We’re going to try to be our best in a few weeks.”

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NOTES: The Patriots made three practice squad moves, signing offensive lineman R.J. Mattes and linebacker Taylor Reed and releasing offensive lineman R.J. Dill. ... In Robert Kraft’s 20 years as owner, the Patriots have made the playoffs 15 times and are 20-11 with six Super Bowl appearances, including three championships.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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