The Patriots returned to Gillette Stadium Monday to begin preparations for Saturday night's AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Tennessee Titans following a four-day break that came thanks to last week's bye. The team had meetings in the middle of the day and then took to the fields for an afternoon practice.
But while the team spent its two days of practice last week focusing on internal improvements, that focus is now turned entirely on preparations for a Titans team that New England defeated 38-30 earlier this season. Tennessee advanced to the second week of the playoffs after defeating the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday.
"I am sure we all saw the game on Saturday," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said at his Monday morning press conference. "It was a very impressive performance against Baltimore. I thought it was a very well-balanced and well-played game by Tennessee. They ran the ball. They did a good job defending it. They were very good in the kicking game and made a lot of key plays and controlled field position. It's a physical team. I think that all the things that we said earlier in the year continue to be true. Their record this year was outstanding and they certainly played a tough game on the road against Baltimore and came out on top.
"We have all the respect in the world for Jeff [Fisher] and the Titans and like I said I think this will be the toughest game of the year. They are a physical team, they play hard and that's what we are going to need to do. We've kind of been, up until last night, obviously still balancing off the different playoff possibilities, but right now all our sails are set in one direction."
One slight advantage the Patriots do have in preparing for the Titans is the fact that the teams met earlier in the season, although a lot of things have change on both sidelines since the time. Key defensive players from both sides, including Peter Sirmon, Albert Haynesworth for the Titans and Ted Washington and Mike Vrabel for the Patriots, missed the Oct. 5th meeting in Foxborough, but that doesn't mean the Patriots can't learn something from looking back on the win.
"We will definitely look at it," Belichick said of the game tape from the previous meeting. "There have been a number of changes since then, but certainly that was a little bit of a good starting point in terms of it was a very competitive game. It came right down to really the last possession. I think there is a lot to be learned both ways. They had a lot of success against us in different areas. We are going to have to go back and do a good job on them to try to hold them to less than 30 points. We are going to have to be able to score some points and I think the kicking game and field position will be important, as it always is with the Titans, but I am sure it will be important this week as well. They have very good specialists and good returners. They are tough on special teams."
Ironically the Patriots, not exactly known as a dominant running team, put up a season-high 161 yards on the ground earlier this season against a Tennessee defense that ranked first in the NFL against the run on the season. That afternoon Mike Cloud made his Patriots debut with 73 yards rushing and two scores, including a 42-yard scamper and Antowain Smith had 80 yards and a score with a long run of 19 yards. But Belichick doesn't necessarily think those previously successful results mean his team is ready to run the ball down the Titans throat this time around.
"Some of those plays were circumstantial," Belichick said of the rushing stats. "I think any time you get through the line of scrimmage and the back breaks a couple of tackles you get a long run and that piles up a few yards. And that's where most of it came. I'd say most of our yardage came on a few plays. There were plenty of plays there that didn't look all that hot. From game to game you never know what is going to happen. Baltimore, they are one of the better run defenses in the league and they give up 160-some yards to the Titans. So it's how you match up that day, how you match up this week. And as we've said many times I'm sure that this game against the Titans will play a lot differently than the last one did. Even though the teams are the same and there are a lot of things the same, there will be some things that are different. There always are."
But at least now Belichick and his team have a specific opponent to prepare for. The waiting and wondering of the bye week are over. Now it is about those matchups. It's the Patriots offense against the Titans defense and vice versa. A team that has done so well focusing all season on a specific weekly goal is back in its environment. New England has played every game all year like it was the most important. That philosophy has never been more true than it is now as the team prepares to face the Titans.
Change of turf
Despite the seemingly different wishes of Belichick, the entire playing surface at Gillette Stadium was resodded over the last few days. Crews began the process late last week and are expected to finish laying down all the new turf today.
"That decision was mandated by the league," Belichick said. "So that's really that. I thought that the field has played well. We haven't really had too many problems with it in terms of players' safety and cutting and consistent footing and all that. So let's hope that will continue to be the case."
Numerous players have referenced the poor playing surface at Gillette over the course of the season, specifically the area between the hash marks in the middle of the field. Many said the lack of grass and rather sandy soil mixture made for difficult traction at times, even comparing it to playing on a beach.
When Belichick was asked on Monday if he had lobbied against the league's desire to redo the field he offered little personal opinion in the matter.
"It's a league decision. They mandated it."
The results of the Associated Press All-Pro balloting were released on Monday and nine different Patriots received votes from the panel of media members, with three earning first team honors. Richard Seymour was the top vote getter at defensive tackle with 44 votes, cornerback Ty Law paced the voting at his position with 34 nods and Rodney Harrison placed second at safety with 22 votes.
Inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi finished third in the All-Pro voting with 11 votes behind defensive player of the year Ray Lewis (49 votes) and Miami linebacker Zach Thomas (13 votes).
Tom Brady was one of just three quarterbacks receiving votes. Peyton Manning led the group with 28.5 votes, followed by Steve McNair with 16.5 and Brady with five.
Mike Vrabel finished sixth in the voting at outside linebacker with five votes. Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck (32) and 49er Julian Peterson (28) led the voting.
Other Patriots receiving All-Pro votes included rookie center Dan Koppen (2), defensive tackle Ted Washington (1) and cornerback Tyrone Poole (1). Seymour also received a single vote as a defensive end.
Ironically with the three first team All-Pro selections the Patriots have more All-Pro players than Pro Bowlers (Seymour and Law).