A somewhat surprising seven Patriots were named to the Pro Bowl roster Tuesday night. The annual all-star honors were given to QB Tom Brady, TE Rob Gronkowski, K Stephen Gostkowski, and special teams captain Matthew Slater, all of whom are perennially on this list. Along with them, LB Jamie Collins, DE Chandler Jones, and CB Malcolm Butler were recognized for the first time as being among the NFL's most elite players at their respective positions.
While Jones has been among the league's sack leaders and Collins has wowed teammates, opponents, and fans alike with athleticism this season, the choice of Butler was mildly unexpected… as the cornerback himself was quick to admit.
"I think I was… I was [surprised]," he declared after he heard the news that he'd been elected. "I guess my standards are real high.
"There are a lot of players," he added, "in this league that deserve to be on there, a lot of players in this locker room that deserve to be on it. It's a blessing to have the opportunity."
For Slater, this is the fifth consecutive year he's received Pro Bowl honors, matching the career accomplishment of his Pro Football Hall of Fame father, former L.A. Rams tackle Jackie Slater.
"My dad and I are just very humbled by our whole experience in the NFL," he asserted. "We feel like the good Lord has really blessed us with some great experiences, great teammates, great friendships. We both feel that it's not really about us and what we've done as individuals, but what God has done through us. A lot of things have to work out for you to have successful stints in your career, and the good Lord kept us safe, allowed us to be on the field, to be part of great teams. We really feel like it's about what God has done through us opposed to Jackie Slater and Matthew Slater."
While individual accolades are appreciated, the 12-2 Patriots have two regular season games remaining, a win in either of which would secure home-field advantage for the club throughout the AFC playoffs. That, the Pro Bowlers contend, is where they're placing their focus this week.
"Celebrate it for a minute, then move on to playing the Jets [this Sunday]," explained Gostkowski. "It's always nice to be honored, but it's really a testament to the team, to be on a good team, a winning team. When stuff like this happens, it's fun to celebrate with the whole team. There's a ton of guys on this team who are deserving. I'm sure there's a few that could have gotten it, but didn't.
"It's obviously an honor anytime you get recognized," he emphasized, "but the way we do things here, it's more about the team. The fact that the guys on the team were just as excited as I was is exciting for me."
Of course, none of the Patriots actually hopes to play in the game, because it falls the weekend before the Super Bowl. Any Pro Bowler who's on a Super Bowl-bound team is exempt from going to Hawaii for the all-star contest. And that's, of course, where New England wants to be at the end of January, heading to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50.
"I'm just enjoying the moment," added Butler with a grin. "Whatever happens, happens. Cherish the moment and keep moving forward. On to New York."
Christmas comes early for Jackson
Veteran running back Steven Jackson, out of football since February, was thrilled when the Patriots brought him in for a workout last week and signed him on Monday.
"It's exciting. Couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift," the 32-year-old professed before Wednesday's practice, his second since arriving in Foxborough on a one-year deal. "Looking forward to continuing to get better and to learn the way of the Patriots. They're already a championship team. They just needed some depth to the chart [at running back]. I'm just coming here to be the best running back to the organization that I can be."
Jackson's opportunity, so late in the season, comes after New England lost LeGarrette Blount to a season-ending hip injury earlier this month. For a while, though, Jackson wasn't sure he'd ever get another chance to play NFL football. In the interim, he kept in shape by jogging and working out on his own three times a week.
"Initially I did [have doubts]," he acknowledged. "But I have a mom with strong faith and she instilled that in me.
"I think initially when the phone call happened, it was a little surreal, but now kind of settled down and playing football and doing what I love. I have to get in as fast as possible and learn the offense, and whenever coach calls my number, be ready to execute like any other guy in the backfield."
Check out photos from access to players and coaches as the New England Patriots prepare to play the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Gronkowski was not in the locker room or on the field for practice Wednesday, although it is believed his absence was excused for non-injury reasons. He was reportedly attending the funeral of a friend who died suddenly last week.
Aside from Gronk, the only other Patriots not seen on the field were LB Jonathan Freeny (right hand, injured at Houston) and practice squad safety Brock Vereen.