LB DONT'A HIGHTOWER
Q: What the biggest difference you have seen with the Houston Texans between Week 3 and now, especially with that offense?
DH: Just the way that they're moving the ball now. Obviously [Lamar] Miller is doing a great job of running it. After watching film these past couple of weeks [and] this past game, Brock [Osweiler] is looking a lot more comfortable and they're trying to get [DeAndre] Hopkins the ball. All around I think they just really found their identity and they found out what they're good at and what they need to do and they've been excelling at it.
Q: What was the turning point for the defense when you really started to click?
DH: I don't know what you're talking about [with] the click thing, man. We were playing good all year so I don't know what turning point you mean. We've done well, we've stopped the other team from scoring. In the second half of the season we were able to cause more turnovers. All in all we've just molded together as a defense. It just took a little bit longer to gel. So we're moving forward and we're working well with great chemistry. We've excelled as far as understanding the game plan. I think that's what has really helped us because we have a lot of smart guys over there and the more we're able to get in the meetings and digest it and get on the field, we're able to communicate and play a lot faster.
Q: Any reason why the turnovers picked up later in the season?
DH: Just the style we were playing - different calls. We were just able to cause more turnovers. I don't really know how to explain it. Just more or less the play calls. We just talk more on it during practice. They had more drills on it, so this really turned out and worked well for us.
Q: How much do you guys relish this time of year in cold weather, playoff-type football where the defense is integral to so many past champions in this league?
DH: We just know what our job is and what we need to do in order for us to excel and in order for us to win. The best job for us to do is not letting the offense score points. Whenever they get in the red zone, limit them to three or get a turnover. Obviously, I think that that's well. I think the way we've been playing in the run game all year, I think that really helps us, especially in this stretch. If we can make teams one-dimensional and get them away from their game plan, make them do things they do not want to do, that's what we want. So if we can continue to keep working and pick up where we left off, hopefully we can continue to execute the way we've been doing.
Q: What have you seen from the Texans in the red zone?
DH: They do a lot of different things. We know them pretty well but I'm sure they'll have a mix for us. It's just more or less of us just having good communication - what they're doing, knowing what kind of situations that they're going to try to put us in and trying to manipulate us in certain things that we do. It'll obviously take a couple more days to gel in with the game plan but I think we have a pretty good beat on them and know what we like to do.
Q: What has changed defensively for you guys from Week 3 until now?
DH: Again, I think it's just really the way we've been calling the game. Matty P [Matt Patricia] has just done a really great job as far as the way he molds and puts the game plan together. Earlier in the season we had a couple of new guys so the calls were not as complicated, and now guys know what's going on and we're able to move and spin and guys are able to get put in different situations and do different things. I think that's what really kind of helped us turn that corner I guess.
Q: How have you seen Malcolm Butler develop over his time here?
DH: I think the same as everybody else has seen him. A lot of people didn't know Malcolm [Butler] when he got here being a free agent. He's worked his way to where he's at now and he works that way every day. He hasn't stopped one day. He's just always hungry and you can see it. What you see on the field is what you see off the field. He's a hard-working guy.
Q: How much of a difference make is Duane Brown at left tackle?
DH: He's a great player. Obviously one of the best tackles in the game. He has been a great anchor on that offensive line for some time now. Obviously they're able to do a lot of things with protections. Obviously, with Oakland it was Khalil Mack and all those guys and the way they're able to stunt and move. I think he really helped the communication and everything. All around [he's] a great run blocker and pass blocker.
Q: Did you see them playing a different tempo at times? Were they a little more fast-paced?
DH: Yeah, I'm not sure if that has anything to do with him or more or less anything. But if you're watching the game, he brings a lot of emotion. I'm sure that's something that a lot of those offensive linemen and as well as everybody else kind of feeds off of too - a lot of that emotion.
Q: Do you get affected at all by a game like this where everybody is expecting you to win and you're so favored or do you just block it all out?
DH: You all don't have anything to do with the game so what you all think doesn't really matter. I mean you all aren't in between the lines. So, no I'm not really - blocking out the noise is part of that.
Q: Do you think playoff experience is overrated? What do you say to the guys on the team who have never been in the playoffs?
DH: Just to try to approach it just like any other game. Obviously you try to go out and play every game like it's your last, but playoffs is a little bit different. Experience doesn't necessarily help or not help you in the playoffs. I mean playoffs are playoffs. Win or go home. So I don't know how much experience would help with that with different situations and scenarios. Just to practice, just to continue to live the Patriot way. You know, what they've done and just continue to be a sponge and learn from the older guys and just be ready when your number is called.
Q: What did you take away from your time with Vince Wilfork?
DH: He's a great man. [He's] a great football player, even a better man. [I] still keep in contact with him. Just all around he was one of the guys who really helped me learn what it is to be a pro. [He] kind of taught me what the game is. So I appreciate him and obviously [Jerod] Mayo and a couple other guys, but Vince [Wilfork] is definitely a big part of what he did when he was here.
Q: What will you guys do as a defense to try to make things difficult on Brock Osweiler?
DH: Without trying to leave too much of the game plan out there, obviously getting pressure on any quarterback helps us. If we're able to do that in the front without blitzing the house or doing anything crazy that really helps us. Putting pressure on him helps out those guys on the back end with their hands full with [Will] Fuller and [DeAndre] Hopkins and all those speed guys back there. Obviously if we can get pressure, especially in the middle, that will really help make him feel uncomfortable.
Q: How would you describe Martellus Bennett's personality, what have you witnessed from him and how he has fit in with the Patriots this year?
DH: I don't have a word to describe his personality but I can guarantee that every person in that locker room loves Marty [Martellus Bennett]. The emotion and excitement that he brings in here is definitely much needed on a day-to-day basis because working here isn't always the easiest thing or comfortable thing. So having guys in the locker room like that to make you smile and kind of get you through the day really helps.
Q: Did you know much about him prior to this year?
DH: We played Chicago in 2014 so I knew a little bit about him there and knew him at [Texas] A&M. [I] just knew he was a good, athletic tight end.
Q: You didn't know him personally?
Q: What are you impressions of the Texans tight end group?
DH: They're a well-knit [close-knit] group. They do a lot of things great. I can't say my man's name but 87 [C.J. Fiedorowicz] does a real good job for them with what they do as far as blocking and getting on the field and downfield, and [Ryan] Griffin and [Stephen] Anderson. I think they do a good job of getting those guys out there on the field and the way they use them is unique and is definitely something that we're going to use. We're going to try to look at and limit those guys. They do a lot of game plan things with those guys as far as getting them on the field with mismatch, so we have to be alert as well.
DH: Fiedorowicz. Hey, I don't want to mess his name up. No disrespect.
Q: What type of atmosphere are you expecting from the fans in a home playoff game here at Gillette Stadium?
DH: I'm sure it'll be wild. We have the best fans in the league. It's usually cold so I'm sure they'll be looking forward to that. But all around, playoff time and home field advantage, it helps as far as just the overall emotion and excitement that it brings. Those third downs and those backed up situations where we have the offense on the ropes back there - those really help. Sometimes, believe it or not, a lot of guys get pretty crazy to want to make a play and get up and do the little sack dance or whatever. So always being at home always helps.
WR Matthew Slater
Q: No matter how many times you've been through it, is there still that same level of excitement and anticipation?
MS: Certainly. I think for me personally, the excitement and anticipation grows with every season because you know those opportunities are becoming less and less. As a young player, I really had no idea what to expect or how fortunate I was to be on a playoff team, but as an older player, you really appreciate those opportunities. You really have to work harder to make sure you contain yourself and you pace yourself throughout the week. I'm excited about the opportunity to play in another playoff game. A lot of players don't get this opportunity over the course of their careers. I just need to stay in the day-to-day, make sure I do what I need to do to prepare each and every day, and then come Saturday, let it rip.
Q: What type of atmosphere are you expecting from the home crowd this Saturday night?
MS: The best. I think this is the time of year that our fans love. They understand the role they play in the game, the role they play in home field advantage, and we're excited for them to be at their best. We're expecting their best on Saturday, and we're in it together.
Q: Do you have any message to the fans?
MS: Just get loud. They know what to do. They're seasoned, experienced fans, so they know what to do.
Q: With the leadership role and playoff experience you have, do some of the younger guys ask you how to approach this?
MS: There have been some of those conversations, I think from guys that haven't been in this position. They've had questions about what to expect and how to prepare. Listen, now is not the time to make wholesale changes. What we've done up into this point has been good enough to get us to 14-2 and get us a home game here in the divisional round. Now is not the time to make wholesale changes. Conversations have been had with younger guys or guys that haven't played in playoff games, but ultimately, playoff experience means nothing come game day. It's all about who goes out there and plays well. It can be a rookie in his first playoff game who can outplay a guy who's playing in his 20th playoff game. It's about playing well on Saturday.
*Q: A lot of times these games come down to just one play. How do you take that mentality into a week of preparation? *
MS: I think the practice reps that you get, you really have to have an extreme focus on them, and hopefully that will translate itself to the game. I think in the game, you just have to play each play as its own and no matter the result, good or bad, you have to go to the next play. You can't let there be a carryover effect. Our focus has to be as high as it's been all year long, attention to detail has to be there each and every play in practice, and obviously in the game it's got to be the same way.
Q: Although you do such a great job of blocking out the noise, does it affect you at all knowing you are favored so heavily in this game?
MS: Absolutely not, because we know it's the National Football League. A lot of us in 2010 experienced a similar situation with the Jets and we saw how that went. I know Bill O'Brien. He was my first position coach in the NFL. He's going to have those guys ready to play. Coach Romeo [Crennel], Coach [Mike] Vrabel, Coach [Larry] Izzo, those guys are going to have their players ready to play. Regardless of what odds say or who's favored, this, that, and the other thing - that means nothing to us. We have to go out and play this game because we know they'll be ready.
Q: What improvements have you seen from the Texans return game?
MS: It's very improved. I mean, they have three guys that are really capable of hitting the homerun back there. It just depends on who Larry [Izzo] wants to go with. Then I think they have a great core group. They added a player in Don Jones that I think we know very well who is doing a great job for them core-wise. Brian Peters has been doing a great job for them the last couple of years, and they have a lot of buy-in. I could name off another seven or eight guys that really make the return game go. It's not just the returners. They're much improved. I wouldn't expect a game like the one we had Thursday night here. We were very fortunate in that regard, but Larry is going to have these guys ready to go. They're going to be ready to go and we're going to have to just play it one play at a time.
TE MARTELLUS BENNETT
(On how excited he is to get the playoffs underway come Saturday night)
"I'm just chilling. Playing, for me, it's just another game now. Going through the bye week, you've got a little excitement like the playoffs are coming up, but you just chill when the game comes. It's like any other game. You get hyped up, you go out there and play."
(On his thoughts on playing here at Gillette Stadium in front of the home fans)
"I've never experienced it before, so I imagine it would be like the Disneyland of football - lots of excitement."
(On if he can take anything form the regular season game against the Texans)
"No, not necessarily, I mean, it's a long time, a lot of progression throughout the season. A lot of people are playing differently. Players have really developed more throughout the season, got into their own. We played earlier in the year, so I think what we're seeing this weekend is a totally different team from what we played earlier in the year."
(On how much the Texans defense has changed since the last time they played here)
"They've still got the same players on the other side. When we played against them they were flying around. They had a lot of good individuals. I think right now they brought it together and they're playing very well as a team. All those individuals, you could name them. From [John] Simon to [Jadeveon] Clowney to [Andre] Hal, all of those guys are playing very well."
(On if there is any advantage to having played and beaten this team already this season)
"No, it doesn't really matter. Everybody, except for them, they're 1-0, we're 1-0 right now. It's a whole new season."
(On the type of atmosphere he's expecting from the fans here Saturday)
"I don't know. I just kind of go out there. I've never experienced this so I can't really speak on that. I don't really know what to expect. I just kind of take it for what it is and enjoy the moment, so I don't know."
(On what the crowd at Gillette Stadium has been like all season)
"It's pretty awesome, a lot of energy. We feed off them a bit. I'm pretty sure they're going to bring their best too. I think we have some of the best fans in the NFL, and when it's a big game, I feel like they're going to bring their best out just like we will."
(On if he will be cool and calm on Saturday night or if he expects to feel some nerves and extra energy)
"I'm usually nervous before every game, but I mean, the triple Cs is how I am: cool, calm and collected. I just kind of roll with it. I try not to have too many - football is such a roller coaster that I just try to streamline my emotions. When I first got here, a lot of people thought it was weird because no matter what was going on in the game, I just had the same facial expression throughout the whole time. Sometimes, Tom [Brady] would be yelling and I'd just look at Tom like, and he'd just be like, 'What is going on with this guy?' I'm just even-keeled throughout the whole game."
(On why the Patriots have done such a good job of blocking out the noise)
"We don't really care. I think that's the biggest thing. No one really cares what you guys write or what you guys say. Everybody just cares about what's going on in this locker room and one another, and I think that's the biggest thing. We just believe in one another and what we have here and we never really listen to the outsiders because we know what's true with what's in here and in this locker room with the coaching staff and the work that we put in on the practice field. You guys only get to see warmups, which is unfortunate because you don't really get to see all of our hard work."
(On if blocking out the noise is easier said than done)
"I mean, people have been saying all kinds of [things] about me my whole life. I kind of got used to it now. I really don't pay it any mind. People throw stones at you and then after a while you get really good and sometimes you get hit with them but they don't affect you, and then eventually, you just start catching them."
(On if Rob Gronkowski has been able to offer any help based on things he's seen when not playing)
"Sometimes he does, sometimes we talk about that stuff. But Gronk [Rob Gronkowski] is busy getting his body back in shape. He has a lot of stuff to take care of so he can come back and perform for us when he is able to come back."
(On if there is any emotional realization that games like this upcoming one is what he came here for)
"I mean, that's not why I came here. I came here to play football, to play good football. I feel like I've been doing that all season and I'm trying to continue to do that. That's why I came here - to play good football. I've been able to play good football for a long time and now it's just another game that I can show them again…that I can contribute and play football. That's all it's really about for me. You never know what the season's going to be like, but I'm just trying to go out there and play good football."
(On if the approach for playoff games changes at all)
"No, you've got to go out there and play good football. It doesn't matter game one, game two, game 27. You have to go out and play good football. The focus for me has just been being able to contribute."
DL ALAN BRANCH
(On getting to know Martellus Bennett this season)
"He's a good guy. He tries to stay positive all the time. You rarely see him negative. He's a good ball player. He has great hands, great speed, and he's a funny guy. He's a pretty good guy to hang out with."
(On how he stays in the moment while still understanding there is more at stake here)
"I'm the wrong person to ask that. Every game is the same to me. I just try to go out there and have fun. Hopefully the ball rolls our way and we win the game."
(On how nice it was to put up some of the best numbers of his career this year)
"It's nice to put those types of numbers up still, later on in my career. I definitely feel like I could have done a lot more when I was a rookie and during my first four years, but I didn't have those opportunities. I don't think it's my fault, but it's fun to be out here playing with these guys. We've got a good group out here. They tolerate my goofiness and it's a good time."
T NATE SOLDER
(On treating Saturday like another game but still understanding that the stakes are higher)
"I don't think it's like any other game. I think that we go about our process the way we've done it all year in terms of preparing really hard, getting to know them really well, but we know that this is a one-shot deal and we have one opportunity to play our best ball on Saturday."
(On how he will try to counteract Jadeveon Clowney's length)
"With a guy like that, he's so talented, very athletic, very long; you've got to be playing great ball. You've got to be working with your teammates, you've got to be able to change things up on him and be able to play really well when you need to."
(On the importance of getting the run going against this Texans defense)
"We're always trying to get everything going. We don't want to be a one-directional team. We're getting all of our pieces in alignment this week and hopefully we can get them all firing on Saturday."