Foxborough, Mass. - With nearly every high, eventually there also comes a low. As the New England Patriots stop to exhale following Sunday's 41-27 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons, head coach Bill Belichick finds himself with a lengthy list of priorities that need his attention.
Less than 24 hours after officially punching their ticket to the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles, Belichick was among those in the Patriots organization admittedly running on "fumes." The Patriots boarded buses outside Heinz Field and departed to the Pittsburgh International Airport roughly two hours after the final whistle in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, arriving in Providence's T.F. Green Airport at approximately 2:30 a.m. Monday morning. The team then traveled via a motorcade of buses to Gillette Stadium, arriving at roughly 3:45 a.m., where Belichick held a team meeting before sending players on their way.
"We got back late, and [are] just trying to make arrangements to move into this week," Belichick said at a press conference Monday. "It's certainly an exciting place to be.
"At this point I don't know too much," he added when asked about the health of his team. "I'm just barely standing. I'm sure that they are too."
Belichick gave the players the day off Monday, although many showed up at Gillette Stadium again this morning - or they never really left, he isn't certain - to conduct individual workouts. The players also have the next two days off while the coaching staff prepares the game plan and reviews the scouting reports of the Eagles, with the team reporting back for practices on Thursday. The fact that players were inside the stadium and back at work the morning after a physical game against Pittsburgh - many with literally little or no break - wasn't lost on the head coach.
"Now is the time to recover and bounce back," Belichick said. "I'm sure we'll all be ready to go when we get ready to tee up again here. I think that's really a credit and really a mark of the attitude of the team, that even on their days off they come in and still maintain their workouts and conditioning. We're getting ready for another game, and some have already begun that process - I'm sure the rest of them will and before we come back on Thursday will do some things on their own to prepare themselves."
The idea, according to Belichick, isn't that Monday's are supposed to be easy.
"I think we're all pretty spent," he said. "We put a lot into it. We left it out on the field. We had a number of guys that were really about at the point of exhaustion and needed a little bit of help at halftime even to keep going and that type of thing. I think it took a lot out of us. But that's the way it should be. But I'm glad we left that out on the field and we're not saving it, sitting here and feeling good on Monday. We don't want to feel good on Monday. We want to put all our energy into the game."
To their advantage, the Patriots are in familiar territory, both in terms of their next opponent and the groundwork required to prepare for a Super Bowl. Philadelphia visited Gillette Stadium as the first preseason opponent back on August 13, and has been on the Patriots preseason or regular season schedule four times in the last six seasons. Because of the nature of the single-elimination playoff format and the time required preparing for the AFC Championship, the Patriots haven't begun the process of readying for the Eagles.
"Right now I don't think we're ready to do anything," Belichick said. "We have two weeks before the game and we're going to need all that time to study the Eagles, familiarize ourselves with them and to be able to execute a game plan against an outstanding football team. The Eagles have led the NFC from wire to wire. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Whether we're going to be prepared to do that will be determined on how much and how well we get things done in the next couple of weeks. Right now, I don't think we'd be very good at all against the Eagles."
While the Eagles represent the biggest challenge of the season, the two-week Super Bowl spectacle is a challenge in and of itself. To that end, the Patriots know what is ahead. Much of what Super Bowl week has become for the players is dealing with surrounding issues such as family, travel, tickets, and media engagements - all outside the realm of football. Ideally, the Patriots experience in Super Bowl appearances following the 2001 and 2003 seasons will make them better prepared than the Eagles, who have failed to advance past the NFC Championship in three consecutive seasons.
"I think experience is always helpful," Belichick said. "It's always good to have been through something. At least you know what you're dealing with. But it always comes down to how you handle the situation again. Hopefully those experiences can be positive and guys can learn how to manage their time and make decisions and, again, do everything possible to get their performance at it's absolute top level in two weeks at kickoff. That's what it's all about."