On this first official day of AFC Championship Week, all seemed to be going as planned for the Patriots, who were coming off a throttling of the Tennessee Titans and perfect attendance at their last practice. Bill Belichick's team appeared to be playing its best complementary football and enjoying a healthy top-to-bottom roster at just the right time.
Following morning meetings and classroom preparations Wednesday, all but two players were at practice on the Gillette Stadium game field early this afternoon (more on them in a moment). Afterward, though, when a few co-captains and the head coach were presented to the media for live TV interviews broadcast nationally, the team, via its official Twitter account, issued the following announcement about QB Tom Brady:
Later, the team's official injury report revealed that Brady is dealing with an unspecified problem with his right (throwing) hand that limited his activity in Wednesday's practice. While Brady has endured Achilles heel and left shoulder problems this season, he was not listed at all on last week's injury report. He did not appear to have suffered any issues during the Titans game this past weekend, so, we're left to speculate that something occurred during today's session at Gillette.
This news came after tight end Rob Gronkowski, safety Devin McCourty, special teams leader Matthew Slater, and Belichick had all addressed reporters. As a result, none of them was asked about Brady's status or participation during practice. During locker room interviews a short time later, several other players told reporters that they saw nothing obvious happen to their quarterback today.
Late Wednesday, the *Boston Herald *provided this piece of information on the matter:
At the moment, Brady is scheduled to speak with reporters on Thursday. In the meantime, his injured throwing hand will be the subject of considerable attention as the Patriots find themselves one win away from a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
Many observers believe Brady will eventually win the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award for the 2017 season when all league honors are announced the night before the Super Bowl.
Coincidentally, on Wednesday, before news of his injured hand came to light, the QB was named an MVP by the Pro Football Writers of America, the trade association of media who cover the NFL for a living. TB12 has been given the PFWA distinction on two other occasions, in 2007 and 2010. Only Peyton Manning (four) has won more PFWA MVP awards.
Execution over experience
When New England hosts Jacksonville this Sunday, it will mark the Patriots' seventh consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Belichick, however, downplayed the importance of that remarkable, unmatched experience his team has and the advantage it could give his players over their rival Jaguars.
Some of Belichick's players who've been down this championship path before seemed ambivalent about the role their playoff experience could play this weekend versus Jacksonville.
"The more you play in big games, I guess, the more you're used to it," WR Danny Amendola acknowledged. "Guys in here have played in big games, but it's a new circumstance, a new situation for everyone [this weekend]. We've got to play well. That's it. We have to play well no matter what to stay alive in the playoffs. That's what we're focused on."
"The biggest thing for everyone is to prepare as much as possible," remarked fellow pass catcher Chris Hogan. "Whatever it is you do to prepare for big games – whether that's watching extra film, making sure you're at practice doing everything right, studying the practice film… We've got to put everything we have into this week of preparation, whatever we can do to get ourselves ready for this game."
At the same time, a number of newcomers to the Patriots are experiencing the postseason for the first time this month and are enjoying the moment so far.
"I think we're in high spirits," declared WR Brandin Cooks. "We're out here grinding. We know what the opportunity at hand is right now. We're not taking that lightly. We're in here working. We know we're getting ready for a great team. It's going to be the best team that we've played all year. So, we're really excited about that… We're not even having thoughts about [the Super Bowl]. We're not looking past this week."
"I'm excited," cornerback Stephon Gilmore admitted. "It's hard to get to this position. We have to take advantage of the opportunity to go out and do whatever we can to help the team win. I just try to go out and prepare like I've prepared all year and focus on what we do as a team."
If the Patriots have learned anything from their history in the postseason, it's this, according to Hogan.
"These games are going to be tight. Obviously, these are the best teams in the NFL this year playing these games. It comes down to who makes the most plays and least amount of mistakes."
Just one Patriot from the 53-man roster didn't suit up when the team practiced on the game field at Gillette Stadium Wednesday. Cornerback Jonathan Jones was last seen being helped off that same field Saturday night against Tennessee when he appeared to suffer a serious injury to his left foot. Jones was later placed on injured reserve, abruptly ending his 2017 season.
Earlier in that Titans game, right tackle LaAdrian Waddle had to exit prematurely when he sustained a knee injury. Waddle was in uniform for today's session, although he spent the entire 10-minute stretching period (during which media was allowed to observe) riding an exercise bike on the sideline.
Meanwhile, the Patriots faced a deadline today to activate Malcolm Mitchell from injured reserve. They've chosen not to do so, though, as the wide receiver (who's been dealing with a knee injury this year) was not at practice today. Mitchell returned to practice three weeks ago after New England designated him as its second player allowed to return from IR this season. They had a three-week window in which to re-activate him, and today was the final day of that window.
In a related note, the Patriots re-signed wide receiver Bernard Reedy, who fills the spot on the 53-man roster vacated by the aforementioned Jones.