Saturday night Bill Belichick’s team clinched its seventh straight trip to the AFC Championship Game.
Sunday afternoon he and Patriots Nation found out the opponent for next weekend’s big game at Gillette Stadium – the Jaguars.
Jacksonville advanced to the Sunday afternoon battle with the Patriots in Foxborough thanks to the 45-42 upset of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Speaking with the media for the first time since his next opponent was finalized, during his Monday morning conference call Belichick offered some views of Jacksonville, though he made it clear he’s still very early in the scouting process.
“We're kind of working our way through it here,” Belichick said. “We're not where we're going to be on Wednesday. We have a lot of work to do. We haven't seen them in quite a while, but obviously, they're well coached. They have a lot of good players. We saw that from training camp. They've been in two close games and they've made a lot of critical plays in critical situations. They've made the plays they've had to make, and that's what you have to do at this time of year.”
As Belichick alluded to, New England actually spent a couple days of joint practice action with the Jaguars this August in Foxborough before the teams met in their preseason opener. Belichick downplayed the value of those workouts and exhibition action in regards to preparations for this week’s game.
“That was a long time ago. I think right now what it's about is getting ready to play this game. That was a different point in time, different emphasis. I don't know,” Belichick said.
More important is how the team got to the postseason and what it’s done since, including their win over Pittsburgh, their second beating of the Steelers this season.
“Very impressive; yeah. They did a great job,” Belichick said of Sunday’s action. “Again, they do a lot of things well, play good defense, can rush the passer, can stop the run, turn the ball over, can run the ball, have a lot of explosive players in the passing game, they're good in the kicking game, they're very aggressive in the kicking game. They're well coached. I know that, for sure. They've handled the situations that have come up in those games very well – fourth-and-1 in the first quarter, things like that. They've really done a good job, so yeah, it's impressive.”
Beyond the general thoughts on Jacksonville, other highlights from the morning conference call included praise for his own offensive line, thought’s on Tom Coughlin’s impact in his return to Jacksonville and acknowledgement of the impressive work of a couple rookie Patriots pass rushers.
1. Patriots offensive line “a hard-working group”: New England’s offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. Early on there were too many sacks allowed, too many hits on Tom Brady and inefficiencies in the running game. But in Saturday night’s win over the Titans the group got the job done in both pass protection – Brady was not sacked once – and on the ground, with New England running 24 times for 102 yards against the NFL’s No. 4 rush defense.
“We had to pass block them quite a bit,” Belichick began, noting Brady’s 53 pass attempts. “We threw the ball, but they also did a good job in the running game. We got some yards there and tried to balance it off. But those guys work well together. They work well individually. They compete well individually with their training, and preparation and one-on-one execution, but they also operate well as a unit with communication, blocking adjustments and so forth that a lot of times come right after the ball is snapped. They've done a real good job for us.”
While the results may vary at times, Belichick made it pretty clear that the line’s work behind the scenes is consistent.
“They’re a hard-working group, along with their coach,” Belichick said, referring to legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia. “They work hard. They come to work every day and really do a good job of preparing. They work hard in the weight room with Moses [Cabrera] and their conditioning and so forth. They do a good job in there, too. [They're] just a group that really grinds it out. I have a lot of respect for what they do and how hard they do it.”
2. Coughlin’s impact in Jacksonville: After being let go by the Giants two years ago, longtime Patriots-killer Coughlin returned to a front office role in Jacksonville, a team he helped build back in the 1990s. Coughlin of course was the coach in New York for two Giants upsets of the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Some fans and media types this week seem worried that even in a different role Coughlin might be able to add something to the upset plan for the upstart Jags.
But according to Belichick, Coughlin’s impact, role and imprint in Jacksonville are hard to pinpoint from afar.
“I don't know,” Belichick said. “I know Dave Caldwell's been down there for quite a while, has put a lot of that team together. Tom came in and exactly how that's worked between Tom, Dave and Doug [Marrone] and the other people there involved down there, I mean, you'd have to really ask them about that. I don't know.
*3. Wise and Butler “have done a good job” over long season: *The Patriots don’t have a huge rookie class, but it includes a pair of guys on the defensive line who’ve found a way to make an impact. Fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise Jr. and undrafted rookie Adam Butler not only earned roster spots out of camp but rotational roles along the front.
Wise started three of the 16 games he played in the regular season, finishing with 26 tackles and ranking third on the team with five sacks. Butler started six of the 16 games he played, tallying 20 tackles and a pair of sacks.
Though some rookies tend to fade late in the year, Wise notched two sacks in Saturday night’s postseason victory while Butler added one to the Patriots postseason franchise-record eight sacks of Marcus Mariota.
It doesn’t look like the two rookie defensive linemen are any worse for the wear of the long season.
“I would agree with that,” Belichick said of their consistent level of play continuing. “I think that's, honestly, that's been pretty impressive to me. Those guys have done a good job. A lot of times you see the rookies [have] the length of the season affect them a little bit. I'd say with those guys, in particular, they've done a good job of every day coming through, coming here with a lot of consistency, work ethic. They get here early. They do extra. They don't act like it's too much for them or the season is too long. They have a good energy level every week and that's been impressive and they've continued to improve. I would say they haven't leveled off. They've gotten better, both individually, and in their preparation and understanding what our opponent does and so forth. That's really not an easy thing to do because as the season goes on there is a lot more information to digest. There's more games, there's more situations, they've run more plays, we run more plays, we have more things that we have to match up against that. It's really the preparation part of the game increases as the year goes, on and that's sometimes hard to really keep piling it on week after week because each week really gets a little bit harder to prepare for the next team because the volume has increased a lot more from what it is in the early part of the season. Not that there isn't a lot of early preparation. I'm not saying that, but when you have 14, 15 games of situations, and plays and different things they've shown, it's just a lot more volume than what you have in Week 6. They've done a good job of that.”