Late last week Bill Belichick joked about not being done with his Christmas shopping, balancing his preparations for his team's Christmas Eve game against Buffalo with his real-world holiday responsibilities.
Tuesday morning in a conference call with the New England media, Belichick revealed that his gift-giving got done with situational execution typical to what's expected in Foxborough.
"It was a struggle," Belichick responded dryly to a shopping-related question to open his conference call. "We were in the two-minute drill. It was a great holiday."
One new gift-giving tradition that Belichick isn't fond of is the fact that Tom Brady has thrown an interception in each of the last five games, the first time that's happened for the Patriots quarterback since 2002. The streak included a pick-six score for Buffalo on Sunday and has seen interceptions come on third down. The coach was asked if there might be more understanding when interceptions come on the more important down, in an effort to make plays.
"I don't think we want to throw interceptions on any down. I don't think Tom wants to throw them on any down," Belichick said. "I think we just have to do a better job of coaching and executing the plays, making our reads and throwing the ball. We all need to do a better job on those plays. That's not what we're looking for. We're not making excuses for why they happened. We just didn't do a good enough job."
While New England's 37-16 win over the Bills Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium may not have qualified as a great game, it did include plenty of impressive performances from Patriots players.
Belichick talked about a number of those performances, from guys like Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis and Malcolm Brown, to highlight his morning conference call.
1. Gronkowski "makes a lot of tough catches": A week after carrying the Patriots to victory in Pittsburgh, including a shoe-string catch to set up New England's game winning touchdown, Gronkowski had another highlight reel reception in beating Buffalo. The Pro Bowl tight end's 17-yard score in the second quarter saw the big man rotate in the air and haul in Brady's ball for a pretty catch just inside the left pylon.
Given the two very different by equally difficult catches, Belichick was asked about Gronkowski's varied catch radius.
"It's certainly been good this year. I think it's always been pretty good," Belichick said. "Rob gets to a lot of balls, and he catches a lot of balls and he makes a lot of tough catches. I don't know if I could differentiate between this year, last year, some particular game. We see him catch a lot of balls in practice and not miss too many; very few. He makes some remarkable catches on the practice field as well as in game situations. He does a pretty good job on all that."
The coach had a very similar answer when asked about Gronkowski's ability as a run blocker earlier in the call.
"I think Rob takes a lot of pride in his run blocking," Belichick's said of something that's been a strength for the tight end since he landed in New England. "I think, like anything else, there is always room for improvement. A lot of that is working with different combinations, so it could be sometimes with the tackle, sometimes with another tight end, sometimes with the fullback, sometimes with a receiver and we see a lot of nickel defense. So, sometimes we're blocking linebackers, sometimes we're blocking defensive backs, defensive ends, different combinations there. A lot of it is identification, and recognition and technique. There's a lot of moving parts there at the tight end positon and as it relates to the perimeter there on the edge of the defense. There are multiple alignments and, again, a lot of times that involves two or three of us blocking two or three of them, so it's not just straight one-on-one blocking. That's I don't want to say the easy part, but there's certainly a lot less moving parts to that. It's the combination stuff, the perimeter stuff. Rob works hard on that. Like I said, there's some tough looks there and we've just got to keep working on it."
2. "Dion has really good vision": With New England playing without both James White and Rex Burkhead, Lewis took on a bigger role in the Patriots offense against Buffalo. Not only did he notch career highs with 24 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown, but also tied for a game high with five catches for 24 yards and another score.
Lewis has been a productive force when healthy since the day he arrived in New England, but Belichick was asked if the versatile playmaker has improved his vision and ability to navigate blocking schemes over his career with the Patriots.
"I think Dion has really good vision," Belichick began. "Has it improved? I don't know. I think it's been pretty good. He's done a real good job. He was an explosive player for us pretty much ever since we got him and his vision is good. His run skills are good. He's hard to tackle. He's very strong for his size. I think all of those have been in place for a while. I think those are all qualities that Mike [Lombardi] talked about when he had him at Cleveland when we signed him."
3. Malcom in the middle:The former first-round pick Brown had a big day against Buffalo, including a third-quarter series in which his 15-yard sack and tackle for no gain forced a Bills punt. New England's offense took advantage of its ensuing opportunity to gain a 23-16 lead and never looked back.
Brown has settled into a more consistent role as both a performer and a leader in the middle of the Patriots defense this season despite missing the first three games of his career in late October and early November.
"Malcom's worked hard this year," Belichick said. "He, unfortunately, missed a couple of weeks there in the middle of the season as he was, I think, really kind of getting into a good weekly groove, and then had to take a little break before he was able to get back to that. I'd say it happened relatively quickly but, still, there's a process of playing after having not played which he had to work out and go through. He's done a good job of that. He's stayed very involved with the team, with the game plan, knowing what we're doing even in the games that he didn't play, so he's really showed a lot of leadership and continued to work on the things he could work on even though there were some things he couldn't work on. He did a good job of that."