The Patriots will take part in their sixth straight AFC Championship Game, and 11th overall under Bill Belichick's stewardship, against Pittsburgh on Sunday. Despite the seemingly annual event, the coach explained on Wednesday that the thought of reaching this point of the season remains a source of pride.
"It's always an honor to be participating in the AFC Championship game," Belichick said to open his nationally-televised press conference as part of conference championship week. "We have a great history and a great deal of respect for the Steelers, the organization, coach [Mike] Tomlin, their staff, their players. They're a good football team, playing very well at the right time of the year now, the second half of the season."
"Hopefully we can have a good week here and be at our best Sunday night. That's our goal, and that's what we're going to work toward. We know we have a lot to do, a lot to prepare for."
Belichick talked a lot about the Steelers and their impressive second-half surge which has seen the team win nine straight games as they come to Foxborough. Pittsburgh has some serious star power in its so-called Killer Bs with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown, and Belichick was asked who set the tone for the potent Pittsburgh offense.
"It's everything. They're good across the board. [They] have a good offensive line, the quarterback doesn't get sacked much, they run the ball well, so I think it all starts up front," Belichick said. "They have good skill players; they have a good quarterback, obviously Brown and Bell are dynamic players, tremendous with the ball in their hands. Again, the offensive line does a good job of making everything go; the running game, the passing game, you name it. They're solid, they're well-balanced, well-coached, good all the way around."
The Steelers remained the focus of the press conference, with an emphasis toward the team's improvement, in particular on defense, highlighting the rest of the festivities.
Times they are a'changin' – A little after the midway point the Steelers were in danger of missing the playoffs. Losers of four straight the Steelers were gasping for air with a 4-5 record. Roethlisberger's balky knee was a huge part of that, but so too was the subpar play of the defense.
That's when Tomlin made some wholesale changes to his lineup, and the results have been overwhelming positive. The Steelers haven't lost since, and Belichick was asked what had changed on defense.
"They're, again, a solid defense. They made a couple of changes in the secondary," he began. "[Artie] Burns and [Sean] Davis have kind of taken over full-time. You know, [Ryan] Shazier came back for our game, but then he's been full-time after that. They really don't substitute any of those back end players. [William] Gay comes in in nickel, but that's it. [Lawrence] Timmons and Shazier never really leave the field, four [defensive backs] that never really leave the field. And I'd say a lot of the guys on the front, they play through it too. [Stephon] Tuitt, he's hardly ever out of there. [James] Harrison and [Bud] Dupree's back. Dupree, Davis and Burns, you know, Burns was playing anyway, but he's kind of taken over for Gay.
"They've kind of become full-time players. [Cameron] Heyward, of course was out, but [Javon] Hargrave has done a good job for them in there. Tuitt is a force. They're playing good team defense. Again, it's not one guy. There are 11 guys out there doing a good job."
Home sweet home –If you're expecting the Patriots to advance to yet another Super Bowl simply because they will be playing at home, Belichick has a simple message:
"Go ask Dallas and Kansas City," was his response when asked how much the Gillette Stadium crowd helps. That was in reference to the Cowboys and Chiefs being sent packing over the weekend after losing their divisional round games at home.
"The game is won by the players on the field. That's who wins football games – the players. And they'll decide it Sunday night."
Endless excitement –Finally, the trappings of a conference title game can sometimes loom as a distraction, and Belichick was asked about the potential for such an occurrence. That led to a humorous exchange as he glanced at the Lamar Hunt Trophy resting between Patriots and Steelers helmets on a table just to his right.
"I know, it's so exciting," Belichick deadpanned when asked about the pomp and circumstance that comes with the AFC Championship Game, drawing some laughter from the packed media work room.
Would you regard this as a distraction at all?
"Like I said, it's a great privilege to play in this game. It's the two best teams in the AFC. You earn your way to this game. There's no other way to get there. You've got to earn it, and you've got to earn it on the field. You've got to go out there and beat somebody – you've got to beat a lot of people to get to this game. Both teams have done that, so that's the matchup. We're glad to be in the game, proud to be playing in it. We earned it, they earned it and we'll play Sunday night and see how it comes out. Great to be part of this game."