Few if any coaches work as hard as Bill Belichick or are as on-point in their preparations as the future Hall of Famer who’s built a dynasty in New England.
And even though he admits that he watched the Eagles dominating victory over the Vikings in the NFC title game to set up a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX in two weeks in Minneapolis, Belichick isn’t exactly ready to start breaking down what got Philadelphia to Super Bowl LII.
“Saw some of it. The coaches and I kind of watched the game on TV a little bit yesterday. That was a pretty impressive performance by Philadelphia,” Belichick said in his traditional day-after-game conference call with the New England media Monday morning.
Initial thoughts on head coach Doug Pederson and the Eagles?
“I think I really need a little more time on that one,” Belichick said.
One thing that Belichick wasn’t hesitant to comment on was the home-field advantage his team had Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. During the Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation ceremony after the big win Patriots owner Robert Kraft said he’d never heard the stadium as loud as it was during the comeback win over Jacksonville.
“I thought there was a lot of energy in the stadium. I sure did,” Belichick agreed.
Other highlights of Belichick’s morning conference call included praise for his team’s fourth-quarter execution, a breakdown of Ryan Allen’s punting contributions and a description of Stephon Gilmore’s game-clinching pass defense.
*1. “Seemed to be at a higher level of execution in the fourth quarter”: *Jacksonville took a 20-10 lead on a 43-yard Josh Lambo field on the second play of the fourth quarter of Sunday’s AFC title game. And when linebacker Myles Jack forced and recovered a Dion Lewis fumble on the Patriots ensuing possession things looked anything but good for the home squad.
But it was from that point on, over the final 13:37 of playing time, that New England got things in gear in all three phases to pull off the comeback and secure its berth in Super Bowl LII.
The defense forced a three-and-out. Tom Brady led an 8-play, 85-yard scoring drive to a 4-yard Danny Amendola touchdown, a drive that included a 21-yard reception for the receiver on third-and-18. And in the coming minutes New England’s punt and punt return units would perform to near perfection.
“I'd say we were just better at everything in the fourth quarter all the way across the board,” Belichick said. “We made plays in all three areas of the game. We just seemed to be at a higher level of execution in the fourth quarter. We were better offensively, we were better defensively, we made plays in the kicking game, kickoff coverage, punt return. Yeah, I think our guys are in good condition. They certainly seemed to have enough energy and stamina to go out and have our best and most productive plays in the fourth quarter when it mattered the most.”
*2. That’s a good punt!: *In what turned into a tight, field-position game, New England punter Ryan Allen booted the ball three times in the second half against the Jags. The three were downed at the Jacksonville 10-, 9- and 10-yard line, respectively.
Allen didn’t allow a single return on his six punts on Sunday. Though his overall season was a lot like his punts – up and down – Allen’s work down the regular season stretch and into the postseason has been a net positive for the Patriots. That was certainly the case in Sunday’s big win.
“Ryan's done a good job for us in both the backed up punting when we need distance and net punting to really be maximized because of the field position,” Belichick explained, “but also in the plus-50 type areas where it’s a lot more about skill, and ball placement and hang time, but really ball placement and hang time are the two key things there in that area of the field more than obviously distance. He’s done a real good job of that. He’s been able to move the ball around a little bit, not always kicking in the same place and that’s always tough on the returner and the return team. Yeah, he’s done a real good job for us.”
*3. Gilmore’s pass defense “just an outstanding play”: *There were times this season, his first in New England, when Stephon Gilmore had his struggles. As such, the $65 million free agent addition became a bit of a whipping boy for fans and media alike. But when the game and the season were on the line Sunday afternoon against the Jaguars, Gilmore couldn’t have come up much bigger.
Gilmore closed out an impressive day – his second in two postseason contests – by closing the door on Jacksonville with a game-clinching pass defense.
Facing fourth-and-15 at the Patriots 45 with 1:53 to play and trailing 24-20, Blake Bortles looked deep down the right side for Dede Westbrook. The speedy Jags target was blanketed by Gilmore, who impressively batted the ball away, almost making it look easy, and essentially punched the Patriots ticket to Super Bowl LII.
“We were in a man-to-man coverage,” Belichick described the final defensive snap of the day. “Those over routes can be tough routes against that type of coverage because the receiver has a lot of space and can kind of run away from the defender. The defender doesn’t really have any leverage. About all the defender can do is keep up with the route, which a lot of times a good throw and a good catch can result in a completion there or undercut it and make it a tougher throw and a tougher play to execute for the quarterback. Stephon's got a good feel for that. He's got a lot of experience doing it and he's got a good feel for running with the receiver or trying to undercut the receiver based on the route and the individual skills of the receiver and the quarterback and so forth.
“I thought he made an outstanding play. He was in really good position and then he's long. He’s got good length and was able to pretty easily reach out – not easily – but I mean he didn’t have to leave his feet. He had enough length to run and stretch and make the play on the ball. It was just an outstanding play. I thought Stephon played well for us yesterday.”