They started back in the spring, when the grass was lush and green. They resumed later in the summer when temps were steamy, and continued throughout autumn, as the leaves fell and the landscape hardened with frost.
On this sunny, seasonable chilly January Saturday, Bill Belichick’s Patriots used their indoor facility behind Gillette Stadium to conduct their final practice at home this season.
New England is one of two teams still in uniform right now. The AFC Champion Patriots and their NFC counterparts, the Los Angeles Rams – each the No. 2 playoff seed in their respective conferences – have been home all this past week after hard-fought victories on the road last weekend. Next weekend, they’ll meet in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
For the past three days, Belichick’s squad has enjoyed perfect attendance at practices, which they elected to hold indoors a likely effort to simulate the field and temperature conditions in which they’ll play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium the night of February 3.
Remarkably, the Patriots are so fit they haven’t had to list any players on their injury report – an almost unheard of occurrence at any time on the NFL calendar and particularly this deep into the postseason.
While the Rams organization is relatively new to the Super Bowl fortnight (its last appearance was 17 years ago versus New England), these Patriots have now been to three straight and four out of the last five. They’re accustomed to the way things work, both on the ground in the host city and, perhaps equally important, handling the week of work prior to arriving at the Super Bowl, which can be an even more hectic time than Super Bowl Week itself.
But does that experience give New England an advantage?
“I’m very comfortable with it,” right guard Shaq Mason acknowledged, “but… I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage at all. I mean, it’s one game and everybody’s going to be up for the game. So, it’s whoever puts their best display out there that day.”
“I think right now… we don’t really know these [Rams] as well as anybody in the AFC, but we’re doing everything we can to learn about them,” observed linebacker Dont’a Hightower. “I’m sure there’ll come a point next week that we kind of draw the line as far as what we’re trying to do [in our preparations].”
“The Rams have worked equally as hard. They have a great team,” quarterback/co-captain Tom Brady asserted after Saturday’s practice.
In the meantime, thanks to their healthy roster, the Patriots were able to put forth an efficient stretch of practice sessions here before they load up the team charter tomorrow. Once in Atlanta, the AFC Champs will conduct their final practices of the 2018-19 season at the downtown facilities of Georgia Tech, a campus to whom alum Mason is no stranger.
“It will be fun,” he smiled. “They’ve got a new locker room, so I’m happy to see that. It will be pretty cool, and I mean, I’d love to have David [Andrews] and Sony [Michel] practicing on the Georgia Tech turf. That’s definitely a plus.”
Mason couldn’t help taking a good-natured jab at Andrews and Michel, both former University of Georgia players and rivals of Mason who are now teammates in New England. For Andrews, the Super Bowl is a familiar environment, but Michel, the team’s highly productive rookie running back, is one of a number of Patriots making their first-ever appearance in football’s biggest game.
Yet, Michel, as he’s done all season, has handled himself with precocious poise.
“It’s pretty cool to be in Georgia,” he remarked about returning to the Peach State, “but it’s even more important that we’re in the Super Bowl.”
Only a month ago, many wondered if this year’s Patriots had what it takes to get to Atlanta, and while there’s certainly motivation to prove those doubters wrong, some players are taking a more positive approach.
“You know, [proving people wrong], that’s fun, but I want to prove people right,” maintained linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “There’s a lot of people – our families, teammates – that believe in each other. We want to prove those people right. That’s at least what I want to do.”
For someone like Brady, who’ll be taking part in his eye-popping ninth Super Bowl, there’s plenty of motivation to win this game that comes from within.
“I love the competition… every year has its challenges,” he explained. “It’s very different from my first year to now. Things change, obviously, with yourself, the team, personal situations, professional situations. But I love competing, love playing football. Trying to improve and be the best I can be for this team is great motivation for me.
“That’s why this team has done such a great job. Everyone here is committed to winning and really doing whatever it takes to win,” Brady continued. “To get to this point is really exceptional. I’m proud of the guys for making the commitment. It’s certainly not easy. I think everyone, at this point, is tired, worn down, but at the same time, you have one of the great opportunities of your life – a memory you’ll have forever. I really hope we can take advantage of it.”
They’ve done all they can here in Foxborough. Sunday, following a send-off rally at Gillette, it’s off to Atlanta. The team will be there until Monday, February 4, when they’ll fly back to New England with what they hope will be their NFL-record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“I’m excited for it,” Brady grinned. “I’m going to try to get as much rest as I can and try to play our best game of the year when we need it the most.”