by Christopher Price
Yesterday at Gillette Stadium, Rodney Harrison was poking fun at rookie defensive back Brandon Meriweather, calling him “my favorite young safety … other than Jacksonville’s Reggie Nelson.” Heath Evans was laughing about his first playoff experience with the Seahawks in chilly Green Bay in 2003. “It was cold.”
And Tom Brady was smiling and joking during his weekly press conference as he gently needled the diminutive Wes Welker.
This is the intense world of postseason football?
For a team that many outsiders believe carries the weight of the collective football world on its shoulders this postseason, they seemed pretty laid-back yesterday as preparations began in earnest for Saturday’s divisional playoff game against the Jaguars.
“You have to enjoy these opportunities and enjoy these moments, because they don’t come by very often,” said defensive lineman Richard Seymour when asked about the postseason. “Just take care of your responsibility, and hopefully, the guy beside you will take care of his, and have fun while you’re doing it.
“It’s the playoffs. This is what it’s all about, and hopefully, everybody can do their job and give our team an opportunity to win.”
At least publicly, the 2007 Patriots have become adept at walking the fine line between acknowledging the pressure that comes with the playoffs but not becoming consumed by it. That starts at the top, according to Evans, who said that to be successful in the postseason, a team must learn how to “relax.”
“Some coaches do a better job than others of preparing their teams to be able to relax and to be able to handle the intensity of these games,” Evans shrugged.
Part of that relaxation also stems from the fact that the Patriots have been here before — on New England’s 53-man roster, 14 players have been involved at least 10 postseason games. (Wide receiver Troy Brown has been in 20 playoff games.) And even players who have yet to suit up in the postseason have felt the glare of the spotlight — New England has had to deal with the pressure of an undefeated season, not to mention six prime-time games.
“We’ve been tested on the road, we’ve been tested at home, we’ve been tested in poor weather [and] we’ve had to overcome deficits late in the games,” Brady said. “We’ve needed to put together critical drives in those games so hopefully we’ve learned from those, hopefully we can deal with some of the pressure.
“There’s pressure on us every week, but it’s different in the playoffs, because you realize you’re getting dressed — you’re going to bed Saturday night realizing that Sunday night, that could be it. You could be, you know, planning your vacations. That’s not a very good feeling,” he added. “We’ve experienced that the last few years and those are games you remember, that sit with you for a long time. Hopefully, we’re ready to persevere.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR
1. The right side of the Patriots’ offensive line. Right guard Stephen Neal (shoulder) and right tackle Nick Kaczur (foot) – as well as blocking tight end Kyle Brady (foot) — didn’t play in the season finale against the Giants because of injury. The Jaguars don’t generate the same sort of pass rush at the Giants do, but the return of the starters — plus Brady — would go a long way toward keeping Brady upright. All three were in the locker room Monday, and we’ll get a chance to check their status when the first injury report is made available later this week.
2. Rodney Harrison. In a wholesale attempt to stop Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew from establishing any sort of consistent ground attack, expect the veteran safety to be spending most of his night in run support as the Patriots try and take away the Jags No. 1 offensive option.
3. The Patriots’ red-zone defense. After taking giant leaps forward over the final month, New England’s defense inside the 20 took a big step back last Saturday against the Giants, as New York scored touchdowns on all four of its possessions inside the red zone. Behind Jones-Drew and Taylor, the Jags are better than average at cashing in once they get down near the goal line — during the regular season, they were ninth in the NFL in scoring TDs in the red zone at 57 percent.
4. The Patriots at home in the playoffs. New England is as sure a thing at home in the postseason as death, taxes and a regularly-scheduled Britney meltdown — under Bill Beichick, the Patriots are 6-0 at home in the playoffs, and their average margin of victory is 14 points. As a franchise, New England is 9-1 at home in the postseason, with the last playoff loss coming in Foxboro on Dec. 31 1978 to Wade Phillips’ Daddy Bum and his Houston Oilers.
5. If there’s any sort of spillover from last season’s game, as well as “SpyGate” fallout. In last year’s Christmas Eve game in Jacksonville, the Jags and Patriots played a tough, physical contest punctuated by linebacker Clint Ingram’s hit — some say spear — on Brady. In addition, Jacksonville’s Paul Spicer didn’t back off his “SpyGate” related comments on the Patriots yesterday on ESPN2 (see below). The combination of the two could make things especially nasty come Saturday.
STAT OF THE WEEK
6. The number of times the word “physical” or “physically” was used in Tom Brady’s Monday press conference in reference to the Jacksonville defense.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“If they got to bring up something said so long ago, let that be their motivational tool.” — Jacksonville defensive lineman Paul Spicer, speaking with ESPN2’s “First Take” Monday morning about his comments on the Patriots in the wake of “SpyGate.”
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Join Chris and Michael Parente of the Woonsocket Call on patriots.com radio this afternoon from 2:00-4:00 p.m. While you’re waiting, check out our friend Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts as he tracks down the one guy that didn’t vote for MVP Tom Brady.