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Sunday, December 29, 2013
Patriots have to like chances in playoffs

By Mike Reiss


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has seldom come easy for the New England Patriots in the 2013 season, so it was fitting Sunday’s finale against the visiting Buffalo Bills was played in a steady downpour from start to finish. Just another obstacle to overcome in a season full of them.

“I haven’t played in one like this,” quarterback Tom Brady, now in his 14th season, said after the soggy, closer-than-it-looked 34-20 victory. “The water on the field at the end, it was just puddles. I’ve never seen that on our field before.”

That’s because the Patriots haven’t played in such waterlogged conditions since the Gillette Stadium surface was changed from natural grass to FieldTurf in 2006. The ball was slick, the footing far from secure, and it turned into a running game.

Thankfully for the Patriots, they had 6-foot, 250-pound bulldozer LeGarrette Blount on their side, as he broke a 51-year-old franchise record with 334 all-purpose yards (189 rushing, 145 on kickoff returns). Blount, as smiling coach Bill Belichick said afterward, “was clearly the best player on the field” and “carried the team on his back most of the day.”

This is what the good teams do, finding different ways to win and new players to rise up when adverse conditions and injuries strike. After 16 regular-season games, we can now decisively declare that the banged-up 12-4 Patriots are in that category.

Where it takes them, even after they secured the AFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye, no one knows.

But there’s a feeling from seemingly all corners of the locker room that this group is one players feel good about taking their best shot with in the every-play-is-magnified postseason. At this point, that’s really all they can ask for, with their first game in the divisional round scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 11, at 8:15 p.m. ET.

“This team has been through a lot this year, a lot of adversity, a lot has not gone our way. But we’ve found a way to put ourselves in a good position,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, who has been handed the responsibility of delivering an inspirational message to players after each victory before breaking the team down.

“I can’t guarantee us winning a game, I can’t guarantee us making a run, but I can guarantee that we’re going to come out, give great effort and compete.”

That, in many ways, defines a 2013 Patriots squad whose resilience is its most admirable quality.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady congratulates LeGarrette Blount, the latest member of the Patriots to carry the load.
As Slater knows from his six years in the NFL, there are few guarantees at this time of year. In 2010, the Patriots went 14-2, earned a first-round bye, then were bounced by the New York Jets at home in the divisional round. The year before, they limped into the playoffs when receiver Wes Welker tore his ACL in the season finale at Houston and were blown out by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round.

While that seemed bad at the time, it actually pales in comparison to what the Patriots have endured injury-wise this season, with top players Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Rob Gronkowski and Sebastian Vollmer among those placed on season-ending injured reserve.

It looked like Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, who once played parts of a season on a torn ACL, might join the group when he needed help coming off the field in the second quarter Sunday after injuring his ankle. At that point, most Patriots fans had to be asking, “Can this team really absorb the loss of another top player?”

But Mankins came back after retreating to the locker room, his toughness reflective of what observers have seen from the Patriots' all season.

“There’s nobody I’ve ever played with as tough as him,” Brady marveled. “Logan is second to none.”

These Patriots, on the whole, are pretty tough, too, a result of weathering a 16-game season that has delivered them some haymakers -- either by injury or pressure-cooker on-field situations.

“This is one of the most mentally tough teams I’ve been on, through the close games that we’ve played,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, now in his eighth NFL season. “The games that you win by three, one, those are the games that take a lot out of you, and we just keep coming back every week.”

“As you’ve seen from the 16-game season, despite the injuries, there definitely was a youth movement with younger guys having to step up, and we hung in there,” veteran defensive end Andre Carter added. “We constantly fought. We showed a lot of poise through adversity. We showed a lot of character through adversity.”

It’s a quality that Belichick himself seemed to admire as he allowed himself a moment to step outside of his one-game-at-a-time focus and view the 16-game big picture.

“I’m happy for them. They definitely earned it,” he said. “Nobody gave them anything, they had to go out and earn it -- won 12 games, and a lot of them were very tough and competitive and came down to the wire. This team earned it.”

Then Belichick said, “At the same time, this isn’t our only goal for the season.”

So the short-handed but resilient team will take its best shot after a well-deserved playoff bye, with more obstacles surely ahead for a club that keeps finding new ways to overcome them.