- Tedy Bruschi, Columnist, ESPN.com
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Happy New Year. Great finish by the Patriots on Sunday. Let's talk some playoff football.
Q. Hi Tedy, with the Patriots, every season it seems that when injuries occur with critical players, the team seems to have a knack for finding subs who step up with spectacular seasons. For example, Julian Edelman having a career year with Rob Gronkowski out for most of '13, Matt Cassel throwing for a career high 3,700 yards with Tom Brady out in '08, and even Troy Brown taking a part time defensive back role when the secondary was devastated and finishing second in interceptions that year. How much of that do you think is a result of the Patriots' system, and how much is it a result of the player just never having enough of a chance to develop? -- Christian (Sofia, Bulgaria)
A. I think this is a direct result of never overemphasizing the importance of one player. I remember there were times when I would have one of my best games, but what was always focused on was the plays where you didn't do well. It was that way for everybody -- even Brady. Bill Belichick never overemphasized when someone played well. He never overemphasized when a player played poorly. It was always about improving on the things you could get better at. He did this with the second- and third-string players. He would let them know that their role was just as important as any of the captains'. He not only emphasizes that point through the media, but also in team meetings. That makes players feel like, no matter how small their role, they're a key contributor to the team. So when the time comes, when a player's role is expanded because of injury, they don't feel overwhelmed. The importance of the player they're replacing was never magnified in a way that made that player seem irreplaceable.
Q. I've been a fan since I was 8 when you guys won the first one. This team is like no other. My question is if you were playing on this team, what would you say to the guys about how they can go win the big one? I do have my doubts about the Patriots putting together 60 minutes but even then I know they have a shot. Also, who should be the voice in the locker room throughout the run? -- Anonymous
A. The first thing I'd say to them is be efficient with how they use their time during the bye week. I'm sure they will get some time off. This isn't a regular-season bye week where you want to get away from football. These bye weeks should be used to study possible opponents. This is a weekend where you should watch the games. I always felt it was valuable to watch playoff football on television -- to learn what to do and what not to do. From a short-term perspective, I would say use this week as if it were a regular-season week in terms of preparation for possible opponents. This is no time to take a break.
As for the voices in the locker room, they lost two strong ones in Wilfork and Jerod Mayo. But they're still there providing their experience. I think Matthew Slater has developed into a great young leader. Of course, Brady is your voice throughout the team. I also wouldn't mind the team leaning on Rob Ninkovich, either.
Q. Who was the Patriots' defensive MVP on Sunday? For me, it was Sealver Siliga! This guy is becoming a real important part of the defense. Your thoughts? -- Claudio (Brazil)
A. Just when you think the Patriots can't lose another guy -- Wilfork, Tommy Kelly -- this Siliga kid comes out of nowhere and all he does is make plays. Who gets the credit for this? If this kid showed this type of productivity, he would have been on a roster. You have to give defensive line coach Patrick Graham credit, and in some ways Wilfork, who has been in everyone's ear on the sideline, taking notes during the game. When an incoming player gets a sense that he is welcome and even being coached by the guy he's replacing, it can be a boost to your mentality. Obviously, Siliga has good strength and size (6-foot-2, 325). It's a culture in that locker room that I know very well, to survive injuries and have quality depth. That depth must continually be coached, not only by the coaching staff but by the starters who aren't there anymore. This is obviously happening, and I'm sure that's part of the reason Siliga has done so well after coming in off the street.
Q. After watching the last couple of weeks, I really feel this team can make a deep playoff push because of the running game. LeGarrette Blount is playing out of his mind and Stevan Ridley is doing great coming back from his fumbling issues. Brady is making the plays when he has to and the defense seems to be staying strong. Do you agree this team can make a deep push? Also, which team that the Pats can face in the divisional round do you see as the biggest threat? -- Ethan (San Francisco)
A. I feel as though this team can make a deep push. I picked the Patriots at the beginning of the season to be the AFC's Super Bowl representative. I knew they would be better in December than they were in September. It's all because of Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and the quality of all the coaches there. This staff continues to push its players and put pressure on players to get better day after day after day. It is nice to see Blount run the way he did, but let me give you an observation I had about the Buffalo Bills at times Sunday: It looked as though they had their U-Hauls packed. Not only did they not want to tackle on defense, but what was most discouraging was their lack of effort in wanting to tackle on kickoffs.
Q. Out of the 5 Super Bowl teams you played on, was there a team that stands out that was as mentally tough as this 2013 Patriots team? I know they still have two or even three more wins to go before we can really compare them. But I truly like this Patriots team and their chances with how they overcome almost everything this season. -- Derrick (Dallas)
A. With all the Super Bowl teams I played on, the mental toughness of this team is right up there with all of them. Some of the challenges this team has faced are unprecedented. We all remember the summer of Aaron Hernandez and subtracting a key offensive player. This team has shifted as the year has progressed. A defensively dominant team in the beginning of the season is now becoming an offensively dependent team again.
Think about everything this team has overcome: The injury to Gronkowski, bringing along rookie wide receivers in starting roles, having your offense get healthy only to lose Amendola and Gronkowski during stretches. Then you can talk about losing Mayo, Wilfork and Kelly, and the list goes on and on. They have had to win in the final seconds and have even had flags picked up after they were thrown (RE: Carolina). And they still are the No. 2 seed in the AFC. If there is one thing I applaud about this team, it's the mental toughness. That's the best compliment I can give them.
Q. I know it's old school and I know it takes the ball out of your best player's hands, but I love the reliance on the running game and I think it's going to be key to the team not only scoring points in the playoffs but keeping its D rested. It will also help keep a talent like Manning off the field. What do you think? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A. I agree. The running game is going to have to be huge going into the playoffs, but it also depends on the matchup. If you're playing the Bengals, for example, that has a stout defense against the run, do you want to bang your head into the wall down after down? Each team presents a different challenge. The Patriots are going to attack each team differently.
Q. Win or lose, the Pats did an incredible job managing roster depth this year and eked out close games. My question is, now that we're in the postseason, can we yank a receiver from a team that didn't make the playoffs? Julian Edelman is awesome, but we can't rely on him to carry us through. Poor Tom Brady having to work with the exact opposite crew that Peyton Manning gets every single year! -- Matt (East Brookfield, Mass.)
A. Matt, you can't do that. And even if you could, this isn't an easy offense. What you see is what you get from this team. Edelman is going to have to carry it. Danny Amendola, too. The running game, by committee, is going to have to do its part. If Tom Brady struggles, that would be a bad sign.
Q. Which potential Patriots playoff foe team scares you most, the Bengals, Colts or Chiefs? -- Chase (Quincy, Mass.)
A. The Broncos don't even scare me, Chase. I think the Patriots feel that way, too. There is no dominant team in the AFC. I love the mental toughness the Patriots have developed over the year, getting through the adversity they have faced.
Q. If the Patriots do happen to get lucky and win it all this year, do you think Brady retires a champ? -- Jamal (Upstate New York)
A. Absolutely not. Brady wants to win no matter what he does. If they win the Super Bowl this year, the next day Brady will be thinking about winning another.
Q. Tedy, I recall in the draft the ESPN experts expecting the Pats to take either Cordarrelle Patterson or Keenan Allen. The Pats passed on both for Aaron Dobson. Do you think they have any regrets after his spotty season? -- Jeff (Cincinnati)
A. From what I heard, the Patriots really wanted DeAndre Hopkins, and he went before the Patriots picked. Let's not write off Dobson yet. He has made strides this year; it's just unfortunate with the injuries. Don't get caught up in what you don't have. Support the guys you do have.
Q. Now that the Patriots have a running game going into the playoffs, I like where they are and think this team is playing its best football. My question to you is how did you keep the younger players focused going into a bye week like this? Who on this team plays your old role as motivator? -- Corky (Florida)
A. One captain who has been there through the entire season, but missed Sunday with a concussion, is Devin McCourty. He's been in a Super Bowl and played in a lot of big games. You never know when a player will transition from a leader-by-example to a vocal-type leader, and I know he's very well respected in that locker room.
Q. In your experience, what would be Belichick's plan during the bye week? What specific things are done for self-improvement and what is done as advanced prep for the likely opponent (Bengals?) that is different from the regular week prep? -- Nissim (Lima, Peru)
A. You want to get ahead in preparing for your opponent, but it can be tough not knowing who it is. Among the possible opponents (Bengals, Colts, Chiefs), they've played the Bengals once. They haven't played the Colts or Chiefs. From a coaching perspective, you can be confident that you have a good read on teams because you've played them once. It's possible they up their study on the Chiefs and Colts, having not played them this year.
Q. The Patriots are normally the favorite going into the postseason but this year they're not really rated. Will this give Belichick and Brady the "chip on the shoulder" that brings the best out of them? -- Conor (Limerick, Ireland)
A. The beautiful thing about Coach Belichick and Brady is this: They were born with chips on their shoulders. That's something that will never disappear. Even if they were the favorite, it would still be there.
Q. Do you think the Patriots can go to the Super Bowl? -- Chris (Fairfax, Va.)
A. Well, Chris, I always try to be honest. The answer is yes. What I would love to see in order to get to the Super Bowl is another matchup of Brady versus Manning in Denver.
Q. Just wanted your thoughts on if New England should give Blount a longer contract. -- Brian (Indianapolis)
A. Brian, that's down the line in terms of importance, behind players such as Aqib Talib and Edelman, who are scheduled to be free agents. Brandon Spikes and Ryan Wendell are there along with Blount. And you might have to replace Josh McDaniels if he is hired as Browns head coach.
Q. Bills fan here. Please tell me that Brady and Belichick are leaving soon. This has been a long 14 years in the wilderness. -- Gary (Buffalo)
A. Gary, I wish I could tell you differently. Tom Brady has a lot left in the tank and Bill Belichick lives to coach. Let's hope you guys keep EJ Manuel healthy next year. Good luck in the draft.
Join Tedy's weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A.
Mentally tough Pats will be fine tuning even with their opponent TBD.