Patriots locked in to proven approach entering Super Bowl 51


HOUSTON (AP) — Ten words have driven Patriots coach Bill Belichick since he arrived in New England 17 years ago. And they are 10 words that he leans on whenever he is queried about what’s gone into making his team an annual threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

“I do what I think is best for the team,” he says.

For the better part of those 17 seasons, that approach has worked out well for the Patriots.

They will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance under Belichick on Sunday when they take on the Atlanta Falcons. Along with quarterback Tom Brady, Belichick already is part of the winningest coach/quarterback combination in NFL postseason history, taking 24 games together.

The 64-year-old coach has done it by having an uncanny ability of getting his teams to buy into a program that has become known as the “Patriot Way.”

“A lot of people talk about the ‘Patriot Way’. There’s not a straight definition of it, but here you know that we’re going to work every day,” linebacker and defensive captain Dont’a Hightower said. “Around here you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. That’s kind of the mantra that’s kind of bestowed around here.”

It’s a program that’s led to four Super Bowl rings for Belichick and Brady. And this year’s team is strong enough to bring them a fifth title.

The reasons are plentiful, but it starts with the experience at the top.

Belichick is preparing for his 36th playoff game, and is an expert at shielding his team from distractions . Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension couldn’t send them off track. Neither could the surprise departures of defensive stalwarts Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins.

Brady said playing in a place that doesn’t tolerate allowing outside drama to creep into its walls has helped everyone inside the Patriots’ bubble to lock in. For him, it’s crystalized so that even at this stage in his career he’s experiencing a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

“You can’t take these things for granted,” Brady said. “We’ve been very blessed, as part of this organization, for the guys that have been on these teams to make it this far, but it’s a very steep mountain to climb.”

What will aid that journey Sunday is a combined passing and rushing attack that may be the best the Patriots have had under Belichick.

Brady is continuing to defy his age at 39, ancient for a football player. He threw for 28 touchdowns and helped the Patriots set a record by throwing just two interceptions during the regular season. He has two picks in the playoffs, but they have been blips compared to the five touchdowns and 671 yards he’s compiled this postseason.

On the ground, LeGarrette Blount has taken a lot of pressure off him. Blount established a franchise single-season record with an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. He’s also finally clear of an illness that limited him at times in New England’s first two playoff games.

Blount will also have plenty of support from backfield mates Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis has surged in the playoffs after a stint on injured reserve, and White may be New England’s most-improved offensive player.

“It’s a brotherhood. It’s like a family here. We love each other and we always have each other’s backs,” Blount said. “It is a resilient team, but we’re going to continue to do everything we can to put ourselves in a good situation.”

That’s not to mention the latest group of Patriots newcomers who have made an impact. Receiver Chris Hogan has become Brady’s most-trusted deep threat and had a huge AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett’s production has plugged the offensive hole created when Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery in December.

And as they prepare to face an Atlanta team that scored the most points per game in the league, the Patriots have jelled at the perfect time on defense. New England’s defense is allowing 16.5 points per game in the playoffs after allowing a league-low 15.6 during the regular season.

The group will also had to endure questions this week about the level of competition it’s faced so far. Think that will provide some motivation?

“I don’t care. Yeah, I heard it. But it doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t bother us,” Hightower said. “We’re just going to go out and execute our game plan. We’re in this game for a reason. It’s really just on us going out there and executing.”

Prediction: Patriots 27, Falcons 23.

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Brady’s backup

HOUSTON (AP) — Being a backup quarterback for the New England Patriots during Tom Brady’s tenure has typically been a practice-only position.

With the exception of the 2008 season when Brady missed the final 15 games after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the Patriots’ season opener, he started all but two of New England’s regular-season games from 2001 to 2015.

Matt Cassel did his best in Brady’s absence in 2008, but came up short of leading the Patriots to the playoffs that season. It was one of only two times since Brady became New England’s starting quarterback that his team failed to make it to the postseason.

So when Brady decided before the season to end his legal fight with the NFL over the four-game suspension it handed down in the aftermath of its “Deflategate” investigation, it was anyone’s guess how the Patriots would perform over the first month of 2016.

Thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, the answer was just fine .

The spotlight will be on Brady when the Patriots take the field in Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup with Atlanta. But Brady probably owes part of the seventh Super Bowl appearance of his career to his two understudies.

New England went 3-1 during Brady’s absence, earning a season-opening road win at Arizona with Garoppolo under center. The Patriots won two of the next three with Brissett starting after Garoppolo injured his shoulder during the Patriots’ Week 2 win over Miami.

“It’s been a journey. This season kind of showed how much of a team sport football is,” Garoppolo said this week. “It’s taken three different quarterbacks, 53 different guys and it’s been a hell of a ride.”

And one heck of a learning experience for two young quarterbacks, one of which could wind up playing a part in the franchise’s future after Brady retires.

Garoppolo has been the primary backup since he was drafted in 2014, and nearly got his first shot to start when Brady’s suspension was initially handed down prior to the start of the 2015 season.

But for Brissett , getting the opportunity to play as a rookie was a complete surprise. How he was able to excel despite suffering a right thumb injury in New England’s 27-0 win against Houston in Week 3 showed the Patriots that he was worth the third-round draft pick they used on him.

He said being able to be part of a Super Bowl run as a rookie has been a “dream come true.”

“As a competitor, you want to have that opportunity to go out there and play (and) prove yourself. I was fortunate to have that opportunity,” Brissett said. “It’s been a great year for us and we’re just out there having fun, playing for each other.”

The backups might have also given Brady the perfect amount of rest that his body needed this season at age 39.

“When I’m not there, other guys stepped in and did a great job. Jimmy and Jacoby did an incredible job, and the rest of the team,” Brady said. “It has been that way all season.”

Though it’s a possibility that either Garoppolo or Brissett could be traded in the future, they both said they weren’t thinking about anything beyond these next few days.

Instead, Garoppolo said getting a chance to prove he could start at this level is an experience that he will carry with him for the remainder of his career.

“In this league, you might never get an opportunity,” he said. “To have an opportunity like that, I mean, you’ve got to be thankful for it and go take advantage of it. You never know if you’re going to get another.”

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NFL fatigue

HOUSTON (AP) — It may have been a blip, explained as much by the must-watch presidential debates as by some wholesale turn away from football. Or, decades from now, 2016 could be remembered as the season fans started falling out of love with the NFL.

TV ratings declined 8 percent , with the presidential election partly, but not solely, to blame. Many of the league’s highest-profile contests were boring blowouts, including eight of the 10 playoff games leading to Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Falcons.

Two NFL teams abandoned fan bases in St. Louis and San Diego in favor of their original home, Los Angeles, where neither team had played for decades. And the Raiders are considering leaving Oakland for Las Vegas , which, for all its renown as America’s gambling capital, has never supported its own big-league team.

A key segment of fantasy football, as big a driver of NFL growth as anything in recent years, saw its massive numbers plateau. According to Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, entry fees for daily fantasy games increased by 4 percent in 2016, compared to 222 percent the year before, as several states explored the legality of what some perceive as gambling.

All this was piled on top of ongoing narratives about concussions and their effect on players, a domestic-violence problem that hasn’t abated, Colin Kaepernick’s national-anthem protests and the leadership of a commissioner, Roger Goodell, who is often portrayed as heavy-handed and clueless on some of the league’s most pressing problems. Exhibit A: “Deflategate,” which led to the four-game suspension of arguably the league’s best-known player, Tom Brady.

Brady will close the season going for his fifth Super Bowl ring in a game that will draw high ratings thanks to the decades-long hold the NFL has held over American sports fans. That the infatuation will last indefinitely, however, may no longer be a given. Baseball, boxing and horse racing once consumed the American public, but they don’t anymore.

“You’ve got bad games, (concussions) and drugs, and a declining interest in the game in general,” said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies sports in society. “When you throw in this welfare for billionaires with these stadium shakedowns, you wonder at what point the good will of ‘Joe NFL Fan’ is going to dissipate and people are going to lose interest in the NFL.”

One big question: Does the average fan even matter anymore in the NFL’s math?

The Rams and Chargers each moved out of cities where they’d played for decades — unable to strike deals in their existing homes, and with the lure of a $2.6 billion stadium being funded by Rams owner Stan Kroenke too enticing to ignore. Luxury boxes and ancillary revenue from attractions adjacent to the stadium will help pay some of the bills. A bundle of TV contracts worth nearly $40 billion through 2022 will bankroll the rest.

Actual fans? The Chargers clearly don’t need them too badly. While Kroenke’s palace is under construction, they’re willing to play in a 30,000-seat soccer venue near downtown LA that is smaller than two-thirds of the stadiums in college football’s Mountain West Conference.

“You look at that, and on some level, there is some assumption that they take fans for granted,” said Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.” ”There’s this idea that fans will follow or that fans don’t matter. That they’ll sell out their boxes to big corporations no matter where they go.”

During his state-of-the-league news conference Wednesday, Goodell spelled out no fewer than four tweaks the NFL is considering to decrease the amount of dead time during games. Changing the instant replay protocol, shortening breaks between scores and the ensuing kickoffs and repackaging commercial breaks are among the possibilities. What he can’t control is making the games themselves competitive. Average score of this year’s playoff games: 32-17.

“What we’re trying to do is make our … games as exciting and as action-packed as possible,” Goodell said.

In building new stadiums and retrofitting old ones, the league has acknowledged, on some level, that the game itself is no longer enough to keep fans in the stands engaged. TVs on seatbacks and improved internet connections are all part of the reality of 21st-century fandom.

But in the NFL’s case, that also speaks to the reality that fantasy football drives a huge segment of its current growth: In many cases, fans are every bit as interested in the performance of the players they drafted as of the players wearing the jersey of the team they grew up rooting for.

It didn’t help the fantasy industry when a DraftKings employee won $350,000 in a FanDuel contest in 2015 — leading to trust issues for the two largest daily fantasy companies, which had gone largely unregulated.

Peter Schoenke, president of rotowire.com, which churns out millions of bits of information for fantasy players, said he’s optimistic that fantasy will rebound.

“I think this year, a lot of people got thrown off their rhythm. They were watching the debates, (ticked) off about Kaepernick,” Schoenke said. “It threw a big chunk of people off. I think next year, it could settle back down.”

At stake is a business worth nearly $13 billion that, in trying to increase its global footprint, has brought three games to London and one to Mexico, all of which were international hits.

It also brought football back to Los Angeles, times 2, and could be moving the Raider Nation to the desert.

“When you lose people in cities, lose people for entertainment reasons, lose people who identify with certain teams and because there’s this weird mercenary element to it all, it can be a problem,” Simons said. “You’ve also got a replacement, in the NBA, that’s at its most-entertaining moment in decades. All that can be a real threat, and you have to be careful, or you can go the way of boxing.”

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Super Bowl Facts and Figures

By The Associated Press

AT STAKE — National Football League Championship for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

PARTICIPANTS — Atlanta Falcons (NFC) and New England Patriots (AFC). This the second appearance for the Falcons Panthers and the ninth appearance for the Patriots (4-4).

SITE — NRG Stadium, Houston.

SEATING CAPACITY — 71,795.

DATE — Feb. 5, 2017.

KICKOFF — 6:30 p.m. EST.

NETWORK COVERAGE — By FOX-TV to more than 200 stations throughout the United States.

Westwood One Radio to 600 stations within the United States. The Armed Forces Television will also provide broadcast to 175 countries throughout the world.

PLAYERS SHARE — Winners: $107,000 per man. Losers: $53,000 per man.

PLAYER UNIFORMS — Atlanta will be the home team and has its choice of wearing its colored or white jersey.

OVERTIME — At the end of regulation playing time, the referee will immediately toss a coin at the center of the field, according to rules pertaining to the usual pre-game toss. The captain of AFC team (the visiting team) will call the toss. Following a three-minute intermission after the end of the regular game, play will continue by 15-minute periods with a two-minute intermission between each such overtime period with no halftime intermission. The teams will change goals between each period, there will be a two-minute warning at the end of each period.

Both teams must have the opportunity to possess the ball once during the extra period, unless the team that receives the opening kickoff scores a touchdown on its initial possession, in which case it is the winner. If the team that possesses the ball first scores a field goal on its initial possession, the other team shall have the opportunity to possess the ball. If (that team) scores a touchdown on its possession, it is the winner. If the score is tied after (both teams have a) possession, the team next scoring by any method shall be the winner.

OFFICIAL TIME — The scoreboard clock will be official.

OFFICIALS — There will be seven officials and five alternates appointed by the Commissioner’s office.

TROPHY — The winning team receives permanent possession of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a sterling silver trophy created by Tiffany & Company and presented annually to the winner of the Super Bowl. The trophy was named after the late coach Vince Lombardi of the two-time Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers before the 1971 Super Bowl. The trophy is a regulation-size silver football mounted in a kicking position on a pyramid-like stand of three concave sides. The trophy stands 20 3/4 inches tall, weighs 6.7 pounds and is valued more than $25,000. The words “Vince Lombardi” and “Super Bowl LI” are engraved on the base along with the NFL shield.

ATTENDANCE — To date, 3,876,314 have attended Super Bowl games. The largest crowd was 103,985 at the 14th Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

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Super Bowl MVPs

2016_Von Miller, LB, Denver

2015_Tom Brady, QB, New England

2014_Malcolm Smith, LB, Seattle

2013_Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore

2012_Eli Manning, QB, N.Y. Giants

2011_Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay

2010_Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

2009_Santonio Holmes, WR, Pittsburgh

2008_Eli Manning, QB, N.Y. Giants

2007_Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis

2006_Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh

2005_Deion Branch, WR, New England

2004_Tom Brady, QB, New England

2003_Dexter Jackson, FS, Tampa Bay

2002_Tom Brady, QB, New England

2001_Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore

2000_Kurt Warner, QB, St. Louis

1999_John Elway, QB, Denver

1998_Terrell Davis, RB, Denver

1997_Desmond Howard, KR, Green Bay

1996_Larry Brown, CB, Dallas

1995_Steve Young, QB, San Francisco

1994_Emmitt Smith, RB, Dallas

1993_Troy Aikman, QB, Dallas

1992_Mark Rypien, QB, Washington

1991_Ottis Anderson, RB, N.Y. Giants

1990_Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco

1989_Jerry Rice, WR, San Francisco

1988_Doug Williams, QB, Washington

1987_Phil Simms, QB, N.Y. Giants

1986_Richard Dent, DE, Chicago

1985_Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco

1984_Marcus Allen, RB, L.A. Raiders

1983_John Riggins, RB, Washington

1982_Joe Montana, QB, San Francisco

1981_Jim Plunkett, QB, Oakland

1980_Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh

1979_Terry Bradshaw, QB, Pittsburgh

1978_Randy White, DT and Harvey Martin, DE, Dallas

1977_Fred Biletnikoff, WR, Oakland

1976_Lynn Swann, WR, Pittsburgh

1975_Franco Harris, RB, Pittsburgh

1974_Larry Csonka, RB, Miami

1973_Jake Scott, S, Miami

1972_Roger Staubach, QB, Dallas

1971_Chuck Howley, LB, Dallas

1970_Len Dawson, QB, Kansas City

1969_Joe Namath, QB, N.Y. Jets

1968_Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay

1967_Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay

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Future Super Bowl Sites

2018 — Feb. 4, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

2019 — Feb. 3, Atlanta

2020 — Feb. 2, Miami Gardens, Fla.

2021 — Feb. 7, Inglewood, Calif.

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Super Bowl Appearances

New England 9

Dallas 8

Denver 8

Pittsburgh 8

San Francisco 6

Green Bay 5

Miami 5

N.Y. Giants 5

Oakland-LA Raiders 5

Washington 5

Buffalo 4

Indianapolis-Baltimore 4

Minnesota 4

St. Louis-L.A. Rams 3

Seattle 3

Atlanta 2

Baltimore 2

Carolina 2

Chicago 2

Cincinnati 2

Kansas City 2

Philadelphia 2

Arizona 1

New Orleans 1

N.Y. Jets 1

San Diego 1

Tampa Bay 1

Tennessee 1

Cleveland 0

Detroit 0

Jacksonville 0

Houston 0

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