September 26, 2016

Inside Gillette

logoby Christopher Price
[email protected]

Randy Moss wasn’t shocked when he heard the news. Neither was Laurence Maroney, who mock-confessed to reporters he didn’t know it happened. And Tedy Bruschi and Bill Belichick seemed positively blasé about the whole thing.

After all, when you’ve got a perfect regular-season in your sights, the prospect of clinching home-field advantage and the No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs can sometimes pale by comparison.

“I guess it’s just something they do around here,” Moss shrugged. “I guess it’s expected.”

With Sunday’s win over the Jets, New England clinched home-field advantage for the duration of the AFC playoffs. Home-field for the Patriots is not the annual event Moss may believe — in truth, it marks the first time New England has landed the No. 1 seed since 2003. But come January, it means the Patriots will be home. And history tells us that when it comes to January football, it’s much better to be at home than on the road: Since 1997, almost 70 percent of the NFL playoff games have gone in favor of the home team — they have a winning percentage of 69-31 in that span.

Under Belichick, few teams are a better bet than New England when it comes to a postseason game at home. Since Belichick arrived, the Patriots are 6-0 in Foxborough in the playoffs. (In fact, New England at home in the postseason is a pretty good bet. Overall, they’re 9-1 at home in the playoffs, with the only loss coming in the first-ever postseason game in Foxborough, a 31-14 setback on Dec. 31, 1978 to the Houston Oilers. The nine-game home playoff win streak is tied for second-best all-time.)

The Patriots aren’t looking to minimize the fact they’ve clinched the No. 1 seed, and don’t want to appear ungrateful they have the opportunity spend the entire month of January at home — as long as they keep winning. Just ask the running backs, who will likely play a heavier role in the offense in the traditionally foul January weather.

“That is nice,” said fullback Heath Evans. “It’s nice being in your own bed. It’s nice practicing on your own field, knowing the circumstances and conditions.”

“It’s always better to play in front of your home crowd, to make the visitors play with the noise,” said running back Laurence Maroney. “You can just play relaxed and you don’t have to deal with the crowd noise. You know what the elements are going to be up here, and you can make teams come and play in our elements — the ones that we practice in every day.”

But there will be a time and place to celebrate their accomplishment. Right now, it’s all about Miami.

“It’s nice to have, and we’ll start to think about that and focus on that a little bit more when it comes into play,” Bruschi said of the No. 1 seed. “But it doesn’t come into play just yet.”

“It’s good. It’s good to have that, but right now that’s not really anything we’re going to dwell on,” Belichick said. “We’re just going to get ready for Miami and get ready to play the Dolphins. That’s what we’re going to do this week.”

FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK

1. The Patriots’ running game. With 104 rushing yards and a touchdown, second-year running back Laurence Maroney had his best game of the season Sunday against the Jets. With more winter weather looming on the horizon, can he be the kind of back that could be a consistent No. 1 running option for the Patriots in the bad weather? A reliable Maroney would certainly go a long way toward stabilizing the running game, and also force opposing teams to respect New England’s play-action ability even more.

2. The Patriots’ red-zone defense. After struggling with red-zone defense through the first 11 weeks of the season, New England opponents are 3 for their last 11 (and zero for their last 7) when it comes to scoring touchdowns inside the 20. Can they continue that Sunday against the Dolphins? For what it’s worth, Miami is perfectly pedestrian in its red zone offense — through 14 games, it has scored touchdowns on 18 of 35 trips inside the 20, good for 51 perfect (16th best in the league).

3. If Richard Seymour continues his upward trend. The five-time Pro Bowler, hampered by offseason knee surgery thus far, has started to round into form lately. The defensive lineman had his finest game of the season Sunday against the Jets — his first-quarter hit on New York quarterback Kellen Clemens was a crusher that really set the tone for the day. It’s been a long way back for Seymour, who is still getting into football shape. “It’s a gradual process. Richard’s worked hard,” Head Coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “Practice is good, but it’s not the same as games. I think all of those reps, practice and games cumulatively have helped him, and that’s probably really the way it should be.”

4. Defending Jason Taylor. Taylor has always managed to give New England fits, and will likely be the lone point of emphasis on the defensive side of the football for the Patriots. After Sunday’s win over the Ravens, Taylor left the stadium in a walking boot, saying he aggravated a left foot injury. But it says here he’ll be ready to play Sunday afternoon — in addition to a getting a rare start on national TV, it would also give him the outright record for the longest consecutive games played streak in franchise history. (He’s presently tied with former Dolphins center Jim Langer with 128.)

5. Talk of the dangerous Dolphins. When it comes to describing even the most anemic of opponents, the Patriots have always been able to seize upon a theme and make it work in their favor. In the run-up to this week’s game, expect plenty of talk about the December 2004 game the Patriots played in Miami against a woeful Dolphins team, one that ended with a shocking 29-28 loss for New England. (They’ll also likely haul out last year’s loss in South Florida for good measure, a 21-0 cautionary tale for some who would dare to look past the 1-13 Dolphins.)

STAT OF THE WEEK

101:31: The time — in minutes and seconds — that has elapsed since the Patriots last allowed an offensive touchdown. The last offensive touchdown came with 11:31 left in the second quarter of the 34-13 win over Pittsburgh, a 32-yard pop fly of a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Najeh Davenport. It’s a stretch that has lasted six-plus quarters.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“As long as that zero stays in that [loss] column, I’m cool with it.” — Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss, talking about any satisfaction he might derive from being part of just the second team in NFL history to start 14-0.

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 [email protected].

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