FOXBOROUGH — It’s been a frequent refrain at Gillette Stadium during the week: in the playoffs, one mistake can make the difference between moving on to the next round or going home.
“We all understand that,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “Every player, every coach, everybody that participates in the game. We all understand that’s exactly what it is.”
But that doesn’t mean a team should play scared or get conservative, trying to avoid a risk that could lead to that season-ending error.
“You don’t win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it, you have to go out there and attack,” said Belichick. “You go out there and make the plays you need to make to win. It’s a one-game season.”
There are times when a team can get away with a couple of mistakes and still win — Tom Brady referenced the Patriots’ divisional-round game in San Diego Jan. 14, 2007 when he threw three interceptions. But it was the Chargers’ Marlon McCree who made the most egregious mistake in the game — after picking off Brady with 6:25 left in the game and his team holding an 8-point lead, McCree tried to run with the ball instead of simply going down.
Troy Brown, whom the pass was intended for, knocked the ball out of McCree’s arms, Reche Caldwell recovered, and New England went on to score the tying touchdown and winning field goal.
“I don’t think you can play so conservatively that you’re not able to go out and make plays,” Brady said. “I think part of that is the mental toughness. You’ve got to overcome mistakes. If you make them, you’ve still got to do everything you’ve got to do to win and give yourself a chance to move on.
“I think the important part is if you do make a mistake, you’ve got to hope you don’t make another one. Because if they capitalize on it, you’re going to have to dig yourself out of that hole and make a lot of good plays. The most mistakes you make, the harder it is to win.
“You can make mistakes and still win, but they [opposing team] have got to make mistakes too.”
Not shooting from hip
Rob Ninkovich spoke to reporters Wednesday but didn’t want to talk about the hip injury he suffered in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins, simply saying that he was practicing and getting ready for Sunday’s game.
He did say Tuesday that the injury was as painful as it looked when he limped off the field in the second quarter against the Dolphins.
But Ninkovich and the Patriots dodged a bullet — he missed just one day of practice, last Wednesday. He was on the field for the team’s bye week practice Thursday before the players received three days off. He practiced both Tuesday and Wednesday this week.
Ninkovich had five tackles and a sack in New England’s first meeting with the Texans. His eight sacks on the season lead the team.
Before the Patriots’ December matchup against the Texans, Brady revealed that Belichick broke out the rackets he always keeps on the practice field and used them to get the quarterback used to working against a player such as Houston’s J.J. Watt, who has mastered the art of batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.
On Wednesday Brady said the rackets had returned.
“It gets frustrating at times, but I think it’s a very good thing that coach does and it just subliminally gets in my head of [Watt’s] ability and their ability to defend passes at the line of scrimmage, which I’m sure teams try to do every week, but they get them [batted passes] every week,” Brady said.
Getting some rest during the bye week was certainly helpful at this point in the season, but it wasn’t a cure-all: New England listed 20 players on its first injury report of the week.
Ninkovich and Trevor Scott (knee) were additions from the team’s final report before the finale against Miami, but Kyle Love (knee), Nate Solder (abdomen), and Sebastian Vollmer were removed from the list.
All 20 Patriots were reported as limited: Patrick Chung (shoulder), Marquice Cole (finger), Dan Connolly (back), Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring/knee), Nate Ebner (hamstring), Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip), Aaron Hernandez (ankle), Dont’a Hightower (hamstring), Chandler Jones (ankle), Brandon Lloyd (knee), Logan Mankins (ankle/calf), Jerod Mayo (elbow), Nick McDonald (shoulder), Mike Rivera (ankle), Brandon Spikes (knee/ankle), Aqib Talib (hip), Wes Welker (ankle) and Tracy White (elbow).
Cornerback Alan Ball (foot) did not practice for the Texans; Ball missed the final five games of the season but did play on special teams against the Bengals last week.
Starters G Antoine Caldwell (back), NT Shaun Cody (back), TE Owen Daniels (shoulder), TE Garrett Graham (concussion), T Derek Newton (knee), DE Antonio Smith (ankle) and G Wade Smith (knee) were all limited for Houston.
They can dance
Mayo was asked what rookies Jones and Hightower have brought to the Patriots’ defense this season, and Mayo quickly said, “some great dances.” Jones in particular was getting creative with his celebratory dancing this season, at one point breaking out Pee-Wee Herman’s “Tequila” moves.
Mayo added that the first-round picks have fit in well, and have been sponges, learning as much as they can.