Not the same old story for these Patriots
FOXBOROUGH - When Jerod Mayo first arrived with the Patriots, Bill Belichick told him there were three levels of NFL football. The preseason, the regular season, and the playoffs presented different challenges, demanded different things. Mayo has only experienced the first two, which will change Sunday.
“I don’t really know what to expect,’’ Mayo said. “I just know how to play football, and that’s what I’m going to do.’’
Mayo is not alone. The Patriots played in and won more playoff games in the 2000s than any other franchise. By the end of the decade, they could count on entering every January battle-tested and holding a decided advantage in postseason experience. This season, though, by their standards, they are playoff neophytes.
As many as 24 Patriots could appear in their first playoff game Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. Some of them, surely, will be inactive or never leave the sideline. But most of them will play and several of them will be crucial contributors, none more than Mayo, the defensive captain, and Julian Edelman, the wide receiver charged with replacing Wes Welker.
“The biggest game I’ve ever played in was the SEC championship,’’ said Mayo, a Tennessee alum. “This is a huge game. I feel like I’ve worked hard all year. I’m approaching this game the same way.’’
Although more Patriots than Ravens will experience the playoffs for the first time, the Patriots hold an overall experience edge. Playoff warhorses like Tom Brady, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Jarvis Green, and Ty Warren, all of whom have played at least 14 postseason games, offset their teammates’ inexperience. But if you hear football announcers bleat this week about what great experience the Patriots have, they are only talking about half the team.
The question, then, is will it make a difference?
“No, I don’t think it matters,’’ Belichick said. “In 2001, we didn’t have any playoff experience and we were OK. We had playoff experiences in other years - in 2005 and 2006, that was probably as much playoff experience as any team in the league. I think what it comes down to is which team plays the best on Sunday.’’
In the 2007 season, the last time they made the playoffs, the Patriots who played in the postseason carried with them 275 combined games of playoff experience into the tournament. Of the 47 who played that year, only seven had never experienced a playoff game, all of them special teamers and backups.
This season’s players combine for 235 career playoff games. The change speaks, in part, to the team’s makeup. Young players constitute much of the depth, and one of the consequences of missing the playoffs last year is now coming to bear - any second-year player is a playoff rookie.
“Experience is always good, right?’’ Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “Obviously, it’s a new week, new challenge, new year. Everything is new. But having been in that environment is a big thing.’’
Some of the key first-time Patriots are veterans - starting cornerback Leigh Bodden, running back Sammy Morris, and special teams captain/third wide receiver Sam Aiken. (Morris, incredibly, has played 124 regular-season games without once appearing in the playoffs.)
Some of the playoff newcomers are rookies or second-year players - Mayo, Edelman, likely starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Gary Guyton, long snapper Jake Ingram, kick returner Matthew Slater, and third cornerback Jonathan Wilhite.
Nowhere is the disparity more apparent than at linebacker. In 2007, starting inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau carried 25 games of playoff experience. On Sunday, Mayo and Guyton will have zero.
The responsibility is most acute for Mayo, who calls out defensive signals in the middle of the defense. He is often praised for his uncommon maturity as a second-year player. Early in his Patriots tenure, 11-year veteran Fred Taylor sensed Mayo’s leadership.
“When it’s all said and done, I’ll probably be one of his No. 1 fans,’’ Taylor said. “He’s a hell of person first. Of course, you can see what he does on the field. But he puts in the work. It’s no secret why he’s as good as he is. He studies. He’s the quarterback for that side of the ball. Everything he’s gotten to this point, he deserves it.’’
The high volume of players lacking playoff experience creates a duality in the Patriots locker room. Ten players have appeared in at least 10 playoff games, and among active quarterbacks, only Brett Favre has played in more playoff games (22) than Brady (17), and none have more than Brady’s 14 wins.
The gap necessitates a player-as-coach dynamic. One player passed out T-shirts to teammates this week that read: “Each One, Teach One. Teamwork Is Contagious.’’ The point is, veteran players should share what is necessary to prepare for, and win, a playoff game.
“They see from the veterans, from the guys who have been around here awhile, just how we carry ourselves and the preparation that we put into it,’’ defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “It’s just bringing them on board and letting them know that it’s a one-game season now.’’
By yesterday Mayo had either learned or didn’t need to be taught. He cut off a group interview, politely explaining he had film to watch. There may be three levels of the NFL, but Mayo knew one thing remained the same.
“At the end of the day,’’ Mayo said, “everybody has to do their job.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.