Arriving at conclusion
Development of young players key
Much of the season has been about patience for the Patriots. On a team filled with youth and inexperience, the execution isn’t always perfect. The results take a little longer to arrive.
Two days ago, the Patriots left the Ralph Wilson Stadium field with a victory against the Bills and as owners of the AFC East Division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Many of the younger players walked around the tiny locker room showing off their freshly unwrapped T-shirts and caps declaring their most recent achievement. Rookies and second-year players took pictures and uploaded them to the Internet.
Twenty-two of the Patriots are either in their first or second year in the NFL and a handful of others are seeing the most playing time in their career. They have made mistakes. They have made plays. Now they are part of a team that owns the best record in the NFL and is heading into the final week of the regular season preparing for the Dolphins.
The Patriots captured their 13th division title overall and their eighth under coach Bill Belichick. After the first 16 weeks brought their share of growth, drama, and success for the Patriots, the road to this division title didn’t feel that much different to Belichick.
“Every team has had a very challenging season in the National Football League, and each week we go up against great players and great coaches, great teams that work hard and that challenge you in a lot of different ways,’’ said Belichick, “so I think every single week that I’ve coached in the National Football League, I view it as a huge challenge being on the other side of the field from whatever opponent we were [facing].
“I don’t think this year is any different than last year or any other year. We know we have big challenges ahead coming up. We don’t know who they’re with yet, but whoever they are, anybody playing at this time of year is going to be a good team. Miami, we certainly have had our problems with them through the years and they’ve come up here and beat us pretty good a couple of years ago, and down there last year. We have a big challenge ahead of us there. I take satisfaction in the team’s achievements every week if we win and disappointment if we don’t.’’
Quarterback Tom Brady said winning division titles “never gets old,’’ but he could appreciate how the Patriots have developed and matured since the spring.
Players such as linebacker Rob Ninkovich and cornerback Kyle Arrington added numerous defensive duties to their special teams responsibilities for the first time. Running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined to lead the offense with the most carries and rushing yards of their careers. And the list of rookies the Patriots are relying on is extensive.
“I think that we’ve added a lot of different guys who have brought a lot of different elements to this team that allow us to be that way,’’ Brady said. “The way the tight ends have played this year, a guy like Danny, a guy like BenJarvus, who really wasn’t much of a part of our offense last year. The offensive line has really come together, and with adding Deion [Branch] it’s an entirely different team.
“Defensively, there have been just as many changes. Our coach is tough on us. As I said earlier in the week, we take the coaching from him. He’s a pretty smart coach. I think when we can understand what he is teaching us and the way that we need to do things, it ends up turning out pretty good.’’
Brady said the focus for first-year players has to be on contributing and not their experience.
“There are a lot of younger guys, and the expectation is for the position, not for the player,’’ Brady said. “If you’re an outside linebacker on this team, you’re expected to play like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. If you’re a running back, you’re expected to play like Corey Dillon, Antowain Smith, and Kevin Faulk. It’s just the way it is.
“I think [Belichick] rides us all day and all night to get the job done in that sense. The guys need to be able to respond to those things, and we’ve shown enough mental toughness throughout the year to respond.’’
To play’s the thing Sunday’s result may not mean anything in the playoff race for the Patriots, but that doesn’t mean some of their key players want to sit on the sideline. After the Patriots defeated the Bills, Brady said that he would like to play in the regular-season finale.
Belichick didn’t give many details about how he will utilize players this week.
“I think it will be like it is every week,’’ he said. “The decisions and what we do this week will be in the best interest of the football team. There are a lot of things that will go into that conversation. There are a lot of things that we will take into consideration.
“Certainly what’s good for the overall benefit of the team, but there are some players individually whose situations are a little different than other guys. A long answer to what should be a short question is really, we will do what is best for the football team both individually and collectively.’’
Last season, the Patriots had wrapped up their spot in the playoffs before taking on the Texans in the season finale. A few players were nursing injuries heading into that game and were inactive, including Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, and Leigh Bodden. All three played in the playoff game against the Ravens the following week.
But wide receiver Wes Welker played against the Texans, and tore his anterior cruciate ligament when he planted his foot and turned upfield after a catch. The Patriots lost Welker for the playoff game.
Brady started against Houston, but Brian Hoyer relieved him in the second quarter. This week, Brady said he is prepared for whatever situation is presented to him.
“Yeah, I want to play,’’ he said. “Whatever Coach asks us to do we’re going to do. Miami is a good team. We struggled with them last time offensively, so hopefully we’ll go out and play better.’’
A valued opinion With each week, Brady is making a stronger case to be voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. But in his weekly appearance on WEEI yesterday, he said there are plenty of players who could be considered valuable but aren’t always recognized.
“My feeling as always is most valuable player in a team sport, to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,’’ said Brady, who received the honor in 2007.
“I can understand the most valuable golfer or something like that. Michael Vick, he’s a great player. He’s the best player for that team. He fits what they do well. And Peyton Manning fits what his team does well. Unfortunately, it’s really a quarterback award. Not a lot of other great players get that recognition, which they probably should.
“There’s so many great players in the league. I guess it’s something that they have to do. The only award I ever care about is a Super Bowl ring. That’s the only one that’s important to me.’’
Reese a candidate? The NFL Network reported that Patriots senior football adviser Floyd Reese is a candidate for the 49ers’ general manager position. The 49ers fired coach Mike Singletary late Sunday night and are looking for an experienced GM, although current vice president of player personnel Trent Baalke will be considered as well. Reese spent 13 years as the Houston/Tennessee GM from 1994-2006; he joined the Patriots in 2009.
Monique Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report.