ORCHARD PARK, NY – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Preparing for an emotional environment: Patriots captain Dietrich Wise Jr. summed up the unique situation the team finds itself in Sunday on the road against the Buffalo Bills (1 pm ET, CBS).
Everyone in the NFL community has been pulling for the Bills and injured safety Damar Hamlin — the Patriots included — and now New England faces Buffalo as an opponent in a game with postseason implications, as a win secures a spot in the playoffs for the Patriots.
“We know it’s going to be a very emotional game. We know going into this environment what’s going to come. We have a heart towards what they experienced,” Wise said.
“It’s a balance between being empathetic and also playing football. I believe with our leaders on our team, they’re keeping that balance right where it needs to be to go out there with full hearts and clear eyes and play the game.”
Wise and fellow captains made it clear all week that their primary thoughts have been that Hamlin makes a full recovery.
“It kind of shook our team watching the game,” he said, acknowledging the difference between seeing it on TV and Bills players experiencing it in person.
Players have envisioned how they might react to the pregame scene at New Era Field, which will include a “moment of support and love” for Hamlin. Bills players will have Hamlin’s No. 3 as a patch on their jerseys, and all players across the league have the option to wear black T-shirts that say “Love for Damar 3” on them.
There is an element of unknown for many in terms of how they’ll respond to what veteran safety Adrian Phillips expects to be a “super emotional environment.”
“I wish I had an answer,” Phillips said. “You just try to go through it the best you can, talk to the players on the other side, let them know you’re praying for them, then you just go out there and have the mindset to win the game.
“That’s pretty much all you can do. Just be in the moment at the time, just understand that we all have a desire to be in the playoffs, and we have to do what we have to do to get to the playoffs.”
Added captain Matthew Slater: “I’m sure it will be something that none of us have ever experienced. We’ll cross that road when we get to it.”
By the end of the week, players had discussed the importance of a fast start.
“I think once we get into the flow of the game, it will settle down a little bit,” tight end Hunter Henry added. “But you have to be ready for that first wave at the beginning.”
2. Foes for 2023 to be solidified: The Patriots’ final three opponents for 2023 will be finalized Sunday, as they are based on where the team finishes in the AFC East standings. The pieces to lock in are:
Home game vs. NFC South team that finishes in the same spot in the standings
Home game vs. AFC South team that finishes in the same spot in the standings
Road game vs. AFC North team that finishes in the same spot in the standings
As a refresher, here are the Patriots’ 2023 opponents:
Home: Commanders, Eagles, Chargers, Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC South, NFC South
Road: Cowboys, Giants, Broncos, Raiders, Bills, Dolphins, Jets, AFC North
3. Allen’s excellence: Patriots’ defensive tackle Davon Godchaux compares defending the Bills to dealing with a snake, with quarterback Josh Allen as the head. That’s his way of saying Allen is where their focus needs to be. But it’s easier said than done when considering that in his last five games against the Patriots (including playoffs), Allen has thrown 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions. That’s the longest streak of touchdowns without an interception against the Patriots in the past 45 seasons, according to Elias. Drew Brees (9, 2002-2013), Alex Smith (8, 2014-2017) and Brett Favre (8, 1997-2002) are next on the list.
4. Time not on their side: One way to slow Allen is to try to keep the ball away from him. But here’s the problem for the Patriots: They have lost the time-of-possession battle in six consecutive games. That’s the longest streak in coach Bill Belichick’s tenure (2000-present) and one shy of matching the longest streak in the NFL this season (Rams, 7).
5. Slater’s future: Matthew Slater’s contract expires after the season, and after 15 campaigns, he acknowledged that the thought crossed his mind last week’s win over Miami could have been his last time playing at Gillette Stadium. He has said any decision about retirement will come after the season, in consultation with his family, among others. Some teammates are convinced he isn’t ready to stop playing, and as Belichick said Friday, Slater is still drawing double teams and making a difference on special teams (12 tackles).
6. Peppers proves point: Patriots safety Jabrill Peppers enters Sunday’s regular-season finale having played 36.5% of the defensive snaps, totaling 52 tackles. He has also notched eight tackles on special teams, which is tied for third most on the club. After rupturing his ACL last year with the Giants, Peppers said coming to New England on a one-year deal has “been a great experience” and he’s open to see where things lead in the future.
“I haven’t really been focused on that. I’ve been focused on showing everyone I’m back healthy and haven’t really missed a step,” he said. “If you do that, everything else takes care of itself.”
7. Patriots punting: The Patriots moved four-year veteran punter Jake Bailey from injured reserve (back) to the reserve/suspended list Friday. According to a source, the team suspension is due, in part, to differing viewpoints on whether Bailey was ready to return to game action. It’s hard to imagine him playing for the team again. Landing on the reserve/suspended list voids the guaranteed money in his contract and sets up a likely financial battle between him and the Patriots. ESPN Senior Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates Iowa’s Tory Taylor, Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer, Rutgers’ Adam Korsak, Memphis’ Joe Doyle and Michigan’s Brad Robbins among the top draft-eligible punters.
8. Assistants featured: It was a nice touch by NFL Films to highlight retired Patriots assistant coaches Dante Scarnecchia and Ivan Fears in a recently released feature. Fears is still a regular at the team’s facility at times after handing over the running back reins to his former assistant Vinnie Sunseri, who rates Fears alongside his father, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick as having the greatest impact on his coaching career.
“A coach is a teacher.”
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) January 6, 2023
9. Did You Know: Allen is 5-4 in his career against the Patriots (including playoffs) and can join Peyton Manning as the only starting quarterbacks with at least six wins vs. New England since Belichick became head coach in 2000.
10. They said it: “It is definitely hard to separate the human side from the sports side. Because at the end of the day, we all want to play the game as hard as we can, but we all want to go home.” — Patriots safety Adrian Phillips, reacting to Hamlin’s injury