FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty said something that resonated on Wednesday, and it highlights what seems to be the main difference between this year's season finale against the Miami Dolphins compared to last year.
"I just think as a football team, there is no on-and-off switch. You can't just decide when you want to play," McCourty said.
In the words of Patriots Hall of Famer Troy Brown, "Bingo! He's got bingo!"
Faced with the same situation in 2015 -- a win in Miami in the season finale would clinch the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC -- Bill Belichick adopted an approach and game plan that didn't make it clear to all players that the switch was decisively on.
It started before kickoff with linebacker Dont'a Hightower, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive end Chandler Jones being declared inactive, then continued into the first half with a curious game plan that called for 21 running plays and just five passes. It was almost as if Belichick was experimenting with newly signed running back Steven Jackson by saying, "Run it until we prove we can get a first down."
So instead of burying the 5-10 Dolphins early at a time when they essentially had their golf clubs lined up outside the locker room and were ready to start their offseason, the Patriots' approach basically invited Miami to stick around early and ultimately build enough of a cushion to hold off New England when its offensive approach finally opened up in the second half (the Dolphins ultimately won 20-10).
Fast-forward to this week, and most of the talk from Patriots players has been that they don't want a repeat of that turn of events.
"To lose something we had worked very hard to gain, we were in that top seeding, and then having to go play in Denver ... all of us said [this year] 'Look, if we can control it, let's go out there and control it,'" quarterback Tom Brady said on sports radio WEEI. "I thought we did a great job last week against the Jets. It has to be the same way this week. We'd like to finish strong."
In other words, they want to keep the switch turned on.
"I think it's important for us to just know our blueprint, know what we’ve done week-in and week-out and stay to that," McCourty said. "It starts in the meeting rooms learning, going out there and practicing well, carrying that over into Thursday and then Friday, and that gives us the opportunity to go play well on Sunday. I think you don't want to break that for anything."
The Patriots have lost their last three games in Miami, which is a history that has been brought up in recent days to highlight the challenges of playing in South Florida. Players aren't living in that past, which includes last year's outside-the-norm game plan and approach, but they're aware of it as part of sharpening their focus.
"Everything in the past is in the past. With the new year comes new opportunity," receiver Julian Edelman said. "I can tell you right now, our guys are working their tails off to prepare hard this week to go out there and play the best game we can possibly play."