FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots have shifted their attention to preparations for Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams, which highlights a dramatic U-turn from where the team was just a few weeks ago, in mid-December.
Quarterback Tom Brady and other players identified a 17-10 road loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which the team totaled 14 accepted penalties, as a key turning point for the Patriots. It was the second loss in a row, following a final-play meltdown in Miami the week before, to drop the team’s record to 9-5.
“It was like, ‘We’re running out of time,’” said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s captains.
Turning more to the running game and tightening up parts of their defense, they suddenly shifted into a higher gear.
Week 16: Patriots 24, Bills 12
Week 17: Patriots 38, Jets 3
Divisional round: Patriots 41, Chargers 28
AFC title game: Patriots 37, Chiefs 31 (OT)
"We’ve found a way to play our best the last four games," Brady said. "Buffalo, Jets, had the bye, played great against the Chargers, played really well [against the Chiefs]. We’re going to need one more great game."
One of the things that stood out to Brady was how the ground attack has come to life, which helps when playing in a place like Arrowhead Stadium. It was telling that on the first play of Sunday's game, the Patriots went big with their personnel, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, and fullback James Develin. Running back Sony Michel rumbled ahead for an 11-yard gain and, in a sense, the tone was set.
“You play on the road, it’s going to be tough. What travels is running the ball. Playing tough. That’s good in any weather, any condition, any environment, any stadium,” Brady said. “That was a big part of our game.”
Players never gave up hope they would ultimately find their groove, even though it came later than they hoped.
“We would like for the whole December, and after Thanksgiving, to get going,” McCourty acknowledged. “I thought we had flashes as a team -- whether it was Minnesota [on Dec. 2], Green Bay [Nov. 4], but then we go and not play our best football in Miami [Dec. 9], and then Pittsburgh [Dec. 16].”
That’s why the Dec. 23 home game against Buffalo was so important.
“Buffalo was like, ‘All right, guys, this is what it takes.’ Playing at home, winning a division championship, was like, ‘Guys, this is championship-level football. This is what we need to do,'" McCourty said. "And then essentially playing another playoff game the next weekend against the Jets, we rolled with that kind of mentality."
They haven’t stopped rolling since, which has earned the respect of coach Bill Belichick.
“There's a lot of mentally tough players in that locker room, a lot of physically tough players in that locker room, a lot of guys that just go out and compete and won't quit, just battle you, no matter what the situation is, and let the chips fall where they may,” Belichick said. “I think that's a good way to do it.”
That mental toughness was defined by the ability to execute under pressure.
“I think there are a number of small things that changed, but ultimately, the biggest thing that’s changed is how we’ve executed under pressure,” special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We suffered those two losses and I don’t think our mentality changed at all. We still had belief, we still had faith in our process, we still had faith in one another, but we understood that hey, at some point this has to carry over to the game, we have to be able to execute under pressure.
“So, I think we’ve done a better job of that the last four times we’ve taken the football field, understanding that we need to play with a sense of urgency and no more ‘My bads’ or ‘I’ll get it next time.’ We’ve got to start executing now.”