New England Patriots' toughness proving to be at core of resurgence

ATLANTA -- In a football landscape where everything seems to be measured by some type of statistic, what seems to be a guiding force for the New England Patriots' resurgence is harder to define by numbers.

How do you measure and quantify mental and physical toughness?

Coach Bill Belichick's 2021 squad once again proved its mettle in Thursday night's 25-0 win against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was a grind-it-out type of win. Not too flashy.

Not every week in the NFL can be a masterpiece, and playing on the road Thursday night tests players and coaches in a different way. The Patriots have met those type of challenges head-on all year, none greater than when they were 2-4, and things could have turned in a downward spiral.

They instead banded together and dug themselves out of trouble. What has resulted is a calloused group that is going to make the opponent earn everything it gets, and now projects as a tough team to knock out in the wide-open AFC playoff race.

"I think this team has shown a lot of resilience, just comes to battle," safety and longtime captain Devin McCourty said.

Indeed, one of the first things Belichick mentioned late Thursday night -- when he arrived for his postgame news conference in a stylish black jacket -- was that the team "competed hard" and "played physical."

To do so on a four-day turnaround, controlling the offensive and defensive lines, was impressive.

It's what they will need to continue to do entering arguably the toughest stretch of their season, with a home game against the AFC-leading Tennessee Titans (8-2) in Week 12 and then a visit to face the Buffalo Bills on Monday night (Dec. 6), before a road game against the Indianapolis Colts (Dec. 18 or 19) and then another date with the Bills (this time at home Dec. 26).

"I think when you play Thursday games, the most energized team, the team that plays with the most passion, usually gives themselves the best chance to win," veteran receiver Nelson Agholor said. "In a short week, passion and togetherness is what we brought into the building, and I'm happy it helped us get a W."

It only goes so far without execution, but Agholor's point speaks to a larger theme surrounding the Patriots. Players have bought in to the day-to-day process and high standard of preparation Belichick demands.

McCourty had explained that players talked all last week about how they had to work to out-prepare the Falcons through film study. There are no standard practices when playing Thursday games, so all the work needed to be mental. McCourty loved the way players responded, with the film work continuing all the way up to when the buses departed for the stadium late Thursday afternoon.

So before they could show their physical toughness on the field, their mental toughness was on display behind the scenes.

"You know Bill by now, and one thing you know about Bill is that he's going to work. And we're going to work," linebacker Kyle Van Noy said.

This is the "2-4 mindset" that Van Noy and Agholor say they are adopting. The Patriots might be 7-4 and winners of their past five games, but they like the idea of seeing themselves as a team that still has its back pushed against the wall.

"Week after week, we've progressed, we've gotten better. So why stop now?" said running back Damien Harris.