FOXBOROUGH — He’s the son of a military man, boasting a healthy collection of books on war strategy and the best approach for going into battle.
Famously monotone, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is — dare we say it — publicly excited about his team competing in the playoffs. Its journey starts Sunday at Gillette Stadium, with a visit by the Houston Texans in the divisional round.
“This is what we work all year for. We worked all year since the end of last season to get back to this point. This is really what it’s all for,” Belichick said before Friday’s practice. “All the team planning, the OTAs, the minicamps, the meetings, the walkthroughs, the preseason games, the practices, the regular season. It’s all for this.
Belichick, also famous for having his teams prepared, noted that the playoffs bring nervousness and anxious moments, especially in the run-up to the game. But once the game starts, players play, coaches coach, and reacting to unexpected developments is part of the fun, Belichick said, because they’re guaranteed to come up.
Asked about the nervous excitement that comes with the postseason and the need to think quickly, Belichick invoked a military comparison.
“As a coach, you want to try to put your team in the best position you can so they can be competitive. As players, it’s the same thing,” Belichick said. “It’s like when you talk to the Navy SEALs and those guys about when they go on a mission, how they talk about, ‘All right, so we get there and we practiced going over a 6-foot wall and the wall is 30 feet high.’ Well, that’s the way it is in the NFL. You get in an NFL game and think you’re going to get this and then you get that. Or you think they’re going to play this guy and they play some other guy.
“You face new challenges. That’s part of the competition. You figure out which team can do it better than the other one.”
Belichick’s anticipation for the postseason has been apparent to his players this week.
“You hear how fired up he is about it, we know it’s an important game, right now it’s either win or go home,” running back Stevan Ridley said. “Houston knows that, we know that. Coach is into it, he’s telling us how we’re going to have to play if we want to be successful in this matchup.”
Safe to say, Ridley was asked, that the team is confident heading into Sunday’s game?
“Come on, why would you ask me that? It’s the playoffs, we’re ready to go,” Ridley said. “We’re excited. This team’s worked hard, this is what we’ve prepared for all year. We’ve got three games, it starts with one this Sunday, and we can’t overlook anybody. That’s a great football team that’s coming up here with a chip on their shoulder because the last time they were here [a 42-14 Patriots win Dec. 10]. I know it didn’t go the way they wanted to, so what are we going to do? We have to go out there and play ball if we want to get through them, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
With the Patriots making 10 playoff appearances in the last 12 seasons, the majority of the 53-man roster has played in a postseason game. The team’s nine rookies, obviously, have not, so Sunday will be a new experience.
Three of the nine first-year players — defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard — are on the depth chart as starters. Three others — defensive tackle Justin Francis, safety Tavon Wilson, and running back Brandon Bolden — don’t start, but frequently play. The thought of making their playoff debut definitely revs the engines.
“In my mind, I’m going to treat it as just another game, but I would say deep down inside, I know it’s much more,” said Bolden, who has rushed for 274 yards and scored two touchdowns, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. “I try to keep thoughts out of my mind, so I don’t get overexcited or get anxious about the game.”
Give and take
Turnovers continue to be a big advantage for the Patriots, who forced at least one in all 16 games this season, and have a streak of 27 games with takeaways. Their 41 takeaways on the season trailed only Chicago’s 44, but their plus-25 turnover differential led the league.
The only turnover forced by the Patriots in their win over the Texans Dec. 10 was an interception by safety Devin McCourty, who picked off a Matt Schaub pass in the end zone when Houston was threatening to tie the game at 7.
“I felt like that was a play where they threw the ball down the middle, I’m supposed to be in the middle of the field, and just made a play,” McCourty said. “The biggest thing is just trying to read the quarterback and go from there. It sounds simple, but at different times against quarterbacks in this league, sometimes they do a good job of looking you off and doing different things like that. Bill is big on telling us, ‘Just do your job.’ ”
The Texans were second in the AFC in turnover differential (plus-12), and lost a league-low four fumbles.
Patriots coaches have made ball security an issue this week (same as always), with ball carriers being given footballs that are wet and defensive players trying hard to knock those balls free. Even the offensive linemen have noticed.
“I’ve seen a little bit of it, but the beauty of my job is that I don’t have to touch the ball, so I let them worry about that,” left tackle Nate Solder said.