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Patriots notebook

Always on call for decisions

Belichick, staff adjust quickly

Rob Ninkovich (left) attempts to dislodge the ball from Rob Gronkowski as the Patriots prepare to face the Dolphins. Rob Ninkovich (left) attempts to dislodge the ball from Rob Gronkowski as the Patriots prepare to face the Dolphins. (Robert E. Klein/For The Globe)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 22, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - Listening to Bill Belichick explain the rapid-fire decision making process for in-game adjustments, the conversations are constant.

At the end of every series, Belichick talks with one of his assistants, whether it’s Bill O’Brien, Matt Patricia, or Dante Scarnecchia, about what just happened. But it’s all on the fly, strategizing and making adjustments, and at times it’s difficult to manage it all with a game in progress.

“It’s hard on the headset, too, because if we’re on offense, we’re calling plays, we’re substituting people,’’ Belichick said. “That’s not really the time to have a philosophical conversation.’’

Last week, the Patriots had to make a ton of rapid-fire decisions. Andre Carter went down with a season-ending quad injury at the end of the first quarter, and the Patriots had to adjust. The Broncos ripped off 167 rushing yards in the first quarter and the staff had to figure out a way to stop them.

The decisions are made in split seconds, but the communication never stops.

Do we no-huddle next series?

What do we do the next time they give us a certain look?

What are we going to do in the next third-and-medium, third-and-long?

The staff is thinking of every scenario before they come up, Belichick said. All the planning during the week can change completely by game day. Belichick used the win over the Eagles as an example. Receiver DeSean Jackson may have been a focal point going in, but Jason Avant caught eight passes, and at some point the game plan had to change.

“We talk about it going into the game,’’ Belichick said. “ ‘Look, this is what they do well, this could be a problem, what are we going to do about this?’ Or, ‘We’re not expecting much of this but if they do it, what’s our answer going to be?’ Or, ‘We’re concerned about these matchups, how are you going to handle those?’

“Then you get into the game and you talk about it. You say, ‘OK, we were concerned about this matchup and it looks like it’s still going to be a problem.’ Or, ‘I think we kind of got that under control but this might be a bigger issue than we thought it was over here.’ Or, ‘We expected this type of a game plan but they’re really doing something, they’re mixing in some other things with that and not just staying with what we thought they were going to do.’ Again, that changes during the game, too.’’

Short memory

After the Patriots beat the Broncos and clinched the AFC East, someone asked guard Brian Waters if he could remember the last time he went to the playoffs.

He shot back, “Last year.’’

The former Chief acknowledged it’s easy to forget. Waters spent 11 years in Kansas City and the Chiefs only went to the playoffs three times. Outside of the 2003 season when Kansas City went 13-3, this 11-win season is the most success Waters has had in his career.

“I’ve been in it before,’’ he said. “But believe me, I haven’t been on this type of football team in a while.’’

The Patriots clinching their third straight division title felt like an afterthought, and Waters said he appreciated the fact that no one in the locker room dwelled on the accomplishment.

“I like it,’’ he said. “Because that’s not the ultimate goal. That’s just one step to the ultimate goal. Nobody got overexcited like they won a Super Bowl or anything. It’s just, ‘Hey, we won a football game.’ It put us in position to where we want to be. It’s just a step to the ultimate goal.’’

Cannon progressing

While he was out with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, offensive lineman Marcus Cannon sat in meetings and observed but wasn’t able to practice. Since taking the field for the first time more than a month ago, his practice reps have gradually increased, and Belichick said the 22-year-old rookie is progressing.

“In all honesty, this is probably the start of the season for him,’’ Belichick said. “I think what he’s done has probably been the equivalent of a training camp roughly. So he just hasn’t had as many snaps. But that being said, I think he’s coming along well.’’

Cannon has played in five games in various roles. During practice, Belichick said Cannon takes reps with the scout team lining up against Rob Ninkovich and Shaun Ellis.

“He’s out there every day,’’ Belichick said. “He’s working hard. He’s doing all the things we do offensively. He takes the scout team reps and is able to get work against our defense there. That’s good competition. He’s coming along. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s coming along.’’

Branch better

After missing last week’s game because of a sore groin, Deion Branch said he was feeling better, and doing everything he can to play Saturday against the Dolphins.

“One day at a time,’’ the receiver said. “I think I’ve got to go out there and show coach a little more than what I showed him last week and hopefully I’ll get the nod that I can go. My job is to go out, practice as hard as I can, and show them what I can do. If he likes it, then good, if he don’t then I won’t be playing.’’

Branch is disappointed with his numbers this season (48 catches, 665 yards, and 4 touchdowns), but said they take a back seat to the team’s 11-3 record.

“My numbers aren’t what I would want them to be. But at the same time, we have these young guys playing hard, playing great,’’ he said. “Over here, you have to put your ego to the side and the most important thing is to get the victory and not worrying about my numbers.’’

McKinley fits in

A day after being signed to the practice squad, defensive lineman Cedric McKinley was at his locker getting the lay of the land from Matthew Slater.

Before getting the call from the Patriots, McKinley kept busy working out, trying to stay in shape, and working at a Target warehouse.

“Just trying to keep some money in my pocket some type of way,’’ he said.

McKinley was signed by the Vikings in 2010 as a rookie free agent, but released at the start of training camp. They re-signed him last summer, then released him again in October.

“Right now, I’m just happy to be here,’’ McKinley said. “Just blessed to be a part of a team like this and I’m just here to just work and do whatever the coach tells me to do.’’

Fuller checks in

Newly signed defensive back Vincent Fuller made his practice debut yesterday, wearing No. 26. Fuller, who was drafted by the Titans in 2005, played one game with the Lions this season before landing on injured reserve with an elbow injury. When he was released by the Lions Dec. 7, he became a free agent. Fuller has played slot/nickel back and some safety with a knack for special teams . . . BenJarvus Green-Ellis (illness), Aaron Hernandez (not injury-related), and Sebastian Vollmer (back) missed practice. Kyle Arrington, Branch, Patrick Chung, Dan Connolly, Julian Edelman, Dane Fletcher, James Ihedigbo, Devin McCourty, Slater, Brandon Spikes, Shane Vereen, Waters, Ryan Wendell, and Danny Woodhead were limited.

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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