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New England Patriots have been here before, don't take it for granted

By The Sports Xchange
New England Patriots have been here before, don't take it for granted
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls a play in the huddle in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on December 4, 2016. The Patriots defeated the Rams 26-10 and Brady became the NFL's all-time leader for wins by a quarterback for a total of 201 wins in 264 games. Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI | License Photo

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Coach Bill Belichick and handful of New England players held press conferences on Wednesday in front of an AFC Championship Game backdrop at Gillette Stadium.

A few feet to their right was the Lamar Hunt Trophy, between helmets for the Patriots (15-2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5).

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It was a visual realization of the spot the two historic franchises find themselves in this week, on the doorstep of a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI.

Though the Patriots are heading into their NFL-record sixth straight AFC title game -- and 11th overall since 2001 -- Belichick made a point to acknowledge that there is nothing old hat about being included in the final four contenders this weekend.

"It's always an honor to be participating in the AFC Championship game," Belichick said before a packed house in the media workroom in Foxborough. "We have a great history and a great deal of respect for the Steelers, the organization, coach (Mike) Tomlin, their staff, their players.

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"They're a good football team, playing very well at the right time of the year now, the second half of the season. They have a good winning streak."

Although New England dispatched the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 27-16, on Oct. 23, that victory came against a Steelers team without Ben Roethlisberger that was in the midst of a four-game midseason losing streak.

Since then, Roethlisberger has guided the team to a Wild Card berth and nine consecutive wins, including playoff dismissals of the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. Pittsburgh has also made great strides on defense.

"I think the game earlier in the season is not really that relevant," Belichick said. "I mean, it is, but it really isn't. There's a lot of water under the bridge since then.

"What the Steelers have done in the last two-and-a-half months is really what we're probably going to see Sunday night, and that's what we've got to be ready for."

What New England must be ready for is its defense to be tested by a star-studded Steelers offense that has scored on each of its first three possessions in its first two postseason games.

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Roethlisberger is the two-time Super Bowl champion leading the charge and making plays to All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, but it's not a stretch to say running back Le'Veon Bell is the centerpiece of the offense.

Bell has carried the ball 29 and 30 times, respectively, the last two weeks for a total of 337 yards (a 5.7-yard average) with two touchdowns.

Bell's production, value and unique style make him a key point of contention for Belichick's team's team, a defense that finished the regular season No. 1 in the NFL in points allowed and tied for third in run defense.

"Defensively, we have to do a great job of playing team defense," Belichick said. "That includes everybody. And Bell has great vision, patience, and they have a very good offensive line, and a good scheme, so they make it hard to penetrate. They do a good job of getting on the blocks, staying on them and eventually, Bell does a good job of creating space or finding space or making it look like he's going to go to one spot and kind of enters in another gap.

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"No one guy can stop the running game. You've got to have team defense and multiple players playing good technique, playing the right responsibility and then tackling is an issue. Even if you play well, you've still got to get him on the ground, and that's hard."

While the defense has its challenges against Pittsburgh's Killer Bs, Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense needs to bounce back from a disappointing performance against the Texans.

While Houston didn't have the offense to take advantage of New England's three turnovers and sputtering consistency in the passing attack last Saturday night, Brady knows a repeat of such a performance could spell the end of the season.

"We have to play our best game of the year," Brady said. "I think that's what it comes down to. We've got to all do whatever it takes to be at our best for those three hours on Sunday night.

"They put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of areas. They're tough to prepare for. We're going to have to just rise to the occasion."

An occasion Belichick, Brady and plenty of other Patriots have been in often in recent years with mixed results. New England is 2-3 in the last five consecutive AFC title games, although the mark is 2-1 at home.

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"It's the two best teams in the AFC," Belichick said. "You earn your way to this game. There's no other way to get there. You've got to earn it, and you've got to earn it on the field. You've got to go out there and beat somebody -- you've got to beat a lot of people to get to this game.

"Both teams have done that, so that's the matchup. We're glad to be in the game, proud to be playing in it. We earned it, they earned it, and we'll play Sunday night and see how it comes out. Great to be part of this game."

--WR Chris Hogan left last Saturday night's victory over Houston the Texans in the third quarter because of a thigh injury. He did not return, finishing the game with four catches for 95 yards.

A few days later, though, Hogan downplayed the ailment and even indicated he could have returned against the Texans had it been necessary.

"I'm feeling good, just had a little minor setback in the game, but I'm working back, feeling better every day," Hogan said.

The first-year Patriots receiver seems to be enjoying his first taste of postseason action. After spending time with the San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins before playing three seasons in Buffalo, Hogan finally got to where he's wanted to be this time of year.

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"On the couch, watching football, wishing I was in this position," Hogan described of past Januarys. "I'm beyond excited to be in this position, to play in the AFC Championship Game at home, with this team."

--Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels of the Patriots interviewed with the Los Angeles Rams, 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars during New England's playoff bye week for those teams' open head coaching jobs. Los Angeles and Jacksonville went in other directions, and McDaniels took his name out of contention for the San Francisco job this week.

"I was really impressed with (49ers CEO) Jed York and (Chief Strategy Officer and EVP of Football Operations) Paraag (Marathe) and (Director of Football Administration and Analytics) Brian [Hampton], the people that came from the 49ers organization," McDaniels said. "They did a great job with their presentation, and again (I'm) humbled to be included in that process. At this time, it's best for my family and myself to remain here in New England and focus on this year's playoffs and finish out the year however it turns out."

McDaniels is finishing the fifth season of his second tour of duty in New England. He's interviewed with a variety of teams for head coaching jobs the last three years, but hasn't found the right fit, which is important considering how poorly his two-year stint (2009-10) went as a first-time head coach with the Denver Broncos.

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--CB Malcolm Butler and Steelers WR Antonio Brown have seen a lot of each other over the last couple seasons. Butler opened the 2015 season -- coming off his Super Bowl-winning interception and his first start as New England's No. 1 cornerback replacement for departed Darrelle Revis -- with man-to-man duties chasing the Pittsburgh playmaker all over the field. While Butler was seemingly competitive, Brown had nine catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a Patriots win.

Earlier this season, with backup Landry Jones leading the Steelers, the players went at it again, with Brown piling up seven catches for 106 yards in another New England win, although Butler picked off a pass in the end zone.

The two even appear together in a humorous Visa commercial in which the cornerback Butler chases Brown all over town.

There is a good chance Butler will draw Brown duty against on Sunday night in the AFC title game.

"Malcolm is a great competitor; he takes this as a big challenge," Patriots captain and Pro Bowl LB Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He's arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he's ready to rise up to that challenge. Just like any other week, he's going to come in and work hard. That's just the kind of person that he is."

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Pro Bowl S Devin McCourty expressed a similar confidence in the New England Super Bowl hero, who will be asked to play a key role to get the team back to the big game.

"They're two competitive guys," McCourty said. (They're) relatively around the same size. Probably if you broke them down (they're) very similar as far as athletic ability and quickness and speed and those things," McCourty said. "I think that the biggest thing is just them going out and competing. Whether it's Antonio Brown making a great catch or Malcolm making an interception in the end zone the last time that we played, just them two going at it.

"Antonio Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job, but it's going to be all of us. All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that's getting everyone to the ball, whether it's a short pass (or) intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he's trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he's able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we're going to work on that all week."

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NOTES:

-- WR Danny Amendola (ankle) was limited in practice on Wednesday after returning to his first game in more than a month against the Texans. Amendola saw limited work against Houston after missing the final four games of the regular season with a reported high ankle sprain.

-- TE Martellus Bennett (knee) was limited in practice because of the injury sustained in the second half of the win over the Texans. Bennett was attended to by trainers, but walked off under his own power and returned a couple plays later to finish the game.

-- RB Brandon Bolden (knee) was another new addition to the injury report, and was limited in practice on Wednesday.

-- LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder) was limited in practice because of a new injury. The Pro Bowler dealt with a knee injury over the course of the regular season.

-- WR Chris Hogan (thigh) was limited in practice on Wednesday. Hogan left the third quarter of the win over the Texans and did not return, although he said this week he could have finished the game had he needed to.

-- WR Malcolm Mitchell (knee) remains limited in practice. The rookie missed the regular season finale and the playoff opener because of the injury.

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-- DL Jabaal Sheard (knee) was added to the injury report after being limited in practice on Wednesday.

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