New England Patriots in familiar spot entering playoffs

By Gethin Coolbaugh, The Sports Xchange  |  Dec. 31, 2017 at 8:48 PM
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's been a familiar script for these New England Patriots the last few years.

First come the early-season struggles, then comes the midseason surge, and finally, being crowned with the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

For the third time in the past four seasons, New England finished with the conference's top seed after completing its 13-3 campaign with a 26-6 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday.

"It was all a part of the process for us," Patriots captain and safety Devin McCourty said. "I think obviously we knew that was at stake, but it was more important to come out here and play well and finish doing what we started doing.

"Now we get into that second part of the season, that new season where really everything else we've done doesn't really matter."

Much like in seasons past, the Patriots didn't resemble a top-tier team in the first few weeks of the season, starting 2-2 after a pair of home losses to the Kansas City Chiefs in the opener and then the Carolina Panthers.

But just like it's done time and time again, New England corrected the mistakes and went on a roll, rattling off eight straight victories and winning 11 of its final 12 games.

"We started 2-2 and 13-3 is pretty good and to get the No. 1 seed (feels great)," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "So, our biggest games are ahead of us."

The Patriots' trademarked "Blitz For Six" -- their sixth Super Bowl championship -- begins in earnest on either Jan. 13 or 14 when they host their first playoff game in the AFC divisional round.

In the meantime, they'll hit the practice field to keep working on those mistakes.

What's left of them to fix, anyway.

"We're not going to know (who we play) until the weekend, but in the meantime there are things that we can do that will help us no matter who we play and those are some of the things that we'll take a look at," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said.

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Dion Lewis didn't have a lot of help in the backfield on Sunday with fellow running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee all inactive, and he didn't need it.

Lewis totaled 133 yards -- 93 rushing and 40 receiving -- to carry the Patriots to an easy victory.

Big games for Lewis are becoming commonplace after the fifth-year back logged his second straight game with 20-plus carries. Last week against Buffalo, he rushed for a career-high 129 yards.

Lewis rushed for 896 yards and six touchdowns for the season, both career highs.

"I'm embracing it," Lewis said of his newfound bell-cow workload. "I like having the ball, I like helping my team win. They counted on me today and I just got to try and make plays for the team and have fun out there."

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James Harrison made an immediate impact in his Patriots' debut.

The five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker recorded five tackles and a pair of sacks, both on consecutive plays at the end of the game.

Harrison also registered a big hit on Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson to keep him short of a first down on third-and-5 early in the third quarter.

With his former team in Pittsburgh, playing time had become a rarity for the Steelers' all-time sacks leader. Now that he's in New England, the 39-year-old is relishing every chance he gets to step on the field.

"I always wonder why I'm not playing," Harrison said. "Like they say, it's never easy and it's never late, it's just timing. It may not happen when you want it to happen, but it'll happen when it's meant to."

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Quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg both wound up taking hits in Sunday's season finale for the Jets.

Petty's were of the on-field variety, while Hackenberg only took a hit to his confidence.

With nothing left to play for and New York well on its way to a 5-11 finish, there was speculation that Hackenberg, the Jets' second-round draft pick in 2016, would finally make his professional debut.

That didn't happen, as Petty played the entire game, completing 19-of-36 passes for 232 yards.

So what did Jets head coach Todd Bowles have to gain by sticking with Petty and not taking a chance to see what he had in Hackenberg?

"We don't know if he can or can't (play)," Bowles said of Hackenberg in a somewhat contentious postgame session with reporters. "He works hard every day. He got a lot of reps in the preseason. Bryce got a lot of reps in the preseason. Bryce played better than he did in the preseason. Bryce got to play at the end of the year. (Hackenberg will) come back next year, he'll work hard in the spring and we'll look at it then."

Hackenberg has not seen a single snap in his two seasons with the Jets.

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