FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few hours before the New England Patriots' first practice of the week in preparation for Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Titans (10-7) at Gillette Stadium, head coach Bill Belichick stepped to the microphone Tuesday morning for his initial press conference of the week.
He made two things quite clear: He was impressed by a Tennessee team that advanced in the postseason with a comeback win over Kansas City on wild-card weekend and, maybe most important, he was only focused on talking about his upcoming game and opponent.
After days spent issuing joint statements and then he and Tom Brady making the rounds doing radio interviews to discredit and deny the contents of the Jan. 5 story from ESPN detailing the supposed "internal power struggle in New England," Belichick declared he and his team were "all in" preparing for the Titans.
"We've dealt with some non-Tennessee subjects here over the last few days," Belichick said to close out his opening statement. "At this point, I'm all in on Tennessee. I'll answer any questions about the Titans but that's it."
That came after he called Tennessee "an impressive football team" and shortly before declaring, "We know we need to have our best game Saturday night."
While Belichick may believe that, the rest of the world is a bit more dubious. The Patriots (13-3) are nearly a two-touchdown favorite over a Titans team that sneaked into the playoffs after losing three of its last five games and finished the season with a minus-22 point differential, the only postseason team in either conference to allow more points than it scored.
Many media and fans alike are wondering if the issues touched on in the ESPN story -- some rooted in the Jimmy Garoppolo trade and others in the relationship between Belichick and Brady as it relates to the quarterback's controversial body coach/business partner, Alex Guerrero -- could have any sort of adverse impact on the latest Super Bowl run for the defending champions.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski -- who is healthy and ready to roll in the postseason after missing the Super Bowl run a year ago following back surgery -- sees it a bit differently. First, he doesn't believe the story could motivate Brady because the aging legend prepares at such a high level at all times.
"I've said this many times; it's hard to see him go to another level of intensity because he's always intense," Gronkowski said. "He's always preparing hard. He's always studying as hard as he can every week, so just seeing him do the same old that he does every week -- prepare hard, practice hard and get ready for the game."
According to the All-Pro tight end, if anything comes from ESPN story and ensuing media storm, it could be a net positive for the Patriots.
"The feeling around here, the intensity is high, the preparation is high just like any other time," Gronkowski observed. "It's just like any other week. I feel like if anything it's just going to bring us closer and it's going to bond us together. The feel is no different than any other week going on right now. It's good. We just had a good practice week. Everything's feeling good and just excited for the big game, but first off we've got a big week ahead of us to prepare."
While few in New England believe the ESPN story will hinder the Patriots in any way, that doesn't mean this is just any old week. Regardless of the opponent, the win-or-go-home postseason is, as Belichick might say, what it is.
"You feel it as soon as you start practicing. Everybody feels it," safety Duron Harmon said. "We know the importance of practice. Each play of the game is important, but the only way that you can have a lot of good plays on game day is by the practice week. So, we try to go out, execute at a high level like it's a game day, try to play as hard, try to play as aware as we can. We just try to do all the little things because we know if we have a great week of practice, it usually translates to a good performance during Saturday."
And that means no one inside the football offices or locker room at Gillette Stadium will be taking the Titans lightly.
"It's a one-game season. This is what you work for, is to get to this position," Belichick concluded. "Now we're in it. Now you put everything that you have into this one-game season. We have one game left against the Titans. We have to play better than they do to be able to continue playing. That's a huge challenge. Obviously, every team that's playing, I mean, there are eight teams left. All eight of them are good teams. Every team is good at this time of year. There's a reason why they're here. They've earned their way here. There's no other reason why you're playing this weekend unless you've earned it. We've earned it, the Titans have earned it and I'm sure it'll be a very competitive game. They have a great football team. I can see why they're here. They're good, as I said, in all three phases of the game. They're well-coached. They're a solid team. They've played under pressure. They've won under pressure. They've won on the road. They've had a good year and they've got a good team, so we're going to have to be at our best. We know that."