FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — On the field, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are right where they want to be heading into the postseason.
As the AFC’s top seed and the owners of a first-round bye, the 13-3 Patriots will get to rest up during the opening weekend of the playoffs. But as they prepare to begin their latest run, their biggest opponent might be the perception of a fracturing relationship between arguably the franchise’s three most important pieces.
The Patriots dismissed as “flat-out inaccurate” a report suggesting a rift involving owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady on Friday.
The three released a joint statement hours after an ESPN report, citing undisclosed sources, detailed an array of tension.
The story highlighted purported disputes concerning Brady’s personal body coach, Alex Guerrero, in player-medical affairs. Also mentioned is a supposed difference between Kraft and Belichick over the decision to trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The story implied Brady has taken issue with a lack of praise from Belichick this season.
The statement said the three have had a “very good and productive working relationship” for 18 years and they regret having to “respond to these fallacies.”
Brady and Belichick both eschewed questions last month about a chasm between and Belichick and Guerrero.
Belichick wouldn’t address the validity of a Boston Globe report that Guerrero had been banned from the sideline or travelling on the team plane, but said “there are different relationships, different situations with dozens of other people.”
Brady also took issue with a reporter last month who asked whether the quarterback and Belichick had talked about an adjustment to Guerrero’s access to the team.
“I have a lot of conversations with him. Those are private between he and I, and I don’t think anyone knows what we talk about,” Brady said then. “Certainly I’ve never talked about it. He’s never talked about it.”
Despite the reported off the field issues, the Patriots have thrived on it.
Even after losing receiver Julian Edelman in the preseason to a knee injury and linebacker Dont’a Hightower in October to a season-ending pectoral injury, they enter the playoffs with the NFL’s top-ranked offense and a defense that is allowing just 18.5 points per game.
Brady is also an MVP candidate, and passed Brett Favre for the most wins in one season for a quarterback after turning 40 years old.
Still, there are questions about Brady’s durability heading in his 15th postseason.
He threw for a league-leading 4,577 yards passing and 32 touchdowns, but he also got hit a lot more than he did last season (32 sacks in 2017 after just 15 in 2016).
It didn’t stop the Patriots from averaging 28.6 points. And certainly having a healthy Rob Gronkowski, who missed last year’s playoffs, has given the Patriots a huge lift with 69 catches for 1,084 yards. Not to mention the boost of offseason addition Brandin Cooks with 65 receptions for 1,082 yards.
Minus a favorite target in Edelman, receiver Chris Hogan (shoulder) and running backs James White (ankle), Rex Burkhead (knee) and Mike GIllislee (knee) have all dealt injuries down the stretch.
And Brady himself showed some of his first flecks of football mortality over the final four games. He had four of his eight interceptions during that stretch, and saw his passer rating dip to as low as 59.5 in a 27-20 loss at Miami.
Brady threw just two interceptions in 2016 and had a passer rating below 89 only once. But he also had the unexpected benefit of resting for four games at the start of the season because of his “Deflategate” suspension.
Whether related or not, it was also during the final six games of this season that Brady began dealing with both Achilles tendon and left shoulder issues.
Brady said this week that his health is “good.”
“I mean, I’m hoping next week I’ll feel just great and be 100 percent ready to go,” he said. “So, I’m excited for that.”
Jets coach Todd Bowles said while Brady was less accurate late in the year, he thinks it’s unfair scrutiny for a guy that is judged by such a high standard.
“If he makes a tiny mistake everybody jumps all over it, but the guy plays outstanding football. I don’t worry about him because he usually goes down and makes the plays to win the games,” he said. “The guy is one of the greatest to ever play the game and he’s still doing it at a very high level.”
Brady said his mind hasn’t been far from the football field this week.
“I think it’s just trying to stay sharp. You know, it’s still football season, so it’s not a week off at all,” Brady said Thursday. “We’re trying to stay sharp and we’ve worked hard to get to this point, but there’s still a lot more to go. You know, we’re still writing our story, and hopefully we write a good one.”