FOXBOROUGH - Vince Wilfork can’t quite put his finger on it, but whatever it is, he believes these Patriots have a quality that recent teams have lacked.
Call it mental toughness, call it grit - call it “our backs are against the wall and we’d better start fighting back.’’
Call it whatever you prefer. But whatever it is, Wilfork likes it.
“I think that the tougher the game gets, the more, I don’t know, settled we get,’’ he said. “Never lose our poise. You know you get frustrated at times, but at the same time, you go out there and everybody has their poise and everyone is calm, and I think once we’re calm, we make more plays, we make more plays, we make more plays.’’
In four of their last six games, the Patriots found themselves in an early hole: 10-0 in Philadelphia, 6-0 in Denver, 17-0 against the Dolphins, and 21-0 to Buffalo.
But in each case, they righted the ship - whether through defensive adjustments or running the no-huddle offense, which always seems to put points on the board - or, as Wilfork said, by simply settling into things.
Even against the Bills in the regular-season finale, with their own fans booing their early ineptitude, there was no finger pointing.
“It’s funny, but down 21 points, you would think that we’re over there screaming and hollering and trying to fix everything, but that wasn’t the case,’’ Wilfork said. “It’s more about, ‘Just settle down to play football, plays will come, just believe what you see.’ The times we’ve done it, we’ve been OK.
“It’s just a tough group - tough, tough, mentally tough football team that, you know what, for 60 minutes we’re going to fight. I’ll tell you that.
“We might not be pretty, but we will not give up. I don’t care how long we play. This team will not give up, so if you’ve got to beat us, it’s going to take 60 minutes-plus, because we’re not just going to fold our hand no matter what the score is.’’
For weeks, Patriots players on both sides of the ball have noted that the team is still striving to put together a 60-minute game.
After the win in Denver, Tom Brady declared it to be the Patriots’ first wire-to-wire effort of the season - but he may have been talking about the offense. Defensively, New England was a mess in the opening quarter, as quarterback Tim Tebow and running backs Willis McGahee and Lance Ball ran wild, racking up 167 rushing yards in the opening 15 minutes alone.
Backed on their heels by the option offense that Denver - and Denver alone - runs, the Patriots regrouped.
Against the Bills and Dolphins, they dug themselves out of giant holes - holes they likely wouldn’t be able to climb out of in the postseason. But they did, and the comebacks have given the team confidence.
“I would say that we’re mentally tough,’’ Patrick Chung said. “We’ve started bad games and ended good, which [shows] huge mental toughness to finish the game and play a full 60 minutes. We’ve had a couple of those games where we’ve showed that we had that.
“I can’t speak about other teams, but this team right here, I feel we have a lot of mental toughness and it can only get better. I’m not saying we’re perfect, I’m not saying we’re great, but it can always get better, no matter what.’’
Things change now. Those come-from-behind wins were nice, but as any Patriot who has stood before a microphone or recording device this week has said, they don’t mean much at this point.
The recent past still has merit, and it has shown the team leaders that this current group of Patriots has fight in it.
Maybe it’s love of the game, maybe there’s a higher percentage of players who are totally on board with Bill Belichick’s lessons, maybe it’s pride.
Whatever it is, they feel they have it in spades.
“The passion for the game, we have it,’’ said Wilfork. “The love for the game, we have it. We have guys that love to play football and we have guys that love to be here. When you have those qualities, you can win with guys like that.’’
“This isn’t the same team as previous years,’’ said Jerod Mayo. “I think this team is mentally tough. A playoff game in itself is motivation. We’re pretty motivated.’’