FOXBOROUGH — Success in the NFL — in all sports, really — is partly tied to how well teams can hit the curveball, because unexpected twists are always just a play or a player away.
The Patriots have been thrown enough curveballs this season to make Sandy Koufax take note. But with a 13-4 record and a spot in Denver opposite the Broncos in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, they’ve responded in a way that would lead even David Ortiz to tip his cap. Or, being Ortiz, he’d point to the sky.
The latest obstacle came Wednesday, when Tom Brady missed practice four days before the most important game of the season. Before panic swept the region — perhaps it still did — the reason for Brady’s absence was uncovered. Brady and long snapper Danny Aiken were both sent home Wednesday morning because of illness.
That gave second-stringer Ryan Mallett the opportunity to take on two roles: As the only other quarterback on the roster, he would get all the snaps on offense; and to help prepare the defense, he also would get to play Peyton Manning as the scout-team quarterback.
So, in effect, Mallett became Brady and Manning.
“I was both,” said Mallett, who faced a huge crush of media at his locker after practice. “I like both of them, really. Everybody gets to throw it.”
But not having Brady out there took some getting used to.
“I mean, it’s your guy. When he’s not out there, of course it’s a little different,” said receiver Julian Edelman. “But Ryan came in and he ran the offense. More importantly, I was just kind of worrying about what I had to do to get my assignments and get my work in.
“I’m sure other guys were thinking the same thing. Everyone is just trying to go out there and do their job.”
Mallett last took a game snap Aug. 29, during the Patriots’ final preseason game. With Brady playing every offensive snap in all 16 games of the regular season, plus last Saturday’s playoff win over the Colts, Mallett’s services haven’t been needed on game days.
But he’s there if the situation calls for it, because the Patriots have a plan for just about every scenario that might come up during a game. Many have to do with an opponent’s schemes and tendencies, or in-game trends and adjustments. But there’s a contingency plan for other things, too, such as injuries and personnel.
Some make sense. Others, not as much.
“We’re always prepared for multiple situations that never occur,” said Edelman, who just put together his first 100-catch, 1,000-yard season. “Sometimes as a player you think, ‘Man, why are we preparing for this, this is never going to happen, it hasn’t happened since 1982,’ and . . . then it happens, and you’re like, ‘Well, that’s why [Bill Belichick] is our coach.’ ”
Another curveball came last Saturday, when rookie punter Ryan Allen was forced out of the win over the Colts with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. No team carries two punters, so who would take over for Allen, who also serves as the holder on field goals and extra points? The kicker, naturally.
“I knew that if the punter goes down, I would be the backup punter. I’ve known that ever since I’ve been here,” said Stephen Gostkowski, who joined the Patriots in 2006 and, until Saturday, never had punted in a game.
He punted five times against the Colts, including a 53-yarder on his first try.
Brady, not Mallett, assumed holding duties with Allen out. Both can do the job.
“I think the coaches do a really good job of trying to cover any situation that could happen,” Gostkowski said. “They try to go over everything, to make sure you’re never really put in a position that you’ve never been in before.
“It’s hard to think of a situation that’s been presented that we haven’t gone over once. It’s reassuring to know that we have unbelievable coaches that will put you in a situation to succeed, and you’re grateful and thankful for that.”
Logan Mankins, typically the Patriots’ starting left guard, moved out to left tackle for the game at Baltimore when Nate Solder was injured.
Over the past few seasons, Devin McCourty has switched from cornerback to safety, and Rob Ninkovich from linebacker to defensive end.
Injuries might have been involved, but the players also have been prepared for the possibility, and embraced the new roles.
Allen was back at practice Wednesday, a good sign that he’ll attempt to play Sunday in Denver. He was not spotted in the locker room following the session, and thus didn’t give the media a chance to ask about his health, or whether he is the designated player to return the favor in the event that Gostkowski is injured in a game and can’t kick.
Is Allen the backup kicker? He did kick in high school, after all.
Gostkowski wasn’t taking the bait.
“You’d have to ask coach about that,” Gostkowski said.
As for who the long snapper would be if Aiken is unable to play during a game?
“I can’t give out all our secrets,” Gostkowski said. “You’ve seen me punt, so it’s not a secret anymore. There are backup plans for different situations.”
The backup long snapper, incidentally, is Ninkovich, who held a similar job when he broke into the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. He hasn’t been needed to long snap in a game yet this season — Aiken hasn’t missed a game in his three seasons with the Patriots — but Ninkovich always takes some reps during at least one preseason game.
“Just like riding a bike,” Ninkovich said.
Edelman was a college quarterback, a run-pass threat who made enough noise at Kent State that the Patriots used a seventh-round draft pick on him in 2009.
Considering his background, Edelman was asked if he would be the Patriots’ emergency quarterback, in the unlikely event that both Brady and Mallett are injured.
“Uh, you definitely have to ask coach on that one,” said Edelman. “I don’t know. That’s not going to happen, hopefully.
“That’s the last thing we’re worrying about is that happening. Because if that happens, we’re in trouble.”