FOXBOROUGH — Devin McCourty brought the heat early – and it fueled the Patriots all afternoon – even through the late-game snowflakes at Gillette Stadium Sunday.
The veteran safety and heart and soul of this Patriots team delivered a fire and brimstone speech to his fellow defensive backs during warm-ups — though the whole team got the message.
The point he was delivering was clear: This was no throwaway game. This was not the annual fourth preseason game against the Giants.
There is no playoff date on the Patriots itinerary but that doesn’t change the game-day approach at One Patriots Place. There would be no scoreboard watching to see how potential postseason opponents were doing, but there would be no clock watching on McCourty’s watch. Nobody was playing out the string while McCourty was around.
“It was simple. I think everywhere you looked this week the game didn’t matter – it was meaningless,” said McCourty. “I just told guys to think about their journey to have an opportunity to play here. Last game of the year, you’re not going to the playoffs, but at some point on your journey, you’ve been doubted, you got hurt, a certain school told you that they didn’t want you, a team released you, a team traded you, a team told that you weren’t good enough to play.’'
McCourty wanted to remind his teammates that buying into the story line that this game meant nothing wouldn’t sit well with him. Pride was on the line.
“At some point, if someone asked you, ‘Would you take an opportunity to play in the last game of the season with no chance at the playoffs?’ We all would take it and give it everything we’ve got. I told guys to think about that today. If someone tells you this is your last ever game to play, what would you do? I was proud of the way guys responded.”
McCourty was teaching a lesson and his students absorbed it. No matter the situation, he wasn’t going to let his team just show up and go through the motions. He came to play. He came to compete. And he expected the same of his teammates.
McCourty was displaying the kind of leadership that has been the hallmark of the perennial captain’s career. The 11-year veteran battled through a shoulder injury all week but wasn’t about to shut it down. With the linebacking corps depleted by injuries, there was McCourty lining up close to the box taking on all comers, big and small.
Fellow captain David Andrews delivered a message of his own. Though his season was cut short by a calf injury last week, there was Andrews on the sideline providing support for his teammates.
A youth movement may be underway in Patriot Nation, but veteran leaders are a key ingredient to any successful team and McCourty and Andrews are two of the best.
Here are some other takeaways from New England’s 28-14 victory in the season finale as the Patriots completed their fifth straight Jet sweep.
▪ Moments after the Patriots halted the Jets first drive, Bill Belichick followed his defenders to the bench to deliver some coaching points.
It was another example it would be business as usual for New England. If a teaching opportunity presents itself, Belichick is going to take advantage of it, whether it’s in training camp, a regular-season game, or the final defensive stand of a Super Bowl.
▪ The kids are all right.
New England’s roster will undergo an overhaul in the offseason but there’s reasons for optimism that some of the younger players can fill significant roles.
Mike Onwenu continued his strong season, starting his third game at right guard after starting the past 10 at right tackle. Onwenu and fellow rookie Justin Herron are solid building blocks of granite for the future.
Jakobi Meyers again showed how valuable and versatile he can be, making several big catches and catching his second TD pass of the season. Meyers (6 receptions, 68 yards) is an excellent route runner and throws a hell of a spiral.
▪ It took all season, but rookie tight end Devin Asiasi finally broke through with the offense, catching the first two passes of his career, including a go-ahead 26-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter.
If Asiasi and Dalton Keene — he also had a catch — can use this as a springboard, the Patriots could start to see more tight end production out of their 21 personnel packages — something that’s been lacking for most of the last two seasons.
▪ Time to lock up J.C. Jackson, who returned to his lockdown ways after a rough week against Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs. Jackson collected his ninth pick of the season of the season and the pending restricted free agent corner likely will be high on the Patriots’ lengthy offseason to-do list.
Paired with Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots have the opportunity to keep a pair of elite corners together for another season — a must in a conference loaded with talented quarterbacks and ridiculous receivers.
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