FOXBOROUGH — It has been a long time since the Patriots were considered underdogs, particularly in the playoffs.
Whether it’s with your money or house money, or even if there’s no money involved, it’s hard to bet against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, which is a testament to the sustained success they’ve had in New England.
But as they prepare to face Denver in the AFC Championship game Sunday, the early buzz — and the early line in Las Vegas, if you’re into that sort of thing — has the Broncos favored, for a variety of reasons.
And if Monday’s chatter was an indication, the Patriots are liking the position they find themselves in.
“I don’t really get into the Vegas odds and all that, but if we’re underdogs, so be it,” Matthew Slater said. “We have to play the game between the white lines, they’re a very good football team, we know that, and hopefully we can come out and play well.”
Rodney Harrison was the master of motivation when it came to slights, real or perceived, but Belichick likes to pick his spots. Though he generally encourages — nay, mandates — that players “ignore the noise,” on the rare occasion that pundits are picking against his team, he makes sure they know about it.
When just about everyone with a platform picked the home Ravens to beat New England in Week 16, Belichick made sure to point it out to his team. There was a similar situation in 2010, before the Patriots went to Miami in Week 4, and local media predicted the Dolphins would win, primarily because New England had gone 2-7 in its previous nine road games.
The tactic worked: The Patriots won big in Baltimore, and won in Miami as well.
“The most satisfying part of being a player is to win the game,” said Brady. “It doesn’t matter what a person may think or say.
“Truthfully, I don’t turn the TV on, I don’t read anything. I just try to focus on what I need to do and, like I said, put all that stuff around us.
“I know when we played Baltimore, nobody picked us to win. I’m sure no one’s going to pick us to win this week. We’ve had our backs against the wall for a while. Really the whole season we’ve lost players and teams have really counted us out.”
While it may be a stretch to say other teams have counted the Patriots out, they certainly have had their share of doubters. But when a team, even a Belichick-coached and Brady-quarterbacked team, loses four defensive starters and two offensive starters to injured reserve, it’s hard to see how well those major holes will be plugged.
There has to be a tipping point, it’s assumed. But so far, there hasn’t been one for New England.
The perception persists that they are the underdogs. Las Vegas has the Broncos favored by 5, the first time New England has not been the favorite in a postseason game since the 2006 AFC Championship game against Indianapolis, — the last time it faced Peyton Manning in the playoffs. That game was on the road as well.
Of the four teams remaining in the hunt for Super Bowl XLVIII, the Patriots have been given the longest odds at 5-1.
And they don’t mind.
“We’ve got a bunch of underdogs on our team, and we’ll be an underdog again,” Brady said. “We’ll see how that shapes up here at the end of the week. But I know that we’re as tough and physical as we’ve ever been, and that’s the way we’re going to need to go out and play this game.
“That’s the great challenge for us, to go in there into an environment where a team has really played as good a football as any team all season, and go in there and try to beat them.”
“If Tom is going to embrace it, I’m going to embrace it,” running back LeGarrette Blount said. “That’s the leader of this team. So if that’s how he feels, I’m sure that’s how most of the guys here feel.”
Slater believes the Patriots have been underdogs for much of the season, and it’s helped them pull together.
“Personally, I haven’t given it too much thought about us being underdogs,” he said. “I guess we are a bit of an underdog bunch with everything we’ve been through this year, and I think it’s brought us together and closer as a team, just going out there and playing for one another and not caring on the outside noise and just focusing on the task at hand week in and week out.”