FOXBOROUGH — Fifteen years into his NFL career, and about to start in an AFC Championship game for the ninth time, Tom Brady has become a creature of habit when it comes to his work week.
There’s the preparation involved for the upcoming opponent — in this case, the Indianapolis Colts — then it’s a three-hour chess match on Sunday.
Chess is typically a quiet game filled with strategy. But come Sunday, Brady will be anything but quiet.
“I know it’s an emotional game and I need to be emotional out there to play at my highest,” said Brady. “I try to rest up all week, and I’m actually pretty mellow most of the time, as you guys know.
“It’s just for those three hours on Sunday that you get to let it rip, which is really, I think, when you can be yourself. You’ve got to go out there and bring a level of energy and enthusiasm, and all the guys do that. And certainly making good plays helps that.”
From the moment Brady hits the field in his uniform to the same Jay-Z song (“Public Service Announcement”), jogs the length of the sideline, and reacts to the nearby fans with fist pumps and air punches, he’s in game mode.
That can include barking at a teammate (or a coach, as Bill O’Brien discovered a few years back), spiking the ball after scoring a rare rushing touchdown (as he did last week), or burying his face in his hands after throwing an interception (also last week).
Brady, for better or worse, wears his emotions on his uniform sleeve.
“I just think the emotional part is a really important part for me, and I think that’s always been a part of the way that I play,” Brady said. “It’s a lot of fun, what we get to do for a living, so certainly to get to this moment and play in this game, there’s nothing better.”
He admitted to getting nervous before games, and isn’t shy about or ashamed of getting worked up on the sidelines or on the field. But there’s an intensity to Brady that rarely takes a day off.
“My wife asks the same thing, ‘What’s your problem?’ ” he said. “But I get pretty edgy.
“I just think there’s a high level of pressure every week. It’s a race to see who can prepare the best over the course of the week. It’s kind of the ebbs and flows of the week. Sometimes [I’m] in a good mood, sometimes in a [bad] mood.”
Brady, for the record and on live television, didn’t say “bad,” using an expletive instead. Sometimes — as in another AFC Championship game week — the emotions start much earlier than Sunday.
The last time Rob Gronkowski played in a game with Sergio Brown, the Patriots tight end was driving the backpedaling Colts free safety off the field and flattening him with an after-the-whistle pancake block that drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness (plus a fine from the league).
Brown, you see, was the player who was locked up with Gronkowski when he suffered a broken forearm on a meaningless, late-game extra point in the 2012 season.
Gronkowski was asked if he was excited to play against Brown again. He refused to take the bait.
“I’m just excited to go out there and play the game of football, no matter who we face,” Gronkowsi said.
Playing with emotion is rarely a problem for Gronkowski, who typically punctuates his touchdowns with a forceful spike of the football. Keeping those emotions in check, though, is something Gronkowski is fully aware of, especially in a win-or-go-home game.
“It’s an emotional game, but when the emotions get rolling you’ve just got to put the team first, that’s all,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt the team at all, but at the same time you want to go out there with some fire underneath you, and go out there with some passion.”
New day for Gray
Only two NFL players this season had 200-yard rushing games. One was Le’Veon Bell of the Steelers, a 204-yard game at Tennessee. The other was New England’s Jonas Gray, and the opponent then is the opponent now. He had 201 yards on 37 carries in the Patriots’ 42-20 win at Indianapolis Nov. 16.
“My approach is the same as always, whether we’re playing the Colts or not, whether I had a good game against the Colts or not,” said Gray. “This is a big game, stakes are high, and this is a better team than we played before. They’re playing a lot better, they have a lot of momentum.”
In four games since that 37-carry, 201-yard, 4-touchdown day (which landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated), Gray has a total of 80 rushing yards on 20 carries. He has been inactive twice since then, including in last week’s playoff opener, and did not play the week after the Colts game (he showed up late for a practice, which many assume played a role in the benching).
On the chin
Ron Ninkovich has had good games against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, with two sacks in three previous meetings, all won handily by the Patriots. Ninkovich must be paying attention in team meetings this week, because he’s saying what everyone else is saying about the significance of those prior matchups — and victories — against Luck and the Colts.
“You’ve got to hit the reset button,” Ninkovich said. “They’re a good football team that has improved throughout the year, and they’re not the same team that they were when we played them. You’ve got to start all over.”
For the Patriots defense, that starts with Luck, who has thrown for more yards in his first five playoff games (1,703) than any other quarterback in league history.
“Luck’s a big guy, he’s a strong guy that can run,” said Ninkovich. “He’s extended plays in the past, he does a good job of breaking the pocket, getting out, looking for a guy downfield, and making a good throw.
“You’re always conscious of that as a defensive lineman, to be under control, understand where he is, and not let him go where he wants to go.”
In addition to sharing a strong desire to play in Super Bowl XLIX, Ninkovich and Luck have another thing in common. Both have full, healthy beards, prompting Ninkovich to be asked which beard is better.
“I think mine’s a little higher, and I’ve had it since training camp, so it’s a little bit longer, I’d say,” Ninkovich said.
Stork sits out
Rookie center Bryan Stork, who left Saturday’s game with a knee injury and did not return, was the only player who missed Wednesday’s full-pads practice, which was held on the game field inside Gillette Stadium. Cornerback Brandon Browner, who also suffered a knee injury in the game but was able to play, was one of four Patriots who were limited in practice. The others were Dont’a Hightower (shoulder), Brandon LaFell (shoulder/toe), and Chris Jones, like Browner a new addition to the injury report. Jones was listed with an elbow injury. Two players who had been on the injury report last week — Julian Edelman (concussion) and Gray (ankle) — were removed. Hightower, after aggravating a shoulder injury, is back on the report . . . The Colts had 85 plays of at least 20 yards this season, most in the NFL. Only three came in their Week 11 loss to the Patriots, though: a 46-yard pass from Luck to Reggie Wayne, a 45-yarder to Coby Fleener, and a 21-yarder to Trent Richardson . . . Before the Patriots practiced, stadium personnel painted the AFC Championship logo on the game field.