Sports

PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK

Brandon King has a special mentor in Matthew Slater

Patriots gunner Brandon King (36) has been a fast learner on special teams, as evidenced by this forced fumble against the Bills in November.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File
Patriots gunner Brandon King (36) has been a fast learner on special teams, as evidenced by this forced fumble against the Bills in November.

FOXBOROUGH — Brandon King and Matthew Slater are in two very different places in life. One is an undrafted rookie, barely old enough to remember a bad Patriots team and about to wade into his first postseason as a pro. The other is a team captain with a wife and newborn son, readying for the playoffs for the seventh time in eight NFL seasons.

Their tying bind is their job — specifically, their role as gunners on the Patriots special teams. Officially, King is a defensive back and Slater a wide receiver. In reality, they don’t play those positions.

Watch any Patriots kickoff or punt from the last three months. It’s a safe bet King (No. 36) and Slater (No. 18) come screaming onto the screen right as the returner is about to corral the football. If he’s smart, he signals for a fair catch. If not, King and Slater introduce themselves.

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Slater has served in this role for years, and he’s good enough to be chosen for five straight Pro Bowls. King has been at it since being added to the 53-man roster in October.

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Slater has taken to mentoring King. That started not long after King signed as a free agent out of Auburn last spring, days after the NFL Draft and days before his 22d birthday.

“When I see guys who are probably going to be special team guys, I try to offer help to them,” Slater said. “The way he approaches his craft has been very rare for a young player.”

“Brandon has done a tremendous job of just buying in to what the coaches have asked him to do. He doesn’t say a whole lot, he just works hard. He’s really been a big weapon for us.”

Strong words from Slater, who has 17 special-teams tackles this season. King, who spent the first quarter of the season on the practice squad, isn’t far behind with 12.

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Slater (63.7 percent of special-teams snaps) and King (54.4 percent, while not playing three games) trail only Nate Ebner (75.1 percent) in that category.

Their vestigial positions carry some legitimacy. Slater lines up as a pass catcher every once in a while (two out of every 100 plays this season), though his lone career catch came in 2011.

King practices all over the field on defense — he played safety and defensive end at Auburn — and Bill Belichick praised his flexibility.

“He has the size to play some of the bigger positions and he has the speed to play some of the smaller positions,” Belichick said. “He’s an excellent matchup player in the kicking game, and he’s been productive for us all year both in the coverage phase and the return phase of the game. He’s been a real good addition to our unit.”

King said he learns from Slater every day — even unintentionally sometimes, just by watching.

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“He’s like another coach for me,” King said. “Anything I have, any questions, he’s going to give me the information fast, straight, honest, and to the point.

“I’m trying to be like a sponge and absorb everything I can from him, just learn.”

A week off

Most weeks during the season, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spend a few minutes on a conference call taking questions from the media.

Because of the Patriots’ first-round bye, McDaniels and Patricia did not have media obligations this week, and perhaps that was fortuitous for them, since they would have been asked about reports listing both of them as candidates for teams with head coaching openings.

The Cleveland Browns received permission from the Patriots to interview Patricia for their vacancy, and the Miami Dolphins reportedly have interest in both coordinators.

Any Patriots coach or executive can interview with another NFL team this week because of the bye. It’s a position the Patriots have been in before. They don’t view it as a distraction.

“There are things that go on throughout the course of the year that you periodically have to deal with one way or another,” said Bill Belichick said. “This is one of them.

“It’s certainly not unprecedented. There are a lot of other teams in the league that are going through the same thing. We’ve gone through it before, so we’ll just take it as it comes.

“We know what our goals are and what our focus is, and we’ll take these other things as they come through.”

McDaniels, who was the Broncos head coach in 2009-10, interviewed with the Browns during the Patriots’ playoff bye week two years ago, then removed himself from consideration. Patricia, who is in his fourth season as defensive coordinator with the Patriots, has never been an NFL head coach.

“We have an important game to get ready for here in a week and a half, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Belichick said. “So whatever anybody else is doing, we’ll abide by the rules that the league has set up for those situations. Those things are really out of our control.”

Bob Quinn, who has been with the Patriots for 16 years — the past four as director of pro scouting — has been given permission to interview with the Detroit Lions for their general manager position.

“Bob has done a good job, been with us for a long time, and has had a number of different responsibilities in the scouting department,” Belichick said. “He’s done a real solid job.”

Praise for Coughlin

Belichick and Tom Coughlin were colleagues for three seasons, and have been head coaching counterparts for the past 12, ever since Coughlin took over the Giants.

Now that Coughlin has decided to leave — the Giants, not necessarily coaching — Belichick expressed his appreciation for the man whose teams twice denied the Patriots Super Bowl victories.

“Unfortunately, a couple of his biggest wins came at our expense,” Belichick said. “But he deserves a lot of credit for all he’s accomplished in his career.”

Coughlin’s NFL career started in Philadelphia, but he joined the Giants as wide receivers coach in 1988, when Belichick was the team’s defensive coordinator. They won a Super Bowl together in the 1990 season, before both went elsewhere: Belichick to Cleveland to become the Browns head coach, and Coughlin to Boston College, where he coached the Eagles for three seasons and a 21-13-1 record.

After spending eight years as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars — two of Coughlin’s teams reached the AFC Championship game, losing to the Patriots on Jan. 12, 1997 — he returned to the Giants in 2004 as head coach, the title he held until Monday.

Belichick has taken the Patriots to six Super Bowls, winning four times. The two losses were against Coughlin and the Giants: In 2007, the Giants denied the Patriots a perfect season, and four years later the Giants won in the final minute, once again.

“We had a great relationship with the Giants when we were on the same staff, and had good relationships throughout our respective careers,” said Belichick. “There’s a lot for him to be proud of.”

No limp for Brady

Tom Brady, who took a hit on his right ankle during Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins and was noticeably limping afterward, strolled through the locker room Tuesday. He seemed to be moving fine, no limp evident . . . Linebacker Jonathan Freeny has missed three straight games with a hand injury, and still had a cast on when he met with reporters Tuesday. “I’m ready to get back out there and start running around a little bit,” said Freeny, who has started seven games this season and been credited with one sack. “I’m still in a cast, so I’ll know a little bit more later. As of right now, I’m just coming in and listening to the trainers and coaches, and seeing what they think the best game plan is for me.”

Timothy Healey can be reached at timothy.healey@globe.com. Michael Whitmer can be reached at mwhitmer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.