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Tara Sullivan

Perceived cracks in armor will turn into a chip on Patriots’ shoulder

Tom Brady always finds the necessary edge, as Steelers fans should know by now. Jim Davis/Globe staff/File 2017/Globe Staff

Tom Brady couldn’t have known how ironic his words would turn, couldn’t have predicted the way his description of the Patriots’ bye week attitude — “We’re still writing our story, and hopefully we write a good one” — would sound in the face of a wholly different kind of story written from outside the walls of Patriot Place.

The bye week is over now, and the Patriots will no doubt return to work backed by their coach’s dogged mantra, one to be used during regular and postseason alike: It’s on to Tennessee.

But just because a team isn’t talking about something doesn’t mean it isn’t thinking about it, and if we’ve learned anything about The Patriot Way across these decades of dominance, we know it includes a healthy dose of us-against-them fuel. The past few days of stories about dysfunction among the Big Three brain trust of coach Bill Belichick, Brady, and owner Robert Kraft might just be the foundation of the new chip on New England’s collective shoulder.

With a history of willingness, particularly by Brady, to use whatever motivational edge available to prove perceived doubters wrong, will this season’s drama write another championship ending? They tried to say he was done, over the hill before his 40th birthday. He won a Super Bowl in response. Then they said he was complicit in cheating, instructing improper deflation of the footballs. He won a Super Bowl in response.


Now it’s the ESPN report from Friday, detailing breakdowns in the coach-player-owner relationships that opened a weekend’s worth of unexpected headlines. The three men issued a joint statement of denial, and Kraft followed that up with more categorical denials of strife in an interview with MMQB, while Brady disputed the contentions as well during his regular Westwood One radio spot.

Brady had the most to dispute after being painted as a master manipulator with a thinning skin. But he already was turning the criticism toward a more useful aim, already channeling those slights of his past when he said, “In so many ways, I think adversity that our team has faced over the years only makes us stronger. I think for so long we’ve proven that we ignore the noise, we do our job, we speak for ourselves and we focus on what we need to do to help the team win.


“It would be very unfortunate if we let this opportunity get away from us.”

In other words: Say what you want, it only makes us madder. And better.

The playoff journey officially begins now, with the Patriots able to shift from in-house work on fundamentals and schemes to actual game-planning for the Titans, who advanced to Saturday night’s divisional game at Gillette Stadium by virtue of their upset win over the Chiefs and Jacksonville’s victory over Buffalo.

Pity the poor Titans, who needed their own comeback from a 21-3 halftime deficit (sound familiar Patriot fans?) to advance out of the wild-card game, who start a quarterback in Marcus Mariota making his first playoff foray, is a franchise that hadn’t been to the postseason since 2008, and has to go on the road again and take on the most experienced, most successful playoff team in the field.

Did someone really need to poke that bear? But that’s the aftermath now, with questions from the weekend sure to linger, altering the backdrop for another anticipated Super Bowl run, leaving the Patriots to be dissected despite not playing a game. The ESPN report was followed in every media corner, bolstered by previous Globe reporting of disagreement between Belichick and Brady over Brady’s personal trainer Alex Guerrero as well the many unanswered questions surrounding the oddly timed, one-sided trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garropolo.


Brady’s denials on Westwood One were strong: “We’ve worked together for 18 years. There’s no coach I’d rather play for and I’ve loved my experience here. I certainly couldn’t be the player I am today without playing for such a great coach. That obviously doesn’t sell many newspapers, but to me I’ve had such gratitude toward my time here and I’ve loved my experience. We’ve had a great season thus far and hopefully we can write a great ending.”

He also said, “along with winning and great success comes a lot of things,” and portrayed the negative coverage as a byproduct of that success. “It forces people to be creative with what they talk about and the things that they write and the things that they may speculate on,” he told host Jim Gray. “My relationships with everybody that I deal with I feel are so positive. To think anything differently of that is complete nonsense. I love the fact where we’re at as a team. I want my focus and energy to be where it needs to be, which is on the biggest game of the year.”


The players will surely try to do that now, to push the narrative included in that official statement, wherein Kraft, Belichick, and Brady insisted, “We look forward to the enormous challenge of competing in the postseason and the opportunity to work together in the future, just as we have for the past 18 years. It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united.”

But just because they aren’t talking about something doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it, and being motivated to prove doubters is wrong is most definitely a part of Patriot Way.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.