Brandon LaFell was a major part in the offense this season, giving Tom Brady another player to throw to (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Brandon LaFell was a major part in the offense this season, giving Tom Brady another player to throw to (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — When it comes to the Patriots’ receiving core, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are the first to come to mind, but when it comes to the Patriots’ offense clicking this season the player who deserves almost even more credit is Brandon LaFell.

LaFell was signed as a free agent this past offseason and had arguably the biggest catch of the season — his game-winning, 18-yard touchdown grab in the divisional round win over the Ravens.

“Brandon has been a great addition to our offense,” wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea said on Wednesday. “He’s come in and worked very hard. He’s demonstrated toughness. He’s been productive with the ball in his hands. I thin he’s a true team football player and he does things away from the play when he’s not catching the ball — for example blocking. That demonstrates team football.

“We have been very happy with him and I think the biggest thing with him that has been impressive is on a daily basis his work ethic. He truly comes to practice and works very hard and I think that is what has allowed him to get better as the year has gone on.”

The former Carolina Panther finished the regular season catching 74 passes for 953 yards along with seven touchdowns. He was able to be the dependable third target for Tom Brady that he has been lacking for years, as even though Brady has had star wideouts in Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Edelman and Gronkowski, he hasn’t had a good third option in many years.

“I think it is very important,” O’Shea said of having a third option for Brady. “The more options you can have within the offense obviously the better we are going to be overall. [LaFell] definitely has made us have a lot of confidence in him this year the way he’s played. He works hard, he does a good job of communicating with the quarter.”

Just how good was LaFell’s season? His 953 receiving yards were the most by a Patriots wide receiver not named Edelman, Gronkowski, Welker or Moss since Deion Branch in 2005. Of his 74 receptions, 50 0f them went for first downs (68 percent) and he led all Patriots receivers with 39 receptions on first down, 25 of which went for a first down. That means 64 percent of those catches moved the chains, which is even slightly ahead of Gronkowski (64 percent).

It didn’t click right away, as LaFell self-admittedly said it took awhile for him to grasp the playbook, even though he was signed on March 15. He wasn’t even targeted in the first two games of the season.

“I probably didn’t learn the full playbook probably until like Week 2,” said LaFell. “We were putting in so much stuff and I was in Carolina for four years and my last two years I didn’t even have to look at the playbook because I knew everything, but coming here I had to relook at the playbook everyday and ask guys like Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson — I had to look at that playbook everyday because there was so much. It wasn’t like I had time to just sit back and look at the playbook and watch guys because they were throwing me in there. I had to learn at the fly.”

Things really started to click in Week 4, as even though the Patriots were blown out 41-17 in Kansas City, LaFell played extended time for the first time in a Patriots uniform and finished the game with six receptions for 119 yards and two touchdowns.

“Personally, I think it was,” said LaFell of the Kansas City game being a breakout game. “That was a game where coach started rotating me with the other receivers with [Aaron] Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. They started rotating us and he just left he me out there for the whole game. I got a bunch of snaps and more targets than I had in the first three or four games total and I made a lot more plays.”

There have been many receivers that have came to New England and just haven’t been able to learn the Patriots’ system and demands of a Brady led offense. Some of those guys include Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco and Donald Hayes.

LaFell said the hardest part is being able to pick up with the offense is the no huddle, something Brady likes to go to a lot as a way to jump start the offense.

“The toughest part of this offense to learn I would probably say is the no huddle,” said LaFell. “When you do no huddle you usually have to know one spot, but when Tom [Brady] flips the formation you might go to the Z to the X to the F so you have to know the whole playbook not just one spot.”

The fifth-year receiver has been called one of the “toughest” players on the team by both Brady and Bill Belichick this season. O’Shea elaborated with what makes LaFell so tough.

“He demonstrates his toughness by his physical play as a blocker,” said O’Shea. “As a route runner he demonstrates toughness. I think he’s done a great job with the run after the catch. He demonstrates toughness to run through tackles and I think most importantly he’s tough minded. He deals with adversity. He knows how to deal with adverse circumstances that have come our way, which there will always be regardless of what team we are on. That is what makes him tough in my opinion.”

With the Patriots now turning their attention on the Seahawks for Super Bowl XLIX, competing for a championship is the main reason why LaFell decided to sign with New England.

‘€œIt definitely was,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere where winning was already instilled. I wanted to continue to win. My last year in Carolina, we won a lot of games and I love that feeling. I wanted to either stay in Carolina where I knew we would win again or go somewhere where I could win just as much. Coming here, you look at their resume, since 2000, they probably have won the most games in the NFL. Six Super Bowl appearances. I wanted to go somewhere where I could have the possibility to pursue those.’€

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable


A video posted by KiD-RiD (@stevanridley) on

CHANDLER, Ariz. — The Patriots have managed to make it all the way to Super Bowl XLIX without their lead back in Stevan Ridley. But even though the LSU product — who went down with a season-ending knee injury in October — hasn’t been in the lineup, his teammates say he’s been a presence around the franchise as he continues his rehab. (He posted the above video on Instagram on Tuesday.)

“We know he’s with us. We know he’s supporting us all the time. A lot of things we do are in honor of him,” said teammate Shane Vereen. “We do things for each other, and I think that’s the bottom line. We do things for each other, whether they’re still with us or watching from a distance.”

“His rehab has been a little different, so he hasn’t been around as much as Jerod [Mayo],” added Vereen. “But when he is around, he’s giving us advice. He’s cheering us on. Telling us what he sees. Mainly, the biggest thing for him to us is encouragement. He reminds us every Sunday why we’re out there and what we’re fighting for and that he’s there with us.”

Blog Author: 
Christopher Price

Le Garrette Blount and the rest of the Patriots running backs are on the verge of history. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)CHANDLER, Ariz. — Ivan Fears was surprised.

Ken Norton

Seahawks LB coach Ken Norton Jr.

The Seahawks’ championship pedigree extends well beyond the holdovers from last year’s title winners.

When it comes to repeating as a champ, the team’s coaching staff features the best that ever was on the subject ‘€“ linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.

Norton is the only player in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls. He did so with the Cowboys (Super Bowls 27 and 28) and 49ers (SB 29). Now that Seattle is trying to build what is widely considered the next potential NFL dynasty, Norton has a thing or two to say.

“I’ve got a little experience,” he said. “There’s not many that have gone back to back, and there’s only one guy in history that’s gone three times in a row, so I have a little bit of knowledge where that’s concerned. You’re talking to him.”

Norton was asked what lessons he learned from his Dallas and San Francisco days about building a consistent winner.

“It’s clear to everybody,” he said. “You have to be really strong at the top with your leadership, from the head coach to the GM to the owner. They have to be set in their ways to do things right. You have to evaluate and get really good players in here, and once they get really good, how do you keep the core players together? When you have a good team, people start picking from them, and it’s hard to afford them.

“You have to figure out which of your core players are going to keep your attitude and competitiveness going. And then it’s a matter of playing together. It’s a matter of understanding what our goals are and what are we here for. What’s our purpose? Are we here just to win games, or are we coming to work with a purpose every day, day in and day out?”

His Dallas and San Francisco experiences were very different.

“In our early Dallas days, we were similar to the Seahawks,” he said. “We were young and just coming together. We built a team from losing to winning through the draft and the Herschel Walker trade and all that stuff. And then in San Francisco, we were a veteran team. That team came together through free agency. They were established players who put it all together.”

If there’s one thing Norton doesn’t like, it’s the word “dynasty.”

“Those are your words,” he said. “Our words are coaching them up, preparing them. We’re trying to keep everybody focused and competitive. We had some big challenges last year with Peyton Manning, and extremely similar challenge this year with Tom Brady and what they’ve been able to accomplish in New England. They’ve got a very accomplished quarterback and coach, and we’re excited for the challenge.”

Blog Author: 
John Tomase
Bill Belichick speaks Wednesday at Patriots Super Bowl headquarters. (Mike Petraglia/

Bill Belichick speaks Wednesday at Patriots Super Bowl headquarters. (Mike Petraglia/

CHANDLER, Ariz. — If you think Bill Belichick is cold as ice, Vince Wilfork would like to change your mind.

Wilfork has known Belichick for 12 years. The Patriots coach he knows now is a little different from the taskmaster that drafted him in 2004 out of Miami.

“Yeah, I’€™ve seen the difference in Bill in the 11 years that I have been here and I tell him he is getting soft,” Wilfork said Wednesday. “But this is a different era of football now with how the team is shaped up and how a lot of guys are younger guys. You don’€™t really have that veteran team that he used to have. When I first came in the league, he had a veteran team that didn’€™t take much to get those guys going.”

Those veterans included defensive players like Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Ty Law. What’s impressed Wilfork has been the ability of Belichick to roll with the flow and adapt to a very different NFL from the league Wilfork entered in 2004. Wilfork says Belichick realized he needed to rely more on younger players due to the economics of the league.

“But if I have to say anything, I think over the years he got a soft heart,” Wilfork said. “But he’€™s more understanding now. I think when you get so used to having a certain quality of players and it changes, it’€™s hard for you to adapt to change. And I think Bill had to do a good job of that ever since I’€™ve been in the league because we’€™ve changed so much. We were a veteran team, it was a younger team, at one point we were the youngest team in the league.

“So I think he had to try to find the identity in what works for that team. And I think he’€™s done a great job over the years of doing that. But at the end of the day, he is still Bill. He coaches the same way. He demands everything the same way. But I think he’€™s got a little soft heart now. Over time, he got a little softer though.”

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Bill Belichick may have to motivate some players but that’s never been an issue with Rob Gronkowski.

The Patriots coach Wednesday gave the tight end props for the way he’s battled back from numerous injuries that slowed him between 2011 and 2013. The sprained ankle hindered his 2011 Super Bowl against the Giants. His broken forearm kept him out of the 2012 AFC championship and a torn ACL forced him to miss the 2013 AFC title game.

Belichick hinted Wednesday that Gronk’s enthusiasm and love of the game has been one of the factors in helping him get back on the field to such a high level.

“Rob always has a great energy and enthusiasm for the game, is always ready to go, loves to practice, loves to work, works hard in the weight room, competes well all the time,” Belichick said. “You never really have to get on Rob and go, ‘€œYou know, that wasn’€™t your best,’€ or that kind of thing. He’€™s always out there working hard. But I do think that being said, there’€™s maybe just a little extra level there, just like what you referred to. Coming back multiple times, he’€™s come back from various setbacks, and I think the fact that it’€™s gone well, that he continues to feel better and better each week.”

As Gronkowski pointed out Wednesday, there are those who underestimate his intensity for the game because he’s portrayed as a partier. But Belichick knows better. The coach said there’s not a harder worker on the team than No. 87.

“I think that certainly any time you either lose something or go without something for a little while, you have that appreciation when you’€™re able to regain it or even possibly move up to a little bit higher level, which I would say probably is the case with him. His hard work and diligence in all areas from training to technique to just a lot of little things.

“And I think that he and (tight ends) Coach (Brian) Daboll have a great relationship and Brian’€™s done a great job with all of our tight ends, but obviously Rob in particular. But there are a lot of little coaching points that ‘€“ things that Rob does better now than he did a year ago or two years ago. Part of that’€™s experience, part of that’€™s just a little bit better understanding and harder work on those little things ‘€“ they become big things. But, you know, in the end, the credit goes to Rob. He works hard, he competes well, he listens, we tell him to do something and he really tries hard to do it. I have tremendous respect for Rob and the way he goes about his job.”

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia
Chandler Jones is anxious and excited for his first Super Bowl. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Chandler Jones is anxious and excited for his first Super Bowl. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Chandler Jones is one of 36 players on the Patriots who will be playing in their first Super Bowl on Sunday against the Seahawks, and obviously there is a lot going through his mind.

“Those two words are very good words to use: excited and anxious,” Jones said. “But within that, ultimately there’€™s one task at hand, and it’€™s to win. The biggest thing is just being calm throughout it all, all the interviews, all the media, all the people asking for tickets. Just being calm and levelheaded through it all.”

Fortunately for Jones and the rest of the Patriots defense, they have a leader like Vince Wilfork who has played in three previous Super Bowls and has won one as well. He’s preparing the players as best he can for the game.

“He’€™s just like having another brother, actually,” said Jones. “Like I said in the previous interview, his leadership is one thing that stands out to me the most. You could talk to him about anything, about being on the field, off the field, personal life, anything. Having a guy like him in the locker room, words can’€™t explain.

“Everything he does. Even on the field or off the field, or like I said, even in the film room, there will be times where Vince will say, ‘€˜Hey, watch out,’€™ something a coach might not see, but Vince will,” he added. “He’€™s almost like having another coach in the film room.”

Jones played in 10 games this season, as he missed six with a hip injury, but finished with six sacks. One of his biggest tasks on Sunday will be controlling Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

“He’€™s a tremendous quarterback. He’€™s a really good quarterback,” said Jones. “I wouldn’€™t call him unusual. He came in the NFL with me, actually, in the same draft class. He was actually one of the lower quarterbacks picked. ESPN always talks about it. But I feel like if everyone just contains and if everyone is in their spot, that zone read offense, you catch your guy outside their spot, it could hurt you and could gash you.  If everyone’€™s in the right spot, then we should be fine.”

There’s no question the Patriots will have their hands full with Seattle, but they may be able to contain the Seahawks offense, especially the passing game as they only gained an average of 203.1 yards a game, which was 27th in the NFL.

“Everyone that’€™s in the NFL, most teams are good teams,” said Jones. “I feel like there also is going to be a good game on Sunday, but I feel like if everyone’€™s in their spot, we should be fine.”

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable

CHANDLER, Ariz. — At first, Bill Belichick hesitated in answering the question posed to him Wednesday morning about a new domestic abuse prevention ad that will air while his team is playing in Super Bowl XLIX Sunday.

But then he recognized an opportunity to pay respect to both the seriousness of the issue and the work owner Robert Kraft and his late wife Myra did in promoting a non-tolerance of domestic violence.

“I mean, the advertising and all that, that’€™s not really my field,” Belichick began. “But we certainly support the league’€™s efforts in that area. We’€™ve always done that with our team. That’€™s always been a priority. It’€™s been a priority for (owner) Mr. Kraft.”

Belichick’s relationship with Kraft didn’t begin in 2000 as head coach. He was the assistant head coach under Bill Parcells in 1996, the same season that the Patriots drafted Christian Peter in the fifth round from Nebraska.

Just a month before the draft, Peter was convicted for the eighth time in seven years, for grabbing a woman’s throat in a Nebraska bar. The pick set off a firestorm of criticism from the Boston media and Myra Kraft, wife of the Patriots owner. After learning more about Peter’s violent history, the Patriots relinquished the rights to Christian only a week after the draft. The team said that Peter’s behavior was “incompatible with our organization’s standards of acceptable conduct.”

Belichick recalled that decision and the impact it made on him.

“Going all the way back to 1996, the first year I was with the Patriots, we had an incident in the draft that’€™s well documented. So it’€™s always been that way for us, for our organization, and obviously we support everything in that area. But what the league decides to do relative to things like that, you know, it’€™s not really my pay grade.”

Blog Author: 
Mike Petraglia

NBC Sports NFL analyst Rodney Harrison stopped by Middays with MFB to talk about the state of the Patriots. To hear the interview, go to the MFB audio on demand page.

Harrison touched on the fact that the Patriots are one of the most hated, if not the most hated, team in the NFL, adding that the recent success of the franchise among other things are not conducive to drawing in many outside sympathizers.

“It’s just one of those things,” he said. “When you play for the Patriots, you’re the most hated team in the league because you’ve had success, because they don’t like the personality of Bill Belichick, because they don’t like the pretty boy Tom Brady. They don’t like guys like us that are prepared, that are smart, that go out there and take care of business. I heard other coaches and GMs coming out talking trash. we beat you because we out-prepared you, we’re smarter than you and we’re more physical than you.”

Harrison said that the back-to-back championships are probably what started turning people off of New England and that Belichick and the players didn’t really help the cause either.

“[Belichick] wasn’t really engaging, he was kind of moody and grumpy and that type of guy, and he kind of controlled the media, and they didn’t like that,” he said. “But also the players. We were hard-working guys, we were very humble, but yet we had an arrogance about us because we knew we were smart.

“We knew we were good, and people didn’t like that.”

But the fact that so many people hate the Patriots might actually be good for them, Harrison said, because it makes them form an “us against the world” mentality.

“It’s all part of it,” he said. “I think when you play for the Patriots, you automatically know from day one that you’re going to be on the most hated team. I think the players embrace that, it’s us against the world and you don’t really worry about the outside influences, and that’s what [Belichick] would always tell us. He says, “Hey guys, you worry about what people say inside this locker room, you don’t worry about the outside.’ “

Blog Author: 
Judy Cohen
Richard Sherman is ready to take on Tom Brady again in the Super Bowl. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Richard Sherman was teammates with Cameron Fleming at Stanford for one season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Aside from Brandon Browner and Alan Branch, who played with Richard Sherman in Seattle, no one on the Patriots knows the Seattle cornerback better than rookie offensive lineman Cameron Fleming.

Fleming red-shirted the year Sherman was still at Stanford so he spent a year around the team before Sherman was drafted by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft.

“I guess he was always like he is now,” said Fleming. “He’s a very entertaining person, I guess. Very confident.”

Sherman earned his undergraduate degree in communications at Stanford and returned for another season to get his Masters. The cornerback actually started at Stanford as a wide receiver before switching to the other side of the ball for his final two seasons.

His most memorable moment may have come after last year’s NFC championship game when he went off during an interview with Erin Andrews on the FOX broadcast. Fleming said that wasn’t a surprise to see.

“No, I mean he’s definitely a passionate player and when you catch someone right after the game in the heat of the moment things like that are going to coming out,” Fleming said. “I can’t say I am surprised.”

Even though Fleming is an offensive lineman, he can appreciate how good of a player Sherman is.

“From all reports he’s a very, very good corner,” said Fleming. “One of the best in the league obviously. He’s an All-Pro, Pro Bowler for a couple of years now. He’s definitely doing well.”

Blog Author: 
Ryan Hannable