Win or lose, Philadelphia and New England don't play another game for six months following Super Bowl XXXIX. And with the Eagles playing in their first title game since the 1980 season, they're willing to go to great lengths to give themselves the best shot to upset the Patriots.
That includes possibly using running back Brian Westbrook to return punts. Westbrook led the NFC with a 15.3-yard punt return average last season, and returned two for touchdowns. But at just 5-feet-10 and 205 pounds and a history of nagging injuries, Westbrook's special teams duties were cut this season as he took on a much larger roll with the offense.
With two weeks to rest following a busy NFC Championship Game performance in which he touched the ball 21 times, Westbrook might be fresh enough to be used on punt returns for the Eagles' biggest game in 14 years.
"There's been a good chance of that all year," Eagles special teams coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He's in the mix. He's one of our options. But he touched the ball a lot last week. He's carrying the ball a ton both as a receiver and a running back. So you have to be smart about how you handle the touches."
If Westbrook doesn't assume the punt returning role, rookie Dexter Wynn will continue to handle those duties. He averaged 10.8 yards per return during the season.
NOTES AND QUOTES
The Patriots were coming off a difficult Monday night loss to Miami in Week 15 after blowing an 11-point lead in the final minutes. It was only their second loss of the season, but the Dolphins had exposed their weakness in the secondary. New England had yet to clinch a playoff bye and was headed to New York on a short week for a huge division road game against the Jets. The Patriots had to travel Christmas Day after cutting their preparation short just a bit to allow for some family time. Despite the Pats' 12-2 record, there were questions as the postseason approached.
But that's when New England pulled together and played arguably its best game of the season, downing the Jets on the road, 23-7, in a dominant effort. They didn't look back, carrying the momentum of that superb win into the playoffs where they once against earned the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
"We had already won the division at that point, but that would give us a first round bye and that was something that we all had targeted," coach Bill Belichick said, noting the importance of that Dec. 26 win. "The Jets were our biggest division rival this year and they played a very competitive game against us earlier and now we're going down to their place and they had just come off a huge win against Seattle and we knew it was going to be a tough game down there.
"It was the holidays and we were traveling on a tight schedule at the end of the week. It was tough coming back from Miami and getting them going down there against the Jets, against a good football team at home that had won a big game. So I thought the players really stepped up and played an outstanding game there and I thought they played well against the Colts last week. I had confidence in our team because they had played two of the best games in two of the biggest times that we needed them. I still feel that way."
But there are none bigger than the one upcoming. But with the way the Patriots have performed in dispatching of the league's most prolific offense, Indianapolis, and the league's stingiest defense, Pittsburgh, their confidence is at an all-time high as they prepare to play the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. That preparation began Thursday as the players returned from a three-day hiatus to begin their work on the Eagles.
Many of the Patriots players played in last year's Super Bowl and several also played in the 2001 title game. That experience should help them handle the pregame hype and hysteria involved with the Super Bowl experience. It's the media circus, the fans hanging around the team hotel, the family and friends on hand and the extended halftime that all can distract an unsuspecting club. For whatever it's worth, New England has the advantage of having been through it recently.
"I think experience is always helpful," Belichick said. "It's always good to have been through something. At least you know what you are dealing with. But then it always comes down to how you handle the situation again and hopefully those experiences can be positive and guys can learn how to manage their time and make decisions and, again, do everything possible to get their performance at its absolute top level at kickoff, and that's what it is all about.
"So, minimizing the distraction, handling all the tickets, family, whatever requests that are out there is part of the week. But just because you have experience doing it, if you don't do it right, it doesn't mean it is going to happen. So, you have to make it right every time."
Belichick also doesn't believe that it matters one bit come kickoff. "The experience isn't a big deal (in the game). Whatever team plays better will win," Belichick said.
Roman Phifer, who will play in his third Super Bowl, doesn't think the experience of being in the Super Bowl matters much on game day, but rather during the week leading up the game. "It's not an advantage," he said, "but it helps to know how to handle some things and get things taken care of early in the week."
- QB Tom Brady downplayed the 103-degree fever he reportedly had the Saturday
night before the AFC Championship Game. Asked about the story that appeared
in Sports Illustrated saying he was in bed with an IV, Brady said, "A
lot of people weren't feeling well last weekend. We had something go through
the locker room. It's the playoffs and you play. It's not like I needed my
last rites read to me." Brady performed well in the game, completing
14-of-21 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Brady also is reportedly
suing General Motors Cadillac division for using his name and picture in ads
that appeared in the Boston Globe in January and February of last year.
- RT Brandon Gorin stepped in for an injured Tom Ashworth in the Patriots'
Week 8 loss at Pittsburgh. Since he stepped in, the same five guys have started
up front in every game and that group, along with the tight ends and running
backs, allowed only 11 sacks over the last nine games while the running game
produced 1,370 yards. In the two postseason games this far, the line allowed
five sacks while the Patriots rushed for 336 yards. Gorin believes he has
steadily improved, but looks at every week as its own entity and as an opportunity.
"Every week you get more experience and more comfortable," he said.
"That doesn't necessarily get the job done though. But this is another
week of preparation and another week to try to get better."
- G Joe Andruzzi signed with the Patriots as a street free agent in 2000 and
was on injured reserve before that 5-11 season ended. He started all 16 games
in 2001 and the Patriots win the Super Bowl. He landed on injured reserve
again in 2002 when the Patriots missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record. He
started all 16 games in 2003 and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. He also
started 16 games in 2004. Call that the Andruzzi factor.
- LB Tedy Bruschi doesn't want to hear the dynasty talk regarding the Patriots.
He referenced the Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers of the 1980s and the Cowboys
of the 1990s but wouldn't touch the possibility that his team might be in
that group if it wins another championship. "Here I am. I am a member
of the Patriots and I am talking about those teams. That is because it is
in the past. I won't talk about that when it comes to my team. I'll let some
team in the next decade talk about us, but I won't talk about that."
- S Eugene Wilson, who played in the Super Bowl as a rookie last season, said he thinks conditioning is the biggest issue for first time Super Bowl performers. "The game is long. The pregame is long. The first couple of series I was gassed. The coaches told us but you don't realize it until you get there. The pace of the game steps up a little bit in the Super Bowl. I was fine at the end. It was at the beginning. It might be adrenaline and it seems like the speed of the game picks up."
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