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Sunday Patriots Notes: The real football season starts now for New England

Related: Patriots vs. Titans preview: 3 matchups that could decide Sunday’s game

NFL: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The 12th Sunday of the NFL’s 2021 season has arrived, and there is a lot going on around the New England Patriots and the rest of the league. Let’s use this forum right here to go through some of the stories that have emerged over the last few days: time for our Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. New England’s ‘real’ season begins now. Bill Belichick has produced his fair share of memorable one-liners through his career. From “Do your job” to “No days off” his operational mantras lie at the very heart of the Patriots organization. There is another one, though, that players and fans have heard frequently through the years: football season starts after Thanksgiving.

“It’s something that I’ve heard for a long time,” said linebacker Dont’a Hightower earlier this week. “Obviously, it’s something that we believe here. It’s not that we don’t want to win those games early on in the year, obviously, but momentum builds, the process how everybody buys in, and you just want to play your best ball toward the end of the year.”

With only six games left on New England’s schedule, the team is gearing up for a late-season run. While it is entering the post-Thanksgiving period of the schedule at 7-4 and in a promising position in the AFC playoff race, the players are well aware that now is the time to shine.

It starts on Sunday against an 8-3 Tennessee Titans team currently in possession of the top spot in the AFC. One week later, on Monday Night Football, the Patriots will travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills in a pivotal AFC East battle.

If New England wants to make some noise later this year and into the postseason, winning those games — or at least going 1-1 — will be key.

“It’s a new season after Thanksgiving, and everything is a fresh start, so we have to go out there with a positive mindset,” said quarterback Mac Jones. “The goal is to just go 1-0 each week. This week that’s the goal, and you can’t focus on things in the past and things in the future. Just be where your feet are and just practice hard. Practice well, and then when you’re in the game, you feel prepared.”

2. The Titans are a mirror image of their head coach. Even though they have not played them since the 2019 season, the Patriots are quite familiar with the Titans thanks to their head coach: Mike Vrabel spent eight seasons with the organization, helping bring three Super Bowls to Foxborough and establishing the so-called Patriot Way.

Since 2018, Vrabel is trying to do the same in Tennessee. So far, he has had plenty of success: Vrabel has led the team to three straight winning seasons — he will likely make it 4-for-4 this year — as well as a 39-24 record so far. He also won an AFC South title last season, to give the Titans their first division crown in 13 years.

On top of it all, Vrabel and long-time Patriots executive Jon Robinson built a team that is a mirror image of the former linebacker, at least according to Dont’a Hightower.

“He’s built his team kind of how he played: tough, dependable, accountable, physical, smart. All those things,” the team captain said about Vrabel. “You can see how they play the game offensively and how they are disciplined on defense and how they’re able to cause turnovers and make plays off that. They’re situationally sound.”

3. Tennessee wants Mac Jones to play the check-down game. The Titans will be short-handed on both sides of the ball, but their defense still features considerable talent and the ability to disrupt New England’s attack. How are they going to do that? According to safety Kevin Byard, the plan is to force rookie quarterback Mac Jones into a patient approach.

“As long as we keep the ball in front of us, he can dink and dunk it as much as he wants,” Byard said this week. “If they do get in the red zone we’ll be good. Like I said, he is playing at a high level, he’s doing exactly what they’re asking him to do. We’ll try to take away some of those options and some of those deep balls from him so he can keep checking down to running backs and stuff like that.”

4. Mac Jones is getting ready for the cold. Growing up in Jacksonville and playing football at the University of Alabama, Mac Jones has not had plenty of cold-weather experience so far. That will change sooner rather than later: Sunday’s game against the Titans will see temperatures in the low 40s or high 30s.

Obviously that is not the coldest it can get in Massachusetts around this time of the year, but it is a first taste of what could await the rookie QB come December or January.

So, how is Jones getting ready for the cold?

“I think just take each day day-by-day and try not to focus on it too much and just wear whatever you’re supposed to wear and take the advice from the older people that have played a lot in the cold and just trying to figure it out,” he said. “It’s just another challenge, but you just have to look at it positively, like as if it was raining or really windy or whatever the situation is. It’s football, and you’re going to have days where it’s cold and days where it’s windy, and days when it’s raining, so you have to be ready for all situations.”

One person helping Jones prepare for low temperatures is backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. A 13-year veteran, Hoyer — who scored his first career touchdown in a snowy 59-0 beatdown of the Titans — has seen his fair share of cold-weather days in Foxborough.

“Just asking Brian a lot of questions, really,” said Jones. “Just that, and then, you know, you can’t wear too much, but you also don’t want to wear too little, but at the end of the day, it’s just a mental thing, and you got to just battle through it and take each experience and see what you can do better. If you think you’re too cold, then put more on and vice versa.”

5. New England is giving its late-round rookies an extended look. When the Patriots took the practice fields for the first time this week, two members of their rookie class were present as well: fifth-round linebacker Cameron McGrone and sixth-round defensive back Joshuah Bledsoe, who were both placed on the non-football injury list ahead of the regular season.

McGrone was sent there after tearing his ACL last November. Bledsoe hurt his wrist at the Senior Bowl in February and like his teammate was unable to partake in practice until this week.

“They worked really hard,” head coach Bill Belichick said about them. “I know they were excited to be out there yesterday. It’s good to see them out there. Get them out there and see how it goes. ... They’ve done everything they can do. They’re both coming off injuries that just didn’t allow them to participate until this week.”

The Patriots now have three weeks to decide whether or not to activate McGrone and Bledsoe, and they will take their time. Not only will that allow them to properly assess the two youngsters and their development, it also makes sense from a roster management perspective: if any linebackers or defensive backs are lost to injury, and if they are ready to take the next step, New England might add them to its 53-man squad.

For the time being, however, returning to practice is an opportunity for McGrone and Bledsoe to see some extended practice action for the firs time in their NFL careers.

6. Kendrick Bourne is showing up as a ball-carrier. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne has looked very good in his first season with the Patriots. The free agency acquisition, who was brought aboard via a three-year, $15 million contract in March, currently leads the team with 562 receiving yards; he also is ranked second in both receptions (37) and receiving touchdowns (3).

Bourne’s impact extends beyond his receiving, though. The 26-year-old has also started to make an impact as a runner: over the last two weeks, he has carried the football four times for 50 yards. On the year, he has registered six carries for 78 yards.

“I think he has improved as a ball carrier,” Bill Belichick said about Bourne. “Some of our players have, which is good. If you can get the ball to the skill players and they can make yards on their own, that’s a great thing. It’s not all air yards. It can be run-after-catch, breaking a tackle or getting into open space to gain extra yardage and catch-and-run plays. Things like that. He’s done a good job of that, and I think he can continue to get better.”

Bourne has not received a hand-off prior to arriving in New England, getting zero opportunities during his four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, however, has taken advantage of his running abilities:

7. The Patriots are a team filled with underrated players. Earlier this month, four Patriots players were named to various NFL All-Underrated Teams: Matthew Judon and Adrian Phillips made a list curated by Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar, while Kendrick Bourne and Kyle Dugger found themselves on the team built by Bill Barnwell of ESPN.

All of them are deserving candidates, but they are not the only major contributors to the Patriots who might fly under the radar nationally — either due to their position or low profile.

One of the other players worth mentioning in this category is fullback Jakob Johnson, who has played an integral part in New England’s running attack yet again. Johnson might be one of the best fullbacks in football, which is quite the achievement for the third-year man considering that he entered the league via the International Pathway Program.

Another under-the-radar player is left guard Ted Karras. After starting the year as a backup along the interior offensive line, he has since taken over the left guard spot; New England’s O-line has played on its highest level to date with the veteran in the lineup.

On defense, Davon Godchaux deserves a mention. The Patriots struggled mightily versus the run last year, but with the free agency addition manning the nose the unit has bounced back in impressive fashion. Godchaux does a lot of the dirty work, but he is massively important to New England’s defensive success this year.

Then, there is the perpetually underrated special teams. Matthew Slater, Justin Bethel, Cody Davis and Brandon King have all helped New England field the best kicking game unit in the league. All of them deserve an extra mention.

8. Rodney Harrison gets snubbed for Hall of Fame consideration. Earlier this week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its list of 26 semifinalists for its 2022 class. Five former Patriots have also made the cut: defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, running back Fred Taylor, and offseason members Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne.

Suspiciously absent from the list, however, is safety Rodney Harrison. One of the best defensive backs of his era, and a tone-setter for the early Patriots dynasty, Harrison was not named despite earning semifinalist status last year.

“Relative to those two players, Vince and Richard Seymour, I think that Rodney Harrison 100 percent belongs in the conversation,” said Bill Belichick this week. “I’ve coached safeties that have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame, not taking anything away from them, but certainly Rodney Harrison belongs in that conversation, and he certainly belongs in the conversation with other players that are already there.”

Harrison was originally acquired by the Patriots as an unrestricted free agent in 2003. The former San Diego Chargers fifth-round draft choice would go on to spend the final six seasons of his 15-year career in New England, where he was a cornerstone of a team that won the Super Bowl in both 2003 and 2004. A member of the Patriots’ Hall of Fame, 50th anniversary squad and Team of the 2000s, Harrison appeared in a combined 72 regular season and playoff games for the club.

“Since there’s no criteria for the Hall of Fame, it’s really hard to even have a conversation about it because it’s not based on anything”, added Belichick. “It’s your opinion of a great player, my opinion of a great player, somebody else’s opinion of a great player. I don’t know what that means. Is it how many years they played? Is it All-Pros they had? Is it how many championships they won? Is it individual stats? You can make it whatever you want to make it. If there’s no criteria, you can make a case for everybody.”