FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick, and he says confidently that New England expected to be here — in the AFC Championship game, one victory shy of Super Bowl XLVIII.
And if he’s being honest, he would say it has been anything but easy.
“It’s been a long, tough road to get to this point,” Belichick said.
Might it get tougher? Quarterback Tom Brady was not at the portion of practice open to media on Wednesday because of illness. Belichick would not confirm the reason for his absence or whether Brady missed the entire session.
“The injury report will be available later today,” a stone-faced Belichick told a crowded media room at the team facility Wednesday just after 1 p.m. ET.
Brady is expected to be on the field Sunday for the 3 p.m. ET kickoff at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The same cannot be said of standouts from seasons past, including tight ends Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. All but Hernandez, who is incarcerated, are on season-ending injured reserve with injuries.
The Patriots, who used 11 undrafted players in the divisional playoffs against the Colts, are crediting Belichick and team chemistry for piling up wins despite injuries stacking up. New England had four players selected to the 2014 Pro Bowl, but Brady was also working with a new collection of wide receivers and — until late in the season — the kind of crowd-hushing featured back that helps contenders win games on the road.
Left guard Logan Mankins said blocking has greatly improved — a group effort that includes wide receivers getting bodies on defensive backs. Mankins is one of the most experienced hands on the offense.
“It comes down to discipline, communication — all those things together,” Mankins said.
The Patriots aren’t paying much mind to the 34-31 outcome in the first meeting, which turned on a muffed punt by former New England wide receiver Wes Welker. Because personnel has changed for both teams, Belichick said a much different game should be expected.
One of the major changes for the Patriots is the expanded use of running back LeGarrette Blount in the base offense. Brady said his presence helped the Patriots morph into the most physical team New England has had in years.
“LeGarrette has given us good football all year long; he’s been a solid player for us all the way through,” Belichick said. “Everybody has a lot of confidence in him. … He has run the ball well for us. He’s a hard guy to tackle.
“You get what you earn. Nothing has been given to him. He’s earned everything he’s gotten. That’s totally respected by everybody in the organization.”
No one will arm tackle Blount, Mankins said, but the entire offense will need to be on its game to beat the Broncos, the NFL’s top-scoring team — and one capable of rendering a rushing attack moot by building a big lead.
“We need to have a good week,” Belichick said. “We need to play our best football out there Sunday.”
Injuries also became an enemy of the Broncos this season, losing left tackle Ryan Clady and outside linebacker Von Miller, Denver’s top pass rusher. Top cornerback Chris Harris suffered a torn ACL in Sunday’s divisional playoff victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Harris’ injury opens a greater opportunity for Champ Bailey to grab a larger role in the base defense. Against New England’s many undersized — quick, shifty and explosive — wide receivers, Bailey isn’t likely to play in the slot because of nagging foot issues that limited him all season.
Belichick said Bailey is one of the players that makes the Broncos special because he can match up against almost anybody — from “little guys to tight ends.”
“He’s a good tackler — tough, very instinctive,” Belichick said. “Great player.”