Pats eye top seed vs. Jets in season finale

  • Head coach Bill Belichick (center) and the New England Patriots will look to lock up the top seed in the AFC and home field advantage for the playoffs on Sunday when they host the Jets in the season finale. ap file photo

  • File- This Dec. 24, 2017, file photo shows New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles reacting during the second half of an NFL football game in East Rutherford, N.J. Bowles said he isn’t worried about having to find ways to motivate his team this week, even with its postseason prospects gone. “We've got some prideful guys and we fight and we understand where we are but that doesn't mean we don't try to go out and win every ball game and this week will be no different for us,” he said. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File) Bill Kostroun

AP Sports Writer
Friday, December 29, 2017

FOXBOROUGH — Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long said he feels he isn’t able to ascertain the identity of his team until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

After stumbling out of the gate to begin the season, his team has been among the NFL’s most resilient groups in the second half.

Now, after a huge road win in Week 15 at Pittsburgh, New England (12-3) finds itself in an enviable position heading into Sunday’s finale against the Jets (5-10).

With a win or Steelers loss, the Patriots clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

“Always a tough game playing against the Jets, no matter when it is,” safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty said.

Belichick said there was nothing brought up about the No. 1 seed this week. McCourty said it wouldn’t have affected their preparation either way.

“Whatever comes with it, comes with it,” McCourty said. “I think, for us, the biggest thing is playing well. It’s that time of the year where you don’t want to go out there and just not be prepared, not go and play a good game.”

A New England win would also mark another milestone in Belichick’s career.

With 249 career victories, he could tie Tom Landry (250) for third all-time among head coaches. Don Shula is first with 328 wins, followed by George Halas (318).

Jets coach Todd Bowles said he isn’t worried about having to find ways to motivate his team this week, even with its postseason prospects long gone.

“We’ve got some prideful guys and we fight and we understand where we are, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to go out and win every ballgame, and this week will be no different for us,” he said.

Here are some other things to watch for in Sunday’s regular-season finale between the Jets and Patriots:

NEW ADDITION: The Patriots’ defense has battled injuries this season. It is now hoping to get a boost after acquiring former Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Harrison was released by Pittsburgh last week. He’s appeared in just five games this season, getting one sack.

But anything helps on a unit that has seen 14 players line up at either linebacker of defensive end.

KEEPING WARM: Early during his career Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he wore a scuba top underneath his jersey to keep warm in extremely cold weather games. It’s a tip that’s been utilized by other players around the league in recent seasons.

The game-time temperature for Foxborough is forecast to be 14 degrees Sunday. McCourty said that practicing outside in New England’s frosty elements should help them.

“I think us being in that environment kind of prepares you mentally and physically for when it comes Sunday,” he said. “Then you throw on top of it that it’s a game and not practice, so your adrenaline is running even more. Honestly, dealing with the cold is easier on game day than it is day to day in practice.”

HACK INTO GAME? Bryce Petty will make his third straight start for the Jets, but Bowles wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Christian Hackenberg making his regular-season debut.

“We’ll see,” Bowles said.

The second-year quarterback has been active for only four games, including the last two, since being taken in the second round out of Penn State. Hackenberg took some first-team snaps this week for the first time, indicating that Bowles might have some intentions of seeing what the young QB can do in the season finale.

MO’S LAST STAND: Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was inactive last Sunday against the Chargers a week after getting benched for being late for a team meeting. It’s possible he has played his last game with New York.

A first-round pick in 2011, Wilkerson is due to make $16.75 million next year — and the money would become fully guaranteed if he remains on the roster on the third day of the NFL’s new year in March. But it is also guaranteed against injury, so the Jets could be on the hook if Wilkerson gets hurt in the season finale.

Bowles was noncommittal on whether Wilkerson, who practiced this week and last, will suit up for the game.

“We’ll make that decision Sunday,” Bowles said.

BOOM-BOOM-POWELL: Jets running back Bilal Powell ran for 145 yards and a touchdown last Sunday against the Chargers, giving him a career-high 726 yards rushing and five TD runs.

He had runs of 57 and 41 yards to set a franchise single-season record with four rushes of 40 yards or more. Since the beginning of last season, Powell is tied with Chicago’s Jordan Howard for first in percentage of carries that gained 10 or more yards among running backs with at least 200 attempts.

Harrison done discussing Steelers’ exit

James Harrison is happy to be with the Patriots. He's done talking about his departure from the Steelers.

The 39-year-old linebacker would not say what factored into his decision to leave and would not address the critical comments by some former teammates since his release by Pittsburgh last week.

"I like to compete," he said Friday. "That's my main reason to go out and play the game."

Harrison said he didn't receive any other offers after he was released, and he's ready to contribute as needed with the Patriots. New England hosts the Jets on Sunday, needing a win or Steelers loss to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

"I'm going to go out there whenever they ask," Harrison said.

Earlier this week several Steelers voiced displeasure with the circumstances surrounding his exit, with a few noting the decision to leave was hastened by him and not the team.

"He erased himself; he erased his own legacy here. Let's be serious," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said Wednesday. "It's crazy. He wanted that. It wasn't like the team said, 'We want to let go of James Harrison.' James Harrison wanted that."

In a long post on Instagram before practice Friday, Harrison wrote: "If anybody thought I signed a two-year deal with a team in the NFL at age 39 to sit on the bench and collect a check and a participation trophy, they're mistaken. I didn't sign up to sit on the bench and be a cheerleader."

He was in no mood to discuss the matter further following practice Friday. Asked about the post or what his former teammates said, Harrison brushed it aside with a quick "Next question."

After about two minutes that included a few more attempts by reporters to ask about the Steelers, Harrison ended the interview.

"No Jets questions, huh? All right, see you later," he said.

In the Instagram post, Harrison said Pittsburgh coaches denied him reps during training camp despite him asking for them.

"I know what my body needs in order to be in shape to compete and I said so. But still zero reps," he wrote.

Whatever the reason, Harrison's playing time was cut dramatically this season.

The Steelers' all-time sack leader with 80 1/2 in 14 seasons in Pittsburgh, Harrison appeared in just five games and played a total of 38 snaps this season. He had only one sack.

Though he acknowledged it's been "a little bit" overwhelming trying to learn the Patriots' playbook in a handful of days, he's ready to play.

"I'm going to go out whenever Coach (Bill) Belichick puts me out there," Harrison said.

He already has at least one fan in New England.

"I told him I liked him much better in our color jerseys," quarterback Tom Brady said.