FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Patriots starting left guard Joe Thuney is on the cusp of making history.
When the 2016 third-round draft choice out of NC State lines up for the first offensive snap against the Los Angeles Rams, he will become the first player to start in three Super Bowls in the first three seasons of his career, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.
“It wasn’t just me," he said. "A lot of people helped me in the past three years, and then before that, with the draft and everything. It’s a big team effort. I have a really good support system. A really good family. It’s been a great organization to be a part of, with great coaches and teammates.
“It’s pretty crazy. You don’t really think about that stuff, and then you look back on it, and it’s kind of there. I just want to prepare the best I can, and perform the best I can, and that’s kind of the major thing I’m focused on.”
Thuney, 26, has been an iron man for the Patriots since he was selected No. 78 overall, a pick that came as a result of the trade that sent defensive end Chandler Jones to Arizona. Thuney has started every game of his career, has played every snap this season and has played 99.7 percent of New England's offensive snaps during his pro career.
This season, Thuney received credit from offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for helping ease the transition at left tackle, where Trent Brown has filled the void created by Nate Solder’s free-agent departure. And Thuney will be one of the key players to watch in Super Bowl LIII, as he projects to line up across from defensive tackle Aaron Donald (who has 20.5 sacks this season).
“Obviously he’s up for MVP consideration, which for a defender is very rare to be in that conversation,” Thuney said. “He is an elite player, with a combination of extraordinary speed and strength, and a very intelligent player. You can see teams trying to stop him, but he’s still making plays.”
After Thuney attempts to answer that significant challenge, he plans to give himself a different test in the offseason. He’s been studying for a master’s in business administration in recent years. Also, he's already fluent in Spanish, and he has been learning German in hopes of adding a third language to his repertoire.
2. Did You Know (via ESPN’s Stats & Information): Including the playoffs, the Rams and Patriots have had their top offensive lines intact for the longest time of any two teams this season. The Rams’ top line of left tackle Andrew Whitworth, left guard Rodger Saffold, center John Sullivan, right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Havenstein ranks first in most snaps (1,098), yards gained (7,118) and touchdowns (56) when on the field together. The Patriots’ line of left tackle Brown, left guard Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon is second behind the Rams in all three categories.
3. The Patriots spent all week practicing inside the Empower Fieldhouse, which stood out because of Bill Belichick’s long-standing approach that the club works outside in almost any weather conditions. Last year, even though Super Bowl LII was being played inside, Belichick had the team practice in the elements twice in New England in the days before they departed for Minnesota.
So, what changed this year?
My sense is two things: Upgrades to the indoor facility, with softer turf and more space to conduct individual drills along the sides of the field, make it a better option than it was before. And the team’s regular practice field has accrued considerable wear and tear.
Safety Patrick Chung said one of the best facets of the upgrade to the indoor facility is that there is no longer concrete circling the field. That area has been replaced with turf. “I love that it’s all filled, so you’re not running into concrete and a track. It’s safer,” he said.
4. Brian Flores’ body of work, and his strong interviewing skills, probably would have been enough to land him the Miami Dolphins head-coaching job anyway. But it never hurts to have those in the coaching fraternity support your candidacy, and I’m told that Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone was among those who did that behind the scenes for Flores. Marrone has apparently been a longtime fan of Flores and has attempted to hire him in the past.
5. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Patriots wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea, who has been in that position for each of the last 10 years, is a front-runner to join Flores as his offensive coordinator. O’Shea handled play-calling duties for the Patriots in the fourth preseason game in recent years, which reflected his standing as the emergency option if something happened that led to Josh McDaniels being unavailable on game day. O’Shea is also responsible for the team’s red-zone offense. Though O’Shea’s departure would leave a notable void on the offensive staff, here is some good news for the team: The expectation is that invaluable offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will return in 2019. Scarnecchia, 70, is on the cusp of finishing his third season after returning from a two-year retirement and plans to keep working in '19, barring an unexpected change during the year.
6. When the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, one of the signature moments came in the pregame when players were introduced as a team. I see similarities between that club and the current squad, especially when considering last Sunday’s AFC Championship Game: Calling on No. 4 cornerback Jonathan Jones as a centerpiece of coverage plans against Tyreek Hill, and having No. 3 running back Rex Burkhead step in for the final two drives when Sony Michel appeared to be getting his leg rubbed out on the sideline, was the definition of relying on every player on the roster. Things like that explain why tight end Rob Gronkowski said the Chiefs victory was probably the best team win he’s ever been a part of.
7. In part because he keeps a low profile, veteran linebacker John Simon’s steady contributions to the Patriots have flown a bit under the radar. Simon signed a one-year, $800,000 deal in late September after rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley landed on IR, and it is notable that the two games in which Simon played the most on defense were playoff wins over the Chargers (40) and Chiefs (31). That reflects the trust he's earned from the coaching staff. At 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, Simon is an outside linebacker/defensive end in the mold of Rob Ninkovich. "He’s brought a toughness. He’s been a force on the edge, turning the ball back inside for the 10 other guys,” safety Duron Harmon said. “He’s just been really, really good for us. He doesn’t say much, but his play does a lot of the talking.”
8. A reminder that underneath the helmets and facemasks are men who are experiencing many of life’s most meaningful moments came last week when the wives of Simon and offensive lineman James Ferentz delivered babies within a span of a few days of each other. Meanwhile, linebacker Elandon Roberts was hand-delivering some invitations to his April wedding, saying how nice it will be to have some of his teammates on hand to celebrate.
9. The Patriots lost 10 opening tosses this season, meaning they only won six. That was something that players noted last Sunday when special teams captain Matthew Slater successfully called “heads,” allowing the Patriots to take the ball at the start of overtime. The message was that though Slater hadn’t been winning the majority of tosses, he got the one that counted most. As for why he always calls heads? Slater said that is something he learned from his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater. “Anyone who knows my family knows faith is important to us, and said ‘God’s the head of my life, so I call heads.’ I’ve just kind of embraced it,” Slater said.
10. What can you expect from Patriots media coverage this week at Super Bowl LIII? Here is a quick rundown:
Sunday: 4:25 p.m. – Arrival at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
Monday: 9 p.m. – Opening Night festivities at State Farm Arena
Tuesday: 12:40 p.m. – Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and nine other players address media (team hotel)
Wednesday: 4 p.m. – Bill Belichick, assistant coaches and all players available (team hotel)
Thursday: 4 p.m. – Bill Belichick, assistant coaches and all players available (team hotel)
Meanwhile, commissioner Roger Goodell’s annual “state of the NFL” news conference is scheduled for Wednesday at 1 p.m.