As Super Bowl week rolls on, NFL.com's reporters get you up to speed with the hottest news and notes about the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots as they get set to do battle in Houston, including:
» Why Kyle Shanahan's players think he's a genius.
But first, a change in mood for a grizzled coach ...
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HOUSTON -- Super Bowl Bill Belichick is not the same as Regular Season Bill Belichick, and that transformation trickles down to the rest of the team. Known for dour non-answers and a joylessness with the media all season, the Patriots arrived as sunny as the Houston weather for Super Bowl LI.
"I don't see it as work. This beats working," Belichick said when asked about maintaining his motivation over the years, especially in this typically long season.
Perhaps that's because it's early in the week and the repetitive questions haven't grown old yet. Perhaps it's because most of Belichick's work is done in terms of game-planning. But this is a Patriots team that uniformly sounds overjoyed to have reached the end of the NFL season. When your organization has a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality, reaching the final game can feel like a relief.
"This is fun. Work is fun," fullback James Develin said in the most Patriots Way possible. "We're playing a game. ... I'm happy and proud to be a part of this team. I'm glad that I'm still working."
Develin recounted life as a Philadelphia Eagles fan growing up, watching his now-teammate Tom Brady take on his hometown team after the 2004 season.
While the Patriots start printing up "Work is fun" T-shirts, the team still has four practices and plenty of media responsibilities to get through. This week is just getting started, and cornerback Logan Ryan, who made his first Super Bowl appearance with the Patriots two years ago in Super Bowl XLIX, said that experience in the Super Bowl helps him pace himself.
"My first Super Bowl Media Day, I was a deer in the headlights," Ryan said, before stressing how much he wanted to enjoy the week this time around.
That attitude has extended from Belichick to his players. While the team is artfully dodging most questions about politics and Deflategate, the Patriots have embraced answering questions both silly and strategic.
"Trying to make it as normal as possible," defensive end Chris Long said after emerging from eight years in NFL purgatory with the Rams. "I'll probably have that moment when I wake up and it's like, 'Oh ... it's the Super Bowl!' "
And now, the rest of Tuesday's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
Edelman praises Hogan. After watching fellow wideout Chris Hogan rip through the Steelers for 180 yards and two touchdowns off nine catches in the AFC title game, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman couldn't help but gush over the evolution of the former Bills role player.
"Chris, he's worked his tail off," Edelman said. "He's come in here, he's been a good leader. Great guy to have in the locker room. Works extremely hard. He's more talented than maybe what people have given him. He's very fast. Any time that you go in and put in the work that he has, results are going to be seen -- and that's what we're seeing."
Hailing from tiny Kent State, Edelman can appreciate Hogan's unlikely path from Monmouth University to Super Bowl LI.
"He's worked his way to get to where he's at. Around here, we like that kind of stuff," Edelman said. "Nothing is given to you. You have to go out and earn everything, and he's done that."
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Falcons practicing for Patriots' hands-on approach. The Falcons' coaches and players fully expect the Patriots' defenders to try and rough up Atlanta's pass catchers, including their running backs. In preparing for that, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn told me Tuesday that they will really emphasize to the Falcons' defenders that they get their hands on Atlanta's receivers at practice the next two days.
Safety Keanu Neal said that the Falcons' defenders and wide receivers battle in practice as it is. Knowing that they have to have everyone at their best for the Super Bowl, they'll make sure to grab, pull and not allow the receivers easy releases, to make them work on techniques that should carry over to the big game.
"Iron sharpens iron," Quinn said, sharing the mantra at the heart of the level of practice competition.
Assistant head coach Raheem Morris, a longtime defensive backs coach and former head coach who now coaches Atlanta's wide receivers, has worked all season teaching the receivers how defensive backs will try to play them. General manager Thomas Dimitroff said Morris' development tactics -- especially with regard to things like getting off of jams and which leverages defenders might try to use -- have helped the Falcons' deep and fast receiving corps.
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Stopping Falcons a tall task. The Patriots on Sunday will try to do what the Seahawksand Packers could not: slow down Atlanta's uber-explosive, Matt Ryan-led offense. Patriots safety Patrick Chung acknowledged that the Falcons are especially difficult to master because of their diverse flock of pass catchers.
"They got big ones, they got strong ones, they got quick ones, they got shifty ones, they got guys that can go up and get the ball ... they have a mixture of good receivers that can block for the running game -- they have a complete set of receivers."
Asked to name one of those weapons he's paid extra attention to during the lead-up to Sunday, Chung name-dropped Taylor Gabriel, saying: "I don't know why he's a sleeper."
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Miss a tackle, face the music. The Patriots gave up the fewest yards after the catch of any team in the NFL this season, a testament to the tackling in the secondary. That's a hidden reason the team made it to the Super Bowl, and it doesn't happen by accident.
"It's three things," Patrick Chung said. "It's not wanting to give up big plays. It's the will to tackle, and if you miss a tackle, they'll make fun of you in the meeting room."
Safety Duron Harmon says Bill Belichick preaches tackling constantly. Harmon says it's less about making splashy plays and more about not missing tackles. Improving that skill set is why he's playing more this season. This is the type of organizational philosophy that Belichick can implement from the top down, from draft day to the practice field.
Ryan says the team told him that his tackling skills were the foremost reason he was brought to New England in the first place.
"They don't put the bad tacklers on the field," Ryan said.
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Trufant pained to miss Super Bowl chance. While his teammates play Sunday for a Super Bowl title, Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant can only watch. On injured reserve following surgery to repair a pectoral injury in late November, Trufant said it's "killing" him not to be out there.
At one point, it seemed like he might be. He tried to rehab and play through the tear. The team called the injury "day-to-day." But it wasn't to be.
"For three weeks, I just rehabbed," Trufant told me Monday night. "Then it just wasn't progressing. At that point, it was a pain tolerance thing, but I was also risking other things. It was a hard decision, but I had to make it. We're here now. I wish maybe I could [have] played through it, but I'll have a long career. It just wasn't my time."
"Man, I couldn't be happier for my team," he said. "We've come a long way, playing with a lot of confidence, swagger, energy. Everybody is so close and believes in each other. But I just want to be out there."
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Freeman, Coleman a potent pairing. Atlanta's dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has been the league's most effective complementary backfield tandem this season, totaling 2,834 yards and 28 touchdowns in 18 games.
Right tackle Ryan Schraeder marvels at the combination of Freeman's elusiveness and Coleman's rare power-speed mix.
"Having those two guys back there is every lineman's dream," Schraeder said Tuesday. "Those guys are awesome. ... It's amazing, because when they run, their mentality is, they're so tough, you never see those guys get knocked around. As an offensive lineman, that pumps you up, because you know that any play, they can hit for a touchdown."
Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel noted that Freeman and Coleman open up the possibilities for the NFL's highest-scoring offense, because safeties have to worry about their big-play ability down the sidelines.
Bill Belichick has a history of Super Bowl success against high-octane offenses featuring multi-dimensional backs such as Thurman Thomas, Marshall Faulk and Brian Westbrook. This time around, he'll have to contend with a pair of versatile backs, each with his own unique challenges.
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"No," said Patrick Chung. "He's honestly the same. Calm and then passionate, intense. And then calm and then passionate, intense. He knows what he's doing."
Added Chung: "He's a beast. He just works so hard, man. He's almost 40 years old and he works hard and takes care of his body and he's still producing. He's very passionate about what he does -- that's Tom."
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Belichick, Brady pay tribute to their fathers. The last question to Patriots coach Bill Belichick at his first press conference Monday in Houston was about the impact his late father, Steve, had on him. The answer was lengthy and included many examples of how a young Bill tagged along with his father, a Navy coach. When Belichick concluded, he said: "Yeah. Long answer to a short question. I'm famous for those, right?" He smiled and exited stage right.
On Monday night, Tom Brady was asked, "Who is your hero?" After calling it "a great question," Brady said his father, then choked up. Asked about that emotion on Tuesday, Brady said: "It has been a challenging year for my family. Just for some personal reasons."
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Shanahan shining. Just how brilliant is Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, set to take over in San Francisco after Super Bowl LI?
"Honestly, I don't know how he does what he does," right tackle Ryan Schraeder said Tuesday. "I think he's a genius at what he does. The way he's able to create plays that play into our strengths, I think is amazing. It's special."
Taylor Gabriel, who played under Shanahan in Cleveland in 2014, was plucked by Atlanta from the waiver wire in early September. The big-play wideout insists nothing has changed in the past two years because that's just "how high-powered [Shanahan's] offense is."
"That's this offense," Gabriel explained. "He's going to take advantage of what your weakness is before you even know what your weakness is. I feel like that's why he's been so successful."
The Patriots haven't been tested by a play caller/quarterback tandem as effective as Shanahan and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan all season. It will be interesting to see if Gabriel's instincts are correct regarding Shanahan's ability to exploit a mysterious weakness in the league's top-ranked scoring defense.
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Jones' quiet style stands out. Opponents refer to his ability as "freakishly unbelievable." His own teammate, receiver Mohamed Sanu, called him an "alien." Julio Jones possesses size, speed and body control, everything a coach wants in a superstar receiver -- minus the attitude.
"In our two years together, there's not been a time where he's come to me and said, 'Hey, I need the ball' ..." coach Dan Quinn said. He quickly added, "It happened one time ... [but] it was more like, 'Please give me an opportunity.' "
Stories like that fall in line with what most media members see from Jones on a regular basis in Flowery Branch, Georgia.
"That's just me as a person, though. This is me," Jones told me. "I've never been a stat person, or anything like that. This just me ... I've been like this the whole time."
He speaks with confidence and yet is soft-spoken, a striking contrast to the way he uses his strength and skill set to dominate games. In fact, the only thing I've caught him boasting about is his ping-pong ranking in the locker room.
"I guess a guy in my situation or position would act a certain way, like I don't have to do this, I don't have to do that ... I just want to be known as a hard-working guy, come to work every day, just hard-working. That's it. That's what I stand for," Jones told me.
The understated manner with which conducts his business speaks volumes to his teammates.
"It's that kind of work ethic that he displays at practice that allows so much of the respect that he earns from teammates," Quinn said.
Quinn also noted that the team's defensive backs improve as a byproduct of Jones' attitude. "They wanted to try him, they wanted to check him, and for him, that was just the next guy up. So for him to have that mentality, that every day he's going to go, he wants to go battle. He doesn't take a day where he's like, 'Man, I'm really gonna turn it on today, and then chill for a day.' When he steps out there, he's ready, and I really admire that about him and [his] competitive style."
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Halftime hold-up. Patriots offensive lineman Nate Solder also talked about the potential annoyance of waiting through an extra-long halftime during the Super Bowl. While Lady Gaga does her thing, can it take a team out of its rhythm? "Usually, it's like we're sitting around looking at each other waiting for halftime to get over because we kind of hit all our main [coaching] points. ... Is it a frustration? No. Because there's nothing you can do about it. I think it's just something you deal with and you move on."
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Groovin', movin'. It is commonplace for teams to play music at practice over loudspeakers. Partly that is done to get players and coaches in a certain frame of mind, partly it is to replicate crowd noise. When selecting the music for Falcons' practices, Quinn said, he gets the beat bumping more than 100 times per minute to help with the tempo of practice.
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Don't forget the garlic! It's Super Bowl week, so of course someone asked Solder how to prepare the perfect batch of guacamole: "Well, you got to have fresh lime in there, cilantro, onions, maybe a little jalapeño for a little spice."
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Deion Jones happy to be the man in the middle. For Falcons rookie Mike linebacker Deion Jones, it's been a journey. His head coach, Dan Quinn, told the media on Tuesday that there was "a shift" for Jones approximately six games ago, when the second-round pick could fully handle communication responsibilities in the middle, with respect to his assignment and the guy next to him.
One result? Atlanta's defense playing faster, more physically and with more freedom.
"I just realized that the communication aspect of being a linebacker is where I could take my game to the next level ... during the bye week (Week 11), I looked at it and I pictured back to 'Spoon' (Sean Weatherspoon) and [Paul] Worrilow communicating during camp and preseason games, seeing them point out alerts, and wanted to bring that to my game," Jones said to me.
Jones is thrilled with the challenge of facing Tom Brady in the quarterback's historic seventh Super Bowl appearance, calling it a dream come true -- but he's also as focused as ever, given his responsibilities in the middle.
"I feel like I just have to make sure I'm locked in -- always locked in -- always staying level-headed ... make sure I can get everyone lined up, so we're able to play fast and physical -- and not getting too indulged in the moment."
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NFL Films cameras over the years have caught Brady yelling the phrase at the fans as he runs down the field during the pregame. But he also exclaimed it during a selfie video while riding a float in the Super Bowl parade two years ago. And just a few days ago, he had two final words for the crowd on hand for the team's sendoff rally in Foxborough: "Let's go."
"You know what, the 'let's go' has been amplified so much that you can use it as a noun, verb, adjective. I mean, it's a whole different beast now," said wide receiver Julian Edelman, who has used the phrase as a hashtag on Twitter, often when referencing his quarterback. "He's the 'let's go' king, for sure."
Brady's voice gets awfully high when he barks out his signature phrase.
"He's kind of like the Steve Perry of Journey of 'let's go.' He can get that high octave," Edelman said. "He's been blessed with some good vocal cords."
Teammates know the phrase is more than just a pregame ritual. It's a message meant for them.
"You'd better get it going. That's what you think when you hear it]," said running back [James White, who admits to watching Brady's sprints and fist-pumps from afar. "He's a fired-up guy and you want to win for a guy like that."
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Falcons unafraid of Super Bowl experience gap. The Atlanta Falcons have four players on their active roster with Super Bowl experience. The New England Patriots? Twenty-two. What does this mean to Falcons players? Frankly, not a whole lot.
Starting cornerback Jalen Collins said Tuesday, "we might not have all the experience that they have, but we worked just as hard to get here -- you can't win a game with experience. You gotta win it on the field."
And win they have. With a six-game winning streak heading into Sunday, there is no shortage of swagger and continuity.
Matt Ryan's blindside protector, Jake Matthews, told me, "first and foremost, we're confident -- we feel really good in what we do and how we prepare -- that's kind of what's gotten us here. So that's what we're gonna stick to and continue doing."
According to NFL Media research, seven of the last 10 Super Bowls have been taken by the team with the fewest players to have Super Bowl experience (excluding Super Bowl XLVII, when San Francisco and Baltimore each had four such players).
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Stability up front paying off for Pats' O. Last season, the Patriots were hit with injury after injury, and they were forced to use 13 different offensive-line combinations. This season, New England used only three combinations. They also used just eight different offensive linemen, a number that tied them for the second fewest in the NFL -- one behind their Super Bowl LI opponents, the league-leading Falcons (seven).
Tom Brady told me during the playoffs that last year was so challenging offensively because of all the shuffling throughout the offensive line. He added this season, "it's really been the strength of our offense" when referencing the health and play in front of him.
The five snap-count leaders on offense this season for the Patriots are all five starting offensive linemen, which was not nearly the case last year. All five starters have played more than 90 percent of the snaps this season. Running back James White told me that, because of the continuity up front, the line has a great feel as a group for how each back runs. And in turn, all the backs know how the unit moves and plays together as one in front of them.
"They've done an amazing job all season, and I don't think they get enough credit," White told me. "They've gone against the best pass rushers each and every week, against guys like Von Miller and Aaron Donald and guys like that. And they've been holding up all year in the run game and the passing game."
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Butler's quick rise.Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater called Malcolm Butler's rise from a tryout player to the Patriots' No. 1 cornerback in just three years, "one of the most unbelievable stories and journeys of the last 30 years in pro football."
Butler became a household name after making one of the biggest plays in Super Bowl history during the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIX. A game where he didn't play in either of the first or second quarters.
In the opening game of the 2015 season, Bill Belichick lined Butler across from Antonio Brown. And it appeared he wasn't thought of as a unproven guy who made just one big play on the game's biggest stage.
Belichick took a trip down memory lane during media availability on Tuesday and went back to when Butler arrived with the Patriots. It was the first time they ever saw him play in person.
"Just digging through some guys at the end of the draft," Belichick said. "When the draft was over, there was a number of players that were not signed that we still were interested in. We invited Malcolm up for rookie minicamp. We had probably 10 to 15 players like that. Players that finished their college careers but were not signed by a team. They were essentially there for a tryout, an extended tryout during that period. They were there along with our draft choices and players that we had signed during that draft. We also had a couple of veteran-type players that weren't with a team that fell under a certain category.
"I'd say once we saw Malcolm on the field after the first workout, it was pretty obvious that we felt like this was the type of kid that we want to work with. He was raw technique-wise and all of that. He had a good training camp and got a little bit of playing time during the year. We saw him first hand when we actually saw him in our building in that rookie minicamp three years ago."