FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — On paper, this New England team doesn’t measure up to others Bill Belichick has taken to AFC championship games.
On the field, though, unheralded players replacing missing stars filled major roles to get the Patriots to where they are now — a win away from their second Super Bowl in three years.
“It doesn’t really matter how a player gets to the New England Patriots, whether he’s drafted, traded, signed as a free agent, signed as an unrestricted free agent, signed as a street free agent,” Belichick said. “It’s much more important what they do when they get here.”
Sealver Siliga wasn’t drafted in 2011. He was cut by three teams — the other three still in the playoffs. Now he’s filling the shoes of five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, whose season ended when he tore his right Achilles tendon in his fourth game.
“I don’t even think of that. Those shoes are too big,” Siliga said. “Just trying to do my job.”
Matthew Mulligan of Emden was released by six teams, including the Patriots, after being ignored in the 2009 draft. Now he’s playing tight end after Rob Gronkowski tore ligaments in his right knee and went on injured reserve Dec. 9.
“I don’t think you replace anybody,” Mulligan said. “Gronk is Gronk and I’m me, and that’s just what it is.”
More key starters for the Patriots (13-4) will miss Sunday’s AFC championship game against the Denver Broncos (14-3) because of season-ending injuries — linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Then there are the rookies, 15 on the 53-man roster.
Now compare that to the team that went to the 2012 Super Bowl with Gronkowski, Wilfork, Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez. Or the one that got there four years earlier with an 18-0 record and Welker, Randy Moss, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. The Patriots lost both games to the New York Giants.
The Patriots’ two Super Bowl teams before that? They had Bruschi, Harrison, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour and won both.
McGinest goes all the way back to the heavy underdogs who beat the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl in the 2001 season to find a Patriots team similar to the current one.
“They don’t ever give up,” said McGinest, who will serve as an honorary Patriots captain Sunday. “Maybe (they’re) like us in our first year in 2001, where a lot of people didn’t consider us as household names, a lot of younger players or players that were kind of off the radar that kind of bought more into the team aspect of things, of being unselfish instead of the self-promotion type thing.
“Everybody on our teams became somebody because of what we did on a consistent basis. I think these guys have the unique opportunity to do the same, to make those names for themselves, to be in these big games, to make those plays, to go out and prove to everybody that they belong.”
How does Belichick do it? How does he head into his eighth AFC title game as Patriots coach with 25 players who weren’t on the team last season?
Is this the best job he’s done in his 14 years at the helm?
“I’m definitely not one to rate Bill’s coaching jobs,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, in his sixth year with the Patriots. “I think he does a great job every year.”
Belichick and his personnel staff find players unwanted elsewhere and constantly tinker with the practice squad so he has a deep pool he can pick from if necessary.
“It’s really just being diligent, turn over a lot of rocks looking for the right player, the right fit,” Belichick said.
Once they arrive, they better be ready for tough practices, stinging criticism and high expectations.
“We’re challenged here on a daily basis by coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first,” quarterback Tom Brady said.
But to Belichick, the process isn’t that mysterious.
If a newcomer is good enough, he can play for a team that could end up in the Super Bowl.
“That’s all decided by the players on the field. I don’t really have any control over that. I just try to evaluate what they do,” he said. “How the players’ roles unfold and how your roster ultimately gets decided is based on performance. It’s as simple as that.”