Patriots deny rift between Brady and Belichick
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft have all shot down a report that suggested a rift between them could soon bring an end to their successful run.
An ESPN report published yesterday said friction amongst the three most powerful members of the Patriots franchise, who last season won their fifth Super Bowl together, could be enough to make this the final season they work together.
"For the past 18 years, the three of us have enjoyed a very good and productive working relationship," the trio said in a joint statement.
"In recent days, there have been multiple media reports that have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate."
The statement came hours after the ESPN article - which cites more than a dozen Patriots staffers, executives, players and NFL sources with knowledge of the team's inner workings - said the trio have had serious disagreements.
According to ESPN, the three men have been at odds for years over a number of issues, including Brady's trainer and business partner Alex Guerrero having some team privileges removed and the team's decision to trade back-up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for a second-round pick.
The article went as far as to say there is a "palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group."
The Patriots, who are favourites to repeat as Super Bowl champions this season, are the top seed in the American Football Conference playoffs and will next play in the Divisional Round on January 13 against either the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans or Buffalo Bills.
"The three of us share a common goal. We look forward to the enormous challenge of competing in the post-season and the opportunity to work together in the future, just as we have for the past 18 years," the statement added.
"It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united."
Don Yee, who is the agent for both Brady and Garoppolo, also weighed in on the report.
"I don't know really what to say - it's tough to have a response since it didn't appear to me to have one on-the-record quote," Yee said in a statement issued to the NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. "All I can suggest is don't believe everything you read."
Elsewhere, the Oakland Raiders are preparing a 10-year, $100million contract to bring former coach Jon Gruden back to the franchise.
The deal is understood to be the richest coaching contract in NFL history, and his coaching staff will also receive four-year deals which will keep them there when they make the move from Oakland to Las Vegas in 2020.
Gruden was previously coach at the Raiders; the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for him and he led them to the Super Bowl.
Gruden has spent the past nine NFL seasons as a co-commentator for the ESPN's 'Monday Night Football' broadcasts.
Wildcard weekend: Tonight: Tennessee Titans @ Kansas City Chiefs, 9.35. Tomorrow: Atlanta Falcons @ Los Angeles Rams, 1.15 am; Buffalo Bills @ Jacksonville Jaguars, 6.05; Carolina Panthers @ New Orleans Saints, 9.40. All Sky Sports
Team-by-team guide to remaining play-off teams – Ed Malyon
1. (seed) Philadelphia Eagles
The team that looked like a rising force and Super Bowl contender had their ambitions abruptly scythed down by quarterback Carson Wentz’s injury, and while the remaining team are a talented all-round roster that are coached well and boast strong defence, it would require replacement Nick Foles to play three games at his absolute best to not screw things up for the Eagles.
That seems unlikely but, if he does it, then the team around him are good enough to win it all. It feels harsh on Foles but one of his meltdowns would end what had been a brilliant Eagles season until Wentz got hurt.
2. Minnesota Vikings
If you had told an American 12 months ago that Case Keenum would lead a team to the play-offs (with a first-round bye!) then they’d have thought you were crazy.
Minnesota has good rush and pass defence, excellent receivers who are fun to watch and always get open, and some good coaches. The weakness should be the running game but Latavius Murray is powerful from close range.
The fact that they’d be playing the Super Bowl in their own stadium acts as a huge incentive to the players and a boon to their chances of actually winning the thing.
They’ll go deep regardless.
3. Los Angeles Rams
The story of the season, going from one of the worst teams in the league – with first overall pick Jared Goff looking a bust at QB – to a division-winning NFC candidate with a talented young passer.
What 31-year-old head coach Sean McVay has done in a year at the Rams is incredible and that’s why you can’t put anything beyond them.
Their destruction of Seattle a few weeks ago was not just a statement game but a sign that the power in the NFC West has shifted to Los Angeles.
If they play how they did against the Seahawks then they can beat anyone in the NFL and that is why they’re such an intriguing play-off team.
4. New Orleans Saints
The best quarterback in the NFC play-offs is probably Drew Brees, and he’s supported by excellent receivers, the best running-back tandem in the league and a much-improved defence.
Having hit on a number of draft picks, this young team have come together for Brees and Shaun Payton almost so quickly as to be a surprise, but they are another team who – on their day – could topple anybody.
A home game in the wildcard round will help, they might be the best team in the NFC, but tomorrow night’s game against the Panthers will test them.
5. Carolina Panthers
This is a mature team under Ron Rivera’s guidance and they have put early-season offensive struggles, ownership distractions, and trading away their first-round receiver behind them.
The Panthers have gathered steam towards the end of their season, but the amount of injuries is now looking like their biggest weakness.
Always a spicy contender, they can’t be ruled out but a first-round meeting with the Saints is a tough break and they need former MVP Cam Newton to find the passing range that has deserted him at times this season.
6. Atlanta Falcons
They suffered the most brutally heartbreaking Super Bowl defeat in February and are nowhere near as good as last year’s team.
This year’s team are less explosive and have struggled to make the same plays on defence, despite boasting emerging talents like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett.
The Falcons are helped by the relative parity of the top teams in their conference and, having played in such a strong division this season, along with the Saints and Panthers, it is hard to rule them out.
Their experience, however, might cause problems for the inexperienced Rams tonight.
1. New England Patriots
Every year they get over key injuries and departures to go deep. Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman are done for the year and yet the Patriots are still favourites for the Super Bowl because we’ve seen them produce every season.
They win when it matters. Two weeks ago, they were one play away from losing to the Steelers which would have cost them the home-field advantage that goes with the number-one seed. They came up with an interception and reinforced that seeming inevitability about what is going to happen.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers went into that week-15 game against the Patriots ready to take over the AFC and instead they came out of it without Antonio Brown – until that point having an MVP-level season – and knowing that if they get to the AFC Championship game they’ll likely have to go back to New England, where Mike Tomlin is 0-4 against the Tom Brady-led Pats.
They do, however, have Ben Roethlisberger at QB and Le’Veon Bell at running back and such an offensive threat will – along with Brown – always give them a chance.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
They have built a defence so dominant that their offence in Jacksonville only needs to be average for them to win games.
The problem is that nobody has any faith in Blake Bortles to do that. The quarterback should have been provided with some competition last off-season and the Jags, who have been lucky on the injury front, could well have blown their best chance of a Super Bowl by not going all-out for a better quarterback.
Instead, they head into their first post-season in years relying on being able to hide Bortles enough to win important games.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
One of the best-coached teams in the NFL, the Chiefs had a mid-season blip that shattered confidence but have played either side of that blip like a potential AFC winner.
When they play well it is because they’re creating explosive yard-after-catch plays with Kareem Hunt and Tyreek Hill, while keeping things tight on defence and quarterback Alex Smith managing things in his usual conservative manner.
Their secondary is less reliable without Eric Berry, but if they play to their absolute best and Andy Reid and his staff can cook up some scheming magic then they are a potential AFC champion or Super Bowl winner.
5. Tennessee Titans
That Mike Mularkey would probably have been sacked had the Titans not snuck into the play-offs speaks volumes about how expectations have changed in Tennessee.
In recent years they have been consistently a bottom-three team in the league but the drafting of quarterback Marcus Mariota has given them something to build around and with better coaching they could have won this division.
Mularkey mightn’t be safe if the Titans fall off the wagon in wildcard week and their play-calling is so lacking in adventure and creativity that it seems unlikely they will surprise anyone in the post-season.
6. Buffalo Bills
The Baltimore Ravens contrived to miss out on the play-offs with a stunning capitulation against the woeful Cincinatti Bengals, in the process possibly helping their play-off chase for next season by saving Marvin Lewis’s job.
Benefiting from the Ravens’s incompetence are the Buffalo Bills, a team whose season has seemingly been spent doing everything possible to avoid reaching the post-season.
In reaching the wildcard round for the first time since 1999, the Bills snapped the longest streak of any sports team in any of the major American leagues.
But with star running back LeSean McCoy looking injured they are almost certain to be one-and-done.