Bill Burt: Muscle memory and Pats playoff push

·3 min read

Dec. 31—Why did Larry Bird shoot a "few million" free throws — his estimation — early in the morning throughout his high school career?

Muscle memory, he said, which would be vital especially when the pressure was on.

Well, the pressure is on for your New England Patriots. A few weeks ago they had home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs in their meat hooks.

Now, they are closer to those 18 teams prepping for golf season and Caribbean vacations.

Which brings us back to the matter at hand, Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and next Sunday's finale in Miami against Dolphins.

If the Patriots beat the Jaguars, which obviously should happen being the disaster 2021 has been for Jacksonville, they are in the playoffs with a Dolphins or Raiders loss.

But this is not about making the playoffs, which is very important for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and really this team, to experience. Playing in two playoff games would be even better.

This is much bigger than that. This is about doing damage in January. This is about going to Kansas City in late January.

The Patriots not only must beat the Jaguars and Dolphins, they have to look good, in key areas, doing it.

While I've played a lot of "remember the 2001 Patriots" the last four months, we're going to check in with another successful Patriots team, the 2018 group.

Like the 2021 version, the Patriots were not only a bye team through Week 13, at 9-3 the No. 2 seed, they had beaten the team ahead of them, Kansas City (10-2), 43-40 earlier in the season.

Then the roof appeared to have caved in on the 2018 season.

The Patriots went down to Miami and suffered one of its toughest losses in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Era, The Miami Miracle, that saw the Dolphins go 69 yards on the final play, with two backwards shovel passes, to steal the win, 34-33.

A week later, the Patriots couldn't score in Pittsburgh, and lost a frustrating game to the Steelers, 17-10.

The Patriots were 9-5, barely holding the No. 3 seed, a half-game ahead of the Steelers.

The Patriots were to finish the season with home games against the Buffalo Bills (4-10) and N.Y. Jets (4-11).

Two easy wins to finish the regular season. Big deal, right?

Those two "mopup" games were anything but. The Bills defense bothered Brady (2 interceptions, 126 yards passing), but the Patriots running backs rushed for 262 yards (Sony Michel, 18-116) in the 24-12 win.

A week later, Brady threw for 250 yards and four TDs, and the Patriots rushed for 131 yards in the 38-3 blowout win over the Jets.

We learned later that those two "mopup" wins set the tone for January and February.

The Patriots averaged 161 yards rushing and three rushing TDs over their Super Bowl run (41-28 over Chargers, 37-31 over Chiefs in OT, and 13-3 over Rams).

The 2018 Patriots found their mojo against the Bills and Jets and it carried through.

The Jaguars and Dolphins — the "we always lose in Miami" or the Miami jinx won't cut it — had better be wins for the Patriots, but more importantly they could be a barometer for things to come.

Basically, as good a time as any to work on muscle memory.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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