New England

Will the Bills Try and Retaliate for Gronk's Late Hit?

Few players want to go to the Pro Bowl because it means your team failed to reach the Super Bowl.

Since the Pro Bowl shifted to being played the week before the Super Bowl rather than the week after it in 2010, players on teams that have qualified for the Super Bowl have been automatically exempt from participating.

It remains to be seen if the New England players selected will have a built-in out to this year’s game on Jan. 28 in Orlando, but for now, four members of the Patriots have been selected: quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski, special teamer Matthew Slater and fullback James Develin.

Being named to the Pro Bowl is nothing new for Brady, who earned his ninth nomination in a row and 13th overall. It would be more surprising if he actually played in the game, regardless of whether or not the Patriots are preparing for Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis; Brady hasn’t actually played in the Pro Bowl since after the 2004 season. With two games to go in the regular season, Brady is leading the league in passing yards, with 4,163 and completions, with 346. He’s also in the top five in completion percentage, touchdown passes and interception rate.

Gronk was named to his fifth Pro Bowl team. Excluding his rookie season in 2010, the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week has earned a Pro Bowl nod in every season he’s played in at least 11 games. Despite missing two games this season – one due to injury, one due to suspension – Gronkowski has the most receiving yards among tight ends with 1,017. He’s third in receptions with, 64 and tied for third in touchdowns, with seven.

Slater tied an NFL record for Pro Bowl nominations by a special teamer with his seventh such selection – all in a row. He tied Steve Tasker, who made seven Pro Bowls while playing primarily special teams with the Buffalo Bills between 1986 and 1997.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Slater said of tying Tasker’s mark. “I think about Steve Tasker. He’s obviously the best special teams player of all-time. Because of him, guys like myself have a job. To me, he’ll always be in a league of his own, but it’s certainly humbling to have your name mentioned alongside Steve Tasker’s. I think that says it all.”

Slater’s inclusion in the Pro Bowl is a nod to the respect he commands around the league even though he’s played in only half of New England’s games thus far due to injuries.

“I’m very humbled,” Slater said. “It’s been a challenging year for myself personally, but to have your peers and the coaches that you go against every week and the fans vote you to that is a very humbling honor.”

Slater added that he felt as though he was just the representative of a great group of core special teamers with the Patriots, rattling off the names of Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Johnson Bademosi, Jonathan Jones, Brandon King, Trevor Reilly, Jacob Hollister, Nicholas Grigsby, Geneo Grissom, Jordan Richards and Marquis Flowers.

“I feel like we have the best core group in the National Football League,” Slater said.

Develin is the lone first-time Pro Bowler of the group, and far and away the most unlikely of the bunch. Now a mainstay with the Patriots, it’s easy to forget Develin’s humble beginnings as an undrafted free agent out of Brown in 2010 that was followed by stops in the now-defunct United Football League (UFL) and the practice squad of the Cincinnati Bengals.

“It’s cool to kind of look back on things, it’s definitely a proud journey of mine and something I’ll always look back on with fond memories,” Develin said of his road to the Pro Bowl, which had him eyeing engineering jobs prior to his agent getting him a workout with the UFL’s Florida Tuskers. “But we’ve got a lot of football here left and the focus is definitely on these next two weeks, getting two wins and carrying on into the playoffs.”

Without many tangible stats, it’s worth noting that Develin has played more snaps than any fullback in the AFC through 14 games, with 296. Analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks Develin as the fourth-best fullback in the NFL through Week 15.

Dissension in the ranks?

A Boston Globe report from Tuesday indicated that tensions between Bill Belichick and Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s longtime trainer and business associate, has reached such a point that Guerrero is no longer welcome to travel on the team plane and has had his sideline access revoked.

Devin McCourty said during his press conference on Wednesday afternoon that questions about it are “above my pay grade.”

Slater said “I’m not going to get into that one” when asked during his availability in the locker room.

Patriots vs. Bills, Round 2

When the Patriots last faced the Bills on Dec. 3 in Orchard Park, New York, their eighth straight win was more of a sidebar to Rob Gronkowski’s late hit on Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White and subsequent one-game suspension.

Given that only three weeks will have passed between Sunday’s game vs. the Bills (1 p.m., CBS) and New England’s 23-3 win last time out, emotions between the parties involved could still be running high.

In the immediate aftermath of the game, White, who entered the NFL’s concussion protocol as a result of Gronk’s cheap shot, allegedly texted former NFL safety Ryan Clark “The whole hood want ‘em,” in regards to Gronkowski. Clark revealed this text in an appearance on ESPN’s Ryen Russillo’s radio show in the week after the game.

White changed his narrative this week while appearing on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

“I'm not a guy that’s going to do a cheap shot after the whistle or nothing,” White said. “I'm going to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played and respect the game. Going in there and winning would be the best revenge ever.”

If Buffalo had continued to unravel after its latest lost to the Patriots, retaliation against Gronkowski may have been a legitimate concern come Sunday. Instead, the Bills are 8-6 and while they can no longer win the AFC East, are still alive in the wild-card chase for their first postseason berth since 1999.

“Any time spent on that situation is really unnecessary and a waste of time,” Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “We’ve got too much work to do and these weeks are too short to do anything like that.”

Buffalo currently owns the tie-breaker over the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) for the second and final wild-card spot in the AFC playoff picture.

Bill Belichick, second to none in avoiding distractions, half-downplayed and half-side stepped a question at his press conference Wednesday morning involving the Bills potentially seeking revenge on Gronkowski.

“I’m sure it’ll be a very competitive game, like it always is against Buffalo,” Belichick said. “I think that the Bills have played great football all year long. Coach McDermott’s done a great job with the team. They’re very disciplined. They’re tough. They’re physical. They’re very competitive in every phase of the game on every play. There’s no downs off. There’s no plays off. We’re going to have to play a good 60-minute game. We need to play with fewer penalties, fewer mistakes, better ball security, better tackling, better discipline. There’s a lot of things we need to do better than the last time that we played them, but they’re a good football team. They’re well-coached and I’m sure that we'll get their best shot. We need to give them ours.”

Patriots not home-free yet

While the Patriots have clinched the division, wins in each of their last two games will go a long way in holding off the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars for the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC. New England can clinch the top spot this week with a win AND a Pittsburgh loss AND a Jacksonville loss or tie.

The Patriots can clinch at least a first-round bye in three scenarios:

• A win and a Pittsburgh loss

• A win and a Jacksonville loss or tie

• A tie and a Jacksonville loss

New England closes the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 31 with a home game against the New York Jets at 1 p.m.

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