Pa­tri­ots deny any y

Sunday News - - NFL - KYLE HIGHTOWER

ON the field, the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots are right where they want to be head­ing into the post­sea­son.

As the AFC’s top seed and the own­ers of a first-round bye, the 13-3 Pa­tri­ots will get to rest up dur­ing the open­ing week­end of the play­offs. But as they pre­pare to be­gin their lat­est run, their big­gest op­po­nent might be the per­cep­tion of a frac­tur­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween ar­guably the fran­chise’s three most im­por­tant pieces.

The Pa­tri­ots dis­missed as ‘‘flatout in­ac­cu­rate’’ a re­port sug­gest­ing a rift in­volv­ing owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quar­ter­back Tom Brady yes­ter­day. The three re­leased a joint state­ment hours af­ter an ESPN re­port, cit­ing undis­closed sources, de­tailed an ar­ray of ten­sion.

The story high­lighted pur­ported dis­putes con­cern­ing Brady’s per­sonal body coach, Alex Guer­rero, in player-med­i­cal af­fairs. Also men­tioned is a sup­posed dif­fer­ence be­tween Kraft and Belichick over the de­ci­sion to trade backup quar­ter­back Jimmy Garop­polo. The story im­plied Brady has taken is­sue with a lack of praise from Belichick this sea­son.

The state­ment said the three have had a ‘‘very good and pro­duc­tive work­ing re­la­tion­ship’’ for 18 years and they re­gret hav­ing to ‘‘re­spond to th­ese fal­la­cies.’’

Brady and Belichick both es­chewed ques­tions last month about a chasm be­tween and Belichick and Guer­rero.

Belichick wouldn’t ad­dress the va­lid­ity of a Bos­ton Globe re­port that Guer­rero had been banned from the side­line or trav­el­ling on the team plane, but said ‘‘there are dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships, dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions with dozens of other peo­ple’’.

Brady last month also took is­sue with a re­porter who asked whether the quar­ter­back and Belichick had talked about an ad­just­ment to Guer­rero’s ac­cess to the team.

‘‘I have a lot of con­ver­sa­tions with him. Those are pri­vate be­tween he and I, and I don’t think any­one knows what we talk about,’’ Brady said then. ‘‘Cer­tainly I’ve never talked about it. He’s never talked about it.’’

De­spite the re­ported off-field is­sues, the Pa­tri­ots have thrived on it. Even af­ter losing re­ceiver Ju­lian Edel­man in the pre-sea­son to a knee in­jury and line­backer Dont’a Hightower in Oc­to­ber to a sea­son-end­ing pec­toral in­jury, they en­ter the play­offs with the NFL’s top-ranked of­fence and a de­fence that is al­low­ing just 18.5 points per game.

Brady is also an MVP can­di­date, and passed Brett Favre for the most wins in one sea­son for a quar­ter­back af­ter turn­ing 40.

Still, there are ques­tions about Brady’s dura­bil­ity head­ing in his 15th post-sea­son.

He threw for a league-lead­ing 4577 yards pass­ing and 32 touch­downs, but he also got hit a lot more than he did last sea­son (32 sacks in 2017 af­ter just 15 in 2016).

Mi­nus a favourite tar­get in Edel­man, re­ceiver Chris Ho­gan (shoul­der) and run­ning backs James White (an­kle), Rex Burk­head (knee) and Mike Gil­lislee (knee) have all dealt in­juries down the stretch.

The guy is one of the great­est to ever play the game.’ JETS COACH TODD BOWLES ON TOM BRADY

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