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Highlights from Bill Belichick’s Thursday conference call 08.30.12 at 9:20 pm ET
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Here are a few highlights from Bill Belichick‘€™s Thursday conference call with the media:

Opening statement:
‘€œIt was a short night here last night, but just trying to work through the film here this morning and make some decisions in the next 24 hours. We’€™ll probably talk about it today and then finalize things tomorrow after we get a good night’€™s sleep and get a chance to take stock on not only our team, but where things are with the rest of the league, if there’€™s anything else in play. [We’€™ll] also take a look at some of the guys that might have gotten banged up in the game yesterday and see where they’€™re at. That’€™s our deal for today.’€

It was a busy stretch with three games in 10 days. How did you feel the team was able to handle it and continue to prepare for the regular season?
‘€œWe did the best we could and I think we made some progress; we definitely made progress. We kind of worked guys in different stages: some guys played more in some games than others, some guys practiced more than others did to kind of balance that out. I think we were able to keep moving ahead.’€

You had more games in a much shorter time than you normally would. How did that affect your normal process of being able to evaluate players in ways that you normally do when you only have one game a week?
‘€œI think a lot of times if you’€™re playing once a week then you have a chance to practice everybody and play everybody in different increments during that game. The advantage of that is you get to see those players. Let’€™s just say if you did it in all three games, you would get to see those players against three different schemes, three different types of matchups with the other team, where we kind of played a little bit of split-squad thing the last three weeks. Probably the amount of plays is about the same or close to the same, but it was more segmented. We played a group of people in the Philadelphia game and didn’€™t play people in that game. We played another group of people in the Tampa game and those other guys got very few reps in that game; some didn’€™t play at all. Last night, we had another group of guys that didn’€™t play and then heavier reps to a similar group that played in the Philadelphia game. That’€™s how we tried to manage it. I think overall, it probably worked out to about the same number of plays would be my guess, but you just didn’€™t see some guys against Philadelphia, you didn’€™t see some guys against Tampa, didn’€™t see some guys against the Giants. Just compared to last year’€™s preseason games and practice-wise, again some of the same things: there were some practices where we were able to really get everybody involved and have a good, well balanced practice where everybody split up the reps, and then there were other practices where some guys took more reps than others did because those are the guys that we’€™re playing in the game or because those guys just played in the [previous] game and we wanted to back off it a little bit and kind of work the other group. That’€™s a long answer but that’€™s probably the best way I can explain it.’€
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Bill Belichick: No updates on Brian Waters at 1:30 pm ET
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In a Thursday morning conference call with reporters, Patriots coach Bill Belichick indicated there has been no change in the status of right guard Brian Waters.

“I don’€™t have any comment on that,” Belichick said. “I’€™ll just say that on any personnel decisions, whatever they are, we’€™ll always do what we feel is best for the football team.”

Waters, who was a Pro Bowler last season with the Patriots after signing a week before the start of the regular season, is under contract with the team, but hasn’t reported to Foxboro as of yet. According to reports, the 35-year-old Waters is in Texas with his family.

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Bill Belichick: Jermaine Cunningham playing ‘at a higher level’ at 12:43 pm ET
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At the start of training camp, Patriots coach Bill Belichick made it a point to mention that defensive end Jermaine Cunningham had just gone through a ‘€œgreat offseason,’€ so much so that the Florida product was one of 10 players honored with a prime parking space in the players’€™ lot.

On Thursday morning, Belichick said that Cunningham — who led the team in quarterback hits in the preseason with six — had been able to continue that run from the offseason into training camp and the preseason.

‘€œOverall, he’€™s been at a higher level,’€ Belichick said of Cunningham, who had two sacks and three quarterback hits in the preseason finale against the Giants. ‘€œHe came to camp in great condition, worked hard in the offseason. He got faster, stronger, more explosive. He worked on his techniques. He worked extremely hard and came to training camp, and that work and those improvements showed up. They’ve showed up in practice, from early in camp to all four preseason games.

‘€œIt wasn’€™t just one thing. He’€™s had more position flexibility than he’€™s had in the past. We’€™ve asked him to do more things. He’€™s shown he can do them. He’€™s had more production.’€

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Setting the scene: Patriots-Giants 08.29.12 at 4:51 pm ET
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EAST RUTHERFORD — Ideal conditions will greet the Patriots and Giants in their preseason finale at MetLife Stadium.

The forecast here calls for clear skies and temperatures in the mid-to-upper 70s as both teams look for a valuable chance to make final decisions in advance of their final roster cutdown from 75 to 53 by Friday at 9 p.m. ET.

This, of course, marks the first time the two rivals have met since New York’s 21-17 win in Super Bowl XLVI in February. The Giants lead the preseason series, 13-8. The Giants beat the Patriots, 18-17, in Week 4 of the preseason in 2011, marking the first of three wins over the Patriots in a span of six months.

There’s no word on how much, if at all, Tom Brady will play in the preseason finale. Brady was hit early and often last Friday, hitting the turf six times in the first half, throwing a pick-6 that was returned by Tampa Bay’s Mark Barron and getting strip-sacked for the second time in as many preseason games.

Just 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. kickoff, Brady was spotted running pass routes with Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez taking turns as quarterback. Brady ran a corner route and attempted a one-handed grab in the end zone before dropping it. Rob Gronkowski later joined as an observer. It’s a near certainty that all four players won’t be playing and will make their next on-field appearance on Sept. 9 in Nashville.

The Giants announced an hour before the game that Mathias Kiwanuka, Michael Boley, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Will Beatty and Ahmad Bradshaw would not be starting. All six are expected to sit out the preseason finale. There was no announcement on Eli Manning.

Still, the focus against the Giants will be getting one final look at several players who figure to be on the roster bubble, such as Jermaine Cunningham, whose hit to the ribs of Michael Vick on Aug. 20 knocked the Eagles quarterback out of the game.

Twenty-three players, including Brady, Vince Wilfork, Gronkowski and Hernandez were among those out two hours before kickoff getting stretching in with conditioning coach Harold Nash, an indication they may not play in the preseason finale.

The Super Bowl champion Giants open the regular season in exactly one week in this building against the Cowboys.

Teams with scouts with seats in the MetLife press box Wednesday included the Bills, Bengals, Ravens, Titans, Buccaneers and the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.

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Bill Belichick on extending Aaron Hernandez: ‘We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t in support of it’ 08.27.12 at 4:30 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Bill Belichick knows how important Aaron Hernandez is to the Patriots offense going forward.

The tight end who doubles as a wide receiver has caught 124 balls in his first two seasons for the Patriots out of Florida. Thirteen of those catches have resulted in touchdowns.

He went from 45 to 79 catches last season, increasing his yardage total from 563 to 910 from 2010 to 2011.

But Belichick said Monday, on the day Hernandez agreed to a five-year, $40 million deal that includes a $12.5 million signing bonus, that Hernandez’ improvement is about a lot more than just stats.

“Aaron has improved a lot,” Belichick said. “He’€™s worked hard, he’€™s improved a lot in all phases of the game: passing game, running game, protection and his overall versatility. He’€™s done a good job for us.

A tight end who can run wide receiver routes is something truly unique in the NFL, making him a huge asset for the team and a big target for Tom Brady.

“Yeah, we’€™ve seen plenty of it. He’€™s a hard guy to cover,” Belichick said. “We’€™ve had a lot of trouble covering him defensively [in practice].”

Belichick naturally had a seat at the table as the team determined his long-term value to the Patriots. The biggest gain for the Patriots is – like with Rob Gronkowski – they have locked up a receiving weapon after only two seasons, guaranteeing he will be with the Patriots through 2018.

“Any contract that we agree to is one that we’€™re in support of,” Belichick said. “If we agree to a contract on a player, then we’€™re in support of that player, the length of the contract, the amount that we’€™re paying him, all the other things that go with the contract. We wouldn’€™t do it if we weren’€™t in support of it, as an organization, me personally, all of the above.”

As for having Hernandez and Gronkowski locked up for the foreseeable future?

“Again, we wouldn’€™t have done it if we weren’€™t happy with it. I’€™m glad it worked out,” Belichick said.

Next up, Wes Welker, who returned to Patriots practice on Monday. But after missing the mid-July deadline for a long-term extension on the franchised Welker, the Patriots will have to wait until after the season. Until then, Belichick summed up Welker’s situation with the Patriots Monday as “day-by-day.”

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In focus: Closer look at contract extension for Aaron Hernandez at 2:55 pm ET
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FOXBORO — The signing of Aaron Hernandez to a contract extension shows a remarkable commitment to a 22-year-old who has become an integral part of the Patriots offense. It also means the team has locked up both of its dynamic young tight ends at a relatively reasonable price through at least 2018, and guarantees that the New England passing game will remains one of the toughest in the league to defend.

Less than three months after Rob Gronkowski signed an eight-year, $55.23 million contract with $13.1 million guaranteed that will take him through 2019, the Patriots and Hernandez agreed to a five-year, $40 million extension on Monday that will run through 2018. The deal for Hernandez includes $16.5 million guaranteed, and will kick in once his current rookie deal runs out (he has two years remaining on his four-year, $2.785 million rookie contract).

Hernandez wasn’€™t around to talk to the media on Monday about the extension, but coach Bill Belichick certainly sounded happy that the tight end will be in the fold for the foreseeable future, and all but confirmed the deal.

‘€œAny contract that we agree to is one that we’€™re in support of,’€ Belichick said when asked about Hernandez. ‘€œIf we agree to a contract on a player, then we’€™re in support of that player, the length of the contract, the amount that we’€™re paying him, all the other things that go with the contract. We wouldn’€™t do it if we weren’€™t in support of it.

‘€œWe wouldn’€™t have done it if we weren’€™t happy with it. I’€™m glad it worked out.’€

While he didn’€™t match the production of his running mate Gronkowski in 2011 (Gronkowski had 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 17 receiving touchdowns, while Hernandez had 79 catches for 910 yards and seven touchdowns), you can make a case that Hernandez is more valuable to the New England offense based on his versatility. Hernandez lined up all over the field last season, working as a traditional tight end flush next to the tackle, in the slot, split wide and even in the backfield as a fullback.

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Cuts like a knife: With roster reduction looming, Patriots vets talk about facing the Turk 08.26.12 at 2:47 pm ET
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It is one of the toughest times of the year. The Patriots, who have 85 on the roster as of Sunday afternoon, have to get down to 75 players by Monday at 4. And then, by Friday, the roster has to be at 53.

It’€™s never an easy process to tell someone they’€™ve been cut — in his first professional job with the Colts, Bill Belichick served as the “Turk.” That’s where he earned the nickname ‘€œBilly Bad News’€ because he was the guy assigned to tell players that they needed to see the coach … and that they had to bring their playbook.

It’€™s also difficult stretch for players, even those who aren’€™t on the roster bubble. First-round pick Devin McCourty saw his brother Jason have to hold his breath through a series of cuts with the Titans when they were both rookies.

‘€œI remember when my brother was in the same spot early when he was a sixth-round draft pick,’€ said Devin. ‘€œI told him, ‘€˜You did everything you could to work hard for that position so, whatever happens, just be happy and be proud of yourself.’€™

‘€œI think one of the worst parts about this business [are] those two large cutdown dates. I think a lot of the young guys and guys that are on the team have worked hard and I think coming in every day, putting their best foot forward, working hard and then letting the chips fall where they may.’€

In his first few years in the league, Matthew Slater was a perennial candidate to be cut. He solidified a spot the last two seasons — a Pro Bowl berth in 2011 finally silenced the critics — but he can recall some tough times at the end of the summer when he was wondering what might happen.

‘€œIt was definitely a tough time,’€ he said. ‘€œWhat I learned early in my career is to try not to think about it and just go out and continue my job, [to] focus on what I had to do. Really, at the end of the day, if I put forth my best effort, that’€™s all I could control. It’€™s tough when you’€™re worrying about things you can’€™t control, because it can consume you. I just learned not to play the numbers game, and just try to go out and take advantage of each and every day that you have here, and hope for the best from there.
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