FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Matthew Slater is humbled by his second straight Pro Bowl selection.
Just don’t send him an airplane ticket to the game in Honolulu a week before the Super Bowl.
“I’d rather be eating gumbo in New Orleans than pineapple in Hawaii,” the New England Patriots special teams captain said Thursday.
Slater and six teammates were picked for the Pro Bowl on Wednesday, but what he really wants is another trip to the championship game, this time in Louisiana on Feb. 3.
He and his teammates made it to that game last season in Indianapolis, where the cuisine isn’t as renowned, and lost to the New York Giants 21-17. They’ve clinched the AFC East title this season and can finish in any of the top four spots in the conference — with the first two getting opening-round byes — after Sunday’s finale against the Miami Dolphins.
The outcome of two of that day’s early games — Houston at Indianapolis and Baltimore at Cincinnati — will affect the Patriots’ possibilities even before their late game begins.
Slater said he won’t pay much attention to them.
“It means nothing if we don’t win our game so our focus is on playing the Miami Dolphins,” he said. “We know the Miami Dolphins are going to play us well no matter what their record is, no matter what our record is.”
The Patriots (11-4) are division champions for the fourth straight season. The Dolphins (7-8) missed the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
But Slater knows the unlikely can become reality, just like his career did. The son of Jackie Slater, a tackle who was chosen for the Pro Bowl seven times in his 20-year career, never started a game at UCLA.
“There were times where I wasn’t sure” he would reach the NFL, he said.
The Patriots took a chance, drafting Slater in the fifth round in 2008. In training camp before the 2010 season, he was concerned he might be released.
“I just try to maintain faith and embrace my role over the years, whatever it was, and kind of just found a niche special teams-wise,” he said. “It’s been a fun ride and, more importantly, it’s been fun being a part of a winning organization.”
In his five seasons, the Patriots are 59-20 and never won fewer than 10 games in any of them. He’s done his part by leading in special teams tackles in three straight seasons. Now he’s just one shy of his career high of 21 set in 2010.
His success, and his recognition by his peers who picked him for the Pro Bowl, has brought unwanted attention.
“There were a couple of times I felt like I was a marked man out there,” Slater said. Teams “send a few extra guys your way. You might see a few more double teams. You might encounter a little more smack talk (but) it’s hard to just isolate on me because we have so many good players across the board.”
Slater speeds down field on coverage teams. He blocks on returns. He’s even the No. 2 kickoff returner behind Devin McCourty.
“He does everything,” McCourty said. “When you’ve got a guy like him that can play almost every position on our special teams units at full speed, 100 mph, he’s just so disruptive in everything he does. … We all follow his lead. However he goes out there and plays is usually how the whole unit will play.”
Not all plays work.
A critical failure came after the Patriots had rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie San Francisco at 31 on Dec. 16. LaMichael James fielded the kickoff at his goal line and returned it 62 yards. On the next play, Colin Kaepernick threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree and the 49ers went on to win 41-34.
It was a painful lesson to relearn.
“It’s a 60-minute ballgame. In our phase of the game at any point in time a play can take place that changes the momentum and the outcome,” Slater said. “When we have a mistake on a special teams play, it’s a little more glaring and game changing than if somebody misses a block or drops the ball where we could get it on second down, we could get it on third down.
“There is no third down, no fourth down. It’s a one-down deal and I think we learned that our urgency and our level of execution need to be there every single play.”
Slater has made enough good plays to be chosen for his second Pro Bowl. He’d just prefer to be traveling to New Orleans while that game is being played in Honolulu on Jan. 27.
“I didn’t get to go last year,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully, I won’t get to go this year.”