FOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Slater wouldn’t say whether Sunday’s game was his last at Gillette Stadium. Neither would his longtime New England Patriots co-captain, Devin McCourty.
But if it was, the two Patriots greats took the time to savor it.
Slater and McCourty lingered on the field for longer than usual after the Patriots’ 23-21 win over the Miami Dolphins, soaking up the atmosphere and embracing teammates and opponents before retiring to the locker room.
“I took a moment,” said McCourty, who is 35 and has spent his entire 13-year career in New England. “Spent some time with my family on the field. It’s been a great run. To come out here, if this was the last one, I think to be able to leave Gillette with a win, very similar to how my first-ever game was a win. I’ve had a lot of fun. These guys have been awesome to go out here and compete with.
“You never know how football goes. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it before the game, and just now.”
The 37-year-old Slater is the Patriots’ longest-tenured player, having been with the team since New England drafted him in the fifth round in 2008. He and McCourty have served as captains together for each of the last 12 seasons, winning three Super Bowl titles during that span.
The only other current Patriot who won three championships with the franchise is injured offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, who left for a season before returning in September.
During the leadup to Sunday’s game, Slater acknowledged his “opportunities are fleeting as an advanced-aged football player.”
“You know, as much as I try to block it out and focus on doing my job, it certainly dawned on me today that this very well could be my last game here,” the legendary special teamer said postgame. “I don’t know what my future holds. I haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about it. I’ve been trying to stay in the moment. I certainly took time to appreciate being in this stadium and running out of that tunnel today. Saw a couple of signs that were thanking D-Mac and myself.
“I don’t know what either of us have in store, but I think when you get to this stage of it, you try to take in every moment and savor it. I think some of the players and coaches, knowing that I’m not sure of what my future (holds), have expressed gratitude, and that meant a lot to me. (They) just told me they loved me, and it just means so much. It really does.”
That love and gratitude were evident in head coach Bill Belichick’s postgame remarks.
Asked about Slater and McCourty possibly retiring this offseason, Belichick raved about both players, lauding their respective impacts on the Patriots organization.
“Devin has done about everything a player could do for this program,” Belichick said. “Say the same thing about Matt Slater in the kicking game. I mean, I don’t know if there’s ever been or ever going to be a player than Matt Slater as an overall special teams player and the leadership he brought to the team, along with Devin.
“Devin came in as a corner, went to the Pro Bowl, moved to safety, led the defense from the safety position from his second year on. His off-the-the field leadership, on-the-field leadership is superior — as good as anybody I’ve ever coached at that position. He does everything right. He’s done everything right since he’s been here. He knows the line calls. He knows the defense inside and out, so he has total respect from everybody because of his preparation and his unselfish play.
“Same thing for Slater. What those two guys have done, what they mean to this organization, what they mean to me personally, what they’ve done here, it’s pretty impressive, pretty elite.”
Belichick joked that McCourty surely “would have liked to have had one more interception on the ledger” Sunday — referring to the Teddy Bridgewater heave that bounced off the veteran safety’s chest — before continuing to laud his leadership and intelligence.
“It’s like truly having a coach on the field,” Belichick said. “Having somebody that can see a problem, fix it, or at least take us out of a problem because of whatever — they sub late, the formation, whatever it happens to be. He’s got great judgment and great decision-making. His decisions are quick, they’re decisive, and they’re almost always right. Any decision is a bad decision if you’re hesitant and everybody doesn’t get it. Making sure that we’re all on the same page, that’s always No. 1.
“Yeah, he’s a special one. He’s a special one.”
The Patriots will close out the regular season next weekend with a road game against the Bills. They still can make the playoffs — a win over Buffalo would clinch them a wild-card spot — but can finish no higher than the No. 7 seed, meaning they cannot host a postseason game under any circumstances.