Check out photos from access to players and coaches as the Patriots prepare to take on their next opponent in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Given the unusually banged-up state of the Patriots roster entering the playoffs, it came as little surprise that Bill Belichick decided to conduct just a walkthrough practice on Wednesday, his team's first on the practice field since returning from Miami.
Belichick was able to afford this luxury to his players because New England will enjoy a bye this Wild Card Weekend as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. In previous seasons, Belichick has given his players just two days of work – on Wednesday and Thursday – before letting them have a nice long weekend off. This year, however, it seems more likely that he'll keep his players at Gillette Stadium through Friday so that they can get a couple of regular practices in to work on their deficiencies. This is, after all, a Patriots team that lost it's only four games of the season in the final six weeks of the regular season.
"There's definitely a change of focus, on what we can improve on, just like any bye week of the regular season," wide receiver Danny Amendola pointed out. "It gives you the week to try to assess your own production throughout the whole year, what you've done good [and] bad, and try to move forward with how you can help the team win. We're just trying to get better. We have a couple of practices tomorrow and the next day. So, it's going to be a good week."
"It's all about getting better. Just focus on yourself," remarked DE/co-captain Rob Ninkovich. "Look at the things you need to work on as an individual and being a better football player. It's a one-game season. Everything you have, you have to put it all out there and play as hard as you can."
For some players on the roster, like DE Jabaal Sheard, the January 16 Divisional round game that the Patriots will host will be his first experience as a player in the NFL postseason.
"It's a blessing. It's what the whole season's about," he told reporters after practice. "Now we're here and we start all over. We've got a new season and we're starting fresh."
Because they don't yet know which foe they'll face in 10 days' time – either Cincinnati, Houston, or Kansas City – the Patriots must content themselves with working on themselves both mentally and physically.
"Just staying focused, worrying about what we need to do. It's just a waiting game," said cornerback Malcolm Butler. "I'm just going to be ready like I was last year, whenever I get the opportunity."
Above all, this week of work and weekend off will be about the injured Patriots getting healthier. With that in mind, Ninkovich took a moment Wednesday to reflect on his remarkable achievement, having appeared in the past 114 games for New England, including the playoffs. The last game he missed was a home game versus the Jets in November 2009. Prior to that, Ninkovich had an injury-plagued start to his NFL career that saw him appear in just eight games over three seasons with the Saints and Dolphins.
"I try my very best every year to take care of my body and do whatever it takes to help the team win," he stated. "You know, early in my career, I couldn't stay on the field for consecutive games. I just take pride in the fact that I try to be there every game so I can be reliable and do my job. It's just having mental toughness and now it's… focus on the playoffs."