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During bye, Pats focus on 'most important' team

The Patriots return to practice for the first time in 2008. With no playoff opponent in sight yet, New England is focusing on fundamentals at practice this week.

For the first time since their Super Bowl winning season in 2004, the Patriots are in the playoffs and aren't playing on Wild Card Weekend.

That gives them the enviable opportunity to focus on their next opponent … or does it?

"We're going to take these couple days and try to emphasize and work on the team that's most important, and that's our team, and do the best we can to try to improve our situation heading into next week," head coach Bill Belichick revealed during his first press conference of the new year.

Of course, it would be difficult and time consuming to prepare for whichever team comes to Gillette Stadium next Saturday, because it could be any one of three teams who play this weekend: 4-seed Pittsburgh, 5-seed Jacksonville, or 6-seed Tennessee.

"We know that whoever we play is an outstanding team," Belichick added. "Once we know who we're playing, [we'll] certainly turn it all toward that opponent. There's certainly a lot of generic and fundamental things that we can improve on and that's where we'll try to put our emphasis this week."

His players echoed those sentiments when reporters were invited into the Patriots locker room Thursday.

"We're just worried about us. Trying to find ways to get better," RB Laurence Maroney said. "Trying to tighten up some loose screws in our offense and defense and worry about what the Patriots can do to get better."

"For you to think that you have everything down, and you're going to be OK for the next week, that's being complacent," LB Junior Seau observed. "We're never going to be complacent. We're going to drive each other, to make sure we get better every day."

Of the 12 teams in the playoffs, New England has played and beaten half of them during the regular season. Does that hold any advantage at all if a rematch takes place this month?

"You get a feel for them. You know some of the things they're going to do," Maroney conceded. "You've already scouted them before, so it'll make this scouting report a little bit easier because you already know what to prepare for."

Maroney also acknowledged he'd be interested in watching the games this weekend, just to get a head start on preparing for who New England will play next weekend. For Belichick, the approach is a bit different.

"I'm not real big on TV scouting. It's hard to see the game from the coaching standpoint, the way we need to see it. But it's interesting to see how it goes. It's AFC playoffs, so we're interested in that, but we'll wait until we get the game tapes and break those down rather than try to break it down off TV."

A reporter jokingly asked if Belichick might catch the games at a sports bar this weekend. The coach played along.

"Yeah, that's kind of what I was thinking," he replied with a smile. "Maybe hit a couple of them - first half, second half. Get a different flavor for it."

Thursday Practice Notebook

No doubt due in part to the frigid New England weather (sunny, but temps in the teens), the Patriots practiced inside their practice bubble behind Gillette Stadium. The team was in full pads and broke into positional drills after stretching.

Five players were absent from practice Thursday: FB Kyle Eckel, CB Ellis Hobbs, T Nick Kaczur, CB Asante Samuel, and DL Ty Warren. Hobbs, Samuel, and Kaczur were all spotted in the locker room prior to practice, and each talked at least briefly to some members of the media.

On a positive note, TE Kyle Brady returned to practice for the first time in weeks. He'd been out with a foot injury.

Two players won the coveted black practice-player-of-the-week jerseys: DL Santonio Thomas and OL Billy Yates.

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