While having two bye weeks in a three-week span is unique, the Patriots will certainly accept the easier road to the Super Bowl.
Not that any road to New Orleans is easy, but having to win two games rather than three to take on the NFC Champion is obviously preferable. While the Wildcard teams slug it out this weekend, the Patriots will have the weekend to lick their wounds and polish up on some details that need work.
Following a sluggish effort in the season finale at Carolina, there are certainly areas that need work. But Belichick didn't feel the bye hurt his team last week and doesn't think it have any ill effects in the Divisional Playoff round.
"Carolina played us tough defensively; they ran the ball well," Belichick said. "I am still glad that we have [a bye this week] and we will try to use it as effectively as we can. I do think that the bye week helped us for the Carolina game. We had a couple of the big plays in the game that I know everybody saw that were really the result of a lot of extra work that was put into those situations in the bye week. So if there were any negative effects, I think they were far outweighed by the things that we were able to accomplish positively with the extra time and preparation that we took in some of those areas on defense and in the kicking game."
"There's more on the line," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "You're playing for a lot more so I wouldn't anticipate a letdown."
While the stakes have certainly increased, the Patriots were playing for a division title and the chance at the bye last weekend when they played an uninspired game at Carolina. Emotion is everything in the playoffs and if the Patriots don't show up with a better intensity level, they can expect an early trip home.
"Just being in the playoffs and fighting for the championship should be enough to have us ready," safety Lawyer Milloy said.
The Patriots have proven that they can raise their level play physically when challenged to do so and one would think that a chance to compete, and possibly host, the AFC Championship game, would inspire them to elevate their intensity to the levels seen in second-half wins over Miami and New Orleans.
Playing in Foxborough or Pittsburgh in January will put emphasis on the running game, and the Patriots offensive and defensive lines will have to exceed the intensity levels of their opponents or risk getting dominated in the trenches as they did against Carolina when their secondary and special teams bailed them out of trouble. The big difference is that teams like the 2001 Panthers don't play in the postseason. The Patriots are capable of raising the bar, but will have to perform better after this bye than they did the last.
Here are the playoff scenarios:
If the Raiders beat the Jets Saturday, the Patriots host the Raiders next weekend, but if the Jets upset Oakland for the second straight week, the Patriots would host the winner of the Miami-Baltimore game.
CBS analyst Phil Simms, on a guest appearance on WSKO 790 AM in Providence said that he has already been notified that he will be in Foxborough for a Saturday night game on Jan. 19, but that has not been confirmed by the Patriots.
Also, the Patriots opponents for 2002 have been determined.
The Patriots will host Buffalo, Miami, the Jets, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Minnesota and travel to Buffalo, Miami, the Jets, Oakland, San Diego, Tennessee, Chicago and Detroit.