By virtue of their win over the Jets this past Sunday, the Patriots gave themselves an early Christmas gift: a guaranteed first-round bye in the playoffs.
Monday night, they received an even bigger present courtesy the Cincinnati Bengals: home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Cincy's win over Denver assured New England of the top AFC seed in the postseason, based on their records and the tie-breaker the Patriots own over the Broncos from having beaten them head-to-head earlier this year. Owning the top seed means the Patriots can bypass Wild Card Weekend on Jan. 3 and 4 and jump straight to the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs the following weekend.
However, there's one more regular season game left, this Sunday at Gillette Stadium versus a Buffalo Bills team that knocked itself out of the playoffs with a loss at Oakland the other day. That makes this Week 17 matchup meaningless in terms of the standings, yet the Patriots insist they'll still take the game seriously.
"It's my fifth year. I knew not much was going to change when we came in here today," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty told reporters. "It's always business as usual – focused on the next game. We've been in games where we've lost by a lot and the next week we had to focus on the next game. We've been in games where we've won by a lot and Bill [Belichick] has come in the same way. We're on to whatever team is next and this week it's Buffalo.
"I watched some of the [Broncos-Bengals] game," he acknowledged. "I think that's natural, you know."
"Two-second smile," co-captain Matthew Slater conceded, when asked for his reaction to the Bengals' victory, "and then move on, focus on the Buffalo Bills."
"That was really out of our control last night," remarked QB Tom Brady. "I think we did our best to do our part on Sunday [against the Jets], which was good, but still the season is not over for us. There is plenty of time to think about things down the road down the road. This isn't the time for it. We've got to go play well this week. That is the attitude and that is what all the leaders of the team have to make sure everyone is on the same page."
With little at stake in the regular season finale – save personal pride and perhaps some contract incentives for some players – the temptation exists, certainly, to give some key players some extra time off.
"I'm preparing to my ability that I do every single week. I'm preparing to my max and expecting to play the whole game," maintained tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"We're players," added McCourty. "We don't decide who plays, what plays we call. We can only do one thing, and that's to be ready to play."
While most of the players were following the lead of their head coach, who insists the Buffalo game is all that matters at the moment, the Patriots were willing to concede that playing at Gillette has been to their advantage this season.
"We've always played pretty well at home," Brady continued. "Certainly, we've got great fans who support us. We've got the weather elements, conditions – the wind always comes into play. Because we practice in that, I always feel like that's a great advantage for us, too. I think trying to get ahead of these teams and staying ahead and playing from ahead is really important to get the crowd into it. Our defense really feeds off of it."
"It's been huge," McCourty agreed. "I think this team loves playing at home, in front of our fans. They've given us a reason to feel that way. They've come out here every time we've played at home, none bigger than when we came back and played after the Kansas City game. They supported us great and we went out there and played good football."
"We love playing at home. I love playing at home. Our fans have been great," said Gronkowski, who then brought the emphasis back to Buffalo. "I'm excited for another home game. Can't ask for anything better to be home this game and enjoy it and play in front of our fans."
"We have a game to play against the Buffalo Bills, a very good football team in our division," Slater proclaimed. "They're going to play hard and we know that and have to focus on that.
"We're not looking ahead. This game's important to us."
The entire roster – 53-man and practice squad – was in uniform for a rare Tuesday practice. Normally, NFL players are given a day off two days after a game, but because of Christmas falling on Thursday this year, the Patriots adjusted their work schedule to accommodate the holiday.
New England made one transaction to the practice squad, releasing cornerback Daxton Swanson and signing DL Cameron Henderson.