After three straight days of much-needed rest and recuperation, the Patriots got back to work Wednesday. After beating the Kansas City Chiefs in a Divisional playoff game this past Saturday, Bill Belichick's banged-up bunch eased its way back into the work week by conducting a walkthrough practice at their indoor practice facility behind Gillette Stadium.
Every player, save rookie guard Tre' Jackson, was seen at the start of today's session, including a pair of Pro Bowl starters on defense who were unable to finish the Chiefs game because of injuries incurred during the contest. LB Jamie Collins (back) and DE Chandler Jones (right knee) were seen doing little more than walking around, but it's not uncommon for players, like Jackson, who are seriously injured to sit out even the most casual of workouts. Therefore, the presence of Collins and Jones was seen as a positive indication that they're at least part of the game plan for this week's AFC Championship Game at Denver.
If New England is to win a fifth Super Bowl title, it must first achieve the momentous task of beating the Broncos in Colorado this Sunday – easier said than done, as history would tell us.
Denver is a place that has not been hospitable to the Patriots in the past – most recently, New England squandered a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead at Mile High eight weeks ago. That loss essentially determined where this AFC title game would be held.
"There's no concern about playing on the road," wide receiver Brandon LaFell insisted. "At this time of year, you just have to be playing good, so whether we're playing at home or on the road, we know we have to go out there and play our best game. We can't have too many mistakes against a team that's been playing good football. I think this team has won three overtime games this year. They've been down a lot and always find a way to win games so we know we have to play our best football at this time of year."
The thin, Rocky Mountain air and vociferous crowd at Sport Authority Field are just two factors working against the Patriots. The others, of course, are the Broncos themselves, who are the league's best defense statistically this season.
"They're a good football team," stated wide receiver Danny Amendola. "They play hard, they're well-coached, they fly around out there defensively. I'm excited to prepare for them today, Thursday, and Friday.
"[They're] just real athletic – up front [they're] athletic, DBs are athletic, knack [for] getting big plays. We played each other and we're familiar with each other. We know each other so it'll be fun in preparation."
On the other side of the ball, there's the return of QB Peyton Manning, who was injured and didn't play in the regular season meeting. However, the strength of this Broncos offense might be its rushing attack, which gashed the New England defense in the earlier clash.
"You have to stop the run, definitely," DE/co-captain Rob Ninkovich agreed. "Very good football team, you have to respect every back that they have, they run hard. I think you have to definitely have a mentality of stopping the run. The fundamentals of basic football are run the ball, and defensively, stop the run. It's going to be a challenge. They're a good football team, they run most plays well and we just have to play well together up front."
"They can run the ball a lot, they've got a good running game, good running backs," added Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler. "They've got a quarterback that's able to adjust calls at the line of scrimmage and they've got two good weapons [in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas] on the outside along with other receivers. We just have to go out there and make plays."
Mayo to IR
In the latest Patriots injury saga this season, New England has placed LB/co-captain Jerod Mayo on injured reserve with a shoulder issue. Mayo sustained the injury in the win over KC. That makes 18 Patriots who've gone on season-ending lists this season.
"It's tough. Mayo is kind of the heart and soul of not just the defense, but really the team," fellow co-captain Devin McCourty remarked. "He gets everybody going. Being able to watch him, he's a special leader. Energy level is always high. No matter if it's 6:30 in the morning and the training room is packed with treatments and guys are trying to get healthy. He's usually in there getting guys going."
This mark's Mayo's third straight season that has ended on IR. A pectoral injury in Week 6 of 2013 and a right knee injury last season in Week 6 ended those campaigns prematurely for the veteran.
"I think it's a big loss for us as a team," McCourty continued, "but this time of year, playing in the NFL, things happen. I just hate it for him, personally, you know he's battled and worked his way back from different injuries and being able to help us out a lot this year defensively I think has been huge for us so knowing him, he's a tough guy. He's going to rehab and do everything he has to do, but it just sucks he won't be able to be out there on the field playing."
Drive for Five
Sunday will mark the fifth straight AFC Championship appearance for New England. Win or lose, it's a remarkable feat that has only been accomplished one other time (by the Oakland Raiders, 1973-77).
"It's so hard to be consistent in this league, and I think that's something that every franchise hopes to establish, is some consistency and stability, and we've been really fortunate to have that here," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater told reporters. "A lot of that credit goes to [owner] Robert Kraft, [head coach] Bill Belichick and [quarterback] Tom Brady. The way they've approached their roles – and they're all different, obviously – has really allowed this franchise to have the success that it's had.
"I think we understand that we've been very fortunate… There are a lot of teams that wish they were in our shoes, so we don't take the success that we've had for granted, and at the same time we realize it's not just us as players that are making it happen, but there are a lot of people involved in the process that allow this team to have the success that it's had."
Check out photos from Patriots practice and media access leading up to New England's AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos.