New England is still in somewhat of a holding pattern while awaiting its next opponent.
The way the NFL's playoff seeding works, lowest seeds face the highest seeds during Wild Card Weekend. Thereafter, the lowest seed to emerge faces the highest seed in the Divisional round, which the Patriots will host next Saturday night.
As a result, Bill Belichick's team must wait until Sunday evening, following the conclusion of the Dolphins-Steelers game, to learn for certain which opponent will be visiting. Miami is the sixth seed, so, if the Dolphins were to pull off the upset in Pittsburgh, they would be the draw. If they lose, however, the winner of the Oakland-Houston game this Saturday will get the nod.
In the meantime, even though the Patriots' playoff opponent remains to be determined, there's a playoff-like focus and intensity that's evident in the locker room and on the practice field.
"I would say the intensity naturally rises when it's playoff season. The intensity's definitely there," acknowledged WR Julian Edelman.
"What's exciting," left tackle Nate Solder declared, "is that, it's win or you go home. That's high stakes. We have high expectations here. Every game we intend to win."
"It doesn't matter what you did in the past, how many years you've played, how many Super Bowls you've won. It's about how you play in those games. It's win or go home. We know what the stakes are," echoed CB Logan Ryan, "but we can't change our approach too much because we feel that we do more than enough already. We just have to keep that going. Don't make it too big [a deal].
"It's really the same for us. Put the same amount of work in, regardless of whether we play this week or not. Watch the same amount of film. Wish I could get out of here early, but I'm not."
Ryan went on to explain why he's not yet starting to prepare for New England's three potential playoff foes. He isn't watching film of any Texans, Raiders, or Dolphins receivers because he's got his hands full with his own wide receiver teammates.
"I'm worried about [Chris] Hogan and those guys, because we're getting really competitive this week [in practice]. A lot of bragging rights, to go against our offense."
And who's had the edge so far?
"Defense is winning," Ryan smiled.
"Did he say that?" Edelman reacted in mock outrage. "You know, we have fun. Don't let him say he doesn't do anything if he gets a ball or knocks a ball down. No, it's all fun and games out there. Going out and competing against Logan, Malcolm [Butler]… all those guys. It's a competitive environment. Iron sharpens iron. It's fun to go out there and compete.
"We don't know who we're playing, so, it's a time to reflect on the year of how we've done and what we can do to improve ourselves," added Edelman. "It's only an opportunity if you take advantage of the time."
The Patriots appear to be doing just that.
QB Tom Brady was back in uniform and on the practice field Thursday. Beforehand, he explained to reporters why he sat out Wednesday's session.
"You always want to feel great on [game day]. You'd always like to practice every day, too. I think just some weeks it's about prioritization. I'd like to do everything all the time, but sometimes that's not possible – practice is pretty demanding. Our practices certainly are, so sometimes, if you practice, it might set you back a little more than you would want. But everyone is dealing with different things and I think as a player, you just have to try to be smart."
Rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Cyrus Jones both made a couple of brief appearances in the locker room this morning during the media interview period. Neither player spoke on the record, as both continue to deal with right knee injuries. Mitchell looked like he was favoring his right leg ever so slightly. Jones did not appear to have any noticeable limp, but was later seen with an enormous wrap, presumably with ice underneath, around his right knee.
Mitchell, however, was fit enough to return to practice for the first time in more than a week. Jones did not. Neither did defensive tackle Alan Branch for reasons unknown to the media.
The Patriots will be taking the next three days off. It's expected they'll be back on the practice field by Tuesday to prepare for next Saturday's Divisional Playoff Game.
One of the pleasant surprises this season has been the play of second-year defensive end Trey Flowers, particularly since the mid-season bye week. His playing time has increased, including his starting role, and he's become New England's most consistent pass rusher.
"Trey's been one of the hardest workers on the team," linebacker/co-captain Dont'a Hightower raved. "He's one of the guys who's first in, last out. He stays hard after practice. For him to be playing the way he's playing, it doesn't surprise me at all. I'm impressed, absolutely, but it's expected from a guy who works as hard as he does. We're able to do a lot of different things with him in there. He's kind of a smaller-build guy, but he plays a lot bigger than that."
The 6-2, 265-pound Flowers insists, though, that he hasn't changed his approach.
"I just had my head down, focused, tried to do better and tried to make plays every time I'm out there. Maybe my role increased, I just made sure I was prepared for it. However many plays I get in a game, I make sure I'm productive in those plays."
No trips planned
Tight end Martellus Bennett has lived up to expectations this season after being acquired in an offseason trade with Chicago. And with All-Pro Rob Gronkowski out for nearly half the season, Bennett has emerged as New England's top tight end target.
His current contract expires at the end of this season, however. So, Bennett was asked Thursday if he would like to be back in New England next season.
"I love it here," he proclaimed. "We'll figure it out when it's time to figure it out, but my family loves it here. I love being part of this team, this organization and this city, so when it comes around it comes around. I ain't really tripping... I save my money pretty good. I have a good, diverse portfolio, so I ain't really tripping right now."