Two seasons ago, coming off a disastrous loss on Monday Night Football, the reeling Patriots hosted the then-unbeaten Cincinnati Bengals in early October and scored a crucial victory that helped propel them to their fourth Super Bowl title.
This week, the Bengals are back in Foxborough, only the roles are somewhat reversed. It's New England that's enjoying a winning record and Cincy struggling at 2-3. But as the Patriots demonstrated two years ago, teams with their backs against the wall can be dangerous. Quarterback Tom Brady emphasized this is his comments to the media on Wednesday, and his sentiments were echoed by teammates in the Patriots locker room thereafter.
"You most definitely want to be ready for a hungry team. You don't want anything to sneak up on you," cornerback Malcolm Butler proclaimed. "It's a big challenge every week. This is the NFL. You can't sleep on [anyone]. Every team is good, every player is good. You've got to be prepared, ready to play, start fast, and finish."
"We have a lot of film to watch this week," declared wide receiver Danny Amendola. "We played well enough to win last week [in Cleveland], but there's a lot of room for improvement this week. We definitely have some goals to hit this week, and that's what we're focused on."
Adding to the anticipation this week is the fact that this is no ordinary home game for New England. It's Brady's first game in Foxborough since coming back from his four-game NFL suspension.
Patriots fans showed up en masse in Cleveland to witness Brady's 2016 debut, where he put on a performance that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the 26th time in his career. The Browns' FirstEnergy Stadium felt more like Gillette Stadium at times, so, how much more energy will Brady and the Patriots feel this Sunday?
"It's going to be jumping, for sure," Amendola smiled. "We travel well as fans. Playing here, as a team, we really appreciate that, too. I'm excited for the atmosphere this week. It's going to be fun."
"All home games are awesome," center David Andrews remarked. "I know [the fans]'ll be juiced up and ready to go. That's what's awesome about playing at home in the NFL. We've got an awesome fan base. What matters is us going out there and performing."
"It's always great to play at home. We've got great fans here, and I know they've been waiting to see Tom," acknowledged defensive end Chris Long. "That's definitely going to add some electricity, but we have to focus on doing our job preparing for Cincinnati. That's not going to change the way we prepare.
"It's great to have Tom back. We've got a big week of preparation ahead of us. It's nice to have 12 over there," Long emphasized. "There's a lot we have to worry about, especially defensively – a lot of different looks they throw at us, not unlike Cleveland with the multitude of things they do in the run game. It just ups the ante for what you need to do, preparation-wise."
"It was awesome going to Cleveland and the overwhelming support we had," stated wide receiver Chris Hogan. "I don't know where they were from, if they traveled to Cleveland, whatever it was, it was great. You always like seeing your own fans when you go to an away game.
"I expect [this week] to be a home game with a little intensity behind it. I'm sure everyone's excited to see 12 back on the field. Everyone, including the players, is going to be excited to be back out there. It'll be a big game. They're a good team. We're going to have to play well in all three phases."
Back in the Nink-o-time
It's not just Brady who'll be making his Foxborough regular season debut Sunday afternoon. Veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich will as well, as he, too, suited up in Cleveland after a separate four-game NFL suspension.
"I was very excited to get back with my teammates," Ninkovich admitted Wednesday. "I feel great. Just looking forward to having another good week of preparation here and playing a good football team here.
"It's going to be a great feeling to be out there [Sunday]. Cincinnati's a really good football team. They have a very explosive receiving corps, running backs are really good, tight ends are good, quarterback can make all the throws, offensive line is a really good group… We're going to have to prepare really well this week."
"It's good to have him back," Long said of Ninkovich. "He's a great teammate and a really good football player. He does so many different things to help us win."
The fast friendship struck up between Long and Ninkovich has been apparent since early in training camp. Long even recently joked that Ninko is the best football player of all time.
"We visited Jim Brown's statue last week [in Cleveland]," Long added with a smile. "Now I need to go see Ninko's statue at [his alma mater] Purdue."
Two Patriots who were unable to practice at all last week – veteran defensive end Shea McClellin (concussion) and rookie defensive lineman Vincent Valentine (back) – were back on the field Wednesday.
However, New England had three absent players, including running back Brandon Bolden (left knee), has been out of commission since late in the Buffalo game.
Joining Bolden today were linebacker Jonathan Freeny and right guard Shaq Mason, although it's unclear why, exactly. Neither player sustained any obvious injuries Sunday in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the Patriots now have a pair of Shaqs on their roster with the addition of veteran wide receiver Shaquelle Evans to the practice squad. New England had one spot open on the 10-man practice squad after promoting rookie d-lineman Woodrow Hamilton for this past Sunday's game at Cleveland.
The Patriots also released fullback Glenn Gronkowski (Rob's youngest brother) from the practice squad in order to re-sign o-lineman Ian Silberman.