The Patriots were scheduled to have a practice Thursday morning, the first day of 2015, but after a spirited split-squad scrimmage on Wednesday, head coach Bill Belichick surprised his charges by cancelling it.
Players still came to Gillette Stadium for team and position meetings, but they'd done enough on the field in their previous two days of work that the coaching staff felt confidence giving them the rest of the holiday weekend off.
"Definitely a surprise," Pro Bowler and special teams co-captain Matthew Slater acknowledged with a grin. In preparation for what he thought would be a full day of work, he revealed he "was asleep at 10:30… missed the ball drop" in Times Square.
"You know… hey, if Coach feels like it's best for us, then, I'm not going to argue with him."
"Yeah, it felt good," tight end Tim Wright admitted, "but we got some things done in the meeting room that we could correct and look forward to what's coming up in the playoffs. Yeah, we definitely did. We went out there, worked hard, put things on film, tried to work on small details. We put a good week in."
"I think it was a productive week for us," added Slater. "I think it can still be productive, as far as taking advantage of getting rest and continuing to engage ourselves mentally, focusing on what we can improve upon as individuals and as a team. I think there's still time to do that."
One of the obvious items on the Patriots' lists will be to watch this weekend's Wild Card playoff contests. Of the four teams in the AFC taking part, three are potential opponents for New England in next Saturday's Divisional Playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have already faced and beaten Cincinnati and Indianapolis, who face one another on Sunday, this season, but not Baltimore, which travels to Pittsburgh for a prime time affair on Saturday.
"We'll certainly have our eye on the games," Slater continued. "There are some good teams playing – some we've seen, some we haven't. I think a lot of guys will have their eye on the TV and watching to see what happens.
"Some of the teams maybe we're familiar with their personnel, but every team this time of year is a different team. They're playing with renewed purpose and sense of urgency. We have to be ready to do the same. Whoever we end up playing is going to be a good football team. They're going to have momentum in their favor because they would have won a playoff game, and they're not going to be concerned with where they're playing. They're just going to be concerned with beating us. So, our focus has to be on us doing our jobs at a high level. We're happy to be playing at home, but it doesn't guarantee us anything, obviously."
From now until they return on Monday, the Patriots will be free to ring in the new year at home and with family and friends for a few days. That time off is added benefit to working hard all season and earning the top seed in the playoffs.
Wright said he planned to "hydrate, take care of the body" over the next few days so he could get his mind and body ready for what's ahead next week. A little detachment is necessary along with the need to stay prepared.
"There's definitely a balance there," Slater agreed. "It's good to be able to recharge your batteries, so to speak and mentally clear your mind."
Slater equated an NFL season to having "a final exam every week."
"You put so much preparation into each and every game, and you take the test on Sundays. To be able not to have that test this weekend is something we have to take advantage of. Guys will spend time with their families and definitely recharge, but in the back of your mind, you can't fully get away from it this time of year because you know what's at stake when you come back next week."
For some players, like Slater, making the playoffs is a commonplace event, but for others, such as the younger, less experienced Wright, it will be a new experience.
"It's just a testament to the organization, how well guys work together, being a team, and winning football games," Wright marveled. "You know it's a game, you know it's going to be at a high level, but it's the same consistent approach. Not changing anything. It's a game. That's what I'm looking forward to."
"One thing we can't do here," Slater concluded, "is take for granted the opportunities we've had here, year in and year out. We're very fortunate… hopefully, we can make the most of it."
Belichick had another surprise for his players on New Year's Eve. He took them to see a private screening of the upcoming Clint Eastwood film "American Sniper," starring Bradley Cooper.
The film opens in theaters nationwide in two weeks, but Belichick requested and was granted permission for his players to see it early. Apparently, he felt there were themes addressed in the movie that could help them prepare for the playoffs.
"It was good," Wright remarked. "I learned some lessons. Pretty cool."