The second half is underway.
After taking four straight days off during their conveniently-timed bye week, Bill Belichick's AFC East-leading Patriots (6-2) returned to Gillette Stadium Monday. The respite couldn't have come at a better time, as the team struggled with injuries and inconsistency throughout the first two months of this season.
"It's a long season, a tough game, the NFL," observed defensive end Trey Flowers, who acknowledged the importance of taking time away from football during the bye. "Just to get reenergized mentally, obviously physically [as well], as far as recovery from any nicks or things from the first part of the season, and come back refreshed mentally and get ready for the second half."
"It's important," cornerback Stephon Gilmore pointed out, "because you do this 24/7, all day. Once you're in it, you've really got to be in it. So, when you get that break, you've got to take some time off and relax and get your mind off it and come back ready to go.
"I spent a lot of time with my kids and my wife. That was good. I don't know if they gave me a break," he grinned, "but it was fun. Needed that time. I'm looking forward to the second half of the season."
The players and coaches hope the extended rest period serves them well down the stretch, because getting to 6-2 certainly wasn't easy. Four of the team's six wins were within one score and came down to the final drive or final play of the game. Still, equaling or eclipsing that record in November and December promises to be a crucible. Five of New England's next six games take place away from Foxborough, beginning with back-to-back high altitude locales: Denver (5,280 feet) and Mexico City (7,382 feet).
To begin work on the remaining eight games of their 2017 regular season schedule, the players eased back into the work routine with team, unit, and positional meetings on Monday. They'll get back to practicing on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, over their off weekend, the Patriots confirmed what had long been expected. To mitigate any altitude- and time zone-related challenges, the reigning Super Bowl champs will, as they've done in the past, stay on the road between games this week and next. The Patriots will embark on their prolonged journey this Friday, remain in Colorado next week, then fly directly to Mexico for their Week 11 meeting with the Oakland Raiders.
"We have people in our organization that have been working on it, are working on it," the head coach said of the upcoming trip. "There's a lot of planning that needs to go into it. Logistically it's a very challenging trip.
"Right now, we're really focused on getting ready for the Broncos this weekend."
And rightly so. Mile High has never been kind to the Patriots, as New England's record there will attest (10-21 all-time, including playoffs). Yet, despite currently dwelling with the 3-5 L.A. Chargers at the bottom of the AFC West, Denver ranks at or near the top of nearly every defensive category in the NFL. This should concern a New England offense which, after a torrid point-scoring pace in September, struggled to put points on the board during the month of October.
"That's an exceptional [Broncos defense] that's been exceptional for a number of years," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told reporters on a Monday conference call. "A really, really tremendous unit from front-to-back, from back-to-front, however you want to look at it. They're really talented, they create a lot of problems for you, and playing in their stadium on the road at night, I'm sure it will be loud and that will add to the challenge… We've got to have a great week of preparation."
"It's a tough team, a tough place to play," added Flowers. "They always play us tough. We're in for a battle."
"We're looking forward to it," Gilmore maintained. "We have a big challenge this week."
Good to go?
Gilmore hasn't played since Week 5 at Tampa Bay, when he suffered a concussion whose effects were apparently slow to manifest themselves. He practiced all that following week before being a late lineup scratch the night before the Jets game. The Patriots elected to hold him out of that game and the next two, although Gilmore resumed practicing in the days leading up to the Week 8 Chargers game.
"It's what you sign up for. It's part of the game," he philosophized Monday. "You just have to find a way to bounce back and take it day-by-day. I just listened to the doctors and made the best decision."
The veteran declared that he's now feeling better, and when asked if he'll be able to suit up again this Sunday night in Denver, he responded, "I think so."
Hoyer on board
A week ago today, Brian Hoyer was in northern California shopping for his son's Halloween costume when his then-head coach called to inform the QB of his release from the 49ers. San Francisco needed to make room for Jimmy Garoppolo, for whom they traded the Patriots a 2018 second-round draft pick.
Two days later, on Nov. 1, he was back in Foxborough, serving as Tom Brady's one and only backup at practice with the team that gave the one-time undrafted rookie his NFL start in 2009.
"My first day, to go right back into that team meeting room and listen to Bill, it was like a flashback. Almost like a dream," the 32-year-old told reporters Monday afternoon.
"It's kind of cool to see some of the guys I came in [the league] with are now the veteran leadership on the team."
For two years, Hoyer was Brady's lone backup before the team drafted a third passer in 2011 (Ryan Mallett). Ever since his first stint with the Patriots, Hoyer said he's maintained a strong personal relationship with Brady. Wherever he has been (six different NFL teams since 2012), Brady has often been among the first people to check in on him after games, serious injuries, or in general.
"To be honest," Hoyer smiled, "he hasn't changed much."