Each January, the Patriots have a common refrain when it comes to the playoff bye week. They always want one, of course, but when it's over, they maintain that the team they'll face in the Divisional Round has an advantage because it has already won a playoff game.
This year, that team is the fifth-seeded Tennessee Titans, and according to head coach Bill Belichick, their visit to Foxborough this Saturday is an even more impressive achievement because "They're tough, they're resilient, won on the road [at Kansas City], won tough games the last two weeks that they needed to win to be here."
Belichick's players echoed that theme Tuesday afternoon.
"A team like that is very dangerous," insisted wide receiver Brandin Cooks, "because they've been on that roll – one loss and they're out – and they executed two in a row. You look at a team like that that's playing at a high level and bringing out close games, that's the danger."
"Obviously, we all know it's a very good team coming in," observed cornerback Eric Rowe. "They won a playoff game, so, they're on a roll. We were sitting around for a week. We know we've got to match that intensity."
"Well, the intensity builds whether we think about it or not," left tackle Nate Solder agreed. "So, we have to match it, bring the intensity, to keep level-headed through all the distractions."
Even though the Patriots and Titans don't face each other often, Tennessee might have a sense of familiarity with New England from their general manager, Jon Robinson, who spent a dozen years (from 2002-13) in the Patriots' scouting department. Former Patriots QB Matt Cassel, the backup to starter Marcus Mariota, also provides a knowledge base, as does starting right guard Josh Kline, who played for New England from 2013-15 before joining Tennessee.
The Titan with the most recent experience in New England, though, is Tennessee's starting cornerback Logan Ryan. He signed a free agent deal with them this past offseason after four years and a pair of Super Bowl championships with the Patriots.
"There's nothing I want more than to see him lose Saturday night," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty told reporters. He said it with a smile, though, as McCourty, who was also a college teammate of Ryan at Rutgers, has remained friends with his now-rival and added that he's looking forward to seeing him in Gillette Stadium again this weekend.
"He's a brother to a lot of us in here," added McCourty. "It will be fun to talk a little trash to each other."
Between now and kickoff Saturday night, the Patriots must find a balance between rising to the challenge of playoff intensity in practices and treating their preparations for the contest like they would any other week of the year. After all, what they've been doing has gotten them this far.
"We all know it's a one-day season," Rowe explained, "but at the same time, it's still just like another game."
"Nope. Got to stay the same, continue to do my routine, what I've been doing all year, and focus on getting better every day," maintained Cooks, who'll be appearing in the first postseason game of his pro career. "It's a football game. Can't overthink it, can't make it bigger than what it is. I'm just blessed with another opportunity to go out there and play. It feels great knowing that you've got a game coming up. It's exciting."
On the other end of the playoff appearance spectrum is Solder. He's played in many, including Super Bowls, and has gained a perspective of gratitude from having experienced both the joy of winning and anguish of losing them. For him, these extra games shouldn't be taken for granted.
"You've got to appreciate where you're at. I certainly do," he remarked. "I think it's going to be a tough game, it's going to be a great opponent, a great atmosphere… what else do you ask for? It's going to be awesome."
It was back to work on the field Tuesday for the AFC's No. 1 seed. Belichick's Patriots held their first practice since coming off their Wild Card Weekend by, and nearly every player on the roster was in uniform taking part.
The only player on the 53 not seen was running back Mike Gillislee, who sat out the regular season finale and both of last week's practices with a knee injury. Defensive end Eric Lee returned to the field after sitting out last week with ankle and finger problems.
Meanwhile, for the first time since he resumed practicing on Dec. 27, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell did not appear at today's session. Mitchell is on injured reserve with a knee issue, but became New England's second player designated for return from that inactive list when he set foot on the practice field last month.
New England has until next Wednesday – if they advance past the Tennessee Titans this weekend, of course – to activate Mitchell, so, it's unclear if today's absence was temporary or an indication that the Patriots don't plan on activating him at all for the postseason.
When asked about Mitchell this morning before practice, head coach Bill Belichick would only say, "We see him out there trying to get back into practice and do the things he's asked to do." Belichick added that the second-year player has a lot of ground to make up after being sidelined for nearly the entire season.