NFL teams, including the one based here in Foxborough, continue to deal with a nationwide backlash from many players' decisions to kneel during national anthem performances this past weekend. A number of news polls taken since Sunday indicate a majority of Americans disapprove of the actions taken by those players.
New England was among the teams that saw several of its players either take a knee or stand, arms locked, in separate groups, while others stood traditionally with their hands over their hearts while The Star-Spangled Banner was being sung. Patriots fans in attendance chose to express their displeasure by booing loudly here at Gillette Stadium in Week 3, while in other NFL cities, fans have since taken such drastic measures as burning their favorite teams' clothing and memorabilia.
The unusual image of a Patriots squad not standing as one – and hearing fans vociferously object to it – seemed to represent a team that isn't entirely unified, on or off the field, but players who spoke on the record Wednesday tried to downplay any perceptions of divisions on the roster. Their emphasis, they said, must remain on the game, not the pre-game.
"I don't think anybody wants that [distraction]," declared quarterback Tom Brady. "We need to focus on our jobs and showing up here. That's what we're here for and that's where the focus needs to be."
While that's certainly a goal, questions could continue to swirl around the Patriots and other teams until this Sunday's games kick off. Will New England resume standing as a team this week when the Carolina Panthers come to town?
"From my understanding," wide receiver Danny Amendola remarked, "I think we're all going to stand for that, but it's not Sunday yet.
"We're a tight-knit group in here. So, we're just worried about playing football and sending a positive message."
"I'm sure there'll be conversations as we continue to go forward," added Brady, "We'll see how it goes."
Meanwhile, the Patriots have scored plenty of points so far this season. Yet, they've also surrendered a disturbing number of them, as well as an uncharacteristic amount of big plays to opposing offenses through the first three games. That could be an even bigger concern for New England's defense this week against a talented Carolina offense.
New England's 31.7 points-per-game average this season currently ranks worst in the NFL. Cornerback Eric Rowe appeared to acknowledge the fact that in order to lower the points-allowed statistic, the Patriots have to focus on limiting the big-yardage gains first.
"There's stuff that leads up to giving up points. So, that's the kind of stuff we cover in the film room, whether it's a breakdown in the coverage or something with the run. Obviously, those things lead up to them scoring. So, I think we need to get that right first before you [focus on] 'We can't let them score.' That's how: fix the coverage, fix the run, fix the mental mistakes.
"We're making steps, we're making strides," he maintained. "The pass rush is getting better. Obviously, the rookies are getting better each week. We're starting to gel as a defense, as a whole. It's only Week 4, we've got a long way to go. But we're making strides."
Rowe didn't play against Houston last week because of a groin injury suffered in Week 2 at New Orleans. However, he practiced on a limited basis last week and again today and sounded like a player ready to get back on the field this Sunday.
"I'm feeling good. Yeah, I'm feeling good," he chuckled. "Just had a good day's practice. It's nice to be back out there."
On the other hand, the prognosis for running back Rex Burkhead, who sustained a rib injury against the Saints in Week 2, does not appear to have improved. Since that game, Burkhead has not practiced, nor did he dress for the Texans game this past Sunday. The veteran was not on the field Wednesday, either, when the Patriots returned to the practice field for their first workout of Panthers Week. Burkhead was the only Patriot not able to participate today.