First, the team must take care of business Sunday against the Miami Dolphins – a game that has been moved from 1 p.m. to 4:25 Eastern Standard Time.
Needing help from other teams (Houston, Denver) in order to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs, the likelihood that New England will be playing on Wild Card Weekend is growing greater. Either the Texans or Broncos must lose this weekend, in addition to the Patriots beating the Dolphins, for New England to get the first weekend of January off. The outcome of the Baltimore Ravens' last game could also impact New England's seeding in the playoffs.
So, with so many variables in the equation, the Patriots are preparing for this weekend's regular season finale with an eye toward two potential opponents the following week – 5-seed Indianapolis and 6-seed Cincinnati.
Further complicating matters, if the Patriots were to play on Wild Card Weekend, is the uncertainty of which day they'll be assigned: Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.
"I mean, we don't know when we're going to be playing next or who we're going to be playing next. There are quite a few possibilities. It's really hard to be specific on something like that when there are so many possibilities," head coach Bill Belichick told reporters via conference call this Christmas Eve, in answer to a question about how the team and staff are preparing for the playoffs.
"You're working on a 25 percent chance of something; whatever you're working on, there's probably a 75 percent chance that you're wrong. I think when it's 90/10, then maybe you can get a jump on it. It's something that we look at. There are certain things that you kind of have to prepare for. I think the high probability is that [once] you know what you're going to do, the more you can commit a resource to it.
"If we were to play next week, we know we would be playing one of two teams. So we'll certainly start working on both of those teams this week," Belichick continued, "so that when we find out, if that's the way it goes, Sunday night, then we'll already have the information ready and we can jump on either Indianapolis or Cincinnati, if that's the scenario that we're in. We know we may or may not be in that scenario, but that's the more immediate one, so that's where we'll plan next."
The Patriots have already beaten the Indianapolis Colts this season, so there is some familiarity with them from a New England scouting perspective. They have not faced the Cincinnati Bengals, though, which could mean spending more time on them.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that it's easier to game plan for a team you've already faced – the majority of the legwork has been done prior. But perhaps there's an advantage to facing a team you haven't played, because the level of uncertainty might allow a coaching staff to spring more surprises on their opponent.
"That's a tough one… I'm sure there's probably data that supports either one," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels responded when the idea was posited to him.
"I think what matters is that we finish out the season the right way and then try to prepare and have a great week of preparation, whomever we play. I think our focus is going to be on the Dolphins and whatever we end up doing in the playoffs or what have you, then we'll find out after Sunday."
The Patriots will be off tomorrow as part of their normal Tuesday routine (and also in observance of Christmas Day). They'll be back at Gillette Wednesday for a normal NFL week of work.