Here's what we know as we begin the new year and the NFL's second season: the Patriots' next game will be Saturday, January 14, 8 p.m. here at Gillette Stadium.
What we don't know is who exactly will be paying a visit. Denver (4th seed), Pittsburgh (5th), or Cincinnati (6th) are the possible opponents.
As the top seed in the AFC playoffs, New England gets this weekend off from game action, along with two-seed Baltimore. But there's plenty for the team to do over the next few days. Patriots players were back at the facility today, after enjoying the New Year's holiday off yesterday.
Rather than try to study all three potential foes in depth, the Patriots will likely spend this week trying to fix the lingering problems they have in all three phases of the game. They'll do some advance work on the Broncos, Steelers, and Bengals (perhaps more on the Bengals, since they've faced the other two already this season), but the emphasis will be on self-improvement.
Aside from the obvious weekend off, the playoff schedule this year appears advantageous to New England. If the lowest-seeded Bengals beat the third-seeded Texans in Houston, they'll come to Foxborough on the 14th. Bill Belichick, as you know, has had success against rookie quarterbacks the first time he's faced them, and the Bengals start one in Andy Dalton.
Now, if Houston wins, they'll go to Baltimore and the Patriots would face the winner of the Steelers-Broncos game, which is the last game on Wild Card Weekend, 4:30 p.m. Eastern this Sunday. If either of them has to come to Gillette, they'll have one less day to recover and prepare for the Divisional Round.
Playing a week from Saturday also means, if the Patriots beat Denver, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati, they'll have an extra day to rest and/or prepare for the AFC Championship Game, which would be the following Sunday, January 22.
Meanwhile, it's back to work at Gillette.
Very few players stopped to talk to the media today, but Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters was an exception. As a longtime Kansas City Chief, he has considerable experience with the advantages that come from playing at home – namely, the loud crowds at Arrowhead Stadium.
Waters was asked today how the noise level of fans in Foxborough compares to his old stomping grounds.
"Good question," he began with a smile. After an awkward pause and chuckle, he continued diplomatically, "You're right, I have played in some loud places, and this place can be loud … at times."
The implication being that home-field advantage could be more of one if Patriots fans were louder?
"You said that, I didn't," replied the good-natured Waters.
What he did say was that it's imperative for New England to get the most out of their week off, especially knowing that this team has bowed out of the playoffs at home the past two seasons.
"It's only good if you take advantage of it," added Waters. "Hopefully, this week, we'll be able to get the most out of it, and next week, really, take all these days and put them together with good practices and preparation."
One potential distraction for the Patriots – if they let it become one – is the situation surrounding offensive coordinator/QB coach Bill O'Brien, whose name is being mentioned among the hottest coaching candidates this coming offseason, both at the NFL and college levels.
In a press briefing at Gillette today, Belichick was asked about the growing speculation that O'Brien could be moving on once New England's season ends.
"Bill does a good job, he works hard, he's smart, he's got a lot of experience," the head coach replied.
O'Brien began his Patriots career as a coaching assistant in 2007. The next year, he moved up to receivers coach, before moving to quarterbacks in 2009. He added the role of offensive coordinator to his business cards this season.
"He's got a good understanding of what our system is, what our players can do," Belichick continued.
"He's done a great job for us since he's come here, but I really can't speak about any other position [he might be offered]. Right now, our focus is just on getting our team ready for the bye week, trying to improve the most we can and be ready for next week's opponent, whoever that is. Not anything else."
New England will practice at least twice this week, starting tomorrow, with Friday's work schedule, and next week's, still to be determined. We'll continue to update the blog with practice notes and locker room interview details throughout the bye week.