Players have been given today and Tuesday off and will report back to work on Wednesday. The focus of work will understandably be on team improvement rather than opponent preparation as the Patriots await the identity of their first match-up in the Divisional Playoff round.
"It wasn't one of our sharpest performances," said head coach Bill Belichick of Sunday's 38-6 win over the Carolina Panthers. With Richard Huntley rushing for 168 yards and the Patriots offense not looking particularly sharp in finishing off drives, New England knows it has work to do in order to be ready for the best teams in the AFC. Still, Belichick expressed satisfaction in many areas of play. Rather than accepting the idea that the bye week may have been the root of some rustiness, Belichick believes it actually helped. "Some of the big plays were really the result of the extra work put in during the bye week." Most notably, the special teams work preparing for Carolina's exceptional return and punting games helped both the Patriots offense and defense in the field position battle and put Troy Brown in a position to break open the game with his touchdown punt return.
Asked if he could pinpoint a defining moment in the season that helped turn things around, Belichick was quick to mention the big hit Bryan Cox laid on Jerome Pathon in the Week 3 game against the Colts. Pathon was coming over the middle for a Peyton Manning pass when Cox simply crushed him into the Foxboro turf.
It seemed from that moment on, Colts receivers were hearing Patriots footsteps and it resulted in one of Manning's worst performances of the season as the Patriots rolled to a 44-13 win. At the time, New England was 0-2.
Belichick also cited the San Diego comeback win and the win over New Orleans as huge confidence builders.
Comparisons to '96
When the Patriots marched to New Orleans and the Super Bowl in 1996, they began their season with an 0-2 mark and eventually finished 11-5 and AFC East champs. That's where the similarities to 2001 end, according to Belichick. "The players are at such different points in their careers," said Belichick of those who are still on the team like Lawyer Milloy, Ted Johnson, Troy Brown and Ty Law. "The page has been turned … this is a different team."
In fact, Belichick sees more similarities to his first season in the NFL. In 1974, he was an assistant with Ted Marchibroda's Baltimore Colts staff, at first working for free and eventually earning $25 a week. That year, the Colts limped out to a 1-4 start but then won nine in a row to finish 10-4 (the NFL had a 14-game schedule back then) and win their division.
Clean bill of health
New England came out of Carolina relatively unscathed. Tedy Bruschi did miss some action with a head injury but said after the game he felt fine. "I was out of it for a while, but I'm back," he said in the locker room.
The players and coaches learned of their No. 2 playoff seed at 30,000 feet. Via mini-TVs and updates from flight control towers on the ground, everyone managed to keep tabs on the Jets-Raiders game. When it was announced the game was finally over and the Jets had held on for the win, a roar went up throughout the plane.