NFL Conference Championship Week has nearly come to an end. Just two days from now, the Rams and Saints will meet in New Orleans to decide which side will represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII. Immediately thereafter, some 13 hours' drive north in Kansas City, the AFC crown will either be given to the Chiefs or remain with the Patriots for the third straight year.
Even players like Rob Gronkowski, who are familiar with the spectacle of the conference title game, admit that the novelty of still being in a position to play at this time of year never wears off.
"I mean, just our eighth championship game [appearance] in a row. It's just unbelievable that we're in our eighth," the tight end told reporters this week. "You know what I'm trying to say? It's like, 'Wow, we've got another one now.' You've got to prepare and you've got to take it in, but also, at the same time, you've got to be ready for the game Sunday mentally and physically."
Physically, New England has no excuse not to be ready for the Chiefs. Since Thanksgiving, the Patriots have been one of the healthiest teams in the NFL, as evidenced by the shortness of their injury report. After Thursday's practice, the team removed the one and only player listed, defensive end Deatrich Wise, who's had an ankle issue of late. Entering Friday's final padded practice of the week, the Patriots had 100-percent attendance at practice (all 53 active roster members, plus the 10 practice squad players) and zero players listed on their injury report – a remarkable achievement any time of year, but particularly this late in the campaign.
Contrast that with Kansas City, which has 10 players, or about 20 percent of its roster, listed. To be fair, though, nine of those 10 players took part fully in Chiefs practice, so, there's little doubt that those players will be available on Sunday night.
Nevertheless, the fact is that any aches and pains the Patriots might be dealing are not significant enough to warrant a listing on the injury report. That means the players and coaching staff can devote their full attention to the game plan, their individual and collective responsibilities, and going out to practice without limitation, which certainly gives any team a decided advantage in its preparations.
"Of course it does," Gronkowski continued. "When you're dealing with that type of [injury] stuff with a lot of guys, you see what you can do and [have to deal with it]. When that's out of the picture, I mean, it just makes practice that much easier, that much better. Just go out there, do what we've got to do, focus on the job that you've got to do and do it at full speed, do it however you need to do during practice so you can go out and replicate on game day on Sunday."
"Absolutely, yeah," head coach Bill Belichick agreed. "Being able to practice, being able to train, being able to string those days and weeks together, yeah, it's what you want."
Belichick credited his club's medical and strength/conditioning staffs for keeping his players in optimal physical shape for this latest playoff run.
"Yeah, I mean, they all work hard," added Belichick. "It's a combination of a lot of things. Training is like anything – it helps to have a good plan, it helps to follow the plan, and the players have worked extremely hard. You've got to go out there and work at it, day after day, week after week, month after month, in some cases, year after year, and that's how you improve. So, the players have worked really hard as a total team with a lot of consistency. I think the work that, as you mentioned, the other people in those [staffing] areas have done has been good, but it's a combination of a lot of people working together and doing a good job."
Their own health is an aspect of this game over which the Patriots have some control, but one in which they have absolutely none is the condition of the Arrowhead Stadium playing surface. This week, crews at the stadium replaced a significant portion of the grass, notably the entire 100 yards of the middle section between the hash marks, which sees the heaviest traffic, and at least one of the end zones. In the photo below, the darker shades of green indicated the areas that are feature new sod.
At this point, the Patriots have done about as much as they can do to get themselves ready for the Chiefs. There's a little more to do before the team takes off for Kansas City on Saturday afternoon, but for all intents and purposes, the work week is virtually complete.
"If you're prepared, you're ready to play," observed rookie running back Sony Michel. "It's almost like taking a test. You walk into the class, if you're prepared, you ace it. If you're not prepared, now you're nervous."
Michel added that he feels he's studied enough for this week's important exam at Arrowhead.
"Yeah, absolutely. It's all about what I did this week. I'm ready for Sunday."
A sentiment no doubt shared by many.