Since beating the New York Jets on Sunday, the Patriots took New Year's Eve and New Year's Day off. They returned to Gillette Stadium on Wednesday for a practice session in shells (smaller, lighter shoulder pads) that focused more on them than on their next opponent, because as of right now, they don't know who that next foe will be.
As owners of the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC and, by virtue thereof, a bye this coming Wild Card Weekend, New England knows that it will host a Divisional Round game on Sunday, January 13, kicking off just after 1 p.m. Eastern. They could face one of three teams who are playing this weekend: the No. 3 seed Houston Texans, No. 4 Baltimore Ravens, or fifth-seeded Los Angeles Chargers.
The Patriots could find out as early as Saturday night who that will be. As the second-place AFC seed, New England is slotted to play the highest-ranked team that survives Wild Card Weekend. Since the Texans play the first game of this year's playoffs, this Saturday at 4:35 Eastern, they'll automatically punch a ticket to Foxborough on the 13th if they beat the bottom-seeded Indianapolis Colts.
In theory, the Patriots could start preparing for the Texans on Sunday, but if Houston were to lose at home to the Colts, New England would have to await the winner of the Chargers-Ravens contest, kicking off at 1 p.m. Sunday.
In the interim, the AFC East Champion Patriots spent today's practice cleaning up aspects of their own game that needed addressing.
"It doesn't make sense to get ready for three teams all at one time," cornerback Jason McCourty acknowledged, "so, we're just continuing to improve and also looking at the things we haven't done well and try to clean those things up and work on those."
"We're just trying to get better as a team and as an individual, working on your technique and fundamentals," cornerback Stephon Gilmore told reporters late this afternoon. "It's a great opportunity. It's not easy to be in this position. You have to take advantage of the opportunity… you have to compete each and every practice and try to have your best game on Sunday."
Not every player was on the practice field today, however. McCourty's brother, safety/co-captain Devin McCourty, was among a trio of players who didn't appear, and his absence wasn't surprising. In the early third quarter against the Jets, McCourty suffered a head injury (in all likelihood, a concussion) and did not finish the game. Teams that have playoff bye weeks are not required to submit practice/injury reports, so, we probably won't have further information about McCourty's health status until next week, unless he somehow returns to the field tomorrow.
Tight end Dwayne Allen was also not spotted at today's session, nor fullback James Develin. It's unclear why Allen was absent, although he had been dealing with a left knee injury in the later weeks of the regular season. Allen actually started the Jets game and played considerable minutes throughout. Develin, meantime, according to his social media posts, is with his wife, who is expecting the couple's third child.
New England is scheduled to practice again on Thursday, with Friday yet to be determined. In the past, the Patriots have normally taken the day off from practicing to give players extra time to reap the benefits of the bye.
"It's one of the things you work hard for, you deserve," DE Trey Flowers remarked about having a playoff bye week. "It's definitely something you can't take for granted. It's hard to be successful in this league... I'm going to rest. I'll watch some football, see some potential opponents. Relax your mind, get away from it a little bit, and understand that when you come back in here, it's time to play football. Just get refreshed mentally and physically."
"Just chill with my family. Probably watch the games," added Gilmore. "Take care of my body as much as I can this weekend so I can be ready to go."