The New England Patriots have won their division in 15 of their past 17 seasons, so they’re no stranger to the playoffs. They’ve also been able to secure a first round bye in 12 of those seasons, including in each of the past eight years, so they have plenty of experience in taking advantage of the bye week.
“We’re very fortunate to be in the position that we’re in not having to compete in the first round,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We certainly earned that, so we’re thankful to be where we’re at.”
“I know the guys obviously like to take the weekend to rest and spend time with their families,” Slater added. “[And] needless to say, get ahead scouting-wise on potential opponents. We’ll be tracking the games this weekend with a close eye. [We’re] looking forward to our next opportunity to take the field.”
But the bye week isn’t time for rest, as Slater would be the first to note that the Patriots take this time to self-scout and “see some of the things that we’ve done well, see some of the things that we need to improve upon and try to address those things that we need to improve upon.”
“This week is about us focusing on the Patriots,” Slater said, “and how we can improve because our mentality needs to be that of, ‘OK, we need to continue to work towards improvement.’ Even though it’s the postseason we can’t feel like we’ve done enough at this point.”
The mindset of continuous improvement was echoed by other players all over the roster, with both the offense and defense trying to create marginal improvements that can help the team stay alive for one more week.
Even defensive captain Devin McCourty pointed out how much time was devoted to improving the team’s fundamentals- aspects of the game that were likely addressed in day one of camp.
“Being out there today it kind of had like a training camp feel,” defensive captain Devin McCourty said. “Obviously we have 16 games to go over some things that we didn’t do well, but still just a chance to go against our offense a little bit and just to be out there just competing [...] it kind of gives you that true training camp where you’re just trying to get better.
“No matter who you play you need to do that well whether it’s leverage in man-to-man coverage, whether it’s run technique up front using your hands, whether it’s our lanes in coverage on special teams. Just doing those little things that are definitely going to come up sometime in these next games, or game I should say. We don’t know when but when it comes up it’ll be probably a huge play or huge factor to decide a game. That’s why this bye week has always been big for us since I’ve been here, as long as we kind of use it in the right way.”
On the other side of the ball, the offense is looking at their mistakes and how to eliminate them by the divisional round of the playoffs.
“I think it’s always valuable to evaluate where you’re at and what you’ve done and kind of what you’re doing well and what you’re not doing well,” offensive captain Tom Brady said about the bye week. “So, to have that luxury is great because usually you just don’t have time. It’s a tight squeeze anyway to get the whole game plan in for the week, and man, we go right up to the very end. And then, to have a week where you can just kind of focus on what we’ve done, I think that’s been real positive.”
The Patriots offense will also have to find a way to integrate players that missed time with injuries- like Rex Burkhead, James White, and Chris Hogan- back into the offense without missing a beat. The extra week of time before playing a game will certainly help everyone get on the same page.
The coaches are also trying to get a jump on their opponents and most will be watching the wild card games to get a better sense of their possible opponents and their tendencies when under pressure.
“We watch some TV tape,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “More coach’s tape, but the actual real time that the TV covers it in is sometimes pretty relevant, situationally. Overall, TV scouting is limited, [but] I wouldn’t say it’s zero. It certainly gives you the flow of the game and you don’t get the flow of the game on the coaches copy, especially if it’s broken up to offense, defense, special teams, which is usually the way you watch it [...] there’s some real time things that happen in a game that override the X’s and O’s part of it.”
Everyone on the Patriots will take this bye week to heal and rest and do their mental preparations for the postseason. The offense will try to reduce turnovers and protect Brady in the pocket; the defense will try to stay hot on third down defense and bring Kyle Van Noy and Alan Branch back into the fold; special teams will keep working on winning field position; and the coaches will get to work on all possible opponents.
This is not new territory for New England- and their experience will show in the divisional round.