FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots entered the final weekend of the regular season cloaked in uncertainty, not knowing what playoff seed they’d be or when they’d begin their march toward New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII.
Some pieces to the puzzle were put in place Sunday, with the Patriots earning the second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye, scheduled to host a divisional-round playoff game Jan. 13 at 4:30 p.m. What they don’t know — and won’t know until this weekend — is who their opponent will be.
That won’t stop the Patriots from preparing this week, although they’ll be rewarded with some extra time off. After getting the traditional Tuesday off, the Patriots will practice Wednesday and Thursday, then enjoy a long weekend from Friday through Sunday.
When players return Monday, they’ll know which of three teams — Houston, Baltimore, or Indianapolis — will be coming to Gillette Stadium.
Until then, they’ll spend the time much as they did during their in-season bye week: getting healthy, analyzing inward, tightening any perceived loose ends.
“We’ll kind of reevaluate where we are and what we feel like would be the most productive things for our team: practice, meetings, or other things we can do,” coach Bill Belichick said this week on a conference call. “We’ll try to find the ones that we feel like could have the biggest impact or are the most important.”
It helps from a preparation standpoint that the Patriots have played all three of their possible opponents. They beat two of them at home: Indianapolis (59-24) on Nov. 18, and Houston (42-14) on Dec. 10. They lost at Baltimore (31-30) on Sept. 23.
The Ravens have played 13 games since beating New England, so the Patriots would have additional work to do if it ends up being Baltimore. Actually, the advance work is already being done.
“We have people in our organization who are always kind of the advance people, whether it’s scouts or coaches that are moving ahead,” Belichick said. “Baltimore, of the three teams that we could play next, is the one that we — there’s a lot more information since the time we played them, and that definitely needs to be analyzed.”
Keep your balance
Interesting statistical nugget from the regular season: When the Patriots rushed for at least 100 yards, they were 12-0. When held to fewer than 100 rushing yards, they were 0-4.
“I don’t really pay too much attention to the statistical part of it, because I think a lot of times there can be some chicken-and-egg there,” said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “If you’re winning and you play well early and you get ahead and you have success in one area of the game, then it usually allows you to maintain your balance.
“I think our overall goal is to try to be productive and balanced at the same time with both the run and the passing game. Certainly we’re a better offense and a better team when we can do that.”
Stevan Ridley led the Patriots with 1,263 rushing yards, and even though it’s been eight games and more than two months since his last one, he had four 100-yard games. He agreed with McDaniels: The better the balance, the better the offense.
“It’s a great feeling when the offense is clicking,” said Ridley. “We had it on the ground, we had it in the air. That only comes through hard work and preparation throughout the week.”
A time to heal
The bye should be timely considering the long list of Patriots dealing with injuries large and small. There were 21 players on last week’s injury report, including five offensive linemen and five defensive backs. Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard sat out his second straight game with hamstring and knee injuries. An extra week off will come in handy for Dennard, no? “Just trying to get better every day,” he said. “We still have to get after it. There’s no days off. We’ll need to get after it.” . . . The Patriots signed defensive lineman Tracy Robertson to the practice squad. The undrafted rookie free agent out of Baylor had stints with the Texans and Lions but has yet to play in an NFL game . . . Equipment manager Don Brocher, the longest-tenured employee in Patriots history, died Tuesday after a season-long battle with leukemia. Brocher, a longtime Norton resident who spent 41 seasons with the team, was 60. He snapped a streak of 834 consecutive Patriots games worked when he didn’t travel with the team for a preseason game this year against the Buccaneers. He also worked 37 of the franchise’s 39 postseason games, including all seven trips to the Super Bowl.