FOXBOROUGH — There is no opponent to focus on yet, so the Patriots have spent the week worrying only about themselves. That’s not being selfish; it’s a benefit to holding a first-round playoff bye.
Following a scheduled day off Tuesday, the Patriots returned to practice Wednesday, and will work out Thursday before being given a three-day weekend. Don’t expect to hear them refer to the time off as a vacation, though. And even though they don’t have a game this weekend, it hasn’t meant an easy week.
“I feel like, instead of thinking of it as a week off, thinking of it as a week to get better,” tight end Aaron Hernandez said. “We all need to get better, we need to grow as a team during this week, take that step.
“We have a couple practices where we’re going to go hard, and work on the things we need to work on, and then the days we have off, relax, maybe watch a little bit of film, get some mental reps, and that’s about it.”
Hernandez said he’ll be tuning in to the games that will determine the Patriots’ opponent in the divisional round. Either Houston (with a win over Cincinnati), or the Indianapolis-Baltimore winner will play the Patriots Jan. 13 at Gillette Stadium.
Until an opponent is finalized — Saturday at the earliest, or Sunday — the Patriots are exercising a little self-help.
“All of us got to work on what we’ve got to do better individually and as a team, and then take those steps forward to next week,” Hernandez said. “Every week is detail-oriented, it’s all about focus to detail, and that’s how you can come out fast, play hard, and make plays.”
Even though it’s only a two-practice week, followed by a three-day weekend, players likely weren’t getting the impression that it’s time to exhale and coast. At least not from the coaching staff.
“Nobody ever said it was a week off,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We’re here, there are things we can accomplish, things that we can do, things that we’re doing. That’s what we’re here for.”
One area of improvement for the Patriots during the regular season was on defense. Through 10 games, opponents were averaging 22.5 points per game, with eight of them scoring at least 20. In the last six games, the points dropped to 17.6, with the Patriots holding five opponents to fewer than 20.
Only eight teams gave up fewer than the 331 points allowed by the Patriots.
“I think there’s some relevance to some statistics,” Belichick said. “I’d rather be obviously high in wins, low in points, low in third-down conversion percentage, low red-area percentage, low goal-line percentage, low yards-per-rush, low yards-per-attempt, low penalties. The most important one is wins, the next most important one is points.”
Long pass plays for opposing offenses also decreased as the season continued.
“I’d like to think we improved. We certainly worked on it,” Belichick said. “We made a couple changes after the Seattle game, kept working on it more.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I don’t think it’s any one thing, one player, one call. Defense is team defense. It’s pass defense, it’s pass rush, it’s run defense to create longer yardage situations, it’s pressure coverage, it’s a little bit of everything.”
Brady resting up
Because of their bye, the Patriots were not required to submit a practice report Wednesday, but three players, including quarterback Tom Brady, were not spotted in the brief portion of practice made accessible to the media. Brady also missed practice last Wednesday — his first absence of the season — and was listed that day with a right shoulder injury. He returned a day later, was removed from the injury report, and played well against the Dolphins in Sunday’s regular-season finale, throwing for two touchdowns and 284 yards.
One can assume that Brady, who has played more than 98 percent of the offensive snaps this season (1,213 of 1,237, a snap count higher than any quarterback in the league), was simply being given an extra day off.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Dont’a Hightower were the other players not spotted at practice. Ninkovich suffered a left hip injury against the Dolphins. Hightower has been on the injury report most of the season with hamstring (which forced him to miss two games) and shoulder injuries.
With 16 playoff victories as a starting quarterback, Brady is tied with Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. Belichick has 17 coaching victories in the postseason, tied with Joe Gibbs for third, behind Tom Landry (20) and Don Shula (19) . . . Belichick was asked about Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who announced Wednesday that this will be his final season. “Tremendous player, tremendous career,” Belichick said. “I’ve known Ray since I went down and visited with him in 1996 prior to the draft in Miami.” . . . Former Patriot Ross Ventrone, a human roster yo-yo last season (he was signed, released, or activated 21 times in 2011), signed a futures contract with the Steelers on Wednesday. Ventrone is a Pittsburgh native. Teams can sign players to futures contracts once their season ends, so the Patriots are not yet eligible for those transactions.