Returns in, and outlook much healthier
FOXBOROUGH — There are many advantages to securing a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and among the most important may be the chance to get players healthy.
The Patriots used their bye to evaluate and rest players dealing with nagging injuries. Yesterday, they held their first practice of the week, and a few players were back on the field.
Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez led the group of returners. He missed the final two games of the regular season and numerous practices because of a hip injury. His return is important, as he provided the Patriots with a spark in their Dec. 6 victory against the Jets. Hernandez pulled in three receptions for 51 yards and a touchdown.
In the two games against the Jets this season, Hernandez had nine catches for 152 yards. His only 100-yard performance of the season came in Week 2 against New York.
Other players who returned to practice included defensive lineman Eric Moore and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer. Running back Danny Woodhead, center Dan Koppen, and offensive lineman Dan Connolly all shed the non-contact jerseys they wore last week. While Koppen was dealing with an undisclosed injury, Woodhead and Connolly were both shaking off the effects of a concussion.
Players who were not at practice included linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who has been hampered by a calf injury, and defensive lineman Myron Pryor. Through the latter part of the season, Pryor was dealing with a back injury but he returned for the last game.
Mum is the word The third meeting with the Jets isn’t changing what the Patriots have to say about their AFC East rival. They’re not saying anything.
Coach Bill Belichick told his team he wants to handle the verbal jabs, if necessary. The job for the players is to focus on game day, linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
“That’s why I’m hoping no one asks me those type of questions,’’ said Mayo with a laugh.
The theme is the same every time these teams play. Headlines pour from the mouth of Jets coach Rex Ryan and his players. But reaction rarely makes its way out of Foxborough.
“We’re not worried about that at all,’’ said Patriots safety Jarrad Page. “We’re going to go out and practice the same way.
“After the game, everybody will forget about what was said this week and you’ll just know who won or lost that game, who’s moving on and who’s not.’’
Running back Sammy Morris, who is in his 11th NFL season and fourth with the Patriots, said the attitude of the players is in line with the coaches’.
“That’s a big part of it, too,’’ Morris said. “Like I said, part of that is personality and part of that is the coach and players around you. It’s not what we do.’’
Outside chance? No matter how much snow is expected to fall today, the Patriots not only are expected to be at Gillette Stadium, they may even practice outside.
If anything, players may take more precautions to make sure they arrive on time. A few learned the hard way last season, when Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Gary Guyton, and Derrick Burgess were all sent home after arriving late to meetings on a snowy morning.
“We’ll be here on time, and I think all the guys may need to leave their homes a little early this year,’’ said wide receiver Deion Branch. “I heard about the thing that happened in the past, so we don’t need that to show up. This is not the time for that.’’
Once everyone arrives, tight end Alge Crumpler said, he wouldn’t be surprised to be practicing outside even in snow.
“I haven’t checked the schedule, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be outside,’’ Crumpler said. “Our bubble is just for naming rights, it’s not for us to practice in.’’
Good turn for Page The only postseason experience in Page’s career came in his rookie season with the Chiefs in 2006. The one game was a wild-card loss to the Colts, but it was enough for Page to get a feel for what to expect this week.
He is happy to be in position to contribute during the postseason.
“It feels great,’’ Page said. “I’ve only been to the playoffs one time and I was only able to play in one game that year because we got sent home early. I’m excited to be in this position and hopefully we can go out there and take care of business and get a W.’’
The Patriots received Page in a trade with the Chiefs in September. A calf injury slowed him down this season as he missed five games. Despite that, Page believes he can contribute.
“I’m very confident,’’ he said. “I put in a lot of time when I first got here. I’ve been comfortable with this defense not too long after I got here. I’m just prepared and ready to go out there, and when I get my chance, I’m ready to make plays.’’
Honorable mention At least one website believes cornerback Devin McCourty should be Defensive Rookie of the Year. Profootballfocus.com selected McCourty as its top rookie, saying he has “played like a top-10 cornerback.’’ The site also said tight end Rob Gronkowski was the fifth-best rookie in the NFL this season.
Shalise Manza Young of the Globe staff contributed to this report; Monique Walker can be reached at email@example.com.