Patriots players will be back to work today for the first time (officially) in 2013, and the team is hopeful to carry the momentum generated on the final Sunday of the regular season into the playoffs.
Here's what's on tap for the day and a look at key storylines to be monitored throughout the week.
Back on the field. The Patriots will take to the practice fields for one of two sessions during this bye week, and despite the chilly temperature, they'll be outside and working through the cold. It would come as a mild surprise if the team put full pads on for practice, as they've been working mostly in light shoulder pads and helmets in recent weeks. With a number of players dinged up, preservation and body maintenance is key right now.
Ninkovich watch. It seems highly unlikely that defensive end Rob Ninkovich will be spotted on the practice field. Although reports have indicated his hip injury might not keep him out of next week's playoff matchup, he probably needs ample rest in the coming days. He's been the Patriots' most consistent and best pass rusher in 2012, leading the team in sacks with eight and tying linebacker Brandon Spikes for the team lead with five forced fumbles. On Monday, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia talked about some of the team's reserve options at defensive end (link here)
Others to watch. Ninkovich isn't the only member of the Patriots dealing with an injury, and it will be interesting to see how the team decides to utilize banged-up players in practice. Might someone such as tight end Rob Gronkowski sit out practice? Or a veteran such as Wes Welker or Vince Wilfork, and possibly Tom Brady too? With a full week of practice yet to be conducted, the Patriots probably aren't looking to overwork any of their players who would benefit from the rest.
Belichick to speak. Brady's customary Wednesday press conference has been pushed back a day, but we will hear from coach Bill Belichick. On Monday, Belichick discussed the team's plans for approaching this bye week (link here), noting that the week is about both self-evaluation and a look ahead to each of the team's three potential playoff opponents.
Potential playoff opponents. The Patriots could know by Saturday who their first playoff opponent will be (if the Texans win, it's Houston), but until then, we'll follow closely each of the three teams in play. We overviewed each of the teams on the blog yesterday (links here for Texans, Ravens and Colts), and you can check out full coverage of the AFC wild-card games here: Bengals-Texans or Colts-Ravens.
Nearly a full boat on the roster. After signing defensive lineman Tracy Robertson to the practice squad on Tuesday, the Patriots are close to full capacity on their roster (just one open practice squad spot remains). Also of note as it relates to the roster, the entire starting lineup from the Patriots' opening-day win over the Titans remains intact, meaning none of the 22 starters have been placed on injured reserve. Ninkovich's injury currently is the most pressing to the starters.