Recapping top Patriots storylines

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Recapping highlights from the Patriots on Wednesday as they held their first of three playoff bye-week practices:

1. McCourty cleared for action: Safety Devin McCourty, who left the team's Dec. 22 win over the Ravens in the third quarter with a concussion, was back on the practice field for the first time. He also held court with reporters as he's been fully cleared for action. "I'm feeling all right, doing pretty good," McCourty said, later adding that he's never had to deal with concussion issues in the past. "I'm just happy to be back on the field." McCourty watched the injury on tape. "It was a weird hit," he said, before turning to one of Bill Belichick's favorite lines. "It is what it is."

2. Cold-weather practices shape mental toughness: Several players noted how Wednesday was one of the team's coldest practices of the season, with wind cutting fiercly through the lower practice field. Players also said they are preparing for possible snow later in the week, and the hope is that working in those elements might help the team in the playoffs. "We may get one of those [days]," quarterback Tom Brady said. "Mental and physical toughness is something that is really important this time of year. You get less-than-ideal conditions out there, and we play in an environment where it's not 70 degrees and no conditions like you may be in a dome, or you may be somewhere else in warm weather. With us, it's not the way it is, so you've got to try to play to your strength, and part of our strength is hopefully going out there and practicing every day, understanding the elements, the conditions we deal with -- wind, snow, rain. We're out there almost every day, so you just get used to playing in it, and hopefully by getting used to it, you develop the mental toughness to deal with it."

3. Closing the door on O'Brien talk: Coach Bill Belichick instructed players to steer clear of any discussion relating to former New England assistant Bill O'Brien (hired as Texans coach) and current offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (of interest to the Browns for their head coaching job). He did the same when asked about O'Brien. "I love Billy O'Brien, but right now really we're on the playoffs and our situation," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on another coach or another team. I don't even know what team we're talking about here."

4. Patriots focus mostly on themselves: With members of the scouting staff working ahead on three possible opponents (Bengals, Colts, Chiefs), Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the team is focusing mostly on itself. "We'll try to get some work done on [opponents] preliminary until we know for sure who it is," Belichick said. "Really we're just trying to grind it out here and find ways to improve."

5. Belichick advocates change for P.A.T.: A significant part of Belichick's news conference was focused on the kicking game, with Belichick saying he'd like to see rules altered so more kickoffs are returned and point-after-attempts aren't converted at a 99 percent rate. "It's virtually automatic," he said. "That's just not the way the extra point was put into the game. It was an extra point that you actually had to execute and it was executed by players who were not specialists. They were position players."

6. Talib and Slater also draw a crowd: Cornerback Aqib Talib and special teams captain Matthew Slater were other players drawing larger media crowds. Slater has emerged as a go-to guy for reporters and also an inspirational leader among players.