FOXBOROUGH — It was said ad nauseum last week, as it is nearly every bye week in New England: Without a specific opponent to prepare for, the Patriots turned their attention inward for a couple of days, evaluating everything from players to performance to play-calling.
In the 12-plus seasons Bill Belichick has been head coach of the Patriots, the team has generally used the time well, especially in its first game off the bye.
New England is 9-3 in those games under Belichick, having won eight straight from 2003-10 before last year’s Week 8 loss in Pittsburgh, which marked the first of back-to-back losses. After dropping a decision at home to the Giants a week later, New England did not lose again until the Super Bowl.
The Patriots welcome Buffalo to Gillette Stadium this Sunday; in a scheduling quirk, this will be the sixth time since 2000 that the Bills are the Patriots’ post-bye opponent. In every one of those meetings, save for 2000, New England came away victorious.
On Tuesday, the team gathered again, with the hope that everyone is refreshed after some time away. Belichick said the mental rest can be as beneficial as the physical for players, and for coaches.
“I think any time you get a break, that can be a good thing, if it’s utilized properly,” he said. “I think there was definitely a sense of relief from all of us, coaches and players, of just not having to game-plan last week.
“Not having the whole mental pressure of coming up with a game plan each day, thinking of game plans and adjustments, and red-area game plans and adjustments, and third-down and two-minute and goal line and just the weight of studying for a final exam, if you will.
“You’re grinding through a week of preparation and then you go for the final exam and after you’ve had eight of those, it’s nice to have a week where you don’t have to study, you don’t have to game plan, you don’t have a final exam, you don’t have all of the mental adjustments you have to go through.”
While coaches went over the first half of the season with a fine-tooth comb, the primary concern for players was rest and rejuvenation — crucial for a team that played against the Rams without four injured starters (Logan Mankins, Aaron Hernandez, Steve Gregory, Patrick Chung) and had a number of other top players nursing ailments.
Gregory returned to practice Tuesday, and Chung and Mankins were out there as well. Hernandez was not present, but he had a good excuse: He was welcoming his daughter into the world. It wasn’t clear whether Hernandez would have practiced with his recovering ankle if he had not been excused for the birth of Avielle.
This year, the Patriots’ bye came at the exact midway point of the season, arguably a prime week to have off, for a variety of reasons. There’s a good sample size to evaluate in terms of what has and hasn’t worked over the first eight weeks, players’ strengths and weaknesses.
“You kind of, on that bye week, you can go through, look at all of the games you’ve played, see all the things that are working well for you and the things that haven’t gone your way,” said Rob Ninkovich. “So I think it helps us to have that bye week right in the middle of the season, give you some rest, and you’re able to look back at the games that you have played and just improve on certain aspects of everyone’s game.”
The timing of the break also brings into play another fact of Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots: They get better as the season goes on.
Since 2000, New England is 33-16 (.673) in November, and even more impressively 43-7 (.860) in December. Those numbers point to success at homing in on the positives and perhaps getting better in areas of weakness as the season progresses.
Also, the attention to detail around the team meeting rooms is ramped up even more, as Belichick emphasizes to players and coaches that the upcoming game is crucial, that late-season wins and losses play a role in dictating their fate.
It worked last year, with the aforementioned win streak the Patriots enjoyed over the final eight games of the season. They lost their first game in November, but then won every one thereafter until the Super Bowl.
When asked last week, Belichick declined to speculate on why his teams get better as the weeks pass, saying his goal is just to take things one game at a time.
But on Tuesday, Ninkovich added a bit more context.
“I think that throughout the whole season we really preach improvement every week, so the goal is to improve every week, not make the same mistakes twice,” he said. “That was kind of our theme last year, how we seemed to improve and build on what we had every week last year.
“That’s really, I think, every team’s goal — to improve every week, be a stronger team as the season rolls on.”