FOXBOROUGH — Logan Mankins could not have provided a greater contrast in terms of his health then vs. now.
When the Patriots’ veteran left guard was asked to compare how he felt headed into last year’s postseason with his status for Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans, Mankins’s response spoke volumes about not only his own improved physical well-being, but that of the team after enjoying a three-day break last weekend because of the first-round bye.
“I feel a lot better,’’ Mankins said Thursday, his gray sweat shirt soaked from an outdoor workout.
“Last year at this time I had a torn MCL and a torn ACL,’’ recalled Mankins, who this season was inactive for six games, including three in a row in the second half of the season, because of nagging ankle and calf injuries. “So, I feel a lot better.’’
Mankins was one of the 13 players the Patriots listed as questionable for their 45-10 victory over the Broncos in the divisional round last year. When the Patriots began preparations for the Texans, they listed 20 players as having limited participation in the first day of practice.
On Friday, 15 names had been removed, and the week’s final practice saw everybody participate fully. The only players remaining on the injury report were all listed as probable for Sunday: cornerbacks Marquice Cole (finger) and Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring/knee), tight end Rob Gronkowski (forearm/hip), offensive lineman Nick McDonald (shoulder), and defensive end Trevor Scott (knee).
Not a single player was reported to have missed practice this week. The only player who seemed to miss any time was defensive end Justin Francis, who was not spotted during the media access portion of Tuesday’s practice session at Gillette Stadium. The next day, Francis was spotted at practice.
The restorative effect of the bye manifested itself in the perfect attendance.
“I think everybody treats it different,’’ said Vince Wilfork, when asked how he spent the time off. “For me, it was doing what I needed to do to feel good. [I] still worked out, got a chance to watch football, got a chance to enjoy my family, and got a chance to get away.
“Just clear your head and prepare for what’s soon to come, hopefully. That’s how I approached it. Just knowing my level of play had to go up and my teammates’ level of play had to go up. So, the best way to do that is to show, lead by example. A lot of times people think you have to talk, you don’t have to talk a lot. If you go to work and everybody sees that you’re boosting your level of play, they’ll follow.’’
If the bye week helped anyone in particular, it seemed to benefit defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who injured his left hip and hobbled off the field late in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins.
Approached in the locker room earlier this week and asked for his initial reaction to the Patriots’ 28-0 shutout, which gave them the No. 2 seed and a bye, Ninkovich’s response spoke volumes, as well.
“Thank God!’’ he gushed, raising his hands toward the ceiling.
Had the Patriots been forced to play in the first round, it’s likely Ninkovich wouldn’t have been available.
“I know that if we had to play last week, we would have gotten ready to play and we would have played last week,’’ said coach Bill Belichick. “We didn’t, so we’re playing this week. We’ll get ready to go and try to play the best we can this week. That’s all we can do.
“We can’t control the schedule or how anybody is feeling or what days we play or what days we don’t play. When they schedule them, we show up and do the best we can. That’s what we’re going to do this week.’’
Asked his intentions in giving his team three days off, Belichick said, “I felt like the most productive thing we could do as a staff was to make sure we were ready for the players when they came back in. We give them a scouting report and game plan on the next team we were going to play. We needed some time to do that. We could have just kept working on basically three opponents, but we tried to set it up in such a way that when the players came back in, we would be totally prepared for whichever one it was, so that’s what we did.’’
So, did the players feel like new men when they reported back to work?
“I always feel pretty good,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady, who has often been on the Patriots’ injury report as a “probable,’’ a move largely viewed as an attempt at gamesmanship by Belichick.
“I play football for a living,’’ said Brady, who has not been on the injury report this week. “There’s a lot to feel good about doing that. So, to have a chance to play in this game, there’s a lot of excitement. Not many teams have this opportunity. It’s the second round of the playoffs, and to be here and have this chance, I think we all look forward to it and it’s why we work hard, to be in this situation.’’
Of the eight teams remaining in the playoffs, the Patriots are the only one to have all 22 of its Week 1 starters still on the active roster.
“That’s a credit to our strength coach and our training staff for keeping us on the field,’’ said running back Stevan Ridley. “It’ll help us roll into the playoffs, hopefully, with our best team and our key guys.’’
While the team’s improved health was related to the bye, it was also attributable to the time of the season: playoff time.
“Everybody feels great this time of year — everybody,’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington, who a year ago was hampered by a foot injury and was questionable for the playoff game against the Broncos. “I’m just saying, it’s playoff time and it’s time to go. It’s time to give it all you got.’’
So, nothing hurts at this time of year?
“If it does, then you’re not as concerned,’’ Arrington said. “It’s playoff time and you take it one game at a time, of course, but we are coming down the homestretch and everyone is going to give it all they have.’’