Patriots able to attack bye-week practices with injury numbers down

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Patriots able to attack bye-week practices with injury numbers down

FOXBORO -- When Bill Belichick was asked on Thursday about the quality of his team's practices at this stage of the season, since its overall health is so much better than it was last year, the Patriots coach wasn't interested in getting into the discussion. 

"I don’t really care about last year," he said. "I don’t really care about the year before that. I don’t really care about the decade before that. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. So where are we now? What’s the best thing we can do to help our team? How can we get better yesterday, today, to play our best football a week from Saturday night? That’s really what it’s all about, so where we were or weren’t some other year, I mean who cares?"

He made it clear that nothing matters as much as his team's Jan. 14 Divisional Round game

Yet the point remains: The Patriots are in a much better position to prepare for the Divisional Round than they were a year ago because of their overall physical well-being. 

Last season around this time, they had 18 players on injured reserve, including key cogs like left tackle Nate Solder, and running backs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. There were 17 additional names listed on the injury report leading up to Kansas City's visit to Gillette Stadium for the right to play in the conference chamionship, including Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Dont'a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon LaFell and Devin McCourty.

The sheer number of injuries impacted their ability to practice.

Contrast that with the shape the Patriots are in this season: They have just three players on injured reserve (Jonathan Freeny, Rob Gronkowski and Greg Scruggs) -- nine fewer than the average NFL team, according to ESPN -- and two who never came off of the physically unable to perform list (Tre' Jackson, Vollmer).

According to the research done by ManGamesLost.com, the Patriots have been the sixth-healthiest team in football this season, with 122 games missed because of injury. 

Belichick's club is in good enough shape that he held a fully-padded practice on Wednesday, and everyone on the roster but Brady, Malcolm Mitchell and Cyrus Jones were present during the media-availability portion. Even those absences weren't indicative of any serious injury concern because Brady and Mitchell were back on the field for the next day's work in shells and sweats. 

What was once a time to manage the well-being of his players has now become a time for Belichick to push his club in order to "get better yesterday, today, to play our best football a week from Saturday night."

"That was tougher," McCourty said this week when reminded of last year's injury situation. "I think, overall, you just look at the list of guys on IR who are in better health. It’ll be a little different I think than last year just for the health of the team seems to be better.

"Hopefully we can take advantage. I thought last year was different but we try to take advantage in the way we could last year. That was a little different than this year. But that’s the thing in this league, year by year you hope you get the bye week. How it will play out and how it will work might be a little different, but I think the mentality stays the same."

Having the right mentality during the bye week is one thing, and it helped get them through last year's Divisional Round game against the Chiefs. 

But having enough healthy bodies to practice competitively for two weeks leading up to their first playoff game is one advantage that may make this year's Patriots team better suited to take on the postseason road ahead.

Curran: Patriots are likely to finish unbeaten this season

Curran: Patriots are likely to finish unbeaten this season

FOXBORO -- Resistance is futile. 

You see this team out there scampering around from drill to drill on a cloudy, late-July day, not a lollygagger to be seen, everything moving with military precision, and you know what it looks like? 

It looks like 80-something players and a coaching staff starting NFL training camp. 

What is it really? It's the first day of work for the NFL's greatest dynasty as it embarks on what will likely be a historic campaign. 

Never mind "may." Never mind "has a chance." It is LIKELY the Patriots will be the first team to ever win 19 games in a single NFL season. 

They don't want to hear that and are already dousing the thought of perfection by labeling it stupid, ridiculous, or disrespectful.

Between now and the start of the season, a parade of indignant former players, coaches and executives will snort and chortle at how absurd the conversation is. 

Frankly, they don't know what the hell they're talking about. 

That won't stop all of them from scoffing at the prospect of 19-0 the same way Curtis Strange scoffed at Tiger Woods back in 1996 when Woods said coming in "second sucks and third is worse." You'll learn, Strange said. 

Strange learned. Everybody learned. Maybe the experts should have seen it coming with Tiger. Maybe not. 

But with the 2017 Patriots, a failing to see what's likely to happen means willfully ignoring facts to do it. The Patriots went 17-2 last year. They lost to Buffalo because their third-string quarterback's thumb was dangling. They lost to Seattle on a night they handed the ball to the Seahawks repeatedly and still were at the Seattle 1-yard line with 30 seconds left with a chance to send the game to overtime but came away with nothing. 
 
They played poorly in the AFC Divisional Playoff against Houston and won by 18. They played "meh" against the Steelers in the AFC Championship and led 33-9 after three quarters. (Don't "But Le'Veon Bell" me. Would Le'Veon Bell have been covering Chris Hogan? No? Okay. Pay attention). 

In the Super Bowl, they spotted Atlanta -- a team being favorably compared to the Greatest Show on Turf Rams -- 25 points, and they wiped out that 25-point deficit in 23 minutes of play. 

Since they walked off the field in Houston, they added a Pro Bowl corner named Stephon Gilmore to play opposite their other Pro Bowl corner, Malcolm Butler. They added a wide receiver named Brandin Cooks, who caught 162 passes the past two seasons for 2,311 yards and 17 touchdowns. And they will also unveil once again the best tight end of his generation, Rob Gronkowski. 

They have a head coach who is definitely the best of the free agency era, probably the best of the Super Bowl era and arguably the best of all time. Their quarterback has even fewer qualifiers around his greatness and legacy. 

The crème de la crème of the rest of the league is sludge. Smug Aaron Rodgers is tethered to the moon-faced buffoon in Green Bay, Mike McCarthy, a head coach who could overcomplicate ordering coffee. In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger is fat and fresh off an offseason spent contemplating retirement and Ring Dings. The Cowboys' maturity issues start with their 70-something owner and cascade right down to their enabled superstars Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant. Denver? Trevor Simien. Atlanta? Their motto this year is "Embrace the Suck." What does that even mean? That they enjoyed the Red Wedding that was the second half of the Super Bowl so much, they just want to roll around in humiliation for another year? Dear God. 

My point with all that is that there is no Peyton Manning out there to be the Frazier to Brady's Ali. And while there may be a coach out there with gray matter who could battle Belichick, that coach hasn't spent 18 seasons collecting assistants and coordinators and creating a program where they can tell a player to shit in the corner and the player asks, "What color?"

Don't fight it. Don't scoff at it. Don't be like those people who, in 2001 and 2002 were still saying Tom Brady was a product of the system and that the Patriots would rue the day they traded Drew Bledsoe within the division. Open your eyes. Think critically. What do you see.