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.