FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s just another bye week to Bill Belichick — except he doesn’t know who his New England Patriots will be playing next.
So the ultra-prepared coach will spend a few days analyzing his three possible opponents while his players study how to improve their own performances until they find out their first playoff foe.
It will be the New York Jets if they beat the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night. Otherwise, it will be the winner of Sunday’s game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.
“It’s just like having a bye week during the regular season,” Belichick said Wednesday. “You try to improve your team. If you’ve improved it, then you’ve used the time well. If you don’t, then it’s a waste of time.”
The Patriots have home-field advantage for as long as they’re in the AFC playoffs. Their first game is Jan. 16. If there’s one team they prefer to play, they’re not saying.
“These teams are the best in the league. There is very little margin for error at this point,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “I don’t think we have a pool in there or anything like that of who we want to play.”
The Patriots split the regular-season series with the Jets, losing 28-14 in the second game and winning 45-3 in the 12th. They beat the Ravens 23-20 in overtime in the fifth game after losing to them in Foxborough 33-14 in their wild-card round game last season. They haven’t played the Chiefs this season.
“The teams that we’ve seen, they’ve seen us,” Belichick said. “So, I don’t think that favors anybody.”
The NFL’s highest scoring offense does know it will be playing a team with a base 3-4 defense, since all three possible opponents use it. Baltimore has won its last four games while New York and Kansas City were 2-2.
The Patriots (14-2) have won their last eight, scoring at least 31 points in each. But Brady, who threw 36 touchdown passes and just four interceptions, insists there’s plenty to fix.
“There are teams that are practicing today and that do have games this weekend,” he said. “The team that we play is going to win a playoff game this weekend and they are going to have made improvements and I sure hope we can make improvements, too. So that’s what we are focusing on.”
Many of their eyes will be watching the games on television. Maybe they can pick up a tip or two that will help a week later.
“I’m a fan of the game, so I enjoy watching,” running back Fred Taylor said. “You watch film away from the facility (but) the TV copies are always good because you can (pick) up little nuggets here and there.”
The bye week gives bruised players extra time to heal. The Patriots can use it, especially on the defensive line where just two of their top six players are currently available.
Ron Brace is on injured reserve with an elbow injury, Mike Wright missed the last six games with a concussion, Myron Pryor missed seven games with a back injury then hurt his eye in Sunday’s 38-7 win over the Miami Dolphins, and Brandon Deaderick is on the suspended list for a violation Belichick refused to disclose.
Also missing the Miami game were wide receiver Deion Branch with a knee injury, tight end Aaron Hernandez with a hip injury and offensive lineman Dan Connolly with a concussion.
The players also will use the time to watch film of themselves — their good plays, their mistakes — to try to improve.
“We’ve all been critiqued this morning,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “We’ll watch a lot of film, do a lot of things, get out in practice and bang around for a little bit.”
Cornerback Darius Butler had a rough game in the loss to the Jets with two pass interference penalties. That cost him his starting job and he hasn’t regained it.
He knows how important self-scouting can be.
“It’s real critical because once you identify your own weak points, you know probably what they’re going to try to attack,” Butler said. “So, by strengthening those in this short period of time … it will help you down the stretch.”
He’ll have even more to study next week, once he knows which team he’ll face.
Belichick said he might watch some of the Jets-Colts game on TV.
It’s definitely on Branch’s must-see list.
“Somebody’s got to be a fool to tell you, ‘I’m not watching the other games,'” he said. “We’re going to play one of these three guys.”