FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With healthier bodies and refreshed minds, the New England Patriots returned to work on Tuesday after a few days away from the field.
They were back at practice after a bye week that followed a cross-ocean trip to London two weeks after a cross-country journey to Seattle.
The burden of those travels made the time off welcome, even if the break might stifle any momentum the Patriots gained by routing the St. Louis Rams 45-7 in England for their second consecutive win.
“Your body doesn’t mind hitting pause for a little bit,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said Tuesday. “We understand the things that we were doing well and the things that we need to improve upon, but I think rest is equally important and we were able to get that this past week.”
The Patriots lead the AFC East with a 5-3 record and the remaining schedule shouldn’t be as draining.
Only three of the eight games are on the road, and all three on the East Coast — at the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars. Their two toughest opponents, the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, have to travel the farthest of the five visitors.
“That’ll be huge,” Slater said. “It’ll be nice not to have to travel halfway across the world. Obviously, that kind of travel takes a toll on your body.”
Those bodies are feeling better after not being pounded last Sunday. The mental break also was welcome.
“There definitely was a sense of relief from all of us, coaches and players, of just not having to game plan last week,” coach Bill Belichick said, “not having the whole mental pressure of coming up with a game plan of each day, thinking of game plans and adjustments and red-area game plans and adjustments and third-down and two-minute and goal-line (plays) and just the weight of studying for a final exam, if you will.
“This week we’re back into it and, hopefully, we have a little bit of a freshness or a better approach to it.”
The Patriots are fairly healthy heading into their next game against the Buffalo Bills.
Four starters were sidelined against the Rams — tight end Aaron Hernandez, left guard Logan Mankins and safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. Hernandez, with a sprained ankle, and Gregory, with an injured hip, have missed four games. Mankins sat out three with calf and hip injuries and Chung missed the last two with a shoulder injury.
But the secondary has improved with cornerback Devin McCourty switching over to safety to start alongside rookie Tavon Wilson. Donald Thomas has filled in well for Mankins and the Patriots have plenty of offense to make up for the loss of Hernandez. Tight end Rob Gronkowski, despite battling his own hip problem, hasn’t missed a game and scored two touchdowns against St. Louis.
While the week off certainly helped, it wasn’t enough for some players.
“That’s just according to the individual,” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “I think we all do a great job of trying to stay healthy, take care of our bodies, and I think that’s what’s important. But as far as how much time an individual needs, it’s according to the injury.”
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich tried not to think much about football. He even climbed on his roof to clear leaves from his gutters then called his landlord when he realized how high it was.
“I just said, ‘hey, I’m going to take two days off, three days off, don’t even think about football, just hang around the house,'” he said. “We’re back to football now, so now it’s back to work. This is like halftime. You’re coming back from halftime. You get a little break and now you’re ready for the second half.
“I was kind of sitting around the house saying, ‘Hey, I need to do something.’ So I’m happy to be here and ready to roll.”
The development of young players, particularly on defense, could help avoid any late-season fatigue. At one point against the Rams, five defensive rookies were on the field at the same time.
“Getting some of those guys out there for experience, obviously, is going to help,” Ninkovich said. “The more plays you’re out there (for), the more comfortable you get in every situation. So it helps the whole team as the season rolls on.”
The injuries at safety that led the Patriots to move McCourty — and the poor pass defense overall — contributed to the Patriots’ decision to trade last week for Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib, a former first-round draft choice with a history of off-field problems. His latest is a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Talib will miss Sunday’s game, but will be eligible to play the following weekend at home against Indianapolis.
“I think he’s a great player,” Branch said. “I don’t know if we’ll use him the same way that they used him. So it’s just all about what happens once he gets here.”
NOTES: The Patriots signed rookie linebacker Jerrell Harris to the practice squad. He originally signed with Atlanta April 30 as a rookie free agent, but was released at the end of training camp. The Jaguars added him to their practice squad Sept. 26, then released him Oct. 25. … Belichick watched Houston’s 21-9 win over Buffalo on Sunday and said he doesn’t get the RedZone channel on his television. “I’ll have to see if I can get that,” he said.