FOXBOROUGH - Perhaps the time to call them the “banged-up Patriots’’ has ended.
New England returned to the practice field yesterday for the first time since last Thursday, as on-field preparations began for Saturday night’s AFC divisional-round showdown against the Broncos.
And for the first time all season, every player was present and accounted for. Logan Mankins (sprained MCL) and Sebastian Vollmer (foot/back) returned, as did Tom Brady, Wes Welker, and Marcus Cannon, all of whom got some time off last week during the bye.
Coach Bill Belichick took full advantage of having everyone available, with the Patriots in full pads for the first time since Dec. 7. Of course, a big part of the reason the team hasn’t been in pads for more than a month was injury situation.
On their final injury report before the regular-season finale against Buffalo, the Patriots listed a whopping 19 players, 16 of them questionable.
The NFL does not require teams to file their first injury report of the week until today, so it is unknown which players have been taken off the report or how much Mankins, Vollmer, and others participated.
Mankins was injured in the first quarter of the Dec. 24 game against the Dolphins, as he made his first career start at left tackle in place of Matt Light, whose ankle stiffened up in the sudden cold. Vollmer had not played or practiced since Nov. 27, when he hurt his right foot against the Eagles.
Asked before practice how the week off benefitted his squad, Belichick said, “I’m sure it helped everybody. Whatever we have, we have. We’ll go out there and do the best we can.
“Everybody wants to play in this game. This is what you play all year for, is to get into the playoffs. I’m sure our guys will do the best they can to be out there. Hopefully they’re ready. If they’re not, then hopefully they’ll be back soon.’’
A tough task
When the Patriots played the Broncos Dec. 18, Denver did a good job defending Welker and Rob Gronkowski, as the duo that combined for 212 catches this season had just eight total in the Mile High City.
But when it was mentioned to Denver coach John Fox yesterday that his team was able to corral Welker and Gronkowski, he reminded reporters on the conference call that his team didn’t do such a good job defending Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez had a career day, with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown, one of eight players to record a catch against the Broncos.
The sheer number of players Brady can look to makes things difficult on opposing teams, Fox said.
“I think the fact that there are more than one or two names that you just rattled off makes it hard for any defensive coach to defend the New England offense,’’ Fox said. “So at the end of the day you just try to mix it up and try to win some of those matchups.’’
Gronkowski may have had one of his quieter games of the season with four receptions for 53 yards, but he isn’t dwelling on it heading into Saturday.
“None of that matters. It’s a whole new game,’’ he said. “It’s whoever comes out and plays better on Saturday night - that’s the only difference. It’s what we do this week to get prepared and what did we do to get ready for Saturday.’’
Though Fox calls Belichick a friend, one of Belichick’s three Super Bowl titles as New England coach came at Fox’s expense. In 2003, in just his second season as Panthers coach, Fox had Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII, which New England won, 32-29.
Does he think of that game often?
“Oh Lord, I will never forget it,’’ Fox said. “I don’t think I dwell on it, but you know, it’s the only one that I’ve been in as a head coach and those things are no fun losing.’’
Fox was the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2000 when they lost to Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV.
Some happy news
Belichick said he is happy for two of his friends, former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who Monday had the interim tag removed by the Chiefs and received a three-year deal to serve as the head coach in Kansas City, and Alabama coach Nick Saban, who won his second BCS national championship in three years Monday night against LSU . . . Devin McCourty was asked if it matters to him whether he lines up at cornerback or safety. “No; it’s just playing football,’’ he said . . . In the Broncos’ media notes, in the “Broncos vs. Patriots Connections’’ section, Josh McDaniels is listed as New England’s offensive coordinator. Maybe the Denver public relations staff knows something. (McDaniels is officially an offensive assistant currently, and will take over as coordinator after the season) . . . The Patriots and Broncos have played each other 44 times over the last 51 seasons, with two of those meetings in the postseason. Denver holds a 25-17 advantage in regular-season matchups, and is 2-0 against the Patriots in the playoffs. However, this is the first time they’ve met in the postseason on New England’s home field.
Some prices raised
The Patriots announced that 2012 season-ticket prices will remain the same for 84 percent of the seats at Gillette Stadium. Only seats at midfield in both the upper and lower levels will cost more.
Seats designated as lower-level midfield will be $185, up from $169; upper-level midfield seats now will be $99, up from $89.
This is the first time the Patriots have raised prices on any seats at Gillette since 2008.
Renewal invoices for season ticket-holders will be sent out next month.