FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots earned one of the AFC’s top two seeds for the postseason and the accompanying bye came up, invariably the benefit of getting a banged-up team some much-needed rest was part of the discussion.
Nowhere was downtime more needed than in the secondary, where five of New England’s top six players have been on the injury report for anywhere from a couple of months to a week or two. At safety, Steve Gregory has dealt with a broken thumb and then a knee injury suffered against Baltimore, and Devin McCourty suffered a concussion against the Ravens. And at cornerback, Aqib Talib hurt his hip against New Orleans, Kyle Arrington has been on and off the report nearly the entire season because of a groin injury, and Alfonzo Dennard has been bothered by a knee problem that required minor surgery during the bye week, and has also been affected by a shoulder injury.
In the first positive sign that the group is on a healthier path, McCourty returned to practice on Wednesday, as the Patriots were on the field for the first of three sessions this week focused on improving as a team while waiting to find out their opponent for the divisional round Jan. 11 at Gillette Stadium.
McCourty was hurt early in the third quarter in Baltimore Dec. 22 when he went low trying to tackle tight end Ed Dickson. McCourty did not practice last week, and did not play in the regular-season finale against the Bills, the first game he’s missed since midway through the 2011 season.
As you’d expect, he was happy to be back to work on Wednesday.
“It’s always good to be back on the field if you miss any time,” McCourty said. “It’s part of the game [to have to sit out], but I tried to do my part to help my guys, and they did a great job of going out there and getting a win.”
It was the first concussion of McCourty’s career. Asked if he saw film of the play on the which he was hurt, and his thoughts, he said, “Got a concussion,” and laughed a bit.
“I don’t know. You watch it, I don’t know much about concussions and all of that, but just watch it as a player to see it and you know, it was a weird hit,” he said.
It wasn’t the type of helmet-to-helmet blow that makes you cringe, but often the plays that don’t look the most violent are the ones that can send players to the sideline, because they were hit in the right spot or their neck compressed or snapped back. Such was the case with McCourty.
But he declared himself to be “doing pretty good,” and ready to get back to work.
“I think it’s big for us to just get better during this week,” McCourty said. “It’s different at this time of year — you’ve been through a full season, I think you’ve really got to kick it in mentally to find the things that you’ve not done as well, some of the things you’ve done well, and just try to attack it this week. We’ve gotten a week off where it’s not as much about preparing for someone because we don’t know who we’re going to play yet, it’s all about fixing the things that we feel we need to fix and trying to get better this week.”
Talib gave a simple “yes” when asked if his hip has been improving, also a good sign. If the Bengals are the Patriots’ opponent, Talib’s ability to shut down big receivers will be required, as Cincinnati boasts 6-foot-4-inch A.J. Green.
The Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe is also a big receiver, though the Colts, the third team the Patriots could face, do not have a wideout that fits that description. Talib might be lined up against 6-6 tight end Coby Fleener in that case, as he’s similar in size to the Saints’ Jimmy Graham, against whom Talib had great success in October.
It’s not all good news for New England on the injury front, however. There were four players not spotted during the media-access window on Wednesday. Guard Logan Mankins (ankle) and receiver Aaron Dobson (foot), both of whom were injured against Buffalo, receiver Josh Boyce (ankle), who hasn’t practiced since leaving the Dec. 15 loss in Miami, and Dennard were absent.
Dennard was inactive against the Bills. A week earlier against the Ravens, he was active but played just six snaps.
Because the Patriots do not have a game this week, they are not required to submit injury/participation reports.