FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots are getting the band back together just in time to face their foes from the Music City.
New England tailbacks James White and Rex Burkhead, both of whom were injured in the Week 15 slugfest with the Steelers in Pittsburgh, are poised to return to the lineup for Saturday night’s Divisional Round game against the Titans.
In addition, receiver Chris Hogan, who has missed seven of the last eight games with a shoulder injury, is “ready to roll” as Danny Amendola said.
On defense, big tackle Alan Branch feels “good to go” after missing three straight recouping from a knee injury suffered in Miami.
The return of White and Burkhead has a two-fold affect on the offense. It takes some of the burden off Dion Lewis — who has been a one-man wrecking crew out of the backfield the last few weeks — and it gives Tom Brady two more reliable pass catchers in his arsenal.
“I’m just ready to get back out there with the team,’’ Burkhead said. “I’m just excited for the playoffs and everything that’s in store.’’
Burkhead, who injured his knee on goal-line carry in the win over the Steelers in Week 15, said he used the playoffs as motivation as he rehabbed his injury, which was initially feared to be season-ending until he received he was given a “good news” diagnosis.
“Throughout the process, I was really just kind of focused on this time and [being] excited for these games,’’ said Burkhead, who rushed for 264 yards and 5 touchdowns and added 254 receiving yards and 3 TDs this season. “I feel like I’m good to go. If I’m out there at all, that’s not my call, so we’ll see.’’
Burkhead, who missed four games earlier in the season with a rib injury, had found his niche and had been on a roll heading into Pittsburgh. The fifth-year veteran averaged just over 60 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns in the five games heading into that showdown, so the injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“Of course, it’s frustrating,’’ he said. “You play the game and compete, and you want to be out there. But at the same time, I’m not going to sulk and keep my head down when I’m in the locker room. That doesn’t benefit myself or the team. I’m just trying to stay positive, encouraging guys and learning as much as I can still.’’
White tweaked his ankle early against the Steelers but finished the game. Despite practicing the final two weeks, he was held out of the two games, likely as a precaution.
“Sitting out definitely stinks,’’ said White, who had never missed a game because of injury in his four seasons. “You miss being out there – definitely anxious to get back out there with my teammates and to try and win a big football game. But injuries happen sometimes and now I’m just trying to be ready to go Saturday night.’’
White has become one of the most reliable receiving backs in the league and an important safety valve for Brady. He caught 56 passes for 429 yards and three TDs this season. Equally important, he is New England’s best blitz pickup back.
Hogan’s return boosts a passing attack that is already one of the league’s best. Hogan is versatile player, who can line up inside and outside and has the ability to run every route in the book. His absence was clearly felt as neither Phillip Dorsett nor Kenny Britt was able to adequately fill the void down the stretch.
With three reliable pass catchers back in the mix, Brady will be able to do what he does best — spread the ball around and keep defenses guessing. Brady threw interceptions in five straight games at the end of the season and some of that was a direct correlation to not having all his weapons available. That won’t be the case heading into the postseason.
The mammoth Branch (6 feet 6 inches, 350 pounds) is one of the Patriots’ best run defenders. He brings power and a youthful exuberance to the lineup.
“I feel fine . . . I’m just trying to go out there and move around and get my feet back under myself,’’ said Branch, who also said it’s not his call whether he’ll be out there or not.
His presence will be needed to help impede the progress of Tennessee tailback Derrick Henry. Branch will be part of the team’s projected and desired inside rotation with Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy. Stopping — or at least slowing — Henry forces the Titans to be one-dimensional, which plays into the Patriots’ hands.
Branch agreed with his teammates that watching from afar is frustrating.
“It stinks. I like being out there with the guys — that’s the fun part of football,’’ said Branch, who has been remarkably durable over his 11-year career, especially considering he does all his work in the trenches. “It took me this long to get an injury to my leg, [so] I’m not going to get too salty about it.’’