FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- With his players fresh off a three-day weekend to close out the bye week, head coach Bill Belichick and his No. 1-seeded New England Patriots (13-3) returned to Gillette Stadium on Monday to begin game-planning for a battle with the Tennessee Titans (10-7) this Saturday night in the divisional playoffs.
Having used the bye week for the eighth consecutive postseason for two practices to clean up some general issues within the team, New England will focus its preparations on a Tennessee team that came back from a 21-3 deficit for a 22-21 victory over Kansas City led by quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry.
New England is nearly a two-touchdown favorite, but Belichick clearly isn't entering the week taking anything for granted.
"Overall, we've done a lot of good things this year. I think our record reflects that, but it really doesn't matter," Belechick said in a Monday morning conference call. "We're in a one-game season now, and so we'll turn all of our attention and focus to having the best performance we can have on Saturday night."
Clearly, stopping the Titans' running game will a challenge for a Patriots defense that finished 31st in the NFL in yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt. Tennessee is a team with an old-school feel, built around running it on offense and stopping the run -- the No. 4 rush defense in the regular season -- on defense.
"They've done a great job all year with their running game and their run defense, and last year, too, for that matter," Belichick said. "They've been very consistent. Defensively, they're at the top of the league and offensively they're very good, as well.
"Two great backs, a quarterback, so definitely a problem as a runner. They have a good, sound scheme with good players. They do a very good job running the ball. Their backs break a lot of tackles. They design plays well. They're well-coached. They're a good fundamental team and they do a real good job of running the ball and they do a real good job of stopping the run."
Mariota helped carry the Titans to the comeback win in Kansas City in a variety of ways. He actually caught his own touchdown pass on a ball batted back to him at the goal line by Chiefs cornerback Darrelle Revis. He then had a huge block to spring Henry -- who rushed for 156 yards -- for a 22-yard game-sealing run in the final minutes.
"An extremely athletic guy, so there is a huge factor of mobility with him," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia acknowledged. "But, you know, he's a very strong-armed quarterback, he can extend plays, he can scramble to run or he can get out of trouble and then find his receivers downfield. He also has a run element to him and the run game is very extensive.
"I think the task at hand with him is not only going to be in the passing game and contain and being able to defend the routes that they're running and how they scheme that up, but there will be a big element to the run game with him and tackling is going to be critical. He's a very tough guy. This guy is a physically tough player. You definitely see that on film. You see some evidence of him throwing blocks, obviously, if he has to do that, too. So, just an overall really competitive, very good, outstanding football player we've got to defend."
While the Titans' run defense is near the top of the league, New England's Tom Brady-led passing attack should find room to work against a pass defense that ranked 25th in the league.
Although the Patriots haven't played the Titans since 2015, Brady and his offense have a history of success against Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his schemes, dating back to his time leading Pittsburgh's defense.
"You get familiar with the scheme and the players at the same time," New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said of the first step in the week's preparations. "So you're just digesting as much as you can, really getting a feel for their identity, what the players do well, what they do within the scheme, what the coaches put them in position to do, how they create an impact in the game and then all the types of things that they do during the course of the situations that you're going to run into during the game.
"So, there's a lot of things that you have to do and tackle, but it's just part of the normal process that we go through. Every team that we play during the course of the season isn't somebody that we're familiar with, that's for sure. So, we got a little bit of a start on them yesterday, and we're obviously getting into them heavy now. So, this is not a unique experience for us. We're going through a normal week. Our players are going to do the same thing. By Saturday night, we'll be ready to roll."
ESPN The Magazine created quite a stir both in New England and throughout the NFL last week with a Jan. 5 story detailing what it called "the internal power struggle" between Patriots owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The piece led some to believe this could be the final season for the dynasty's triumvirate, with New York papers going so far as to speculate that Belichick could see this as an opening to move on to coach the New York Giants.
A few hours after the ESPN story hit its website, New England issued a joint statement from the three men in question responding to its contents:
"For the past 18 years, the three of us have enjoyed a very good and productive working relationship. In recent days, there have been multiple media reports that have speculated theories that are unsubstantiated, highly exaggerated or flat out inaccurate. The three of us share a common goal. We look forward to the enormous challenge of competing in the postseason and the opportunity to work together in the future, just as we have for the past 18 years. It is unfortunate that there is even a need for us to respond to these fallacies. As our actions have shown, we stand united."
Monday morning, Belichick held a conference call, addressing the media for the first time since the story was published and as the team prepared for this week's playoff game with the Titans.
Not surprisingly, the first question related to the story, wondering if, as ESPN alluded to, Kraft had mandated that Belichick trade backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo right before the NFL trade deadline in October.
"I haven't read the article; I've already commented at length about that situation," Belichick said. "Nothing has happened since then, so I don't have anything to add to it."
A few questions later, Belichick was asked if he was indeed "furious and demoralized" after a supposed pre-trade discussion about the future of his team's quarterback position, as ESPN reported.
"Well, first of all, I don't really know what you're talking about," Belichick said. "I haven't read the article, so I don't know what that refers to. Look, Mike (Reiss, ESPN reporter), we've been through this before and I know you want to report on things that are inaccurate and unattributable and I'm not really interested in responding to all of those random and, I would say in a lot of cases, baseless comments."
Asked directly about a New York Daily News report that he might be interested in coaching the Giants, Belichick said: "Right now my interest is trying to do the best I can for our football team to get ready for Saturday night against Tennessee. That's where my total focus is."
Finally, does Belichick expect to be back coaching the Patriots next season?
"Absolutely," Belichick said.
Both Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia spent time during the bye week interviewing with other teams about open head coaching jobs.
McDaniels spoke with the Colts, Giants and Bears in the Foxborough area, while Patricia had meetings with the Cardinals, Giants and Lions.
Not surprisingly, in a Monday morning conference call focused on the Patriots' preparations for Saturday night's playoff battle with the Titans, neither assistant had much to say about the interviews that took place or where the discussions with those teams might go moving forward.
"That was a process that took place through the course of a couple days there in the weekend or a day in the weekend. It's always a learning experience, like when I've been through it before," Patricia said. "You know, you have the opportunity to learn about some other franchises and get a chance to talk about how they do things and really just kind of broaden your whole overall education of what the NFL and the different organizations are.
"So, it's always a very informative process. It's interesting when you go through it. The good part about it is when it's done, then you really just kind of flip your focus back to the task at hand."
When McDaniels was asked where things might be headed for him, he said: "No idea really. You know, just obviously did what was allowed and then have kind of refocused on moving into this week and getting ready for Tennessee. So, I have no other information, and that's about where it stands right now."