The New England Patriots have spent the entire season trying to put themselves in the best position possible for the playoffs.
It took until Week 17 to do it, but they finished the job by locking up a first-round bye.
We've already ranked their potential opponents, but this week is about more than just looking ahead into the unknown of who the Patriots will end up facing. This week of rest has other valuable uses.
Here's what the Patriots must do in order to make the best use of their bye week.
In getting the bye week, the Patriots took a necessary measure in increasing their chance of making the Super Bowl. Teams that get healthy at the right time and deal with the other injuries the best are the teams that ultimately fare the best in the playoffs.
Every team deals with injuries, but the Patriots are dealing with a litany of them.
We all know tight end Rob Gronkowski could use the extra time off. He suffered a broken forearm in the middle of the season and made a return to action on Sunday (while still appearing to favor the injured arm).
We also know offensive guard Logan Mankins has been dealing with nagging injuries of his own, and has missed six games this season due to a variety of injuries (hip, ankle and calf among those listed). Given extra time to rest up, Mankins could be that much closer to full health.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich went down with a hip injury in Sunday's game against the Dolphins, and while he is expected to be ready for the team's first playoff game, the Patriots may have been in trouble if they needed to play a game in the Wild Card round.
Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard have both been elevated to starter status recently, and while Talib has returned to action recently, Dennard missed last week's game.
Those are just the biggest names. In all, the Patriots listed 20 players as questionable for Sunday's game against the Dolphins, which is as good an indication as any that the Patriots are banged up and needing rest.
When there's no opponent to scout, a team often turns to scouting itself. In that way, they are able to work on their own weaknesses and see how their opponents may look to attack them.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick did not indicate whether the team would focus more on self-scouting or preparing for potential opponents, but did offer an interesting morsel of information as it pertains to the team's mentality over the past couple of weeks in preparing for remaining regular season games with an eye toward the postseason (via Patriots.com):
I think heading into this weekend, one scenario was that today we would be getting ready for a game this coming Sunday, so we were prepared to do that if that’s what it was. That's not the case now, so we’ll kind of reevaluate where we are and what we feel like would be the most productive things for our team: practice, meetings, or other things we can do, the way we break things up and look at them and so forth. And we’ll try to find the ones that we feel like could have the biggest impact or are the most important, or the ones that we can actually have an ability to change at this point and work on them.
The Patriots didn't know they had a first-round bye until they won their game, so they prepared last week as if they were going to have another game to play this week. With no game to play this week, though, perhaps they can afford to spend a little extra time self-scouting as opposed to scouting opponents they may not even face (that would seem to fall outside the "have an ability to change" category Belichick mentioned).
In the regular and postseason, Belichick is a combined 18-5 (.783) in his career with the Patriots after a bye, plenty of indication that the Patriots know how to utilize extra time to prepare.
Because of how the playoff seeding works, the Patriots can only face the Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens or Houston Texans in the divisional round—as the No. 1 seed, the Denver Broncos play the lowest-seeded team to advance, which eliminates the No. 6 seed Cincinnati Bengals as a potential opponent for New England.
The Patriots have faced all three of those potential opponents already this season.
When discussing how the team would handle this week of preparation, Belichick said that the length of time since each contest could play a factor:
There’s certainly a lot more information on Baltimore since we played them than there is on, say, Houston since we played them. And Indianapolis would fall somewhere in the middle. Again, as we talked about last week, we have people in our organization who are always kind of the advance people, whether it’s scouts or coaches that are moving ahead. The coaching staff is always focused on the current opponent or the current situation.
...definitely Baltimore, of the three teams that we could play next, is the one that we—there’s a lot more information since the time we played them and that definitely needs to be analyzed.
If the Patriots take on the Ravens, it will have been nearly four full months since their showdown on September 23rd. The Ravens eked out a one-point win on a late field goal, in a game that was heavily influenced by officiating.
If it's the Colts, it will have been just under two months between this and their previous meeting. The Patriots secondary came armed to the teeth against Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, with Talib and Dennard both returning interceptions for touchdowns and the Patriots totaling three picks on Luck.
Finally, if it's the Texans on the slate, the Patriots will have waited just over one month since facing them the last time. Tom Brady shredded what was the league's top pass defense at the time, in what was billed as a potential MVP-sealing performance for Brady.
The Patriots can't afford to overlook any team, but in terms of both the amount of time since last playing them, and considering the fact the Ravens are the only team in the playoffs to have beaten the Patriots, it stands to reason that they'd spend a bit more time focusing on Baltimore than the other opponents.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.