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Monday, December 31, 2012
Patriots get break at good time

By Field Yates
ESPNBoston.com

New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins is as tough a player as one will find inside the locker room at Gillette Stadium, and perhaps as tough a player as there is in the NFL.

But the All-Pro guard didn't hesitate to admit on Monday morning during a radio interview with WEEI in Boston that he's thrilled to have a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"I knew my body needed a rest," he said with a laugh.

And Mankins isn't the only New England player who breathed relief as the scoreboard ticked down to zero on Sunday and the Patriots secured the second seed in the AFC.

Taking into account health, experience and other considerations, here is an overview of the Patriots who will benefit the most from the additional rest afforded by the bye week.

1. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich. The extent of the hip injury Ninkovich suffered on Sunday remains unclear, but the veteran has become a stabilizing force along the defensive line who has a nose for the big play. If the injury is something Ninkovich can play through, the extra week to rest and recover is invaluable.

2. Tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski returned to the field on Sunday, but there were some signs that he wasn't entirely himself and that he was protecting his left forearm, which he broke last month. With 25 snaps under his belt, Gronk got a taste of action in his return, but he now has the opportunity to continue to strengthen the forearm and take care of a hip injury that has plagued him for much of the season.

3. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard. Although active, Talib did not play on Sunday due to a hip injury suffered against the Houston Texans in Week 14. That means he's played just eight snaps over the past two weeks, and the Patriots need him to get back to a point where he is healthy enough to contribute. While other components undoubtedly have played a factor, Talib has been a part of the Patriots' defensive improvement during the second half of the season. Dennard also has missed consecutive games, which has led the Patriots to reinsert Devin McCourty at cornerback. The secondary has been at its best with McCourty paired alongside Steve Gregory at safety.

Logan Mankins
Having Logan Mankins at his best is critical for protecting Tom Brady.

4. Wide receiver Wes Welker. Welker, the ironman in the slot, hasn't missed a game this season, but few players take as many crunching hits over the middle as he does, and few exhibit his level of toughness. He continues to be listed as questionable each week but always plays. Teammates laud his work habits, describing him as nearly machinelike, but even Welker needs time to recharge the battery.

5. Guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Perhaps the Patriots' two best linemen, each has played through significant pain throughout the season. Both were limited this offseason after dealing with surgeries, and each has continued to manage injuries during the current season. Vollmer experienced a slight slip in play over a recent stretch but appears to have righted the ship before the start of the postseason. Having these two at their best is critical for protecting Tom Brady.

6. Linebacker Brandon Spikes. Another player who has been nursing an injury of late, Spikes is a difference-maker in the middle and a run-stuffing force for the Patriots. He was limited on Sunday but made a noticeable difference for the plays he was in. Spikes has played in the Patriots' nickel defense at times this year and was a stalwart during the playoffs last season. The team needs a repeat performance from him this postseason.

7. Running back Stevan Ridley. Injuries aren't the issue with Ridley, but his body probably won't mind the rest after carrying the football 290 times in 2012, the most by a Patriots running back in a season since Corey Dillon toted it 345 times in 2004. Ridley became a workhorse back and wasn't afraid to initiate contact, meaning he's probably dealing with his fair share of soreness. After rushing just 87 times as a rookie in 2011, Ridley truly broke out in 2012.

8. Center Ryan Wendell and left tackle Nate Solder. An abdomen issue has arisen for Solder in recent weeks, but even if he were as pain-free, he and Wendell deserve some rest. Both have taken every offensive snap for the Patriots this season. To play in every snap in every game during the entire season is a tremendous accomplishment, and these two have stood as models of durability for the Patriots in 2012. The upcoming rest should leave each feeling energized upon their return.

9. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The Patriots' two top draft choices both said last week that staying sharp mentally is as challenging as staying sharp physically over the course of an NFL season, and these two are in unchartered territory on a personal level. As rookies, neither is accustomed to a season that spans as long as this one, and the bye week will allow them a chance to decompress both physically and mentally.

10. Quarterback Tom Brady. No player is more critical to the Patriots' success than Brady, and any opportunity to get him time to rest his body and begin his preparation for upcoming opponents is critical. The Patriots allowed just 27 sacks of Brady in 2012, a low total by league standards, and Brady seems to be in very good health by all accounts. Nonetheless, extra time on his side can only help.

Extra Point: The coaching staff. The players endure the physical grind of a 16-game schedule, but the coaches spend more time inside the confines of Gillette Stadium than any other cross section of team employees. A break from the frantic pace, even for a day this upcoming weekend, will be welcomed by Bill Belichick's staff, which has been burning the candle from both ends since the middle of July.

Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.