FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The 2018 season has been one of constant adaptation for the defending AFC champion Patriots.
From adjusting after Julian Edelman's four-game suspension to open the season to a surprise 1-2 start to dealing with several injuries at running back to Josh Gordon's arrival and abrupt departure , New England's mettle has been tested on almost a weekly basis.
New England will enter the playoffs as the AFC's No. 2 seed and with a first-round bye , which in the past has been key to them making deep postseason runs. But in a season already marked by so many changes, they'll find out just how well they've been able to adapt when the postseason commences.
"Every team has its own unique identity and this team cares a lot about each other. We play for each other and we're playing to win," quarterback Tom Brady said. "I think that's what we're here for. We've shown we can compete. We've shown we could overcome some adversity. We've been counted out a few times and showed back up with a lot of resolve."
New England avoided playing in the wild-card round, which it hasn't participated in since 2009, when it was blown out by Baltimore. Having at least one playoff game at home has been important to the Patriots' success under Bill Belichick. New England has not won a road playoff game since 2006. The Patriots would have to do just that if they advance out of the divisional round and meet top-seed Kansas City in the AFC championship game.
While New England ended the regular season as healthy as it has been all season, several key players will certainly benefit from this week off to rest nagging injuries.
One of them is tight end Rob Gronkowski, who contemplated retirement after last season's Super Bowl loss and is coming off a challenging regular season.
He missed only three games but has battled ankle and lingering back issues for most of the year. He caught 47 passes for 682 yards and three touchdowns, but that was down from his 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight TDs (all team highs) in 2017.
At times it hampered the options in the passing game for Brady, who was already having to adapt to a mostly new group of receivers. Players such as Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett have done their best to step up, but there's been inconsistency.
Gordon's arrival helped steady things and with 40 receptions for 720 yards and three touchdowns he was having his best season since he was an All-Pro with Cleveland in 2013. That all ended late last month when he was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating an agreement that allowed him to play after multiple drug suspensions.
The week after Gordon's suspension was handed down, in a win over Buffalo, Brady had his lowest output since he passed for 123 yards in a 2003 loss to the Bills. But he recovered in the regular-season finale against the Jets, throwing for four touchdowns and his highest quarterback rating of the season in a 38-3 victory.
Defensively, captain and safety Devin McCourty's status is uncertain after he suffered a head injury against New York. With an extra week to recover he is expected to be ready for the divisional round.
"Dev's our leader. He's very smart. He gets us lined up and we feed off of him, (Dont'a) Hightower and those guys," safety Patrick Chung said. "It'll be fine. He'll have time to heal. I'm not really worried about not having him. He's a tough dude, man. We'll go from there."
Overall, the defense has had an up-and-down season following the departure of former coordinator Matt Patricia. Linebackers coach Brian Flores has done a good job as a first-time play caller, but the defense has underperformed — particularly up front.
Part of the reason is it has had issues getting to the quarterback. Last season the Patriots were tied for seventh in the NFL with 42 sacks. They ended this season tied for 30th with 30 sacks.
But after surrendering 30 or more points four times in New England's first nine games, opponents averaged just 18 points per game over their final seven. McCourty's brother, cornerback Jason McCourty, will be playing in his first career playoff game after previously playing for Cleveland and Tennessee. He said New England's ability to deal with adversity is unique.
"I think the one cool aspect here is when you look around the locker room, a lot of these guys have been in adversity together before," he said. "I think when that happens, you know what it takes and you know you can lean on the guy to the left of you and to the right of you.
"When it's already built like that for myself coming in for the first time or anybody coming in ... there's guys you can turn to no matter what adversity you're going through."
Challenges aside, Brady said he thinks this group is constructed to go far.
"We have great character on this team," he said. "Our story's still being written, and fortunately we have an opportunity to write it."
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower