--Quarterback Tom Brady's streak of starting 84 consecutive games, playoffs included, could be in jeopardy. Brady took a blow to his left shin while diving into the end zone on a 3-yard touchdown run last week against Buffalo. He was listed as questionable on Wednesday's injury report, and the team noted that he had missed at least a portion of Wednesday's practice. It's the first time Brady's status has been in doubt since he suffered a shoulder injury (the details of which were kept under wraps at the time) late in the 2002 season.
Quizzed about his health on Wednesday, Brady said, "I'm doing better than I was a few days ago." He declined to elaborate, saying, "Oh, man. You guys (in the media) know (coach Bill) Belichick doesn't like me talking about this stuff. He gave me strict instructions to keep quiet, so that's what I'm doing."
Brady, who has never played against the Bucs, has started every game since filling in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. He said his iron-man streak is "something that I'm very proud of," adding, "I think there is something about showing up and playing every week. I think that's a goal for everybody in this locker room."
In an attempt to keep the Buccaneers in the dark about Brady's health, the Patriots on Wednesday limited the media to a nine-minute window for viewing practice. During that the time, the team only stretched.
--Three of the four longest droughts in the NFL in terms of teams that haven't seen each other in a while will end this weekend when the Seahawks play the Titans (last meeting: Nov. 29, 1998), the Jaguars face the 49ers (last meeting: Sept. 12, 1999) and the Patriots host the Bucs (last meeting: Sept. 3, 2000). The combination of an unfamiliar opponent and a short work week will have the Patriots scrambling.
"That's why we're trying to stress (spending) more time here - come in a little bit early, stay a little bit later because you want to get yourself familiar with what they're doing and you have one less day," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "You have to start your days a little earlier and make them end a little bit later. And make sure everybody at home realizes that."
--Tight end Christian Fauria said playing a day early would have its advantages, though.
"I kind of like it," he said. "The week's over quickly. We're playing Saturday. A little college vibe ... (Losing a day of preparation) is not a big deal. The most important thing is getting mentally ready and getting your body physically ready after such a physical game against Buffalo."
--The Patriots can clinch their third straight AFC East crown (and fourth in five years) with either a win or a Miami loss at home Sunday to the Jets. The Patriots also will be division champs if their game and the Dolphins-Jets game each end in a tie.
THEY SAID IT:
"You know me. I don't care too much about anybody's record." - Coach Bill Belichick, when asked if he takes the quality of the opponent into consideration when assessing how his team has played. The Patriots' two-game winning streak has come against the Jets (3-10) and Bills (4-9). The Pats are 6-0 against teams with losing records, 2-5 against teams with winning records.
With TE Dan Graham missing three of the past five games with a shoulder injury, TE Christian Fauria has seen his role in the passing game gradually increase. All five of Fauria's catches this season have come since Graham's health woes began. Last week Fauria caught his second TD pass of the year.
--SS Michael Stone reclaimed his starting job from Artrell Hawkins last week. Hawkins had started the previous two games - becoming the Patriots' seventh starter at the position - but he sat out the Buffalo game after being listed as questionable on the injury report with a thigh problem.
--For the first time in several weeks, the Patriots mixed in a handful of 4-3 looks on defense against the Bills. That alignment had been effective early in the season, especially against Oakland in Week 1 and against Pittsburgh in Week 3. The Patriots had gotten away from it, partly because DE Richard Seymour missed four games with a knee injury earlier this season.
--The team signed veteran OL Ross Tucker on Tuesday. Tucker, 26, has started at center and guard, most recently for the Bills from 2003-04. He adds interior depth.
--CB Asante Samuel returned to practice Thursday after not being on the field for the portion of Wednesday's practice that was open to the media. Samuel remains questionable on the injury report with an unspecified "infection."
--The Patriots' four running backs - TB Corey Dillon, backup Kevin Faulk and FBs Patrick Pass and Heath Evans - all practiced Wednesday and Thursday, although all are still listed questionable for Saturday's game. At least two of the backs have been inactive for every game since Evans signed with the team on Nov. 1.
--Rookie LT Nick Kaczur was back at practice this week after sitting out last Sunday's game in Buffalo with a sore shoulder. It's unclear whether Kaczur will return to the lineup against Tampa Bay. He is listed as questionable on the injury report.
--LT Matt Light (ankle) remains doubtful on the injury report. He has not practiced since getting hurt in Week 3.
--TE Benjamin Watson (head) was added to the injury report. Watson, who couldn't finish last week's game after getting hurt, was listed as questionable, although he was on the field for the start of practice Wednesday.
--WR David Givens did not appear on Wednesday's injury report. Givens had been listed as questionable for each of the past six games with a knee injury, although he played in the last two after missing three straight.
"Anytime you're in the league and you have an opportunity to start, it's an opportunity to get in there and make more plays," Wyms said. "I've been playing about 25 to 30 snaps a game throughout the year, and it'll probably go up 10 or 15 snaps if Mac's not playing. But if you get an opportunity, that's what this league is, it's about opportunities. If you get them, you've got to go out and cash in on them. If you don't, then somebody else is waiting to cash in on them.
"Once you're on the field, the whole league sees that film. We watch the film, every other team scouting you is watching. That's your resume, that's what you are. Whether it's 10 plays, 20 plays or 100 snaps. Every opportunity I'm out there, I want to be playing hard, hustling to the ball and putting pressure on the offense to make them account for me when I'm on the field."
--The Bucs have a chance to match a franchise record with six road wins if they are able to beat New England on Saturday.
"It's a credit to our team. We've been a pretty good road team the last few years. But again, we've lost a lot of tight games the last few years," coach Jon Gruden said. "Also, I think Matt Bryant is a big reason we've won some of these tight games. I think just overall execution has been better. I don't know. There's just something about playing on the road that a pro football player, a pro athlete likes. You like to win in the other guy's back yard, that's a great accomplishment."
--CB Ronde Barber was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after he had an interception and a sack in a win at Carolina. Barber became the first cornerback in NFL history to record 20 career sacks and 20 career interceptions.
THEY SAID IT:
"Our players aren't really acclimated to the cold weather. Let's be honest. Some of them have never seen snow. Carnell Williams has never seen snowflakes. It will be a great trip for some of our guys. A highly educational one." - Bucs coach Jon Gruden.
--DT Anthony McFarland did not practice Thursday and is listed as doubtful for Saturday's game against the Patriots.
--PK Matt Bryant did not kick in practice Thursday and is probable for Saturday's game at New England. Bryant's status will be a game-time decision.
--PK Todd France handled the kickoff duties in practice Friday.
--DT Ellis Wyms took snaps with the first team at under tackle. Wyms is expected to get his first NFL start Saturday at New England.
--LB Marquis Cooper (chest) was limited in practice Thursday and is questionable for Saturday's game at New England.
--LB Marquis Cooper is questionable with a chest strain and did not practice Wednesday.
--CB Juran Bolden is probable with an undisclosed leg injury and is expected to play Saturday against the Patriots.