Wednesdays are usually the day NFL players dislike the most. They are presented with that week’s game plan during a morning meeting, then take part in what often is the longest practice of the week.

For the New England Patriots, this Wednesday was a rarity: a day off.

With the Patriots (12-0) not back to their normal work week following a third consecutive night game Monday, and with the challenging Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) up next on Sunday, coach Bill Belichick chose not to practice.

Belichick, speaking on a conference call, said it wasn’t because his players are worn out – even though he told WEEI radio the Patriots were “a tired team” after staging a frantic rally to beat Baltimore 27-24 Monday.

Instead, Belichick said, the day off gave the coaches more time during a short week to assemble a game plan.

“Pittsburgh is a hard team to prepare for,” Belichick said. “What I think you don’t want to do is give your team a game plan and then you do more work on the team (and) find out, well this isn’t quite what we want here and we need to change this and we need to change that. We felt it was just better to take a little more time ourselves from a coaching standpoint … to make sure we get things as close to exactly the way we want them.”

While the Patriots are four victories away from becoming the first NFL team to sweep a 16-game schedule, they’ve needed to come back during the fourth quarter in three of their last four games. That’s exactly the kind of emotional, draining games that can cause a team to run down.

Their win Monday in Baltimore was their tightest game yet, with the Patriots seemingly halted three times during their final drive before Tom Brady threw a decisive 8-yard TD pass to Jabar Gaffney with 44 seconds remaining.

“We have a lot of things to get ready for, (a) short week, and we’ll try to utilize our time the best we can to try to make sure we get all of our bases covered by Sunday,” Belichick said.

The Steelers know something about halting a long Patriots streak, too. Three years ago, they stopped New England’s record 21-game winning streak and 18-game regular season streak by winning 34-20 in Pittsburgh.

Despite all the attention the Patriots’ streak is getting, Steelers receiver Hines Ward said the emphasis for all teams should be the postseason.

Ward noted that while those 2004 Steelers went 15-1 and beat New England, they lost to the Patriots 41-27 in the game that mattered most, the AFC championship game.

“If you go undefeated and lose a playoff game, the season is really a waste,” Ward said.

The Patriots did practice on Wednesday the last time they played on Monday night, after defeating Cincinnati 34-13 on Oct. 1 and before beating Cleveland at home 34-17 six days later.

While the Patriots have moved on to preparing for the Steelers, Belichick further explained how linebacker Eric Alexander ended up tackling Baltimore’s Mark Clayton at the 3-yard line on the final play Monday.

The Patriots had to account for the possibility Baltimore, rather than trying a desperation pass, would throw a quick sideline pass to set up a tying field goal attempt. There were 8 seconds remaining when the second-and-10 play started from the Ravens 45.

“The situation wasn’t quite as clear cut as what sometimes it would be,” Belichick said. “Probably if they’d gotten the ball to the 30, they would have had an opportunity to attempt a 50-yard field goal, so that’s only 25 yards. So, with eight seconds, you definitely would have time to run a deep sideline route or maybe a short corner route from the slot receiver, that sort of thing.”

Another problem was the Patriots’ defender expected to outjump any receivers and bat the pass away on just such a play – apparently, Randall Gay – was shoved out of the way. Belichick said, “There was quite a bit of contact there and (he) wasn’t able to go up.”

“The idea was to set up a fence on the goal line if the ball was thrown in front of us and make sure they didn’t get it in,” Belichick said. “But it wasn’t a clear-cut Hail Mary situation.”

AP-ES-12-05-07 1741EST

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