Possessors of a 5-3 record at the midpoint of their 2012 schedule, the Patriots will begin Phase II of their campaign on Sunday against the perpetually disappointing Buffalo Bills. Entering this week, New England stood as the No. 3 seed in the AFC and would have opened the playoffs at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on wild-card weekend, the two byes in the conference going to the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens.But as we all know, how you finish is far, far more important than how you start, and nobody has finished like the Patriots during the Bill Belichick era.
The obvious difference this season, at least for now, is that the Patriots have Week 14 and 15 meetings scheduled against the Texans and San Francisco 49ers, who are a combined 13-3. In the eyes of many, those two clubs could be facing one another in the Super Bowl. The Pats have the advantage of playing both those games at Gillette Stadium, but sweeping a pair of games against talented, physical and motivated teams seems unlikely.
And despite a resounding Week 8 victory against the St. Louis Rams, even Belichick has acknowledged that things have not progressed the way he would like.
"I think we’ve improved in every area. I think we just need to improve the rate of improvement," Belichick said entering the Rams game. "We’re doing a lot of things better than we were doing then, but so are our opponents - they’ve improved, too. That’s why we practice every day. Techniques, schemes, timing, all those things, there are good things and there’s room for improvement. Our opponents are getting better. That’s really the challenge, to get better at a faster rate than they do."
After the Patriots' victory against the Jets last month, Belichick said virtually the same thing. Look it up. And that was the same week Tom Brady spoke of the team needing the necessary "mental toughness" to accept coaching.
Does a lopsided victory over the Rams change that? Hardly.
Nonetheless, now is about the time where the Patriots have truly hit their stride in recent years, compiling the kind of record that has left everyone else in the NFL envious. Since the start of the 2001 season, the Patriots have the best regular season winning percentage in the NFL in both November (34-13, .711) and December/January (45-7, .865), the latter by a wide margin. Nobody has gotten hotter when the temperatures have gone cold.
New England: 32-13-0 (.711)
Indianapolis: 34-15-0 (.694)
Pittsburgh: 29-16-1 (.641)
Dallas: 29-18-0 (.617)
Baltimore: 30-19-0 (.612)
New England: 45-7-0 (.865)
Pittsburgh: 40-14-0 (.741)
Green Bay: 37-16-0 (.698)
Philadelphia: 37-16-0 (.698)
San Diego: 35-18-0 (.660)
The obvious message? With a little bit of time, Belichick generally has figured things out. And more to his point, he has figured things out faster than anyone else.
Whether this Patriots team can suddenly make the jump that others have is certainly open to debate. At times this season, the Patriots pass defense has looked positively wretched. Even more frightening is the fact that, to date, New England has played only one team with a passing attack that qualifies as one of the 10 most efficient in the NFL based on passer rating, that coming against Denver in Week 5.
And yet, collectively, the Patriots have allowed opponents a 96.9 quarterback rating that leaves New England sixth-worst among the 32 NFL teams. What will happen to them in the playoffs if Peyton Manning gets another crack at them? Or Ben Roethlisberger? Or, if the Patriots are fortunate, Eli Manning or Aaron Rodgers?
Since the Patriots last played, of course, some things have changed. First, New England has had an additional week to heal, which should not be underestimated. Second, the Patriots have made the well-publicized trade for Aqib Talib, who will join the team after the Buffalo game. If Talib is even remotely competitive as the Patriots believed he would be when Talib came out of college, the entire look of the New England secondary could change - and for the better.
Regardless, this much we know: over last 11 years, Belichick's team have usually done their very best work after Halloween. This month and into early December, the schedule seems favorable. But after that, the Patriots will see some real teams with real Super Bowl hopes - in the regular season and the playoffs - and that is where the rubber has met the road for them in the last several seasons.
The second half starts Sunday. During the regular season, at least in New England, there are no more byes. The time is now for the Patriots to hit their stride, to begin truly building toward something bigger.
And something far, far better than what they have built thus far.
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