FOXBOROUGH -- This time a year ago, they were 11-1 and the talk was all about home-field advantage. Yesterday, the focus was simpler for the New England Patriots.
''Win ugly, win pretty, this time of year it doesn't matter," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said after his team came away from a frigid day at Razor Blade Field with a 16-3 win over the sad-sack New York Jets that was, shall we say, not exactly surgical. But that is the beauty of the situation the Patriots are in. It doesn't matter. No one is concerned about style points any more.
''Get the 'W' however we can," Bruschi said. ''That's all I'm looking at. I haven't compared our situation to last year because when you compare, that's when you start to get in trouble. But 3 points feels good. I can tell you that. A 'W' and 3 points. That's a good combination."
After you've allowed your opponents to roll up more than 400 yards of offense in seven of the last eight games and seen the past three quarterbacks you've faced throw for more than 300 yards, holding even as poor an excuse for an NFL team as the Jets to 41 yards rushing, 123 net passing yards, a total offensive output of 164 yards, and an average gain per play of a measly 3 yards was the kind of combination the Patriots needed for their mental health as much as for their place in the standings.
This morning New England stands at 7-5, holders of a two-game edge over the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East with a road game in Buffalo Sunday that could, if the Patriots win, nearly sew up the division title. Not completely, but it would be so close that it would take a complete collapse to deny them a return to the postseason.
But we get ahead of ourselves, which is something the Patriots are not prone to do. Instead, they looked at what they did yesterday as no more and no less than what it was. It was a much needed ''W." It was good enough.
It was, of course, more than that, too. It was a dismantling of the Jets' offense by a suddenly more aggressive defense that sent linebackers after the quarterback for the first time in weeks and attacked the line of scrimmage with Richard Seymour & Co. so effectively Curtis Martin averaged only 1.9 yards a carry on 15 runs.
Offensively, the running game improved, amassing 146 yards, but the return of Corey Dillon (65 yards) and Kevin Faulk (35 yards) hardly returned the Patriots to their glory days. But they weren't worried about that, either. They were worried only about winning a game and they won it the old-fashioned Patriot way. They won it by controlling the clock, holding the ball for 38 minutes 10 seconds, and they won by being stingy on defense.
Tom Brady did what he's done four times after a four-interception day, too, coming back with a sterling 93.4 passer rating by completing 27 of 37 throws for 271 yards. There were no touchdown passes, but seven players had at least two receptions and five had at least one catch of 13 yards or more. When it came to distributing the ball, Brady was The Cooz in knickers and a helmet.
They were not perfect defensively, and offensively they were far from overwhelming but they were good enough and if they can duplicate that three or four more times in the next month, they'll be good enough to get into the playoffs, and then we'll see.
Bruschi, Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots have grown to understand that no matter what problems they may face, if they can just get into the postseason, the slate is clean. And so they looked at yesterday's 16-3 win over the 2-10 Jets as what it was and didn't worry that they should have won by more or that they didn't play as cleanly and consistently as they would have liked.
All they focused on was a brief sense of relief that, after a difficult season of injury and somewhat regular beatings from the league's elite teams, they are still alive with a month to go. Not alive and well but alive and getting well, which is an improvement.
''We have to worry about us," Seymour said. ''Obviously, what we were doing wasn't working. We couldn't sit there and keep doing the same thing if we wanted things to change."
So they urged defensive coordinator Eric Mangini to let them loose defensively. They asked to be set free to attack the Jets. To, as Seymour put it, ''take the fight to them rather than sit back and read and react."
Defensively, that paid a big dividend as the Patriots sacked Brooks Bollinger twice, intercepted one pass, and forced the Jets to punt on six of their first seven possessions before stopping them on downs on the ninth.
Offensively, after a slow start, they scored on four straight possessions between early in the second quarter and early in the fourth to ice the game. Nothing about it was perfect but when you hold the ball for 10 minutes 54 seconds of a 15-minute quarter, as New England did in the third, there's not a whole lot more you can do.
Was it pretty? Not when compared to the recent past. Was it dominating? Not when compared to the recent past. Was it good enough? Sure, when compared to the recent past.
''When you have a game like we had last week [a trampling in Kansas City], you just want to come back and have a positive game," Bruschi said.
In the end, that's what they had. They had a positive game. For the moment, that'll do just fine.
''We're going to have to make this a copycat effort," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. ''We want to win. We don't care how. I think today a lot of people felt this game would make or break us. We proved to ourselves that we're capable of doing what we want to do when we put our minds to it. We can't go backwards from here now."
All they can do now is concentrate on one letter: Concentrate on the ''W's." Focus on that and the rest of their worries will take care of themselves.