EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It is on the schedule. For much of the past week, that is what many considered to be the defending champion's motivation for tonight's game against the Jets.
But that is not what Bill Belichick preached to his squad and, as it turns out, the game, the final ''Monday Night Football" matchup on ABC, has significant meaning for the Patriots.
Should New England (9-5) win its final two games and Cincinnati lose next Sunday at Kansas City, a team that enters the final week of the season with playoff hopes, the Patriots would be the AFC's No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
Already saddled with a game on Wild-Card Weekend for the first time since the 1998 season (a 25-10 loss at Jacksonville), the Patriots would like to secure the higher seed, putting them in the bracket opposite Indianapolis.
Their obstacles on the road to the Super Bowl would then be a home game against Pittsburgh or Kansas City, a visit to Denver, then presumably a trip to Indianapolis for the AFC Championship game.
Otherwise, the Patriots would host Jacksonville, and with a win would face Indianapolis in the divisional round.
First up are the Jets, who have lost eight of their last nine games, including a 16-3 washout at Gillette Stadium three weeks ago. On paper, New York isn't exactly the scariest of opponents.
''Everybody's dangerous until you make them not dangerous," New England tight end Christian Fauria said last week. ''Every team can potentially give you problems if you let them.
''I think this game is more about us playing a good game and giving a solid performance, regardless of who we're playing. Whether they have a great record or a crappy record, it's more important for us to play good. You don't even think about [an opponent's] record until the game is over."
Their won-loss record may not matter much, but the Patriots certainly took note of the Jets' (3-11) horrid numbers per the league statistics, particularly a run defense that ranks 13th in the AFC. The Jets are actually No. 1 in the conference against the pass, no surprise with a former defensive back (Herm Edwards) as the head coach, but the Patriots look to get a sluggish running game going against a defense that gives up 134 yards a game on the ground.
The Patriots rushed for a then season-high 146 yards the last time the teams met. Corey Dillon has averaged just 65 yards a game in the 10 games he has played significant time in, and the Patriots would like to get him going before the postseason begins.
''We just have to do things better," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. ''We've had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup, there's been some inconsistencies there. We're definitely not where we want to be, but I think we have made some improvements."
The team's defensive improvement was first displayed against the Jets in Foxborough. In their last three games, the Patriots have given up only 10 points and won games by 13, 28, and 28 points. After winning the season opener against the Raiders by 10 points, New England had not won a game by more than a touchdown until it beat the Jets.
''The last few games, [the defense has] been terrific," Brady said. ''They got us the ball on a short field. They're creating turnovers. They're getting off the field on third down. They're doing terrific.
''There's no question that's been a huge boost for this team. I think that's the reason why the last three games have kind of been one-sided. That is because the way the defense is playing."
The Patriots have given up just 85 rushing yards in the past three weeks, helping them post their three best days in total yards allowed with the only three games this season in which they surrendered fewer than 250 yards. The Jets managed just 164 yards, Buffalo totaled 183, and Tampa Bay could muster only 138.
''I just think we're playing better together," linebacker Willie McGinest said. ''First it starts with the run, being able to stop the run. Then, when your offense and your team is playing together a whole lot better, special teams and offense putting up points, and you stop the team, it kind of allows you to make the game one dimensional.
''You can get more aggressive."
Expect the Patriots to be rather aggressive against the Jets' young quarterback, Brooks Bollinger. Not only is the defense hitting its stride at the right time, Patriots coaches would probably like to show some things that they may not use in the playoffs to give potential foes more to prepare for.
Bollinger was just 15 of 37 for 135 yards in his first start against the Patriots.
Last week, he was 28 of 42 for 327 yards against the Dolphins, as the Jets opened things up a bit.
''Going into this season, he had nine snaps playing quarterback in the National Football League," Edwards said. ''He has grown. He has gotten a lot better since his first start. There are only certain things you are going to do with him, because you want to do things with him that he can be successful."
With the playoffs in the not-too-distant future, the Patriots will do all they can to make sure he isn't successful.
''We're not really worried about playoffs and the Super Bowl and that type of stuff, we're just trying to play better as a team," McGinest said. ''What we were doing the first half of the season is kind of uncharacteristic of us, and you've got to credit the coaching staff and the guys for getting back on track for what we've been doing in the past.
''I think preparation has been a lot better for what we're trying to do: get guys back on the same page and get back to the way we play football."
Jerome Solomon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org