FOXBORO, Mass. — There's a theory budding in the Patriots' locker room. Those back-to-back losses midway through the season, some think, could have been the best thing to ever happen to the team this season.
It's hard to argue. After dropping a pair of games to the Steelers and Giants — as the Patriots came off the bye week, no less — to drop to 5-3 and into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East, New England ripped off a 10-game winning streak.
And here they are, back at the Super Bowl for the fifth time in 11 years. Every single one of their Super Bowl journeys has been different, and this trip isn't excluded from that.
"Going back to that time period, everybody was kind of freaking out — not us personally, but outside of the locker room," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said of the two-game skid. "And I think we did a great job of taking all that, putting that aside and focusing on what we had to do, and that's win. We won the rest of the games, won through the playoffs, so obviously it might have sparked something in us to say, 'Hey, we're not losing anymore.'"
The Patriots' attitude and mental toughness formed in training camp, but their resiliency can most obviously be traced back to early November. It started with injuries, as linebacker Jerod Mayo and tight end Aaron Hernandez were still working their way back to form. And linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Patrick Chung went down during the loss to the Giants.
It's been an extremely gradual process, but the Patriots have finally gotten their health back, aside from an ankle injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who will play in the Super Bowl despite the ailment.
"Getting guys back, first and foremost," Mayo said of the difference between now and November. "Being able to play with the same group of guys for a couple weeks, which is an extended period for this team this year, I think that's the main thing for us.
"It helped develop our mental toughness. At the same time, it helped our versatility, being able to put different players in the game and doing things like that really helped us."
And then, it was about execution. They followed the defeat to the Giants with a convincing road victory against the Jets, and they erased multiple-possession deficits to win four of their last six regular-season games. That adversity was more on a smaller scale than the back-to-back losses, but the Patriots showed character on the fly in those games.
"I think the best thing that could have happened to this football team was us losing those back-to-back games in the middle of the season," said wide receiver Matthew Slater, a co-captain. "Adversity, I think, is a good thing depending on how you respond to it, and we responded so well to the adversity that we faced. A lot of people counted us out, sitting at 5-3, struggling, people talking about the defense, the offense, special teams. But at that point, I think we rallied together, and we really found out what we had. The character of this football team was on display from there on out. In hindsight, those two losses might have been the best thing to happen to this team."
Now, here it is, a second chance for the Patriots to meet the Giants. Adversity, character, resiliency, it's all going to play a role on the fate of a team's season. But at this point, the Patriots need to prove that it all meant something — that, over the last two and a half months, it helped them become a better team than the Giants.
That's what this week is all about.
"We'll see," left guard Logan Mankins said, "if we got any better or not."