In New England, that's winning time.
The Patriots are an NFL-best 37-5 in December since 2001, and they're also a league-best 18-1 in December home games during that stretch. Similarly impressive, the Patriots are 23-3 against teams with losing records in December and January since 2001 (with the three losses coming to the Dolphins in 2004, 2006 and 2009), which shows that their focus level remains high against every type of opponent.
"Coach [Bill] Belichick has always stressed that the best teams get better this time of year," quarterback Tom Brady said. "I think that's the kind of team you want to be. You want to be a good finisher. If you play poorly down the stretch, you're not going to give yourself much of a chance to accomplish any of the goals that you set at the beginning of the year."
Brady's point covers two areas. First, the Patriots need to finish strong to preserve their two-game lead in the AFC East and keep themselves in position to clinch one of the top-two playoff seeds and earn a first-round bye. Second, they want to maintain their momentum so they don't have to start from scratch in the postseason.
"After Thanksgiving, that's when you want to play your best football, and coach really tells us that every year," linebacker Jerod Mayo said. "So we'll take it one game at a time, and right now, we're focused on the Colts."
The Patriots don't exactly have a gauntlet of fierce opponents waiting for them in their last five games. They host the Colts (0-11) before traveling to Washington (4-7) and Denver (6-5) and then wrap it up with home games against the Dolphins (3-8) and Bills (5-6). Those five teams have a combined record of 18-37.
Plus, the Colts will start their fourth-string quarterback, while Redskins starter Rex Grossman has already been benched once this season. The Broncos will start Tim Tebow, who has led them to a 5-1 record after opening the season on the bench. The Dolphins have turned to backup Matt Moore after starter Chad Henne was placed on injured reserve. And the Bills have been the only team with any consistency at quarterback, but they've lost four consecutive games.
The quality of competition doesn't matter to the Patriots, who are simply working to get themselves right in time for the playoffs.
"The last month of the year is obviously the biggest push, so you've got to continue to keep pushing," linebacker Rob Ninkovich said. "Each week, take it as a new week, and don't think about the past. Just look to the future."
The players didn't give off the vibe of pressing the issue now that they're in the final month of the year, but they were most certainly aware. It doesn't sound like the preparation will change, but they'll go to work every day understanding that this is the point in the season when champions start to take shape.
"To be honest, we're excited every week, and there's not really a difference now," Mayo said. "We just know we've got to start putting it together, and that's what we're trying to do."
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