More than anything, they've got to get it going a lot earlier in the game. The Patriots are riding an AFC-best eight-game winning streak, but they've trailed in seven of those contests. And they've fallen behind by multiple possessions in four of their last six games, including three in a row.
The good thing is they've turned three of those hefty deficits into blowout victories, but the Patriots are well aware that teams like the Dolphins and Bills — whose 21-point lead served as nothing more than a brief ratings boost Sunday during the Patriots' 49-21 victory — won't be waiting for them in the playoffs.
"We're going to use this week to make sure we get better, and I think we're a very confident football team," Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said. "We've just got to come out and play well. Now is the time when you have to put 60 minutes together. That's been our focus, and now it's time to do it."
While the Patriots' run of Super Bowl memories were spearheaded by the franchise's greatest leaders — head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady — there are some less-pleasing recollections that have dampened New England's more recent history. And naturally, this string of early deficits won't do much to push those thoughts deep into the rearview mirror.
The Patriots fell down 24-0 during the first quarter of their 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens — due to more intensive security checks that day, the outcome was in hand before masses of fans even got into their seats — and they trailed 14-3 in the second quarter of last year's loss to the Jets. The room for error against those teams was non-existent, and the Patriots expect the same against whichever opponent travels to Gillette in two weeks.
"It's the playoffs now," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "We've got the best teams coming in the house. We've got to start in the first quarter. We've got to start fast. We've got to start strong. We can't be getting down like that. We're lucky enough to come back after losing by that much."
Of course, the Patriots' first-round bye is quite the luxury. It's translated to all four of their Super Bowl appearances in the last decade, and the chance to have a week off and stay at their home stadium is better than the alternative.
But last year was a hard lesson in unmet expectations, as the Patriots looked like the best team in the NFL when the playoffs began. The teaching tool should serve as motivation to work harder this week and next — the Patriots have Monday off before returning Tuesday for meetings, and they've scheduled practices for at least Wednesday and Thursday.
And they've got three teams on their immediate radar: the fourth-seeded Broncos, fifth-seeded Steelers and sixth-seeded Bengals. If the Bengals top the Texans, they'll visit Gillette for the divisional round. Otherwise, if the Texans win that game, the Patriots will host the Broncos-Steelers victor.
The groundwork has been laid with a 13-3 regular season — matching the 49ers as the only franchise to win at least 13 games five times in a span of nine seasons — but the Patriots will forget about that as they try to end their three-game postseason slide.
"It depends how well we play," Brady said about the advantage of having the top seed. "I think that's going to be the determining factor on whether we win or lose is how well we execute. It's great playing at home. It's great to have a bye, but I think we have to concentrate here this week on what we need to do to play our best football in a couple weeks."
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