The post-game locker room was certainly abuzz after the Patriots held Edgerrin James out of the end zone on fourth-and-one with 14 seconds left in the game to preserve a 38-34 road win over the AFC South leading Colts. But Bill Belichick, while elated as any of his players that his team held off the explosive Colts' furious comeback with a courageous defensive stand, remained committed to his theme when he addressed the team.
Belichick echoed his sentiments from last week when comparisons surfaced between this year's club and the 2001 championship team. That title run two years ago included a nine-game winning streak to end the season with all nine wins coming after Thanksgiving; so as Belichick readied his team for the Colts game, he reminded his current players that they were 0-0 after Thanksgiving. Following Sunday's dramatic finish, he reminded them that they are now 1-0 post-Turkey Day with a long way to go.
His team has won a franchise-record eight games in a row and its 10-2 start is the best ever for a Patriots club, yet he does not have a short memory. He knows his 2001 team was 5-5 when it sizzled to the finish and eventually won it all. He knows his 2003 team, while in a nice position, has not yet accomplished its first goal, which is to win the AFC East. He knows any team that peaks down the stretch can win it.
So minutes after an emotional victory, a reporter started a question, "You have a month before the postseason ... "
Belichick quickly interrupted. "We have one week before Miami," he said.
With a win this week over the Dolphins, his team can clinch the AFC East since it would have a three-game lead over the Dolphins with three to go and would hold the tiebreaker advantage by virtue of sweeping the season series. But again, Belichick downplayed that.
"How we play against Miami at 4:15 on Sunday is all that matters. Everything else will take care of itself."
That weekly message is almost nauseating, but his constant reinforcement of it is why his team buys it. It is evidence that if something is said often enough, it becomes believable. His team won't likely finish the season without another loss, but it's obvious at this point that a loss won't come as a result of the Patriots looking past any team at what might lie ahead.
Then, of course, there is the fact that Belichick and his players understand how slim the margin between winning and losing can be. Sunday in Indianapolis it was 36 inches. That certainly reinforces the message. But the Patriots need only reflect on their league-high eight-game winning streak to see late-game heroics lay claim to at least five of the eight wins. Six of the eight wins have come by one score. So it's not like New England has some inflated opinion of what it is. But at the same time 10-2 is what it is, and it's good for first place in the AFC East and second overall in the AFC behind the 11-1 Chiefs.
"I think at 2-2 with all the injuries and the types of games we had lost - not playing well at Washington and being manhandled at Buffalo - the team just rallied around the older guys," quarterback Tom Brady said. "The coaching believed we had a good team and they believed the schemes they had were going to work and we just needed to do them better. We have. Over the course of eight games, these haven't been pretty wins and we're not blowing them out, but we're finding ways to win."
You can't fault them for that. Following the win in Indy, an AFC Personnel man told the Providence Journal that the Patriots were "the luckiest team in America" to which tight end Christian Fauria aptly asked, "We were lucky? If they had scored, would they have been lucky to score?"
It's a point worth listening to. For when the Patriots eventually lose a game, people will claim their mistakes caught up with them. They will say their luck ran out. Don't buy it. Close games are the norm in the league and those games come down to a series of key plays. The Patriots are winning those plays, and that's not lucky. When the other team finally wins those plays, the Patriots will lose a game and no one will claim they were unlucky. No one claimed they were unlucky when they lost by a field goal in Washington and no one will cite bad luck if they lose a close playoff game in January.
"I think good football teams win close games," Belichick said.