With the Patriots coming off their most impressive consecutive performances of the season, including Sunday's AFC East-clinching 24-21 win over the Jaguars in Jacksonville, New England heads into its final game of the season with building momentum and confidence. New England beat Jacksonville by not turning the ball over, controlling the clock and, as is always important in big games between quality opponents, making the key play at the right times.
So after struggling through the first three-plus months of 2006, playing sloppy games at times even in victory, Bill Belichick's 11-4 team heads into Sunday's season finale in Tennessee with championship hopes once again on its mind. Forget the losses to the likes of Denver, Indianapolis and even the division-rival Jets. Forget the sloppy performances against the Bears and the Lions after Thanksgiving that showed a team more ready for extra practice than championship play.
No, these Patriots like the teams before them once again believe they can compete for a Super Bowl title. And for really the first time this season in back to back games, they showed it on the field against the Jaguars.
Even more impressively, they did it on the road in a playoff-type contest in Jacksonville. The Jaguars had lost at home just once all season. But with both teams knowing they needed playoff caliber performances, only the Patriots were left standing.
That fact has those in the Gillette Stadium locker room feeling good heading into the season finale and upcoming playoffs. And that should worry the rest of the AFC, even teams like the Colts who may have had their way with New England earlier this season.
"I'm real proud of them," Belichick said of his team after the impressive road win, already sporting a black AFC East Champions cap. "I'm real proud of what they've done this year. We accomplished one of our goals today. We still have a lot of work to do, but it was very satisfying to come down here and win."
"Heading into the season, that's our first goal to win the division and then go from there," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said.
"To win ultimately in the playoffs, I think you have to establish yourself in December and overall in finishing the season," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "That meant (going) to Jacksonville in a tough environment and winning."
The sleeping championship giant that is Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots seems to have been awoken just in time for the playoffs. This team may not be as talented or well-stocked as its recent Lombardi lofting predecessors, but it believes in itself and is playing well when it matters most.
"This is when you have to play your best football," tight end Daniel Graham said. "We are doing that right now. But we still have a ways to go. It's not over yet."
Don't look now but the Patriots are playing their best football of the season -- building confidence and making plays. Left for dead by some, New England is now hoping to build on its late season momentum with one game left to play and a trip to Miami this February on its mind.