- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was a different vibe at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday.
The New England Patriots are preparing for a "hat and T-shirt" game, which is what linebacker Tedy Bruschi used to call any contest in which the team was playing for a championship, and those following the team over the past decade know what that usually means.
At times like this, the locker room is quiet, foot traffic is sparse, and the veterans step to the fore. Bill Belichick can also shift into overdrive when talking about the opponent and it wouldn't matter if it were the winless 2008 Detroit Lions, he'd find a way to highlight how dangerous they could be.
The urgency and anticipation spike whenever one of the team's first targets is in range, and that was clearly the case Wednesday.
"The goal is to win the division and put yourself in a position in the playoffs, and we have a great opportunity for that," quarterback Tom Brady said.
The importance of the Patriots wrapping up the AFC East crown this weekend against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars can't be overstated, because some of the team's key players -- a group including Brady and top run defenders Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren -- could then be rested for the season finale at Houston.
That scenario, assuming the Chargers win Friday at Tennessee and the possibility of New England claiming a first-round playoff bye is off the board, best positions the Patriots for what they hope will be a deep playoff run. Not only could injured players rest, but the coaching staff could begin preparations for a first-round playoff game one week early.
That would be significant, but Brady said focusing on the reward isn't part of the team's mindset. Instead, it's about channeling all energies into what it will take to beat the Jaguars.
"There are only two teams in the AFC that are set. Pretty much everyone is playing playoff games this week -- Jacksonville is playing a playoff game this week, we're playing a playoff game this week," Brady said.
"Down the stretch, that's what happens. If you're not in, and you have to win to make them, that's kind of one-game-and-you're-out, so to speak. There are a ton of teams in the AFC. I see us as one of those teams. We have a lot to play for this week. I don't think anybody is thinking about resting next week, we're thinking about how to win the game this week."
On Monday, Belichick told the players that it's the biggest game of the season. He also mentioned how the Jaguars had played against the Indianapolis Colts last Thursday, giving them extra time to prepare for the Patriots, and so the players would have to match that by making this game the most important priority in their lives.
Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said earlier in the week that the Patriots planned to pull out all the stops, so it's no wonder the mood at Gillette was noticeably different from usual.
It could be compared to the anticipation before a big December snowstorm, when the supermarket lines are a bit longer, the plows are rumbling through the streets, and the weather forecasts are heard with more frequency.
The Patriots are playing for a commemorative hat and T-shirt, as well as the chance to position themselves favorably in the playoffs. The anticipation was already in the air.
"If we could do that this weekend, that would be an accomplishment," Belichick said. "You win games along the way and they are important, too, but you can't really win anything. You just get yourself in position, and we're [now] actually in position to do it. It doesn't matter what everybody else does; if we win on Sunday, then we've achieved one of our goals this year."
A Patriots win over Jacksonville could bring some much-needed rest.