With one game left, Pats finally focus on 16-0
For the first time this season, the Patriots finally acknowledged the obvious after beating the Dolphins on Sunday -- a perfect season actually means something to them.
Well, kind of.
Heeding Bill Belichick's script as if it were a game plan, the Patriots largely have repeated their coach's stock responses after their first 14 wins of 2007. But after waltzing to a 28-7 win over the Miami Dolphins -- a game in which the Pats seemed bored at times by their own brilliance in the second half -- they finally acknowledged the obvious after win No. 15.
If the regular season ended today:
1. New England (15-0): Patriots have clinched the top seed. 2. Indianapolis (13-2): Colts have clinched the second seed. 3. San Diego (9-5): Chargers can clinch third seed by winning out. 4. Pittsburgh (10-5): Steelers clinched fourth seed when Browns lost. 5. Jacksonville (11-4): Few teams will want to play Jaguars. 6. Tennessee (9-6): Titans control their own destiny; Browns still alive. NFC
1. Dallas (13-2): Cowboys have clinched the top seed. 2. Green Bay (12-3): Packers have clinched the second seed. 3. Seattle (10-5): Seahawks have clinched the third seed. 4. Tampa Bay (9-6): Bucs have clinched the fourth seed. 5. N.Y. Giants (10-5): Defense, ground game key to Giants. 6. Redskins (8-7): Vikings, Saints still alive. ZOOM Gallery: Playoff implications
"We'll take two days off for Christmas, enjoy the holiday, and then get back to work shooting for the undefeated season."
There is, of course, an asterisk here. And not the one suggested by Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, who opined a few weeks ago that perhaps the video spying incident from the opening game of the year against the New York Jets should earn the Pats some kind of scarlet-letter-style brand that might taint their accomplishments.
Although several players acknowledged that the 16-0 season has moved from the very back burners of reality to the forefront of their collective consciousness, most noted that the upcoming Saturday night matchup against the New York Giants is, well, just the next game on the docket. Then again, it's a pretty monumental next game, even by Patriots standards, and more than simply because it's the next entry on the dance card.
Winners of 18 straight regular-season contests (dating to December 2006) and having gone undefeated in the division for the first time in franchise history, the Pats haven't permitted themselves the luxury of looking down the road too far. But until the playoffs begin, when New England will be gunning for a fourth Super Bowl championship in seven years, the date with the Giants, and likely with destiny, is as far ahead as they can see.
Although they see a Giants team that on Sunday afternoon secured an NFC wild-card berth with a win in Buffalo, and which owns one of the NFL's best pass rushes, they also aren't blind to the big picture.
And it's picture-perfect. Or certainly figures to be.
"To our credit, we've pretty much played with the blinders on to this point, just looking at the next team," said tailback Laurence Maroney, who ran for a career-best 156 yards on just 14 carries, including two first-half bursts of 50-plus yards. "For us, the next team is always the team, you know? So, in a sense, this really isn't different. But it is somewhat different because of the [implications]."
Not surprisingly, Belichick refused to tip his hand about how he will handle the Saturday night game. But given his track record, and his responses Sunday evening, no one should count on him to rest his starters. He did pull Tom Brady in the fourth quarter Sunday, inserting No. 3 quarterback Matt Gutierrez with 3:23 left.
But the smart money says Brady will play against the Giants and will remain in the game long enough to secure the undefeated season, and probably to break Peyton Manning's single-season record for touchdown passes.
"We'll do what's best for our football team, [the] same as always. We treat every week the same. It's nothing different," Belichick said.
Maybe so. But while Belichick remains publicly oblivious to what his team appears about to achieve -- just as he has ignored down-and-distance and game situations in most contests this season -- a few New England veterans insisted Sunday that the 16-0 record means something to their leader. Not because it will solidify his standing as the premier coach of this era. The team's three Super Bowl wins already cemented that status. But more, a few guys said, because it will validate the way Belichick does things, his approach to the game, his singular focus.
"He sees about two feet in front of him, and that's it," wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said. "When he talks about not looking at anything but the team in front of us, he means it, but look how far it's gotten us. So, yeah, it's probably more important to him than he'll ever let on. I mean, he's only human, too.
"But it won't mean anything unless we win the whole deal. And that has nothing to do with next week. All the records, all the wins, it's only [validated] if we're the team holding up the [Vince Lombardi Trophy] at the end."
On virtually every snap Sunday, especially in the first half, it seemed as though the announcer in the press box at Gillette Stadium was noting a record a New England player had established. But leading 28-7 at intermission, having scored on four of their first five possessions, including three Brady touchdown passes, the Pats went into cold storage.
Belichick attributed the offensive slowdown to the performance of the Dolphins, who did come up with a few plays in their own right, but the Pats still appeared to be just trying to close the books on the contest and move ahead to the final chapter of the regular season.
It's a chapter that figures to be like the 15 that preceded it.
"It's business as usual for us," said Maroney, whose career-best 59-yard touchdown run in the second quarter broke open the game on a third-and-1 play. "But since no one else has ever done what we're trying to do, it can't really be all that usual now, can it?"
No, it can't.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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