It began more than 13 years ago, on Nov. 5, 2000, with an overtime home loss to Doug Flutie and the Buffalo Bills. It has stretched all the way to Nov. 3, when the Patriots rolled the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Along the way, a trend has emerged, despite that sluggish start in 2000 under new head coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots have been hard to beat with Belichick as their coach, winning 10 division titles, five AFC crowns, three Super Bowls, and 72.6 percent of their games.
But they’ve been even tougher to topple once the 16-game regular season reaches the second half. Belichick’s winning percentage as Patriots coach jumps to 80 percent (84-21) in the back half of the schedule.
Wait, there’s more. The Patriots have been almost unbeatable in the second half of the regular season over the past three-plus years. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Patriots are 24-1 in the second half, culminating in the 55-31 clinic administered to the Steelers two weeks ago. That was the ninth game of the season, improving the Patriots to 7-2 heading into Monday night’s visit to the Carolina Panthers.
The Patriots won all eight of their second-half games in both 2010 and 2011, and went 7-1 down the stretch last year, with a 41-34 home loss to San Francisco the only blemish. The 49ers are the only team to beat the Patriots in Weeks 9-16 since Houston won the 2009 regular-season finale.
This time of year, for whatever reason, it seems the one constant for the Patriots is winning.
“I expect to win,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “As a starter, I haven’t lost many games here. So yeah, I do expect to win.”
But how to explain the second-half surge?
“The seriousness and competitive nature of our team just kicks in from November on, that this is really when people separate themselves from other teams around the league,” Ninkovich said. “To establish your place in the playoffs, and to give yourself the best position to get to what the ultimate goal is — getting to the Super Bowl — you just know that the final eight games of the season is where you either put yourself in a great position, or no position at all.”
They’ve positioned themselves for a playoff run once again, leading the AFC East going into the prime-time matchup in Carolina.
Having a postseason carrot dangling in front of a hungry team always serves as motivation, but it’s not the only factor in the Patriots’ second-half success. To hear Ninkovich and other Patriots tell it, the driving force always has been the strong desire for the team to improve over the course of a season, an edict handed down directly from Belichick.
“That’s something that he really stresses,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “I don’t know how it is at other places, but a lot of times it seems as though teams are just playing to maintain down the stretch, and we’re playing to get better and improve. He challenges us day in and day out to improve, and if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Improvement, not recent history, is what will determine how well the Patriots fare in the second half this season, Belichick said.
“I think it’s definitely improvement,” he said, when asked about the biggest keys to second-half success over the last three-plus seasons. “I don’t know if that means anything this year or not; we’ll see. This year is this year. I don’t think last year or 10 years before really has any bearing on it. We’ll just see what we can do this year.
“But we need to improve. Obviously there are a lot of things we can do better than the first nine games of the season. Hopefully our best football is in front of us.”
With so many new parts to the team every season, any carryover effect has to come from the top, Slater said. There are 13 rookies and seven other players on the 53-man roster who weren’t on the Patriots last year. They do not have first-hand experience in the second-half success the team has enjoyed.
“Every year is different, obviously because there’s different guys on the team and we’re playing against different teams, but I think the one constant there is Coach Belichick. The way he prepares his team, the way he gets us in the right mind-set, frame of mind, coming down the stretch, all fingers point to him as far as why we’ve had the success that we’ve had,” Slater said. “It’s a different cast of characters, and we can’t say because we’ve done it in the past that we’re going to do it again.”
That’s a valid point. The Panthers might have something to say about the Patriots extending their string of second-half success when the teams meet at Bank of America Stadium. The Broncos visit Gillette Stadium Sunday, and the Patriots still have games at Houston, Miami, and Baltimore, putting that 24-1 mark in their last 25 second-half games in danger.
Ninkovich said the season takes on added meaning when Thanksgiving approaches. Slater said it’s earlier than that. Both know that the goal of winning games now, while important, is the annual appetizer to January, when the games get really important.
“I think we’re aware of how critical this time of year is, what’s at stake, but [Belichick] has made it very clear that seven wins is not going to get us anything,” Slater said. “We try to avoid complacency, we try to avoid resting on our laurels, and we try to go out and just try to continue to improve.”