SAN DIEGO — As they head into Sunday’s game against the Chargers, the Patriots are in a highly familiar spot: atop the AFC East standings and in control of one of the conference’s top two seeds, which comes with a first-round playoff bye.
They do face a difficult challenge in their 13th game of the season, on the road against a San Diego team that has bounced back from a midseason swoon to play itself back into postseason contention.
Add in that all three of the Patriots’ losses have come on the road and, somewhat oddly, all three of those losses were played on natural grass, and the prime-time matchup isn’t a gimme.
Except, it’s the first game the Patriots are playing in December, and once the calendar turns to the final month of the year, the final month of the regular season, they become almost unbeatable.
Of all of the impressive records New England has posted under Bill Belichick, his ability to get his team to sharpen its focus at this time of year might be most impressive.
The Patriots are 51-9 (.850) in December under Belichick going back to 2000. Consider for a moment that four of those losses came in his first three seasons, and they are an even more impressive 43-5 (.895) in the month over the last 11 years.
So while the Miami Dolphins look to be within striking distance of the division lead and the Broncos could claim the AFC’s top seed if the Patriots slip, history says it is unlikely New England will loosen its grip.
Asked what makes New England so good late in the year, Devin McCourty shook his head.
“I don’t know. I think Bill probably knows that answer better than me. They’ve been playing great football in December long before I got here,” he said. “I think just the focus and the attention that we give to details as the season goes on and gets harder; the NFL is draining on you mentally and physically, so I think the coaching staff does a good job of making sure we stay on it mentally and doing whatever we need to do to take care of our bodies as the season goes on.”
After a 2-2 start that led to questions about team, New England ripped off seven straight wins before last week’s loss in Green Bay. That’s another thing the Patriots don’t do often: lose two games in a row.
It hasn’t happened since Weeks 2 and 3 of 2012.
“I think overall as a team, you want to play your best ball going into December and hopefully it carries into January,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “That’s just playing consistent ball, having less mistakes as a team and you just continue to get better, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.
“We started out 2-2 and we corrected our mistakes and we moved on each week to consistently win a bunch of games. This is a bump in the road for us, the Green Bay game, but we can bounce back and we have another chance. That’s the great thing about this league is week to week you get another chance, another stab at it to go out there and win.”
Of course, having Belichick as coach isn’t the only necessity for late-season success. A great quarterback helps. All but six of those 51 December wins under Belichick have come with Tom Brady under center. By comparison, the Broncos are 9-1 in the month over the last two years, after Peyton Manning joined coach John Fox in Denver before the 2012 season.
Brady, as is his way, did not want to take credit for his record in December, saying it is the team’s accomplishment.
“This is the strength of our team, it’s not my strength,” Brady said. “I think that really speaks to the work ethic, the discipline of our guys, the mental toughness. It’s not easy to get up every day, on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and grind through it like we do. I think that although it may not be really short term, the positive feelings from some of those things in the end, that’s when it pays off the most.
“I think you just have to grind through it. It’s hard for everybody. It feels a little easier out here on days like this. But ultimately it comes down to your execution and how well you go out and play. Like I said, our team has always done a good job of that this time of year when it matters.”
But Brady clearly thrives off the challenge of finishing strong, especially when the playoffs are around the corner.
“December is when football is — this is what it’s all about,” he said. “Regardless of what you’ve done to this point, everybody’s season is decided at this point in the year. This is when you’ve got to be your best.”