FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots enter a season-defining stretch of the schedule, and boy, is Bill Belichick pumped for it.
Four straight games against winning teams — at 5-4 Philadelphia, vs. 5-4 Dallas, at 6-3 Houston, and vs. 6-4 Kansas City. Four showdowns, two of which will directly impact whether the Patriots can get the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Belichick, stop trying to contain your excitement. Tell us how you feel!
“Yeah, we’re just focused on one game,” he said on Friday. “That’s it. Philly.”
Surely, the fact that the 7-2 Ravens keep winning has heightened the urgency around Foxborough, right? Especially since the Ravens now have the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage?
“We can’t control what anybody else does, so just worry about our football team and how we do,” Belichick said. “That’s all we can do.”
If you expected any other answer out of Belichick, you simply haven’t been paying attention for the last, oh, 20 years.
Of course, Belichick is fully aware that this four-game stretch — which starts Sunday in Philadelphia — will define the Patriots’ season. They sit in the driver’s seat at 8-1, but the Ravens are breathing down their necks, and the Texans and Chiefs are in the rearview mirror.
But Belichick turns his robot settings to maximum levels when he knows his team faces its greatest challenges and needs its utmost focus.
“We’ll do the best we can this week, and worry about next week, next week,” he said.
The Patriots may be 8-1, but they played a bunch of patsies in the first half of the season. Of their nine games before the bye, only two were against teams with winning records — a 16-10 win at Buffalo, and a 37-20 loss at Baltimore. The Patriots’ .369 strength of schedule is second-lowest in the NFL, and their .320 strength of victory is third-lowest among the 12 current playoff qualifiers.
In the first half of the season, the Patriots faced such quarterback luminaries as Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Luke Falk, Colt McCoy, and Josh Allen.
The first time they played a real team, it wasn’t pretty — the 17-point loss at Baltimore. Now following a bye week, the real test begins: consecutive games against Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes. Four good quarterbacks, all in the mix for playoff spots. Combined record of their teams: 22-15 (.595).
If the Patriots can get through this stretch with a 4-0 or 3-1 record, a first-round bye will be a lock, and their chances for the No. 1 seed will be excellent. The Patriots finish the regular season with three likely wins: at Cincinnati, vs. Buffalo, vs. Miami.
But a 2-2 record in this stretch could potentially cost the Patriots the No. 1 seed. If the losses come to the Texans and Chiefs, two conference opponents, it could even cost the Patriots a first-round bye.
“We’re obviously not naive to the schedule,” safety Duron Harmon said. “We all know who we’ve got to play coming up. But the important part in this stretch is just taking it one day at a time, one game at a time, and when we get to the game, one play at a time. Not looking forward, and just staying in the moment. If we can do that I feel like we’ll be all right.”
Apparently, Belichick didn’t have to remind his players about the one-day-at-a-time mantra this past week. Most of the players have been around long enough to know exactly what Belichick would say.
“Nobody’s even talking about it. The only people talking about the four-game stretch is the media,” Harmon said. “If all our focus isn’t on the Eagles, we’re not doing it the right way, and we’re not taking our opponents and respecting them the right way. And the Eagles, they deserve a lot of respect the way they play the game and how they’re going to be ready to play on Sunday.”
The Patriots do acknowledge that these upcoming games are important, but mostly because they want to be playing their best football by December and January.
“I mean, we’re after the bye so all of them are — not that the ones before weren’t important, but this is when the team’s really got to elevate its play,” Tom Brady said on Friday.
“Obviously you get to this time of the year, every game means more and more,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “And I think for a football team we’ve put ourselves in a good position. But it’s really about how we play down the stretch starting this weekend. So let’s just focus on trying to go down to The Linc and play at a high level and see where that gets us.”
The Patriots don’t live under a rock. They have seen the schedule, and they know how important these games will be. They will keep an eye on the Ravens, Texans, and Chiefs this weekend. And Brady had a stack of notes on the Cowboys’ defensive personnel at his locker on Friday. It takes more than a week to prepare for a game.
But “one week at a time” has led to six Super Bowl victories, and the players know how to stay in the moment.
“You do try to always keep in mind big picture,” Slater said. “But you can never look ahead in this league. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. Too many good coaches, good players on each and every football team. It starts with Philly. These guys have given us enough problems over the years. We have to put all our energy into playing a good game on Sunday.”