FOXBORO -- As Tom Brady stepped to the podium Wednesday at Gillette Stadium, I asked him very casually if it feels like another big week in a career of big weeks.
“Yes it does,” Brady said without hesitation. “It’s December.”
Year after year, December to the Patriots means another run at a Vince Lombardi trophy. No organization in sports has proven the ability year in and year out to handle the big moment.
Yes, they’re 0-2 in their last two Super Bowls because of two fluke plays. But in getting there, they’ve shown they thrive on the big stage because they’re prepared to deal with it. No team handled a season better under pressure than the Patriots did in 2007, going 16-0.
But as Bill Belichick again reminded us all on Wednesday, every year is different and history means nothing in terms of wins and losses. This year, they’re 9-3 and technically seeded No. 2 in the AFC as I write this. Which begs a couple of questions.
Are they again gearing up for another Super Bowl run? Or have they been the beneficiaries of a schedule that had them play the Jets, Rams, Bills, Colts, Jets (again) and Dolphins since losing their last game in Seattle way back on Oct. 14?
I’ve said it before in this space. We here in New England are equal parts spoiled and incredibly lucky to have the football world turn its eyes toward Foxboro during the most important weeks of the season, year in and year out.
In the span of six days, there will be two huge games that will set the bar of expectations for every Patriots fan.
Beat Houston and San Francisco, and Patriots fans will be booking their tickets for New Orleans in the first week of February.
Split, and fans still will have hope that this team can find a way, with or without a bye, to at least get to the AFC championship game.
Lose them both and fans and cynics will say the Patriots were paper tigers in the woeful AFC East, the worst division in football. They’ll be playing on the first weekend of the playoffs but be long shots to even get to the AFC title game.
We’ve already heard a lot this week down in Foxboro about the Patriots being 18-0 at home in December since 2002. They’ve won their last 20 games in the second half of the season dating back to the ’09 campaign. With their win this past Sunday in Miami, clinching their fourth straight AFC East crown, they’ve won 12 straight in the month of December.
"I think we’re trying to focus on playing well and I think the better you play, the better your home-field advantage is because the more the crowd is into it," Brady said. "I think the mark of our teams over the years has been we’ve improved as the season has gone along. December is the last month to really improve. I think our team has always tried to -- coach puts pressure on us in practice every day to improve, to get better and not to make the same mistakes [and] to learn from our mistakes. I think we as a team have responded to that and played well. That's what’s important this time of the year: to not make the same mistakes we were making in September and to play our best football. This will be a great week to see if we can accomplish that."
Here’s some history they hope doesn’t repeat.
Just like this week, when the Patriots play the Texans and 49ers at home six days apart in night games at Gillette, in 2002, they played Steve McNair and the Titans on the road, followed by the Jets six nights later at home on national TV.
That didn’t turn out so well, as they lost to Tennessee in Nashville before dropping a 30-17 game to the Jets, their last home loss in December. They fell to 8-7, missing the playoffs when the Jets beat the Packers the next week.
Of course, that has been the exception to the rule, and they don’t have to worry about missing the playoffs this season as their ticket already has been punched.
But the concern, of course, is that if they lose to the Texans and 49ers -- a possibility if nothing else -- then the sky will be falling.
Let’s not kid ourselves; Brady and Belichick are two people who will not be in awe of being on the national stage. It’s been their life for the last decade. The Texans and 49ers? They’re still new to this, with the Texans feeling like they have something to prove as the young kids on the block who want to knock off the bully of the AFC.
Does the idea of a big game get Brady as excited, if not more excited, than it did early in his career?
“I’m always pretty excited,” Brady said. “I always enjoy playing Monday night games and Sunday night games and we play on Thursday night. Those are fun moments and as your career goes on, you realize the opportunities are fewer and fewer.
“You appreciate them and you relish the opportunity to go out there with your teammates and accomplish something. Whether it was 1 o'clock last Sunday, which was an exciting game for us, or 8:30 on Monday night, it will be a fun environment, and it’s even more fun when we go out and play well.”
The national stage, in this case Monday Night Football, is something the Patriots have learned to pace themselves for over a decade of dominance.
“I think it builds. I think the Monday night game still is when everyone always [gets excited],” Brady said. “There’s a little bit of a different feeling just because of how special it is to play on Monday Night Football.”
The three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots are accustomed to the national spotlight while the Texans are still getting accustomed to it.
But when the 11-1 Texans visit the 9-3 Patriots, there will be a lot more on the line than just grabbing the headlines. And this is what the Patriots understand more than anything.
Both teams have wrapped up playoff berths, with the Patriots clinching their fourth straight AFC East title last week in Miami.
The Texans know that with a win they can take a big step toward clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and a first-round bye.
The Patriots understand that with a win they can take another step toward a first-round bye, with an eye on the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
For Belichick, he has to hope that his offensive line can solve the 6-foot-6 beast that is J.J. Watt, who enters with 15 1/2 sacks, second in the NFL this season.
Brady knows Watt represents a 3-4 defense that loves to scheme to get after the quarterback.
On paper, the Texans have a defensive line led by Watt and Antonio Smith that is more than capable of disrupting a Patriots passing game that is down one of its most productive receivers (Rob Gronkowski) and it’s most versatile (Julian Edelman). On paper, the Texans have quarterback Matt Schaub, all-world running back Arian Foster and a superstar receiver in Andre Johnson.
The Texans already have comported themselves quite well on the national stage this season, going to Chicago and beating the Bears in a Sunday night game, beating the Bears at their own game in the muck of Soldier Field.
The Patriots enter the toughest part of their schedule when they play the Texans and 49ers at home in night games just six days apart.
It’s December in New England, home of the big game. That means time for the Patriots to step up and prove who they really are.
To the Trags Bag for what the tweeps think of this huge chance for the Patriots to shine in prime time again, Donte’ Stallworth returning as a replacement for Julian Edelman, the Red Sox signing Shane Victorino and Boston College hiring Temple’s Steve Addazio.
@BerMA33 @patriots have probably the toughest two next games of any team vs. Hou and SF.
@TMurph207 Someone needs to heck Cherington for a concussion.
@jboston19 All are disappointing. The BC coach choice is worst/most surprising as I had much higher hopes. Bates appears to be another [disappointment].
@matthewfjensen Already knew Edelman was injury prone and I don't care about BC enough to be surprised by anything.
@pcufinn I would take [Victorino] over Swisher in a Heartbeat!!!!