FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The second half of the season is when the Patriots really start rolling. With a bye week to prepare for it, they hope to be unbeatable.
Just like the last two years.
New England won its last eight regular-season games in 2010 and 2011 when the need to peak going into the postseason intensifies. As the end nears, there is less time to make up for losses.
That urgency, and coach Bill Belichick's emphasis on it, may be why they're 61-11 in the second half of the past nine seasons.
"Early in the year, you start out and it's kind of hard to say, 'Oh, this game's more important than that game,' " running backs coach Ivan Fears said. "Later in the year, it's easy for the guys to see a loss here really hurts anything we're trying to get done."
The Patriots started this season at 1-2 but that won't matter if they reach the playoffs with a team playing its best.
The bye week comes at a good time. The Patriots have played enough games to assess their strengths and weaknesses and have enough left to develop consistency. They lead the AFC East at 5-3 — with their losses by a total of four points — the same record they had last year when they were tied for the division lead.
Last season, the Patriots dropped their last two games before the midpoint.
"We've got half the season to go," quarterback Tom Brady said then after losing to the New York Giants on a last-minute touchdown pass by Eli Manning. "We'll see what our team's made of this week."
Then they beat the New York Jets 37-16, starting a stretch in which five of eight wins were by at least 18 points, and went all the way to the Super Bowl where they lost to the Giants on another last-minute touchdown.
In 2010, they lost their eighth game 34-14 to the Cleveland Browns, to drop to 6-2. Then they beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 39-26 and had six wins by at least 13 points in their last eight games.
"These last eight weeks is when teams really start to show themselves and the bad ones really start to fade," Brady said. "If you want to be a good team, you have to be on top of all those things, whether it be our conditioning, your nutrition, your rest, your decision making over the course of a long season and how that impacts the rest of your teammates.
"That's really why some teams begin to separate themselves over a 16-week season."
Brady isn't sure where he'll spend his three days off before players return on Monday.
"It's not up to me anymore," the father of two sons and husband of supermodel Gisele Bundchen said.
Stevan Ridley, the AFC's leading rusher, plans to watch his old high school team play in Mississippi on Friday night then return as a fan to Baton Rouge, La., where he played for LSU. The fifth-ranked Tigers face top-ranked Alabama on Saturday night.
"So, I'm leaving football to go to football," he said. "Hey, it's my life."
Ridley shows no signs of slowing down in his first year as a No. 1 running back. He rushed for 127 yards on just 15 carries in last Sunday's 45-7 rout of the St. Louis Rams in London, the fourth time he's gained more than 100 yards this season. He scored his fifth touchdown and broke loose for a season-long 41-yard run.
Brady is having another outstanding year, Wes Welker is tied for the NFL lead with 60 catches and Rob Gronkowski is 10th with 43 catches and tied for first with seven touchdown receptions.
The defense has been shaky, especially against the pass, but held the Rams scoreless after a 50-yard touchdown pass on their opening drive. With four rookies playing key roles, it's important that they pace themselves during the longer pro season.
"A big adjustment for a first-year player coming into this league is the length of the season, the intensity of the season. Certainly they're playing against good players every day in practice, every week on the field," Belichick said. "In college, they were probably the best player on their team or one of the best players on their team. The other teams might have had some good players but it wasn't this level of competition on a daily or weekly basis and there's a lot more of it."
It resumes Nov. 11 at home against the Buffalo Bills, a team the Patriots already have beaten 52-28. They're home again against the Indianapolis Colts then visit the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins. Their two toughest remaining opponents follow, at home against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers, before they wind up the season at the Jacksonville Jaguars and at home against Miami.
Can they go 8-0 again?
"I obviously hope it's true this year," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said, "but I just think our mantra around here is to improve every day, and I think that that holds true from day one to wherever we are now."
Belichick has been preaching that since he became coach in 2000. The Patriots went 5-11 that year. In the 11 seasons since, they have at least 10 wins 10 times and are 73-15 in the second half.
"You can't afford losses in November and December. You're in the middle of the race. Everything you do before that set you up for that race," Fears said. The players "finally understand what Bill's been harping about all year long.
"It makes it a little easier to sell it to them and their sense of urgency gets heightened, and they go after it."
Can they peak, again, heading toward the postseason?
"In the end," cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer said, "all that really matters is that we're improving each week and we're playing our best ball down the stretch."
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL