FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Bill Belichick spoke after the New England Patriots won their 12th game of the season on Sunday, it sounded like any other game.
"Fortunately we were just able to make a few more plays and make a few at the right time," he said.
The end result has been the same, but the means to the end have been different. Now that the full 16-game regular season slate is in the books, one big-picture takeaway stands out: the sheer volume of ways the Patriots have won games this season should give the team as much confidence headed into its 11th trip to the postseason in the past 13 years as it had in its first playoff berth in that stretch.
Do they need to throw the ball to put points on the board? The Patriots faced that challenge against the New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans and Cleveland Browns, when Tom Brady unleashed pass after pass with the game on the line to deliver the Patriots to victory.
Need to ground-and-pound their way to a win? With a first-round bye hanging in the balance, Brady's aerial assault accumulated just 294 yards in the past two games combined, while the running game bludgeoned its opponents for 409 yards.
That's the balance the Patriots have found. You name the challenge, the Patriots have faced it.
"When youâ€™re a receiver, you like that because that just sets up other things," said wide receiver Julian Edelman of the Patriots resurgent running game. "With how everything was going out there with the rain and stuff, we didn't need to [pass the ball] as much, and I think we were pretty efficient in the pass game when we had to."
The running game is poised for the postseason, and the Patriots will need it, with weather that will more closely resemble Sunday's 40-degree, rain-soaked conditions than anything else the Patriots have seen this year.
The rain, itself, was seemingly a metaphor for the season.
Faced with adverse conditions, the Patriots adjusted their game plan to meet the situation. Whether it's been an injury to Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer or Rob Gronkowski, a 14-point halftime deficit to the Miami Dolphins, a defensive slugfest, an offensive fireworks show, a 24-point deficit to the Broncos, or any number of other late-game scenarios, the Patriots seem to always have an answer.
On Sunday, that answer was running back LeGarrette Blount, bulldozing through the Buffalo Bills defense and through a 51-year-old Patriots record for all-purpose yards set by Mr. Patriot himself, Gino Cappelletti, by netting 334 total yards (189 rushing yards and 145 return yards).
The Patriots may not roll over their playoff opponents with the ease with which Blount rolled through the Bills on Sunday, but that's a challenge they've already faced so many times this year.
"I think this is one of the most mentally tough teams I've been on, through the close games that we've played," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich. "Because the games that you win by three, one, those are games that take a lot out of you and we just keep coming back every week. I think as far as toughness goes, this team is one of the best I've ever been on."
This may also be the toughest team in recent Patriots history. The Patriots mounted a comeback from a fourth-quarter deficit in five games this year, the most times that's happened in Brady's career.
There have been some struggles along the way, and the Patriots have had their share of good fortune -- as is the case any time a team is trailing and needs a late surge to get the win.
It hasn't been easy, and it's been far from perfect, but that's football.
"We've got to go out there and play great football. No matter what the conditions are and no matter what team we play, we're going to have to play a 60-minute game, play good in all three phases," Brady said. "I think we've worked hard to put ourselves in this position, we've earned it; 12-4 is a good record. We'll really see what we're made of here in a few weeks."
That's when the mental toughness matters the most.
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