FOXBOROUGH - January is the month of both anticipation and reflection, named after the two-faced Roman god who looked both forward and backward. If Janus played for the Patriots, though, he'd be wearing blinkers. In Bill Belichick's myopic universe, December never happened and February is a century away.
``Everybody is 0-0 now,'' Belichick said, as soon as the regular season ended a week ago yesterday. ``We all know what it is. Lose, and you are out. Win, and you keep going. That is it.''
New England's achievements up to now are impressive and undeniable _ a franchise-record 14 victories, the last 12 in a row. A perfect home record. The best defense in club history.
The Las Vegas seers have the Patriots at 2-1 to win the Super Bowl for the second time in three years. All they have to do is get there.
Getting here was interesting, but irrelevant.
"It doesn't matter how you got here," said Belichick, whose top-seeded football team will host Denver or Tennessee in the AFC playoffs Saturday night. "Whether you won them in a row, didn't win them in a row, however it happened."
The Patriots got here by living exclusively in the moment, by ignoring previous and future Sundays, by using the players available to them, by accepting -- and adjusting to -- conditions as they found them, and by expecting to win every game by whatever means necessary.
"It's not like we're Pavlov's dogs or anything," mused linebacker Ted Johnson. "But we're conditioned to prepare a certain way."
That was how Belichick's charges smacked down Philadelphia after losing to Buffalo in the worst opening-game defeat in franchise history, how they knocked off Tennessee after losing to Washington.
That was how the Patriots smothered the Giants with nine starters missing, how they ended the Miami jinx, how they outfoxed Denver, outlasted Houston, and outpointed Indianapolis. "New England just outcoached, outpersonneled, and outplayed everybody," conceded Tom Donahoe, Buffalo's president and general manager.
Nobody was saying that after the Bills destroyed New England, 31-0, in Game 1, just days after star safety Lawyer Milloy went from teammate to opponent. The Patriots were pathetic on defense in their debut, punchless on offense. "This wasn't us today," acknowledged linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Were they distracted by the Milloy changeover? Poorly prepared? Overrated? Did they hate their coach, as ESPN commentator Tom Jackson later opined? "There is a lot of football left to be played," observed Belichick, who said on that Sunday that he wasn't looking past Monday. "It is short-term, and it is day-by-day."
Game 2 would be against a different team in a different place with a different game plan. The Eagles eventually won their division, but that day they were missing half of their secondary.
So quarterback Tom Brady threw three play-action touchdown passes, two to tight end Christian Fauria, the defense harassed Donovan McNabb into a brutal performance (18 of 46 for 186 yards with no touchdowns, eight sacks, and two interceptions, one for a touchdown by Tedy Bruschi) and New England left the field a 31-10 victor.
It's already forgotten One Sunday had nothing to do with the next. That was the Belichick credo. What he hated most about his job, he would say, was returning to the locker room at 4 o'clock after a loss, a week's preparation gone for naught. But at 4:01, the next Sunday began, with another chance for victory.
"Every game we've played since I've been here, we felt like we were going to win," Belichick said. "We obviously didn't win all of them, but that's how we felt going in."
Which is why the 20-17 loss at Washington in Game 4 -- the last defeat of the regular season -- rankled. The squad was missing five offensive and four defensive starters that day, and Brady's throwing shoulder and elbow were hurting. But the players still expected to prevail.
"We should have won the game," said Bruschi, after the Patriots had climbed out of a 20-3 hole and tried a fourth-down pass in the final minute instead of going for a tying field goal. "To say it was a moral victory, you're asking me to settle, and I won't. I won't settle for any loss."
Even if nearly half of the lineup was on crutches. Football is a smashmouth sport and broken bones and ripped ligaments are routine and always will be. "The game is going to move on," said safety Rodney Harrison.
And the rules still call for 11 men on the field, whether or not they'd expected to be there. "We're a 53-man roster," said guard Joe Andruzzi. "Nobody's here to collect a backup-role check. If someone goes down, you have to be able to step up."
With its regulars missing 103 games with injuries, New England plugged in 42 different starters and used the same lineup for consecutive games only once. The defense, which lost one linebacker (Rosevelt Colvin) for the season, another (Johnson) for eight games, and nose tackle Ted Washington for six more, switched from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3, then back again five times.
"Right now, we're just willing ourselves," said cornerback Tyrone Poole, after the Patriots had survived a wet and grimy wrangle with the Giants in Game 6.
They still were minus nine starters. They managed just 29 yards in the first half and eight pass completions for the game. They converted just 1 of 11 third downs and committed 10 penalties. Yet they still won, 17-6, because the defense made four interceptions and Matt Chatham returned a fumble 38 yards for a touchdown. "Man, that was a great win for our football team," declared Belichick.
The greatest, though, came the following week at Miami, where New England had never won a game in September or October (as in 0-13). "We've got to get those guys," vowed guard Damien Woody. "They beat the crap out of us. It's been ugly games down there ever since I came here."
With two minutes left in regulation and Dolphins kicker Olindo Mare setting up for a 35-yard field goal, the Patriots appeared squelched again. Mare had only had two of 201 career attempts blocked. "What are the chances?" asked defensive lineman Richard Seymour, after he'd batted the ball away to force overtime.
Then, after losing the coin toss, New England shrewdly chose to defend the west end of Pro Player Stadium, where the baseball infield was, to force Mare to kick on dirt.
After Mare missed right, Brady promptly lofted an 82-yard touchdown pass to Troy Brown for the 19-13 victory that made both the Patriots and their fans believe that anything was possible. "If you look back," said center Dan Koppen, "that was the turning point for this team."
Bottom line the same The starters would vary, the game plans change, but week after week, there was a victory. Almost all of them were close -- 11 straight times, New England won by two touchdowns or less, an NFL record. And most went down to the final minutes. "We're just going to play it out and when 60 minutes is up, we'll see how it ends," said Woody, after his mates had subdued Cleveland, 9-3. "See who's the last one standing."
The triumphs often were grinding and graceless, like the 12-0 throttlings of Dallas and Miami. But Belichick didn't care about style points, as long as the day ended in a W. "It's hard to win in this league," he said. "However you can win, you better be happy about it."
Even if it meant clanging a snap off the goal post for an intentional safety, as Lonie Paxton did in Denver with the Patriots trailing by a point with less than three minutes to play and backed up against their end zone.
After Ken Walter's free kick chased the Broncos back to their 15 and the defense forced them three-and-out, Brady threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to David Givens with 30 seconds left for a 30-26 victory. "It was a horrible knife in the guts for Denver," Hunter S. Thompson observed on ESPN.com.
It was all about execution under pressure, Belichick said. The Patriots beat Houston in overtime by stopping the Texans three times, then kicking a field goal with 41 seconds to play. Then, after squandering a three-touchdown lead in the second half, they slammed the door on the Colts by stacking them up three times at the 1-yard-line with less than 25 seconds to play.
"To be the best, you've got to stop the best," said linebacker Willie McGinest, after he'd lassoed Edgerrin James on fourth down. "And we did that."
This New England team was 7-0 against teams with winning records and 5-0 against playoff teams. Nobody except the 1969 Vikings had ever managed that. "I've been reading that they're lucky," said Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, after the Patriots had stuffed them into a snowbank in Game 13. "They're not lucky. They're a great football team."
Their defense (ranked seventh) and offense (17th) weren't at the top of the NFL statistical page and they only had two players (Seymour and cornerback Ty Law) chosen for the Pro Bowl.
But the Patriots won those 14 games by using their entire roster and by focusing on the statistics that produce victories --points allowed (a league-low 14.9, a franchise record), a turnover differential of plus-17 (another franchise record), an NFL-high six defensive touchdowns, and red-zone scoring (42 of 50, 22 of them touchdowns).
Mostly, though, they won them by recognizing that each victory was merely a down payment on something more important. "We're not going to sit here and have a parade and celebrate because we won five games," said Belichick, after his squad had ended its tropical hex at Miami. "We just haven't done anything yet."
The divisional title, the playoff bye, the home-field advantage throughout -- all of them will be forgotten if the Patriots lose next weekend. "There's nothing to be proud of now," Andruzzi said last week, as he and his teammates were preparing for an unknown opponent. "We didn't do nothing. We just got to Round 1."
What the Patriots accomplished during the last four months was a prelude, nothing more. Looking back is for chroniclers, not coaches. "No two weeks are the same, no two teams are the same, and no two years are the same," said Belichick. "Everything is always different, always in flux. Whatever we will be facing going forward will be different than what we faced before."
There is only one game on the schedule now, and these Patriots will approach it as they approached the 16 before it. "We're just trying to win one game," Law said. "That's the way it's been since I've been here. Nobody's thinking about booking reservations to go anywhere other than Gillette Stadium on Saturday night."