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Hoping worst is behind them

Schedule ahead favors Patriots

NFL coaches will tell you that it is better to look forward than to look back.

''You can't win the ones you lost now," said Patriots tight end Daniel Graham in a somber locker room after Sunday's 26-16 loss to Kansas City. ''You just learn from this one and get a win next week."

Even after being slapped around in the city where Satchel Paige used to pitch, the Patriots could not look back and find a team gaining on them if they used a telescope.

The Jets have lost six in a row, Buffalo has lost four of five, and Miami just broke a three-game skid. With straight faces, the Patriots claim there is no comfort in facing a familiar foe this week in the reeling Jets.

''Anybody really -- division or non-division -- it doesn't really matter," defensive captain Tedy Bruschi said of the Patriots needing to get past the disappointing loss to the Chiefs. ''Just to get going on the next opponent.

''We don't get too high after we win, and we try not to get too low after we lose. But it's Monday, so we still feel the effects of losing the way we did in Kansas City. Just moving on to the Jets this week is something we'll look forward to. Just anxious to play another game.

''That's just the way it is. We're in first place. We're on top of the division. So we want to stay there."

Life is so good for the Patriots atop the AFC East that with five games left, it is almost time to start talking playoffs.

Playoffs? Playoffs?

Yes, Jim Mora, playoffs.

Consider: If, as expected, the Patriots dispose of the 2-9 Jets Sunday at Gillette, they could clinch the division crown the following week in Buffalo. If Miami (4-7) loses to Buffalo (4-7) this week, then falls at San Diego, where it should be a heavy underdog, the Patriots could wrap up at least a share of the crown by beating the Bills. And with two wins in that season series, the Patriots could take the final three weeks off, finish 8-8 and still be champions.

Then what?

If the playoffs began today, the Patriots would welcome Jacksonville to town for Wild Card Weekend.

In the six weeks before Jacksonville, or Pittsburgh, or Kansas City, or San Diego comes to town for a first-round playoff game, the Patriots have plenty to work on.

''Obviously there is more room for improvement," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. ''We have to do some things a lot better and continue to try to move forward.

''The goal is to qualify for the playoffs. You take it one game at a time and you hope that at the end of the season, everything that you've worked for, everything that you put forth [gets you] where you want to be."

One thing the Patriots have put forth this season is a defense that is last in the league against the pass, and next-to-last in yards allowed, sacks, and third-down efficiency. Don't expect the play to improve greatly, as the players are unlikely to change. But the numbers should get better, as the Patriots finish against some of the worst passing offenses in the NFL.

Tampa Bay, Miami, the Jets, and the Bills rank 21st, 24th, 26th, and 30th in passing. The Jets are last in scoring and Buffalo is 30th. The Buccaneers (21st) and Miami (23d) are only slightly better in putting points on the board.

The Patriots don't have to run the table to be a playoff team, but considering the competition, it is time for them to put together a stretch of solid play.

''Any time you take a loss, you take a step backward," defensive end Ty Warren said. ''Now we have to take a step forward. You never can catch up from the losses."

As the opposition softens, the Patriots can also take solace in an improved offensive injury situation over the next few weeks. Barring additional bang-ups, the Patriots should be in their best shape of the year as they head into the postseason.

Graham said he was back at full speed Sunday after missing almost two full games with what he described as ''a hurt everything."

Tackle Tom Ashworth returned against the Chiefs (though he didn't play much) after missing two games with a knee injury.

Tailback Corey Dillon is taking the healing of his calf slowly, with the intention of being in top shape when he comes back. He could even sit out another week or two to make sure he is 100 percent when he returns.

Tackle Matt Light is working hard rehabbing a broken leg suffered nine weeks ago. A team source said Light is close to returning to the practice field.

Receiver David Givens, out three weeks with a knee injury, isn't thought to be seriously injured. Few knee injuries that don't require surgery have more than a three- to six-week healing period, so one could surmise that Givens is on the short side of the recovery process.

Backup tailback Kevin Faulk has moved up in injury status the last couple of weeks, an indication that he is nearing a return from a broken foot.

That's five starters and a key backup/third-down back who should be in the mix by season's end.

Even if it is the byproduct of a weaker schedule, the Patriots should finish the season on a roll. Still, they know they can't afford to take anyone lightly.

''I think every week there's a sense of urgency, regardless of who we're playing, where we're playing, or what we're playing for," Colvin said. ''We expect to go out and win, whether it's Kansas City or it's the New York Jets.

''You've worked hard all season to line up in the preseason to get ready for the regular season, and what we've done so far this season has put us at 6-5, first place in the division. That doesn't mean anything because you've still got to play the rest of the season.

''We've just got to continue to prepare well, and hopefully we can continue to come out and play with intensity, with excitement, fly around, and have some fun and try to win as many as we can in the last five games, starting this week with the Jets.

''If you sit here and look at the division, and this and that, you'll find yourself looking up [from second place] before you know it."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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