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Defense provides reasons to smile

FOXBOROUGH -- Tuesday follows Monday, Wednesday follows Tuesday, and so on.

And NFL football is played on Sundays . . . or Mondays . . . or sometimes Saturdays. But the point is, this is just another week at the office for the New England Patriots.

Thus, according to coach Bill Belichick, the recently acquired designation of 2005 AFC East champion, which means the Patriots will host a playoff game the second week of January, will have little effect on his team's preparation for Monday night's game at New York.

Rarely are games like the trip to the Meadowlands to face the Jets completely meaningless, but this one comes close. New England is locked into either the No. 3 or 4 seed, which gives it a game against a wild-card team at Gillette Stadium during the first weekend of postseason play.

According to Belichick, playoffs are not the chief concern at this point.

''It's a regular week," he said. ''Put it in the headline, bold type: it's a regular week.

''The players know that, the staff knows it. That's the balance. Understanding that it's a Monday night game and all that, but it's a regular week.

''We're going to go out there and do what we feel like is the best thing to do this week. For me, long term in this business is at the most one week. It's a day at a time, and one week [at a time]."

Though they probably are going to be the fourth seed and face Jacksonville, there remains an outside chance the Patriots could be the No. 3 seed, thereby avoiding a likely divisional-round game in Indianapolis.

But if things fall in place as expected, the Patriots' home tilt with Miami in the season finale likely will have even less impact on playoff seeding than the Jets game. Then Belichick will have to decide how much to play his starters, if at all.

But after the team struggled to find a flow early in the season, Belichick and his staff would be hesitant to break its positive rhythm. Yesterday he proudly designated Saturday's 28-0 win over Tampa as the Patriots' best game of the year.

Belichick said he will revisit the idea of resting some of his starters as opposed to going all-out to win next week, but he expects it to be a tough call.

''I don't think anybody knows any other way to do it around here," Belichick said. ''It's football season, and [win] is what we're here to do. I don't know what else I can go in there and tell 'em. We all have some pride in what we're doing."

That pride has been on display of late, particularly on defense, where the unit has finally started to show the consistency and toughness it lacked in the first half of the season.

New England (9-5) has won five of its last six games, and has moved from 27th in the league against the run before that stretch to sixth in the latest NFL stats. And the Patriots have given up just 10 points in posting three straight wins.

Part of the reason for that improvement is the staff and players know who is playing where and what they can expect from those positions.

Consider that just five defenders have started every game at the same position this season. The other six spots have seen significant change because of injuries and coaching decisions that made it difficult for the unit to jell.

In the first three weeks of the season, three players started at right cornerback. For six weeks, the Patriots had Duane Starks at the position. Picked up in an offseason trade, Starks was slowed a notch by having to learn the defense, and was affected even more significantly by a couple of injuries.

In the last six weeks, rookie Ellis Hobbs has provided the best play at the position all season.

After safety Rodney Harrison's season ended with a knee injury in Week 3, there was a five-week stretch of new players at his position, with none having any significant experience at that spot, and several playing through injuries.

In the last month, Artrell Hawkins has taken over and though he is new to the defense (and to the position), he has been steadier than any of the other fill-ins.

For the first six weeks, Monty Beisel and Chad Brown started at inside linebacker. While the free agent signees' play was not as poor as some of the numbers might indicate, their inexperience in the defense coupled with inconsistency at other positions was a problem.

Tedy Bruschi, who missed the first six games because of a stroke, and Mike Vrabel, playing inside for the first time in his career, were inserted into those positions, and there has been steady improvement.

Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork have been on the defensive line the entire season, but the defense took a major hit in playing a month without Richard Seymour. His knee injury took one of the best in the game out of the lineup, forced a solid player in Jarvis Green to have to play more snaps than he is accustomed to, and reduced defensive coordinator Eric Mangini's play-calling options. It is no coincidence that since Seymour returned, all is well up front.

And finally, Rosevelt Colvin has started the last nine games at outside linebacker. The Colvin that has been on the field recently is a different player than the one that started the first few games in that stretch. Colvin has a sack in four straight games and leads the team with six.

''I think there was a feeling of frustration on the whole team because we felt like we had a lot of talent and we felt like we had proven we could win in the past, but it just wasn't working out," Colvin said. ''Some weeks we would come in and play well, and the next week we would play terrible.

''You have to tip your hat to some of the guys who tried to come in, work a little bit harder, study a little bit more to play at a higher level. The result of that is where we are now."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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