The Patriots have an opportunity to clinch the AFC East outright for the fifth straight season, and 10th time in the past 11 years, by beating the Cleveland Browns at Gillette Stadium Sunday, combined with a Dolphins loss at Pittsburgh.
Owning a three-game lead over Miami with four games left, the Patriots would clinch at least a share of the division title simply by knocking off the Browns. Hat-and-T shirt games always have extra meaning for the Patriots, but usually after the fact. Before the game, coach Bill Belichick said, the focus needs to be elsewhere.
"Weíre not talking too much about that," Belichick said during the weekly coaches' teleconference Tuesday. "The only thing we can really control is how we play against Cleveland, and thatís really what we need to focus on. Whatever else does or doesnít happen in the league is definitely, totally outside of our control.
"Right now weíre just trying to focus on improving, getting ready for the Browns, a team that we donít know very well."
The Patriots last faced the Browns three seasons ago, when Cleveland handed the visitors a 34-14 upset loss. This year's Browns are 4-8, in last place in the AFC North.
One player the Patriots won't have to game-plan for is quarterback Brian Hoyer, a native of the Cleveland area who joined the Browns earlier this year and played well before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Hoyer served as Tom Brady's backup for three years (2009-11) in Foxborough.
"We obviously wish him the best," said Belichick. "He got an opportunity, went in there and made the most of it, then unfortunately suffered an injury. Whether itís Matt [Cassel] or Brian, as long as it doesnít hurt us, Iím always rooting for them, and many of our other players around the league that have done well that were good Patriots players during their time here.
"In Brianís case, I know his recovery is coming along well and hopefully it will continue that way and heíll have another opportunity. Heís a great kid who works hard, certainly has paid his dues along the way."
Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were also on the teleconference. Patricia was asked if the defense has flat-lined or regressed over the past six weeks. After giving up an average of 14 points through five games, the Patriots are allowing opponents an average of 27.2 points over the last seven.
"We donít really look at it that way," said Patricia. "Weíre certainly trying to be better than we were the week before -- thatís really what weíre trying to strive to do. Our guys work extremely hard, and I donít think those would be the words that I would use to describe anything that weíre trying to do."
McDaniels was asked about the recent slow starts. The Patriots have been forced to overcome halftime deficits the past two games: 24-0 to Denver and 17-7 this past Sunday at Houston.
"I think it comes down to coaching and playing well, whatever quarter youíre talking about," said McDaniels. "If we can do those things in the third quarter or the second quarter, the fourth quarter, we can certainly do them in the first quarter.
"I think it is definitely going to be a point of emphasis for us every week. It always is. Itís an important aspect of the game in the NFL, to try and get out in front and start well. We just need to be prepared and ready to go in the beginning of the game and just try to execute a little bit better."