FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The New England Patriots aren't wasting time celebrating their playoff berth. They're working hard to get even better.
Yes, they insist, it is possible.
So what if they've beaten their last two opponents by a combined 71 points? Does it matter that Tom Brady has thrown 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last eight games? Or that a young defense has come up with 13 turnovers since the offense committed its last?
The Patriots, not surprisingly under all-business coach Bill Belichick, weren't rejoicing Monday less than 24 hours after becoming the first team to clinch a postseason spot.
"Well, I'm not smiling right now," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "We get brought back down to reality real quick every time we're in the film room. We want to be perfect."
Belichick, no doubt, pointed to some of the four penalties in Sunday's 36-7 win over the Chicago Bears. One of them wiped out Julian Edelman's touchdown on a punt return on a snow-covered field.
But there were many more good plays by a team that has responded to a stunning 34-14 loss to the Cleveland Browns with five straight wins and — in the last three games — taken on the look of an unstoppable force.
Starting with the last 28 points of a 45-24 Thanksgiving Day win over the Detroit Lions, the Patriots have outscored teams 109-10. Yet Crumpler thinks the only time they played well for a full 60 minutes this year was in their following game — a 45-3 rout of the New York Jets, who entered tied with the Patriots for the AFC lead.
"We're playing well at the time that you need to play well," Crumpler said. "I think the biggest thing is we never got too far ahead of ourselves. We've been really focused on the team that we play."
With their seventh playoff berth in eight seasons secure, the Patriots (11-2) shifted their focus Monday to the Green Bay Packers (8-5). They trail the Bears by one game in the NFC North and may be without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He suffered his second concussion of the season and was replaced by Matt Flynn in Sunday's 7-3 loss at Detroit.
"We don't" celebrate making the playoffs, cornerback Darius Butler said. "It's on to the next (game). We know every time you win, it puts yourself in a better position. We want to keep doing that, keep helping ourselves."
The Patriots lead the Jets by two games in the division with three games left for each. Once the playoffs start, though, the regular-season standings mean nothing. New England won three of its last four games last season then lost to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14 in the first round of the playoffs.
"Each week is its own challenge," Belichick said, "so it doesn't really matter what happened last week, one way or the other. We'll see what happens this week."
Brady will try to extend his NFL record of 26 consecutive regular-season wins at home. Wes Welker and Deion Branch have emerged as an outstanding one-two receiving punch with each making eight catches against the Bears. And BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who became the primary running back in the third game, has rushed for 11 touchdowns.
"Every time we plant a new guy in somewhere," Crumpler said, "he takes his coaching and he plays well."
The Patriots have played well in warm and cold weather, in strong winds and mild breezes, under sunny skies and surrounded by snow.
Brady and company were unfazed by the flakes, outgaining the Bears 475 yards to 185. They had a nearly two-to-one advantage in time of possession and ran 78 plays to just 42 for Chicago.
"I felt good, besides some snow blowing in my face here and there," Butler said. "We knew it was going to be windy, it was going to be rough conditions. That was their home field so I'm sure they knew, too. But it wasn't like we're coming up from Florida. We've seen bad weather, too."
And, with the possibility of two home playoff games in January if they finish with the best record in the AFC, they may see more.
But this week, the focus is on the Packers.
"I don't think it really matters what the record is or who we played last week or even what the score was last week," Belichick said. "Sometimes you go from a bad game to a good game. Sometimes you go from a good game to another good game.
"Sometimes you go from a good game to a bad game. We've seen plenty examples of those."