Published December 14, 2010
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Robert Kraft was used to seeing his New England Patriots in playoff games. Watching them lose one at home — in a rout, no less — was a first.
Last season's 33-14 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the opening round still haunts the Patriots owner even as they have a chance to clinch another home playoff game with a win on Sunday.
"I, personally, still haven't forgotten that," Kraft said Tuesday night. "I hope we have a chance to permanently erase that feeling once the playoffs come this year."
The Patriots clinched their 12th playoff berth in his 17 seasons as owner when they beat the Chicago Bears 36-7 last Sunday. Their only postseason loss in 12 games at home in that span came last season.
But now their 11-2 record is the best in the AFC and tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the best in the NFL. The Patriots would clinch the AFC East and a playoff game at Gillette Stadium if they beat the Green Bay Packers (8-5) on Sunday while the New York Jets (9-4) lose at Pittsburgh.
"The real present is if we give our fans a home playoff game," Kraft said at a holiday party at the stadium for more than 250 children from Salvation Army and community centers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. "Hopefully, that can happen this weekend."
In winning their last two games by a combined 81-10, the Patriots projected an aura of invincibility.
Not so, Kraft said.
"The season isn't over yet and, God forbid, you have accidents and injuries and things can change very fast," he said. "Look at our game out in Cleveland."
The Patriots were 6-1 at the time and a big favorite over the Browns at 2-5. But they never led and lost 34-14.
"I've been around this business long enough to know that if there isn't hard practice and a focus and execution, it can change very fast," Kraft said.
With Tom Brady leading the team with his work habits, there's not likely to be any letup in the final three games against Green Bay, the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins.
Kraft, who has seen Brady lead the Patriots to three Super Bowl championships, still marvels at his production — the last eight games without an interception, 29 touchdown passes and an NFL-best passer rating.
"The real brilliance there, in my estimation, is the way he can read defenses and see where the opportunities are and then, for the main part, put the ball in places where only our receivers can catch it," Kraft said with a smile. "He's got a coterie of receivers who are really my size. Maybe they have a little quicker step."
Kraft might even have to look up at 5-foot-9 Wes Welker, who leads the team with 80 receptions.
"We've never had these classic big receivers, and (Brady's) really been able to make out with that," he said.
New England did have 6-4 Randy Moss, but traded him to the Minnesota Vikings after the fourth game.
That sparked criticism that the offense would suffer without Moss to stretch the field and draw double teams. But the Patriots acquired Deion Branch to fill his spot and he's caught 44 passes, five for touchdowns, in nine games since then.
Branch is just part of the transformation of a team that, Brady said in the offseason, wasn't mentally tough.
"It's changed," Kraft said. "There's a great esprit de corps. I don't know what's going to happen this year, but it's very positive and something that, at least, you have a chance to win."
He credits coach Bill Belichick with bringing that about, quickly rebuilding with young players without taking a step back in the standings.
"I think what's special about Bill is he's a great teacher and he knows how to put players in the best position to do their job as well as they can," Kraft said. "Bill is best when he has young men who will receive his teaching."