The New England Patriots are not given to introspection. Bill Belichick does not rank his victories in public and does not pronounce certain games more important than others. The next man up is king for the Patriots, the next game the only one that matters. In their brutal, cold efficiency over a dozen years, the Patriots have taken almost all of the guesswork out of the AFC East, replacing it, it has sometimes seemed, with a bit of joylessness in their pursuit.
Which is why moments like Sunday's, when the Patriots let slip their emotion -- and by extension their innermost concerns -- are so striking. The Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 41-7, and they did not even bother trying to mask their delight over one of the most important and impressive wins of the Belichick era. They were giddy over their navy blue division champion T-shirts, mementos of an achievement so rote for the Patriots that you wonder why they waste the cotton, except that Tom Brady joked he would wear his a lot this week because of what it means.
If anyone needs a reminder of how difficult this season has been and just how badly New England needed a victory this big -- over another playoff contender that had won four consecutive games and has historically given the Patriots more trouble than most opponents -- they can read between the lines of what Brady said afterward.
"Every year is special, but we've really earned it this year," he said. "We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have, too, but our mental toughness has really gotten us through this."
The Patriots' mental toughness should never have been seriously questioned this season. But they have needed it more than ever, because so many physical blows have landed that it was clear the Patriots would have to do more with less just to stay even.
After New England's meltdown against the Miami Dolphins last week -- which ended when Brady threw an interception into the end zone in the waning moments -- Brady sat, blank-eyed, in a hallway underneath the stadium, hunched over and holding his wife's hand. It was as crestfallen as he has ever looked following a regular-season loss, and it was obvious that the red-zone failures, the absence of Rob Gronkowski, the buckling of a worn-thin defense, and the relentless struggle that this season has become were taking their toll.
In a normal Patriots campaign -- that is, one in which the spread-out passing game is dominant -- Brady would have rebounded with an anger-fueled shredding of his next opponent. That did not happen Sunday, simply because New England might not be capable of mounting that sort of attack now. Brady did not even hit the 200-yard mark, remarkably the fourth time that has happened this season, after posting just one sub-200-yard passing game in the past two seasons combined. That is a testament to how his targets have been systematically ripped away -- his top five receivers last season are not on the field now, and four are not even on the team -- and how the Patriots have had to shape-shift, week to week, to remain competitive.
What they were Sunday was barely recognizable to those too young to remember the early years of the Brady phenomenon. They were a physical force, running the ball 34 times, most often out of personnel groups with two tight ends or even with the practically extinct fullback, compared with just 26 passes. They were 3 of 3 in red-zone efficiency -- an area in which they've struggled in their Gronklessness -- against one of the NFL's best red-zone defenses. They played smothering defense, producing four turnovers and two defensive scores that inflated the final margin in the last two minutes of the game. They were the once and future Patriots, harking back to a time when they didn't rely so much on Brady's brilliance to conjure the kind of resourceful victory that makes them seem dangerous again as the playoffs approach.
The victory did not alleviate all of their problems as they head into the only part of the season that really matters to them. Shane Vereen, a versatile offensive weapon, left the game with a groin injury and did not return -- New England was expected to lean on him more with Gronkowski out. Safety Devin McCourty might have suffered a concussion, thinning an already undermanned defense. Those injuries, if they linger, will test the Patriots' resourcefulness with baling wire and duct tape again.
Two weeks ago, former Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren compared the Patriots' depth to that found in a baseball team's farm system, with Belichick grooming deep-on-the-roster players for specific roles and roster flexibility when they are needed. This explains how a rookie cornerback, Logan Ryan, could come up with two interceptions, along with a pass breakup on fourth down against Joe Flacco. It also explains how the Patriots have been able to turn to LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley for a rushing game that had been put on the back burner in the middle of the season, when much of the offense was healthy.
The Patriots are certainly no juggernaut, but in a season that does not appear to have one of those in either conference, New England presents an unusual challenge as a team that can shed one identity and assume another in the space of a few days, in order to fit the matchup at hand. They still might not have the firepower to get to the Super Bowl -- or even to win one playoff game -- but they have a resilience that opponents dread.
On Sunday, it was easy to quantify the most impressive individual performance in football. At 37, Peyton Manning set a new touchdown-pass mark -- breaking Brady's record -- and topped 5,000 passing yards in a season for the first time in his career. The feat came three years after Manning faced questions about whether he was beginning to decline. That was in 2010, and Manning was not declining then, just dealing with the kind of season the Patriots are enduring now -- one in which his Colts found themselves in the unusual position of having to win late-December games to reach their goals, and in which inexperienced players were pressed into duty to offset a devastating series of injuries.
Manning, then, even in his extraordinary season, might be the rare person who can understand what Brady and the Patriots are going through. The Colts ultimately lost in the 2010 AFC wild-card round, their offense shut down by the Jets when the Blair Whites of the world couldn't compensate for Darrelle Revis' dominating performance against Reggie Wayne, Manning's only viable option.
After Manning set his record Sunday, he smiled and joked that "Brady will probably break it again next year, if not the year after." That might be so. But to avoid the fate Manning met in 2010, to have a chance to avoid the kind of early playoff loss that could befall their injury-cratered roster, the Patriots might have to be not a who's who of football but a who's that, taking the game out of the hands of their best player. That, though, would leave them free to clutch a few more championship T-shirts.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.