FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The 2012 season, on some levels, is starting to fly in the face of the five-word mantra that Bill Belichick has spoon-fed everyone who'll listen in his 13 years here.
The New England Patriots, in fact, spent the balance of this year trying to form an identity for January, which isn't the same as selling out every week to win a ballgame. And now that the playoffs are under way, with the Pats coming off a resounding 41-28 divisional-round win over the Houston Texans on Sunday, it's easy to see why, at this place, it really isn't always "one game at a time."
"Since I've been here, Coach Belichick has always told us, early in the season, it's big that we don't think we know something, think we are something, or that we know what our football team is gonna be," corner-turned-safety Devin McCourty told me late last week. "He always talks about the season being a marathon, and that in September and October, you're still learning who you are as a football team, and you're trying to get better. The biggest thing he's said is that after Thanksgiving is when football starts."
And they're better equipped to excel at this time of year, when it counts most, than they have been since Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi and Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel were in their prime.
If you're looking for the main difference between the Patriots of 2001-04 and the groups that have come since, the answer lies therein, with New England having become overly reliant on the greatness of Tom Brady to carry it through just about every situation over the past seven seasons.
Earlier this season, Brady explained to me that in the spring, he saw the renewed emphasis on the run game coming. That was one reason why, in September and October, the still-potent offense scuffled with some inconsistencies. I circled back to Brady on that Friday. "Our identity changes week-to-week," he said. "I hope we have enough flexibility now with our guys to do everything well enough."
Yes, Brady still threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns on 25-of-40 passing against the Texans on Sunday, but the big-picture view early on emphasized patience in developing the offense. The result: New England rushing for 122 yards, with Stevan Ridley grinding out 82 of those yards on 15 carries and Shane Vereen accounting for 41 on seven.
The defense's evolution was similar, with a commitment to youth; of the seven former first-round picks starting, six of them have five years of experience or less. The failures of that unit were more than the blips on the radar endured by the offense -- they were blatant in meltdowns against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3 and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6. But as McCourty said, the idea was to nail down the foundation by tinkering and establishing roles -- even if the Patriots had to do so through trial-and-error -- rather than scotch-taping the group together to win that week.
"We learn from the mistakes that we made," veteran Rob Ninkovich said. "Tweaks here, changes throughout the season, things that help you along the way. Acquiring Aqib (Talib), he's a great football player and was able to come in and do great things for us. Dev going from corner to safety and making big plays for us. It's kind of hard to pinpoint all the things we've been able to do. I think it's just a progression of improvement to get to your best when the time is right, which is now."
It wasn't perfect -- in fact, it was considerably further from perfection than the offense -- but the defense isn't the flat-out liability it was earlier in the 2012 season, when it was still finding its way. Trading for Talib allowed the coaches to move McCourty to safety, which stabilized the secondary. The front seven, loaded with youth, began to hit its stride after the staff stuck with the personnel on hand, allowing for growth.
During their 9-1 regular-season finish, the Patriots held six opponents under 20 points. On Sunday, the defense helped the offense build a 38-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, something that would've seemed incomprehensible around Columbus Day.
But it is fair to say that Brady has more help, and the team has more clubs in its bag as it navigates the fairway of the NFL playoffs. The Patriots learned valuable lessons from the 52-28 win over the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, when the team was down and in danger of falling to 1-3; from the revelation in Week 14, when the club came together against Houston on the national stage; and from the comeback against San Francisco in Week 15, when the group overcame a 28-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, only to fall just short.
Patriots 41, Texans 28Check out the best photos from the divisional-round matchup between the Houston Texans and New England Patriots.
All this also makes the potentially devastating loss of Rob Gronkowski -- and one can certainly question whether or not he should've been playing, based on the way he dragged that arm around in Week 17 and the divisional round, before breaking it again -- less disastrous, since the team now has more ways it can win.
"It's a process to build an identity," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "And even now, we're still finding out who the 2012 New England Patriots are. That's a never-ending process. We've learned a lot this year, we've been in some tough games that have gone our way; others didn't go our way, and that's developed the character of this football team.
"Our young guys have gotten some experience, and we're starting to figure out who we are and how we're gonna win football games. But the process doesn't end until the final gun goes off."
We're less than three weeks away from that point, the last day of the 2012 season. And by keeping the big picture in mind -- and not just taking the strictly myopic approach that they publicly subscribe to -- the Patriots have given themselves a better chance of making that day a victorious one for the first time in nearly a decade.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.