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Time to step it up

Pats won't win Super Bowl with recent level of play

Posted: Wednesday January 2, 2008 2:26PM; Updated: Wednesday January 2, 2008 4:28PM
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Junior Seau and the Patriots' defense ended the season ranked fourth overall, but they struggled late in the season.
Junior Seau and the Patriots' defense ended the season ranked fourth overall, but they struggled late in the season.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
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The still-perfect Patriots go back to work Thursday, after three days off to rest, relax and ruminate on becoming the first NFL team to record a 16-0 regular season. It has indeed been a happy new year in New England.

But by Thursday morning, the euphoria should have worn off. Make that better have, because buried beneath the hype is a stark truth that's staring them in the face as they prepare for what they hope is a three-game playoff run:

If the Patriots are to avoid the bitter and hollow feeling that 16-1, 17-1 or 18-1 would be, they'd better kick it up a notch, starting right now. Simply put, if they play the way they have in the season's last six weeks, they won't get it done. There will be no 19-0, which will render their perfect regular season almost meaningless.

If that sounds harsh, that's because it is. But that's also the reality of New England's situation. In their six games since drubbing Buffalo on the road in Week 11, the Patriots have recorded only one victory that falls under the heading of a complete, four-quarter domination. That came in the 34-13 dismissal of visiting Pittsburgh in Week 14.

If New England is to survive a tough two-game trip through an AFC playoff bracket that could match them up with the likes of strong, hot opponents such as Jacksonville (11-5), San Diego (11-5) and Indianapolis (13-3), it needs to be on its game at least to the level we saw when the Steelers came to Gillette Stadium almost four weeks ago.

In the two games before they beat the Steelers, the Patriots struggled at home to beat the Eagles by three points, and required something just short of divine intervention to get out of Baltimore with another three-point win. In the three games after the win over Pittsburgh, the Patriots slogged through a ho-hum 20-10 home field conquest of the Jets, played a sharp first half before calling it a night in a 28-7 defeat of visiting Miami, and posted that stirring comeback from a 12-point, third-quarter deficit against the Giants.

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