By Mike Lowe
That's all the New England Patriots are looking for in the final two weeks of the NFL regular season. They want to win these final two games, Sunday against Jacksonville and at home Dec. 30 against Miami, heading into the playoffs, then they don't care how many games they have to play.
The road to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans most likely took a detour for the New England Patriots after their Sunday night loss to the San Francisco 49ers last week. The loss dropped them to the No. 3 seeding in the AFC, behind Houston and red-hot Denver -- two teams the Patriots have handled easily -- and probably into the Jan. 5-6 wild-card round.
But the Patriots, who clinched the AFC East title (and its playoff berth) weeks ago, aren't thinking about that just yet. Asked if he pays any attention to playoff scenarios, quarterback Tom Brady shook his head.
"Not really," he said. "We're just trying to go out and win. I think that's the most important thing for us to do: win a game. Whatever happens down the road, happens. In order to accomplish our goal, you have to win every week. We're trying to win every week.
"That's what we're trying to do That's the only thing that we're really playing for."
The Patriots are certainly aware of what's at stake. The top two seeds in each conference get an opening-week playoff bye, allowing time for injured players to heal and game plans to be devised. The Patriots held the No. 2 spot before their 41-34 loss to the 49ers, coupled with Denver's win at Baltimore, allowed the streaking Broncos to move ahead.
New England (10-4) can still finish in the top two, though the Patriots would have to win their remaining two and get some help. Houston (12-2) has games with Minnesota (home) and Indianapolis (away) and, while unlikely, would have to lose both.
Denver (11-3, winners of nine in row since a 31-21 loss at New England on Oct. 7), faces Cleveland and Kansas City, both at home. The Broncos would have to lose one for the Patriots to have a chance to move up.
Not that it seems to matter.
Teams that play in the wild- card round, while forced to play an extra game, have fared quite well in recent years. Five of the last seven Super Bowl champions -- Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Green Bay and the New York Giants (twice) -- have played in the wild-card round, the exceptions being Pittsburgh (2008) and New Orleans (2009). Baltimore also won the 2000 Super Bowl after advancing through the wild-card round.
Each of those teams got hot once the playoffs began and built momentum heading into the Super Bowl.
Since that 2000 season, there have only been four Super Bowls that have not featured a wild card round team, with Arizona and Carolina also advancing to the championship game before losing.
The Patriots, who have played in the wild card round eight times since 1976, also advanced to the 1985 Super Bowl through the wild card round.
So the Patriots focus right now isn't about where they finish in the standings, but how they enter the playoffs. While this game has no playoff implications -- the Jaguars are 2-12 -- Coach Bill Belichick wants his players performing at a high level.
"It's a big game for us, but not a playoff game," said Belichick. "I think the most important thing for a team is to be playing well for the most important games of the season. They're ahead for all of us so hopefully we'll be able to do that when the time comes."
Teams, said Belichick, have to progress each week, in their execution, chemistry and awareness of the game situation.
"There is going to be a point where the season is going to come down to a game, a quarter, a series," he said. "And when the team is able to execute at a high level at that particular point in time, that's going to decide which teams move on, which teams are champions and which teams aren't. I think it's all part of the process and we're still in that process."
Brady likes his team's ability to bounce back, especially late in the season. Since 2006, the Patriots are 23-3 over the final four games of the regular season.
"This is when it matters most," said Brady. "There are important games like this that you see how tough you are, to put things behind you and to move forward. We had a pretty good streak there going of wins and it feels pretty good when you're on those winning streaks. And then when you lose, it feels like you haven't won a game in three years."
Both Brady and Belichick dismissed the notion that losing to the 49ers could be good in the long run entering the playoffs.
"I don't think losing is the key to that," said Brady. "I think learning from your mistakes, whether you win or lose, is important and progressing over the course of the season, through practices and games, and realizing what you do well and what you don't do well. ... I think it's more your ability to accelerate through the course of a season and not level off or regress.
"We've played some good teams over the course of the season. That will continue this week and then the next week. We'll see where we're at."
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: