NFL ANALYST

Cassel: Pats' December dominance starts (but doesn't end) with Belichick

NFL ANALYST

Bill Belichick’s approach has always been “one game at a time.” He never looks too far ahead. But when you get to December, you know you have to play your best football.

That’s how you gain momentum entering the playoffs and how you put yourself in a better position for seeding or home-field advantage. Young players sometimes don't recognize it as much, but the veterans recognize the importance of these games for playoff positioning and how that can impact your success.

The Patriots have had a great offense with Tom Brady and the best coach of all time in Belichick for the past 20 years. So, they're usually in a good place going into December. They usually understand the team's identity as well as its strengths and weaknesses, and they've had 12 games to recognize the contributing factors to their successes and failures.

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We went on an incredible run in December of the 2008 season. But even before I got there, you know December is an important time of the year -- because of the culture and the environment they've created there.

There’s an excitement in the air, because you know the playoffs are coming. You know that not only are you going to be in the playoffs, but on a lot of these Patriots teams, you’re fighting for better playoff position or trying to protect the No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

 

On the veteran Patriots teams I was on, everybody understood the importance of those December games, whether it was trying to get that first-round bye or securing home-field advantage, which could impact your run at the Super Bowl.

There's a different mentality on a Patriots team that's in the playoffs every year, because when you get to December, there’s an understanding: “Hey guys, let’s go. After we get through December, it’s the playoffs, and our ultimate goal every year is to win the Super Bowl.”

Playing for championships is the mentality there. Everybody in that building really understands that going into December, and that’s why there’s not the usual late-season fatigue you may see on other teams.

It’s almost like everybody starts to hone in more, because they understand what’s at stake.

It's not like the Patriots overlook their opponents. It's still a week-to-week approach, and the veterans might not actually voice something like, “Hey, we’ve got to win in December to get a better playoff spot.”

It's more of a general understanding, and because a lot of these guys have been deep into the playoffs and even to the Super Bowl, they know how hard the road is.

'Tis the season for wins

Patriots' December winning percentage since 2000
79.3%
Patriots' non-December winning percentage since 2000
71.9%

During that 2008 season, we were 7-5 with four games to go. We ended up running the table, but even at 11-5, we didn’t make the playoffs. So, we knew throughout the month that if we lost another one, there was a low probability for us to get in.

But we didn’t look at it as, “We can’t lose one.” We said, “How can we win one? How can we win this week?”

That’s the only thing you can do, because the minute you start thinking, “Well, s---, if we lose this one, we’re out,” it does nothing for your psyche. And then if you end up losing, then is the rest of the season flushed down the toilet? No. You’re still going to go out there and compete.

The Patriots are also incredible at finding their identity because they understand their strengths.

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During their run to the Super Bowl in 2018, they figured out they could beat teams with this running game: two-back sets, 21 personnel and running downhill with Sony Michel. And they kind of morphed into this running team in the playoffs.

They’re the best-coached and the best-prepared team. The time that Bill spends with each position group and Josh McDaniels’ preparation of not only the quarterback room but the entire offensive unit has always impressed me. I’ve always had a great appreciation for it – even more so when you leave and you realize not everybody does the same thing.

It’s their attention to detail and their unrelenting ability to put you in a position to be successful. They’re the best at it, and they're at their best in December.