FOXBOROUGH — In the days leading up to the game against the Texans, Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked if the prime-time matchup felt like a big game.
“Yes, it does,” he said. “It’s December.”
Normally, that short an answer from Belichick might frustrate the person asking the question.
But in this case, those five words encapsulate what he believes about late-season football. No need to elaborate.
Belichick wants his team playing its best football toward the end of the schedule, as it heads into the playoffs. He stresses to his players that the next game is the most important one.
He says that in September and October, too, but as the calendar turns to December, Belichick ramps things up and gets players to heighten their focus.
However he does it, it certainly works.
After the 42-14 undressing of the Texans, Belichick has a 45-7 record in December as Patriots coach. Considering he’s been here for 13 years, you can do the math on how many December losses that works out to per season.
New England’s last loss in December was Dec. 6, 2009, in Miami. The Patriots lost to Houston in the 2009 regular-season finale, but that game was in January.
As if that streak wasn’t impressive enough, it has been a decade since the Patriots lost at home in December.
The Houston victory was their 20th consecutive home win in December, going all the way back to 2002, the year Gillette Stadium opened. It was the hated Jets who were the last team to leave a December game in Foxborough victorious, on Dec. 22, 2002, when they won, 30-17.
The early part of the season is often for working out the kinks. The late part of the season is for solidifying playoff position and possibly claiming a first-round bye.
“I think we’re trying to focus on playing well, and I think the better you play the better your home-field advantage is because the crowd is into it,” Tom Brady said recently. “I think the mark of our teams over the years has been we’ve improved as the season has gone along. December is the last month to really improve.
“Coach [Belichick] puts pressure on us in practice every day to improve, to get better, and not to make the same mistakes, and learn from our mistakes. I think we as a team have responded to that and played well.
“That’s what’s important this time of the year, to not make the same mistakes we were making in September and to play our best football.”
It isn’t a knock on the Patriots, but at times they have had some easy competition in the final weeks of the season.
The Texans came in at 11-1, but they are the exception and not the rule. Last year, the 0-12 Colts and 5-9 Dolphins were December visitors to Gillette, while in 2007, the Dolphins, Jets, and Steelers were a combined 13-22 when they came to town, helping the Patriots close out an undefeated regular season.
In total, 13 of those 20 opponents had sub-.500 records when they arrived, only to become yet another visiting victim in what has become Decembers full of them.
This week, the 49ers will be the eighth team with a winning record to play the Patriots at home down the stretch, the second straight prime-time game at Gillette Stadium, and another team with big postseason aspirations that will be looking to make a statement.
San Francisco is 4-2 on the road this year, having lost their last game away from Candlestick Park, 16-13 in overtime Dec. 2 in St. Louis.
The Patriots knows they face a challenging opponent, but history says they will rise to the occasion. After all, it is December. The playoffs are right around the corner, and a bye is within reach.
“It needs to come together now,” Brady said. “This is the perfect time for it. We can’t wait any longer than this. We’ve got three games to play — the three most important games of the year.”