FOXBORO -- Before the season begins, Bill Belichick tells his players the same thing: Wherever we got last year, it's going to be harder to get there. If we want to improve on that, it's going to be ever harder. We have to work even harder.
Patriots safety Devin McCourty remembers hearing that call to action to start each of the last three seasons. He says that Belichick's insistence on high-level performance -- and a grind-to-the-bone work ethic to achieve it -- is one of the biggest reasons New England has been to the playoffs for each of his first three seasons in the NFL. He believes it's the reason why Belichick has the Patriots in the postseason, year after year, seemingly like clockwork, contending for a Super Bowl.
"I think it's what he expects, and what he demands from the team," McCourty said. "There's no year since I've been here that expectations have dropped or he's changed his standards. We have to meet his standards each year."
Belichick is renowned for his ability to analyze opponents and crack the football codes that others can't, but just as important is how he communicates his information to his players, and how he urges them to meet his lofty expectations.
There's a balance to it all -- demanding a great deal while maintaining player support. The Patriots say Belichick has found it.
"He's a good coach first and foremost," said Patriots guard Logan Mankins. "He works us hard and he puts in the work himself. I think he's great at breaking down film and relaying the message to us what we need to do to beat teams. He's got guys that buy into his system and the way he wants us to play, and I think that works well."
It's important that respected veterans, like Mankins, quarterback Tom Brady and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork have bought in. Without their support, Belichick's standards become perhaps too lofty. But when the coach's message flows down from the top and through star players who share his line of thinking, his message gets reinforced. The rest of the team is left with few options other than to try to follow suit.
"When you've got guys like that that have been here for a while, and you've got young guys that come in, those are the guys you look up to," McCourty explained. "Those are the best players on the team, when they follow in Belichick's footsteps and they're preaching the same thing, I think guys just follow along and listen."
It's a cycle that has helped the Patriots reach the playoffs in 10 out of Belichick's 13 seasons as head coach in New England.
McCourty was one of those young guys in 2010, a rookie with a lot to learn, listening to all he could. One of the things he has gleaned from both Belichick and his older teammates in the years since is just how hard it is to be in the position which the Patriots now find themselves.
Though the expectations are high, opportunities like these are not taken for granted.
"When you're young, I remember my first year we made it to the playoffs, you kind of think this'll happen every year, it'll be automatic," McCourty said. "But when you hear older guys talk about how hard it is to get there, now I understand that. I'm one of those guys preaching that."
And when he does, he probably sounds an awful lot like his coach, who preached the same thing before the season ever began.