By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - For weeks on end, the Patriots have emptied their tanks every Sunday.The gauge has started on "F" and made its way to "E" over the 60 minutes. Self-inflicted wounds? Wait for the other guys tocommit them. The Patriots were smarter. Always. Bloodlessly efficient. And the way they were winning showed the gap between a team playing at close to full capacity and teams that were, well, slapping it out there. The Patriots slapped it out there Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.It almost got them beat by a backup quarterback making his first career start. It would have arguably been the biggest upset of this NFL season.Penalties. Drops. Failure to execute things they've been doing with startling ease for nearly two months. It all came up Sunday night. Luckily for the Patriots, they survived. But their attention was gotten by their own performance. "We came into the game obviously not playing like we did the last couple weeks," said linebacker Ron Ninkovich. "We knew Green Bay was good. It was a game we needed to come into with energy. The past two weeks we had tons of energy. Just in pregame we just . . . this week, I feel we dipped down in energy." The words "reality" and "check" often get whipped around after games like this. As if a team gets its comeuppance from a flat performance. That happened to an extent. But the reality check wasn't just for the guys wearing the helmets and shoulder pads. It was for all those who have anointed the Patriots as being atotal juggernaut, just as goodas the 2007 team. They are not. They aregood. Very good. But what's best about them is the fact they operate at such a high level.They don't hurt themselves. And they are where they are supposed to be most of the time on offense and defense. But it's smarts and effort, not overwhelming talent, that's got this team at 12-2. The wind will blow the other way now. And speculation will now rise that the Patriots have been "exposed" or figured out.The code's been cracked, blah, blah,blah. The reality is the only secret the Patriots havehas been hiding in plain sight. They don't make mistakes. Sunday night, they did.The 7 penalties for 52 yards was piddling compared to what some teams do on a weekly basis. But it was enough to keep drives alive. And the defense that'sbeen able to get off the field with increasing regularity as the season's progressed, regressed Sunday night. In the face of . . . Matt Flynn? Yes. In the face of Matt Flynn. Because, the fact is, the Patriots are not talented enough - especially not on defense - to just overwhelm teams by lining up. They have to play as near as they can to 100 percent. And if they don't? "I think we need to play better than this or our season won't last much longer," said Bill Belichick. Based on what they've done this season, they probably will. Because they now have gotten a taste of what will happen if they don't.
Tom E. Curran can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Tom on Twitter at http:twitter.comtomecurran
PHOENIX -- It sounds like Robert Kraft is hoping the Belichick-Brady Era will last forever. Or close to it.
He explained on Monday at the league meetings that he'd be more than happy to see Tom Brady play deep into his mid-40s. Almost in the same breath, he said he hoped Bill Belichick would coach for another decade or more.
"I hope he coaches until his 80s," Kraft said of his soon-to-be 65-year-old head coach. "I see Warren Buffet and Rupert Murdoch, and they're in their mid-80s, and they're performing at a pretty high level. We gotta keep Bill healthy."
During his "A Football Life" documentary, produced by NFL Films back in 2009, Belichick said that he didn't think anyone would have to worry about him coaching as a 70-year-old like former Bills sideline boss Marv Levy.
But with each passing year, as Belichick displays energy and enthusiasm during practices from training camp into January, it seems more than feasible that he could do another half-decade.
Fifteen years? That may be another story, but Kraft said back in February that he has insight into Belichick's plans that the rest of us don't.
"We have a pact that we don’t talk about that," Kraft told the Washington Post. "He knows and I know. But he won’t be done this year."
PHOENIX -- Robert Kraft drew some scoffs from the media horde surrounding him on Monday when he relayed Tom Brady's intentions for the remainder of his playing career.
"As recently as two, three days ago, he assured me he'd be willing to play six, seven more years," Kraft said. "At the level he performed, there's no one that would be happier than I . . . and our fan base."
Brady put together an MVP-caliber season in 2016 at the age of 39, and he figures to be one of the best at his position during his age-40 season. And judging by his comments during Day 2 of the league meetings here, Kraft wouldn't be surprised if Brady could keep things going well into his mid-40s -- unprecedented as that would be.
"In some ways, you think about, I think there's one player at the age of 40 who had one good year: [Brett] Favre for the Vikings. But he didn't do so well before," Kraft said. "I think Tommy's sustained excellence is just unbelievable. It's a lifestyle. He's in training now. It's not like he's stopped. He works out.
"I remember after our first Super Bowl in , going down to the training room in the old Foxboro Stadium, three days after we won, and he's in there with the music blaring, working out.
"He's really dedicated and the thing that's amazing about him, to this day, he hasn't changed as a human being in terms of how he relates to people, but also in terms of how he works out. The only thing that's probably changed is how he eats, his diet. I'm not sure avocado ice cream is right for me, but if I could look like him and perform half as well, I guess I'd do it."