By Tom E. Curran
BUFFALO - The script says to talk about Sunday being a step.
The clinching and the No. 1 seed, all well and good. But nothing's been won, nothing's been done, the accomplishment, well . . . it's kind of minor. No disrespect and all.
"I don't know if the hat and t-shirt (given out for winning the division) really mean anything, but we like to yell that we got a hat and t-shirt so we know we've accomplished something when we get that," said left guard Logan Mankins.
There'd be a parade in some cities over that. Here, though, it's the expectation.
Tom Brady said something revealing Sunday evening. It helps explain why - despite this team doing something arguably more remarkable than what the 2003, 2004 and 2007 editions did - it receives little more than a shrug.
Asked how, with all these new pieces, the Patriots can be this good - 13-2 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC - Brady answered, "The expectation is for the position, not the player. If you're an outside linebacker on this team, you're expected to play like Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel. If you're a running back, you're expected to play like Corey Dillon, Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk. It's just the way it is. I think coach Bill Belichick rides us all day and all night to get the job done in that sense. Like I said, the guys need to be able to respond to those things and we've shown enough mental toughness throughout the year to respond."
So while we (or I) may say, "Holy crap, that's Dane Fletcher making plays of significant magnitude!" Belichick sees a silver helmet and a Patriots uniform and thinks, "That's what it's supposed to look like."
And 13-2 is - when things are performed correctly most of the time - a very real possibility.
So taking stock of what his team accomplished Sunday in Buffalo?
"Not right now," said Belichick. "We're happy about it. It's great. But we'll just again, see what comes and take whatever the next step is."
So it's left to us to try and quantify what we're seeing. And it's been amazing.
The Patriots have no more business being 13-2 and the top seed in the AFC than I would have walking down a runway in Paris next to Giselle.
Yet here they are, with all their spare parts and new parts fitting together with an assured little click every time Belichick snaps them into place.
It's funny. Some of what they say doesn't make any sense.
For instance, Vince Wilfork was saying after the game that he knew what the Patriots had in the offseason during training. And it was special.
Really? So he knew Dane Fletcher and Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Jermaine Cunningham, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, Ron Brace and Gerard Warren, Rob Ninkovich and Brandon Spikes would all work out just fine? He knew that, even if the defense lost Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden and Brandon McGowan it wouldn't be a big deal. And that the Patriots could pluck Eric Moore from the Florida Tuskers of the UFL sometime in December if they needed him?
What Wilfork could have sensed, though, was the caliber of the people he was surrounded with, if not quality of player.
That seems plausible.
"We knew what we had in this locker room," said Wilfork. "The guys did a really good job all year of just staying focused and not even paying attention to the stuff that was in the papers or media, whatever it may be. The guys just did a really good job of staying focused. We have a sign coming out of our stadium saying, 'Dont believe the hype.' I think that speaks for itself. From being the greatest team and then being one of the worst teams, we heard it all.
"I think guys really buckled down and just trusted one another that we can be a really good football team if we just stay focused and outwork our opponents," Wilfork continued. "Half the time that just comes with practice. If you prepare well in practice, normally you play well. The times we didn't, it cost us. We've got a lot of work to do, but at the same time with this team, you've got to keep getting better. There's no doubt in my mind that we won't keep getting better. That's where we're at right now."
And if they're going to keep getting better, why would there be champagne popping over a division title and the No. 1 seed?
Deion Branch spent three long seasons in Seattle. They'd pop some corks there. So he was a little bemused by the lack of giddiness.
"I think its so mellow in here, you would think that we were in a weird situation, guys should be happy," he said. "The game wasn't as good as the score looked. It was 34-3? There were a bunch of plays that we messed up on that we're not proud of. Third quarter was terrible by the offense. The defense did a good job of keeping us in the game."
Too much work still to be done. Why be happy about an accomplishment that - no matter how much of a pipe dream it should have been - is just a step on the ladder toward something the Patriots, and only the Patriots, really expected to happen?