Patriots look like they’re ringing in the holidays again

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) passes under pressure from Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. ‘Tis the season. Their season.

Yes, December is here, and the New England Patriots showed on Sunday why it’s always their month. The odds are they’ll continue to do that over the next four weeks.

“September football is certainly important,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Monday during his weekly paid WEEI radio appearance. “It sets the table as you go to October, November, December. But I think by December you kind of know what kind of team you are, what kind of team you need to be.

“The dye’s been cast. It’s not a small sample size at this point.”

Thus, what does the big picture say? It says the Patriots will be a tough team to beat at Gillette in January. The odds are they will play at least one playoff game there, perhaps two, barring any unforeseen unravelling in the next couple of weeks. To get that Gillette comfort zone, they likely have to avoid the road pitfalls in Miami Sunday and Pittsburgh the following week.

“It’s going to be tough for anyone to come to Foxborough when the defense plays as well as it did yesterday,”Brady said.

The Patriots aren’t looking for style points, they are looking for wins. They don’t have a dominant defense, or even a physically imposing one.

They have a smart one.

The Patriots out-coached the Vikings on Sunday in their 24-10 win. Bill Belichick and assistant Brian Flores came up with a scheme that showed all sorts of odd fronts and formations that befuddled the Vikings, fearing a team that is normally capable of offensive superiority. As Vikings QB Kirk Cousins said, “I think they just did a good job of playing their scheme. … It was a mixture, they mixed it up. I don’t know that they line up in any one defense over and over where you feel like you know what you’re going to get.”

As corner Jason McCourty said, “We talked all week about disguising, mixing it up and tryng tomake it tougher. … Even with our zone calls we made sure to make it look as much like something else and go from there.”

Expect more of that, perhaps more against Pittsburgh than Miami, although Dolphins coach Adam Gase is no dummy as an offensive-minded coach.

But look how things have changed since the loss to Tennessee back on Nov. 11. In the last two weeks, the Steelers have dropped two games, so already with four losses and a tie a first round bye for them seems unlikely.

The Kansas City Chiefs now have to move on without Kareem Hunt, and they won’t have the Raiders to play every week – just the final one. In between, they have the surging Ravens and Chargers, and the Seahawks. Only the Seattle game is on the road but now the new Hunt-less Chiefs probably won’t go better than 2-2. The Hunt departure has to severely impact them.

Things just change in December. Harken back to 2012, when the high-flying Houston Texans, then coached by Gary Kubiak with Matt Schabb as their QB, came into Gillette with an 11-1 record and were sent home with their tails in between their legs to the tune of a 42-14 beatdown. They were never the same, and had to come back to Gillette for an expected AFC Divsional playoff loss. December can make you or break you.

The Patriots can certainly sense things are falling their way. After the Titans loss, it all seemed to be going in the wrong direction, toward Wild Card Weekend. Now the AFC top seed is not only within sight, it seems to be New England’s for the taking.

But again, the team that certainly puts a premium on points will take what it can get. Expect the 30 or 40 point games to come in those two final gimme home games vs. the Bills and Jets.

“We have a lot of skill players,” Brady said. “So different guys are getting different looks. … Someone’s always going to come up a little short at some point because there’s only one ball. … Everyone’s able to make plays and spreading the ball around like we did (on Sunday) makes it hard for the other team to defend.”

But the key for the Patriots to be able to play at home not once but twice in January is to win on the road the next two weeks.

“We have two road games that are obviously very important, and two home games and that kind of wraps it up,” Brady said. “This is the time of year where we’ve got to really keep the foot on the gas pedal, be at our best, and keep stringing these wins together.”

A December to remember? Well, really, that’s just the Patriot Way.

WEEK 12 POWER RANKINGS

AFC

1. Kansas City (10-2) 2. New England (9-3). 3. Houston (9-3). 4. L.A. Chargers (9-3). 5. Pittsburgh (7-4-1).

NFC

1. L.A. Rams (11-1). 2. New Orleans (10-2). 3.Chicago (8-4) 4. Dallas (7-5). 5. Seattle (7-5).

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