Foxborough, Mass. - Rest assured that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will use every angle, influence and motivational tactic to maintain his team's sharpness through the final week of the season and into the AFC playoffs. As the Patriots prepare to face the 2-13 San Francisco 49ers this weekend, and will follow the season finale with a bye through the first round of the AFC playoffs next week, the current focus of the Patriots to use every available opportunity to improve and also maintain the momentum of a successful season.
The level of focus and preparation into improvement, which has now added a big-picture perspective heading into the playoffs, has seeped into every practice, walk-though, meeting and film session for the Patriots. In the one-and-out playoffs, the margin for error disappears. While he can't guarantee everyone is buying into the latest incentives, Belichick has delivered the message.
"The importance of practice and playing now is to continue to get better to build our performance to the highest level we can get it to because that's where it's going to need to be," Belichick said. "That's as clear as I think we can make it. That's what it is. It's an opportunity for us to do that. I don't think we want to not take advantage of the opportunities we have, whether it be on the practice field, the game field or in the classroom. We're trying to get to a point, and if we can make progress to get to that point then it's worthwhile to put the effort into it and try to get there.
"If everybody is buying what I'm selling, I don't know. But that's what we're selling. That's what it is. You can slice it up however you want to, but that's what it is."
In terms of wins and losses, the Patriots could afford to look past Sunday's game. Several teams already locked into playoff positions will be resting starters and key players while they toe the fine line between preparing for the playoffs and getting injured players back in the lineup. The Patriots clinched the No. 2 seed and a first round bye in the playoffs with Sunday's win over the New York Jets, meaning the final score against San Francisco will have no playoff implications.
Players insist the Patriots are playing to win Sunday, which would match last season's franchise-best 14-2 record. But equally as important in a game against the team with the NFL's worst record is the aspect of feeling confident about where the team is heading into the playoffs. Veteran safety Rodney Harrison said the team is looking to accomplish several goals this weekend.
"Just winning, going out there and having a good showing, playing and having some positive energy to carry over into the playoffs, and obviously getting everyone off the field healthy," Harrison said. "It's our 16th game. We have to go out there and we have to win a ballgame. I don't want to go out there just to get off the field. I want to go out there and win, because that's ultimately what you play for."
The Patriots understand the lingering effects of momentum and playing well heading into the post-season. They hold a 15-5 record during December under Belichick, and own the NFL's best record at 35-5 (.875) after November 1 since 2001. They won the last six games of the 2001 season en route to Super Bowl XXXVI, and reeled off 12 consecutive wins to end last season. Compare that to the 2000 season, when the Patriots lost three of their last five to finish 5-11, and 2002 when they dropped two of the final three games after an 8-5 start.
"Momentum kind of flows in with confidence," said Harrison, who describes the Patriots as confident but not over-confident. "When you get a little momentum, you get confidence, and you want to carry that over. I think once you get on a roll with that confidence building, I think it just continues to build and it carries over. I think guys feed off confidence, especially when you're winning. I think the momentum carries over."
In and of itself, a win over San Francisco won't make the Patriots season. But in winning 28 of their last 30 games, the Patriots have week-by-week built a level of confidence they'd like to maintain into January.
"Definitely," agreed offensive tackle Matt Light. "That's what we're going for here. We're trying to carry that momentum that we've had throughout the season into the playoffs."
The Patriots reported no changes in Thursday's official injury report. ... Belichick held his usual 10:45 a.m. press conference Thursday followed by an open locker room session for the press. Harrison, Light and wide receiver Deion Branch had sizeable media contingents at their respective lockers. ... There will be no media access on Friday. The team will hold a walkthrough on Saturday in preparation for Sunday's game. ... Tight end Benjamin Watson and offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, both on the injured reserve, were present in the locker room Thursday. ... Defensive tackle Richard Seymour, who suffered a left knee injury last week against New York, was not in the locker room. ... Backup quarterback Rohan Davey, who could see significant playing time against San Francisco, said he has taken "a couple" extra reps in practice this week. ... ESPN's Michael Irvin was at Gillette Stadium conducting interviews with several players. ... Quarterback Ken Dorsey is expected to make his third consecutive start, and seventh of the season, for the 49ers on Sunday. Dorsey, 1-5 as a starter this season, has thrown for 1,042 yards, five touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Frank Tadych is a reporter for Patriots.com. He can be reached at **FrankT@patriots.com*.*