They won't admit this, of course. But who else would they have expected but their mortal enemy?
Bill Belichick understood this. He knew that when the San Diego Chargers upset the Colts last Sunday, a letdown was possible. After all, the Patriots handled the Chargers in last year's playoffs and back in September, 38-14.
When you then tack on the outside factors – such as Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates being banged up, the Chargers taking a second consecutive long flight to the eastern time zone and the temperature in snow-packed Massachusetts that should be in the teens – complacency, even just a little, seemed likely.
So Belichick did what he did best; he walked into the meetings on Monday and ripped his team to shreds, all while building the Chargers up to be some football Goliath without weakness.
Forget the records, the point spread and the hype; according to Belichick this is 1916, the Chargers are Georgia Tech and the Pats are Cumberland.
"He put fear into us by going over everything we did wrong and everything they've done right the last two months," fullback Heath Evans said Wednesday. "He was convincing,"
Belichick's weekly servings of humble pie have become the stuff of legend around here. It's one reason the Patriots are 17-0 and have avoided the overconfidence that has helped derail undefeated seasons for 35 years.
The players have taken it in stride, joking about the inevitable verbal beat downs no matter the margin of victory and occasionally wearing humble pie T-shirts – "be humble or be humbled." Enterprising local bakeries have started concocting the stuff.
Yes, every coach does this, but perhaps none have done it as effectively as Belichick. Even his staunchest critics have to admit he is the absolute master. And even by his standards, players noted, Monday's meetings were brutal.
"Bill was just stating the facts and the truth (opposed) to you all telling us how great we are when we've still got work to do," running back Kevin Faulk said.
By the time the players met with the media midweek, you could see their eyes glazed over as they repeated the party line.
Tom Brady, without the assistance of notes, rattled off a litany of impressive statistics about the Chargers' defense that had obviously been pounded into his head.
"They've got (49) turnovers this season, averaging three a game. They've got five in the playoffs, given up 13 points a game in the last eight weeks, and have been undefeated since Thanksgiving," he said, hardly taking a breath. "They've got (20) sacks between (Shawne) Merriman and (Shaun) Phillips and I think 42 sacks as a team, No. 1 in turnover differential …"
Belichick had gone so far as to call San Diego the "best team in the AFC" that, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, had "dominated the league" during the second half of the season.
It's not that the Chargers can't win, but "the best team in the AFC" is a little much until proven. It's New England that hasn't lost, after all.
The players bought it, though. If you listened long enough in the Pats' quiet, business-like locker room this week and you'd wonder how they even stand a chance Sunday.
"I hope we play as well as we can," Brady offered.
There wasn't a whisper of trash talk despite the Chargers' emergence as a vocal rival. After last year's playoff victory, some Patriots celebrated by performing Merriman's sack dance, causing Tomlinson to call Belichick "classless." In September, he took another shot at the coach after the spying scandal.
After San Diego's win over Indy, the talk continued as defensive lineman Igor Olshansky claimed the Pats were more afraid of the Chargers than the Chargers of the Pats.
Here by the Atlantic, no one took the bait. The boldest comment came when Belichick admitted he hated hearing the song "The Super Chargers" because, "it means things aren't going good for us."
That's what passes for bulletin board material up here.
There must be a part of Belichick who wanted the Colts, too. He reworked this team last offseason in response the Colts' Super Bowl title. The animosity between he and Tony Dungy – not to mention the front offices – is real.
But in another way, this was better because he got to spend time on the mental and motivational aspect of his job. His players wouldn't have needed prodding to focus on a Colts club that defeated them a year ago.
Belichick is a coaching lifer, but at this point, you wonder for how much longer. He's already established himself as one of the greatest of all time. He's done the dynasty thing (three Super Bowls in four seasons) during an era when it was thought impossible.
If he can close out a 19-0 perfect season, arguably the greatest in league history, what's left?
Where would Belichick go? He is only 55 and isn't joining one of those pregame shows to wear silly suits and fake laugh. Golf seems a little slow for him. He's at the peak of his ability in the prime of his career.
Besides, unlike some coaches, his satisfaction comes as much in the journey toward victory as victory itself.
"I enjoy the preparation. I enjoy the practice. I enjoy the offseason, team-building, working with the younger players; working with older, experienced players; the game planning, the game decisions, practice – all of the things that go into it."
He forgot to mention humbling his team.
But at this point, after a week of convincing his powerhouse players to think like lowly underdogs, that goes without saying.
- Bill Belichick