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The New England Patriots have always been successful in December under coach Bill Belichick. With four of their remaining five opponents owning losing records, that trend seems likely to continue.
New England begins the final month of the regular season Sunday against the lowly Detroit Lions looking to continue its roll toward a fourth consecutive division title.
The Patriots (8-3) are 19-5 in December since Belichick took over in 2000— a record that quarterback Tom Brady said is due to New England’s ability to play with a comfort level in the final, crucial month of the season.
“We have 11 games of evidence to base our judgments on and to base our gameplans on, and the trends really play out over 11 weeks,” Brady said. “The first week of the year, everyone is trying to understand what their team is about and the schemes they want to run. … By now, you pretty much know what a team is all about. We always try to play to our strengths and try to play against the strengths of the other team and play away from those strengths and play into their weaknesses.
“I think over the course of that time, those things show up quite a bit more.”
New England is hoping for another strong December after an uneven November. The Pats opened the month with losses to Indianapolis and the New York Jets before bouncing back with a shutout of the Packers and an odd 17-13 win over Chicago on Sunday.
The Patriots committed five turnovers, but the Bears failed to convert on four of the opportunities while committing four turnovers of their own— including three interceptions. Asante Samuel had all three of the picks, including one with 1:46 left in the game.
“It wasn’t pretty, not at all,” New England safety Artrell Hawkins said.
Brady was 22-of-33 for 269 yards and a touchdown. He also had two interceptions, but came up big for New England on a third-and-9 situation from Chicago’s 25-yard line in the fourth quarter, rushing for 11 yards to set up the Patriots’ go-ahead touchdown.
“It must be the (new) turf,” Brady said. “I don’t think that would have happened a few weeks ago. That was pretty cool. At least I can tell my kids one day that I shook Brian Urlacher. They probably won’t believe me.”
Sunday’s game will mark Brady’s second start against the Lions. He threw for 210 yards and a touchdown in a 20-12 win over Detroit in 2002, the last time the teams faced one another.
The Patriots had yet to announce the replacement for linebacker Junior Seau, who was placed on injured reserve Monday after seriously injuring his right arm against the Bears. Seau was second on the team in tackles (69) after coming out of retirement over the summer.
After Seau departed Sunday, outside linebacker Mike Vrabel moved to the vacated inside spot and Tully Banta-Cain entered the game to fill Vrabel’s position. Belichick, though, has yet to say if he’ll stick with that lineup this week.
This is the first trip to Foxborough since 1993 for the Lions (2-9), who have lost three straight, including a 27-10 defeat to Miami on Thanksgiving. Detroit converted only two of 12 third-down opportunities and had just 220 yards of total offense—its second-lowest total of the season.
“This is going to be a heck of a challenge for us,” coach Rob Marinelli said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to go into New England and play against a tremendous football team. There are a lot of things we can learn from the way that franchise does things.”
Despite being one defeat away from a sixth consecutive 10-loss season, Marinelli said he’s not ready to give the team’s younger players extended time to get an early idea about the 2007 roster.
“The guys that are going to play are the guys that have earned the right to play,” he said. “We’re thinking about this week, not next year.”
“Jon Kitna has done a tremendous job of dealing with the pressure and making plays,” he said. “There are some things where being a good athlete isn’t enough.”
Kitna has turned the ball over 18 times in 11 games, including 13 interceptions, and has only thrown 12 touchdown passes.
He’s also been sacked 41 times, including eight against Miami, but Marinelli is backing the veteran as the team’s best chance to win.
“Right now my goal is to win each and every game,” he said. “We give ourselves the best opportunity to win … with Kitna.”