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 FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -The New England Patriots' gaudy first half impressed the oddsmakers, but it won't get them ready for the playoffs the way a few close games in the cold will.
The team that blew out its first eight opponents is a distant memory now, replaced by one that's had to work for its wins. Just what the rest of the NFL needed, because the Patriots will be rested and tested for the playoffs. They've shown they can protect a lead or erase one, in the rain and cold of a New England winter or the warmth they expect to find in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 3.
``We'll probably have those conditions again,'' quarterback Tom Brady said after the Patriots slopped out a 20-10 victory over the New York Jets in an icy rain Sunday to improve to 14-0. ``I hope we learned from today and we'll just try to go out and play better next week.''
The Patriots were rolling up unprecedented numbers over the first half of the season, including a 52-7 victory over the Redskins on Oct. 28 that had some wondering whether it was poor sportsmanship to keep trying to score. New England's average margin of victory for the first eight games was more than 25 points.
Then came a 24-20 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, a comeback that came with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. It was followed two games later by another come-from behind victory, 31-28 over the Philadelphia Eagles. And another comeback, thanks to a bizarre sequence on a crucial fourth down and a favorable replay review of a touchdown, against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Dec. 9 game against Pittsburgh was tight until halftime. Sunday's game against the Jets, which hit the boards with a record-setting 27-point spread, wasn't clinched until replay negated a New York touchdown in the final minutes.
That's five times in six games the Patriots have been challenged; four of six if you only consider the 34-13 final score of the Steelers game.
On Sunday, the new challenge was the New England weather. With temperatures just above freezing and a stiff wind blowing the rain down the field, the Patriots discovered a ground game they hadn't needed but, one suspects, always had.
Laurence Maroney ran 26 times for 104 yards, his second 100-yard game of the season and the first for a Patriot since Sammy Morris in Week 5. In their previous three games combined, the Patriots totaled just 160 yards rushing.
``You have to be able to play in what Mother Nature gives you,'' offensive lineman Matt Light said. ``I think we're a good running team. ... We can run the ball. We've got guys that are good at seeing what's going on up front and making good blocks. These are just things that we're going to have to keep developing all the way into the playoffs.''
Especially with the Patriots having clinched home-field advantage through the AFC title game.
``Look, we're in Boston. It's the middle of December,'' coach Bill Belichick said Monday. ``I don't think any of us are surprised if it's not clear, sunny and warm out there.''

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