FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -It has certainly been a dominant decade for the New England Patriots.
Three Super Bowl championships, two coach of the year awards, and the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. Now they're expected to keep winning throughout the playoffs, no matter how much they insist their past brilliance doesn't matter.
But if the Patriots believe that raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy is the only sign of a successful season, then they were failures the past two years.
Last January, they coughed up an 18-point lead to Indianapolis in the AFC championship game. The previous January, they didn't even make it that far. And now, a perfect record might be just a prelude to more disappointment.
``No matter how you finished the season, you've got to shoot yourself even higher to make those goals that you set at the beginning of the season,'' running back Kevin Faulk said.
Faulk played on all three championship teams - and the last two that didn't make it to the Super Bowl - and knows all about pressure.
``If you want to put that pressure on yourself, that's you,'' he said, ``but, at the same time, we're trying to go out there and win a football game. That's it.''
Already perennial contenders, the preseason hype grew with the acquisition of Randy Moss and Wes Welker to catch passes from Tom Brady, who won two Super Bowl MVP awards without them. Then the Patriots blew out their first eight opponents.
The mystery wasn't whether they'd win, but how much they'd win by.
The games got closer in the second half of the season with four wins by four points or less. But even that was viewed as more evidence of the Patriots' superiority. They don't blink when faced with adversity.
But when they do lose in the playoffs, they take it hard. There were shocked looks in the locker room after their last two eliminations. Yet, they say they're not any hungrier to go all the way because of those early exits.
``How can you bring up something like that with the season we're having and going into the playoffs? That's irrelevant. That has nothing to do with this season,'' cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. ``You don't think about that stuff and use it as a motivation. All the motivation we need is here in this locker room and the present, 2008.''
The Patriots are an insular group that isn't shaken by what goes on outside that locker room - from the Spygate scandal to complaints that they were running up the score to feelings among fans that they're expected to raise the Lombardi Trophy again on Feb. 3 in Glendale, Ariz.
``We manage expectations within the locker room,'' linebacker Adalius Thomas said. ``We ignore the noise and just go out there and work hard.''
They also act as if they'd just as soon ignore all their individual achievements. Brady set one single-season NFL record with 50 touchdown passes. Moss established another with 23 scoring receptions. Both downplayed their importance.
And Bill Belichick's second coach of the year award in five years? He dispensed with that with some brief opening remarks at his news conference Friday.
``I think there are some guys that have done really fantastic jobs at their teams, so it's really an honor to be selected,'' he said. ``At the same time, I think it's much more of a team award than an individual award. It's based on the success of our team and the players and what they've done, and certainly the assistant coaches.''
One of those assistants is 31-year-old Josh McDaniels, the second-year offensive coordinator. He had a chance to interview for head coaching positions but said Thursday he's not pursuing them.
Eric Mangini took a different approach when he was 34, becoming head coach of the New York Jets after one season as the Patriots' defensive coordinator. His relationship with Belichick has been cool since.
``Josh is an outstanding coach, one of the best that I've worked with,'' Belichick said. ``I know he's young, but he's outstanding. ... I think he has a tremendous future as a coach. But, as he said, all of that's being put aside right now and we all are focused on our task at hand.''
New England has a bye and would face Tennessee next weekend if the Titans upset San Diego on Sunday. Otherwise, the Patriots would play the winner of Saturday night's game between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
They focused this week on improving themselves, knowing that a perfect regular-season record doesn't guarantee an unbeaten postseason.
Of the 41 Super Bowl winners, 21 had the best record during the regular season. The Patriots saw firsthand that major upsets are possible when they beat heavily favored St. Louis in the Super Bowl after the 2001 season.
``I look at it just like the draft,'' defensive end Richard Seymour said. ``You have first-round draft picks and you have seventh-round draft picks. But now you're drafted, so it's what you do from this point forward.''
Brady was a sixth-round pick. Now he's hailed as one of the game's greatest quarterbacks.
The Patriots, though, must deal with the reality that teams have extra motivation to ruin their undefeated season. The New York Giants showed that with an intense effort in the regular-season finale before New England overtook them in the fourth quarter for a 38-35 win.
But the Patriots aren't easy targets. And they have the same drive as their opponents.
``We're trying to beat them just as bad as they're trying to beat us,'' linebacker Mike Vrabel said, ``believe it or not.''
So bring on the Steelers, Jaguars or Titans. The Patriots are preparing for a tough game, no matter what the expectations may be.
``We've had a lot of guys that have obviously been in a lot of big games and have won Super Bowls before. But each year is different. It brings on different challenges,'' Seymour said. ``Some people crack under it and some people embrace it.
``We definitely have a lot of guys that have embraced it and just love to be in the spotlight and love to be playing for a championship.''

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