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Time to step it up

The still-perfect Patriots go back to work Thursday, after three days off to rest, relax and ruminate on becoming the first NFL team to record a 16-0 regular season. It has indeed been a happy new year in New England.

But by Thursday morning, the euphoria should have worn off. Make that better have, because buried beneath the hype is a stark truth that's staring them in the face as they prepare for what they hope is a three-game playoff run:

If the Patriots are to avoid the bitter and hollow feeling that 16-1, 17-1 or 18-1 would be, they'd better kick it up a notch, starting right now. Simply put, if they play the way they have in the season's last six weeks, they won't get it done. There will be no 19-0, which will render their perfect regular season almost meaningless.

If that sounds harsh, that's because it is. But that's also the reality of New England's situation. In their six games since drubbing Buffalo on the road in Week 11, the Patriots have recorded only one victory that falls under the heading of a complete, four-quarter domination. That came in the 34-13 dismissal of visiting Pittsburgh in Week 14.

If New England is to survive a tough two-game trip through an AFC playoff bracket that could match them up with the likes of strong, hot opponents such as Jacksonville (11-5), San Diego (11-5) and Indianapolis (13-3), it needs to be on its game at least to the level we saw when the Steelers came to Gillette Stadium almost four weeks ago.

In the two games before they beat the Steelers, the Patriots struggled at home to beat the Eagles by three points, and required something just short of divine intervention to get out of Baltimore with another three-point win. In the three games after the win over Pittsburgh, the Patriots slogged through a ho-hum 20-10 home field conquest of the Jets, played a sharp first half before calling it a night in a 28-7 defeat of visiting Miami, and posted that stirring comeback from a 12-point, third-quarter deficit against the Giants.

New England deserves credit for rising to every challenge that has been put before it this season, and its resiliency the past six weeks has been the stuff of champions. But the fact remains that the Patriots had to sweat out three victories over some pretty mediocre teams in the Eagles, Ravens and Giants, (and yes, we know New York is 10-6 and playoff-bound, albeit in the much weaker NFC).

And even against the dregs of the AFC East -- the Jets and Dolphins, with their combined 5-27 record -- the Patriots didn't resemble the offensive machine that blew through the league in their first 10 games.

Clearly the Eagles, Ravens and Giants were playing their season's Super Bowl against undefeated New England, and they saved their absolute best efforts for Bill Belichick's club. But in the playoffs, that same intensity and more will be coming from New England's opponents, thanks to a combination of the single-elimination stakes and the challenge of being the team that fells Goliath.

It's the Patriots defense that seems especially vulnerable as January arrives. The Eagles' A.J. Feeley, Baltimore's Kyle Boller and the Giants' Eli Manning all looked like big-time NFL quarterbacks most of the time against New England -- and that may be the first time those three names have been linked in that particular way.

Feeley had three touchdown passes as the Eagles rolled up 391 yards of offense. Boller was efficient (65 percent passing) with a Ravens running game that gouged the Patriots, producing a 376-yard night. And Manning led a Giants offense that scored four touchdowns in four red zone trips, with 316 yards of offense and a 60 percent conversion ratio on third downs.

Eli wasn't supposed to be the Manning that these Patriots had to watch out for at this time of year. Last Saturday night, he looked more like big brother Peyton, riddling New England's secondary with pinpoint passing.

It was obviously unrealistic to think New England could go on forever winning games by an average margin of 25.4 points, which it managed in the season's first 10 games. Other than the 24-20 squeaker at Indianapolis in Week 9, the Patriots never won by fewer than 17 points in the other nine games.

But over the course of their last six games, the Patriots average margin of victory has shrunk to a more modest 10.2 points, despite playing only two teams with a winning record: the Steelers and Giants. They've had three games decided by the margin of a field goal, and a sluggish 10-point win against a pesky Jets team -- in a game played in less than ideal weather conditions.

Not that the Patriots don't know all this. As Belichick said in his post-game comments Saturday: "I don't think that was our best football game out there today. There are a lot of things that we can do better. Hopefully the next time we play we will have those things improved.''

They'd better. Or the next time the Patriots play, the perfect season may not be perfect for much longer.

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