FOXBORO - The Patriots will know what the stakes are when they take the field for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins.
With the move of the game to 4:25 p.m. to accommodate the whims of CBS, the Patriots will know whether they will already have the No. 2 seed and a bye week entering the playoffs, or if their only hope for the weekend off will be an improbable win by the Kansas City Chiefs over the Denver Broncos.
"I'm sure we'll all be aware of that, yeah. No question," Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. "But I don't think that changes what our goal is for the weekend. I think we're trying to win this game regardless. It could be different if some other teams win, but that's really out of our control. We're just going to go out and try to win."
The big game of the day, at least as far as the Patriots' playoff scenario is concerned, will be the Houston Texans' visit to Indianapolis in the 1 p.m. slot. If the Colts, buoyed by the return of coach Chuck Pagano to the sidelines this week, can knock off the slumping Texans (and the Patriots defeat Miami as expected), it will send Houston down to at least the No. 3 slot. Losses by both the Texans and the Broncos could propel the Patriots into the No. 1 spot.
And all of that won't amount to a hill of beans if the Patriots don't play better against the Dolphins (Ch. 4, 12) than they did Sunday in Jacksonville.
"We put a lot into the preparation throughout the course of the week and you'd love for it to go well," Brady said at his weekly press conference. "Sometimes it doesn't always go very well. But you put as much into it the following week as well. I think that's what you can afford during the regular season, where you know there's a game the next week, like we have this week against the Dolphins. Hopefully everyone used the rest a little bit to their advantage and we can go into his week with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. There's a lot at stake."
The Patriots again had to claw themselves out of a 10-point hole in the eventual 23-16 victory over the Jaguars, and no one in their locker room after the game saw it as the sort of football they'll have to play if they hope to advance throughout the playoffs.
Consistency and confidence have been hallmarks of the Patriots' more successful seasons in the Brady Era, and the quarterback said his team has some work to do in order to restore both to championship levels.
"You want to be playing well so you have confidence going into the playoffs," he said. "There's no question about that, but whatever we do this weekend isn't going to have any bearing on what happens in the playoff game the following week. What's going to have a bearing on the playoffs is how we prepare for that week and the opponent and our scheme and our execution. We're trying to build some confidence this week in what we're doing, go out and have good practices, and go out and see if we can execute better than we have been.
"It's about playing consistent football and I think we've got to do a better job of that," Brady added. "It hasn't been as consistent as we would have liked, but we've still got a chance to improve it. And really, if we're consistent this week, which I hope we are, that's ultimately what's going to help us win this game, not really what happened in the previous month or two months. Our goals are ahead of us and that's where we're looking and that's the direction we're heading in."
The Patriots are only a few weeks removed from their 23-16 win (ironically, the same score as last Sunday's game) over the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium, so Brady doesn't expect to be surprised by anything Miami might bring to Gillette.
"I've seen everything," he said. "It's pretty easy to get up to speed when it's only been two or three weeks. It is pretty fresh in our mind of how they played us, the things they do well. Certainly, they gave us everything we could handle."
It's more important for the Patriots to be concerned about how they approach their own responsibilities in this final tuneup for the NFL's second season, Brady said - and that's a message that comes straight from the top.
"We kind of take the lead from our head coach, who always talks about us getting better and making improvements and certainly not focusing on the things that were doing well, but the things more that we need to improve," he said. "As a veteran, you kind of take the lead from him. We all have our own feelings about how things are and we express those in different ways. It's all in hopes of winning games and to be at our best when we need it the most."