FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Now what?
What's next for the Patriots now that the preliminaries, as perfect as they were, are over?
Four days off to savor their feats and soothe their aches. A New Year's Eve toast to a 2008 that's as good as 2007. Then back to reality - the meeting rooms and practice field presided over by demanding Bill Belichick.
They might have been unbeaten in the regular season, but that's history.
In the playoffs, the Patriots are winless.
"The next time we step on the field we'll be 0-0 in the second season," Belichick said yesterday, "so we've got still a lot to look forward to."
The Patriots arrived home at 3:30 a.m. with a 16-0 record and a break from practice until Thursday.
It would have been 15-1 if Tom Brady hadn't pulled off his fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season to beat the host New York Giants, 38-35, on Saturday night.
New England joined the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1934 and 1942 Chicago Bears as the only teams to finish a regular season undefeated. Only Miami, though, also made it through the playoffs without a loss.
So the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season could go 0-1 in the playoffs.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in 4 years and were labeled by many as a dynasty. But in the next season, 2005, they missed a berth in the AFC title game by losing at Denver. Then their 2006 season ended with a loss at Indianapolis in the conference championship game after they blew an 18-point lead.
"We've been there before," Belichick said in a conference call. "Lose and go home. Win and keep playing. It's all one-game seasons now."
Brady, who broke Peyton Manning's single-season record with his 49th and 50th scoring passes on Saturday, might not throw another. Randy Moss, who caught both to break Jerry Rice's record with his 22nd and 23rd touchdown receptions, might draw triple coverage in the next game.
Stranger things have happened in the playoffs. The 1934 Bears led the NFL title game, 10-3, at halftime on a slippery field but lost, 30-13, after the Giants switched to sneakers at intermission.
"It's a relief that we played the regular season and it's finished," Brady said. "Now we get ready for what we've been preparing for all season. The week off is extremely important for us to rest and a little bit of pressure is relieved for this week. Coach will turn up the pressure Thursday when we go back."
That will intensify after next weekend's wild-card round when the Patriots find out who they'll play after their bye week. They have homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. *