Patriots know there's no wiggle room

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The NFL's 2012 regular season has come and gone, and with it went much of the margin for error for the 12 teams left standing.

No longer do they have the backdrop of next week to sort through mistakes.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady understands that message and what it means for his team.

"I think Coach [Bill Belichick] said it best this morning," Brady told reporters on Wednesday. "He said, 'You make one mistake in this type of game and that's your season.' It's no more, 'I'll get it figured out next week and it's something we have to learn from and move on from.' No, it's your season. That's the kind of urgency you have in practice and certainly when we play here a week from Sunday."

Echoing Brady, veteran receiver Deion Branch said, "You know that the level of competition, everything changes once the postseason starts. The only difference is now -- the most important thing about the playoffs and the Super Bowl, is it's one game. It's a one-game season.

"Regular season, you make a mistake, you may have another game next week," Branch continued. "That's the difference -- that's the margin of error. You make this mistake [and] cost this game, you have another game to make that up. You do that in the postseason, the season's over."

The Patriots are no strangers to the postseason; they know the importance of every snap in every game.

On his very first play of Super Bowl XLVI, Brady was flagged for an uncharacteristic intentional grounding penalty in the end zone that resulted in a safety for the New York Giants.

The game wasn't decided during that instant, but it was impacted. The team dug itself a hole by making the type of mistake it could not afford.

That play is in the past, and Brady knows his team must focus now on how to avoid similar occurrences this postseason.

He's wasting no time getting to work in advance of the divisional round of the playoffs, as he carried a packet full of papers to the podium on Wednesday with a checklist of areas to hone in on.

"We've been working hard to figure out a bunch of things," he said while revealing the packet, which appeared to be roughly an inch think. "There's a packet full of things we need to do better and things that we're really trying to work hard to improve on."

From a personal standpoint, Brady will look to move past his slow finish to the regular season. During Weeks 15-17, he threw the fifth-most interceptions (four) in the NFL and was just 11th in both touchdowns thrown (five) and total QBR (58.1).

But while in the postseason the stakes will be raised, the pressure will be evident and the margin for error will be out the window, Brady stressed Wednesday that the playoffs are not the time for a team to change its approach.

They are the time to focus on execution.

"I don't think you want to go in there and change everything at this point. I think you want to try to understand, like I said, the things that are working, the things that aren't working," he continued. "There is always pressure in this game. There's pressure in practice, there's pressure to make the team, there's pressure to keep your job. Certainly there's pressure to win games and that's what we're going to try to do."

For the Patriots, the playoff quest will begin next Sunday against one of three potential opponents: the Texans, Ravens or Colts.

Whichever team it turns out to be, it will be a rematch from an earlier tilt this season.

For Brady, that means another opportunity to square off against a defense he has already found success against this season. In earlier games against the aforementioned trio of teams in 2012, Brady posted a 65.8 completion percentage while throwing eight touchdowns and zero interceptions.

In fact, Brady has been largely sharp against the teams that the Patriots faced this regular season that are now in the playoffs, combining for 12 touchdowns and four interceptions and averaging 337 passing yards in six games against the field.

Those numbers are solid, and while the Patriots will continue to aim to be productive during the playoffs, the importance of also playing mistake-free football will only grow with the switch flipping to the postseason.

And playing error-free football extends beyond just salient stats such as turnovers. It means avoiding costly penalties, not surrendering big plays on defense or sacks on offense, converting field goals and playing sound situational football.

It's a team effort that involves all three phases of the game and must persist over the course of 60 minutes.

With the playoffs upon them, every snap of every practice and game will be intensified, mistakes will be magnified, and the Patriots understand the mindset needed to succeed.

"We're going to try to put our best out there, [we'll] see what it is if we can all be on the same page for 60 minutes," Brady said. "That starts with practice and preparing and doing a great job, having a great attitude every day to come in here and be at our best. That's what we're going to try to do."

Field Yates covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.