EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For those fortunate few people who achieve perfection in any walk of life, often the more difficult pursuit than completing the task is figuring out what to do for an encore.
Not so, though, for the New England Patriots, who in the wake of Saturday night's 38-35 comeback victory over the New York Giants left little doubt that they understand registering the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history is only the first step toward reaching their goals.
There is, the players noted, still a big-picture agenda to be addressed. Records, both individual and collective, resonate a lot more when there is a Super Bowl ring to validate them. So while most of the veteran players conceded they were drinking in the locker room atmosphere that accompanied Saturday's victory, the champagne is still on ice and awaiting a fourth championship in seven seasons.
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"It's special," said quarterback Tom Brady, whose record-breaking 50th TD pass of the season, a 65-yard bomb to Randy Moss, completed a rally from a 12-point deficit midway through the third quarter. "But we've won three Super Bowls. And as good as this feels, I think we all know that it's not the real goal that we've set for ourselves.
"We kind of know what's ahead of us out there."
What is behind the Patriots, several players noted with relief, is arguably the greatest single season in league history. The high-octane New England offense established NFL records for points and touchdowns. Not only did Brady break Peyton Manning's single-season record for TD passes, Moss eclipsed Jerry Rice's TD receptions record with his 23rd score.
But that was essentially the opening act, one for which the curtain was raised more than three months ago with a win in this same Giants Stadium, over the New York Jets. The Patriots, even stoic coach Bill Belichick, allowed that they will take the luxury of a few days off to bask in their boffo reviews. But then work begins on the playoffs, and the pursuit of true perfection.
New England, of course, owns home-field advantage through the entire AFC side of the playoff bracket. And the Pats are already established as heavy favorites to win Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3. Anything less than a Super Bowl win will be more than disappointing. It would be, said linebacker Adalius Thomas, absolutely devastating.
"When I came here [as a free agent] in the spring, it was to win a Super Bowl," said Thomas, the Patriots' most notable offseason acquisition on defense, after twice notching Pro Bowl honors in seven seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. "I mean, never do you think, 'Well, maybe I'll sign with New England because that's a team that has a chance to be undefeated.' I mean, honestly, how could you allow yourself to even think that? So the whole 16-0 thing, while it's great, it didn't become a goal of ours until these last few weeks. Everybody knows what we're after."
Still, even Belichick, who barely registers a pulse in most of his postgame assessments, seemed a bit emotional over having completed the 16-0 run. As the media awaited Belichick's arrival, a loud cheer emanating from the Patriots' locker room could be heard. Belichick declined to discuss the particulars, but players said there was a solid display of sentiment for their usually dispassionate leader.
Belichick did concede that winning the 16th game at Giants Stadium, where he had worked a combined 12 seasons as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator for the Giants and Jets, had special meaning. What was left unsaid was that Giants Stadium is also the site of the video spying incident from the season opener, arguably the nadir of New England's season, but also a moment that became a rallying point for the team.
The mere suggestion that the Patriots' accomplishments might somehow be tainted seemed to galvanize the roster, and steeled the determination of New England players to venture where no other club had gone.
"No matter what anybody says about us, it can't [tarnish] what we've done, and can't diminish the accomplishment, not at all," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "It stands on its own. There's only one thing that can be a blemish on this season, and that's if we don't finish what we've set out to do. Then all of this wouldn't mean nearly as much. This is just one chapter of the book on this season. But, yeah, it's a heck of a chapter, huh?"
And it was a heck of a game, to the credit of a Giants team that played hard in a contest that did not affect its No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs.
For much of the week, debate centered on whether Giants coach Tom Coughlin would or should play all of his starters. In the end, doing so might have weakened New York for the playoffs, since the Giants may have lost at least two starters, center Shaun O'Hara and weakside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, to serious injuries. But the Giants did all they could to detour history, and led 28-16 in the third quarter before Brady led the Patriots to touchdowns on three drives in a four-possession stretch.
The biggest score was the 65-yard bomb to Moss with 11:06 left in the game. Moss got behind a trap coverage by the Giants, when Aaron Ross rolled up and strong safety James Butler was left to cover the deep left half of the field. Just one snap earlier, Moss had beaten the New York secondary by several yards, his route set up by a nifty Brady pump-fake and aided when a defender fell down. But the pass from Brady was underthrown and Moss couldn't get back to it.
There was no coming up short on the touchdown play, though, as Brady hit Moss in stride and the Patriots grabbed a lead they would not surrender.
Brady, forced into a horizontal-type passing game much of the contest, and with his offensive line struggling against a Giants defense that leads the league in sacks, completed 32 of 42 passes for 356 yards, with two TDs and no interceptions. As Brady and Belichick and several Patriots players emphasized, it was not a perfect game by any stretch.
But it was enough to leave the Patriots perfect through the regular season and three victories shy of fulfilling all the goals they set back in training camp.
"It was kind of a tricky game," Brady said, "because it really didn't mean too much, but it also meant a lot. The games that mean the most, though, are still coming."
And as a coach who always views life as the challenge that still lies ahead, not the accomplishments already checked off on the to-do list, Belichick was already hammering home that point Saturday night.
"Our players came through just like they have all year," Belichick said. "I'm happy for them. They're happy, and they should be. At least for a little while."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.