Patriots engage in forward thinking

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots finished their 2010 regular season in style, but already they've moved on to the "next target." This is the way they roll.

Bring on the playoffs.

That was already on the minds of players as they exited an upbeat locker room following their 38-7 pummeling of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday afternoon. Yes, they were excited about finishing the regular season with authority. But this team doesn't do much looking back. Instead, the Patriots keep their focus on what is ahead.

It's part of their makeup, and part of the reason they've ripped off eight straight victories since the moment defensive lineman Vince Wilfork called the turning point of the season -- a Nov. 7 blowout loss at Cleveland.

"After the Cleveland game, there's something different about this ballclub," Wilfork said after another dominating performance by the 14-2 Patriots. "It was really a gut check. Reality set in. I think from that point on guys really buckled down and started to understand, 'Hey, anybody is beatable. If you step on the field on Sunday and you're not prepared to play good football, you'll end up on the losing end.'"

At that point, Wilfork noticed that things were different inside the walls at Gillette Stadium, where players are often reminded to simply "do your job."

Wilfork saw a rhythm developing within the locker room, both in terms of trust among teammates, and in how the team approached its work. Practice. Installation of the game plan. Correcting mistakes. Practicing again. Watching film. More corrections.

Players stopped thinking about the big picture and instead embraced the demanding day-to-day process of what it takes to be successful in the NFL. There was "buy-in" across the board, 53 players pulling in the same direction, to the point that Wilfork said practices started to become fun.

All the players, it seemed, had their eyes on the "next target."

Fast-forward to the aftermath of Sunday's win over the Dolphins and the approach was reflected in Bill Belichick's message to players in the locker room: "Let's keep it rolling. This season's over now. Everyone is 0-0."

So it's on to the postseason for the Patriots, where the stakes are higher and the margin for error slimmer. One mistake can end a team's season.

"One loss now and you're out. We understand that. We get a week to recuperate and find out who we're going to play," Wilfork said. That next game will be Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4:30 p.m. ET. "One thing that's definite is whoever we play is a pretty good football team; they wouldn't be in the postseason if they weren't."

That message was echoed by others in the locker room, which is no surprise because it often seems as if everyone is reading off the same script.

"I think we've had a good year. We've put ourselves in a real good position but really, none of it matters at this point," quarterback Tom Brady said. "The greatest advantage we have is that we don't have to play next week and we play at home the following week. I don't think we've earned anything more than that."

It is often said that players take on the personality of their coach and that certainly is the case in New England. Good luck getting Belichick to reflect on anything from earlier in the season, or that he is the first coach in NFL history to post four 14-win seasons. On Friday, one reporter tried to do that for about 10 minutes, and Belichick simply wouldn't budge. His feeling apparently is that there is a time for reflection, and now isn't that time, not when the focus should be on the next target.

It is a steely focus adopted by most of his players.

"That's what it's been about all season -- moving forward, cleaning up from the past game and focusing on the task at hand," veteran tight end Alge Crumpler said. "This team has learned that if we do what we're asked to do, we're going to be all right. Everybody has a way that they perceive we do things, but basically all we do is come in and work."

Then Crumpler decided to drive his point home further, like he does to defenders who stand in his way on a running play. Asked if it was fair to say the team's season would ultimately be defined by what happens in the playoffs, he dismissed the question.

"I don't care about all that right now," Crumpler shot back. "I just care about getting better and focusing on studying for whoever we're going to play. Period. I don't give a damn about the rest of that."

The next target awaits.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.