- Associated Press - Friday, December 3, 2010

FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP) - December is winning time for the New England Patriots.

Season after season, coach Bill Belichick stresses the importance of the final month of the year. The veterans are used to the message. The rookies buy into it quickly.

“The veterans keep talking about after Thanksgiving is when the season starts to pick up,” cornerback Devin McCourty said two days into his first December in the NFL. “It’s important to be playing well around that time.”

The Patriots are doing it again this year, finishing November with three straight wins before Monday night’s big game against the New York Jets, their co-leaders in the AFC East with a 9-2 record.

Starting in 2002, New England has the league’s best record in December, 29-5. The Jets are just 18-18 in the final month during that stretch but have perhaps their best team in the past 10 years.

The more recent numbers for New England are even more impressive: 15-1 in its last 16 December games with the only loss coming last Dec. 6, exactly a year before Monday night’s game, 22-21 at Miami on a field goal with 1:02 left.

“One thing I know is football starts now,” Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We have to be able to play some good football in December and January.”

Last season, their first under coach Rex Ryan, the Jets started doing that in November.

Through 10 games, they were in third place in the AFC East with a 4-6 record; the Patriots were first at 7-3. But New York won five of its remaining six to finish with a wild-card berth at 9-7, one game behind New England.

The Jets kept rolling, beating Cincinnati and San Diego on the road to make it all the way to the AFC championship game where they lost at Indianapolis. The Patriots, meanwhile, were dominated by the wild-card Baltimore Ravens 33-14 in the first round despite being at home.

But in 2008, New York struggled down the stretch. It was 1-4 in its last five games and missed the playoffs after starting at 8-3.

So Belichick knows the significance of beginning December on the right path and ignoring the hype that goes with the intense rivalry in which the Jets hold a 51-50-1 edge, despite and including an 0-2 playoff record.

“Last year, they were out of the playoffs and all of a sudden they were, not only in the playoffs, but they ended up playing in the AFC Championship game,” Belichick said. “It’s great for fans, but I don’t really care about that. We just worry about this game and where it stands at the end of the year. That will determine something. But in the meantime, we can just control this game. That’s all we’re worried about.”

Having Tom Brady at quarterback should ease his concern, especially at Gillette Stadium. A win on Monday night would be his 26th straight in regular-season starts at home, breaking the record Brett Favre set with Green Bay from 1995-98.

Of course, Brady did lose badly to the Ravens in last season’s playoff game, New England’s first postseason loss at Gillette.

In the first quarter alone, he threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and was sacked twice as Baltimore rolled to a 24-0 lead. Fans even booed their star quarterback after the Ravens took a 14-0 lead after five minutes and many of them had abandoned the stadium by the fourth.

And the last team to beat Brady in Foxborough? The Jets on Nov. 12, 2006, 17-14. They also beat the Patriots in the second game this season, 28-14 after trailing 14-7 in the final minute of the first half.

“We need to play a lot better this week to be a team that is really playing great football and has really proven that we can win in a lot of different ways,” Brady said. “We like to think of ourselves as very tough, physical, smart, resilient, and that’s what they are, too. So, as much as it pains me to say, that’s kind of what it’s been with the Jets this year.”

The Patriots need a win more than the Jets do in the AFC East race. The teams have the same record, but a victory would give New York a 2-0 mark in head-to-head matchups, the first tiebreaker if they finish with identical records.

But there’s still plenty of football left. In their last four games, the Jets and Patriots play three of the same teams.

New York will be at home against Miami, on the road at Pittsburgh and Chicago and, on Jan. 2, back home against Buffalo. New England plays at Chicago, at home against Green Bay, at Buffalo and at home against Miami, also on Jan. 2.

“It will be a different story every week,” Belichick said. “This happens, that happens, something else happens. It will be this, and next week it will be another one, and next week there will be another one. There will be five different scenarios in the next five weeks. I’m not worried about that.”

Why should he be? After all, it is December.

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