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Sunday, November 20, 2011
Updated: November 21, 11:08 AM ET
Bill Belichick's steady hand calms Pats

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Given the success of the New England Patriots this century, they're the last team whose fans should require a case of Dramamine.

Alas, the team's supporters spend 17 weeks on the NFL roller coaster, overreacting to the highs and lows that dot any schedule. The glass surrounding many panic buttons is shattered before the leaves hit the ground each autumn.

Case in point: Little more than a week ago, there was genuine uneasiness in these parts. Two straight losses and a daunting Sunday night matchup on the road against a red-hot rival left some wondering whether the Patriots were about to plummet from playoff contention.

Nothing was sacred. The personnel moves and coaching strategy of Bill Belichick were being dissected and Tom Brady heard more groans than in recent memory, especially given his elevated interception total and an inability to connect on deep passes.

Some fans, certainly the minority, went so far as to ask whether backups Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett might need to be on the field for downfield throws. The logic (or lack thereof) of such a move, of course, is enough to make one's head explode, but it shows just how violent the twists and turns can be in these parts.

Amid a backdrop of fan anxiety, the Patriots went out and throttled the New York Jets by three touchdowns to sweep the season series, handing New York one of two losses in five days that dropped Rex Ryan and Co. to .500. On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills lost their third straight game, dropping them to 5-5 as well.

Suddenly, the Patriots head into Monday night's matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs -- the start of the NFL's easiest schedule over the final seven weeks of the season, one in which no opponent currently has a winning record -- with a chance to open a two-game lead atop the AFC East.

Now there are whispers about whether this team is Indianapolis bound, and we don't mean to advance scout for a Week 13 visit from the winless Colts.

Yes, the old expression suggests that if you don't like the weather in New England, wait a few minutes. The same can be said for the temperature of New England's football team.

But here's the caveat: They don't sell tickets in the Patriots' locker room for the roller coaster. While most observers -- and, yes, we in the media are at fault at times -- get caught up in the hysteria, the players are told every single day to "ignore the noise" and "don't believe or fuel the hype."

The messages are on the door when players arrive at and depart Gillette Stadium. Those are two of the four so-called commandments posted ("manage expectations" and "speak for yourself" are the others).

Tom Brady
Tom Brady says Bill Belichick has taught him about keeping an even keel and being mentally tough.

Coming off last week's win over the Jets, one in which he and Belichick became the winningest coach/QB combo with 117 victories (passing Don Shula and Dan Marino), Brady was asked about Belichick's role in accomplishing the feat.

"There's so many things I've learned from him over the years about mental toughness and his ability to stay really even-keeled through the wins and the losses," Brady said early last week during a weekly appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI. "I remember the year that we went undefeated, you would never have thought we were undefeated. You would have thought we were 0-16 the way that he coached us.

"The last two weeks have been rough. But you know what? He never lost faith in us or confidence in what we're doing. He just said, 'Look, we've just got to do better.' He doesn't ride those highs and lows. He comes in every week with a goal in mind. I think all the guys who played for him really appreciate that, appreciate his consistency, and appreciate the way that he listens to the team as well. Ultimately, he's the one that makes the decisions, but at the same time, he takes a lot of input from a lot of people too. Everyone feels like they're a part of it. It's very special for it to be like that."

As much as players shield themselves from the opinions outside Gillette Stadium, the noise does trickle in. Players often note they can gauge the public opinion on the team by the tone of the questions they field.

And in the age of Twitter, players get instant feedback from those who follow them and the team. Needless to say, some were ruffled at the reaction following the Patriots' loss to the Giants in Week 9, the bandwagon dropping a few members after the team endured consecutive losses for only the third time since the start of the 2003 season.

It's amazing what a difference a week can make. Beat the Jets and watch the rest of the AFC stumble and it's all sunshine and puppy dogs again.

But there's no assurance this roller coaster is only on the climb.

Which brings us to this week's matchup against the Chiefs. What was expected to be the most compelling storyline took a hit last Sunday when former Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel injured his throwing hand, forcing him to sit out the first meeting between the teams since Cassel got thrust into the Patriots' starting role when Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 of the 2008 season.

There's been mild hype given the ties between the two franchises, most notably with Scott Pioli, the Chiefs' general manager and Belichick's former right-hand personnel man in New England. There will be some nostalgia seeing former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel trying to come up with a plan against Brady.

But a fan base exhausted from the twist and turns of the first 10 weeks of the season almost seems to be looking at this game through binoculars, with a lot of eyes already looking ahead to the postseason (in which the Patriots haven't won since the 2007 campaign).

Patriots players don't have that luxury. Their coach demands a focus on one game at a time. In fact, players are eager for kickoff given the extra day's wait.

They're hoping to maintain the level of play displayed Sunday against the Jets and put those struggles further in the past. That would allow some of their fans to save some Dramamine for later.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.