FOXBOROUGH -- Bill Belichick delivered an obvious but essential message to his playoff-bound players: Mess up now and the consequences are costly.
"I think coach said it best this morning," Tom Brady said Thursday. "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."
Belichick, a master of the complex game of football, hammers away at simple lessons that have made the New England Patriots a consistent Super Bowl contender.
Do your job. Improve each day. Focus on the next practice.
That approach stays the same no matter what game is coming up: preseason, regular season or postseason. It's even more important now with the Patriots (12-4) set to host an AFC divisional-round game on Jan. 13 after earning the second seed and a bye.
Win or go home.
They went into their three-day break on Friday not knowing who they'd be playing. It would be the Houston Texans if they beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday. Otherwise, the opponent would be the winner of Sunday's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.
Whoever it is, Belichick's approach and demeanor aren't likely to change. After all, that's gotten the Patriots to the playoffs in 10 of his 13 seasons and to the Super Bowl five times with three championships.
"I think a lot of guys are appreciative of that. It's tough to swallow the truth sometimes, but it's very rewarding when you improve upon your game and you get praised on that."
Safety Steve Gregory wasn't put off by Belichick's demanding style when he decided to sign with the Patriots last March after six seasons with the San Diego Chargers. In fact, he embraced it.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's a great thing any time you have a coach that expects high things out of you as a player. It brings the best out of you. So he has a way of getting the best out of his players."
Sometimes he does it by stepping back. Other times he gets more involved.
"It's all about the level of your team at the time," wide receiver Deion Branch said. "Early this season, we were a little inconsistent, so there have been a lot of times that coach Belichick has stepped in and intervened. ‘We need to do this. I need a little bit more from you guys.' And guys responded."
The Patriots had just one playoff victory in three seasons under Pete Carroll when Belichick took over in 2000. They went 5-11 that year before he turned them into winners.
The next season, the Patriots went 11-5 and won the first of their three championships in four years. They've won at least 10 games in each of the past 10 seasons and have a bye for the third straight year.
"To be able to win on this consistent level is very, very hard," Mesko said. "It's definitely a did-you-do-your-job kind of mentality. We look at facts, not emotions."
If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Belichick will tie Tom Landry with an all-time high of 20 postseason wins by a coach. Brady's next win will be his 17th, breaking a tie with Joe Montana for the most by any player.
Just like his coach, though, Brady is focusing on the immediate task.
"I think it's just trying to win a game," he said. "All that stuff, historically, I think you look back on some of the great seasons we've had and we'll enjoy those at some point. I don't think now is really the time. I think so much of our energy is focused on the short-term goals, which it should be and which it needs to be."
So Belichick will welcome his players back on Monday. Then he'll be their taskmaster, as usual.
"It's sharp, man. Everything is precise, on time," said cornerback Aqib Talib, obtained from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the ninth game. "It's good for the team and it just keeps you on your toes."
Donald Thomas noticed that when he joined the Patriots after the first game last season following his release by the Detroit Lions.
"Just his attention to detail each week" is impressive, the guard said. "He makes us pay attention to those small things that can come up in games and harps on not making the same mistakes we made the previous weeks."