It's fitting that Jonas Gray rushed for 199 yards, a number ingrained in Patriots lore, on the night that #199 was struggling his way through the first half.
It's fitting that Gray was stopped one apparently easily obtainable yard away from a tremendous milestone, as if Bill Belichick was sending a message to the first year player and apparent heir to the Patriots running back carousel.
The message has been consistent over the Patriots resurgence: Seven wins isn't getting anyone to the playoffs. Eight wins still isn't enough. Nine, ten, eleven, two-hundred, six straight, two games ahead, and none of these numbers matter. All that matters is that the Detroit Lions are coming to New England and the Patriots need another victory.
In typical Belichick fashion, he tempered expectations on the Patriots players and heaped praise upon the opposition. Rob Gronkowski, who threw Colts defensive back (and former Patriot) Sergio Brown into the bleachers, merely has an "aggressive attitude". Gray has "things he needs to work on."
On the first half, where the team backed into the half on the back of two kneel-downs with 50 seconds on the clock and three time outs? "Well, obviously we had two turnovers in the first half and that’s not being productive at all there. We need to do a better job."
Everyone knows the soundbites for the upcoming week. The Lions offense has some of the best players in the game, coach Jim Caldwell is one of the most respected in the league, and their defense is the best ranked in the league.
The Patriots are a team with a moving target of expectations. They weren't good until they could beat a good team (Cincinnati). They weren't good until they could string together a few games (Bills, Jets). They weren't good until they could beat a tem with a great passing attack (Chicago). They weren't proven until they could beat a dominant team, and the Bengals no longer count (Denver). They need to beat a playoff team with a great quarterback on the road in a tough environment in prime time (Indianapolis).
And maybe the Patriots keep moving forward- but the target keeps moving. They need to beat a team with a great defensive front and Denver does count (Detroit). They need to beat a #1 defense, even though the Bengals and Bills were both ranked #1 at the time of those games. They need to defend a #1 offense like the Packers in their home stadium, even though both the Broncos and Colts were ranked at the top of the charts in the past two games.
The NFL season ebbs and flows, a continuously moving current of successes and failures. The Patriots continue to roll and overcome the highly ranked teams that are placed in front of them. There are two large breakers in the upcoming weeks, but those games mean nothing if the season ends without a Super Bowl.
The target keeps moving. The Patriots haven't beaten anyone yet. The only number that matters is Super Bowl Victory #4.