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Welcome to December football, when the Patriots are far better than everyone else

The season is entering the final stretch and the Patriots need to be ready.

Welcome to December of 2016! Time has flown by this year and there are just five weeks left in the regular season, with the New England Patriots playing the final game on January 1st against the Miami Dolphins. We’ve entered crunch time where legacies are established and teams start playing their best football.

And no one plays better than the Patriots in December.

Since 2001, the Patriots have a ridiculous 0.817 winning rate once the calendar flips to December. The Pittsburgh Steelers rank second at 0.736, and the Green Bay Packers at 0.704 are the only other team to win more than two-thirds of their games.

“[December is] just a time that you want to play your best football,” Patriots free safety Devin McCourty said on Wednesday. “From being here for a while, we talk about it. [It’s] a time where you just want to put everything else aside and try to focus in on these last couple games. I think that’s what December means – that it’s almost over. We’ve got five games left in the regular season and you can’t get those five games back. You can’t make up them later in the season. It’s here and now and that’s it. I think that rings bells for all teams to know it’s close to the end and each game really matters. You’ve got to really try to play your best so you’re not sitting there in four or five weeks saying, ‘I wish I had this week back, I wish I had that week back.’ You just want to put it all out there.”

An important part of the December push is reinforcing whatever identity the team has been trying to establish over the course of the entire year.

The weird part of the 2016 Patriots is the seeming lack of identity. In 2013, you could say this team overcame all obstacles and injuries. In 2014, the defensive strength with cornerback Darrelle Revis was a clear calling card. 2015 was defined by the quick passing offense to compensate for the weak offensive line and the seemingly weekly loss of a crucial offensive player.

What about 2016? What is the defining aspect of the Patriots?

The offense hasn’t been able to play with everyone at full strength this entire season, but it doesn’t have the same feel as 2013 when Tom Brady was playing with a bunch of rookies and street veterans. It feels like the offense is just waiting for the playoffs, or something, but there hasn’t been a single consistent player all season (other than Marcus Cannon, who just received a contract extension).

The defense, well, they’ve underachieved while still achieving. Never before have I seen a unit that ranks 3rd in points against this late in the season receive so much criticism on a weekly basis. The team has turned over from Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins to Trey Flowers and Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin, and while the defensive ceiling is lower than it was in 2015, it seems like the 2016 unit has received far more scrutiny.

We could be saying that this is a Patriots team that has overcome the biggest losses in the league- missing Brady for the first four weeks, having Rob Gronkowski for what seems like just 20 snaps this year- but the Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett era seems like ages ago. This doesn’t feel like the same team for some reason.

I would say that the 2016 Patriots are defined by the amorphous blob on both sides of the ball, as both the offensive and defensive personnel are seemingly changing every single week. How would you define this team?

The Patriots better have an inhouse identity- and if they don’t, that will be revealed before the year ends.