Not long ago the number 21 in New England was a reference to the team's NFL record 21-game winning streak that served as just one example of how truly dominant the 2003-04 Patriots were compared to the rest of the NFL.
Recently, though, 21 had a far different and much more negative meaning in Patriots Nation. Prior to last week's dominating win over the Texans in Foxborough the Patriots had turned the ball over a dismally remarkable 21 times in the previous seven games. Those are the sort of numbers that are expected from a bad football team, not a 10-4 team on the verge of winning its division and embarking on yet another postseason run toward ultimate Super Bowl glory.
But those in the Gillette Stadium locker room knew that if the turnovers continued at their previous pace, Super Bowl glory was the last thing the team would see. Winning its final regular season games would be an uphill battle if the turnover trend carried forward.
In last Sunday's 40-7 win over Houston, New England didn't turn the ball over a single time and quit frankly never even came close to doing so. That's a far cry from the Patriots previous two months of error-filled action.
"About time," fullback Heath Evans replied when asked about the team's first clean game in recent memory.
"That was great. We didn't really have one ball on the ground," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "That was good to see. Houston didn't get their hands on balls and we kept them pretty tight. That was great, not turning the ball over, didn't have many penalties. Defensively we got some turnovers. We were able to convert those into points on offense. It goes without saying, but that's the way you kind of want to play the game, play on their side of the field, take care of the ball. That's a good way to play."
And it's the way the more successful Patriots teams of the recent past have played. Take care of the ball on offense and turn it over on defense. Aside from points scored and points allowed, turnovers are the difference between being a good team and a championship-level contender.
The Patriots learned that lesson last January, turning the ball over five times in a divisional playoff loss in Denver that brought New England's potentially historic run toward a third-straight Super Bowl title to a screeching halt. Overcoming turnovers in the regular season, as the Patriots have done more often than not in recent months thanks largely to its defense keeping pace in forcing its own turnovers, is one thing. It's hard to win down the stretch and into the postseason while turning the ball over.
Play clean in the next two weeks and then in the postseason and the Patriots have a chance to play with anyone. Turn the ball over three times-plus a game as New England had been doing and winning won't be much of an option.
But after Sunday's errorless victory against the overmatched Texans, New England's offensive players hope mistakes are a thing of the past. If that's the case, they have a newly-renewed confidence they can get the job done in the coming weeks.
"If we go out there and practice hard and play like we did, I think we can beat just about anybody," Reche Caldwell said. "If we stop the turnovers, stop the penalties, get our running game going and play like our special teams and defense play, I think we are going to be a tough team to beat down the stretch."