A sign hangs in New England's locker room, which reads, "The battle is won before it's ever fought." For the last decade, the New England Patriots have honored that quote by doing their due diligence when it comes to preparation. For them, the 2012 season is already underway.
Champions are never satisfied. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have eight Super Bowl rings between them. There aren't many duos in the history of the NFL who can make that same claim. They aren't coming back for a paycheck, they're coming back to get more rings.
On the road to those rings, they'll encounter bumps and bruises at every turn. They need to be ready, and they will be.
Here are 10 keys for New England to win the Super Bowl in 2012.
They say it doesn't matter where you start, but where you finish. That's true. But still, do you really want to start the season with another loss to the Giants?
The last time a team earned back-to-back Super Bowl berths was in 2003 and 2004. By that statistical rationale, it stands to reason that the Patriots are in a sticky situation. Logic would dictate that next year's AFC champion will be the Texans, Broncos, Ravens or Steelers.
Of course, that Super Bowl team from 2003 and 2004 was New England. But even so, the road ahead will be long and daunting. History is only vaguely in the Patriots' corner.
When you make it to the Super Bowl, your next season gets tougher. The competition is out to get you. The road is rougher than you remember. Usually, there's a drop-off in your execution. It's a pressure thing. The brightest stars have a tendency to burn out at the quickest pace.
For the Patriots to get back to the Super Bowl, they'll need tangible proof of improvement. They'll need to know that the 2012 Patriots are better than the 2011 Patriots. That way, it won't matter that the path is tougher, because they'll know that they're tougher, too.
A preseason win over the Giants would signify immediate growth. It's a victory they need to get.
Last season, Bruins' defenseman Andrew Ference purchased a vintage Bruins jacket. During the playoffs, that jacket became a motivating source of strength.
The most significant contributor to that night's victory would get the jacket. Then, in the following game, the owner of the jacket would pass it along to the player who stepped-up to earn the most recent win. Around and around the jacket went, until everyone got Stanley Cup rings.
This year, the jacket's been replaced with a padlock chain that has 20 links. Each link represents a player who suits up for the game, with the concept being that the team cannot be broken when there isn't a weak link to be found.
Last week, Chris Kelly wore the chain during his postgame press conference. He earned it with his overtime goal to ice Game 1 against the Capitals.
The 2011 Patriots had a similar rallying cry with the MHK painting which they had commissioned for Mr. Kraft. It took them all the way to the Super Bowl.
Come 2012, the Patriots will need a new object that serves as a tangible source of strength. Start searching for that object right now. Make sure the team fixates itself on a quest from the get-go, and have a physical object which represents the team's unity moving forward.
The acquisition of Mario Williams has planted seeds of optimism in Buffalo. New England cannot allow any flowers to grow from these seeds. Make sure it stays winter in Buffalo forever.
Next season's games against the Bills will be important, but the Patriots should give the impression that the games are unimportant. Win with effortless ease, even if the games are close. It's an acting job. A performance. Pretend that nothing has changed. Don't give Buffalo an inkling of hope for the division.
Remind Buffalo that the Bills are still the Bills and the Patriots are still the Patriots.
Last season, Sterling Moore made the play of the year for New England. It's essential that Moore doesn't get pigeonholed as "the kid who made that strip in the AFC championship." He needs to collect more milestones and establish himself as "the kid who makes big plays when the Patriots need someone to make big plays."
Only 22 years old, Moore has the potential to be a fixture of this team for the next decade. New England needs to make him a long-term, in-house project. Groom him to be an indispensable member of this team and put him in positions to make more career-defining plays.
His evolution begins on opening day of the 2012 season. He has the potential to be one of the most significant contributors to another Super Bowl run.
Don't dwell on the pain, but don't sweep it under the carpet. One Super Bowl loss to the Giants could be a fluke, but two Super Bowl losses to the Giants means there are problems that need to be addressed.
During their regular-season game against the Giants last year, it was very clear that the ghost of Super Bowl XLII was still haunting the Patriots. You could read it in their body language. You could see it in Tom Brady's face. The Giants had that victory before the battle was fought.
Traces of that ghost lingered into Super Bowl XLVI.
This can't continue. Enough of these ghosts.
Get the team together in a room, sit down, turn off the lights and watch the game from beginning to end. Understand the loss. Internalize it, comprehend it, figure out what went wrong, then bury the game forever. Make a solemn vow that this will never happen again.
Despite the fact that New England is known for their scoring prowess, they rarely dominate their games from start to finish. Last season, the only time I was able to sit back and relax was during the Chiefs game and few Broncos games. That wasn't enough relaxation.
The Patriots need to adopt a healthy streak of anger over losing the Super Bowl and they need to take that vengeance out on everybody. Blow out the Dolphins, blow out the Bills; destroy the teams you're supposed to destroy.
This team is too talented to be involved in down-to-the-wire games with teams who won't make the playoffs. Enough of this cat-and-mouse thing. Start embarrassing other teams. Start dominating.
Don't get fancy with this draft. Don't over-think everything. You just went to the Super Bowl and you have a great shot to get back next season, so make this a meat-and-potatoes draft. Identify the best players on the table and go get them.
Make some solid additions to your offensive and defensive lines, grab a great wide receiver for added offensive depth and target some athletic freaks of nature.
George Iloka is such a freak. One of the most athletically-gifted prospects in the draft, he's a tall safety, muscular and overly physical with a fantastic sense of football psychology.
Iloka's got Tom Brady's swagger and Patrick Chung's taste for violence. He's the sort of player who can immediately add a heavy dose of athleticism to the mix and contribute to New England's culture of wisdom and discipline.
The Patriots need to take a break from being too intellectual. Just once. Don't trade picks, don't target guys that only a few people like, don't be cute. Just go out and draft the guys that everyone else has their eyes on. I'm not looking for an underdog story, I'm looking for a Super Bowl ring.
Every year, in every sport, there's a handful of brilliant college prodigies who turn pro and fizzle out. Last season, Chad Ochocinco proved that the transition from pro-to-pro can be just as destructive.
Ochocinco will have another season to prove his value, but Brandon Lloyd can't afford to ease into the system at such a relaxed pace. Or rather, the Patriots can't afford it.
The Giants won Super Bowl XLVI because of their depth. New England's defense effectively took Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks out of the game, but New York still had a third-option receiver who was capable of making the biggest play of the year.
The Patriots have two big playmakers in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. If Brandon Lloyd can emerge as their third bright playmaker on offense, there won't be a defensive unit in the league who will be able to stop New England's offensive onslaught.
The more Lloyd succeeds, the more the team succeeds. They need to make sure he's up for the challenge and ready to go.
In three different seasons, Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski were stifled by serious injuries. That's three potential Super Bowl rings down the drain.
If the Patriots stay intact, they're good enough to win the Super Bowl. But without more depth, they won't be able to compensate for injuries.
It's important that the Patriots double-up in every position. Great quarterback? Make sure you've got a great backup quarterback. Great slot receiver? Get another great slot receiver. Excited about Brandon Lloyd? Draft another Brandon Lloyd. Have two of everything to make sure you never run out of anything.
If you add up the difference between the five rings Tom Brady could've had and the three rings he has, it's only a few minutes of field time. Brady needs to take that personally.
Brady had a ruthless chip on his shoulder during his Michigan days. That chip only intensified when he arrived in New England. Brady wasn't the starting quarterback in either place, but he elbowed his way into legendary status.
At this point, Brady is arguably the best quarterback of all time. The question is: How much does the word "arguably" bother him? There are critics out there who think Peyton Manning is better. There are critics out there who give the edge to Johnny Unitas, Sammy Baugh, Bart Starr and Otto Graham. And of course, there's the ever-present ghost of Joe Montana.
Only Brady knows how satisfied or dissatisfied he is with being "arguably" the greatest. But two things are certain: Brady plays his best when he has something to prove, and he did not play his best in his last two Super Bowl appearances.
When critics debate the best athletes of all time, Bobby Orr always gets bumped by Wayne Gretzky, Bill Russell gets bumped by Michael Jordan and Ted Williams gets bumped by Babe Ruth. Tom Brady has the opportunity to be the only Boston athlete in history who dominates the top slot in his sport.
To fulfill that quest, Brady needs to get back that chip on his shoulder. He needs to get angry. He needs to answer all of his critics and make sure that no one ever uses "Tom Brady" and "arguably" in the same sentence ever again.