Patriots

Three months after a miserable trip to Florida, Patriots will return to Sunshine State Sunday a changed team

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(Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

FOXBOROUGH — The first time the Patriots were in Florida this season, they were humbled by a young and feisty Jacksonville team. Shorthanded on both sides of the ball, New England looked vulnerable in sweltering September temperatures.

This week, they’ll return to Florida as healthy as they’ve been all year, needing just one win to clinch a playoff spot and win the division, all while looking to keep the heat on the rest of the AFC contenders in the race for home-field advantage.

Yes, three months can be an awfully long time when you’re talking about a football season. The truth of the matter is that this year’s pair of trips to Florida can almost serve as seasonal bookends for the 2018 Patriots: In September in Jacksonville, they were struggling. Now, as they prepare to return to the Sunshine State in December for a date with the Dolphins, they are on the cusp of an AFC East title.

“We’ve come a long way,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater when he was asked Wednesday about comparing this trip to Florida to their last.

Along the way, it hasn’t been perfect. And while they remain a work in progress — there are still questions on both sides of the ball — the bottom line is that the difference between where they were almost three months ago and where they are this week is pretty stark. How have they been able to do it? According to multiple players, they’ve narrowed their focus in recent days to one simple word.