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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Touchdown

Patriots land in Houston, realizing they've arrived

HOUSTON -- Last time they were underdogs. This time they are favorites.

The New England Patriots arrived in Houston late yesterday afternoon. Didn't even need an airplane. They flew in on the wings of a 14-game winning streak. They carried with them the expectations that they will win the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.

Tom Brady watched "The Count of Monte Cristo," on the four-hour plane ride. Christian Fauria brought his own camera, saying, "I want to capture the experience." Fauria said making family arrangements for the Super Bowl was like planning a wedding. Ty Law said, "I know the difference between winning and losing the Super Bowl."

Seeing Brady, Law, and friends return to the national stage, it was impossible not to think back to two years ago when this experience was so very different.

Last time they arrived in New Orleans on Monday, just a few hours after winning the AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh. This time they flew into Houston after being home for five weeks. Before yesterday, the Patriots as a team hadn't been in an airplane since before Christmas when they made the short flight home from the Meadowlands.

Last time the Patriots had a mini-quarterback controversy early in Super Bowl week. It's hard to believe now, but there were a lot of "Tom or Drew?" stories early in the week. Brady was injured in the AFC Championship game, Bledsoe picked up the win in relief, and tight-lipped Bill Belichick wouldn't show his hand until mid-week. This time Brady comes to the game a certified superstar. He hangs out with the President and finds himself endlessly (and favorably) compared with Joe Montana. "This year, nothing is taken for granted," said Brady.

Last time the Patriots were considered the luckiest team in football. A lot of bounces, calls, and coin flips went their way in the championship run of 2001-02, none more critical than the little known "Tuck Rule", which saved them from a playoff loss against Oakland. This time they are considered the best team in football, already inspiring comparisons with the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 1985 Chicago Bears (absurd, yes, but we've got two weeks to fill between games).

Last time they played against St. Louis, the Greatest Show on Turf, a cast of stars only two years removed from Super Bowl glory. This time they are playing the Carolina Panthers, the most unlikely championship contender since the Florida Marlins (speaking of the Marlins, do you think Ugueth Urbina was flashing his World Series ring when he fired those shots from a 9 mm revolver into the air in Caracas the other night?).

Last time Belichick was viewed with suspicion -- a grim dictator who failed in Cleveland and never won without Bill Parcells as boss. This time Belichick comes to the game as football's keenest mind since George Halas. It is expected that he will outsmart the other guy. Every time.

Last time they had a tight end named Jermaine Wiggins who caught a crucial pass, setting up Adam Vinatieri's winning field goal on the final play of the game. This time they will play against the same Jermaine Wiggins.

Last time Patriots fans overwhelmed New Orleans and made the French Quarter feel like a Foxborough tailgate party. This time Patriot Nation will be spread out over a metropolitan area that approximates the square mileage of Rhode Island.

Last time they played the game in the Superdome. This time it'll be at Reliant Stadium, which has a retractable roof. Reliant is gigantic, making the adjacent Astrodome look like a guard shack.

Last time Troy Brown was the Patriots' offensive star and go-to guy. This time Brown comes to the Super Bowl in a diminished role, but he's still the man in the clutch.

Last time the Patriots' defensive backfield featured Otis Smith, Lawyer Milloy, and Tebucky Jones with Law. This time Law is joined by Rodney Harrison, Tyrone Poole, and Eugene Wilson. This time it's better.

Last time Lonie Paxton was making snow angels in the end zone. This time, Paxton is hurt and Deion Branch does the most celebrating.

Last time Bob Kraft was hailed as the perfect owner. This time Kraft (who arrived in Texas with that George Hamilton glow) has moved to an even higher level. Look for comparisons with Gandhi by the end of the week.

Last time the Patriots provided a wonderful relief from a disastrous Red Sox season that ended with rampant discord and acrimony -- the chaotic reign of skipper Joe Kerrigan. This time the Patriots are healing the regional scars left over from a Sox October collapse of biblical proportions.

Last time our nation was still in shock from the Sept. 11 attacks and the "Patriots" were hailed as fitting participants in an event that is a de facto American holiday. This time our nation is at war, security remains heightened, and New England's team name still works nicely.

"We don't care anything about what happened in the past," Belichick said last night. "That's for everybody else to talk about. Not us."

Fine.

Last time the Patriots won. This time they are going to win. So it's really not so different after all.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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