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BOB RYAN

17 in a row? You don't say

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Rule No. 1: Do Not Mention The Dreaded S-Word. The mentor does not like it.

The Patriots do not have a 17-game S-word. It just so happens that on the morning after each game they have played since losing to the Washington Redskins on Sept. 28 of last year you would find them listed in your newspaper on the left side of the scoring table, not the right. That's one way to put it.

It's not a 17-game S-word. They just happened to have managed 17 one-game S-words. That's how the mentor would prefer you look at it.

A few things of interest have happened since the last time the gun went off with the Patriots having scored fewer points than their opponents. It was before Pedro walked off the mound in Yankee Stadium, pointing to the sky and thinking his task was completed. It was before Jim O'Brien told Danny Ainge to take his job and deposit it in an uncomfortable spot. It was before professional hockey chose a course of self-destruction. Much has changed in the local sports landscape, but one thing remains true: The New England Patriots are what the others wish they were.

It is Bill Belichick's task to do whatever he can to make people continue to think of the Patriots in that way, which is to say as a team possessing the aura of a champion. They are, as everyone in New England knows, 2-0 in the 2004 season, having defeated a very dangerous Indianapolis team -- is there a doubt in anyone's mind that these two will meet in January? -- by virtue of some timely defensive plays and then knocking off a dismal Arizona club simply because rolling out of bed they are better than the Cardinals. The lesson learned from the Arizona game was that the world champion Patriots are good enough to defeat such a team while submitting their C-plus game, but who didn't know that?

The first game after the annual bye week makes all NFL coaches nervous. Belichick, who is like most NFL coaches, only more so, reports that he has put his finger on the pulse of his team and finds it to be thump-thump-thumping along nicely. "I think the team's worked hard this week," he says. "We certainly know what we're up against."

What he's up against is a team with a new head coach in Mike Mularkey. This means the Patriots' brain trust has spent as much time looking at old Pittsburgh Steeler offensive footage as they have recent Buffalo Bill offensive footage. Mularkey, Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator the past three years, has a way of doing things that isn't likely to change just because he has relocated to upstate New York.

"They use the Pittsburgh running game," Belichick explains. "They use the split-the-defense type of running game, as opposed to a zone running game. On third down, they go to four receivers. You see a lof of elements of the Pittsburgh stuff."

Now, this would not exactly be one of the league's marquee games were it not for "S" thing. The Bills just aren't very good. They are 0-2 and are coming off a desultory effort against Oakland. There are said to be internal personnel issues that could be disruptive. As a rookie head coach, Mularkey is himself something of an unknown commodity and is surely on trial inside his locker room. Out of context, there are certainly more attractive games on the NFL schedule this week.

But everything the Patriots do is news. They are the defending champions, a two-time winner in the past three years. Both Belichick and player personnel director Scott Pioli have separated themselves from the pack. There is now a recognizable Patriots way of doing things that is being studied and dissected throughout the league. And now there is this business of winning and winning and winning, etc., and they find themselves one short of the record. You would call this the proverbial elephant in the room, except that Belichick has issued blinders to each and every member of the team and has also given them a script from which none dare deviate.

It can be summed up as follows: "What S-word?"

But the world at large won't leave Belichick and the players alone, and the mentor is aware enough to realize that all God's children aren't created equal. Some of his players might be reading the papers or listening to the radio and might be thinking that sloppy performances such as the one on display two weeks ago in Tempe will be good enough each week, which is certainly not true. Confidence is good. Arrogance is bad. The mentor is always on the lookout to make sure his players don't mix up the two.

"You always have a message you want to get across to your team," acknowledges Belichick. "Sometimes you say things to a unit, sometimes to an individual. It varies day to day, week to week, game to game. It's just part of coaching."

For him, sure. He's Bill Belichick, coach of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. He knows exactly how his team got to that point. He knows how good they really are, not how good the owner, fans, media, and oddsmakers think they are. He also knows better than anybody what a phenomenal achievement not losing all those games is, and someday he'll pour himself a toast in honor of that achievement. Someday.

Look. He knows his team is big national sports news, and he knows why it's big national sports news. And when his team actually does have a game in which it scores fewer points than the other team, he knows life will go on. Depending on the circumstance, he might actually be secretly glad.

But right now? Don't mention the "S-word" in his presence.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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