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BOB RYAN

Reality sets in at Foxborough

FOXBOROUGH -- Now do you believe?

Now do you believe in the Indianapolis Colts?

Now do you understand just how diminished the Patriots are?

Now do you believe that four years ago was four years ago and last year was last year and this year the Patriots will do well to make the playoffs? Winning a game there would make this a successful season. That's it. That's the goal. You can save your money. There will be no need to book any flights for Detroit in February.

All the worst fears were realized at Gillette Stadium last night. The Colts moved to 8-0 with a 40-21 dismantling of a Patriots team that bears no resemblance to a champion of any kind. In so doing, the Colts laughed at recent history.

At times they also laughed at the Patriots. Not literally, of course. That's not going to happen with a Tony Dungy-coached team. But they had to be laughing heartily inside after proving conclusively that, as these teams are currently constituted, the New England Patriots cannot stop the Indianapolis Colts from doing whatever they wish to do when they have possession of the football.

We knew, but we didn't know. We had to see it. We had seen the Colts go 7-0 by combining offense, defense, and special teams to an extent unmatched in the NFL. The only ''yeah, but" had been the schedule. There was nothing resembling a marquee win. Last night's was the first of at least five serious games on the remainder of the schedule (at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego, at Seattle). The skeptics demanded a big performance last night as proof that the Colts weren't merely a pretty good team whose record was inflated by a cupcake schedule.

Bill Belichick never bought into that. He had laid it all out last week, pointing out that the Colts had good receivers, good running backs, a good offensive line, and -- this is a direct quote -- ''a good quarterback."

He also pointed out that the Colts ''don't give up many sacks" and ''don't give up many negative plays." He added that ''they don't turn the ball over very much," and ''don't make a lot of mistakes that just go out there and beat themselves."

Want more? Coach Bill also noted that the Colts ''execute well and they have a lot of good players," that ''they have a good scheme" and that they are ''very experienced."

The final Belichick thought: ''They're good."

You know what? He was right.

The Colts turned the Razor Blade into Norfolk County's largest funeral parlor on the second play of the game. That's when Peyton Manning, the aforementioned ''good quarterback," hit the estimable Marvin Harrison for a 48-yard gain to the New England 9. Three plays later Harrison was making a leaping catch over Asante Samuel in the right corner of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead a mere 2:30 into the game.

It is undeniably true that Tom Brady led the Patriots right down the field for a tying touchdown, but it is also undeniably true that that would be the only time the home team would touch the football until the 11:45 mark of the second quarter. That's because the Colts, having demonstrated their quick-strike capability on the opening drive, switched to a grind-it-out approach in their second possession, taking 17 plays to go 68 yards in the elapsed time of 9:02.

Included in that drive was a Dungy decision to go for it on fourth and 1 at the Patriot 46, a move that matched a Belichick call to go for it on fourth and 1 at the Colt 21. Each team was successful.

Now, Brady (22 of 33, 265 yards, 3 TDs) was able to move the ball. But in order to keep up with Manning & Co., he needed to be perfect, because his defense was unable to stop the Colts.

Manning did throw one inexplicably bad second-quarter pass that wound up in the hands of Mike Vrabel, but that was the only time an Indianapolis drive didn't result in either a touchdown or a field goal until punter Hunter Smith was awakened from his slumber very late in garbage time to become a participant for the one and only time of the evening. (In another demonstration of Coach Bill's prescience, the mentor had also made note of the fact during one of his Indianapolis dissertations that ''they're pretty good in the kicking game; they hardly ever punt.").

The Colts may now proceed into the heart of their schedule without having to hear any more about their inability to beat the Patriots. Manning (28 of 37, 321 yards, 3 TDs, no sacks) will not have to hear any nonsense about Belichick being ''in his head." He can go about his business in his new, understated, efficient manner.

Last year he was primarily about the numbers. This year he is all about the W. He sliced and diced the Patriots last night, orchestrating touchdown drives of 54, 68, 73, 60, and 74 yards while making it all look ludicrously easy. His task was made easier by the way his receivers feasted on the beleaguered Patriots secondary, which allowed acres of what the folks in the pigskin biz like to call ''separation."

The Patriots can console themselves with the thought that they remain the apparent class of a very weak division. If you're a betting sort, put your money down on them finding a way to win the AFC East. Even with a defense that would be thrilled if it could be upgraded to ''porous," they still have Brady, and he and his receivers should be enough to win at least four games against the likes of the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills. Put an L down for Kansas City, just to be on the safe side, and give them W's against New Orleans and Tampa Bay. That's 10-6 or 9-7 and that takes this awful division -- for what it's worth.

But the Patriots are now safely in the rearview mirror of the Colts, who absolutely, positively had to come here and do exactly what they did last night if they were to retain any sort of self-esteem. For the Colts, this was a cleansing game, pure and simple.

For the Patriots, this was just another reminder that mortality can be a very humbling thing.

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

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