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BOB RYAN

Tier fall is no crying shame

FOXBOROUGH -- We have the Patriots slotted for the time being, do we not?

If you've lost to the Broncos and Colts at home, there is nothing else to say. No excuses are allowed. You can talk about getting them next time, but the fact is they each got you, on your field, this time. And if your signature wins (at Cincinnati, at Minnesota) both look far less impressive now than they did when you pulled them off, there's nothing much you can say about that, either.

The New England Patriots are good, not great. Right now, there is a little gap between them and the aforementioned titans of the AFC. The Patriots are in the same basic category as the Chargers, Ravens, and lately, Chiefs (if you want to include the Jaguars, I won't stop you). You know, the next tier.

So we'll see what January brings.

See, that's the good thing. They will be playing in January. You know it. I know it. The rest of the league knows it. Even Coach Bill probably knows it, but he would rather wear a tuxedo with a green and white cummerbund to the Jets game Sunday than admit it. But the rest of us have all known since the schedule came out that the Patriots would win yet another AFC East championship this year, and thus qualify for the tournament.

Their tyranny over the rest of this division is getting to be historic. Since 2001, their 29-7 record in their division is the best W-L of any NFL team in intradivision play. They have won 15 of their last 17 AFC East games, and one of the Ls was a stone-cold giveaway in Miami two seasons ago. When they put the finishing touches on the next division crown sometime in December, it will be their fourth straight AFC East title and fifth in six years.

Ooh, Coach Bill hates this kind of talk. I suppose it's possible he has trained himself so that his brain no longer allows itself to permit such subject matter to even enter his head. In a better world, I'd like to think of him and his assistants starting off each day like a bunch of, you know, sports fans, cracking wise as they sip their coffee and peruse the sports page. I'd like to think they're joking about how cold it's going to be next week in Green Bay, or how many picks they can get off Brett Favre, or how much fun the Bears game is going to be, or even how badly they'd like to show the Jets that what mattered in that first game Sept. 17 was the first 36 minutes and change, when they got up, 24-0 (and it was an easy 24-0), rather than final 24 minutes, when they practically went into a coma and allowed the Jets to get back in the game.

But I doubt that was the scene at about 7 a.m. at Gillette Stadium yesterday. I'm sure that a grim-faced head coach was going over the day's activities with a grim-faced staff, because to this staff, the task at hand has nothing to do with fun. It's serious business, pure and simple.

We must appreciate the reality that while we may say we know the Pats will win this division because it's a clear matter of applying common sense, Coach Bill cannot afford to think or act that way. The Patriots have to do a little more than just show up to win what we regard as gimme games. Someone has to come up with the game plans and prepare the team. That someone is the guy in the sweat shirt, and on that topic I know I speak for hundreds of thousands when I say that Coach Bill must stop messing with the karma and go back to the old reliable gray sweat shirt. Take that red one from last Sunday and torch it, Bill. That's an order.

Now Coach Bill could find a redeeming quality in Temple, or some 0-8 Division 3 team, so it should come as no surprise that he was full of praise for the 4-4 J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets yesterday. (This does not mean he ever implied they were actually being coached by any specific person; or that he was even aware of who their mentor might be. I can assure you that if he were discussing the Broncos, you'd have heard the word "Shanahan" 27 times. Ditto, the Dolphins and "Saban.")

The Jets, we are told, are a certified Big Play team. "There has been, in every game, some element of this," Belichick said. He also made it clear he was talking about explosiveness on both sides of the ball. He then went on to cite everything from a 103-yard kickoff return by Justin Miller against the Colts in Week 4 to a strip/sack against Buffalo.

"Those plays," he said, "show up in every game. They show up on a weekly basis. Their leading sacker is a safety [Kerry Rhodes]. If you make a mistake, you pay for it. If you say, 'Well, if you just take those plays out . . .' Well, those plays show up in every game."

Exhibit A would be the Patriots' 24-17 triumph in the Meadowlands Sept. 17. Trailing, 24-0, with 8:57 remaining in the third period, the Jets got back into the game on a 71-yard touchdown pass from Chad Pennington to Jerricho Cotchery (a good catch, but, more importantly, a whole lotta YAC), a 46-yard TD aerial from Pennington to Laveranues Coles, and a forced Tom Brady fumble that led to a field goal. Drives? Nah. The Jets didn't need no stinkin' drives.

"I think our game was very indicative of the way their games have gone all season," Belichick pointed out. "Big plays here and there scattered in the game that swing the game in their balance, or make it a very competitive game, depending on what the case might be."

I'm sure the Jets are worthy of respect. I'm also sure the Pats will deal with them on Sunday. And I'm surer still they'll be playing football in January.

By the way, don't forget to watch for the postgame wet-fish handshake. If any.

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

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