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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Difficult to have faith in these Patriots

By DAN SHAUGHNESSY
January 2, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - Maybe it’s because I’m Irish-Catholic and we always expect something bad to happen when things are going great.

Maybe it’s because my folks lived through the Great Depression and taught us never to turn down work or free food - the bounty might not be there tomorrow.

Or maybe I just saw too many Red Sox games in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2011.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll come to regret this, and I hope I am wrong (happens a lot), but count me as a guy with zero faith in the immediate future of the 2011-12 Patriots. These guys aren’t going anywhere near Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis. Something bad is going to happen at Gillette Stadium before this month is over.

It’s a strange statement to make in the hours after the Patriots scored 49 straight points and beat the Bills, 49-21, yesterday. It was their eighth straight win and gave them home field throughout the playoffs.

But I can’t escape the feeling that this is a mirage. Yesterday doesn’t change anything. The 13-3 Patriots are a house of cards, a castle of sand, all smoke and mirrors.

Crazy, right? I’m talking nonsense, I know. The Patriots have one of the greatest offenses in the history of football. They can slap 40 points on you in less time than it takes David Ortiz to circle the bases after hitting a homer. Tom Brady this season threw for 5,235 yards (second-most in league history) and Wes Welker joined Cris Carter one of two guys with a pair of 120-catch seasons. Rob Gronkowski is the greatest tight end of all time and Bill Belichick makes his counterpart look like a stooge every week.

But I can’t escape the feeling that the real Patriots are the ones who get gashed in the first quarter of just about every game. The real Patriots are the ones who fell behind the Bills, 21-0, who fell behind the Dolphins, 17-0. The real Patriots are the guys who got pummeled by Denver until the Broncos turned the ball over three times in their own end in the second quarter at Mile High.

Your 2011-12 Patriots just allowed more net passing yards than any team in the history of the NFL.

Want to know the three teams that gave up the most total net yards in league history?

That would be the 1981 Baltimore Colts (2-14), the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16), and your Super Bowl-bound 2011 New England Patriots.

Yesterday was a true holiday festival at Gillette. The Patriots stomped the Bills to lock up the top seed and home field throughout the playoffs while the Jets lost to the Dolphins and were eliminated from the tournament.

As the afternoon and evening unfolded, we got more clarity on the Patriots’ path to Indy. We now know that New England’s first-round opponent will be either Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Denver. Ben Roethlisberger is the only elite quarterback on those teams and he’s playing with a high ankle sprain.

Ultimately, the opponent doesn’t really matter when it comes to the 2011 Patriots. Here’s how it generally goes on any given Saturday or Sunday:

It all starts with the coin toss. The Patriots never want the ball at the start of the game. If they don’t have the ball at the beginning, it gives them a chance for the coveted “double score.’’ This allows them to reverse a bad start by scoring at the end of the first half, then scoring again at the beginning of the third quarter. It works just about every time. Look it up.

The Patriots won the flip yesterday, and naturally deferred. But winning or losing the toss doesn’t actually matter, of course. When the Patriots lose the flip, the other team invariably opts to take the ball, which is exactly what Belichick wants them to do. The other 31 dopes simply haven’t figured this out yet.

The double-score strategy did not work yesterday. Buffalo ended up with the ball at the end of the first half but, naturally, the Bills missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. And, naturally, the Patriots scored on their first possession of the second half.

The rest of the New England strategy is simple and brilliant: let the game unfold, fall behind by a touchdown or two, and wait for your opponent to self-implode. Works every time. Patriots fans like to rant about the magical “adjustments’’ made by New England’s coaching staff, but most weeks it has been a matter of staying the course and waiting for unforced errors - a flurry of botched snaps, penalties, dropped passes, and mental mistakes. Just keep plugging, don’t give up, and the other guys will beat themselves.

Here’s Bills coach Chan Gailey on blowing a 21-0 lead: “We were moving the football and then we got a bad snap that ended up costing us . . . and we couldn’t recover from that. Then we got a holding call and then we couldn’t recover from that . . . We missed a field goal before the half . . . we had to stay in the game with our four-wides personnel.’’

It could have been Miami’s Todd Bowles talking about blowing the 17-0 lead a week earlier. It could have been John Fox talking after the Broncos gave the Patriots the game in Denver. The Patriots’ Swiss-cheese defensive backfield looks like a collection of All-Pros when teams are forced to play from behind against New England.

New England’s passive path to a championship has been cleared. The Ravens can’t win on the road. The Texans are playing their fourth-string quarterback. The Broncos have a QB who looks like he’s heaving a shot put. The Bengals? Who scares you?

Nobody scares you. The Patriots look invincible.

They all scare me. I saw Ray Rice run all the way up Route 1 two years ago and I saw Rex Ryan pancake the 14-2 Patriots last January. I have seen too many deficits and too many blown coverages and too many teams beat themselves against the Patriots. It can’t keep happening.

Can it?

The Patriots have won 48 regular-season games over the last four seasons, but they haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Chargers here in January of 2008 in the AFC Championship.

I wish I could say this year feels different, but it simply doesn’t. Sorry. Hope I’m wrong.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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