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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Efficient win engineered by team of experts

FOXBOROUGH -- Fooled again. We forgot that it's difficult for a football game to live up to expectation when it is billed as a battle of coaches. The marquee matchup at Gillette Stadium last night was Bill Belichick vs. Bill Parcells, but there wasn't much chance we were going to see Belichick and Parcells Greco-Roman wrestling at the 50-yard line. Anything less was bound to disappoint.

While the men with the headsets did their best to pretend this was just another day at the office, the first-place Patriots and Cowboys produced four quarters of smashmouth football, a game that was far more grind than grudge. Anyone waiting for Parcells and Belichick to have a Zimmer-Pedro moment went home feeling shortchanged.

True fans, those not caught up in chalkboard vs. chalkboard, mano a mano involving the head coaches, were more than satisfied with New England's 12-0 victory. It pushed the Patriots to 8-2, tying the franchise's best start (1978), and marked the first Patriot shutout of an opponent since the Super Bowl-bound 1996 team blanked Arizona. Oh, and that was a team coached by You-Know-Who.

There was a Belichick-Parcells handshake, even a forced hug at game's end, but it had the sincerity of Al Gore's concession phone call to George Bush.

"He congratulated me and I told him he has a good team," said Belichick.

"They got a good team, they really do," acknowledged Parcells.

Correct. The 2003 Patriots are not about payback or grudge matches or canned Tuna. They are about efficiency, molded in the image of their reserved strategist who would rather diagram plays than dissect emotions. Belichick's men have won six straight.

Leave it to veteran Tedy Bruschi to put it in perspective with, "No one is jumping around here like it was a playoff win."

The Bills were not in a hugging mood before the game. It was almost comical. While the teams went through their extensive warmups, Belichick and Parcells paced, hands in pockets, pretending not to notice one another. There were times they were within 5 yards of each other, but there was no handshake, no greeting. Together for so many years with the Giants, Patriots, and Jets, Belichick and Parcells are foxhole buddies no more and the good people at ESPN relayed the big chill to its national audience.

Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, was one New England official who made it a point to speak to Parcells before the game. Pioli is married to Parcells's daughter, Dallas (sheer coincidence, truly), and the Piolis in July gave the Tuna a granddaughter, Mia Costa Pioli. Parcells acknowledged this week he has yet to set eyes on the infant. Maybe Pioli brought some snapshots.

It had to be strange for Parcells to stand in the middle of Gillette Stadium. It was his first trip to the new field -- a place that probably would not have been built if not for the job Parcells did in New England from 1993-96.

The local temperature was 33 degrees when Adam Vinatieri finally boomed the long-awaited kickoff at 8:37 p.m. It was New England's first taste of action since beating the Denver Broncos after midnight 13 days earlier. That was the night Belichick took the safety -- which means that going into next week's game at Houston the Patriots can say they have not been scored upon since intentionally giving the other team 2 points.

The Patriots were wearing their spiffy new silver jerseys, but it was difficult to distinguish them from the plain old white ones. New England got on the board first after Tom Brady connected on a third-down, 46-yard pass play with Deion Branch. The long gain set up a 23-yard field goal by Vinatieri which made it 3-0 with three minutes left in the first quarter.

There was a dearth of action all night long. Dallas's offense was predictably flat and the Patriots were reinforced by the return of wideload nose tackle Ted Washington. Cowboy quaterback Quincy Carter -- always beware of a man named after two American presidents -- didn't get his men inside the New England 40 in the first quarter.

Late in the half, Brady found David Givens downfield for a 57-yard gain, which preceeded a 2-yard TD run by Antowain Smith and gave the Patriots a 9-0 lead at intermission (the extra point was blocked). The Cowboys, meanwhile, looked like the team that won only five games in each of the last three seasons.

"They played a lot better than we did tonight," conceded the Tuna. "We just didn't give ourselves a chance to win the game. We just kind of self-destructed.

For some, the highlight of the night came late in the first half when the referee inadvertently left his microphone on and the world heard Patriot lineman Richard Seymour say, "our coach overruled us!," after the Patriots had initially declined a couple of Dallas penalties.

No secrect about that. This was a night when the coach ruled.

Coach Bill.

Coach Bill Belichick.

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

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Patriots
12
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Next game:
Nov. 23 at Houston, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4 Radio: WBCN (104.1)

afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 8 2 0 .800 19.6 15.5
Dolphins 6 4 0 .600 17.7 14.7
Bills 4 6 0 .400 15.9 17.0
Jets 3 7 0 .300 19.7 21.1
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