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Idling Patriots roll forward

FOXBOROUGH -- Some days, if things are going well, you don't have to do a thing to get ahead but keep breathing. That's what happened to the Patriots Sunday. They didn't do a thing, but life got better anyway. When you're hot -- and the Patriots are most definitely hot at the moment -- everything works out. When you're hot, anything you do is a plus, even if you don't do anything at all.

The Patriots were scattered across the country Sunday. They were in duck blinds at 6 a.m., in nightclubs at 6 a.m., unconscious in their beds at 6 a.m. They had no worries because they had no game. It was their bye week and they had said goodbye to coach Bill Belichick and his staff several days earlier.

There was nothing to be concerned with Sunday morning but breakfast.

Rodney Harrison didn't have to worry about giving out a concussion or about getting one. Tom Brady didn't have to worry about being sacked, throwing an interception, or having to bring his team back from the brink of defeat in the final moments of a game. Richard Seymour didn't have to worry about gnats trying to take out his knees on the way to a quarterback. And Troy Brown didn't have to worry about linebackers trying to knock him out just because he wanted to catch a football in front of them.

It was Sunday, but the only reason to pray was for your friends and family.

They didn't have to do a thing but watch, and yet they were better off at the end of the day than they were at the start.

With the exception of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tennessee Titans, everyone in the AFC backed up Sunday, which meant the Patriots inched a little bit ahead. In their division, the once-formidable AFC East, the Dolphins lost and the Bills lost. The Jets won, but who's worried about them?

Miami now has lost three of its last four games despite having a defense that gives up only 13.8 points per game. If you are allowing less than two touchdowns per game and still can't win, you have problems, and the Dolphins increased theirs after being routed by the Tennessee Titans, 31-7.

That loss dropped them to 5-4, two games behind the Patriots, but it's even worse off than that because New England already has beaten them in Miami. Considering that the Dolphins' record in December when they have to go north of the Mason-Dixon Line is not one that inspires them to find extra playoff tickets, their predicament worsened considerably Sunday.

As for the Bills, they are so far removed from the team they appeared to be in the first two weeks of the season you might think aliens landed in Orchard Park and invaded the bodies of Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy, and their teammates. The Bills sank to 4-5 with a dismal offensive performance against New England's next opponent, Bill Parcells's Dallas Cowboys. Buffalo also has lost three of its last four, and its offense has scored 14 points in those three defeats. That's not 14 points per game. That's 14 points in three games.

Bledsoe has been dreadful, the running game has been nonexistent, and the receivers are no longer the explosive group they were a year ago when Peerless Price was among them. That leaves a team that clobbered New England, 31-0, on opening day and outscored their first two opponents, 69-17, clinging to the edge of playoff possibilities while the Patriots' magic number was reduced to six by Sunday night.

With their 7-2 record and the demise of the competition, the Patriots also have a two-game game lead in any wild-card configuration for the final playoff slot. It seems clear one wild-card spot will go to whichever team finishes second in the AFC South (Tennessee or Indianapolis), but the other has a handful of possibilities, and the Patriots lead in all of them.

The Colts' loss to Jacksonville that slipped them into a division tie with streaking Tennessee aided the Patriots' situation because New England has a head-to-head advantage over the Titans in a wild-card scenario courtesy of their 38-30 victory a month ago.

Same is true with the 5-4 Denver Broncos, who trail the undefeated Chiefs (9-0) by four games in the AFC West. By virtue of their 30-26, last-second victory over Denver, the Patriots have the same head-to-head advantage, and they will have the opportunity to establish the same advantage over the Colts when they play in Indianapolis in three weeks. For that to happen, the Patriots actually will have to do something -- stop Peyton Manning, control Edgerrin James, check Marvin Harrison, and keep Dwight Freeney off Brady's back. This past Sunday, they didn't have to do anything but watch, and things got better.

That's when you know you're on a roll. Winning through your own effort is one thing. Winning without lifting anything but a bottle of Miller Lite is something else entirely.

This could all change, of course, as Belichick made plain when the magic number was mentioned to him yesterday. His face took on the disgusted look of someone who had bitten into an apple and found only half a worm.

Magic number? The magic number for him is always one. The next one.

"Don't even talk about that," Belichick said. "You know, it's all about Dallas. That's all it's about. We go out there and can't score against Cleveland, then score 30 points against Denver. We go out there and have three penalties against Cleveland and I forgot how many it was against Denver. I lost track. Eighteen or whatever? It was 14? Those were the ones that were accepted.

"How many people picked the Jacksonville-Indianapolis game? It's all about one-week matchups. It's not about anything more than that. It's how the Patriots match up against the Cowboys and how the Cowboys match up against the Patriots. No more, no less. I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's the truth."

It is, except when you're really hot. Then all you have to match up with is the TV set for things to get better.

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Next game:
Nov. 16 vs Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
TV: ESPN Radio: WBCN (104.1)

afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 7 2 0 .778 20.4 17.2
Dolphins 5 4 0 .556 18.7 15.7
Bills 4 5 0 .444 16.6 17.6
Jets 3 6 0 .333 18.4 19.2
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