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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Plenty of magic on the carpet

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's going to be captured in pictures and songs. It's going to be the centerpiece of the Patriots' 2003 highlight video. It's going to have its own sponsorship deal. It just may be stolen in the middle of the night and passed around like a Stanley Cup.

Is it really possible for a single yard -- 36 inches of RCA Dome carpet -- to be famous?

At the end of their draining afternoon yesterday against the Indianapolis Colts, the Patriots learned a lot about themselves. They realized that they are vulnerable enough to be shoved to the ledge. But if you're going to knock them off it, you'll need to use two forceful hands and prevent them from so much as a sliver on which to hang.

And 36 inches is far too much space.

The Patriots were able to win their 10th game of the season, 38-34, because they refused to give Edgerrin James a hole to run through. With 40 seconds remaining and the Colts with a first down at the Patriots' 2, James ran for a yard.

He tried to run up the middle on second down, and he was stopped for no gain. On third down, Peyton Manning tried to pass his way into the end zone and couldn't find rookie receiver Aaron Moorehead. On fourth down, with just 14 seconds left, the home team found itself in a strange land.

The Colts were going to be running, but they were in a passing formation. They had three receivers on the field, and the Patriots were in man-to-man coverage. Someone, either a linebacker or a safety, was going to be unblocked.

That someone turned out to be outside linebacker Willie McGinest, who dropped James for a 1-yard loss. The game was over, and the Patriots were out of town with their eighth consecutive win.

One yard is the obvious difference between winning and losing, but it represents other things as well. It is the difference between sleeping at home and sleeping in a place where you have to dial 9 for an outside line. It's the difference between Gillette Stadium and the RCA Dome in January. It's the difference between Quincy Market and Market Square, the Mass. Pike and the Indiana Toll Road.

Bill Belichick hates talking about the playoffs with four games remaining in the season, but it's clear that the victory helps New England in its playoff positioning.

At the risk of this sounding like a BCS/college football discussion, the Patriots now own "quality" wins over the Titans, Colts, Eagles, Cowboys, and Dolphins. Those teams are a combined 43-16. The Patriots are a playoff team that has beaten playoff teams. Their hyper defense of that 1-yard green space helps them get a little closer to playing a postseason game -- or games -- at home.

It's becoming more difficult to look elsewhere for the best team in the AFC. Since the Patriots have a few glaring blemishes, it can't be them, right? They have a modern-day Tony Nathan (Kevin Faulk) as their most productive runner, Mike Cloud leads them in touchdowns with five, and Antowain Smith, one of the quiet heroes of Super Bowl XXXVI, was deactivated for yesterday's game.

When they needed to run out the clock with a late lead, the Patriots couldn't do it. Faulk fumbled with 3:53 left to set up a field goal that made it 38-34. On the next series, the Patriots burned just 20 seconds because they were forced to throw when they wanted to run.

And we haven't even talked about the struggles of punter Ken Walter.

But as Belichick said when asked about Walter yesterday, "What's out there?" What team is out there that should frighten New England? I mean, other than the Red Sox (the Sox' playoff run and offseason moves have forced the Patriots to ride shotgun the past couple months)?

If you mention playoffs to the head coach and his players, they'll all deflect the compliment and try to reroute the conversation. They don't spend a lot of time, publicly, dwelling on where they now stand: A win over the Dolphins on Sunday will lock up the AFC East.

No one could have imagined that in September, when we were talking about one big cut -- of Lawyer Milloy -- instead of one big yard.

There is no doubt that the Patriots are enthusiastic this morning. They tend to put on tragedy masks to keep themselves humble, but everyone who is paying attention can see the smiles.

Yeah, they blew a 21-point lead. Yeah, Tom Brady seemed to lose his touch in the second half after completing 20 of his first 23 passes. Yeah, Manning had them retreating until the final minute.

The Patriots, though, are a proud group. Everyone who spoke yesterday talked of toughness and resolve. They know they would never allow themselves to make the excuses the Colts did following their remake of "The Longest Yard." The Colts said they couldn't get into their goal-line offense because they didn't have their regular personnel.

No, the New Englanders would have come up with something. That's what they've been doing all year.

Before Belichick left the dome last evening, he was asked about the plane ride home. He laughed. He allowed a peek into his thoughts, saying the mood was so light that "we don't need a plane to get back." Maybe they were all planning to board their 36 inches of magic carpet.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 10 2 0 .833 21.4 17.4
Dolphins 8 4 0 .636 20.1 15.9
Bills 5 7 0 .417 16.4 16.2
Jets 4 7 0 .364 19.1 20.1
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