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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Outstanding plays what got them in

FOXBOROUGH -- This time, the Patriots didn't have to sit in a tent and hope for some other team to save them. This time, they didn't have to pay attention to all the small print, detailing the NFL's playoff possibilities.

They're in.

They are champions of their division, and they knew that as soon as they beat the Miami Dolphins yesterday, 12-0. After last year's win over Miami at Gillette Stadium, many Patriots went to a tent filled with their friends and families. They all watched nervously, like figure skaters waiting to hear from the judges, as Green Bay played the New York Jets.

Back then, they needed a Packers win so they could sneak into the playoffs. It was such a wild day that Bill Belichick's family sat in his office and rooted for -- of all people -- Terry Glenn. "Hey, dad," shouted Brian Belichick, the coach's youngest child. "Look who just scored: Terry Glenn!"

Things weren't that desperate yesterday. The tent was no longer standing because the mounds of snow caused it to cave. The Packers were playing the Bears in a game that was meaningless to New Englanders. And when Tedy Bruschi swiped a Jay Fiedler pass and returned it 5 yards for a touchdown, confetti filled the sky.

Well, it wasn't really confetti. It just looked that way. It was snow. The Patriots fans, inspired by "Rock and Roll Part 2," reached for the embankments at their feet and tossed the white powder above their heads when the song reached "Hey." If anyone had an aerial view, it must have seemed as if snowy flashbulbs were dotting the sky.

"Man, I was just impressed with the coordination of the whole thing," an amused Damien Woody said of the fans. "Their timing was pretty good."

Around this time last year, Woody was in that now-collapsed tent. He was a cheesehead-for-a-day, trying to will Brett Favre and the Packers to a win. He wound up shrugging soon after halftime when the Jets began to do whatever they wanted.

Some things can change in a year.

Some things are, essentially, a flat line.

In Miami, December 2003 probably resembles December 2002 and December 1997. The Dolphins enter the month with a decent record. Then they deflate like a baggy tent in the Northeast. Last year, the Dolphins managed to lose a game in which they had an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter.

This year, it wasn't up to them. They never had an advantage, starting with Saturday afternoon when they flew into Providence and saw the snow. They hear about the elements more than a certain baseball team hears about a year in the early 1900s.

At this point, no matter what they say, it's a mental block. Clearly, the Dolphins aren't as aggressive on defense here as they are in the Florida sun. There is a simple explanation for that. Tackling hurts when the wind chill is 17.

"Yeah, it stings a little bit," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, who began his career in the warmth of San Diego. "But once you hit them a few times and get your adrenaline going, it's all right."

The weather wasn't the only Dolphins issue. Their assignment was to move the ball on a talented and motivated New England defense. Despite the myth that the Patriots are somehow doing this with miracles and a vault of good fortune, the talent speaks for itself. Yesterday's shutout was the team's second of the year. The Patriots also pitched a 3-pointer against Cleveland, a 6-pointer against the New York Giants, and a 10-pointer against the 10-win Eagles.

Harrison was a problem, too. He's in New England because of what teams like the Dolphins did to the Patriots last season. There were many afternoons when Belichick and Scott Pioli sat in the coach's office and tried to figure out the best way to clog the rush lanes in the Patriots defense.

They envisioned a safety like Harrison making 11 tackles, including a sack and forced fumble. That work, added to Bruschi's work and Ty Law's work made the win possible.

Now, at 11-2, the Patriots have a new mentality.

Last year, tight end Christian Fauria was convinced the team was going to the playoffs after the Miami win. He told his wife, Rhonda, that she probably wasn't going to see him for several days because he was going to be focused on the postseason.

Then the Jets won.

"I just sat there and said, "Well, I guess the season is over," he said yesterday.

Not now. The Patriots are division champs, and the season is just beginning.

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 11 2 0 .846 20.7 16.1
Dolphins 8 5 0 .615 18.5 15.6
Bills 6 7 0 .462 16.5 15.4
Jets 5 8 0 .385 18.5 19.6
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