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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Trying this team's giant status on for size

FOXBOROUGH -- Folks in our region -- that would include football fans, media members, and citizens with only a casual interest in sport -- need changes in attitudes. We have to train ourselves to think differently.

 

We are the joke no more. We are the Detroit Red Wings. We are the Los Angeles Lakers. We are the (gulp) New York Yankees. There might be teams capable of beating the New England Patriots, but ours is the team all others fear. And our stadium is the one where only fools rush in.

The NFL playoffs begin next week and the Patriots enter the tournament as the favorite to win the Super Bowl. Yesterday's surgically precise, symmetrical 31-0 dissection of the Buffalo Bills gives the Patriots 12 straight wins and an NFL best 14-2 record. It also assures home field throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots are 10-0 (including the exhibition season) at Gillette Stadium and need to win only two more at home to make it to the Super Bowl in Houston Feb. 1.

It's an odd place for us. It is like being UCLA playing at Pauley Pavilion when Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton stalked the court. It is like being an Oklahoma Sooner fan when Bud Wilkinson had it going. It's like being the best Kenyan at the start of the Boston Marathon.

We are not used to this. We have not had a muscle-flexing team in our midst since the 1985-86 Celtics steamrolled their way to banner No. 16, winning 40 of 41 regular-season home games.

It's rarely like this around here. History has conditioned us to live in fear of folly. Too many men on the ice. The grounder between the legs. Roughing the passer. Pesky holds the ball. Bucky Dent. Grady sticking with Pedro.

The Red Sox are most to blame for our sky-is-falling attitude. The local nine virtually has trademarked the mind-blowing big-game near miss, but it is the Patriots who furnished nearly 40 years of comedy, chaos, and calamity before Bill Parcells, Bob Kraft, and now Bill Belichick came to town and made us a respectable member of the pro football fraternity.

Now the Patriots are much more. Belichick has become Vince Lombardi and Gillette is Lambeau Field. The new stadium off Route 1 is now officially the hardest place for a visitor to get a win in today's NFL.

Belichick almost smiled after yesterday's win and said, "Real solid effort . . . proud of the players . . . good way to finish it . . . we had a very good regular season."

In the NFL of 2003 these moments are short-lived. There are no more Packers-Cowboys-Steelers dynasties. Last year's Super Bowl entries didn't even make the playoffs this year. But there's no denying what the Patriots have going at this moment.

Unfortunately (for fans), the Patriots don't play again for two weeks. That's a lot of time to hear about how great you are. Ordinarily, it might be difficult for a team to keep its edge. Heads can get too big while limbs heal in the fortnight of the Patriots' next (playoff) game. It started yesterday with curtain calls for the likes of Tom Brady and Tedy Bruschi late in the fourth quarter.

But Belichick has insulated his team from lethargy and overconfidence.

"The next team we play is going to be one of the best teams in the AFC," he started. "Lose and you're out. It doesn't really matter how you got here. It's going to be a death match now. It doesn't matter what happened before."

Bruschi added, "The veterans are going to stress the urgency. As high as we are right now, tomorrow we have to come down."

There. There won't by any more Patriot pats on the back, not this year, not unless (until?) Kraft and Ty Law wind up in another hip-hop routine at City Hall Plaza Feb. 3. That's probably when Kraft will anoint Belichick as the new "greatest coach of the modern era."

It was nothing like this two years ago when the miracle Patriots won the Super Bowl. That team struggled early, changed quarterbacks, got hot at the end, and rode a wave of miracle and momentum to a shocking championship. Nobody expected it. Now almost everybody expects this ride to end up in Houston for Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It's hard to remember the feeling of being the favorites. Seventeen years is a long time. That's when Larry and Chief and Kevin crushed everybody in their path.

The 2003 Patriots aren't winning big (until yesterday), but they are dominating. They allowed exactly one touchdown in their final six home games. That's one TD at Gillette since Oct. 5.

Bruschi calls it "Foxborough Magic."

"We don't think we're the '85 Bears or the '72 Dolphins," said Brady, who must have studied Grid 101 at Michigan. "We just like to play ball."

And they're playing it better than any team in the NFL.

New England Patriots. Super Bowl favorites. Try it on for size and get used to it.

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

last game
Last game / Dec. 27 vs. Bills
Patriots
31
Bills
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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 14 2 0 .875 348 238
Dolphins 9 6 0 .600 288 240
Bills 6 9 0 .400 243 248
Jets 6 10 0 .375 243 279
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