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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Not luck -- it's more like pluck

One week from today, there's a good chance that the most popular words in the region will be "Orbitz," "Travelocity," and "CheapTickets." Houston will seem more attractive than the Cayman Islands. Seen through New England eyes, Reliant Stadium will be the most important sports venue in North America.

If that happens, there is one thing the Patriots and their fans won't have to do for the rest of 2004.

Apologize.

Have you seen a VIP path or fast lane along the Patriots' route to the Super Bowl in Houston? I haven't. There is no tuck rule or Walt Coleman for Al Davis to whine about this time. There is no soft schedule, no obscure technicality, no feeling that destiny's presence will be enough to pick up the slack.

The Patriots will play the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game Sunday. It is not hyperbole to say that a Patriot win will make them one of the toughest, most tested, most qualified Super Bowl participants in league history.

Imagine receiving the following directions to Texas: "Defeat both of the league's MVPs -- two times each -- and then book your flight to H-town. Good luck. And thank you for flying with Delta."

It's unusual enough for the NFL to have co-MVPs (it has happened three times). It's coincidental that the MVPs would be quarterbacks who play in the same division. It's a flat-out extreme sport for a team to see Steve McNair and Peyton Manning in the regular season, and then face them back-to-back in the playoffs.

In 1997, when Tampa Bay was still in the NFC Central, the Buccaneers played MVPs Brett Favre and Barry Sanders a total of six times. Tampa was able to defeat Sanders's Lions in a wild-card game that season before losing to Favre's Packers in the divisional round.

Now it's the Patriots' turn to show, once again, why they are on their way to becoming one of the best teams the NFL ever has seen. And, if they continue to win, doesn't that have to be part of the discussion? We already have conceded that the financial restrictions/free agency of this era makes it impossible to compare great teams of the 1970s and '80s to great teams of today. But any team capable of winning 15 games in a row -- which would rank No. 2 all time -- has to be placed in history's Top 10.

Anyway, that's a meaty argument for the days after Feb. 1.

For now, the Patriots have to proceed with carrying out the message that is emblazoned across their playoff T-shirts. Nose tackle Ted Washington has been handing out blue "Homeland Defense" shirts that talk about protecting the Gillette Stadium house.

The team was able to do that two days ago against McNair. For all the football historians out there, McNair is a stronger, faster Bart Starr. For those who have no idea who Starr is, McNair is awesome.

After watching him perform Saturday, I'm prepared to be the president and vice president of the man's New England fan club. Given the choice of tackling McNair or an SUV, I'd bet most players would opt for the SUV. On Tennessee's last offensive play Saturday night, McNair was able to get off a perfect throw to wide receiver Drew Bennett, despite being popped by Rodney Harrison.

Not that Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has to prove anything to league owners and general managers, but any coordinator capable of getting his team past McNair and Manning -- twice -- should be able to pick his next gig.

Crennel, Bill Belichick, and anyone else the Patriots consult certainly will be busy this week. As the nation saw yesterday, defense is not the strength of the Colts. Manning is.

By any measure -- the naked eye or the NFL's QB rating system -- Manning has been nearly perfect. He is playing as if he is a college kid, the Colts are the Tennessee Volunteers, and everyone else in the league is Vanderbilt.

It always sounded foolish for critics to question his toughness and his ability to carry a team in the playoffs. After his last two playoff wins, the criticism sounds misguided and, frankly, dumb.

It is fair to question the defenses he has faced (the Chiefs should be fined by the NFL if they use any of their draft picks on an offensive player), but it's clear that no scheme or front is confusing Manning at the moment. He isn't simply one of the hottest QBs in the league; he is one of the hottest players, regardless of position.

Dealing with these offensive challenges is what makes the Patriots charming. If you broke down their season, it would be a montage of things no one else has been able to accomplish.

That's what frustrates people like Zach Piller, who is playing Kordell Stewart's role ("Sometimes the best team doesn't win") of 2001. The Patriots aren't going to overwhelm you. They'll just do what you can't.

They are the only team of the past 30 years to win so many consecutive games. They are the only team to have no losses against winning teams -- although their loss to Washington and Steve Spurrier remains a mystery. They are trying to become the first team to eliminate two MVPs on the way to the Super Bowl.

Anyone who calls them lucky is a comedian. If this is lucky, who or what is behind the unlucky door? Bram Stoker's Dracula?

There is one more Foxborough game to be played before the Patriots and their fans can turn the next few weeks into a winter festival. There will be flights to book, parties to plan, and tickets to secure.

There will be many things to pack in the carry-on bag to Houston. Apologies, though, won't be required.

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

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