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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Coming full circle

FOXBOROUGH -- Early last week, when there were no television cameras around to capture their most private thoughts, the New England Patriots had a family meeting.

They told each other that they weren't concentrating enough. They told each other that their season would end with tears -- and the echo of Jim Nantz interviewing an Indianapolis Colt -- if they couldn't get themselves together in the AFC Championship game. They told each other that Colts tight end Marcus Pollard mentioned being handed some rings, but the Patriots were all after something else.

"We want the kind," someone shouted out, "that you just can't pick up on eBay."

You should have seen the Patriots at Gillette Stadium yesterday. They did all the things they talked about in their family meeting, and even added a few extras. They beat the Colts, 24-14. Now all they want to do in two weeks is be the best team in Texas.

The Patriots, kings of the AFC for the second time in three seasons, are going to Super Bowl XXXVIII. They will be inside Reliant Stadium trying -- remarkably -- to solidify their place as one of the best teams in NFL history.

If they beat the Carolina Panthers Feb. 1, they will gain membership in the same NFL country club that features the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1985 Chicago Bears, and the 1986 New York Giants. The Patriots are 60 minutes away from never having to answer the following question, "Excuse me, are you sure you're in the right place?"

All of the awards and historical debates can wait, though. Yesterday, the Patriots won because they were able to control and frustrate quarterback Peyton Manning. They did this by jamming Manning's receivers at the line of scrimmage, leveling those receivers when they happened to catch the ball, and putting a lot of different looks on a defense -- a two-deep zone coverage -- that didn't change much the entire afternoon.

The Patriots felt all week that the Colts really didn't want to play them. They shook their heads when they watched the Kansas City and Denver films and saw those teams blitz Manning without doing anything to his receivers. Manning is one of the smartest QBs in the league, so he is usually willing to accept blitzing in exchange for his receivers running free. He is so smart that he often makes the blitz moot; he releases the ball before the pressure arrives.

He couldn't do that against the concentrating Patriots. Everywhere Manning threw the ball, Ty Law seemed to appear as if he were an annoying popup ad. Law, who actually practiced as a receiver earlier this season due to the Patriots injuries, played like one yesterday.

His first interception was a beautiful, one-handed snag.

His second interception was a diving catch near the sideline.

His third was on a poorly thrown ball that he simply snatched.

There were the three interceptions by Law, three sacks from Jarvis Green (who was drafted with the pick the Patriots got from Green Bay in the Terry Glenn trade), and a forced fumble and an interception from Rodney Harrison.

"You've got to give credit to everyone on this team, from the owner all the way down," linebacker Mike Vrabel said.

On any other team, that would be a hollow cliche. For the Patriots, it is essential to understanding what they are about. Vrabel thanked Scott Pioli and his staff, Bill Belichick and his assistant coaches, the strength coaches, the trainers, the team doctors.

Seriously. There are certain organizational jobs -- coaching assistants, administrative assistants, video specialists, statisticians -- that Belichick, Pioli, and the players view as vital. This is not the kind of team that is concerned with pedigree or status. Well, not when it comes to job titles. The only pedigree these guys are concerned about is the one they can earn by winning in Houston.

So there they all were yesterday after their refocusing meeting of last week. They hugged and smiled and tried on hats that read, "Patriots, AFC Champs."

Ted Washington took the Lamar Hunt Trophy and ran to the middle of the field so he could be photographed with several men dressed as 18th century patriots.

Patricia Kraft, wife of vice chairman Jonathan, smiled because the Super Bowl is in her home state.

Debby Belichick and her daughter, Amanda, talked about the day they will leave for Houston (Amanda, a freshman at Wesleyan, says getting time off from school "will not be a problem").

Dallas Pioli cried.

Harrison talked about how blessed he has been this year.

A crowd of 68,000-plus applauded.

Larry Centers mentioned that Tom Brady "has to be the smartest quarterback I've ever played with. He not only knows what the offense is supposed to be doing, he knows about all aspects of the game. He amazes me."

Ted Johnson talked about going home to Houston, where he once rooted for Bum Phillips and the Oilers "who could never seem to get over the hump."

Johnson's current team is over the hump. It is the only local pro team that can talk about winning championships without inviting derision, laughter, or dread. It is the team that was standing next to Nantz at the end, being interviewed for the entire country to see.

It is the team that, if all goes well, won't have to search the Web to find the rings it is looking for.

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

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