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BOB RYAN

Carolina on their mind

Focused group tackles issues one at a time

They never get ahead of the story; they just don't.

They know what matters and what doesn't matter. They leave all the speculation and historical analyses to others. They just get ready to play another football game. They know that one day they will wake up and there will be no meetings, no weightlifting sessions, and no practice at all. They also know that for them the day in question will be Feb. 2. The only issue is how they'll feel that morning.

Will they bound out of bed, glowing with That Championship Feeling?

Or will they pull the covers over their heads and refuse to get out of bed, knowing that a great opportunity had come and gone?

There are people on the Patriots who know both feelings. Guys like Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, and Tedy Bruschi were there in 1997: Packers 35, Patriots 21. They had visions of Desmond Howard and Brett Favre dancing in their heads. But they were also there in 2002: Patriots 20, Rams 17. And they have those rings to prove it. So they know exactly what's at stake a week from Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston. It's nothing less than a validation of the Pat Riley dictum; namely, there is winning and there is misery. There is no in between.

Life may not be like that. The rest of us know that gray is a viable color in our lives. We settle for small or partial daily and long-term victories, if we can get any at all. But playing for a sports championship is not like life. It is more cutthroat and final. You either win or you lose. There are many sports people who will tell you that the sting of defeat is a more powerful feeling than the joy of victory. If pressed, they will admit that they hate to lose more than they love to win. Is this unbalanced and irrational? Sure. But is it prevalent in sports? Oh, absolutely.

But whether the Patriots hate to lose or love to win, the fact remains that they are of the belief that they have yet to accomplish anything. Beating the Colts Sunday merely put them in position to achieve the goal. When you are the Patriots, and you have been where so many of them have been, then winning a mere AFC championship is not an end in itself.

The owner might think so, the fans might think so (I mean, bragging rights over Raiders, Dolphins, and, most of all, Jets fans must be worth something), and the media might think so, but the players really don't think so, at least not now. When they start having those 10-, 15-, 20-, and 25-year reunions, then those steppingstone games will be remembered more fondly. But when you are as -- sorry, but I cannot avoid use of the dreaded "f-word" -- focused as these guys are, all the games before the Big One are preliminaries only.

"We are one step shy of where we want to be," says Tom Brady, speaking for himself and 52 others.

Here's how tunnel-visioned they are: I honestly believe that there are some people on this team who wouldn't have known they'd won 14 consecutive games unless we told them. They are aware they haven't lost lately, but they have not gotten caught up in the scope of their achievement the way fans and media have.

"It's all about attitude," explains Bruschi. "You say 14 straight. We say one straight."

It starts where you think it starts, with Bill Belichick. He has a way of sobering people up, if sobering up is what's needed. As Brady told John Dennis and Gerry Callahan yesterday morning on WEEI, when the team had its first meeting following the conquest of Tennessee, Belichick calmly informed the players that if they didn't play better against Indianapolis than they did against Tennessee, they would be playing their last game of the season. The players didn't just roll their eyes, according to Brady. They said, "Whoa, OK. Whatever you say, Coach. What do you want us to do?" Or words to that effect.

But it's been a long time since Belichick had to remind the players what they're in this to accomplish. Not making the playoffs a year after winning the Super Bowl took care of that. The Patriots didn't lose their way, as Tampa Bay did this season, or disintegrate completely, the way Oakland did. They went 9-7. That's normally enough to give someone a chance to defend a title. But that wasn't the case last season, and so the players were reduced to watching the playoffs on their big screens, something that did not appear to go down well.

The incumbents with Super Bowl rings from two years ago are driven to acquire another one. They know for sure they're good enough, because, thanks mainly to a killer defensive unit that seems to get better by the week, this team is even better than that team. They know how it feels to win, or, in some cases Not To Lose. However anyone defines that feeling, they have experienced it, and they want very badly to experience it again.

They are in the record books now. They have won more games in succession than any team since the famed 1972 Dolphins. It is a spectacular achievement. But it means no more to them than if they had lost in Week 9 and now were working on a nine-game streak. The streak is for us to talk about.

The championship is something only their blood, toil, tears, and sweat can bring home.

"We've won 14 straight," says Brady. "But if we don't win the 15th, it's all for naught."

Tom Brady believes every syllable of that statement.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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