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MICHAEL HOLLEY

No fair-weather fans here

You know what I'll never forget about yesterday? I mean, other than Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady starring in "The Search for Rhythm"?

I'll never forget the theme of every Patriot who spoke at City Hall Plaza. Everyone who touched the wireless mike thanked the fans of New England, and they weren't giving thanks just because it's the polite thing to do. In many cases, athletes thank fans and it sounds as hollow as a campaigning politician telling a crowd, "Your voice counts, too."

Not only were the Super Bowl champions sincere in their comments about local fans, they were correct as well. It's too bad a lot of the players didn't have time to elaborate on their statements, because a championship parade could have morphed into a memorable panel discussion.

Are the football followers of New England really "the best in the league, by far" as Ty Law said?

There is exhibit after exhibit to prove that the answer is, unquestionably, yes. No matter how many times owners and coaches and athletes in this city plead indifference, they are aware of you. They are in tune with your statements on sports talk radio because they listen to it. They know about the opinions tossed about in the sports sections, and they often channel-surf the all-sports specials on Sunday nights.

The Patriots can appreciate this region's passion for football and winning because they need at least the same amount of energy -- and sometimes a lot more -- to be good at their jobs.

So they thanked you for paying attention to every free agent signing and wondering, in April, if the Patriots got the most of their draft. They thanked you for being interested in everything they did, from acquiring Rodney Harrison to adding J.J. Stokes to the roster. They thanked you for understanding who they are.

A lot of you shook your heads when you heard that the Carolina Panthers were going to dominate the Patriots' anonymous offensive line. You bought into the coaching staff as much as the players did, so you didn't expect anything apocalyptic just because a kid named Russ Hochstein was at guard and a rookie named Dan Koppen was at center.

We all have respect for the Panthers, especially after the resiliency they showed in Super Bowl XXXVIII. But where was the dominating Julius Peppers on Sunday evening? Where were Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker? Certainly not in the New England backfield.

The offensive line didn't give up a sack in the postseason, allowing Brady to slip into his new Cadillac pain-free. And while there may have been several fans asking for a tall receiver, most of you could see the value of Deion Branch, Troy Brown, David Givens, and Bethel Johnson.

Over the din of thousands yesterday, a few players mentioned New England fans being great for braving the weather. They talked about snowy games against the Dolphins, Jaguars, and Colts. There was a rainy game against the Giants, and a divisional playoff against the Titans that was akin to standing in a walk-in freezer.

But it was more than the elements.

You never asked the team to be more than it was. After a while, you caught on to Belichick's one-game-at-a-time press conferences. You knew that the coach was game-planning even as he spoke to the media, so that's why he held up every question to the light before responding carefully and, if necessary, ambiguously.

Many of you were extremely agitated when the regular-season MVP discussions rarely included Brady. But this is where greatness comes in again. Most of you realized that Peyton Manning is, in many ways, his own offensive coordinator.

Brady can read defenses and audible when necessary, but he doesn't have the autonomy that Manning does. He also doesn't have the speed and freedom of Steve McNair. But his team beat both of theirs twice, including back-to-back weeks on the way to the Super Bowl.

A lot of you would be prepared to tell the football world that you'll take Brady over Manning and McNair every day of the week, especially Sunday.

You, the fans of New England, are great because winning is all you expect. Now that you have twice seen championships arise from this team, you have become Patriot-like evaluators. When it comes to free agents and draft picks, you too want to know about a guy's character.

Can he fit in with this team-first group? Will he be all about securing his statistics, or will he allow himself to be coached?

You came out yesterday, over one million strong. That is enough to make you the greatest in the NFL, although you're used to those numbers (you did the same two years ago).

The greatness comes from the attendance and the interest and the appreciation of subtlety; for example, you actually dig the kicker. The players know how good they have it. The alternative could be the sound of silence in Arizona. Or it could be winning a championship in a city that doesn't know how to celebrate its athletes.

Fans here know how to throw parties and parades. The Patriots, especially the veterans, have been around. They know how uncommon yesterday's Patriots Day in February was.

So they said thank you, over and over.

Thank you.

There was a lot being said with those two words.

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

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