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ON FOOTBALL

Patriots on the lookout for a time-share

FOXBOROUGH -- When it comes to timing, the Patriots can't get a break.

When they were making their great stretch drive through the best teams in the NFL last winter on their way to winning their second Super Bowl in three years, they often were overshadowed by a team not even playing at the time.

Day after day the Patriots did battle with the Red Sox' failed quest for Alex Rodriguez, their decision to put Manny Ramirez on irrevocable waivers, their soap opera efforts to trade Nomar Garciaparra, their contract hassles with Pedro Martinez.

Because of the Patriots' overwhelming success, this headline-snatching by the Olde Towne Team could only go so far toward keeping New England's sporting juggernaut off the front pages, but still there was a feeling simmering inside the Patriots' front office that its team never quite got its due last year. And, frankly, the people who feel that way in Bob Kraft's organization have a point.

After all, how often does anyone win two world championships in three years and not have the front of their uniform reading "NY", as in the Yankees.

Not often, so to have an out-of-season sport chase a world championship football team off the front page so many days in January, when playoff football was being played in earnest, smarted to say the least.

And now, here we go again.

With the Patriots on the greatest run of dominance in the history of the game, whether the National Football League chooses to recognize it or not, it's again the Red Sox who are getting the special sections, the front-page headlines, and, most of the time, the biggest, brightest color pictures in the newspapers and the most air time on radio and TV.

Here are the Patriots, winners of 19 straight, playing second fiddle to the Red Sox, losers for 85 straight seasons. This could only happen in Boston.

In most parts of the country, pro football is king, except in those barren outposts where college football is now king. Some might argue that in places like Oklahoma pro football is king -- they just call it college football -- but there's little question that football rules this time of year everywhere but in this city when the Red Sox are playing the Yankees.

Naturally, one can make a strong case for the Sox' command of the headlines at the moment by pointing out they are playing for a chance to go to the World Series while the Patriots are only a month into their regular season, but when the Patriots were driving toward a return to the Super Bowl last year the reverse did not seem to apply.

Red Sox foolishness ruled as we breathlessly read daily updates on the care and feeding of Rodriguez (who, by the way, we all now hate in these parts unless you're a transplanted student at Boston University, which brings to mind another question: Don't they have any decent colleges in New York?).

Boston remains the last bastion of a game that is no longer the national pastime or the national passion. Football is both, with parlay cards running a close second, but not here. Not when the Red Sox are facing the Yankees to settle the American League pennant, at least.

What is sad about that for Patriots fans is that their team will face one of its toughest opponents this weekend when the Seahawks come to town. Although Seattle blew a huge lead in losing to St. Louis last Sunday to unhinge its own modest undefeated streak this season, it remains one of the favorites to win the NFC title and possibly see the Patriots again in Jacksonville on Super Bowl Sunday.

Under normal circumstances, and in most cities, this would be the story of the week, especially because of the Patriots' record string of 19 consecutive wins, including postseason. In places like Atlanta or Dallas or San Francisco that would be true regardless of what the baseball team was doing (notice those 17,000 empty seats in Atlanta for Game 5 of the NLCS against the Astros)? But here that game is little more than a footnote at the moment and the hype will be minimal all week because this is Red Sox-Yankees week. Nothing else exists. Or if it does, it's in another section of your paper.

This is not to say Patriots fans aren't well aware of what their team is up against Sunday. Nor does it mean that their loyalty is in question. And it doesn't mean anyone outside of Bill Belichick isn't fully cognizant of just how remarkable a feat it has been to win 19 games in a row, a feat so unusual no one has done it in the history of the pro game.

But somehow it seems no matter what the Patriots do, no matter how remarkably they play, or how many Lombardi Trophies they bring back to Foxborough, the Red Sox find a way to insert themselves in the middle of the party.

Even on the day fans turned out in huge numbers to welcome the team back home with another Super Bowl trophy last winter, there was talk on sports radio about how much bigger the crowd might be if the Red Sox ever win a World Series.

Well, maybe if we're all lucky this will be the year to find out, but for the past three years the only team bringing home world championships is the one surrendering the front page and most of the television time to a team that hasn't won anything in, oh, about a century. But who's counting?

Sometimes it seems like it's not the Patriots. 

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