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BOB RYAN

Team is steeled -- for the short term

MIAMI -- I know what you're thinking. You're thinking roadkill. You're thinking 34-0. You're thinking TV sets being turned off all over the country long before the final two-minute warning.

But here's something that should not shock you. Patriots coach Bill Belichick looks at tonight's foe and sees Trouble with a Capital T, right here in South Florida. He does not see a 2-11 team, in contention for the No. 1 draft pick. He sees what he wants to see, namely "a tough conference foe, playing at home."

What a shockah!

The rest of us already have fast-forwarded to Jan. 23, the inevitable rematch with the Steelers. The rest of us already have put the W alongside the Dolphins, Jets (OK, with a bit of a struggle), and hapless 49ers. The rest of us have the Patriots enjoying that nice wild-card weekend bye and then defeating whomever, be it the Chargers, Ravens, Jets, Colts, or Broncos the following weekend. The rest of us will be paying very close attention to what's happening with the Steelers. If the Patriots are to be playing Pittsburgh in Foxborough four weeks hence, rather than at Heinz Field, the Steelers will have to lose a game to somebody. We all knew it wasn't going to be to the Giants, but the Steelers' final two games carry some hope. They are home against Baltimore, which defeated them in Week 2, and they are on the road against Buffalo, which has become a formidable team since we last saw them.

When the local team is 12-1 and has won an almost unimaginable 27 of its last 28 games, and just happens to be the reigning Super Bowl champion, peripheral matters become prime matters. The fans and the media can indulge in certified big picture issues. But it's not that way for the principals. They are the ones who must go out and do the heavy lifting. And their experience tells them that winning the games is a bit more difficult than talking about winning them.

So it should come as no surprise that Belichick & Co. barely will acknowledge that they've ever heard of Pittsburgh, much less that they have the slightest interest in what some football team that plays there is doing. Clearly, their priorities are not our priorities.

"There's nothing we can do about anyone else," said Belichick with a sigh. "We've got three football games left, with the Dolphins, Jets, and 49ers. That's the only thing we can concern ourselves with. There are so many combinations, so many things that can happen. All we're worrying about is the Miami Dolphins."

Aw, what fun is that?

The coach has spoken, and we know he really means it. Now, isn't it possible the first thing Mr. Coach did upon landing in Miami yesterday was say, "Anybody know what's happening with the Steelers and Giants?" I'd have a hard time believing otherwise. But I would say that's as far as it will go. He's just not thinking about Jan. 23 the way the rest of us are. He's so bogged down in the darn details of winning that he's lost sight of the big picture. He has to be that way. Frankly, it's a lot more fun being us.

The players are no different. One reason they have won 27 of 28 and have that gaudy jewelry is the fact that they have gulped substantial quantities of the Kool-Aid. They have been taught to think small. They leave all the speculation to you and me and they save all their celebrating for February. They neither think much about the was or the will be. They think only of the now.

Someone asked Willie McGinest how he and his mates can avoid thinking about the kind of things that titillate the rest of us who don't actually have to, you know, play. "Everything's not done yet," he said. "We've still got three games left. The only one I'm concerned with is against the Miami Dolphins."

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've already heard that. Geez, he's no fun, either. All we're asking for is a simple, "Bring on the Bus." Perhaps even a "Peyton who?"

Nope. Not gonna happen. Unlike you and me, these guys are actually concerned about the Dolphins. To them, they are not a 2-11 team whose original coach was unable to make it through the season, a team trying to get past the idea of not having Ricky Williams. To them, the Dolphins are a team that held Tom Brady to 7-for-19 passing (76 yards) Oct. 10. To them, the Dolphins are a team with a formidable defense that is quietly becoming a very efficient offensive team. To them, the Dolphins are a dangerous team that has lost five times by 7 points or fewer, and which, under interim coach Jim Bates, has entered the fourth quarter in each of his four games either tied or trailing by no more than 4.

You and I see a 2-11 team that must be making vacation plans. McGinest sees something else.

"These guys don't care what their record is when they play us," he said. "They are probably trying to set the tempo for next year. They are not going to quit."

Belichick speaks of the Dolphins in near reverential terms. "They never, never struggle on defense," he warned. "Never. You look at them game in, game out, year in, year out, and they are always a hard team to throw against. Nobody plays the passing game better than Miami does, and that includes the pass rush."

On the flip side, Belichick continued, quarterback A.J. Feeley has been getting the job done. "He throws a very good deep ball, and his decision-making has been good," said the mentor. "You can see the improvement in the team chemistry."

After scoring 32 points in their first four games, the Dolphins have begun to find their way into the end zone of late, averaging a respectable 21 points a game the past seven weeks. With the Patriots coming off a bad defensive performance against Cincinnati, the Dolphins probably will enter the game with confidence they can move the ball, especially at home.

Fine. It's not a gimme. There are no gimmes. We surely know what can happen in this league on any given Sunday. You don't play these games on paper. Have I forgotten anything?

Good. Bring on the damn Bus.

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

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