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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

A holiday wrap for Patriots

Three-week vacation looms

FOXBOROUGH -- Now for the Big Wait.

The Patriots have done everything they can do. They are ready for the playoffs. Sure, a few guys need to get healthy and there's always more film to be studied, but the players, coaches, and Patriot Nation know there will be nothing of any consequence happening until 20 days from now (19 if the Patriots wind up playing on a Saturday).

New England's footballers play the moribund San Francisco 49ers in Foxborough Sunday and it means nothing. The 13-2 Patriots can't help themselves if they win and can't hurt themselves if they lose. There's no way they can impress Oscar voters or the BCS by running up the score, and even the Pro Bowl bids have been announced, so there's no room for individual glory. Corey Dillon is already the team's single-season rushing leader.

Remember when the playoff-bound Red Sox went to Baltimore for those final four games after they'd locked up the American League wild card? The only remaining drama involved the identity of Boston's first-round opponent, which is why Pedro Astacio got a start and first baseman David McCarty pitched in relief. It was a big series for Adam Hyzdu. Don't be surprised to see Hyzdu filling in for Tom Brady at quarterback early Sunday. Game 16 is going to be preseason in January.

Bill Belichick, who was featured on "60 Minutes" after his team played a near-perfect 60 minutes in the Meadowlands Sunday, would not show his hand when asked about resting key people this week, but said, "We know what the situation is and we'll deal with it accordingly."

In other words, this should be a big week for Rohan Davey.

The Big Wait means that Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randall Gay, and the other wounded Patriots have almost three weeks to heal. It means that Charlie Weis can hop on the South Bend Shuttle for some recruiting visits. It means that the vaunted experts of the airwaves (love ya, Fred) have approximately 10,000 hours to fill with sheer speculation and hot air.

If the Patriots had beaten Miami eight days ago, at least we'd still be looking long and hard at Sunday's Steelers-Bills matchup in Buffalo. The Patriots would have had a chance to clinch home field for the AFC Championship. But all that is out the window. The Patriots are going to play in the second round at home against the Colts unless the Colts lose their first-round game in the cozy Indiana dome. We know that's not going to happen.

So it's going to be the Colts at Foxborough on either Saturday, Jan. 15, or Sunday, Jan. 16, at 4:30 p.m. And a week later, the winner goes to Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship game at (Don't Call Me Teresa) Heinz Field at 6:30 p.m. Then it's on to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville Feb. 6.

Meanwhile, there's the Big Wait.

The 49ers stink. It's rare that you see a 2-13 team playing a 13-2 team, but that's what we have this weekend. San Francisco was routed, 41-7, by the white-hot Bills in the Bay area Sunday. It seems like a couple of lifetimes ago that Bill Walsh was his era's Belichick, worthy of being interviewed by Lesley Stahl and Lesley Visser in the same week.

There's little history connecting the Patriots and Niners. New England last played San Francisco in 1998 when Pete Carroll was coaching New England. Overall, the Patriots and Niners have met nine times, with San Francisco winning seven.

Probably the player most interested in seeing the Niners is Brady, who should be resting instead of playing. Brady grew up worshipping Joe Montana, Dwight Clark & and Friends. Brady was the kid who wanted the foam finger when he sat in the stands at Candlestick Park, watching his heroes. He's never played against them and now he'll probably last only a quarter or two before Belichick clears the bench.

Savvy Patriots fans know this is the weekend to give the tickets to the mailman or the guy who coaches your kids. It's going to be a bye week before the bye week.

The Patriots come into this Big Wait in a good place. Belichick termed Sunday's win over the Jets "our best game of the year," later amending that to "our most complete game."

It's always nice when you play your best game one week after you play your worst game, and it's nicer still when you are hot going into the playoffs, going into the Big Wait.

The coach is not easily pleased, but clearly he likes this team.

"I don't think our players have bought into the hype," he said. "I give them a lot of credit for that. I think they've rolled up their sleeves, they've come to work, they've gotten their hands and elbows and knees dirty, and gone about and approached the season and approached every game in a very businesslike, professional, tough-minded way. It hasn't always worked out perfect, or we haven't always played great. But I think that they've had a hard-nosed approach to each game, and to the season, and that's the way I would like for it to be. I think that's what's best for us."

And now they wait. They will go through the motions and win this final game and then they will wait. It's an enviable position, something that is earned, not awarded.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. 

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WHERE: Gillette
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