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BOB RYAN

Destiny, team met in St. Louis

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- St. Louis. Draw a line right there. The line of demarcation in the 2004 Patriots season was the Nov. 7 game in the Edward Jones Dome. That was the afternoon when the Patriots advanced from being two-time (and defending) NFL champions into legends.

That was the day of The Great Backfield Crisis. That was the day a Patriots team that was already without starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole lost Asante Samuel on the second play of the game. That was the day Troy Brown made his NFL debut as a defensive back. That was the day Mike Vrabel caught a touchdown pass and Adam Vinatieri threw one. That was the day the Patriots, who had been spanked by the Steelers one week earlier to end their 21-game winning streak, refashioned and retooled themselves into the kind of team that makes people following it transcend mere rooting and enter the realm of semi-adoration.

Watching them befuddle the slick "Greatest Show On Turf" with a defensive backfield consisting of, among other things, a wide receiver, a practice squad player, a linebacker, and a rookie free agent who hadn't even started during his senior year in college was more than just fun. It was exhilarating. When that 40-22 destruction was complete, I had the same feeling I'd have for a high school team. They were no longer just "the New England Patriots." They were "our guys."

Even the normally dispassionate Bill Belichick privately has confided that the afternoon in St. Louis was not just another day at the office. He acknowledged that in his 30 years of professional coaching this was one of his true personal highlight games. At the time he said, "This is probably as much of a team victory as anything I've ever been around. They fought to the end. That's what a team's all about, everyone doing their job."

And that wasn't even the half of it.

The excuses were all in place, and there would have been zero criticism had the Patriots been overwhelmed that day by the Rams. The Patriots could have settled gently into understandable self-pity, and we all would have understood. There are only so many personnel hits a team can take. Isn't that the sad reality of the salary cap? You're not supposed to be able to have quality backups because that would bust the budget.

But the Patriots built a new and different team from that game. If anyone had remotely doubted the wisdom of the coaching staff, or remotely doubted the quality of the individual in the adjoining locker, said doubts were erased. The Patriots knew from that game's result that by paying attention and by sticking to the principles of self-sacrifice, they could continue to win.

As watched and studied as the Patriots had been before, they became the object of even more fascination afterward. They were a legitimate model for all teams to follow -- all.

That's right. I cannot offer any empirical data to support my thesis, only anecdotal evidence based on my travels, both inside and outside of Boston. I believe it is a given that the Patriots are held up by every college and high school football coach as the epitome of T-E-A-M play. Who could possibly doubt that? But I further believe it doesn't stop there. I believe they also are being held up by college and high school coaches of every team sport as the model for how to approach and play whatever game it is. The Patriots are a brand name, a symbol, a connotation even. What a phenomenal legacy.

As usual, Tom Brady has his finger on the pulse here. "We've tried to express to people what this team is all about," he says. "We really are a team. I mean, in four seasons I've never had a receiver complain about not getting the ball. I've never had a running back complain about not getting enough carries. An offensive line that always busts their backs every day. And a defense that's just unreal."

This feeling is not automatically renewable. It requires that all the men involved get recommitted to the offseason program as if the team were coming off a 5-11 season and had something to prove. It means that all the men involved continue to believe that a price tag cannot be put on the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with being in uniform when that gun goes off to conclude another Super Bowl and your team is ahead on the scoreboard. It means that all the men involved must be willing to accept the coach's word on any matter as the final judgment, even if it appears not to make complete sense at the time.

It took time for everyone to become a believer. There most certainly was trouble in the air last season when Belichick trap-doored Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the season. But time has proven the mentor's professional judgment to be correct. The players understand that it was all about business and not remotely personal. They now know that when Belichick says the team comes first, he is not indulging in rhetoric. He means it.

They also know that if Belichick thinks a career wide receiver named Troy Brown and a career linebacker named Don Davis can be of use in the defensive backfield, well, then, they can be of use in the defensive backfield. They understand that there may be no man on this planet who has spent more time over the last 40-some years analyzing every facet of football than Bill Belichick. And they know without question that no man who spends any time on the subject brings a more formidable intellect to the task.

It all came together Nov. 7 in St. Louis, a game that thrilled the fans and emboldened the players, who now realized they were part of something different and special in the National Football League.

The big issue in advance of next season is just who will replace Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, the two coordinators who have been given their long-overdue opportunities to become head coaches. These men have been a working trio for a long time, and that group hug of theirs on the sideline -- all I could think of was the final scene of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" before Mary turned out the lights -- was a sight to savor.

But with all due respect to Mssrs. Weis and Crennel, the irreplaceable man is Bill Belichick, and he isn't going anywhere.

Except to the film room, of course.

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

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