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ON FOOTBALL

We've seen it all before

FOXBOROUGH -- Brand new season, same old story.

For much of last evening, the Oakland Raiders played the two-time defending Super Bowl champions to nearly a standstill, emphasis on the word nearly. For a long while, well into the third quarter, in fact, they thought they were in the game. A lot of their predecessors have made the same mistake.

The Raiders were matching the Patriots hit for hit and yard for yard. They trailed by a field goal for quite some time, but every time they got the ball, the fear that it might end up in the hands of Randy Moss, who had already taken one catch 73 yards for a score, caused everyone at Razor Blade Field to hold their collective breath.

And then the game was over.

Doesn't it always seem to end up like that?

One second, the opponent is in the game against the defending champions. Next minute, it's over and most of the time, as was the case last night, you've done it to yourself. Or so you think until you realize it wasn't you at all. It was the relentlessness of the Patriots that did you in.

The fact of the matter is the Raiders were beaten last night the way the Patriots have beaten so many teams game after game, year after year since their Super Bowl run began. They were beaten by a defensive adjustment that switched New England into a four-man line for much of the third quarter and seemed to put Kerry Collins under more pressure than he could handle, and by a punter, of all people, who pinned the Raiders' offense twice on the 4-yard line when the game was still in question.

''That [switch to the 4-3] gave their offensive linemen something to think about," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. ''Now they had a 280-pound lineman on their nose not a 250-pound linebacker to think about. Any time you have a changeup in a ballgame it gives your opponent problems. I thought it threw them off a little bit."

It threw them off and then, at the game's most critical moments, everything went the way of the Patriots because they made them go their way.

After Corey Dillon was stuffed on fourth and 1, the Raiders took over at their 31, their best field position of the third quarter, down, 17-14. A touchdown and they could seize the lead. They were feeling ebullient.

And then they were feeling for their teeth.

On the second play after the Raiders got the ball at their own 31, Wilfork and defensive tackle Richard Seymour ran a stunt in which Seymour lined up over the guard but then came inside and drove Oakland center Jake Grove backward as if he was on roller skates, sending him skidding into Collins as he dropped back to pass.

Trying to avoid Grove, Collins took a skipping step to his left and there was Jarvis Green, slamming him from behind as the ball came out of his hands. They had pushed Collins off the spot, as Wilfork put it, a goal they went into the game with and one they achieved at the most important moments.

For an instant as Green hit Collins, the ball was free, twisting in the night air, and then Wilfork, coming around Seymour, pulled the ball out of the air as if he was Randy Moss himself, hauling it in at the Oakland 20.

''I was over the guard and we switched lanes," Seymour said of the stunt he ran with Wilfork. ''One of us was going to come free. I don't know where Vince came from."

Wherever he came from, Wilfork made the play and after he did he shrugged in the matter-of-fact way all the Patriots shrug when such a situation develops and then he waited for what has become a fact of life for opponents whenever the Patriots get them down.

He waited for the offense to stomp the life out of the Raiders. It took just three plays, an incompletion, a 12-yard completion to Deion Branch, and an 8-yard run by Dillon. Touchdown, 23-14 lead, life knocked out of the already hyperventilating Raiders.

In less than two minutes the game had swung. The Raiders had failed to make a play when their moment came after stuffing Dillon because it was not really their moment at all. It was an illusion. It was the Patriots' moment. Vince Wilfork's moment.

In the end they would prevail, 30-20, but it would be the kind of beating they had administered so many times before. It was a beat-down with a velvet hammer, an overwhelming loss not by total domination but by a relentless pressuring that eventually makes their opponents' snap, mentally or physically.

The Patriots beat up the Raiders the way they have so many other teams. By putting their opponent in a vice grip that squeezes them harder and harder as a game winds down until something gives.

Most often what gives is the opponent. Either mentally or physically they give in, as Grove and the Raiders did last night because, as the old heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield used to say, ''Pressure busts pipes."

As the Patriots proved again, it can do the same to football teams and it usually happens just as it did last night. When their unsuspecting opponents least expect it.

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