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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Patriots' status? It's a good question

MIAMI -- Bill Belichick was rambling through his final media session before this afternoon's game against the Dolphins when someone asked him about the heat and humidity of Southern Florida and the idea of home-field advantage as a form of a 12th man on the gridiron.

''I'd rather have a good team," said the stoic coach. ''Given the choice of having any kind of an advantage like that or playing at home, I'd rather have a good team."

When he was done, as he stood by the door, anxious to get back to work, I asked him this simple question: ''So is your team a good team?"

Sounds preposterous, right? The Patriots have won three of the last four Super Bowls. They have a quarterback who appears on ''60 Minutes" and the cover of Sports Illustrated. The life story of their genius coach is now the subject of a soon-to-be-national bestseller by the greatest American historian of our time. They are alone in first place in their division and have won 11 of their last 12 division games.

But are they a good team?

Forced to abide by his own rules, even those taught by the big, nasty Tuna, Belichick had no choice but to say, ''You are what your record says you are, and we are 4-4."

Gotta hurt. You know he wants to spit the question back in a rage with something like, ''Of course we are a good team, you moron! We've just endured the toughest eight-game stretch in NFL history and we've worn out our X-ray machine and there's a bull's-eye on our backs bigger than Jerry Lewis's head! And you dare ask if we're a good team?"

Belichick, of course, won't do that. He'll stay with the mantra. You are what your record says you are.

''We're 4-4," echoed Tedy Bruschi, who will be playing his third game of 2005 this afternoon. ''Four and four is .500, and .500 is average. That's the way I look at it. That's the way we are right now. We're going to try and get our record back up there and then we can consider our team different. But I consider us what we are. We're 4-4."

The Patriots are average. It's odd to even type that sentence. They went 14-2 in each of the last two seasons, but if they lose today, they will have a sub-.500 record after the midway point in a season for the first time since Belichick's first season in New England when the Kraftsmen started 2-8 and finished 5-11. A loss today also would put the Dolphins in a first-place tie with the Patriots (and maybe the Bills, too) in the woeful AFC LEast.

The Dolphins are nothing like the Colts, Panthers, Falcons, Chargers, Broncos, or Steelers who plagued New England's schedule in the first half of 2005, but we all know that Miami is traditionally a hellhole for any team with a Pat Patriot or Flying Elvis logo. Since these two teams started playing one another in 1966 (remember Flipper in the swim tank?), the Patriots are 7-30 in Miami.

Even during this Golden Era of New England football, the mighty Patriots have won only one of seven games here since 1997 -- and that one came in overtime, on an 80-yard Tom Brady-to-Troy Brown TD completion (2003).

Last year, you might remember, a terrible Dolphins team stunned the Patriots with two touchdowns in the final 2:07, beating the champs, 29-28, on ''Monday Night Football."

''Every time we've played them down there, it's been tough," said Brady.

Despite the mediocrity, the Patriots remain in good shape to make the playoffs because they play in a pitiful division and five of their final eight games are against the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills.

Tight end Christian Fauria noted, ''I wasn't here when we won that first Super Bowl, but that team played .500 for a while and got hot at the end and that's what we need to be thinking about doing."

He's right. The 2001 Patriots were 5-5 after losing at home to St. Louis, then ran the table all the way through New Orleans and another date with the supposedly unbeatable Rams.

Unfortunately, history means nothing, as we found out last week when the Colts -- who could never win in New England -- smoked the Super Bowl champs. Everyone knows that these Patriots are depleted and ill-equipped to make the kind of season-saving run that salvaged 2001. The 2005 Patriots are giving up points like Doug Moe's old Denver Nuggets (where art thou, Romeo?), and even if they make the playoffs, they look like a one-and-out entry -- not unlike the 2005 Red Sox.

Bruschi said, ''We could be worrying and saying, 'Oh, no, we're going into our division schedule and he's hurt and he's hurt and he's hurt.' I don't do that. I think, 'Whoever we got, let's go and let's fight and let's win with them.' "

So what say you, Mr. Brady? Is this a good team?

''I don't know," he started. ''At times we've shown what we're capable of, but it hasn't been as consistent. We haven't done it for the period of time that we need to do it for.

''I don't think anyone's feeling sorry for us. I think we realize the reasons why we're 4-4 and hopefully we'll find a way to turn it around.

''But I'm excited about what we have ahead of us, and if we play the way we're capable of, I think we'll be excited about where we finish."

Then they can exhale and tell us that they are a good team.

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

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