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BOB RYAN

'Tis the season -- start dreaming

FOXBOROUGH -- The ultimate key to the sports fan experience is to recognize exactly what is unfolding before your eyes. Woe be to the Patriots fan who does not understand that These Are The Good Old Days. It's not ever going to get better than this.

The Patriots are the equivalent of any great local team we've ever been privileged to know, be it the Red Sox of 1912-18 (four championships), the Russell Celtics, or the Westwood girls' basketball squad. They do not need to win Super Bowl XL to validate their greatness. They need only to keep doing what they're doing, whatever the eventual outcome.

What they are doing is giving us all a lesson in perseverance and determination and how a classy team goes about its business. This has been a very trying season, and there have been some days no one involved would care to relive (e.g. San Diego 41, New England 17, and Kansas City 26, New England 16, a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicated game if ever there was one).

Yesterday's surprisingly easy 28-0 conquest of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers does not mean the Colts must now lock themselves in their rooms. It does not mean you should cash in all the stocks, run to Vegas, and put it all down on the Patriots. But it does mean that the formal act of winning the AFC East has been accomplished. That, in turn, means there will be a playoff game at Gillette Stadium on the weekend of Jan. 7-8, and that's a very good thing.

Most of all, it means attention must now be paid to the defending champs. Whatever level the Colts are perceived to occupy in the NFL hierarchy, there is plenty of debate about who might be best-suited to challenge them, and for the first time in a rocky season, the Patriots are in that discussion.

''That was a good win for our football team," said coach Bill Belichick. ''I thought we had a good, solid effort from the entire football team. Short week, you know, coming off a tough game last week, a couple tough ones, and I thought they responded well. We had a good week of practice and a good focus for the game and they played well."

Let's cut to the ol' chase. Going back to August, and carrying through the Kansas City game three weeks ago, the Patriots played what amounted to a 15-game exhibition season. We all knew it was going to be a different year, if only because of the coordinator issue (by the way, Notre Dame Charlie was on hand to see yesterday's little show). Then the injuries hit. And there was the reality of those first six games of the schedule leading up to the bye week. The total package was a recipe for utter disaster, and yet the team won at Pittsburgh and at Atlanta and came out of those first six weeks at 3-3, which was, frankly, a great accomplishment.

After being blown out by the Colts Nov. 7, the Patriots were 4-4 and still hanging on. The loss at Kansas City was disappointing but not really shocking. The Chiefs brought their ''A" game that day, and the Patriots still were pretty banged up.

But neither that game nor the Colts game nor the Chargers game has relevance now. They all took place during that prolonged exhibition schedule, when the Patriots were playing shorthanded, were not a true unit, and were getting by on pedigree (and the MVP play of Tom Brady), and little more. Now they've won three straight by a combined margin of 79-10 and after yesterday no one can say, ''They haven't beaten anybody," because they beat up on a Tampa Bay team that had come in here on a high after dismantling the Carolina Panthers in their own stadium the week before. Not for a second were the Buccaneers in this game.

It coulda/shoulda/woulda been 45-0 or worse, and that's the good part. The Patriots are getting better week by week and yet they still have an astounding capacity for growth at a point in the season when it will bear the most fruit. They are now starting to think there is really some kind of a prize for them to eye, and neither the Colts nor any other team in the league knows what they know.

They are the three-time champion New England Patriots. You can't put a price tag on that, and you can't put any limit on what they can accomplish.

''We have been there," said defensive lineman Richard Seymour. ''We've done it before. We know how to do it."

The front seven is really bringing it now. They produced seven sacks yesterday, one a delectable Mike Vrabel blindside sack/Willie McGinest fumble recovery that led to a crushing touchdown with 27 seconds left in the half. It was effectively over, anyway, but 21-0 made it absolutely impossible to come back for a Tampa Bay team that would account for an embarrassing 138 yards in total offense.

Seymour, Vince Wilfork, and Ty Warren are doing the job up front, and, as for McGinest, Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, and the rampaging Rosevelt Colvin, ooh, la, la, mon ami.

''They [linebackers] have been our most consistent unit all year, and they did it again today," said Coach Bill. ''They have done a good job rushing the passer and generally tackling. I mean those guys showed up on a lot of plays, knocked some balls loose, made some negative [yardage] plays. It was a real productive effort by that group."

And the maligned secondary is getting better, too. Exhibit A is rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs, who is growing up before our eyes, and who yesterday drew raves from Bruschi, a hard marker.

Yes, the offense was a bit spotty. Brady and his receivers carried the load, and they got help from a fortuitous roughing-the-punter penalty that prolonged one scoring drive, as well as the aforementioned sack/fumble that led to another score. Josh Miller did punt six times, which is about three too many. But Brady didn't throw any picks, and the team was a coach-pleasing 4 for 4 in the red zone, all of them TDs. This was a day it was perfectly acceptable to say, ''Adam Who?"

The Patriots you know and love are back. The storm is over and they have survived, and if you don't believe me, ask Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, the only man other than Belichick to get the Super Bowl Gatorade treatment in the past four years.

''Who doubts them?" he inquired. ''Right now, the people that doubt them, let's put their names in the newspaper so New England knows who they are. I don't know how you doubt them. They have the best quarterback in the league, the coach is a great coach, and they are a veteran-laden team. They are a handful. That is my opinion."

These guys know how to get wherever they are destined to go, and the first thing they do is ignore both the idolatrous fans and the panting press, because we always tend to get ahead of the story. We can fantasize about them playing the Colts in January and perhaps giving them the what-for, but they know the only way that will be remotely possible is if they follow the blueprint that has brought them the first three titles. They're definitely getting better, but they're not ready for the Colts in the Dome -- yet.

''I believe New York is next, right?" said Bruschi. ''Tell the fans to focus on the Jets."

Good advice. Focus on the Jets. But you now officially have my permission to dream. These are the three-time champion New England Patriots and they are now giving you something to look forward to in January.

Enjoy the ride. If football is truly your game, these are the Good Old Days.

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

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