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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Winners even in defeat

FOXBOROUGH -- Sometimes you win even when you lose.

There are times when losing a game at the end of the year can get you a Reggie Bush and set up your franchise for a decade. And then there are times when making a token effort against a worthy opponent puts you in a better position to win your first playoff game.

New Year's Day was a laugh riot at the Razor. Providing a boola-boola highlight for the rest of this century, Patriots coach Bill Belichick allowed Doug Flutie to drop kick an extra point against the Miami Dolphins. Belichick also played his second- and third-string for three quarters, and conspiracy theorists would have you believe he ordered young Matt Cassel to throw the ball away when New England had a chance to send the game into overtime with no time left on the clock. It all added up to a 28-26 New England loss accompanied by broad smiles on the Patriot sideline.

Looking somewhat like the 1919 Cincinnati Reds, the Dolphins finished their season with a six-game winning streak while the Patriots will spend this week preparing for a home playoff game Saturday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

That's the Jags instead of the Steelers. If you've been paying attention, you know by now that a victory yesterday would have put the Patriots in a first-round game with the surging sons of Bill Cowher. Instead, the Patriots will host the Jaguars -- a warm-weather team with a wounded quarterback and almost no playoff experience.

Naturally, Coach Bill played dumb when the subject of playoff seedings was raised.

''There's nothing we can do about any of that," he started, as his nose grew. ''We don't care about that. We're just out there playing a game, trying to win it, trying to run the plays at the end of the game we thought would give us the best chance to win it."

Belichick would be foolish to tell the truth here, and foolish is one thing he is not. There's no upside to any admission that the Patriots would rather play Jacksonville than Pittsburgh. But knowing Belichick the way we know him -- no detail ever is overlooked -- it strains all credulity to submit that the coach was unaware of what was going on around the league during the game. New England's football success has been built on preparation and attention to detail. And now we're supposed to believe the Patriots made no effort to dictate their first-round opponent when they had complete control over the identity of said opponent? Sorry, not buying. If the Patriots wanted to play Pittsburgh next week, they would have beaten Miami and they'd be playing the Steelers.

''I didn't have a clue about any of that," maintained tight end Christian Fauria.

Perhaps, but as the afternoon unfolded, it became clear there was no reason for the Patriots to win the game. The Steelers were winning at home against the Lions, and that meant Pittsburgh would be the No. 6 seed. That, in turn, meant that a Patriot win over the Dolphins would have brought the Steelers here next weekend instead of the Jaguars.

You can't make professional players go less than 100 percent when they are on the field, but you can do things to make sure you are not in the best position to win. You can make sure the best people are not in the game and you can logically explain that it would be dumb to have starters injured in a game that did not need to be won.

''Everyone knew they were going to rest their starters," said Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. ''It's pretty dumb to keep your starters in there."

It was pretty clear that the Bengals wanted no part of the Steelers, either. Cincinnati got waxed, 37-3, at Kansas City. The Bengals were doing their best to move down in the seedings and play Jacksonville instead of Pittsburgh. The Patriots weren't having any of it.

I don't think we'd have seen the drop kick stunt by Flutie if the Patriots were serious about winning. It was the first successful drop kick in an NFL game since 1941. Had this game gone into overtime, we'd probably have seen the Statue of Liberty play and the old Fumblerooskie.

Beating Jacksonville is no slam dunk, but most NFL aficionados will tell you that the Jaguars are a far better matchup for New England. The Steelers finished the season with four straight wins, including victories over Chicago and Minnesota. They've got playoff-tested veterans in Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. They've got a 1,000-yard rusher in Willie Parker, and they've got a now healthy quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. Like the Patriots, they are not a team you want to play in the playoffs.

Even if this game was a bag job, the Patriots certainly made it look good. Trailing, 25-13, midway through the final quarter, Cassel directed a pair of nifty drives, and threw his first touchdown passes since high school. Doug's drop kick capped the first TD drive and sent the Patriot bench into hysterics.

Smiles. When the Patriots are trailing? Tell us again how much they wanted this game?

Cassel's second TD strike, a bullet over the middle to Ben Watson, made the score 28-26 with no time left. The conversion attempt was without drama as Cassel rolled to his right and fired a ball about 12 feet over the head of Bam Childress.

''It was a sprint rollout and the ball slipped out of my hand," said Cassel.

Sure did. It almost looked like intentional grounding . . . or something Matt Clement threw against the White Sox in the playoffs.

There'll be none of that Saturday night when the Jaguars get here.

No Matt Cassel, no Bam Childress, no smiles if the Patriots are trailing, and no trick plays from the days before facemasks. It'll be Belichick and Tom Brady putting their 9-0 Patriot playoff records on the line against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team they wanted instead of Pittsburgh.

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

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