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BOB RYAN

Element of surprise is still kicking

FOXBOROUGH -- Patriots 38, Bengals 13. Once again, I say that if you are a football fan, never forget that these are the Good Old Days.

In 20 years you'll be talking about the Patriots players of this era the way Celtics fans talk about Larry, Kevin, and Robert, or the way their elders rhapsodize about Havlicek, Cowens, Russell, and The Cooz. Then, of course, there is Bill Belichick, the pigskin Auerbach.

What happened last week in Cincinnati could not have happened with any other team. There may very well be better teams than the Patriots come January (we'll see about that), but there is no other team that can react to adverse circumstances in the manner of the New England Patriots. There is a reason only one team in the history of the NFL has gone longer than this one has without losing two in a row.

Experts from Presque Isle to Palo Alto have documented the personnel losses sustained by this team since Super Bowl XXXIX. OK, fine, we get the point. But the cupboard is not bare. There are still some very good football players left. The idea of the New England Patriots is very much alive.

And every once in a while people need reminding that the coach still knows what he's doing. We all looked at the Bengals game and saw enormous problems. My personal Carson Palmer over/under stats were 350 yards and four TDs. No way I could see winning that game with fewer than 30 points. I was ready to accept a 37-21 loss and start thinking about the Dolphins.

At the same time, I honestly thought a game like that was in them at some undetermined future date. Seeing it last Sunday was a shock.

So you might be interested to know that it wasn't a shock to Coach Bill.

``Well, believe it or not, we try to have it come together every week," he said yesterday. ``I know it doesn't look like that, but I think we go into every game, at least I do -- I think the players do, too, because I talk to them every week -- you go into the game feeling like, `OK, this is what we want to do,' and `Yeah, I think we can do this and we can do that.' You expect to go out there and play well and have your best game. I think that's the attitude you go into every week [with]. Now, does it always happen that way? Of course not, but I think that's what you work for, and that's the attitude you want to go in with."

Some things never change. Fans and writers assume there is a link between what happened in one game and what should happen in the next, and we are invariably intimidated by successful opponents. The fact of the matter is we are far more dependent on our supposed logic than on emotion. I didn't hear many people say prior to the Bengals game, ``Well, the Patriots have faced tough times before and come through, so why can't they do it again?" Rather, it was, ``They'll never stop the Bengals, especially at home."

Now a negative attitude led to a very pleasant viewing Sunday. Most of us were fairly amazed watching the Patriots slap the Bengals around, even though we have seen this before (recall Patriots 40, Rams 22, November 2004?). This capacity to play well when so much appears to be going against them is what makes the New England Patriots so endearing, so downright rootable. These Patriots continue to be one of the most lovable teams Boston and New England have ever known.

``It's the players in this locker room," said Rodney Harrison. ``Too many of them don't get the full credit they deserve. It's the makeup of the players that enables the team to do this. These are guys who don't care about making the Pro Bowl. They only care about winning."

The fans get their look at the team on Sundays, Mondays, and an occasional late-season Saturday. The media folk get additional small exposures to the team with short locker room sessions and even shorter glimpses on the practice field. That means there's a whole lot of time we don't see them, time that is very important in the making of the entity we know as the New England Patriots.

``This is an `early' team," explained Harrison. ``There are guys who come in here at 6 o'clock in the morning and don't leave until 5 o'clock in the afternoon. They work. They prepare. They put so much into it."

But other teams work hard, I'm sure. Other coaches know their X's and O's, although it's doubtful if many can articulate what he knows to a team as well as Belichick, whose phenomenal passion for the game shines through in each session with the media. Other teams put in the time, but they aren't the Patriots, because, well, they aren't the Patriots.

``There are so many versatile players here," said Harrison. ``There are guys here who are flat-out ballers. Mike Vrabel. Rosevelt Colvin. A guy like Don Davis, who can do special teams, linebacker, safety."

We all know that any discussion of the Patriots' versatility begins with the man who has earned the right to be known as ``Mr. Patriot." Once again, Troy Brown was there to help his team on defense in a time of rather desperate need.

You could do a book on the quarterback. Wait. Charlie Pierce already has and it will be in a bookstore near you before long. I don't care how many yards Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb or Carson Palmer or Brett Favre or Drew Brees or any other QB you can name throws for, there is only one correct answer to the following question: ``Your life is on the line and you need a starting quarterback for one game. Who's your man?" The answer is Tom Brady.

Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi are pretty good, too. I would also think there are a lot of teams that would trade what they have for the backfield triumvirate of Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney, and Kevin Faulk, too.

They know they're a part of something special, but they can't dwell on it. The only way to produce an outcome such as last Sunday's is for each man to put aside extraneous thoughts and concentrate strictly on what he must contribute to this team effort, and that does not include thinking about fans, or history, or anything that would take away from the ability to concentrate on the task at hand.

``This is not the time to reflect," said Harrison. ``The time to reflect is when you're retired and sitting on your boat. Then you can tell your grandchildren about the New England Patriots."

That's a player talking. Now I'm talking. For you and me, the time to reflect has already begun. Be grateful every day that you've had, and still have, the New England Patriots in your life.

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

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