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BOB RYAN

Is the team this good? That's still up in the air

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- That counted?

Really? This little early afternoon (noon starting time here in the Heartland's heartland) 35-0 frolic goes in the standings? It just doesn't seem possible. NFL games aren't ever supposed to be this, yup, easy.

Sorry, Coach Bill. I know how much public respect you always show your opponents, but you cannot tell me you ever thought for one millisecond this game would proceed in such a one-sided manner. Your team took control on the first play, and there wasn't one possession in which Green Bay had even a faint sniff of the W. This was a P-A-T-S, Pats, Pats, Pats day from the opening kickoff to the final taking of a knee.

Truly. Honestly. Literally.

Think about it. The Patriots kicked off and New Kid On The Block Antwain Spann starched Vernand Morency good and proper at the 17. There would be none of those damaging kickoff returns this week.

The Packers went three and out.

The Patriots went 63 yards in seven plays with two runs and five passes, the final one a 2-yard touchdown from Tom Brady to Daniel Graham in the back of the end zone on fourth and inches for the first down and 1 1/2 for the TD.

"That's what we needed," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "Special teams. Defense. Offense. You saw it all right there."

Things never changed. Brady moved those chains all day. The defense limited Green Bay to a pathetic five first downs and a puny 120 yards in total offense. The special teams never cracked.

Can the Patriots defense really be that good? Can anybody's? Green Bay never had a possession with more than two first downs. The most yardage Green Bay had on any possession was 26. The Packers only got inside the New England 30 once, and, predictably, Dave Rayner was wide right with a 44-yard field goal attempt.

Brett Favre was an embarrassment to Brett Favre (5 for 15, 73 yards -- 38 on one play featuring poor tackling -- and a QB rating of 50.1). And then he was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with an elbow owie.

Favre had been playing very well the last several weeks, but he was so woefully ineffective in this one that when he got hurt on a Tully Banta-Cain sack the thought occurred that the Packers actually could have been better off with Aaron Rodgers (it was a wash).

How good was the visitors' karma at Lambeau Field yesterday? The Patriots even recovered three of their four fumbles.

"It was one of those days where a lot went right for us," acknowledged Bill Belichick, "and not a lot went right for Green Bay today."

The moral of the story is right out of Pop Warner, Knute Rockne, or Vince Lombardi (who is probably up there writing the Packers out of the will, even as we speak): Practice Makes Perfect. You can't get more basic than that.

"It was a good week of practice," said Coach Bill.

Allen Iverson once famously dismissed practice as an irrelevancy, but the Patriots respectfully would disagree. Or maybe the NBA is simply not the NFL.

"When you haven't lost back-to-back games in a long time, and you're used to fixing things," said Vrabel, "you're not going to get better just by showing up for the next game. You make the plays in practice you need to make in the game. You get your confidence back by making plays in practice."

By putting the lads in pads last Wednesday, Belichick delivered a message. "When you put the pads on, guys understand they have to hit," said Vrabel. "We usually take care of each other, but . . . "

It's pretty clear the Patriots reminded themselves they were supposed to be a football team, not a croquet team.

"They were good, spirited practices," said Vrabel.

"There was a sense of urgency," said Banta-Cain. "We're midway through the season. We had seven games left to get clicking on all cylinders."

"I'd say everyone was 'eager,' " said Don Davis, a.k.a. Mr. Versatility. "We had enthusiasm and energy. We had a purpose. When you find yourself in a hole, everybody has to grab a shovel, and that's what we did."

Playing Green Bay was a double bonus. One, it's a middlin' NFC team, and that means it is inherently inferior to a high-level AFC team. Two, it was a new and different challenge, requiring a bit of study. I mean, what don't the Patriots know about the Bills and Dolphins?

"It all started with the preparation," said defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who had a real Richard Seymour game. "That was a team we didn't know a whole lot about."

This was a group willing to roll up its sleeves. The Packers never had a chance.

"I think we try to do the same thing every week," said Brady. "This team, and what we've done over the past four or five years is all about hard work and preparation and putting the work in. And we had a great week of practice, probably our best of the year. I think this led to great execution."

As Exhibit A, consider the job they did in de-fanging the oft-lethal firm of Favre and (Donald) Driver. The great wide receiver had one catch of 38 yards and one of 4 yards, and that was it. "There were few plays when we didn't double-team him," said Belichick, "and when we didn't, we should have."

The Patriots executed in every phase. Brady, for example, could have been out-fitted by Mr. Tux.

"We always have that as a point of emphasis," said guard Stephen Neal. "We want his jersey to be just as clean when the game is over as when it started." Given time, Brady sliced the Packers secondary, completing passes to eight receivers, with a particular emphasis on tight end Ben Watson, who caught five passes for 74 yards and was the recipient of one of the four Brady TD aerials during the afternoon.

Now we've all got to sober up. That was fun to watch, but the Packers were co-conspirators in their own demise. No NFL game is ever supposed to be this easy, and in case you've forgotten, next week's foe happens to be the Chicago Bears, who completed their mastery of teams headquartered in the Jersey swamp with a 10-0 conquest of the Jets yesterday.

I still can't believe this thing counts.

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

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