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ON FOOTBALL

After this one, alarm bells should sound

FOXBOROUGH -- The alarming part is not that they made mistakes. The alarming part is that they worked all week to correct those mistakes and then went out and repeated them.

That is what the Patriots have to be thinking this morning, as they reflect on a 28-21 victory over a Detroit Lions team that is, to be kind, pathetic. The Lions are a team that drafted a wide receiver with their first pick three years in a row yet played yesterday with a former quarterback and an ex-safety playing two of the three wideout spots. They are a team that has won only two games because they haven't deserved to win three, yet with nine minutes to play they led by 8 points over a team that continues to believe it is bound for the Super Bowl. The Patriots may be, but not unless something drastic changes in the next few weeks or Fred Smerlas helps them get tickets.

Beating each other up in practice clearly didn't improve things. They made the same mistakes against the Lions they had against the Bears, after a week of what many of them claimed was the kind of workload normally experienced only by coal miners, sweaty men in steel mills, and foundry workers. Perhaps they exaggerated a bit, but whatever they were doing it didn't change a thing yesterday. They still won, and they still looked alarmingly mistake-prone.

Yet on a day when nearly everything went badly, the Patriots' playoff position improved. What are we to make of this?

Is this a year like 2001, when David Patten got knocked out and fumbled the ball to the Bills and the result was -- as they like to holler at the Big Razor -- "Patriots first down!"?

Is this a year when fumbles are not fumbles and field goals cut through blizzard conditions like a rolling ball of butcher knives?

Is this a year when things go right even when they go wrong?

I think not, but then again, thus far one has to think so.

The Patriots played badly against a bad team yesterday and survived. They survived despite three turnovers and 10 penalties and allowing a fumble in the end zone that became a safety. The survived because, well, they were playing the lowly Lions. Eventually, they will not be playing such toothless opposition, however. Eventually, to get where they want to go, they will have to play teams like the Chargers and the Colts and the Ravens, and if they cannot find ways to stop doing what they've been doing they will not escape those games so easily.

They will not be smiling then, as they were last night, and they need to understand that. Perhaps more importantly, they need to understand that for football teams, like for mutual fund offers, prior performance is no guarantee of future returns.

It is easy enough for a team that has had as much success as the Patriots over the past five years to slip into this kind of mind-set. They look at their recent faux pas and acknowledge they cannot continue, yet they then skip quickly along to the fact that they won anyway. The bane of existence for coaches of such teams is to hear his players say, as so many Patriots did yesterday, "We made the plays when we had to."

They said it a week ago after barely beating the Bears and said it again yesterday after barely beating the Lions. On one level they were right; it is the sign of a good team when it wins on a bad day. What is not a good sign, though, is when they set their mind to correcting a problem like playing fast and loose with the football and come back the next Sunday and repeat the same mistakes.

One player who seemed concerned was linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who stood alone at his locker after the game and shook his head. Once. Twice. Three times, as if to say, "What are we doing?" When he finally turned and spoke about what they'd been doing, it became clear whatever it was had better change.

"Here we are again," Bruschi said. "We keep doing that, it's not going to be good. We always search for something to improve upon. Usually there are a few things. Now it's a lot of things. We wanted to perform better. It's discouraging to see we didn't."

Bruschi said next week in Miami was "an opportunity to improve." It is, indeed, but only if things do improve. If they do not, eventually one has to conclude this is what they are, and if it is, it is not enough to get to where they want to go.

"Yeah, definitely it's worrisome," center Dan Koppen said. "We won't keep getting away with it."

One would think not, but then again, on a day when so many things went bad, the Patriots are now only one game from a first-round bye, a factor that is as important to playoff success as anything other than a team's injury report.

While Bruschi was shaking his head, at the opposite end of the locker room Richard Seymour was looking at a cup half full. Positive thinking is his nature, and despite the problems yesterday he saw reasons to be cautiously optimistic.

"One of those days," he said. "There wasn't a lot of emotion all day long but there will be days like that. Right now I'm thankful to get out of here with a win. The last two weeks we played sloppy but we were still able to get a win. At this point you're just trying to win.

"We're just jockeying for position. Nothing is etched in stone. Nobody has given out any trophies or [decided] where you're going to be in the playoffs. We're just trying to get better. We still have some work to do. We definitely have to do a better job than we've been doing, but any time you win a game in the National Football League you have to celebrate that.

"We won, but at the end of the day we understand that we're just going to have to play better and I think we have the capability to do that."

Worry lines were etched a little deeper in the faces of the players who understand how those three Super Bowls were won. They remain confident that things will improve, that the mistakes will stop, that the roller coaster they've been on this season will level off and when it does they will be at a peak, not in a valley. Confident, but no longer quite so sure of themselves.

"I don't think we're the '85 Bears," quarterback Tom Brady said after a day in which he was a little bit off except when he needed to be right on. Then, after the team went to a spread formation to help control a pass rush that was causing protection and timing problems, he was Brady. But he wasn't quite the Brady they've grown to revere in New England, just as the Patriots lately have not been the team they've grown to revere.

"For so much of the game we didn't play with much energy or enthusiasm," Brady said. "That's why it was so close. We fought through it. It always comes down to performance and execution, but it's important when you don't play well to win [anyway]. We play hard and we battle. We found a way to win. We are going to need to continue to do that."

Do that and quite a bit more or, once the jockeying is all over and the trophies have been given out, the etchings will be on their tombstone, not on the Lombardi Trophy.

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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