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BOB RYAN

Head man always an 'ahead' man

Patriots WR Chad Jackson picks up 14 yards before Tennessee's Pacman Jones forces him out of bounds in the fourth quarter. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

NASHVILLE -- That didn't feel like 12-4, did it?

Was it the three losses at home? Was it the feeling that, on two of those occasions, the Patriots appeared to be outclassed by Denver and Indianapolis? Or is it the fact that we all have been understandably spoiled by their ongoing success? Whatever. But guess what? They are 12-4, and that's something to celebrate.

For everyone but the coach, anyway. I don't have to tell you how completely blasé Bill Belichick was after his team stopped Tennessee's six-game winning streak with a season-ending 40-23 victory yesterday at LP Field, do I?

"I'm proud of what the team did," Coach Bill said, "but we're just looking to move on here. Get ready for our next opponent."

But coach, 12-4 is always a pretty good record, no?

"I don't think it makes too much difference now," he said. "That's not where our focus is right now. It's not the time to sit back and have a big reflection."

Whew. Good. That's very reassuring. There would be great concern if Coach Bill weren't his usual irascible postgame self. But he delivered the goods, snapping off a crisp "Nope" when asked if he could provide any information on Rodney Harrison's injury status and answering various other queries in as few words as possible. No one need worry about the mentor losing focus.

The boys finished up the season very nicely, you know. They were quite obviously not pleased with themselves after that debacle in Miami, first taking their frustrations out on hapless Houston, then heading out on the road to beat a Jacksonville team that had lost only once at home, and then ending the long-shot playoff dreams of the Titans, who had won six straight games while featuring the electrifying Vince Young.

"Three in a row," pointed out quarterback Tom Brady. "And we haven't turned it over in three weeks."

Even if you buy the premise that it was a curiously unsatisfying 12-4 season, you must admit there is a great deal to be said for a team that goes 7-1 on the road. And so many of those road Ws were outright dominating. I'm thinking about Cincinnati (38-13), Minnesota (31-7), Green Bay (35-0), and, to a lesser degree, yesterday's. Even when it became a 26-23 game, one never had the feeling the Patriots were actually being threatened, at least after Coach Bill decided it wasn't good policy to kick the football to Pacman Jones.

Belichick saw all he wished to see of Jones late in the first half. His team had just failed on third and 9 at its 21, and thus was forced to punt. Jones gathered in Todd Sauerbrun's kick at the 19, bumped into a Patriot or two, saw a gap, and it was see-you-later, making it a 19-10 game with just 32 seconds remaining in the half.

For the remainder of the game, Sauerbrun punted out of bounds and all kickoffs were dribbled. Coach Bill was not about to be made a fool of a second time.

"I didn't think they would kick to him in the first place," observed Titans coach Jeff Fisher.

Belichick was asking himself the same question. In fact, he was upset enough to give himself a public tongue-lashing.

"Obviously, we had a lot of trouble with him," he said. "I will just say, in general, I felt like I didn't do a good job coaching today. There were a lot of errors out there and quite a few of them were my fault."

And get this. Belichick even sort of apologized for berating his punter following the Pacman TD excursion.

"I know I got upset about Sauerbrun after the punt," he said. "But that was probably more my fault than his."

Coach Bill referred to "some of the unique players that these guys have," which is one way to think about Young. The Patriots did a pretty good job containing him. Young threw for 2 more yards than Brady (227-225), but his QB rating was 67.2 points lower than Our Tom's (107.1-39.9) and he only rushed for 29 net yards, 28 on a late third-period touchdown scramble. Compared to what Young had been doing to everyone else of late, that was pretty good defense on a seriously dangerous player.

But Young did make a major impression on his opponents, who learned just how competitive the young man is when, after throwing an interception, he ran more than 50 yards downfield to make a one-arm shoulder tackle on Asante Samuel.

"I was running down the field looking for someone to block," marveled Rosevelt Colvin, "and he ran right by me."

But Young is done playing football for the year. The Patriots aren't.

OK, no one is going to pick the Patriots to win the Super Bowl, but they clearly have positioned themselves as a legitimate contender, if only because anyone who goes 7-1 on the road in the National Football League has the makings of a formidable playoff team.

"I've been a part of a few of 'em," said Vinny Testaverde, who has been a part of a lot of things during a 20-year career. "What it tells me is that we don't make mistakes and we don't turn it over. When you're like that, you can be pretty good. Bill Parcells had a phrase to describe a team like this. He'd say we were 'battle-hardened.' In order to win on the road, you have to combat crowd noise, weather, a lot of things, and we can do that."

That 7-1 is definitely something they can hang their hat on. "It's something you strive for, to have a great road record," said safety Artrell Hawkins, a nine-year veteran. "But it's nothing you can count on."

Of course, next week's opening-round playoff game will be against the Jets in Foxborough, where the Patriots have been less successful this year. "But the losses were all on the grass," Brady pointed out. "We're undefeated on the turf."

They're 12-4, they're in the playoffs, they're playing OK, and they have a shot. It may not be the best shot, but it's a shot. Sounds pretty good to me.

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

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