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Bob Ryan

Effort not up to scale, but result makes grade

FOXBOROUGH - I may have mentioned this once or twice, but it bears repeating after a day like yesterday: if you are a Patriots diehard, never, ever forget one very important thing: These Are The Good Old Days.

Your team wins when it plays well. Your team wins when it doesn't play so well. Even against a half-decent NFL team (which Romeo Crennel's Cleveland Browns have become) it doesn't need its 'A' game to win, and to win by 17 points. Its 'B-' or 'C+' game will do.

The Patriots' gentle 34-17 dispatch of the Browns lifted them to 5-0 and set up a confrontation of unbeatens next Sunday in Irving, Texas. That is, unless you think the Bills will beat the Cowboys in Buffalo tonight, in which case you immediately should lose your right to drive, vote, and perhaps even procreate.

This was a something-for-everybody afternoon of football. There were enough big plays to send the crowd of 68,756 on its way pleased that it had seen some of what makes the Patriots what they are. And there was enough disturbing stuff to give Bill Belichick the kind of lengthy checklist a nitpicky coach simply adores.

"Got to do a better job in all three phases of the game," he said. "We can do better than that."

It was even a mixed-message day for quarterback Tom Brady. He did throw his weekly three touchdown passes. But he was a mortal 22 for 38 overall, and he missed some receivers he should have connected with. Nobody was calling for Matt Cassel, but this was not the transcendent Tom Brady of Weeks 1-4. In the second half he was 9 for 20 for 115 yards.

Whatever problems Brady had throwing the ball, none had to do with his protection. Had he worn a white dinner jacket, the coat would not have had a smudge.

"The protection was great all day," he said. "I wasn't sacked and there wasn't a whole lot of pressure."

The defense did some good things and some bad things. There was a first-quarter goal line stand resulting in a Junior Seau interception, and there were 21 points emanating from turnovers. The marauding Mr. Seau had a second interception and his inside linebacking counterpart, Tedy Bruschi, had two sacks. At 38 and 34, respectively, they may constitute the most energetic septuagenarian two-headed inside linebacking monster in the NFL.

But the Browns did move the ball well in stretches. It was quite easy to imagine a top-tier team - like, say, Dallas - putting a disturbing number of points on the board.

But that's a worst-case scenario, and I bring it up only because the Patriots are currently so deep and so overpowering that in order to bring some sense of sanity to all the giddiness it's often necessary to reach to find areas to critique. The fact is that once the Patriots found a way to stop the Browns from scoring on a first and goal from the 1 when it was just a 3-0 lead, Cleveland was really never in the game again. And I'm telling you, the Browns aren't half-bad.

The stat sheet was a big, fat liar. The final stats tell you the Patriots had 23 first downs and 412 yards in total offense and the Browns had 22 first downs and 353 yards, which might lead you to think that the teams were actually fairly equal.

Then you dig a little deeper and you see the four Cleveland turnovers leading to the 21 New England points, as opposed to zero and zero the other way. And the stat sheet doesn't tell you that after the Seau end zone interception (created by an Asante Samuel near interception/deflection) and after the Patriots themselves had gone three-and-out, that Samuel intercepted Derek Anderson on a first-down play and Brady collaborated with Dante' Stallworth for a 34-yard touchdown pass, which was 5 percent pass and 95 percent yards after the catch on the part of the fleet (and elusive) Mr. Stallworth.

What I'm saying is that, as they like to say in football, the Patriots win because they make plays.

For the first four weeks the man providing most of the highlight plays was Randy Moss. The Browns obviously had borrowed a page from the Mike Scioscia/Big Papi playbook, deciding that Moss wasn't going to beat them. Well, that's great, but the Patriots also have Plans B, C, and probably J.

You already heard about Stallworth making chicken salad out of chicken something-or-other with that gorgeous gallop in the first quarter. Then you had tight end Ben Watson, who caught six passes for 107 yards, two for touchdowns. The big guy has scored in four of the five games that count. What's a defense to do?

"The receivers all help out each other," said Coach Bill. "It's hard to cover all of them."

"They have quite a few weapons and you have to try to pick your poison a little bit against those guys," acknowledged Crennel. "Moss has been killing people and we didn't want him to kill us, so we died by the hands of somebody else."

By the way, Moss did catch three balls for 46 yards. It's not like the Browns had him under house arrest.

I also probably should mention that with Laurence Maroney out with his groin injury, Sammy Morris banged his way to 102 yards in 21 carries. One should never take a 100-yard rushing game for granted.

Rodney Harrison finally got a chance to join in all the fun and he was willing to admit to a certain amount of rust.

"It just felt a little different," he said. "Being on the field and trying to get used to everything and the formations. It's one thing seeing it in practice, but when you're out there it's totally different. The speed is totally different."

I doubt Rodney is going to be totally different. He celebrated the return from his four-game suspension with a facemask penalty. When he gets his first 15 yards for a late hit, we'll know he's got his mojo back for good.

Harrison's been around long enough to know the drill. He knows that this nonsense of winning by 24, 24, 31, 21, and 17 isn't going to continue, that, yes, his team is good enough to win with a 'B-' game, but that better efforts will be required, starting next week.

"We need to get better before we go to Texas," he noted. "Those boys are flyin'. We'll have to do a lot more than we did today."

They can. And they will. This could turn out to be the best Patriots team of them all.

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

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