THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Getting ahead of ourselves

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 30, 2009

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Ten or 11 days from today, the Patriots will return to the NFL playoffs. It will be New England’s first postseason game since (gulp) . . . Feb. 3, 2008.

Glendale, Arizona.

Super Bowl XLII.

Weird, isn’t it? It feels like it’s been a million years since the pursuit of perfection and Arlen Specter.

So much has changed. When the Patriots last played a postseason game, the Red Sox were reigning world champs, Matt Cassel was making minimum NFL wage, Plaxico Burress was a free man, and Bob Lobel was anchoring sports on Channel 4.

Hard to believe it’s been less than two years.

Now the Patriots are back in the tournament, and today I am going to engage in an activity that Bill Belichick hates.

I am going to look past this weekend’s meaningless game against the Houston Texans.

Worse, I am going to vault straight into the second round of the playoffs.

No one is allowed to say it, but we all know the Patriots are going to win Game 1 at home on Wild Card Weekend. The larger question is: Would you rather go to Indianapolis or San Diego for Round 2?

Buoyed by a nifty turnaround against NFL punching bags (a lot of bad teams in the league this year, no?) some Patriots fans dare to dream about a return to the Super Bowl, and we all know that means winning back-to-back games at San Diego and Indy.

Week 1’s game is already in the bag - even if the Ravens come to town with David Tyree and his Velcro helmet. Winning cold playoff games is Gillette’s January jones. The Patriots have won 11 consecutive playoff games at home, seven at Gillette. The one and only time New England lost a playoff game at home was on New Year’s Eve 1978, when Bum Phillips and the Houston Oilers crushed the Patriots, 31-14. That was the year Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks was booted from the sideline by owner Billy Sullivan after it was learned Fairbanks had taken a job at the University of Colorado.

As a playoff tandem, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 14-3 overall, 8-0 at Foxborough, 7-0 at Gillette. This season, the Patriots went 8-0 at the Razor, winning by an average of 18.4 points. Does anyone really think the New York Jets can come here and beat Belichick and Brady in January?

Not a chance.

So we look ahead and we wonder whether the Patriots are capable of winning at Indy or San Diego.

This is a strange Patriots team. They’ve been unable to close out games on the road. They’ve struggled to find an identity. They’ve only recently established a running game. They’ve endured uncharacteristic locker room grumbling (remember Adalius Thomas?) and they’ve worked overtime showering love and attention on Randy Moss.

But it’s all coming together at the right time, and every team out there suddenly looks vulnerable. The Saints don’t look like the Saints who thrashed the Patriots that Monday night in November. The Vikings can’t beat the Bears. The Chargers are smokin’ hot, but still not as good as the Chargers of ’06, who couldn’t beat the Patriots in San Diego in January. The Colts just gave themselves a new challenge. In the wake of Sunday’s fiasco, the Colts know they must win the Super Bowl now or they will be forever scorned. The Patriots already know they can beat the Ponies at Lucas Oil Stadium.

So we sit here waiting for the tournament draw and wonder whether the Patriots can make a run. Their postgame comportment was encouraging Sunday after clinching the pathetic AFC East yet again. None of the players sprayed champagne, wore a 12-pack box on their head, or danced to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.’’ The focus was on the future. They reminded us that the job is not done. It was all very Patriotlike.

We can’t begin to guess what the strategy will be at Reliant Stadium this weekend. Repeat after me: Belichick is “going to do what is best for his football team.’’

But deep down, the Hoodie knows what we all know, and that is this: The Patriots are wrapping up an uneven season that could have imploded under the weight of its own arrogance. But now things are coming together pretty nicely, and Kevin Garnett reminds us that “anything’s possible.’’

The 2009 Patriots have a chance to make a serious playoff run. They are not the best team - as they were in 2007 - but this time they might wind up being the team that nobody wants to play in January.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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