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Dan Shaughnessy

Fan base spoiled by victories

Stop taking Patriots’ greatness for granted

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 10, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH - In the middle of the 1976 baseball season, when newly acquired outfielder Bobby Darwin walked into the Red Sox clubhouse, he was greeted by Dwight Evans, who told him, “You’re going to enjoy playing in the Classic.’’

“What Classic is that?’’ Darwin wondered.

“The Fall Classic,’’ explained Evans. “The World Series.’’

Dewey was only 24 years old, but he’d already starred in one of the greatest World Series ever played. In his youthful innocence, Evans assumed that the Red Sox would be playing in October on a regular basis. He could never have believed it would be another 10 seasons before he’d return to the Fall Classic.

Which brings us to your New England Patriots as they prepare for their first playoff game since their shocking defeat in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLII two years ago.

“You can’t take it for granted,’’ Bill Belichick said last week. “You’re in the playoffs. You have an opportunity to extend the season, and it may or may not happen every year, but you can’t count on it, so take advantage of it. Treat it as a one-game season, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and approach it that way.

“Young guys come in and they have a good year, and they might think that every year is going to be that way, and a lot of times it doesn’t work out.’’

As usual, Belichick is right. The Patriots royally spoiled us in the first decade of this century. With Belichick on the headset and Tom Brady behind center, they won three Super Bowls in four years. Then came 2007’s path to perfection, when the History Boys were derailed in the desert.

Together Brady and Belichick are 14-3 in the playoffs. This is their seventh tournament appearance in nine years and they are 8-0 at home in postseason play.

Despite all of the above, there has been lukewarm anticipation for today’s first-round game against the wild-card Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots this season were a horrible, heartless road team (2-6), and last week lost their go-to guy when slot receiver Wes Welker blew out his knee on some bad grass in Houston (never to be confused with the bad grass at Woodstock). Face-value tickets for today’s game were easy to buy and popular thinking holds that the Patriots will be slaughtered at San Diego (winner of 11 straight) next week if they manage to defeat the Ravens.

But it’s still a playoff game and it should be cherished and celebrated. Twenty NFL teams are already done for the season. New England’s younger fans can be forgiven for assuming there will be games in January every year, but have the veteran loyalists forgotten what it was like around here in the bad old days? The Patriots did not make the playoffs between 1964 and 1976. When Bill Parcells took his Patriots to Cleveland to play Belichick’s Browns on New Year’s Day in 1995, it was New England’s first playoff game in eight years.

Consider this when whining about the Patriots’ 2010 Super Bowl chances and the notion that it has been almost two full years since the franchise’s last playoff victory: The Detroit Lions have won one playoff game since 1957.

That’s one playoff victory since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. One playoff win since the invention of the Barbie doll. One playoff win since Elvis reported to his draft board in Memphis. One playoff win since Alaska and Hawaii became states.

How dare we complain or take this for granted. These may be the final days of the Patriot dynasty, but it has been one glorious run, and in a season with no clear NFL power, the Patriots have a chance as long as they have Brady and Belichick.

Tom and Bill are among a handful of holdovers from the golden days. NFL teams shed several layers of skin every year, and as many as 24 Patriots will be experiencing their first taste of playoff football today. It seems like Jerod Mayo has been here a long time, and the linebacker looks older than Morgan Freeman, but Mayo was still at the University of Tennessee the last time the Patriots were in the playoffs.

“The biggest game I’ve ever played in was the SEC championship,’’ Mayo said.

Speaking for the veterans, lineman Jarvis Green said: “Everybody comes in for training camp, looking forward to the chance to get in the playoffs. It’s a special time.’’

Lower expectations and the loss of Welker are making it a little less special this year. A first-round playoff game just doesn’t do it for fans who remember weeklong festivals in New Orleans, Houston, Jacksonville, and Glendale. Like Atlanta Braves fans of recent years, Patriots followers are not going to get very excited unless the team goes all the way. We knew the Celtics weren’t going anywhere without Kevin Garnett last spring, and this feels a little bit like that.

But it’s a mistake to assume that this amazing run will extend forever. This is 2010 and the Patriots are in the playoffs and that should be enough.

You could be in Detroit.

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

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