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Bob Ryan

Patriots haunted by history

A Super Bowl win? Only in fans’ memories

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / October 13, 2010

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Why do some people get upset when I call this a “House Money Year’’ for the Patriots?

To me, it’s a perfectly reasonable way of appraising the season. They’re a team with certain strengths and certain weaknesses, and it is simply not logical to project them into Super Bowl XLV. Making it to the postseason will be a significant achievement.

We’ll never know exactly what the thinking is inside the inner sanctum, but it’s hard to believe Bill and all his Belichicks don’t know how vulnerable this team is. I’m guessing that if someone told him today that he’d find himself standing on a sideline of Cowboys Stadium the evening of Feb. 6, 2011, he would say, “Really? What do you know that I don’t know?’’

There is no more Patriots mystique. The Super Bowls no longer intimidate. They’re history. They will always provide warm memories for all concerned, and that includes members of the media, who loved the buzz and general excitement created by the Patriots when they were the unquestioned standard of organizational excellence, not just in football, but in all of American sport. But this is now the sixth season since the third championship was won in Super Bowl XXXIX, and, more important, the third since what would have gone down as the greatest team achievement in the history of the NFL was undone by that fateful celestially aided touchdown drive by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII.

The ultimate moral of that story was that during the 18-0 run leading up to the Super Bowl, the defense was never anywhere near equal to the offense, and that had not been the case earlier in the decade. When tales of glorious Patriots victories from the three championship years are told, they always include examples of huge, timely defensive plays that augmented whatever offensive wizardry was being conjured up by Tom Brady and friends.

The Patriots had some great individual defensive players in those days, and they have not been replaced by comparable talents. It’s as simple as that.

The situation appears to have been rectified to a degree in the past couple of years. Jerod Mayo was a good start, and there are now several defensive backs of promise. But get back to me when you see a defensive lineman who reminds you of the young Richard Seymour.

There were two games last season that underscored just how dramatically things have changed for the Patriots. The first took place on Nov. 30 in New Orleans, when the Super Bowl-bound Saints improved to 11-0 with a 38-17 destruction of the Patriots. In that game, Drew Brees shredded the New England defense for 371 yards and five touchdowns (caught by five receivers).

The second game took place in Foxborough on Jan. 10. The Baltimore Ravens did not simply defeat the Patriots. They truly punished them, far worse than the 33-14 final score would ever show. Ray Rice went 83 yards untouched on the first play from scrimmage, running in a Forrest Gump-like fashion that could have led him to Millinocket and points ever farther north had that been his desire. A Brady sack/fumble on the first New England possession soon made it 14-0. It was 24-0 after one period. It was a domination, a beatdown, a shock, and, yes, a complete humiliation.

Super Bowl mystique . . . you kidding me?

We would all like to think that game would have some bearing on what will take place this coming Sunday, when those same Ravens journey to Foxborough. I don’t ordinarily put much stock in revenge theories when the subject is professional athletics, but there are times when manhoods need to be asserted in this sport. Coach Bill isn’t a pep talk kind of guy, but he has his motivational tactics and I can’t imagine there won’t be a reference or two to that game in the runup to Sunday’s affair.

Seeing Ray Lewis and his mates on the field would be enough to mark this as a circle-the-calendar game, but the plot has been spiced by the tumultuous events of the past week, which, now that all the dust has settled, has essentially resulted in Randy Moss being traded for Deion Branch. Retribution and a major curiosity factor in the same package? It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that six weeks into the season.

Deion Branch isn’t Randy Moss. He’s not going to the Hall of Fame. I think we all understand that.

But no one is asking him to be Randy Moss. The brass hope he’ll be a facsimile of the Deion Branch who in his first Patriots incarnation caught 10 passes for 143 yards in Super Bowl XXXVIII and 11 passes for 133 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX, the game in which he became the only wide receiver not named Jerry Rice to be named Super Bowl MVP. He had a great professional rapport with Brady the first time around, and the assumption is that nothing will change. He may not “stretch the field’’ the way the more celebrated Moss does, but he has proven in the past to be a very effective receiver in this system.

But, whatever Branch does, we are still talking about a team that is trying to regain its elite status, not preserve it. Elite teams do not struggle so mightily to win on the road, where the Patriots have lost seven of their last nine. Elite teams can be counted on to make the big fourth-quarter stops.

To paraphrase the coach, they are what they are, and if you’re a fan, the pressure is off. You cannot hold them to the standards of yore. Relax, and enjoy the sport for sport’s sake. Your boys are playing with the house’s money this year.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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