THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Enjoy it while it lasts

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By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 19, 2010

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Is 14-2 inevitable?

I remember walking out of Qualcomm Stadium after the Chargers had gift-wrapped, complete with a charming red bow, a game for the Patriots. This was only three weeks after the Dolphins likewise had been conspicuous conspirators in their own demise, and I was left with just one conclusion about the 2010 New England Patriots.

“Holy Hannah,’’ I said to myself. “They’re going to lurch their way to 12-4!’’

Turns out I was kinda, sorta half right. They’re going to have a very good record, one even better than 12-4. If they take care of business tonight, next Sunday, and the Sunday after that, they will finish at 14-2 for the third time in the Brady/Belichick era. (No, I haven’t forgotten the 16-0 in 2007; I may never get over that Super Bowl.) They will have earned all the available spoils. They will have the top seed in the AFC, they will be able to kick back the weekend of Jan. 8-9 and they will spend every necessary January weekend at Gillette Stadium in preparation for a nice group outing in Jerry Jones’s suburban Dallas rumpus room.

But the important thing is they won’t have “lurched’’ into anything. The Patriots will be 14-2 because they transformed from a pretty nice team that was abetted by good fortune — and they most certainly were — into an oft-frightening gridiron machine, especially on offense. They are back in their accustomed position of being the organizational envy of professional football, the franchise most of the others wish they were.

Again, I beg every last one of you: Please do not take any of this for granted. Savor every game, every possession, every down. No fandom has a divine right to franchise grandeur. We are living in an extraordinary phase of team history, one that is not likely to be repeated, not ever.

It just doesn’t seem to end, does it? Since the start of the 2001 season, the New England Patriots are an almost absurd 118-39, with nine double-digit-victory seasons out of 10. Naysayers might point out that they won the last of their three Super Bowls in 2005. Yeah, well, fine, whatever. I think most cities would take the last six years.

It’s the second-greatest sustained run of athletic excellence in Boston sports history. It’s going to be hard to match the 11 NBA championships in 13 years (1956-69) put up by the Red Auerbach/Bill Russell Celtics. We’ve got to put that one over on the side, not only because the sheer dominance, in retrospect, is almost incomprehensible, but also because the entire sports world was vastly different. Start with the fact that there was no such thing as free agency. The leagues were so much smaller (the first three of those 11 titles were bagged in an eight-team league). And the intense national scrutiny that accompanies every semi-major sporting endeavor in this country means everything is conducted in a hot house atmosphere those old Celtics never experienced on a nightly basis.

The sad thing about the Russell Celtics is that they were unappreciated, to a large degree. Boston was a hockey town, first and foremost, in Russell’s time. People in New York lusted for a team half as great as the Celtics, while the world’s best basketball team played before half-filled houses, save when Wilt showed up or the playoffs began.

That is not the case with the Patriots, whose success has lifted them to a point where we can have a healthy debate about whether baseball or football is more popular hereabouts, something that would have been laughable a decade ago. The onetime nomads, who spent the ’60s wandering from Braves Field to Fenway to BC to Harvard, and who spent the next three decades in a prefab edifice that was thrown up in 10 months or so, are now housed in a thoroughly modern stadium that is first-class in every respect.

What it all adds up to is this: The New England Patriots are one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.

And they are giving everyone who cares about them a bonus season. Diehard followers who peer at the world through rose-colored glasses saw them as a 12-4 team, but the rest of us saw too many holes, not to mention a daunting schedule. But everything has fallen into place. Tom Brady is playing as well as he ever has. They have come up with a running game. The youth-inflected defense is improving under on-the-job-training auspices. And, boy, is Mr. Belichick ever coaching ’em up.

Now here comes Green Bay, almost undoubtedly without standout quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who sustained his second concussion of the season last Sunday against Detroit. Backup Matt Flynn was rather underwhelming in relief, and since the Packers have no running game, one wonders how the Pack will put points on the board.

Am I exaggerating their problems running the football? Green Bay lost Ryan Grant, a quality runner, to an ankle injury in the opener against Philadelphia. Without him, the Packers have had one 100-yard individual rushing performance all season (by Brandon Jackson) and have averaged 44 yards a game on the ground in their last eight. Rodgers was often able to overcome this. Flynn can’t.

So it would be a severe shock if season victory No. 12 isn’t forthcoming this evening. Enjoy it, please. It’s not always going to be like this.

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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