THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Patriots on an honor roll

Club exceeds all expectations

By Tony Massarotti
Globe Staff / December 28, 2010

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Fewer than four months after entering the season with a suspect defense, a pair of rookie tight ends, and mounting injuries, the Patriots secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a 34-3 victory over the Bills Sunday in Orchard Park, N.Y. There is no longer any point in quibbling over details. For the regular season, the Patriots get an A-plus.

What happens in the playoffs, as always, is anybody’s guess, but there is no disputing the accomplishments of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the rest of the Patriots now that their regular season is effectively over. The Patriots have the best record in the league at 13-2. They also have the greatest point differential. New England is undefeated at home (7-0) and has won seven straight overall, all of which may make this the most impressive regular season since 2001.

The 2007 campaign? Please. The Patriots were loaded that year. If they hadn’t gone 16-0, they would have gone 14-2 or 15-1. They were that good. But what Belichick and Brady did with this team, at this point in time, is second to only the storybook season of 2001 in New England football folklore.

Let’s all remember where the Patriots were slightly less than a year ago. In the first round of the playoffs in January, the Patriots got whacked by the Ravens, 33-14. The game wasn’t that close. In the subsequent months, Belichick overhauled his roster almost exclusively through the draft, forgoing free agents such as Julius Peppers for young unprovens such as Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez.

When Belichick took yet another defensive back with his first selection — Devin McCourty — much of New England groaned.

Now here we are, with only one week remaining in the regular season, and the Patriots have positioned themselves as the best team in the NFL. Anyone who claims to have predicted this is either a liar or delusional. During training camp and the early weeks of the regular season, the Patriots lost Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden, and Kevin Faulk. Logan Mankins held out for half the season. The Patriots cut ties with Randy Moss and have received virtually nothing from Fred Taylor (shocker) and yet they have defeated most everyone in their path, no small achievement given the difficulty of their schedule.

Baltimore. Pittsburgh. Indianapolis. The Jets. Green Bay. Chicago. Minnesota. San Diego.

The Patriots beat ’em all.

In retrospect, the Patriots’ most valuable wins might have come early in the season, when Belichick was molding a young roster, dealing with Moss, and searching for answers. The Patriots went 3-1 in their first four games, culminating in a 41-14 win at Miami that triggered the Moss deal. Even when they were not playing especially well, the Patriots were finding ways to win.

Now, with the playoffs looming, the Patriots appear to be a well-oiled machine. Since Deion Branch showed up, the Patriots are 10-1. In December, the Patriots lead the NFL in both scoring offense (36.5 points per game) and scoring defense (10.0). Belichick’s young defense still has identity issues — witness the Green Bay game in Foxborough Dec. 19 — but the Patriots have held opponents to 7 points or fewer in three of the last four games.

And so now the Patriots have just one regular-season game remaining — at home Sunday against Miami — with a tidal wave of momentum behind them. With the benefit of a bye week, Belichick will have three weeks to get his roster healthy and in the best possible shape. New England could face any number of playoff teams — the winner of the AFC North (Pittsburgh or Baltimore) will be the only exception — but we all know that Tom Brady has not lost a regular-season home game since 2006.

Of course, the Ravens came to Gillette Stadium last year and throttled the Patriots in the playoffs. No matter. Those Patriots were a dysfunctional group with Adalius Thomas and Moss, among others. Especially on defense, these Patriots don’t know enough to question their accomplished coach. (And thank goodness for that.) Over the course of 16 weeks, under the sculpting hand of Belichick, the Patriots have molded themselves into the kind of team that warrants our praise and admiration for a few very simple reasons.

In 2010, the Patriots rebuilt themselves from the ground up.

They claimed the No. 1 seed in the conference the old-fashioned way.

They earned it.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti.

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