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Dan Shaughnessy

Way has been cleared, and not just by the linemen

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / January 14, 2012
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How does 73-0, Patriots, sound?

The Belichickmen are playing the Denver Broncos tonight in the latest Game of the Millennium and everything is going New England’s way. Again.

Could this be teed up any better? Could things be any easier for your New England Patriots?

Of all the playoff scenarios, the Patriots got the one they wanted. No Steelers this time. No Ray Rice. No Rex Ryan scheming. No elite quarterback on the other side.

None of that.

In order to advance to the AFC Championship game, all the Patriots have to do is beat a .500 team that was outscored by 81 points during the regular season. The Broncos are led by a clunky lefthanded quarterback who has started 15 NFL games.

I ask you this: Has any team ever advanced to the conference championship game without a single win against a team that finished over .500 during the regular season? That’s what the Patriots will achieve if (when) they win tonight. All they have to do is beat a team they routed on the road just four weeks ago; a team that couldn’t score more than 3 points in its crucial regular-season finale against the not-so-vaunted Chiefs.

It’s amazing. Now that the Colts have junked Bill Polian and maybe Peyton Manning, they should send Jeff Saturday to Foxborough to officially present their team logo to Bob Kraft. It is the New England Patriots who should be wearing horseshoes on the sides of their helmets. For sure, the 2011 Patriots are the luckiest team in NFL history. They have managed to go 13-3 with one of the worst defenses in NFL annals and no semblance of a running game. And now a free ticket to the Super Bowl is waiting for them at the will-call window at Lucas Oil (Can Boyd) Stadium.

They have won eight straight games. They have Tom Brady and one of the great offenses of all time. Their 2011 regular-season schedule featured more tomato cans than an Andy Warhol gallery, and they’re coming off a bye week in which several of their wounded warriors got healthy. They even went to the trouble of hiring Denver’s former head coach to run the scout team at Gillette this week. (Don’t you love the way Belichick flipped off the NFL, announcing the hiring of Josh McDaniels a half-hour after the Broncos’ shocking victory over the Steelers?)

I asked 98.5 FM midday sports talkers Andy Gresh and Scott Zolak if they could think of a single thing that is not going in favor of the Patriots this week, and they were speechless for the first time in the history of their program.

Denver yahoos and the considerable legion of Patriots haters across this great land will argue that the Patriots are vulnerable because Tim Tebow can scramble, buy time, and has larger forces working on his behalf. Certainly the Tebow factor is liable to make tonight’s joust a more popular TV show than the final “M*A*S*H’’ episode, but it’s not going to make the Broncos competitive. Belichick mutilates inexperienced quarterbacks - even when he’s disguising a defense with limited talent. A three-touchdown lead has a way of making Sergio Brown play like Ed Reed. Tebow Time is going to be Beatdown Time.

Personally, I can’t wait for the coin toss. This will tell us if Denver coach John Fox has been paying attention, or if he’s just another in a conga line of stooges who play into Belichick’s diabolical hands.

Hear this, Mr. Fox: If you win the coin toss, defer, and kick the ball to the Patriots. In 15 of 16 games this year (the exception was a loss at Buffalo), the Patriots kicked off. It’s part of their “double score’’ strategy of breaking rivals’ spirit by scoring at the end of the first half, then again at the start of the second half. The Patriots have not elected to take the ball at the start of a game since Brady was injured in the season opener in 2008. Bill Russell said that the first rule of good defense is taking away what your opponent likes to do. The Patriots want you to take the ball at the start of the game. So let’s see if Fox is paying attention.

The elephant in the stadium, of course, is New England’s postseason slump. Few folks in Foxborough will talk about it, but we all know what is at stake tonight. The Patriots haven’t won a playoff game in four years. Since 18-0, they have won 48 games, stringing together seasons of 11-5, 10-6, 14-2, and 13-3. But since 18-0 they are 0-3 in the playoffs. Last year they had the top seed, a bye, and in order to get to the AFC Championship game only had to win at home against a team they beat, 45-3, a month earlier.

Sound familiar?

Brady was on the (regional) cover of last week’s Sports Illustrated. Since starting his career 10-0 in the playoffs, he is 4-5. Brady’s road to playoff mediocrity started in Denver in 2006 when Champ Bailey jumped the route. Six years ago today.

For the record, these are the NFL teams that have won a playoff game since the last time the Patriots won a playoff game: Broncos, Texans, Chargers, Eagles, Bears, Seahawks, Vikings, Giants, Steelers, Saints, Packers, Jets, Cowboys, Colts, Cardinals, and Ravens.

And these are the Boston teams that have won championships since the Patriots last won a Super Bowl: Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins.

It’s time.

Time for the Patriots to walk down the path that has been so clearly paved for them.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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