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The 2013 Patriots may or may not become a champion, but they sure do fight like one

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 23, 2013 06:06 AM

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The outcome of this unpredictable Patriots season is, of course, yet to be determined. But Super Bowl victory or bust -- and either has seemed an eminently possible scenario the past two games -- the slogan for their season highlight video is already set.

The 2013 New England Patriots: Can you believe it?

Whaddaya say? All right, so they'd be co-opting that one from Joe Castiglione, and maybe the ultimate choice will be more original. (Band of Bearded Blockers also doesn't quite do it. We'll work on it.)

But the sentiment? That's as accurate as one of those fastballs Tom Brady was throwing whenever the moment demanded it during the Patriots' 41-7 shellacking of the host Baltimore Ravens Sunday.

I mean, can you believe it? Can you believe these guys?

They keep losing crucial players -- Rob Gronkowski being the most devastating -- and they approach that tipping point where it seems the attrition is too much to overcome. Last Sunday's 24-20 loss in Miami was an indication, at least to nitwits like me who haven't had an accurate read on this team all year, that the opportunity to play in New Jersey in February would be a round or two out of their reach.

The desire was there, sure. And the coach and the quarterback are always beacons in the fog -- all things considered, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both having extraordinary and yet, because the standard is so high, unsung seasons. But the injuries, the sudden reliance on players who either began the season elsewhere or three-deep on the depth chart here, looked like it would be the great equalizer if not their downfall altogether.

So what happens Sunday? They thump an opponent -- their truest rival, really, not to mention the team that ended their 2012 season -- in a fashion that not even the most optimistic Patriots fan would dare imagine.

They ran the ball with ferocity, particularly LeGarrette Blount, who provided the tough yards (77 of 'em, and two touchdowns) and the comic relief (a so-bad-it's-good rendition of Ray Lewis's famous, ridiculous "squirrel dance"). Acquiring him from the Bucs for sprinter/kick returner Jeff Demps is shaping up to be one of Belichick's best trades.

The defense was opportunistic (three interceptions, including two by blossoming rookie Logan Ryan) and relentless, refusing to allow Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense to run a play from New England territory until the early minutes of the third quarter. It was a thorough, physical, complete victory, on the road, against a worthy opponent made to look anything but.

I can't think of a more impressive regular-season win given the opponent, the stakes, and all of the other factors, in recent seasons. I'm not sure Belichick could, either.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this football team,'' Belichick said. "They earned it today, and that’s a good football team we played. But our guys earned it today. I’m happy to win, happy to win the AFC East, and hopefully we can build off this game. It’s a good one for us.”

The AFC East title shouldn't be overlooked. After failing to unpack the hats and t-shirts in Miami -- they'd have clinched the division had they won -- the division was theirs before they took the field in Baltimore because of the Bills' upset of the Dolphins in a 1 p.m. game.

It was their 11th AFC East crown in 13 years, and the 10th in the past 11 seasons, further confirmation of an incredible run. The division title obviously is not the ultimate championship, but it's the first one on the journey. And this one hasn't come easy. You bet it matters to these guys.

“Every year is special, but we’ve really earned it this year," said Brady, who amusingly couldn't find anyone to high-five after a couple of touchdowns. "The NFL has a lot of stiff competition. Winning 11 games is very hard. We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have too, but our mental toughness has really gotten us through this. We’ve shown that we can hang together all year."

They have kept it together, incredibly, even with teammates falling every Sunday. (They did not escape Baltimore unscathed: stalwarts Devin McCourty and Shane Vereen were among the injured.) And now they find themselves in position of locking up the No. 2 seed in the conference and a first-round bye with a win over the Bills Sunday.

There's added intrigue to that game-plan -- the Patriots-Bills matchup was flexed to 4:25 p.m. so it will be going head to head with the Broncos-Raiders game. Should the Patriots win and the Broncos lose, the Patriots will, amazingly given all they've endured, be the top seed.

Could you believe it? I could. Fifteen games into this season, and what I know about the Patriots comes down to this:

They may lose important players along the way. They'll lose an occasional game.

They'll lose every dance contest in which Blount attempts "The Squirrel,'' and they always seem to lose track of their high-five starved quarterback in the celebration.

But man, these Patriots, they never do lose their fight.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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