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Make no mistake

By GARY SHELTON, Times Columnist
Published January 13, 2008


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - In the final score, perhaps there is hope to be found.

This time, the Patriots did not name their score. This time, they did not overwhelm their opponent. If you are a football player from Indianapolis, or perhaps one from San Diego, perhaps that was worth a smile. Perhaps there are flaws to this New England team, after all.

In the struggles of the evening, perhaps there is a chance to be had.

This time, the Patriots looked mortal. This time, they looked vulnerable. If you happen to work for the Cowboys, or perhaps for the Packers, it had to be heartening to see. Perhaps the Pats are not from a higher league, after all.

On the other hand, the Patriots remain perfect.

And if another team wants a piece, by all means, it should step right up.

This is how good the Patriots really are; each of their missteps gives another team a reason to hope. For instance, New England won its AFC division playoff game 31-20 over Jacksonville on Saturday, but it did so without looking like the relentless force of nature that has defined it for much of the season. It won its 17th straight, but it did not leave those next in line crying out for help.

Good news, everyone. The Patriots only won by 11.

Yippee.

Say this for the Patriots. They seem completely content to duel in whatever weapons their opponent chooses. Want to shoot it out? New England can play that game. Want to grind it out? New England can do that, too. Want to take away their deep threats and make them work underneath. Turns out, that doesn't bother the Patriots, either.

This time, it was a patient, poised New England team that outlasted Jacksonville. The Jaguars came into the game determined to take away the Patriots' deep passing game. For the most part, they accomplished that. They seemed intent on limiting the possessions of the Patriots, and for much of the night, that worked, too.

Still, the Patriots won.

When you think about it, isn't that what the Patriots do?

Honestly, did you really expect anything else from these guys? Oh, there was the usual chatter about how the playoffs were the double jeopardy portion of the season, about how the matchups gave the Jags a puncher's chance, about how much additional pressure was going to be on the Patriots because of the quest to go unbeaten.

True, it can be heady stuff when a team prepares to play the Jaguars and the old 49ers or the old Steelers keep working their way into the conversation. You know how that works. Win, and everyone will compare the Patriots to the '72 Dolphins and the '85 Bears. Lose, and everyone will talk instead about the '98 Vikings or the '68 Colts instead. Those teams seemed on the verge of history, too, right up to the point where it ate them alive.

Always, however, that has been the best part of Bill Belichick's Patriots team. It seems unflappable despite whatever the criticism, despite whatever the praise. It can play fast or it can play slow. It can win throwing or it can win running. It can win with a fast start or with a slow one.

Evidently, it can win when the world is tossing history books at it.

Now matter what kind of game the Patriots play, of course, the constant for the Patriots is quarterback Tom Brady. Tom Terrific was at it again Saturday night, carving up a Jacksonville secondary that seem intent on stopping the rejuvenated Randy Moss. Even with favorite target catching only one ball, Brady hit 26 of his 28 passes - an NFL playoff record with a 92.9 percent completion percentage. Throw in Laurence Maroney's 122 yards rushing, and it demonstrates just how willing the Patriots were to work underneath.

"It was a little disappointing, the two he missed," coach Bill Belichick said. He was kidding. I think.

Oh, deep down, everyone knows who the favorite is in next week's AFC Championship Game. Deep down, everyone knows who is supposed to win the Super Bowl. These are the playoffs, and whatever you think of Belichick, his team usually fares pretty well in them.

Still, this was a good performance by the Patriots, but it wasn't a great one. Opponents are bound to notice. In the NFL, one finds hope wherever one can.

Imagine how this game must have looked to Peyton Manning or to Tony Romo or to Brett Favre. After all, Jacksonville's David Garrard, with 278 yards passing, had quite a night himself. Imagine how it looked to Tony Dungy or Wade Phillips as they watched the Jags put together three drives of 80 or more yards.

Yes, the Patriots are unbeaten.

But are they unbeatable?