- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

FOXBORO, Mass.

The flakes began falling just before daybreak and, let’s face it, people would have been disappointed if they hadn’t. When you play football in New England on Jan.18, you expect something out of a Robert Frost poem, something along the lines of “Stopping by Gillette Stadium on a Snowy Evening.”

The great Packers teams of the ‘60s are remembered almost as much for the steam coming out of their mouths as for their five NFL titles. The Frozen Tundra defined them. And in time, the same may be said of the Patriots club Bill Belichick and his helpers have assembled. It’s still early in the game for the Pats — their quarterback, Tom Brady, is just 26 — but they’re headed for their second Super Bowl in three years after icing the Indianapolis Colts 24-14 yesterday in wintry Foxboro.

Some teams just grow on you, and the Patriots are definitely one of them. Their Super Bowl appearance in ‘01 was considered somewhat fluky; most of the “experts” thought the Steelers were the class of the conference. But then the Pats upset the Rams on a last-play field goal, and it became clear that something special was going on in New England.

After a 9-7, nonplayoff season last year — the usual Super Bowl hangover — the Patriots are back with a vengeance. They’ve now run off 14 straight victories, which is nothing to sneeze at in this or any other era. The only other NFL team to win that many in a row in a season is the perfect ‘72 Dolphins. And the Fins didn’t have to deal with the vagaries of New England weather (only with the vagaries of Don Shula’s temper).

In the last six weeks alone, the Patriots have played three games in the snow and another in temperatures that would make Chilly Willy put on a parka. A single slip — a pass bouncing off frozen fingers, a defensive back losing his footing on the slick turf — could have derailed them, as close as the Pats tend to cut it. The Blowout Bunch, they’re not. We were reminded of that again yesterday when they scored a touchdown in the first seven minutes and then managed only five field goals and a gift safety the rest of the way.

“We moved the ball,” Belichick said, “but we didn’t get enough points out of it. Their red zone defense was better than our red zone offense for the most part.”

But the Patriots survived. They survived because, well, that’s their specialty — surviving. Getting to the next week. Finishing one task and then moving on to the next.

“Single-mindedness,” was how linebacker Ted Johnson put it. “You focus on the game in front of you. You don’t look ahead. That’s what got us to this position.”

All week long, the Patriots had to listen to how unstoppable Peyton Manning and the Indy offense were. And they had been quite remarkable, dusting Denver and Kansas City without even having to punt. But the Pats did, after all, have the best record in the league, and their defense had pitched three shutouts at home.

“We thought: What about us?” said Ty Law, the club’s crack cover man. “We wanted to put a little silence on the situation.”

It didn’t take them long to accomplish this. Strong safety Rodney Harrison intercepted a pass in the end zone on the Colts’ very first series, and Law later added three more picks, one off the NFL playoff record. The most influential Harrison in the game, as it turned out, wasn’t the Colts’ Marvin (three catches for 19 yards, one fumble), it was the Patriots’ Rodney (one INT, one forced fumble, numerous skeleton-rattling hits). Would somebody please tell me how this guy didn’t make the Pro Bowl? He’s been one of the five best defenders in the league this season.

“Rodney … he was on fire,” said Law. “He wanted to win this game so bad. It’s been a long time since he was in this position.” (Since his rookie year in 1994, to be exact, when he was a special teams demon for the AFC champion Chargers.)

Rodney’s roughhouse style appears to have rubbed off on rookie free safety Eugene Wilson. In the space of a few plays in the fourth quarter, Wilson walloped intended Colts receivers Brandon Stokley and Reggie Wayne, separating the first from the ball and the second, seemingly, from his senses. The latter blow — to Wayne’s head — might result in a fine, Wilson agreed, “but the tradeoff is that I get to play in the Super Bowl.”

The entire Patriots defense did a pretty good job of pummeling the Indy wideouts. Marvin Harrison, Wayne and Stokley weren’t able to run nearly as free as they had against the Broncos and Chiefs. Belichick, meanwhile, played his usual shell game, confusing Manning with his cleverly disguised coverages.

“When I saw what our defense was doing against our scout team during the week,” Brady said, “I thought: Oh, God. I’m glad I’m not playing quarterback against us. They really make it tough on you, with all the different looks. … And they force you to be so precise with your throws, otherwise the ball is going to be picked.”

Something tells me that when Super Bowl week rolls around, folks are going to be talking plenty about the Patriots. This is a club, remember, that hasn’t lost since September, hasn’t been behind since November, eight games ago. The Patriots beat the Colts in a dome, beat them in the snow — how much more do they have to prove?

“To win 14 in a row — that’s unbelievable,” Brady said. “Who does that? Nobody does that. But still, the goal hasn’t been reached. If we don’t win the 15th, it’s all for naught.”

There’s that single-mindedness again.

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