Patriots do football fans a favor


ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This is the way it felt when Larry Bird came to town and turned around the Celtics in 1979. This is the way it felt in 1970 when Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins inspired us to build skating rinks in every New England town. This is the way it felt when the Fenway's Cardiac Kids forged the Impossible Dream in 1967.

Exaggerations don't do the job anymore. Mere hyperbole won't suffice. With only six shopping days left until Christmas, the New England Patriots are the rising stars of the National Football League. Suddenly, this team we've been mocking for all these years is the team that nobody wants to play.

The Sons of Bill Parcells yesterday spanked the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills, 41-17, here in the blue oval that has been the death of so many Patriots, Raiders, Jets, Dolphins and Broncos.

New England has won an unthinkable six in a row and it looks like the Patriots are going to the playoffs for the first time since 1986. Anything is possible. The future is infinite.

Parcells got the Gatorade bath yesterday, but still wouldn't budge when asked if his team was a "contender."

"I really don't know what to think of this yet," said the Big Tuna. "Other than today was their finest hour. I can't think of anybody that's come in here and done it."

Nobody has done it. Teams do not come to Buffalo and dismantle the Bills. In the words of Dan Kraft, son of owner Bob Kraft, and director of Patriots corporate marketing, "This is getting scary."

He's right. The Patriots used to be scary in the negative sense. They were a team awash in lawsuits, cartoon characters, bad players and abject buffoonery. Now they are scary the way good teams are scary.

The Bears do not want to play the Patriots next week. No wild-card hopeful wants to play the Patriots. The Dolphins, Chargers, Browns and Steelers can think of conference teams they would rather play than New England. Nobody wants to play the hot young team with young Achilles at quarterback and mighty Zeus roaming the sideline.

Parcells and his players insist that they're taking things week-by-week, but we can see that the future is infinite.

"I just think we're a team that people have to reckon with from now on," Patriots captain Vincent Brown said. "It used to be that you'd tell people in the NFL that you're from New England and they'd say, 'Better luck next year.' Nowadays it's a different story."

The Patriots are the story. They are the national story. Yesterday they did the country a favor by effectively bouncing the Bills from playoff contention. Buffalo will not live to kill another Super Bowl and football fans of America can thank the Pats for delivering the KO punch.

It was a remarkable afternoon. New England trailed, 17-3, early in the second quarter. Experts, and ex-NFL coaches who double as experts, nodded sagely and reminded us that the Bills were still proud and still talented. This was going to be Buffalo's last shining moment.

No. The Patriots went to work and ripped off 38 unanswered points -- on the road -- against a team that has played in the last four Super Bowls. New England committed zero turnovers and forced Buffalo to fork it over four times.

"This is like Dracula," Parcells said. "You've got to put a stake in his heart and then you still wonder if it's in there."

The players in the Patriots locker room are a decidedly boring lot, even after games like this one. His Tunaship wants it this way. No one is to say anything that could light a fire under the next opponent. There is no room for cockiness or stream of consciousness. And so few of his guys yesterday said anything about knocking off the champion Bills, or kicking butt in Chicago next week. It is not their way. Send all inquiries to those who followed Parcells' Super Bowl champions in East Rutherford, N.J.

Though they don't speak from the heart, they play with heart. This was evident when they trailed, 17-3, and didn't fold, and again later when Patriots defenders forced three quick fumbles with bone-crushing hits.

What is there left to say about Drew Bledsoe (22-for-31, three TDs, no interceptions)? Barring injury, next week he should set records for most passes and most completions in an NFL season. And he is 22 years old, the new Larry, the new Orr, the new Yaz.

And so the torch has been passed to a new generation of AFC titans. And the glow from that flame can keep us warm in a cold, barren winter when the Celtics stink, the Bruins are locked out and Red Sox are on strike.

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