As usual, they do what it takes
FOXBOROUGH -- They shut the door on the Cowboys' dreams last night and the Cincinnati Bengals opened the door for the Patriots to dream if they want to . . . not that they'd consider such a thing. Last night at Razor Blade Field the Patriots won in their now predictable moderately ugly way. They held off NFC East-leading Dallas with a crushing defense and just enough offense to get by, posting a 12-0 victory that lifted their record to 8-2, a game behind AFC-leading Kansas City. The Chiefs' loss to the Bengals earlier dropped Kansas City to 9-1 and made it at least reasonable now for New England to think not only of winning the AFC East title but perhaps finding some way to gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs if a few more things go right for them.
New England now leads its division by two games over struggling Miami (6-4) and is tied with Indianapolis for second place in the AFC's overall standings behind Kansas City and ahead of 8-2 Tennessee by virtue of having won a head-to-head matchup. In two weeks, the Patriots will get a shot to do the same to the Colts on the road and a win in Indianapolis would leave the Patriots with only the Chiefs to worry about in the battle for home-field advantage in the postseason.
That is a most valuable commodity, as seems to be proven almost every postseason. Of course, Bill Belichick would turn white and do his best impression of one-time Colts coach Jim Mora if such a subject were broached at the moment
"PLAYOFFS?!!" he'd screech, the way Mora did when that subject came up a couple of years ago in Indianapolis just as the Colts were falling apart.
Still, it might be a subject worth exploring except that no one in the Patriots locker room would consider taking a peek at such possibilities.
"Every game is like a season to us," Pro Bowl offensive lineman Damian Woody reminded when the subject of what might be was brought up.
"This team can't afford to look into the future. We aren't good enough to dwell on the future. Houston beat Buffalo in Buffalo. That's more than we can say.
"They'll be a formidable challenge. It's not like teams are blowing them out. And it's not like we're blowing anybody out either."
That is certainly true and, frankly, a bit disquieting despite their 8-2 record and last night's shutout of a Cowboy team that had won seven of its last eight games. What New England did last night was play nearly as conservatively as the Cowboys, keeping their mistakes to a minimum and taking few chances offensively while biding their time until young Dallas quarterback Quincy Carter cracked under the strain of it all and made several ill-advised throws.
Those were turned into three interceptions, including one after Dallas had driven to New England's 19-yard line late in the third quarter with the score still only 9-0. A touchdown there and a field goal could have beaten the Patriots and the tone of everything that was said and thought after the game would have been different. But the Patriots didn't let them score. Instead, Ty Law made the first of two picks when a Carter pass was thrown slightly behind tight end Jason Witten. He bobbled the ball trying to catch it and Law flew in and picked it out of the air. Although there was plenty of time left, the game was over at that point because there was little reason to think Dallas would do enough on offense after that to win.
"They played a lot better than we did tonight," Dallas coach Bill Parcells said. "We just didn't give ourselves a chance to win the game. I thought maybe there, late in the third quarter where we had one decent drive if we could have gotten on the board there we might have made it close.
"But as happened all night, we just kind of self-destructed. It was a good play by Ty Law but it was kind of a little bad luck too. But they played better than we did. They deserved to win. I think they're a good, solid club. I really do. I think they've got a good shot."
Well, at least somebody said it, although being a football coach it didn't take Parcells long to take it back. At least a little bit.
"Hey, they got a lot of football left to play too," Parcells said. "I'm not anointing them but I think they've got a good team compared to what we've been playing against and what we've seen."
What they've played against so far are the Eagles and the Buccaneers and not a whole lot else as far as playoff contenders are concerned but having said that let's look at the simple facts.
The Patriots are 8-2 and one game away from having the best record in football with six games to play.
They hold a two-game lead over their only competition in the division with a game against them at home at a time of year (Dec. 7) when the Dolphins tend to wrap themselves in the fetal position.
They are refusing to give up much more than two touchdowns a game under most circumstances, which means their suspect offense doesn't have to do much, although when it has been asked to its come through against the Titans, Broncos, and Eagles, three teams against whom they averaged 33 points per assault.
So, what do we have here? Do we have an elite team on the edge of not only winning its division but also home-field advantage throughout the playoffs or do we have a flawed team whose offense will prove to be its Achilles' heel?
Frankly, we have both but after last night forget about the Achilles' heel for the moment and listen to what Belichick thinks.
"You know, I think this team is trying to take on the kind of theme each week of, you know, do what we need to do," Belichick said. "Some weeks it's one part of the game or one type of game but we just find a way to win."
If the New England Patriots can just keep doing that the question won't be can they hold off the Dolphins. It will be: Can the Chiefs hold them off?
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.