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How do they do it? Every which way but lose

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They win at home.


They win on the road.

They win when the sun is shining and the fans need their shades.

They win when it's classic football weather and a sweater and medium-weight jacket are all the fans need to be comfortable.

They win when snow falls and you can't see the yard markers.

They win when it's clear enough but it's c-c-c-c-c-cold, the way it was last night.

They win on Sunday afternoon, early or late.

They win on Sunday night.

They win on Monday night.

They win on Saturday night.

To borrow a phrase, they just win, baby.

The New England Patriots have won 11 consecutive games. They took care of the New York Jets by a 21-16 score at Giants Stadium last night, and what was true before this weekend began is still true, even more so. They can wrap up the first seed in the AFC postseason pecking order next week no matter what anyone else does. The operative phrase is "control your own destiny," and that is exactly what the Patriots are doing. They are in charge.

"We expect to win," said coach Bill Belichick. "That's our attitude. This week is no different than any other week."

The way they win, well, that's part of the charm. They won this game by running eight (8) plays from scrimmage in the first quarter, one of which was a punt. They won despite not reminding anyone of the Indianapolis Colts on offense, but that's not who they are. They won because they made some four-star plays on defense, not to mention a bunch of three-star and two-star ones to back them up. As a general rule, if you intercept five passes and do not turn the ball over yourself, you are going to win. That's the way the NFL usually works.

But there was a little wrinkle in this one. For the first time since Nov. 3 of last year, the Patriots had a 100-yard rusher. Remember what was said when Antowain Smith was not activated for the Colts game Nov. 30? That there are horses for courses, and the turf inside a dome might not be his optimum surface? And that when December came and the temperature dropped and an entirely different brand of football was required to win, there would once again be a place for Antowain Smith? It was all true, every last syllable. The windchill was 20 degrees at game time last night, and Antowain Smith was a feature back and Antowain Smith ran the ball as if he had undergone a leg exchange with Ahman Green at Mass. General (OK, a slight descent into hyperbole).

He might not have been that good, but he was good enough. He had one run of 30 yards. He had another of 23. He wound up carrying the football 18 times for 121 yards. Sure enough, December has come and Antowain Smith is once again making himself useful, in this case coming up, amazingly enough, with not just his best yards-per-carry one-game average as a Patriot (6.7) but also the best he has put up since his rookie season, 1997, when he carried the ball 12 times for 129 yards in a game against the Colts.

The thing about this team is that just about everybody who suits up is useful. Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli and the scouts have found 53 players who are all about one thing, and that is winning football games. Week after week, the Patriots get a lead and simply don't give it up. The worst that happened last night was allowing the score to be tied at 7-7. But once it got to be 14-7, when Willie McGinest picked off a pass he'd tipped and returned it 15 yards for his first score since Oct. 27, 1996 (101 games ago for him), you really could stop worrying. The Patriots were in charge.

Oh, sure, the Jets moved the ball up and down the field several times, and they were still in the game -- technically -- until a Eugene Wilson interception closed the door for good with 40 seconds left. But if you were watching the game closely, you knew if it wasn't Eugene Wilson it would be Ty Law, and if it wasn't Ty Law it would be Rodney Harrison, and if it wasn't Rodney Harrison it would be Tedy Bruschi, and if it wasn't Tedy Bruschi it would be Mike Vrabel, and I think you get the point. The Patriots had already picked off Chad Pennington four times. There was no reason to think there wouldn't be a fifth. And there was.

The defense is so good and so clutch it can overcome any gaffes committed by the offense. Like, just what was Charlie Weis thinking when he ordered up an end-around pass on first and 10 at the Patriots 45 with them holding a 21-16 lead with just under eight minutes to play? That cutesy play backfired, big-time, when David Givens wound up passing the ball to Tyrone Carter, who happened to be wearing one of the green jerseys. If Charlie was auditioning for Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, on hand to scout Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in his search for a replacement for fired Jim Fassel, he couldn't have made a worse decision, especially since Crennel then came up smelling sweet indeed when he called for a third-down blitz on the ensuing Jets possession, and it resulted in a series-ending sack.

Apropos of the Giants coaching sweepstakes, therefore, it was Romeo 1, Charlie 0.

But we digress. Everyone wishes both these gentlemen well, and if one of them winds up with a head job next year, that's just fine. But there is still much unfinished business. As well as the Patriots are playing, they have not yet clinched anything other than a home game during wild card weekend. A victory next week against Buffalo would take care of everything, eliminating the need to investigate tie-breakers.

The fact that the opponent is Buffalo, and that so many people were in sky-is-falling mode after the first game of the season (Buffalo 31, Patriots 0), means that Belichick should have little trouble getting everyone's attention this week.

While it would be nice to see the Patriots reciprocate with a 55-7 payback, that's not likely. The Patriots will probably do it in their usual fashion, which means a defensive touchdown or, at least, a score or two set up by the defense. It means a couple of big plays by Tom Brady. It might mean a key contribution from someone on special teams. It's probably not going to be a glamorous win, because this is just not a glamour team.

So what is it, then? It's a winning team; that's all. Chad Pennington doesn't have any difficulty understanding it. "It's never been one facet of the game that's kept their streak alive," he said. "It's been their M.O. all year. That's why they're 13-2. It's why they'll be playing for what we all want to play for, and that's a championship ring."

They -- are you ready? -- find a way to win. Every week. It's a cliche, but all cliches are grounded in truth.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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