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The road to somewhere

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  November 30, 2009 11:04 AM

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Personally, I’m rooting for the Saints. Under the circumstances, you should, too.

Heh, heh.

Just kidding.

But as the Patriots take on yet another unbeaten team tonight in a nationally televised affair at the Superdome, let there again be no doubt: the game means more to the Patriots than it does to the opposition. December is now just a day away as the Pats approach the final stage of their schedule -- the fourth quarter, in effect -- and only one thing stands between them and another spirited run at the Super Bowl.

A road victory against a quality opponent.

Coach Bill Belichick has spent a lot of time building up these Saints during the last week -- and with good reason. New Orleans is a perfect 10-0. The Saints have an explosive offense and, it seems, an underrated defense. Comparisons are being made between these Saints and the Patriots of 2007, the latter of which remains the only team in NFL history to conclude the regular season with a perfect 16-0 record.

At this stage, you know all the storylines, the key matchups, the players and the injuries. What you do not know is how the Patriots will respond to another test that could elevate their status from pretender to contender.

Let’s turn back the clock for a moment. When the Patriots entered this season, Tom Brady was coming off a severe knee injury and there were legitimate questions about the defense. Richard Seymour had just been traded. The Pats had almost an entirely new secondary. There was some question as to whether, privately, the Pats regarded the 2009 season as a "rebuilding’’ year, speculation that gained greater momentum when Seymour was exchanged for a first-round draft pick … in 2011.

Five games into the season, the Pats were 3-2 with road losses against the Jets and Broncos. Brady looked out of sorts and the defense still seemed vulnerable at critical times. Then came consecutive blowouts of Tennessee and Tampa Bay, victories that, in retrospect, did a great deal to restore the Patriots’ swagger and standing in a league that almost always is an oligarchy.

Here’s the problem: at the moment, the Patriots are not one of those select few. The truly elite teams in the NFL at the moment are the Colts (11-0), Saints (10-0) and Vikings (10-1). The next group includes everyone from New England (7-3) to Dallas (8-3), Cincinnati (8-3) and San Diego (8-3), among others. The simplest truth is that there is really nothing to distinguish the Patriots from those other clubs on Tier 2, though it should be noted that the Patriots are the only team among that precise group that has failed to win at least two road games.

Truth be told, the Patriots really don’t have one road win, either. Their lone victory away from Gillette Stadium came in London against wretched Tampa Bay (1-10) in what was effectively a neutral-site game.

Given all of those realities, tonight’s game makes all the difference in the world. Currently, the Pats are nip-and-tuck with the Chargers and Bengals for the No. 2 seed in the AFC, no small issue given New England’s troubles away from Foxborough. If the Pats slip to No. 3 or No. 4 in the AFC, they will be guaranteed no more than one home game. If they slip to No. 5 or worse, the great likelihood is that they will not play at home at all. Beginning tonight, the Pats will play four of their final six games on the road, a fact that would inspire even less confidence were they to lose tonight.

Two weeks ago, when the Pats lost at Indianapolis in positively back-breaking fashion, the game provided us with as much reason for optimism as pessimism. As disastrous as the final minutes of that game were, these new Pats convincingly outplayed the Colts for the better part of 56 minutes. They proved they could butt helmets with the big boys. The only thing the Patriots lacked was the poise to close out the game, a deficiency that, as we all know, came from the most unexpected of places.

Had the Patriots won that game, after all, we certainly would be looking upon them in a far different light today. Presumably, the Pats would be 9-2. New England truly would be regarded as threat to beat anyone, anyplace, anytime. Even if we believe that now, we simply do not have the proof.

But tonight? Tonight the Pats can prove that the conclusion to the Indianapolis game was the result of a fluke more than any flaw. Tonight they can prove that they can not only butt helmets with the big boys, but beat them on their own turf, too. They can prove that they belong in that select few atop the very top of the NFL entering December 2009, when the pretenders and contenders will continue to formally identify themselves.

Will the real Patriots please stand up?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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