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Messy but satisfying

HOUSTON -- How do you outgain an opponent by 303 yards and still end up having to go deep into overtime just to beat them by a field goal? Frankly, you have to work at it.

Yesterday that's what the Patriots did. They worked.

They worked hard at finding ways to keep the Houston Texans alive and then they worked harder at killing them off. A lot happened in between, and much of it wasn't pretty, but in the end they accomplished both and left Reliant Stadium with a 23-20 overtime win that was far more difficult to procure than seemed necessary.

Under most circumstances if a team racks up 472 yards of offense, runs 92 plays, passes for 368 yards and two scores, hits five throws of 19 yards or more, and averages 5.1 yards per play, it doesn't win in overtime. It wins by halftime.

But when you have a punt and a field goal blocked, throw two interceptions, and fumble twice and lose one of them, you do for your opponent what it could not do for itself. You play in a Biblical way. You do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You try to give the game away.

Yet try as they might, the Patriots couldn't do it. They couldn't give the game to the Texans in part because Houston wasn't good enough to accept their largesse and, to a much larger extent, because at the most critical moments the Patriots refused to lose. They were willing to conspire against themselves but when it came down to crunch time they insisted on doing the things that kept themselves alive.

The story was much the same in Buffalo, where the Indianapolis Colts tried mightily to lose to the Bills but in the end found a way to escape with a 17-14 victory that sets up a showdown next Sunday at the RCA Dome in Hoosierville between the 9-2 Patriots and the 9-2 Colts in a battle for postseason positioning in the AFC playoffs -- assuming, of course, that both teams do not continue yesterday's efforts at self-immolation.

If that happens, nothing else will matter, because a team cannot often do the things the Patriots did against the Texans and win. Having said that, it's equally true that occasionally a team will play as they did yesterday, and if it still finds a way to win it has done the kind of thing that will serve it well in the future.

"Winning close games is like a habit," said Richard Seymour, the Patriots' budding Pro Bowl defensive end. "We're all creatures of habit. Winning these kinds of games is a mind-set."

True enough, but what is equally true is that one cannot afford to become the kind of team that makes a habit of turning the ball over, making special teams errors, taking too many penalties, or playing down to the competition too often, either, or things will not turn out as they did yesterday. If you walk too often on the edge in the NFL only one thing is guaranteed to you. Someone will push you over the edge.

No team can stay sharp for 16 games, however, so if a team can win on days like yesterday, on days when it is as dull as an IRS auditor, then it bodes well. The Patriots seemed to understand this as they sat, exhausted, after 3 hours and 44 minutes of football. So did the luckless Texans (4-7).

"Football is about how many plays you make, not how many quarters you play," Texans guard Todd Washington said. "It came down to five or six plays that would determine the outcome of the game. If you make them, you're victorious. If not, you're going to struggle to find a way to win. They made them."

They did and this is not the first time. They made them against Miami and Cleveland. They made them in Denver and against Dallas. As Seymour pointed out, such victories can become habit-forming. What is important if this team wants to continue its way deep into the playoffs, however, is that they not make performances like yesterday's a habit.

"We're really fortunate this week," said safety Rodney Harrison. "We made a lot of mistakes. I'm disappointed in the way we played but the thing about us is we keep fighting. One thing about this team, regardless of the circumstances we keep fighting. We know we didn't play the way we're capable of but we fought.

"We know we can't play like this every week and expect to win. When we got into the locker room after the game the mood was different. We weren't celebrating a victory. We knew we got away with one. We can't keep playing like this and be what we want to be."

What they want to be is back in Reliant Stadium Feb. 1, because that would mean they are AFC champions and Super Bowl finalists. To reach that lofty goal the Patriots can't keep struggling and stumbling around on offense. They have to become more consistent and more productive because they have now won seven straight games, but in the last five their average margin of victory has been less than a touchdown.

Such a slim margin week after week means it won't take much for victories to turn into defeats if they continue to walk so close to the edge. The Patriots understand this just as they understood they were fortunate yesterday to survive themselves.

The Texans had several chances to close the game out but were not good enough to do it. They turned the ball over the first time they had it in overtime and later went three and out on a drive that began at New England's 35-yard line. A first down or two then and Texans kicker Kris Brown would have been the hero, not Adam Vinatieri, but the Patriots wouldn't let them have them.

Will the same be true against the iron of the AFC, the Colts, Chiefs, or Titans? The Patriots would argue that regardless of the circumstance they will find a way to win, yet they quickly temper that position by admitting that to continue to play so close to the margins invites disaster.

"We know we got away with one today," guard Damien Woody said. "When Adam made the kick [a winning 28-yard field goal after having an earlier potential winner of 37 yards blocked], the feeling was, `Whoa!' We gave them every opportunity in the world to win it, but good teams find a way to win. That's the best way I can describe what happened."

It's as good as any because what happened wasn't pretty and it was far from perfect but the Patriots won anyway, and so they move on to Indianapolis for the showdown with the Colts. It very likely will be a game in which mistakes decide the outcome because the team that makes the fewest will prevail this time.

It will not be a game in which turnovers, penalties, or missed opportunities will be tolerated. It will be a game in which excellence is demanded and attention to detail will be critical. To win such a game, a team must be willing to fight, as the Patriots are each Sunday, but willing to do much more than that.

"We never give up," Seymour said. "Just because they had the ball on the 1-yard line (as the Texans did in the first quarter) doesn't mean they should get it in [which they didn't, having to settle for a field goal that would come back to haunt them].

"Statistically we should have blown them out, but because of the mistakes it came down to who was going to step up in crunch time. We made the plays at the end that have to be made. We won. But we don't want to live our life on the edge like this."

No they don't. Not if they want to stay alive for long.

in today's globe
 DOLPHINS 24, REDSKINS 23: With Fiedler game, Miami on rebound
 PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK: Faulk sitting in a power position
 ON FOOTBALL: Messy but satisfying
 PATRIOTS' NEXT FOE: INDIANAPOLIS: Ailing Colts do bang-up job
 PATRIOTS 23, TEXANS 20: Escape artists
 DAN SHAUGHNESSY: Brady's the late-game master
 FOOTBALL MONDAY: No drop in his resolve
last game
 Box score         Game log
Next game:
Nov. 30 at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 4 Radio: WBCN (104.1)

afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 9 2 0 .818 19.9 15.9
Dolphins 7 4 0 .636 18.3 15.5
Bills 4 7 0 .364 15.7 17.0
Jets 4 7 0 .364 19.1 20.1
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