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Power play doesn't rank with high-flying Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- National respect arrived in the form of a 12-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins last Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots had it within them long ago.


They didn't need the win, or the No. 1 seed in the AFC for the first time this season, to determine that they were a very good football team.

Yet the perceived lack of respect has been a major issue -- for fans.

When told the Patriots are No. 1 in the power rankings, left tackle Matt Light, said, "We are? Who cares? Really, who cares? What does that mean and why is that relevant to anything? It was never important and it isn't now. This is the first I've heard of that. People were upset?"

Indeed, many.

"For every one e-mail I get from fans in other cities, I get eight from Patriots fans," said Pete Prisco of CBS "They're very intelligent, educated, and absolutely out of their minds. "They're vicious and nasty, but I love it. They take it very seriously, and that's a lot better than looking around at empty seats in stadiums around the country. But then I get the Patriots fans who write me saying not to judge all Patriots fans based on what those people write, that `we're actually classy fans.' "

Prisco duped Patriots fans this week, naming the Philadelphia Eagles No. 1 on his power rankings, then fessed up, naming the Patriots No. 1. He received the usual rash of "What took so long?" e-mails.

Paul Zimmerman, alias Dr. Z, one of the top football writers in the country, acknowledges when he ranked Tennessee No. 1 three weeks ago on, he should have had the Patriots at the top. He said the letters and e-mails have stopped now that he has the Patriots atop the NFL.

The national perception of the Patriots shouldn't really matter. For some reason, it does.

"It never came up when we were 0-1 or 1-1 and it's certainly not going to come up now," said linebacker Mike Vrabel of the power rankings. "As a fan, maybe you should care, but as a player in this locker room, no. Someone asked about the games being so tight and the games coming down to the very end and how the fans love that and maybe they do. We're just trying to win them by playing hard for 60 minutes of football."

Gone are the days of the Patriots being the underdog.

But underdog was a role the Patriots enjoyed so much in 2001. They fed off it.

"We might have played up to that [underdog] a little bit," Vrabel said. "Now we're just a team that comes in every week ready to prepare."

The Patriots won their first three games in convincing fashion last season. They rose to No. 1 in the Power Rankings, and it wasn't long before they were knocked off, finishing at 9-7, and out of the playoffs. Last season, every team wanted to knock off the Super Bowl champions.

This season, the climb to No. 1 has been long. It took 13 games, an 11-2 record. It took wins against Indianapolis, Tennessee, Philadelphia, and Miami (twice) to thrust into the No. 1 spot ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs, who were the top dog for weeks.

This Sunday against Jacksonville, the Patriots are the top dogs. They have the AFC East title wrapped up. They have home field for the playoffs in their hands. They're playing at home, where they haven't lost this season. When you look at where they are now, you wonder how they lost to Buffalo and Washington.

The Patriots are playing without the motivational tools they had in '01. No need to watch Shackleton's "Voyage of Endurance."

There's a confidence now, here we are, knock-us-off mentality, but portrayed in a humble manner by the players and the coaching staff until it's time to play.

"I'm not sure we ever needed those [motivational tools]," said Vrabel. "It just seemed we were trying to fight out of a hole and finally got our head above water and let the streak carry us. Here we've established something and I don't think we need to rely on any outside motivation."

So when the fans were yelling for respect of their team, the Patriots have been oblivious.

"We haven't talked about that one bit," said Damien Woody. "We just approach it one game at a time and everything we wanted to accomplish at the beginning of the season will happen. The season isn't over. All we care about is beating the Jaguars."

Whether the Patriots are thinking about it or not, their fans are. For the moment, the e-mails to Prisco and Dr. Z have subsided. They are No. 1, and Patriots Nation is quite pleased.

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 11 2 0 .846 20.7 16.1
Dolphins 8 5 0 .615 18.5 15.6
Bills 6 7 0 .462 16.5 15.4
Jets 5 8 0 .385 18.5 19.6
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