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Patriots dealing with positively sorry exhibition

FOXBOROUGH -- Even when they're bad, it's good.

These world champion Patriots have taught us a new way of thinking about a local pro sports team. The competence and success of the Patriots has produced a fan base that expects good things to happen -- no small accomplishment in a region famous for another team with a nation of fans who've been trained to see a dark cloud on every horizon.

And that is why Saturday night's 31-3 exhibition drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals has been received with a startling lack of alarm. The loss is actually viewed as a positive, like a "let-that-be-a-lesson" speeding ticket to a teenage boy who just got his driver's license.

How was the beating a good thing? Let us count the ways:

* It gives coach Bill Belichick a bigger hammer. Any time the fellas get full of themselves, admiring those Super Bowl rings, the coach can dig out the Bengals films. Instant humble pie. Sort of like Ben Affleck throwing a tape of "Gigli" into the VCR every time he finds himself admiring the Oscar on his mantel.

* It was also a wake-up call. The Patriots were reminded that they're going to confront a lot of fired-up players on the other side of the ball.

* The win streak ends without actually ending. Perfect. Nobody goes 12 months without a loss. But this one didn't count.

* The "setting 'em up" factor. The Bengals actually think they can beat the Patriots now and this no doubt will serve the Flying Elvises well when the overconfident Bengals come to Gillette Stadium Dec. 12.

Naturally, Belichick won't sign on to any of the above. The coach was in a predictably crabby mood when the players reported back to work yesterday morning and had nothing good to say about what transpired in Ohio over the weekend.

Asked if anything good came out of the game, Belichick made one of those Nancy Kerrigan ("What stinks in here?") faces and said, "Not much."

Does he think the drubbing got their attention?

"I would hope that game got somebody's attention," he said. "We'll find out. We've got to walk before we run and right now we're crawling. There wasn't anything about that game that looked good.

"Am I concerned about it? I can't imagine after watching that how you could not be concerned about it."

Belichick made a lot of references to "basics" and "fundamentals."

Allow veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi to translate:

"When he talks about basics and fundamentals, that means we're going to hit this week," said Bruschi.

All of the Patriots are prepared for a rugged week of practice. They've already viewed the horror film of the Saturday night slaughter, so now it's time to get ready for the Panthers in Carolina (Super Bowl Rematch -- "This time it doesn't count") Saturday night. Traditionally, the third exhibition game is the one teams actually (almost) try to win.

Defensive lineman Richard Seymour said, "You can't jump off the bandwagon. We have some work to do, and rightfully so. We didn't put on a good show. We took one on the chin and we accept that."

"I don't look at it as a step backward," said linebacker Mike Vrabel. "You lose, you play bad, then you move forward."

"We don't ever want to lose a game," added tight end Christian Fauria. "That's not our mentality. We laid an egg, a really stinky egg. But no one's jumping ship or going crazy. It wasn't a wake-up. We weren't sleeping. We just played [terribly]."

In no other sport would an exhibition game get this much attention. The Celtics and Bruins barnstorm through their preseasons and the box scores barely make the newspapers. The Red Sox play 30 spring training games and the results are appropriately meaningless. Anybody remember who won the super-hyped Sox-Yankees joust in Fort Myers in March? (The Yanks.)

There were a couple of healthy signs in the Patriot locker room as the players prepared to return to work today. Seymour was offended when a reporter commented that the defense in Cincinnati was sieve-like. And quarterback Tom Brady did not come out to talk at all, perhaps a somber demonstration that it's time for everybody to get back to work.

So there. No big deal. It's all still good in Foxborough. Coaches and players are responding in appropriate fashion in the wake of a major beating that is officially meaningless. The Patriots' winning streak is not threatened. The Super Bowl champs are still the most talented team in their division and should win 11 or 12 games and roll into the playoffs. The exhibition humiliation was actually a good thing. Remember that.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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