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Reason for the streak? It happens

FOXBOROUGH -- It seems to happen every Sunday. That's the one thing opponents of the New England Patriots can count on these days. Something will happen.

You never can guess just what. You never can predict who or how or why. But the one constant in what has become a 21-game winning streak is that at some point the Patriots' opponent becomes a co-conspirator in its demise.

They do not overwhelm, these Patriots don't. Annihilation is not the Patriot Way. Knockout by velvet hammer is more the approach.

Yesterday it was the New York Jets who left the mystified victim. They came to Razor Blade Field as the least-penalized team in football. They came here as the AFC leader in turnover ratio, having lost the ball only four times in five victories while knocking it loose 13 times. They came here knowing they had to play as error-free as possible because they had watched on film one team after another fail to do that against the Patriots and pay the price. So what happened?

Velvet Hammer 1, Opponent 0.

"Playing New England is very much like playing chess," Jets running back Curtis Martin said after his team had been checkmated, 13-7, because it made penalites when it had not been making penalties and lost the ball when it had not been losing the ball. "You got two good people playing chess, the one who makes the mistake usually loses. You can't make mistakes with them.

"You make the mistake and they capitalize on it and win the game. You come into New England, you know, just common sense tells you you can't make mistakes and beat them. You don't feel they're better than you but somehow they get it done. You have to respect that."

The rest of the teams in the National Football League respect what the Patriots have accomplished but they are also mystified by it. They seldom dominate. They are not the Steel Curtain or the Purple People Eaters or The Greatest Show on Turf or Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust. They are not The Seven Blocks of Granite or The Doomsday Defense.

They are just The Team That Will Not Lose. You may beat them, if you have the heart and the mind control and the will, but they will not help you. They will not lose in the way so many of their opponents have in all these long weeks and months of endless victory. They will not destroy themselves.

"That team is so good you can't give them chances and make it harder on yourself," said Jets guard Pete Kendall. "The Patriots have turned the corner and become the premier team in the league. We knew our preparation had to be sharp mentally but I didn't get the sense that we had that BGS [big game syndrome] where the players are uptight, the coaches are uptight.

"We recognized this was going to be our biggest test. We knew we needed to play well and limit mistakes but we never felt we had to play perfect to have a chance. We didn't feel like we were up against the weight of the world. It all played out as planned. Except the final score. You have to tip your hat to the Patriots because they made more plays than we did. They made them when they counted and so we are where we are."

Where the Jets are this morning is second-best. They're 5-1, a record to be proud of, but not 6-0. They are good and getting better, but they are not yet the Patriots, and the reason had as much to do with themselves as with New England -- although in the end you have to wonder if the pressure of facing The Team That Will Not Lose wears an opponent down mentally until they . . . snap!

How else do you explain the least-penalized team in football ending up with 12 men on the field on a punt early in the second quarter, resulting in a turnover of omission? New England got the ball back and because it was fourth and 1 the penalty resulted in a first down. Six plays later Adam Vinatieri kicked a field goal.

Same was true with 18 seconds left in the first half and New York now leading, 7-6. It was second and 9 at the Jet 13 when Tom Brady threw an incompletion. It should have been third down but Dwayne Robertson was called for roughing the passer. Now it was first and goal at the 7. Two plays later Brady threw a touchdown pass to David Patten for what proved to be the victory margin.

Small things. Tiny errors. Their opponents make them more often than they do. Who knows why except that when it happens week after week (remember just seven days earlier Seattle had first and 10 at the Patriot 17 with a chance to tie the game and committed three straight penalties to all but take it out of the game?) the presence of the Patriots has to have something to do with it.

Partially it is that they so seldom make the same kind of errors. Partially it is how uncannily they seem to seize on the mistakes of their opponents and make them pay dearly for them. But perhaps some of it is simply the knowing that it is so.

Perhaps, as Kendall said, no one mentioned the word perfect last week as the Jets prepared to play The Team That Will Not Lose, but, as Martin made clear, they understood the kind of chess game it was going to be. And then they fumbled once, had 12 men on the field at a terrible moment, hit the quarterback illegally and a game was lost.

Same story for The Team That Will Not Lose just about every Sunday. Not a crushing defeat. Not an overwhelming beating. Not a pummeling. Just a day that ends with another team trudging into its locker room knowing it could have been different. But for 21 games it hasn't been.

"I don't know what it is," Kendall said. "It just seems to happen every game for them. Here or on the road. They're the class of the league right now but we know we can play football with them. They just made the plays when they had to. It's simple. If you make the fewest number of turnovers and the fewest number of mistakes you win the game."

Just ask the Patriots. That, as much as anything, seems to be their formula. They are Bobby Fischer you are Boris Spassky. They are Deep Blue, the IBM computer, you are Garry Kasparov. You blink, they win.

"You can't afford to make many mistakes against a team like that," Jets wide receiver Justin McCareins admitted after a ball just slipped off his fingertips in the end zone for what would have been the winning margin. "We knew it would come down to the end. I've made catches like that before. I didn't this time. If you get chances against them you've got to make the most of them. We didn't."

And so they joined the long list.

"A lot of teams have had chances," Jets coach Herman Edwards said. "All you can ask for is a chance to win at the end. We had that chance. We didn't make the plays. Errors kill you, but you gotta take your hat off to New England. It's 20-odd games now."

That's what the bulk of the victims of the Patriots' winning streak have felt when it was over and they somehow had lost a game they knew they could have . . . should have? . . . won. Odd game.

Twenty-one times now. Odd game.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe just the Patriots' game. 

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