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Wake-up call is no cause for alarm

FOXBOROUGH -- They remind you of Bill Murray in ''Groundhog Day." Last night, the Patriots unveiled yet another championship banner, owner Robert Kraft congratulated the fans decked out in yet another one of his trademark two-tone shirts, and his football team went out and won yet another game in its stadium.

You've seen it all before, but you don't mind. It has become our favorite bedtime story, how Kraft transformed the Patsies, the unofficial league doormat, to the PATRIOTS!, the signature franchise that is the envy of the NFL. The pomp and the circumstance and Green Day and Santana and the national guard and Ozzy Osbourne (bet the networks had their hand firmly fixed on that delay button while he was singing) were all part of the pageantry, but what we really wanted to know last night was if it's humanly possible to expect this franchise to duplicate its elite status for a third consecutive season.

One thing at a time. For starters, New England left Gillette Stadium last night with a curious 30-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders, its 21st straight triumph at home. Winning never gets dull, even when your football team barely resembles the steely championship contender you just know it will become. But then, we knew this version of Patriots Day would be a work in progress, didn't we? Tom Brady still has a golden arm, Rodney Harrison still delivers Instant Jell-O hits, and the world champions still know how to close the deal.

But there are changes that come with each season, and New England exhibited some of those growing pains last night. Its special teams, usually a point of pride, were not that sharp. The defense looked, at times, extremely vulnerable.

The running game was stuck in neutral for much of the first half.

''There was some pretty bad football out there," admitted Brady.

Ah, but get ready for the bottom line: As they've done so many times before, the Patriots made critical plays when it mattered, such as 325-pound defensive lineman Vince Wilfork picking off a Kerry Collins pass that was jarred loose by the ever-reliable Jarvis Green. That turnover ultimately served as the impetus for a Corey Dillon 8-yard touchdown run, and a 23-14 cushion for the home team. In other words, it assured fans when they woke up this morning at 6, the big picture would have not been altered.

''Some stuff happened early," acknowledged safety Harrison. ''It was a matter of a lack of communication on the field, some first-game jitters. On that first [Oakland] drive, we didn't do really well. But after they scored, we looked at each other and said, 'OK, calm down, play football.'

''We did just enough to win tonight."

Didn't anyone tell the Oakland Raiders the script clearly specified it was the Patriots who were to march down the field on the very first series and punch it in the end zone? That's how it's always been.

Yet just like in ''Groundhog Day," you learn every time to relive the moments. And so, the new script calls for Collins to complete a 2-yard touchdown pass barely four minutes into this game to give Oakland a 7-0 lead.

Very quickly, New England determined there was a reason Oakland's defense was ranked 30th in the league last season: The Raiders have trouble covering people. The Patriots' receivers looked so ridiculously open, you wondered if the Raiders were missing a player out there.

So, if all that is true, why is it that the Patriots found themselves behind, 14-10, with 8:52 left before intermission? Why did New England take so long to put away this once-proud franchise, which will forever be branded with owner Al Davis's mantra of ''Just win, baby"?

Because the champions did not play like champions -- not yet, anyway. They were curiously flat for large parts of the game. They committed penalties. They actually failed (gasp) to convert on a fourth and 1 at the Raiders' 31-yard line early in the third quarter. And get this -- the most redoubtable Patriot of them all, kicker Adam Vinatieri, actually had one of his extra points blocked. Many in the sellout crowd missed this play because they're so accustomed to Vinatieri converting everything, they didn't even bother to look.

Just as well.

''This game is over," declared safety Eugene Wilson. ''We'll look at the film tomorrow, then put it behind us."

We can only imagine how such maddening errors sat with the team's offensive coordinator and head coach, Bill Belichick. He might have expected some uneven moments, but this? This will not do. You can be sure that point has already been driven home with the same ferocity with which Harrison leveled punt returner Chris Carr in the second half.

The positives, we should tell you, might also have a familiar ring to them. Last season's Super Bowl MVP, Deion Branch (seven catches, 99 yards, TD), looks like he's ready to have another big year. Brady (24 of 38, 306 yards, two TDs) continues to exhibit a knack for mixing the right amount of moxie and patience when locating his receivers.

Dillon (two TDs) still knows where to find the end zone. Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel still know how to come up with big plays on the other side of the ball. And the new defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, wasn't afraid to mix things up, including going with a 4-3 alignment that proved to be effective.

''When we went to the 4-3, I thought we gave them some problems," said Vrabel. ''We're going to make changes every week on the fly. We've got a lot of different ways of being aggressive."

It wasn't exactly business as usual, but any NFL coach will tell you that in the first five weeks of the season, a win is a win, and just be glad you got one.

''I'm glad we're not peaking in Week 1," offered Brady. ''It's a long season, and we'll get better. Obviously, we made a lot of mistakes, but we played better than the guys we were out there with."

The cast of ''Groundhog Day" got to live their dream another day, but when that alarm clock goes off this morning, you can be sure their coach will make sure it serves as a metaphorical wake-up call.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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