FOXBOROUGH -- It must be January. Health club memberships are spiking, W-2 forms are arriving in the mail, dead Christmas trees are on the curbside waiting for trash pickup . . .
And the New England Patriots are winning playoff games.
The defending Super Bowl champs kicked off their 2006 playoff season last night with a 28-3 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars at frosty Gillette Stadium. Quarterback Tom Brady (three touchdown passes) improved to 10-0 in postseason play, all under the tutelage of grandmaster Bill Belichick as the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to win 10 consecutive playoff games.
''I think our best game is still out there," said veteran tight end Christian Fauria.
This must be what it felt like when Vince Lombardi called the shots at Lambeau Field in the 1960s. Now the torch has been passed to a new generation of champions and it is clear that in the 21st century, Foxborough, Mass., is the site of the NFL's feared frozen tundra.
The Patriots need to win two more games to advance to their fourth Super Bowl in five years and New England's next test comes on the road in either Denver or Indianapolis, depending on the outcome of today's playoff game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. A win by the Steelers puts New England in Denver Saturday night, a victory by the Bengals sends the Patriots to Indy one week from today. New England lost at Denver in October, 28-20. The 14-2 Colts crushed the Patriots, 40-21, in a ''Monday Night Football" game at the Razor.
But that loss was in mid-autumn, a couple of football lifetimes ago, back when New England was struggling to get healthy and Belichick was trying to integrate new players into a new system. Those Patriots started the season 4-4, but the team we've seen since Nov. 13 bares a frightening resemblance to the robotic football dynasty that has won three of the last four Super Bowls.
''We've made some improvements and got some guys healthy," said Brady (15 of 27, 201 yards passing, no interceptions). ''We've improved in all phases of the game and the defense is just playing great this time of the year."
''It took a while for everything to come together," said veteran linebacker Willie McGinest, who recorded 4 1/2 sacks, an NFL playoff record.
Jacksonville was supposed to provide some competition. The Jaguars went 12-4 in the regular season, winning two more games than the Patriots, and the Jags felt somewhat disrespected when most fans and writers urged the Patriots to do whatever possible to bring Jacksonville to New England for a first-round game. By beating Miami at home last week, the Patriots could have summoned Pittsburgh to Foxborough for the playoff opener, but the Patriots went into the tank (making it look good, of course) and got the team they wanted for first-round fodder. Once again, Belichick knew what he was doing. Jacksonville was the pigeon he wanted.
''A good win for our football team," deadpanned Belichick after the Saturday night massacre. ''A solid effort in all three phases."
For a while last night, it looked like the plan might blow up in the genius's face. It was 0-0 after one quarter and New England was clinging to a 7-3 lead at halftime. But the second half was a rout. Good coaching and veteran players can make that happen. The Jaguars were exposed as warm-weather frauds, the softest of 12-4 teams.
With New England leading, 14-3, and three minutes left in the third quarter, the Patriots broke it open on a 63-yard touchdown play from Brady to tight end Ben Watson. Rumbling like the commuter rail, Watson pulled in a short pass, ran to his right, shook off a couple of tacklers like they were pieces of lint, then took off to his left and raced toward the goal line. It was the longest touchdown pass in New England's postseason history and it sent some of the fans to the designated smoking areas to light up victory cigars.
''A huge, great effort by Benjamin," said Belichick. ''Two people had pretty good shots. He was able to keep his balance and break a couple of tackles. That was big."
You could see the air go out of the Jags after that. Smelling blood, the swarming Patriot defenders (6 sacks, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery) pressured overmatched Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich and, within seconds, Asante Samuel picked off a pass and took it 73 yards to the house to make it 28-3 with 14:46 left in the game.
The Jags amassed only 87 yards on the ground on 17 carries. With 8:58 left in the final quarter, Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio gave up on Leftwich (who's recovering from a broken ankle and hadn't played since Nov. 27) and went with David Garrard.
''We forced them into a one-dimensional game and that makes it easier for our defense when you know they're not going to run," said McGinest.
It was 24 degrees at kickoff and it looked like it might be a long night for the Patriots when Brady's first pass careened off the shoulder of umpire Chad Brown. It was part of a flag-filled, fruitless first series for the defending champs. There was more bad news in Patriot Nation after the Patriots punted. Monty Beisel came out to play inside linebacker in place of Tedy Bruschi (left calf), who was injured two weeks ago in a meaningless game against the Jets. Alas, the heart and soul of the Patriot defense never got into the game.
The Patriots scored first on an 11-yard strike from Brady to old faithful Troy Brown with 12:08 left in the first half. The Jags started to move the ball after that, but Patriots safety Eugene Wilson stopped one drive when he forced a fumble with a vicious hit on Alvin Pearman.
On Jacksonville's next drive, Leftwich moved the Jags to the 18-yard line and Josh Scobee kicked a 36-yard field goal with just more than a minute left in the half to cut New England's lead to 7-3 at intermission.
Early in the third quarter, Brady drove the Patriots 81 yards to give New England a 14-3 lead. The trickiest play of the drive came when Andre' Davis carried for 13 yards on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk. A few plays later, Davis recovered Ben Watson's fumble to put the Patriots on the 3-yard line. A Brady-to-David Givens touchdown pass completed the drive.
Then came the game-breakers. And the rout was on.
You can be sure folks in Denver and Indianapolis noticed. The Patriots may not be favored next week, but wherever they end up, they will be respected and feared.