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Somehow, they keep sailing right along


See ya, Dolphins. Later, football. The Do Not Disturb sign is on the New England locker room door for the next couple of weeks.

The Patriots are taking a brief sabbatical. The league allots for these matters by providing each of its members a week off during the course of this grueling marathon they call an NFL season.

Yesterday, the locals ensured themselves of a blissful break by wrestling away a 20-10 win over the Miami Dolphins. Despite their dismal 1-4 record, Miami hit the Gillette Stadium dirt with more resistance than the final score might indicate. Coach Nick Saban's beleaguered team was fighting to salvage its season yesterday, and its defense did an admirable job of disrupting Tom Brady and the Patriots offense.

In fact, if not for a number of fortuitous plays by New England's defense, this game well could have been the kind of tense drama that coach Bill Belichick kept insisting could unfold at any moment.

But then, you've seen this before. Your team built a dynasty by perfecting the ritual of relying on interchangeable parts that are neither dazzling nor dominant, but are, at the end of the day, dependable. That's how New England has secured its 4-1 mark and how it dismissed a division rival with everything to play for yesterday.

There have been glitches in the first chapter of this season. The offense continues to be a work in progress, and the franchise quarterback, Brady, wistfully wished aloud that his arsenal included more looks downfield for the big play.

``I have to continue to be more comfortable with all the players and continue working my reads and throws," he said. ``I don't think we are getting the ball down the field as much as I would like. I think last year, when you lead the league in passing, we made a lot of big plays, and it doesn't feel like we've made as many this year."

But Brady knows how it works. So what if his team netted only 213 total yards, and the running game, so prolific a week ago, was merely pedestrian yesterday (you might want to credit a stingy Dolphins rushing defense for that)? They put 20 points on the board, and that was 10 more than the opponent.

``This was a Patriot win," said fullback Heath Evans, who scored his first career touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Brady in the fourth quarter. ``We fill it in. Whatever is missing on a given day, we pride ourselves on picking up the slack."

Here's the kind of slack he's talking about. When Rodney Harrison leveled running back Ronnie Brown with one of his old-time, pre-injury, pop-'n-drop tackles, the ball squirted free and linebacker Tedy Bruschi fell on it at the Miami 37-yard line.

Seven plays later, a tepid Patriots offensive series was rewarded with 3 points just the same, primarily because the defense gave them such optimal field position.

Ditto for Asante Samuel's pick early in the second quarter, which gave New England the ball at the 10-yard line and enabled the Patriots to punch it in for a touchdown.

The only other foray into the end zone was also directly the result of a turnover, another interception by Samuel, who returned it 2 yards to the Miami 24. While it was Evans who hauled in the 1-yard TD strike, the biggest play on that drive was truthfully a 21-yard interference penalty on Will Allen, who forgot to play the ball on Brady's pass to Doug Gabriel and enabled the Patriots to move the ball to the 1.

Brady's afternoon ended with modest numbers (16 for 29, 140 yards), but here's what Evans means by a Patriot win. Miami quarterback Joey Harrington's totals were gaudier (26 of 41 passes for 232 yards) but he had two interceptions and zero touchdowns. Tom Terrific put the ball in the end zone twice with zero picks.

``When you play a good team like New England, you can't make mistakes," Harrington lamented, ``because they aren't going to."

That, said Evans, is the intangible that drew him to New England as a free agent after four seasons with the Seahawks and a short stay in Miami last season.

``I'm running off the field today with Junior Seau," Evans said, ``and I turned to him and said, `Aren't you glad we're finally on this side of this?' When I used to play against [the Patriots] all those years in Seattle, I'd be puzzled at the end of games. I'd say to myself, `How did they do this?'

``I still don't know half the time how we get it done, but I know one thing. It's a team thing, instead of a quarterback, or a running back, or a linebacker."

With the benefit of a scheduled breather, the Patriots now will concede how much that Denver loss two weeks ago rankled them, mostly because they strayed from their mantra of causing mistakes, not committing them.

``We feel losses more than we do wins," explained Bruschi.

The core of this football team long has taken responsibility for making sure nobody panics, points fingers, or allows any inkling of doubt to emerge. That mind-set won't always be enough -- once in a while sheer talent overtakes you -- but in a league in which football intelligence still can elevate clubs above the pack, the Patriots understand why they are among the elite this morning.

``You talk to guys who leave here -- and come here -- and the one thing I hear is it's different," Bruschi said. ``They'll say, `Man, it wasn't this way where I came from.' What I'm happy about is this is the only way I know. I don't want to know any other way."

When the team officially reconvenes against Buffalo two Sundays from now, it undoubtedly will have worked on the timing and chemistry between Brady and his receivers. With any luck at all, the battered secondary, which had Eugene Wilson on the sideline and Ellis Hobbs playing with one arm, will be healthier.

In his postgame news conference, the quarterback referenced ``the grind" of the long NFL season. No matter we're only five games into it, less than a third of the season.

``Everyone is tired," Brady said.

Bye, then. Rest now, while you can.

There is still a long, long way to go before we truly will know just where this Patriots team is headed.

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

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