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Dan Shaughnessy

Already planning ahead

Decisions, decisions. Where to stay in Arizona for the last week of January? Tempe has a nice campus atmosphere, but Scottsdale has better restaurants.

And let's hope it's not too cold at City Hall Plaza when we all come back to Boston Monday, Feb. 4. Those Super Bowl trophy rallies are a lot more fun if you can applaud without mittens or hand warmers. Wonder if Bob Kraft has some new dance steps ready for Troy Brown?

The ducks are in line and so are the Duck Boats. The Patriots start practice at Gillette Stadium this morning and it's obvious the Sons of Belichick are bound for XLII. I'm told that several members of the 1972 Dolphins are already experiencing night sweats. They know they'll soon lose their status as the only undefeated team in NFL history. It's certainly hard to see the 2007-08 Patriots finishing anywhere south of 19-0.

Exaggeration? Smerlas-speak? Maybe. Just a little. But it's hard to remember more hype, hope, and runaway optimism for a New England sports team that has yet to hold a single practice.

There was a time when we expected the Celtics to win the championship every spring. It was a local birthright in those golden days of the late 1950s throughout the '60s. It was the same when Bill Walton was added to the mix after the Celtics lost in the 1985 NBA Finals.

The Bruins of the early 1970s earned the same expectations. And when the All Star-studded, home run-hitting Red Sox got young Dennis Eckersley from the Indians in spring training '78, we were pretty sure they were finally going to win.

But looking at what's being said and written about the Patriots, it's hard to recall anything comparable. The Patriots are going all the way. Ask anyone outside Indianapolis and San Diego. The Patriots have the best owner, the best coach, the best GM, and the clutch quarterback. They came within a minute of beating the Super Bowl champs in the AFC Championship game and have reloaded with Steinbrenner fury.

Picking the Patriots to go all the way is not a local phenomenon. The Patriots sit atop Pro Football Weekly's preseason power rankings, a 5-2 favorite to win the Super Bowl. According to last Sunday's New York Times training camp preview, "Even in an age of parity, anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be a surprise." Even Tim Donaghy thinks the Patriots are a lock.

Bill Belichick won't embrace these lofty predictions. He knows it has to be done on the field, not in the newspaper or on the airwaves. And there's added pressure when everybody anoints you champ before the first whistle is blown. (Sour John McNamara actually once said, "Some people pick you to finish first just to see you get [expletive] fired.")

We think this might be the final year of Belichick's contract, but then again, those details are cloaked in confidentiality. The NFL seeps self-importance, particularly in Foxborough, where simple details are guarded like the final chapters of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

But we have eyes. And the Patriots' off-field actions since the playoff loss at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis indicate that 2007 will be a Steppenwolf season -- fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.

You know the deal. The Patriots led the eventual Super Bowl-winning Colts, 21-3, and did not capitulate until the final minute. And then Belichick and Scott Pioli went to work. They paid $20 million in bonuses to bag linebacker Adalius Thomas. They went after every wide receiver they could find. They traded for Wes Welker. They signed Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington. They brought in running back Sammy Morris and tight end Kyle Brady. Then they sold their sanctimonious soul and brought Randy Moss on board -- a move consistent with the draft day acquisition of gun-totin'/body-stompin' Miami defensive back Brandon Meriweather.

Moss and Meriweather signify the end of the Bob and Myra Era of claiming the Patriots stand apart from the rest of the NFL. Their presence also represents a message to owners, players, and fans across the country: New England means business this time. No more Mr. Nice Guy. The Patriots are going to the Super Bowl and they are taking no prisoners on the path to Arizona.

You can bet your XXXL Bruschi jersey that Belichick and Tom Brady are ready to get back to football. The grid genius and uberquarterback have been living in a Page Six/Inside Track world since the season ended. It's time for Bill and Tom to get back where they belong, on the sports pages.

This has been one wicked week here in the toy department. Cheaters, liars, dopers, and criminals have hijacked our games. Messrs. Donaghy, Vick, and Bonds, and a raft of backpedaling bikers on the mountains of France, have made farce and folly of the competitions we hold close to our hearts.

Time to get back to football. Championship-driven football. Patriot football.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at