Tuesday October 30th, 2007

We can argue the pros and cons of their no-holds-barred approach. We can moralize or philosophize about the message it sends or the long-term wisdom of employing such a strategy. But there can be no debate about whether the New England Patriots are running up the score on their out-classed opponents this season.

The answer is, of course they are. Y-E-S. You bet your hand-held video camera they are. For an organization that covets its secrecy in matters great and small, that much is as easy to decipher as that gaudy 52 spot the Patriots hung on the scoreboard against Washington on Sunday. Or the 49-point effort that New England put forth the previous week at Miami. Or the 48-point display at Dallas the week before that.

The point is -- and this can't be overstated -- the Patriots don't care. They're doing it. They know it. Their opponents know it. And the hard, cold truth is that no one has been in position to stop it.

If you thought they weren't playing by the rules before Spy-gate, that has been even more the case since their embarrassing Week 1 video-taping scandal. It's just that the rules that Bill Belichick and Co. are now ignoring are of the unwritten, unspoken variety.

It's fair to wonder if New England's pour-it-on mindset will leave it vulnerable to any repercussions in the season's second half. Will some humiliated defender put a target on Tom Brady's back, or try to take out his frustrations via a cheap shot on Randy Moss' slender frame? Revenge, of course, is a two-way street, and the Patriots' habit of winning big certainly isn't winning them any friends, but it may be influencing their enemies. If a team did try to take revenge, the impact on New England's Super Bowl dreams would be obvious.

"We play until the clock says 0:00," Brady said on Wednesday. "Scoring too many points has never been a problem before here."

But for now, the Patriots, their pride wounded, their sense of accomplishment and honor challenged, are determined to leave no doubt about their supremacy this season. They don't want to just win. They want to dominate. Even humiliate, in return for the humiliation they feel they were forced to endure.

There's a code among football coaches that says you ease off the gas once the game has been secured, lest you get the same treatment some day from the other side. Maybe some day it's your job on the line, and the tipping point could come via an embarrassing loss at home at the hands of a team that is far more talented than your own. That's when you hope for a little mercy from the other side. A there-by-the-grace-of-God-go-I gesture of compassion.

But no opposing team should expect that this year from Belichick and the Patriots. Because it isn't coming. They have absolutely no interest in adhering to the what-goes-around-comes-around bromide. They're going for the throat, and daring anyone to stop them.

Let's not kid ourselves, folks. The Patriots are basically flashing their favorite hand signal to their opponents and hoping they tape it. And yes, it's the universal one-finger salute. Oh, and that goes for the suits in the NFL's league office, too.

Nowhere would Belichick and the Patriots relish another blowout win more than Indianapolis, home of the defending Super Bowl champs and the team that denied the Patriots a Super Bowl trip in last January's memorable AFC title game. That 18-point blown lead at Indy galls the Patriots still, and will provide even more motivational fuel for this week's battle of unbeatens.

"We're just out there playing,'' said Belichick on Sunday, when asked about his go-for-the-jugular fourth-quarter tactics against the Redskins. They're out there playing, all right. Playing for keeps. Playing for revenge. Playing by their own code. Maybe playing to impress the BCS voters, who knows?

In some ways, you could see this all coming. When New England traded for Moss on day two of the NFL Draft, I wrote that the Patriots obviously weren't messing around any more. They meant business, and they were going for it all this season by stockpiling an overwhelming amount of talent on their roster. Overwhelming is what they've been so far through eight games, outscoring their opponents by 25.5 points per game in a league that prides itself on parity.

Then, when Spy-gate unfolded, it was clear that the Patriots had been handed their motivational hammer for the rest of the season. They would play the bitterly aggrieved, and the rest of the league would wind up paying for the indignity of New England having to defend its legacy. The Patriots' eight opponents have indeed paid dearly. New England is scoring 41.1 points per game, and has won seven of its eight games by three touchdowns or more. The Redskins on Sunday fell by a head-shaking margin of 45 points, enraging at least a few of Washington's veteran players.

Nobody in the NFL is better at getting his team to tune out the extraneous noise and chatter around them than Belichick. So while some within the league may seethe about New England's point totals, it's clear that the Patriots and their head coach don't care what anyone outside their own locker room thinks. Let others argue whether their ways are right or wrong. Fair or foul. They're playing by their own rules this season in New England. Actually, only one applies. It's a no-mercy rule.

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