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ON FOOTBALL: Are Patriots good enough to win again?

They don't have the league's best record and they won't have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

They don't have the league's best record and they won't have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Their secondary is banged up so badly that an undrafted rookie, a linebacker and a wide receiver have played significant roles in recent games. There are concerns about a no-name offensive line, and their best defensive lineman, Richard Seymour, injured his foot on Sunday.

Are the New England Patriots done? Hardly.

Indeed, the Patriots are in better shape offensively to win the Super Bowl than they were last season. And with all the adversity on defense, they've discovered that nearly every lineman and linebacker and back on the roster can contribute.

Guys make plays,'' says strong safety Rodney Harrison, the glue of the defense.There is more focus on what they have to do when they get on the field. They look around and see how everyone is making plays and they do it, too.''

They did it against the Jets last weekend to secure a first-week bye, which they'll need to heal up. And that victory came after an uncharacteristic meltdown in Miami the previous Monday _ a loss that cost them a shot at staying in Foxboro for the entire AFC playoffs, unless Pittsburgh loses its first postseason game.

This is a team with a lot of mental toughness that battles and has a lot of strong character,'' Tom Brady said,and when you have that, you can feel proud at the end of the day.''

The Patriots have felt proud while carrying the Vince Lombardi Trophy in two of the last three years. They not only are capable of doing it again, but should be considered nothing less than co-favorites with the Steelers.

Here's why:

_ Corey Dillon gives New England a running threat it hasn't had since Curtis Martin left for the Jets in 1998. Sure, Antowain Smith was a key contributor in the two Super Bowl wins, but with Dillon the Patriots can play any style on offense. Dillon, who has set a team record with 1,519 yards rushing, is powerful and has a burst. He's also a workhorse.

Brady's receiving corps is even deeper than last year. One week, he'll turn to veteran Troy Brown when Brown is not spending most of his time as a fill-in cornerback. Another week, it's Deion Branch. Or David Givens. Or one of the tight ends.

It doesn't really matter which one is in there, I have confidence in all of them,'' Brady says.They're all playmakers.''

_ So is Brady, who never will pile up the kind of numbers Peyton Manning or Daunte Culpepper have this year. But he wins and wins and wins, with poise, intelligence and resourcefulness.

Brady reads defenses as well as any quarterback, and if an opponent doesn't get pressure on him, he becomes a surgeon.

_ The defense devised by coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Romeo Crennel is complex, and it keeps evolving. Yet the players have such a strong grasp of it that they rarely make mistakes. All the while they are befuddling opponents the way they did Chad Pennington last Sunday.

The key defenders are linebackers Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, and linemen Seymour and Willie McGinest. Their versatility and command of the intricate schemes allows Belichick/Crennel to spring surprises on offenses.

_ Adam Vinatieri simply doesn't miss big kicks. He's having another superb season and with two Super Bowl-winning kicks in his resume, does anyone think he won't come through when needed?

What the Patriots have achieved this year is just as impressive as their accomplishments in 2001 or 2003 because of the epidemic of injuries and a difficult schedule.

The road to Jacksonville will be exceptionally difficult because the four best teams in the league are in the AFC now that Terrell Owens is sidelined for the Eagles. New England might have to beat Manning and the high-powered Colts and then the rugged Steelers just to get to the Super Bowl. Or the very worthy Chargers could sneak into the AFC championship game.

But New England has frustrated Manning and the Colts in their last two meetings, both in Foxboro, where the next one would occur. And a trip to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game was the route they took in 2001.

You play with what you've got,'' Brady said,and teams that deal with it and come through are the best teams.''

Until proven otherwise, that's the Patriots.

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