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Snow Doubt About It On a day filled with crucial divisional matchups, the Patriots staked their claim as the team to beat in the AFC with a whitewashing of the rival Dolphins

Tipping his cap and bidding farewell to a bustling table of family
and friends at a restaurant in Boston's Back Bay last Friday, Tom
Brady walked out into the New England night and looked skyward.
As if on cue, the first flakes of a nasty nor'easter drifted
downward. Flashing his best Jimmy Stewart smile, the one that
melts hearts from Hyannis Port to Hollywood, the New England
Patriots' quarterback climbed into his Cadillac Escalade and
zoomed off toward his suburban town house, blissfully engaged in
a wonderful life. ¶ Nearly 48 hours and some 24 inches
of snowfall later, Brady's charmed existence was on display
again, this time for a rowdy gathering of 45,378 at Gillette
Stadium in frigid Foxborough. With the Patriots leading the Miami
Dolphins 10-0, two minutes remaining and his team facing
fourth-and-10 from the Miami 37, New England coach Bill Belichick
called for an alignment specifically tailored for this situation:
a formation called Gun-Two Flood, Zing, Gap-Left Quick Kick.
Brady lined up two yards deeper than he normally does in the
shotgun, took the snap from Dan Koppen and, drawing on his
experience when he was a high school punter in the mid-1990s,
kicked the ball toward the north end zone. It took a high bounce
inside the 10 and then, as though it were on a string, softly
settled at the 1.

With that, as backup quarterback Damon Huard later noted, "Tom's
legendary status around here grew another notch. I mean, we
worked on that play in practice on Thursday, and he shanked his
first one so badly we all booed him. Then you put him on the big
stage, and you know the guy's going to give you that magic."

Four plays later New England defensive end Jarvis Green sacked
Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler for the safety that punctuated the
Patriots' 12-0 victory. Then the fans, in a spontaneous display
of choreography, threw handfuls of snow into the air to the beat
of Gary Glitter's Rock 'n Roll, Part 2. "That," said Brady, "is
what four hours of tailgating and three hours of watching
football in the cold will get you."

Indeed, Gillette Stadium was a winter wonderland on Sunday, and
the rest of the AFC had best take note. On an afternoon of
crucial divisional clashes around the league (accompanying
boxes), the Patriots (11-2) made the biggest impression. They
clinched the AFC East title and, with the Kansas City Chiefs'
45-27 loss to the Broncos in Denver, got the inside track for
home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. (The Pats hold
a tiebreaker edge on the 11-2 Chiefs.)

The buzz in greater Beantown is warranted because Brady and his
hardy bunch have, improbably, shaken off a staggering start and
positioned themselves for a second title run in three seasons. It
has been two months (four games) since the Patriots gave up a
touchdown at Gillette, where they've outscored their last four
opponents by a combined 50-9, and winter just came in like a lion
with a toothache.

"We just won a division title, and we don't think it's the last
championship we'll win this year," said linebacker Mike Vrabel,
who led a suffocating defensive effort with a sack, a forced
fumble and a fumble recovery. "It was huge to give our fans
something to remember about this blizzard. The scary thing is, we
haven't played really well yet, and I can't wait until we do."

In subduing the Dolphins (8-5), who were coming off a 40-point
outburst against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the Patriots
played well enough against their division rivals to win their
ninth consecutive game. It was a day ruled by defense, a sharp
contrast to New England's 38-34 victory in Indianapolis the
previous week. On Sunday, even in defeat, which came amid
swirling winds of up to 30 mph, not all of the Dolphins were
blown away by the Patriots. "They've got a rabbit's foot, a
horseshoe or something in their pocket," said defensive tackle
Larry Chester, "because it seems everything went their way."

Ah, Lady Luck. She seems to watch over the Patriots, a perception
dating to the infamous Tuck Rule call the last time a snowstorm
hit Foxborough on game day, in January 2002. That ruling negated
an apparent Brady fumble and allowed the young quarterback a
second chance to pull out a playoff victory over the Oakland
Raiders, thus extending a season that would end with his
collecting the Super Bowl MVP trophy after New England's upset of
the St. Louis Rams. Last year, Brady's second as a starter, the
Pats leveled off with a 9-7 campaign that left them out of the
playoffs, further stoking the skeptics who viewed their
championship as a fluke.

This year? Well, in addition to sweeping the Dolphins, New
England has been fortunate enough to beat the Eagles, Titans,
Broncos, Cowboys and Colts for a 7-0 mark against teams with
winning records. The Patriots have started a league-high 42
players because of injuries, and five opening-day starters
(including pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, their marquee
free-agent signee) are on injured reserve. "We are a very
resilient team," said cornerback Ty Law, who had one of New
England's two interceptions on Sunday. "We're not making any
excuses about the injuries or all the questions that came after
the thing with Lawyer." That would be Lawyer Milloy, New
England's Pro Bowl strong safety and its popular defensive
captain, released five days before the team's season opener
against the Buffalo Bills when he refused to take a pay cut. The
next day the Bills swooped in and signed Milloy to a multiyear
deal. Dazed and confused, the Pats shuffled off to Buffalo and
got pounded 31-0.

The stunning sequence was especially tough on Brady, who couldn't
help but take Milloy's departure personally. In the days before
the move Brady had lobbied team owner Robert Kraft and his son
Jonathan, the franchise's vice chairman, not to release his
friend and teammate. After the move was made, Brady bluntly
expressed his displeasure to Belichick. "It was a difficult
time," Brady says. "I had never been through something like that
before, and it really drove home the point that this is a

Like Brady, whose nights on the town and supposed celebrity
girlfriends provide fodder for Boston's gossip columnists, Milloy
was not averse to the occasional pursuit of pleasure. While the
quarterback and safety were not as inseparable as the conjoined
characters portrayed by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in the new
Farrelly brothers comedy Stuck on You, they often socialized.
Last spring the two were sipping drinks at SkyBar in Miami's
South Beach when Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the writer-directors
who hail from Rhode Island and are Patriots season-ticket
holders, walked in with Damon, Kinnear and other cast members.
Having met the players at previous team functions, the Farrellys
asked Brady and Milloy if they wanted to be in the film.

The following day the two players were cast as computer geeks
who, Brady says, try to use their cyber expertise "to give Cher
some extra booty." Brady, who earned his Screen Actors Guild card
with a speaking part in the film, then flew back to Boston
without removing the synthetic, lamb-chop sideburns he had donned
for the role. "Usually, when I land at Logan, it's a pretty big
scene," Brady said at the dinner table last Friday night, as two
of his older sisters, Julie and Nancy, rolled their eyes. "But
this time no one noticed me. I had a wool cap, sunglasses and the
lamb chops, and people were coming up to Lawyer and asking for
autographs while I sat next to him, reading a magazine."

Brady quickly realized that he had to set aside his anger over
Milloy's departure and focus on pulling the team back together.
The day after the loss to the Bills, Rodney Harrison, a 10-year
veteran signed last March following his release by the San Diego
Chargers, reminded Brady that "Lawyer was over there celebrating
on [Buffalo's] sideline. He's doesn't feel sorry for us, and
neither will anyone else."

Brady, who was picked off four times in the opener, has completed
nearly 60% of his passes for 3,050 yards, with 15 touchdowns and
another eight interceptions. While those numbers aren't
overwhelming, Belichick believes his quarterback should at least
be in the conversation when it comes to league MVP candidates. "A
quarterback's play is usually reflected in his team's record,"
Belichick said after Sunday's game, in which Brady (16 of 31, 163
yards) coped with the elements by employing a throwing style he
practiced during his college days at Michigan. With a harder
grip, Brady sacrifices distance for a tighter spiral--not unlike
a baseball player who chokes up on his bat.

Still, the only points the New England offense could generate on
Sunday came on Adam Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal with 1:46 left
in the first quarter, and New England's 3-0 lead appeared tenuous
as the Dolphins opened up their attack in the second half. The
defense, which held Miami to 134 total yards, won this game for
the Patriots. Late in the third quarter, with Miami facing
third-and-three from the New England 10, the blitzing Harrison
hit Fiedler, forcing a fumble that Vrabel recovered. Then, with
8:59 left, linebacker Tedy Bruschi reached up to snatch Fiedler's
pass to wideout Chris Chambers and shimmied five yards to the end
zone, setting off the first of many snow-throwing celebrations.
"Seeing that snow flying got me in the holiday spirit," said
Bruschi, who has returned his last four interceptions for a
touchdown. "It made me want to go home and sit in front of the
fire by my Christmas tree."

Brady, naturally, had grander plans. Ninety minutes after
Sunday's game he and childhood friend Kevin Brady--the two aren't
related, though their behavior suggests otherwise--climbed into
the Escalade and headed to New York City, where they would attend
the following night's premiere of Stuck on You. "I've never been
to a premiere," Tom Brady said as he cruised through Connecticut
on I-95. "It should be a really cool scene."

Brady then spoke excitedly about his team's prospects. "I know we
haven't really reached full stride yet," he said. "It was nice
getting those [division champion] T-shirts after the game, but I
think we're looking for other T-shirts, if you know what I mean."

Asked about his perfectly placed punt, Brady flashed his
signature smile and said, "That's the same way I hit my
seven-iron." He laughed, then admitted, "No, it was just luck."

Whatever--life is wonderful in New England, and we all know who
has the starring role.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER BUNCH OF FLAKES Making the most of what the blizzard left behind, New England fans tossed snow to the beat of the Gillette Stadium music as they celebrated their team's AFC East title.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN GRIPPING Brady altered his throwing motion to battle the elements and was an efficient 16 of 31 with no turnovers.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN WORKHORSE Patriots tight end Daniel Graham hauled in six passes on a day when yards were hard to come by.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER TURNING POINT Harrison (right) swung the momentum back to the Patriots when he forced Fiedler's third-quarter fumble.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER FITTING END Bruschi gave the Patriots breathing room when he returned an interception for the game's only TD.

Harrison told Brady that he needed to put Milloy's release behind
him: "He doesn't FEEL SORRY FOR US, and neither will anyone else."

It has been two months since the Patriots gave up a touchdown at
Gillette Stadium, and winter just came in LIKE A LION WITH A

"We just won a division championship," said Patriots linebacker
Mike Vrabel, "and we don't think it's THE LAST CHAMPIONSHIP we'll
win this year."
Michael Silver's Open Mike, every Thursday at