No curse, just wins

1-29-04, 7:45 p.m.

HOUSTON _ When the officials ruled that Tom Brady didn't fumble in the snow and the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl two years ago, it was the umpire ruling the Reds' Ed Armbrister did indeed interfere with Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk in the play that led Boston a victory in Game 3 of the 1975 World Series in a series they would win, four games to two.

When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick opted to hang with Brady in favor of Drew Bledsoe during that first Super Bowl run, it was Red Sox manager Grady Little lifting ace Pedro Martinez after the seventh inning as the bullpen sealed Boston's first-ever pennant-winning victory over the Yankees this past October.

When Adam Vinatieri hammered home his 23-yard field on the last play of Super Bowl XXXVI to give New England the title, it was Bill Buckner fielding the grounder that gave the Red Sox the 1986 World Series.

No, the Red Sox aren't the Patriots, and all of New England breathes easier for that this Sunday. From Bill Belichick's high school in Andover, Mass., to his college in Connecticut at Wesleyan University.

The Patriots aren't the Red Sox and the theories abound as the once sad sack Pats bid to join the NFL elite of Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Miami and Green Bay as Super Bowl champs twice in three seasons.

Curses. Karma. Pressure. Ownership. Management. Unity.

You name it, those are the reasons. The debate is ongoing. The 25-player, 25-cab Red Sox are just no match for that all-for-one kiddie car Belichick has jammed everyone into. He'll pop out all 53 players at once Sunday here at Reliant Stadium.

"I won't lie to you, it's a baseball town," says Patriots backup quarterback Damon Huard, who couldn't help but become a Sox fan during his three seasons in New England. "We're in the middle of a Super Bowl run, and the front pages are all about the A-Rod trade. I don't think we have the pressure the Red Sox have. That's just the way baseball fans feel in that town."

Red Sox fans don't think they can win the big one. They know they can't win the big one. It kills them and delights them at the same time. Then along came the magician Belichick and the sainted Brady, and the Pats turned it all upside down by making their fans think they can win in rain (17-6 over the Giants), or sleet (12-0 over Miami), or snow (24-14 over the Colts).

"The Patriots made the fatal mistake of actually winning. In New England, we love to flagellate ourselves, which the Red Sox have allowed us to do for 85 years," says Ron Borges, The Boston Globe's long-time NFL writer. "I think if the Red Sox actually come through and win the whole thing, well, the mystique is gone. The Calvinist attitude of New England is gone. The Patriots messed it up. If they had just lost two years ago, 73-0, like somebody said."

That somebody, of course, was Borges a few hours before a game the Pats beat the favored Rams, 20-17. It's a tough town, but even Boston's "Knights of the Keyboard," (the disparaging nickname Ted Williams spat at the town's relentless press corps), are being softened by these Patriots.

"The night of the Denver game is the one that did it for me this year," says Boston Globe columnist and former Red Sox beat man Dan Shaughnessy of the 30-26 win. "It's Monday Night Football. They're in Denver. They're going to lose. But Belichick has the long snapper hike it off the goal post to create a safety to win a field position battle.

"The defense shuts them down and they end up winning that game," Shaughnessy says. "That was it for me. I said I was going to pick them every game the rest of the way and I have. Sometimes you just have to get on board and say, 'They're going to win.' With the Red Sox, you never have that, they're going to lose. Something bad is going to happen at the end."

The failed history of the Red Sox is so rich that Shaughnessy cobbled the string of Shakespearean tragedy into his 1990 book, "The Curse of the Bambino," a tongue-in-cheek treatise detailing how the Red Sox are cursed because they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. The Sox haven't won a World Series since Ruth pitched them to the title in 1918 while the Yanks/Evil Empire has won 26.

He could write the sequel just off this past Black October, when the Sox blew a lead in the eighth inning of Game Seven as Little inexplicably left in an obviously tiring Martinez even though the populace was naming children after his 1-2 bullpen tandem of Mike Timlin and Scott Williamson while they handcuffed the Yankees all series.

Throw in the Animal House outtake during Game 3, when Martinez threw at hitters and Manny Ramirez charged the mound for no reason, and the red-white-and-blue contrast to the Patriots is complete.

"The Red Sox embarrassed themselves nationally that day. They were at fault," Shaughnessy says. "The Patriots don't have overwhelming talent, yet they win. The Red Sox have always had big names, and a caste system with star treatment. Things you don't see a lot here (on the Patriots.)"

The Patriots also had a potential curse surface two years ago. Borges says The Globe checked out that the Pats' old stadium had been built on an ancient Indian burial ground, "and until the Patriots moved out of there, they were going to be like the Red Sox and not win it all. Well, the new place was being built (next door) and they weren't out of it yet, but they were on their way."

Of course, curses and spells are ridiculous (or are they if you ask Aaron Boone?), and Steve Buckley, the cold-eyed Boston Herald columnist, prefers the more freeze-dried rational approach why the Pats are the Pats and the Bosox are the Bosox.

"Better management," Buckley says. "My standard line is the Red Sox haven't won because of racism, alcoholism, cronyism. They're on their way now. (New general manger) Theo Epstein has surrounded himself with good front office people, but Grady clearly wasn't the right guy for the job. He's a wonderful guy, a nice guy, but he panicked. He wasn't up to the job."

Now contrast that to Belichick's hard-drive, Coach of the Year efficiency.

"That's Red SoxNation. Stuck in the '50s with an old-school manager flying by the seat of his pants," Borges says. "Then you've got the modern guy in Belichick surrounded by all these computers."

Marco Battaglia, the former Bengal who is a Panthers backup tight end, is a Yankee fan furious with the Red Sox. One of his good friends is Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, a subject of intense off-season trade rumors.

"They always treat their best players like that," Battaglia says. "It's not right. You can't do that. The Patriots for the last two or three years have struck me as that blue-collar team."

The Sox can't shake that Country Club image, and it didn't help that the Pats have been owned for the past 10 years by a man of the people in New Englander Bob Kraft, a former Patriots' season-ticket holder.

The Pats had their own checkered history that included, among other things, a drug scandal in the wake of their only Super Bowl appearance, the paralysis of Darryl Stingley, and a rowdy, downright dangerous crowd that couldn't get a Monday Night game for years.

But Kraft has given them stability and 104 straight sellouts, and, more impressive, has earned the praise of the pundits.

"Every pro team in Boston is trying to be like the Patriots," says Nick Cafardo, another Globe columnist who covered the Red Sox. "They're pushing the other teams. Everything they touch is turning to gold. People want to go to the games and they expect them to win."

Vinatieri has freely talked of how he could have joined the long line of New England sports infamy with a miss two years ago in New Orleans.

"The great thing about the New England fans is they are die-hard fans. Fanatical," he says this week. "They love their teams. They love to embrace them and celebrate them, and they love to talk about them when they don't do well.

"The best thing about our team," Vinatieri says, "is everybody picks up the slack for the other guy. If the other team scores a touchdown or there's a turnover, we're all trying to get it back and help each other out."

Very Un-Soxian, although that side of it is getting better as their new regime stresses chemistry instead of chaos. But no matter what the Pats do. . .

"When we were playing back in October at home, Tennessee scored a touchdown," Huard says. "And the crowd was going crazy cheering. David Ortiz had just hit a homer to beat the A's. The people were at our game, but they really weren't there."

And maybe that is the real curse of the Red Sox and the blessing for the Pats.

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