PHOENIX (AP) -Routed. Romped. Annihilated.
Common descriptions for the way the New England Patriots handled the first half of their 2007 schedule.
Not to mention dismantled, demolished and pulverized.
But in the second half, those words were replaced by squeezed past, edged, even survived in five subsequent games, plus two close if not suspenseful playoff victories.
Sure, the Patriots are the only 18-0 team in NFL history, and a win over the New York Giants in the Super Bowl on Sunday will give them the first perfect season since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. And a fair claim on ``Best Team Ever.''
But they sure haven't been accused of piling on the points lately. Even some of the weaker opponents on the second-half schedule tested them, most notably the Ravens. New England needed a last-ditch drive aided by Baltimore penalties, and a dying-seconds touchdown pass by Tom Brady to win 27-24 early last month.
``The one real scare where I thought it might have been over was Baltimore,'' defensive end Ty Warren said. ``Those couple of penalties that happened, I was like, 'Here we go again.' I felt like we had a chance after those penalties. With those penalties, they let us back in the game. It gave you a chance to go down and do what we did.''
But they didn't have to do much of anything except run out the clock with their backups for so many games on the way to 10-0. Such as victory margins of 24, 24, 31, 21, 17, 21, 21, 45 and 46.
So what happened to the routs? Why have opponents led the mighty Pats in each of their last three games, including the Giants by 12 points in the third quarter of the season finale? And both the Jaguars and Chargers in the playoffs?
``We can't control who we play or who is on our schedule,'' veteran safety Rodney Harrison said. ``We go out there and try to win a football game. At first it was, 'You guys are putting up too many points.' Now, it's come around where we are only winning games by three points, and you guys started complaining about that. We are just happy to be here.''
Still, for a team with a whopping zero on the right side of the win-loss column, the Patriots have displayed certain vulnerabilities recently.
The Giants exposed the defense somewhat in that 38-35 loss to end the season. The Chargers showed that a physical approach at least gives an opponent a chance, and they also forced league MVP Tom Brady into some poor decisions and three interceptions.
Not to mention spraining his ankle.
Brady practiced Monday and has no doubt he'll play Sunday. The Giants have no doubt they can play with the Patriots - and avoid all those descriptive verbs applied to those early-season romps.
``You know they are here to make history and for us to be the first team to beat them ... I think it would be one of the most entertaining games and the best scenarios you could have for a Super Bowl,'' Giants receiver Amani Toomer said.
``I thought we felt we could beat them in Week 17, so this is a chance to reassure the fact that if we cut down on the mistakes in the fourth quarter, we'll have a great chance to win. But that game is dead. We have another game to play, and hopefully, we'll keep the same type of fire and be able to compete the same way.''
That's exactly what it will take, of course, to beat the unbeaten.
Not that the Patriots are worried about huge victory margins, covering big point spreads or setting scoring records right now. A one-point squeaker will work as well as anything.
``The regular season is tough. You've got to be sure you are bringing it every single week and that's not easy,'' Patriots receiver Wes Welker said. ``The temperature goes down and it makes it tougher to stretch the field the way you want to, and do some things you want to do. We knew this would happen down the stretch and we talked about it, and we made sure we persevered through some tougher situations as the season went on.''
Now comes the Super Bowl, where the Patriots have won three times by a margin of three points each. That's exactly the type of game they are preparing for against the Giants.
``I wasn't used to 52-7 or 52-14 or anything like that,'' said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a veteran of all three championships. ``What I've been used to my entire career are the games we've experienced in the last two months. That's what I'm used to - to have to grit your teeth and win in the fourth quarter. That's what I think this football team is all about.''

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