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The team everybody hates

Given what's happened in New England since 2005, when David Halberstam wrote his fascinating book about Bill Belichick, there are a couple of passages from The Education of a Coach that leap off the pages today:

Given what's happened in New England since 2005, when David Halberstam wrote his fascinating book about Bill Belichick, there are a couple of passages from

The Education of a Coach

that leap off the pages today:

There was a signature to a Belichick team: Whatever the opposition did in the first half, his team tended to take away in the second half.

And this, about the overall public sentiment toward the Patriots after they beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX:

The Patriots were not necessarily America's Team, as Dallas had so optimistically nicknamed itself in an earlier era, but they were an easy team for ordinary football fans to like in the new era of football.

That was 2005. This is now.

There isn't a more loathed team in the NFL than the Patriots. If they were easy to like earlier in this decade, they're certainly easier to hate now, and as they continue to push toward perfection, the dislike is only going to grow. If last week was any indication, it might get downright nasty before the month is up.

The Colts were undefeated this late in the 2005 season, and they weren't reviled like the Patriots. It wasn't even close.

Maybe it's the Belichick backlash, and how, seemingly fueled by the NFL's assessment that he cheated by filming the Jets' signals earlier this season, he has refused to take his foot off of a gagging opponent's throat. Maybe it's the Tiger Woods syndrome, in which it's just easy to root against the top cat. Maybe it's overall Massachusetts fatigue, since the Boston Red Sox have won another World Series and the Patriots are marching toward what would be their fourth Super Bowl win in this decade.

Whatever the reason, the feelings about the Patriots have trickled down to their opponents. After narrowly losing to New England on Monday night after the Patriots scored the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left, the Ravens were incensed by several brutal penalties against them. Cornerback Samari Rolle accused a referee of calling him "boy" during the game, and cornerback Chris McAlister intimated that the officials wanted New England to win.

"It's hard to go out there and play the Patriots and the refs at the same time," McAlister said. "They put the crown on top of them. They want them to win. They won."

On Friday, four Ravens were fined: linebacker Bart Scott $25,000 for verbally abusing game officials, and Rolle, McAlister and wide receiver Derrick Mason $15,000 apiece for publicly questioning the integrity of the officiating.

"This is about the importance of sportsmanship and respecting the integrity of our game," said a statement released by Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "We do not tolerate inappropriate conduct between teams and game officials. This includes reminding game officials that they are to conduct themselves at all times as professionals in their dealings with players, coaches and other club personnel."

Earlier in the week, Steelers safety Anthony Smith all but guaranteed a win at New England today. Even though Smith is just a second-year player who got his starting job when the man in front of him on the depth chart got hurt, the Patriots' reaction was swift - and elitist.

"Well-done is always better than well-said. That's been the motto of this team," quarterback Tom Brady said.

"The thing you can do as a professional athlete is just stay humble," veteran linebacker Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler, said. "That's bulletin board material. You're obviously trying to share or voice your opinion. Sometimes it doesn't come out the way it should."

Four teams have an opportunity to derail the Patriots, who have been pressed the last two weeks by the Eagles, then the Ravens, but have won with big plays late in the game. If the Steelers fail, it will be up to the 3-9 Jets - think Belichick won't try to obliterate Eric Mangini, his former protégé, who initiated Spygate? - the winless Dolphins, and finally the Giants.

If New England prevails and becomes the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to run the regular-season table, Patriots disdain will be at an all-time high.