This really was the goal. The New England Patriots would never say it, but this was it: Turn the Indianapolis Colts into a footnote, an also-ran, an oh-by-the-way story.

Mission accomplished.

With their 16-game perfect season, the Patriots diluted what otherwise would be considered one of the most successful seasons this decade. Heading into last night's regular-season finale against the Titans, the defending Super Bowl champions had only two losses. They entered the final weekend of the season as the quietest 13-2 team ever.

Really, that was - and remains - New England's goal. Muzzle the Colts.

Dominance makes others' achievements, however spectacular, meaningless by comparison. Just ask any professional golfer not named Tiger Woods.

Knowing what the Colts had in Indianapolis, the Patriots built their team accordingly. A year ago in the AFC title game, Indianapolis exposed New England's flaws, showed the Patriots to be human, made them look ordinary.

The Colts provided the blueprint that spurred the Patriots' off-season spending spree, convincing Bill Belichick that he needed to provide Tom Brady with more weapons.

Peyton Manning plus Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Joseph Addai equaled offensive explosiveness. Opponents couldn't keep up. Belichick saw it firsthand on that January night at the RCA Dome. Jabar Gaffney wasn't enough.

So the Patriots signed Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donté Stallworth. They gave Brady the toys, and in turn the offense broke just about every passing record in the league. On Saturday night against the Giants, Brady broke Manning's record for touchdown passes in a season. Moss broke the great Jerry Rice's record for touchdown catches in a season. The Patriots broke Minnesota's record for points scored in a season.

They were dominant all season, and they deserve all the credit. Still, the Patriots, and the league, have the Colts to thank. Indianapolis set the bar last year, and New England jumped over it. Now, the Patriots are gunning for their fourth Super Bowl championship this decade.

As Saturday night turned into Sunday morning at the Meadowlands, Belichick and his team celebrated their historic season. No team ever had run through a 16-game regular-season without a loss. For years, teams have chased the 1972 Miami Dolphins. But no one, not the 1985 Bears or the 1998 Vikings or the 2005 Colts, ever matched the Dolphins' perfection.

After beating the Giants, the typically buttoned-up Belichick, who downplayed his team's run all season, actually said he was happy. It was an admission that appeared to surprise even him.

"You work all year to try and win every game, and to win them all is great, and I'm very happy about it."

After the win, Belichick gave his players four days off. No humble pie to eat. No instructions other than to take some time, go home and enjoy.

With a bye this weekend, there will be plenty of time to regroup Thursday. After listening to Belichick all season, the players know the deal: The mission hasn't been accomplished.

"I don't think [16-0] has really sunk in yet for a lot of guys," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, one of the Patriots' key free-agent pickups last off-season. "I think after the season is over, we'll talk about it, but right now there's just so much left for us to do. This is a great accomplishment, but we've got more things left to do. It's not over yet. It's just beginning. But it's a great start."

That always has been Belichick's point. Really, this was the easy part. The real test lies ahead.

New England will open at home against either Pittsburgh or Jacksonville at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots crushed the visiting Steelers, 34-13, on Dec. 9. The next week, Pittsburgh, which won the AFC North, lost to the Jaguars by a touchdown.

If New England wins its opening playoff game, it very well could see the Colts again. It would be a rematch of their great regular-season game, one that lived up to its billing as the midseason Super Bowl.

That would be fitting. That would bring the Patriots full circle. They built their team to beat the Colts. They would have to do it.

Otherwise, a perfect regular season wouldn't mean much.