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Christopher L. Gasper

Patriots tough enough to make it back to Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is exactly 11 years after the Pats won their first title.

Win McNamee/Reuters

The Super Bowl is exactly 11 years after the Pats won their first title.

The goal is to go back to where a legend was born, a dream was realized, and pro football’s deadpan dynasty was christened on Feb. 3, 2002 — New Orleans.

As fate and the NFL schedule would have it, Super Bowl XLVII will be played 11 years to the day in the same city where coach Bill Belichick and his Patriots won the first of their three Super Bowls, staging one of the greatest upsets in NFL history with a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

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By Belichick’s design, the Patriots have a team that is better than the one that lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI in February.

These Patriots have a more talented defense that doesn’t facilitate air travel so much it should come with its own baggage claim, a running game that demands the respect of defenses and not their indifference, and a No. 85 at wide receiver who actually knows the offense. (Whatever happened to Chad Whatshisname?)

The end of the Patriots’ regular-season road Sunday against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium is just the beginning of the postseason path we’ve been waiting for since the Patriots opened training camp, 157 days ago.

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We’ll know exactly what that path looks like by Sunday evening. The Patriots (11-4) can claim the AFC’s top overall seed, a first-round bye, and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory and losses by the Houston Texans and Denver Broncos. They can get the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye if they win and either Houston or Denver loses. If the Patriots don’t get any help, they’ll be playing next weekend in Foxborough, as either the third seed or the fourth seed.

Five Belichick-coached Patriots teams have reached the Super Bowl. None of them has done it without the benefit of a first-round bye. This team can.

Part of the unpredictability of sports is that better talent doesn’t always equate to better results.

Last year’s AFC-champion Patriots entered the playoffs as winners of eight straight. But their opponents were a succession of creampuffs that would have fit right in among the cannolis at Mike’s Pastry. They were flaky on the outside, soft in the middle, and ready to be devoured.

A team with the 31st-ranked pass defense in a 32-team league was able to make the Super Bowl because it dodged elite quarterbacks.

The AFC field is deeper and more talented this year, especially with future Hall of Famer and frequent Patriot adversary Peyton Manning, who sat out last season with a neck injury, back in the saddle with the Broncos. But the Patriots are deeper and more talented too.

The Patriots lead the league in total offense (426.9 yards per game) and points per game (35.1). With 416 first downs, they’re one shy of establishing a new NFL record.

But their most impressive offensive number is 12, and not because of Tom Brady.

That’s how many spots the Patriots have ascended in the NFL rushing rankings. This season they’re eighth (134.5 yards per game) after being 20th in 2011 (110.3 yards per game).

One of the problems the Patriots had last year, including in the Super Bowl, was teams overdosing on defensive backs, clogging up the middle of the field like the Sagamore Bridge on Memorial Day weekend, and disregarding their plodding rushing attack.

The Patriots had five rushes of 20 yards or more last year during the regular season. Second-year running back Stevan Ridley has six rushes of 20 yards or more by himself. Ridley’s rushing total of 1,189 yards is the most by a Patriots running back since Corey Dillon ran for a franchise-record 1,635 yards in 2004.

The 2011 Patriots were unable to stretch the field horizontally with their wide receivers because FOB (Friend of Bill) Chad Ochocinco was an abject disaster.

The new No. 85, Brandon Lloyd, is on the verge of a 1,000-yard receiving season (73 catches for 902 yards and four touchdowns). It hasn’t always been smooth, but Lloyd has proven he can make plays on the outside.

The most obvious reason the Patriots are better equipped to add to the trophy haul in the Hub of Hardware is on defense. In today’s defense-allergic NFL they’re good enough.

The defining moment of the Super Bowl loss to the Giants wasn’t the Wes Welker drop. It was one of the greatest defensive coaches of all-time ordering his defense to capitulate and let the Giants score because it was the only way to get the ball back to Brady.

Last year’s team didn’t have a Chandler Jones coming off the edge to rush the passer or a cornerback like Aqib Talib able to shadow the opposition’s top target.

Talib is not a cornerback the caliber of former Patriots Ty Law or Asante Samuel, but he is a considerable upgrade at a spot that was a smoldering pit of despair. His acquisition on Nov. 1 for a fourth-round pick also cleared the way for the Patriots to keep Devin McCourty at safety, which has been the Belichick equivalent of Celtics coach Doc Rivers shifting Kevin Garnett to center.

In five games with a healthy Talib — he played just eight snaps last week against Jacksonville — the Patriots have averaged 243.4 passing yards allowed. Their season average is 275.5 yards per game.

Before Talib suited up, the Patriots were allowing a 44.6 percent third-down conversion percentage, second-worst in the league. Now, they’re allowing a 40.1 percent third-down conversion rate. Last season, it was 43.1 percent, 28th in the NFL.

One crucial aspect of the title chase that hasn’t changed from Super Bowl XLVI to now is concern for the health of Rob Gronkowski.

Everybody’s favorite extroverted tight end has missed the last five games after he broke his left forearm late in a 59-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18.

Gronk is looking good for the playoffs, though.

Just like this team.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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