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The Boston Globe

Sports

Dan Shaughnessy

No exaggeration to say season is on the line

In this calendar year, we’ve already had the greatest hockey playoff comeback of all time, a Stanley Cup Final on Causeway Street, and the Fall Classic won at Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years.

Now this. Another playing of the “1812 Overture” with the Patriots season hanging in the balance.

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Exaggeration? Not exactly. Sunday night’s renewal of the Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup is bigger than the usual Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain, Joe DiMaggio-Ted Williams bakeoff.

A lot of fun will be had with Brady-Manning and the odd notion that Bill Belichick hates Wes Welker with the fire of a thousand suns, but this game is a huge deal because the outcome will likely establish the playoff path for the 2013 Patriots.

If the Patriots win, they can do what they always do: Cue up “Waltz of the Tomato Cans” and prepare for yet another cakewalk into the AFC Championship game.

You know the drill: Win the AFC East (ho-hum), snatch one of the top two seeds, avoid a first-round game, and guarantee that you only have to win one game at Gillette in order to make it into the AFC Championship game.

If, on the other hand, the Patriots lose (they are Vegas underdogs at home for the first time in eight years), they will probably not get a bye and will definitely have to win at least one, maybe two, road games to get to the Super Bowl.

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The Patriots never do this, because they never have to do it. They have earned their easy paths because of their regular-season dominance. And because they play in the cheesy AFC East. In this 14-season Belichick run, the Patriots have played only five of their 24 playoff games on the road (neutral-site Super Bowls don’t count). The Patriots haven’t won a road playoff game since beating the Chargers at the place we used to call Jack Murphy Stadium — seven years ago.

Unfortunately, they have forgotten how to do it the hard way. Back in the days when the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they could go into Pittsburgh and punch the Steelers in the mouth and win the AFC Championship game. Or they would shut down Manning’s Colts, 20-3, in frosty Foxborough.

Those days are over. Since David Tyree caught that pass on the side of his helmet, the Patriots are 3-4 in playoff competition. The three feeble wins, all at Gillette, are: 1. A 45-10 thrashing of a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked 8-8 Broncos team that was outscored during the regular season; 2. a 3-point win over the Ravens when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal as time expired; 3. January’s 41-28 beatdown of a crumbling Houston team that is 2-8 this year.

There. The post-18-0 Patriots don’t beat good teams in the playoffs and they never have to play on the road. They are November/December kings and January frauds.

If they lose Sunday night, they’ll need to beat a good team and win on the road in order to get where they want. They’ll have to go through Denver to get to the Super Bowl at the Meadowlands. (If they can’t win at home against Denver Sunday night, how do you like their chances at Mile High in January?)

Meanwhile, we have the Welker subplot and it’s a good one. Welker gave tremendous service to the Patriots. He played well, played hard, and played hurt. But like every Patriot other than Brady, Welker was replaceable. The subtle message in Foxborough is that players don’t really matter. When your owners and coaches are smarter than all other NFL owners and coaches, it becomes about the system. It becomes about the value. Next man up and all that.

Belichick really seems to hate Welker. Bill wasn’t like this when Adam Vinatieri and Ty Law left. Is it because Wes defied Belichick when he made Rex Ryan footie jokes? It is because Wes went on Comcast and said, “It’s kind of nice to stick it in Bill’s face’’? Is it because Welker dropped that pass in the Super Bowl? Does Belichick think Welker cost him a ring or two?

Belichick had a chance to say something nice about Welker this past week and . . . would . . . not . . . do . . . it. No verbal bouquet. No thank you. Not even a “Wes did a nice job for us.’’

This leads us to the annoying-yet-necessary “how will the fans respond?” question. Some dim Patriots fans booed Vinatieri when he came back to Gillette. We all know what happened to Johnny Damon when he came back to Fenway in a Yankees uniform — just a few years after winning a World Series for the Sox, after almost killing himself (collision with Damian Jackson) chasing a popup in the playoffs in the service of the Red Sox.

So, what do you do, Patriots fans? Do you actually boo Wes Welker Sunday night?

Hope not. This has been a great year in Boston sports. And this is going to be our top football night of 2013.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.

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