By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - For weeks on end, the Patriots have emptied their tanks every Sunday.The gauge has started on "F" and made its way to "E" over the 60 minutes. Self-inflicted wounds? Wait for the other guys tocommit them. The Patriots were smarter. Always. Bloodlessly efficient. And the way they were winning showed the gap between a team playing at close to full capacity and teams that were, well, slapping it out there. The Patriots slapped it out there Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.It almost got them beat by a backup quarterback making his first career start. It would have arguably been the biggest upset of this NFL season.Penalties. Drops. Failure to execute things they've been doing with startling ease for nearly two months. It all came up Sunday night. Luckily for the Patriots, they survived. But their attention was gotten by their own performance. "We came into the game obviously not playing like we did the last couple weeks," said linebacker Ron Ninkovich. "We knew Green Bay was good. It was a game we needed to come into with energy. The past two weeks we had tons of energy. Just in pregame we just . . . this week, I feel we dipped down in energy." The words "reality" and "check" often get whipped around after games like this. As if a team gets its comeuppance from a flat performance. That happened to an extent. But the reality check wasn't just for the guys wearing the helmets and shoulder pads. It was for all those who have anointed the Patriots as being atotal juggernaut, just as goodas the 2007 team. They are not. They aregood. Very good. But what's best about them is the fact they operate at such a high level.They don't hurt themselves. And they are where they are supposed to be most of the time on offense and defense. But it's smarts and effort, not overwhelming talent, that's got this team at 12-2. The wind will blow the other way now. And speculation will now rise that the Patriots have been "exposed" or figured out.The code's been cracked, blah, blah,blah. The reality is the only secret the Patriots havehas been hiding in plain sight. They don't make mistakes. Sunday night, they did.The 7 penalties for 52 yards was piddling compared to what some teams do on a weekly basis. But it was enough to keep drives alive. And the defense that'sbeen able to get off the field with increasing regularity as the season's progressed, regressed Sunday night. In the face of . . . Matt Flynn? Yes. In the face of Matt Flynn. Because, the fact is, the Patriots are not talented enough - especially not on defense - to just overwhelm teams by lining up. They have to play as near as they can to 100 percent. And if they don't? "I think we need to play better than this or our season won't last much longer," said Bill Belichick. Based on what they've done this season, they probably will. Because they now have gotten a taste of what will happen if they don't.