It seemed as if the last time the Patriots won a playoff game, Paul Revere was on their roster and playing near the Old North Church was considered a distinct home-field advantage.

Strange, how two decades can seem like two centuries.

Today, though, New England ended a 22-year playoff victory void by defeating the New York Jets, 26-14, in the American Football Conference wild-card game before 70,958 at Giants Stadium. Remarkably, the Patriots stole away by scoring 10 points during a 15-second span of the third quarter.

"Better late than never, right?" guard John Hannah, a 13-year Patriots survivor, said of the team's first playoff victory since a win over Buffalo in the American Football League in 1963, exactly 22 years ago today.

Now that the Patriots (12-5) will advance to play the Raiders in Los Angeles next Sunday in an AFC semifinal game, they can move with a swagger in their walk, stepping over the landmines of their playoff past.

After all, these Patriots beat the Jets (11-6) with a defense that accumulated five sacks, caused four turnovers and knocked one quarterback out of commission -- Ken O'Brien, who left in the third quarter with a slight concussion, courtesy of a hit by linebacker Andre Tippett about a half hour earlier.

O'Brien, the league's top-rated passer, was so woozy from the second-quarter hit that he called the wrong formation on the Jets' first pass play of the third quarter.

"(O'Brien) was pretty strung out at halftime," Jets Coach Joe Walton said. "I didn't know if he could go back in, but he decided to give it a try."

Reserve quarterback Pat Ryan entered for the first time in seven weeks and threw a 12-yard scoring pass to tight end Mickey Shuler to close the deficit to 23-14 with 57 seconds left in the third quarter. But Ryan couldn't get the Jets any closer against a defense that's difficult enough to score against when you're not trailing.

The Patriots' defense also put the clamps on running back Freeman McNeil, who ran for more than 1,300 yards this season. Today, McNeil got 41 yards on 16 carries (2.6 yards per carry), a one-way ticket to the offseason.

The Patriots won, too, because quarterback Tony Eason spun some deep-throw magic, including a 36-yard scoring pass to Stanley Morgan, who beat cornerback Russell Carter, for a 13-7 edge with just 1:22 left in the half. Eason didn't throw an interception, either.

"I used to play in Baltimore with the greatest quarterback who ever played the game (Johnny Unitas)," said New England Coach Ray Berry about Eason's newly found deep-strike capability, "and I know the deep ball didn't come immediately to him. I told Tony, 'Don't get down. It will come.' "

Most definitively of all, the Patriots won because of their 10-points-in-15-seconds spree midway through the third quarter, which bloated their six-point halftime edge to 23-7.

Talk about the rapid strike. Tony Franklin had just converted the third of his four field goals, this from 20 yards, for a 16-7 lead with 6:24 left in the third quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, Johnny Hector made a return to the New York 16, where he was hit by Johnny Rembert and fumbled. A penalty flag flew and most players stopped action.

"I just heard my teammates yelling, 'Pick it up and run,' " Rembert said. He did just that, 15 yards into the end zone. All eyes focused on referee Jerry Seeman who, after a brief huddle with other officials, ruled that Jets tight end Billy Griggs had made an illegal block on Rembert. The Patriots gladly declined the penalty.

"Touchdown, New England!" Seeman announced.

Much later and much quieter, Hector said, "For everybody just to not react (to the fumble), they must have thought I was down . . . We were sort of in awe. We couldn't believe it."

"That," said Joe Klecko, the Jets' nose tackle, "was the big deflator."

Brian Holloway, New England's all-pro offensive tackle, said the Patriots were confident before the game. When victory came at last, Holloway said, "It wasn't a feeling of, 'Oh, we did it.' It was more a feeling of, 'Of course, we did it.' "

Holloway said the key to beating the Jets' defense (which, like New England's, is rated among the league's best) is "you've got to contain Klecko and (end Mark) Gastineau. We did that fairly well. To do that to those guys means you're playing exceptionally well."

The last time these teams played, Klecko had three sacks while thoroughly manhandling veteran center Guy Morriss. Today, veteran Pete Brock was back to health and back in his starting spot at center. Holloway said Brock often was given double-team help to neutralize Klecko.

Steve Nelson, the ninth-year Patriots linebacker, smiled real wide late today. He praised rookie defensive end Garin Veris, a one-man wrecking crew with three sacks and an interception on a fourth-quarter deflection.

Nelson talked about the Patriots' lean years, the real lean years, which included the so-called "Stupor Bowl" between the Patriots and the Baltimore Colts in the last game of the 1981 regular season. The losing team would be the winner: it would get the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.

The Colts won that game, 23-21, and both teams finished 2-14. In today's glory, Nelson hadn't forgotten that that ugliness occurred only four years ago.

"The difference between our team now and the good teams we had in the '70s is just a feeling," he said. "We have more of an idea what the game is all about now."

No player or coach in either locker room doubted that Rembert's return for the fumble for a touchdown was the Jet-breaker. "It became a game where we had to throw the ball and we had to score fast," Walton said.

Against San Diego, that scenario isn't so frightening. Against the Patriots, you might as well pack it in and call it a season.

For sure, Cliff and Norm will tip a few in Cheers tonight. And Julius Adams, the 37-year-old defensive end for the Patriots, will have to postpone his retirement for at least another week.

Even though Nelson and Hannah tried to convince him to play another season, Adams said no, reasoning, "Even a train has to come to a stop sometime."

At least for tonight, the New England Patriots felt that if their train isn't headed to the Super Bowl, at least it is back on track.