Monday, October 23, 2006

Patriots show signs of returning to Super Bowl form

Place-kickers, tight ends, backup quarterbacks and Michael Vick caught our attention around the NFL on Sunday. But amid all their heroics, it also is time to start noticing an old favorite.
It's not too early to say the New England Patriots are a factor again.

That's not based just on their 28-6 victory over Buffalo that left the Patriots with a 5-1 record, which is better than they started in two of their three recent Super Bowl-winning years. It's based on the team's body of work all season.

While so much ink has been spilled over the loss of place-kicker Adam Vinatieri, over the depletion of the receiving corps and over Tom Brady's body language during a loss to Denver a month ago, the Patriots quietly have been repairing a defense that fell off during the 2005 season, and getting better on offense.


Although Eric Mangini, the NFL's youngest head coach, is doing a nice job with the Jets this year, there's a feeling among the veterans in the Patriots' locker room that he did not have command last season, his only year as their defensive coordinator.

New England has a veteran defense and the players apparently are responding much better this year to another first-year coordinator, Dean Pees. The big difference between Pees and Mangini is their ages. Pees, who never even coached in the NFL until 2004, is 57; Mangini was just 34 last season.

The 23-year difference, according to Patriots' veterans, shows up both in the coaches' demeanor and their confidence; they are very complimentary of Pees' leadership skills. Of course, it helps Pees' confidence that linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who missed almost half of last season, and safety Rodney Harrison, who missed all but three games, are healthy.

But Pees also has installed more varied coverages in the secondary, where players say he has had his greatest impact, even before becoming coordinator -- such as suggesting the move of Artrell Hawkins from cornerback to safety a year ago.

In 2005, the Patriots finished 26th in the NFL in total defense and 17th in scoring defense. Going into games this weekend, those figures were 13th and tied for sixth, respectively. In their six games, the Patriots defense has permitted only seven touchdowns.

Brady, meanwhile, had his most efficient game of the season against the Bills, posting a season high in completion percentage (66.7) and passer rating (112.4). He put in extra work over the bye week with his new receivers, and the threesome of Doug Gabriel, Chad Jackson and Reche Caldwell combined for nine catches, 102 yards and two TDs against Buffalo.

New England, which a year ago ranked 30th in rushing based on average per carry, has a nice 1-2 punch in that area this season with rookie Laurence Maroney teaming with Corey Dillon. The Patriots have improved their average rush from 3.4 yards in 2005 to 3.9 now.

None of this is to suggest that the Patriots are definitely on the way to a fourth Super Bowl in six years -- but if they improve the way you'd expect them to as the season advances, they will be among the contenders.