Inside The NFL

September 22, 2002

No Standing Pat
With a pair of convincing wins, the Patriots seem intent on
proving that their Super Bowl win was no fluke

Though it's not in their nature, the Patriots have every right to
be feeling a bit smug these days. The team that many considered
lucky to win the Super Bowl last season routed the Jets 44-7 on
Sunday, six days after it had dismantled the Steelers, one of the
preseason favorites in the AFC. Make no mistake: There's no
better team in football right now than the Patriots.

New England has now won 11 consecutive games, a streak that goes
back to last November and shouldn't end any time soon if its
offense continues to perform as it did against the Jets. Along
with all the gaudy numbers--432 total yards, 38 minutes of
possession time, a 62.5% conversion rate on third downs and no
sacks allowed--the Patriots showed a creativity that was
nonexistent last season during their surprising playoff run, when
they scored only three offensive touchdowns in three games. New
England rolled out an assortment of three-, four- and
five-receiver sets and all kinds of motion. A slick handoff from
quarterback Tom Brady to running back Kevin Faulk on a draw play
resulted in a 25-yard gain, and a fake reverse helped set up a
39-yard completion from Brady to wideout David Patten. Apparently
oblivious to the heavy rains that fell intermittently at the
Meadowlands, Brady threw the ball all over the field, completing
25 of 35 passes for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Nine
Patriots had at least one reception.

The most surprising thing about New England's success is that the
Jets say they knew what was coming. They had seen New England
call 25 consecutive pass plays in the 30-14 win over Pittsburgh.
But as New York strong safety Sam Garnes would say afterward,
"They moved the ball like they were [operating] from a script all
day."

These aren't the same old Patriots--in more ways than one. The
tight end position, which accounted for 19 receptions in 2001,
has been bolstered by the addition of free agents Cam Cleeland
and Christian Fauria as well as Daniel Graham, a rookie
first-round draft pick out of Colorado. That athletic trio
already has 12 catches and two touchdowns. Free agent Donald
Hayes, an imposing target at 6'4", and rookie speedster Deion
Branch, a second-round choice from Louisville who had a 49-yard
touchdown reception on Sunday, were added to the wideout corps.
Now the offensive burden doesn't fall so heavily on the shoulders
of Pro Bowl wideout Troy Brown, who set a franchise record last
season with 101 catches. "It's a lot easier for the coaches
because we can call a play and attack the soft spot of a defense
instead of having to come up with ways to get the ball to Troy
each week," coach Bill Belichick says.

Just as important have been the play-calling of offensive
coordinator Charlie Weis and Brady's decision-making. Weis is
masterly at exploiting weaknesses; he likes to employ the shotgun
and multiple-receiver formations, because Brady has excellent
vision and a quick release.

As was the case last season, the Patriots are proud of their
selfless attitude and competitive spirit. During the preseason
Belichick admits he was concerned about a Super Bowl hangover,
but that hasn't been a problem. For example, first-team receivers
asked starting defensive backs to work against them during
scout-team sessions, just to give the receivers better
preparation. The receivers also want to challenge their defensive
counterparts, because they believe New England's offense is now
as dangerous as its defense. "This team can do whatever it takes
to win," says Fauria, who joined the Patriots after seven seasons
with the Seahawks. "If it means running the ball, we can do that.
If it means throwing 50 times a game, we can do that. With
Charlie scheming and the talent we have, we'll be tough to stop.
But no one guy is going to carry us. Our winning will be a
collective effort, just like last year."

Revival in New Orleans
Big Plays in The Big Easy

Somewhere, Randy Mueller has to be at least cracking a smile.
Before the Saints' general manager was abruptly fired by owner
Tom Benson in May, he and coach Jim Haslett had overhauled the
offense, hoping to give the unit more quick-strike capability.
After the Saints' 35-20 thumping of the Packers on Sunday--the
team's second straight win over an NFC playoff favorite, coming
on the heels of its Week 1 upset of the Bucs--the moves seem to
have paid off. New Orleans is 2-0 for just the fourth time in its
history.

The trade of tailback Ricky Williams to the Dolphins last March
for two draft picks was the team's biggest gamble, but new
starter Deuce McAllister has been impressive, rushing for 232
yards and two touchdowns and providing what Williams did not: the
speed and savvy of a big-play back. McAllister's 62-yard
run--longer than any Williams had during his three years in the
Big Easy--iced the win over the Packers. His superior receiving
skills have also allowed the Saints

to employ more three- and four-receiver sets, creating mismatches
that have been particularly evident on third downs. New Orleans
has converted 53.1% of those opportunities.

Quarterback Aaron Brooks, an outspoken proponent of the Williams
trade because, he says, "we needed more playmakers in our
offense," has benefited from the addition of rookie wideout
Donte' Stallworth, a burner from Tennessee who already has
touchdown receptions of 41 and 34 yards and has averaged an
impressive 15.3 yards a catch. Stallworth's emergence has also
eased the suffocating pressure that Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn
felt a year ago; thus far, Horn has caught 14 passes for 228
yards. With all his new toys, it's no wonder Brooks looks vastly
more confident than he did a year ago.

The Saints now travel to Chicago for a suddenly titanic tilt with
the 2-0 Bears. A win would put New Orleans in the catbird seat in
the NFC, which, for a team so accustomed to plodding, would be a
most improbable leap. --Josh Elliott

Dispatches
Bledsoe Shows His Grit

The Bills' Drew Bledsoe set a franchise record with 463 passing
yards in a 45-39 overtime win over the Vikings, but he impressed
his teammates more with his toughness. "Once, he came back to the
huddle with a staple in his neck, a piece of metal holding a cut
together," said fullback Larry Centers. "His lip was bleeding,
but he was in the huddle, calling plays and getting everyone
going. I had no idea the type of player he is."... Not only did
the Broncos stifle the Rams' vaunted attack in Week 1, but they
also allowed only one meaningful touchdown to the high-powered
49ers in a 24-14 win on Sunday. San Francisco's longest pass play
went for 15 yards. "I'm not used to this," said Broncos
linebacker John Mobley. "Usually the offense has to carry us. But
now the defense is good enough to do that."... Pittsburgh's
defense, the NFL's top-ranked unit last season, must find a way
to deal with spread offenses and the no-huddle. The Steelers have
already seen the schemes twice this season, giving up a total of
649 passing yards in losses to the Patriots and the Raiders, as
well as 30 points to each team. Last season Pittsburgh never gave
up more than 26 points in a game, and only three teams scored as
many as 20.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Brady has thrown for 563 yards and completed more than 69% of his passes. COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES McAllister gives the Saints a double threat, because they can line him up as a wideout.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
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