1 New England Patriots

The Super Bowl champs aren't standing pat--they've added youngsters to an aging defense and a marquee running back to the mix on offense
September 05, 2004

A dynasty, according to Webster's, second edition, is "the continued lordship of a race of rulers."

Some high and mighty terms. The Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the '70s--now those were dynasties. How about the Patriots, who have won two Super Bowls in the last three years? Are they dynasty material?

One more NFL title or a continued run of Super Bowl appearances might swing it. And this is precisely the kind of talk that brings a look of disgust to the face of coach Bill Belichick. "It's a bunch of bull," he says. "It's how we play that matters. I don't care what everybody else believes--as long as we don't believe it."

He posted signs around the team's training complex that read, don't believe the hype! And beneath that headline is the wreckage of the five Super Bowl teams from 2000 through '02--Giants, Rams, Patriots, Raiders and Bucs--that crashed the season following their title-game appearance.

That's right, in 2002, one year after winning the Super Bowl, New England was out of the playoffs (9--7)--sunk by the same things that ended the dynasties: Starters got old, stars lost their shine. An overhaul was delayed. How can you cut the guys who bled for you, who did everything to bring you a title? "We tried to hang on with what we had," Belichick says, "and we didn't make it."

A weird imbalance had formed on the team. The offense was young, but the defense was aging. When the Patriots put their faster defenders on the field, teams muscled them and ran on them. When the Pats bulked up with bigger guys, they couldn't catch anybody. So after the 2002 season the defense was overhauled. Four of the first five '03 draft choices were used on defensive players. The top two free-agent imports were pass-rushing linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and safety Rodney Harrison.

Last year, for the first time in Belichick's four years with the team, New England finished in the top half of the league in defense, ranking seventh. And for the first time in the 44year history of the franchise, the team allowed the fewest points in the league. The Patriots won their second Super Bowl, but they're still rebuilding. Again, four of the first five selections in the April draft were defenders, including first-round pick Vince Wilfork, a nosetackle out of Miami. What Belichick is left with now is a unique collection of role players, very intelligent--you must be in order to grasp his system--and tremendously talented.

But this time New England made a dramatic change on the other side of the ball as well. Corey Dillon, the former feature back in Cincinnati who was acquired in an April trade, joins an offense without superstars, just super-clutch performers such as quarterback Tom Brady, who is 6--0 in postseason play and 7--0 in overtime games. Brady has never finished higher than sixth in the NFL passer ratings, but he's the kind of player who raises his game to another level when the stakes are the highest.

"He's like Joe Montana," says former Bills nosetackle Freddy Smerlas, who spent a year with Montana in San Francisco. "In the seven-on-seven drill Brady's very average. But send in two unblocked guys and the whole thing changes. I watched Montana, and as soon as the pressure rose, he just homed in. Brady's the same way."

This is Brady's team, no question. The short-pass offense is geared to his talents, and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis's game plans are almost impossible to prepare for. "You can watch tape of his offense all week," Dolphins Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas says, "and then you can throw it out, because Charlie will never give you the same thing twice in a row."

Now Weis has the added benefit of the 29year-old Dillon, an elusive back who can run with power and toughness. Dillon, who in seven seasons as a Bengal piled up 8,061 yards on the ground, gives the Patriots a dimension they've lacked since Curtis Martin departed before the 1998 season. It's almost an embarrassment of riches. Granted you don't often see offensive-minded coaches who have made their reputation with the pass switching gears and going heavy with the ground game, but Joe Gibbs did it and so did Norv Turner.

So the defending champs, on the verge of a dynasty, have gotten younger and more talented. Are they still hungry? Belichick will get his answer soon enough.

--Paul Zimmerman

PLAYER ON

THE RISE

> He made news in June when he left his Super Bowl ring in a bathroom at a Providence mall. (A Good Samaritan returned it.) Now TULLY BANTA-CAIN, a 2003 seventh-round pick, can make a name for himself as a combination linebacker--defensive end. "He's got the talent," says coach Bill Belichick. "It's just a matter of learning the system."

ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view

Corey Dillon has been a whiner and complainer his whole career. Now he's a model citizen. But his contract includes some yardage incentives, and what if he feels like they're not giving him the ball enough?... The Patriots have been a perfect salary-cap team, without the real superstars who eat up your cap, and that includes Tom Brady. But what if his girlfriend starts asking him, "How come Jake Delhomme makes more money than you do?" Maybe I'm looking for trouble, but sometimes you see these nagging things on teams that have had a lot of success.... Their backup quarterback situation was unsettled, but signing Jim Miller was smart. They start two street free agents on the offensive line, Tom Ashworth and Russ Hochstein, and you have to ask yourself, Are they really good enough, or was the game they played in the Super Bowl done with mirrors?... Their linebacker group might be the oldest in the NFL, but they really play well together. Roman Phifer is 36, Willie McGinest is 32. They've been great role players, but what if they lose their edge sometime during the season?

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Their linebacker group might be the oldest in the NFL, but they really play well together.

"

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics

2003 RECORD: 14--2

NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):

OFFENSE 27/9/17

DEFENSE 4/15/7

COACH: Bill Belichick; fifth season with New England (75--69 in NFL)

OFFENSE

DEION BRANCH

POS.

PVR

REC.

YARDS

TDs

WR

66

57

803

3

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SCHEDULE

SEPTEMBER

9 INDIANAPOLIS(T)

19 at Arizona

26 Open date

OCTOBER

3 at Buffalo

10 MIAMI

17 SEATTLE

24 N.Y. JETS

31 at Pittsburgh

NOVEMBER

7 at St. Louis

14 BUFFALO

22 at Kansas City(M)

28 BALTIMORE

DECEMBER

5 at Cleveland

1 2CINCINNATI

20 at Miami(M)

26 at N.Y. Jets

JANUARY

2 SAN FRANCISCO

(M) MONDAY

(T) THURSDAY

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank:T-7 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .512 Games against playoff teams: 7

COLOR PHOTODREW HALLOWELL/WIREIMAGE.COM UPGRADE Dillon, who once held the NFL single-game rushing record (278 yards), has a 4.3-yards-per-carry career average. COLOR PHOTOCOURTESY OF NFLASHWORTH

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)