THE PATRIOTS live for crisis situations. Four years ago they lost their quarterback in Week 2. Oh, no, what'll they do? Well, win the Super Bowl behind a sixth-round draft choice named Tom Brady, for one thing.
Two years ago injuries decimated the offensive line. They go into the Super Bowl against a ferocious Carolina front four with two street free agents and a rookie fifth-round draft choice as starters. Mothers, don't let your kids watch. So the Pats win the Super Bowl, and Brady isn't even sacked.
Last year the secondary was ravaged by injuries. Strange faces emerge: a pair of castoffs, Earthwind Moreland and Hank Poteat; a wideout turned nickelback, Troy Brown; a linebacker designated as a safety, Don Davis. And they're going to stop Peyton Manning and the Colts' machine with that? Yep, and the Steelers, too, and then the Eagles, to win their third title in four seasons.
Now folks all over New England are wringing their hands because two starting linebackers and the two coordinators are gone. Call it crisis number 4. Ted Johnson, a run-stuffing inside linebacker, retired. Chad Brown, a 35-year-old free-agent pickup, is being tried in that spot. In Seattle, his last stop, Brown was an outside 'backer on base downs, an outside rusher in the nickel. "I've done some work inside too," he says. "Remember when me and Greg Biekert were the linebackers at Colorado? The Killer B's, they called us. I played inside for a while with the Steelers. I'm not afraid of the physical stuff."
Tedy Bruschi decided to sit this season out after suffering a mild stroke last February. His position was hard to describe. Weak inside linebacker was the designation, but what he did was a lot more complicated. He could take a deep drop in the zone or come up in a pass rush, track a receiver in man coverage or crowd in tight. He always seemed to be around the ball. No one was more instinctive or made bigger plays last year.
Monty Beisel, a part-time starter for the Chiefs in 2004, was brought in to try to fill the position. "He's young  and versatile and smart," Pats coach Bill Belichick says. "Being able to understand what we're doing is a big part of it." If Beisel can't cut it, outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, who got some reps at the position in training camp, could be shifted. "There are always changes" is Belichick's mantra. "Nothing stays the same."
Romeo Crennel, who coordinated Belichick's defense, is now the head man in Cleveland. Secondary coach Eric Mangini was promoted, and it should be a smooth transition because Mangini has been with Belichick since the mid-1990s and he's the guy who molded last year's gang of ragamuffins into a functional secondary.
Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator, left to become the coach at Notre Dame. The party line is that the coordinator job will be "done by committee," meaning Belichick will get input from assistants Josh McDaniels (quarterbacks), Brian Daboll (wideouts) and Dante Scarnecchia (offensive line).
"During the season I would meet with the quarterbacks every day," Belichick says. "You can't do that without being involved in the game plan. We'll do it this year just as we've done it in the past. We'll get together on Monday and go over the whole thing. We'll discuss how we match up. By Tuesday we'll have a plan of attack. We'll refine it during the week and then script it for the game."
Brady doesn't seem the least bit concerned. "We've got a hell of a group of offensive coaches," he says. "The game plan part of it won't suffer."
But how about the calls during the game? Brady has spoken of Weis's genius in crucial situations, such as the two screen passes he called in the Super Bowl last February, plays that were run out of a four-wide package and slowed the Eagles' rush when it was getting nasty. "Brilliant calls," Brady says. "We'd never shown that before."
"The ultimate call has to be made on the field, of course," Belichick says. "I'll make it." --Paul Zimmerman
Tom Brady has never had a weapon like Ben Watson, a 6'3", 253-pound tight end with 4.4 speed. He was a first-round draft choice in 2004, but a knee injury in the opener ended his season. "It's exciting, thinking of what he adds," Brady says. "A big, deep threat down the middle--just thinking about it makes me want the season to start." The No. 1 priority, Watson says, is to "stay healthy"; No. 2 is "to do what they drafted me for: Learn the offense and give Tom Brady another weapon."
AN OPPOSING SCOUT'S VIEW
They're going to see everybody's A game this year. The first six games will be crucial. They're at Carolina in Week 2, then for the next four weeks they get three division champions plus Denver, a wild-card team, on the road. Just brutal.... Here's what I think teams will do to them, at least at first: They'll run at them hard. The Colts almost beat them doing that in the opener last year. And remember, when they slipped three years ago, it was the run defense that killed them.... I don't think Chad Brown's body will hold up for 16 games, playing inside. I think they're kidding themselves with Monty Beisel. It's strictly a gamble. It wasn't like he was killing people in K.C. It's one of those "athletic ability" moves, and I'm surprised the Patriots are going in that direction.... If I were setting up their defense, I'd use the 4--3 as much as I could and get Jarvis Green on the field with Richard Seymour. Green is one of the most underrated defensive players in the league.... I don't know how the play-calling is going to work out, but the thing you've got to remember with Tom Brady is that he ranks right up there with Peyton Manning as the smartest quarterback in the league.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 14--2
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 7/11/7 DEFENSE 6/17/9
COACH: Bill Belichick; sixth season with New England (89--71 in NFL)
LOGAN MANKINS (R)
AVG. 6.9 1
XPs MADE 48
XPs ATT. 48
FG MADE 31
FG ATT. 33
SACKS 5 1/2
MONTY BEISEL [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 2 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
CHAD BROWN [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 9 1/2
P 56 42.0
POS. PUNTS AVG.
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
8 OAKLAND (T)
18 at Carolina
25 at Pittsburgh
2 SAN DIEGO
9 at Atlanta
16 at Denver
23 Open date
7 INDIANAPOLIS (M)
13 at Miami
20 NEW ORLEANS
27 at Kansas City
4 N.Y. JETS
11 at Buffalo
17 TAMPA BAY (S)
26 at N.Y. Jets (M)
NFL rank: 2 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .539 Games against playoff teams: 7