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The Winning Machine (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday October 16, 2007 10:51AM; Updated: Tuesday October 16, 2007 10:51AM
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Scandals haven't fazed the Pats; in his second game back from a steroid suspension Rodney Harrison (37) showed no ill effects from the layoff.
Scandals haven't fazed the Pats; in his second game back from a steroid suspension Rodney Harrison (37) showed no ill effects from the layoff.
Bill Frakes/SI

New England's start represents a rebirth, by the franchise's high standards. Two years ago the Patriots went 10-6 and lost at Denver in the divisional playoff round. Last year they were an uncharacteristic 6-3 as a cranky Brady bemoaned the loss of favorite receiver Deion Branch. They won six of their last seven games and fell one drive short of beating Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, but they missed the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year.

Coach Bill Belichick and personnel boss Scott Pioli aggressively added players -- most notably Thomas and the wide receiving trio of Randy Moss (from Oakland), Donte' Stallworth (Philadelphia) and Wes Welker (Miami). More impressive, the team has thus far seamlessly absorbed those new bodies. To wit: On Sunday, Welker caught 11 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Stallworth and Moss each caught a touchdown pass, as did another newcomer, tight end Kyle Brady. Of Tom Brady's league-leading 1,771 passing yards, all but 396 have been to players who were not with New England a year ago.

The Patriots have restored themselves to a position atop the NFL while embracing the hoary concept of selflessness and deftly navigating the roster turnover that undermines other clubs. "That's this league, and that's this team," says center Dan Koppen. "Personnel changes. You've got to win with the guys you've got, and everybody does a great job around here of letting people know what's expected of them." Another case in point: Laurence Maroney, the No. 1 running back, missed his third straight game with a groin injury. Sammy Morris, who had rushed for 219 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Cleveland in Maroney's absence, went out with a chest injury on the second play of the third quarter. In stepped veteran Kevin Faulk to rush for 50 yards on 13 carries in the second half.

In a larger sense, if the Pats are a slick, corporate football machine (and they are), they have also been boosted this season by an unexpected emotional push. After New England was caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals on opening weekend, Belichick was called everything from a petty sideline sneak to a flat-out cheat. A shadow was cast over the Patriots' Super Bowls. But the controversy only served to tighten the bond between players and coach. After a Week 2 victory over San Diego in their home opener, the Patriots spilled into the locker room and commenced their postgame ritual -- a series of expressions shouted over the din and answered by a collective "Aw, yeah!" Bruschi bellowed, "How do we feel about playing for Bill Belichick?" And the response shook the walls.

The passion hasn't ebbed, in part because media and opponents continue to press the issue. In the week before the Dallas game, SI's Peter King reported that Phillips had said that the videotaping controversy represented a "black mark" on New England's Super Bowls. (Phillips denied using that language.) "I don't think we've forgotten about [the criticism]," Bruschi said before the Cowboys game. "Bill is our coach. We stand behind him, and we want him to know that. We consider ourselves to be a family. And when you single out somebody in our family and criticize him, we rally around him. We say, 'Come here, you're one of us.' "

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