| Mankins, a no-name turned Pro Bowl pick, typifies the Patriot way.
|Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images|
7 KANSAS CITY
14 at N.Y. Jets
5 at San Francisco
12 at San Diego
20 DENVER (M)
26 St. Louis
2 at Indianapolis
13 N.Y. JETS (T)
23 at Miami
7 at Seattle
14 at Oakland
28 at Buffalo
Fernando Bryant, Cornerback: The Patriots have had a good run at left corner with Pro Bowl picks Ty Law and Asante Samuel, and now they're looking for this 31-year-old free agent to continue the tradition. If Bryant, who spent five quality years with the Jags before going to the Lions, still has his old coverage skills, they're onto something special.
It's business as usual: Replacement parts have been found, everyone's locked in, the machine rolls on to the Super Bowl.
The 2002 Super Bowl -- Patriots 20, Rams 17 -- had been over for a few hours,
and Bill Belichick, the New England coach, shook his head and mumbled to the few
people near him, "Can you believe we won the Super Bowl with this?"
It was hard to believe then that Belichick's collection of castoffs and
reclamation projects had become world champions. Now it's not so hard. In an era
in which dynasties are supposedly impossible because of the salary cap, free
agency and so forth, the Patriots under Belichick have marched through the 21st
century like medieval warlords. In the last seven years they've won three Super
Bowls in four appearances, and they're overwhelming favorites to be back this
Oh sure, there's always some tweaking to do. Two years ago they wouldn't pay
the price to keep David Givens and Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch, so off went
their two top wideouts. "Give me wide receivers," Tom Brady said after the 2006
season, in one of his few public shows of annoyance. So in came a supposedly
washed-up Randy Moss, who had an All-Pro year, and Wes Welker, Brady's magician
on the hot reads, who tied for the league lead in receptions.
This year's draft was for defense, for need. Most Patriots drafts are.
Thirty-nine-year-old Junior Seau was commended for his faithful service but was
not invited back. His spot, the coaching staff hopes, will go to top pick Jerod
Mayo, a size- and-speed linebacker from Tennessee who brings a lot of wallop but
admitted in camp that Belichick's defenses, at times, were "a blur." There are
plenty of veterans to help him. Two corners, including All-Pro Asante Samuel,
were lost to free agency, but two more, Jason Webster and Fernando Bryant, came
in by the same route, from Buffalo and Detroit, respectively.
People know better, by now, than to question personnel director Scott Pioli's
drafts and trades. How many players have left the club and blossomed elsewhere?
Almost none. Who, aside from the most obsessed draftniks, had ever heard of
Logan Mankins before New England took him with a first-round pick in 2005? But
in three years he has become one of the NFL's best guards.
The machine grinds on. Distractions are not allowed. You think Spygate
couldn't have been a major distraction last year? Three quarters of a million
dollars in fines from the league office because of the illicit videotaping, loss
of a No. 1 draft choice, ugly stares on the street. Some distraction. The season
ended 18-1, and if the Giants' Eli Manning hadn't pulled a Houdini and squeezed
out of a rush, and David Tyree hadn't pretended the ball was a long-distance
phone call and clasped it to his ear, the Pats would have been 19-0 and Super
Distractions are kept to a minimum around the Patriots, thanks to a net of
security around the club that's tighter than a nosetackle's jersey. Mystery
surrounds all players on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list. The league
policy on disclosure is muddled, more like, "well, it would be nice if they did
come clean." Not the Patriots. When strong safety Rodney Harrison came off the
PUP list last month, he was asked, "Why were you on it?"
His eyes sparkled. "Now you know better than to ask me something like that,"
Brady addressed reporters when he first came to camp and didn't speak again
for another three weeks. Moss didn't meet with the media at all until
Whipped dogs, that's what the Boston press corps covering the Patriots has
become. Belichick's daily press conferences are now exercises in how many ways
he can say, "All we're doing is trying to get better." Assistant coaches are
off-limits. The ring of security is tight. And it will be strange indeed if this
team is not standing front and center in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa come
-- Paul Zimmerman