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Graham freed them from tight spots

FOXBOROUGH -- In weeks past, Globe football writers have been flooded with e-mails inquiring whether Daniel Graham is a bust. Many questioned the Patriots' decision to move up 11 spots in the first round two years ago to select the Colorado tight end.

After a year and a half, it seemed many Patriot fans had grown impatient waiting for Graham to develop into a top-flight tight end. There had been flashes of brilliance from Graham. Some of those flashes even bright enough to remind some of former standout Patriots tight end Ben Coates.

Always a decent blocker, Graham yesterday had breakout game, collecting a career-high seven passes for a career high 110 yards.

Graham was everything as advertised -- strong, fast, and elusive. It's hard to fathom why the Browns didn't make some adjustments in their coverage in the second half on Graham, who went one on one with linebacker Ben Taylor for most of the game.

Patriots tight ends coach Jeff Davidson told Graham before the game that he thought Graham was going to have a big day.

"When I woke up this morning, I thought I was going to have a big game, too. It was a feeling, I guess. I beat man coverage on my linebacker all day," Graham said. "I knew one of these days I was going to have a big game . . . I had a good game and I was really happy with my performance."

In some ways, it's not hard to understand why Cleveland chose to use linebackers to cover Graham. After all, he hadn't really proven to be among Tom Brady's primary targets. Christian Fauria had certainly been the red zone target since the start of last season, but yesterday it was Graham's long catches of 18, 27, and 38 yards that got the Patriots headed toward the red zone.

Before yesterday, Graham's best performance was three receptions for 68 yards last Nov. 3 at Buffalo.

Fauria, who has been espousing Graham's virtues as early as training camp, said, "He hasn't played a lot of football. There isn't a lot of tape on him. Now there is. He's a human bulldozer. It's like he has high performance tires on those feet."

Fauria, who injured his right knee in the second quarter, was surprised to see so many balls thrown to Graham in a low-scoring game, but Fauria marveled at the yards Graham was able to accumulate after the catch.

"The more reps and looks he gets, [the] sky's the limit for him," said Fauria.

Though he had a 38-yarder in the third quarter -- the longest reception of his career -- the real eye-opener was a second-quarter 18-yard reception in which he fought off several tacklers and dragged three defenders for extra yardage in Browns territory.

"When you see that, those things remind you of Ben," said Patriots receiver Troy Brown. "They're about the same size, can get yards after the catch and they can shed tacklers. I'm not ready to say Daniel is Ben because Ben was one of the best I ever saw, but he does some things like Ben, no doubt about it."

It is why Graham studied film of Coates during the offseason. Coates had the uncanny ability to get open, even when defenses were designed to stop him. It's why Coates became Drew Bledsoe's favorite target for many seasons.

Could this be the start of a Brady-Graham connection like Bledsoe-Coates?

"I think everybody is waiting for Daniel to step up and do these types of things," Brady said. "He had some good opportunities today."

Toward the end of Coates's career, his blocking fell off. Graham thinks "that's one thing that's been overlooked. I've been blocking real good. The passes are coming my way now and people think I had a breakout game."

He did. He blocked, he caught passes, and he was difficult to tackle. He played the way he did in college when he won the John Mackey Award, given annually to the top tight end in the country.

"That's my game," Graham said. "Don't let one player tackle you. When I catch the ball, I feel nobody can tackle me. We knew [Cleveland] wasn't good tackling."

He said he speaks to his dad, Tom, a member of the Broncos from 1972-74, before and after every game. He looks forward to those conversations.

After yesterday, Graham said, "I think he's going to look forward to talking to me."

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