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Victory arrived via special delivery

FOXBOROUGH -- Football folk like to remind people there are three phases to football. The third phase -- special teams -- is sort of like a middle child. It's the forgotten phase, often recognized only when there's a breakdown.

And then there are days like yesterday, when the kicking game makes the difference. "This was a classic field-position game," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of New England's 9-3 victory.

Adam Vinatieri accounted for all the Patriots' points, on field goals of 27, 28, and 38 yards, though he missed wide left from 48. Four of Ken Walter's five punts were downed inside the 20, and the fifth barely was a touchback. Thanks to Walter, a Euclid, Ohio, native and former ballboy for Belichick's Browns, and the punt coverage team, Cleveland's average starting field position was its 19. That was a big reason the Browns reached midfield only twice.

"That's been a real strength for Kenny since he's been here," Belichick said. "He's been a good plus-50, inside-the-20 type of punter. He hangs it up there high and on a field like that, which is relatively soft, you're not looking for a lot of big bounces. For the most part, he had a little bit of a backspin on the ball there. The coverage was good. It was a nice job by Kenny getting the ball up nice and high to give the coverage a chance to get under it."

Long snapper Lonie Paxton, Matt Chatham, and Bethel Johnson downed punts, while ex-Brown Chris Akins took down Dennis Northcutt for a 1-yard loss to Cleveland's 13 on a return. "I know how to kick in those situations with a short field," said Walter, who averaged 40.4 yards per punt. "Guys did a good job getting down there and stopping balls. I'm still mad about the touchback. I know I helped the team out. I'm just glad to put the defense out there at a good point on the field."

After Dan Koppen's false start wiped out his 43-yard field goal in the second quarter, Vinatieri missed his fifth attempt this season after missing three all of last year. "You got spoiled last year, didn't you?" Vinatieri said. "It's frustrating, but that's something where you're not going to make minor adjustments. You just have to move forward. If you've hit the ball within a foot of where you wanted to, you can't be too upset about that."

Red-hot defense

The Browns entered the game ranked second in the league in red zone defense, allowing four touchdowns (23.5 percent) and eight field goals in 17 opponents' trips inside their 20. Those figures were helped yesterday by the Patriots going 0 for 3 in the red zone -- the largest and most-unsightly blemish on the victory. "I think you have to give them credit," Belichick said. "When you come down there and you're first-and-goal and get a 10-yard penalty [Tom Brady, for intentional grounding on New England's first possession] and now you're second-and-20 or whatever it was [16], that's not a good formula. Kick a field goal and get that taken off the board and come back and miss one [second quarter]. We had our opportunities and we screwed a few things up, and at the same time, they're right at the top of the league in red zone defense. There's a reason for that, too. It's not just a coincidence." . . . The Patriots appeared to come out of the game relatively healthy. Ty Law's ailing right ankle gave him problems, but he returned in time to seal the victory with an interception with less than a minute remaining. Christian Fauria hurt his right knee but returned. Brady banged his right hand near the end of the first half but did not seem to be affected by it the rest of the game. . . . Mike Vrabel's three-sack game was the first by a Patriot since Henry Thomas Dec. 13, 1998, at St. Louis. . . . New England forced Cleveland into three consecutive three-and-outs to begin the game -- a first in three-plus seasons under Belichick. . . . Browns coach Butch Davis on Cleveland's third loss by 6 points or fewer: "I was proud of the way this football team played. Given the set of circumstances and some of the adversity that they faced during the course of the week, I thought they showed up and they competed as hard as they possibly could. Cleveland (3-5) was without starting running back William Green and three opening-day starters on its offensive line in center Jeff Faine, guard Shaun O'Hara, and tackle Barry Stokes. "Some people stepped up today, some guys on the offensive line that 3 1/2 months ago we questioned whether or not they should be in the NFL, or be on a professional team," said Davis.

Subpoena for Izzo

Patriots linebacker Larry Izzo was one of 10 NFL players subpoenaed to testify in the BALCO designer steroid investigation, according to a report by "NFL Insider" Jay Glazer on yesterday's "The NFL Today" on CBS. Show host Jim Nantz also relayed that Glazer had said the 10 players had been tested for the THG drug but no results were known yet. The other nine players named were: Raiders DT Chris Cooper, FB Chris Hetherington, C Barret Robbins, LB Bill Romanowski, DT Dana Stubblefield, RB Tyrone Wheatley, and former DE Josh Taves; Chiefs WR Johnnie Morton; and Falcons LB Artie Ulmer . . . So much for the Boston College reunion, as Green (shoulder), Cleveland's Antonio Garay, and New England's Mike Cloud all were inactive. . . . Je'Rod Cherry, Ted Johnson, Wilbert Brown, David Patten, Ted Washington, Rick Lyle, and Rohan Davey (third quarterback) also were inactive for the Patriots . . . Tom Ashworth and right guard Joe Andruzzi were flagged twice for chop blocks . . . A key play on New England's last scoring drive was Troy Brown's 3-yard run to convert a third and 2. With Brady in the shotgun, Brown went in motion left to right, took the snap, and danced for the first down off the left side. "I think Troy did a good job of selling it," Brady said. "He's going back and forth and our guys are just acting like a dummy out there. It doesn't look like it's that tough for me to do." . . . The Patriots also started the 1974, '78, '79, '80, and '99 seasons 6-2. They made the playoffs only in '78 . . . New England had not held an opponent to 3 points or fewer since the final game of the 1999 season, a 20-3 win over the Ravens at Foxborough.

Bill Griffith of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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