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This year, they're not half bad

Aggressive starts boost Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- Hard to win it when you're not in it.

This time last season, opponents were finishing the Patriots as soon as the games got started. It was just about a year ago that the team was in the midst of a four-game skid. Three of those losses pretty much were over by halftime. The Patriots (26 yards) went into the locker room trailing, 16-0, to Miami. They were down, 14-3, to Green Bay (three turnovers). They trailed Denver, 21-7 (the Broncos converted all six third downs in the half).

Later in the year, the Patriots trailed Oakland, 17-6, and Tennessee, 14-0, at intermission.

Offensive game plan, meet the window. Window, offensive game plan.

There's been a lot less hole-digging by the Patriots this season, and it's no coincidence they'll ride a four-game streak into Denver Monday night. They've led or been tied at halftime in half their games and in three others have been within 6 points or fewer. Much has been made, and rightfully so, of the Patriots' ability to execute late in games. It's a lot easier to do if you're not dead early.

"I think there's a little bit more of a sense of urgency this year in the first half," Damien Woody said. "Last year, we used to come out smoking in the second half. We still do. But this year, there's more of an urgency about trying to make plays, make big plays, and score points and put that pressure on our opponent to really battle us toe to toe. That's what we're doing this year."

"We really work hard on getting off to a good start," Matt Light said. "That's a key ingredient to having success. Not that if you got off to a good start and then fade in the third or fourth quarter you're going to win those games, because a lot of times you probably won't. Getting off to good starts definitely keeps you in the game. We feel like if it's the fourth quarter and we've got a chance to win it that we can go out there and do it, we can make it happen."

Indeed, New England holds the league's longest active winning streak (21) when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. But even with all their late-game dramatics over the past 2 1/2 seasons, they're obviously even more comfortable holding leads than they are overcoming deficits.

"We're not a team that's going to blow anybody out," Woody said. "We're going to be there all the way through, slug it out until the fourth quarter. That's just the way our team is built. Our team is built for four quarters. Actually, four-plus quarters. We're just going to play it out, and when 60 minutes is up, we'll see how it ends. See who's the last one standing."

The offense (Adam Vinatieri included) has contributed 10, 19, and 9 points the past three weeks, so it's had to lean upon a defense that has yielded 6, 13, and 3. The Patriots have been outscored, 69-49, in the first half this season, but they've only had one hideous first half, in the opener when Buffalo opened up a 21-0 halftime lead. Other than that, they've played their opponents pretty evenly in the first half.

"Offensively, we've had some production on the first drive of the game. Not a lot," said coach Bill Belichick, whose offense has produced points on its first possession three times, all field goals, while the Patriots have scored first in four games. "We're well below average in the league in that category. That stat alone could certainly stand some improvement."

The Patriots' vastly improved defense has bought its slumping offensive counterparts enough time to find its rhythm. New England usually starts clicking offensively after halftime; the Patriots have outscored opponents, 58-23, in the third quarter, likely because they've been able to adjust the game plan rather than discard it. And the offensive balance they lacked last year is back because they aren't backing themselves into a corner early: New England has run 271 pass plays to 234 runs.

Credit the defense for forcing two Philadelphia turnovers in the first half in Week 2 (17-7, Patriots). For holding the Jets to three field goals though the first three-plus quarters the next week (New England led, 23-9, heading into the fourth). For forcing three turnovers and allowing just 29 yards and one first down before halftime against the Giants (7-3). And -- the stop of the year so far -- for holding Miami to 3 points and keeping it a 7-point game (10-3, rather than 14-3) after the Dolphins had marched to the 3. The Patriots would go into the locker room trailing, 10-6.

"Defensively, some games have been better than others," Belichick said. "We've had a couple of games, [like] the opener, where they drove the ball right down the field and scored. That's not what we're looking for. Other games have been better than that, where we've had turnovers early in the game and created positive field position, scored in one game the first few plays of the game."

"The bottom line is we're playing better than last year," Tedy Bruschi said. "Schemes are similar, players are similar, we've got some different players here, players that are gone. Bottom line is, we're just playing better. You're talking a tale of two years."

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