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Patriots mass for stretch run

FOXBOROUGH -- If Ted Washington spoke to the media, he would be saying he'd like to return to the Patriots lineup for the Dallas game Sunday night at Gillette Stadium. At least that's what he's told his agent, Angelo Wright, and some of the people he's befriended around the stadium. Whether he returns from his broken leg vs. Dallas or the following week at Houston, the Patriots are about to bolster their defense with the block of granite they need for the stretch run.

It's not that the versions of the 3-4 and 4-3 defense used en route to the team's 7-2 record haven't worked. They've worked fine. It's just that coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel had a vision for this unit. The vision was mammoth nose tackle Washington in a 3-4 that can stop the run and collapse the pocket, athletic linebackers flying around making plays, and a secondary covering well and not giving up big gains. Fortunately, they have gotten that type of play from those who have filled in for Washington and some other injured players. Stalwarts such as Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Tyrone Poole, and Rodney Harrison have been steady all season.

But now it's time to set the stage for the final seven games. The remaining schedule is easier, you say? Maybe on paper, but in reality it could be harder.

While Patriots supporters are quite naturally enthusiastic, the true greatness of a team (see 2001) is how it finishes. Will the Patriots be strong in December? Will they have momentum going into the playoffs? That 7-2 start will make winning their division and getting to the playoffs much easier. But easy is not what Belichick is looking for, either.

He's looking for a team that can withstand the challenges of the second half, when the games mean more, when the teams on the edge are playing their best and gunning for the teams ahead of them, when teams who are out of it are playing for pride, and when the games are played in bad weather.

Belichick isn't looking for a team that commits 15 penalties in a game and has to rely on fantastic finishes to win. It's great that the Patriots have won in Miami and Denver in the same year for the first time since 1966. It's great they have developed their rookies, adding depth. It's great they've been dominant so far. But now it's time to pull it all together and beat teams soundly when it really counts.

Now we will see how legitimate Kansas City, Indianapolis, Carolina, Minnesota, Tennessee -- and the Patriots -- are. We will see which way teams teetering around .500 will go. Buffalo, Green Bay, the New York Giants, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Miami are some of the teams capable of having big second halves, although it's just as likely they could falter.

Which is why even the best teams of the first half have to reinvent themselves, and why the return of Washington could be important.

At Denver, Clinton Portis became the first rusher to gain 100 or more yards against the Patriots' defense. In the end it didn't matter as much because New England won the game (and without its defensive star, Seymour, in the lineup).

When the Patriots resume playing, they're hoping to have a line with Washington in the middle, Seymour at one end, and a combination of Bobby Hamilton and Ty Warren at the other end. They're hoping to have a linebacking corps like they one they had to start the season with Bruschi and Ted Johnson (also soon to return, from a broken foot) inside and Mike Vrabel and/or Roman Phifer and Willie McGinest on the outside. They're hoping to take some heat off their secondary so Harrison doesn't have to make as many tackles, and so the rookies, Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson, aren't exposed.

More than likely, this is not a team like the 1999 Patriots, who started 6-2 and finished 2-6. There are enough players remaining from that team to remind one and all of how starting out fast is great as long as you end strong.

The Patriots might not have had their peak performance yet, but they also haven't had many stinkers either, except for Opening Day against Buffalo.

Getting Washington back for the stretch run is like a baseball team making a trade for an experienced veteran who has been through it all. He will save the interior linebackers from taking too many direct hits on running downs.

His presence should make Seymour even more effective, and the rookie Warren, who really has been coming around the past few weeks, might also reap the benefits of the double-teams Washington and Seymour may encounter.

Last week, the Patriots did their usual self-scouting; going through all their plays to see what worked and what didn't. Teams about to face the Patriots will try to find trends in New England's defense.

While opposing coaches and players always comment on how tough it is to spot tendencies in the Patriots' D, that process will get even harder. When Washington gets back into the lineup, much of what teams have been watching the Patriots do will be rendered meaningless.

"That's the beauty of what they've accomplished," said one AFC general manager. "They've won with major injuries and now they can go back to what they wanted to do from the outset. That's a great position to be in."

There's always the school of thought that fixing what's not broken could mess it all up, though Belichick is correct when he says, "You can't have enough good players."

But the Broncos moved the ball, and if they had had a more refined quarterback, the outcome of the game might have been different -- and the Patriots know it. So the time is ripe for the massive Washington to return, to make his presence as the centerpiece of the defense known. And set that defense up for a chance to be dominating when it counts the most.

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