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Just win, baby

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 27, 2008 08:34 AM

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The coach sports this team now like a familiar piece of clothing: old, worn, cut off at the elbows and colored in the drib and drab of grayness. But comfortable nonetheless. Functional, too.

"Let's not kid ourselves," running back Heath Evans said yesterday in the wake of the Patriots' 23-16 victory over the St. Louis Rams. "You could say [a 5-2 record] is an accomplishment, but let me reiterate: It's not the accomplishment we're looking for, you know? There are no excuses here and no one feels sorry for us.

"We want to be a great team. Those are always the goals," Evans continued. "You play this game for one reason and that's to win -- and win a lot. Our appetite around here has been whet with success and the other side of that is no fun to deal with. So you work hard and follow the lead of Bill Belichick, and most of the time we can find a way to get it done."

So here we are, eight weeks into the 2008 NFL regular season, and a funny thing is happening while Tom Brady is piling up procedures and treatments on his left knee as if he were a young Bobby Orr: The Patriots are almost exactly where they should be. Yesterday's win over the Rams put the Patriots alongside the Buffalo Bills atop the reshuffled AFC East, and only two teams in football (the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants) have fewer losses than the team quarterbacked by Matt Cassel.

Yesterday? The Patriots played chunks of this game without a backfield -- on either side of the ball -- which can only make you wonder: Exactly when does Wes Welker start taking reps with the defense? For the majority of the fourth quarter against the Rams, the Patriots played with a cast of defensive backs that consisted of Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Brandon Meriweather, Mike Richardson, and James Sanders. Combined, those players have five fewer years of experience than the sagacious Rodney Harrison, lost last week to a season-ending quadriceps injury.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Cassel operated an offense on which he was the second-leading rusher (behind Kevin Faulk). The Patriots are so far down on the depth chart at running back that their only rushing touchdown was logged by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a 23-year-old undrafted rookie out of Mississippi who was entirely anonymous until Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, and LaMont Jordan went down with injuries.

Who carries the ball next week, Glengarry Glen Ross?

"We got contributions from everybody. There is no way you could go down the line and name them all, but a lot of guys stepped up. A lot of guys made big plays," said Belichick. "In the end, they hung in there and fought all the way and made the plays in the fourth quarter that we had to make to win."

Before we issue any disclaimers here about who the Patriots could be and whom they have played, let us remember the words of an astute gridiron general: You are what you are. Injuries and upsets are part of the landscape in the NFL, and the most successful teams overcome them. That does not necessarily translate into Super Bowl victories or even postseason appearances as it does into competitiveness, relentlessness, sheer strength of will.

Let's be honest with ourselves: Last year, especially, was the indisputable exception that spoiled us all to the core. Most years, you don't whip the ball all over the field and lead 35-0 at halftime. The Patriots of 2007 should have gone no worse than 14-2 during the regular season because, in terms of talent, they grossly outclassed the entire the NFL. They ended up going a dissatisfying 18-1, the cruelest example ever of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.

All of this brings us back to Belichick, whose talents are being tested like in perhaps no other season. Lots of coaches might have led the Patriots to a 14-2 record last year; we're willing to bet that fewer would have them 5-2 now. In 2007, Belichick's greatest challenge was to maintain the focus and intensity of a team whose greatest potential opponent was itself (at least until the Super Bowl). In 2008, the Patriots have concerns far more in line with the rest of the football world and every game is as losable as it is winnable.

Sooner or later, the Patriots were going back to reality.

The good news, of course, is that the Patriots have a master problem solver as a coach, a man who treats every game like a unique, three-dimensional puzzle. That is what things were like for Belichick in his early years here. That is when Belichick was at his best. That is when the Patriots would find a way to beat St. Louis despite a depleted secondary, when the Patriots eked out victories they shouldn't have, when their talent was more in line with the rest of the league and when their coach was the one who made up the difference.

And so yesterday, without running backs or defensive backs, against a team with talented receivers and a skilled quarterback, the Patriots gave up field goals instead of touchdowns. They finished with zero yards in penalties. They averaged 8.1 yards per pass attempt and made all of their kicks, and they did the only thing that really matters in the most of result-oriented businesses.

They won.

No matter what it looked like.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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