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He likes to call it like he sees it

Pressure? You'd never know it to look at Mike Vrabel , as he appeared to be plenty relaxed at yesterday's Patriots practice. Pressure? You'd never know it to look at Mike Vrabel , as he appeared to be plenty relaxed at yesterday's Patriots practice. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

Dan Dierdorf knows what it's like to be in the spotlight on national TV, both as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and as a football analyst for CBS since 1999.

"Things were different back then," he said yesterday. "It seemed like the spotlight was turned on Sunday afternoon or Monday night, and during the week you were able to live your life. And I'm sensing in some ways that was better. I think players were able to have a little more normalcy in their lives."

CBS airs up to seven games on Sundays, Fox airs another six to eight, NBC has "Sunday Night Football" with John Madden and Al Michaels (plus tonight's season opener between New Orleans and Indianapolis), and ESPN is in its second year of broadcasting "Monday Night Football." Then there's the NFL Network, which shows game replays and news conferences.

Now that's exposure.

Dierdorf acknowledged that the Patriots are favored to go all the way, but laughed at the notion that that means they're under pressure.

"I think the Patriots are in a very comfortable position," he said. "This is a team that is used to winning, it's a team that sets very high standards for themselves. So I don't think they're fazed by people calling them the favorites, and people talking about them. I think they learned to deal with this a long time ago.

"Bill [Belichick] does a good job of just keeping them in the moment. It's like, let's take today's practice and then walk off the field better than we were when we got on it. But Bill and Scott Pioli have done a wonderful job of identifying players who want to be coached like that, and who have the ability to wear the blinders and stay focused."

Dierdorf started hosting a radio show as a player, then went on to CBS for two years before joining ABC's "Monday Night Football" for 12 years. In 1999, he returned to CBS.

Dierdorf said he has no problem critiquing players.

"I love the game, and have a deep admiration for the men who play it well," he said. "I don't have a lot of admiration for men who don't respect the game, who don't try, who don't put the effort in that the game deserves."

So he has no problem giving discredit where discredit is due.

"I think when it comes time to be critical, you have to be critical," he said. "I don't think you beat people up just for the sake of making a headline. I've been doing this too long to get any enjoyment out of that."

Dierdorf and Greg Gumbel will be calling the Miami at Washington game Sunday, which airs after Patriots-Jets at 1 p.m. The lead announcing team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will call that game.

Monday makeover

ESPN has added a lot of bells and whistles to its Monday night broadcast, including a "Pardon the Interruption" segment at halftime, music videos submitted by fans, enhanced graphics and animations, and a virtual lineup scrimmage.

"We've added a lot of new things to our bag of tricks," said senior coordinating producer Jay Rothman. "But we recognize that we're a national show. We're going to the whole country, not to two separate markets or two separate regions. You always hope you get compelling matchups, but we know that 50 percent of our viewers are avid NFL fans, and 50 percent are casual fans, so the trick is to get the casual ones and not tick off the avid ones. So you just evolve, and always raise the bar."

ESPN's broadcasting team is Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, and Ron Jaworski, who replaces Joe Theismann this year.

Jaworski, when asked to handicap the AFC, did not hesitate.

"It just appears to everyone that New England is the team to beat," he said. "They certainly are a well-coached team, and have depth at every position. A year ago I said they were the slowest receiving corps in the National Football League; I might be able to say now they are the fastest receiving corps in the league. They've had an incredible turnaround in the offseason, getting speed in the wide receiver spot.

"It seems like every time I see Tom Brady now, he's got a smile on his face. He does have a group of receivers now where he can attack with the passing game rather than the two or three tight end formations they had to use predominantly a year ago."

Jaworski was diplomatic, though.

"However, you still have to look at the Indianapolis Colts," he said. "They are defending world champions, and I think their offense is going to be absolutely phenomenal this season. Their defense will be a question mark, but I think their offense will be where they were two years ago."

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