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He's really into this one

Neal is enjoying his active role

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Stephen Neal already has a Super Bowl ring, but if the Patriots should win Sunday, he believes it would be the first one he's earned.

In 2001, Neal was happy just to be there. He was just learning the game after an All-America wrestling career at Cal State-Bakersfield. When the Patriots got to the Super Bowl, he was inactive as they beat the Rams. For last year's championship campaign, he was out injured all season.

"I thought to myself that the Patriots might not give me an opportunity to stick around, but I never doubted myself," he said. "I always thought I could do it. I'm just very fortunate that the Patriots kept me around even through the injuries.

"I was a long shot. I was always told to go after what I believe in. That's the attitude that I'll always have."

Neal has been told by family and friends that he shouldn't feel as though he didn't earn the first ring. His inspiring story -- a wrestler who never played major college football becomes a starting guard in the NFL -- is proof of his commitment.

"They always tell me that I deserve it because I've worked so hard," he said. "I got down a couple of times, because the team won the Super Bowl but I really wasn't a part of it. I felt like, `I've got a Super Bowl ring, but I really didn't earn it.' My family said, `You really have, because you've worked so hard.' "

Neal still thinks wrestling is tougher than football. "I think the physical demands of wrestling are a lot harder, but the thing I enjoy is the mental part of football," he said. "You have to know where everyone else is on the field, all 11 guys on the other side. You have to get together as a team and accomplish the individual goal of each play."

Special significance
Special teams coach Brad Seely said the Patriots' philosophy to use starters on special teams comes directly from Bill Belichick. Seely, who also worked under Pete Carroll, said the two coaches differed on the approach.

"I think one of the reasons teams don't use regular players on special teams is because there's always a fear of the player being hurt," Seely said. "We fear that, too, but we believe that fourth down is every bit as important as third down. I think because Bill was a special teams coach he puts more emphasis on it."

Seely believes the Patriots are finally clicking on cover teams.

"We had a lot of injuries and I'm not sure we had our core guys together for a lot of the season, and that hurt us for a while," he said.

Poor timing pattern
P.K. Sam, the Patriots' fifth-round pick who was suspended by the team last week, did not violate any major team rules, but he was rather lethargic when it came to doing his rehab for a leg injury. The wide receiver, who was on the injured reserve list, would arrive late and leave early, and he was fined a few times by the team, according to a source close to the situation. Sam, who did not get to make the Super Bowl trip, will likely be reinstated once the season is over and he's had a chance to resolve the issue with Belichick . . . Patriots vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli was not among the team officials gathered for Media Day. Pioli was still in Foxborough with scouts, going over players from last weekend's Senior Bowl . . . Patriots owner Robert Kraft had a long friendship with the uncle of Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, who grew up in Newton, Mass. "His uncle and I played in a tennis group every Monday night for 25 years," Kraft said. "We used to rotate partners. There were four guys and we played three sets. We were called the Boston Crabs and we played in the Newton or Needham tennis center, and then we'd go out to dinner afterward. I've known the family for a long time. We both followed similar paths. We paid the highest price for a team. He broke the record, 90 days after I bought [the Patriots]."

He won't look ahead
Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is considered by some a candidate for a coordinator's job in Cleveland if, as expected, Romeo Crennel takes the Browns job. His focus, of course, is on winning the Super Bowl. After that? "Me, personally, I don't think I could ever be a head coach," Johnson said. "Too many hassles, too many adjustments, but that's just me talking right now. In a couple of years, I might have a different mentality. As for coordinator, I would think anyone who played my position as a middle linebacker and still continued to coach football would have aspirations of being a coordinator. Will it happen for me? That's in the man's hands upstairs. That's something I don't sit back and think about every night." . . . The Patriots changed their practice time today from afternoon to morning because inclement weather is forecast. 

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