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ON FOOTBALL

It's out of their hands

Those on bubble await decision of coaches

FOXBOROUGH -- The happiest men in the Patriots' locker room late last night were John Hillebrand and John Jastremski.

Equipment manager Don Brocher's top assistants had a lot less laundry than usual to worry about after the Patriots ended their exhibition schedule with a 27-3 loss to the New York Giants at Razor Blade Field in a game that was not about winning and losing. It was about surviving.

The 37 Patriots Bill Belichick didn't bother to dress for the game survived the night without incident, although, frankly, not all of them may survive the weekend. Of the 38 who did dress, they had two objectives -- get through the game intact and do enough to survive the final roster cutdown to 53, which is looming.

Belichick's decision not to dress half the team made it easier for him to get players most in need of assessment one last chance to prove they belong, and it made it far easier for Hillebrand and Jastremski, because usually this time of year there's a blizzard of dirty linen on the locker room floor. Last night, there was barely a dusting.

When the locker room doors swung open a half-hour after the final gun, the place was all but deserted. Veterans whose only participation had been to cheer on their teammates were gone, leaving only those for whom the next 72 hours will be long ones.

Some, such as wide receiver David Terrell, tried to put the best face on things. After catching three passes for 21 yards, he declared he had ''put my best foot forward." Perhaps so, but he didn't put it forward very often this summer, missing half of training camp and the first two exhibition games.

Still, cockiness is the last thing to go with some athletes, and once Terrell had been an elite one. By Sunday, he may be a former one, a thought that didn't seem to have crossed his mind.

Across the room, Bethel Johnson was getting dressed. Although he had not dressed for a game until last night because of a persistent foot injury, he did manage to catch two passes, but it was not a good sign that he returned neither a kickoff nor a punt.

Johnson took nearly as long to button his shirt and turn to face the media circling his locker as he had getting out of the tub this summer. When he finally did, he seemed at first amused and later peeved at the idea anyone might be asking him if he thought he was going to survive the final cut.

''Everybody's bringing me the cut questions," Johnson said with exasperation. ''Things not in my control I don't worry about. I can only do what they ask me to do. After that, it's up to the coaches. Whatever happens, happens."

Johnson was once considered a potential game-breaker because of his speed and explosiveness, both as a deep-threat receiver and a kick returner. But all summer he has been hampered by the aftereffects of offseason foot surgery, and until last week was on the team's physically unable to perform list. That changed just in time for the Giants game, and usually that is not a good sign. Usually it's a precursor to being handed a pink slip, but Johnson understood there was nothing he can do about that now.

''I did everything they asked me to do," he said. ''If they asked me to do more, I'd have had to do that, too, but I wasn't going to come back before I was ready to go. You're all making a big deal out of it. Leave them to do that. It's up to the coaches to decide that. You don't know what's going on around here. Half the time I don't know what's going on around here. It's something nobody else needs to worry about."

Nobody, including Johnson apparently, who was asked what he might do to pass the time until the cutdown from 65 players to 53 is achieved. There are many things he may do. One of them, he insisted, won't be worrying about what Belichick is thinking.

''I don't worry about things I can't control," Johnson explained. ''If you think I'm going to sit around tomorrow and Saturday worrying about what's going to happen to me, I'm not."

One rival for the remaining receiver jobs on the roster, P.K. Sam, stood across the room answering similar questions. He, like Terrell, Johnson, Andre Davis, and Bam Childress, was among the small corps of five receivers who had dressed for the final exhibition. Whether they said it or not, they all understood what that meant.

Four veterans -- Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Tim Dwight, and David Givens -- had spent the evening in street clothes. That didn't assure them of jobs, either, but it left them with good reason to feel a lot more secure about sending out their dry cleaning over the weekend than the five guys with soiled jerseys on the floor.

As Sam surveyed it all, he agreed with Johnson about the helplessness of their situation. None of them could do anything else to affect the coaches' decisions. All they could do was wait.

''It's in God's hands and Belichick's now," Sam said.

Asked if they were one in the same in Foxborough, Sam flashed a tired smile and nodded.

''Sometimes it seems like they are," he said.

This weekend will be one of those times for 12 guys who last night wore Patriots uniforms for probably the last time in their lives.

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