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Stagger becomes swagger

Patriots defense is standing tall again

Want to make Richard Seymour laugh?

Just ask what you have to do to get the Patriots some ''nobody respects us" material for this week's trip to Denver for an AFC divisional playoff game.

The Pro Bowl defensive lineman, who was chosen first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press yesterday, hinted that lack of respect would not be this week's mantra; much respect for the Broncos is on the menu.

''Just let the truth be told," Seymour said. ''They're 8-0 at home, that speaks for itself. If we want to beat these guys, we have to beat them at home and we have to play a solid football game in all aspects.

''That's what it is. Underdogs or whatever."

The Patriots may enter the game as underdogs, but they now carry a certain defensive swagger they didn't have earlier in the season. A swagger that cornerback Asante Samuel said is necessary to be as good as the Patriots have been of late, particularly in the secondary.

''We got our swagger back, so to speak," said Samuel, who showed off his strut with a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Jaguars. ''We're kind of playing like we know how to play. It feels a little better.

''If you're going out there without that swagger, you're just out there dead like, 'It's another game,' you don't know what's going to happen. But if you have your swagger, you have your confidence, and you know you're going out there ready, you think in your mind you're going to make a play, and good things are going to happen."

After making one interception in his first 12 games, Samuel has three in his last three games and a quarter, highlighted by the score last Saturday. Rookie Ellis Hobbs has three interceptions, all after the season's midway point. Free safety Eugene Wilson's lone interception came in Week 11, and his first forced fumble came in the wild-card game. Strong safety Artrell Hawkins wasn't even on the roster until Week 10.

Samuel gives some credit for the secondary's improvement to an attacking style the Patriots weren't able to employ early in the season.

The Patriots had 13 sacks in their first nine games, and 26 in their last eight, with six against Jacksonville. Similarly, the team's interceptions more than doubled after the midway point, from three in the first eight contests to eight in the last nine.

''We're being more aggressive. We're not just sitting back, we're going after the quarterback and getting pressure," Samuel said. ''We're breaking on balls, intercepting balls. If the D-line plays well, the [defensive backs] play well; if the DBs play well, the D-line plays well. It all comes together.

''If you're winning, you're playing good, and you keep it going you can say it's momentum. You go out to practice, you kind of have a little swagger, you have a little something about yourself where you have the confidence and you're going out there feeling good about what you're going to do in the game."

The Patriots' newfound confidence will be tested by one of the more efficient offenses in the league.

The Broncos (158.7 yards a game) finished second in the league in rushing, less than a half-yard behind the Falcons, and quarterback Jake Plummer had the NFL's seventh-best passer rating at 90.2 (just behind the Patriots' Tom Brady at 92.3), with an interception percentage of 1.5, second-best in the league.

''It's going to be tough playing at Mile High," Seymour said. ''It's an excellent opportunity for this football team. A perfect opportunity for us to go out and show the strides that we've made as a team over the last month.

''I heard a lot of flak about, 'Well it's been not a high-ranking offense that we've been going against,' just a whole lot of stuff. So I think we'll resolve a lot of the questions.

''But it's going to start by playing a tough football game because this is a good football team that we're going against and we have a lot of respect for these guys."

Denver's 13-3 mark is impressive enough, but included in that total is a 28-20 win over the Patriots in October, a game the Broncos led by 25 points at one point.

Plummer completed 17 of 24 passes for 262 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while Tatum Bell ran for 114 yards on 13 carries.

''When you look at their football team, first and foremost, they want to run the ball," Seymour said. ''They have capable backs and they're just plugging guys into that running system that are able to get the job done.

''This is a week it's more important to stop the run than last week. We've done pretty good lately stopping the run, but it's going to be our biggest challenge this year. We're just ready for our opportunity."

Denver has outscored visitors, 179-100, at home, with an impressive 125-40 first-half advantage. Since trailing the Chargers, 14-3, at the half in their home opener, the Broncos have not been behind at the break, and they led New England, 21-3, at the intermission.

But as you'll hear throughout the week, that was a different New England squad.

''It was so important to get better as a team from where we were at midseason," Seymour said. ''Look at our team, we were one up and one down. If we stayed at that point, that wasn't going to be good enough.

''Individually and collectively as a group, we came together and now we're playing better football than we were at that point in the season.

''You look at this game and obviously, they've done a good job. Their record speaks for itself. They deserve a lot of credit. They're playing well at home. They have a good defense, a good offense. They spread the ball around; they can run the ball.

''We're not taking anything away from these guys. We understand and know that we're going to have to play our best game, and we're going to have to play better than we did last week to win this football game."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

Audio REISS'S KEY MATCHUP: Pats D vs. Den. RBs
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