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Gabriel lost, then found

Receiver emerged for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH -- With his flowing dreadlocks and shaggy facial growth, Patriots wide receiver Doug Gabriel looks like he could be one of the characters on "Lost." That's exactly what Gabriel was -- lost in the shuffle -- until his unexpected emergence during the fourth quarter of New England's 17-7 loss to Denver Sunday.

After playing sparingly in the first three quarters, the fourth-year wide receiver, who was acquired from the Oakland Raiders Sept. 2 in exchange for a fifth-round pick, caught four passes for 44 yards on New England's only scoring drive. Gabriel capped the 10-play, 80-yard effort with a diving snag of a Tom Brady pass for an 8-yard touchdown.

After a statistical correction that took a catch away from Ben Watson, Gabriel ended up leading all New England receivers with six catches and 65 yards, making all six grabs in the final quarter, during which the Patriots may have found a new go-to receiver.

"He was bringing what we didn't do all game," said tight end Daniel Graham. "He was getting open, catching the ball, and moving the ball for us."

"That's what I'm here for," said Gabriel. "They got me here for a reason, and that's what they got me here for -- me coming out and helping the team whenever I can."

While it was obvious what the 6-foot-2-inch, 215-pounder brought to the passing attack, what was less clear is why it took three quarters to utilize it.

Gabriel, who had 37 catches for 554 yards and three touchdowns for Oakland last season, didn't have a ball thrown his way until he hauled in an 18-yarder on the second play of the touchdown drive, his first catch in a New England uniform.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked yesterday why Gabriel wasn't a factor earlier in the game and seemed to indicate it was a conditioning issue. Gabriel, who has been battling a hamstring injury, was inactive for the first game of the season. He had no catches in limited action against the Jets.

``From where we were from a depth standpoint at that position, there weren't too many players who were really in a position to go all the way," said Belichick.

Another possible explanation is that Gabriel is still playing catch-up with the playbook. The Central Florida product said he feels comfortable with his knowledge of the offense, despite his late arrival.

``I've been in a lot of systems," he said. ``It's just trying to make sure you have the terminology down. I got the terminology down. It's just different terminology in every system."

Gabriel's performance could be dismissed as simply piling up stats in garbage time, since Denver held a 17-0 lead and loosened up its coverage.

``A receiver can't really control some of those things," said Belichick. ``His job to is to get open and catch the ball. A couple of the plays were tight. A couple we threw in front of what the coverage was. It's probably a combination of both."

That's Belichickspeak for ``Gabriel got open when he had to," which was a welcome sight for Brady.

``He did some good things out there and he is really going to help our offense," said Brady after the game. ``It was good to have him out there and have him make a play. He was fighting a few injuries the last few weeks. That shows his toughness and competitiveness to come out there and play the way he did, so it was good."

If only for a quarter, Gabriel teased Patriots fans with the type of talent that led Raiders receiver Randy Moss to publicly lament his departure. The two became close during Gabriel's tenure with Oakland and have remained friends. Gabriel said he spoke to Moss before Sunday night's game.

``He was asking me what was going to be my job [on Sunday]," said Gabriel. ``I was like, `I don't know.' He was like, `Make sure you do something where I can see you.' "

Chances are Moss, not to mention Patriots opponents the rest of the year, will be seeing a lot more of Gabriel.

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