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Seymour has shown plenty of fight

Richard Seymour, who continued to draw double-teams as he battled through a series of injuries (quad, knee, ankle, elbow), says he feels as good as he has all season. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- It was the worst of times and then it got really bad. That's the kind of season it's been for five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

Pain, both mental and physical. Loss, both on the field and in the locker room. Disappointment, both in his body's rebellion and in his team's difficult struggle to get back to the playoffs. Yet through it all Seymour has persevered, remained faithful to himself, his team, and a higher power and, in the end, triumphed -- which is why he enters today's wild-card playoff game against the feisty Jets at Gillette Stadium confident in his team's ability to turn back a stern challenge.

"I've heard [Jets coach] Eric [Mangini] has brought a lot of boxers in there to talk with his team," Seymour said last week, a grin on his face. "That's good. That's good. Because when they come to Foxborough there's going to be some fighters here waiting for 'em."

Chief among them will be Seymour, who has played all year with a range of injuries that have limited him in ways opponents recognize, but others may not. Aching quad. Sore knee. Sprained ankle. An elbow bent so badly during a game in Buffalo Oct. 22 that his arm should have broken after Rodney Harrison landed on it with the full weight of his 220 pounds.

The elbow injury was the only public acknowledgement of his physical woes, and that came only because he was obviously bent over in enough pain that he was removed from the game and did not return after halftime. There was much speculation the following week he would not play against the Vikings and he did not start, standing on the sideline with his arm heavily braced by a long, dark blue contraption.

But Bill Belichick sent him in and he came away with a sack, a quarterback hit, a pass knocked down on fourth and 3, and another rush in which he hurried quarterback Brad Johnson into throwing an interception in the second quarter of a 31-7 road rout of a team some considered formidable. Then he returned to his home, where he was unable to lift his children.

"I couldn't lift my kids," Seymour said. "I couldn't lift weights. I couldn't lift anything. But for games the training staff did a great job bracing it up so I couldn't further injure it. I had no strength, but teams don't run over my way all that often and I was, 'Well, good!' "

Physical, mental strain
A week later, his elbow still aching and his knee and quad robbing him of his greatest asset -- his explosiveness off the ball -- Seymour was back in the starting lineup against the Colts, a spot he has not relinquished since. For a time in the middle of the season, the injuries limited his production, the low point coming when he was shut out Nov. 12 against the Jets playing with a throbbing knee, sore quad, braced elbow and from a new position. He was shifted from one side of the line to the other to replace injured Ty Warren, a move that left him not only physically depleted but mentally at a loss.

"I felt like I wasn't right that game," Seymour acknowledged. "It was like running with the wrong shoes on. My elbow. My knee. My ankle. It seemed like it was always something. Sometimes you feel like you're not what you should be but you want to be on the field. At that point, I wasn't really able to hold guys off because I only had one arm, but you come up with ways to compensate. I had to bring out other qualities in my game. I watched more film. Started doing little things. Hitting the cold tub. Hitting the hot tub. Trying different therapies. Looking for any kind of edge to balance things up.

"When you're not right physically you can give in or you can mentally try to study harder. Be sure that you're in the right place at the right time to compensate for not being as explosive as in the past.

"Sometimes you feel the pain. Sometimes you think, 'Man, come and get me!' I hadn't really experienced much of that until this year. I got through it, but I'd watch myself on tape and I could see I was favoring it. I could see I didn't have all the elements of the player I could be when I'm healthy, but I was still encouraged because I was working on other things that will help me later. I tried to put it all in perspective. I could have been in the situation Rodney [Harrison] was in last year when he couldn't play at all [after blowing out his knee]. A lot of guys were injured. I wasn't the only one hurt."

True, but few were hurt in as many places at once as Seymour, who found he was beginning to favor certain parts of his body and thus making other parts sore. One thing built upon another until he was less than the real Richard Seymour.

Not surprisingly, as his health has improved, so has his performance. He finished the season with seven tackles in his last two games and 23 over the final seven. That final rush, coupled with the 18 tackles he made in the first three games before the injuries mounted, accounted for 41 of the 51 stops he's made this season, but more importantly, those final two games reminded his opponents just whom they're about to face.

"No question from a physical standpoint, and also from a mental standpoint of having to deal with the physical problems, this has been my most difficult season," Seymour said. "My game is explosiveness. Being quick. When you have a lot of your components that make you the player you are taken away from you, it's difficult to deal with, but I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. To move forward, sometimes you have to take a few steps backward. It's been a banged-up year but I feel when I get through this and begin to use all my ability, plus all I learned this year about the little things, I'll be better than I was before."

That won't be easy, for in six seasons Seymour has been to five Pro Bowls, won three Super Bowls, and reached the playoffs five times while becoming among the highest-paid defensive linemen in the game playing for a team that is penurious when it comes to rewarding its most talented performers. Seymour has long ago accepted the latter as simply business.

Business savvy
Sitting in a restaurant booth that seemed barely able to contain his 6-foot-6-inch, 310-pound frame, Seymour pondered the recent decision of Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban to break his contract and abandon his players only two years into his tenure. "A man has to do what he feels is right for himself and his family, but if that was a player, everyone would be saying he's greedy and has no loyalty," he mused. "As a coach, he's just going to a better job. A few people are criticizing him but a lot of people are saying, 'That's what coaches do. They get fired, too.' So do players, but when you're a player you can't win, so you just have to do what you believe is right."

Seymour has long done that, which is why he stood waiting at his locker to face the media the day his friend Deion Branch was traded to the Seattle Seahawks after a bruising holdout and contract dispute. That move could have split the team had there not been people like Seymour to urge everyone to move on. After seeing his mentor, Willie McGinest, set adrift over money and the game's most reliable kicker, Adam Vinatieri, leave for the same reason in the offseason, Seymour could have let his personal disappointments affect his game.

Instead, he stood tall, spoke his mind, then accepted that while loyalty is important, it barely exists in pro football outside the locker room.

"I looked at it as business, but that doesn't mean business don't hurt sometimes," Seymour said. "Sometimes you get angry about it, but you get by it. You express your opinion, then you move on from it.

"The team has to do what's in their best interest and the player as well. I was happy for Deion. He deserved what he got. He earned it. He was everything the organization says it wants in a guy. He's a great player in his prime. So from a selfish standpoint, you want him to be with you. You want the truth to be known. But I don't hold grudges. At least I try not to. Life's too short. Why hold on to some bitterness you had? We all make mistakes. I make mistakes. I allow other people to make mistakes, too."

Today, the Jets and Eric Mangini would be wise not to think they can take advantage of a dented and dinged Seymour. Although he is still not 100 percent and knows he won't be for months, he's feeling better than he has since the third game of the season, when he sprained his ankle and thought he might miss a game (but didn't).

"Throughout the season you start off 100 percent and then you dwindle down," Seymour said. "I've been the opposite. I'm finally moving in a direction where I'm feeling better when most guys are feeling worse."

The real inside story
Some local pundits have criticized Seymour's play this season, insisting his friend and running mate Warren has been the superior player. Statistically one can make that argument, since Warren finished second on the team in tackles (117), sacks (7.5) and quarterback hits (13) while Seymour was 10th with 51 tackles, fifth with four sacks, and third with 12 quarterback hits, but those statistics can't explain why opposing teams most often double-team Seymour, not anyone else, on the Patriots' imposing front line.

It is Seymour whom offensive coordinators know they must control. It is Seymour who makes quarterbacks lie awake. Even in a year when he has been less than his best, Richard Seymour remains a presence.

"Warren's a very good player who had a great year, but their other guy is from a different part of the jungle," said one AFC offensive coordinator who game planned against the Patriots this season. "He's a lion. He's the king of that jungle. If you're going to beat the Patriots, you better pay a lot of attention to Richard Seymour."

This time of year Seymour expects that, but he also expects it in September and October, so nothing much has changed but his health as the playoffs open. Whenever he steps on the field, he expects extra attention and a reluctance to run in his direction, odd badges of honor that come to dominating defensive linemen.

Because of such professional respect, Seymour has been able to ignore a small group of local critics who insisted he was no longer the best defensive lineman on his team. He has heard the remarks, read the doubters, is aware of what's been said even after the Patriots in the middle of the season exercised a team option on him worth more than $6 million.

"I knew what was swirling around, but when you know the truth it doesn't matter what other people say," Seymour said. "When I had all those nagging injuries I still knew who and what I was as a player. Sometimes people will write you're better than you are, too. You should remember that before they get too upset about what people say.

"Ty is a really good friend of mine and any time you see a friend do well you're happy for him. Him doing well is what we need to do well. I don't compare myself to him or to anybody. Not to sound arrogant, but I don't feel there's anybody to compare me to.

"The ultimate respect, after you've established yourself, is how do other players view you and the validity of your contract. When opposing coaches game plan for you, what do they think of you? I let that speak for itself. Through it all, I'm happy I played through all the injuries and the adversity and was able to go all 16 games . . . and hopefully throughout the playoffs. I think that says a lot about what's on the inside with me. Nobody can question that I'll fight and leave it all out on the field. Nobody who knows me, at least."

That would include the guy coaching against him today, a guy who knows Richard Seymour well enough to know if his Jets are looking for a fight, it would be wise not to pick it with him.

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