New England Patriots top the NFL while showing the form of their Super Bowl-winning teams

Through changes in the makeup of the team, Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have remained the mainstays in the New England Patriots' winning tradition.
Through changes in the makeup of the team, Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have remained the mainstays in the New England Patriots' winning tradition. (Winslow Townson/associated Press)
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By Mark Maske
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 10:30 PM

During the decade in which they have been the NFL's most successful franchise, the New England Patriots rarely have been able to do anything that has gone the least bit unnoticed. From their three Super Bowl triumphs to the "Spygate" scandal to their pursuit of an unbeaten season, their deeds and misdeeds have been closely scrutinized.

Yet it is midway through the 2010 season and the Patriots stand alone with the league's best record at 6-1, and they've managed to reach that perch with comparatively little fanfare.

The Patriots, except for one flurry of attention when they traded wide receiver Randy Moss, have remained mostly under the radar, piling up victories with a revamped supporting cast assembled to complement their championship-winning mainstays, Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The manner in which these Patriots are winning games is beginning to draw comparisons not to the exploits of the 2007 team that went 18-0 before being upset by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, but to the workmanlike clubs that captured three Super Bowls between the 2001 and 2004 seasons.

"I think the way they're winning games is similar," former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "I can make the connection on those terms. It's not just one unit of the team that's dominating. In '07, it was the offense that got all the attention. Now it's each phase. . . . It's been contributions from all over the place."

Brady and the offense are doing much of the heavy lifting again this season. It's not like 2007, when the Patriots set a single-season NFL scoring record, Brady threw a record 50 touchdown passes and Moss had a record 23 touchdown catches. These Patriots are ranked only 19th in total offense based on yards per game. But they lead the league in scoring at 29.3 points per game, and Brady is the NFL's fifth-rated passer.

Still, he's far from satisfied with the team's offensive production.

"I'd prefer us to be playing a lot better than we're playing, I'd say that," Brady said at a midweek news conference.

"Maybe we'd get more attention if we were playing more consistently as an offense and scoring more points and being more effective on third down and in the red area. I think we've got to find ways to play better football as a team."

The defense is ranked only 28th in the league and features plenty of young players in key roles. Four rookies started on defense in last Sunday's 28-18 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Even so, the unit is contributing to the team's success.

"One thing that's different is that in 2001, we had a bunch of free agent signings, guys who were veterans," Bruschi, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said by telephone. "We were veteran-based on those teams. Now it's a matter of people seeing the young players mature before their eyes. The question before the season was whether the young guys on defense would do their part, and they are."

The three Super Bowl-winning teams for the Patriots had a knack for getting contributions from every corner of the locker room, and for being the league's most resilient and resourceful club. The franchise's brain trust of owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and front office chief Scott Pioli maneuvered their way through free agency and the salary cap better than anyone else.

Belichick had the sport's top coaching lieutenants in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and the Patriots didn't need the sport's most expensive payroll or most star-filled roster to win championships. Belichick was unafraid to make tough roster moves that were unpopular even among his own players, as when he released safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the 2003 regular season.

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