- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

FOXBOROUGH, Mass.

The early returns weren’t good for the New England Patriots’ offense this season. Heck, Bill Belichick was reaching for the rewind button after the very first play from scrimmage, a sack of Tom Brady that resulted in a touchdown for the opposition.

David Givens was gone to Tennessee as a free agent. Holdout Deion Branch would soon be gone to Seattle in a trade. Good soldier Brady, meanwhile, was grousing about needing a media guide to identify his wide receivers — only one of whom, eternal Patriot Troy Brown, was with the team a year ago.

In Week 3 the Patriots were nearly shut out by the Broncos. In Week 14 they were shut out by the Dolphins. At that point they had a 9-4 record and a firm hold on the AFC East, but they were looking like anything but a Super Bowl contender.

Something has happened in the last month, though, something that fairly shouts: Chargers, beware! The offense that couldn’t get out of its own way in September is scoring piles of points in December and January — 40 against the Texans, 40 more against the Titans and nearly that many yesterday in a 37-16 playoff pounding of the Jets. We all know the Patriots can play defense; if Brady and Co. are going to start holding up their end as well, a fourth Super Bowl title may be not be so farfetched.

“We’ve kinda found a nice identity,” Brady said after having very Brady Sunday (22-for-34 for 212 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions). “We’re running the ball very well, spreading it around to a bunch of different guys.”

Some of whom he barely knew at the beginning of the season. Why, Jabar Gaffney, the game’s leading receiver with eight catches for 104 yards, didn’t even suit up for the Patriots until Week 6 and had only 11 receptions for 142 yards on the year. The club signed him — out of desperation, mostly — as a street free agent after the Eagles cut him at the end of training camp.

Afterward, Gaffney proved as elusive to reporters as he was to the Jets, fleeing the premises with nary a comment. It was left to Belichick, not much of a crooner, to sing his praises, to talk about Jabar’s smarts and work ethic and versatility. “He’s done a great job of picking up things,” the Pats coach said. “He’s learned all three receiver positions and given us some quality plays this year.”

Another recent acquaintance of Brady’s is Reche Caldwell, who was the Patriots’ second leading receiver against the Jets with five catches for 50 yards. Caldwell was brought in as Givens’ ostensible replacement after four disappointing seasons in San Diego. All he has done since is have the best year of his career, grabbing 61 balls and posting two 100-yard games in December.

“It’s all about timing,” said fullback Heath Evans, one of the many pieces in New England’s offensive puzzle. “Running routes is timing. We all know what Tom’s capable of, and we thought we knew what the receivers were capable of. It just took time.”

Outside the Patriots locker room, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who thought Caldwell and Gaffney were capable of this. Yes, Reche was a first-round draft pick and Jabar a second-rounder, but they had done nothing in the league to suggest they were any more than journeymen — another two University of Florida receivers who for some reason fell short of expectations.

“Jabar had a great week of practice,” Brady said, “and it carried over into the game. He was in a great position to make plays — the Jets singled him up most of the time — and he took advantage of it.”

It’s enough to make you wonder whether just about anybody could play wideout for the Patriots. That was kind of the attitude management took when it refused to match the Titans’ offer to Givens and played hardball with Branch, the former Super Bowl MVP. Belichick and owner Bob Kraft were ripped by the Boston media for their perceived arrogance, but it’s beginning to look like they might get away with it. (On top of that, they’re sitting with two No. 1 picks in the coming draft — theirs and the one the Seahawks gave them for Branch).

The offense may not be as dazzling as it was when Corey Dillon was rushing for 1,600 yards and Branch was shredding secondaries in the playoffs, but as Brady said, “a bunch of different guys” are making meaningful contributions. No Patriots ball carrier, for instance, gained more than 69 yards yesterday, but Dillon, Laurence Maroney et al. combined for 158, a quite respectable total. And while tight end Daniel Graham and running back Kevin Faulk both caught only one pass each, their two receptions both went for touchdowns.

Add it all up and you have a balanced ballclub, not one that — as was the case earlier in the season — leans unhealthily on its bellicose defense. Suddenly, the Chargers’ — and Marty Schottenheimer’s — road to the Super Bowl looks a lot more treacherous.

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