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Patriots have NFL’s best record and 6 Pro Bowlers

- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

FOXBOROUGH, MASS. (AP) - Offensive lineman Logan Mankins played just eight games and still made the Pro Bowl.

And if his New England Patriots win two playoff games, they'll reach the Super Bowl.

The left guard isn't thinking much about any of those games. His focus is on Sunday's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins, even though it has no impact on either team's place in the standings.

"I have such a hard time looking past one week at a time," he said Wednesday. "I don't even want to speculate what I'd be looking forward to."

Mankins was chosen for his third Pro Bowl despite sitting out the first seven games in a contract dispute.

The Patriots lost his first game back but have won all seven since. Mankins' ability to shove aside defenders has been a big reason for the team's improved running game, Tom Brady's lack of an interception in those eight games and the NFL-best 13-2 record that earned the Patriots homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

Mankins is signed through this season after sitting out while trying to get an extension, but said he doesn't have extra motivation just to show he deserves one.

"I tend to play hard the majority of the time," he said, "so I don't think I'm playing for a contract right now."

Coaches agree that his work ethic and toughness are exceptional.

"He's known throughout the league for his physical play and the fact that he's a smart guy," Miami coach Tony Sparano said.

Mankins' own coach, Bill Belichick, also described him as tough and smart.

"It means a lot," Mankins said. "I'd hate to be known as a wimp or a dummy."

That description doesn't fit the other five Patriots selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday _ Brady, defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather.

Brady was chosen for the sixth time in his 11 seasons and is a leading candidate for the league's MVP. He leads the NFL in passer rating, in touchdown passes with 34 and in fewest interceptions with four. He hasn't had a pass picked off in 10 games.

"It blows my mind a little bit," Sparano said, "when you think about tipped balls or the level of play in secondaries now in this league and how good those people are in the back end."

The Patriots' six players are the most in the AFC, not surprising considering the team's success. The fact that four defensive players were chosen indicates the team has improved in that area after giving up a lot of yards for much of the season.

"We're happy about the progress we've made," said McCourty, the fourth Patriot chosen for the Pro Bowl as a rookie. "Looking back at Week 1 and then Week 2 and those early weeks in the season, we felt like we made a lot of mistakes."

The Pro Bowl is scheduled for Jan. 30 in Honolulu, but the Patriots players chosen would vastly prefer to play a week later in the Super Bowl in Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

"I don't know if there's many people that come into a season as a rookie and kind of expect all of this to happen," McCourty said.

He's tied with Cleveland's Joe Haden for most interceptions by a rookie with six. Mayo leads the NFL with 186 tackles.

"It's been a pretty good year, but I still see room for improvement," said Mayo, a first-round draft pick in 2008 chosen for his first Pro Bowl. "Every time I watch film, there's always plays that I want back. Our record speaks for itself. We're doing pretty well right now, so we're trying to keep it rolling."

Wilfork is the old-timer of the Patriots defensive contingent for the Pro Bowl. Now in his seventh season, he was chosen for the second straight year and the third time in the past four.

A nose tackle most of his career, he's played several positions on the defensive line this season.

He and Mayo are team captains and often talk with each other while coming off the field. Communication takes on added importance with a young defense such as New England's.

"Defensively, we recognized that was a problem," Wilfork said. "All year, that's been kind of a trademark of us: (making) sure the communication is where it needs to be. I think that starts with myself and Jerod when it comes down to certain situations because he is the quarterback of our defense. He is the man when he's on the field."

Meriweather, a first-round pick in 2007, was chosen for his second Pro Bowl despite an inconsistent season. He didn't start three games and has a tendency to gamble on plays. Second-year safety Patrick Chung has also been impressive.

"Every year I learn a lot," Meriweather said. "I've just been doing what my coaches asked me. I haven't been going outside of the box, trying to make plays."

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