- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

SMITHFIELD, R.I. Forgive the New England Patriots for being a little upset.
They are a team that wants to be feared and respected as the defending Super Bowl champions. The oddsmakers fear they are just a fluke that won't be repeated.
The Patriots, in fact, aren't even favored to win the AFC East, and the Rams, Steelers, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Eagles, Colts and Raiders are given better odds at Ceasars Palace of winning Super Bowl XXXVII than New England.
"I guess we were the first lucky Super Bowl champion," Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy said sarcastically at training camp at Bryant College. "We're definitely the team to beat. Everyone around the league knows that. They saw the confetti coming down [in the Superdome after the upset of the Rams]. We're not camouflaged anymore.
"I polished my ring one last time, and I put in a safe. Last year is over. This year is about getting another ring."
And why not?
The Patriots lost only three starters receiver David Patten, tight end Rod Rutledge and defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell and replaced each with a player who is, arguably, better. The coaching staff is intact although offensive coordinator Charlie Weis missed the start of training camp following complications from gastric bypass surgery and the Patriots expect to get a boost from their move into sleek CMGI Field after 31 years in utilitarian Foxboro Stadium.
Still, there lingers around this team a skepticism that even a Lombardi Trophy hasn't dispelled.
Only one of the previous 35 Super Bowl champions made a bigger turnaround than the Patriots, who were 5-11 in 2000. The Patriots finished 11-5 last season and ranked just 19th in offense and 24th in defense. Their top weapons beyond Mini-Me receiver Troy Brown and dependable kicker Adam Vinatieri are halfback Antowain Smith, who was cut by AFC East cellar-dweller Buffalo last May, and quarterback Tom Brady, who wasn't a lock to make the team last summer. The defensive front seven is an ever-rotating cast of solid but non-descript performers. And coach Bill Belichick had a career 41-55 record before last season.
"Nobody's still giving us a chance, but we kind of like that underdog role," said Smith, who can't claim that mantle anymore after rushing for 1,157 yards last season.
While the St. Louis Rams were treated with awe as they came from nowhere to win in 1999 and the Baltimore Ravens were feared en route to the 2000 crown, no one was scared of the 2001 Patriots, who were seen as more of a cute story than a true champion. The Rams had blazing speed on offense. The Ravens had the stingiest defense. The Patriots started 2001 with losses to lowly Cincinnati and the New York Jets, and even though they won their final nine games (three in the playoffs), six of those victories came by no more than a touchdown. Brady and Co. pulled out the AFC divisional victory over Oakland and Super Bowl triumph over St. Louis with magical performances worthy of David Copperfield.
"Some people get success and tail off, but that's not the makeup of this team. We're a very humble group," Milloy said. "We're still hungry. We've been working hard since we started our offseason workouts on April1. That's what it takes to win the championship. I had my best offseason working out because I was a little more focused. That feeling of winning against all odds is going to motivate me for the rest of my career."
Psychology is critical for the Patriots, who aren't as talented as recent champions like the Rams and Ravens, or even their division rival, the Dolphins. New England's championship was built on a less tangible element: chemistry. Belichick believes training camp is about putting a team together, both on "performance chemistry" and off the field. An amazing 41 players started at least one game for the 2001 Patriots compared to 28 for the rags-to-riches 1999 Rams.
"The formula for success doesn't necessarily mean bringing in all-star players at every position," said veteran linebacker Ted Johnson. "Our staff has a knack for bringing in personalities that mold together to work toward a common goal. We didn't win in a conventional way last year. We didn't dominate in any category except special teams. Someone stepped up every week and we just found ways to win."
The biggest thing the Patriots found was a quarterback. When 10th-year starter Drew Bledsoe went down in Week 2, unheralded second-year man Brady took over and became an overnight sensation even if his success was based more on gumption than Bledsoe-like physical skills. And with Bledsoe having been dealt to AFC East foe Buffalo, Brady is the unquestioned starter.
"One thing that you hate to do is say, 'Well last year we did this, so we've got to do the same, exact thing,'" Brady said. "There are different ways to be successful. Plays that worked last year probably won't work this year. But some plays that didn't work last year might work this year with the different talent [receiver Donald Hayes, tight ends Christian Fauria and Daniel Graham] that we've added and the experience and the feel that we have for each other."
If Brady continues his Pro Bowl play of last season, the defensive-minded Patriots should be a playoff contender again despite a schedule that includes eight games against 2001 playoff teams. But if Brady shows why he lasted until the 199th pick of the 2000 draft, then all the chemistry in the world probably won't keep New England from oblivion in the tough AFC East, which could well be the NFL's best division.

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