- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The New England Patriots aren’t the Dallas Cowboys of Jerry, Jimmy and the Three Amigos. They might be better.

Unlike those flashy Cowboys of 1992, 1993 and 1995, the only other team to win three Super Bowls in four years, the Patriots are all substance, no sizzle.

Even the lesser lights on those Dallas teams strutted and preened for the cameras a la Deion Sanders. New England has a Deion, too, but Branch, the MVP of the 24-21 victory over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX on Sunday night, has promised his mother he won’t get a big head. That’s understandable considering that while the receiver has had consecutive monster Super Bowls, his three-year career otherwise has been as much promise as production. In coach Bill Belichick’s team-first scheme, Branch is just another role player.

Where the Cowboys seemingly had as many stars as there are in the southern sky — 20 of them went to the Pro Bowl a combined 72 times — only nine Patriots have been chosen for Hawaii. And among that group, only defensive end Richard Seymour — who missed the AFC playoffs with a balky knee — and cornerback Ty Law — who went down for the year in Week 8 — have been selected more than twice.

“We’ll probably never be the most talented group of guys that takes the field every week,” said Matt Light, the left tackle of a nondescript offensive line that snuffed Philadelphia’s usually devastating pass rush. “We’ll probably never have the guys that everybody talks about. In the end, we have a group of guys that works hard and works real well together. We demand it of ourselves. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”

Light and Co. might have it that way for some time to come.

Fullback Patrick Pass, a five-year veteran who didn’t crack the lineup until this season, is the only unrestricted free agent among the 22 Patriots who started on Sunday. Running back Corey Dillon, who is 30, is the only offensive starter to have reached that age.

And while New England’s versatile linebackers Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson all are at least 31, backup Roosevelt Colvin should be full speed next season after a slow recovery this year after missing almost all of 2003. There’s age in the secondary, too, with super safety Rodney Harrison (32) and Law (31) and fellow injured corner Tyrone Poole (33), but youngsters Asante Samuel and Randall Gay played so well down the stretch that even Law looks replaceable.

That depth also distinguishes the Patriots from the Cowboys, who have just one playoff victory in the nine years since their last title or the 1997-98 Denver Broncos — the only previous repeat champion of the salary cap era — who are winless in postseason since.

“When you’re the Super Bowl champions, everyone circles you on their schedule and wants to take you down and to come back and win another Super Bowl is pretty special,” said left guard Joe Andruzzi.

Nose tackle Ted Washington left via free agency last spring so New England signed veteran Keith Traylor. He’ll be 36 next season, but Vince Wilfork, the Patriots’ top pick in the 2004 draft, is waiting in the wings just as David Patten (30) and Troy Brown (33) have been usurped by younger receivers Branch (25) and David Givens (24).

The only blow that might be devastating would be losing quarterback Tom Brady, but who knows? That’s what everyone thought when the unknown Brady stepped in for the injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Maybe current backup Rohan Davey could get the job done, too.

Belichick’s only real worry is whether his operation will continue to run as smoothly without coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, longtime assistants who are taking over at Cleveland and Notre Dame, respectively. Promoting offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, a nine-year Weis colleague, and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, a nine-year Belichick protege, would assure continuity.

“No question the coaching staff issue will be a challenge for us,” said Belichick, who joined Hall of Famers Joe Gibbs, Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh as the only coaches with three Lombardi Trophies. “There will always be changes. That’s the way it is in the NFL.”

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