Deep feelings on both sides

FOXBOROUGH — He’s 35 now, past his prime, a reserve receiver on a team that’s 26th in the NFL in passing offense. But Randy Moss, especially this week, still draws attention.

After a year without football — nobody signed Moss in 2011 — he’s now with the San Francisco 49ers, and will return to Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, going up against a Patriots franchise where he spent three-plus successful seasons, setting multiple records and scoring 50 touchdowns.

From 2007-10, Moss gave the Patriots a potent deep threat, something they haven’t had since trading him to the Vikings four games into the 2010 season. Now they’ll encounter Moss again; not as dominant, but still dangerous.

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“He’s still a great receiver, he still has speed and the ability to go and get the ball, so you’ve definitely got to know when he’s on the field,” said Patriots safety Steve Gregory. “He’s one of the great receivers of all time. He’s a heck of an athlete and he’s still out there performing at a high level.”

Not real high these days. Moss has played in all 13 games for the 49ers (9-3-1), starting once. He’s been targeted just 37 times, and has 21 receptions for 326 yards and two touchdowns. He’s fifth on the team in catches, fourth in yards, and third in touchdown receptions. Twice he’s been held without a catch.

It’s a drastic decline from his time in Foxborough, when Moss had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and averaged 83 catches in those seasons. In his best regular season, when the 2007 Patriots went 16-0, Moss caught 98 passes for 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns, an NFL record that still stands.

Those numbers, at least among Patriots fans, are hard to forget. Moss is more than two years removed, but his fondness for his former team apparently hasn’t waned.

“I still have love and respect for the New England Patriots and everything that we did as a team up there, but now I’m a 49er and hopefully we go up there Sunday night and give it a good game,” Moss said this week. “The way they’re playing, coming off a Monday night game against the so-called best team in the league in the Houston Texans — they put 40-something points up and really embarrassed them. I don’t think we want to be that team that gets embarrassed on national television.”

Despite Moss’s modest production, Patriots coach Bill Belichick knows exactly what he sees on film.

“Randy is Randy,” Belichick said. “Good vertical receiver, he can still run through the defense. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”

Most of the New England defensive backs who might draw Moss in coverage Sunday have already faced him on the field. Gregory, while with the Chargers, met Moss and the Patriots three times; Aqib Talib was with the Bucs when they played Moss and the Patriots in London; Kyle Arrington, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung were Moss’s teammates in Foxborough.

Will the familiarity help?

“A little bit, but that’s why he’s a good receiver,” McCourty said. “He’s played against a bunch of guys over and over again, but he’s still able to be successful in a different way. We just have to try and compete, go out there and play against him.”

Moss, not surprisingly, has been a popular teammate in San Francisco this week, with his fellow 49ers trying to learn as much as they can about the Patriots’ offense, which was ranked first in the league when Moss was here, and still ranks No. 1.

He’s just not sure what kind of help he can provide.

“Switching offensive coordinators [Josh McDaniels took over this season], I don’t really know,” Moss said. “Everybody knows that Bill Belichick is a so-called ‘genius’ and he changes it up every week, so there’s not really much input I can give for the week. I’d just say, ‘Have your head on a swivel and be ready for anything.’ ”

Funny, that’s how the Patriots are preparing for Moss. He might be older, and a tick slower, but the name and the accomplishments carry a lot of weight.

“The name speaks for itself,” said Gregory, who is mindful of what can happen to a defensive back trying to cover a player with the second-most receiving touchdowns (155) in NFL history. “There’s a term: ‘You’ve been Mossed.’ When he was in his prime, going up and catching balls over guys’ heads, it became a staple in football, the reference of being Mossed.”

So you’re trying to avoid that?

“Definitely.”