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1 more gutsy victory into the team's sack

FOXBOROUGH -- There is a simple explanation for how the New England Patriots got to be 6-2 this morning. The broken parts of their team are playing well.

Yesterday's gritty 9-3 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Razor Blade Field was a picture of what the broken but unbowed Patriots are about. With eight starters either out with injury or playing with some body part dented or cracked enough that they would be on disability leave if medical ethics didn't apply differently to football players than it does to the rest of the world, the Patriots have marched on because they are not about flash. They are about dogged determination and an extremely high tolerance for pain, an example of which was clear in the play of the two defensive stars of the beating they administered to the Browns.

Mike Vrabel sacked Cleveland's quarterbacks three times and nearly had a fourth despite playing with a broken arm. Ty Law made a leaping interception of a Kelly Holcomb pass at the Patriot 25 with 51 seconds left to play, pushing off an ankle that was in a hard cast last week until he sawed it off because, frankly, he'd rather limp in pain than be on crutches.

They are not the only semi-healed Patriots playing as if they are blind to ache and agony, but in a game that was all about defense they stood out. They stood out because defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel put them in position to and they stood out because once in those positions they did what they had been sent to do. They destroyed both the mind of the Browns' quarterbacks and the plan of their offense.

"I got confused a couple of times," admitted Holcomb, who was sacked three times and threw that fatal interception to Law. "We just didn't make the plays when we needed to."

For the most part, the Browns didn't make plays at all. Only once did Cleveland's offense cross midfield. Only three times in 14 attempts did it convert on third down, a percentage so woeful to call it inept would be to overrate it. That offense was outgained by 144 yards.

Vrabel was a major reason for this. With Crennel knowing he could only use him in nickel situations, where he could be positioned as an edge rusher to protect his broken arm, Vrabel was a disruptive force all afternoon, producing the three sacks and a fumble recovery and nearly having a fourth except that the infamous tuck rule that saved the Patriots' Super Bowl season three years ago worked against New England this time after Vrabel stripped quarterback Tim Couch of the ball as he was about to pass.

For much of the afternoon, the Patriots played an odd front on passing downs, allowing Vrabel to come in as an edge rusher who often ended up having only to beat the block of a running back to get to the quarterback. Unable to rush from the inside, where there was likely to be heavy contact his fractured arm could not take, Vrabel blew into the Browns' backfield on a half-dozen occasions, ignoring anyone trying to block him and the screaming ache in his arm whenever he grabbed the object of his distemper.

"This happened to be a day for me to take advantage of situations," said Vrabel, who grew up cheering for the Browns as a kid in Akron before going on to set a school record for sacks at Ohio State with 36. At that time Vrabel was an All-American and the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year but once he got to the Pittsburgh Steelers he never quite got the opportunity he was looking for.

Switched between linebacker and defensive end, Vrabel admits he made a slow transiton to what the Steelers were seeking and by the time he did they had decided he was a part-time player. That's how he ended up in New England, where Belichick promised to give him a chance to play linebacker full time.

Because of his arm's condition, that's not what he was doing yesterday, but he got the maximum from the minimum while being aided by a change in the Patriots' alignment on passing downs.

"We haven't shown a hell of a lot of odd fronts this season," Crennel said. "Mike's arm is still broken so we want to try and protect him as much as we can. We were sticking him where he was needed, bringing him off the edge."

While Vrabel was making plays, defensive lineman Richard Seymour was sacrificing himself and his statistics for the good of a unit that this week allowed Vrabel to shine. After it was over, Seymour could joke about it all because while he had taken a beating on his way to making three tackles, someone else had gotten to the quarterback. In the end, it didn't matter because the focus of their defense is not for anyone specifically to flatten opposing passers as long as somebody does.

"He may have been rushing on a back sometimes," Seymour joked, "but I know I wasn't. I'll tell you that. We all sacrifice sometimes so others can make plays. That's what's working for us. Wherever [plays] come from, we'll take it."

Yesterday they came from a man with a broken bone in his arm and another with a ligament in his ankle stretched as if it was a Slinky. Law has been hurting since his ankle was rolled over in a victory over the Jets but the only game he has not dressed for was a week ago in Miami. This so irked him that, although he knew it was the wise choice, he refused to allow it to be repeated against Cleveland.

For a time he was removed from the game because he reinjured that ankle for about the 30th time in a month, but even when he did it was announced he was expected to return. Indeed he did, and he was in on the most critical play of the day, running with the Browns' speedy Kevin Johnson before outleaping him for Holcomb's throw.

As Law fell to the ground with the game in his hands, Johnson tried to wrestle the ball free. It was wasted effort because that is not what these Patriots allow to happen. You may beat them, as two teams have done, but they will do little to help you. Instead they will fly around on sore knees and swollen ankles and hit you with broken bones as well as intact ones. They will do whatever it takes to shut you down. Yesterday that meant sticking to a game plan designed to create confusion and critical mistakes when the Browns could least afford them.

"Defensively, you just can't say enough about that group," Belichick said. "Anytime you hold a team to 3 points in this league that's more than one guy doing it. I think this team prepares pretty well. I think they try to know what the other team's tendencies are and what are the things we have to take away on a week-to-week basis.

"Today we had a couple of guys step in and give us a little bit of a lift. Vrabel looked like he had a pretty good day. Ty came back. It looked like we had some pressure inside from the tackles, [Ty] Warren, Seymour, and [Dan] Klecko. The linebackers looked pretty active. It was a good team effort."

It was, but it was Vrabel who made the biggest plays. Often he broke clean into the backfield. Other times he disrupted pass routes of Cleveland's running backs before he did. Either way, he was making the kind of plays that save a team on a day when the offense is bogged down with its own problems.

"Mike had a little bit of freedom in the pass rush," Belichick said. "We used him some coming off different edges and a little bit up the middle. We kind of tried to move him around a little bit. I thought he took advantage of his quickness, getting off the ball. Mike stepped up and had a lot of big plays."

He did, but holding the Browns to a field goal while forcing them to punt on eight of their first nine possessions was more than a matter of Vrabel and Law making plays. It was the kind of effort that involved all of this team's parts, both the broken ones and the ones that are still whole.

Tackling, unlike an interception or a sack, is most often a group act. An offense often can be successful by virtue of the heroics of a few, but good defense is more than that. It involves a swarming beehive approach, a group effort at a time in sports when individual achievement and the notoriety that comes with it too often overtake such thinking.

"We put a big emphasis on running to the ball," Law said. "When you look at all the best defenses, those guys run to the ball. The ones with six, seven, eight hats around the ball are the great defenses."

With half a season to go it is too early to say that about these Patriots, but yesterday was the kind of game that will be noticed. A game in which the broken parts played well and the whole ones made it possible.

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