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ON FOOTBALL

Champions rose to the occasion

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Last night, the Super Bowl champions opened defense of their title.

After sour performances against New Orleans and Cincinnati had left them disgusted and cranky, the Patriots marched into a dress rehearsal at Lambeau Field for a new season and undressed the Green Bay Packers, emasculating their offense and scoring four times on their defense before halftime's merciful arrival.

Then, just in case the Packers didn't get the idea, they came roaring out of the locker room and opened the second half by forcing Ahman Green to fumble 5 yards deep in the Packers' backfield on the first play from scrimmage.

Much-maligned inside linebacker Chad Brown shot by a blocker and smacked Green to the ground and Willie McGinest fell on the loose ball at the Packers' 27. Four plays later, it was 27-3 and the good people of Green Bay were concentrating more on their bratwursts and brews than whether the Pack was back or on its back.

Looking to get their offense down pat and their defense down and dirty with less than two weeks until the regular season, the Patriots spent the first 30 minutes of their third exhibition game stymieing Green Bay's offense at every turn and doing just enough on offense to pile up a 20-3 lead even though things were not running as smoothly as either Tom Brady or Bill Belichick might like.

The latter will come in time but for now, the total domination of the Packers' starting offense and defense was a warning to the league's 31 wannabes that the defending champions will not surrender their title -- or their chance to make NFL history by winning the Super Bowl a third straight year -- without a fight.

Perhaps the Pack intended to provide a fight because they kept their varsity on the field into the third quarter, but this was not a fight. It was not even an argument. It was a superior team that decided to make a statement, dominating a team that made the NFC playoffs last season.

''I thought overall we gave a little more competitive effort than we did in the other two games," a soaked Belichick said. ''Everything was at least competitive this week. We made some improvements."

The Patriots allowed Brett Favre and his mates no breathing room, limiting the running game in the first half to 38 yards while so befuddling Favre, one of the great quarterbacks of his time, he finished the half with a efficiency rating of 11.9.

Favre was 9 of 21 with a sack and two interceptions (one by Randall Gay and one by Asante Samuel; Samuel also had an interception called back because of a defensive penalty). The Patriots' defense kept pressuring Favre and his receivers, surrounding him and doing the same to his wideouts until the receivers didn't know where to go to find a safe haven, and the quarterback didn't know where to go with the ball.

Where they should have gone was home because that was the only safe place for the Packers in Green Bay last night.

''New England's a good team," Favre said. ''Definitely. They've got good players and a good scheme. We did make some plays but you can't get into a third-and-35 situation [as Green Bay did at one point]. Throwing the ball to the other team isn't going to get it done, either."

The opening weeks of the exhibition season have not gone splendidly for New England, which is rebuilding its defense after the loss of Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, and Ted Johnson, and rearming its offense with new additions to the passing game. Those adjustments, and the normal dullness of the exhibition season, had left the Patriots flat against the Bengals and Saints. Belichick was not happy about it and let everyone know it.

More importantly, neither were his veterans and they came out and made that known from the opening kickoff. By the time the third quarter was barely two minutes old, the Patriots had more than doubled the Packers' offensive output (213 yards to 107), led 27-3, and saw no good reason to keep their starters in any longer.

Offensively, New England was its usual efficient if unspectacular self, executing with a relentlessness that ground down Green Bay's defense at every turn until it was defeating itself as readily as the Patriots were doing it for them.

''Right now we're not executing," said Green Bay's Pro Bowl defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. ''I'm not sure if it's because New England is used to playing against a similar defense with Miami being in their conference. We weren't executing and they were. I see why they're Super Bowl champs."

They're Super Bowl champs because they are efficient, proficient, and proud. They're Super Bowl champions because, on a night that really meant nothing, they knew they needed to remind themselves and their opponents what they are capable of.

''It was time to pick it up," said defensive end Richard Seymour. ''We've got a long way to go but we needed to get things rolling. Improving. We did that."

The game was delayed at least three times because someone was down for the count. Each time it was a Green Bay Packer. If they had a slaughter rule in the NFL, everyone would have been home before the rain came because this game was over long before it officially ended.

What is not, the Patriots made clear last night, is their proud reign on the rest of the National Football League. Anyone who thought otherwise should call Brett Favre today and see how he's feeling.

Just as two lackluster exhibition games didn't prove anything, neither does one exhibition victory. It does not mean that, come September, all will go smoothly on the road to the Super Bowl in Detroit, either.

But what was proven once again is that this team responds to a challenge. All week, Seymour spoke of the need for the veterans of past Super Bowl glories to pick up the pace and show the way for the new recruits such as Brown and Monty Beisel.

Safety Rodney Harrison wore a T-shirt that read ''Patriots Linebackers," a silent sign of solidarity with a rebuilding group that is also without Mike Vrabel.

The linebackers group have been questioned repeatedly about their readiness for the challenge of a new season, and first Belichick, then veterans Seymour and Harrison spoke up not only for that group but for what has brought them three Super Bowl wins in four years -- a steadfast belief that it is about everyone in New England not any one.

Armed with that resolve and a steely faith in themselves, the defending Super Bowl champions decided it was time to begin defense of the world championship they won six months ago. It was only one night and it won't decide a thing, but it was a reminder to those who hope to dethrone them and a reminder to themselves of exactly who they are and how that came to be.

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