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Action needed on infractions

Patriots have been penalty-plagued

FOXBOROUGH -- Step inside the mind of the mystified man. Sorry if it's a little dead in here. You're probably expecting this joint to be jumping and for everything to be dandy in here today, two days after a gutsy win over the Giants and five days before a first-place showdown in Miami. And it definitely was a happening spot Sunday evening. But since then the mystified man, Bill Belichick, has reviewed the game film, and what he saw ran most of the happy thoughts away.

His Patriots committed 10 penalties Sunday for 110 yards. That's two fewer penalties than they had first downs and 19 more yards than they had passing. It was the second time this season New England has reached double figures in infractions. The Patriots have committed at least eight in every game.

This mystifies the coach. He is perplexed because the team of smart players he's assembled is making senseless mistakes. The Patriots are the third-most penalized team in the league, with 56 accepted penalties. Oakland has committed 67 and the Redskins 64. New England also is third in penalty yardage with 521; Oakland's penalties have totaled 560 yards, Tampa Bay's 525. The league average is 40 for 338 yards.

New England averages about nine penalties per game (9.3) -- nearly three more than last season, when it was flagged 108 times (an average of 6.75). The Patriots are more than halfway to last year's number of penalties less than halfway through the season. Two years ago, they averaged 5.75, and you saw where that got them.

If timing is everything, it's a wonder things aren't a lot worse at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots' penalties have given opponents 14 first downs (tied for third most in the league) and cost themselves no fewer than seven.

At this point, they're running low on bullets. They've managed to win four of their last five with a handful of starters out every week, but who knows what the Patriots' record would be if not for the damage they've inflicted shooting their own feet? So you could say the Patriots are winning because of themselves and in spite of themselves.

"[The penalties] are definitely up," Belichick said yesterday, his enthusiasm obviously tempered by the reality that his team is hurting itself and helping its opponent far too often to continue surviving week after week. "There's no question about it. They're up there high and we're fortunate to be where we are given the number of penalties and the yardage that we lost on the penalties.

"Last week [against Tennessee], it was an 80-yard [89, by Troy Brown] punt return among others. [Sunday] it was a lot of yardage on [Brown's 26-yard] reverse, a lot of yardage on the seam pass there at the end of the game [35 yards to Brown, who probably would be a lot happier if some of his stats would hold up]. There's a lot of yardage there that we're giving back one way or another and it's hurting us. There's no question about it, it's hurting us."

Some have stung more than others. Of the 12 times the Patriots were penalized in the opener against the Bills, none was more damaging than Fred Baxter's 5-yard holding penalty on a Buffalo punt on fourth and 30 from New England's 40. Seven plays later, the Bills scored to go up, 14-0, and that was that.

Then there was Tyrone Poole's facemask the next week that led to Philadelphia's first and only touchdown, though the Patriots went on to win easily. And the illegal block above the waist by Asante Samuel against the Titans. A questionable call, but one that negated a punt return that would have put the Patriots ahead, 14-6, in the second quarter of a game they would hold on to win. Sunday there was Tom Ashworth's clip on Brown's reverse in the fourth quarter and Matt Light illegally using his hands on Brown's big catch.

And then there are the smaller penalties that add up to a big difference, such as holding and false start flags that halt momentum, put the Patriots in third-and-long, and the opponent in third-and-short. Or the unnecessary roughness calls that change field position (hello, Rodney Harrison).

"Some [penalties] are avoidable," Belichick said. "Some are going to happen. You're not going to go through a whole season and not get penalized. Some of them are definitely avoidable and the ones we're having are extremely costly. We're getting them on third down, we're getting them on fourth down. We're giving up a lot of yardage when we get them. Some of them don't even help the play."

The Patriots haven't gotten a whole lot of help from the officials (see Larry Izzo's phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against the Jets). Belichick, like most coaches, keeps a dialogue with the league's officiating department, which provides a written explanation for every call a coach questions. Belichick's greater concern, though, is finding an answer to his team's discipline problem.

"There's going to be some close calls like that in the game that can go either way," he said. "And there are some that could have been called on us that weren't called. But there are other ones that are just violations, they are clear-cut violations. There's no gray area at all. We're wrong, we're called for it, we're penalized, and it costs us. So those are the ones we've got to fix.

"You're running 100 miles per hour and you hit a guy. Is it from behind? Is it not from behind? Is it late? That's one thing. It's another thing if you line up offside or you jump on a guy's back on an obvious pass interference call and the ball's 50 yards away. You clip somebody from behind when you're standing 2 yards behind the guy. That's just bad judgment. It's bad decision-making. It's bad football."

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