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Centers may return to center stage

FOXBOROUGH -- New England has been without an experienced fullback since it placed Fred McCrary on injured reserve Nov. 20. Since then the Patriots have played with a group of novice fullbacks. Patrick Pass is the first-teamer, but he's more of a halfback playing out of position. The Patriots used rookie defensive lineman Dan Klecko as a lead blocker in short-yardage situations, but he was inactive for yesterday's game against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium because of a hand injury. And yesterday the committee welcomed a new member: defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

Nothing against those guys, but the Patriots would rather have someone just a bit more experienced at the position.

As early as today they're expected to re-sign veteran fullback Larry Centers, released Oct. 18 after suffering a torn medial collateral ligament against the Giants Oct. 12. Before his release Centers and the Patriots agreed to a two-week injury settlement, which prohibited him from signing with any team for an additional six weeks, or until Week 15.

Centers signed a one-year deal July 30. Rather than end his season by placing him on injured reserve, and in need of a roster spot, the Patriots, knowing Centers may be healthy enough to return later in the year, released him the day before their game at Miami. Centers was among the team leaders in receptions, with 17, before his injury, which did not require surgery. New England will have to make room on the 53-man active roster for Centers.

Centers is not known as a straight-ahead blocker. In his 14th season, he's the NFL's career leader in receptions and receiving yards by a running back. As he did in the season's first six weeks, he'll provide Tom Brady with a reliable target in the short-passing game.

A leg up New punter Brooks Barnard made his professional debut, punting 10 times for a 36.5-yard average, including four downed inside the 20. Barnard, who replaced Ken Walter, received an ovation from the Gillette Stadium crowd before his first NFL punt, a 31-yarder that went out of bounds at the 7. . . . Brady booted a 36-yard quick kick that David Givens downed at the 1. "He might have a permanent job. I think that's the best punt we had all year," Antowain Smith said. . . . Backup quarterback Damon Huard served as the holder for field-goal attempts. Rohan Davey, the backup QB the previous two games, was inactive as the third quarterback . . . Wide receiver Troy Brown sat for the fourth consecutive game with an injured hamstring . . . Other notable inactives: special teamer Chris Akins (calf), running back Mike Cloud, and receiver J.J. Stokes . . . Kevin Faulk took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Brock Marion in the fourth quarter, resulting in Faulk's second fumble in as many weeks. Faulk did not return. He said after the game that he was "OK now," but that he didn't recall what happened on the play . . . Long snapper Lonie Paxton appeared to injure his right leg on a fourth-quarter punt. . . . The Patriots improved to 7-0 against teams with winning records. . . . Rookie receiver Bethel Johnson's commute down Route 1 from Norwood to Foxborough took two hours. "I was probably one of the last ones to get in," he said. On time, right? "Kinda, sorta," he said . . . The Associated Press reported that the weekend Northeaster forced the head linesman for yesterday's game, Phil McKinnely, to fly to New York from Atlanta and board a train to Boston. . . . Seymour on his backfield debut: "It's just another dimension of my game." Asked if he landed any crushing blocks, Seymour said, "You've got to watch the film. I don't know. Ask [Junior] Seau."

Nice round number The Patriots celebrated their 100th consecutive sellout yesterday. The streak began in Sept. 11, 1994, Robert Kraft's first season as owner, with the home opener against Buffalo and includes exhibition season, regular-season, and postseason games. The Patriots are 67-33 during the streak.

All season ticket-holders received a personalized commemorative ticket to yesterday's game.

"Our family and the organization are grateful to the season ticket-holders," vice chairman Jonathan Kraft said, "because without them, we would not have been able to take the risk of building Gillette Stadium and invest in the team the way we have. The fans of New England should be grateful to the season ticket-holders, too, because they don't have to experience the blackouts we had in the '80s and early '90s. We're just unhappy that the weather has made it so hard to celebrate with all the season ticket-holders."

Split decision Although his 5-yard interception return for a touchdown was impressive in its own right, Tedy Bruschi seemed to be more taken with the rare feat submitted by linebacker Ted Johnson. "Did you see Ted Johnson crack Jamie Nails's helmet in half?," he asked, incredulously. "I've never seen that. I've never seen that before in my life. Go look at NFL Films and see if that's ever happened before in the history of the game. I don't know, but Ted popped that guy so hard his helmet split in half. We don't even say things like that. We say, `Knock his helmet off. Knock him back,' but we don't say, `Split his helmet in half.' He didn't have to do that to him." . . . Bruschi, a California native who played his college football at Arizona, said he didn't mind the bone-chilling cold and snow yesterday. "I was sledding down my driveway yesterday with my 2-year-old, so we're used to snow," he said. "It was no problem whatsoever. I feel like I'm an adpoted New Englander now."

Michael Vega of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 11 2 0 .846 20.7 16.1
Dolphins 8 5 0 .615 18.5 15.6
Bills 6 7 0 .462 16.5 15.4
Jets 5 8 0 .385 18.5 19.6
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