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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Patriots' talent shows

The question is not rhetorical. We are truly and sincerely looking for an answer:

 

What are we missing?

"We" are the pro football-loving, pro football-watching people of New England. We tailgate. We talk the game. We monitor various wrapup and countdown shows. We've got opinions on Cellphone Joe Horn (the $30,000 fine was too much) and Broadway Joe Namath (what a creep). We spend hours over the hot stove, but we know something about football, too.

So what are some of us missing when it comes to evaluating the Patriots? The team is 13-2, has won 11 consecutive games, and is one win from securing the best record in football. We say that sounds like a talented team blessed with several talented players. Others aren't so sure.

We've heard the Patriots described as a bunch of OK players who are only as good as Bill Belichick's impeccable game plans. We've heard that if every player in the NFL became a free agent tomorrow, it might take a while for the current Patriots to be flooded with phone calls and contract offers.

Of all the surprising things about this year's Patriots, the description/perception of the team has to rank among the top three. Nationally, and even locally, the Patriots are often stacked in the Little Team That Could section of the store.

For all those trying to figure out how this Patriots fiction became fact, good luck. There is not a compelling paper trail to be found.

This team has one of the best defenses in the NFL, and it's easy to understand how it became that way when the players and coaches are examined.

Romeo Crennel coordinates the group. He learned the value of details and discipline from his father, a former Army sergeant. Crennel remembers completing his household chores and waiting for his father to approve them with a military inspection. If dishes and floors and lawns weren't attended to thoroughly, the Crennel children knew their work would have to be done over.

Things aren't that intense in Foxborough now, but Crennel's players know exactly what to do with the practice and game-day instructions he gives them.

Those instructions are given to Tedy Bruschi, an instinctive, playmaking middle linebacker.

They are given to Roman Phifer, who quietly has been one of the AFC's top tacklers the past three seasons.

They are given to Mike Vrabel, who may have the highest pain threshold on the team. Vrabel played with a broken foot last season and played with a broken arm earlier this year. He has 9 1/2 sacks.

They are given to starting cornerbacks Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, who have six interceptions apiece.

What are we missing?

The worst thing that can be said about Bruschi is that he is not Ray Lewis in the middle, and that can be said about 30 starting middle men in the league. Phifer is 35, but has the body of a man 10 years younger. Vrabel is a complete player who didn't start in Pittsburgh because Joey Porter and Jason Gildon were in front of him.

The Patriots should be good. They have scouted well and spent well. They drafted their best offensive (Tom Brady) and defensive (Richard Seymour) players in 2000 and 2001. They were able to pick up Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, and seventh-rounder David Givens in 2002. Everyone knows about the class of 2003.

In a culture of celebrity and big names, it's easy to say the Patriots don't have exceptional talent. What's much more difficult is to find a team that can match New England's overall skill. There are no clones of Torry Holt, Priest Holmes, or Jonathan Ogden on this team. But other coaches probably haven't had painstaking conversations with themselves as Belichick recently did.

The coach sometimes agonizes over whom to place on the inactive list. He really believes it when he says that everyone on the team has a role and can contribute in some way. He spends hours searching for an opponent's soft spot and trying to find the best man to exploit that weakness. Sometimes that man is Brady. Sometimes it's Chris Akins.

As good as Belichick and his staff are at scheming, that's not their most fascinating strength. They have been able to sell a simple message -- be prepared and productive -- to a group of players who actually could be receiving more glory somewhere else.

They are not in a statistics-driven system here. They are not in a place where one player is billed as the headliner while all the others are relegated to backup singing.

They'll win here because they have a good defense and a quarterback who knows what to do with the ball. But there might be more years like this one, when just two players are selected to the Pro Bowl. There might be years when hotter names and more exciting players will receive more attention than the metronome of a winning streak.

On Saturday at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots will seek win No. 14. They are undefeated at home, where they allow 9 points per game. Since Brady became the starter, they are 33-12.

We've heard fantastic explanations for those numbers, but talent seems to make the most sense.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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