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ON FOOTBALL | NICK CAFARDO

Track record earns Patriots knowing look

Do we know yet? Do we know whether this 2004 Patriots team will match the accomplishments of the '01 and '03 squads?

Did the Patriots recover enough in Saturday night's third exhibition against Carolina from the rout by the Bengals in the second exhibition game?

The third exhibition generally is considered the dress rehearsal for the season, so did New England show enough for us to think it will be the team that has dominated the NFL the last few seasons?

For three quarters Saturday night, the Patriots' starters beat the Panthers' starters, taking a 17-10 lead, before the Panthers' bench scored 10 fourth-quarter points to send the Patriots to their second consecutive loss in the exhibition season, 20-17.

What can be taken from that?

For one thing, the Panthers came along at the right time.

You knew they were going to be intense from the opening kickoff because they wanted to avenge the Super Bowl loss. And they were. That improved the Patriots' intensity level, which they desperately needed to do.

Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour said there was a lot of trash-talking on the field. Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who was yapping all night, said the Patriots are "a bunch of cheap-shot artists. They can say what they want and flash their [Super Bowl] rings and all that stuff. It don't matter. You just can't come in and do whatever you want. It don't go like that."

Muhsin Muhammad added, "We watched the film of the Super Bowl and we felt there were a lot of things that were not classy. It's one of them deals where you have to fight fire with fire."

Those are strong words. And although one man's "dirty" play is another man's intensity, the officials did seem to call everything on the Patriots Saturday night. Whether it was the coaches on the competition committee, or whatever, a few people obviously dropped dimes on the Patriots this offseason. They had 15 penalties Saturday night, 12 in the first half.

Rodney Harrison, who along with Tyrone Poole was the target of Smith's ire, plays a physical game, and he knows things he got away with a year ago he's going to have to alter.

"It's going to change the whole complexity of the game," he said. "If you touch a receiver, nudge him a little bit, there's a flag. It's definitely sad because we work so hard as defensive players. It's going to work against us. It's going to work for us sometimes. We just have to adapt to it."

Where it could work for the Patriots is on offense.

The coordinator (Charlie Weis) is creative. The quarterback (Tom Brady) is superb. The receivers are fast. The tight ends are young and mobile. The running back (Corey Dillon) is fast and powerful.

Why not take advantage?

And speaking of the offense, the play of the five guys up front could dictate whether the Patriots will have a powerful attack or one that will struggle. If you watched the line against Cincinnati, all you could say was, "Oh, my goodness."

If you saw them against Carolina, that opinion started to change.

Maybe it was because it was the first time all five starters were out there for three quarters, and they seemed to be in harmony. That could be reason to believe they will be as effective as they were last season with Damien Woody.

Saturday night the line did give up an ugly sack to Julius Peppers on Brady in the first quarter, but then gave Brady lots of time to throw the ball.

The longer Brady had, the wider the separation that Mssrs. David Patten, Deion Branch, and Bethel Johnson got on their defenders. And with the 5-yard chuck rule in play, those receivers should draw a lot of flags because if you don't try to slow them up, they're past you. When that happens, it's a pretty offense to watch, and Weis has yet to put in wrinkles and his signature trick plays.

But there is a fine line between success and failure. The slightest breakdown up front will lead to mistakes and pressure on Brady and Dillon. That happened occasionally Saturday night, although both of those players are capable of adjusting.

"In some cases, the D line was in hot pursuit one way and there was some daylight the other way and I just made something happen, and that's what a good back does, make something happen and get upfield with the ball," said Dillon. "Repetition just makes things a lot better," he added. "The more reps I get, the more comfortable I'm going to get. I'm not far off. By the regular season, I'll be ready to go."

A lot of the optimism comes from faith in the players and the coaching staff, who have often come through. The players hopefully have learned from the mistakes in the season after their first Super Bowl, and they know every week the opponent's intensity level will be high.

"We're going to have to play smarter," Seymour said. "We're going to have to play within the rules. The refs are going to do their jobs. We just have to learn to play within the rules. They're calling things tight and you have to live with it. The league is based on [that] fans want to see a lot of points. We're just going to have to see how they call things in the regular season." Do we know about this team yet?

Probably not everything.

But we can make a very good guess. 

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