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Don't marginalize the players

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sometimes how you win is as significant as whether you win. Sunday was not one of those days.

It would be easy to fret about what didn't happen on a steamy Arizona afternoon when the Patriots failed to throttle a team begging to have the life choked out of it, but don't bother. The Cardinals' offensive line was utterly incapable of protecting quarterback Josh McCown, and McCown was completely unable to decipher the varied looks Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel kept throwing at him. That being the case, it might seem logical to assume that the defending Super Bowl champions could turn this into a lopsided beating.

But the fact that they didn't really should be of little concern to the rabid residents of Patriot Nation. New England's three turnovers and the fact that Tom Brady was sacked four times and hurried many more may be cause for Bill Belichick to consider abandoning his rotating offensive line experiment, although one assumes he is doing this because he believes he has players of relatively equal value and is trying to decide which five are the most competent and consistent. But it is not a cause for major concern about how prepared these Patriots are to defend the title they won in February.

Although some of the offensive linemen are less than pleased about Belichick's handling of them, that also is not yet a concern. The only way it might become one is if the sacks and hurries continue and a lack of continuity is the reason why. That is when personal responsibility begins to be replaced by excuse-making, something this collection of players has been far less involved with than most.

Despite the relative closeness of the 23-12 score, Sunday's game was never in doubt. Certainly, anything can happen on an emotion-charged afternoon when the Cardinals honored former teammate Pat Tillman. But throughout the day, the Patriots had a stranglehold on the game. For Arizona to have upset them would have required a level of cooperation from the Patriots that was simply not going to happen.

The fact is, this Patriots team is only marginally better than the majority of its opponents. They win because of their execution, their inventiveness, and their unwavering belief in each other. Talent doesn't hurt, either, although there is not much to pick from between them and some of the other elite teams. Talent unrecognized does not mean it's absent. It only means they are a team that, with one or two exceptions, is seldom given credit for its abilities.

The good people of New England have somehow come to the conclusion that, unlike all other successful teams in the history of sports, theirs is one that wins consistently because its coaches regularly outwork and outthink the opposition while the players are little more than interchangeable parts. If this were true, the Patriots could never have lost last year to Steve Spurrier's Washington Redskins because if ever there was a head coach with more afternoon tee times than Spurrier, he was coaching the Ryder Cup team.

This is a grand myth that has taken on a life of its own in these parts. Let anyone suggest it is the players who have had the most to do with winning two Super Bowls in the past three seasons and you are seen as having an animus toward the coaches. Wisely, the players have decided to avoid the entire issue rather than waste time railing against it. Such an approach is one reason they win.

But the Patriots didn't win Sunday because anyone was outcoached, outadjusted, outschemed, or outworked. They won because they had more talent and that talent executed the plans of Belichick, Crennel, and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis better than the Cardinals did those of Dennis Green and his staff. They were far from perfect, but they executed well enough and often enough to give the sense that they were never in danger of defeat.

"We left a lot of plays out there," said Brady. "I think the way we're playing now won't be good enough much longer, as Coach would say. There were too many plays out there that weren't at the level that we need them to be at. We're leaving too many yards, too many points on the field, and that's frustrating.

"You come out of these games sometimes almost with a sour taste in your mouth knowing you could have performed so much better. The expectations are going to be high. Then you go out and kick all those field goals and we feel that's just not where it needs to be. We need to start scoring more points."

That is the sign of a good team, one that can win on days when everything is not right and then recognize what just happened and understand it is not acceptable in the long term. There will surely be other days when the Patriots will have to be far sharper than they were on Sunday. Win or lose, they will be, because they are an unusual group of professionals who understand how thin the line is between victory and defeat most Sundays. Do not expect many 31-0 blowouts like last year's against Buffalo. They are not that kind of team, regardless of the opponent.

Their fans would be wise to recall that margin of victory is not important in the NFL. What's important is to understand that if one sprinter consistently beats another by half a stride, they are not equals. One is faster than the other. Perhaps not as fast as some fans who must believe they are head and shoulders better than the rest to feel comfortable with what they have believe they are, but fast enough, which is what they were on a hot Sunday in Arizona. Fast enough to win. 

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