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ON FOOTBALL

Tough guys show lots of fight

ATLANTA -- Bill Belichick reminded his team at its final meeting of the week Saturday night what it would be up against yesterday when he showed it a tape of the greatest eight minutes in boxing history -- the savage three rounds shared by Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns in 1985.

That was a night of constant attacking, constant punching, constant coming back until only one man was left standing. That man was Hagler. Yesterday, after another in a seemingly endless parade of last-second victories ended, with the Patriots defeating the Falcons, 31-28, courtesy of a 29-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal, Willie McGinest was asked which fighter he thought his team was more like.

''Who do you think?" he said with a wide smile.

Yesterday, like Hagler in 1985, the Patriots were bruised, battered, and bleeding. They were on the ropes, as Hagler had been, told by many that they were nearly out of time, as Hagler was when the referee informed him before Round 3 that this would be his last chance at victory because of a deep cut on his head. Like Hagler, the Patriots were in trouble, seemingly pinned on the ropes by an avalanche of injuries. What the Falcons didn't know is what Hearns didn't understand until it was too late. What they didn't know is that this is when tough-minded men from New England are most dangerous.

Coming off a crushing 41-17 defeat to the San Diego Chargers, the undermanned Patriots were faced with journeying to Atlanta to play one of the best young teams in the NFC, with a defense sporting six new starters from a year ago. Arguably their top four defensive playmakers from their Super Bowl years were either gone for good or for quite some time -- Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour. The latter was added to the injured list after senselessly being hurt a week ago while blocking on the goal line on a Corey Dillon touchdown run.

Unfamiliar faces were all over the secondary and, quite frankly, they got hit with some big shots, just as Hagler did from Hearns. They gave up receptions of 53, 28, 24, 19, 18, 14, 13, and 12 yards. They gave up a 17-play scoring drive that took nearly eight minutes to complete and an eight-play drive capped by a 2-point conversion that tied the game, 28-28, with only 3:52 left. They took some hard shots from a fierce opponent. Then they did what Hagler did. They knocked that opponent out.

''Bill compared that fight to the situation we were going to find ourself in today," linebacker Larry Izzo said. ''I thought it was pretty dead accurate. It was going to be a street fight. We needed to come out swinging first, which we did, knowing they'd hit us back, which they did.

''I get thrills watching that fight. It's the greatest fight I've ever seen. I thought it was perfect. It put us in the right frame of mind for how to play this game."

They played hard-nosed and blind to the sight of their own blood in the same way Hagler did after Hearns split Hagler's head open with a right hand that shattered Hearns's fist. They ignored the absence of so many of their best players because of injury. They ignored the gravity of their situation as well, for if they did not find a way to win yesterday, they would have lost three of their last four games, and every team in the league might have begun to smell blood in the water.

The Patriots wavered at times, to be sure. Their knees buckled. They were sent reeling by long receptions from Alge Crumpler, Brian Finneran, and Michael Jenkins and stunned at times by the poise and passing of young Matt Schaub, who replaced injured Michael Vick as the triggerman of the Falcons' offense.

Not once, however, did they lose their belief in who the ultimate victor would be. The Falcons gave them a good fight but, as Hagler once said of Hearns, ''He brought out the mad dog in me." Atlanta's resolute challenge seemed to do the same to a Patriot team that is without all those defensive starters as well as left tackle Matt Light and third-down back Kevin Faulk. It still found a way to bounce back from the kind of defeat that would have shaken many teams and held off an opponent that had come back on it from being 14 points down in the first half and 15 down in the second half to tie the game on, of all things, a 2-point conversion from Schaub to Finneran that appeared to come so ridiculously easy it made you wonder if the Patriots finally had been asked to absorb too much.

''You can't get negative and say, 'Hey, the season is over,' and everybody go crazy," McGinest said. ''You can't tuck your tail between your legs . . . You got to bite down and come back. We didn't play the way we wanted. We gave up too many points and too many big plays. But we fought back."

That's what a newcomer to all that has gone on in New England the past four years found most amazing yesterday. Linebacker Chad Brown, who spent the first 12 years of his career in Pittsburgh and Seattle, remains mystified at what he has seen in five games as a Patriot. Mystified at their resiliency, their resolve, and their focus on one thing and one thing only. On being Marvin Hagler and not Thomas Hearns.

''They . . . I guess I should start saying we . . . never lose their cool," Brown said. ''We maintain a check on our emotions. This team does that better than any team I've been on . . . by far.

''Football is such an emotional game, but we never get too high or too low. It's always quiet in the locker room, quiet on the field in the biggest moments. Why waste energy jumping around?"

The Patriots instead jump on their opponents, giving little thought to emotional responses to difficult circumstances. When Finneran made his leaping catch over Asante Samuel, who is 7 inches shorter than the 6-foot-5-inch Falcons wide receiver, to tie the game, no one on the sideline threw their hat or kicked the water bucket or cursed. They focused instead on what was next. The next snap. The next opportunity.

Admittedly, that final 53-yard drive to set up the 19th winning kick of Vinatieri's career wasn't as smooth as in the past. Depleted by injury and the ceaseless pressure they're put under each week as defending champions, the Patriots committed two potentially fatal penalties to open the drive, one negating a 16-yard Deion Branch reception, but soon enough they had pressured Atlanta into a pass interference penalty that resulted in a 30-yard gain and put the ball at the Atlanta 44-yard line.

From there it was the usual quick passing of Brady and a big third-down catch to the Atlanta 29 by Branch that avoided Vinatieri having to face a 56-yard field goal attempt instead of the 29-yarder everyone was so sure he'd make that it was suggested the only fair thing might have been to demand he kick it with his left foot. Then again, if faced with a 56-yarder to win, one senses he would have gone Hagler on the Falcons anyway. Like McGinest said, everyone in the Georgia Dome knew which fighter the Patriots were yesterday.

The same one they've been for the past four years. The one who got his hand raised not because it was easy but because he didn't care that it wasn't.

''When you have No. 12 back there, it brings a lot of confidence to your team regardless of the situations we put ourselves in," Izzo said. ''There's an inner confidence here that's been built through success. We had it when I played in Miami with Dan Marino, too.

''Bill doesn't let us buy into the stuff that can weaken you. We've won before with guys out. There are no excuses here. You win or you lose. We knew we'd have to go toe-to-toe with the Falcons the same way Hagler did with Hearns. Then you win or you don't."

In the end, you keep swinging until it's over and someone is Hagler and someone else is poor Tommy Hearns. Yesterday, the Atlanta Falcons learned who they were. The New England Patriots? They already knew.

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