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Starks's feelings hurt, too

Much-maligned cornerback Duane Starks was heading to Birmingham, Ala., yesterday to meet with Dr. James Andrews to determine whether he will need surgery on the right shoulder that has forced him onto the injured reserve list.

Starks said he was frustrated and disappointed about missing the rest of the season and about the beating he took from the media and fan base.

Because of the Patriots' policy on not disclosing the extent of injuries, Starks had to take the criticism while not being able to reveal how hurt he was.

''I knew the circumstances," said Starks. ''I took some garbage from people. Some media people took what I said and twisted it around to suit their stories, things like I couldn't play press coverage and things like that.

''Given my shoulder was what it was, there wasn't any way I could play a physical brand of football. I could run around and cover the best I could, and I did what the team wanted me to do.

''We had so many guys banged up, I went out there and did the best I could for the team. I had to stay in and stick it out."

Starks said his shoulder wasn't right from the start, and he reinjured it in the Pittsburgh game. He was led off the field at one point after making a tackle on running back Willie Parker but returned. After that game, he was listed with a thigh problem on the injury report; his shoulder didn't appear on the report until the week of the Indianapolis game.

Despite his frustration, Starks agreed with the decision to shut him down.

''Something had to be done," he said. ''I think we all felt that it was best that I get myself healthy. Whether that means surgery or not, I'll find that out shortly. I just want to get myself prepared to play next year and not have to worry about injuries any more.

''This is tough on me, because I hate to miss games. I want to be out there playing. I consider myself a competitor, and the injury made it tough for me to compete at the level I needed to be at."

Whether he's getting healthy to play next season for the Patriots remains a big question. He will carry a hefty $5.136 million hit on the cap, fifth-highest on the team.

''That's yet to be determined," Starks said. ''I sure don't know the answer to that. That's what I'm preparing for, but only time will tell that."

The line on Hawkins
In Artrell Hawkins, who was signed yesterday, the Patriots are getting a cornerback unafraid of physical play. The reason he's been out of the league all season is that he doesn't have the best cover skills. Hawkins, 28, has played in 103 games (76 starts) for the Bengals (1998-2003) and Panthers (2004). The 5-foot-10-inch, 190-pounder has recorded 404 career tackles (361 solo), 3 sacks, 10 interceptions, 67 passes defensed, 11 forced fumbles, and 6 fumble recoveries. He is tied for the longest interception return in Bengals history: He brought one 102 yards for a touchdown against the Texans in 2002, a season in which he led the Cincinnati secondary with 92 tackles.

Accounting Dept.
Managing the salary cap is getting tougher for the Patriots as time goes on and the hits get bigger and bigger. Next season they'll have to deal with Tom Brady's $14.4 million hit and a whopping $8.326 million on Willie McGinest's deal. Other big ones include Richard Seymour's $7.42 million, Rosevelt Colvin's $5.784 million, and Matt Light's $5.32 million . . . Dan Koppen had started 40 consecutive games -- second on the team to Brady's 71 -- before going on injured reserve with a shoulder injury . . . Bill Walsh on the Patriots: ''They're still in position to win their division and go deep into the playoffs. They could win this thing again. I know they've had a lot of injuries, but they overcome them. I think it's premature to count them out of anything." But in regards to the Colts, he said, ''I think they're in the best position of any team in a long time to run the table and go 16-0. I know they have a tougher schedule the rest of the way than they've had to this point. I think when they beat New England, they convinced me. I enjoy watching their offense and I think because the Super Bowl had eluded them they've got a lot of support out there."

Ball control needed
Besides seeing their former running back, Antowain Smith, in a Saints uniform this week, the Patriots also could see Anthony Thomas, the hard-nosed runner signed by New Orleans Nov. 8 after being cut by the Cowboys. The Patriots had offered Thomas a split contract (which had some roster issues attached), but he rejected that to take the Saints' straight veteran contract. The Saints lost Deuce McAllister for the season and since have gone with Smith and Aaron Stecker, but both have had issues holding on to the ball. Fumbles hurt the Saints in a 20-17 loss to the Bears Nov. 6, the last time they played. A Smith fumble (returned for a touchdown) also was costly in a 3-point loss to the Falcons. Thomas started his NFL career with the Bears with 428 consecutive carries without a fumble, an NFL record . . . The Patriots tried out former Marshall running back Earl Charles yesterday. No word yet on whether they will consider former Titans back Eddie George, who has expressed a desire to return to the NFL.

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