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Kraft tries to look on the bright side

Robert Kraft, so accustomed to making a spring tour with a shiny new Lombardi Trophy in tow, will have a difficult time watching this week's AFC Championship game.

Kraft said things have not been particularly good since New England lost to Denver, 27-13, Saturday to end the Patriots' two-year reign as the NFL's best. But there is no angst about the direction of his franchise. His head coach is here to stay.

Per his policy, the Patriots chairman and CEO would not discuss specifics concerning Bill Belichick's contract situation, but for the first time he indicated that a contract extension or a new contract is in place.

Belichick, who signed a five-year deal when he joined the team in 2000, got a two-year extension (announced in July 2003) through the 2006 season.

Kraft said yesterday, however, that any representation of next season as the final year of Belichick's contract would be untrue.

''It's our intention that Bill will be the coach for some time," Kraft said. ''Bill Belichick and his staff have done a great job. In many ways, the coaching job this year was his most outstanding.

''He's not about ego and the sidebar privileges that come with being the head coach. He represents the face of our team and family with values that we feel are important. Trust in this business is very important. When the tough times come in this business, the arrows start flying, and you have to stick together. We have the utmost trust in Bill Belichick."

Nearly a third of Kraft's fellow owners (10 out of 32 teams) are making coaching changes. Only six coaches -- Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher (14 seasons), Tennessee's Jeff Fisher (11), Denver's Mike Shanahan (11), Baltimore's Brian Billick (7), Philadelphia's Andy Reid (7), and Seattle's Mike Holmgren (7) -- have been with their teams longer than Belichick. Three of those (Cowher, Shanahan, Holmgren) have teams that are still playing in the postseason.

Kraft had hopes that his team would be one of the final four, but a five-turnover game at Denver was its undoing.

''My reaction to the game, like every Patriot fan, player, and coach -- I feel a terrible disappointment, a sick feeling to my stomach," said Kraft. ''I think we were playing our best football at the right time. We had a chance at a memorable postseason.

''We knew it was going to be hard on the road against a team that was 13-3. But it probably would have been easier if the Broncos had beaten us severely. To lose it the way we lost it makes it tough. They are a very good team, but in some ways we beat ourselves."

Knowing he could incur the wrath of the league, Kraft chose his words carefully when discussing the officiating.

''I feel pretty much the way any of our intelligent fans watching the game would have felt," he said.

Kraft said he has presented to fellow owners Belichick's idea of placing a camera on the goal line -- which might have helped with one replay-challenged call during the Denver game -- but he hasn't been able to persuade enough executives that it is a cost-worthy idea. He may try again this summer, but for now, he is dealing with the hangover of a season-ending defeat.

''It eats at me that we didn't win in Denver," Kraft said. ''I wake up every day heartsick that we're not hosting an AFC Championship game. We've never lost one of those, you know."

Alas, a fifth conference title game in his 12 years as owner was not meant to be, but Kraft is confident more championships are in store for the franchise that won three of the last four Super Bowls.

''In the end, our first objective is to make the playoffs, because if you don't make the playoffs, you have no shot," he said. ''We made the playoffs and we did it against really difficult odds."

Kraft manages to look at the bright side of slipping from Super Bowl champion to tying for the 11th-best record in the league.

''One silver lining is for two years in a row we haven't had as much planning time as everybody else, and we drafted 32d," he said. ''If you look at it on a retail basis, we're moving up 33 percent to 21 in the April draft.

''Usually there are 20 players in most drafts that are pretty special. You have to think we have a good chance to get one of those.

''The league is brilliant the way it's set up. We're all undermined, in a way, to pull us back to 8-8, whether it be scheduling, where you draft, or how people can pick at your personnel. Part of the challenge in managing a team is to prepare for the future and we have the people in place to do it.

''We've already started having meetings to turn our focus on getting better in the future."

Kraft will play a major role in the league's future, as he'll continue to be involved in labor negotiations with the Players Association over an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire in 2008.

''It'll be disappointing if we can't come to some kind of agreement, because the reason the television networks and sponsors pay us the money they pay us is because of the quality of our product and that in part stems from labor stability," Kraft said. ''With the [average career] of a player being limited to 3.7 years, I don't think it makes sense for any one of them to miss time because of a work stoppage.

''That's critical. Look at the games this weekend. No other television product is appointment television the way the NFL is. From Sunday at 1 through 'Monday Night Football,' more than 120 million people are attending games live or watching them on television.

''The NFL is the only way to have a mass audience like that; therefore we have to be careful the quality of the game remains high. The union is really our partner. They benefit the same way ownership benefits, and really they get more of the revenue. So it would be silly for us not to keep this going strong as it has been for years."

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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