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PATRIOTS NOTEBOOK

Penalties not a problem

Special teams discipline a plus

FOXBOROUGH -- Penalty flags aren't flying in the Patriots' direction this season.

After being called for only three infractions in Sunday's win over the Bills, the Patriots are now one of the NFL's least-penalized teams, as they are being flagged for an average of five infractions per game. That ties them with two other clubs -- Atlanta and Houston -- as the fifth-least-penalized team in the NFL.

When discussing the Patriots' special teams performance earlier in the week, coach Bill Belichick noted that discipline in the kicking game has contributed to the low penalty count. Special teams players have committed just three accepted penalties in coverage -- a fair catch interference by Antwain Spann (vs. Bengals), and holding calls on Mike Wright (vs. Dolphins) and Chidi Iwuoma (vs. Bills).

It's a stat the coach likes.

"I hope we can keep making that number go down and down," Belichick said.

The Patriots were flagged for one accepted penalty in the season opener against Buffalo (illegal substitution; 12 men in the huddle), and had six against the Jets and Broncos, and seven against the Bengals and Dolphins. The 30 accepted penalties have accounted for 292 yards, while opponents have been flagged for 46 accepted penalties for 375 yards.

The Redskins, who have yet to have their off week and have played seven games, have been called for the most penalties, with 55. The Browns are the team with the fewest penalties, with 21.

It's in the details

The details of center Dan Koppen's five-year contract extension are in, and as expected, the Patriots used some of their salary cap surplus in 2006 with some creative accounting.

Within the deal is a $1.927 million playing time incentive for special teams in 2006, which is classified as a likely-to-be-earned incentive. But the design is that Koppen won't earn that incentive, which will allow the Patriots to be credited $1.927 million on the 2007 salary cap.

In short, it's a way for the Patriots to use some of their surplus this year, while at the same time, giving themselves future financial flexibility.

With that special teams incentive, Koppen's salary cap hit for 2006 is $5.033 million. His previous salary cap hit was $1.6 million, so the Patriots are using about $3.4 million more of their salary cap space for 2006 as a result of Koppen's deal. The team now has approximately $7 million of cap space.

Koppen's deal includes a $7.5 million signing bonus -- payable in two parts -- and base salaries of $1.573 million (2006), $900,000 (2007), $1.4 million (2008), $2.4 million (2009), $2.9 million (2010), and $2.9 million (2011). The deal includes workout bonuses of $107,000 in each year from 2007-2011, and roster bonuses of $500,000 in 2010 and 2011.

Samuel on deck

With Koppen's deal completed, what's next for the Patriots?

Cornerback Asante Samuel's contract expires after the season, and the sides have had what Samuel's agent, Alonzo Shavers, described as preliminary conversations in which potential contract concepts were discussed.

"They expressed an interest to keep Asante, which was welcome, and by the same token, we let them know we'd like to stay there if we could work something out," Shavers said. "I don't have a barometer on how it's going to unfold. I'd say right now it's in a wait-and-see situation."

Shavers said he wouldn't describe the talks as active, noting he believed the Patriots are evaluating the situation before any more steps are taken.

"There is still plenty of time to come to an agreement," said Shavers, noting that Samuel's desire is to remain with the Patriots for a fair contract.

Play under review

Several astute readers pointed out the Patriots should have been credited with four turnovers in Sunday's game, not three.

The turnover in question came at the end of the first half, when Bills receiver Lee Evans was crunched by defensive lineman Wright on a hustle play, and the ball popped loose. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs recovered as the clock went to zero.

On the official game stat sheet, the play was ruled an 11-yard catch by Evans, but there is no mention of the forced fumble or recovery. That might have been a result of a disconnect in communication between the officials' on-field signals and the Bills' home stat crew, as referee Jeff Triplette's crew never officially re-spotted the ball because the half was over.

AFC spokesman Steve Alic reported the play will be reviewed by the Elias Sports Bureau, which keeps the official stats for the NFL.

The Patriots currently have nine takeaways, and the play in question would count as No. 10.

Precision name of game

Most Patriots have only their last name on the back of their jerseys. But tight end David Thomas, defensive back Chad Scott, and receivers Chad Jackson and Troy Brown also have their first initial.

Why is this the case, especially when there are no other players on the roster with those last names?

The answer, according to Alic, traces back to the preseason, when the Patriots had defensive lineman Santonio Thomas (now on the practice squad), safeties Guss Scott and Keon Jackson, and linebacker Chad Brown on the roster.

Alic said when players share the same last name, it has been customary to differentiate them with a first initial on their nameplate, which has been in effect for decades.

NFL owners are meeting in New Orleans, and this is one item on their agenda.

Running with the pack

Six games into the season, the AFC field is starting to sort itself out, with the Colts (6-0), Broncos (5-1), and Patriots (5-1) at the top of the pack.

The next few weeks could have significant long-term implications as the Colts have back-to-back road games against the Broncos and Patriots. The Patriots have a tough troika, with a trip to Minnesota, then home games against the Colts and Jets. And the Broncos host the Colts before traveling to Pittsburgh.

The race could be especially tight, when accounting for the strength of schedule of opponents. The combined record of the Colts' and Patriots' remaining opponents is 30-33, while the combined record of Broncos opponents is 31-30.

The next group of AFC teams currently includes the Bengals (4-2), Ravens (4-2), Jets (4-3), and Chargers (4-2). The Jaguars (3-3) and Chiefs (3-3) are the lone teams at .500.

Of that group, the Bengals have the toughest remaining schedule based on opponents' records (36-24), while the Jets have the easiest (24-32).

Formidable foe

A few nuggets on the 4-2 Vikings, who are in their first year under coach Brad Childress: The team's defense is ranked first in the NFL for fewest rushing yards allowed per game (70.8) ... The Vikings have defeated the Redskins, Panthers, Lions, and Seahawks, with the games against the Redskins and Seahawks on the road. The losses came at home to the Bears and on the road to Buffalo ... Running back Chester Taylor is second in the NFL with 590 rushing yards on 137 carries (4.3 avg.) ... Taylor also leads the team with 21 catches ... Taylor's 95-yard touchdown run against the Seahawks Sunday was the longest in franchise history ... The team ranks sixth for fewest points allowed per game, at 15.8 ... Quarterback Brad Johnson has been intercepted just four times.

We meet again

The Patriots face the Vikings for the first time since 2002, when New England recorded a 24-17 win at Gillette Stadium. The last time the Patriots faced the Vikings in Minnesota was 1997, a 23-18 loss. New England leads the all-time series, 5-4 ... Monday night's game is the Patriots' only regular-season game in a dome this season. The team has won nine straight dome games (including playoffs) since 2001. The Patriots' last loss in a dome came on Thanksgiving Day 2000, when they lost to the Lions, 34-9 ... Quarterback Tom Brady is 9-0 all-time in domes ... Rookie running back Laurence Maroney was named the AFC's Special Teams Player of the Week after returning a kickoff 74 yards against the Bills ... The Patriots' 5-1 start matches the second-best start in team history, tied with the starts in 1997, 1980, and 1974. The Patriots' best start came in 2004, at 6-0 ... Receiver Troy Brown needs four receptions to break Stanley Morgan's team record of 534 ... The Patriots signed offensive lineman Brian Barthelmes, an undrafted free agent from the University of Virginia, to their practice squad. The 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound Barthelmes, who plays center and guard, was with the team in training camp.

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