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Can't catch a break

Patriot receivers have improved, but still get little respect

FOXBOROUGH -- Before they caught passes, they caught flak. Plenty of it.

The wide receivers for the New England Patriots heard the doubters, and noted how it apparently mattered less about what they could do, and more about what they couldn't. There was no Deion Branch-type to run those silky smooth pass routes, and no physical presence like David Givens.

If there was one maligned position on the team's roster, this was it. Can the Patriots win with these receivers?

Not that Reche Caldwell needed something to fire him up in his first year with the Patriots after four injury-filled seasons with the San Diego Chargers, but that did the trick.

"We don't really listen to it, but it's there, you hear it," Caldwell said in the days before the Patriots wrapped up their regular season. "We look at it as a challenge. With such a high-profile quarterback, people are looking for who is going to step up and make plays for him."

While few could make a compelling case that the 2006 Patriots are better off without Branch and Givens -- who ranked 1-2 on the team in receptions last season -- the current crop of receivers certainly has elevated its play as the season has progressed.

Last Sunday's 37-16 victory over the Jets was one shining example. Jabar Gaffney finished with eight catches for 104 yards, serving as a key cog in the team's up-tempo offensive plan. Caldwell, the team's leading receiver during the regular season with a career-high 61 grabs for 760 yards, added five catches for 50 yards. And old reliable Troy Brown came up with a crucial third-down catch to extend the team's game-sealing, fourth-quarter touchdown drive.

Not bad for a group that Caldwell -- now preparing to face his former team in the AFC divisional playoffs (Sunday, 4:30 p.m.) -- feels has been unfairly targeted.

"When something doesn't go right, it's 'the receivers can't do this, the receivers can't do that,' " he said. "It's up and down. We have a good game, we're good again. We have a bad game, we need receivers. I feel like we have a good group of guys who work hard. We're playing against other NFL athletes and it's not always going to be perfect, we're not always going to have a good game. But I just take it upon myself to go out and play my best and try to practice the best and be as prepared as I can, then y'all won't have anything bad to say."

At times during the preseason and regular season, it seemed the Patriots were experimenting on the fly as the receivers took on a new shape each week.

Some receivers came early (Caldwell signed with the team as a free agent in the offseason) and others came late (Gaffney joined the Patriots after their fifth game). Then there was Doug Gabriel, who came late and left early after being acquired in a trade with Oakland before the season opener and then was dumped after the Patriots' loss in Miami Dec. 10.

Meanwhile, rookie Chad Jackson has battled hamstring and groin injuries but he's finally healthy. And Kelvin Kight and Bam Childress, in their first year with the team, have earned roster spots after both were promoted from the practice squad in recent weeks.

The only holdover from last year is Brown, who when not pinch hitting on defense finished the regular season with 43 catches for 384 yards.

Short on stars and name recognition, the receivers have taken pride in their blue-collar approach.

"They work hard and they're well-prepared, and they really try to do all the little things to get it right," coach Bill Belichick said. "I have a lot of respect for them."

"It's a hard-working group. I think the guys have taken a lot of pride in what they do and they've continued to get better each week," echoed quarterback Tom Brady. "A lot of it is just learning the system and trying to figure out a role. Obviously, Jabar and Reche have stepped up. Troy has been really dependable. Chad is finding a role. I'm very comfortable with what we're doing in the passing game."

Tight end Benjamin Watson looks at the receiving corps and sees a group that has persevered.

"It's not easy to come into a whole new system, when you have a whole new group of receivers, and then learn and build and produce within the season," he said. "I think they've done a great job. They're guys that supposedly nobody has heard of, but Tom is still up there ranked high in passing and completion percentage."

Monday night, four of the team's receivers -- Caldwell, Gaffney, Jackson, and Kight -- celebrated as their alma mater, the University of Florida, won the national championship. Now they are back to work, hoping to contribute to their own championship, while at the same time proving their critics wrong.

"To me, it's motivation," Caldwell said. "They don't think you can do something, then prove them wrong. Everybody is competitive. It brings out the best in anybody when people say you can't do something."

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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