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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Hobbs cornering market on confidence

Ellis Hobbs likes to be up to his neck in it.

Good thing. New England's young cornerback will be in the thick of the action Sunday when the Patriots' defense attempts to apply the clamps to Peyton Manning and his arsenal of gifted receivers. At any moment, Hobbs will be asked to mark Reggie Wayne or Marvin Harrison or another target Manning deems worthy of a long ball and a big play.

It is a daunting assignment for anyone, particularly a second-year guy.

"Actually, I think it's kind of exciting," Hobbs said.

By now you have undoubtedly gathered that Ellis Hobbs III, native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., National Honor Society member, and former running back, is no shrinking violet. He's already found himself embroiled in the controversy surrounding the Patriots' celebration after they shocked the favored San Diego Chargers on their own field, 24-21, last Sunday.

In the emotional moments after the win, Hobbs reenacted Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" sack dance at midfield, precisely where the Chargers' logo was located. Although veteran linebacker Rosevelt Colvin was seen demonstrating the far more offensive motion of the choke sign in the direction of the San Diego sideline, the Chargers' wrath seemed specifically directed toward Hobbs.

Quarterback Philip Rivers went right for him, screaming, "The sorriest corner in the league is doing that. He's the sorriest corner in the league."

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who we can only hope is finally done talking about this, confirmed that Hobbs was also the object of his ire, saying he moved toward Hobbs to instruct him "not to disrespect us on our field."

Now Hobbs is no All-Pro player (not yet, he'll remind you). He's not a captain, a spokesman for the team, or a recognized leader of this club. If Tom Brady, Troy Brown, Richard Seymour, and Tedy Bruschi had linked arms and performed the Merriman dance in unison at midfield, then maybe we could discuss the team's character (or lack thereof) with some merit.

But Hobbs is merely a cocky 23-year-old kid trying to make his mark. The Chargers singled him out because he is the youngest and the newest and the least credible.

Those are the exact reasons why the Indianapolis Colts will likely single out Hobbs on the field Sunday. When your fellow corner has a year like Asante Samuel did, matching All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey's league-leading 10 interceptions, you should expect opponents to shift their gaze toward your side of the turf. Samuel knows he'll get his share of action -- after all, the incomparable Harrison tends to line up on the right side, directly across from him -- but there's a good chance Indy will determine Hobbs is the weak link and keep hammering away at him until he breaks. The Chargers employed a similar strategy.

Bring it on, the kid said yesterday. He's been waiting for a moment like this.

"You want to play against the best because that's how I rate myself," Hobbs said. "If you go out and play against the best and succeed, then you can put yourself in the upper echelon of those players. But if you go out and get humiliated, then you know you've got to keep working, keep striving. It's a big measuring stick."

The Patriots are wisely attempting to move beyond their little tempest with the Chargers. Some veterans conceded yesterday that certain Patriots might have gone a little overboard with their celebration, but Hobbs said he was not admonished by any teammates or told by any coaches how he should behave.

"Nobody said anything to me," he declared.

"Sometimes emotions take over," Hobbs calmly explained. "There's no rules or regulations for [how you celebrate after a win].

"In the playoffs, you tend to get overwhelmed by a lot of emotions. It's different from the regular season."

There is a fine line between exhibiting confidence and arrogance in this league. Cornerbacks walk that tightrope every day.

Yet the truth is confidence can't be an issue with a corner. If he gets burned on an 80-yard touchdown pass, he has to be able to sprint back to the huddle believing it will never happen again. Positive self-talk is a critical mechanism for survival.

"Confidence is so important," Hobbs said. "The offensive coordinator can see it in the box. The other coaches see it. If you walk around with your head down second-guessing yourself, you won't be of any use at all.

"A lot of people get on me for my confidence and my swagger, but at one time I didn't have those things, and you saw what happened -- I got beat."

When it comes to the Colts, he's hardly alone. In their last meeting Nov. 5, which Indianapolis won, 27-20, the Patriots coughed up the ball five times. Harrison torched New England's secondary for eight catches, 145 yards, and two touchdowns, and Wayne hauled in six passes for 90 yards.

Hobbs is no dummy (note the previous National Honor Society reference). He threw nothing but daisies and daffodils at this week's opponent. In fact, he acknowledged he was speaking guardedly to avoid providing any "bulletin material."

"The Colts' [offense] is extremely good at what they do," said Hobbs. "It literally has to be a mess-up on offense for something to go wrong."

His job is to manufacture some mess-ups for Peyton and the boys. In the past, the Patriots have made the Colts' receivers pay for their catches with bruising hits, but more stringent regulations regarding the handling of the wideouts have eliminated some physicality from the New England playbook. Besides, Rodney Harrison is injured, and Ty Law plays for the Kansas City Chiefs now.

Hobbs said he did some reconnaissance of his own this week to try to understand what makes Manning tick -- and what makes him hiccup.

"I talked to Tom [Brady] personally about it," Hobbs reported, "and if you can get quarterbacks thinking about too many things out there, that's when they make ill-advised decisions."

Hobbs has expressed little remorse over his decision to taunt the Chargers in defeat. His partner in crime, Colvin, took issue with Hobbs being singled out by San Diego players.

"To pinpoint Ellis is wrong," he said. "We were all excited about winning the game and qualifying for the AFC Championship. It is an opportunity of a lifetime. Just excitement, that's all.

"Ellis Hobbs is a tremendous young man. He was humble enough to come in here and accept help on football matters. He's learning every day. I told him, 'Just go out and be yourself.' Ellis is Ellis. I'm me. And you're you. As long as you don't disrespect anyone, or hurt anyone physically, why can't you celebrate? Some players never make it to the championship game."

It is a first for Hobbs, who doesn't own one of the Super Bowl rings his teammates occasionally flash in his face. He wants a ring of his own, and believes he's in a position to make that happen.

"The last thing you want to do is put any negative pressure on yourself," Hobbs said. "It's all about staying confident."

Don't worry. The kid is definitely up to his neck in that.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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