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Fleet of speedy changes

Patriots fast enough to counter Colts

The team that walked heartbroken off the field at the RCA Dome in the 2006 AFC Championship game has transformed into something altogether different. In many ways, the Patriots have become Coltlike.

At least that's the way former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher sees it.

"What I see is the early stages of New England turning into an Indianapolis offense," said Cowher, now a studio analyst for CBS. "It almost looks like they made this change in philosophy because they could not score on the Colts a year ago. It's the old adage - if you can't beat them, join them."

The Patriots will strongly dispute that their offseason overhaul was to replicate the Colts, but there is no denying they are a dramatically different team from the one that couldn't hold a 21-6 halftime lead in last year's conference title game and endured one of the most painful defeats in franchise history, 38-34.

The Patriots should have four new starters on offense Sunday when they visit the Colts again. Running back Laurence Maroney and receivers Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, and Wes Welker are in. Running back Corey Dillon, receivers Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney, and tight end Daniel Graham are out.

Defensively, the changes come with Adalius Thomas over Eric Alexander at inside linebacker, and Rodney Harrison healthy again and lining up where Artrell Hawkins did last year.

Each replacement appears to be an upgrade, specifically in the speed department. And when it comes to playing the Colts, matching their quickness is imperative.

Coach Bill Belichick acknowledged that speed has long been a consideration when forming the roster, and now that the Patriots are playing on FieldTurf at Gillette Stadium, that speed has a chance to shine more than ever.

It will also come in handy on a fast track like the RCA Dome.

"We're a lot faster team than we were four years ago - faster at running back, faster at receiver, faster at pass rusher," said Belichick. "Our linemen are more athletic, to get out and run screen plays and outside plays and stuff like that.

"If you're a fast team, you're better off playing on a fast surface. If you're a slow team, you can't slow down too much. You're already slow.

"Take a look at a team like Indianapolis; they might be seen as undersized at a lot of positions, but they're fast and more fast and quick than most players at their position. That speed plays to their conditions. I think our team has evolved through the years. You always try to get faster - no one wants to get slower - and it's become a faster team than, let's say, '03, '04."

Cowher sees the speed shining through on offense, where he's detected a shift in philosophy.

"New England is not too far removed from the days of Corey Dillon running the ball 25 or 30 times a day - you get ready to play New England, you're thinking about stopping the run," said Cowher.

"Eight games into the season, I have seen a transformation in their offense - from one that was multiple formations, three tight ends, with the basis of the running game setting up play-action - to really becoming more like an Indianapolis Colts team."

Indianapolis, under coordinator Tom Moore, has traditionally favored a three-receiver attack. But toward the end of last year and throughout this season, the Colts have used more two-receiver, two-tight end formations, with tight end Dallas Clark sometimes utilized as a receiver.

The Colts will return all offensive starters from the AFC Championship game except left tackle Tarik Glenn, who unexpectedly retired in the offseason. He's been replaced by rookie Tony Ugoh, a second-round draft choice whom the Colts felt strongly enough about to trade a 2008 first-round draft choice to select.

The Colts' major changes have come on their ultra-quick defense, with five new starters.

Rookie free agent Ed Johnson has replaced the injured Anthony McFarland at defensive tackle, while Tyjuan Hagler, a fifth-round draft choice out of Cincinnati in 2005, has filled in at strong-side linebacker following a season-ending injury to Rob Morris. At weak-side linebacker, Freddie Keiaho, a third-round draft choice out of San Diego State in 2006, has replaced free agent defector Cato June. And at cornerback, Marlin Jackson (2005, first round) and Kelvin Hayden (2005, second round) have stepped in admirably for Jason David and Nick Harper, both of whom left in free agency.

But when Cowher looks at all the changes between the teams, it's the Patriots' offense that stands out most.

"I've just been amazed at looking at this New England offense and watched how they have evolved in eight weeks," he said. "I'm seeing almost a recycling of this offense, where they're in the early stages of where Indianapolis was."

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

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