PHOENIX - Donte' Stallworth was at a loss about potentially losing the football. His rationality had been overtaken by superstition.
Stallworth knew that no Patriots wide receiver, running back, or tight end had lost a fumble this season on offense, but on the verge of Super Bowl XLII, he wasn't taking any chances.
"Don't say that. Don't say that. I'm very superstitious and I'm very jinxy," said Stallworth, who proceeded to furiously knock on the table at which he was sitting.
You never can be too careful, at least that's how the Patriots approach protecting the football. The Patriots have gone 450 receptions and 461 carries, including the playoffs, by a running back, wide receiver, or tight end without surrendering the ball on a fumble.
New England has fumbled 15 times in 18 games, turning it over six times. However, the only skill-position player to lose a fumble on offense is quarterback Tom Brady, who lost four of his six fumbles. Wide receiver Troy Brown had a punt go off his facemask against the Dolphins Dec. 23 and cornerback Ellis Hobbs was stripped on a kickoff return against the Chargers in Week 2.
While there is an element of luck involved, the lack of miscues is not an accident. The Patriots and coach Bill Belichick put a premium on ball security, and it starts in practice.
"I think we work on ball protection every day for about five minutes. I think ball protection has its own period," said running back Laurence Maroney, who has gone 239 offensive touches without fumbling this season. "I think he tells the defense to try to get the ball. The play could be over and the defense will still try to strip the ball and if you lose it you're in trouble. He always says, 'Bring the ball back to the huddle.' "
Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, who also has not fumbled this season, said that this is the best ball-security team he's been on. He credited the coaches for creating a culture where offensive players are programmed to protect the ball and defensive players are commanded to set it free any opportunity they get.
"In practice when you catch a ball, you hear almost every coach, 'Put the ball away! Put the ball away!' " said Gaffney. "You got the guys on defense, they do a good job. I mean, you could be running back to the huddle and they'll come up and try and knock it out. We do a good job of preparing and it's paid dividends for us so far."
Running backs coach Ivan Fears said the coaching staff reiterates the importance of playing Fort Knox with the football to each player. Lose the ball and you're not just letting yourself down, you're letting the entire team down.
"The reason we haven't lost one is because they've bought into it," said Fears. "Bill puts it like this, 'It's your responsibility. The whole team depends on you to hold on to the ball.' "
Few things will draw the ire of Belichick faster than a lost fumble. Just ask former Patriots wide receiver Doug Gabriel, who lost a key fumble in a loss to the Jets in 2006, was relegated to the bench, and then released a month later.
"If they don't hold on to the ball, they're not going to play," said Fears. "It's as easy as that."
That's why Gaffney repeated Stallworth's act of knocking on wood when asked about the Patriots' penchant for protecting the football. Nobody wants to be the first wide receiver, tight end, or running back to lose a fumble on offense, particularly against the Giants Sunday. "I know that I don't want to be the first person," said Maroney. "You don't want to be the guy. You just don't want to be that guy to lose a fumble, especially at a critical situation. You don't want to be the one where people say, 'Oh, they had it, but such-and-such fumbled and cost them.' "
Wes Welker has three of the six fumbles by a Patriots wide receiver, tight end, or running back this season. Tight end Benjamin Watson, running back Kevin Faulk, and Brown each have one.
Twice Welker recovered his own fumble and once the ball rolled out of bounds. Sometimes being fumble-free is also the result of being fortunate.
"If you recover it then there is probably a little bit of luck involved," acknowledged Welker. "It's just something that you try not to do and you try not to worry about."
The Giants don't seem worried about prying the ball away from the Patriots. Wide receiver Amani Toomer took an optimistic approach when apprised of the Patriots' paucity of lost fumbles.
"That means they're due," said Toomer. "In big games like this it's usually mistakes that turn the tide of the game and momentum is such a fragile thing."
The Patriots' wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends know how fragile possession can be. That's why they always handle the ball with care.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.