Never dismiss the Patriots

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Someone always seems to make a big play at a critical time to help the New England Patriots win a game they have no business winning.

Take Troy Brown, for instance, New England’s 35-year-old wide receiver/defensive back/return man. Or Kevin Faulk, the Patriots’ do-it-all running back. Or even Stephen Gostkowski, the rookie drafted to replace Adam Vinatieri, the NFL’s best big-game kicker.

All three came through for the Patriots in Sunday’s 24-21 victory at San Diego that sent New England to the AFC title game in Indianapolis next week.

Anyone feel like suggesting that the Patriots shouldn’t be favored to win their fourth Super Bowl in six seasons, equaling what Pittsburgh did between the 1974 and 1979 seasons?

“I’ve said this many times,” one coach said after Sunday’s game. “In the playoffs, you’re given an opportunity to make plays. And you have to seize those opportunities and make the plays and you’ll benefit from those.”

That coach was Marty Schottenheimer of the Chargers, who dominated the game physically but lost because they committed a couple of dumb emotional penalties that gave the Patriots points. They also fumbled at the worst time and squandered their timeouts, forcing them to try a tying field goal from 54 yards with no time left.

That’s why Bill Belichick is 13-2 in the postseason and Schottenheimer is 5-13.

Belichick’s teams take advantage of “the opportunity to make plays” – by Brown, Faulk or Gostkowski. By Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi or Rosevelt Colvin.

Schottenheimer’s don’t.

It’s not an accident.

The Patriots, just the fourth-seeded team in the AFC, are never the same from week to week. They’re a team whose runners are far better than their receivers – they stopped running when they couldn’t Sunday and still won despite being outrushed 148-51.

More important, Belichick seems to instinctively know who’ll help his team after he lets the likes of Vinatieri, Deion Branch, Willie McGinest and other important players leave. It all goes back to safety Lawyer Milloy, who he let go at the start of the 2003 season, just after the Patriots had won the first of their three Super Bowls.

Belichick doesn’t necessarily select “stars” for his team.

Despite their success, the Patriots usually have fewer Pro Bowlers than other good teams, such as San Diego, which had nine this season. New England has one: defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who because of injuries wasn’t as good as he usually has been.

But he gets playmakers. Or guys he thinks will be playmakers, like Jabar Gaffney, who has two consecutive 100-yard games in the playoffs after having just one in the past six seasons with Houston. Gaffney’s 18 receptions in the playoffs are seven more than he had in the regular season after being signed off the street.

Most of all, Belichick loves role players. And role players often win him games.

“If you put them in one particular spot, you might have a guy that’s better at that one thing than they are,” he said. “But when you look at the player’s versatility, his intelligence, his physical skills, his ability to understand concepts and adapt to different situations, that he just has so much value on a broad base, that that’s really more valuable to your team even than a guy who’s better at one.

Enter Brown, who’s been with the Patriots for 14 seasons as a wide receiver, kick returner and occasional defensive back.

He made the play of the game Sunday, knocking the ball loose from San Diego’s Marlon McCree after McCree intercepted a pass by Tom Brady with just over six minutes left and the Chargers leading 21-13.

The Patriots went on to score and tie the game on a 2-point conversion run on a direct snap to Faulk – never a star, but a valuable contributor as a runner, receiver and return man in his eight seasons with New England.

Brady, who was intercepted three times, then came through as usual in the clutch, driving the Patriots from their own 15 to the San Diego 13 to set up Gostkowski’s winning field goal. The big play: a 49-yard pass to Reche Caldwell, who had 66 receptions in four years with the Chargers, but had a team-leading 61 for the Patriots this season after signing as a free agent.

That’s the kind of game that gets into the heads of opponents – the “Uh-oh. Here come the Patriots” mind-set that dooms some opponents before they even step on the field.

That’s not likely to happen to Indianapolis, although it was beaten by New England in the 2004 AFC championship game and again the next season in the second round.

For one thing, the Colts, whose defense has been reborn in these playoffs, also seem to have learned how to win ugly, as evidenced by their 15-6 victory in Baltimore. All of the Colts’ scoring came on five field goals by Vinatieri, who signed with Indianapolis as a free agent and is sure to be one of the much-hyped subplots to this title game.

And Peyton Manning, who struggled against the Patriots in those two postseason losses, has played well against them in regular-season victories the last two years.

In fact, Indianapolis may even be glad it’s playing New England instead of San Diego, which manhandled them last season and would have been the home team if it had won. The home-field advantage has led the oddsmakers to make the Colts 3-point favorites for Sunday’s game.

No, Vinatieri probably won’t miss a potential tying field goal by 30 yards, as Mike Vanderjagt did last season for the Colts in the playoffs against Pittsburgh.

But somewhere in the collective psyche of the Colts, there has to be this thought:

“Uh-oh. Here come the Patriots.”

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