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Inside job

| Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005

Let's explode a couple of myths about the New England Patriots.

The first is fairly benign. It claims the Patriots don't ham it up or shoot their mouths like other teams. Mike Ditka perpetuated this one on the radio the other day, praising the Pats for their old-fashioned values (you know, like those well-behaved '85 Bears).

He couldn't have been more wrong.

Go back and watch Mike Vrabel mocking Terrell Owens' "dirty bird" celebration after Vrabel's touchdown in last year's Super Bowl. Or see Deion Branch in the AFC title game, taunting the Steelers defensive backs by holding the ball out to them on his way to the end zone.

Just watch Rodney Harrison over the course of an afternoon.

The myth that really needs to be blown up, though, is the one that says the Patriots' dynasty is more about "the system" than the players.

It describes this ruthlessly efficient team as a corporation, directed by a brilliant but ice-cold CEO named Bill Belichick. In his system, any employee can be replaced without hurting the bottom line.

There is some truth there.

The Patriots won their first Super Bowl after their starting quarterback (Drew Bledsoe) was injured. They won their second one without any semblance of a running game, their third after a Pro Bowl cornerback (Ty Law) and a stellar defensive end (Richard Seymour) were injured.

Obviously, Belichick has a keen eye for talent. He also has the willingness and acumen to radically tailor his approach to a particular opponent.

He's a great coach. But guess what• As sound as the system might be, you don't win championships without serious star power - and the Patriots have always had it.

This year, they have a core of players who are among the best at their positions: quarterback Tom Brady, tailback Corey Dillon, Seymour and Harrison.

That doesn't include a few other first-round picks on the defensive line, plus Branch, Vrabel and linebacker Willie McGinest, all of whom could play for anybody (except the Steelers, apparently, in Vrabel's case).

Yes, the Patriots have thrived without key players, but this year is different. This year, they will try to overcome losing the heart of their defense -- inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi (recovering from a stroke) and Ted Johnson (retired).

I refuse to believe those guys were easily replaceable parts. Bill Cowher was asked Tuesday if he thinks the Patriots' defense will suffer without them.

"I think it's too early to assess that," he said, accurately.

We'll find out come playoff time how much the Patriots miss Johnson and Bruschi, who somehow was pegged an overachiever even though he came into the league having racked up more college sacks than anyone but the late Derrick Thomas and proceeded to become about as good a big-game linebacker as the game has ever seen.

Last year's Super Bowl performance was typical. Bruschi had a sack, an interception and seven tackles.

Johnson's stellar career could be distilled into one play - his jarring tackle of Jerome Bettis on third-and-goal in last year's AFC title game.

You're telling me the system is so fool-proof that Chad Brown and Monty Beisel will step into those spots and not miss a beat as the Patriots roll to another Super Bowl?

I don't think so.

I don't think the system's that good .

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