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Brady Still in Charge After Loss of Key Players

September 10, 2006|Howard Ulman | Associated Press

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots start their season without Adam Vinatieri and Deion Branch. Fiery linebacker Tedy Bruschi might not play either.

They still have one asset, though, that could overcome the absences.

"They've still got Tom Brady, right?" Buffalo linebacker London Fletcher said. "As long as they still have Tom Brady, it's going to be a heck of a fight for us because, in my opinion, he is the best quarterback in the National Football League."

Brady led the league in yards passing last season and had a solid exhibition season. With a strong offensive line and a running game bolstered by first-round draft pick Laurence Maroney, he might not have to rely on his depleted corps of wide receivers in today's opener against the Bills.

But he won't concede that the loss of his top wide receivers -- holdout Branch and No. 2 starter David Givens, who signed with Tennessee -- makes that group less impressive than at the end of last season.

"How do we know that?" Brady said, interrupting a questioner. "We haven't given our guys a chance this year."

Bruschi practiced for the first time in more than a month Thursday with a cast on his surgically repaired broken right wrist and was listed as questionable. If the game is close near the end, the Patriots will have rookie Stephen Gostkowski to kick field goals instead of Vinatieri, who made two Super Bowl-winning field goals but signed with Indianapolis.

His departure followed a 27-13 playoff loss to Denver in which New England committed five turnovers.

"There were trends throughout the season that really manifested themselves in that game, mainly the turnovers," Brady said. "I think as we start a new year ... we're going to start new trends.

"Using that game as a motivator into this season, those are the type of things we're trying to really gain insight from and be better with."

If losses provide motivation, the Bills should have the edge in that category. They dropped 11 of their 16 games last year and coach Mike Mularkey resigned after the season. Dick Jauron took over and gave the quarterback job to J.P. Losman, who started eight of the nine games he played last year. Kelly Holcomb started the others.

"J.P. deserved the job," Jauron said. "We know that he is not a finished product. He's working awfully hard at it. That's one of the things that the team likes about him. He knows that he's not there, but he's willing to make the effort and put in the time."

Willis McGahee leads the rushing attack, although the offensive line needs improvement. But he said the attitude around the team has changed.

"It is totally different. Everybody has confidence in this coaching staff," he said. "There were mixed emotions going around last year. That is past and you can't dwell on that."

New offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild has installed a multi-dimensional attack that increases McGahee's involvement in the passing game and on third downs. The Bills gained 4,122 yards last year, a franchise low in a 16-game season, and lost both games against the Patriots, leaving them with a 1-10 record in their last 11 games against their AFC East rivals..

The Bills have 21 players who weren't with them last season and a new defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell, who emphasized speed more than size up front in an attempt to improve a team that allowed the fourth-most yards in the league last year.

Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes is back after tearing his right Achilles' tendon in the third week last season and expects to play the entire game.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. "The best thing I can do is listen to my body. I've been taking all the reps in practice."

Another key defensive player, Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison, also is back after his 2005 season ended in the third game when he tore three ligaments in his left knee.

"I'm going to take it play by play, but I don't feel any restrictions," he said.

With Harrison and an outstanding young defensive line, the Patriots defense appears formidable. Still, Coach Bill Belichick doesn't really know how his team stacks up on opening day.

"You'd like to think everything is going along OK," he said. "It's kind of like the story about the guy falling off the building and he's waving to everybody on the way down thinking everything is great until you hit the pavement. You do the things that you think you need to do to prepare the team. But until you get out there and compete in a regular-season game against somebody else, I don't think you really know exactly how all of that is going to shape up."

McGahee, though, seems to have a handle on the new-look Bills.

"I believe we've found an identity," he said. "This is a new year, new coaching staff. It's a whole new era, put it like that. We've got a whole bunch of new players here and we've got a point to prove."

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