Don't take Patriots lightly

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

It's a question the rest of those bound for the AFC playoffs may soon have to start obsessing over.

As a member of the suddenly resurgent New England Patriots, receiver David Givens shares no such worries.

"I wouldn't," Givens said this week, when asked if he would like to face his own team in the playoffs.

"The Patriots ... we get stronger as the season goes on. We have a lot of guys who are going to do whatever it takes to win."

Suddenly, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions have wrapped up their third consecutive AFC East title and are big news again.

There suddenly are those who are starting to whisper "three-peat," a buzzword all but banished a couple months ago.

Given the sensational play of the Indianapolis Colts thus far and the highly contentious makeup of the AFC, that's getting way ahead of things. In fact, at 12-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, the Patriots are rated sixth by Las Vegas bookies.

However, the odds and the opposition don't account for one key factor. Never underestimate the brilliance of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, so well chronicled in David Halberstam's recent book, the Education of a Coach.

The improvement of the Pats defence over the past month would be considered astounding if it was on a different team with a lesser coach.

Ranked 27th in the league against the run after Week 9, the Patriots have given up just 10 points in the past three weeks. And seven of those came on a meaningless late touchdown by the Buffalo Bills.

In that span, the the defence, the powertrain of any Belichick-coached team, has surrendered just 85 yards against the run. Put in a different perspective, that's just two yards more than the Chargers' Michael Turner churned out on one play and 12 seconds or so this past Sunday against the Colts.

The recharged run defence has changed everything for the Patriots. The return of defensive end Richard Seymour from injury has been a factor, as has linebacker Tedy Bruschi's recovery from a mild stroke in the off-season.

Mike Vrabel, who took some time adjusting from outside linebacker to the inside spot, is getting comfortable as well, and the Patriots' defence is in attack mode again.

"Once you stop the run you get teams in third-and-long, you can tee off because you know the quarterback is going to be back there," linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said.

In part because he had to make up for the weak defence and a lack of a run game early on, quarterback Tom Brady has been putting up big numbers. Already, the two-time Super bowl MVP has set a career-high for passing yards (3,888).

And now, with running back Corey Dillon healthy plus the return of fullback Kevin Faulk, the weaponry that makes Brady so dangerous is starting to stockpile.

With the AFC's fourth seed basically sewn up, the Pats have little to play for the next two weeks and will show even less.

Instead, Belichick will use the time to prepare for his playoff opponents and allow his team to get healthier.

The early-season inconsistencies of his team were as much about injuries and a tough schedule as a dropoff in performance. And even as they were alternating wins with losses in the first half, they never stopped believing or competing.

"I don't think we ever lacked confidence or intensity," Belichick said. "I just think we are at a higher level now. I think it comes from having a little success.

"Confidence in the end is what really drives your aggressiveness, your emotion, your everything. If you're sure it's right, it's a lot easier to hit hard. You know the nail is right there and you can just lean back and crack it."

The Patriots crack hardest come playoff time, when Belichick is at his best in snuffing out the weakness off an opponent. In eliminating the Colts the past two years, the Patriots have attacked their receivers.

In winning their first of three Super Bowls in 2001, they manhandled St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk.

Typical of his dry/dour public persona, Belichick isn't getting too carried away with the recent rally.

"If we win enough games at the end of the year somebody will tell us to keep playing," he said.

Left to the translation of Givens, that means not many will want to play against the Patriots.

You can expect that not much smart money will be bet against them, either.


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