Mon, Dec 25, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Patriots no longer seem the strongest team in the AFC

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS

They were doing a brisk business in Tom Brady jerseys and Patriots mouse pads this week at the Gillette Stadium pro shop, ensuring that the commerce of the New England Patriots was as strong as ever.

Among the items for sale were commemorative photos, patches, ticket stubs and programs from the three Super Bowls the Patriots have won in the past five years. Those were New England's halcyon days, when the quarterback became a superstar, the coach became a genius and the organization became the gold standard in football, a model for how to manage the depth chart and the salary cap for long-term success.

But as the playoffs approach, there is, for the first time since New England's supremacy was cemented with its second championship in 2003, a sense that the Patriots are no longer the most formidable team in the American Football Conference.

The Patriots (10-4) could have clinched the AFC East with a victory over Jacksonville yesterday and can still complete a 12-victory season. But for a team whose reputation was forged on the ruthlessly efficient dispatching of opponents, the Patriots have endured an unusually erratic season, marked by statement-making victories (17-13 against Chicago), stunning losses (17-14 to the Jets at home, and 21-0 to Miami) and befuddling struggles (a 28-21 come-from-behind victory against woeful Detroit).

Until their virtually flawless 40-7 crushing of the Houston Texans on Dec. 17, the Patriots had been uncharacteristically sloppy for this late in the season, having had 11 turnovers in their previous three games. The Patriots' defense is ranked sixth overall and has also allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL, an average of 13.8 a game.

But the enduring image of this season has been Brady, whose visage has graced so many Super Bowl snapshots, looking angry and frustrated when his receivers cannot get open and his protection breaks down.

"When we don't play the way we're capable of playing, we can stink up the field," defensive end Richard Seymour said. "We have confidence we can get it together. We're one of the best teams when we put it together."

As recently as 10 days ago, even Brady was not sure they could. The season began with the Patriots trading his favorite receiver, Deion Branch, after a contract dispute.

After the shutout by the Dolphins on Dec. 10, in which Brady was under constant pressure, several Miami players said they had never seen him so frustrated.

That was clear when Brady spoke to reporters a few days later, an occasion he used to suggest that players should listen to coach Bill Belichick more.

He sounded less than fully confident that the Patriots would return to the consistency that defined their championship runs.

"It's been frustrating, obviously," Brady said.

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