Instead of slumping, Patriots surging again toward playoffs

Consider recent hits to the Patriots -- the taping scandal they were harshly penalized for in fines and draft picks last season, the additional taping charges before Super Bowl XLII that proved false and the stunning loss in that game to the Giants.

The demise of a potential, historical 19-0 season. This season's loss of several critical players due to injury, including quarterback Tom Brady in the opener.

No question -- this franchise would receive a "what-else-would-you-expect" assessment had they slumped thus far to, say, 3-6.

But New England is 6-3. And Thursday night's battle at home against the Jets (6-3) gives the winner sole possession of first place in the AFC East with six games left.

Several NFL franchises that have suffered far less adversity already find themselves nearly out of playoff contention. Not the Patriots. Not this hardcore group of players with roles defined who accept, confront and defeat hardships.

"The thing to always understand about those guys is they take it all personal," said Chiefs coach Herman Edwards, who was on the sidelines when Brady went down back in September, who as Jets coach battled against the Patriots 10 times and was 2-8. "Adversity comes and that team unites and bands together even more. That's how they are built. They are built to take adversity and use it as a mindset to prove even more."

How does a team acquire that?

Ownership has to emanate it. Coaches must cultivate and demand it. Talented players must accept and employ it.

"To be 6-3 with everything that has gone on is kind of crazy," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. "I'm proud of it. We've been fortunate. One of the things I see across this league is that division from within is a great enemy in this game. It is very hard to compete against the teams you have to beat. The difference in these games is often two or three plays. You have politics and you have people with different agendas tearing apart organizations. It allows people to create excuses. It sets you up for failure."

So, Kraft stays close to his team. He says he talks to his coach, Bill Belichick, nearly every day. He works individually with players. He does it quietly.

He sets the tone.

"I believe ownership has to set that tone," Kraft said. "You work to get people on the same page. You get the best people you can and let them do their thing. And I happen to have the best coach in the NFL."

Here the Patriots are again attempting to pound the Jets in their 99th meeting since the series began in 1960.

Their history in recent years of coaches and players who have jumped sides and the ill feelings from that along with their passionate games has made this rivalry personal. A high-wire affair. And New England has mastered the stroll.

Since Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994, he is 20-10 vs. the Jets. Since Belichick took over in 2000, he is 13-5 vs. the Jets. New England has won 10 of the last 11 meetings. Jets coach Eric Mangini, the former Belichick assistant, is 1-5 vs. the Patriots. That victory was at Gillette Stadium two years and one day ago.

Belichick, through the Patriots storms, has helped keep his team level-headed. He has kept a pool of veteran players who know how NFL seasons can change on the dime. Backups learn from minicamps forward that there are no excuses. Players are not always given what they expect -- but expectations, regardless, rise.

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Players are cultivated in the Patriots system to produce on the makeable plays and relish the opportunity to make the harder ones. Relish the challenge.

To play cornerback, for example, for the Patriots, intelligence is required. They are expected to make tackles; there is no toleration for cornerbacks who shy away from contact. They are expected to make plays when they count most. When more responsibility is given to the corner because of the defense's need to load up on the run game, that transfer of responsibility is made clear and a heightened awareness and production expected.

Asante Samuel, now in Philadelphia, used to do this for the Patriots.

The Patriots top cornerback now is Ellis Hobbs, a third-year pro. He is doing it.

This player is the epitome of the Patriots. Take on more, do your job, be versatile. Hobbs, at any point in a Patriots football game, is asked to make tackles on defense, defend passes, make interceptions, force fumbles, get fumble recoveries, be a special teams tackler and return kickoffs.

He has contributed in all of those areas this season.

"He fits what they do," Edwards said. "He is savvy, has good eyes and plays with his eyes, sees things developing and is a really good competitor. He makes a lot of plays that go unnoticed. He is a football player. He is to their defense what Troy Brown was to their offense. Every time you look, Hobbs is making another play. And that's who he reminds me of. They have a lot of guys at cornerback in the past who have made a name for themselves in this league, including Samuel and Ty Law."

This time, though, Law lines up as a Jet. Signed on Tuesday. Playing on Thursday.

"We have been here for 15 seasons," Kraft said of his ownership. "Ty came here as a first-round draft pick in my second year of ownership. He made a wonderful commitment to our franchise."

Law has already played for both franchises. Signing with the Jets only this week, it is not lost on him that his first game is against the Patriots.

The battle for him went back and forth all season between the two teams. The Jets won. One more footnote to the fierce conflict and heated emotion in this series.

"I expect to play, maybe more that others expect," Law said. "I've been training and I'm in good shape, even though I'm a little rusty. I have the opportunity to play now and that's all you can ask for. No matter which side I've been on, when the Jets play the Patriots, there is a little more fuel to the fire."

It is the Patriots, unbowed by adversity, who are accustomed to doing the torching.

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