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Patriots remain confident about deep playoff run in 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick sat on the sideline, watching the Celtics wrap up their championship -- three years after his Patriots won their most recent title.

The contrast couldn't have been more stark.

While the Celtics were celebrated for moving from the bottom of the NBA to the top in one season, Belichick and his Patriots were reviled everywhere but in New England for a near-perfect season.

One problem: The first team to go 16-0 in a regular season was upset in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants, ruining what was expected to be a historic finish.

The other: The effects from the video taping scandal, which started on the opening day of the 2007 season, when a Patriots employee was caught taping New York Jets defensive signals from the sideline, continued well into the offseason. It didn't end until early June after Matt Walsh, the ex-Patriots video employee, disclosed nothing new to commissioner Roger Goodell, and Sen. Arlen Specter, without much support from his Congressional colleagues, decided he wouldn't go any further in his investigation.

As training camp approaches, Belichick's players maintain they never paid attention to the nationwide furor over the taping, which included an unsubstantiated report in the Boston Herald that the Patriots taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before the 2002 Super Bowl, the first of three title games they've won this decade. The Boston Herald eventually printed an apology.

"I could care less about it," guard Stephen Neal says. "It didn't affect me in the least then and it still doesn't."

Center Dan Koppen said he put the issue out of his mind after the second week of the season, when Belichick and the Patriots were fined by the NFL for taping Jets signals during the opener.

Still, the season had to be a disappointment despite that 18-1 record. That's because the "1" was in the Super Bowl.

It doesn't mean the Patriots don't remain the most successful NFL team since Dallas of the early 1990s, but their last Super Bowl win was way back in February 2005. In NFL terms, that's not a long time; in Boston terms, it means that the Red Sox and Celtics both have won more recently.

So when training camp opens Thursday, Belichick will be focused on getting back to the place the Patriots are accustomed to being. The first part, the regular season, may be the easiest -- the Patriots have just four games overall against teams with winning records last season: San Diego, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Still, that Super Bowl loss to the Giants exposed one weakness that applies to Tom Brady and all quarterbacks, no matter how distinguished: A fierce pass rush negates even the most explosive of offenses. So Brady, playing on a bad ankle, was sacked five times, battered numerous times and New England lost 17-14 on Eli Manning's 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left.

Beyond that, Belichick, was perceived to have been outcoached by Tom Coughlin, a competent coach who served with Belichick on the Giants' staff two decades ago.

The Patriots insist they won't dwell on the loss. But you also can be sure Belichick and his assistants will remind them often of the unhappy end to last season.

"There are a lot of new guys who weren't a part of that, so they don't bring any of those memories or that energy in here," Brady said during the team's minicamp last month. "In life, you don't reflect too much on what happened in the past. You try to learn from it and build on it."

That ankle injury limited Brady's offseason training. But he'll have his top two receivers back as part of an offense that set an NFL record with 589 points. Brady produced more than half of them with 50 touchdown passes, another league mark.

Randy Moss signed a three-year, $27 million contract after catching an NFL-record 23 touchdown passes. Wes Welker's 112 catches were a team record. And Brady has a full year of experience with them.

"Randy and I, we have a great relationship," Brady said. "I know this is the place where he wanted to be and we wanted him. Usually the contract situations work out when that happens."

The offensive line may be a question mark, in part because of injury and off-field problems, in part because of the way the Giants seemed to expose it.

Neal, the oft-injured right guard, is coming back from a knee injury sustained in the Super Bowl. Right tackle Nick Kaczur was arrested in New York State on April 27 after police said a small amount of OxyContin was found in his truck following a traffic stop. He then helped federal authorities catch the man who was allegedly supplying him with the drug, authorities said.

The Patriots said he'll stay with the team. But there also may be league discipline for Kaczur.

The team released defensive back Willie Andrews after his second offseason arrest. On June 30, he was charged with illegal possession of a large capacity firearm and assault with a dangerous weapon after allegedly putting a gun to his girlfriend's head.

The secondary seems to be the main area needing to be shored up.

Star cornerback Asante Samuel signed with Philadelphia, key backup Randall Gay went to New Orleans and starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs is coming off surgery on his left shoulder and for a sports hernia. He might not be at full strength when camp opens. To replace them comes a group of veterans.

At linebacker, the Patriots let Rosevelt Colvin leave for Houston, and Junior Seau may retire. They did add linebacker Victor Hobson from the Jets and used a first-round pick on Jerod Mayo, another linebacker who is being groomed to help replace both Seau and Colvin, or eventually the aging Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi.

To the Patriots, the video taping scandal is old news. Dead news.

But opposing fans are sure to bring it up again -- as soon as Sept. 14, when New England plays its first road game. The opponent? The Jets in the stadium where the Patriots were caught breaking the NFL rules on taping.

"Our fans, I think, they will be in our corner," owner Robert Kraft says, "For people who we either beat their teams or have some ax to grind, I don't know."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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