Patriots’ Preseason Changes Paying Off

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Patriots' Preseason Changes Paying Off For a team that has shined as the NFL?s model franchise since 2001, the New England Patriots have found a way to look extremely unspectacular during the preseason.

But does it even matter?

The Patriots didn?t have a winning record in the preseason from 2004-08, a stretch in which they accumulated a 7-13 overall record. They were at their worst in 2008, when they lost all four of their games, including two by double digits. The Patriots were sloppy and unimpressive, coasting through the motions as though they were merely waiting for September?s more significant games.

That figures to be a major reason why head coach Bill Belichick put together such a strenuous training camp schedule this year. Entering his 10th season as the Patriots' head coach, Belichick wanted to grab his team?s attention and send a shock to their system. As a result, quarterback Tom Brady ? who didn?t play last preseason due to an injury that preceded ?the injury? ? hinted there might have been some added pressure to perform at a higher level during the Patriots? 27-25 victory against the Eagles on Thursday night in Philadelphia.

The Patriots? first-teamers were extremely fluid. Brady led the offense to touchdown drives on two of his four offensive possessions, with wide receiver Randy Moss and tight end Chris Baker looking especially sharp as Brady?s targets.

On the other side of the ball, the first-team defense forced the Eagles to a pair of three-and-outs, and they were also strong on their own side of the field. They held the Eagles to a field goal in their only trip to the red zone and also halted a pair of drives that advanced past the Pats? 30-yard line.

And special teams ? so often a focal point for Belichick ? had a tremendous night. Rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman, who truly improves every day, returned a punt for a touchdown, and rookie safety Pat Chung blocked a field-goal attempt in the second quarter. The Patriots have gone through a ton of special teams drills in camp under new coach Scott O?Brien, so it?s a ringing endorsement that the unit performed well.

In reality, the actual black-and-white preseason results shouldn?t hold a lot of weight. Sure, the Patriots were a combined 7-1 in their Super Bowl seasons of 2001 and 2003, but they were 1-3 during their 2004 preseason, which included a pair of losses by a combined 62-3. But six months later, they were considered one of the greatest Super Bowl champions of all time.

The Patriots were also 3-1 during their 2002 preseason, but they proceeded to go 9-7 during their least successful regular season in their Super Bowl era.

So, it?s not as much about the wins and losses as it is about how they earned those results. Did the starters execute ? or even play, for that matter (the Pats have lost four of their last five preseason finales, when the key players never suit up) ? before the second- and third-stringers fell short? Belichick has admitted there were games in which he would rather get a look at the positional battles to get a better feel of his team before deciding on roster cut downs.

Belichick has also said he uses the preseason to perfect situational football, not worrying about the product as a whole as much as executing specific plays in certain situations. ?We would rather just run whatever we have and learn how to execute it,? he said Tuesday.

Thursday night, the execution far exceeded the expectations for a preseason opener. While the Eagles bumbled their way to drive-killing penalties, the Patriots took advantage and capitalized with fluid play while the first team was on the field. Unlike last year, it hardly looked like the Patriots were on a summer vacation.

?I think the important thing is to go out and play hard and execute the game plan,? Brady said Tuesday. ?Whatever the coach calls, you?ve got to be ready to do it. You mix and match quite a bit in the preseason. You want to see what different types of formations you?ve put in, and personnel groupings, and see how it works. It?s our dress rehearsal. We?ve got to go out there. We have four [preseason games], and each of them are important. The first one is probably the most exciting for the players because we?re all getting out there for the first time in a long time.?

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