Over the course of the Patriots' last two runs to Super Bowl glory, one of the key underlying storylines was the team's ability to overcome injuries in just about every phase of the game while continuing to be victorious on Sundays. That ability to overcome, and the expectation that each and every player who steps on the field is looked to for high-level contributions, has been tested yet again through the first half of the 2005 season.
And while the results have been mixed through the team's first nine games, reflected in the team's unexpectedly mediocre 5-4 record, New England took a positive step forward in terms of resiliency last Sunday afternoon in Miami.
The back-to-back defending Super Bowl champs entered the game with three starters - right tackle Tom Ashworth, tight end Daniel Graham and wide receiver David Givens - on the inactive list. That's in addition to left tackle Matt Light, fullback Patrick Pass and running back Kevin Faulk, all inactive after having missed significant action due to injuries suffered earlier this season. Defensively, injuries forced another two new starters against Miami, rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs and strong safety Michael Stone.
Just one play into the game, running back Corey Dillon went to the sidelines for the day with a leg injury. Later, the team lost center Dan Koppen to what is a season-ending shoulder injury.
Not exactly the kinds of changes that breed continuity, consistency or solid play. And that has shown in New England's play on both side of the ball this season.
But for the first time this season, the backups and fill-ins are showing signs of life. Recently-signed fullback Heath Evans filled in for Dillon to the tune of a career-high 17 carries for 84 yards, including a 21-yard scamper on his first touch of the game. Hobbs finished his first career start tied for a team high with seven tackles while recording his first career interception, knocking down four passes and recovering two fumbles. Stone, a career special-teamer, also tied for a team high with seven tackles against the Dolphins as the sixth player to start at strong safety for the Patriots this season, including a different face in each of the last five weeks.
Finally, the New England fill-ins are producing. Finally, they are playing somewhere near the elevated expectations they are held to. That means, just maybe, the Patriots have something positive to look to in the coming weeks of what has been an extremely frustrating title defense season.
"I was proud of the way the team played, the way they hung in there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said one day after New England's 23-16 win in Miami, preparing to turn the page toward a Week 11 matchup with the Saints. "We had a number of guys that really hadn't been playing a lot for us that got a significant opportunity yesterday and I thought they did a pretty good job coming through for us, (like) Stone and Hobbs on defense, and of course Evans on offense. Russ (Hochstein) filled in there at center in the fourth quarter. Those guys made some significant plays to help us win and it's really just a credit to everybody, all the players that participated in the game because it was a hard-fought, close game and one play in any phase of the game, at really any point in the game, could have made a difference in the outcome. ... So now it's on to New Orleans."
Moving on to the next week is certainly easier coming off a win, especially one in which so many players stepped up, filled in, made plays and fought to the finish. New England will never be a healthy, full compliment team this season, but at least for this week the team's championship spirit appears to be in the fold, something that's been missing for much of the first two months this season. Add to that a less imposing second-half schedule and for the first time this fall things may be looking up in New England.
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