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Fast start not vital to success

It's hard to come up with many ways to improve upon a Super Bowl championship season, but that won't stop Head Coach Bill Belichick from trying.

One key area the Patriots wanted to upgrade for 2002 was red zone production, which has been addressed with the additions of tight ends Christian Fauria, Cam Cleeland and draft pick Daniel Graham along with wide receiver Donald Hayes. Those players coupled with continuity from the return of the entire offensive line and backfield should make for better results at the goal line.

Another point Belichick made while he was visiting the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center Wednesday morning to promote and support the center's "Reading is the Best Medicine" program was he'd like to see his team get out of the gates faster in 2002. Through four games in his first two years with the team, Belichick watched New England start 0-4 in 2000 and then 1-3 in 2001.

Obviously teams want to win games every time out, but Patriots history shows a fast start isn't vital to a strong season. The team has made the postseason 11 times, but had a winning record through the month of September in just three of those years. In the 31 years the Patriots missed the playoffs, they actually had winning marks nine times.

It's crazy to think slow starts are a benefit, but the key to being a strong playoff team is winning down the stretch. Including the 1963 trip to the AFL championship, the Patriots have a combined record of 7-8 through September in the four seasons in which they have made the title game. By contrast, New England's combined record after the midpoint of those same seasons is 22-8-1.

Fast starts did the Patriots little good from 1997-99. In those seasons New England opened with records of 5-1, 4-1 and 4-0, but then faltered at the midpoint, going 5-3, 4-4 and 2-6 in 1997, 1998 and 1999 respectively. New England has posted a perfect record through September four times, but only made the postseason one of those times, which came in 1997.

Belichick is right to look for strong play from his team at the start of 2002, particularly with a rematch of the 2001 AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh serving as the season opener. More importantly, he'd like to see a repeat of last season when the team improved steadily as the year progressed and played its best football when the postseason rolled around.

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