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Maroney cleared for contact, expected to play Friday

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The return to health of running back Laurence Maroney could not have come at a better time for the New England Patriots.

The team has just 160 yards rushing in two preseason games, both losses, and is averaging 3.1 yards per carry.

Maroney, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, practiced for a second straight day Tuesday without wearing the red "non-contact" jersey he wore for the first three weeks of camp. He is expected to make his preseason debut Friday at Carolina.

Game seasoning is critical for the second-year player who expected to be the team's primary back following the offseason release of Corey Dillon.

"You can't simulate game speed out there in practice, no matter how fast you go," he said. "I need the games."

The team's 2006 first-round draft pick, Maroney rushed for 745 yards as a rookie while sharing time with Dillon.

Maroney had 125 yards against Cincinnati in Week 4 and appeared poised for a big season. However, he battled injuries, did not run for more than 82 yards the rest of the season and averaged only 2.8 yards per carry in the playoffs.

"He's taken another step. He's a step closer," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's closer to being ready to play now than he was a week ago. I know he's anxious to get in there and get some reps this week. I'm sure he'll get some."

Despite the risk of injury, Belichick said holding Maroney out of the entire preseason isn't feasible.

"I think an individual player's situation varies from player to player," Belichick said, "but I think in general, players need to practice and play to get ready to play. I think if we just want to save everybody, we would just be sitting around here for six weeks and not do anything, but I don't think we'd have a very good football team."

Maroney said he wants to make quicker decisions in his second season. "You know you have to get in and get out of the hole," he said. "You have to be more decisive, you've got pick a hole and run. I can't sit here and try to shake and make something happen."

Playing without Maroney, and without wide receiver Randy Moss, the Patriots have struggled during two preseason losses. Quarterbacks Tom Brady and backup Matt Cassel have combined for one touchdown pass and four interceptions.

Moss missed practice again on Tuesday, as did receiver Jabar Gaffney, who appeared to be limping during last Friday's game against Tennessee. Receivers Troy Brown and Chad Jackson remain on the physically unable to perform list.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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