FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Randy Moss ran downfield. The cornerback backpedaled. The play resulted in a huge gain.
Hardly unusual for one of the best deep threats in the NFL.
But this time the ball wasn't where Moss likes it best, in his hands. Instead, Laurence Maroney was lugging it for 51 yards and Moss was clearing the way in front of him in the Patriots easy 28-7 win over the Dolphins last Sunday.
"Go watch Moss block on that play," New England coach Bill Belichick said. "That's not about getting any record. That's about blocking a guy, trying to help your teammate make a big play and score. That's what Randy Moss has been for us since Day 1."
The drive ended with Moss' second touchdown catch of the game and 21st of the year.
If he gets two more Saturday night, he'll break Jerry Rice's NFL record of 22 in one season, although Rice did it in 12 games in 1987, a strike year. And if the Patriots beat the New York Giants, they'll become the first team to finish a season at 16-0.
In his first year with the Patriots, Moss has shed his reputation as a selfish guy who takes plays off plays when the ball's not thrown to him.
"If I break the record, I'm cool. If I don't, I'm cool," he said. "Basically, what I'm saying is: I want to keep winning, the hell with the record."
They're not just words.
Since he was traded to New England during the draft in April, Moss has drawn nothing but praise from his coach and teammates for his work on the field and in the weight room, and for his pleasant, joking demeanor.
The Patriots' culture is just what he needed after two tumultuous years in Oakland where he battled injuries and indifference and said he'd welcome a trade if the Raiders thought it would help them. Patriots veterans who enforce Belichick's team-first demands won't let anyone draw attention to themselves.
Moss even has dispensed with provocative touchdown celebrations, pretty significant because he once marked the occasion by pretending to moon the Green Bay crowd. This season, he simply stretches his arms in front of him then moves them away from each other.
"That's basically me parting the defense," he said.
Pretty subtle for an explosive athlete.
Moss caught passes of at least 40 yards in seven of his 15 games. He's made spectacular one-handed grabs. Even when Moss draws blanket coverage, Tom Brady figures his great speed and leaping ability give him an edge.
Midway through the fourth quarter last Sunday, Brady launched the ball 60 yards toward Moss, who jumped between two Miami defenders. The ball glanced off cornerback Will Allen's hand, then hit Moss' face mask before falling incomplete.
"There have been times when I've forced it and he caught it and it's a great play," Brady said. "He's always a big part of the plan. I'm always trying to find ways to get him the ball. ... You want to give him opportunities to make those plays."
Brady was impressed with Moss' ability when they first started practicing together. In their first regular-season game, Moss had 183 yards receiving, third most in his 10 seasons, and caught nine passes, with two touchdowns.
His numbers remained impressive as the season and the winning streak rolled on: eight games with at least 100 yards receiving and seven with at least two touchdowns.
His 92 receptions are third most in his career. His 1,393 yards are 44 shy of his second-highest total.
The number of distractions he's caused? Zero.
"I'm not surprised," Brady said. "I really try not to prejudge anybody or stereotype anybody. I just kind of deal with them as I have in my relationships with all the guys on the team. Regardless of what people say about somebody, oftentimes it's very misleading."
In Minnesota, where Moss spent seven seasons, he was criticized by quarterback Daunte Culpepper and others for leaving the field with 2 seconds left in a regular-season loss. He squirted an official with a water bottle in 1999, verbally abused corporate sponsors on a team bus in 2001, and bumped a traffic control officer with his car in 2002.
On Wednesday, Brady said, "He's a great guy and a great teammate and we're all lucky to have him."
"We're still learning from each other and we're still trying to understand situations and read each other," he added, "for him to really know what I'm looking for and vice versa. It only leads to, hopefully, more success."
Rice has seen Moss develop from a flashy star into a team player.
"He's very intelligent," said the man whose record might last just a few more days. "I think he just needed to grow up and mature and I think he has done that now and they love him in New England."
As a rookie in 1998, Moss had 17 touchdown catches and the Vikings scored an NFL record 556 points -- a mark the Patriots would break with six more points. But they lost the NFC title game to Atlanta.
"I don't try to live in the past," he said.
So now, there's the new Moss, the one who takes pride in blocking on Maroney's 51-yard run.
"We win as a team, we lose as a team, so it was just a team effort by everybody," he said.
But the good parts of the old Moss remain: the confident receiver who likes to battle three defenders for a long pass.
"I mean, hell, I'm Randy Moss," he said with a laugh. "What do you expect?"
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press