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Reaction to Belichick ruling; Keys to the Game

It hasn't been your typical Friday here at Gillette Stadium.

With Bill Belichick's discipline having been handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a standing-room-only crowd of reporters and photographers greeted the Pats' head coach for his daily press conference.

All the questions he faced were narrowly focused.

"Has this affected your ability to prepare this week?" came one early query.

"At points, it's taken a little time out of it," the coach admitted. "But, you know, we'll be ready."

Does winning games take care of everything, he was asked?

"There's nothing you can do about the past."

As much as Belichick may have wanted to talk about his team's home-opener on Sunday versus San Diego, the media weren't interested. At least not today. Consider this exchange.

Reporter: "Can you explain how you misinterpreted the rule?

Belichick: "It doesn't matter."

Reporter: "You lost a draft pick and you were fined a half a million dollars. It does matter."

Belichick: "It already happened. So, right now we're focused on what's in front of us, and that's the Chargers."

Not far away in the Patriots locker room, the players were singing a similar tune to that of their boss.

"I'm gonna be honest," RB Laurence Maroney began as reporters approached him. "I ain't answerin' no questions about this incident, so don't ask, 'cause we've moved on. I'm not being rude, I just want y'all to know. Any questions about the Chargers, I'll be happy to answer."

Maroney's backfield mate, captain Kevin Faulk, was asked if the controversy will change people's opinions of the Patriots and their success in recent years.

"You can't worry about what other people think. I didn't know anything about this whole thing until it came out this week. All I know is we've got a game this week, our biggest game to date," Faulk replied.

Is this one of the more bizarre weeks he's experienced here in Foxboro?

"If it was, I never treated it that way. All this other stuff doesn't bother me."

Another reporter asked if Faulk felt sorry for his head coach. Faulk's answer was a diplomatic one.
"That's his situation. He has to feel it, not me. But it's done. The league has given its ruling … it's gone, it's done. We're just trying to prepare for the San Diego Chargers on Sunday."

Outside the locker at the same time, defensive coordinator Dean Pees made an impromptu appearance to address the media.

"You'll have to ask Bill about that," was how Pees tried to deflect the first round of questions. But they kept coming, and he tried to change the topic to Sunday's game.

After several additional questions about the serious situation, Pees lightened the mood with this response.

"You know, I was a speech major in college, but I must not be doing a good job right now of getting my point across."

The remark drew laughter from the assembled media, before Pees continued.

"I'm the defensive coordinator, and my focus is on how to stop the San Diego Chargers this weekend."

He proceeded to take questions about Sunday night's matchup, which we'll focus on in the remainder of this article.

Keys to the Game

Offense: Take what they give you

Last week, the Jets seemed to back off from rushing QB Tom Brady too hard, in hopes of not getting beat deep downfield with passes to the Patriots' many receivers. That didn't work, as Brady came just shy of 300 yards passing, and Maroney and his fellow runners chalked up 134 yards rushing.

He doesn't expect the same strategy from the Chargers this weekend.

"No, I think they're gonna come after us," Maroney chuckled. "They're gonna come and play real physical against us and we've got to meet the challenge."

Against the Jets, Brady was, at times, standing still in the pocket as he scanned the entire field for an open target. If the Chargers blitz or try to put extra pressure on Brady with their front seven, he'll have to deliver the ball to his receivers quicker than he did a week ago.

"The way I saw them attack [Chicago Bears QB] Rex Grossman last week, I've just got to try to get back and get the ball out of my hands," Brady told reporters in a Wednesday conference call.

"They're all coming for it, especially [linebackers Shawne] Merriman and [Shaun] Phillips, who are incredible pass rushers. Our offensive line has been in here watching extra film this week trying to figure these guys out."

Defense: Contain LT and Gates

Easier said than done, obviously. But the Patriots may be in a better position to do so this season than last.

Gates, a basketball player in college, is perhaps the best and most physically gifted tight end in the league. As such, he presents myriad matchup problems for opposing defenses. Rarely can one linebacker alone cover Gates one-on-one. This is where New England may have an advantage, or at least a counterbalance.

LB Adalius Thomas' massive size (6-2, 270) is matched only by his impressive speed and cover skills downfield. He's played predominantly as an inside linebacker in New England's base 3-4 defense so far, but don't be surprised if the Pats come out with Thomas shadowing Gates…or even Tomlinson.

With Mike Vrabel back at his customary outside linebacker position, he made 2.5 sacks last week in New York. His athleticism could be used to line up against Gates, something Vrabel couldn't do in the playoff win because he was stuck inside.

If the Pats cornerbacks can handle the Chargers receivers man-to-man, Vrabel and Thomas could get some extra help from safeties James Sanders and Eugene Wilson. Either could be used in coverage on Gates and Tomlinson or as an extra blitzer to pressure San Diego QB Philip Rivers.

Special teams: Make your field goals

The field goal team's struggles continue. Against the Jets, however, K Stephen Gostkowski wasn't the problem. He never had a chance to kick his 43-yard attempt in the second quarter because holder Matt Cassel bobbled the snap. Cassel, the team's backup QB, was relieved of his holding chores in the second half by punter Chris Hanson.

According to Cassel, both he and Hanson have traded holding duties in practice this week, a not uncommon strategy with this team.

"Well, you always have to have two holders ready, anyway. You have to have two of everything ready," Belichick observed this week. "Chris has held in the past, Matt held all last year. I think they both can do it. We'll do what we feel like is best."

A Gostkowski field goal provided the winning points in January's playoff victory in San Diego. So, getting this unit to perform properly could once again be a deciding factor.

Intangibles: "Us against them" mentality

No team is better at using outside forces for internal motivation than Belichick's Patriots. With all the negative attention focused on the team this week, the players could be stewing for a fight come Sunday night. A national audience is the perfect stage for this team to demonstrate that the more adversity they face, the better they perform.

As memorable as January's contest was, this one could be even better.

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