NFL contenders seek perfect balance

It is no coincidence that when the two-time defending champion New England Patriots opened the new pro football season Thursday night, the most talked-about player on the field - Randy Moss - was playing for the other team.

This fall, Moss's Oakland Raiders have set themselves up as football's ultimate offensive machine, hoping to spin numbers faster than a Ford Excursion at the gas pump. The Patriot offense, however, is not one to instill shock and awe, and the defense has not yet proved frightening enough to warrant an apocalyptic nickname.

Instead, the Patriots are more like the cast of "Survivor" in Lycra pants and shoulder pads - simply outlasting foes in weekly wars of attrition. Among experts and coaches leaguewide, though, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Patriots' modest balance - best at nothing but good at everything - is the new formula for success in the NFL.

Balance has always been a prescription for winning, but no longer do teams have the money to stock their squads Steinbrenner-style. The salary-cap era calls for compromise, and the Patriots have proved that winning in the new century is a blue-collar business that spreads the wealth to all parts of the team.

"That will be part of their legacy," says Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com. "It's a copycat league, and what the Super Bowl champions do gets replicated."

The Patriot philosophy is in some ways the peculiar creation of coach Bill Belichick. Stalking the sidelines, hooded in his sweatshirt like some trailer-park shaman, Belichick is tinkering with the very engine of the National Football League, creating a dynasty not with high-wattage stars and incandescent egos - as was the case with the Cowboys, Steelers, and 49ers of the past - but rather with a lunch-pail crew greater than the sum of its parts.

"Lots of teams are always looking for the A-plus player," says Mr. Pasquarelli. "The Patriots don't mind taking a B-plus player."

Yet to see this simply as a workmanlike team cast in Belichick's likeness is to miss the fundamental point. By filling out his roster with above-average players who can fulfill a single role well, Belichick has minimized the Patriots' weaknesses while staying under the salary cap. While other teams might be better in one facet of the game, no one else is as good in all facets of the game.

It is an acknowledgement that even the best teams of today are built with limitations - and therefore have more flaws than those of previous eras. The result is the prototype team of the new century, which tries to impose its will on opponents but is also flexible enough to match up against any playing style - sometimes simply hanging on until the other team self-destructs.

"The Patriots do not dominate you," says Peter King of Sports Illustrated in an e-mail. "They hang around, play competitively, and wait for you to make a mistake."

The statistics suggest as much. Last year, the Patriots were seventh in rushing and 11th in passing. Defensively, they were sixth against the run and 17th against the pass - proficient but not overpowering. Likewise, the Philadelphia Eagles - who have adopted many of the same ideals and have made it to four consecutive NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl - were only ninth in total offense and 10th in total defense last year.

Yet the temptation to overload one side of the ball can be appealing. After all, the Indianapolis Colts are in some ways more the image of Super Bowl champions past than the Patriots, with Peyton Manning conducting an offense that hums like a tuning-fork.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens have concocted a defense better suited for the seventh ring of Dante's Inferno than pro football playbooks. Both teams are brimming with players who have reputations fit for video-game covers and statistics suited for Sunday-afternoon fantasy leagues.

Yet the Colts' defense is such that this squad has never made it to the Super Bowl; the Ravens needed the best defense (statistically) in the NFL history to win the Super Bowl in 2001, and they have not come close since.

Significantly, both conceded to the need for balance this off-season. Though both remain overloaded on one side of the ball, the Colts let go of their top tight end (Ken Dilger) and signed a pro-bowl defensive lineman (Corey Simon), while the Ravens secured one of the top wide receivers in the league (Derrick Mason).

Like Oakland, though, these teams remain the standard-bearers for the anti-Patriots, and this season - starting with Thursday night's showcase in New England - they will seek to turn the course of the future.

"The Patriots' way has worked," says Paul Attner of The Sporting News. "The Colts' way of doing things hasn't worked as well."

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