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WP:Veteran Centers, Patriots Are Far From Finished


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Veteran Centers, Patriots Are Far From Finished

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 20, 2004; Page D01

Fullback Larry Centers wasn't quite sure how to act in the New England Patriots' locker room after the team's 24-14 victory Sunday over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game. Part of him wanted to let out a little bit of a celebration, he said, after securing the first Super Bowl appearance of his 14-year NFL career.

But many of his teammates were going back to the big game for the second time in three seasons, and the Patriots were taking the stance that there was little to savor because there remains unfinished business. So Centers chose the approach -- restrained professionalism -- that seems to come most naturally to him and so many other Patriots players.

"It's exciting," Centers said. "The only thing that keeps me from jumping up and down physically right here on this spot is knowing there's more work to be done. This team expected this, and it expects to take the next step."

Indeed, the Patriots' mood late Sunday was more told-you-so satisfaction and resolve to finish their special season properly than exhilaration. They joined the unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL teams to win 14 straight games in a single season. (In 1972, teams played a 14-game regular season schedule; the Dolphins won three more in the playoffs.)

The Patriots know that if they don't extend the streak to 15 with a Super Bowl victory, they always will look back on the season as a disappointment.

"We have one more game to go,'' said cornerback Ty Law, who had three of the Patriots' four interceptions of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "This was a steppingstone for us."

Still, Centers was able to pause and reflect on a high point in a career that, until this season, had been about individual accomplishments more than team successes. He has been one of the league's most durable and dependable players, and he now is the seventh-leading receiver in NFL history.

But he was stuck in Arizona on mostly dreadful Cardinals teams for nine seasons, reaching the playoffs only once. He was cut by the Cardinals and signed by the Washington Redskins in 1999, and provided the winning touchdown catch in an overtime victory at San Francisco that clinched the team's first NFC East title since '91. But he clashed with incoming coach Marty Schottenheimer and was released by the Redskins before the 2001 season, and spent two seasons in Buffalo before joining the Patriots this season.

He acknowledged that he had begun to wonder whether his moment on football's biggest stage would ever come.

"Doubt seeps in," said Centers, whose 827 career catches are the most for any non-wide receiver in league history. "You keep going, but the longer it doesn't happen for you, the more you wonder. You tell yourself that you've had a good career anyway, but deep down you know that something is missing. I'm proud that I've been able to keep my nose to the grindstone and keep working."

He was a front-line player as recently as 2001, when he had 80 catches for the Bills and reached his third Pro Bowl at age 33. But he slumped to 43 receptions for Buffalo last season, his lowest single-season total since 1991, and was released in March. The Redskins considered bringing him back but could not guarantee his representatives that he would be on the season-opening roster. So Centers signed with the Patriots in July.

He played in nine games and made three starts during the regular season, and was re-signed in early December after being released in mid-October following a knee injury. Like almost all of New England's veterans, he is ready when called upon. He had 19 catches during the regular season. And he had the Patriots' longest reception Sunday, turning a short pass by quarterback Tom Brady into a 28-yard gain.

"It's a game of inches, where everything is so close and so contested, and this team has an advantage at the margins," Centers said. "There is a difference with this team with the importance of winning instead of everyone worrying about being the man."

Coach Bill Belichick devised his customarily brilliant defensive game plan for the Colts, befuddling Manning by spending most of the game with five defensive backs on the field and usually using only three or four players as pass rushers. Linebacker Mike Vrabel occasionally lined up at nose tackle and dropped into pass coverage. The Patriots' cornerbacks jammed the Colts' receivers at the line of scrimmage and got help from the safeties.

As usual, Belichick's players made it work. Yesterday, he and his assistants began preparing for a different sort of opponent, the run-oriented Carolina Panthers, while facing the possibility of playing without middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who hurt his right leg late in Sunday's game. Belichick provided few details on the injury to reporters yesterday, but overcoming injuries and still winning have been the Patriots' specialties.

"Every week, we say we are finding different ways to win games," Brady said. "And still, the goal really hasn't been achieved. So winning 14 in a row is great. But if there is not a 15th, then it's all for nothing."

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I'm still ticked that schotty cut this guy. Fine, make an example of someone to show you're serious about your rules, but the guy would have been money had he still been around (maybe the team wouldn't have started 0-5 that year).

Mind you, Spurrier would have cut him afterward anyway...

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I'm not so sure, he would have been great in Marty's short passing game offense but Spurrier didn't seem to bother throwing to the backs much. he would have helped in pass protection though, he is great at those little "chip" blocks as he goes out into the pattern, putting a guy out of his stride on the rush.

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