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Patriots here because they cleaned up the house

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Posted Feb. 03, 2012 @ 5:49 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

INDIANAPOLIS — Getting the Patriots to talk in detail about what happens behind closed doors is a loser's battle.

We know they take care of their business like other teams only can dream of. But they rarely shed light as to how it actually happens.

Team chemistry is a buzz term and, frankly, one that is hard to put a tangible value on. Does it matter if the players like each other? Or just work hard towards a common goal? There are shades of grey when it comes to how a team develops and plays together, whether the sum of its parts is greater than the individuals.

But it's difficult not to think that the Patriots for the better part of this decade have put a premium on the latter. In each of their three Super Bowl-winning seasons, and in several other successful campaigns under Bill Belichick, they have had successful chemistry, too, however you define it.

It was the hallmark of the 2001 season, their first championship. It was their backbone in 2003 and 2004, back-to-back title seasons when the talent was better than the first time but hardly all-time great stuff. And it has been the lifeblood through a strange season that has included bursts of greatness pocketed around stretches of strife.

Being able to compartmentalize and respond to criticism, both from inside and outside their house, has been this Patriot team's greatest strength to this point. You could say the same for the Giants. You really can. But they have more parts to work with. They are the team with better individual talent.

That's not a curse. It's nothing to be discounted. But it highlights how the Patriots have gotten to this point, and it has been a collective effort that defines winning. For every Tom Brady or Rob Gronkowski, there are a dozen lunch-pailers: Dan Connolly, Rob Ninkovich, Sterling Moore, Patrick Chung, to name a few.

And there's one name that isn't here. DT Albert Haynesworth came in before this season, and it rang to many as the type of move only Belichick could feel safe in executing. Bring in a star talent at below-market value, coach him up and hope for the best. If not, cut him. That's what Belichick did.

"You hope those things work out," Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. "But when they don't, like any move, you move on."

The interesting irony of Haynesworth's release is the timing. It happened right after the Giants game in Week Nine when he loafed on three straight plays and was chewed out by DL coach Pepper Johnson in front of the rest of the team. Sometimes chemistry is tough love. Sometimes players need to be cut down so that others can learn from it.

"It's not difficult at all for me," Johnson said with a hearty laugh. "I have never had a problem with that. I try not to be a holler-and-scream guy, but I am sure as hell going to let them know what they did wrong if it's needed."

Although Johnson wouldn't say Haynesworth by name, the fiery coach clearly was upset by the lack of effort in that Giants game that eventually led to his release.

"You do your tape work and you get a play that you know the offense is going to run, you know you should stop it ... well, you should stop it," Johnson said. "It you don't take advantage of that situation, that's when later on in the drive you get scored on.

"Those are things that piss you off as a player and a coach. And you don't want that to happen."

Every team needs its leaders, and nearly all fingers point towards Vince Wilfork for that role on defense. Wilfork wanted badly for Haynesworth to work out.

"Bill brings in guys who he thinks can help us," Wilfork said. "Every year, it's someone new. (Haynesworth) did some things that were good and some things that didn't quite work out for us. I don't try to judge guys. My goal is to play hard and be there for my coaches and my teammates. I don't get too caught up in too much beyond that."

The Patriots' locker room was not a great place before Haynesworth's arrival, way back in 2009. That was a talented team, but it underachieved in the chemistry department. A former Patriots player from that team told me this season that it was not a great "working environment" and that several players did not show the same commitment as they previously had.

It culminated in Belichick suspending four players — Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess and Gary Guyton — for being late to a team meeting. Belichick was trying, in a last-ditch effort to rattle his team, to send a message with the suspensions. It didn't work; the team was upset in the first postseason game, a hardly surprising result despite the team winning the division.

The only one of the four players remaining on this team is Guyton, who has been inactive both postseason games and hasn't made a tackle on defense since Week 13. The team has put less of a focus on stockpiling a surplus of talented individuals, as they did with the Moss trade and the Thomas signing, and more of an emphasis on building from the bottom up.

It's the method Belichick and Co. incorporated when they were rebuilding the Patriots from the ground up.

"I think every year is a new year, and you are going to have guys in your locker room that have varying degrees of experience," Caserio said. "I think this one has a good mix of players, personalities and talent. Things have worked well with this group."

The roster makeup has a more chemistry-friendly feel to it now. Bringing back glue guys such as Deion Branch. Keeping a roster spot for Kevin Faulk, despite four other young backs on the roster. Not allowing Wilfork or Logan Mankins to leave via free agency. Drafting players such as Jerod Mayo and letting him lead. The Patriots have focused on the core of the roster, fortifying the foundation with iron-willed players who won't be outworked and who will rise up in the clutch.

Talent is crucial in the NFL, but that unidentifiable quality of unity can't be overlooked. The Patriots got away from that formula for a few years, and it provided an instant injection. The 2007 team was considered one of the NFL's greatest ever — before crumbling at the very end, in heartbreaking fashion.

Was chemistry a factor in that loss? Who knows? But capturing that kind of lightning in a bottle is rare. The more tried and true method is to build from the bottom up, not the top down.

"The locker room is great," Mayo said. "It's not like you have guys late for things or anything like that. Guys are always here to work. We have a young team — a young, hungry team — and hopefully it shows on Sunday."

It could be that the Giants, who have plenty of talent and who also have a strong soul, just overwhelm the Patriots, who on paper are the less-talented team. But don't discount the improved atmosphere the Patriots have created and the formula they have adhered to down the stretch.

They have rallied around owner Robert Kraft, who in the wake of losing his wife last summer has grown closer to the players and coaches, who have been his support system. That kind of symbiosis is a rare weapon.

"This is my 18th year. There was only one other team that I loved the locker room, but this team is something special," Kraft said. "This might be my favorite. I have like 53 extra sons."

"We love playing and we love winning," Wilfork said. "But we play for each other. That's the most important thing. When you put together a team that wants to fight towards one goal, good things can happen."

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