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Albert Breer

FOXBORO -- Before the 2003 seasons, the Patriots brought in high-profile free agents such as Rodney Harrison and Rosevelt Colvin.

Before '04, the Patriots were the favorites to win their third Super Bowl title in four years.

Therein lies the difference between this New England team and previous ones.

They've had the bumper crop before. They've been the favorite. But this year, they've got both for the first time in Bill Belichick's eight years at the helm.

So on one hand, they'll have to manage expectations. On the other, they'll need to meld new and old to form a unit in sport's ultimate team game.

"I don't know what you'd call it - selective hearing or something like that?" said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a 12-year Foxboro vet, with a smile.

"You just worry about how you feel as a team in here. And as long as everyone's on the same page, and we are, you gotta work. You put in the work to win a game. And right now, we haven't won one yet."

In there, were Bruschi's answers to both problems facing the Patriots, neither of which, by the way, concern talent on the field or coaching off it.

Those things, with the additions, seem to be in place.

But if football games were won by some mathematical equation, then the 2001 team, the first in franchise history to win the whole thing, wouldn't have even gotten a whiff of the Lombardi Trophy.

That team finished 19th in total offense and 24th in total defense. Yet, it scored the fifth most points in the league and allowed the sixth least. It went 11-5. It pulled off one of the biggest upsets in league history to win the title.

Similarly, this team could throw together more yards on offense, and yield less on defense than any in the club's history, based on the talent on hand.

But that isn't what wins games, and Belichick will be the first to tell you that.

"I think we just have to work and get better each day," said the coach at the beginning of camp. "There are so many things that we have to work on. That is where our concentration is. It's not about expectations or comparisons or anything else. Right now, it's about us going out there and getting better as a football team, and that includes everybody."

The key word there, corny as it may sound, is team.

It's not how many sacks or passes deflected Adalius Thomas has. It's more how he fits in the framework of the defense, and makes those around him better than they were prior to his arrival before he arrived.

It's not how many catches for how many yards and touchdowns Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth have. It's how their production fuels an efficient, consistent offense.

It's not whether Laurence Maroney rushes for 1,500 yards or not. It's the pressure he puts on the defense that opens things up for others.

Above all, it goes back to the scouting credo the Patriots hold dear: We're not collecting talent. We're building a team.

"We spend a lot of time in the classroom, a lot of time on the field together as an offense," said Stallworth. "And especially with the receivers and the quarterbacks, that's something that will be developed over time. The coaches are doing a really good job of making sure that we're all on the same page together and that's what we're working at every day here." When the final chips are counted, he's saying, it's how the expectations are tuned out and the new pieces are tuned in to what the Patriots do as a team.

They've never really been in this type of situation, in a big-picture sense, before. So they'll rely on their time-tested ethos.

"We know what it takes to be successful," said Bruschi. "Looking toward the next game? We don't even look that far. It's, [ 'What do I have in a half-hour?' It's that simple. That's how it's gotta be."