http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/01/sports/football/01patriots.ready.html January 1, 2006 Look Who's Stalking: Patriots Are No Longer the Prey By JUDY BATTISTA The New England Patriots had retreated to their locker room, the flexible and innovative defense that had led them to three N.F.L. championships in tatters. A staggering string of injuries had hobbled some of their best players. Their secondary had been cobbled together from the football equivalent of a want ad. And now, the Kansas City Chiefs had just sliced through them for nearly 300 yards and a 16-point lead in the first half. But in those few minutes deep inside Arrowhead Stadium on Nov. 27, a revival began. The Patriots' defense was called out, questioned for playing a season beneath its abilities. The Patriots lost that game to the Chiefs, 26-16, and their four-game winning streak began a week later against the Jets. But it was in that locker room, humbled and humiliated, that the Patriots got their groove back. In the first half, the Chiefs ran for 80 yards. In the second, they gained only 32. In the first half, the Chiefs scored on each of their five possessions. In the second, they scored once. It was the first baby step in what has developed into the Patriots' full gallop toward the playoffs. After weeks of relying on the offense - largely quarterback Tom Brady - the Patriots had abandoned their conservative defensive plan in favor of the full-throated attacking style that has served them well over the years. Since then, the blitzes have been furious and the run defense suffocating, and the Patriots have begun to look, and win, like their old selves. "Because they had newer players, you were seeing the 100-level defense," Jets offensive lineman Pete Kendall said, comparing what the Patriots looked like on film before the Jets played them Dec. 4 to an introductory college class. "Now they're back to playing 300-level defense." The Patriots' winning streak has allowed them to secure the American Football Conference East title. After allowing an average of 118.8 yards rushing in their first 11 games (the last of those 11 was against Kansas City), the Patriots have yielded a total of 125 rushing yards in the last four games. They had 16 sacks in their first 11 games; they have had 15 in the four games since. With a victory over the Dolphins this afternoon and a loss by the Bengals to the Chiefs, the Patriots would jump to the No. 3 seeding in the A.F.C. playoffs. In a football world in which the Patriots are considered a dynasty, order has been restored. Coach Bill Belichick, with his usual circumspection, will not acknowledge that there is much different about his defense now, citing examples of blitzes the Patriots tried - unsuccessfully - earlier in the season. "I really don't see us doing all that much differently," he said Thursday. "I see us doing it better. It comes down to better execution, better preparation, better overall team defense and better coaching." That, and a different mind-set. Belichick's defense is predicated on rapid decision-making, which in turn demands a thorough knowledge of a complex system of adjustments and audibles. But when safety Rodney Harrison sustained a season-ending knee injury, when Richard Seymour, the Patriots' dominant defensive lineman, missed four games, when linebacker Tedy Bruschi was recovering from a stroke, when linebacker Mike Vrabel was forced to play inside linebacker for the first time, and when the secondary was shuffling through 12 different starters, the scholars of the defense were missing. As experience shrank, so did the playbook. Players love to blitz, but Belichick has little tolerance for missed assignments. So if players cannot properly execute one, he will not run it. "They couldn't," said Ted Johnson, the former Patriots linebacker who retired before the season because of a series of concussions. "When you have guys that don't know to adjust and audible in a split second, you can't do it. You might have five guys out there that know it. You can only do a quarter of the playbook." The inexperience has not shown recently. In the first 11 games, the Patriots allowed 46 pass plays of 20 yards or more. In the last four games - with Seymour, Bruschi and Vrabel all in the lineup, and with the revolving door in the secondary finally slowing - the holes have closed and only seven passes have gone more than 20 yards. The Patriots have faced young, inexperienced quarterbacks - Brooks Bollinger, J. P. Losman and Chris Simms - during this stretch, allowing them to focus on stopping the run. The result in the locker room is as clear as it is in the standings. "There's unity, camaraderie, getting our focus with each other," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "We're not just sitting back. We're going after the quarterback. It's feeling a little more comfortable. We got our swagger back. We're playing like we know how to play." That makes the Patriots a threat in the playoffs, if only because of their big-game experience and Belichick's game plans. Still, not even Johnson thinks the Patriots will go to the Super Bowl again this year, or even get past the Colts, whom they could face in the divisional round. The Patriots have not played a top-tier quarterback during their revival, and it is no coincidence that the Patriots' five losses have come to teams with experienced, elite quarterbacks: Delhomme, Brees, Plummer, Manning and Green. Any team that can protect the quarterback and run a spread offense - and that is the Colts' base offense - could expose the lack of depth in the secondary, just as the Colts did when they shredded the Patriots, 40-21, on Nov. 7. "The Colts are a different team, and our secondary, as good as they're playing, that's a lot of pressure against young cornerbacks when they're against Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne," Johnson said of the Patriots. "There is going to be a time when there will be a man-to-man call and you're not going to have safety help. My money is on the Colts." Of course, nobody thought the Patriots would be able to handle the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf, either. And that was three Lombardi Trophies ago.