FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -Even after The Imperfect Season, little has changed for the New England Patriots.
Bill Belichick still mumbles. Tom Brady is still trying to duck the paparazzi. And all the Pats decline to look ahead or behind.
On Belichick's orders, of course. In his world, all that counts is now. This morning's practice; this afternoon or evening's practice; the weekend's game - nothing else.
So please don't ask questions about 2007. You know, the first 16-0 regular season and then the stunning loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl that cost the Pats perfection. Ask them only about now.
``We are just trying to get better every day,'' Belichick replied in his customary monotone when asked recently how training camp was going.
``There are things we work on that need work and we correct them. We try to improve on them the next day and then add things. If we have them in, then good, and we move on to something else. If we need more time on them, then we try to tune those up before we move on to something else. That is the way it always is - just a normal camp.''
Classic Belispeak. But why be cuddly and warm when robotic and monotonous has been so successful?
Think of the Super Bowl titles following the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons, plus playoff berths in every year but one since 2001 and a record of 100-29 since that year - a seemingly impossible mark in the legislated parity of the NFL's salary-cap era.
In real life, Belichick is more interesting than the mumbling little guy in the hoodie: a well-read graduate of prestigious schools (Andover and Wesleyan) who hangs out with rock stars and writers. Not sports writers, of course, but those of the more literary kind.
But the rest of us rarely get glimpses of it. Just as we rarely get glimpses of the players unless some paparazzo manages a shot of Brady limping along a New York street with Gisele Bundchen, his supermodel inamorata. He's still limping, by the way, missing a big chunk of preseason action with what is described as a ``foot injury'' - the Patriots' wall of silence about injuries will never get beyond that simple kind of description.
With the Patriots, everything is programmed.
No one in Foxborough, for example, speaks of ``Spygate,'' the brouhaha that began when a Patriots employee was caught in the 2007 season opener filming New York Jets defensive signals. Belichick was fined $500,000; the team was fined $250,000; the Pats lost a first-round draft choice, and the whole affair eventually became a political vehicle for Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who finally dropped his ``investigation'' in June.
When the Super Bowl loss to the Giants comes up now, it was a stumble, or ``something we have to put behind us.'' And it rarely comes up, although it's likely to be mentioned peripherally before the teams meet in a meaningless final exhibition game next week.
Still, it left the Patriots with a foul taste in their collective mouths. An imperfect team after an imperfect season.
It goes beyond the aftertaste to the field.
Three key defensive backs are now gone, cornerback Asante Samuel the most important.
The linebacking corps continues to age. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi, both of whom have played on all four Super Bowl teams, are 33 and 35, respectively.
And the offensive line, so stout during the first 18 games last season, was unable to handle the quick Giants' front in the Super Bowl.
But Belichick and Scott Pioli, the personnel director, are totally unsentimental. They cut ``stars'' and loyal Patriots, or let them go because their salary demands are too large.
They are usually right in their decisions. From Lawyer Milloy in 2002 through Deion Branch and Samuel, players who leave New England rarely do as well elsewhere, and the pipeline brings in new players who fit the ultimate team concept.
So look for Adalius Thomas, a star in Baltimore, to play better in his second year in Belichick's 3-4 scheme than he did in his first. He's now being touted by Belichick as ``a leader of our defense.''
Assume that newly signed John Lynch, even at 37 and slowing down, will contribute in some way. And watch for Pierre Woods, an undrafted free agent from Michigan in 2006 to move into the linebacker spot left vacant when Rosevelt Colvin was allowed to leave as a free agent.
Add rookies Jarod Mayo and Shawn Crable, first- and third-round picks, and maybe linebacker isn't a weak spot. Woods and Crable both stood out in the first exhibition game, after which it was suggested Woods had tutored his fellow Michigan man.
``...Shawn's under everyone's wing, I'm still under Vrabel's wing, still under Adalius' wing,'' Woods said.
That's always been the system - one reason we don't hear from Shawn in that exchange is rookies are ``advised'' not to talk to the media, presumably because they aren't savvy enough and might reveal something they shouldn't.
So the advice often comes from players who sound like Belichick clones: Brady, Vrabel, Bruschi, third-down back Kevin Faulk and defensive tackle Richard Seymour. Woods, who in his third season has absorbed the party line, so has been given permission to express himself.
In fact, the defense could be better if Seymour, limited by injuries the past two seasons, returns to his All-Pro form. He, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green give the Patriots one of the most experienced defensive lines in the league.
The offensive line will be tested by teams trying to repeat what the Giants did in February. On the other hand, most of New England's rivals have nothing close to New York's talent up front. Brady and Randy Moss, who set single-season records for touchdown passes and receptions last year, will join with Wes Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Benjamin Watson to exploit any secondary.
Moss, so selfish with the Vikings and Raiders, has been reborn with the Patriots. He re-signed with New England not for the money but because he wants to play for a winner in a place where he's not tempted to relapse into his once-questionable work habits.
``First and foremost, we have some unfinished business,'' he said when asked why he stayed.
``I like the camaraderie around here, especially in the locker room and on the field. They have a great group of guys in the locker room. I think that is all you can ask for. Coach Belichick understands football and understands his players. He puts us together as one and we come together as a team.''
So the Patriots remain scary.
``In ways we are very far ahead of where we were last year,'' Brady says. ``We know what we can do. It's not about getting lined up in the formation and running the play, now it's about getting into a better play if the play we called in the huddle isn't the one we like the best when we line up on the field. Those guys can adjust because they know the signals and routes.''
It helps that the AFC East is easy, the addition of Brett Favre to the Jets notwithstanding. In fact, the Patriots' schedule, against opponents who were a combined 99-157 last season, is the easiest in the NFL as they attempt to extend their record regular-season win streak of 19 games.
That's an indication of the Patriots' strength this decade - they broke that record last year.
It was their own, of course. And the record-breaking is likely to continue for a while.

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