Patriots’ game to cement New England’s reputation

SEEKING a third Super Bowl crown in four years, the New England Patriots made an early start to their NFL campaign last night in the American football season opener.

The Patriots return the nucleus of the club which defeated Carolina seven months ago, earning the right to host the NFL opener, this time against the Indianapolis Colts, the same club New England beat to reach the Super Bowl.

The Patriots had added running back Corey Dillon, in an April swap with Cincinnati, after 8,061 yards in seven seasons with the Bengals. That gives the Patriots a top rushing threat they have lacked for years.

Another title could seal their reputation as one of the greatest clubs in the sport’s history.

“We don’t really look that far ahead,” Patriots linebacker Roman Phifer said. “It’s a long season.”

Quarterback Tom Brady, twice Super Bowl MVP, leads a team with few stars but boasting outstanding teamwork.

“We feel like that’s the reason for our success,” Phifer said. “Why change? Why worry about individuals? Why worry about superstars?”

Should the Patriots start 4-0, they would set an NFL record for consecutive triumphs, at 19.

“We really don’t talk about streaks here,” said Brady, who is 40-12 as a starter, including playoffs.

Adam Vinatieri, the kicker who has booted game-winning field goals in the final seconds in two of the past three Super Bowls, sparks a Patriot team that has won a record eight consecutive over-time games.

The Colts are led by Peyton Manning, NFL co-Most Valuable Player in 2003 who signed a seven-year contract in the off-season worth $98m after throwing for 4,267 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. But he has never been able to master the Patriots.

Manning is 2-8 against New England, including a 1-5 mark since Bill Belichick took over as Patriots coach. He was intercepted four times, three of them by Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law, in the Patriots’ 24-14 victory in January’s American conference title game.

Colts receivers argued they were being held by New England defenders and the NFL has made enforcement of pass defence rules a priority in pre-season games. Defensive backs who hit receivers five yards past the scrimmage line will be flagged.

Rivals will include Seattle, built behind a fleet set of receivers, figures to challenge Carolina, St Louis, Minnesota and Philadelphia for the National Conference crown.

Tennessee, Kansas City, Baltimore and the Colts should be the top challengers to New England’s American Conference reign.

Baltimore, with defensive back Deion Sanders making a comeback at 37, will focus on defence and line play. Star rusher Jamal Lewis is to face drug charges in November. His loss would be a huge setback for the Ravens.

Co-MVP Steve McNair will guide Tennessee, who saw a 12-4 season ended by the Patriots 17-14 in the playoffs. But slicing $18m from the payroll and losing defensive end Jevon Kearse and rusher Eddie George could doom the Titans.

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