Next five games a crucial test for Patriots

Posted Nov. 02, 2009, at 11:11 p.m.
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) throws a pass to Newquarterback Tom Brady (12) during warmups before practice at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Thursday morning, Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (83) throws a pass to Newquarterback Tom Brady (12) during warmups before practice at the NFL football team's facility in Foxborough, Mass., Thursday morning, Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

With their bye week now history, the New England Patriots enter their most challenging stretch of the season.

That five-week run begins and ends with divisional matchups against a tough Miami team,and in between includes a rematch with the New York Jets and road games against the NFL’s two remaining undefeated teams — as of Monday evening — in Indianapolis and New Orleans.

The Patriots seem in good shape, though admittedly those feelings were enhanced by their most recent efforts, blowout wins over two of the league’s worst teams this year in Tennessee and Tampa Bay.

But those games also allowed Tom Brady to regain his personal quarterbacking momentum, rookie tackle Sebastian Vollmer to emerge as a quality run blocker, and generally speaking for the Patriots’ to surge into midseason form.

The defense has been rebuilt on the fly, with a new, youthful secondary led by the safety tandem of Brandon Meriweather and former University of Maine standout Brandon McGowan flanked by the likes of Jonathan Wilhite and rookie Darius Butler at cornerback.

Jerod Mayo is back from injury to pace a linebacking corps also that includes a reborn Tully Banta-Cain, Gary Guyton and Derrick Burgess — relegating the well-paid Adalius Thomas to spot duty when he’s on the active roster.

But while the likes of Atlanta, Baltimore and Denver provided early tests, the looming matchups against Peyton Manning and the Colts and Drew Brees and the Saints provide the ultimate regular-season challenges – for the Patriots defense will have to be stout to keep those foes in the 20s, and Brady and the offense will need to come up big to keep pace with those explosive rivals.

And the upcoming divisional tests against Miami and New York are always difficult, with those teams gunning for the AFC East leader at the season’s midpoint.

With a final stretch of games involving matchups against Carolina and Jacksonville and at Buffalo and Houston, a 3-2 run over the next five games could put the Patriots on course for a 12-4 finish — which probably won’t get them home field throughout the AFC playoffs but could go a long way for setting them up for a return to the Super Bowl.

— BY ERNIE CLARK

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Bruins’ Thomas gives quality goaltending

He practices yoga to maintain his flexibility. He spent parts of five seasons playing in either Finland or Sweden.

Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas epitomizes the world “perseverance.”

He believed in himself when others didn’t and pursued his dream, playing for anyone who wanted him.

The Flint, Mich., native and former University of Vermont All-American began his professional career in 1997 but, entering the 2005-2006 season, he had played in just four NHL games.

He split the 2005-2006 season between Boston and their AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins, and then had his breakthrough season in 2006-2007 when he played in 66 games for Boston and compiled a 3.13 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.

Those aren’t great numbers for an NHL goalie but the Bruins weren’t very good, either, finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference.

The last two seasons, Thomas has been an NHL All-Star. He captured the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s best goalie last year, when he won 36 games, lost just 11, had a league-low 2.10 GAA and an NHL-best .933 save percentage.

The Bruins’ 53 wins and 116 points were the most for the club since the 1972-73 season.

Following a slow start this season, Thomas has allowed just eight goals and made 106 saves in his last four games.

You can’t go far without goaltending and the acrobatic 35-year-old has given the Bruins a quality performance virtually every night.

He is unorthodox but so was Dominik Hasek, one of the best to ever play the game.

He isn’t big (5-foot-11, 201 pounds) but his quickness, instincts and fearlessness offset any size deficiency.

In addition to stopping pucks, Thomas will also help groom competent 22-year-old back-up Tuukka Rask.

— BY LARRY MAHONEY

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