Patriots: Improved Defense Will Miss Bruschi

New England Patriots linebacker Monty Beisel is expected to step in for the injured Tedy Bruschi against the Dolphins. If the Patriots win and the Bengals lose, then New England would get the #3 seed in the playoffs, but no guarantee of a second game at home. Beisel will be counted on to step up his game when he's in there for Bruschi, and he'll have Mike Vrabel alongside him for support. The combination has worked all season when Beisel fills in for Bruschi when he needs a break.

Bruschi was knocked out of Monday night's win over the Jets with a left calf injury, reportedly one in which the muscle was torn. Beisel, who figures to replace Bruschi in the starting lineup in Sunday's regular-season finale against the Dolphins - and perhaps in the playoffs, too - suffered a similar injury last year while playing for the Chiefs and missed nearly a month.

"I tore my calf muscle in the first quarter against Atlanta," Beisel said. "Just running off the field, freak injury after an interception. It just popped on me. I got about 5 yards from the sideline and it just popped. It's one of those weird things."

Asked how debilitating such an injury can be, Beisel said, "It depends on the severity. Mine was really bad. I couldn't even walk for two or three days. I was on crutches. Some guys will be able to recover within a week or two."

The Patriots (10-5) are hoping Bruschi - who walked out of Giants Stadium without crutches Monday night - returns soon. Their defense has made tremendous strides since he returned to the lineup in Week 8 following his off-season stroke. The Patriots rank fourth against the run, and the defense has allowed only 24 points in the past four games - 14 of them coming in fourth-quarter garbage time against the Jets.

Bruschi was listed on Wednesday's injury report as questionable. He suffered a calf injury in the AFC title game two years ago and returned to play in the Super Bowl two weeks later. The Patriots, who do not have their customary first-round bye this season, open the playoffs by hosting a wild-card game the weekend of Jan. 7-8.

Beisel subbed for Bruschi against the Jets and finished with three tackles - the same number he had recorded in the previous six weeks combined.

"We have quality depth on the team," said Beisel, who signed as a free agent in April and started the first five games of the season. "Anytime something like that does happen (during a game), it's always tough. But I think it's important that guys step in and play well.

"There's a lot of responsibility toward the other 10 guys on the team. I think it's important that we prepare well throughout the week, and I think I did that. I thought I went out there and played pretty well, (but) I haven't seen the tape yet."

Beisel, 27, has had a tough first year in Foxboro. He and fellow free agent Chad Brown were expected to replace Bruschi and Ted Johnson (retired) inside, but the new alignment was a failure early in the season. It wasn't until Bruschi returned and Mike Vrabel slid inside that the Patriots regained their 2003-04 form.

Beisel had spent much of the past 10 games on the sideline, seeing regular special teams action but only occasional snaps on defense.

"It's very difficult to prepare every week and not get a chance," he said. "But I just do my job. This is what I do to make a living. It's my obligation to go out there and prepare week in and week out, regardless of the situation, and be a professional about it, be ready to go when the time commands.

"I think anytime as the year goes on, you're going to get better and better. I think that goes for anybody, regardless of whether you've been in the system for eight years or one. Obviously, I feel more comfortable now than I did in Week 1 or 2. But I think it's an ongoing process, always."

NOTES

--At halftime on Sunday, the team will honor the 1985 AFC championship club that advanced to the franchise's first Super Bowl. Those Patriots were mauled 46-10 by the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX, but they still hold a special place in NFL history because they are the only team to win three road playoff games to make the Super Bowl.

The Patriots' crowning achievement that year came when they upset the Dan Marino-led Dolphins 31-14 in the AFC title game, ending an 18-game losing streak in the Orange Bowl - a drought that had begun in 1967. The Patriots rushed for 255 yards on 59 carries against the Dolphins as QB Tony Eason attempted only 12 passes, completing 10 for 71 yards. Meanwhile, Marino was 20-for-48 for 248 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

--'Tis the season for touchdowns, not field goals, as far as the Patriots are concerned. For the second straight year, kicker Adam Vinatieri has had much of December off, except for extra points and kickoffs. Vinatieri did not attempt a field goal in any of the Patriots' first three December games last season before hitting three of four in a road win over the Jets the day after Christmas.

Last week, again in a Dec. 26 road win over the Jets, he converted his first attempt in three weeks. Vinatieri's services were not needed as the Patriots' offense scored 12 straight touchdowns against the Bills, Buccaneers and Jets.

--The last time the Dolphins played in Foxboro, the Patriots beat them 24-10 on Oct. 10, 2004, to set an NFL record with their 19th straight win. They stretched the streak to 21 in a row before losing in Pittsburgh.


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