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Though in playoffs, Patriots and Carroll endure controversy; Underdogs face Jaguars lacking Bledsoe, harmony; AFC wild-card preview


Starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe is out. Longtime sub Scott Zolak is in. Coach Pete Carroll is

Yes, just as they did two years ago, the New England Patriots are heading into the postseason amid rumors about a coaching change. The difference this season is that many of the Foxboro faithful don't expect their team to go anywhere and are beginning to wonder if their coach should.

Though this sentiment was occasionally heard throughout the Patriots' rocky 9-7 season, it exploded last week after the team was drilled, 31-10, by the New York Jets in their regular-season finale at the Meadowlands, a place one Boston newspaper has consistently referred to as Tunaville.

Yes, Patriots fans remain obsessed with Bill Parcells, the coach who took them to the Super Bowl two years ago and then abandoned them to coach the Jets.

The obsession is so strong that it has eclipsed most talk about the Patriots' preparation for their wild-card game against Jacksonville today, a game in which they are 8 1/2-point underdogs.

Rumors, chaos and finger-pointing were the rule in Foxboro last week. Carroll's problems started directly after the loss to the Jets, when Patriots linebacker Chris Slade declared, "We were outplayed, out-coached, out-everythinged."

Though Carroll and Slade have met and are now said to have patched things up -- Slade claimed that he wasn't trying to compare Carroll to Parcells -- it took three days of damage control, three days of examining the past instead of preparing for the future, to do so.

"After the game, I think some of the guys were a bit careless," Carroll said. "It comes down to looking at yourself, and we've dealt with that. Our team loses together. It was a devastating loss."

It's also a loss that the Boston media have done their best to make even more devastating. The Boston Herald, which runs a weekly report card measuring the performance of all positions on the team, gave "Fs" across the board after the Jets loss.

So, how does a coach get his team to put something like that behind it? It wasn't easy last week, especially with the news that the Patriots will again be without Bledsoe.

Zolak, a 31-year-old lifetime backup, went almost six full seasons without playing a meaningful down. Since Bledsoe was finally sidelined after breaking the index finger of his throwing hand, Zolak has led New England to a victory against the 49ers and then the ugly loss last Sunday to the Jets.

"I'm not even going to talk about what happened last week," said Zolak, who completed just six passes in the first half as the Jets jumped to a 17-3 lead. "I'm over it. Hopefully, the rest of these guys are over it and the team that played against San Francisco with a lot of fire will show up and play [today]."

Said defensive end Willie McGinest: "We have to find a way to turn [the Jets loss] into a positive. Nobody's records matter anymore. We have to use that game as a steppingstone."

Yet, if it is followed by a poor showing against the Jaguars, the Jets loss could very well turn into a millstone, the deciding weight that sinks Carroll's career in New England.

Even in defending Carroll, it is clear that the Patriots players continue to compare him to Parcells.

"You might be surprised to hear that a lot of guys respect Pete," nose guard Chad Easton said Wednesday. "I hear stuff about Pete losing the team and so on. It's crazy. Guys do respect him.

"I just think guys aren't used to having a coach who gives them respect and the kind of leeway [that] mature football players should be able to handle. We have the freedom to do what we want. Some guys respond. Other guys take advantage of it."

While Parcells may have never given his team freedom, he did give it a trip to the Super Bowl. Carroll knows a lot about playing in the shadow of Parcells -- he was an assistant with the Jets when Parcells took the Giants to their second Super Bowl -- and he said it's just not something he has time to worry about.

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