The New England Patriots crawled out of a 1-3 hole last season to win their first NFL championship. Coach Bill Belichick doesn't want to have to take that uphill route again, so he greeted players at training camp with T-shirts and a theme.
On the back of the T-shirts was a bull's-eye with the logos of the Patriots' first four opponents in the center. The theme, Targeting September, was also written on the back.
What Belichick was saying is that the Patriots can't afford another 1-3 start - or the 0-4 they experienced in 2000 - if they expect to defend their Super Bowl title. They had to win their last six regular-season games a year ago to capture the AFC East title and gain a first-round playoff bye.
"The last couple years, our start has been horrific," said cornerback Otis Smith. "To get off to a good start, that would help. Instead of coming from behind, it'd be good to be the front-runner early."
Belichick, who hasn't won either of his season openers with New England, gets the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night in this year's opener. Then he gets the New York Jets away, the Kansas City Chiefs at home and the San Diego Chargers away. That looks like no worse than a 2-2 start and possibly 3-1.
"If you're doing bad in one phase of the game, you talk about it, harp on it and you improve on it," said Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson. "We always stumble out of the gate. Bill made a big emphasis of it. The tendency is we will do better."
Flirting with danger
It's not hard to understand why coaches hold out key players for much of the preseason. Every now and then, there's a needless injury that wreaks havoc on a team's plans.
Take the Arizona Cardinals. A week ago, they let starting right tackle Anthony Clement play into the third quarter - and he tore his right triceps muscle. It requires surgery, and he's done for the year. The Cardinals will move Leonard Davis to right tackle and Chris Dishman to right guard, but now they have no experienced depth in the line.
On the same night, Jets coach Herman Edwards was clearly upset when special teams coach Mike Westhoff sent former first-round draft pick Santana Moss back to field a punt on a wet surface on the final play of the third quarter. It didn't help that Moss scampered 33 yards and wasn't hurt.
"It was rainy, it was wet and all of a sudden he was back there returning a punt," Edwards said. "At that point, really, I didn't know he was back there. I turned around, looked and said, 'Is it a timeout or what?' ... I asked Mike, 'Why is he back there?' He said, 'Don't worry about it.' And I said, 'I am worried about it, though.' I looked up at the clock and Mike said, 'It's not the fourth quarter yet.' I said, 'No, but there are only about 20 seconds left. Why'd you do that?' "
Filling a void
The Philadelphia Eagles finally made their move for veteran wide receiver Antonio Freeman (Poly) last week when they realized they needed more production from their slot receiver.
Freddie Mitchell, a first-round pick in 2001, not only couldn't take the starting flanker job away from Todd Pinkston, but he also struggled as the third receiver. Freeman, who refused to renegotiate his contract with the Green Bay Packers, signed a one-year, $750,000 deal to join the Eagles.
"[The slot is] a unique position, and it takes a unique character to play in there," said Eagles coach Andy Reid. "You have to have a great feel for space and how to work against linebackers. You have to have a combination of strength and finesse to play in there, and feel. Antonio has proven over the years that he has that."
Raiders back down
Veteran middle linebacker Greg Biekert won his staredown with the Oakland Raiders' front office last week - at least temporarily. The Raiders told Biekert, the team's leading tackler the past three years, that he had to take a $2.5 million pay cut to $1 million or risk being cut.
Biekert said no and asked for his release. The Raiders refused. Whether Biekert, 33, makes it past today's final cuts is another story, though. The Raiders want to turn his job over to first-round pick Napoleon Harris, and they want to cut his salary to accommodate the signing of defensive tackle Sam Adams.
Fast track in Houston?
Linebacker Jamie Sharper was part of the Ravens' dominating defense before he was taken by the Houston Texans in the expansion draft. Gushing over his new teammates, he said he thinks the Texans can be a good defense faster than the Ravens were.
"It took at least one or two years [in Baltimore] just to be respectable almost," he said. "I think we can do it quicker here because we have veteran guys. Back in Baltimore, we started with young rookies. Here we have veteran guys who understand how to make changes and take coaching."
Gus Frerotte will be the fifth opening-day starting quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals in five years and the 12th quarterback to start a game for them since their playoff drought began with the 1991 season. ... In the past two seasons, the Bengals have thrown 40 interceptions and only 18 touchdown passes. ... Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher's No. 54 jersey was the NFL's hottest seller for the period of March, April and May. According to Reebok, 63,183 Urlacher jerseys were sold at a cost of $1,894,970 since the spring. ... Shaun King is expected to beat out Rob Johnson as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' backup quarterback to Brad Johnson. ... Antonio Bryant will be the first rookie receiver to start a season opener for the Dallas Cowboys since Michael Irvin in 1988. ... St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, who loves trick plays, will close practices to the media starting tomorrow for three weeks. "We've got some things that we want to work [on] the first few weeks of the season," he said. "And that stuff will eventually come to fruition in terms of why we're doing it." ... In 17 preseason drives, quarterback Mark Brunell's first-team Jacksonville Jaguars offense produced one field goal and 16 punts.
The last word
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was asked why he thought the Ravens and Rams were unable to repeat as Super Bowl champs. His answer:
"I don't know why those teams failed. It could have been for a number of reasons. But I think I can see in my mind why those teams would fail. Those may or may not be the reasons why they did. But for us going into this season, I think we know where those pitfalls might be and we're going to do everything we can to avoid them. And if we do, we're going to be a tough team to beat."
Compiled from interviews, wires services and reports from other newspapers.