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Sports

January 23, 2007

How they stand ... and where they're headed

INDIANAPOLIS - Were the 2006 New England Patriots a success?



Absolutely. While the pain of Sunday's 38-34 AFC title loss here to the Colts still throbs, it's clear that in the final four of the NFL playoffs, there really isn't a loser.



As defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said, "They came out and played some great football (in the second half). We played our hearts out. That's all you can ask."



When you look around the field and see the likes of Eric Alexander, Rashad Baker, Reche Caldwell and Tully Banta-Cain taking regular snaps in the AFC title game, you almost had to wonder how this team got here.



Then you see the coach, Bill Belichick, and the quarterback, Tom Brady, and you begin to realize.



With these two here, this franchise is guaranteed to compete in the playoffs annually.



There might be near-misses like 2002 or dominant seasons, like 2003-04. The difference is, of course, the performance of the supporting cast around them.



Summing up the 2006 season, you'd have to grade the Patriots an overall B+. This team never stopped scrapping and clawing. That said, lets take a look at the roster, alphabetically, with their individual grades for 2006 and where their future with this team lies:



Eric Alexander, LB (C-)



Solid special-teamer, but showed little at linebacker.



On the horizon: There's always a spot on an NFL roster for athletes who cover kicks. He's been a solid special-teamer and valuable in coverage.



Willie Andrews, DB (C)



Fast and fearless. Again, a threat in the kicking game. Overcame injuries to help this team, a quality Belichick loves.



On the horizon: He'll get more action covering kicks and could even get a shot in the return game.



Rashad Baker, S (C+)



Not bad for a mid-year waiver grab. Saw time at safety in AFC title game after two other playoff inactives.



On the horizon: Can he make this team with all eyes on him from April to September?



Tully Banta-Cain, OLB (C)



So close to cashing in free agency off of huge playoff start against Jets. Then, he got exploited by San Diego and sat much of the day vs. Indy.



On the horizon: A free agent who can rush the passer (5.5 sacks this year), he'll probably become a millionaire elsewhere.

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