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Leadership not lacking with these Pats

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It has become fashionable in the National Football League to stitch a letter "C" on the jerseys of team captains, a la the National Hockey League and sometimes Major League Baseball.

There is no doubt that captains are important to a football team. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick certainly agrees with that notion.

But a letter "C" stitched on the jersey? Really? Is that vital? Not with the Patriots, whose captains -- Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Kevin Faulk and Alge Crumpler -- have not featured the letter on their respective jerseys this season.

"I guess that has become one of the new traditions in the league," said a shrugging Belichick with a grin at his Wednesday morning press briefing.

"I don't know. I've seen a lot of football games with captains with no patches [on the jersey] and it seemed like everything was fine. I guess that's one of the improvements, new patches, new overtime rules," said Belichick, tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

It isn't the letter on the jersey that's crucial, but the leadership those captains provide on and off the field that can make a huge difference in the fortunes of an NFL team.

A year ago, there were postseason rumblings of a lack of locker-room leadership after a first-round playoff walloping at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in a game played at Gillette Stadium.

There have been no such rumblings this season. The Patriots own a league-best 13-2 record, already having clinched a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs as they prepare for their final regular-season game against the Dolphins at home Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Despite having the youngest defense in the league and despite having suffered its share of injuries, New England has surpassed preseason expectations.

One of the reasons has been the veteran leadership of Brady, Wilfork, Mayo, Faulk and then Crumpler (after Faulk went down with a season-ending knee injury in the team's second game).

"We just try to go out and play hard," said Mayo. "Speaking for Tom, Vince, Alge and Kevin, we try to keep everybody motivated and ready to go every week."

The Patriots have played an extremely challenging schedule this season, making the 13-2 record all the more remarkable.

And when the team hit a bump in the road, notably a 34-14 loss to the eminently mediocre Browns in Cleveland on Nov. 7, the captains helped to quickly right the ship, leading to seven straight wins, including convincing victories over Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, the New York Jets, Chicago and Green Bay, teams that either already have clinched a playoff spot or will claim a postseason spot with a win in the regular-season finale Sunday.

"Leadership is not just the captain," Wilfork said recently. "Everyone in the locker room has a role. The guys we have here are here for one reason -- to win. They love football. All year we've been through tough games. Everyone here does a good job playing as a team. That's been strong for us all year. The focus is where it needs to be."

Three of the captains -- Brady, Wilfork and Mayo -- were named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday night.

"All four, and five with Kevin, have done a good job," said Belichick. "They do it a lot by example as part of their overall leadership of the team. The guys' insight and input are helping me manage the team, and they do an excellent job."

Belichick said he meets with the captains on an as-needed basis early in the week, and then they generally meet again at the end of the week.

"The team is made up of a lot of players," said Belichick. "Things come up. I can't take the time to speak to every player. You have to have a group that represents the entire team. Meeting with the head coach is one [of the captains' responsibilities]."

The captains are selected in a vote by the players, and Belichick says it's not necessarily a popularity contest.

"I don't think the captain is an MVP vote," said Belichick. "To me it's the people the players want to represent them on and off the field. It's not a vote for who's the best player. It's not like in high school when you pick the best player. Performance has something to do with it, some bearing, but every player on the team has a significant role, whether they have the title or not. We get great effort from a lot of people."

And it doesn't hurt to have such solid leaders in the locker room as team-oriented captains Brady, Wilfork, Mayo, Faulk and Crumpler.