- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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ST. LOUIS -- The afternoon was supposed to belong to the Rams receivers. The Patriots' depleted secondary was missing both its regular starters at cornerback, and when Asante Samuel left two plays in with a right arm injury, New England had two undrafted guys with less than a season's worth of experience between them playing on the outside, rookie Randall Gay and practice squad call-up Earthwind Moreland, who in case you're curious, was named in honor of the R&B band. Talk about being thrown into the fire.
Marc Bulger would pick up where Kurt Warner left off and light it up, or so most everyone thought going into the first meeting between New England and St. Louis since Super Bowl XXXVI. He'd throw for 300 easy. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt each would get 100 yards. And the Rams were at home, too? Man. Kevin Curtis, Marshall Faulk, Shaun McDonald -- they'd all have their way against the Patriots' DBs. It looked like a David vs. Goliath matchup.
And it produced the same outcome, even though the Patriots had to resort to using 33-year-old receiver Troy Brown at nickel corner and at one point reserve linebacker Don Davis at safety. New England held Bulger to 285 yards in part because its zone coverage made him hold the ball long enough for its three- and four-man rushes to get home. And while Holt had 111 yards and a meaningless fourth-quarter touchdown, the best receiver on the field on this day was not a Ram but, appropriately enough, a David.
Perhaps best known nationally as the co-star of the Sirius satellite radio spot who asks fellow Patriots wideouts Brown and Deion Branch, "I thought I was his favorite receiver," referring to quarterback Tom Brady, Givens had a Fred Biletnikoff, Super Bowl XI type performance in New England's 40-22 win, setting up three touchdowns and catching five balls for 100 yards.
Givens is a rising star, a Hines Ward-type at 6 feet and 215 pounds. On Sunday he outshined two other perennial Pro Bowlers, Bruce and Holt, under the lights of the Edward Jones Dome.
"There's guys out there that are doing great things, and I feel like, 'If he's doing it, I can do it,' " Givens said afterward. "I try to make myself the best player on the field. I may not be physically or I may not be the smartest, but I pride myself on trying to be the best player on the field."
Givens, 24, has been the Patriots' best receiver this season. He's had a career year and it's only half over. Only one of his team-leading and career-high 37 receptions has not gone for a first down, and he also leads the team with a career-high 644 receiving yards. Sunday was his third consecutive game with at least 100 receiving yards and fourth this season. He's on pace to have the best year, in terms of yardage, by a Patriots receiver since Stanley Morgan had almost 1,500 in '86.
"He's a stud. He's definitely ranked up there with the best receivers in the league, in my opinion," said tight end Christian Fauria, acknowledging his bias toward his locker room neighbor. "He's not catching eight, nine balls a game, but the ones he makes are clutch. They're not easy catches. They're not wide open. It's 20 guys around him. He always catches with his hands. I can't say enough about him. I think he's going to be a great, great player."
This has not happened by accident, though New England is fortunate to have landed such a productive player with its second pick in the seventh round of the 2002 draft (No. 253 overall) out of Notre Dame. Givens made the team as a rookie because of his special teams prowess, but dropped some key passes that season. Last year, he led the team in touchdown catches (six) and caught one in the AFC championship game and the Super Bowl.
Now he's progressed from being "pretty good for a seventh-round pick" to being just plain good. Sure it helps that he's got Brady as his quarterback and Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator, but Givens's production is more a product of his determination than circumstance.
"You can look at it a bunch of different ways," said Fauria. "You can give credit to the Patriots for seeing something everybody else didn't see. It's definitely a credit to him for not believing what he reads or what he sees. And then just his work ethic. He's a good guy. You knew it from the beginning. A lot of coaches were hard on him. When you see a lot in somebody, I think you ride them a little more."
They didn't have to last spring and summer. You can guess what's coming next: Givens worked hard in the offseason. Once the Patriots' workout program began in March, he channeled all his energy toward football, declining broadcast opportunities that could have put a little extra change in his pocket, which means more when you're playing for the second-year minimum ($230,000). But Givens wanted neither the distraction nor the attention. Lately he's even been declining interview requests from local media, preferring instead to stretch and receive treatment before practice. The Patriots just love players who think like that.
One of Givens's priorities in the offseason was to improve his speed. He learned to sprint with more body lean, shortening his steps, and reduced his 40-yard dash time from around 4.5 seconds to the 4.4 range. He devoured film of contemporaries (Hines Ward, Marvin Harrison) and predecessors (Lynn Swann), searching for the nuances of their games. His goal is to reach their level.
"I'll tell you this," said Fauria, recalling an early-morning encounter with Givens from three weeks ago, "I get (to Gillette Stadium) pretty early (around 6:30 a.m.). Usually I'm the first one in there. At least I think I am. I go in and I see his chair out. He's not even there, I don't know where the hell he is, but he's not there.
"I remember he came in, and I'm like, 'D, what are you doing here so early?' He said, 'I just told myself I was going to put in the extra effort and make sure my body was ready every week.' I think he just made his mind up that he was going to be the man."
He was a man Sunday. It seemed as though he could get inside on the slant whenever the Patriots wanted. His 10-yard catch on third-and-2 set up Brady's 2-yard touchdown toss to Mike Vrabel in the second quarter. He beat Jerametrius Butler for a 50-yard catch later in the quarter that led to Adam Vinatieri's third field goal of the half. It stands as New England's longest play from scrimmage this season.
Corey Dillon's five-yard touchdown run in the third quarter came a play after Givens converted a third-and-3 with a nine-yard grab. And Givens's sweet snatch of a Brady pass for 12 on third-and-6 sustained the fourth-quarter drive that ended with Brady's 4-yard touchdown pass to Bethel Johnson.
Givens was an exclusive-rights free agent last offseason, and the Patriots decided against signing him to a long-term deal. It wasn't as if he needed it, but it was added motivation nonetheless. It was a mistake for an organization that doesn't commit many; Givens will attract attention as a restricted free agent in the offseason, and depending on at what level the Patriots tender him, they could lose him.
But in the meantime, the former Fighting Irish wingback has found himself as a receiver.
"I just felt it was time for me to step up. That was my approach coming into this year," Givens said. "There were things I had to learn about the game, how to get open against certain coverages and so forth. I didn't know them last year. I made some plays, but it was just off natural ability. Now I feel like I'm maturing.
"It's just time now. It's time for somebody to step up. You've got first- and second-year guys doing that. It's just my time. Time to shine, really."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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