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Original Issue


In the New England Patriots team photo that was taken before
last January's Super Bowl, one person seems to stand out. It's
not quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who's off to the lower left, or
running back Curtis Martin, who's off to the lower right. It's
not owner Robert Kraft or coach Bill Parcells, who are standing
side by side in the middle of the fourth row. Centered perfectly
among all four of these principal characters is another
important player in the Patriots' scheme, seven-year-veteran
tight end Ben Coates, who has reemerged late this year, just as
he did in the final weeks last season, as a focal point of the
Patriots' drive to the Super Bowl.

On Sunday, with Martin out nursing a sore right shoulder and No.
1 wideout Terry Glenn sidelined with a strained left hamstring,
Coates helped New England to its first pivotal post-Parcells
victory with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. The
precise and physically dominant play of the Patriots in their
26-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars raised their record to
9-5 and kept New England in a tie for the AFC East lead with the
Miami Dolphins. "Today everything was back to the way it used to
be, it was the Patriots of old," said Coates, referring to his
role in Sunday's win. "How can the timing be any more perfect
with two more [games] to go to get into the postseason?"

Coates's longest reception, a 27-yard play in which he shook off
linebacker Kevin Hardy and plowed past safety Chris Hudson to
reach the nine-yard line, set up New England's first touchdown.
"He's the best tight end in football," said Pats offensive
coordinator Larry Kennan.

Coates's five-yard touchdown catch--his seventh of the year and
30th from Bledsoe since 1994--capped a nine-play, 78-yard drive
that gave New England a 20-7 lead at the half. Bledsoe called
every play during that series, and his execution was flawless.
He finished 26 of 35 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and for
the third consecutive game he did not throw an interception.
"You couldn't ask anyone to play any better than Drew played
today," said Kennan. "What he shares with Ben is a special kind
of chemistry."

In 1994, when he was essentially Bledsoe's only receiver, Coates
caught 96 passes--an NFL single-season record for a tight end.
But with the development of Martin, who rushed for more than
1,000 yards in both '95 and '96, and Glenn, who last year as a
rookie led New England with 90 catches, an agitated Coates had
watched his role shrink. His streak of 63 games with a reception
ended on Dec. 15, 1996, and he had just 62 catches last season.
Despite leading the Patriots with 57 catches this year, he has
had three or fewer catches in a game five times.

"It has been kind of frustrating watching this offense because I
am capable of making so many more plays," Coates said last week.
"I have always been there for Drew, helping him get to where he
is today. Sometimes it doesn't seem that way when I go through a
whole game and only see two balls. But when he's in trouble,
Drew reverts to me."

In the 1996 regular-season finale Coates caught three passes in
the fourth quarter, including one for the game-winning touchdown
with 1:23 left in a come-from-behind 23-22 victory over the New
York Giants. He had a game-high six receptions for 67 yards and
a touchdown in the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.

On Sunday, Jacksonville was trailing by a touchdown with 2:15 to
play when it attempted an onside kick. The ball bounced once and
then floated over the first row of Patriots. But on New
England's sideline the players were already celebrating, because
the ball was headed toward Coates, who had fielded a similar
kick with 1:08 to go of a 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts
on Nov. 30. He caught this one too, returning the ball 20 yards.

This time of year, especially with tough games left against the
Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dolphins, there's no one the
Patriots would rather have holding the ball.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES NO LOVE PAT Jacksonville safety Dana Hall got the better of New England's Dave Meggett on this play, but the Patriots got the better of the Jags on the scoreboard (page 36). [T of C]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Coates had six receptions on Sunday, one for a touchdown and another that set up a score. [Ben Coates and opposing player in game]