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Monday, January 21, 2008
Questions linger about Moss' postseason

By Elizabeth Merrill
ESPN.com

Randy Moss
Randy Moss had one catch for 18 yards and one rush for 14 yards against San Diego on Sunday.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So this is how the team that was supposed to be here cuts loose. Kyle Brady was going to bed early. Matt Light was hanging with his family. And Randy Moss, one of the most electrifying players in the league, quietly slipped out of the locker room, his shoes stacked neatly into a pile, and headed off into the chilly New England night.

It seemed sort of appropriate -- the Patriots' biggest offseason acquisition, a man who made a 10-month leap from malcontent to model teammate -- had nothing to say late Sunday, when he made it to his first Super Bowl. Did his legal issues preoccupy him? Did his blocks against the Chargers satisfy him?

The Patriots way says you rarely answer questions and do your talking on the field. But two postseason games have passed, Moss has made just two catches, and the questions linger about whether he has been the victim of good game planning or is stuck in a January funk.

"I don't think there is anything personal that has gotten to him," said his lawyer, Richard Sharpstein. "He's ecstatic. This is the first time he's been able to enjoy a championship."

Moss celebrated his first Super Bowl berth by sharing a quiet dinner Sunday night with his agent. It was possibly his first -- and last -- peaceful moment for a while. The postseason hasn't been much fun for Moss. A day before the Patriots opened the playoffs against Jacksonville on Jan. 12, he went to coach Bill Belichick and told him a temporary restraining order had been filed against him by Rachelle Washington, who accused Moss of "dating violence."

Seventeen weeks and 23 touchdowns had passed in the 2007 season, and there was nary a peep from Moss. Now suddenly, his perfect season has drama.

It will build through next Monday, when the media gaggle descends upon Arizona for the Super Bowl and Moss' attorneys are expected to be in a Florida courtroom for a hearing on whether a permanent restraining order should be issued. Moss won't be there, and Sharpstein calls the accusation "a misuse of the [court] process."

Moss' biggest concern all week, he said, was creating a distraction for his teammates. In most of the Patriots' lockers is a T-shirt with some reference to the word "humble" or at least "brotha." Moss appeared to buy into the selfless mantra.

"He's been a good teammate," tight end Kyle Brady said. "He's been all about winning."

In some ways, Moss reminds Sharpstein of Redskins safety Sean Taylor, who was killed in November. Sharpstein represented both athletes. He described Moss and Taylor as megatalented athletes who shunned the limelight and were somewhat misunderstood.

On Sunday night, Moss was nearly invisible. He was hounded by Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer and was jammed at the line much of the game. When Cromartie picked off a Tom Brady pass in the end zone, the Chargers cornerback mocked Moss by imitating his touchdown celebration.

Maybe Moss didn't even see it. Maybe the new, reformed Randy was happy just to open up the game for his teammates. Because the Chargers focused on the Pro Bowl receiver, Laurence Maroney was able to run for 122 yards, veteran receiver Kevin Faulk caught eight passes for 82 yards, and Wes Welker came up with another night of big plays.

And Moss drifted to the background, doing mostly the dirty work that seemed unthinkable in his miserable days in Oakland. He threw blocks that drew praise from Cromartie. He ran 14 yards on a surprising reverse, then wasn't really heard from the rest of the night.

"When the coaches put [the reverse] in a couple of weeks ago, we were all laughing at him," receiver Donte' Stallworth said, "saying, 'Hey, you're 30 years old.' You're not Randy from Marshall. You can't run reverses anymore.' But he made a big play.

"Whenever he's out there, you've got to account for him."

The New York Giants will certainly be paying attention to him. In Week 17, when the Patriots eked out a 38-35 victory over New York, Moss had two touchdowns, 100 yards receiving and seemingly a clear, quiet path ahead of him.

Now the next two weeks will define how the new Randy handles turmoil. And the ultimate team success.

As the players quietly filed out of the locker room, one of the lost story lines was the veterans who finally tasted Super Bowl success. It's something that the younger players take for granted, Kyle Brady said, because some of them already have been in New England's dynasty run. But Kyle Brady is going to the Super Bowl for the first time in a 13-year career, and Stallworth is going after failed attempts in New Orleans and Philadelphia.

"I've never had a personal [cell phone] message," Stallworth said Sunday. "But I just set one -- 'You have reached the phone of an AFC champ who has no Super Bowl tickets, so don't ask.'"

And then there's Moss, who flirted with the Super Bowl as a young receiver in Minnesota but seemed far removed from it in his days in Oakland. Can he handle the distractions?

For now, only his teammates can answer that.

"I just know when we get here [to the stadium], it's kind of our oasis," tight end Ben Watson said. "We just come here and play ball."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.