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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Updated: January 4, 2:43 PM ET
Patriots have found right mix

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The words from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft still resonate.

"I think the chemistry, the locker room, a lot of games are won and lost before you hit the field," he said.

The date was March 22, 2010, and Kraft was sharing his view on where things went wrong in the team's 2009 season. The individual parts just didn't come together that year. Thus, a big part of the Patriots' team-building strategy the following offseason was cultivating better chemistry. It started with striking a long-term contract extension with defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, the type of player Kraft said "represents the future kind of leadership we want on the team."

Lessons in Chemistry 101 can be found across the sports landscape, with one of the most recent in Florham Park, N.J., where the rival New York Jets had their season unravel. Coach Rex Ryan summed up the destruction and ultimately determined, "For whatever reason, I don't think we were as close as a football team as we were the first two years."

And here in Boston, locals need no reminder of what happened to the 2011 Boston Red Sox, another chemistry experiment gone bad.

As for the once-splintered Patriots locker room, well, that's been a much better place since the disappointing we're-losing-games-before-we-take-the-field 2009 season. Solid team unity is one of the better things the team has going for it entering the playoffs.

Gerard Warren
Vince Wilfork (right) and Gerard Warren are two key components to a team chemistry that Warren called awesome.

"We have awesome chemistry," said defensive lineman Gerard Warren, the 11-year veteran who has experienced the good and bad of it while playing for the Cleveland Browns (2001-04), Denver Broncos (2005-06), Oakland Raiders (2007-09) and Patriots (2010-11).

"The best experience [for me] has been right here in New England, where you know what's expected of you and you know what you're all fighting for. It's kind of like a family atmosphere. That can take a team far, as long as you go out and perform on Sundays."

As with any family, it's not always nirvana. There are bound to be contract disagreements that affect the dynamic of some relationships, cases of demoted players wondering how they fit into the grand scheme of things and times when players might question hard-driving coaches.

So to truly have everyone pulling in the same direction, as one, is nearly impossible. But these Patriots seem to be about as close as a team can get to that point.

As they enter the playoffs, where the stakes are raised to the highest level, the Patriots can feel good about that.

"It starts from ownership, down to the head coach, to the assistant coaches, team captains, to the players," Warren said. "It's basically having all the guys focus on one mission and one purpose."

That top-to-bottom unity was on display following the team's Dec. 24 victory over the Miami Dolphins when coach Bill Belichick presented Kraft a game ball and players gave Kraft a framed portrait in memory of his late wife, Myra.

If developing that type of bond was easy, more teams would do it. But it's simply not the type of thing that can be ordered up.

"It's not something you talk about and discuss, 'We're going to build our team chemistry.' It's something that happens throughout the course of time, guys just being themselves," said running back Kevin Faulk, the longest-tenured member of the team (1999-2011).

Faulk added that a big part of bringing a team together is making it through an adverse situation together. In 2009, for example, the Patriots didn't win their first true road game until late December, a sign they weren't coming together in hostile environments in which all they had was each other.

"Pressure situations," Faulk said. "Like anything else in life, you find out who you are when things aren't going right."

This season's team has aced adversity at almost every turn, some of it delivered on a daily basis by a demanding coaching staff. And in a credit to Belichick, he did a little locker-room clean-up by releasing defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth in early November, which sent the right message about the type of players he wanted to bring with him down the homestretch and into the playoffs. The Patriots haven't lost since.

Whether that leads to a playoff victory remains to be seen, but it's no stretch to say Belichick can feel good about taking a shot with the team he's assembled. It might not be his most talented bunch, but it's certainly one of his most hardened and cohesive groups.

"I think there are a lot of positives about these guys," Belichick said. "They work hard. They've done what I've asked them to do. I don't really have any complaints about that. They've competed."

They've come together as a team, too.

That alone won't be enough to take the Patriots where they want to go. But as Kraft said after the 2009 season, without it, they wouldn't even have a chance.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.