Can you say championship?

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Can you say championship?

By Michael Felger

No longer are they just an overachieving collection of youngsters and spare parts.

No longer have they simply put the lie to the embarrassing conventional wisdom that said Randy Moss was the key to their offense.

No longer would making another Super Bowl be considered a big surprise.

It's now expected.

We'll now be disappointed if they don't make it.

Maybe that's unfair, but that's what happens when you beat all comers in the regular season -- Baltimore, Indianapolis, the Jets and Pittsburgh -- and then sit at home on wild-card weekend. That's what happens when you play near-perfect football games, like the one the Pats played on Monday night.

I don't know if you can call this a great Patriots team yet. That distinction should really be reserved for champions -- and even then it might be hard to call a team with this much youth, inexperience and holes on defense as truly great.

But do you know how much more interesting I find these Patriots than their last supposedly "great" squad, their 2007 edition? That team was just a collection of talent. And their run through a 16-0 regular season was joyless by comparison to this. That team was typified by Moss, the ultimate front-runner. That team sold it's soul for the record book and paid the price when it mattered the most. In the end, they became the exact kind of team we used to hate around here -- soft, finesse, choke artists. They became the Colts.

This team is also very much dependant on its offense, and maybe because of that they'll meet the same fate at some point in the postseason. But that doesn't take away the fact that they are much easier to root for.

I don't know about you, but former first-round pick Laurence Maroney never did anything for me. But I respect the hell out of undrafted backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead. I simply love the fact that Wes Welker is embarrassing all those who said his production was merely a result of the room Moss created. (And remember, Welker is still doing this on a bad knee.) Watching Tom Brady and Deion Branch work together is pure joy. I like the fact the Pats actually have young tight ends who can catch and young defensive players who can take the ball away and are improving. I no longer have to root for turds like Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess, Maroney and Moss.

And, last but not least, Brady has always been more interesting to me when he uses his head more than his arm. That's when he's at his best, anyway. That's what he did when he was winning championships.

That's right. We're talking championships again. The Pats have left us with no other choice.

Read Felger's report card on Wednesday. E-Mail him HERE and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m., on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

Scarnecchia hoping for continuity up front during training camp

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Scarnecchia hoping for continuity up front during training camp

FOXBORO -- It seems like every summer the Patriots try to mix and match on their offensive line as much as possible. As players work in at different positions and work alongside different teammates, they're preparing for the inevitable injury that forces the inevitable lineup change. It's a brutal game of musical chairs for which they have to be ready.

Whether it's with first-time starter Jimmy Garoppolo's comfort level in mind or some other reason, it sounds as though the Patriots may be changing their ways during this year's training camp.

Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, back after a two-year retirement, said on Wednesday that a lack of continuity last season hurt the team's play up front in 2015. When the Patriots find their best five linemen, Scarnecchia plans on playing them alongside one another as often as possible.

"I think that we're gonna try to keep the guys, whoever's the first five, we're gonna try to keep those guys together as much as we can," Scarnecchia said. "It's not always practical to do that, and there's competition at multiple positions so there may be some in and out that way.

"But the thing is, if we can keep the left tackle playing the left tackle, the right tackle [playing right tackle], and try to keep the guards playing on the same side as much as we can, that'll really help everybody. There's gotta be some guys that swing around in there, because we only end up with eight or nine linemen, [but] I think it'll be fine. I really do."

The Patriots used 41 different offensive line combinations last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was 13 more than any other NFL team. 

Much of that shakeup was due in part to injuries as starters Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Bryan Stork all missed time. The hope this year, Scarnecchia explained, is that the Patriots will be able to avoid that kind of shuffling and find some consistency in their personnel that'll lead to better results. 

"I think that's huge," he said. "I really do. We had so many guys playing multiple positions. We believe in continuity and trying to keep the same guys next to each other as much as we can. You can't always do that, but I think that was a huge deal last year. Hopefully we won't get into that sit this year, keep working with the same guys day in and day out, and hopefully they'll improve."

One obstacle that Scarnecchia may have in finding the right five players is that he has so many to pick from. 

Of his seven tackles, there are two clear front-runners for the starting jobs on the right and left sides in Vollmer and Solder, respectively. But on the interior, the picture is more hazy. Rookies Joe Thuney and Ted Karras, and second-year players Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason will compete for guard spots, as will former Cardinals guard Jonathan Cooper and Josh Kline, who started 13 games for New England last season. At center, Stork and David Andrews both have an opportunity to prove that they deserve to be the No. 1 man in the middle. 

When camp starts, Vollmer, Jackson and Mason will all be on the physically unable to perform list, leaving reps available for their healthier teammates. 

Still, it's a large group, and one that Scarnecchia likes. He said he felt each player that was able to participate in spring workouts got better over the course of the OTA period. Now is the time to build on that momentum and hope that five players will eventually separate themselves as the best. 

"I mean, look, we're not building rockets," he said. "No, really. It's the truth. 'Step with this foot. Get this shoulder in there.' It's really that. That's the approach we're gonna take. 

"We're going to really try to be very precise in what we do and the way we do it. And we're going to try to play as hard as we can. If we can get them to do that, we have a chance. No guarantees, but we have a chance. That's what we're after."

Patriots get roster exemption for Ebner, add TE Pascoe and OL Halapio

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Patriots get roster exemption for Ebner, add TE Pascoe and OL Halapio

FOXBORO -- The Patriots, as expected, have been given a roster exemption for safety Nate Ebner. Therefore, while Ebner is playing for the USA Rugby Men's Sevens team in the Rio Olympics, his spot will not count against New England's 90-man roster. 

"I’ve talked to Nate several times," coach Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "Wish him well in his endeavor. It’s a great opportunity for him to follow his passion, participate in the Olympic Games. We’re pulling for him to bring back something around his neck."

With the roster exemption, the Patriots found themselves at 88 players on their roster. In order to fill their last two openings, they signed offensive lineman Jon Halapio and tight end Bear Pascoe, Belichick announced. 

Halapio, a product of the University of Florida, was a sixth-round selection by the Patriots in 2014. He was released at the end of training camp that year, and he later landed on the Broncos practice squad in December of 2014. Before the start of last season, Halapio signed with the Cardinals. He was released on Sept. 5. 

In between NFL gigs, Halapio has spent time with the Boston Brawlers and the Brooklyn Bolts, both of the Fall Experimental Football League. 

Pascoe, 30, is in his eighth NFL season. He has spent time with the Giants, Falcons and Lions, primarily as a blocking tight end. In his career, the 6-foot-5, 257-pounder has caught 40 passes for 336 yards and two touchdowns in 85 career games. 

Ebner will participate in the Olympic rugby competition with Team USA beginning on Aug. 6, and fellow Patriots special teams ace Mathew Slater will be paying attention.

"I’m just so happy for him," Slater said. "And I know why rugby means so much to him, and many of us are familiar with the situation with his father, and his father obviously introduced him to the game of [rugby]. So, that connection with father and son is bigger than sport itself.

"I know this means a great deal to him and we’re all excited for him. I’m just trying to figure out where I can get my Ebner rugby jersey. I’ll be supporting him and watching him along the way."