By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - As the Patriots have ascended back to the top of the NFL's elite, you see a little bit more . . . chippiness in their games. In the blowouts, the ass-thrashing recipients turn scrappy. In the close games, the teams wanting to stand up to the Patriots know that they'll have to take and deliver a punch to do so. And, in getting back to where they were, the Patriots havere-embraced their "tougher than thou" mentality. A lot of it flows from left guard Logan Mankins, who rejoined the team Nov. 6 after staying away in a contract squabble."I think Logan is really a catalyst for what we do up there," said quarterback Tom Brady. "Hes a great player for us. Hes tough, hes physical, he brings really a mean spirit to the group. "Logan plays until the echo of the whistle," Brady said, meaning he plays past the initial blow of a referee's whistle. "It goes right up to the end, so he's always in the middle of some altercation or something like that. If there's a pile up, I know Logan's involved. That's just how he plays. That's his style, and I think he brings a great element of toughness to our offense."There's no doubt he'd also be described as dirty by some opponents because of his around-the-pile and post-whistle activities. But a lot of the best NFL linementhrough the yearshave had the same label applied to them - longtime Pro Bowl centerKevin Mawaebeing one of them. There's an enforcer role that offensive linemen have to fill and Mankins is adept at it. "You always want your team to play as one, for the 10 guys to support the 11th guy and all that," Bill Belichick observed. "That's what a unit is; it's out on the field. They're all playing together; they're supporting each other, both emotionally and from a functional standpoint, on the field."I know that there's stuff that goes on after the play at times," Belichick explained. "I think, as a team, you have to be able to stand up to that, not at the expense of getting penalties and personal fouls and all that, but to hold your ground and be able to play the game and not get pushed around out there."The Patriots have done an excellent job toeing the line between chippy and dirty(or penalizable). They have 65 penalties so far this season, fourth-fewest in the leaguebehind the Colts, Dolphins and Falcons (who have an amazing 49 penalties all year). Between keeping the ball in their possession, taking it from their opponents, turning mistakes into scores and playing within the rules, New England isdoing it better than anybody. And if a couple of coconuts need to get banged together along the way by Mankins and his buddies . . . so be it.