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Published: Thursday, 10/11/2007

Patriots, Vrabel focus on Cowboys

Reporters grill New England player Mike Vrabel about his hit on Sunday against Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas. Reporters grill New England player Mike Vrabel about his hit on Sunday against Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Forget about the Browns. Forget about one Cleveland player's description of Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as "classless."

Vrabel and his New England teammates are looking ahead to a bigger challenge Sunday - stopping Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and the Dallas Cowboys' top-ranked offense.

With 11 seconds left and the Patriots leading 34-17 last Sunday, Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson prepared to spike the ball. Vrabel rushed and hit left tackle Joe Thomas low. Thomas was knocked back and Anderson ended up on the ground.

Guard Eric Steinbach on Monday called Vrabel "classless" and said he deliberately dived at Thomas' knees after the outcome of the game had been decided.

"I don't play that way and I'm sorry that they feel that way," Vrabel said yesterday in his first remarks on the issue, "and we're going to move on."

He got plenty of support from his teammates, sort of.

"I've known Mike five years now," said safety Rodney Harrison, who himself has been criticized as a dirty player. "Tremendous football player, even better person, family man. Nothing's dirty on Mike except his underwear."

Then Harrison laughed.

Vrabel, an 11-year veteran in his seventh season with the Patriots, didn't want to explain the play any further, even declining to say whether he stumbled at the start, resulting in the low hit.

"A lot of these people want to hear about Dallas," he said to one reporter in a large group, "so let's keep it to Dallas."

OK, then, what about Romo, who was having an outstanding season before throwing five interceptions in Monday night's 25-24 win at Buffalo?

"He has the trust of that football team," Vrabel said. "He knows were his playmakers are and the thing he's doing this year is he's dumping the ball off. He's not forcing it in there. He's not trying to jam it in there because he's got good backs."

Then, there's Jason Witten, a tight end who is tied for ninth in the NFL with 29 receptions.

"He's always getting open," Harrison said. "He's always catching the ball and he's one of the tight ends who has the ability to run short routes, intermediate as well as deep routes."

And don't forget about Owens. The memory is still fresh of his nine-catch, 122-yard performance for Philadelphia in the 2005 Super Bowl when he played against his doctor's advice only 6 1/2 weeks after ankle surgery. The Patriots won 24-21.

Owens "almost single-handedly beat us," Harrison said.

"He's just a go-getter," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "You can knock him for his celebration, for his arrogance, for what type of person he is on or off the field, but he goes out there and he makes plays and you just have to be aware of him all the time."

That makes it more important for the Patriots to pressure the mobile Romo and keep him in the pocket.

Their success could depend a lot on Vrabel, who leads the Patriots with 3 1/2 sacks and isn't about to give up on a play, even if it can't have a bearing on the result.

Steinbach didn't like that when Vrabel went full speed at the end of last Sunday's game.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick defended his outside linebacker.

"The only reason Mike was even in the vicinity of anyone's legs or knees is because he was pushed down," Belichick told the Boston Globe. "Then they hit him late.

"It looked to me that the players were off-balance probably because the offense, knowing it was a spike, slowed down and Mike just did what any defensive player should do - play hard to the whistle and take nothing for granted. I wouldn't tell Mike to do anything differently."

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