Ex-Gators step up in playoffs

New England wide receiver Reche Caldwell celebrates his pass reception that set up the winning field goal against San Diego on Sunday.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

ATLANTA — Two former University of Florida players - NFL castoffs - are the latest in the line of little-known wide receivers that have New England on the verge of another Super Bowl.

Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell were not even with the Patriots last year but have been instrumental in two playoff victories this season, adding to the growing legend of quarterback Tom Brady.

While the absence of two big-name receivers didn't make things easy, coach Bill Belichick and Brady have found a way to get around the problem and return to the AFC Championship game.

"I think the guys have taken a lot of pride in what they do, and they continue to get better each week," Brady, 12-1 in the playoffs, said following Sunday's divisional win over San Diego. "A lot of it is just learning the system, trying to figure out a role. Jabar and Reche have really stepped up, and Troy (Brown) has been really dependable. We're very comfortable with what we're doing in the passing game."

After four seasons with Houston, Gaffney signed as an unrestricted free agent by Philadelphia but was released at the end of training camp. The Patriots signed Gaffney Oct. 9, taking him ahead of available veterans Charles Rogers and Kevin Johnson.

Caldwell was signed as an unrestricted free agent after four years with San Diego, where he had reputation for untimely drops and unfulfilled promise. Caldwell never caught more than 28 passes in a season.

Gaffney and Caldwell, two of four ex-Gator receivers on the Patriots including Chad Jackson and Kelvin Kight, have been instrumental in New England's postseason success, wins over the New York Jets and San Diego. Indianapolis awaits in the AFC title game on Sunday. A win would send the Patriots to their fourth Super Bowl in six years.

Gaffney didn't get started with the Patriots until Game 6 against Buffalo. He caught just 18 balls and scored only one touchdown in 10 games. That changed in the postseason; Gaffney has caught 18 passes in two games, 10 of them in last week's defeat of San Diego.

Caldwell caught a team-leading 61 passes during the regular season. He's added 12 receptions in the playoffs, including seven against San Diego, one a 49-yard hookup that set up the winning field goal.

"They work hard. They study a lot of film," Belichick said. "They watch film together as a group and try to watch it with the quarterbacks. I'm impressed with the way they work. I think it's been consistent, and it continues to get better."

Caldwell agreed that their success came from hard work.

"We go out and work hard to try to get better every day," Caldwell said. "A lot of people don't give us any credit, but we just try to make plays."

"We're never going to quit," Gaffney said. "You have to play every game like it's a big game. You want to do your part, and if the ball comes your way you want to get it."

Brady's confidence in the group has grown. That was evident Sunday against the Chargers, when 17 of his 27 completions went to the newcomers.

When their two most productive receivers went to other markets after last season, the Patriots again were left with question marks at the position.

Most observers figured the departures of David Givens (59 catches in 2005) and Deion Branch (78 catches) would siphon away some of Brady's passing magic.

"They're well prepared," Belichick told reporters. "And they really try to do all the little things to get it right. I have a lot of respect for them."

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