In the new England Patriots team photo that was taken before last January's Super Bowl, one person seems to stand out. It's not quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who's off to the lower left, or running back Curtis Martin, who's off to the lower right. It's not owner Robert Kraft or coach Bill Parcells, who are standing side by side in the middle of the fourth row. Centered perfectly among all four of these principal characters is another important player in the Patriots' scheme, seven-year-veteran tight end Ben Coates, who has reemerged late this year, just as he did in the final weeks last season, as a focal point of the Patriots' drive to the Super Bowl.
On Sunday, with Martin out nursing a sore right shoulder and No. 1 wideout Terry Glenn sidelined with a strained left hamstring, Coates helped New England to its first pivotal post-Parcells victory with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. The precise and physically dominant play of the Patriots in their 26-20 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars raised their record to 9-5 and kept New England in a tie for the AFC East lead with the Miami Dolphins. "Today everything was back to the way it used to be, it was the Patriots of old," said Coates, referring to his role in Sunday's win. "How can the timing be any more perfect with two more [games] to go to get into the postseason?"
Coates's longest reception, a 27-yard play in which he shook off linebacker Kevin Hardy and plowed past safety Chris Hudson to reach the nine-yard line, set up New England's first touchdown. "He's the best tight end in football," said Pats offensive coordinator Larry Kennan.
Coates's five-yard touchdown catch—his seventh of the year and 30th from Bledsoe since 1994—capped a nine-play, 78-yard drive that gave New England a 20-7 lead at the half. Bledsoe called every play during that series, and his execution was flawless. He finished 26 of 35 for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and for the third consecutive game he did not throw an interception. "You couldn't ask anyone to play any better than Drew played today," said Kennan. "What he shares with Ben is a special kind of chemistry."
In 1994, when he was essentially Bledsoe's only receiver, Coates caught 96 passes—an NFL single-season record for a tight end. But with the development of Martin, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both '95 and '96, and Glenn, who last year as a rookie led New England with 90 catches, an agitated Coates had watched his role shrink. His streak of 63 games with a reception ended on Dec. 15, 1996, and he had just 62 catches last season. Despite leading the Patriots with 57 catches this year, he has had three or fewer catches in a game five times.
"It has been kind of frustrating watching this offense because I am capable of making so many more plays," Coates said last week. "I have always been there for Drew, helping him get to where he is today. Sometimes it doesn't seem that way when I go through a whole game and only see two balls. But when he's in trouble, Drew reverts to me."
In the 1996 regular-season finale Coates caught three passes in the fourth quarter, including one for the game-winning touchdown with 1:23 left in a come-from-behind 23-22 victory over the New York Giants. He had a game-high six receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl loss to the Green Bay Packers.
On Sunday, Jacksonville was trailing by a touchdown with 2:15 to play when it attempted an onside kick. The ball bounced once and then floated over the first row of Patriots. But on New England's sideline the players were already celebrating, because the ball was headed toward Coates, who had fielded a similar kick with 1:08 to go of a 20-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 30. He caught this one too, returning the ball 20 yards.
This time of year, especially with tough games left against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dolphins, there's no one the Patriots would rather have holding the ball.