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ARMSTRONG RETIRES FROM PATRIOTS

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Bruce Armstrong was Drew Bledsoe's security blanket for eight years, the left tackle who protected the New England quarterback.

There was nothing Armstrong could do Sunday about the hard hit that caused bleeding in Bledsoe's chest cavity. For the first time in 15 years, Armstrong was not in a uniform in September.

After playing in a team-record 212 games, six Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl, Armstrong announced his retirement Friday even though he wanted to play another season.

"I always said I wanted to play here, finish my career in one place, and I made no bones about wanting to play another year, but it didn't work out that way," he said.

Armstrong did not attend any training camp this summer.

The Patriots are rebuilding with young linemen after going 5-11. So on Sunday, they'll retire Armstrong's No. 78 during a ceremony before the Indianapolis game and put him in the team's Hall of Fame, waiving the five-year waiting period.

"I do not harbor any bad sentiments toward the franchise," Armstrong said. "When you play for one franchise your whole career, I'll always be a Patriot."

But it was hard for him to watch the hit that injured Bledsoe, who said last season, "I still trust him with my life and livelihood on every play."

Bledsoe is expected to miss at least three games after trying to gain extra yards and being knocked out of bounds by Mo Lewis in the New York Jets' 10-3 win last Sunday.

"I'd have been the first one to tell him, next time get himself out of bounds," Armstrong said.

Armstrong, 36, rarely bailed out on his teammates or plays. He overcame a devastating knee injury in 1992 and played in four Pro Bowls after that. But as his knee deteriorated in his final seasons, his play declined.

Perhaps the high point, as well as the low point, of his career came in the 1997 Super Bowl.

Bill Parcells, who led the Patriots there, was the best coach Armstrong played for and "knows almost as much about the game as he thinks he does," Armstrong said with a smile.

But the Patriots lost that Super Bowl to Green Bay, 35-21, and Armstrong sobbed in the locker room.

"It was the absolute bottom," he said. "We got so close. The remainder of my career was spent trying to get back there."

Around the league

Michael Vick's tender rib cage will prevent the Atlanta Falcons from using their two-quarterback system Sunday. Still hurting from a blow he took last week, Vick was unable to do more than throw a few warm-up passes in practice Friday. Afterward, coach Dan Reeves indicated the NFL's No. 1 draft choice will serve as the No. 3 emergency backup in Arizona.

"If he could be used at all, it would be as a third quarterback, and Doug Johnson will be the second," said Reeves, who will start Chris Chandler.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Donald Hayes missed Friday's practice with an ankle injury and his status for Sunday's home opener with Green Bay is uncertain. If Hayes isn't able to play, Isaac Byrd would step into a starting role opposite Muhsin Muhammad.

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