Patriots will be well-prepared

Coach Bill Belichek focuses his obsessive game-planning on the Colts' Peyton Manning.

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 12:25 a.m.

BOSTON - Bill Belichick had just wrapped up the regular season with the NFL's best record and turned his single-minded sights to the playoffs when he was hit with a question that, for once, caught him off-guard.

``Do you have any New Year's resolutions?'' he was asked, 36 hours before the end of 2003.

``We still have a couple of days on that, right?'' the New England Patriots coach told chuckling reporters before gathering his thoughts and breaking them up with: ``Probably the same as last year, to be as helpful as I possibly can to the media.''

It's hard to tell which was more comical: the idea that Belichick would extend himself for the press, or the notion that he had interrupted his fanatical game-planning to think about something that might not have to do with football.

``His preparation is second to none,'' Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Friday. ``Sometimes we come in on Wednesday morning to get the game plan and it doesn't even look like our playbook. We say, `OK, we've got a whole bunch of new things to learn.' ''

Belichick's scheming could face its biggest test of the season Sunday when Peyton Manning brings the Indianapolis Colts to Foxboro for the AFC Championship game. Manning has played two virtually perfect playoff games, and his ability to read and counter defenses is a big reason why.

Colts coach Tony Dungy trusts Manning to call the plays at the line of scrimmage, or change the play when he gets there. Of course, sometimes Manning is just pretending to change the play when he makes a series of audibles that are nothing but a decoy.

``You can only disguise them so long,'' New England defensive end Willie McGinest said. ``He is going to call what he is going to call anyway. The thing is, whatever is called, whatever he runs, you just have to stop it. You can't play the chess match. You can't play the guessing game with him. You have to believe in your defense and your system.''

That's where Belichick comes in.

Although he has softened some since his days in Cleveland, when he was known to show up in public disheveled and irritable, Belichick is still unlikely to allow anything to catch him unprepared. Players say Belichick weeds through the hours of game tape on an opponent so they can focus on the few things that could decide the game.

``He breaks it down simply,'' Brady said. ``He says, 'These are the things we need to do to win. These are some things, if you do them, we're going to lose.' He doesn't really overwhelm you with stuff.''

And one of those things is to keep opponents guessing. Belichick presents a wide range array of defenses that can confuse lesser quarterbacks, and even caught Manning by surprise on Nov. 30.

Indianapolis had a fourth-and-goal from the 1 at the end of the game, and Manning may have been tricked into running right at McGinest. New England won 38-34, and that's why the title game will be played in Foxboro.

``We are not going to show him anything he hasn't seen before. We are not going to reinvent the wheel or anything this week,'' Belichick said. ``There is no magic to it. They've got too many weapons.''

The Patriots have won 13 consecutive games, including last weekend's 17-14 playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans. Indianapolis has played two playoff games and hasn't punted even once - scoring 79 points - and tight end Marcus Pollard said this week that if the Colts keep playing that way, ``they might as well just hand us the rings.''

The big question is whether the New England defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the NFL this year, can do better against Manning than Denver or Kansas City did. With Belichick devising the schemes, the Patriots are confident that they can.

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