EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 22, 2010

Belichick has Pats edging closer to utopia

Bill Burt

FOXBORO — The last time Bill Belichick & Co. impaled the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis Colts, in Foxboro, on consecutive weekends, your New England Patriots were the cream of the crop.

Tom Brady had just become Tom Brady. The Patriots had recently capped off an NFL-record 21 straight victories, one of the proudest badge of honors this decade. And the Patriots were en route to their third Super Bowl in four years.

But if anything defined "football utopia," at least in the Patriots head coach's complex mind, it was those back-to-back Sundays in January of 2005.

The Patriots hosted the NFL's then-highest scoring team ever, the Colts, in the AFC semifinal, and held them to a measly field goal. A week later they traveled to Pittsburgh and played the 15-1 Steelers, the NFL leader in fewest yards and fewest points allowed, and hung 41 points on them.

By the time they took care of the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville, Belichick had built his perfect team, a team that could play any style, anywhere at any time.

Domes, rain, snow, wind ... it didn't matter. The game plan changed every week. One week it was blitzing. The next week it was zone coverage. One week it's passes to tight ends. The next week it was bubble screens.

The Patriots dictated the pace of the game. They usually scored first and often. And sure, they held on for dear life — see last night's 31-28 nail-biter — at the end.

Well, the last two weeks, sans the nail-biting fourth quarter scares, have looked a lot like January of 2005.

Last week the Patriots blitzed Ben Roethlisberger more than twice as many times as any other quarterback in the league. Last night, it was extra defenders playing zone coverage.

Against the Steelers the Patriots threw it 43 times and ran it 24 times. Against the Colts they threw it only 25 times and ran it 34 times.

Do you follow a theme here?

"The one thing you can always count on with the Patriots is they never show you the same thing twice," said Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. "They disguise coverages differently from week to week. ... They fooled me a few times (yesterday)."

What is becoming clearer every Sunday is that the best thing Belichick did was cut ties with Randy Moss, who is 1-5 since leaving the Patriots. Locker room and attitude issues aside, these Patriots have gone back to their 2004 roots on the football field since trading Moss. Which is winning.

They can score 39 points in Pittsburgh and they can go punch-for-punch with the Baltimore Ravens and squeak out a 23-20 win.

"They're the Patriots," said Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne. "I know we've probably had the best of them recently (5-1 record before last night's loss since the start of the 2005 season). But it doesn't seem that way. It seems like we are always chasing them and their Super Bowls."

Lest we forget that trait from those the Patriots' Super Bowl championship teams, one that wasn't evident in the humbling loss to the New York Giants in Glendale, Az.

The Patriots are tough.

"I realize a lot of the faces have changed, but this (Patriots) team is good, really good," said Wayne. "They always come up with a good plan and bother us. And then, I don't know what it is, they just wait for a mistake and then they pounce on it. I respect these guys a lot."

The fact that the Patriots defense gave up 28 points last night is one thing, but in the end it was their defense that won the game when it mattered most.

It's a scary thought. Maybe these Patriots really are on the verge of being great.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.