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Monday, January 08, 2007

How Will the Pats Try to Stop the Chargers?

Read this book and you'll get a serious clue.

Okay, I'll give you the "Cliffs Notes" version. The book is "The Education of a Coach" by David Halberstam, and it's about the education of Bill Belichick and how he became the coach he is today. It's a wonderful book, and I recommend it for the serious football fan and the student of any game. There's great insight about how a coach looks at a game.

What's instructive on the point I raise in the title of this post is how New England changed its defense to defeat the St. Louis Rams and their "Greatest Show on Turf" in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. The Rams had defeated the Patriots right before Thankgsiving in Foxboro, and the home team hadn't played particularly well. Belichick knew it would be tough to beat the Rams, who had a bunch of weapons with MVP QB Kurt Warner, RB Marshall Faulk and a great group of receivers, including Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. The question was how.

Many observers feared the passing game of the Rams the most. Warner threw tight spirals, didn't make mistakes, and the Rams liked the vertical game. The receivers were fleet and sure-handed. This team didn't fiddle around with the West Coast Offense. Under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, this team tried to torch you. They finished the regular season 14-2 and were a double-digit favorite to win the Super Bowl (New England finished the regular season at 11-5).

But when Belichick and his assistants watched the film, one aspect of the Rams' offense kept on resonating in Belichick's mind -- how critical Marshall Faulk was to the Rams' attack. Faulk was a great runner and even better pass receiver, and Belichick designed a defense that would hit Faulk on every play, regardles of whether Faulk touched the ball or not. Hit him hard and tire him out. Even if the Patriots succeeded in carrying out this game plan, Belichick wasn't totally sure it would be enough. In his mind, the Rams were that good.

So what happened?

The game was a close one, and with about 1:45 left the Patriots got the ball. I vividly recall John Madden's saying that they should run out the clock and prepare for overtime. I also recally my slapping my hand on my chair and saying, "Nothing doing. You're a professional football team, you have plenty of time. And you play to win."

So Tom Brady remained calm and led the Patriots down the field, and Adam Vinatieri kicked a last-second field goal to win the game for the Patriots, thereby starting the now-great reputations both players have for being cool under fire and able to deliver in the clutch. Madden, I recall, quickly admitted that he had erred in his assessment.

So remember this, though: even with the all-out effort the Patriots threw at the vaunted Rams' offense, they "only" won the game on a last-second field goal.

But who cares, right? That's all anyone will remember, anyway. The game plan worked well enough to win a championship.

And a good part of the credit goes to a game plan that derailed the highly potent "Greatest Show on Turf."

Can the 2006-2007 version of the New England Patriots do it again, this time to Mr. Tomlinson? The Patriots "only" have one week to prepare for a well-rested Chargers squad. The Chargers, of course, are, going into the playoffs, the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Sounds just like the type of challenge Bill Belichick relishes.

And we've seen what can happen when he faces challenges like these.

You know that the Chargers won't be taking this game lightly.

And you know that the Patriots will try to make Philip Rivers beat them.


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