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Patriots' Flexibility Is Source of Strength

Belichick's Planning, Team's Adaptability Are Hard to Beat

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; Page D01

PITTSBURGH -- His cheeks still pink from spending more than four hours on the sidelines in sub-zero wind chill, New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick seemed to turn a brighter shade of red late Sunday night when someone mentioned that his team's 41-27 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers had moved him into a tie with Vince Lombardi as the most successful playoff coach in NFL history.

"It's very flattering to have my name mentioned with his name," said Belichick, who is 8-0 in the postseason with the Patriots. Overall, he is 9-1, as is Lombardi. "I really don't think I'm deserving of that. I think it's stretching it a bit."

Ted Johnson chases down Antwaan Randle El. The Patriots' offense excelled against the Steelers one week after their defense stifled the Colts. (Keith Srakocic -- AP)

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Anyone who had seen his team's back-to-back playoff victories in the previous seven days might have disagreed. On consecutive weekends, his team showed a diversity surprising even to those who thought they knew everything there was to know about Belichick and the defending Super Bowl champions. The Patriots played a defensive game that shut down the NFL's No. 2 offense, then turned around and played an offensive game that stunned the NFL's No. 1 defense.

On Jan. 16, the Patriots' defense held the Indianapolis Colts offense to three points, stopping Peyton Manning, who had thrown a record 49 touchdown passes in the regular season. With their own somewhat underrated offense, the Patriots got 144 rushing yards out of running back Corey Dillon, controlled the clock for almost 38 minutes and were dominant in a 20-3 victory at home in swirling snow and wind.

A week later, on a brutally cold night on the road when deep passing seemed pure folly, the Patriots surprised the Steelers with an early 60-yard touchdown pass and put up 41 points, 11 more than the Steelers had allowed in a game all year.

The Patriots' defense also played a critical role, intercepting three passes by rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, including one returned for a touchdown; holding Jerome Bettis to only 64 yards rushing in 17 carries; and recovering a costly Bettis fumble. That play came on fourth and one from the Patriots 39 with New England leading, 3-0. There was no question Steelers Coach Bill Cowher was going for the first down since his team had rolled up 221 rushing yards in the teams' first game, a 34-20 Pittsburgh victory on Oct. 31. Bettis was usually money in the bank in those situations.

But Belichick "saw something and he alerted me to it and it turned out to be huge," said Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, who was on the field for the fourth-down play. "It was just an adjustment. I really can't go into it. But that stuff happens all the time. It's amazing sometimes."

Of all Belichick's accomplishments in New England, perhaps the most telling statistic on his Patriots résumé is that when his team plays an opponent a second time in a season, it is 13-0. The Patriots next will play the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6. They'll try to win their third Super Bowl in four years, playing a team they haven't faced this season.

"Win, lose or draw, we always go back and look at things we could have done better to try to learn something," Belichick said after the Steelers game.

Every team claims to do the same, but the Patriots almost always manage to find something they can do better, and often find a way to combine that knowledge with the flexibility to play a formidable game on either offense or defense.

"I'm the kicker so I'm not in every meeting," kicker Adam Vinatieri said Sunday night. "But every week, he gives us a darned good game plan. He knows exactly what we need to do, and if we do it, we win."

On Monday, Belichick had begun preparing for the Eagles -- after a 3:30 a.m. arrival in Boston. "[Philadelphia] led the NFC from wire to wire," he said. "We've got a lot of work ahead of us. But we have some time to prepare, and we'll try to use that time efficiently."

The turnaround in New England's play from the Patriots' first meeting against Pittsburgh spoke to the team's ability to switch gears instantly after the Colts game -- "a totally different game plan and style of play," Belichick said Monday -- and prepare for the far more physical Steelers.

It was also a testament to his team's ability to learn from its mistakes in the first Steelers debacle, make the proper adjustments and exploit weaknesses as they develop.

In the first game, everything went the Steelers' way from the opening kickoff. Pittsburgh scored 24 unanswered points, 21 in the first quarter, and pounded the Patriots the rest of the way, controlling the clock for almost 43 minutes. With a big early lead, they were able to blitz Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, forcing four sacks, intercepting two passes and causing another Brady fumble.

But Brady went into that game without two of his most important offensive players -- Dillon and wide receiver Deion Branch. With Dillon back on Sunday night, the Steelers had to respect the run, often resulting in Brady getting single coverage on his receivers. Dillon gained 73 yards on 24 carries, including a 25-yard touchdown run in the second half when the Steelers were trying to rally. And Brady was able to reassert himself as the consummate playoff quarterback.

Branch, who caught 10 passes for 143 yards in the Patriots' Super Bowl victory over Carolina last year, had watched the first game against Pittsburgh at home and said he was so revolted that he turned the television off in the fourth quarter. "We all had a bitter taste in our mouths," he said Sunday night.

It got sweeter quickly, first with that 60-yard scoring pass, then with a 45-yard catch that set up the Patriots' second touchdown and a 17-3 lead. Branch put the finishing touches on the victory when he took a handoff from Brady on an end around with 2 minutes 23 seconds remaining in the game and went 23 yards for a touchdown for a 21-point lead that ended any hope for a Steelers comeback.

His final numbers were four receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown and two carries for 37 yards and another touchdown. "Deion Branch had probably the best game of his career with his route running," Brady said. "It was great to see him do that."

And then there was Brady. He, too, had been embarrassed by his performance in the first Steelers game, and said as much. He atoned for that showing with a practically perfect game, hitting 14 of his 21 pass attempts for 207 yards and two touchdowns. More significantly, he had a 130.5 passer rating and, for the second straight week, no interceptions.

"There's no quarterback I'd rather have," Belichick said. ""I just don't think the magnitude of the game or the crowd bothers him."

Roethlisberger was another story. A week earlier, he was intercepted twice by the New York Jets in his first playoff experience, and the Patriots had to sense he was feeling the pressure of being a rookie playing on the grandest stage of his life.

Patriots safety Rodney Harrison saw something in his tape study that made him think Roethlisberger might be vulnerable. Midway through the second quarter, with his team leading, 17-3, Harrison picked his spot. He saw Roethlisberger rolling out and stepped in front of the pass intended for tight end Jerame Tuman, returning it 87 yards for a touchdown and a back-breaking 24-3 lead. A week earlier, Roethlisberger had been victimized on an 86-yard interception touchdown return.

"He definitely wants to run, run to throw the ball," Harrison said. "On the film, he would sometimes lob some up. I tried to anticipate a little bit and wait for him to take the lead, then step in front of him. From then on, it was just smooth sailing."

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