Stretch Run for the Patriots
And so the rat returns to face the perpetrator. Now it’ll get interesting.
Or perhaps not.
The Patriots are 13-0, one win away from joining the ’72 Dolphins as the only team to win fourteen regular season games without a loss. Unforeseen nail-biters against Philly and Baltimore are in the rear-view; so too is a dispatching of the Steelers, formerly billed as “the last hurdle”. All that’s left to tackle (among an assortment of Jets, Dolphins and Giants) is history. The formality of formalities.
While Patriots-speak forbids peering down the road at what may be, it’s nearly impossible not to see the finish line taking form. On Sunday against the Jets, be it rain or shine, well predicted-Nor’easter or meteorological hype, the Patriots are going to hand Mangini’s boys a beating. It’s going to be fun, for sure, but interesting? All the media wants to know is what will ultimatley be icier: the conditions on the field in Foxborough or the post-massacre handshake between coaches. While Coach Bill would never reveal a goal loftier than winning one football game that’s next on the schedule, the eternally curt-Belichick gave writers and fans a singular slice of something other than humble pie during his midweek press conference leading up to the Jets game.
The questions were naturally focused on how “the handshake” would go down, to which the monotonous guru responded predictably: “Right now my focus is on getting ready for the New York Jets.” Mmm hmm.
Anything else, coach?
“High-fives, I haven’t really thought too much about that,” he continued. “Cartwheels.”
Whoa, rewind that. Was that (gulp!) humor emanating from the robotic minister of Patriots information? Did the coach’s inner comedian suffer a Freudian slip? Uh, no. Judging from the wily smirk that followed the quip, in a moment that brought brief but distinct animation to an otherwise insipid public persona, it sure as heck seemed like Bill was temporarily deviating from the token replies established by his personally accumulated guidebook to press conferences, “Belichick Media Responses 1A through 999Z”. In a split second Bill delivered a one-two punch that left the press corps reeling. First a joke…then a grin??
Since it is common knowledge that at the podium Belichick doesn’t so much as scratch his nose without calculation, one could only wonder what he was really trying to say. I mean we are talking about a guy whose total number of recorded smiles in his Patriots-tenure could be counted on one hand.
Was he foreshadowing a rehearsed post-game routine that would involve pirouettes and would thoroughly rub bitter defeat in the face of his protege-turned-squealer? Nah, Bill’s never really been the melodramatic type. More probable is the possibility that he was using some media-driven triviality to express his general feelings about the state of Patriot-affairs at this point in the 2007 season. Because from a Patriots point of view, things are looking so downright peachy these days, apparently a smile was in order.
The goal of Belichick’s Patriots since he took over the team in 2000 has always been the same: get to the games that matter, the games in December and January, and enter those games as the stronger and more meticulously prepared team. When the weather gets colder and the season is already 12-odd games in the books, it is schemes, game-planning and the mental toughness to go sixty minutes that come to the forefront. Under Bill, with countless different inserted-working parts over the years, it is in those circumstances that the Patriots have thrived.
Since 2001, New England has gone a combined 38-7 (.844) over the last month of the regular season and through the playoffs. Belichick and Brady are 12-2 in the postseason together. Translation: this is their time. So what does this have to do with one smirk from Belichick in relation to a very specific topic? In this sportswriters opinion, everything.
What Belichick now sees, even if he’ll never come close to admitting it, is the perfection he’s sought since before this latest Jets game, before CameraGate and even before the start of the ’07 campaign. It all began back in Indy last January, in the AFC Championship. The Patriots were supposed to win that game. Belichick knew it. Brady knew it. Josh McDaniels and Scott Pioli and the Kraft’s knew it. We all did. The Patriots were up to their old tricks: they were beating a team with superior talent on the biggest stage simply by being mentally and physically tougher, by being better-coached, by making fewer mistakes, and by collectively knowing that they’d make the one game-changing play required to advance or win a championship.
But they didn’t. They couldn’t. For once it was the Patriots’ opposition that was able to make the adjustments. For once it was the other team making the championship-clinching play. For the first time since Belichick and Brady hooked up, the “inferior talent but superior team” factor that had defined the glory of their improbable triumphs against the Rams and Steelers and previous Colts’ outfits had finally come back to bite them in the rear. Against Indy, they were again outmatched skill-wise, but the difference was this time they actually lost the game.
Thus commenced an entire shift in the modus operandi of the Patriots’ brass. Never again would a lack of talent thwart the Patriots in their quest to become the franchise that redefined NFL-history. So in trotted Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. Perfection was the un-divulged goal from square one. However, before this new team even had a chance to come together, Eric Mangini broke an unspoken coaches code–throwing kerosene on a fire that had started burning in Indy last year–and morphed a New England goal into a Patriot-vendetta.
No one said it would be easy, and as much as Belichick and his team believed it could happen, perfection would still have to be earned. After storming back against the Colts and surviving the Ravens, the Patriots have shown they are up to the task.
Yes, they still have six more games before goals can be achieved and vendettas settled. But the point is, this is their time. Games against the lowly Jets, the hapless Dolphins and the Giants jayvee squad will formalize a perfect 16-0 season and put the Patriots exactly where they want to be: in Foxborough with two games at Gillette for the right to return to the Super Bowl.
Indeed, I gleaned all this conjecture from a single smirk. But I’ll ask you this: if we’ve already seen Belichick crack a smile this season, a happening that in past years has only been witnessed after an Adam Vinatieri title-winning kick, what could still be to come?
I for one have a feeling he’s saving the cartwheels for Phoenix.