When the playoffs finally ended late Sunday–very late Sunday–the two teams left standing had been the favorites of most experts when the season began: The Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots. One team that had a reputation, until Sunday, for always losing the big game, the other with a history of always winning it. Something to consider if you are thinking about betting on the Super Bowl.
Sunday’s games were not especially good–something that could be said about virtually all of the playoff games. The Eagles made Atlanta’s Michael Vick look like a scrambling college quarterback who was out of his depth. These are the pros, after all, where all the players are great athletes and discipline and teamwork tend to prevail over spontaneity. Jevon Kearse, and the rest of the Eagle defense, kept Vick contained on the outside and forced Atlanta to pass. Vick is not an especially good passer and one wonders if he ever will be. As long as he can bail out and run, how likely is it that he will hang in there, until the last possible moment, waiting for a receiver to come open? Watching him, you can almost hear his mind working, “Looks like everyone is covered, baby, I’m outta here.” If he routinely gives up on the pass too quickly, eventually, his receivers will quit early on their routes.
The Eagles quarterback, Donovan McNabb, can also run but he has tried to make himself into a quarterback who passes first and runs merely to survive. He had a good, efficient afternoon and took the Eagles to a 27-10 win in the conference championship game which they had lost the three previous seasons. They are going to Jacksonville (Jacksonville?) for the Super Bowl and if they win, they can drive across the state to DisneyWorld to celebrate.
Trouble is, they will first have to beat the New England Patriots.
The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions and an exceptional team with no exceptional players. The sport is professional football and the Pats are a team of professionals. A week ago, they played the Indianapolis Colts whose quarterback, Peyton Manning, had rewritten the record books and pushed the television golden throats to new heights of hyperbole. The Colts and their supercharged offense were expected to test the Patriots defense–already weakened by injuries–like it had never been tested.
The Colts scored one field goal. Manning completed no passes longer than 20 yards.
The game was 6-3 at halftime. Then New England came out and put together two long, remorseless drives. On the last play of the game, while trying to salvage some pride, Manning put the ball up, but his receiver was covered in the end zone and the pass was intercepted.
So, the Patriots could plainly shut down a high rpm offense. But they would be playing a different kind of team for the American Conference championship. The Pittsburgh Steelers had, in fact, beaten the Patriots pretty handily in the regular reason and done it with muscle, not finesse. It was no secret that they would be trying to do the same thing in the rematch. Run the ball and play tough defense–the fundamentalist creed of professional football.
The Patriots shut down the Steelers massive back, Jerome Bettis, just enough that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was forced to pass. He threw some good balls but he also threw some that he will think about at three in the morning for a long time to come. The Patriots intercepted him three times. Tom Brady, their quarterback, did not throw an interception. When they needed to shut down the Steelers in the 4th quarter, the Patriots put on a drive that ate up four minutes or so of valuable time and ended in a field goal. On that drive, they played the kind of physical football the Steelers had built their reputation on and cruised to a 41-27 victory.
The Patriots, then, seem to know how to beat you at whatever game you play. They do not do it with stars but by playing as a complete team–the only one in football right now. The character of any football team always reflects–to some degree–that of its coach. Which may explain why the Patriots, while they are a great team, are decidedly not a glamorous team.
Working the sidelines while dressed in his trademark hooded gray sweatshirt, Bill Belichick looks like a melancholy monk going about his devotions. In interviews, his answers are bland and clichéd even by the high standards of coaching locutions. If he were wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, you would want him for your accountant. In Armani, he could be a hedge fund manager. He is an exceptionally good coach when it comes to that side of the game known as “scheming.” That is, he devises strategies to take away the thing you do best and to exploit you where you are weak. Ask Peyton Manning about it.
But scheming can become an obsession with some coaches, blinding them to the fundamental truths of the game. You still need players to execute the schemes and do it with heart, playing as a team. Belichick–who is reputed to have a lot to say about the Patriots personnel decisions–has found a way to get his kind of players and get them to buy into what he does. A possible component of his success might just be the exceedingly self-effacing way he comes off in the press. He does not hog the glory. Seems put off by it, in fact.
It is about the players and the team, he says. Modestly. They deserve all the credit.
One suspects he will be saying it again, after the Super Bowl.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.