PHILADELPHIA -- Asante Samuel warned his teammates all week. In another football life, he was a New England Patriot. He tried to tell the Philadelphia Eagles what it would be like facing a Bill Belichick-coached team, the NFL version of a staring contest where the Patriots' gaze is unwavering.
Samuel conveyed the message that any mistake would be magnified, any weakness probed and exploited, any error potentially fatal in a football sense. He knew that Belichick's Patriots, no matter how obscure some of the names on the back of jerseys, have one defining characteristic: they don't beat themselves.
"I definitely told the team that," said Samuel as he exited the Eagles' locker room after the Patriots' prophetic 38-20 victory over Philadelphia yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field. "I told them that was probably what Belichick was emphasizing -- let us make all the mistakes and we'll beat ourselves. That's exactly what happened."
The Dream Team was dusted by the Scheme Team.
Next to the surgical play of quarterback Tom Brady, who took advantage of a depleted Eagles secondary by going 24 of 34 for 361 yards and three touchdowns, the ability to avoid self-inflicted wounds with few exceptions is the defining characteristic of the Patriots. Discipline and diligence are embedded in the team's DNA.
It's why they're sitting at 8-3 tied for with Houston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the best record in the AFC, despite a defense relying heavily on players who were discarded or disregarded. The same defense that limited the NFL's leading rusher LeSean McCoy to 10 carries for 31 yards, 22 of which came on one rush.
Anyone who watched the NFL Network's Belichick documentary/infomercial chronicling the 2009 season remembers him saying after a loss in New Orleans, "I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. It’s so frustrating."
The exact opposite is true this year. This team is playing exactly the way Belichick wants them to play -- efficient, exacting, and consistent -- no matter who is at safety or linebacker or center.
"I think they're trying to do their part in terms of physically and mentally, day after day, week after week, be consistent, be dependable and do what we ask them to do," said Belichick. "I know we demand a lot, and this isn't an easy place to play. And I'm not an easy guy to play for, but they have tried to respond. I give them credit for that."
Translation of Belichick speak: I really like my team and the way they play.
You wonder if secretly Belichick likes it better this way, playing with a bunch of fringe players who will buy into him like a high-tech company IPO.
He knows that the Antwaun Moldens, Phillip Adams, Sterling Moores and Julian Edelmans are going to take every word he says as the gospel. More established or talented players might be more concerned with their stats, their rep around the league or showing up on ESPN. These guys not only take coaching, they crave it because they know the alternative is unemployment.
It sounds so simple: just play smart, detail-oriented, disciplined football. Every coach preaches it, yet few teams play it. Week after week in the NFL you see teams pushing the self-destruct button with poor clock management, situational ignorance and suspect decisions. These are largely foreign concepts in New England.
Belichick's ability to consistently get his teams to lock in and play smart, tough, disciplined football -- even with a revolving door defense -- is remarkable, like watching a conductor coax a particular timbre out of an orchestra. The job he is doing this season is deserving of mention with the coaching masterpieces of 2008 and 2004. The 2001 season is of course the untouchable pièce de résistance.
Players win football games. Let's get that straight. But the ability to put players of varying talent levels in a position to succeed collectively is the essence of great coaching.
Never was the difference between a collection of talent and gridiron gestalt more obvious than watching the Patriots whip the Eagles yesterday. Even without quarterback Michael Vick and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia has more talent on paper. On the field, the Eagles broke out to a 10-0 lead, scoring on their first two drives with the help of deep passes from Vince Young to Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson.
After that they dropped touchdown passes, played flag football -- 10 penalties for 60 yards -- and got ground down by the Patriots' excellence of execution. The performance was so bad that the always venomous and vociferous Philadelphia fandom chanted for the dismissal of coach Andy Reid and derided its own team with calls of "overrated."
Samuel called the game "probably one of the most embarrassing losses that I've ever dealt with."
The play of each team's undersized wide receiver defined the divide between a team from the House of Hoodie and one from another NFL outpost. Edelman will never be the dynamic downfield receiving threat that Jackson is, but somehow he did more to help his team win yesterday, including covering Jackson on occasion.
While Edelman threw his body around on offense, defense, and special teams like a crash-test dummy, Jackson lost both his concentration and his right to be on the field, getting benched by Reid.
Jackson made a business decision by dropping a would-be touchdown catch in the second quarter, when he heard the footsteps of linebacker Tracy White. He dropped another touchdown late in the third quarter, letting a deep ball from Young slip through his hands in the end zone.
You can't win without talent -- and the Patriots have that -- but you can win with less of it when you play a brand of football that minimizes miscues. That's what the Patriots are doing on this three-game win streak, during which they have one turnover.
When it comes down to it there is just no mistaking a Belichick team.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.