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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Time to adopt Belichick tack

Now is the time for all Patriots fans to become Bill Belichick.

 

It's time to think of the trip to Houston as a tough business assignment, not a junket that is destined to end in a coronation. It's time to shrug at the line from Las Vegas and the one-liners from a couch potato named Warren Sapp.

It's time to stop fussing with your hair and making sure the camera gets your good side as you pose for the "NFL's Greatest Teams" group photo. To be as focused as the Patriots head coach, you have to remember that the only picture that matters this week is an 8 x 10 of the Carolina Panthers.

A lot of us -- present company included -- have already gone a little too far, haven't we?

In the last week, the Patriots' place among the best in history has been a consistent debate. Don Shula has talked about their 14-game winning streak, Bill Walsh has called Tom Brady the closest thing he's seen to Joe Montana, and Buddy Ryan has said the defense is the second-best of all time.

Victory parties have been planned. Parades and "sick days" on either Feb. 2 or Feb. 3 have been scheduled. And the Panthers have either been inaccurately described or talked about as if they are 53 tackling dummies from the NFC.

John Fox's team is talented and excellent, and that hasn't been said enough around here. We all know Belichick was named the NFL's Coach of the Year, but apparently most of the football nation doesn't realize that Fox should have come in second (somehow, Fox did not get a single vote).

The Panthers are not a miracle team. They are not a fluke team. They are not a surprise team. They are the undisputed best team in the NFC and a big reason that Sapp, whose Buccaneers play in the same division, is in no position to defend the Lombardi Trophy his team won last season.

While there is no shame in being compared with a Super Bowl champion, it needs to be said that the trendy analysis of the Panthers -- they are similar to the 2001 Patriots -- couldn't be further from the truth.

The team the Patriots will face a week from today has a defensive line that is better than New England's in '01 and just as good as New England's in '03. Antowain Smith had his best season in '01, but he wasn't an MVP candidate as Stephen Davis was this year. Brady of '01 was given an opportunity to start when Drew Bledsoe got hurt; Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme was signed to compete for the starting job with Rodney Peete.

The '01 Patriots were a group of veterans who received a boost when Belichick and Scott Pioli brought in a staggering number of free agents who contributed. These Panthers aren't like that. Davis was the most obvious difference-maker in free agency. Dan Morgan, Kris Jenkins, Steve Smith, Julius Peppers, DeShaun Foster, Will Witherspoon, Jordan Gross, and Ricky Manning Jr. are all draft picks from the last three springs.

If there is a legitimate connection between the Panthers and Patriots, it's their draft-day swapping. When the Patriots wanted to move up five slots in the second round of the '03 draft, they called the Panthers. They initially gave up picks No. 50 and 120 in exchange for Carolina's No. 45.

The 45th pick turned out to be Bethel Johnson. New England eventually reacquired 120, which had bounced all the way to Denver, and turned it into cornerback Asante Samuel.

That's where the similarities end.

Football fans have seen the Panthers coming for a while. This team was awful in '01, hired the perfect coach in '02 and won seven games, and played solidly and quietly this season on its way to the NFC South title.

People in the Carolinas are probably amused at how the Panthers are perceived. They aren't a cute little team from Charlotte. They know how to punch, and they punch hard. The irony is that they would be much more well known if, for example, Jenkins were as mouthy and annoying as Sapp. In that case, Jenkins would be recognized as the best defensive tackle in the game (which he is).

So, no, this is not the time to be studying the '72 Dolphins, the four Steel Curtain teams of the 1970s, Walsh's 49ers of the 1980s, or even the Patriots of two seasons ago.

This is not the time to be wondering if Brady belonged in the White House or if he could hear Howard Dean screaming from Iowa.

The arguments with pigskin hardliners -- who hate modern players, coaches, fans, and stadiums -- can wait until after the game. Politics can wait. There is no need, now, for Bob Kraft to wonder how he's ever going to top those massive Liberace rings he gave to his employees after the title in '01.

Now is the time to be Belichick.

It's time to slip on a cutoff gray sweatshirt, praise everyone affiliated with the Panthers, and say that your players have to be prepared and focused against a team like this.

It's time to remember the Patriots' mantra leading up to the AFC Championship game against the Colts: Super Bowl rings are not earned by going to eBay.

It's time to adopt the week-to-week phrase of the Coach of the Year. He says it all the time, and he always believes it. "This is," he likes to say, "our toughest game of the year."

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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