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CBS team is on top of Patriots

Say this for the members of the CBS broadcast team that will be calling Super Bowl XXXVIII (Ch. 4, 6:25 p.m. Sunday): They know the Patriots well, and the trust they've established with the team is one of their chief calling cards.

Greg Gumbel, Phil Simms, and Armen Keteyian became familiar with the AFC champions by broadcasting six regular-season Patriots games, four in Foxborough, then two more in the postseason.

"All those cold hours on the sidelines at Gillette Stadium are paying off now," said sideline reporter Keteyian, who will be working the Patriots' side of Reliant Stadium, with Bonnie Bernstein reporting from the Panthers' sideline.

When the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, Keteyian "couldn't have been happier professionally. We forged some relationships with the Patriots, from [coach] Bill Belichick on down."

The bond was strong enough that Keteyian drove up to Foxborough from New York last Thursday to spend what he called "some quality time" with Belichick.

Keteyian will enjoy exceptional access Sunday in Houston. "It's all about the relationships and trust we've built over the six years our announcing team has been together," he said. CBS formed the Gumbel-Simms-Keteyian team when it got back into the football business in 1998, "and we've never had a cross word among us," said Keteyian.

One thing he's learned while covering the Patriots is that Belichick isn't a great sideline interview. "He'll do it, but he's happier chatting before the game," said Keteyian. "So during the AFC Championship game, we had Bonnie talk with [Colts coach] Tony Dungy at the half, and I spoke with Bill on camera before the game."

At halftime, Keteyian was permitted to position himself at the Patriots' locker room door. "That's gold, and boils down to trust," he said. "So at the start of the second half, I was able to do a locker room report out of the Patriots' room. That was strong."

Keteyian has been busy of late, writing and reporting a pair of strong segments for the latest "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" on HBO, plus two long pieces for Sunday's CBS pregame program.

The first HBO story was a jailhouse interview with Houston native and former Redskins defensive star Dexter Manley. "I wasn't in a forgiving mood with him," said Keteyian. "I had to challenge him when needed." Manley played on two Super Bowl-winning teams but made equal off-the-field headlines by overcoming illiteracy and battling the drug habit that got him banned from pro football and later landed him in jail.

The second story for "Real Sports" was an inteview with Dean Bumbaco, a witness to the shooting death of limousine driver Gus Christofi, for which former NBA star Jayson Williams is on trial. "That story just leaped off the screen," said Keteyian, who has adeptly adapted his writing style for TV, after being a Sports Illustrated writer-reporter in the 1980s.

Keteyian spent the early part of last week writing "Education of a Rookie," a feature on Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller and linebacker Terrell Suggs, for Sunday's four-hour pregame "The Super Bowl Today" show (Ch. 4, 2 p.m.).

"I was in Baltimore five times during the season, and producer Adam Berger shot them 10 times both at home and on the road," said Keteyian. "It's all about what they learn during the course of a season. It's at times both funny and poignant. Of the 1,696 players in the league, 263 were rookies and 302 were first-year players. That's 20 percent of the league.

"You keep hearing people say, `He's learning what it means to be a pro.' That's what we're trying to show. It worked out real well. We talked to a lot of people, and the kids themselves were great. Suggs was 20 when we started, and the youngest player in the league. We had an offensive player and a defensive player, a black guy and a white."

Keteyian has a second piece for CBS that should be much more emotional. This one, to run during the "Phil Simms All-Iron team -- Old School Edition" (Ch. 4, 1 p.m.), deals with the near-epidemic of NFL quarterbacks who have lost children or have children with life-altering diseases -- among them Doug Flutie, Boomer Esiason, Jim Kelly, Trent Dilfer, Kurt Warner, and Dan Marino. "It's a special fraternity," said Keteyian. "These are guys who are known for their toughness and leadership on the field. This shows how they need the same traits at home. For some of the families, especially the Dilfers, who lost a son to a sudden heart ailment last spring, it took a great deal of faith and trust in us to go on camera."

There's that "trust" word again.

Option plays

No one says you have to watch the Super Bowl. But the other networks learned long ago that it is counterproductive to pour resources into counterprogramming.

Said CBS Sports president Sean McManus, "Anything anyone ever has tried, it hasn't wound up working."

So NBC will have a "Super Bowl Countdown Clock" on screen Sunday afternoon during its two-hour poker show (Ch. 7, 4 p.m.) that goes against "The Super Bowl Today." Following local and national news from 6-7 p.m., NBC goes to "Dateline NBC" at 7, followed by a "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" marathon -- although local affiliate Channel 7 will break in for live postgame coverage.

Channel 5 has news from 6-7, then the "Official Super Bowl Station of the Patriots" airs the movie "Notting Hill" from 7-10, followed by "America's Funniest Home Videos." When the game ends, the station will cut to live postgame coverage. After the 11 p.m. news, Channel 5 comes back with a postgame "Showdown in Houston" special at 11:35.

After Super Bowl pregame coverage, ESPN goes to taped figure skating and ESPN2 to motocross, followed by lots of poker.

Fox, the network of the NFC, has the movie "Independence Day." But after the game, like everyone else, local affiliate Channel 25 will go to postgame coverage from Houston.

The pay-per-view "Lingerie Bowl" counterprogramming option at halftime ($19.95) has wound up being sponsored by an Internet poker game.

Game-saving move

RCN, the cable company serving parts of Boston and 14 communities mostly to the west of Boston, including Somerville and Arlington, reached a carriage agreement to add CBS in high definition in time for the Super Bowl.

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