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ON FOOTBALL

An exhibition of restraint

Belichick's players rested and ready

FOXBOROUGH -- On Monday he was a little chippy, and by Tuesday he was a little funny.

"Chippy" and "funny" are not two words usually used to describe Bill Belichick, but then again, throughout this exhibition season, things have felt and looked a lot different.

Belichick will deny it, because that's what he does, but his approach this summer seemed not to be on winning games that didn't count -- a departure from the past -- but on taking care of his veteran players to see that they didn't wear down.

When asked about the hullabaloo coming up tomorrow night before the season opener against the Colts and how the concerts and celebrations might affect his team, Belichick uttered a very funny line: "Well, we are not going to be a part of that. We are here to play a game. Look, if the players want to watch Mary Blige sing, then I will get them a good seat in the stands, and they can watch it to their heart's content. What we need are people to go out there across the white lines and perform better than the Colts. That is what we need on Thursday night."

He was a little chippy Monday when asked why the Patriots have had so much success against the Colts during his reign. "None of that makes any difference," Belichick said. "All that matters is how it goes this Sunday, or this Thursday, rather. That's all that matters. You guys were all saying the same thing last year before Buffalo since we beat them twice the year before. That doesn't mean anything. We can talk about what happened in 1997; what difference does it make?"

He went on to repeat his annoyance at the question -- reminiscent of the good old Bill Parcells press conferences.

Belichick obviously has decided to do things a little differently after this most recent Super Bowl. He learned that playing into February, going to the strength and conditioning program by late March, then taking part in mini-camps and training camps is a lot for players.

He clearly protected his veterans this summer, giving them more time off, not allowing them to play with the slightest injury. They practiced hard, and if Belichick was satisfied, he'd back off. In the final exhibition game last Thursday, the only time first-stringers got on the field was for a few pregame drills and the coin flip.

So no one can complain about having tired legs tomorrow night.

Belichick probably learned from last season's 4-0 exhibition record that going undefeated doesn't mean you'll win out of the gate. He often points to the 31-0 shellacking handed to the Patriots by Buffalo in the opener.

Bill Walsh said recently that he prepared his Super Bowl-winning teams much differently in the following training camp than he would have after a humdrum season. Walsh always believed in making camps tough, but not so tough that players wear out in September when you want them to play in January.

The one time the Patriots were challenged in the exhibition season, they stood up to it. Carolina wanted to avenge the Super Bowl loss, and the Patriots were so intense that the Panthers accused them of playing dirty. And since the Colts took a slapping, literally and figuratively, in the AFC Championship game last season, the intensity should be similar tomorrow night.

What hasn't changed in camp is the no-stone-left-unturned preparation, a trademark of the Belichick regime. It seemed to take up the majority of the players' attention the past couple of weeks.

The players have practiced what they know about the Colts, and have tried to anticipate what they might not know. Much of it is preparing for Peyton Manning, not only his arm but his checkoffs at the line. One ex-Patriots player recently said Belichick had figured Manning out pretty well, that often the ritual Manning goes through at the line, when he appears to be checking off, is a lot of nothing.

Belichick prepares for more "little things" than most coaches. Which is why the Patriots are rarely surprised.

But, he warns, "I think you have to be careful about defending a lot of ghosts, trying to prepare for 7,000 plays. They are only going to be able to run 60 or 70 out there, so they can't do everything."

What Belichick fears even more than being underprepared is being overprepared. He tries to minimize player confusion.

In the end, it's not his chippiness or his humor that stands out. It's his calm, and his ability to teach like nobody else in the game.

And while he took a different approach this time, it might look the same when things begin for real.

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