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Again a master planner

Belichick on par with Lombardi

PITTSBURGH -- The winning has become so facile and expected, so routine, so just the way it is, that sometimes it seems as if Bill Belichick has unearthed the long-lost tome, "The Secret Coaching Treasures of the NFL", or that he has a telepathic connection to Vince Lombardi -- the game's legendary coach with whom he is now tied for best postseason winning percentage (9-1, .900).

If this were all a flight of fancy, a kid's novel, the great Lombardi now would deliver the obvious line -- "Ah, you're a wizard, Billy."

One more time, with a berth to yet another Super Bowl hanging in the balance, the Patriots' 52-year-old head coach/sorcerer served up the game plan. Not just some game plan, but the game plan, chock full of the Xs, Os, and various points of weakness and necessary execution that flummoxed and otherwise dismantled the Pittsburgh Steelers, 41-27, last night in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field.

"I'm the kicker, so I'm not in every meeting," said Adam Vinatieri, "but every week, he gives us a dang good game plan. He knows exactly what we need to do, and if we do it, we win."

If they do it, they win. Is there a better definition of coaching leadership, a better example in believing in that leadership?

Belichick doesn't do it alone, of course, and it will be interesting to see how this fine Swiss timepiece works next season when he is without his offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis (headed to Notre Dame), and perhaps without his defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel (who appears to have a shipping label reading `To Cleveland' inside his jacket).

But after watching Belichick work his magic in Foxborough the last five years, should anyone really even consider that he might not have the two perfect answers, the new boss of `O', and the new boss of `D', just ready to drop into the back of the timepiece?

"He's really self-critical and analytical," explained linebacker Ted Johnson, part of the overall defensive scheme that never allowed the Steelers to find any offensive momentum. "And he always thinks he could have coached better, too . . . that he could have done something better to help us win."

Ultimately it is the final score that justifies the analysis and the game-planning. But Belichick & Co. follow every game not only with a review of each player, but also a review of how the game plan worked.

"Absolutely, win, lose, or draw," said Belichick, typically subdued after the win that delivered his team to a third Super Bowl in four years. "We always go back and look at things we could have done better, try to learn something. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy we won, but . . ."

But . . . there is never a perfect game, or an A-plus on the self-report card, never the slightest tip of the ego when he might shuffle by the mirror in the dressing room and think to himself), "Ah, you're a wizard, Billy."

The coach who had just tied Lombardi found two areas of possible improvement:

1. "On defense," he said, "we had some trouble with their four-receiver sets."

2. "On offense," he added, "there were times we had trouble with their stunts and blitzes."

All of which added up to a 14-point victory over a team that built its image of smashmouth defense, a chiseled-jaw running game, and an opportunistic passing game led by rookie Ben Roethlisberger.

When it was over, the Steelers had shown themselves to be ridiculously pliable on defense -- especially in the secondary, the running game was just a cut above ordinary, and Big Ben Roethlisberger played like a Timex that took a lickin' but didn't keep tickin'.

But there were those perplexing four-receiver sets (got that?), and those stunts and blitzes (insert your best Maxwell Smart "Right, chief" here).

True, nothing is perfect, but Belichick is about as close as it gets in today's NFL, and might have been ever closer to perfect in Lombardi's NFL of yesteryear.

"He's the master when it comes to dissecting a team," said Johnson. "There are a ton of different things that can go wrong, and he can break it down to its simplest form, come in and say, `If you do these two or three things, you can win.'

"It's amazing. And he's right many more times than he's wrong."

Second-year center Dan Koppen, the former Boston College Eagle, figures by now, "All of New England knows what they've got here with him -- the effort he puts into all of this week in, week out, to give us the best chance to win."

All the weeks begin the same, said Koppen. The game on Sunday, the one left behind for everyone else to talk about, segues into the Sunday ahead.

Belichick hands over the easy-to-read game plan, and everyone follows it as if it's the parts list and instruction manual to assemble the backyard grill. Attach lid to base. Connect three legs. Pour in coals, slap T-bone across grill, tell neighbors to report to rear deck at 1:11 p.m. for lunch.

Can anyone bring something to the party that perhaps the coach forgot? Please, no jokes, OK?

"It's just a few things," said Koppen. "A few things on offense. A few things on defense. And a few things on special teams. That's about it. He just puts it flat out there, and they're usually just little things. He lets us know, if we do 'em, we should win."

It's never perfect. Even for Lombardi it wasn't perfect. When the Patriots were here on Halloween, it sure wasn't perfect, but yesterday Oct. 31 served as only some of the tactical boilerplate that helped unhinge the second-best team in the AFC.

"This time we got used to them a little," said Tedy Bruschi, "and we could anticipate a little better."

Never a need to expect the unexpected, because the unexpected gets covered off early in the week. Lombardi talked about hard work and preparation. Belichick, like his players, lives it all week long, and has everyone in uniform living it along with him.

"It's very flattering to have my name mentioned with his name," said Belichick, asked to reflect on his connection with Lombardi. "I really don't think I'm deserving of that. I think it's really stretching it a little bit."

Maybe a little. But not much.

"I've been fortunate," added Belichick. "I've got some outstanding players, and guys that really play well together as a team, and I'm fortunate to be coach of this team."

Now on to Jacksonville.

After a stop, of course, to get the game plan printed at a copy shop. 

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