INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -Face it, nobody else in the NFL is going to come this close the rest of the way.
The New England Patriots did in the defending Super Bowl champions 24-20. At their place. On their carpet in front of a hostile crowd, even while losing the turnover battle, their composure on a few occasions and rolling up a franchise record for penalty yards.
A perfect season is a near-certainty.
So how about if we give Little Bill an ``A'' on his report card right now, so he can get a headstart on to the next level, where Lombardi and Walsh reside. Belichick is that good. He is the first certifiable legend of the free-agent era.
Belichick doesn't play well with the rest of the coaches as it is, and it's only going to get worse. It was bad enough when he kept showing them up, proving just how much smarter he was.
Lately, though, he's taken to beating them up, and even the one team the Pats couldn't overpower lost its stomach when it came to crunch time.
``Some victories do mean more than others,'' New England linebacker Tedy Bruschi said afterward. ``We tried to treat it like any other game. This is one we're going to remember.''
Belichick wouldn't go even that far. He answered just about every question by calling the Colts ``a good football team.
``What else would they be? My God,'' he scolded one reporter, ``Did you watch them play?''
The final time he was asked whether this win mattered more than most, Belichick narrowed those steely eyes and said almost by rote, ``I don't care about all that. This was a just a game against the Colts. That's all it was. The other games don't mean a thing.''
Honestly, Belichick doesn't care about his legacy. Yet.
Guys like him rarely get hung up worrying about the long haul. It's how they get so much done in such a short time.
Look at the way Belichick usually dresses. That dingy, gray, hooded sweatshirt he favors was probably a functional choice the first time he put it on, prompted by cold weather or the snow in New England.
Now that he's caught so much flak for the outfit, it's become just another way for him to stubbornly stick it to the man.
So Belichick's choice of standard coaching fare for this one, a dark blue polo shirt over khaki slacks, might have been more revealing than anything he said.
Maybe he figured when he watches highlights from the perfect season with his grandkids a dozen years from now, they won't think he was always dressed like Jason from the ``Friday the 13th'' scarefests.
Then again, maybe Belichick chose Sunday's outfit because the game was being played in a climate-controlled dome. We'll never know.
Figuring Belichick out is a lifetime project. He spent most of his early career in Bill (Big Bill) Parcells' shadow, and during his first head-coaching stint in Cleveland, he failed to get the players there to believe in him enough to bring all those brilliant X-and-O schemes to life.
Finally, though, he won over enough guys in New England.
As capriciously as he treats many of his players, he's fiercely loyal to a core of guys - Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Tom Brady, Matt Light and others - who police the locker room for him and spread the gospel.
He takes chances on some guys with rough pasts - Randy Moss being just the latest - and makes examples of others who don't buy wholeheartedly into his team-first sermons, cutting or trading them, or working them until they wish he'd gotten rid of them earlier.
Most important, the Patriots buy into Belichick's schemes because they work.
They found a way to get Moss deep in single coverage, coaxed a veteran Colts offensive line into two penalties on the pivotal drive of the fourth quarter, then put the squeeze on Peyton Manning when it counted most.
``They force you into playing perfect ... keeping the pressure on people, forcing you to play well for all 60 minutes. The last game here, the championship game'' Colts coach Tony Dungy said, referring to the AFC finale against the Pats that propelled the Colts to a Super Bowl, ``we won it in the last minute.
``They won it in the fourth quarter today.''
Some day Belichick will look back and appreciate that, too.
Just not now.
----
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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