Can't anybody here (except the Pats) play this game? Print
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Thursday, 27 December 2007 14:07
NFL Headline News

 The New England Patriots haven't lost a game since Jan. 22. A lot of knowledgeable people don't think it will happen again anytime soon.
Not all of them agree on why, but one thing almost every conversation returns to is how ``smart'' coach Bill Belichick's squad is, both individually and collectively. Dan Reeves, who exhibited the same quality during some 40 years as an NFL player, assistant, head coach and commentator, mentioned it no less than five times when asked about devising a game plan to spoil the Patriots' perfect season.
``I don't think a particular scheme will do it. No one thing will make a difference, at least not for very long, because they're so darned adaptable. Somehow, you have to get them off-balance early,'' Reeves chuckled softly, ``and then find ways to keep doing it for the rest of the 60 minutes.''
The Cowboys, Colts, Eagles and Ravens all had their moments. Dallas and Indianapolis, at least, boast almost as much talent on both sides of the ball, so they played New England straight up. Philadelphia leaned heavily on the blitz because its defense is disciplined and the cornerbacks good enough to gamble in man-to-man coverage. Baltimore borrowed that blueprint and hit the Patriots even harder. None of it ultimately made a difference.
New England is so good that the media and fans have spent much of the past week playing ``what-if,'' comparing the Patriots to the best teams of all time. No matter. They've won all those, too.
Reeves coached against some of those teams and had John Elway, one of the few quarterbacks who can be called Tom Brady's equal, on his side for a few. That's a good place to start.
``Your quarterback better be able to do everything well, because he's going to have to do a lot. You want to limit their time of possession, so that means being able run the ball and teams have been able to do that. The problem is that once they're backed up into the red zone, with all that experience and less area to defend,'' Reeves paused for emphasis, ``they are really smart.
``I've called a handful of their games; I don't know a better way to explain it,'' he added. ``Inside the 20, they always seem to know whether you're running or throwing. So the last thing you want to be is predictable.
``Look at how many times Peyton Manning took the Colts there in the first half at Indianapolis and came away without a touchdown. I'd consider taking more shots at the end zone from 25 yards and out, or maybe throwing it in some down-and-distance situations that dictate otherwise.''
Assume all those offensive pieces fit together and a team gets its nose in front in the second half. That's what happened in all four of New England's close scrapes. Then what?
Reeves thought about it for a moment. To his credit, the answer wasn't ``pray for a blizzard.''
``They can hurt you with the running game, but they don't use it to wear you out. They want to throw, because they've got the ability to throw underneath and use the quick strike. That's what makes their offense so tough; they don't need many chances,'' Reeves said.
``That means you've got to pressure Brady a few different ways. Because once he picks up a tendency, he rarely misses the chance to exploit it.''
The second half of the Miami game last week marked the first time all season New England failed to score in a half. Being ahead 28-0 at intermission might be the biggest reason for that. But Reeves thinks the Dolphins' defense had something to say about that.
``They rushed three guys and dropped eight in coverage a few times and still got some pressure on Brady besides. Other times, they made him get rid of the ball early by coming with the blitz. What made both schemes work was that they disguised them well.
``So you need guys who are versatile, who know their assignments, and are available on every play. The Patriots are so well prepared that they know every weakness you have and how to attack it. If you lose some personnel and play people in unfamiliar spots, they go right after them.
So let's see if we've got this straight: Do all those things right, don't turn the ball over, be lucky enough to avoid injuries, have the ball bounce your way and get the benefit of a few calls. Anything else?
``Yeah,'' Reeves said, ``you better believe deep down you can do it.''
That's what happened the last time the Patriots lost, at Indianapolis in the AFC championship game last January, when Manning marched the Colts 80 yards for the winning score in the closing minutes. It came after some haunting defeats by Brady and Belichick and 20 years after he watched Elway reach his first Super Bowl with The Drive.
``I watched the drive with Elway,'' Manning recalled afterward, ``you never get tired of seeing that.''
Reeves, who was on the Denver sideline that afternoon, felt the same way. He also knows it might take something that grand before we see the Patriots beaten again.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
 

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