For Pats, science of winning is based on team chemistry

January 19, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

FOXBORO, Mass. - At one end of the corridor were the stars - Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James - all wearing perplexed looks and packing to go home. At the other end were guys named Bobby Hamilton, Eugene Wilson and Matt Light, virtual no-names, who were preparing to go on to the championship game.

The road to Super Bowl XXXVIII ends in Houston, but the map to building championship teams has been laid out in Foxboro. In the era of the salary cap, the New England Patriots continue to prove that team chemistry is more important than superstar players, and balance is the key to winning titles.

The Patriots came up with a defensive scheme to shut down the Indianapolis Colts' highly explosive offense yesterday in a 24-14 victory in the AFC championship game, but New England also received solid performances from its offense and special teams to put away the Colts.

"What's a big-name star? Is it because people talk about them a lot that makes them a big name?" asked Patriots long snapper Brian Kinchen, a former Raven. "Is it because they are on ESPN? Does that make them a big name?

"The money is still there, and if you're good enough, manipulative enough, you can pay players good money. Talking with Scott Pioli [vice president of player personnel] about his philosophy of building a team, it starts with him bringing in certain players and then the head coach [Bill Belichick] shaping them. This is the way to build teams these days, and this team is going to be strong for years."

The Patriots have only three Pro Bowl players on their roster - cornerback Ty Law and defensive ends Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest. Before yesterday, maybe you could name one other player, quarterback Tom Brady.

But other than that, forget it. Look at the team. They have other old Ravens on the roster, such as Rick Lyle and Anthony Pleasant. McGinest has been in the league 10 years and fullback Larry Centers 14 years. The Patriots aren't exceptionally strong anywhere, but they are well-balanced and well-coached.

That's enough to win in the NFL. Teams don't need great strengths; it's about having the fewest weaknesses. Look at the AFC postseason lineup. The Ravens could play defense but had no passing game. Both Denver and Kansas City were scoring machines, but soft defensively. Ditto for the Colts.

The Patriots? They need a punter. Big deal.

"What we have here is a mix of veterans who know the system well and can teach the younger players," said Light, an offensive tackle. "Some of the veterans are players that no one else wanted because we were either too slow, too old, too something."

That's Belichick's calling card. He is always re-signing former players. It paid off yesterday when he put in a couple of new defensive wrinkles for the Colts. When Manning came to the line of scrimmage, sometimes he would see safety Rodney Harrison lined up on Marvin Harrison. But on the snap of the ball, Rodney Harrison would either drop back into coverage or blitz, while cornerback Law (three interceptions) rotated to Marvin Harrison.

Belichick had his cornerbacks press Marvin Harrison and fellow wide-out Brandon Stokley at the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots were physical (yes, much holding) with them down the field. Law had Harrison man-to-man, but there was always a safety behind him to prevent a long pass. Belichick singled out Colts left guard Rick DeMulling as the weak link and attacked him either by matching up with defensive end Jarvis Green or by blitzing through DeMulling's hole.

Manning was great against Denver and Kansas City because he had time to throw. But Manning gets nervous feet under pressure. He completed 23 of 47 passes for only 237 yards and was intercepted four times, one that killed a drive at the 5 and another time at the Patriots' 35, which eventually led to a New England field goal.

The third interception halted a potential scoring drive at the Indianapolis 31 late in the third quarter. And these were ugly interceptions, either thrown behind or over intended receivers.

"Just never quite found the rhythm," Manning said of his offense.

New England's offense (349 total yards) was partly responsible. The Patriots throw a lot of short passes and have used a running back-by-committee approach, but they held onto the ball for 32:14 yesterday, which hurt the Colts.

With 8:06 left in the first half, the Colts had run only 11 offensive plays. Indianapolis couldn't stop Patriots running back Antowain Smith, who rushed for 100 yards on 22 carries. They couldn't contain receivers David Givens (eight receptions) or Troy Brown (seven receptions).

And Brady had a lot of time in the pocket to throw.

"David Givens had something like seven catches today. Last week, he may have had one," said Patriots receiver Dedric Ward, also a former Raven. "Nobody ever complains. Within this offense, the ball gets moved around a lot. They like to spread the ball around."

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