Bye week allows Belichick to work OT on game plan

Patriots' extra preparation on defense may add to challenge for Panthers

Super Bowl

Panthers Vs. Patriots

January 26, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - The last time Bill Belichick made this journey, it was a rush job.

Two years ago, Belichick's New England Patriots won the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh, touched down briefly in Massachusetts, then jetted to New Orleans in less than 12 hours for the 2002 Super Bowl.

Time was so tight that Belichick and certain staff members arrived a day late in New Orleans to complete their game-planning. So effective was Belichick's plan that the Patriots delivered one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history, knocking off the heavily favored St. Louis Rams.

By Sunday, he will have had two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl and the Carolina Panthers. The debate that will rage here all week is whether the extra time makes New England a virtual lock to wrap up its second NFL championship in three years.

One of the key issues in this year's game is whether Belichick, whose defensive strategies have thwarted even the best quarterbacks, will concoct a scheme so efficient that Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, a first-year starter, will be rendered helpless.

Belichick stepped lightly over that landmine last week when confronted with the seeming advantages the Patriots carry into the game.

"I think the advantage in the Super Bowl will favor the team that plays well," he said. "I mean that in all sincerity. You can take everything else and put it in a pot and do whatever you want with it. Add the spices in, cook it high, cook it low; put in whatever recipe you want. But in the end, whatever team plays well in the game, that is who the advantage goes to.

"All the rest of it is really superficial ... What color socks we wear and all of that, what time the game is, whether the [Reliant Stadium] roof is going to be opened or closed, I don't think those things are nearly as important or favor anybody as much as which team plays well."

In fact, the Patriots (16-2) will be staring at a role reversal from the 2002 Super Bowl, when they were big underdogs to the Rams. This time, they're the prohibitive favorites and Carolina (14-5) comes in as the team that has to play perfectly to stay in the game.

That is where the extra preparation time comes into play, though. Super Bowl history suggests that the more time a superior team has to prepare for a good - but vulnerable - opponent, the worse the game is.

Consider this. In nine of the previous 14 seasons there has been a two-week break between championship games and Super Bowl. Six of those were decided by two touchdowns or more. The average winning margin in the nine games is 21 points.

The average margin in the five games with a one-week break is 11 points, and that figure was skewed by the 27-point rout the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hung on the Oakland Raiders a year ago. Three of those five games were decided by a touchdown or less.

So it's obvious that the two weeks makes a significant difference.

"As a fan, I don't like the extra week," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, whose team lost by 27 points to the Ravens in the 2001 Super Bowl after a two-week break. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the better games have occurred without the bye week.

"We're all in a routine since July, and now we're taken out of the routine [with the extra week]. Football is a game of tempo, and once you mix in all the distractions, I think it affects the play."

But there is one aspect about this year's game that excites Accorsi. It's the head-to-head strategizing of Belichick and Carolina's coach John Fox.

"Give these two head coaches two weeks and they are going to come up with a plan," Accorsi said. "From a purist's point of view, I can't wait to see what they try on each other."

Belichick said there is only so much material he can give to his players for any game, regardless of the time period involved.

"There is only so far you can go," he said. "If you had eight weeks to prepare for the game, I don't know how much more you would get done than if you had two. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns there.

"The extra few days of being able to go over it [game plan] a second time to tie it up a little bit, like when we have a bye week in the regular season, there is certainly some extra teaching and some extra preparation that can be done."

Still, Carolina might benefit most from the bye week. The Panthers played in the wild-card round and were on the road in their past two playoff games. It was similar to the path the Ravens took to the 2001 Super Bowl.

"It's huge," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of the extra time. "Had we not had a week off, I can't imagine us playing well. We needed that time. And remember, New England hasn't been away from home for a month."

There are other considerations with the extra week, too. Belichick alluded to them, tongue in cheek, when asked if he imposed any special rules or restrictions on his players.

"Try not to get arrested," he said he told his team.

Super Bowl data

Matchup: New England Patriots (16-2) vs. Carolina Panthers (14-5)

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

When: Sunday, 6:25 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Patriots by 7

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