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PHILADELPHIA -- Time will tell if the New England Patriots accomplish their ultimate goal and win a Super Bowl championship, but no more time is needed to come to this conclusion: Bill Belichick knows what type of team he has, and it has the elements that are most important to him.
This team is smart. This team is tough. It might not be the most talented, but when times are tough it's a group that gets more resilient.
Belichick knows those traits can take a team far.
"I know we demand a lot and this isn't an easy place to play, and I'm not an easy guy to play for, but they have tried to respond," Belichick said following an impressive 38-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. "I give them a lot of credit for that."
|Bill Belichick took a timeout from his say-nothing style to acknowledge he's tough to play for, but is pleased with how his team has responded.|
The time seemed right for the hard-driving Belichick to deliver such public praise because his players had pulled off one of their most impressive victories of the season on a short holiday week that was filled with potential excuses. It was a result that reflected what the Patriots have been about for most of the season -- never backing down, even when things seem to be at their worst.
All one really needs to know is that they fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, which is a tough spot to be in on the road, one that would crush many NFL clubs. But not these Patriots. They scored the next 21 points to seize control, went up 24-13 at the half, then delivered the decisive blow by coming out of the break and blitzing the Eagles with a ferocious no-huddle, hurry-up attack to go up 31-13.
As quarterback Tom Brady said, "Coming back like we did showed a little bit of mental toughness, which we've shown consistently throughout the year."
They have, even in losses to the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants. And on Sunday in Philadelphia the difference between the Patriots and Eagles couldn't have been more apparent.
One team was mentally tough, played smart and rose up in critical situations. The other crumbled, a collection of talented players that hasn't formed into a cohesive team and dropped to 4-7.
When it comes to the Patriots, we may ultimately find out their defense isn't good enough, or the offense may have a bad day at the wrong time in the playoffs, but by the 11th game of the season one gets a pretty good feel for the DNA of a team. Based on his postgame remarks, which allowed for some rare in-season reflection on his players' work and an acknowledgement that a string of defensive injuries has made it difficult to progress, Belichick knows this is a team he can feel good about coming down the homestretch.
Remember the scene in "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" when Belichick is standing next to Brady on the sideline at the end of a 38-17 loss at New Orleans during the 2009 season? The frustrated coach had his arms folded across his chest and he said something like, "I just can't get them to play the way they need to."
The 2011 season has been the opposite of that, and credit can start with Belichick for setting the tone.
"He is tough at times, but you know what? The one thing he wants is for this football team to be mentally tough, physically tough and smart. When he can get that out of his team, he's done his job," said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, one of the team's captains.
"With those three things come wins and a good team. It can be tough but at the same time we know exactly what he wants out of us," Wilfork continued. "We know that he won't settle for less.
"He's always going to push us to the maximum. I don't care how long of a season we have, or how short of a week we have, he's always going to push for the best from us. We understand that. As long as you can understand what he's trying to do, you'll be fine. I think a lot of guys understand."
Indeed, there seems to be a growing sense among the players that something special could be happening here. They maintain the week-to-week mantra that is drilled home by Belichick and don't get too high or low, but at the same time, they know they have a group of 53 players that, as much as possible, is pulling in the same direction.
The ones who weren't pulling their weight or were more interested in personal playing time than team success, such as defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, are no longer around.
"It's a very mentally tough football team. We've been through a lot and we're going to continue to go through a lot," Wilfork said, before explaining what develops that type of hard edge. "It's about doing your job, having trust and believing in what you do. If you don't believe in what you're doing, you have no point being out there."
Defensive end Andre Carter is in his 11th NFL season, having spent the first five years of his career with the San Francisco 49ers before five with the Washington Redskins, and it hasn't taken him long to believe in Belichick and his approach.
"One thing about Belichick is that he tries to push us beyond the level, and keep on going up and constantly going up," he said. "There is no settling. You always have to aim for perfection and constantly keep getting better.
"As an individual, it pushes you to a level that I possibly couldn't imagine. You're like, 'Wow, I can play at this level? Maybe I can turn it on one more notch.' Then the next game you try to do that. That's how it's supposed to be, you're trying to find that winning edge week after week."
Earlier this week, 10-year veteran defensive lineman Gerard Warren was having a similar conversation with one of his close friends, talking about life as a Patriot. Warren has played for the Browns, Broncos and Raiders, and this is his second year in New England. It's unique.
"Not for everyone," he explained. "It's pretty demanding -- the mental [aspect], the expectations. You know that if you are here, it's because they trust you."
As Belichick said, it's not easy being a Patriot. And it's not easy to play for him.
At the same time, history has proven there is a great reward for those who do buy in, and the 2011 New England Patriots are filled with players who have done so.
In a rare moment Sunday in Philadelphia, Belichick thanked them publicly for doing so.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.