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INDIANAPOLIS -- He likes this team.
That is one conclusion that can be definitively drawn at Super Bowl XLVI, where New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been relaxed, engaging and humorous over the past two days. There have been a lot of smiles in his daily news conferences.
If there has been a consensus among media types after listening to Belichick talk about everything from injuries -- yes, injuries -- to his background and influences in the game, it's this: Who kidnapped the old Belichick and replaced him with this one?
Players have noticed, too. Belichick has told them to enjoy the moment -- things will surely turn more serious by the end of the week as Sunday's game approaches -- and he seems to be doing the same.
Why not? After 108 practices, the first of which took place in late July at training camp, Belichick knows what he has with his team. It's a group he can feel good about bringing into a championship game.
Not to mention the last time Belichick brought a team to this big stage it was with the weight of a historic undefeated season hanging over them, which team president Jonathan Kraft says created outside expectations and an aura that is not here this time around.
"You know what?" defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of Belichick on Monday. "All year he's been like that. It's been kind of a relaxing year for all of us, just not knowing how much pressure he could put on us physically. Everything he's asked us to do, we've responded. It's been a fun season just seeing guys come to work each day. I think he appreciates that.
|Vince Wilfork said it's been a relaxing year under Bill Belichick because of the team's work ethic.|
"Trust me, Bill can be difficult to deal with, but I think he sees a difference in this team," Wilfork continued. "I think he knows that he has a pretty tough football team, a smart football team and a team that's never going to let him down. We have one more game to go. Hopefully we won't let him down."
Belichick's chipper mood reflects his confidence in players such as Wilfork, whom he praised Monday while reflecting on a "mistake" he says he made in the 2004 season by sending Wilfork back for a punt in training camp. Belichick bet the team that Wilfork wouldn't catch it. If he did, the entire team would have the night off. Wilfork caught it.
Belichick has been full of those types of stories over the past two days, such as taking a trip down memory lane to talk about his days as a New York Giants assistant, and how his late father, Steve, sparked his love of football. Of course, there was also his fourth-and-2 joke about the hospitality in Indianapolis.
Yes, he likes this team. This isn't like 2009, when Belichick couldn't get all the parts moving in the same direction.
"I would say one of the good things about this team is their consistency," Belichick said. "They come to work every day, they are ready to work, and they go to work. There is not a lot of 'We've got to get things started; we're just going through the motions.'
"I respect their consistency. I respect their mental toughness, their physical toughness and their ability to put things behind them and move ahead to the next challenge -- daily, weekly, after a bad play and moving on to the next play, whether in practice or in games."
This is the type of team Belichick hoped to build in late July, when the Patriots gathered for the start of training camp. On the first day of camp, when much of the buzz was about the acquisition of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth, which eventually backfired, Belichick was asked if he was comfortable with the leadership in the team's locker room.
"I have no idea. We haven't even stepped foot on the field," he said at the time. "It's a new team, a new year, a totally blank slate. I have no idea what we have right now; we haven't even gotten in the huddle yet. Take it day by day and see how it goes."
Now, 186 days later, Belichick knows.
Truthfully, Belichick knew it earlier than this. It is why, back on Nov. 27 after a comeback win in Philadelphia, he acknowledged that he's not an easy coach to play for and the Patriots' demanding program isn't for everyone. He said something similar later in the season.
When quarterback Tom Brady hears talk like that, he knows the players have done something right.
"He appreciates all of the players' willingness to commit themselves to a goal that is really greater than the individual," Brady said. "I think that's why we're sitting here today because we have a great group of players who have worked very hard and who have committed themselves to each other to reach this point."
This team has its flaws, like every other NFL club, but the core principles Belichick wants his teams to have are there for everyone to see -- players focusing solely on their job, putting the team first and working hard. Belichick knows what he's going to get on a daily basis, and there is comfort in that for him.
So for those curious why he has been so relaxed, engaging and even comedic over the past two days, start there.
He likes this team. There's no doubt about that.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.