Super Patriots Play It Cool Through the Hype

Coach Bill Belichick has kept the New England Patriots focused — and mostly understated — as the wins have piled up this season. That's no small achievement as media interest peaks over the prospect of a perfect NFL season.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Sunday's Super Bowl is almost upon us, and it holds out the tantalizing possibility of perfection. If the New England Patriots beat the New York Giants, they will finish the season with a record of 19 wins and no losses. Perfection is rare in the NFL. The Miami Dolphins did it in 1972 with a record of 17-0. And in a few minutes we'll remember that achievement with one of the players who made it happen. Now, perfection is once again a hot topic at the Super Bowl, except with the Patriots.

NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: They are poised to go where no NFL team has gone before - 19-0. And sorry, Miami, but New England's possible perfection will be a bigger deal. In today's league, not losing a game all season is tougher. It's a longer season and there's more parity. The media scrutiny and potential distractions have increased exponentially. But just try to find a New England Patriot to crow about it all.

U: Coach, over here.

MONTAGNE: Right.

U: If you guys go to 19-0 with a win in the Super Bowl, how does that make the Super Bowl any different, or does it?

MONTAGNE: Right now we're just thinking about trying to win on Sunday.

GOLDMAN: The media have begged for colorful quotes from New England head coach Bill Belichick. And for the most part, they've gotten gray, just like his trademark hooded sweatshirt. Belichick has set the tone. His troops have followed with a numbing litany of comments like one week at a time, one game at a time, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But ask the same question enough times and you can find cracks in the armor. Jarvis Green is a New England defensive lineman.

MONTAGNE: Oh, last night we went to Moore Steakhouse(ph), and we were all sitting around the table like, you know, right now, hey, guys, we're 18-0. So yeah, we talk about that. We're human, man. It's amazing - it's amazing what we're doing right now.

GOLDMAN: Alarm bells did not go off. Men wearing sunglasses and Patriots windbreakers did not grab Jarvis Green and hustle him away, because Green quickly got himself back in line.

MONTAGNE: But I think that it's very important to take things, you know, one day at a time in this sport.

GOLDMAN: The sports media have turned New England's one day, one week at a time mantra into a season-long joke. But the fact is the Patriots get it. Perfection is glittery; getting to perfection is not. It's hard work and tunnel vision.

INSKEEP: Somebody once described, it's sort of like I put $1 million in front of you and say you can have it if you don't think about it.

GOLDMAN: Dan Gould is a sport psychology expert.

INSKEEP: Because if you get too focused on the outcome, too focused on the ramifications, you can get ahead of yourself.

GOLDMAN: Indeed, along with some blow-out victories, one of the hallmarks of the Patriots' season has been, as Gould says, not getting ahead of themselves. There've been times when they could have, like against the Baltimore Ravens late last year. The Ravens led with less than a minute in the game, broadcast on ESPN, but Baltimore was doomed against the team focused on the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

U: Five options for Brady. The pump. The throw. It is caught for the touchdown! By Gaffney(ph) and New England leads!

GOLDMAN: Elite athletes all know how to focus, but Dan Gould, a professor at Michigan State, says it's particularly impressive for a team of 50-plus athletes to do it consistently for an entire NFL season.

INSKEEP: You don't go undefeated by doing one thing right. You do a thousand little things right every day, and you probably started three or four years ago. You create a culture. You get the players to buy in. So if the coaches are not around and somebody isn't doing something appropriate in the weight room, the players tell the guy we don't do it this way, it's the Patriot way.

GOLDMAN: The New York Giants are a trendy pick to pull off an upset Sunday. They've got a lot of momentum, having won an impressive 10 straight games on the road. They almost beat New England in the final game of the regular season. But if the Patriots can do what they've done every other game this season, perfection will be theirs. And Bill Belichick may just peer out of his gray hoodie and exclaim we're the greatest of all time. And then to his players probably this: Men, let's start focusing on that first week of training camp in six months.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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