Meeting of the masterminds

Friday, January 13, 2006

New England's Belichick pursues his fourth Super Bowl title, while Denver's Shanahan chases his third.

DENVER -- Mike Shanahan takes no offense to the notion that Bill Belichick has surpassed him as the NFL's best coach.

In fact, Shanahan says, he kind of saw it coming.

The Denver coach, one of the few who has a winning record against Belichick since he started with New England, has a chance to climb back on top -- or at least closer to the top -- when they meet in the playoffs Saturday night.

Win or lose, Shanahan says being lumped in or around the same category as the coach who has won three Super Bowls in the last four years could never be considered a bad thing.

"When I first got here, someone asked me to rank who the top coaches were," said Shanahan, in his 11th season with the Broncos. "I gave them three guys -- Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher and Bill Belichick. At the time, they laughed at me. But I said, 'Hey, I've watched the guy coach,' and all they could do was talk about his Cleveland escapades."

Those Cleveland escapades are long behind him, and now Belichick is going for history. He's trying to become the first coach to win three straight Super Bowls.

Shanahan, meanwhile, is seeking his third Super Bowl title overall.

The second came in 1998 and at that time, Shanahan was known around Denver as The Mastermind -- a master of creating matchups, the best coach in the game, the first coach to create a mini-dynasty under the full restrictions of the salary cap (although it was later revealed the Broncos broke a few of those rules during their Super Bowl years).

"He does a great job from week to week of matching up his players against your defensive weaknesses," Belichick said. "And he also adds little, different wrinkles to it."

A versatile offense

Indeed, part of Shanahan's brilliance is his ability to devise and use similar plays and formations with different personnel groupings. It makes Denver ultra-versatile and prevents an opposing coach from being able to tell his defenders that they'll see one of, say, only six or seven specific plays when a certain group comes on the field.

Part of making it work is picking the right players -- those who are smart and talented enough to run different plays out of different sets and from different spots.

Of course, since Shanahan has final say on all personnel decisions, he gets all that much more credit when things work out, and that much more blame when they don't.

How is Shanahan similar to Belichick? He wouldn't hazard a guess. The two are not close, have not worked together and have only admired each other's work from afar.

A bit has been made this week of the fact that Shanahan is 3-1 against Belichick since 2001, the year of New England's first Super Bowl win. It's the best record against Belichick of all the coaches who have faced him at least four times in that span.

But to use his foot up on Belichick as a source of confidence, or point to it as anything to brag about -- it's something Shanahan won't do. He knows he's going up against a coach who is every bit as brilliant on defense as Shanahan is on offense.

"We've seen it all through the years," Shanahan said. "If you do pick up a weakness, it's not there very long. You have to adjust throughout the whole game, and they are fundamentally sound. They play good, solid football. His players always know what they are doing. I don't care if they are rookies are veterans -- they are very well coached and they play at a very high level."

One game at a time

Away from the Xs and Os, part of Belichick's success as a motivator is that he doesn't look at the seasons as extensions of each other. Three Super Bowls in four years is fantastic, but for Belichick, the only thing that counts is what's going on this week, this game, this practice.

"At the beginning of this season our slogan was 'to climb this mountain,"' receiver Deion Branch said. "Everybody was talking about 'defending champions' and such and such. His main thing was that we are not defending anything because we don't have a title. We won that last year."

Last year, the Patriots looked like a dynasty. They went 14-2 and rarely struggled.

This year, though, has been different. Beaten up, their confidence shaken, a low point came Week 6 in Denver, when the Broncos rolled up a 28-3 lead in the third quarter. The Broncos hit three big plays -- for 55, 68 and 72 yards -- right up the middle of the Patriots defense.

The Patriots rallied to make it a game, before falling 28-20.

Still, it was an embarrassment for Belichick, a victory for Shanahan.

Now, the stakes are higher.

"I know it's a great challenge for our football team, and I'm sure he's looking at it the same way," Shanahan said. "Everything you get, you going to have to earn, and that's the nature of our matchups through the years."

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