If there are two words Vikings fans are guaranteed to hear uttered at least once before the end of Sunday's game between the Vikings and the Patriots, those two words are "chess match."
It's guaranteed. When you only go up against Patriots head coach Bill Belichick once every four years, the battle between head coaches comes into play. Vilified in Cleveland, Belichick has stamped his legacy on the NFL by winning Super Bowls and devising schemes that smack in the face of forcing opponents to play your game.
Belichick and Brad Childress have met just once as head coaching rivals. It was Oct 30, 2006 – four years and a day before they meet for a second time. Childress was in his first season as Vikings head coach. His team was 4-2 and geared up for a pre-Halloween coming out party. The Patriots were coming to town and visions of a replication of the 1998 NFL eye-opening win at Green Bay on a Monday night in Week 5 set the tone for the rest of the season (give or take 10 minutes against Atlanta). This was going to do the same. It was Week 8, the Vikings were looking to make a statement, move to 5-2 and start flexing their muscle.
The lynchpin of the Vikings that season was its run defense. It was dominating the league. There were questions everywhere else, but there was no doubting the strength of the 2006 Vikings – it was up front stopping the run and making opposing offenses one-dimensional. Belichick found a way to turn that on its head.
He brought his team into the Metrodome with a mantra – the Vikings can stop the run, so we're not even going to try. In the first half of that game, Belichick's offense ran 33 plays – 28 were pass plays. He wasn't going to waste time trying to establish the run. He planned to kill with the pass. He intentionally made his own offense one-dimensional and killed with it. Brady had almost 300 passing yards by halftime and the Patriots had a 17-0 halftime lead. They would win the game 31-7, and four Patriots running backs would combine to rush just 13 times. Brady completed 29 of 43 passes for 372 yards and four touchdowns. Belichick did it his way and gave the rest of the NFL a blueprint of how to beat the run-stuffing Vikings defense. Minnesota would lose eight of its final 10 games that year.
When trying to understand Belichick, you need to find those who know him. He is cloak-and-dagger personified in NFL coaching. You can expect to see Brady on the injury report Friday listed as probable with a phantom right shoulder injury. He has been listed as such on the injury report for five years – the one game he wasn't was the 2008 season opener in which he was injured and lost for the season. Belichick is a chessmaster. To understand him, you need to find guys who have dealt with more than every fourth season.
The Vikings have three players with a wealth of Belichick experience. Once again, Randy Moss wasn't talking, but two others – wide receivers Greg Lewis and Greg Camarillo – have very different perspectives. Lewis was with the Patriots during the 2009 offseason. Camarillo played against the Patriots for three years with Miami. Each has his own perspective of the Mad Genius. He isn't always beloved by his own fans, but he has their respect – despite being from very different viewpoints.
Lewis said that Belichick's teams may be outplayed, but he will rarely, if ever, be outcoached. He has a system that has been successful over time, despite not having a dearth of superstar talent. He found role players to fill a specific need to make the team successful, and it can be argued he can rightfully feel like the smartest guy in the room.
"Coach Belichick schemes against teams and players and finds the way to get his players – offensively, defensively or special teams – to put them in the best situation to win," Lewis said. "He's an extremely cerebral coach. He knows the ins and outs of everything somebody is doing. He studies the stuff that nobody would think of. That's why his teams are always in the hunt, know what they're doing and find ways to make plays with less talent."
As an opponent, Camarillo said the Belichick game plan often involves taking away the player he deems to be the biggest threat to beating his Patriots. Given his understanding of what makes Randy Moss ticks, Camarillo said it is expected that the Patriots are going to have a plan in mind to deal with Moss as a designated deep threat.
"Belichick plans," Camarillo said. "He's smart. He knows football. Particularly with Randy, he knows what his capabilities are. I wouldn't be surprised if they change things up and give us a different look. That being said, we're going to plan for everything and be ready for everything."
To be a fit in the Patriots system, you don't have to be the fastest, the biggest or the strongest. But you do have to be smart. For a system that can change philosophy from week to week depending on opponent, teams can watch a year's worth of game tape and still see something they didn't expect. Just ask the 2006 Vikings. They can tell you. But, for the Patriots players, the changes come fast and furious and from week to week, and players need to be able to make those adjustments in a matter of days, not weeks.
"You have to be able to adjust to what's going on (and do it) on the run to be a player in New England," Lewis said. "He wants guys that are versatile and able to understand and differentiate between this and that, put things in perspective and know what they need to do."
When it comes down to it, the system in New England has been more important than its component parts. Star players in contract years have either been released, allowed to leave via free agency or traded. In the last couple of years, Pats fans have been stunned to see Belichick-sanctioned trades of fan favorites Richard Seymour and Moss. Yet the beat goes on. Belichick runs his system and doesn't care if you like it or not. It is truly his way or the highway.
Is Belichick a coaching genius? Lewis seemed like a logical player to ask. He has played with Belichick, Childress and Eagles coach Andy Reid. His teams have enjoyed success throughout his career. Is Belichick the better coach? In some respects.
"I wouldn't say the Belichick is any better than Coach Childress or Reid, it's just that (Belichick) does it his way and he believes his way works and it has worked," Lewis said. "He sticks to it. He's going to stick to what he knows and what he does best. Either you're with it or you're not."
As you count down the hours until you hear someone refer to dealing with Belichick as a "chess match," understand why it will be said. Because, in many respects, it will be accurate.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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