Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the NFL's leading media stonewaller, knew the questions were coming, the ones with back-page implications, and he was ready in his conference call today with media covering the Jets. One New York tabloid report had Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie saying he "hates" New England quarterback Tom Brady and then describing him with an unprintable adjective.
What did Belichick think of Cromartie's comments? "I'm really trying to focus on getting our team ready to play on Sunday," he said.
At least, Belichick didn't act like he never heard of Cromartie. Asked about his play this season at cornerback, the New England coach ran down Cromartie's resume from his days in San Diego, cited the interception he made in the season opener against Baltimore and the kickoff runback at the end of last week's wild-card playoff win in Indianapolis as examples of the big plays he can make.
" He can hurt you in a lot of different ways," Belichik said, and there was no way to tell if he meant Cromartie could hurt his own team as well, but we'll find that out in Sunday's divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
One-by-one the media asked Belichick about the other "hot button issues" Jets coach Rex Ryan has raised this week. Belichick responded by raising his deflector shield. Asked if he has any issues with Brady pointing at the opposing team after the Patriots score, what Ryan called his "antics," Belichick said, "What was that again?"
Asked again if he's upset about the negative things the Jets have said about Brady's pointing, Belichick said, "No."
Is this playoff game personal to Belichick the way Ryan said it is to him? " We're going to do our best to win on Sunday," Belichick said.
Earlier in the week, Belichick at least showed a touch of humor, saying he might have an advantage in quickness on Ryan but would be hard-pressed to match his size and strength. So, Belichick was asked if he were willing to engage Ryan in a footrace or other contest. "I think we'll do our best to win on Sunday," he said with a seriousness reserved for midweek preparations.
Digging into Belichick's past, there's a story that when he was defensive coordinator of the 1990 Giants, he saw a picture of some members of the Buffalo Bills getting fitted for Super Bowl rings the week before the game and he put it up where everyone could see it. Of course, the Giants held that high-powered Bills offense to just 19 points, won by one point and the gameplan now is displayed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Asked how he used that incident to fuel the Giants' emotions, Belichick's memory went fuzzy. "Uh, I really don't even remember being aware of that story about the rings," he said. "If it was, I've forgotten about it. I really don't remember it."
Although Belichick works at not displaying his emotion to outsiders, it's a well-known part of his method coaching his team. But when asked to describe the relationship of emotion to execution, Belichick minimized it, saying, "If you wrote a book, you still probably couldn't include all of [the factors that go into execution]. It's a long game. It takes over three-plus hours. A lot of things happen over that span of time, and how it all comes together is very unique. That's what makes football such a great game. Emotion is part of it. So are a million other things."
But does he coach emotion the way he coaches every other aspect of the game? "I think you try to coach a team the best that you can," Belichick said. "As I said, there's a million factors that go into that. They're all important."
One of those factors is emotion, and it's a good bet the Patriots will play with just as much fire as the Jets. They just go about it differently.