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Saban's disguises look very familiar

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- No hard feelings. This wasn't Bill Belichick losing to a Bill Parcells team or an Eric Mangini team. This time, the postgame handshake was sincere. Coach Bill even went out of his way to say Nick Saban's name during his ever-so-brief concession speech.

The Patriots were waxed by the Miami Dolphins, 21-0, in the December heat of south Florida yesterday and Coach Bill had only nice things to say about Saban and the Dolphins. It was, in fact, a little like looking in the mirror. The Dolphins confused the Patriots with defensive schemes. The Dolphins went for it (and made it) on fourth down, disguised their weaknesses, won the battle of field position, and forced turnovers (the Patriots lost three fumbles, giving them a whopping 11 turnovers in their last three games). The Dolphins outplayed and outsmarted the visitors from New England.

It's supposed to be the other way around. A legion of road-tripping Patriots fans and all those watching back home expect to see their coach win the chess match every week. Even when they are not as talented as their opponent, we expect the Patriots to win simply because they are better prepared, better coached. Trouble is, some of the protégés have learned too well from the grandmaster smashmouth and yesterday Saban beat Belichick at his own game.

You should have been there when the Miami media interviewed Saban after the game. The Dolphins coach was asked how his team is able to neutralize the great Tom Brady (QB 12 was an anemic 12 of 25 for 78 yards with two fumbles, one lost). Nobody actually accused Saban of getting into Brady's head, but you would have sworn it was a pack of New Englanders asking Coach Bill about taking up space inside the helmets of Drew Bledsoe or Peyton Manning.

Saban, naturally, deflected the query and moved to something else. Very Bill-like. Coach Nick learned more than football from Coach Bill.

Theirs is a two-man admiration society. Notice that Saban did not go for another score when his team had a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line with fewer than two minutes to play. He had his quarterback take a knee.

These guys go way back. Both are football lifers with deep roots in the NFL. Belichick's dad played for the Detroit Lions in 1941 and Saban is a distant cousin of Lou Saban, who was the first coach in the history of the Boston Patriots. Saban was Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Browns and together they beat the Bob Kraft/Parcells/Bledsoe Patriots in a playoff game on New Year's Day in 1995.

"I met Bill when I was coaching at the Naval Academy [in 1982]," Saban recalled. "His dad was still there so Bill would come home during the summertime when he was young and I was young then. We talked a lot of football, got to know each other, and became pretty good friends. When I was a head coach at Michigan State, he used to bring his kids to camp when we had camp and stuff like that. Stay at the house for three days and we'd talk ball -- how you play Cover 2, how you play this coverage, how you play ball, what about this blitz, how you take the pattern away."

For a few years, they had to meet secretly, like a couple of suburban characters in a John Updike novel. Saban was working in Houston and coach Jerry Glanville wouldn't allow assistants to talk to anyone (there's a rule that still stands), so Belichick and Saban stole away and watched film near West Point.

"We'd have these meeting spots," said Saban. "West Point seemed like a place that we could hide out. So we went there and stayed for weekends, stayed in a hotel up there, and talked ball. In those days, we didn't have video, we were watching film."

Wonder if next time they meet they'll talk about Belichick snapping at Dolphins trainer Kevin O'Neill. When Benjamin Watson was crushed attempting to catch a pass over the middle in the second half, O'Neill came out, and Belichick bolted to the scene and emphatically waved him off. Friendship has its limits.

"Give Miami a lot of credit today," Belichick said. "They did a good job in all three phases of the game. Nick had them ready to go. They were the better team today."

Saban is 2-2 as a head coach against his mentor (oddly, Saban is a year older than Belichick). Like the Denver Broncos, the Dolphins always give Belichick's Patriots trouble. This is not such a great thing when you play a team twice a year and their coach seems to have a little Belichick kryptonite in his pocket.

The Miami coach acknowledged these matchups mean a lot.

"I don't think there's any question when you're playing against someone who is a mentor and a friend, from a pride standpoint, you want to do the best job you can. I have tremendous respect for him. This is a fantastic win for our players. New England has been the premier team in our division."

To use Patriots code for severely bruised ribs, it appears the entire New England team had the wind knocked out of it in Miami yesterday.

What these guys need is a visit from the Houston Texans and a game against a coach who knows nothing of the maniacal ways of Coach Bill. It will be different this Sunday in Foxborough. At least it better be different.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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