Change does Patriots good

Better practices led to improved result

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / November 16, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — Deion Branch promised last week that fans and media would see a different Patriots team on Sunday against Pittsburgh.

New England had been humbled in Cleveland, and after a sobering morning-after film session with far more lowlights than highlights, the veteran wide receiver saw his teammates look one another in the eye. It was a subtle acknowledgement: they had seen their mistakes played out before them and knew they were better than the film they had produced.

Just as Branch knew Monday that a change was coming, coach Bill Belichick knew on Wednesday.

But it wasn’t evident to Belichick at the start of that day’s practice session — it was obvious after.

“I’d say the biggest change was Wednesday, coming off the field,’’ he said. “You can walk off the field and most days know whether you either had an average type of day, a bad day, or a real good day.’’

Football is unlike nearly all other major sports in that there are far more practices than games. Preparation plays a huge role in how teams perform, and on the field they refine the execution of carefully crafted game plans.

Yesterday, during his news conference held just before 5 p.m., a mere 17 hours after walking off the turf at Heinz Field with the satisfaction of a hard-fought win, Belichick effectively turned the page on the Steelers game. It was time to prepare for the Colts.

Since training camp began in late July, the Patriots have had about 80 practices. If one was to rank them, Belichick said, many would be bunched together, with just a few standing out as very good and a few remembered for being very poor.

And Wednesday sometimes can set the tone for an entire week.

“I think when you walk off the field on Wednesday, and with a good feeling about the way practice went, about the way the game plan is shaping up and the way the players are executing, that’s a good start,’’ Belichick said. “Obviously, that doesn’t mean anything, but that’s a good start because Thursday definitely relates to Wednesday.

“And if you’re behind and you don’t have a good feeling when you come off the field on Wednesday, then Thursday you have to take time to correct things that happened on Wednesday and it keeps you from moving further ahead. And if you have to continue to do that on Friday, then it detracts from other things you could be preparing for that you really need to prepare for.’’

With three good days of practice, said the coach, a team can “move ahead and go into the game confidently, knowing that you’ve prepared for everything, that you’ve executed on the practice field.’’

Branch wasn’t the only one who noted the disappointing sessions leading up to the loss to the Browns. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork pointed to them as a major culprit as well.

Leaders on a team notice, and others do, too. The desire to improve — or the expectation to improve with the Patriots — pushes the players to refocus.

That’s part of the reason New England has rarely posted back-to-back losses the last seven-plus years.

“In the end, it’s a players’ game,’’ Belichick said. “The players have to go onto the field and they win them. They win games. They go out there and make the plays. They make the passes, the blocks, the kicks, the tackles, the interceptions, the forced-fumbles. Whatever the plays are, they’re the ones that go out there and do it.’’

The foundation for being able to make those plays is laid in practice.

“Like we said last week, it started with practice,’’ Wilfork said yesterday during an appearance on WEEI. “Practice was terrible [before the Cleveland game]. There were little things we were doing wrong and it carried over into the game. Going into this past week, we were like, ‘Let’s get a good start.’ Once we saw the film of Cleveland, we made the corrections and we put it behind us.

“I think everybody got off to a great start in practice. We had a great week of practice and it showed [against Pittsburgh]. Everybody did their job and played the game we needed to play and we needed to be aggressive against this Steelers football team because that’s their style of play. They don’t know how to play any other way but physical and aggressive, so we knew we needed to match that intensity if we were going to have a chance, and I thought we did that.’’

It is a favorite line of former Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs, and last week it rang true: proper preparation prevents poor performance.

“There’s such a fine line in this league between being good and being bad that, in a lot of cases, it doesn’t take a lot for that differential to show up,’’ Belichick said. “If you don’t do the things that you really need to do or [you] do the things that you really need to do, you can see a big difference in the results on Sunday.’’

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