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Coaching mastermind faces another big test

A coaching genius knows how quickly his reputation can be tarnished.

FOXBORO, Mass. (AP) _ The coaching genius knows how quickly his reputation can be tarnished.

Another loss to the Steelers and Bill Belichick could go from the mastermind who baffled Peyton Manning to the bungler who still can't beat Ben Roethlisberger.

It's a nice compliment'' that some people consider him one of the top coaches in NFL history, the New England coach said Monday.I don't think it really means much this week. I don't think anybody cares about that. I'm sure Pittsburgh doesn't care.''

Belichick already has won two Super Bowls in three years and led the Patriots to consecutive 14-2 seasons. On Sunday, his reputation grew in a 20-3 playoff win over the high-scoring Indianapolis Colts and MVP Manning that put New England in next Sunday's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.

Manning's longest completion gained just 18 yards and he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in his 16 complete games this season.

What happened?

I think the person you have to ask is Belichick,'' Colts tight end Marcus Pollard said.What they did (Sunday) was different from what teams have been able to do against us all season.''

Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel was part of the defense that carried out Belichick's orders.

We had a great plan, an unbelievable plan. Our coaches got together and came up with some good stuff,'' Vrabel said.Different looks, stuff (Manning) hadn't seen before.''

Belichick and his coaches have been doing that all season.

Curtis Martin of the New York Jets led the NFL in rushing but in two games against the Patriots this season, both losses, he totaled just 103 yards on 33 carries with no touchdowns. His longest run covered 9 yards.

Belichick is like the Bobby Fischer of football,'' the running back said.When you give that guy time to plan for you and prepare for you, he's going to dissect you. He's going to take your whole strategy apart. And no matter what you do, he has an answer for it. That's why Pittsburgh is going to have a hard time.''

If the Patriots win, Belichick will tie for the best playoff record among head coaches who have been in at least six games at 9-1.

The other one? Vince Lombardi, who won the first two Super Bowls with Green Bay.

But Belichick shrugs off all the accolades, preferring to scrutinize game film and ponder Xs and Os.

He even said Monday that his team has to ``kind of start from scratch'' in preparing for Pittsburgh because it spent last week and part of the previous week studying the Colts.

Pittsburgh has a much different offensive style than Indianapolis power running instead of quick passing but he does know the Steelers all too well from a 34-20 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 31.

If he loses to them again, he can't imagine fans heaping praise on him for being a brilliant tactician who designs just the right plays or a wise teacher who motivates his players to stay hungry.

We've just got to go back to work, have a good week of preparation, get as mentally and physically prepared as we possibly can to play the best team in the AFC in their place,'' he said.If we don't, I'm sure none of those things will be said next week.''

The Patriots' loss to Pittsburgh ended their 21-game winning streak. Their only other loss was by one point in Miami.

Still, Belichick shares the blame for the collapse against the Steelers in which the Patriots trailed 21-3 after one quarter, rushed for a grand total just 5 yards and held the ball for only 17:02. Roethlisberger threw for two touchdowns in the first quarter and completed 18 of 24 passes.

So how could a team that stopped Manning, who set an NFL record with 49 touchdown passes, crumble against a rookie quarterback?

We didn't do hardly anything well,'' Belichick said.Obviously, I did a terrible job. You get beat 34-13 or whatever it was, you don't feel very good about your job.''

It was a rare failure for one of the greatest defensive coaches of the past two decades whose considerable offensive skills can be overshadowed.

He was defensive coordinator for the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowls in the 1986 and 1990 seasons. He also worked with the Patriots' quarterbacks in 2001 Tom Brady's first season as a starter after quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died that August. Belichick won his third NFL title that year.

He won another last season and must beat Pittsburgh for a chance at a fifth championship.

So by the time his players return to practice on Wednesday, the coaching wizard will have devised the plan he thinks will get them to their third Super Bowl in four years.

We're really starting a little bit further behind than we normally are'' in preparations, he said,but that's just the way it is this time of year so we'll work through it.''

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