Preparations for the Monday Night opener against the Steelers officially began on Wednesday as the Patriots opened the practice week at Gillette Stadium. With a great deal of hype surrounding the 2001 AFC Championship game rematch, Head Coach Bill Belichick said today that the team will try to stay in a normal schedule leading up to the game.
"We are in a regular season schedule," Belichick said. "This is like a regular Wednesday for us and our preparation. This is a real big challenge for us this week, Pittsburgh is an excellent football team. Overall, this is a real strong team that is extremely well coached."
"Pittsburgh has been on the schedule for a long time. That's the team we're pointing to, opening night. So there are no other alternatives."
Belichick admitted that there might be some added emotion around the game, but that it is still just one game in a long season.
"This is one game of a 16-game schedule," Belichick said. "Every game is important and this is important because it is the next game. The season is not going to be decided after the first week, regardless of what happens to any team in the league. But every game is important and you always want to get off to a good start. Right now we are not thinking too much about what's going to happen in the second or third or fourth week, our focus is on Pittsburgh. We have 16 regular season games and every one of them is going to be important."
And while everyone has become familiar with the Steelers players' abilities to talk a little smack in the media and their belief that they were the better team last year, the Patriots continue to refuse to be baited into a verbal battle with their first opponent.
"I think that our players and coaches, as a group, that they have been pretty committed and dedicated to doing their job and focusing on what their particular aspect of each week's assignment is," Belichick said. "That is really all that matters. Other than what happens on Monday night, there isn't really much else that is going to affect the outcome of the game other than our preparation for the game and then our performance on the field. All the rest of it doesn't really matter."
The players echoed similar sentiments and also felt that they should let their jewelry do their talking for them.
"None of [the talk] means anything until you get out there and buckle up your chin strap," Tom Brady said. "This is as big as it gets. There was a lot of bad blood last year and I'm sure there is bad blood this year."
"As we all say, we let our play do the talking. What do we need to say? We've got the Super Bowl rings. I don't think we need to talk a whole lot."
Second year defensive lineman Richard Seymour echoed Brady's comments that the team will let its play speak for itself and that the circumstances of the game are more than enough reason to be up for it.
"There is going to be some hard hitting out there," Seymour said. "This is what you live for. As a competitor you have to accept the challenge. Your family is out there and you have family back home watching, this is what it is all about."
"The Super Bowl ring speaks for itself," Seymour added. "Not to speak about last year, but we really don't have to say what we did last year. The ring speaks for itself. It doesn't matter what we say on Tuesday or Wednesday, what's going to matter is Monday night. That's what it boils down to and may the best man win."
So while the players refuse to get into a mud-slinging match and are focused simply on the on-field action on Monday night, no one is denying the excitement that will surround the game. By late Monday the Steelers will either have another performance to make excuses for or will have taken a step towards backing up all their talk. But, as coaches like to say, that is why they play the games.
The Patriots announced that they had filled out their practice squad by signing linebacker Brandon Moore on Wednesday. Moore had been in training camp with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma. He will wear number 51 in New England. … The team chose seven captains to lead them through the 2002 season earlier this week. The players are Larry Izzo on special teams, Tom Brady, Troy Brown and Mike Compton on offense and Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi and Anthony Pleasant on defense. … Belichick said that offensive lineman Stephen Neal and cornerback Tommy Knight were the only players on the Patriots injury report for the game. Both players are listed as Questionable.