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Belichick gives team night off ... sort of

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Deion Branch's eyes shot wide and he offered a quizzical glance when a reporter suggested Thursday that the Patriots had gotten to see a looser side of coach Bill Belichick the day before.

"We did?" Branch asked, his voice jumping up an octave.

Well, there was rock star Jon Bon Jovi prowling around the practice field before the team's afternoon session and then a candy-coated trip to the movies at night to meet boxer Micky Ward and watch the flick he inspired, "The Fighter."

"We still had to practice, though," Branch offered with a smile.

True, but Wednesday night's alternative film session appeared well received in a locker room that has been all-football, all-the-time since the lockout lifted and training camp opened in late July. Instead of breaking down practice tape or studying more reels on the Lions, New England's opponent in Saturday's preseason battle, the Patriots got to indulge in buttered popcorn and Sour Patch Kids while still learning a lesson that could aid them during the 2011 season.

"Look, we've been in camp for a long time, been watching a lot of film at night -- practice film, opponent film and everything, so we decided to go to the movies to make it a little more enjoyable," said Belichick. "Popcorn, candy out there, let them relax a little bit. Sometimes your teams work hard and they deserve a break from the normal routine. I think they enjoyed it, it was a good night."

Good enough for Belichick to keep that guard down a little bit on Thursday, too. When not fending off strings of questions about Albert Haynesworth, Belichick playfully fielded a lighter query about his favorite movie theater treats.

"Well it's a good selection," said Belichick. "That was a real highlight because we're so nutrition-conscious here. When we threw the candy out that was pretty popular. Put me down for the Junior Mints."

At about the same time the Patriots were enjoying their movie night, an interview with Jets coach Rex Ryan was airing on the NFL Network and Belichick wasn't the only one veering from his normal course. Passing on the chance to pounce on a question about him being underrated as a coach, Ryan instead heaped praise on rival Belichick.

"I want what Bill Belichick's got," said Ryan. "I think Bill Belichick is the best coach in this game; I don't even think it's close."

Ryan's comments, along with the movie night excursion, had Patriots players echoing the Jets coach's sentiment on Thursday. Andre Carter, an 11-year NFL veteran who has experienced a revolving door of coaches during his career, said it hasn't taken long for Belichick to make an impact on him.

"I've probably had five or six head coaches and that's a lot of head coaches in an 11-year span," admitted Carter. "But, by far, I see why he's successful, why he's an X's and O's guy. From special teams to position meetings to just detail in general, I've never seen a coach so hands-on. But it's great because he takes pride in his job, he takes pride in his craft. I think he also wants the players that he has on the team -- whether it's the 90-man [roster] in training camp, to the [final] 53-man roster, prepare themselves for a great game, week after week after week."

And sometimes that doesn't necessarily come on the field or in the usual film room. Sometimes it comes subliminally at a movie night. So what exactly did Patriots players take away from Wednesday's meet-and-greet with Ward and his Oscar-winning flick?

"I think the most important thing was the person the movie was about was here and it was an opportunity to actually ask him [about his experiences] and talk to him," said Branch, who posted a picture of himself with Ward to his Twitter account Wednesday evening.

Added safety James Sanders: "Seeing the trials and tribulations that Micky Ward went through, it shows you that physically and mentally you can push yourself to levels that you think you may not be able to push yourself to. I think it was him sending a message to the team -- it's training camp, things aren't always going to be going right, you have to be physically and mentally tough and try to push yourself through as hard as you can."

Yes, even on a light night, Belichick found a way to suggest to his players to push themselves harder.

But like practice, movie night is what you make of it. Not every player will pull that same message. For some, it truly was just a chance to kick back for a couple hours.

"If it works, it works, but we're all professionals, we shouldn't have to be motivated," said guard Logan Mankins. "Some guys need it still. We have a job to do, we have to show up and do our job. If something is going to help motivate you, then that's great. If it doesn't, it doesn't."

Mankins did admit it was fun to watch Ward instead of more tape on Ndamukong Suh and the Lions' defensive line.

"It's good that everyone got to hang out and have a good time together, eat popcorn ... and stuff. That was nice," said Mankins. "We are here a long time, some mornings, some nights. So it was nice to have an evening off [Wednesday]."

No, the Patriots didn't get a night off. Belichick simply might have made it appear that way.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.