In the final moments of Sunday evening's AFC championship game, as the scoreboard clock at Heinz Field inexorably counted down toward another Super Bowl appearance for the New England Patriots, the team's soon-departing coordinators individually approached Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for an emotional bear hug.
First offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, headed to Notre Dame the day after Super Bowl XXXIX, embraced his boss. And then defensive chief Romeo Crennel, whose next task presumably is the rebuilding of a moribund Cleveland Browns franchise, did the same. And when the brief love-fest was concluded, Belichick suggested afterwards, it was replaced by a sense that, even with another championship ring likely for the Pats' sideline brain trust, things won't ever be quite the same again.
Don't expect, however, such uncharacteristic melancholy to morph into the maniacal this week as the Patriots commence preparations for their title game matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles. Oh, Dr. Belichick is in all right -- in his game-planning laboratory, that is, poring over videotape and scouting reports -- and many of his charges believe he will emerge later this week with some Frankenstein monster of a blueprint for securing a third Super Bowl title in four seasons.
But few of the New England players actually feel that the strategy, which will be at least partially revealed when the Patriots return to practice on Thursday, will be overly exotic.
"I'm sure he'll take a little from here, a little from there, and mix it all up to come up with something that blends the best of everything we do," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said in the wake of the Pats' dismantling of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I mean, for (Belichick), no two games are alike, you know? But it's not like he's going to go overboard, either, and put in a lot of crazy things we've never seen before."
Indeed, one of the primary temptations that must be avoided by Belichick and by Eagles counterpart Andy Reid -- two coaches surrounded by marvelous staffs and with superb coordinators capable of drawing up a dizzying array of X's and O's on the grease board -- is to make too much of the additional preparation time this week.
Fortunately for both the Eagles and the Patriots, the respective head coaches seem to realize that the additional preparation time isn't necessarily meant to be devoted to the preposterous.
Reid isn't apt, just on a whim, to incorporate the Statue of Liberty into his running attack this week. Belichick probably won't decide to use a linebacker at free safety or design a defense in which a wide receiver is aligned as the "nickel" corner. Oops, he's already done both those things, sorry. But he probably won't turn Tom Brady into a triple-option quarterback before heading to Jacksonville for the title game.
Necessity might be the mother of invention. But it's more often convention, the art of crafting the things your team does best into a workable design, that fathers Super Bowl championships. It might not be exactly the hackneyed K.I.S.S. method applied to football but, if you want to plant a wet one on the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the night of Feb. 6, you don't want to go off the deep end in game-planning this week.
"The game is so big that you actually have to force yourself to sort of narrow your focus some," said Eagles reserve tailback Dorsey Levens, who owns a title ring courtesy of the Green Bay Packers' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. "(Reid) knows that. He was part of the staff in Green Bay when we went to two (Super Bowl games) in a row. And you know he's had his own Super Bowl preparation plan in place the last few years here. So he's got a handle on how to do this. Believe me, he's prepared, not over-prepared."
Preparing a game plan is in full swing and, while the players from both teams probably won't be handed the full script until later in the week, there is likely a lot more work that is already completed than most would suspect. Both the Eagles and Patriots, of course, had "advance scouts" in attendance at last Sunday's conference championship tilts. And after deciphering the doodles they made, and transcribing the notes that they dictated into digital tape recorders, those scouts have presented to the coaching staffs bulky reports on their Super Bowl opponents.
Even before their conference title game victories, each team had a contingent of scouts and quality control assistants breaking down video tape of their potential Super Bowl opponent. In that regard, much of the legwork is completed, and what remains now this week is boiling down the glut of information into a sound strategy. That is, in part, what preoccupied the Patriots and Eagles staffs on Tuesday, when both contingents are said to have worked well into the night.
One perquisite of the extra week, for sure, is simply dealing with logistics. In his club's first championship victory, the upset of the St. Louis Rams in 2001, Belichick and his staff were forced to go straight from the AFC title game to the Super Bowl and he noted on Monday that "it was a struggle just to get everything moved down (to New Orleans) and to get everything relocated." So a portion of what the coaches want to accomplish this week are the real-world components: travel schedules, making sure players have arranged for their families to get to the game, ticket requests, setting up mobile offices away from the comforts of the home complex.
Deal with those concerns during the "dark" week, most past Super Bowl coaches agree, and it permits players to concentrate more on football, even with the inherent distractions of Super Bowl week, once they arrive at the game site. This week, however, won't be all about the off-field handiwork, since each team will log at least two full-scale practices in advance of their flights to Jacksonville.
If those practices don't focus in on the kind of fine-tuning that typically consumes a team in mid-week sessions, the workouts will serve as the first step in transferring all of the prep work done by the coaches into football applications. Contrary to what some people think, the players will get a pretty healthy dose of the game plan this week, even though there will remain considerable tweaking to be done.
Said one Eagles assistant: "You're so accustomed to working on a seven-day cycle during the season, that there's a temptation to think, 'Man, we've got all this time (to prepare).' But there is so much going on, and the magnitude of what's coming up settles in on you when you take the time to think about it, that it gets your attention. To me, though, the biggest thing is, you don't want to over-coach."
Make no mistake: These are two of the premier coaching staffs in the league. While the two New England coordinators will be moving on to run their own programs following Super Bowl XXXIX, their Philadelphia counterparts, Jim Johnson (defense) and Brad Childress (offense), should be head coaches, too. Looking at the staffs even beyond the coordinator level reveals considerable brain power.
Certainly, there is the potential for some impressive game-planning. And, as well, for some undeniable gamesmanship. Think about last week's conference title games and what actually transpired versus what was anticipated. Everyone expected Johnson to unleash his full menu of tasty blitzes against Michael Vick and, instead, the Philadelphia mastermind blitzed the Falcons quarterback just twice. The expectation in the AFC game was that Belichick and Crennel would attempt to confuse Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with an array of exotic defensive fronts. But they played things straight for the most part, spent much of the game in their standard 3-4 alignment, and relied on their front seven to out-slug the physical Steelers in the trenches.
So expect some of the unexpected in Super Bowl XXXIX, especially front two coaching staffs that attempt to dictate, rather than be dictated to. Just don't expect the game plans, being conjured up this week, to deviate too much from what these two teams do best.
Certainly the "dark" week preceding the Super Bowl is a luxury. What it isn't, though, is a license to turn creativity into craziness.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.