NEW ORLEANS -- Even now, after the New England Patriots have turned last year's last-place finish into a trip to the Super Bowl, coach Bill Belichick winces when recounting the team's early season problems.
In training camp, star wide receiver Terry Glenn was suspended for the first four games by the NFL for missing a drug test, and again by the team when he refused to practice in the meantime. Just a few days later, quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein died of heart failure.
So Belichick piled his players into buses and took them to a movie.
Not to take their minds off their problems.
Actually, it was just the opposite.
For this film session, Belichick chose ''Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure,'' the story of the 1914 voyage of the ''Endurance,'' in which the ship got trapped and then crushed in the ice. The crew withstood 17 months of hunger, inhuman temperatures and boredom before making its way over icy land and sea to safety.
''If they wouldn't have been a team out there, they wouldn't have survived. If they hadn't believed in their captain, they wouldn't have survived,'' defensive lineman Willie McGinest said.
''(Belichick) is the captain of our ship, and we're the crew members. Everything hasn't gone perfectly for us, obviously, but we've believed in him, we've followed his direction and he's gotten us to the Super Bowl.''
With its first trip to the NFL championship game since 1997, New England has capped a remarkable turnaround from Belichick's first season as head coach, when the Patriots went 5-11 -- the fourth consecutive season the Patriots had gotten worse.
Things didn't seem likely to get any better when Rehbein died of heart failure just a few days after Glenn was suspended by the league for missing a drug test.
In his anger, Glenn left camp. When he refused to return, Belichick suspended him for the season. Although that was overturned by an arbitrator, the rest of the team had learned that no player would get in the way of the group.
(Glenn was eventually suspended by Belichick through the playoffs for yet another rules violation.)
''Everything he's done this year has worked out for us,'' Patriots wide receiver Troy Brown said. ''The more he proved, the more we believed. The more things worked out, the more we said, 'He knows what he's doing.'''
Along the way, there have been other motivational messages from Belichick: An anchor left next to the scale, for players dragging the team down; videotape of a neck-and-neck horse race to show the unpredictability of the stretch run; the game ball from a loss buried in a hole next to the practice field.
But Belichick faced his biggest test after Drew Bledsoe was injured in Week 2 and sidelined for seven weeks.
Tom Brady, who started training camp as the No. 4 quarterback before being promoted to the primary backup, played so well in relief that Belichick gave him the job for good.
All Brady did was go 11-3 as a starter to lead the Patriots to the AFC East title and earn a spot on the Pro Bowl team. He brought them back from a 13-3, fourth-quarter deficit in a playoff game over Oakland to beat the Raiders 16-13 in overtime.
But in the AFC title game last week, Brady sprained his ankle and it was Bledsoe coming on in relief. Playing for the first time in 126 days, Bledsoe keyed a 24-17 victory over the Steelers and into the Super Bowl.
Now that they're there, New England hopes to improve on its previous appearances, a 46-10 loss to Chicago in 1986 and 35-21 to Green Bay in 1997 -- both in New Orleans. This year, it is a 14-point underdog.
WHAT THE PATRIOTS NEED TO DO TO WIN:
--Ride their special teams to an edge in field position -- and maybe a couple of touchdowns, too. Against Pittsburgh, New England scored on Brown's punt return and again when Brown picked up a blocked field goal and pitched it to Antwan Harris.
''It's a big concern for us,'' Rams coach Mike Martz said of Brown. ''They probably have the best group we have seen on special teams so far. They are obviously well-coached.''
--Bend, but don't break. The Patriots were 14th in the AFC in total defense. But once the opponent got inside the 20, New England allowed only 19 touchdowns allowed in 49 possessions -- best in the conference.
--Keep the ball out of Kurt Warner's hands. The Patriots tried, but failed, to do that when the teams met Nov. 18. The Rams outgained New England 482 yards to 230 and held them to 51 yards rushing and just 49 offensive plays in a 24-17 win; St. Louis also kept the ball nearly eight minutes longer and milked the last 7:46 off the clock to clinch the win.
''The best way of keeping their offense from scoring is having them sitting on the sidelines,'' Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said. ''You want to be able to control the game.''
--Avoid turnovers. St. Louis scored twice off New England turnovers in the first half of their regular-season meeting. And, if the Rams make a mistake, New England has to convert.
''If you settle for field goals,'' Weis said, ''they have too much firepower and they could score too quickly and put you out of the game in a hurry.''
--Win the coaching matchup. Belichick is considered a brilliant defensive strategist; Martz's acumen is with the offense. New England needs Belichick to come up with the game plan that can slow Warner while keeping the Rams' defense guessing.
''I'm not going to make any plays. If I had to go against Mike Martz, I don't know if I'd make any either,'' Belichick said when asked if there was pressure to outcoach his friend. ''He'd probably run right over me.''
Peninsula Clarion ©2015. All Rights Reserved.