- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bill Belichick was in rare form Monday. He was Feisty Bill, buoyed by a much-needed victory and speaking with an edge that made one wonder whether perhaps the two Carolina Panthers defensive backs who criticized Randy Moss' effort might have provided the less-than-inspiring Patriots something they desperately need down the homestretch: a rallying point.
Whether it leads to anything substantial remains to be seen, but at the least, it was entertaining to hear Belichick engage in his version of a Rex Ryan-style rumble.
Mitchell, of course, was the Eagles receiver who, before Super Bowl XXXIX, said he couldn't name the Patriots' defensive backs and knew them only by jersey number. Yet he couldn't even get the numbers right. Belichick was irked at the lack of respect shown by a marginal player and later delivered one of his unforgettable lines: "He's terrible, and you can print that." For good measure, Belichick said he was happy when Mitchell was in the game.
Then there was Smith, the reserve Steelers safety who guaranteed a victory over the Patriots in the days before the teams' December duel in New England's undefeated 2007 season. The Patriots hit a long touchdown early in a 34-13 win, with Smith in the area, and Belichick delivered this gem after the game: "The safety play at that position was pretty inviting We've played against a lot better safeties than him, I'll tell you that."
Such exchanges are memorable mainly because Belichick is the anti-Ryan 99.9 percent of the time, either showering praise (sometimes unwarranted) on the opposition or simply taking the football high road.
Yet when he arrived at the interview podium at 11:45 Monday morning, he was scrappy and ready for the fight. He was waiting for the question on Gamble and Harris, and it didn't take long before it came: What is your response to comments made by those Carolina defenders that Moss shut it down?
Belichick shot back with this: "My response would be that's a lot of conversation coming from a team that just lost another game."
Perhaps wondering whether those words had the desired impact, he sharpened his knife a few minutes later. Without answering whether he thought Moss turned in a maximum effort -- which might have been a clue as to what Belichick truly felt about his receiver's listless performance -- the coach brilliantly managed to throw his support behind the beleaguered Moss while delivering a dagger to Gamble and Harris.
"I have a lot of respect for Randy, I think he's one of our best players. If you watch other teams defend him, watch other teams play against him, they think the same way -- other than these two guys from Carolina after they lost another game. I guess they don't think that way, but they haven't won a lot of games now."
Between Belichick's retort, and quarterback Tom Brady's zinger to Gamble earlier in the day in which he said, "I've seen plenty of plays made on Chris Gamble, too, over the course of the season," one got the sense that the Patriots were going the Rodney Harrison route.
Harrison used to have a knack for taking words and turning them into motivation, something for him and his teammates to rally around. He once explained that because of the grind of the NFL season, players sometimes needed those changeups that brought some life to the locker room, spicing up the monotonous and often draining weekly routine.
Entering Week 15, the Patriots can use anything of that sort. They are beaten up at key positions and looked at times Sunday like a team headed for a short stay in the playoffs. For a team that has annually built momentum at this time of year, New England seems as if it is struggling to hold things together.
Maybe this will be the needed spark. Then again, maybe it's wishful thinking on the Patriots' part.
Regardless, on a day when Belichick reminded reporters of his feelings that "stats are for losers and final scores are for winners," the often-guarded coach was refreshingly blunt.
Every few years for Belichick, the opportunity is apparently just too inviting.
2dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne