American Football: Belichick conducts Patriots' campaign with perfect timing

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The Independent Online

When it comes to finding success in the post-season, there is no substitute for experience. Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, and Joe Gibbs, his counterpart with the Washington Redskins, have each won three Super Bowl titles, and on Saturday night that experience proved vital as their teams prevailed in two gritty play-off matches.

The Patriots looked ominously powerful in disposing of the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-3 and, on this evidence, appear well placed to mount another championship run. New England have won three of the last four titles, and may be timing this year's challenge to perfection.

The Redskins found the going much harder in Tampa Bay, eventually hanging on for a 17-10 verdict, despite being outplayed for much of the affair. It was Gibbs's first post-season triumph since coming out of retirement two seasons ago.

Washington, one of the sport's dominant forces in the 1980s, won three titles under Gibbs, before the coach decided to leave to pursue his motor racing interests in 1992. Since then, the franchise has floundered among the also-rans, but this season has proved that Gibbs still retains his touch.

But the Redskins can consider themselves fortunate to catch a Tampa Bay side who showed early signs of stage fright. An early interception of Tampa's quarterback Chris Simms by Lavar Arrington set up their first touchdown - Clinton Portis scoring on a six-yard run.

Shortly afterwards, Sean Taylor scooped up a fumble, returning it 51 yards for a score to double the visitors' advantage. After that, however, Washington stalled. They finished with a mere 120 yards of total offense, but had their defense to thank for holding on in a frantic finish. Their cause was not helped by the talented but volatile Taylor, who was later ejected from the contest after spitting in the face of Tampa's Michael Pittman.

"To get a play-off win on the road is very difficult to do," said the Washington quarterback Mark Brunell. "Our defense was incredible, you can't say enough about them." The win marked Gibbs's 17th career post-season victory, trailing only Tom Landry and Don Shula.

New England's Belichick has now set a record with 10 consecutive play-off wins, and his overall mark of 11 victories against only one reverse is the best win-loss percentage in the sport's history.

By beating Jacksonville, Belichick's Patriots also erased the mark of nine consecutive post-season triumphs set by the legendary Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. To complete a record-setting night, the linebacker Willie McGinest took his post-season sack tally to 16, another all-time high. The quarterback Tom Brady looked sharp, with three touchdown passes to Benjamin Watson, Deion Branch, and David Givens.

In contrast Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich had a miserable time against New England's miserly defence. In his first game back following a broken ankle, Leftwich - and his team - looked out of their depth. They never looked likely to become the first side since 1978 to win a post-season affair in Massachusetts.

New England will now go on the road to continue their assault on yet another title. Like his colleagues, McGinest is motivated by titles more than individual accomplishments. "We are not downplaying it, but they are not passing any trophies out tonight," he said. "We've got a long way to go." The defending champions have become the team no one will want to face on the road to next month's Super Bowl.

The Carolina Panthers used a crushing defense and a rugged running game to rout the New York Giants 23-0 in the NFC wild card game last night. The victory lifted the Panthers to a second-round clash next week at Chicago Bears.