PATRIOTS TEASE THEIR FOES BY STRIPPING THE FOOTBALL

NEW ORLEANS — They cannot help it. It is in their blood now. They see a football and they have to strip it.

Kickoffs. It happens on kickoffs. And punts. And running plays and passing plays — it can happen then, too. Anytime the other team has the ball. It is in their blood now. They cannot help it.

The New England Patriots play strip football.

It is largely the reason they are in the Super Bowl. It is probably their best tool for winning it. Strip the ball from the opponent’s grasp, pounce on it, maybe pick it up and run it in for a touchdown.

It is larceny. It is legal. It can change everything. It can eat film, melt clipboards, shred even the best playbooks into a hundred little pieces.

The Patriots do it as well as anyone. Have ball, will maul. Have you ever wondered who should get credit for a fumble — the guy who dropped it or the guy who hit him? Here is the answer. The strip is the answer.

“We don’t just tackle the players,” says Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, “we tackle the football.”

“One guy holds him up, the other guy comes in after the ball,” says linebacker Steve Nelson.

“We’re thinking the same thing every time we go out there,” says cornerback Rod McSwain. “We’re thinking turnover, turnover, turnover.”

Eight forced fumbles in three playoff games. Eight, you say? Eight, they say. They grin. They cannot help it. It is in their blood now. They see the football and they have to strip it. Practice, practice, practice It began last season in a game at Denver. In the fourth quarter, Patriots fullback Mosi Tatupu was stripped of the ball by a Bronco and New England lost the game. Afterward, in a small room at Mile High Stadium, the Patriots’ coaches vowed they would not be beaten that way again. They would beat other teams that way.

They would turn the players into strip artists.

So to speak.

How do you do it? Here is how you do it. Picture football practice. Picture a ball carrier running downfield, as a teammate runs up behind him and punches the ball out of his grasp, or yanks his arm as he would a chicken wishbone, or grabs his elbow and pulls it due east or due west until the ball drops out.

How do you do it? Picture a half-dozen players standing in a circle. One rolls a football like dice. Another pretends it’s a fumble, dives on it, jumps up, spins it to someone else, who dives on it, jumps up, spins it to someone else. Over and over.

Strip drills. That’s how you do it.

“We do them so much it becomes like second nature,” says safety Roland James.

“After all those drills, you see the ball on the ground and you jump on it instinctively,” McSwain says. “Other players have that split second of hesitation. In that split second, someone else could get it.”

The Patriots figure they can win the Super Bowl if they force five turnovers from the Bears on Sunday. Five. The Patriots have scored 61 points as a result of 16 turnovers in their three playoff games.

“We talk turnovers constantly,” says special-teams coach Dante Scarnecchia. “Tackle the football! Tackle the football! I don’t know how many times I scream that.” Bears will hang on tight How much difference do forced fumbles make? Try this. In the AFC wild-card game, Johnny Rembert stripped the Jets’ Johnny Hector on a kickoff and ran the ball in for a touchdown. The play effectively iced the game for New England.

Try this. In the next round, Tatupu stripped the Raiders’ Sam Seale on a kickoff return, and Jim Bowman from Central Michigan fell on the ball in the end zone for the winning touchdown.

Try this. In the AFC championship, Tatupu stripped Miami’s Lorenzo Hampton on the second-half kickoff, setting up another touchdown that made it 24-7, Patriots. And booked the tickets to New Orleans.

How much difference do fumbles make? The Super Bowl. That’s how much difference they make.

“The only way the Patriots could beat us here,” says Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, “is by forcing turnovers.”

“We’ll be carrying the ball very tightly,” says Bears fullback Matt Suhey.

The Bears ought to know. They led the NFC in take-aways. The Pats led the AFC. Strip wars? Yes. It could be.

The game is so complex now. There is an X for every O. There is a counter for every thrust. There is an alternative for every alternative.

And there is nothing like a fumble to turn it all upside down. You can talk about your flex and your nickel and your split-seam, double-zone weakside pressure. The Patriots are hoping for five good strips. That’s what they are hoping for.

CUTLINE Mosi Tatupu

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