FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) - Thomas Dimitroff's Super Bowl matchup against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots is far more than an executive facing his former boss and employer.
Dimitroff, the Atlanta Falcons general manager since 2008, has extremely deep ties with Belichick. Dimitroff's first NFL job was on the Cleveland Browns' grounds crew when his father was a scout and Belichick was the coach.
Dimitroff climbed the ranks before spending five years as the Patriots' director of college scouting under Belichick.
Now Belichick and the Patriots stand in the way of the Falcons' attempt to win their first Super Bowl.
It's a challenge Dimitroff said he relishes.
"This is kind of a dream game that way, to be able to go against the Patriots and against one of my mentors in this league," Dimitroff said Friday.
Dimitroff's respect for his former boss is obvious. He says New England is where he learned the most important lessons that prepared him for the opportunity in Atlanta.
"I learned a lot from my father and from different places I was at, of course, but it wasn't until I got to the Patriots that I truly realized the idea at the core of the team concept," he said.
"I mean, I grew up hearing it all the time, but actually being put into effect there in New England, I'll take that with me forever."
The Falcons retained Dimitroff when hiring coach Dan Quinn in 2015. The two formed a management partnership that produced Atlanta's second Super Bowl berth, perhaps faster than either could have predicted.
Though Quinn was given ultimate control of player personnel decisions, the two appear comfortable sharing authority with no apparent sign of friction. Dimitroff calls their relationship a "partnership."
The coach and GM often are seen in warm embraces on the field after games, and Dimitroff says they talk 10 or more times during a day "on so many levels from policy to acquisitions to how we're going to replace lights in this (indoor practice) facility."
Dimitroff says Quinn is "a general manager's dream to be with." Quinn has started four rookies and four second-year players on defense this season.
The success of the young players, including rookies Keanu Neal, Dion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Brian Poole, is the best reward for a general manager and his scouts.
"I mean, he has all kinds of nerve to go into this season and start four rookie defensive players," Dimitroff said. "To me, that's amazing. I've had countless personnel men call me and ... laud Dan for that. That's what personnel men want, that's what general managers want."
Quinn was willing to commit to the rookies because of their speed and athleticism. That's the Falcons' new image, according to Belichick.
"I'd say the stamp on the team, the thing that I would notice the most is just the speed, the team speed that the Falcons have," Belichick said. "They have a lot of fast guys. Defensively they close up space very quickly."
Quinn said when he interviewed with Atlanta he was looking for "a general manager who together we could share the whole vision of what a team could be."
Dimitroff's vision bears the imprint of his time under Belichick. The Patriots' influence also comes from Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli, the former New England GM.
Dimitroff signed a three-year extension on Nov. 7 that carries through the 2019 season.
Belichick said he remembers the young Dimitroff in Cleveland "working in the organization when he was coming out of high school and into college."
"But he's a football guy, so it's in the family," Belichick said. "He works hard. He knows the game. He did a real good job for us with skill players, defensive backs, receivers, linebackers, running backs, things like that."
The Super Bowl will provide Dimitroff his ultimate test to prove he learned his lessons well under Belichick and taken them to a new level with Quinn.
"A lot of things that I brought to the table were learned in New England," he said. "It's just been fun watching us develop here over the years.
"There's definitely a northeastern stamp on it in certain ways, and yet we've really evolved into something that is very much the Falcons and not, obviously, the Patriots."
AP Sports Writer Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.
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