Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 12, 2014

Belichick and Brady, Still Getting It Done

Fans from other parts of the country, or those who don’t pay close attention to the NFL, will likely shrug their shoulders at the news that the New England Patriots have advanced to next week’s AFC Conference Championship Game. After all, it seems like in the team’s current era, with head coach Bill Belichick patrolling the sidelines and quarterback Tom Brady directing the offense, New England is always one of the last four teams standing in the NFL’s season-ending tournament. This will be the eighth time that the Patriots have played for the AFC crown since Belichick and Brady arrived at the start of the 2000 season. But what those inattentive fans don’t know is that this year’s run to the cusp of the Super Bowl has been the most improbable since coach and quarterback combined to guide the Patriots to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in 2001.

There was little to suggest the kind of taken for granted success that has symbolized the Patriots when Belichick resigned as head coach of the New York Jets after a tenure of just one day in order to take the job in New England. While he had a strong reputation as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator, his only other stint at a team’s helm had been five years in Cleveland that produced but a single winning season. Similarly there was no real hint of his future greatness when New England made Brady the 199th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. With Drew Bledsoe the established starter at quarterback, Belichick’s first season as head coach produced a 5-11 record that replicated his final year with the Browns.

Then after an opening loss to the Bengals, Bledsoe was injured in the second game of the 2001 season on a hard hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. The unknown sixth round draft pick entered the game, and Brady, Belichick, and fans all across New England have never looked back. Just 5-5 through ten games of that season, the Patriots ran the table down the stretch to claim the second seed in the AFC playoffs. Saved in their divisional playoff game against Oakland by the now-famous tuck rule that negated what appeared to be a Brady fumble, the Patriots dispatched both the Raiders and the Steelers to earn a spot in Super Bowl XXXVI.

At the Superdome in New Orleans they built a 17-3 lead over the heavily favored St. Louis Rams through three quarters, only to see the Rams rally to tie the game with 90 seconds remaining. With no timeouts, Brady threw three straight times to running back J.R. Redmond, moving the ball to the New England 41 before a pass fell incomplete. The quarterback who had started the season holding a clipboard on the sidelines then connected with wide receiver Troy Brown for 23 yards, and followed that with a short toss to Jermaine Wiggins that took the Patriots to the Rams 30-yard line. From there Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal sailed between the uprights as time expired, bringing a happy end to a miracle season.

Four more trips to the Super Bowl and a pair of championships later, Belichick and Brady were faced with challenges far greater than usual this year. In 2012 the New England offense was built around short passes from Brady to a pair of tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Brady’s favorite target for longer routes was the diminutive wideout Wes Welker. On the ground running back Danny Woodhead would often get the call. It all added up to a prolific offense that scored the third highest number of points in NFL history and broke the record for first downs.

This year’s team could not have looked more different. Gronkowski started the season on injured reserve, recovering from a series of surgeries to his arm and back. He played in just seven games in the middle of the campaign before blowing out his knee. Hernandez sits in a Massachusetts jail cell, awaiting trial on murder charges. The Patriots wasted little time in cutting ties with the tight end within hours of his arrest, and in an adroit marketing move offered free exchanges of Hernandez jerseys for those of any other player on the team. Meanwhile both Welker and Woodhead left for points west as free agents. In their place were a new set of receivers and running backs, and an offense that at times seemed out of synch.

Then the revamped roster was plagued by injuries. It’s a common theme for every franchise in the sport that is the modern equivalent of the ancient gladiators, but this year New England was especially hard hit. In addition to Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, the All-Pro defensive tackle and heart of the defense was lost to a torn Achilles’ tendon just four games into the schedule. Linebacker Jerod Mayo, another All-Pro, went down two games later. A starting defensive tackle and the offense’s starting right tackle joined the long list, as did linebacker Brandon Spikes just in time for the playoffs. Only three players on offense and just one on defense started every regular season game at the same position.

The result was a defense that allowed more rushing yards per game than all but two other teams in the league. On offense, Brady had his lowest quarterback rating and completion percentage in a decade. Yet when the regular season was over the Patriots record was 12-4, good enough for the second seed in the AFC.

Six of their twelve wins were by a field goal or less. In Week Six they trailed the Saints 27-23 with 1:08 remaining, the ball on their own 30-yard line and no timeouts. Eight plays later Brady found rookie Kenbrell Thompkins in the corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown with just five ticks left on the clock. In Week Twelve they spotted the Broncos a 24-0 lead before rallying to win 34-31 in overtime. Two weeks after that they scored twice in the final 61 seconds to come back against the Browns. That game featured New England’s first successful on-side kick in this century.

Along the way, with Belichick and Brady setting the example, the Patriots never complained about the injuries or the number of unfamiliar teammates. Instead Belichick stayed focused on devising winning game plans and the players remained committed to playing the full 60 minutes every time out. Saturday night was no exception. Playing in a cold and often driving rain, Brady threw just 25 passes. Instead he spent the night handing the ball to LeGarrette Blount, an undrafted fourth-year running back acquired by trade from Tampa in the offseason. Blount crossed the goal line four times to set a team record for most rushing touchdowns in a playoff game. His 166 yards on the ground in the game against Indianapolis were 15 more than he gained all last season with the Buccaneers. In the end, it was more than enough for a 43-22 win over the Colts.

Now the Patriots fly west to face Denver in the latest installment of Brady versus Manning, the long-running rivalry between the two premier AFC quarterbacks of their generation. Perhaps New England’s season will end there. Perhaps they will play in yet another Super Bowl, this time ironically enough at the Meadowlands, home of the team that defeated them their last two trips to the championship tilt. Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Patriots fans have to be happy with this season’s improbable run by an unlikely roster. Tom Brady won’t win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award this year, and Bill Belichick isn’t going to be named Coach of the Year.  Around the league everyone takes success by the Patriots for granted.  But this year especially, New England fans know better.


  1. When Napoleon was asked who his favorite generals were, he replied, “The lucky ones.” Sometimes, you just gotta roll with it, and not ask too many questions. Not a big Pats fan, but I won’t be displeased if they win it all again this year.
    Nice work,

    • Thanks Bill. Some of the fans in New England are so used to success that they are getting jaded. There was a story on WBZ radio prior to Saturday’s game in which some were complaining about having to go to a game in a winter rainstorm. They would do well to remember that in sports, as in life, most things don’t last forever. Belichick is the longest tenured coach in the NFL, and Brady is 36. It’s been a fantastic run, but the end is probably in sight.

      Thanks again, Michael

  2. Nice.

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