We found out last February that Tom Brady can win a shiny Vince Lombardi Trophy without any help from Bill Belichick. Now comes Part II: Can Belichick win one without Brady?
The bookies don’t think so, at least not this year. Oddsmakers have set the New England Patriots’ price on winning the Super Bowl at 18-1, joint-eighth with Cincinnati among the 14 playoff teams. (Green Bay are favorites at 7-2. The Steelers are the longest shots at 80-1.)
New England are four-point underdogs against their wild-card weekend opponents, the Buffalo Bills. But the Patriots are back in the playoffs after a year away, and Belichick, their longtime coach, sounds as if he is up for the challenge – by clamming up, of course.
Belichick needed an efficient 208 words over four minutes to answer seven questions Monday about the Bills, the AFC East rivals whom his Patriots will face Saturday night on the road. He was not grouchy, but succinct. Just got it done.
“We have a lot to get ready for,” Belichick said Monday of the Bills. As always, he could have been talking about any opponent.
So much has happened since Belichick and his quarterback, Brady, made the 2019 playoffs only to lose at home to Tennessee in the first round. Brady won his seventh Super Bowl in his first season with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and has had a second impressive season.
The Patriots went 7-9 in 2020 with quarterback Cam Newton, whom Belichick decided to scuttle in favor of Mac Jones, the rookie from Alabama who has been a pleasant surprise this season, throwing for 3,801 yards, with 22 touchdowns versus 13 interceptions.
A month ago, the Patriots were on a roll. They’d won seven in a row to improve their record to 9-5, including a 14-10 victory at Buffalo that was a Belichick masterstroke. It was blustery, so the Patriots threw the ball just three times, gaining just 19 yards, but ran it 46 times, gaining 222 yards and keeping the ball from the dangerous Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen.
After a bye week, however, the Patriots finished the regular season with three losses in four games, including a 33-24 loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins (9-8). A day later, the Dolphins fired coach Brian Flores, who’d been an assistant to Belichick for 11 years.
It was a discouraging loss for the Patriots, who could have won the AFC East with a victory over the Dolphins (9-8) and a loss by Buffalo (11-5) to the Jets (4-13). The slide is similar to what happened two years ago, when New England were 10-1 but lost four of their last six.
New England’s current slide includes a 33-21 loss at home to Buffalo just three weeks after the Patriots’ victory over the Bills. Jones did not play so well, completing only 14 of 32 passes with two interceptions. Naturally, people wondered if Jones had hit a “rookie wall”.
Belichick is 69 years old and has done it all as a football coach – including, as his many detractors in New York will point out, suspiciously resigning as “the HC of the NYJ” and spying on, um, the Jets. Don’t forget Brady, as a Patriot, was busted for deflating footballs.
Nevertheless, both are still relevant, nearly two full decades after they led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl victory. (Here is how long ago that was: That was the first Super Bowl to be played in February, because the 2001 schedule had been pushed back because of 9/11).
Belichick and Brady have even gotten the Head-to-Head Matchup out of the way. That came in October, when Brady traveled back to Foxboro and beat the Patriots, 19-17, on a field goal with less than two minutes to play. But Jones kept pace with Brady all afternoon.
The week leading up to that game included the two chief combatants saying all sorts of nice things about each other. At one point, Belichick said of Brady’s longevity: “Nothing Tom does surprises me. He’s a great player. Works hard and takes care of himself. I mean, he’s talking about playing until 50. If anybody can do it, he probably can.”
Belichick would never, ever, say that he wants to see what he can accomplish without Brady – he might not even be thinking such a thing – but there is no denying that the two men will forever be linked. Plus, the Patriots missed Brady more than he missed them in 2020.
New England and Tampa Bay would not meet in the playoffs until the Super Bowl, anyway. The two teams will chart parallel routes for a month, and, besides that, neither team is expected to even make it so far. The Patriots might not get out of the first weekend.
Jones labeled the way he played against the Dolphins as “super embarrassing”, even though he completed all nine of his fourth-quarter passes for 121 yards. The Patriots had a chance to win the game until their final play went haywire, resulting in a Miami touchdown.
“Obviously played poorly, coached poorly, didn’t do anything very well,” Belichick said while wearing a mask with the state flag of Maryland, where he grew up. “So just too many – too many mistakes, way too many. So we’ll go look at the film, turn the page here and make some corrections and move on to next week. So that’s really about it.”
A day later, he was reluctant to talk about a third game against Buffalo, saying that the coaching staff was still reviewing the loss to the Dolphins. The Bills have won four games in a row after a 33-21 loss on 12 December to, yes, Brady and the Bucs.
Asked what he’d tell his players who’d be playing in their first playoff game, Belichick responded: “Try to play and coach well. It’s a one-game season. It’s no big mystery.”
The key part is that it is no big mystery to Belichick. This will be his 44th playoff game as an NFL head coach. His teams lost only 11 of the first 43. Belichick said Monday, “I don’t think we lack confidence.”
That must be why Ty Law, the Patriots’ Hall of Fame cornerback, told Boston.com: “I’m going with Bill Belichick for one game.”
And if Belichick wins one playoff game, his team can certainly win three – or even four. There is no dominant team in the playoffs, not even that team with his old quarterback. Bet against the coach in the hoodie, if you dare.