Patriots

Bill Belichick silences his critics as Patriots right the ship

We know what a winning Bill Belichick team looks like. And this one is looking the part.

Bill Belichick leaves the field after a win against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. AP Photo/John Bazemore

Funny, haven’t heard anyone say Bill Belichick is slipping lately.

Those takes, contrived and calculated as they were after the Patriots began the season 1-3, have mercifully gone the way of the Chiefs’ daydream of winning six Super Bowls. (Or even a second of this era, for that matter. One more time for those in the back: No one will ever come close to matching the dynastic Patriots’ achievements. Ever.)

The waters were rough there for a while. In the first five weeks, the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Saints, and Bucs, beat the Jets, and had to scramble to overcome a brutal Texans team. When Brady returned for the first time with the Bucs for the Week 3 showdown, many among us were quick to declare that his Super Bowl victory last season in his first season separated from Belichick was irrefutable proof that he was the man most responsible for the dynasty.

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Such a suggestion gets the phones ringing much more frequently than declaring the truth: The Patriots were blessed to have the best coach and quarterback in NFL history at the same time, and in tandem, they were better than they would have been apart. How lucky we were to watch that for nearly 20 years.

Anyway, the Belichick detractors – those he may have made feel small along the way, those who after those first four games liked to howl that he was 8-12 since Brady left while ignoring context, and those who just wanted to see him fall flat on his hoodie  – better have gotten their shots in while they could.

Because we know what a winning Bill Belichick team looks like. And this one is looking the part.

The Patriots have won four of five, with the lone blemish being an overtime loss to a talent-rich Cowboys team. They are suddenly in the seventh spot in the AFC playoff standings, a half-game back of the Bills in the division, one of five teams with five wins in the conference. They are in the playoff picture, and trending upward.

They’re doing it with balance, featuring the NFL’s 10th-ranked scoring offense (25.6 points per game) and fourth-ranked scoring defense (18.9 points allowed per game). Over a full season, the Patriots have had the No. 10 scoring offense twice (2002 and ’05) and the No. 4 scoring defense once (’07).

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But this is starting to have some parallels to a certain other season. I’m really trying to resist comparing any of this to 2001, because the way that story played featured the kind of improbable-becomes-reality magic that comes around only once. So let’s just say there are parallels that cannot be ignored, some vibes, even as we acknowledge that there is a long, long way to go.

The Patriots’ record 20 years ago after nine games was 5-4, but their confidence actually expanded after their fifth loss, a 24-17 loss to the defending champion Rams in Week 10. The Patriots learned that week that they could play with anyone. They didn’t lose again until Week 4 of the 2002 season.

The Patriots spent much more money this time around, but both the ’01 and ’21 versions brought in several roster upgrades who gradually meshed into strong units in all three phases of the game. And both, most obviously, featured inexperienced quarterbacks with uncommon poise. Mac Jones is not the next Tom Brady, because no one is or will be. But his skill-set as an NFL rookie does not deviate much from what Brady had in his QB arsenal during his first season as a starter. He can be having a statistically unimpressive game and still be counted on to make the right throw – even with a high degree of difficulty – at the time it is needed most.

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The main difference between Brady and Jones in their early stages is that Jones is more prone to make a mistake based on confusion or pace. When Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 in ’01, it was immediately noticeable how most of the preventable negative plays – false starts, delays of game, that sort of annoying stuff – stopped happening. Jones had two delay-of-game penalties Sunday, and the first quarter was a mess.

There’s no doubt Jones pays attention to detail, and these self-inflicted mistakes will stop. They have to if the Patriots are going to get where we suddenly think they might be able to go.

And just where would that be? Well, let me tell you, my friends: They’re going to beat the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs on a snowy night in Foxborough, travel to Pittsburgh to knock off a cocky Steelers team, then pour water in the gas tank of the high-octane Rams in the Super Bowl.

Oh, right. Silly me. That was ’01. Can’t happen again, can it? Of course not. There’s no way the Raiders and Steelers are getting that far this year.

No one knows how far the Patriots will go this year. But we do know this: Belichick likes his team, and he told us as much through his actions and reactions – he was downright giddy about the performance of rookie defensive tackle Christian Barmore Sunday — even while some of us doubted their direction a month ago.

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Back in the preseason, I picked the Patriots to face the Bucs in the Super Bowl. There have been times this season twinges of regret hit me for writing that. It read more like a hope than a prediction. Now, I believe it might just happen.

It would be fitting. When they worked together, Brady and Belichick taught us that anything was possible when preparation, discipline, and cohesive talent mix.

Turns out the possibilities are rather easy to dream on when they’re apart, too.

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