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The 2018 Patriots have given us an answer on the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick debate

For The Win logo For The Win 1/22/2019 Steven Ruiz
a group of baseball players playing a football game: USA TODAY © USA TODAY USA TODAY

This was the year NFL fans around the league had been waiting for. The year Tom Brady finally started to show signs of decline, signaling the beginning of the end of this Patriots dynasty that has now stretched over the better part of two decades.

Welp, that didn't happen. Bill Belichick wouldn't let it happen. Even with his all-world quarterback showing antsiness in the pocket and missing throws he used to make with ease, Belichick has his team playing for another championship. Tom Brady hasn't been Tom Brady, and it didn't make a difference.

When we look back at this era of Patriots football and start to dole out credit for this unprecedented run of success, the 2018 season will be the one that proved Belichick is the most important figure in all of this. Brady will undoubtedly go down as the greatest quarterback of all-time, but we'll always wonder how things may have changed had he not linked up with the game's greatest coach.

We now know what Belichick is capable of without the benefit of an elite quarterback. Brady was anything but elite this season, as the numbers show. He ranked ninth in QBR, 12th in traditional passer rating, 15th in yards per attempt and 18th in completion percentage. In fairness to the Patriots quarterback, this wasn't the strongest supporting cast he's had to work with, but we have seen him do more with less throughout his career.

Brady's rocky season continued in the AFC Championship - at least for the first 45 minutes of the game. The Patriots may have run away with it if not for a handful of costly mistakes by the Canton-bound quarterback. His goal-line interception may have been the worst of his postseason career.

Later in the game, he overshot Julian Edelman with a throw that bounced off the receiver's hands and into the waiting arms of a Chiefs safety, setting Kansas City up for a short touchdown drive.

Those two mistakes cost the Patriots at least 10 points, which necessitated Brady's overtime heroics. The game should have never reached overtime. Not with the brilliant gameplan Belichick and his coaching staff crafted - one that kept the Chiefs' historic offense off the board in the first half and may have held Kansas City under 26 points for the first time all season if not for that second interception.

In the end, Brady was the hero after turning back the clock for yet another game-winning drive. The Patriots quarterback was legitimately great on that final march down the field. He threw with power and precision. He dissected the Chiefs defense before and after the snap. He was in total control, and that was the lasting image from the game. Not him keeping Kansas City in it during regulation. In a game that was only close because of Brady, he somehow emerged the hero.

This wasn't the first time Belichick's defensive genius was overshadowed by Brady's late heroics. It's not even the most notable example. That came two years ago in Houston when Brady effectively ended the GOAT debate by erasing a 28-3 comeback over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. That Atlanta offense was one of the best we've ever seen, and Belichick's under-manned defense held it to 21 points. Those extra points came on a Brady pick-6. As brilliant as Brady was in that second half, holding that Falcons offense to a single touchdown over the final 38 minutes of the game was an equally impressive feat that required every bit of Belichick's defensive genius.

Belichick has been doing the defensive genius thing before Brady picked up a football. His defenses led the Giants to two Super Bowl wins in the '80s and early '90s. He then took over a 3-13 Browns team and brought them to the playoffs within three years. And this was back when parity wasn't really a thing in the NFL and quick turnarounds were not as common as they are today. The Browns were even being touted as a trendy Super Bowl pick before the announcement they were leaving for Baltimore completely derailed the season and ultimately led to Belichick's firing.

a close up of a sign: File Photo © File Photo File Photo

That led to Belichick's first stint in New England, where, as assistant head coach, he helped Bill Parcells lead the Pats to their second Super Bowl appearance before the two moved onto New York and turned around a Jets team that had gone 1-15 before their arrival.

Belichick was winning football games before he teamed up Brady. And he's continued to do so whenever the Hall of Famer has been out of the lineup. The Patriots have gone 13-6 in the 19 games Brady has sat out since taking over the starting QB job. That's a winning percentage of .684. To put that in perspective, Peyton Manning won 67.7% of his starts with the Colts. According to ESPN's Bill Barnwell, no team outside of New England has produced a winning percentage better than .684 since 2000.

The easy argument against Belichick is that he has yet to win a Super Bowl as a head coach without Brady; which, of course is true, but it also ignores the fact that the Tom Brady who led the Patriots to a Super Bowl win over the Rams in 2001 was not yet the Tom Brady we'd all eventually agree is the greatest quarterback to play the game. He was little more than a game manager during that season. Brady finished 12th in DVOA behind names like Kordell Stewart and Jay Fiedler. There's a reason the Pats were 14-point underdogs going into the Super Bowl, and it wasn't Belichick's defense, which shut down the Rams' Greatest Show on Turf offense with a brilliant game plan.

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Nearly two decades later, Belichick repeated history, shutting down another high-powered offense from the state of Missouri and providing his quarterback a chance to be the hero late - but only because he was below average early on.

We won't know *for sure* that Belichick can win a championship without Brady until Brady is actually gone, but we have plenty of evidence now to declare that Belichick doesn't need elite quarterback play to take a team to the Super Bowl. We have yet to see Brady win without elite coaching.

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