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Bill Belichick and Tom Brady keep driving the NFL mad. It’s kinda cool. | Mike Sielski

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 12/8/2021 Mike Sielski, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tom Brady (12) leads the NFL in passing yards, touchdown passes, and passing yards per game this season. © STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photogra Tom Brady (12) leads the NFL in passing yards, touchdown passes, and passing yards per game this season.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick ruin everything.

I say that with just the slightest wink. I’m kidding, but only so much. I admire them for their longevity, their excellence, their intelligence, their ruthlessness. More than that, though, I admire them for the destruction that each man’s respective greatness leaves in his wake.

Take this just-finished slate of NFL games, for instance. Amid snow, freezing rain, and wind gusts that surpassed 50 mph at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, the Patriots beat the Bills, 14-10, on Monday, and in time the night might come to represent the most Belichickian game that Belichick has ever coached.

He had his rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, attempt just three passes, the fewest in any NFL game since 1974, when Belichick was 22 and still an undergraduate at Wesleyan. He’s 69 now, and with first place in the AFC East in the balance, he decided that the best way to beat a team that went to the conference-championship game last season was to challenge its collective toughness. We’re going to run the ball at you again, and again, and again. We’re going to do it because we have to. We’re going to do it because we can. We’re going to do it because you can’t stop us. And you know what? The Bills couldn’t. New England racked up 222 rushing yards on 46 carries.

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If there was any doubt that the Bills understood what Belichick and the Patriots had done to them, two of their players, safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, erased it in their postgame interview session. Veteran Buffalo sportswriter Jerry Sullivan asked Poyer and Hyde a point-blank question: “It’s been over 40 years since a team has won a game [passing] that few times. Was that embarrassing?” They considered the question to be disrespectful, and as he left the stage, Hyde said, “We’ll remember that.” But Sullivan, obviously, had touched a nerve, and any NFL player, if he were being honest, would tell you that, while the Bills may not have felt embarrassed, they certainly felt emasculated. It wasn’t just that New England was now 9-4 and Buffalo was 7-5. It was that Belichick had managed to vanquish an opponent physically and psychologically. Not only had he and his team beaten up the Bills, but he had invaded their minds and souls, to boot.

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talk after a joint practice in August. © MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photograp Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talk after a joint practice in August.

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“Football distills down to simple tenants for coaches (and players): toughness, physicality, and discipline,” Mitchell Schwartz, a four-time first-team All-Pro during his nine-year career as a right tackle for the Browns and Chiefs, said on Twitter last week. “Success in the run game is the ultimate indicator (feeling, if you’d like) for those principles.

“Football is controlled violence and about physically imposing your will on another person. The run game taps into that instinct and mindset in a way the pass game doesn’t. … Being physically dominant (imposing your will, breaking their will, etc) is real and has an impact. It’s literally animalistic behavior at its core.”

The Patriots’ victory came one day after Brady threw four touchdown passes in the Buccaneers’ 30-17 victory over the Falcons, a franchise lost in a kind of psychosomatic fever ever since it squandered a 25-point lead to New England in Super Bowl LI. Brady is 44, and he leads the league this season in passing yards (3,771), touchdowns (34), and passing yards per game (314.3). Tampa Bay is 9-3 and could very well represent the NFC in the Super Bowl again, just as it did last season. Brady is already the oldest starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and Belichick would be the oldest coach to win one, and the prospect of their facing each other at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood on Feb. 13 would elevate the big game into The Biggest Game of the 21st Century, a true clash of football’s titans.

That matchup would be marvelous for its drama and his historical importance to the sport, but it would leave the other 30 teams as lost and ineffectual – searching for answers to beating Brady and/or Belichick – as they’ve generally been since Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001. It’s not just that Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time and Belichick is the greatest coach of all time. That’s not what drives those teams and their fan bases mad. It’s how the two of them got here and how they do what they do.

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Belichick just won a game against one of the league’s best teams with a strategy that is the diametric opposite of every trend and morsel of conventional wisdom in the NFL: that you have to score a lot to win, and the easiest and best way to score a lot is to throw the ball a lot. He has used that approach in the past, and he’ll likely use it again, and it’s sure to have every traditionalist who follows or still works in the league muttering the same thing: Gottaestablishtherun … Gottaestablishtherun … Gottaestablish...

Brady, meanwhile, was a sixth-round pick, which means that every relatively young, long-shot QB who shines for a game or even several – Mike White, Taylor Heinicke, even Nick Foles – gets compared to him. Fans want to see if their team has its hands on a winning lottery ticket, just like the Patriots did with Brady, and franchises can end up confronting the always-dreaded quarterback controversy or hedging in their plans for the sport’s most important position.

If you think I’m exaggerating, just consider the debate that has taken place around here since Sunday, when Gardner Minshew stepped in for Jalen Hurts and went full Pete “Maverick” Mitchell against the lowly Jets. Then, look up the 2019 draft, and notice what round the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Minshew.


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