KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bill Belichick walked out of a small Arrowhead Stadium room packed with reporters and cameras, nearly tripped over a tripod leg, and then transitioned into a different person than the one who had just punctuated a glorious victory by delivering the same old flatline responses in that same old robotic tone.
Wearing a blue suit, blue shirt, and blue tie as he headed toward the locker room with his longtime aide, Berj Najarian, by his side, Belichick threw his left arm across Najarian’s chest and then dramatically jerked his own body backward as if to mimic someone being shoved out of the way. He reappeared in the hallway moments later to wheel his travel bag and a smaller bag displaying the Naval Academy logo toward the team bus, smiling as he stopped to mingle with players and friends before engaging a photographer in a long, neighborly-looking chat and then posing for a picture.
This was Human Bill, never to be confused with Workplace Bill. Belichick wheeled his bags past some Ryder moving trucks and then disappeared into a night and a plane ride that would surely include a little studying of the Los Angeles Rams some 17 years after he launched his epic career with a Super Bowl upset victory over the St. Louis Rams.
That charmed 2001 season still stands as Belichick’s finest work. But when his New England Patriots upset the Kansas City Chiefs 37-31 in overtime of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday night, Belichick wrapped a ribbon around one of his greatest coaching jobs ever — win, lose, or draw against Sean McVay in Atlanta.
In some ways, Belichick the coach had to overcome Belichick the personnel overlord. When measured against its five championship teams, this Patriots roster always looked supermodel thin. Belichick spent much of the season with no explosive playmakers on the outside, and no pass-rushers who could figuratively kill the other team’s quarterback. He didn’t have the suspended Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season, and he didn’t have the first-round pick secured in the Brandin Cooks trade, Isaiah Wynn, for the entire season after the offensive lineman went down because of a torn Achilles in the summer.
Belichick also had to overcome perhaps the worst regular-season coaching blunder of his career — the decision to put the mummified remains of Rob Gronkowski on the field against Miami to defend a final play Hail Mary that was never going to happen, a decision that cost his team a chance to play this AFC Championship Game in Foxborough. Deep down, Belichick knew he owed one to his Patriots. He knew he had to come up with something Sunday night for failing to give his team its best chance to win against the Dolphins in December.
So Belichick, who entered Arrowhead with a 5-1 career postseason record against opponents with the league’s top-ranked offense, came up with a plan to drag the fast-breaking Chiefs into a half-court game. The Patriots held a 14-0 lead at halftime, gaining 245 yards to the Chiefs’ 32 — thirty-two — and running 42 plays to the Chiefs’ 16. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes recovered at halftime, made adjustments, and made Belichick and Tom Brady hold on for dear life in the second half. That’s because Reid and Mahomes are very good at what they do.
But Belichick and Brady are the best of all time, and yes, there is a difference between historically great and currently very good. The second half and overtime were defined by exhilarating plays by the quarterbacks, excruciatingly tense replay reviews and refereeing decisions, and the terror felt by league executives everywhere who were hoping, praying, that a botched call wouldn’t cost New England or Kansas City a trip to Super Bowl LIII the way one cost the Saints in the Superdome earlier Sunday.
In the end, the Patriots won the game because they won the overtime coin toss, because special teams captain Matthew Slater called “heads” and the coin bounced his way. Slater would say afterward in his delirious locker room that he always calls “heads” because his Hall of Fame father, Jackie, once instructed him to. “We always say God is the head of our life,” Slater said, “so we call ‘heads,’ simple as that.” Never mind the fact that both teams should always get at least one touch of the football in a postseason game. As soon as the Patriots won the toss, they knew exactly what 41-year-old Brady was prepared to do. They’ve seen this movie a few times before.
The winning overtime drive was Brady at his third-and-long best, firing strikes to Edelman and Gronkowski to set up the touchdown run by Rex Burkhead, who had temporarily given New England the lead near the end of regulation. Burkhead is the ultimate Belichickian role player, a Cincinnati Bengals castoff who puts his head down and often gains one or two more yards than he should. Belichick’s athletic director during his schooling days at Wesleyan University, Don Russell, had seen Burkhead play high school ball in Texas, and when his former student acquired him, Russell sent Belichick a note saying that the running back was a good addition.
Was he ever? The Patriots stormed the field the way they did when James White scored in overtime two years ago to beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl, and afterward they talked about character and resolve — all the virtues and values that shape the Patriot Way.
“There’s no substitute for character,” Slater said. Asked how much of a role Belichick played in molding that character, the special teams captain responded, “He plays a big role in it. He understands how to motivate this team, how to draw this team closer together, how to get us to believe, how to get us to trust, and to have faith not only in our process but in one another. When we need it most, we know it’s there. And you saw that tonight.”
The result was a staggering ninth trip to the Super Bowl for Belichick’s Patriots, a year after his decision to bench Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl LII loss to Philadelphia all but inspired a player mutiny and added to Brady’s list of grievances that caused him to consider walking away in the offseason.
“I can’t say enough about the effort that our players gave tonight, and the coaching staff,” Belichick said afterward. “It was really just an awesome job by all of them. … I certainly thought they showed a lot of mental and physical toughness tonight against a great football team.”
Of course, Belichick has a long history of containing dynamic offensive players and teams in big games as a coordinator and as a head coach. It started with John Elway and Joe Montana, and the high-flying Buffalo Bills, when Belichick was working for the Bill Parcells Giants. Before his first Super Bowl victory with New England, Belichick promised his friend, ESPN’s Chris Berman, that the Rams’ otherworldly star, Marshall Faulk, would not be allowed to beat the Patriots.
Sunday night, Belichick made sure his team wasn’t beaten by Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, who had burned New England for three touchdowns and 142 receiving yards in October. Hill had only one catch for 42 yards the second time around. Asked about his approach in slowing down Hill, Belichick said, “He is a problem. … We doubled him a lot. They have so many weapons, you just can’t stop everybody.”
James White calls Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time as he leads the Patriots to their third straight Super Bowl.
So his aging, slowing, athletically challenged Patriots stopped the most explosive somebody, and when the game was over Belichick did what Belichick always does in preseason, the regular season, and the postseason — he spoke in a near-whisper about his team’s enduring selflessness. The winning coach looked and acted nothing like the hooded man in the heavy jacket who spiked his tablet in anger after the Chiefs took the lead.
During the week, the 66-year-old Belichick shocked some longtime observers by admitting he still gets nervous before games. “Everybody’s counting on you to do your job,” he said.
Mr. Do Your Job did his Sunday night at Arrowhead, the scene of some ugly Belichick/Brady history, and on cue he wasn’t in the mood to measure the magnitude of the partnership’s ninth trip to the big game. “Right now,” Belichick said, “I’m just happy for our team and happy for our coaching staff, our players, and the entire organization for what we accomplished tonight, and we will start getting ready for the Rams. I don’t know about historical comparison. I will leave that to the experts here.”
Fair enough. Belichick did remarkable work with his 2001 team, and again in going back-to-back three seasons later. He ran the regular-season table in 2007, and went 11-5 with Matt Cassel the following year, and weathered the Deflategate crisis in 2014 to win ring No. 4.
But what he just accomplished with the 2018 Patriots — a diminished version of their former selves — is right up there with his greatest hits. As his partner Brady said, “These are memories that will last a lifetime.”
Especially if Belichick does to the Sean McVay Rams what he did to the Mike Martz Rams in a different life.