FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With a cold December rain slamming down around him, Bill Belichick beamed the brightest of smiles (by his standards) and jogged over for a hearty handshake (by his standards) with Eric Mangini, and with that, "Spygate" was behind him (by his standards).
On a day where the elements couldn't have been more miserable, Belichick was in his element. A dull game, a dead crowd and a grind-it-out victory are always perfect for him. So classic contrarian that he is, afterward, he all but gave Mangini a Christmas poinsettia.
Now all that's left for the great Patriots soap opera is everything. Now it's officially about history and perfection and proving to everyone what's possible for his team.
New England joins the 1972 Dolphins as the only 14-0 teams in NFL history, and with home-field advantage clinched in the playoffs, the talking heads' manufactured debate of the week is "Why not take your foot off the pedal a bit, heal some bruises, rest some starters and protect Tom Brady?"
Why risk everything for nothing?
"We'll do what we always do," Belichick said firmly. "We'll play the same way."
Mercifully, we can forget that debate.
Yeah, yeah, someone could come up with some argument that the safe play is the smart play here, but that someone would have to be even more of a killjoy than Bill Belichick.
"Coach Belichick is not letting up, man," Randy Moss said. "If y'all think there is any chance he is going to let up and give us a break, he's not. Coach Belichick will never let a team like (this) slide."
Here's the thing about Belichick, the stuff that gets lost in all the hoopla around his hoodies, his handshakes and his histrionics: As much as he looks like a guy who's having no fun, he's having plenty of it. As often as he appears hopelessly self-centered, he's actually quite aware of everything, including the rare opportunity he and his team have in front of them.
New England has been able to avoid the trip-up that's befallen every other team for the past 35 seasons because 1) Belichick assembled a group of guys capable of sacrificing individual glory for team perfection and 2) he's whipped them relentlessly no matter how well they've played.
His weekly dressing down of players for the smallest of mistakes has become the stuff of legend. The guys both fear it and covet it at the same time.
"From Week 1 you heard about the humble pie," Moss said. "No telling how much we are going to eat this week."
So the Patriots didn't wear any special hats or T-shirts after the game to make note of their securing the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Instead, they donned fairly drab grey numbers that read "Be Humble or Be Humbled."
It'll be over Belichick's dead body that complacency sets in around here.
For all the public disharmony about the coach, all the anger over the spying scandal with the Jets and all the talk about supposedly running up the score, Belichick still is the best there is at making things like this work.
America may be sick of the Patriots, but this is still the same system – and the same guy in charge – that made them so beloved back in 2001 for their team-first mindset.
Belichick's word is final in the New England locker room. Always has been. "Whatever Bill Belichick said we should do (in the last two games of the season), I'd be fine with," fullback Heath Evans said.
But truthfully, even Belichick might've had trouble getting his players to buy into some idea that perfection isn't worth pursuing mainly because it would be such a shift in thinking. You can't preach team goals every day and then not go for the most historic of them all.
Not that it matters. One reason the players believe in the coach is because he is as cutthroat as they are. There is simply no way Belichick will spend a second thinking about resting or protecting players.
"We as players don't expect anything different," Tedy Bruschi said.
Miami, now 1-13 and perhaps lacking the urgency of having to finally win, visit here Sunday. The following Saturday, the Patriots will be in the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants and their big, brutal defensive line – Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, et al.
Let everyone else debate the sanity of sending Brady's knees out for those games. The decision here has long ago been made.
"I hope I play every snap," Brady smiled.
The Hoodie's going for the jugular.
He's probably even hoping for a cold, hard rain.
- Bill Belichick