Is Bill Belichick better than ever as coach of Patriots?

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – There is no legitimate list of best coaches in the NFL that doesn't begin with Bill Belichick. He has been named league coach of the year three times. There are three Super Bowl titles and that 16-0 regular season, a shot at full perfection ruined by a helmet catch, of all things.

He's put together 13 consecutive winning seasons in New England, reaching the playoffs 11 times. The Pats don't slump.

Sunday, in Denver, he'll lead them into the AFC title game for the eighth time, including three years running. He's seeking his sixth Super Bowl appearance. He'll eventually give a big speech on an August afternoon in Canton, Ohio.

So the guy isn't lacking for recognition. No one says he isn't good at his job. None of this is new info.

And with that body of work, it's also probably wrong – or at least impossible – to say this season has been the best coaching performance of Belichick's career. It may be, though. If nothing else, it's one more reminder of the all-time greatness that is currently playing out season after season here in Massachusetts.

"I mean," said a somber Chuck Pagano late Saturday night after becoming Belichick's latest playoff victim, "he's done it, obviously, for a long time."

That's worth noting too, because this isn't just doing the same thing – win football games – over an extended period. This is the ability to adapt to football's fast modern evolution and the league's commitment to a level playing field.

Once the game changed slowly – Belichick likes to marvel at things like Gen. Neyland's Maxims from the 1930s. Now it shifts in warp speed. It's Belichick coaching deep into January that doesn't.

There were no (or few) read option quarterbacks in the NFL in 2001, when Belichick won his first title. There weren't really any spread offenses. Defenders used to be able to maul receivers. A franchise running back was highly valued. Coaches talked about controlling the clock, not forcing tempo.

Yet no matter how things change, Belichick's success stays the same – "the plan is always to move the ball and score points."

He's done that with an inexperienced late-round draft pick that was just a "game manager" – Tom Brady in 2001. He's done it with high wattage air attacks – Brady's then-record 50 TDs, 23 of them to Randy Moss in 2007. There were seasons when he turned a crew of small, scat back receivers into an unlikely check down innovation – Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead. There were others where physical, two tight end sets were the difference – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

In 2001, the Pats ran 1,001 plays, with an almost 50-50 pass to run ratio (just nine more throws). In 2010, they ranked 21st in plays per game with 62.6. As Belichick saw faster-paced offenses becoming the rage, he visited college coaches running the spread and changed everything up. By 2012, New England led the league in snaps at 74.3 – and called 118 more passes than runs on the season.

Then there was Saturday, when the Patriots, out of nowhere, reverted to the old school, beating the Colts not with Brady's arm but a road grading rushing attack – six touchdowns on the ground. There were 46 runs against 25 throws.

The difference is not just strategy. Tampa Bay Buccaneers castoff LeGarrette Blount ran for four scores, crediting his resurgence to Belichick's no nonsense personality that got him to break the bad habit of running too upright. For years coaches begged Blount to lower his pad level. He didn't until arriving in Foxborough.

"I had to," Blount said. Why?

"Because Bill told me to."

Meanwhile the defense, which a couple years ago lacked game breakers, is suddenly full of them, whether they were supposed malcontents such as Aqib Talib, drafted talents such as Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins or stepped up special teamers such as Rob Ninkovich.

"We knew coming in that [Belichick] wasn't going to let our game wreckers wreck the game," Pagano said.

That strategy – limit the opponent's best weapon – hasn't changed either.

"It all goes back to the game plan," Chandler Jones said. "Coach Belichick put us in great positions to make plays. That's what it is."

All of this has allowed the defense to suffer injuries that would have sounded crippling in the preseason – no Vince Wilfork, no Jerod Mayo, no Brandon Spikes. Meanwhile on offense, Welker, the team's top pass catcher left for free agency, Gronkowski, its matchup nightmare, got injured, and Hernandez, another top talent was lost to a murder charge.

Yes, that's worth remembering also. The Patriots had one of their best players charged with murder, sort of unchartered waters for NFL teams. Not a former player. Not a role player. One of the stars of the team stands accused of taking a guy behind an industrial park in the middle of the night and shooting him in the head, gangland style.

This would seem like the mother of all distractions. Except Belichick handled it with aplomb, engaging in a serious news conference in July on the eve of training camp that many claimed he wasn't capable of pulling off. There was no defiance, just an appropriate mix of concern, contrition and sadness that almost immediately put the entire scandal behind the organization.

Count the times he smiles on camera all you want, that was a masterful bit of leadership.

He even brought in Tim Tebow for training camp and didn't allow that to become a sideshow.

Belichick will remain easy to root against for fans across the country. And that's fine, he plays a great villain on TV and this is entertainment first.

Since his often open and insightful Friday news conferences aren't televised, his image is either of a scowling face under a hoodie or a bunch of terse one-liners postgame. He doesn't exude warmth. And while forgiveness for the Spygate scandal has been elusive, suspicions that he remains up to something remain.

So be it. He doesn't seem too concerned about his image. Winning is the focus. Maybe he gets that fourth Super Bowl over the next few weeks or maybe he doesn't – one more season of wondering what if Gronk hadn't gotten hurt.

Either way Belichick is as good of an NFL coach as there has ever been, and even here at age 61, he's at least as good as he's ever been.

Maybe even better.

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