FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With just under four minutes remaining in New England's 45-7 demolition of Indianapolis, with the Patriots' sixth trip to the Super Bowl in 13 seasons secured, with nothing left to do but celebrate in the rain, Bill Belichick sent Tom Brady out for one more snap.
After a simple handoff, the quarterback was pulled. This was the supposed cold-hearted coach allowing Brady to jog off the Gillette Stadium field to thunderous applause and chants of his name. This was setting up Belichick to march out on the field and greet him for a handshake, hug and some words of appreciation.
It was like Senior Day back in high school, like something a father would do for a son, a rare warm public sign of what one means to the other. And vice versa.
Maybe the rest of America has never understood these two, this franchise in general, this forever push for perfection that never seems to take a week off. Maybe everyone's just sick of New England. Or suspicious.
But when did these two ever care about what anyone else thought of them?
"There's nobody I'd rather have," Belichick said.
This is the greatest coach/quarterback tandem in NFL history, because two men with seemingly little in common – one a younger, fashion-conscious Californian, the other an older, hoodie-preferring West Virginian – share a mindset of overwhelming competitiveness.
Thirteen seasons after they won their first Super Bowl together, back when one was a second-chance head coach and the other a sixth-round pick elevated to game-manager because of injury, Brady and Belichick are back again.
Thirteen years and both everything and nothing has changed. Thirteen years and the maximize-potential philosophy and team-first culture that once made them popular, is still fueling one of the great runs in sports history, even as much of the sport long ago deemed them easy to hate.
This is the Patriot's Way, they say. The rest of the Patriots say it begins and ends with the coach and QB.
"It means you bring the lunch pail to work, your helmet, you go work, you prepare, you get yelled at, you do all this kind of stuff, you work extra, you watch more film," wide receiver Julian Edelman said. "And it's for situations like this, you go play in the last game of the year. That's what being a Patriot means."
"The sense of urgency around here is every day," receiver Brandon LaFell said.
"It starts up with the coaches," Edelman said. "Brady as well."
There is almost no separating the two. No separating how they approach every practice, every film session, every rep, every everything.
A lot will be made of how Brady and Belichick are seeking a fourth Super Bowl title – a bookend to the three they won from 2002-05 – but have so far fallen short despite continued season-in, season-out excellence.
It's a fair point, but that isn't what drives either of them. Winning the next game does. That's it. There's a tunnel vision to the process, an understanding that one thing builds to the next, and when it's shared to the core by both the ironfisted head coach and the team's best player, it can lead to greatness.
It's Belichick dragging everyone out to practice in the rain all season long, when other teams go indoors, because it might help on a rainy January night like this. It's Brady focused on diet and fitness all 52 weeks of the year, so he can be lighter and perhaps more mobile at age 37 than he was at 27.
It's how both seem, to the other players, to share an innate understanding of the rules, of game strategy, of creative options, of superior preparation, and that breeds respect and drags everyone else in the building up to their level.
"It's just [a mentality] that's kind of around here," Edelman said. "You follow in line or you are gone."
No quarterback, and only one other player (defensive lineman Mike Lodish), has competed in six Super Bowls as Brady will. Only one coach (Don Shula) has coached in six, as Belichick will.
After the game, in separate news conferences 20 minutes apart, they sounded capable of finishing each other's sentences.
"It was a great team win," Brady said.
"That was a great win for our football team," Belichick said.
"We needed it from all three phases," Brady said.
"They did a tremendous job in all three phases," Belichick said.
On and on, it went. They even meant what they said.
There's no complacency here. There are no illusions about what's to come on Feb. 1 in Arizona. Seattle is an excellent team and nothing is ever promised. Brady and Belichick have won three Super Bowls but lost two, and the sting of the losses has never left. New England will have to earn it.
"Winning the final game of the year is what you play for," Brady said. "So when you don't do that, you always feel like you came up short."
Belichick arrived here in 2000, after being fired by the Cleveland Browns. He vowed to surround himself with the kind of football character he believed was essential. Among the men he found (Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison) was a late-round draft pick with a chip on his shoulder and a belief that only winning the Super Bowl is good enough.
Not stats. Not fame. Not winning a lot of games. It's Super Bowl or bust.
"Tom understands that; Belichick understands that," said McGinest. "[Winning the Super Bowl] is the [only] goal. Now, they don't talk about that goal at all until they get there, which is now. It's just week-to-week. You build up to it. But if you're not here for that, then you're in the wrong place."
So the two men who have been in this place the longest were hugging each other along the Patriots sideline.
They don't take weeks, let alone seasons, off. Fourteen consecutive winning seasons, 12 trips to the playoffs, an ability to reinvent themselves on the fly, like after a 2-2 start this year capped by a blowout loss to Kansas City that left even owner Robert Kraft a bit rattled.
"Well, it was a bad game," Kraft said. "That was a devastating loss and it got me in the gut. …I wasn't optimistic, but I loved these guys. …They came back against Cincinnati and rattled off seven games against the best teams in the league with great quarterbacks."
They don't rely on just getting hot in the playoffs. They grind out division titles and build toward late January, and just keep coming and coming and coming.
To the rest of the world, they may be something else, pretty-boy QB and unlikable head coach.
As the roars of Gillette Stadium washed over them, in a curtain call they dialed up for each other, another shot at it all in hand, a sixth Super Bowl in 14 seasons up next, they didn't appear to care.
They never did. They never will.