Maybe Bill Belichick is finally to the point where he really believes he can win the Super Bowl all by himself. Not a single player left on the roster. Just Belichick. And maybe I’m starting to believe it too.
After 15 seasons of unprecedented success (13 division titles, six Super Bowl appearances, four championships and a total of 15 head coaching changes by the other three teams in his division), Belichick took his roster deconstruction to another level this year, even as he knew his star quarterback faced a four-game suspension. Coming off of five straight seasons of at least reaching the conference championship, Belichick traded his best pass rusher, Chandler Jones, to the Arizona Cardinals in March. He has a history of unloading star veterans, but Jones is only 26 and with 12.5 sacks last season and looks like he has a long career of Pro Bowls ahead of him. Then Tom Brady’s four-game suspension was officially reinstated, and the doubts about New England’s ability to win the division again crept up as if Belichick wasn’t the true “franchise player” all along.
The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady despite even losing backup Jimmy Garoppolo for two and a half games, plus significant injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Rob Ninkovich, Dion Lewis, Sebastian Vollmer, Dont’a Hightower and Nate Solder. And still, New England maintained status as the best team in the NFL. To the point where less than two weeks ago they shockingly traded linebacker Jamie Collins, maybe their best player on defense, to the Cleveland Browns. (Lesson: Don’t upset Belichick, he has no problem shipping anyone to the Browns.) Yet day after day, big story after big story, Belichick never flinched.
But they haven’t faced a team this season like the one they’re about to face on Sunday night, the Seattle Seahawks.
For the last four and a half years, the team that the Seahawks could most favorably compare themselves to would be the Patriots. After Pete Carroll quickly put together the most talented roster in the NFL, the question of how they can maintain success for as long as Belichick has is one that comes up often. But instead of asking “How can they keep rotating players in and around Russell Wilson?” the focus has been on “How can they keep all of these great players together?” Somehow they’ve managed it.
Doug Baldwin is signed through 2020, Wilson and Bobby Wagner through 2019, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, KJ Wright and Cliff Avril through 2018. Jimmy Graham, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett through next season. You’ll get to see all of those players, save for Bennett (who Brady called the best defensive player in the NFL) on Sunday, really highlighting this game as a matchup of Goliath vs many Davids; think of it like reaching the boss level of a video game and hoping you have enough lives left over to make it through to the next one.
And Seattle couldn’t have picked a worse time to be fighting Mike Tyson in Punch-Out.
Over the last three weeks, the Seahawks defense has been tested in ways they haven’t seen since Carroll’s early days with the team; after all, Seattle hasn’t lost by more than 10 points since October of 2011. The last time they played on Sunday night, it ended in a 6-6 tie against the Cardinals in which the Seahawks defense was on the field for over 46 minutes, allowing Arizona to convert 10 of 21 third downs. Their reward was a game six days later in New Orleans against Drew Brees, a 25-20 loss in which they were on the field for over 36 minutes and allowed 9 of 15 conversions on third down. Then on Monday against the Buffalo Bills, they played another 40 minutes on defense, allowing 12 of 17 on third down.
In four games this season, Brady is 27-of-35 on third down with five touchdowns and no interceptions, which you may have realized since Brady hasn’t thrown a pick yet all season and is playing the best football of his life at age 39.
“There’s a lot of walking on eggshells at Gillette Stadium,” says NESN’s Patriots beat reporter Doug Kyed, noting that players are just as afraid of messing up in practice as they are in the games knowing that nobody’s job is safe – not even Brady. Kyed suspects that the team may give the franchise tag to Garoppolo and then re-evaluate depending on how Brady’s play responds to turning 40 next year. “If Brady starts to take a step back while Garoppolo is still on the team, I think there’s a good possibility he finishes his career elsewhere. Brady wants to play forever.”
But that amount of pressure on everyone from a Hall of Fame quarterback to the practice squad hopefuls is what makes Belichick’s players so prepared on gameday and if you’re not one of “Belichick’s players,” like Collins and Jones may not have been, you’ll be out and it’s time for the next man to step up. And he’ll be ready for it.
Those eggshells will be in full effect on Sunday night as both teams aim to get a marquee win in front of a national audience that is no doubt exhausted from the election and ready to be distracted by football again. Seattle’s status as an NFL powerhouse has been called into question with a 30th-ranked rushing offense and a worn down defense. New England is the unquestioned best team in football, but a closer look at the schedule shows they lack a win over an impressive team. If the Seahawks win, on the road, with Brady and Belichick coming off of a bye, it will undoubtedly flip the two teams and the status of “best team in football” will be up for grabs again.
The Patriots may have more to lose, but Belichick is well aware of how to keep things together no matter what you lose.