Bill Belichick and Tom Brady both arrived in New England in 2000. The Super Bowl championships came fast – 2001 (Brady's first as a subbed-in starter), 2003 and 2004. It was a dynasty, almost overnight. And although the task wasn't easy or simple, it was accelerated.
Since then, nothing.
Seven years of falling short and make no mistake, anything less than everything is falling short for competitors of this intensity. Especially by now, with the Houston Texans arriving Sunday for an AFC divisional playoff game. Especially after all these years of relentless churn, of boilerplate double-digit win seasons derailed by crushing injuries and gut-punch defeats, of Januarys and Februarys somehow lost.
Everybody is trying to win in the NFL but no one tries (or succeeds) like the Patriots. Other franchises take entire seasons off. The Patriots rarely have a bad week, and never two in a row. This year, they went 12-4, their 10th consecutive season with 10 or more victories, which includes 2008 when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener.
Brady said he sometimes sees the famous video of him after that first Super Bowl, the one of him putting his hands on top of his head as he wears a look of almost shocked joy and marvels at the innocence of it. And to think two more were still to come.
The success came without sorrow or extreme struggle. It just happened.
"That was some kid back then [not me]," Brady said. "You really don't quite understand what has happened or what has been accomplished until you try so many times and you don't get to accomplish those things.
"It's very hard to win that final game of the year. We've had a chance and lost a few."
They've lost them in every imaginable way. Two came via painful, final-minute, Super Bowl comeback drives by the New York Giants, one that killed a historic would-be 19-0 perfect season. One was a surprise rising up by a New York Jets team they'd recently dominated in the regular season. One was a listless, embarrassing failure to Baltimore. Another was a close grudge match against Peyton Manning's Colts. It goes on.
Each one is seared into their memories. It's what terrifies them, the fragility of it all. It's what drives them in OTAs. It's what makes Week 2 games matter so much. It's what lasers them in now, quarterback and coach almost offering lock-step answers to questions to the media this week.
It's about preparation. It's about execution. It's about attention to detail.
So after all of these seasons, all of these victories and all of these playoff runs, it's world championship or bust for Belichick and Brady. Their 177 regular-season starts together trail only the Don Shula-Dan Marino (186) as an all-time coach-quarterback combo. Of course, they never won like this in Miami; or almost anywhere, really.
Earlier in his tenure, Belichick used to attempt to take note, and pride, in a "hat game" or a "T-shirt game" as he dubbed them. Basically it was when any victory where a commemorative a hat or t-shirt – "AFC East Division Champs!" – was handed out after. Celebrate the small stuff. Smell the roses. That kind of thinking.
But even that has worn thin. How do you fake it? New England won its ninth division title in 10 years back in early December and the coach could only force a grin. A division championship is worth nothing but a guaranteed home game in the playoffs.
"We have a long way to go," he told reporters. "We still have a quarter of the season left. And that's a lot of opportunities for us to improve, which we need to do."
They aren't saying much different now. No one expects otherwise. The formula is simple: play smart and play aggressive, unleash everything you have because the regular season might as well be the preseason for them. No one cares what happens until its January. This they've learned the hard way.
"You don't win a war by digging a foxhole and sitting in it," Belichick said this week. "You have to go out there and attack. You have to go out there and make the plays you need to make to win.
"It's a one-game season."
Belichick is 60. Brady is 35. That magical season in 2001 is a long time ago. Time marches, windows close, nothing is promised.
A fourth Super Bowl, – the fourth Super Bowl they twice came so close to delivering – is the only thing now. And the chances are dwindling. That is something they don't discuss publicly. It's not necessary.
No matter what a Week 14 scoreboard, or Vegas bookmakers, or Boston Globe columnists say, there is no taking the Texans lightly. There isn't just respect for the opponent coming out of Foxborough, there is respect for the moment, the precious moment when another year's worth of work is again on the brink.
"It's hard to win [in] this game," Brady said. "The best teams bring out the best in the players; they bring out the best in the teams. The margin for error is less. You make one mistake, and you're going to be watching next weekend.
"A lot of what we talk about in our meetings is making sure that we've got everything covered," he continued. "You spend extra time talking about every little detail of every little play. The ramifications are different.
"We've got to be at our best."
It's January, it's the playoffs and here come the Patriots again. Here comes Belichick and Brady, the NFL's winning machine. They aren't spoiled by success or softened by accomplishment. They aren't as desperate and determined as ever.
After a haunting seven-year shutout, they're more desperate and determined than ever.
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