Bill Belichick still has his fastball

Tom Brady got the win in Foxborough but anyone thinking Belichick's days are numbered is sadly mistaken. The Patriots can win again.

Each fact taken in a vacuum would seem to send Bill Belichick into a pit of despair.

His team fell to 1-3.

His quarterback of 20 seasons — the greatest ever, the one he incorrectly played hardball with — returned to his house and was victorious.

This was easily the most anticipated regular-season game in the sport since Brett Favre returned to Lambeau Field 12 years ago… and his team lost on a 56-yard field goal attempt that doinked off the left upright. For good measure, his tongue-tied, nostril-snarling, wide-eyed son even broke the Internet.

But if last night’s 19-17 Buccaneers win told us anything, it’s that Belichick can still step into the ring with anyone. He’s an aging George Foreman at this point, and nobody’s scheduling a duck boat parade in downtown Boston, but the 69-year-old head coach authored a brilliant gameplan against Tom Brady. The new quarterback here, Mac Jones, even resembled a Mini Brady. Anyone expecting the Patriots to fall off a cliff and wander aimlessly in some weird post-Brady apocalyptic world is mistaken.

Belichick isn’t going anywhere and neither are the Patriots.

Last season, nobody outside of New England was saying that. As Brady rollicked to a seventh Super Bowl title, Belichick’s 2020 Patriots limped to 7-9. His starting quarterback threw all of eight touchdown passes. Belichick doesn’t say much of anything but his actions sure did after a drunken Brady hurled the Lombardi Trophy boat to boat. In spending $232 million on free agents and drafting Jones 15th overall, Belichick declared to the world that he’s prepared to coach — and win — for years to come.

I think he will, too.

Brady did not sashay into Foxborough and embarrass his old coach as many likely expected. He was… average. OK. Blah. With Bill Belichick overseeing it all and his son calling plays, Brady was confused all night in completing only 51.2 percent of his passes. That marked his lowest output in 24 games as a Buc. New England’s defensive backs smothered the Bucs’ talented receiving corps, too. Honestly, there’s a good chance the Patriots lock up a win if slot corner Jonathan Jones doesn’t get banged up on Tampa Bay’s go-ahead field goal drive. When Jones was forced to sit out one play — one! — Brady attacked. On third and 6 with three minutes left, Brady went right at his replacement (Justin Bethel).

That was the difference: One injury that cost a key player one play.

Such is the greatness of Brady. He bided his time for three hours and, finally, made the Patriots pay. But for most of these three hours, Belichick had him looking more like a pot-bellied Middle-Aged Man than a quarterback who’ll play ‘til he’s 50.

It’s not showing up in the win column yet, but there’s a clear method to Belichick’s madness at this stage of his career.

Each of the tight ends New England doled millions out to caught touchdowns.

Matt Judon, the No. 1 prize in free agency, might’ve been the best player on the field Sunday night with seven tackles and a sack. He’s a constant presence. Few outside linebackers play the run and pass as good as him.

And Jones, of course, completed 19 passes in a row at one point. If his third-down throw isn’t batted down on the final drive, the Patriots tee up a much more manageable kick for Nick Folk. Belichick’s one mistake was probably not trusting Jones to convert the ensuing fourth-and-3. So many other teams acted out of desperation at quarterback last offseason, from the 49ers and Rams gutting their draft capital to the Bears trying to acquire every conceivable quarterback to even the Packers begging for Aaron Rodgers to return.

Then, there’s Belichick. He invested in just about everything else, perfectly fine getting by with a QB on a rookie deal.

There’s a needle for the Patriots to thread. They can win again. We saw it on Sunday night.

The same cannot be said elsewhere. A team like Miami in the AFC East has to be bracing for another reboot, while the construction project that is the New York Jets seems forever endless. Zach Wilson could be great one day but we’re conditioned to expect the worst with this team. It’s still a Josh Allen World in the division and the Bills have bludgeoned their last three opponents by a score of 118-21, but Belichick’s Patriots could make things interesting twice a year.

He’s still capable of scheming up a gameplan that befuddles an elite offense and an elite quarterback. Allen vs. Belichick could become appointment viewing.

As the rain fell hard at Foxborough, the camera understandably cut to Belichick throughout what was billed by NBC as “The Return.” The head coach stared coldly ahead with a burrowed scowl, pursed lips and, many times, wasn’t even speaking into his headset. He was in deep thought, yet again, seeing a different game than the rest of us. We should’ve known the coach capable of confusing Brady is the one who spent two decades facing him every day in practice. Nobody knows how Brady goes through his progressions — one to two to three — better than Belichick and he deployed a wide array of coverages all night to make Brady think just a tick too long.

He refused to give up the big play, instead forcing Brady to be patient.

To his credit, Brady accepted the fact that he’d need to grind this out — and he did.

Iconic moments from Brady’s career in New England stay with us. We all remember his drive to beat the Rams and 28-3 and his takedown of Patrick Mahomes at Arrowhead in the AFC title game.

Such an exercise is not so easy with Belichick. He more so wears quarterbacks out mentally and his players do not make mistakes. Be it J.C. Jackson sticking with Mike Evans stride-for-stride downfield on Sunday night or Deatrich Wise Jr. batting a ball down at the line of scrimmage, these are the sort of plays that have also fueled six Super Bowl, nine conference and 17 division titles.

Do Your Job is a numbing, tired cliche at this point. But, those words are truly a way of life here. It’s no coincidence an unknown corner named Malcolm Butler is picking off Russell Wilson at the goal line in one Super Bowl and alleged-mastermind Sean McVay resembles Mr. Coach Klein in another.

Such is the machine Belichick has built.

There’s a good chance many of us were dead-wrong about Jones, too. He lacks a singular elite physical trait which is often a death sentence in today’s football. With edge rushers now running 4.4s and benching 225 pounds 25-plus times, it’s more important than ever to possess a quarterback capable of avoiding pressure. Physical talent is paramount. Be it a muzzleloader for a right arm (Allen), Barry Sanders-like elusiveness (Lamar Jackson) or free-spirited spontaneity (Kyler Murray), most all teams seek something special in a young QB today.

For good reason, too.

That’s why Kyle Shanahan sold the farm for Trey Lance.

Jones? He possesses no such traits but it’s clear his football mind moves fast. Really fast. He knew where to go with the ball all night in finishing 31 of 40 for 275 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 101.6 passer rating. When a free runner was in his face, he showed no problem side-stepping the hit and delivering a completion. Replay highlights from 2001 Brady and you’ll see zero difference between the two. That’s not to declare Mac Jones Brady 2.0 but Jones absolutely has a chance to be great.

Is New England a joyous place to play? Uh, no.

Back in the spring, you may recall, Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore didn’t hold back. Moore explained at length to Go Long how playing for Belichick and the Patriots sent him spiraling into depression that could’ve ruined his football career. He’s not alone, either. Many players aren’t shy to criticize what Belichick has built once they’re out. And through surrogates, we’ve learned that even Brady got tired of Belichick’s ways.

Winning tends to put a smile on everyone’s face, though. Those six glorious nights under the confetti, everyone was happy in New England.

We shouldn’t be surprised if, one day, Belichick is in the middle of that confetti again, too.

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