Pats' Belichick in midst of finest coaching job of his career
After getting embarrassed at Cleveland, Patriots rebounded with win at Pittsburgh
Aside from Tom Brady, Patriots have no stars and are winning with overachievers
In wide-open NFL this season, New England has a chance to go deep in playoffs
PITTSBURGH -- Bill Belichick has won three Super Bowls. He coached a team that went 18-0 and came within a couple of minutes of winning a fourth Super Bowl. He has a place in Canton, Ohio, when his coaching days are over.
And his work with the 2010 Patriots may represent the finest coaching job of his career.
The young, virtually star-free (except for Tom Brady) New England Patriots spanked the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, trashing the Roethlisberger Athletic Club, 39-26, in front of 64,359 numb fans at Heinz Field. The Patriots improved to 7-2, staying tied with the New York Jets atop the AFC.
No one saw this coming.
Last January the Pats were humbled in the first round of the playoffs, at home. The Baltimore Ravens came to Foxboro and administered a 33-14 beatdown.
It was supposed to signify the end of the golden days for Patriot football. Too much talent and brainpower had been shipped out of New England. The Patriots lost defensive stalwarts Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. GM Scott Pioli went to the Chiefs. Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini hit the bricks. Belichick eliminated the offensive and defensive coordinator positions. He took on the whole operation. It was hubris. It was crazy. It was a plan for failure.
And now the Patriots are 7-2 and no one has a better record in all of football. In a year in which there are no great teams, the Patriots look like they have a chance to play long into the winter once again.
Belichick has them playing situational football. They are not afraid to fail. They make great adjustments when they call timeout. They don't turn the ball over. They don't commit stupid penalties. They beat you with brains in addition to brawn. They let you beat yourself. Just ask the San Diego Chargers.
The Pats were 2-6 on the road last year. The two wins included one at Buffalo and another in London against Tampa Bay. This year they have already beaten Miami, San Diego and Pittsburgh on the road.
A lot of us (particularly me) thought Belichick was giving up on the season when he dumped Randy Moss after a big Monday night win in Miami in early October. But it turns out Belichick was right. He knew he wasn't going to get much more out of Moss. So he cut his losses. He got a third-round pick from the Vikings. Three weeks later, the red-faced Vikings fired Moss. Belichick was right again.
When the Patriots whupped Moss and the Vikings in Foxboro on Halloween, there were a couple of plays near the end of the game which aptly demonstrated Belichick's greatness. Tom Brady twice carried the ball toward the Minnesota goal line with the intention of not scoring. It was at a point late in the game where the Patriots determined that seconds off the clock were more valuable than points. New England wound up getting the touchdown, but not until third down -- not until the Pats made sure the Vikings didn't have enough time and timeouts for two possessions.
A week later the Patriots went to Cleveland and suffered a 34-14 beating at the hands of coach Eric Mangini. Belichick hates Mangini with the power of a thousand suns. He was thoroughly outcoached by the man he feels betrayed him. It was embarrassing.
So what did the Patriots do? They schemed all week and came back with a vengeance against the 6-2 Steelers. They bolted to a 29-10 fourth-quarter lead, emptying Heinz Field.
"We prepared well,'' said veteran New England lineman Vince Wilfork. "Guys came ready to work. We were eager to get to this game and get this game started to get rid of the bad taste of the week. It worked well for us today.''
Brady was happier than he'd been in a while. Now a lone star on a team of overachievers, the quarterback said, "We know what kind of team we have. We know what they're all about and I think we showed what we're all about. We're excited. We haven't been this happy in a long time.''
Belichick and his guys are 4-1 lifetime at Heinz Field, including a pair of AFC Championship Game victories.
No one thought the Patriots had a chance to get back to the big games again this year. But this is proving to be a year in which anything is possible in the NFL and that includes a deep run by Belichick and the Patriots. The Pats play at home on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. It's another gigantic challenge for the High Priest of the Hooded Sweatshirt.
Don't wait for Belichick to thump his chest and tell you what a great job he's doing. He's not going to admit that this season is a personal test of his football mastery. We know it's the truth and we'll have to say it for him.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Read more of his columns here.