FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are going to their seventh Super Bowl, and if you want to know how ridiculous that is, ask Martellus Bennett. He is the Pats’ tight end, their Gronk replacement, an accomplished player and more accomplished talker who has played in a Pro Bowl and lasted nine seasons in the NFL. And on Sunday morning, he told his wife Siggi that he couldn’t believe he had a chance to make one Super Bowl.
“I always dreamed of making the Super Bowl,” Bennett said Sunday night, “but it never felt like an attainable goal.”
When you play for the Patriots, it’s not just attainable. It’s about as likely as a coin coming up heads. The Patriots are heading to their seventh Super Bowl appearance of the Belichick-Brady era. The Patriots have played in 11 of the last 16 AFC Championship Games, including six in a row. Brady and Belichick are already the most accomplished coach-player combination in modern NFL history. A fifth championship would just put more distance between them and everybody else.
If you want to keep Brady out of the Super Bowl, pro tip: Suspend him for the end of the season, not the beginning. As you might have heard, Brady missed the first four games of this season because of the Deflategate investigation, which started when he was in middle school. He ends the season in the Super Bowl. If you’d like, you can call this karmic justice, an embarrassment for Roger Goodell, and proof of whatever you want it to prove. Really, it’s just more confirmation that Brady is the best quarterback in history, and Belichick is the best coach.
The Patriots earned this trip by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36–17, a win that was surprisingly easy, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. The Patriots do this kind of thing a lot. The Patriots are not the fastest team in the NFL, or the most athletic. But year after year, they are the smartest, the most versatile, and the best coached. They are the wrestler who knows every move for every opponent and is never caught out of position. They are always beatable, but rarely beaten.
And…well, this sounds crazy, but the Steelers were confident coming into this game. Yes, that seems funny now, like an ant feeling confident under a foot. But it was genuine confidence, not the false bravado that fuels trash talk, and there was a good reason for it. When the Steelers lost to New England in October, Ben Roethlisberger was out because of a knee injury, and the Steelers’ defense missed a bunch of assignments. (“We played terrible that game,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said this week.) But backup Landry Jones passed for 281 yards and the game was still close in the second half.
This week, Roethlisberger was back. The Pittsburgh defense was playing as well as any in the league. Patriots star Rob Gronkowski was watching from a suite. Add it all up, and what do you get? Nothing, that’s what.
None of it mattered, and here is why: You never play the same Patriots team twice. Belichick tweaks schemes, moves players around, and varies his game plans. It’s like preparing to face a great fastball pitcher, and then you step into the batter’s box and he throws a knuckleball with his other arm.
This time, the tweaks were subtle. The Patriots rarely blitzed–they had zero sacks and only two tackles for loss in the game. They stayed patient defensively. They called a flea-flicker that they had practiced for weeks, at exactly the right time, of course, and they executed it perfectly, of course. Running back Dion Lewis boasted that “I sold it just right,” and Steelers safety Mike Mitchell bit. Lewis tossed back to Brady. Brady passed deep to Chris Hogan. Touchdown.
“He’s no joke, man,” Mitchell said of Brady. “It doesn’t get any better than 12. He is what we thought he was.”
It was classic Patriots, from start to finish: Creative, unexpected, and fundamentally sound. They carry the “Do Your Job” ethos with them from morning until night; every year, more players seem to utter those three words, and after clinching the Super Bowl berth, the Pats were in no mood to bask. Receiver Julian Edelman was asked when he will start thinking about the Super Bowl. He said, “I’m already thinking about it.”
When your best player still acts like he is trying to make the team, that’s how the rest of the team acts. Last week we saw Aaron Rodgers make a play that Brady frankly can’t make: running to his left, turning and dropping a perfect pass along the sidelines into Jared Cook’s hands. Brady is not that kind of athlete. But the genius of Brady is that he almost always makes the plays he can make, and those are more than enough.
The Patriots trusted Brady to throw accurately to a variety of receivers, fullbacks, shoe salesmen and crossing guards—when the Patriots line up a fullback who went to an Ivy League school at receiver (James Develin), then complete a 13-yard pass to him against your defense, it's time to start preparing for the draft. Brady completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns, and it looked so easy.
It’s not easy. Martellus Bennett knows it. Even Brady and Belichick know it. And Goodell, who has become a cartoon villain in New England, knows it, too. Talk to people around the NFL, and you don’t hear a lot of affection for the Patriots, but you do sense admiration. The most successful coach and quarterback of the Super Bowl era are one win away from yet another Lombardi Trophy. It doesn’t really matter who hands it to them. What matters is how good they are at grabbing it.