|Bill Belichick (left) and Tom Brady have definitely seen better days than Sunday against the Jets.|
We hear the names and we assume a lot.
They'll have the best plan. They'll find the right answers. They'll just know what needs to be done and how to do it before their counterparts do... if they ever do.
We dispense with the qualifiers and state, as absolute fact, that Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history. We include Brady in the discussion of the league's all-time best quarterbacks, right up there with Joe Montana, without the slightest hesitation.
And then Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff game comes along, and everything we thought we knew about the unparalleled Belichick-Brady combination explodes before our very eyes.
This isn't to suggest the 28-21 loss to the New York Jets was the only time, through the team's decade of dominance, that the Patriots have struggled. Who could forget Belichick's horrendous decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 at Indianapolis in 2009? Brady has had his share of performances that would hardly qualify as super human.
But nothing they've done in recent years quite resembled the feebleness of their effort against the Jets.
In the previous one-and-done playoff appearance, last year's wild-card game against Baltimore, the Patriots took a physical beating. The Jets' game will be remembered for what happened inside Belichick's hoodie and Brady's helmet.
Rex Ryan deserves ample credit for coaching the game of his life, but Belichick merits a great deal of criticism for as poor a job as he has ever done in the X's-and-O's department.
Why couldn't he ever come up with any solutions for the Jets' various coverages, real or imagined, that thoroughly confused Brady and smothered the Patriots' passing attack? What was he thinking by calling that botched fake punt whose failure was so pivotal to the outcome? Why was he so determined for the Patriots to try and run their way back into the game when the situation called for Brady to start making some magic with his throwing arm as he has done so many times before?
And how about those five sacks, which resulted from a combination of Brady holding the ball too long and persistent leaks in his protection? And what was with the lack of urgency, on the part of Brady and the rest of New England's offense, in the fourth quarter? It was as if the Patriots were so overwhelmed by all that the Jets threw at them, they were ready to succumb to their fate.
You can argue that, perhaps, the Patriots never truly were as good as their NFL-best 14-2 record indicated -- that they had too many young players who didn't know how to handle postseason pressure, that their offensive prowess masked defensive deficiencies that had been there all season. As Jets linebacker Bart Scott pointed out so memorably after the game, the Patriots "couldn't stop a nosebleed."
You can also argue that the small-ball approach the Pats adopted after trading away their best deep threat, Randy Moss, was eventually going to lose its effectiveness against an opponent with a strong defense that had a chance to face it once and study it for a rematch. Expecting that scheme to do the same damage to Ryan's crew that it did in New England's 45-3 humiliation of the Jets in December was probably unrealistic.
Still, none of what unfolded on Sunday resembled what we had come to expect from Belichick and Brady.
Brady tried dismissing it as "just a lack of execution," but the problems appeared much bigger than that. For most of the day, the Patriots' performance seemed like something straight out of the Peanuts cartoon strip, with Lucy pulling the football away at the last second and a bewildered Charlie Brown crashing on his back. In this version, Lucy wore a Jets jersey. The Patriots, like Charlie, were clueless and helpless and unable to do anything but wind up feeling like fools.
"We just didn't do enough things we need to do to win," Belichick said, trying, like Brady, to write off the whole debacle as simply a bad day at the office. "You can list them all: Too many penalties, too many mistakes, missed tackles, missed blocks, pressure, drops, all of the above. That's what happens when you don't win; you usually have too many of those types of plays."
Rarely, however, do you see a game when Belichick and Brady have too few answers.
» Ray Lewis didn't show much grace, or class, for calling out the Baltimore Ravens' offense for its many mistakes in the meltdown that turned a 21-7 lead into a 31-24 loss in the divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh.
To be certain, the Ravens' offense made all sorts of blunders and, as Lewis correctly noted, created a load that was simply too heavy for even that outstanding defense to handle. But was it really necessary for the Ravens' linebacker to point a finger in the direction of his offensive teammates? Is that how a true leader, a role Lewis has mostly occupied well throughout a long and illustrious career, is supposed to respond under circumstances that put a team's cohesiveness to the test? Shouldn't Lewis have been doing his part to make sure the Ravens maintained some sort of unity, regardless of how painful that outcome was?
For the record, Baltimore's defense didn't exactly do itself proud when, on third-and-19, it gave up a 58-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie Antonio Brown to set up the game-winning touchdown.
And for the record, there were significant stretches of the season when Lewis was far from the Ravens' best defensive player or linebacker, for that matter.
» Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed a great deal of class after the game when, before reporters were allowed inside, he made a point of entering the Jets' locker room to congratulate Jets owner Woody Johnson, among others.
» Wow! Jay Cutler almost looked like he was enjoying himself after leading the Chicago Bears to their divisional-playoff pounding of the Seattle Seahawks. Hey, Jay, your face won't crack if you actually begin to smile more regularly. Honest.
» You have to wonder how that league MVP voting would go if the ballots were turned in today rather than on Jan. 7.
» I give Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards a solid eight for that back flip after the New England game. It started a little wobbly, but he stuck the landing. I actually saw Edwards do a double back flip right after pregame warm-ups during his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns in 2005. That one was perfect from start to finish. A clear 10.
» For the record, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie said after the game that his feelings toward Brady -- which he expressed in a profanity-laced diatribe last week -- "haven't changed â¦ but that's behind me. I'm getting ready for Pittsburgh." Good to know.
Top four conference championship coaches
1. Rex Ryan, Jets: He backed up all of the talk with a brilliant defensive scheme that thoroughly befuddled Belichick and Brady. Although he had established himself as a superb strategist long before taking over the Jets in 2009, his division-playoff performance was a defining moment in his career that elevated him to the level of one of the smartest coaches in the NFL.
2. Mike Tomlin, Steelers: Granted, the Ravens did more to lose than the Steelers did to win. But Tomlin deserves a tremendous amount of credit for not allowing his team to get off track after Ben Roethlisberger's suspension at the start of the season, or the season-ending injuries to starting offensive tackles Willie Colon and Max Starks, or the injuries that hit the defensive line, or falling behind by 14 points against Baltimore.
3. Mike McCarthy, Packers: No coach has done a better job of guiding his team through hardships this season. The Packers lost enough important players to injury to miss the playoffs. Now, they're on the doorstep of the Super Bowl.
4. Lovie Smith, Bears: He entered the season feeling a great deal of pressure to get his team, which made the biggest splash in free agency by spending $91 million on defensive end Julius Peppers, back into contention. Mission accomplished.
Top four conference championship quarterbacks
4. Mark Sanchez, Jets: Too many of his throws were off the mark against the Patriots, just as they were the week before against Indianapolis. But he does have a knack for making big throws at the most opportune times, and he is 4-1 in the postseason -- all on the road.
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.