An epic slate of wild-card games has set the stage for the single best weekend on the NFL calendar: the divisional round of the playoffs.
The nation is buzzing, and rightly so, about the San Francisco 49ers having the look. Cam Newton is about to make his postseason debut for the Carolina Panthers. The Seattle Seahawks are ready to do battle as the most complete team in the field. Peyton Manning is coming off the best season ever by a quarterback, while the legend of Andrew Luck continues to grow.
They've become the Yankees, the Lakers. You love them. You hate them. You respect them. You marvel at them. And the postseason is their time to shine.
The 2013 campaign was, as I wrote a few weeks ago, Belichick's greatest regular-season coaching job ever. And that speaks volumes, considering his amazing career win-loss total (199-105) and the fact that he once guided New England to near perfection.
Think about it: Wes Welker left. Aaron Hernandez went to jail. No Brandon Lloyd. Danny Woodhead departed for San Diego. Rob Gronkowski didn't get on the field until Week 7 -- and went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. The Patriots' two most important defenders -- Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo -- barely played this season, with Wilfork heading to injured reserve in early October and Mayo following him shortly thereafter. The injury problems didn't end there, either, as just this week, linebacker Brandon Spikes joined Wilfork and Mayo on IR.
And yet, the Patriots finished the regular season with the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a 12-4 record -- and it could have been even better. Remember, two of New England's losses came down to the wire: The Pats were robbed against Carolina in Week 11 (Luke Kuechly didn't just interfere with Gronk on the play that ended the game; he mugged him and stole his lunch money) and fell to the Jets in Week 7 because of an obscure -- if correct -- penalty called on them during a New York field-goal attempt.
Yes, the Patriots' ride has been remarkable, especially considering their true lack of sizzle and a relative talent deficiency (just compare New England's roster to those of the other remaining playoff teams). And it happened because Brady and Belichick are the ultimate deodorant.
On our weekly SiriusXM Radio show, "Madden Football," John Madden pointed out that the genius of the two is that they "leave no stone unturned in practice and preparation." He noted that "they've been together so long, they have amazing recall."
Belichick, Madden added, "teaches so well. He gets the players to learn quickly. When you go to practice, it is a practice unlike any other in football. He will substitute three guys seemingly on a whim. But there's a reason. They have to be ready. And they always are."
I love Luck, who has done nothing but back up my Labor Day assertion that he's the best young quarterback in the game. Saturday's comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs -- with Luck pushing the Colts to victory after falling behind, 38-10 -- was one for the ages. Luck now has led 11 game-winning drives in his two-year career, the most in that time span for any NFL quarterback. That's remarkable.
So I expect this Saturday's playoff matchup between the Colts and the Patriots to be competitive. But Indianapolis has issues beyond its quarterback, who has had to carry this squad and mask areas of deficiency. Which means that, in a way, my feeling about the outcome has nothing to do with Luck -- and everything to do with Brady and Belichick.
Consider the way Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith exploited the gaping holes in the Colts' defensive backfield. What is Brady, arguably the most prolific big-moment quarterback ever, going to do when presented with that same opportunity?
Consider how Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton didn't make the necessary adjustments to contain Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton. Don't you think Belichick will succeed where Sutton failed? Don't you think he'll do what he always does and take away the only really dynamic weapon Luck has?
Kansas City coach Andy Reid's game management was iffy on Saturday, highlighted by his inability to deflate the ball and control the clock with a 28-point lead. In contrast, there's nobody better than Belichick when it comes to working the clock.
If Denver beats San Diego on Sunday -- which is no guarantee, given that, as I wrote last week, the Chargers were the worst possible playoff matchup for the Broncos -- it would set up another epic installment of Peyton Manning vs. Brady/Belichick. And who do you trust in January?
Please, spare me the comments about "Spygate." Belichick's regular-season winning percentage after the "Spygate" game on Sept. 9, 2007, is better (.790) than it was before (.670). And don't talk about the Patriots' recent playoff record (5-5 stretching back to 2007). In that same time span, New England has played in two more Super Bowls -- an amazing feat in a league filled with parity and rife with potential pitfalls.
Because this is the time of year, despite injuries and obstacles, for Brady and Belichick.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.