HOUSTON — Ten words have driven Patriots coach Bill Belichick since he arrived in New England 17 years ago. And they are 10 words that he leans on whenever he is queried about what’s gone into making his team an annual threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
“I do what I think is best for the team,” he says.
For the better part of those 17 seasons, that approach has worked out well for the Patriots.
They will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance under Belichick on Sunday when they take on the Atlanta Falcons. Along with quarterback Tom Brady, Belichick already is part of the winningest coach/quarterback combination in NFL postseason history, taking 24 games together.
The 64-year-old coach has done it by having an uncanny ability of getting his teams to buy into a program that has become known as the “Patriot Way.”
“A lot of people talk about the ‘Patriot Way’. There’s not a straight definition of it, but here you know that we’re going to work every day,” linebacker and defensive captain Dont’a Hightower said. “Around here you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. That’s kind of the mantra that’s kind of bestowed around here.”
It’s a program that’s led to four Super Bowl rings for Belichick and Brady. And this year’s team is strong enough to bring them a fifth title.
The reasons are plentiful, but it starts with the experience at the top.
Belichick is preparing for his 36th playoff game, and is an expert at shielding his team from distractions . Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension couldn’t send them off track. Neither could the surprise departures of defensive stalwarts Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins.
Brady said playing in a place that doesn’t tolerate allowing outside drama to creep into its walls has helped everyone inside the Patriots’ bubble to lock in. For him, it’s crystalized so that even at this stage in his career he’s experiencing a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
“You can’t take these things for granted,” Brady said. “We’ve been very blessed, as part of this organization, for the guys that have been on these teams to make it this far, but it’s a very steep mountain to climb.”
What will aid that journey Sunday is a combined passing and rushing attack that may be the best the Patriots have had under Belichick.
Brady is continuing to defy his age at 39, ancient for a football player. He threw for 28 touchdowns and helped the Patriots set a record by throwing just two interceptions during the regular season. He has two picks in the playoffs, but they have been blips compared to the five touchdowns and 671 yards he’s compiled this postseason.
On the ground, LeGarrette Blount has taken a lot of pressure off him. Blount established a franchise single-season record with an NFL-best 18 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. He’s also finally clear of an illness that limited him at times in New England’s first two playoff games.
Blount will also have plenty of support from backfield mates Dion Lewis and James White. Lewis has surged in the playoffs after a stint on injured reserve, and White may be New England’s most-improved offensive player.
“It’s a brotherhood. It’s like a family here. We love each other and we always have each other’s backs,” Blount said. “It is a resilient team, but we’re going to continue to do everything we can to put ourselves in a good situation.”
That’s not to mention the latest group of Patriots newcomers who have made an impact. Receiver Chris Hogan has become Brady’s most-trusted deep threat and had a huge AFC title game. Tight end Martellus Bennett’s production has plugged the offensive hole created when Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery in December.
And as they prepare to face an Atlanta team that scored the most points per game in the league, the Patriots have jelled at the perfect time on defense. New England’s defense is allowing 16.5 points per game in the playoffs after allowing a league-low 15.6 during the regular season.
The group will also had to endure questions this week about the level of competition it’s faced so far. Think that will provide some motivation?
“I don’t care. Yeah, I heard it. But it doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t bother us,” Hightower said. “We’re just going to go out and execute our game plan. We’re in this game for a reason. It’s really just on us going out there and executing.”